I’ve Moved! Visit Me at My New Website

5 Oct

jennifergaram.com

I’ve moved! Please visit me at my new website:

WWW.JENNIFERGARAM.COM

I’ll be blogging over there, too! My new blog is here.

You can also follow me on Twitter @writeouschick, and CLICK HERE to subscribe to my newsletter to receive updates about my writing and workshops.

Hope to see to you over at my new site!

Jen

I Took a Break From Writing to Take Care of Myself

14 Jun
Laptop computer and desk

My laptop is taking a break from writing.

Sometimes, I blatantly contradict myself.

Like how I used to say it was so important to have balance in your life.

Then I went on this kick like, fuck balance, it’s all about the passion.

And now I’m kinda into the balance thing again. Or trying to be at least. Living a life of balance  is not the place I naturally default to.

But, both things are true. Balance is nice. Passion is cool, too. Balanced passion may be something to strive for, although sounds like something that’s probably impossible to achieve.

Or when, several years ago, the married man I was having an affair with abruptly ended things. I was devastated to the point of barely being able to function, but I was also relieved — relieved that I no longer had to spend agonizing days waiting for his texts, calls, or emails, or hours lost to fantasy, obsession, fear, and worry. I was devastated, but I was also free.

Both were true.

I learned this from my therapist, she says it a lot. Life is big and complicated enough for seemingly completely contradictory things to both be true at the exact same time.

The last blog post I wrote was about how I always need to be writing. I wrote this almost 9 months ago. So you can see already: contradiction.

Shortly after writing that post, things fell apart, as they sometimes do in my life. As a freelancer, I was doing work that I loved, but unfortunately not enough of it to support myself. I have a high tolerance for deprivation in service to following my vision; if I’m doing work I love, I can make do with very, very little in terms of material gain.

But at a certain point, the chaos of financial instability starts to interfere with my creative process. Waking up every day in a state of panic tends to make me shut down, writing-wise. As someone I know once said, “You can’t write a novel if your house is on fire.” And based on my own experience I can say: tru dat.

Not knowing how I was going to pay the following month’s rent, and with my financial house up in flames, I set out looking for work. Once I’ve reached this point of complete desperation and panic, I can’t like, casually look for work and keep writing on the side. At that point, earning money requires all my time and attention.

I got temp work right away, and a month later, a full-time job. My first full-time job in over three years, I now had health insurance, paid time off, and some stability.

Although I hadn’t written in a few months, I decided to consciously continue my writing break so I could get acclimated to my new job. Also, I wanted to be a normal person who went to work and then had a life — time for socializing, dating, and decluttering my apartment — instead of this person who has a day job and then in every moment of her free time is trying to make things happen with her own creative projects on the side, living multiple lives and driving herself to exhaustion.

But after a month at my new job, my friend said to me, “Jen, I think you should start writing again.”

Because what happens is, not writing takes on its own crazy non-momentum momentum. If you don’t write for long enough, it turns into this really huge, daunting deal, and you can’t imagine how you ever wrote anything in the past or will ever again in the future. I said something along these lines to my friend right before she said, “Jen, it’s time.”

So, I wrote my dating profile for OkCupid. It was kind of fun. It made me laugh. I thought, This is good and I can write.

Inspired by my success writing my dating profile, I dipped my toe further into the writing pool, and wrote an essay about writing my online dating profile. Then I wrote a few more things, like this, and this.

It felt so good to be back. I was on a roll. Sort of. I still start and stop. Write, take a break. Struggle with writing/self-care. Balance/passion. Working hard/rest. Being consumed by creative projects/having a life. I write, but then I have to take mini-breaks. Because I work full-time and have activities and commitments almost every night after work, and I get t-i-r-e-d and need to rest. Not be so busy and striving all the time. Just be.

Last Sunday afternoon, I planned to write. But I was exhausted. So I took a nap instead. By mid-week, I was aching to write. I’m doing it today. I may need to take a break tomorrow.

Taking breaks from writing can be good self-care, and necessary periodically, but still, still, if I go too long without writing, I feel really shitty. Sometimes I need to take a break from writing to pay attention to how I’m going to pay my rent. But when I’m not writing, inevitably, I hit a point where I start to get angry and filled with resentment. I feel invisible, unseen, unheard, disempowered, like I have no voice. And the only way out of this is to USE MY VOICE and write something.

I need to be writing all the time. And I need to take breaks.

Both are true.

If You Feel Stuck, It Could Be Your Voice

26 Sep

Woman screamingI get stuck a lot. Tripped up in fear, anxiety, obsessive worry. Paralyzed by perfectionism. Waylaid by depression and absolute apathy, where I can’t muster up the motivation to do or care about anything. Not even writing. Sometimes I deliberately take a break from writing to focus on more responsible, possibly more remunerative pursuits. But whether it’s deliberate or not, if I’m not writing I often sink into depression, fear, stuckness, I-don’t-give-a-shit-about-anything-ness. I feel like I’m alone, without a voice, this invisible, forgotten, forsaken person.

Even–especially–when I don’t feel like writing, the way out of this apathy and despair is usually writing. This reminds me of a time 10 years ago, when I decided that I was going to give up acting and write instead. So I quit acting for a summer, and was totally blocked and couldn’t write a word. That September I signed up for an acting class, and soon after started writing my heart out, so inspired by the words in the scenes I was memorizing and performing. I wrote monologues and scenes and plays until the only words I was performing–in and out of class–were my own.

Sure, then it was acting that unblocked me and gave me back my voice and today it’s writing, but the message is still the same–the thing I avoid is the thing that sets me free.

I get very despairing when I feel like I don’t have a voice. When I feel like I’m not heard. When I feel like I’m all alone. In my obsessive worry and depression. This is not a fun place to be.

A few weeks ago, writing and I were on a little break. I put it on the side burner, or maybe even the back burner. It’s not you, it’s me. I just need some space. To focus on other things. And then that familiar despair crept in. I didn’t want to do anything, didn’t care about anything.

Day in, day out, my life felt like drudgery, comprised mostly of crying and naps (you know how exhausting crying can be). What’s wrong with me? I thought, even though this has happened before. Longing to give a shit about anything at all, to feel even the slightest desire to write again. Crying on the subway, something that used to be more of a regular occurrence but I hadn’t done in a long time. After getting off the subway I stopped at a Starbucks, red and puffy-eyed. I knew I was nearing a bottom and something had to change when the barista rang up my water bottle, looked at me sympathetically, and said, “Feel better.”

So I decided to end my break and go back to writing. I had to make the decision first, before I felt like it. But it didn’t take long for what I felt like doing to catch up, to want to write again. To feel inspired and idea-filled and excited and energized. To remember what it feels like to have a voice. To not feel invisible and powerless anymore. To be strong–and unstuck.

Writing, once again, is the solution. That thing that I sometimes avoid, resist, resent, and can’t even find the tiniest spark of inspiration for, is the thing that makes me feel better. This doesn’t last if I stop writing, though. Whenever I feel like I don’t have a voice, I’m on the path straight to despair. To claim my strength in the world, to get unstuck, to feel like myself, I have to go back go back and go back again to writing. I have to remember that I have something to say, and say it. I have to return to my voice–and use it as if my life depended on it.

I Had the Time of My Life at Dirty Dancing

26 Jul

Dirty Dancing at McCarren Park

Yesterday my friend invited me to see a movie at McCarren Park that night. My usual M.O. is to say no to fun plans. Especially last-minute fun plans. Because they’re inconvenient. And take me out of my routine. And a whole host of deeper psychological reasons to be explored at another time in another post.

But I’m trying to say “Yes!” to fun plans. To bring more joy and spontaneity into my life. Plus, this particular friend had recently invited me on several fun plans, all of which I’d said no to, and I was a little afraid that if I didn’t start saying yes soon, she was going to stop asking. What really put me over the top though, and convinced me that I had no other option but to say yes, was that the movie was none other than Dirty Dancing, my all-time favorite movie, symbol of my adolescence, and the unofficial theme to my Bat Mitzvah.

So last night, inconvenient and spontaneous as it was, I met my friend and her friends on patchwork of pieced together picnic blankets to watch Dirty Dancing, which, as it turns out, is tremendously fun to watch with a crowd of fellow Brooklynites. The opening shot of Baby and her family driving down a Catskill road listening to Cousin Brucie and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” on the radio immediately transported me back to 1987 and my 12-year-old self. The crowd screamed and cheered at all the places you’d cheer in your head–when Johnny decks Robbie, “She’s Like the Wind” plays, and Baby finally does the lift. During the finale, everyone in the audience jumped up and danced to “I’ve Had the Time of My Life,” and the announcer said that that was without question the most magical moment he’d ever seen in the seven year history of SummerScreen.

Throughout the night, I leaned in towards the group, piping in with little tidbits of memories and associations I had with the movie.

“I love your history with Dirty Dancing,” one of the girls said as we were walking to the subway afterwards.

“Thanks,” I shrugged, remembering back to when it all began.

****************************

In 1987, I sat on the family room floor leafing through the movie section of the local paper. I flipped to a full page ad for Dirty Dancing with Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze in the same pose that they’re in in the picture above, and my breath caught in my chest. I have to see this movie, I thought.

Shortly thereafter, my BFFEAE (best friend forever AND EVER) Beth* and I went to see it one night at a movie theater on Central Avenue in Yonkers. Someone’s parents must’ve bought us tickets, because we were only 12 and the movie was PG-13. I was mesmerized and it instantly became my favorite movie EVER. Of course, BFFs that we were, Beth loved it, too, and our bond was strengthened by our mutual obsession with this movie.

Seeing it once was not enough. I had to live it. I got the record and listened to it all the time. When the follow-up record, More Dirty Dancing, came out, I got that, too. I saw the movie over and over again, with Beth, my parents, and anyone who would go with me, and rented it multiple times when it came out on video. In between classes, Beth and I would practice our dirty dancing moves with invisible partners around the middle school hallways, occasionally enlisting beams as stand-ins for Patrick Swayze. There was a Dirty Dancing concert tour at Radio City Music Hall, featuring Eric Carmen and the back-up dancers (but sadly, no Patrick), and Beth and I went with our mothers, having dinner before the show at Hard Rock Cafe, and each buying a Dirty Dancing t-shirt afterwards.

Dirty Dancing, filled with music and passion, offered the promise of sex, electrifying to the mind and body of a 12-year-old girl. In seventh grade, I’d gone to Spin the Bottle parties in Jack Howe’s basement, but I hadn’t yet French kissed a boy or gotten to second base like some of the other girls in my class. But Dirty Dancing brought the hope of more, further down the base line. Of someday having sex with (or making love to?) a muscular shirtless dancing Patrick Swayze lookalike as “Cry to Me” played in the background. That, at 12-years-old, was my dream anyway. It might not come as a surprise that at 36, as of yet, that has never, ever happened.

As electrifying as that first sex scene between Johnny and Baby was, it was also mortifying. One of the many times I went to see the movie was with my Dad and I wanted to die during that part. It was like watching TV with your Dad when a tampon commercial came on. Mort-i-fy-ing.

That year I was planning my Bat Mitzvah, and it was a no-brainer what my theme would be. But some might not think that Dirty Dancing was an appropriate theme for a religious rite of passage for a 13-year-old. So it was my secret theme. My official theme was “5-6-7-8 Dance!” but I, another curly-haired Jewish girl named Jennifer, knew the truth. My real theme showed up in the photo on my sign-in board, in which I was smiling at the camera, wearing my t-shirt from the Dirty Dancing concert tour, with Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze on it in the same pose as they’re in in the photo above, except with more clothing on. It showed up when “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” played at my party and Beth and I jumped up and down with excitement, and like all good theme songs, returned during the closing slow motion montage in my Bat Mitzvah video.

Then, as often happens in middle school, my BFF became my arch nemesis. Jealousy and resentment drove a wedge between me and Beth as we moved on to other friends. But we’d always have Dirty Dancing.

In 2007, as soon as I heard that Dirty Dancing was going to be in movie theaters for its 20th anniversary, I emailed Beth, whom I hadn’t been in touch with since high school, to ask if she wanted to see it together. She wrote back right away saying yes, and that she’d been planning on getting in touch with me to ask if I wanted to see it.

The night of the movie, I arrived at the theater early to get good seats, and I scored two towards the middle. A group of girls arrived before Beth did, and asked me if I could move so they could all sit together, pointing to an empty seat in the corner.

Nobody puts me in a corner! I thought, holding my ground and refusing to move. The girls talked shit about me through the whole movie, adding to the feeling that I was back in seventh grade again.

Afterwards, Beth and I caught up over drinks.

“You look great!” she said. “You haven’t changed at all.” I was wearing a jeans jacket so that helped my transcendence of time, but still, I felt like our 20 year feud was finally over, our wounds and resentments healed, united as we were in our love for Dirty Dancing.

****************************

Five years later, 25 years after I first saw that breathtaking full page ad in the paper, Dirty Dancing still has the power to create magical moments. Watching it still fills me with hope, possibility, that pure joy that is natural at 12 and harder to come by at 36, and the feeling that, as long as Baby and Johnny are still dancing somewhere, all is OK in the world.

*Names have been changed

My Essay on The Huffington Post!

28 Jun

I have an essay on the HuffPost Women section of The Huffington Post!

“Why I Had an Affair With a Married Man”

Just Write the Next Thing

24 Jun

Computer screen

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about how I stepped on a rat, and then met my favorite singer, Maxwell. I loved this post. And not just because I love Maxwell. I loved everything about it. It was an unbelievable, miraculous story. I wrote it well. The twists! The turns! The dramatic arc! The culmination in a life lesson! I felt like it was possibly the best thing I ever wrote or would ever write again. I wanted to relish it and bask in it and savor it.

What I did not want to do was write the next post. I always want to go out on a good note, quit while I’m ahead. Like being the one to get off the phone first when I’m talking to a guy I have a crush on–right after I’ve said something charming and adorable and funny, and before I turn tired and boring and run out of things to say. I wanted to freeze my writing with my Maxwell-and-the-rat post, hold onto it so everyone would think that everything I write is always that perfectly crafted.

The thing to do in this situation is to just sit down and write that next thing. Get over the hump, break through the resistance.

So I sat down, and wrote about going to a vision board party. I liked this post. It was honest. Open. There were some funny parts, and a pretty kickass playlist. It wasn’t the most amazing thing I’ve ever written, would ever write. There were lots of reasons to scrap it (there always are) and they all seemed valid (they always do). Like, posting my vision board felt like taking a picture of my journal entries and publishing it. Like, nothing spectacular or miraculous happened. Adam Levine didn’t show up at the party and make out with me or anything.

But it was a solid post, and the most important thing was to get it down. Disregard the reasons to hold off and wait for some elusive bigger, better idea. Just write the next thing. And then keep writing.

The longer I go without writing, especially after writing a piece I’ve fallen madly in love with, the harder it gets to write that next thing. The more of a big deal it becomes. The more I need to have some fabulous idea or riveting story or life-changing lesson. The more I get bogged down and stuck, rejecting every possible topic that is anything less than off-the-charts incredible. The more I don’t write.

For writing to not become a Big Deal looming dauntingly in front of me, it has to be a regular part of my life, something I am consistently doing. Even on those days when I’m not sure what I’m going to say, and in those moments when I question if I have anything to say.

Writing my next story or post or kernel of an idea, I write my way through resistance. Through good enough writing. And I write my way back to writing that makes my pulse race, lights me up, gives me chills. To the best thing I’ve ever written or will ever write. I fall madly in love again. And then I keep writing some more…

My Vision Board, Sans Perfectionism (and Plus Playlist)

12 Jun

My vision boardThis weekend, that fateful day finally arrived: my return to self-help. In the form of my friend’s vision board party that I excitedly, yet with some trepidation, RSVP-ed “Yes” to. Would I be triumphant, happily reunited with collaging as if we’d spent no time apart, and the past seven years since my last vision board were just an insignificant blip? I had my doubts.

As the day approached, collaging anxiety crept in. Plus, I had volunteered to make the party playlist and was starting to feel the burden of responsibility. I felt like I had to prep. Go shopping for an array of magazines that represented all the areas I wanted to cover on my vision board. Swing by a few home furnishings stores to pick up catalogs. Buy art supplies. Decide on a vision board base–should I put everything together on one huge piece of poster board, or break up my collages by category on scrapbook pages with labels? Then I’d have to print out category labels. And I couldn’t just bring labels for myself, I’d need to bring extras for the rest of the guests. I’d started a file folder a while ago of images I liked and wanted to use in a future vision board. But I couldn’t find the file anywhere, and felt like I’d lost part of my vision. A few days before the party, I made the mistake of looking at the last vision board I made seven years ago, pre-self-help detox, and it was A-MA-ZING (categorized scrapbook pages, labeled). A sheer thing of artistic beauty, I couldn’t believe I had created it. There was no way I could live up to my collaging past.

And then there was the playlist–all the new songs I wanted to buy on iTunes, and how to organize them for optimum flow.

What happened was this: my perfectionism was taking over, turning a fun afternoon with friends, glitter, and glue sticks into an oppressive list of tasks and To Dos. So I decided to scrap everything–all the planning and preparation (it wasn’t even my party!), and just do the absolute minimum. As if I was cramming for a final, I quickly made the playlist at 11pm the night before with nary a newly purchased song, or a second thought the order. I wanted the music to be uplifting, so I just did one round of edits where I stripped out all the codependent love songs about needing someone else to be able to live or breathe.

An hour before the party, I picked up three magazines–a yoga one, a home one, and a vacation one–and found the ideal compromise of half-sheets of poster board at an art supply store. I let go of trying to locate my image file, and embraced the idea of creating my vision afresh in the moment. Pounding an iced coffee for sustenance, I was ready to collage. Imperfectly, dammit.

Me with my vision boardAt the party, my friend read a few vision boarding suggestions before we got started, like keeping some white space in your collage to leave room for other things to come in, and so it doesn’t look chaotic and clutterred. Flipping through magazines, I still doubted my artistic abilities, but reminded myself that this didn’t have to be the end-all-be-all vision board, just one attempt.

I was a little behind, only on Phase 2 (deciding which images to use) when everyone else was on Phase 3 (gluing), but somehow mine came together quickly in the end. While I’d thought my vision board would be significantly career focused, and had even brought cut-outs of the New York Times Best Seller list and logos for places I wanted to write or teach, I tucked them underneath my poster board before I started and none of them made it on. Mostly my vision board wound up being about joy, relaxation, playfulness, fun–and a balanced life. And by the way, I love it.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that my playlist was a huge hit. Someone even said I should make playlists professionally, if that’s even a thing. Other than like, DJ. And someone else asked me if I’d publish the playlist, which was the inspiration for this blog post. Having recently met Maxwell, it’s a little Maxwell intensive. But as I told my friend who was hosting the party, it was a major accomplishment that my playlist wasn’t just: “Maxwell CDs.” So here it is, codependent love song free, and guaranteed to uplift!

Vision Board Party Playlist
1) “Imagine Me” – Kirk Franklin
2) “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)” – Maxwell
3) “Superwoman” – Alicia Keys
4) “Beautiful” – Christina Aguilera
5) “Brand New Day” – Joshua Radin
6) “Declaration (This Is It!)” – Kirk Franklin
7) “A Star Is Born” – Jay-Z feat. J. Cole
8) “Closer” – Goapele
9) “Best Of My Love” – The Emotions
10) “Seasons of Love” – Original Broadway Cast, RENT
11) “Just Fine” – Mary J. Blige
12) “F**ckin’ Perfect” – Vicci Martinez and Niki Dawson on The Voice
13) “Party” – Beyoncé feat. André 3000
14) “Over the Rainbow” – Glee Cast Version
15) “Pretty Wings” – Maxwell
16) “My Love” – The-Dream & Mariah Carey
17) “September” – Kirk Franklin
18) “Ganapati” – Girish
19) “Guru Brahma” – Jai Uttal & The Pagan Love Orchestra
20) “People Everyday” – Arrested Development
21) “Lovely Day” – Bill Withers
22) “Lifetime” – Maxwell

What songs would be on your Vision Board Party Playlist?

How Something Really Bad Can Turn Into Something Really Good–Oh, and Holy Shit, I Met Maxwell!

9 Jun

Maxwell GAP ad

Maxwell in an ad for The GAP

Last week I was racing across the street in flip-flops when, before I could stop it, my left foot landed on a pulverized rat. This was upsetting. Standing on the curb taking deep breaths, I decided to turn around and take a second look. Maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was.

Closer inspection revealed that I did indeed just step in rat guts with nothing more than a thin flip-flopped sole between me and them. Trying to stifle my gag reflex, I peered down at what had once been a rat but was now just a flattened layer of mush pressed into the concrete, a tail and one foot the only discernible features that remained.

Walking away, I tried to convince myself that this was not a big deal. Maybe I’d actually only grazed a sliver of the rat, or missed it entirely. A few blocks later I gathered the courage to look at the bottom of my shoe. There was black gunk on the upper left corner, and some reaching up along the left side of my shoe, centimeters from my bare pinky toe.

Not a big deal, not a big deal, I thought as I practiced Lamaze breathing. But I knew that there was no amount of scrubbing and disinfecting I could do that would make me feel OK about stepping foot back into my apartment in these shoes. However microscopic, I would never step soundly again knowing there could be rat entrails on my floor.

I looked down at my flip-flops. I loved these flip-flops. I’d gotten them at The GAP last summer so they probably didn’t carry them anymore. They were super-comfortable and the perfect neutral shade to go with everything. And I was super-broke and not excited about shelling out money for any unanticipated expenses. But the ratty flip-flops had to go.

On my way to meet a friend for coffee, I thought about cancelling and immediately heading to The GAP for my replacement. But he was going through a hard time and needed my help so I felt like I had to show up. I spent an hour with my friend, silently praying that I wasn’t at that very moment contracting the Bubonic plague. I’d planned to go to an event afterwards, but there was no way I could sit through even another five minutes with this rat on my foot, so I changed my plan and walked in the opposite direction towards the closest GAP.

Why does this shit always happen to me? I thought. Who the fuck ever steps in a smooshed rat?!? It wasn’t enough to feel sorry for myself on my own, so I called a friend.

“I’m on the way to buy new shoes,” I said. “Because I just stepped in a fucking rat!!!”

Which was when I walked past a guy who looked a lot like my favorite singer, Maxwell, but it was kind of hard to tell because he had a full beard and was wearing a baseball cap. I smiled, and he smiled back.

I kept walking, but I had to take one more look to make sure so I turned around. He was looking at me (checking me out?), AND IT WAS TOTALLY HIM!

“Gotta go, bye!” I said to my friend, hanging up. She texted me right away, “Feel better, the Universe just wants you to have new shoes!”

“The Universe just wants me to meet Maxwell!” I wanted to text back, but I had more pressing things to attend to first.

“Maxwell?” I asked, and he nodded yes.

“This is so crazy. I was just buying shoes,” he said, nodding at the shopping bags in his hands. “I can’t believe you recognized me.”

Ohmygodohmygodohmygod!

“I’m Max,” he said, reaching out his hand.

Holyshitholyshitholyshit!

“I’m Jen,” I said, shaking his hand.

Let me semi-digress for a moment here to say that if I could meet one person in the whole entire world, it would be Maxwell. That I’ve been very vocal about my love for him for a long time (as evidenced in this, this, and this blog post), and went through a brief period in 2009 where I proactively hoped I’d meet him.

I was shaking and totally overwhelmed so I said, “I can’t believe this! I’m shaking! I’m so overwhelmed!”

He stood there smiling as I traced my love for him through the years, beginning when my first roommate in New York City introduced to me to Urban Hang Suite in 1998 to the present. Some highlights included when I took a half-vacation day from work three years ago to see him perform on a morning television show and told my boss I was taking a “Maxwell Half-Day;” how I went to see him in concert at Madison Square Garden by myself because none of my friends would go with me, and in the elevator at home that night I ran into my neighbor who was coming back from that same concert and I discovered that another die-hard Maxwell fan lived a mere four doors down from me; and how I listened to his music in my cube so much at an old job that whenever I came back from being on vacation, if an issue of TIME or People Magazine had come out while I was gone with an article about Maxwell in it, my boss and coworkers would leave a copy of it on my chair. I talk fast, so I was able to cover 14 years’ worth of stories in a relatively short period of time.

Me and Maxwell“You made my day, you made my day,” Maxwell kept saying, and hugging me. Multiple times. Needless to say, I no longer cared that I was standing in rat.

“I put your songs on so many uplifting playlists!” I said, clutching my heart. “Your music has brought me so much joy!”

“You made my day,” he said, and hugged me. Again.

After Max and I parted ways, I found my way to The GAP in my post-Maxwell haze. I couldn’t believe that they had the exact same style and color as my beloved flip-flops, circa 2011–the second miracle of the night! Unfortunately, they didn’t have my size, so they directed me to the GAP on 5th Avenue which allegedly would.

Walking into the second store, I pointed to my feet. “Where are these flip-flips?” I asked a woman who worked there.

“We don’t have those,” she said.

“But the GAP I just went to said you’d have them in stock here.”

“This is Bebe,” she said.

“Oh! I’m so sorry! I just met Maxwell!” I said, by way of explanation.

“I LOVE MAXWELL!!!!” she squealed. “I walked by him once but I would have had to leave my little brother in the middle of the street in oncoming traffic to say hi to him so…I didn’t,” she said, with a look of remorse that conveyed this had been a difficult decision, and she wasn’t sure she’d made the right choice.

“He’s my husband!” she exclaimed.

“Mine, too!”

Our sisterhood cemented, we hugged goodbye and she wished me luck finding my shoes.

Then I stumbled into the actual GAP a few doors down, and while they didn’t have my size either, they assured me that their Chelsea location would. That was the next stop on my shoe mission, and I found flip-flops in the exact color, style, and size to replicate my beloved pair. And–miracle number three!–they were on sale for only ten dollars! I put them on right away, and tossed my contaminated pair in the nearest trash can.

As soon as I got home, I called a friend to give her the play-by-play of my night.

“The best part of that story is the rat!” she said laughing.

Having lived through it, I was pretty sure the best part was Maxwell.

“We give thanks for the rat who gave his life,” she said solemnly.

“–so that I could meet Maxwell,” I finished.

*******************************

Stepping in a pulverized rat on a New York City street is an unbelievably crazy bad thing that is almost statistically impossible. Running into Maxwell on a New York City street is an unbelievably crazy good thing that is almost statistically impossible. Which just goes to show you, sometimes a terrible thing can change your course and put you in exactly the right place for a wonderful thing that you would have never experienced had you not had rat guts on your foot.

The catch is, to fully experience the miracles that can unfold and surprise you in life, you can’t get attached and expect them. You just have to be present to what is, present enough to notice when you walk by Maxwell in a full beard and a baseball cap. And not get attached to the bad things either, feeling sorry for yourself and lamenting why they happened. There’s a saying that goes, “Don’t give up five minutes before the miracle,” and I’d amend that to be, “Don’t give up five minutes before you meet Maxwell.”

So sometimes, when an unbelievably terrible thing happens, an unbelievably amazing thing could be right around the corner if you just keep your head up, and keep walking.

Going Home

31 May

Train station

I went home to visit my parents in the small suburban town I grew up in this past weekend. On Sunday, my Mom and I planned to go out to lunch at a tiny cafe on one of the two streets that comprise the downtown area. She told me that the Memorial Day Parade was going to be going on, and I was annoyed.

“I don’t want to get trapped downtown,” I said, worrying that the parade and its blocked off roads would mean her car would get stuck in its parking spot. “Trapped” may have been extreme and “downtown” an exaggeration given that it was only a five-minute walk from her house, but I had an agenda and I didn’t want to waste time: it was lunch with my Mom, then a quick dash to a nearby town for a mandatory Starbucks run, and then dinner at my Dad and Stepmom’s. Also, I was taking advantage of the luxury of suburban home washer/dryers and wanted to squeeze in a couple loads of laundry in between Starbucks and dinner.

While we were eating lunch, the parade started to go by in front of the restaurant we were at, and I kind of half paid attention and half didn’t. Afterwards, as we walked outside and were heading to her car, a group of bagpipers and drummers marched by. Entranced by the music and the beat of the drums, I told my Mom to stop, and that I wanted to stay and watch the parade for a little while. It was mesmerizing, looking the musicians and then the people driving by in convertibles and fire engines, honking and waving, and I got caught up in it, cheering for the police and firemen. We saw the father of one of the kids from my toddler playgroup who I grew up with standing at the side of the road, and said hi.

“The parade used to be bigger,” my Mom remarked, “and there used to be more of a crowd.”

I glanced around at the sparse bystanders and remembered being a little kid, and the Memorial Day Parade being a huge deal. I remembered the year it was the biggest deal of all, when I was four-years-old and in the parade with two of my nursery school buddies, wearing a brown dress with flowers on it and a floppy matching bonnet, drifting down the street in a baby blue convertible with a Co-Op Nursery School sign hanging over the side, smiling and waving to the crowd.

And other years, watching the cheerleaders and dance team march by to the beat of the high school band, wearing the coolest short shorts ever with yellow jackets, the school mascot, embroidered on the butt. Dreaming of the day I’d be a cheerleader, or on the dance team, marching in the parade in my own yellow jacket short shorts.

“Jenny Garam!” someone yelled, and I snapped back into today to see one of the firemen in the parade waving at me. It was a guy I went to high school with who was a few years older than me, and I smiled and waved back. I felt at home, and comforted by being from a small town where even though I hadn’t lived here for almost 20 years, someone in the parade still knew who I was, shouted my name, and waved.

It reminded me that I’m more than who I think I am right now. I’m bigger and more expansive than my worries, disappointments, struggles, and fears–worries about being broke and what actions I should take, disappointments from all the personal and professional rejections and life not turning out how I’d hoped or planned or assumed it would for me, struggles to make ends meet, pursue a creative path, cope with my obsessive thoughts, grasp onto shreds of serenity, and fears about what’s going to happen (or go wrong) next. I have this whole history, and memories, and hopes and dreams from when I was a child and teenager that are still alive in me somewhere, as much as they get drowned out in my day-to-day, 36-year-old, Brooklyn life.

I have all these other experiences and stories that look very different from my life now. As the fireman walked by waving, memories of when I knew him 20 years ago flashed into my mind. How daring I used to be, the crazy parties I went to and all the drinking I did. These days my life is a lot tamer, and usually too tame–I rarely drink which isn’t a problem, but I barely go out, which is. And I’m never the last person at the bar with the craziest stories of all anymore; I’m the first person to go home who hears about the stories the next day.

Thinking back to who I used to be, I remembered hanging out in the firehouse late one night with a group of guys, some of whom were volunteer firefighters, when one of them accidentally set off the fire alarm. The big, loud one. I remembered a substitute teacher from my high school who lived next door rushing in, angry and appalled. I remembered how soon afterwards, I learned that my town’s Fire Chief called a fire department meeting to address “the underage girl drinking in the firehouse,” and how I was mostly mortified, but also a little bit proud of my infamy.

I have this storyline that I was unpopular in high school, cast out, rejected, and alone. That I was invisible and didn’t matter. This is part of a larger narrative that goes, I’m still invisible, I still don’t matter. Except it wasn’t true when I was growing up; for most of my life my inner reality has been very different from my outer reality, and I can’t seem to make them match up. The fireman I went to high school with, shouting my name from the ranks of the parade, reminded me that I wasn’t invisible then. And that reminded me that my overarching storyline isn’t true today either–I’m actually not invisible now, and I do matter.

After the parade, I went to Starbucks. On the drive home, I wound my way through the hilly streets, past the house I grew up in that my Mom moved out of 14 years ago, past my high school best friends’ houses, past my high school, the parks, and the homes I used to walk by every day. I skipped doing laundry and relaxed, opting for a Real Housewives marathon instead. I hopped off my speeding agenda, and slowed down. I can do this when I go home in ways that I can never even come close to in grown-up life, in Brooklyn.

Every time I go home, I feel like I’m on some kind of excavation mission, unearthing shiny parts of myself that got covered up and clouded over with rushing and stressing and loss. Going home, I feel, finally, separate from the things that weigh me down daily. I feel at home and, at last, like me.

I Want to Believe Again, Or Why I’m Ready to Go Back to Self-Help

15 May

Self-help books

I used to believe. Like really believe. In self-help. I read self-help books, took classes and seminars, recited affirmations, wrote daily gratitude lists, made and listened to inspirational playlists, and much, much more. Until, one fateful October night two and half years ago, I overdosed on self-help and had a total meltdown.

I joke with a friend that this was what my life used to be like: me, crying in heap on my floor, wearing ripped pajamas and surrounded by self-help books. But it’s not so much of a joke; that kind of actually is what my life used to be like. I worked really really really hard via every self-help avenue available to me to improve my life. But after years, I was still a broke, date-less, depressed administrative assistant, plus I was exhausted from compulsively reading about how everyone else was rising up out of their Dark Nights of the Soul to transform their lives and achieve greatness, and depleted from all the exercises and activities that were supposed to help me do the same. Except I seemed to be permanently stuck in my Dark Night of the Soul.

Sick of lying in a crying heap on my floor, I did the only thing I could–I shunned the self-help that had done me so wrong. I stopped perusing the Self Improvement section at Barnes & Noble, and if I accidentally caught a glimpse of some stylish, smiling, smug self-proclaimed guru who had it alllllllll together on the cover of some cheerful book promising me 5 easy steps to a new, improved me, I shuddered and turned away as fast as possible.

My gratitude lists had become an exercise in OCD and Compare and Despair. At the height of my gratitude, I wrote out 40-50 things I was grateful for a day, emailed my list to about 40 women, and received daily lists back from most of them. While I desperately wanted to be not-single, not-broke, not living in a studio apartment, and not an administrative assistant, I’d read others’ gratitude lists about the thoughtful things their husbands did for them, or how much they were enjoying a new duplex or phenomenal career success, and get plunged into a deep depression about how much of a failure I was. As part of my self-help detox, I gratefully abstained from writing and reading gratitude lists.

Earlier this year, someone invited me to join an email gratitude group. I had to decline, and explain my gratitude list trauma. Last month a friend told me that she was thinking of throwing a vision board party and asked if I’d be interested in going.

“Thanks for asking,” I replied, “but I’m recovering from an addiction to self-help so I can’t really collage.”

But here’s the thing. Before self-help failed me so miserably, it used to work. That’s why I believed in it. And it felt so good and hopeful to believe. Before my gratitude lists spiraled out of control, they brought me joy, and made me feel connected to and supported by the women I exchanged them with. To acknowledge what I was grateful for, to hope that things can be different, better, not always so hard, to have a vision and believe that it can come true, is an amazing thing. Before self-help made me feel like a complete failure as a human being for not being further along, having this kind of belief and hope had initially helped me enjoy my life as it was, and also brought more good things to me, which then made me feel even more hopeful and joyful.

After my self-help overdose, I threw the baby out with the bath water. I became so averse to all things self-help, and the expansiveness I used to have, pre-meltdown, contracted into cynicism and thinking that everything was nauseating bullshit. But now, two and half years later, I’m ready to shed that cynicism. I’ve been craving the hope and possibility that belief brings.

I recently picked up a scrapbook I made seven years ago during my self-help heyday. It was overflowing with my lists and visions and collages and dreams. Tentatively, I flipped through the pages. Some things in my vision had miraculously come true, like being a writer who writes for websites and magazines about the exact topics I write about today: dating, yoga, and spirituality. Some of the things in my vision had not (see: husband, child, brownstone, abundant bank account balance). In all fairness, though, it was a 10 year vision; I still have three years left to manifest the rest, so check back with me in 2015.

Page after page, whether they contained parts of my vision that have materialized or pieces of it that went by the wayside, my 29-year-old enthusiasm, hope, and belief leapt out at me at every turn. Holding the book in my lap, I felt like even though that hopeful girl may have been lost for the past several years, she still existed somewhere within me and I could find her again.

I also felt like parts of the scrapbook were somewhat hyper and manic. If I resurrect the me who believes in self-help, I’d have to do it differently today, with some discernment. Maybe I lost the all-encompassing, absolute belief of my younger days, but that’s what led me into destructive magical thinking. Instead, now I’d want to have a belief that’s more grounded and stable, that won’t mutate into desperation and despair, that won’t leave me crying in a heap on my floor.

Last month, after a long period (years?) of constantly ruminating about everything that did or would go wrong and stewing in catastrophic thinking, I felt compelled to start focusing on things I was grateful for. In list form. I started small, taking a baby step back into gratitude, sending my daily list of only about 10 things I’m grateful for to one friend who sends me her list in return. It felt so good to sit at my computer first thing in the morning and write my list. Like returning to an old friend. Who’d I’d forgiven for betraying me. No hard feelings. Maybe I’ll expand my list to include more things or more people, but for now, this feels right.

Last week, my friend who’d mentioned her vision board party sent out an email confirming the date. And I said yes! I even volunteered to make the inspirational playlist for the party! This feels good and right, too. After being so skittish about self-help for so long, I can’t believe I’m actually going to be collaging my vision again, and I really can’t believe how excited I am about the party and my playlist (I’m accepting any song suggestions in the comments below).

There are still some things about self-help that make me want to barf. Like those books with their extravagant promises (provided you do all the exercises and follow all the tips) that convey the message that you’re not good enough as you are and have to DO this, that, and the other thing to have more and be better. Like the stylish, smiling, smug self-proclaimed gurus raving about how AMAZING their lives are and that (for several thousand dollars), yours can be, too!

But I don’t have to throw it all out. Because other things about self-help, like the hope, enthusiasm, energy, and optimism it can provide, bring me joy. I’m finally ready, in my own grounded way, to welcome it back into my life. To write gratitude lists. To collage. To make the playlists and read the books. I’m finally ready to believe again.