Yes I Can

Back when I was writing children’s books, I had a pretty simple formula I used to create my stories.  I would create a main character and place him or her in a situation that they desperately wanted to change, which would give me the main plot of my story.  If I were writing a longer book for older children, I would then plan out a chapter-by-chapter timeline to help me keep track of everything as I wrote.  (Details have never been my strong point.)  Finally, I would begin writing the actual manuscript….and that was usually the point where my creative confidence began to drain away and the paralyzing self-doubt crept in.

The problem was that no matter how passionately I believed in the story I was trying to write, a part of me was always thinking, “Will an editor like this?  Is my main character interesting enough?  Is my plot believable?” and so on and so on.  And those are valid concerns.  As all writers who hope to get their work accepted by a publisher know, finding an editor who wants to buy our manuscript is an absolute necessity.  But the constant presence of the critical editor in my mind basically squashed my creativity and made it impossible to write from my heart.  And the result was often a competent, but flat, manuscript that lacked a unique and creative spark.

Sadly, that internal critic isn’t limited to my writing.  I can look back on my life and see many times when I allowed that little voice that says “you can’t, you shouldn’t, you’re not good enough,” to dictate my choices and my behavior.  There were too many times when I turned my back on an opportunity, didn’t want to take a risk, or stayed silent when I should have spoken up. There were too many times that I held back when I should have stepped boldly forward.

The simple truth is, when our internal dialogue turns too negative, we aren’t really able to live our lives to their fullest potential.  And that’s a tragedy that none of us should allow.

I believe most of us get better at self-acceptance as we get older, and I’m no exception.  As the years go by, I find myself learning to tune out that negative “internal committee” and to replace it with one that is so much more compassionate and encouraging.  I find myself being willing to risk simply being myself by following my dreams, voicing my true opinions and in general, doing what feels right to me.  It’s a journey, but I am moving slowly and steadily forward.

If I had the chance to go back in time and speak to my younger self, I would have so much advice I would want to share.  But if I was limited to just one thing, it would be, “Believe in yourself and follow your heart.”  Because if we can learn to do that, everything else will surely work out.

Plan B

Things don’t always work out the way we had planned.  Sometimes in simple ways, such as when I recently brought home a lovely wooden bookshelf that I had carefully selected to store my ever-growing collection of photo albums.  The shelf seemed perfect:  it was the right color to go with my living-room furniture, and the shelves were tall enough for my photo albums.  Or at least that’s what I thought when I measured them in the store.  But when I got the bookshelf home, I discovered the shelves were actually a half-inch too short for my photo albums.

My immediate reaction was not my finest hour.  I stomped around the house, said a few ugly words, and felt very sorry for myself because I had wasted an entire Saturday morning scouring second-hand shops for this shelf, then hauling it home and cleaning it up before I discovered that it wasn’t going to work after all.  I thought about calling my kids to see if either of them wanted the shelf, but then I realized that would mean I still had no place to store my extra photo albums.  And I really did like the bookshelf.  So I decided there had to be a way to make it work.

IMG_4733I measured an another bookshelf I already had and discovered that if I adjusted the shelves a little bit, my photo albums would fit.  That meant moving the books that were already on it, but I did have that brand-new shelf that the books would fit on nicely.  I spent the next hour moving books and photo albums around, but in the end, I found I did indeed have room for all the albums and the books that I wanted to keep and that the new bookshelf looks just fine in my office.  (I even found several books I want to give away, which means I now have room for more books!)

Sometimes our plans that don’t work out are much bigger, and much more important.  I spent years trying to break into the world of children’s publishing, because I was convinced that being a writer of children’s books was the perfect career for me.  But after a tremendous amount of time and effort, I only managed to publish one single book.  Eventually,  I had to admit that this particular dream just wasn’t panning out, and for a brief while, I gave up writing altogether.  Then a friend convinced me to give blogging a try, and I became an active writer once again.  I may not be writing and publishing children’s books, but I honestly enjoy blogging and feel a true sense of accomplishment when I get a post “just right.”

I think it’s important that we all have plans, goals and dreams, and that we do our best to attain them.  But I also think it’s important to realize that just because something doesn’t work out exactly as we had planned or hoped doesn’t mean we’ve failed.  It just means that we need to be flexible enough to try a different option or to explore an area we hadn’t considered before.  Because success can be found in many different ways, particularly when we’re willing to try “plan B.”

A Happy Anniversary

It wasn’t until  sat down to write this week’s post that I realized this month is my blog’s four-year anniversary.  (I’m embarrassed to admit that I actually thought it was my blog’s fifth anniversary until I did the math one more time.  Some of us just weren’t cut out for working with numbers….)  Anyway, I’m happy to say that the blog I started with much hope and trepidation four years ago is still going strong and that the experience has turned out to be a very good one.

It’s impossible to do something for four years straight and not learn a few things along the way.  Prior to starting my blog, I had harbored a deep distrust of the internet, and couldn’t even buy something on line without panicking at the thought of actually putting my credit card number out there in cyberspace.  The thought of putting my writing on the internet for all the world to see (and comment on) was the biggest hurdle I had to overcome before I could summon up the nerve to publish my first post.  One of the first things my blog taught me is that the using the internet isn’t quite as dangerous as I had believed.

Yes, there are hackers galore, and there are also lots of folks out there who spend their days making nasty online comments to perfect strangers just because they can.  But there are far more good people who are willing to offer encouragement, advice and kindness to the people they meet online.  One of the best things about writing a blog post is getting comments on it that expand and improve on the point I was trying to make, and that happens a lot.  I feel very lucky to have readers who are both smart and generous with their knowledge.

I’ve also learned that we humans have much more in common than I ever realized.  My intended audience was middle-aged women, mostly because that’s who I was (yes, I know at sixty I’m stretching the definition of middle age a bit) and I figured those were the people who would relate to what I had to say.  But I have regular readers who are male, and regular readers who are either younger or older than I am.  It turns out, most of the issues I struggle with aren’t restricted to middle-aged woman at all.  They’re human issues that most of us can relate to just fine, no matter what our age, sex, belief system, or nationality happens to be.  The blogging community can represent diversity at its best.

Finally, I’ve learned how important it is not to let my fears, both the reasonable and the not-so-reasonable ones, stop me from doing the things I really want to do.  I love writing and I love writing this blog, yet if I hadn’t managed to overcome my fears of “putting myself out there” on the internet, I would not have spent the past four years writing this particular blog.  And that would have been a real shame, because I would missed out on all the gifts this blog has given me:  the chance to grow as a writer, to connect with terrific people from all over the world, and the hope that (with a little luck and a lot of work) I may make it to my actual five year blogging anniversary.

Open My Eyes

Last Monday, my post “A Blogger’s Voice” was featured on Word Press Discover page, which meant that my blog was suddenly getting a much bigger audience than usual.  For the most part, I was thrilled.  I think every writer wants their words to reach as many people as possible (if we didn’t, we would just write in a personal journal) and the thought of all those new readers was exciting.  I was also flattered that a Word Press editor thought my blog was worthy of being included in their Discover program.  I really didn’t think this would ever happen to my blog.

But a small part of me was also worried.  I knew that along with all that extra exposure came the very real risk of a whole lot of spam, criticism, and downright nasty comments.  When they let me know I was going to be included in Discover, Word Press even included advice on how to the handle negative comments that might be coming my way. Honestly, in the days between being notified that I was going to be “discovered” and before it actually happened, I even toyed with the idea of backing out of the whole thing.

But then I realized that none of this would have happened if my good blogging friend Barb Knowles hadn’t recommended me to a Word Press editor.  Barb writes a funny, poignant and insightful blog called Sane Teachers , and has been a wonderful source of inspiration and support.  I didn’t want to let her down or have her think I wasn’t grateful for her recommendation so I decided to just go for it.  I figured between my spam filter and my ability to moderate comments, I could handle whatever negativity came my way.

And you know what?  The nastiness, the criticism, and the spam never materialized.  In the past week, I’ve added about 500 new followers and the last time I looked, that post had about 1,700 views. My spam filter caught no more than the usual amount of spam, and I moved about eight comments into the trash only because they included what I thought might not be a legitimate Word Press link in them.  Even then, I may have been overly quick to hit the “trash” button, but I didn’t want to run the risk of any of my readers getting a virus from a link on my blog.

My point is not that all those people loved my blog.  I’m sure that most of them didn’t even read it, and simply hit the “follow” and “like” buttons in the hopes that I would do the same for their blog.  My point is that the onslaught of negativity that I had anticipated didn’t happen.  Instead, I received lots of positive and courteous comments from other bloggers.  Being “discovered” connected me to many people who also struggle with finding the courage to put their true thoughts and feelings into their posts and then send them out into cyberspace.  It let me communicate with people from all over the world, both getting and giving encouragement and good wishes.  It was an awesome experience.

I am very, very, grateful to Barb and to Word Press for the chance to be “discovered.”  I am grateful for the new views, follows and the comments on my post.  But what I most grateful for is the way that this whole experience reminded me that there is still so much good in the world, and so many good people in the world, if only I’m willing to open my eyes and see.

A Delicate Balance

I’ve gained almost ten pounds in the past two years, and I’m blaming it on this blog.  It takes a lot of time to write my posts and answer the comments on them, and it takes even more time to read and comment on all the other blogs I follow.  And to make matters worse, once I’m sitting at my computer, I feel the need to read and answer my emails, and then to head on over to Facebook to see if anyone has posted anything more interesting than the latest political outrage or a photo of their lunch.  And all of this takes time, which means I’m spending more and more time sitting, which we all know is not exactly good for our bodies.  Hence the weight gain in the two years I’ve been writing this blog.

And honestly, it’s not just my body that suffering from all those hours spent sitting in front of my computer.  The internet is a wonderful thing, but it can also be incredibly depressing.  The non-stop bad news, the hateful comments and name-calling, and even the photos of lost pets can be overwhelming at times.  If I’m not careful, surfing the world-wide web can leave me thinking that this world is just plain mean and dangerous, and that basic human decency is nothing more than an illusion.

So what do I do?  Do I abandon my blog, deactivate my Facebook account, unplug my computer and live “off the grid” for the rest of my life?   Or do I just pretend that I’m not spending far too much time looking through pictures posted by people I barely know when I could be doing something far more productive?  (And by the way, it’s not “creeping” to look through people’s Facebook posts and photos.  If something is private, don’t put it on social media in the first place.)

I know many people who don’t do social media, and even some who rarely, if ever, utilize the internet.  They’re happy with their choice, and that’s great.  But it’s not the right choice for me.  I like the way I’ve connected with old friends, and keep in touch with far-away family and friends through Facebook, and I’ve become rather dependent on the ability to easily find so much useful information just by Googling it.  Even more, I love blogging because it has me writing regularly again and has connected me to terrific writers and readers from all over the world.  I honestly don’t want to give any of that up.

Which leaves me with only one obvious choice:  find a balance.  There is a huge middle ground between wasting hours every day sitting in front of my computer and abandoning it altogether.  I can write my blog, keep my Facebook account and otherwise use the internet while still making sure I get physical exercise every single day.   I can skim the news stories on the internet, reading only the ones I need to, and skip the comment section altogether.  I can enjoy seeing the photos of my friend’s new grandchildren on Facebook while blocking the posts that I know are going to ruin my mood for the rest of the day.

It’s just a matter of discipline and taking control of my life and making intentional choices about how I want to spend my time.  Of course it won’t be easy, but so many things that are worthwhile and necessary for living a meaningful life aren’t especially easy.  And it’s either that or go shopping for some bigger jeans….

A Blog’s Purpose

I’ve been struggling with my blog for the past few weeks.  I’ve been putting off writing posts, and when I finally did sit down to write something, I was struggling to clarify just exactly what it was that I wanted to say and then struggling some more to come up with just exactly the right words to say it.

At first, I put it down to the hectic schedule of Christmas, knowing that I was existing on too much rich food and drink, too little sleep, and a “to do” list that was growing longer by the day.  I figured that my tiny little brain just couldn’t keep up with it all, and that probably had something to do with it, but also I thought there was more going on that just holiday stress.  Then I began to worry that after two years of writing this blog, I was getting tired of it and ready to quit, but that didn’t feel quite right either.  I love writing, and at the moment, this blog is my only creative writing outlet.  And I knew I wasn’t really ready to quit writing.

And then I read the post  Finding My Purpose: Why I Blog  on my friend Jodi’s blog and  had what I believe is called an “ah ha!” moment.  I felt that Jodi had not only read my mind, but had also thoughtfully written a post that spelled things out for me, since I was having so much trouble figuring it out for myself.  (Friends, blogging or otherwise, can be very helpful that way, especially for those of us who can be a bit slow on the uptake.)

Like Jodi, I started my blog as a form of personal expression, and honestly, I only settled on the subject of middle age because I thought that was something about me that other people could easily relate to.  But once I got over the initial thrill that there were people out there who were actually willing to read my posts,  I found that it became very important to me to write posts that actually offered something to my readers.  More importantly, I wanted my blog to be positive.

I knew there is a lot in this world, and in each of our lives, that is scary and depressing, but I also knew that I didn’t want to dwell on that in my blog.  If people want bad news, they can simply turn on their TV or log onto the internet.  And we all have stuff in our past that isn’t pretty, and that can leave us angry and bitter.  But I can’t change the world, I can’t change the past, and I can’t truly fix anyone else’s life.  What I can do is exactly what Jodi describes: offer encouragement, remind people of the beauty that is still around us, share hopeful insights, and maybe give others a chance to laugh at, rather than rage against, the mundane challenges of our lives.  And I can do all that, in my own small way, through this blog.

I think in the back of my mind, I always wanted my blog to be a source of encouragement, entertainment and/or inspiration, but I just hadn’t found the courage to admit it until I read my friend’s post.  All I know is that now I see what the purpose of my blog has been all along, and I have a hunch that my struggles with writing it are over.

A Good Journey

It doesn’t seem possible, but according to my calendar, it has been exactly two years since I started this blog.  I can still remember how nervous I was about putting my writing on the internet where anyone and everyone could not only read it, but also comment on it.  I spent weeks writing and rewriting several short essays about being middle aged, just so I would have something to publish even when writer’s block struck.  I worried that no one would want to read my blog, and then I worried that lots of people would read it, but hate it.  And tell me exactly why in my comment section.  But eventually, with the constant encouragement (and occasional nagging) of a good friend, I sat down at the computer and wrote my first post.

Although I’ve been writing almost my entire life, I didn’t really understand what writing a blog entailed.  I knew that blogging meant I would have to find the motivation to write regular posts, to read and respond to any comments that were made, and that I’d probably have to deal with a fair amount of spam.  I knew I had to learn blogging terminology, such as widgets, tags, themes, etc.  It all sounded very confusing, but I believed I would figure it out eventually, and I was mostly right about that.  Above all, I knew that I was venturing into new territory and trying something that I had never done before.  There was a very real risk that it wouldn’t work out at all, and then I would just have to hope that no one ever asked me, “Whatever happened to that blog you started?”  I already had more than my share of failure in my writing career, and didn’t want to add to it.

But my blog didn’t fail.  I wrote my posts on a regular schedule; a small (but very much appreciated) group of people read them and often left encouraging comments, and with each passing month, my confidence grew.  I began adding photos to my posts and venturing out into other topics besides coping with middle age.  Slowly but surely, I found the courage to share my real opinions, thoughts and experiences, and discovered how liberating it is to be true to myself rather than writing only what I thought others wanted to read.  In many ways, that confidence has spilled over to other areas of my life as well.

Beyond that, the connections I’ve made through my blog have been a wonderful, if unexpected, gift.  My regular readers include friends from my past and family who live far away, and I love being in closer contact with them.  I’ve met terrific new people from all over the world, whose opinions I have come to value.  I may not have met any of them in person, but many feel like friends.

Of course there have been the tough times, when something technical isn’t working with my blog, or when I stare at my computer screen and think, “Well that’s it, you’ve finally run out of ideas!  Time to quit!”   But I don’t quit, because my blog has become too important to me to abandon.  I’m writing regularly and more confidently than I ever have before, and I’m interacting with many terrific people.  Honestly, I like where my blog has led me so far, and I plan to stick around to see where the journey leads next.

Square Peg, Round Hole

I don’t know about other bloggers, but I tend to think about my blog posts for a while before I actually write them.  I select a topic that happens to interest me, and then I think of what, exactly, I’d like to say about that topic, and even compose a few sentences in my head before I ever sit down in front of the computer.  If I’m lucky, the writing process is smooth and quick, and I hammer out my usual 500 to 700 word post without too much effort or angst.

But there are the times when I just can’t get it right, and when I rewrite the opening paragraphs several times, only to find that I have written myself right into a corner each time.  Sometimes I actually have to get up and walk away from my computer for a little while, and then come back and look at my draft with fresh eyes.  And when I do that, I almost always realize that the problem is that one of the sentences or ideas I came up with I came up with when I was thinking about the post just didn’t fit when I was actually writing the post, even though I kept putting it into each and every draft.  Unfortunately, I had liked that particular string of words so much (it was clever, darn it!) that I was blind to the fact that it needed to be cut.  I can be stubborn that way.

Sadly, that stubbornness isn’t limited to my writing.  I like to meet new people, try new things, and despite being a fiercely independent person, join new groups.  And that’s usually a good thing, as it has exposed me to lots of new ideas, some dear friends and some worthy causes. But there are times when as I get to know a person better, I realize that we  have very little in common and have some totally incompatible values.  Or that I didn’t like a particular activity nearly as much as I thought I would, or that despite my best efforts, I simply don’t fit into a particular group or organization.  And that’s when most people would immediately back off, but all too often, I hang in there, just sure that if I try a little bit harder, everything will work out.  I guess I’m afraid of being a quitter, or admitting that I can’t really be all things to all people.

When I was in college, most of my friends pledged a sorority, so despite my considerable misgivings, I decided to join one too.  I lasted only three months.  Not because I had joined the wrong sorority…it was a perfectly good one, with lots of nice women….but because I’m far too much of an individualist to be the right person for any sorority.  Luckily, that was one time when I recognized my mistake early on and addressed it quickly. Everyone was quite nice about it, and even though I quit the sorority, I remained friends with several of its members.   If I had tried to stick with it, skipping meetings, complaining,  and ignoring rules I didn’t like, I probably would have managed to alienate all the members.

And that’s something I need to remember all these years later when I find myself being stubborn about trying to stick with something that just isn’t right for me.  No matter how hard I try, not everyone is going to like me.  And despite my best efforts, I’m not going to be an effective and helpful member of every new group I try.  And that’s okay.  Because no one fits in everywhere, but everyone fits in somewhere.

The Joys of Blogging

IMG_4757It’s been over eighteen months since I started this blog, which still surprises me.  I’d be lying if I said everything has gone according to plan, mostly because I didn’t exactly have a firm plan in mind when I started this blog, but also because writing my own blog turned out to be a very different experience from anything I could have imagined.

My initial idea was to write about adjusting to this new phase of my life that is called “middle age,” and to share some of the challenges and joys that come with it.  I thought that my close friends, and possibly some of their friends (and of course my mother), would read it and leave a comment now and then.  Of course I had moments when I fantasized that my blog would be wildly successful so that I could earn big bucks from it and, more importantly, rub it in the faces of all the editors who ever rejected my manuscripts (“See what you missed out on!”), but that was never an actual plan.

But like so many things in life, the realities of blogging turned out to be quite different from my expectations.  My mother does read my blog (thanks, Mom!) and so do many of my friends, but I was pleasantly surprised by how many of my older and friends and acquaintances, some of whom I haven’t seen in decades, were also not only reading my blog, but taking the time to let me know that it spoke to them.  I had no idea my blog would reconnect me so powerfully to my past, but it did.

Although my original intention was to simply write about being middle aged, I found that even after adjusting my posting schedule to only twice a week, I soon ran out of things to say on that particular subject.  There are only so many posts I can write about fading eyesight  and memory, sprouting hair where hair does not belong, developing new wrinkles and sags on a daily basis, and adjusting to being part of the sandwich generation, etc., without repeating myself and boring my readers.  So I branched out, and began writing about other things that were going on in my life and the world around me, and nobody seemed to mind too much.  Or if they did, they were nice enough not to complain.

Of course, there are a few aspects of blogging that did go just as I expected. I have always struggled with technology, and continue to do so.  Writing my posts is the easy part, figuring out how to add links, size photos correctly, and change the format is much harder for me.  There are times when I can’t answer comments without exiting my page and then coming back to it, and sometimes I can see how many Facebook shares a post has, and sometimes I can’t.  Don’t ask me why.  When I contact the WordPress help, the answer is usually that there must be something wrong with my computer.  Of course.

Still, the nicest and most unexpected perk of blogging has been how many wonderful other bloggers I have met.  These are people who are busy writing their own blogs, and yet still take the time to leave words of encouragement and wisdom on my posts, or comments so funny that I laugh out loud when I read them.  Their blogs have become “must reads” for me, even on my busiest of days, because they are that good.  I’d like to especially acknowledge Kim over at www.kimgorman.com, who writes a wonderful blog about meeting the challenges of life with determination and grace, and whose writing never fails to inspire me.  She is a recent recipient of the Sunshine Blogger Award, and deservedly so.

I always knew that I enjoyed writing, but blogging is more than simply writing.  It’s building a community, sharing ideas, and best of all….making new and wonderful friends. Thank you all for that.

A Disturbing Pattern?

I have never been a particularly ambitious person.  I had no plans to run for public office, become a celebrity of any sort, or make enough money to live in a huge mansion.  Although I did hope to make a modest living writing children’s books, I never aspired to being on the New York Times Bestseller’s list.   My main goal in life has always been a very modest one:  to simply try to leave the world a slightly better place than I found it.  Seriously, that’s it.  But even so, I’m starting to think that maybe I set the bar just a little bit too high.

DSC01258If I were really the sort of person who brought in a ray of sunshine each time she entered the room, how do I explain all the times when my mere presence has had what can only be called a distinctly negative effect?  There’s the little things, like how whatever line I join at the checkout counter immediately becomes the slowest moving line, each and every time.  Sometimes the person in front of me hands the cashier a huge wad of coupons and argues endlessly when told that half of them are expired, while other times we all wait for a stock boy to do a price check on an item shelved on the other side of the store.  But one way or another, when I get in a line, it stops moving.

And yes, I know lots of people claim they have the same experience with check-out lines, but I have so many more examples.  I had to have my senior pictures retaken because the photographer discovered that his camera broke during my photo session.  Other people joke about having their face break a camera, but mine actually did it.

This past year alone, five of my favorite restaurants have gone out of business.  And even if a restaurant that I love does manage to stay open, they always discontinue whatever dish I like the best.  Remember Panera’s potato-cream cheese soup?  It was so delicious that it was worth every calorie, and it was my absolute favorite.  So of course they took it off the menu.

The last three times I joined a church, the minister resigned shortly afterwards.  When my husband and I decided to invest a little money with a broker, the stock market immediately dropped like a rock.  We have lived in the same house for the past twenty years, and like to think that we are good neighbors.  But then how do I explain that the house on our left has turned over six times since we moved in, and we have actually lost count of how many different families have lived in the house behind us?

But the biggest example is my writing career.  The only children’s book I ever published was sold through a book packager who expressed interest in seeing more of my work.  And then promptly went out of business.  A small public relations firm closed right after I completed my first assignment for them.  Several editors have lost their positions shortly after asking me for revisions with the goal of eventual publication, and three separate publishing houses that liked my work also went out of business before I could close a sale.  I’m sort of the “Typhoid Mary” of the publishing world.

I tell you, it’s enough to give a person a complex!  Sometimes I feel the exact opposite of the king in the story, “The Midas Touch.”  Remember that story?  Where everything the king touched turned to gold?  Only in my case, it often turns to–well, let’s just say not gold.  So, if you are one of the small group of people who reads my posts, I suggest you enjoy them while you can.  Because past experience suggests that it’s only a matter of time before WordPress pulls the plug.