Archive | May, 2012

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.

Release Obstacles WRITE NOW Writing Workshop on June 9th!

7 May

I’m teaching a Writeous Chicks one-day writing workshop for women on Saturday, June 9th! Release Obstacles WRITE NOW! will take place from 1:00pm – 4:30pm in Midtown Manhattan, and I am offering an Early Chick Registration Discount if you sign up before May 23rd. This workshop will focus on breaking through blocks in your writing and your life, using your obstacles to spark your creativity, and finding your voice.

Click here for more information.