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Posts Tagged ‘free spirit’

Once in a while, I wish I wanted to be an accountant.

In this alternate reality, my life is quite simple. I am a good accountant, diligent, dedicated, and detail-oriented. I probably work too much, and this fact probably occasionally causes a little bit of angst, but I’m probably mostly too busy to think about it.

I do the standard things society has taught me to value. I consume. I nest. I go to the gym several times a week, or else I jog. I follow the most popular TV shows. Maybe I even follow a sport. I am a somewhat brainy accountant, so I bet I read a newspaper, although probably not quite as often as I secretly feel I should to be up on current events.

I have an actual cleaning schedule for chores around my house. I cook balanced, healthful meals, and I freeze leftovers for later. My furniture mostly matches, and I don’t need a ridiculous amount of wall space for eight plus bookshelves and a piano.

I wear slacks on a regular basis, or maybe even smart blouse and skirt outfits, and pointy-toed heels have magically become not a torture punishment to wear. Also, I am not allergic to almost all perfumes. I remember to get my hair cut at regular intervals. I might actually wear makeup almost every day, and I wouldn’t be caught dead outside without sunscreen on.

I go to happy hours on a regular basis. I drink wine with dinner. I host formal dinner parties. The last book I read was Shades of Gray because all my friends told me I had to read it. I receive women’s magazines in the mail. I send out Christmas cards to everyone I’ve ever known, every year, without fail. And I remember to call them holiday cards.

My edges are all rounded off.

***

I am not that woman. She only exists in my mind, an amalgam of television ads and eighties sitcom wives and Good Housekeeping covers and mostly overlooked comments and the fifties sensibilities my parents were raised in. Add in the power woman of the workplace with oversized shoulder pads and the collective obsession with female appearance and a good dose of social norms and common hobbies and belief systems that allow us all to coexist with less friction than otherwise.

And there she is, this imaginary woman. Her life isn’t actually simple at all; it sounds quite challenging to be good at everything she is good at, and to keep on top of everything she keeps on top of. Add in a family and a house, and I wonder if she has any time for herself at all. Maybe she is also unlike me in that she doesn’t become a shell of herself on less than eight (seven, absolute minimum) hours of sleep.

What does seem simple about her, though, is that she is exactly what society has told me I should be.

***

I am who I am, and I live the life I have chosen, and most of the time, I am not just fine with that, but grateful. I mean, yes, I should wear sunscreen more often. And perhaps there would be a kind of comfort in living the life that seven-year-old me was led to expect. But even seven-year-old me wasn’t on board with that life because that’s the year I both started studying the piano and decided I wanted to be a writer. Being a serious artist didn’t ever really fit into the picture I was given.

(Not to say you can’t be a serious artist and also be an amazing cook or be good at keeping the house clean or wear killer blouse and skirt outfits or watch basketball or read three papers a day or be an accountant. People can, and they do. They’re creating their own amazing pictures.)

***

Here is where I spend most of my time.

Here is where I spend most of my time.

Here is my picture:

My apartment is filled with books: YA and science fiction and literature and fantasy and travel guides and research materials and sheet music. I can’t imagine living without a piano. The little white dog lies curled up by my chair. I probably need to vacuum.

When I go to happy hours (maybe once a year), I go for the cheap food. I will probably never drink wine with dinner. I have friends over for board games and role-playing games instead of dinner parties, and sometimes I bake brownies for them. I eat out a lot, and I eat frozen dinners a lot of the rest of the time.

I’m wearing jeans, a sparkly sweater, and no makeup. I spend most of my days reading and writing and thinking. I’ve been trying to make more time for practicing music. I love to read novels. I am horrible about sending anything to anyone via post. I’m not athletic and I never go to the gym, but I do love walking my dog and soaking in the world around me. I don’t know the right way to clean a variety of stains, and I don’t know how to use a sewing machine, but I do know how to sew on a button.

I wear glasses, and I have a weird sense of humor, and I’ve never had a traditional salaried job. I like the Vampire Diaries, but I am more than half a season behind on it, and right now I’m rewatching The Gilmore Girls because I like watching Lorelai create her own picture for herself, plus hers includes the really nice blouse and skirt outfits. I daydream about London and New York and Seattle, and Disneyland is still one of my favorite places on the planet.

I try to figure out what it is I actually care about, as opposed to what I’m told I should care about. Sometimes these things are the same, and sometimes they aren’t. Making the distinction can be difficult.

***

What is your picture?

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I am tired of apologizing.

Expressing empathy and sympathy? I’m all over that. But I’ve spent way too much of my energy apologizing for things that have nothing to do with me.

And you know what? I’m not sorry.

  • I’m not sorry that I may have different priorities than other people .
  • I’m not sorry that I have things I want and things I need.
  • I’m not sorry that I want to be treated with respect and consideration.
  • I’m not sorry for the life choices I’ve made, even if people don’t agree with them or understand them.
  • I’m not sorry that I don’t want to discuss my financial situation with strangers.
  • I’m not sorry that I have a different sleep schedule from the norm.
  • I’m not sorry that the ways in which I spend my time are not obvious.
  • I’m not sorry that I notice and sometimes point out sexism and misogyny in media.
  • I’m not sorry for my own opinion and assessment of myself.
  • I’m not sorry when I choose to say no.
  • I’m not sorry that I can’t be perfect.
  • I’m not sorry when I refuse to take on other people’s issues willy nilly.
  • I’m not sorry for the existence of my emotions.
  • I’m not sorry for standing up for myself.
  • I’m not sorry for communicating.
  • I’m not sorry for being complicated.
  • I’m not sorry that we don’t have every single thing about ourselves in common.
  • I’m not sorry when people won’t take care of themselves. I feel sad about it, because I know how bad that feels, but I am not responsible for the choices they make and the pain they put themselves through.

This is what it looks like to not be a people pleaser. You start apologizing a lot less frequently. Instead you communicate, and you compromise, and you take responsibility for yourself and your actions, and you surround yourself with people who are willing and able to take responsibility for themselves and their actions, and when you screw up on occasion, you apologize and make amends, and everything works out a whole lot better.

Stop apologizing for yourself. Start living instead.

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Sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking we can have it all, but we can’t.

That’s really what priorities are all about. If we could have it all, we wouldn’t have to set priorities because we could do all the things. We’d have infinite resources: enough money to pay for life’s necessities and that trip to Bali and five new outfits and front row seats on Broadway. Enough time for a demanding career and friends and a relationship and a second job and kids and pets and vacations and hobbies and volunteering. Enough energy and brain space to keep track of it all.

The media tells us stories about how we can have it all. But the media lies. Penelope Trunk has written a few essays recently about high-powered career women–using Marissa Meyer and Sheryl Sandberg as her examples–and how they don’t ever see their kids. Because in order to be that high-powered, it’s necessary to work something like 100-hour weeks. That’s more than fourteen hours every day of the week. So really, there’s very little time for anything else. My first instinct is to think, wow, those two women are among the most important in the Silicon Valley, and they have kids too, so they really do have it all. But they don’t. They’ve set priorities that have led them to where they are, and priorities always involve a trade-off.

  How many hours a day do you think she practices?                                                                                     Photo Credit: Melissa Maples via Compfight cc

It’s so much sexier to talk about priorities in terms of what you can accomplish with them, as opposed to what you have to give up. But the accomplishment and sacrifice come together. Do you remember that movie from the ‘80s, The Competition? It followed a group of professional pianists through a concerto competition, and it shows this idea so clearly. All of these pianists are so talented and accomplished, and in order to be excelling at such a high level, their lives consist almost entirely of practice and music and more practice and their coaches and travel and practice. One of the main plotlines is about how the two protagonists are reluctant to have a romantic affair together because it will take away from the necessary focus and drive to win the competition.

Priorities are set based on how much we want something, but they are also set based on what we’re willing to do without. You’re willing to not have much of a normal social life? Then you can be a concert pianist. You’re willing to not see your kids very often? Then you can be a high-powered CEO. Most of us don’t have choices that are quite as extreme, but the core principle remains the same.

We often forget the trade-offs other people are making. People used to think I was really lucky to be working only part-time at my music teaching business. And I felt very lucky. I was doing work I loved and felt made a difference, and I had time to spare for my personal creative projects. But I was also constantly worried about money and the sustainability of my business model as the price of living kept increasing. I didn’t have a company behind me that provided paid sick days and cheap health insurance and retirement matching. The worry and the skimping were worth it to me in order to have a life focused on artistic pursuits, but I was very aware of the choice I was making. And everyone has made similar compromises somewhere along the line.

We can’t have it all. Nobody can, and that’s okay, as long as we don’t buy into the myth. What’s fabulous is that we get to decide what is most important to us and make our life choices accordingly. We don’t need to have it all in order to lead happy and fulfilled lives. We just need to understand where our priorities lie.

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I think a lot about how to live life and how to be happy. And the more I think about it, the more I realize how often the Rule of Awesome applies.

What is the Rule of Awesome? It’s the idea that when you’re dissatisfied with yourself or your circumstances, you do something awesome. You make the choice to take an action that is positive and exciting and cool. You focus on yourself and how you can be a more fulfilled person instead of focusing on those things that you cannot change.

Following the Rule of Awesome might not fix your problems, but what it will do is put you back into a place of empowerment. And it makes life a lot more fun.

Of course, cultivating the awesome and noticing it when it presents itself can be difficult. But it’s just another mental muscle; with attention and practice, finding awesomeness gets easier over time. And as you make awesome, the opportunities for more awesome tend to multiply.

There’s also our old friend, the fear of failure, trying to discourage us from pursuing the awesome. After all, what if the awesome turns out to be merely mediocre, or even flat-out bad? Which is why I think the more awesome things you’re doing or planning to do, the better. That way when some of them don’t pan out, it doesn’t matter as much since there are more awesome things on the horizon. And when we focus more on the process than the result, we have more time to enjoy the awesome even if everything doesn’t work out perfectly in the end.

Taking a stroll in Central Park the day before a hurricane? Definitely awesome.

Taking a stroll in Central Park the day before a hurricane? Definitely awesome.

Most of the time, though, the Rule of Awesome tends to work out pretty well for me. So to inspire you, I’m going to cook up some ideas for more awesome in the months to come. (Yes, this does mean I get to make a list. And yes, lists are very obviously made of awesome.)

- Try vanilla ice cream with the following toppings: chocolate syrup, strawberry jam, maple syrup, and M&Ms. Really I think maybe having both jam and maple syrup is too much, but I think I’m going to try it anyway. Why? Because it’s awesome.

- Drive down to Santa Cruz with someone who thinks the following is as awesome as I do: mini-golf, air hockey, crepes, and ice cream. Oh, and freezing cold beach time, when the wind is ripping through your hair and your cheeks are getting numb and you taste salt on your lips.

- Battlestar Galactica the Board Game. Enough said.

- Dye my hair red to see what it looks like.

- Go see this guy perform live.

- Write a novel set in space. Even though it’s freaking terrifying. Why? Because its awesomeness factor makes it totally worth it.

- Throw a big party and convince everyone to dress up in fabulous costumes.

- Buy lots and lots of dominoes and make a huge standing domino pattern until I can’t wait any longer and have to topple them all.

- Go to Iceland and attempt to see the Northern Lights in October before heading down to Brighton and World Fantasy con. Seriously, I can’t think of anything much more awesome than this. Obviously this is a thing that all of you who are SF/F writers should do with me.

Most fun list-making game ever. Help make my list longer. What’s something awesome you might do in the next year?

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This weekend I got a question on an old post of mine that I thought deserved a longer response. The post is on the topic of the difficulties of being a free spirit, and the commenter asked: “”What do you do when you falter? How do you stay strong in the face of judgement?” Both excellent questions.

What do I do when I falter? And oh wow, do I falter. Most of us do. It’s hard to make unconventional choices, and it takes a fair amount of courage, and sometimes my supply of courage feels like it’s running short. What to do about this indeed?

One answer is to pay attention as much as we can, so at least we have a chance of noticing when we’re faltering. And once we’ve noticed, we can allow ourselves to be gentle about it. It’s fine to feel the fear, the discomfort, the wish that the choices that seem so much easier would be the right choices for us. But we also need to remember the why’s. Why do we like being free-spirited? Why do we prefer considering options instead of making the default choice? Why is this better?

When I falter, I remind myself of my experiences of doing what others expected or wanted rather than what I wanted, and how that usually turned out poorly. I give myself my own personalized pep talk. And because I’m a planner, I develop a plan for getting myself back on track, which might include getting additional support.

Photo Credit: bogenfreund via Compfight cc

Far more difficult in my own experience is staying strong in the face of judgment. Being judged is such a creepy-crawly, uncomfortable experience. And even though it so often is all about the person doing the judging rather than the person being judged, it still feels very personal.

The first place to look is to ourselves. If we encourage our own minds to be judgmental and critical of ourselves, then we’ll feel that same sensation of judgment coming from the outside as well…even if it doesn’t actually exist outside at all. So we need to be kind to ourselves while developing our own sense of worth. The more we believe in ourselves, the more confident we become. And the more confident we become, the less it matters what other people think, and the easier it becomes to remember that their judgments are more about them than about us.

It’s harder when the judgments are coming from people whom we care about: our family and friends. Sometimes their voices become so loud that we internalize them and can hear them criticizing us even when they aren’t present. And because we value their opinions, it can be harder to tell the difference between genuine concern and viewpoints respectfully expressed and more manipulative and painful judgments.

For this, I am a big fan of setting boundaries. When we’re not used to having boundaries, it takes a lot of practice. Really a lot. And not only that, but people can become quite judgmental about the fact that you have boundaries in the first place. But it’s psychologically healthy to have boundaries, and over time they become super effective. You’re allowed to decide what you’re going to do with your life, and you’re allowed to take care of yourself. (I could write entire books about boundaries. In fact, people have, and here’s my favorite.)

So, in summary, here’s what I do when I falter and when I’m having trouble with the judgments of others:

1. Be mindful so I notice what’s going on.
2. Self pep talk, reminder of why what I’m doing is awesome.
3. Get support, make a plan if necessary.
4. Work on increasing self esteem and minimizing my own critical judgments.
5. Set boundaries with other people and take those boundaries really seriously.

What do you think? How do you stay strong in the face of judgment?

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A few nights ago, I was eating by myself at a standard American restaurant on Broadway. Whenever I eat alone, I make it a point to bring reading material along to make the waiting go by faster (well, really, whenever I go anywhere I like to bring reading material along).

The waitress asked me what I was reading, and I told her, “It’s a memoir by Julia Child.”

She looked at me blankly. “Who’s that?”

“Oh, you know, Julia Child. She’s famous for bringing French cooking to the U.S.” No recognition. “You know that movie Julie and Julia?” Nope.

It left me wondering if I would have recognized Julia Child’s name before I saw the movie. I hope I would have, but I’m not completely sure. But I’m glad I know it now, because her memoir, My Life in France, written with her grandnephew Alex Prud’homme, is so very charming.

Photo by Kaleb Fulgham

The entire time of the hurricane—the lead-up, the storm itself, and the recovery—I was reading this memoir. The personality of Julia Child fairly oozes from the pages. She gushes away about France, about food, about cooking, and her passion is so obvious from her stories. She recounts so many meals she’s enjoyed in the past, course by course.

Her first meal in France, when she was in her mid-thirties, was what set her on the course to becoming a famous chef. I love this fact so much. Because we never know, do we? We never know when we’re going to have an experience, or meet a person, or learn something new, and have a passion ignited within us. It can happen anywhere and anytime; it’s not something that only happens when we are teenagers or freshly adult, it’s not something that has to be planned carefully, or even something that can be anticipated.

I love this idea, too, because it reminds me that all of life is one big adventure. A new subplot could spin off at any time, or a nice bit of character development could take place, or I could begin my grand romance with pumpkin spice chais. Knowing this makes me feel so lucky to be alive.

By the time I finished reading My Life in France, I’d become very fond of Julia Child. I love her personality, her energy, her courage, and her unwillingness to give up. I love how enthusiastic she was, punctuating the text with Yum! and Hooray! and What fun! I love how her passion for food and cooking helped her through the bad times. I love how she spent a lifetime involved in food and cooking and teaching.

And I love some of her philosophy. When she is leaving her country house in France for the last time, do you know what she remembers saying? “I’ve always felt that when I’m done with something I just walk away from it—fin!” She enjoyed what she had to the fullest while she had it, and then let go when it was over. This isn’t a strong point of my own, but I admire her a lot for thinking it, and more importantly, for living it.

All in all, I can’t imagine a better book for me to be reading in the middle of a hurricane.

What about you? What have you been reading lately?

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“I aspire to eccentricity,” I said recently at a party. “By the time I reach my sixties, I want to claim it completely. I want to be a full-blown eccentric.”

It takes a special kind of strength to claim our eccentricity, to go against social norms and expectations, to wave the weird flag. There’s a subculture in the US, consisting of artistic types, unconventional types, adventurous types, and free spirits, who consider the statement “You’re weird” to be one of the highest compliments. It’s a reclamation of words that cut to the bone on the elementary school playground.

What’s interesting about being a free spirit, or a rebel, or any of these other labels, is that there isn’t one way to do it. We talked a couple of years ago about Hollywood’s depictions of free spirits as spacy, often irresponsible, Bohemian, manic pixie dream girls. But allowing ourselves to fit into these pre-constructed molds is an inherent act of conformity. In order to truly be a free spirit, to claim that eccentricity within, we do ourselves a disservice if we follow the map society hands us. “Here’s what you’re supposed to be if you’re a free spirit.” Ha! When the whole point is to decide for yourself.

We are held back by these maps, by these preconceptions. The well-honed ability of human beings to practice self-deception will never cease to amaze me. I am so good at it, I don’t even realize I’m doing it. It is only when these maps, these boundaries, and these assumptions are challenged that we can begin to truly cultivate ourselves, eccentricities and all. Otherwise, not only do we limit the choices in our stories to a much more narrow band than necessary, but we fail to know ourselves.

Photo by H Koppdelaney

If we look at what lurks underneath this disconnect, we’ll often find fear. Fear of being different. Fear of not being loved. Fear of change. Fear of loss of safety. Fear of having to confront hard truths, of being stuck into the red hot forge until we become malleable enough to be re-shaped and see more clearly.

In order to know ourselves, in order to discover what shape our eccentricities will take, we have to walk into the fear. We have to gently nudge ourselves forward, and we have to experience the pain that comes with seeing that reality does not always conform with our expectations, our beliefs, and our desires. Claiming eccentricity fully means spending our lives exploring, both what it means to be us and how that intersects with the rest of the world. It means ignoring that innate desire to mirror what and who is around us. It means thinking instead of automatically agreeing. It means creating a ripple of discomfort around ourselves, and perhaps learning to defuse it somewhat with humor, charisma, and tact (and sometimes choosing purposefully to let the discomfort stand). It means choosing how we express ourselves.

What we find when we strip ourselves down, layer by layer, is true eccentricity. A lot of people call this authenticity. I think maybe it’s the same thing, only authenticity sounds more noble. It’s simultaneously a loss of innocence and a rebirth of innocence. Nothing is the way it seemed–not society, not the people we know, not even ourselves. (Get stuck here and you achieve bitterness, disillusionment, cynicism.)

Beyond it, though, lies the innocence of being connected to ourselves in the moment. The innocence of “I am.” The innocence of the joy that is generated by living in harmony with who we are.

I made a joke at a party. But this is really what I meant. There’s something a little eccentric about that, don’t you think?

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