Olive: our anxiety

 The FRAZZLED early days of dog-motherhood

The FRAZZLED early days of dog-motherhood

When they brought her around the corner of the rescue organization, the first thing I noticed was her protruding ribs.

But this malnourished two-year-old dog looked at me and her whole body wiggled. It was like she said “oh, thank god. You made it.”

Moments later, when my husband entered the room, she said something quite different to him. She said something like, “fuck you, I will kill you dead.” She initiated what we would come to affectionately call “full-on Cujo mode.” She tucked her ears back, barked and snarled while backing up.

“Oh, yeah. She doesn’t really like men,” the rescue organization lady said.

Jeremy immediately dropped to the ground, palms up, and said with confidence - “it’s okay, she’ll love me in a minute.”

And because he knows these sorts of things, she totally did.

Thirty minutes later, the three of us piled into the car and went home.

And we were happy because, since the loss of Grace more than a year earlier, we had shuffled through life with a dog-shaped hole in our hearts. Olive filled that space beautifully. But it might have been worth thinking about the implications of her little Cujo moment.

Olive was anxious, timid, and haunted by her past abuse. She has had very few experiences of the world, other than having far too many litters of puppies for her young age. Fire hydrants, flags, and statues were terrifying. She made no distinction between house guests and intruders, so anyone daring to step onto our porch would send her into a fear-rage. When I walked down the driveway to get the mail, she cried hysterically as if her death was imminent. She ripped the spines off my books. If we put her in a crate, she would bang her tail against the side so hard that it would spurt blood, covering the walls like a horror film. When I tried to pad the crate by pinning a quilt to the sides, she ate the safety pins.

"She's so cute," my friends said. "How's it going?"

I would smile and say "She's a handful." And I'd try not to cry.

We wanted a challenge. We said that to anyone who would listen while we were looking for a dog. We were experienced dog owners and we were ready for a dog who was difficult. We expected that would be an older dog with health issues, but we kept saying we wanted the harder-to-place rescue. And we got just what we asked for.

The last five months have been filled with love and sadness. Of heartbreak. Of joy. Of learning and of failures. At times, I wondered if we took on a dog who is too much to handle. If her anxiety and fears are beyond my capabilities -- because they trigger all of mine. I laid in bed and held Jeremy's hand in the dark while I choked back my shame and guilt and I whispered: "what if we made a mistake?"

But as I train Olive, I find myself in training.

We use the phrase "leave it" to mean a bunch of things. It basically means I don’t like what you are doing with your face. It could be sniffing at a rotting bird carcass, or barking at the neighbor kids. "Leave it" means - stop that immediately and make a different choice. 

One night, I was spinning. It was 3 AM and I was obsessing about how Olive's terrible separation anxiety was going to mean that Jeremy and I could never travel again. I'd never again go out to a movie. I extrapolated to the extent that I no longer had a career because I was not able to leave my house. (Nevermind that I work from home - this was not a time for logic.)

3 AM has a way of creating a singular panic within your heart. The half-awake, inky blackness seeps in and makes any number of irrational things inevitable. At a certain point, my wiser self woke up, stepped to the forefront and said, This is silly. We need to stop. So I said, out loud, LEAVE IT. It's time to stop what I’m doing with my face. Or, rather, that unreliable narrator behind my face - my mind.

Leave it, Lisa.

Leave the irrational thoughts and the spinning and the obsessing that is not productive. Leave the repetitive, negative thoughts. Put down the fear like the rotting bird carcass that it is.

Leave it.

And go lie down.

In the past few months, we have recruited the help of some incredibly talented dog trainers, and Olive has made fantastic progress. She is calmer, more confident, and less fearful. Her separation anxiety has dissipated and she now knows that I always come back to her. I see how clearly she reflects my anxiety right back at me. Olive needs me to temper my fears so that I can show her how to manage hers. I need to be brave so she can relax and let me be the Alpha of our lives. She is forcing me to calmly step up and take charge.

We are learning how to play. How to find the courage to go on adventures. And we always come back home where it is safe and warm with good food and cozy beds.

Sometimes what seems like a mistake is actually a gift. Because this is what love does: it builds you up and it breaks you down to the core of what you need to deal with. It holds up a mirror and shows you the scariest depths and most beautiful heights, all at once.

And when you get to witness it all and also get to be the recipient of cuddles and unconditional love? You're one lucky dog.

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Revisiting: Unpopular authenticity: so…you don’t have kids?

*I'm working hard on my new book and finding myself with little time for new blog posts. I decided to bring back some older posts, that you might have missed... Hope you enjoy! -------------------

I was shamed by a nine-year-old the other day.

She stood there, hands on hips, glaring up at me. She'd just asked me if I had kids. I told her that I did not.

"Why?"

"I never felt that was the right choice for me."

She told me that my life was boring and sad.

It was actually pretty cute.

What took the sting out of her statement was the fact that grownups have been shaming me over this for quite some time. Sometimes they attempt to lessen the blow by saying something along the lines of - "you do what is right for you, but you should know that becoming a mother makes your soul expand and you become capable of love bigger than you've never imagined and it's the most valuable thing you could ever do with your life."

I always wonder how they know how big my love is.

People who decide not to be parents hear this a lot. (And actually, there are increasing numbers of us Childfree folks.) I've been questioned and cajoled and told that I'll change my mind. There seems to be this assumption that I've not quite thought this through, but the questions posed are always ones that I've asked myself a hundred times. I've never met a Childfree person who has come to the decision haphazardly.

Sometimes when people decide to say what they really think, they call me selfish and say I'm not really a woman. I'm still confused about why anyone cares if my husband and I have kids or not, but it sure seems like a bunch of them do.

I like kids. Even the ones who stand with hands on hips and call me boring and sad.

But in my 37 years of life, and 10 years of marriage, I've never once felt the ticking-clock twinge of wanting my own children. (And believe me, I've held babies and smelled their powdery heads, trying desperately to kickstart it, because I felt like I was defective.) But there isn't anything wrong with me. It's just not my thing. I'm also not interested in having a boat. I like boats. I'm sure it's super fun to have a boat. I'm happy for other people who enjoy their boats. I just don't feel the need to have my own.

And yes, I am aware that children are not boats - they are even better than boats and having a child brings much to one's life. I know it changes everything and brings buckets of joy and does all sorts of other things that I will never understand. I believe all of that. I've seen it in action.

But raising children is an incredibly important job and it just doesn’t make sense to hand it to someone like me who doesn’t want it. If I were half as interested in having a child as I am in volunteering at an animal shelter, I would do it. It’s like choosing a President who is fonder of ceramics than politics. Who is that good for?

If you choose to grow and learn and leave your legacy by having a kid – I think that's awesome. And while you do that, I'll work on improving the world that kid will eventually inherit. That just seems like good tag team long-term planning. It's easy to imagine that childfree folks spend their entire lives thinking only of themselves, sleeping in late and getting drunk at brunch. But I promise that I'm doing my part to contribute to the world, just in a different way than parents. (I'll skip the part where I list all the important, non-selfish things I do - it'll make me sound boastful and more than a little defensive.)

But the real reason I'm writing about this is because it's indicative of an issue I keep seeing everywhere, something that causes a lot of suffering. I know moms who work outside the home and moms who don't. Both have been bashed and abused for that decision. I know homeschoolers and Montessori lovers and public school parents - all of whom feel they have to defend their decisions. And the judgment doesn't stop with parenting issues. I know painters and sales people and jazz singers and almost all of them feel like they need to justify what they do with their lives because someone is always waiting in the wings to tell them they are doing the wrong thing.

There are so many critics out there and we tend to internalize the disapproval and feel like we are constantly failing. Why does it matter that my husband and I don't have kids? It doesn't. It's not really that interesting, but people keep asking about it so I'm happy to discuss it.

Why does it matter what personal decisions any of us make for ourselves? I wonder what the world would be like if we assumed that everyone was doing their best. What if people made different decisions and we didn't see that as a threat to the validity of our own choices? What if we kept our eyes on our own papers - our own lives and families - and stopped bashing our neighbor for not buying organic? Things would be incredibly dull if we were all the same. What if we celebrated the fact that life is not homogenous and realized that everyone is doing what they needed to do to wade through this challenging world?

Because when it comes down to it, if you're spending your time criticizing someone else's personal choices, it just makes you seem insecure about your own life.

As for me, I like being able to act as the designated driver for the Girl’s Nights when my mommy friends can let loose. It seems that my “alternative lifestyle” has its perks for all, but most importantly, I get to live my life authentically -- even if it's hard to explain that to a deeply offended nine-year-old.

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My top 10 (anti-fairy tale) relationship tips

14233102_10209362119866558_7897483690873445041_n We recently passed the twenty-year anniversary of the day my husband and I met. Our eyes met across a room and I knew immediately that I would spend the rest of my life with him.

Except that's not at all what happened.

Actually, if you ask him about the evening we met, he'll tell you that his first impression of me was that I looked very young and very scared. (He's right. I was 17, and we were out with a bunch of people at a crowded movie opening. See: introvert.)

And if you ask me about the night we met? I'll feel like a big jerk as I'll be compelled to admit that I don't remember meeting him.

But we must have met because suddenly we were friends.  And for years we hung out, we went to Rock 'n Bowl and Disneyland. He let my boyfriend borrow a nice shirt for a premiere. I passed his girlfriend toilet paper under the bathroom stall at The Cheesecake Factory. There were break-ups and get-back-togethers and more break-ups. I complained to him about all the alcoholic pretty boys with private planes, mommy issues and little concern with ditching me at a bar.

And then one day, after being friends for four years, something changed with me and J - and it was more.

I kind of wish it had been love at first sight, but the vast majority of the time, the fairy tale doesn't look the way you thought it would. Mostly, the fairy tale is bullshit.

The most fairy tale thing about us is that we are happy. Someone just told me it made her happy to be around us because it's clear that J and I really like each other. She assumed we were newlyweds.

We are kind of like that. I automatically grin when his car pulls into the driveway. He still opens doors for me and watches my ass walk up the stairs. But it's also a real relationship. He re-washes the dishes because I am lazy about it and leave crusty stuff in the corners of the pan and we disagree about appropriate thermostat temperature and how much MSNBC is reasonable. Marriage is a partnership. If both people have personalities and opinions and an affinity for honesty, that partnership is going to have challenges.

We work at it. We don't fall for these rom-com ideas of what marriage should be. And even in the moments when we disagree about something fundamental or when it seems like it might be fun to go get all fluttery-heart, weak-kneed with someone else - we have this foundation of respect for our relationship and the life we have created together.

Sometimes people ask me for advice and while I have a history of spectacular failures in my past, the last sixteen years of partnership with J have taught me a thing or two. The first step is ditching these romanticized ideas about relationships, then we can get to the real stuff.

Go to bed mad Life is not a sitcom; not everything can be neatly wrapped up in twenty-two minutes. Everyone needs space to think things out and gain some perspective. Rarely is one o'clock in the morning the best time to find a resolution for real-life problems.

Start seeing other people It's never good to have your partner be your only outlet for social interaction. Don't isolate. Don't get lost. Going out with my friends is not frivolous; it's essential to my mental wellness.

Don’t talk about it  I have to write things out. My mouth moves faster than my brain and writing helps me be clear, complete and less whipped into an emotional frenzy. Sometimes I give him the letter, sometimes that's not necessary because writing it down is actually all I needed.

Make sure neither one of you gets what you want Compromise is key. I try to not get stuck with this idea about being right and winning. The real win is a peaceful and fulfilling relationship, even if it means bending a bit and watching yet another Jason Statham movie.

Talk behind his back Venting can be really helpful and an honest reaction to the situation is invaluable. I have specific, time-tested friends for this; people who will shoot straight and won’t go blabbing my business. I also make sure I am not talking to my friend instead of talking to my guy.

Be evasive Sometimes, I need to change the subject. For in-depth issues, sometimes a break from the discussion is in order. Doing something fun together that we both enjoy is entirely invigorating and offers important bigger-picture perspective. For us, that often means yoga. When we go to class together, we feel more connected.

Talk about yourself a lot Sadly, he's not a mind reader. If I need something that I am not getting from the relationship, I have to actually verbalize that. Assuming that he “should” know never works well. Then I need to reciprocate by asking him what he needs. And I need to actually listen.

Treat your partner like they are a cop Being polite goes a long way. I say please when I ask for something. I say thank you when he is helpful. I suck it up and apologize when I’ve done something wrong. These daily decencies tend to go out the window when you’ve been together awhile. Loving kindness and gratitude are wonderful spiritual practices.

Pretend it didn’t happen At a certain point, some issues just need to be released. I mean seriously released, not to be dug up again two years later. In all relationships, if I can forgive, I do my best to forgive completely. It's more healing for me than for the person I'm forgiving - it's really for my own benefit. Acceptance is incredibly powerful. It's not the same as condoning someone's actions, it's simply the act of not allowing it to have power over your life anymore.

Lie down. The oxytocin and endorphins that are activated during sexual activity are great for the mental state. It lowers blood pressure and reduces stress. Sex clearly isn’t just physical, it’s about maintaining and strengthening the emotional connections with a partner. Oh yeah, and it's fun.

We lucked out, J and me.  Two decades into this relationship, I've noticed that he turned into an even better guy than the one I married. We have both changed a lot, but we changed for the better - we changed together.

I used to think that the most romantic thing in the world was falling in love. But I've learned that there is something even more romantic than that fluttery heart, weak-kneed stuff: choosing to stay in love.

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So...you don't have kids?

I was shamed by a nine-year-old the other day. She stood there, hands on hips, glaring up at me. She'd just asked me if I had kids. I told her that I did not.

"Why?"

"I never felt that was the right choice for me."

She told me that my life was boring and sad.

It was actually pretty cute.

What took the sting out of her statement was the fact that grownups have been shaming me over this for quite some time. Sometimes they attempt to lessen the blow by saying something along the lines of - "you do what is right for you, but you should know that becoming a mother makes your soul expand and you become capable of love bigger than you've never imagined and it's the most valuable thing you could ever do with your life."

I always wonder how they know how big my love is.

People who decide not to be parents hear this a lot. (And actually, there are increasing numbers of us Childfree folks.) I've been questioned and cajoled and told that I'll change my mind. There seems to be this assumption that I've not quite thought this through, but the questions posed are always ones that I've asked myself a hundred times. I've never met a Childfree person who has come to the decision haphazardly.

Sometimes when people decide to say what they really think, they call me selfish and say I'm not really a woman. I'm still confused about why anyone cares if my husband and I have kids or not, but it sure seems like a bunch of them do.

I like kids. Even the ones who stand with hands on hips and call me boring and sad.

But in my 37 years of life, and 10 years of marriage, I've never once felt the ticking-clock twinge of wanting my own children. (And believe me, I've held babies and smelled their powdery heads, trying desperately to kickstart it, because I felt like I was defective.) But there isn't anything wrong with me. It's just not my thing. I'm also not interested in having a boat. I like boats. I'm sure it's super fun to have a boat. I'm happy for other people who enjoy their boats. I just don't feel the need to have my own.

And yes, I am aware that children are not boats - they are even better than boats and having a child brings much to one's life. I know it changes everything and brings buckets of joy and does all sorts of other things that I will never understand. I believe all of that. I've seen it in action.

But raising children is an incredibly important job and it just doesn’t make sense to hand it to someone like me who doesn’t want it. If I were half as interested in having a child as I am in volunteering at an animal shelter, I would do it. It’s like choosing a President who is fonder of ceramics than politics. Who is that good for?

If you choose to grow and learn and leave your legacy by having a kid – I think that's awesome. And while you do that, I'll work on improving the world that kid will eventually inherit. That just seems like good tag team long-term planning. It's easy to imagine that childfree folks spend their entire lives thinking only of themselves, sleeping in late and getting drunk at brunch. But I promise that I'm doing my part to contribute to the world, just in a different way than parents. (I'll skip the part where I list all the important, non-selfish things I do - it'll make me sound boastful and more than a little defensive.)

But the real reason I'm writing about this is because it's indicative of an issue I keep seeing everywhere, something that causes a lot of suffering. I know moms who work outside the home and moms who don't. Both have been bashed and abused for that decision. I know homeschoolers and Montessori lovers and public school parents - all of whom feel they have to defend their decisions. And the judgement doesn't stop with parenting issues. I know painters and sales people and jazz singers and almost all of them feel like they need to justify what they do with their lives, because someone is always waiting in the wings to tell them they are doing the wrong thing.

There are so many critics out there and we tend to internalize the disapproval and feel like we are constantly failing. Why does it matter that my husband and I don't have kids? It doesn't. It's not really that interesting, but people keep asking about it so I'm happy to discuss it.

Why does it matter what personal decisions any of us make for ourselves? I wonder what the world would be like if we assumed that everyone was doing their best. What if people made different decisions and we didn't see that as a threat to the validity of our own choices? What if we kept our eyes on our own papers - our own lives and families - and stopped bashing our neighbor for not buying organic? Things would be incredibly dull if we were all the same. What if we celebrated the fact that life is not homogenous and realized that  everyone is doing what they needed to do to wade through this challenging world?

Because when it comes down to it, if you're spending your time criticizing someone else's personal choices, it just makes you seem insecure about your own life.

As for me, I like being able to act as designated driver for the Girl’s Nights when my mommy friends can let loose. It seems that my “alternative lifestyle” has its perks for all, but most importantly, I get to live my life authentically -- even if it's hard to explain that to a deeply offended nine-year-old.

————–

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Panic in the produce aisle: dealing with loss at the holidays

I think it was mostly about the way the collar of her denim shirt was flipped up all wonky on one side. I couldn't stop staring at the woman in the Whole Foods. I watched her shuffle along, pushing one of those tiny carts with just a few lemons and a box of salad in it.

Her hair was thin and silvery and it flipped in at her jawline in a way that thin hair doesn't do naturally. She must use those pink plastic foamy rollers. I would find those little rollers randomly strewn around my house after my grandmother would visit - they'd be sitting on the side table, stacked up on the Kleenex box, lost under the guest bed.

This woman reminded me so much of my Gramma that it took my breath away.

Literally.

I have a panic disorder, so when something startles me - like thinking I see my grandmother, who died in ten months ago, contemplating avocados - I tend to hyperventilate. My husband was putting red peppers in a bag when I grabbed his arm and managed to say something about stepping outside.

"Are you okay? What happened?"

"Fine. I'm. Outside."

I don't tend to get my words right when I have anxiety.

I almost slammed into the sliding door as I stumbled outside. The December air felt good on my flushed face. I hid behind a pile of locally made Christmas wreathes.

Tears poured from under my sunglasses as I continued to gasp like a fish. I've had these attacks since I was eleven years old, so I know the drill. I started with my breathing exercises. I counted my inhale for four counts. Hold for two. Out for four. I propped myself up against a pile of scented pinecones and felt the pleasant burn of the cinnamon in my nostrils. My breathing started to normalize, but my hands were still numb. I moved on to my grounding exercises. I counted my fingers. Pressing each one to the opposite palm. One. Two. Three...

My Gramma loved Christmas, so this holiday season - my first one without her - is feeling thorny for me. Over the past few years, she has given me many of her favorite Christmas things. The little nativity set she and my Poppa got in Europe back in the 1960s. The hand-made gold spray-pained angel that now sits on my bookshelf year round. Various tree ornaments with sentimental meaning to her - the details of which I've now forgotten and they are precious just because they were hers. As I unwrap each one from the plastic storage box, I'm hit with memories that are both sweet and feel like an ice pick to the chest.

But it was the unexpected sight of a flipped up collar that had me undone. I was always flipping the collar of Gramma's denim shirt down. I don't know how many denim shirts she had, or why the collars were so troublesome, but it seemed to be my eternal karmic job. If I wasn't flipping her collar, I was twisting her necklace around so the clasp was at the back. And she'd do the same for me. She would attempt to smooth down my hair - mermaid hair - she called it. We had a lot of similarities, but my thick, wild curls are one of the few traits I clearly didn't get from her. I will never be in need of those pink plastic curlers.

In the most simple of ways, we took care of each other.

I walked back into the store and found my husband, who gently rubbed my back. Knowing I needed a distraction, he asked me if we needed bananas.

I didn't accost the woman and fix her collar. I didn't sob into her denim shirt and tell her that she reminded me of someone I still can't believe isn't here. I didn't tell her that the holidays are nice and all but sometimes they are really really hard. Instead, I let her finish her shopping.

And because the Universe finds things like this to be hysterically funny, we ended up in the check out line right next to the denim shirt woman. And I saw her trying to snap closed that familiar elderly lady wallet - stuffed full of receipts and coupons and newspaper clippings.

In the middle of my sadness I found a chewy center of joy - memories of the tiny acts of love that live on forever. What a wonderful thing, to know that kind of love exists - that someone has smoothed our frazzled hair, fixed our collar, rubbed our back in the produce section. They tried, in some simple way, to make something better for us. Those seemingly tiny gestures live on and reaffirm love at every moment. And my pain dissolved, as it always does, in the face of gratitude.

What a stunning act of love it is, to say:

"C'mere. Let me fix that for you."

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For the love of an old dog

i-MC5DvNq-L My best friend is walking a little slower these days. The dog who once drove me crazy begging for her dinner, now mostly sniffs it and needs to be coaxed to eat. She is deaf. She gets confused. She still gets excited to go for walks, but when we get four houses down the street, she's ready to go back home again. In the morning, she pauses at the top of the stairs, nervous that her legs might not work the way they used to.

So, I carry her down the stairs. And clean the floor when her bladder gives out. And hand-feed her scrambled eggs when she doesn't want to eat. And massage her stiff hips.

There are Good Days and what I optimistically call Less Good Days. But I'll be there for all the days until the end, making her as comfortable and happy as I can. And when there is no more comfort and happiness to be had, I'll be the one who has to decide that it's the end.

This is the deal we make when we love. This is the brutal contract we sign when we open our hearts. Whether we adopt a springy young thing or, like we did with Gracie, adopt a senior dog, it's pretty much guaranteed that they will leave and we will be shattered.

My husband and I walked into the SPCA four years ago and she was waiting for us. She chose us. And when the sign on her cage said "senior" - I winced. I winced because I didn't want to feel this helpless pain so soon. I wanted at least a decade with this crazy, speckled, toothless mutt. But she was our dog and she made that clear. So we brought her home and bought a bigger bed so she could sleep with us and we promised to be grateful for however long we got. We agreed to the deal.

But now I want to amend the contract. I want to negotiate for more time.

I'm dreading the day when there is no one waiting outside the bathroom door for me. The day when there is no one using me as a pillow as I binge-watch Breaking Bad. What is the point of 11 am if there is no walk with Grace? My shadow will be gone and a piece of me will be gone with her.

But that time is not now. Now, my job is to care for her in this final chapter, for however long that is. My job is to put her comfort above my sadness. I am here for her, in these times that are much less fun than the hikes and trips to the beach that we used to have. I don't turn away from the hard parts, it's my responsibility to be as devoted to her as she has always been to me.

This is love in action: I rub her back and give her medication and clean the floor for the third time today. I pester our vet with endless questions. I try to be thankful for these days, even as I know the heartbreak is coming.

The heartbreak is always coming.

This is what it means to be truly alive. To show up and feel what it is to be human - to not turn away because it's unpleasant. We have to surrender and lean into the whole of it. We fully experience love and loss, joy and pain, happiness and suffering. There is no way to have one without the other. They are intrinsically linked and no amount of negotiating with the universe will unravel them. Trust me. I've tried.

We are all brave as hell--those of us who love so entirely. We expect to be broken by our love. But we still do it, again and again, offering up our tender hearts, our endless devotion and our unconditional love for those wise souls who teach us how to be better humans.

And really, I'm not sure that there is a more beautiful way to be broken.

The curing of a sleepwalker: hypnosis, trust and a pretty fish

The sharp click of the breaker box was what woke me up. As my eyes came into focus, I snatched my hands away from the fuses and looked in horror as I wondered which ones I'd already flipped in my sleepy panic.

I was in my garage. And I was sleepwalking again.

Being a chronic sleepwalker is truly bizarre. Sleepwalking has a distinct undead quality. You wander around in a subconscious fog, unaware of surroundings but somehow functioning, albeit on a low level. Being in this limbo between sleep and wake feels both fascinating and terrifying. If you can get a little distance from it, it's pretty damn funny. It'd be even funnier if it were not an offshoot of my anxiety and panic attacks.

I've been sleepwalking since I was a child. It's something most people grow out of, but I never did. I've walked out of my house, I've wandered around like a creepy little zombie while staying at other people's houses, I've rearranged everything in my kitchen and have written myself desperately important notes - like "salad dressing singing." I walked out of my dorm room when I was studying for a summer at Oxford, franticly stumbling around the ancient halls like the ghost of Percy Shelley.

But eventually, the whole thing became less of an amusing quirk and more like it could lead to my unintentional death. My sleepwalking could be more appropriately called sleep running. Which, thanks to my inherent clumsiness and the fact that I'm not actually conscious, often means that I fall down. Falling down stairs and playing with electricity while in a undead state is just not good.

When my grandmother noticed the bruises on my arm, I explained that I had fallen down the stairs again while sleepwalking. She nodded knowingly; sleepwalking is a family trait. My grandma reported that her twin sisters used to sleepwalk -- together. (Yeah. I thought of The Shining, too.)

"You should try hypnosis," my Grandma said.

I had been to many doctors, who all claimed that sleepwalking is only manageable with drugs. The idea of knocking myself into oblivion every night didn't sound appealing. Also unappealing is the way comedian Mike Birbiglia deals with it, which involves a highly restrictive sleeping bag and wearing mittens so he can't undo the zipper.

But I had never been hypnotized before, and it sounded...out of control. It sounded like handing over my subconscious to be splayed open for judgment and manipulation, while I napped.

My poor, sleep deprived husband was building elaborate structures with chairs and sheets, topped with precariously placed bells, in his attempt to safely cage me in our bedroom. I still escaped every night like a sleepy Houdini. Something needed to change.

I went to a hypnotist who came highly recommended and was not one of those people who had a neon hand flashing in the window. Her office had a large bowl with one of those beautiful Siamese fighting fish in it, something that I found inexplicably comforting. It seemed to indicate permanence. Who would abscond in the night after training my brain to cluck like a chicken at the mention of the word "eggs" - if they had a fancy fish to care for? Fish are not easily transported, and who would leave a nice-looking fish like that to die of starvation?

The fish convinced me.

When I explained my almost-nightly routine, along with the graphic and detailed nightmares that involved violent acts with much blood and torment, she said,

"Okay, this session, we’ll get to know each other, because I can't hypnotise you if you don't trust me. Next time we'll go into deep trace, then we'll have one last clean up session."

"That's it?" I asked. She was so calm and confident and didn't seem unnerved by my 30 years of undead behavior at all.

"Well, trance is difficult and exhausting work. But yes, three sessions ought to take care of it."

Know what else is exhausting? Waking your husband up with your screaming twice a night. That's tiring, too. For a couple of people.

I decided to trust her.

Hypnosis is strange. It feels like being half-awake, like in those moments right before you fall asleep. I remember everything that went on. I never felt out of control or scared. I saw some really wild stuff way down there in my subconscious. Memories and thoughts and images float around. I told stories about things I hadn't thought about in years. I saw scenes play out that and I have no idea what they were. Was it all just my imagination? What is imagination, anyway? She walked me through my own brain, told me to visualize things and categorize them in my mind.

And since my sessions with her, four years ago, I'm pretty much cured. I've had a couple of relapses, which were largely margarita-induced.

Even after all this time, I can't really explain why it worked. Even though I don't run screaming through my house anymore, I still think of myself as a sleepwalker. It's kind of like being an alcoholic, you always hold on to that label of yourself.

It's strange to realize that you don't always know what is going on in your own mind. It's scary to admit that you don't totally understand. But eventually, you might need to surrender a little control and trust someone who is worthy of your trust. Sometimes you can find help in unusual places, and sometimes when you get there, there's a really nice fish.

——–

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Pondering profanity

Screen Shot 2018-01-17 at 11.00.31 AM I was probably eight years old the first time I swore in front of my parents.

I was playing outside and saw a garter snake. I love snakes and - being the stupidly enthusiastic animal lover that I am - I said, "I love you, snake, come here" as I rushed to pick it up. The snake wisely turned and bit me. My affection quickly extinguished, I dropped the snake and screamed "You bastard!"

(Now that I think about it, this was an accurate foreshadowing of my love life through my early 20s.)

My parents, after a moment of wondering if we needed to go to the emergency room, started laughing.

I learned something really important that day: swearing is funny.

Swearing is funny for a number of reasons, but mostly it is funny because it is unexpected. It jolts us out of the regular flow of things. It wakes us up.

I love swear words for this simple reason -- I love words.

Words have long been my closest friends. I learned to read when I was three years old, and since I started working as an actor and traveling for shoots when I was four, books were more commonly my companions than other children. Whenever I was lonely, I could dive into that literary world that was populated with characters who would always be there for me. I have a deep and everlasting love affair with the written word.

That's why I refuse to believe that some words that are "bad." I just can't think of them that way. (Okay, maybe except for the word "slacks" which is just a terrible word and it should be banished from the English language entirely.)

But words themselves simply can't be good or bad. They just are, and that's the beauty of them. They can only be infused with our intent. They can be used in ways that are beautiful or ugly or heart wrenching or enlightening. The only way I won't use words is to degrade other people, so words that are commonly used in that way don't show up in my work. But as for the rest of them, they are fair game in all their magical combinations.

I know some get offended when I swear. People say that I'm not a "lady" because of my language (don't even get me started on that) and I think some people forget that I'm no longer 14 years old and so I can say whatever I'd like, which is one of the many perks of being a 36-year-old person. But I figure if I can drop the F-bomb in front of my grandmother and she never flinched, no one else should get overly worked up about it.

I don't swear because I can't think of a different word. It's not out of ignorance or a desire to annoy anyone. I use profanity as a punctuation mark. It brings the reader fully into the moment of the piece. It's meant to express how I truly feel, the words come from the depths of my heart out of my fingertips and onto the keyboard. And sometimes what comes up is a curse word.

I use them sparingly because, with overuse, any word can lose its power. I use them thoughtfully because I choose every word I put on the page with the loving care that one might use to tend a rose garden.

And I know that it makes some clutch their pearls in horror, but the simple truth is that I swear because I love my garden of words.

Even the words with thorns.

 

***This post was inspired by an episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour. If you are not listening to it, do yourself a favor and go download immediately. It's pure joy.***

***Recently, the New York Times even backed all this up. Yay for swearing!

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The writer's bloodline

When I was six, I learned how to tell a good story by sitting on the diving board of my grandmother's pool. Every night, Gramma would swim laps before bed. Her best friend would come over and as the two of them sliced slowly through the water, I told stories. I was obsessed with a stone owl statue that stood guard over her garden, and I chronicled his adventures with the toads and butterflies and squirrels.

As I perched on the edge and dangled my toes in the water, I played with story arc and character development.

I leaned about suspense and foreshadowing.

I learned how to utilize supporting characters to bring out the essence of your hero and how to use humor to illuminate an essential truth.

I learned how to be a writer.

After the swim, Gramma would critique the story as she toweled off, telling me the parts she loved and the parts where she lost track of the plot line. She never coddled me, never gave praise when it wasn't due. I'd nod and thoughtfully furrow my brow and considered how I could refine the owl's story for tomorrow night's swim.

My Gramma knew how to use words. She came up through the newspaper world. She was one of those gutsy young broads of the late 1940s - working long hours as an editor at the place she reverentially referred to as "The Paper."

She lived at the YWCA, and wondered if the fellas in the newsroom were saying she looked tired when they told her she had "bedroom eyes." One day, with shaky hands, she marched into her boss's office and demanded to be paid on par with those men. After that, they respected her more and started offering her cigarettes. She tucked them away in her purse, saying she'd smoke them later. She didn't like cigarettes, but her boyfriend did, and the man who would become my grandfather couldn't afford his own smokes.

Her love of words traveled through the bloodline and directly into my heart. However, unlike me, her spelling was impeccable. She slaughtered me at Wheel of Fortune.

In so many ways, she made me a writer.

And I am so deeply grateful. For that, and a million other things.

My grandmother is not here anymore, she passed away two weeks ago and I'm still learning to talk about her in past tense.

But the stone owl from her garden now stands watch over mine.

And he reminds me of where this writer's soul of mine came from.

gramma

 

 

Happy freaking holidays: a guide to surviving December

This is a stressful time of year.

Sure, it’s joyous and whatever too, but let's not candy-cane-coat this. Many people are feeling a time crunch, family pressures, and money stress. Those of us who struggle with anxiety and/or depression tend to have a hard time, thanks to ridiculous holiday expectations.

But we can do this.

Here are some things that help me this time of year.

Leave

Walking (especially with the dog) is a sacred time for me. Even a few minutes of fresh air helps clear my head, get me grounded, reconnected to the natural world and focused on what really matters. And anything that makes Grace or Olive happy, makes me happy.

Give

I always feel better when I am able to stop obsessing about my own life and help someone else. Volunteering or just doing something for others (baking cookies for the mail carrier or simply telling someone how important they are to me) brings an abrupt end to my pity party.

Downdog

I am a yoga fanatic; I think the benefits are endless for mind, body and spirit. I love that it can be done at home without fancy equipment and is accessible to everyone, even those with a severe lack of physical grace, like myself. I start my day with some simple Sun Salutations (which are great for beginners) and tend to unroll my mat whenever I'm feeling stressed. Yoga with Adriene offers free Youtube videos that are perfect for newbies and experienced yogis alike.

Write

Writing is my outlet. I have written angry diatribes, compete with outlandish accusations and the inventive usage of profanity. Once I write it out, I usually realize how silly it was and can let it go. And watching all that self-imposed drama go through the shredder is immensely satisfying.

"No"

"No" is a complete sentence. Setting boundaries is important any time of year, but it's integral to maintaining my sanity at the holidays. I am an http://lisajakub.net/2015/03/23/how-to-care-for-your-introvert-a-helpful-guide/introvert with social anxiety, and parties tend to be really difficult for me. When my husband is with me, it's a little easier, but there are events that I need to attend without him. Even though carpooling with friends might be more efficient, I almost always drive myself so I don't feel trapped and I can leave if I start to feel a panic attack coming on. Knowing that I have an immediate out allows me to relax and actually have some fun. But even with those accommodations, there are times I need to decline an invitation and stay home with the couch and a book. And that's okay, too.

Sit

Meditation has been an incredibly effective way of dealing with my anxiety. Like everyone else, I always thought that my mind was just too busy to meditate -- but something significant changes when you take a few moments to breathe and become aware of the present moment. (I have recorded a short guided meditation for people who think they can't meditate - hear it here.) Meditation is not easy, but it's so worth it.  If you are interested in trying mindfulness, just sit in a quiet place, set a timer (start with just three minutes and work up to more) and count each inhale up to ten, and then back down to one again. Your mind will wander - constantly - but don't get frustrated. Simply come back to focus on the breath, no matter how many times you start thinking about that witty comeback you didn't say when your friend was being so judgy over lunch last week...

Here are some of my favorite books on meditation:

10% Happier - Dan Harris (For the meditation skeptic)

Wherever You Go There You Are - Jon Kabat-Zinn (For simple directions on mindful living)

Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program - Sharon Salzberg (For those looking for audio guided meditation)

You can also check out the rest of my favorite books on Goodreads.

Most of all -- don't get caught up in silly holiday propaganda and think that everyone else is perfectly merry with their perfect families and perfect homemade hot cocoa you are the only one getting stressed out.

Remember the profound words of Ellen Griswold --

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=je4rgaSBO2g]

 

So, let's just take a deep breath and we'll all make it through this joyous season in one piece. Happy holidays, everyone.

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Moving on: usefulness, beauty and a lot of cardboard boxes

FullSizeRender

"Have nothing in your home which you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."

~ William Morris

We're moving.

They say that moving is one of those highly stressful life events that ranks up there with divorce or death of a family member.

I love moving.

I know. It's weird.

We moved a lot when I was a kid, and I've continued that into my adulthood. I love any reason to get introspective and over-think things, and moving offers a plethora of opportunities for life evaluation.

When I was growing up and working on movies, l spent the majority of my time traveling on location and living out of a suitcase for three months at a time. I lived in Holiday Inns and corporate housing. I lived in other people's houses and unfurnished apartments where Mom and I used banker's boxes as tables. Life was very transient, and "stuff" never had much importance to me.

So, I love to purge and get rid of anything that is weighing me down. I give it all away. It lightens my load, simplifies my life and gives back to someone in need. Win/win/win.

Moving offers me a moment to really assess the things in my life. When it comes down to this reality - do I really want to carry this thing down two flights of stairs in this old house and then up two flights of stairs in my new house - it shines a whole new light. Does this thing really have meaning to me? Or do I have it just because I have it?

What else in my life have I been carrying for too long? What else is worth putting down and getting rid of? What pain, what shame, what anxiety? Because even four flights of stairs is nothing compared with holding on to something for forty years that is neither useful nor beautiful.

And maybe that emotional baggage was never even really mine to begin with. Maybe it's like that box of CDs that an ex-boyfriend left behind, or that wobbly coffee table that I inherited from my parents.

I feel like a snake shedding its skin. I get to make decisions about priorities and how I want my family to live. I get to paint my dining room orange. I get to start over and throw out all my assumptions about how things should be. Throwing my life into chaos reminds me that each day, I get to decide how to live. It doesn't have to be based on momentum and habit. I'm allowed to change and grow and leave that old, useless shit behind, like a pile of broken-down Ikea dressers from my 20s.

So, even though we are staying right here in Virginia, it feels like a whole new start - where only things useful or beautiful are allowed to stay.

Luckily, our dog is both.

Gracie stays.

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Viva L'Italia

"If we get married, we should have our wedding here because it's so romantic." I choked on the chocolate chip gelato I was shoving in my face.

"Dude - you can't just say shit like that."

(I've always known how to ruin a moment.)

But the thing was - I loved him exactly because he'd say shit like that. He was confident and authentic and didn't play games.

We'd been dating for all of 3 months - but we'd been friends for 5 years before that. And suddenly one day, I couldn't imagine life without him. He was my partner. He felt like home. And he was right, Italy was incredibly romantic.

But, I was 22 years old, I swore I'd never get married, and I wasn't totally sure that I could give up the habit of making out with my co-stars in my trailer during lunch breaks. But he was the first guy that really made me consider it. That's why I had brought him to Italy.

For the year or two prior, I had been contemplating a slow exit out of acting - I thought maybe I'd be happier working behind the camera. I produced a short film called Day After Day and it was selected to be in a showcase at the Cannes Film Festival. What a perfect way to show off to my new boyfriend.

So, three months into our relationship, I invited him to come to France on my work trip to take the film to the festival. We traveled around Italy as well - which is where he made me choke on chocolate chip gelato.

Four years later, I realized I really was done with kissing boys in my trailer (and actually, I realized I was done with the trailers and the films that provided them, as well) so we went back to Italy and said vows.

Jakub 007

And now, after 9 years of marriage, we are on our way back to Italy to celebrate my husband's 40th birthday. Because I married the kind of guy who says that what he wants most for his birthday is to go back to that very romantic place.

He always has the best ideas.

So, I'll be back in a couple of weeks. I'll eat some gelato for you.

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Panic attacks, social anxiety and other perks of being me

 At the age of 13, about to have a panic attack before a press conference for the film "Matinee." 

At the age of 13, about to have a panic attack before a press conference for the film "Matinee." 


Recently, I did an interview and we discussed anxiety disorders. I realized that although I've written about that topic in other places, I've not addressed it much on this blog. (ETA: since I posted this, I wrote an entire book on the topic of mental health - Not Just Me: Anxiety, depression, and learning to embrace your weird.)

It can be challenging to talk about panic attacks and social anxiety. We've been taught that it's either nerdy (think someone with high-waisted pants, sucking on an inhaler at a party) or it's just regular stress that we should be able to handle.

It's neither of those.

I've had anxiety and panic attacks since I was a kid. I've always been described as "sensitive" and "thoughtful" and "a worrier." When I was about 11, my mother would push her thumb into the middle of my palm, calling it my Breathe Button. She'd remind me to take a deep breath as I gasped like a fish and anxiety drained the color from my face.

At a certain point, my inherent shyness and introversion turned into hyperventilating, blacking out, and not being able to leave the house. At its worst, I was having a couple of panic attacks a day. If you don't know what a panic attack feels like, consider this:  it's common for people to end up in the emergency room during their first one because it feels so much like a heart attack.

It feels like you are dying.

And I was doing that twice a day.

That anxiety was complicated in my early 20s by the fact that I was not happy in my life. I felt trapped and scared and not sure what could ever comfort me. I've been carried out of restaurants mid-panic attack, I've made bad choices in a fog of anxiety-ridden self-sabotage. The world had become a very dark place and there were many times that I was not sure how I could ever get out of it.

I've written before about what has helped me. Personally, it's all about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, meditation and yoga. I wanted to avoid the drug route - I don't think there is anything wrong with taking drugs that you need - I just wanted to try a different way. Although I have had prescription bottles at the ready, I've always found other ways to manage it.

Even though it's greatly improved, my anxiety has not disappeared completely. Last weekend, I felt some significant panic just thinking about having to leave the house to go to the grocery store. My heartbeat was irregular. My hands went numb. Flickers of light clouded my vision and made me cling to the counter with vertigo. Those are all signals that I'm not breathing well.

The difference now is that have a whole arsenal of tools that I can use to stop that panic before the sobbing-on-the-floor point. I have breathing exercises. I remind myself that this feeling is temporary and will pass. My husband knows what he needs to do, and not do. My friends understand that sometimes I can't come to large social gatherings (large means more than 2 people) and if I do, I always drive myself so I can leave if I start to feel panicy. There are preventive things I do every day to reduce my anxiety so that it no longer runs my life - like yoga and a daily meditation practice.

Whenever I talk about anxiety publicly, I get messages from people who deal with similar things and who are glad that we can talk about it. That sense of connection is the reason that I write words and put them out into the world. Because I hope that someone will find them, read them, and say, hey, I totally get that.

I wish there was one common answer we could all share -- sadly, there is no simple one-size-fits-all solution. But if you are dealing with this stuff, know that you are not alone. There is no need to feel ashamed. There are people and books and techniques that can help you. Anxiety tends to drive people into isolation, but suffering alone is never the answer. You can take control of your life and your own wellbeing. You can ask for help.

I used to think my panic attacks could be alleviated by some external image of "success." Maybe if I got cast in bigger movies or dated a different boy, I would suddenly be fixed. When I finally realized that I was capable creating some peace for myself, right where I was  - that's when it all started to get better.

————–

I created a bookshelf of some of my favorite books that helped me with my panic attacks. You can see it on Goodreads. (And while you are there - friend me so we can share books!)

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The things we leave behind

The smell of humidity and rot was strong in the air. But it was a pleasant smelling rot - the gentle softening and giving way of enormous trees to a million tiny insects and bacteria. Butterflies sliced zigzags through the air and landed on sun-warmed rocks to splay out their saffron wings. Branches strewn out on the path suddenly lifted their serpentine heads and lazily slithered into the brush. What my Dad wanted for his 60th birthday was to go hiking with me. I'm not sure, as a daughter, what feels better than that. So, Dad and I went hiking. We crossed an icy river, our feet tingling from the cold and slipping on moss-covered rocks. We waved away the little flies that buzzed persistently behind our sunglasses.

The old stone chimney was hiding just off the path, amongst over-grown vines and fallen trees. It was all that remained of a cabin. When the Shenandoah National Park was formed in the 1930s, most of the residents left the area - but the man who lived here decided to spend his final days in his cabin. After he died, the cabin was destroyed. Only the chimney remains.

CameraAwesomePhoto

It got me thinking about the things we leave behind. I've always been pretty aware of my own mortality and physical limits. Maybe because one of my early acting jobs involved being shot and killed in a restaurant when I was 6. Maybe because I broke my back when I was 11. Maybe because my dearest friend died of lupus when we were 19.

I've never felt invincible.

The wonderful and terrible thing about movies is that they last a really, really long time. I find that disconcerting for many reasons. One reason is that there is footage out there of me singing - which is a total atrocity. But also, in many ways, it feels like what remains of me is a lie. It's frame after frame of me wearing things I didn't pick and saying words I didn't choose. It's me pretending to be someone I'm not.

Maybe that's one of the reasons I write - so that I leave something lasting. Something that is truly me, not simply the shell of me, acting like someone else. I think it's natural to want to create something meaningful that endures beyond yourself. Andrew Carnegie called it the desire to "do real and permanent good."

Personally, I've never felt the desire to have children and pass on my DNA, so I need to find another way to leave my mark on the world. It doesn't need to be perfect or spectacular. I don't think I'm going to cure Alzheimer's or rid the world of bigotry. It doesn't have to be bigger or better or more impressive than what other people have done.

It just has to be a true reflection of me. It has to be my best effort. My passion. The thing that my heart feels is right, the thing that refuses to be defeated by my relentless worries and insecurities. It's what happens when I finally get out of my own way and do the work I was meant to do.

That's what our mountain man in the Shenandoah National Park did. He found a way to live and die in his little place in the woods. That was his legacy. His passion. And what remains is that chimney he built. Strong, solid, proud.

The forest will come and claim the chimney at some point, just as eventually everything changes into something else. Nothing remains static forever. Even the movies and words will fade and become obsolete. That's just the nature of impermanence.

But for at least a little while longer, it will all mean something. It will mean passion and persistence and it will reflect the inherent beauty of creating the life you truly want to live.

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Mom, mom's mom and me: under one roof

Last week, I was in North Carolina sitting on a lawn chair watching a lot of Jeopardy. The living room of the tiny beach house just has a love-seat, and my mom and grandma were already forced to share that space with my dog. So, I dragged in a lawn chair and yelled out incorrect responses that I always forgot to put in the form of a question.

Three generations (well, four, if you count the dog, and you should always count the dog) were vacationing under one roof for five days. At ages 35, 57 and 85 - we all seemed to be just different versions of ourselves. It could have been the backdrop of a Tennessee Williams play.

Everyone's families are complicated and contradictory. That's just the reality of family dynamics. Families are loving and brutal. They are intimate and they are strangers. They are accepting and critical. They are all those things, intertwined with memories and expectations and the desire to make you another cup of tea.

But through all the inherent messiness, there are important moments that come from spending extended time with family. Like hearing the story of how my 20-year-old Grandma would flirt with the guys she worked with at the newspaper, so that they would give her cigarettes. She didn't smoke, but she'd tuck them away and give them to her boyfriend -- that broke boy would eventually be my grandfather.

My mother knows the first album I ever bought, even though I've forgotten. She remembers exactly when I attempted to expand beyond the Carole King and Earth, Wind and Fire that pervaded my early musical education. It's so easy for me to revert back to those days. Mom still uses phases of discontent, like "Shootski pootski" and "Ishkablibble' that catapult me back to a time when I wore a fringed jean jacket and thought those were legitimate swears.

In this company, many sentences start with "Do you remember...?" - a person, a place, a time in space that feels so removed from this. So far from this 1,000 square foot beach shack with windows that don't close properly and a finicky toilet handle. But here, over the sound of bickering seagulls, we remember our shared past.

As much as all this reminds me of my history, it also grounds me in the present. I see the grey streak I started to notice in my hair in my mid-20s, reflected back at me. That grey expands into my mom's salt and pepper hair. It expands further into my grandma's silver shine.

We are not women who dye.

All this shared DNA and shared experiences express themselves in distinctive ways. We are decidedly different women, with different outlooks and ways of understanding the world -- but when I see my mom and grandma sharing gestures, I wonder if I do them, too. It's like an archeological dig of your own existence, except instead of discovering broken bits of pottery, I'm looking at a woman making an egg salad sandwich.

My mother has put a quote (most commonly attributed to the great poet, Dr. Seuss) on the bathroom wall of the beach house.

quote

I'm reminded where I get my sense of truth-telling from. That no-hair-dye honesty is strong in all three of us. It's both a blessing and a curse. That same honesty that brings us closer has also hurt feelings and gotten us into trouble and damaged relationships. The truth is powerful, and I want to use it carefully. Sometimes honesty needs to be sheathed in kindness to soften the blow. Sometimes we are skilled at that, sometimes we are not.

I wonder, as I make my way through the years, what family traits I will keep, what habits I will let go, and if my hair will turn out to be the perfectly shiny silver of my grandmother's.

I watched a lot of Jeopardy last week and I realized that it's the perfect analogy for life. Because life is all about asking the right questions.

The answers take care of themselves.

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Psych 101: memories and lies

I was 28 years old and starting college. I had never really been a student before. I started working as an actor just before I turned four, so school always came second. Sure, I went to school sometimes, but it felt like something I did just to fill the time until my next job, like cross-stitch or tennis lessons. But as I neared my thirties, I figured it was time to try that thing that other people did - get educated. I bought a backpack and a lot of pens.

The school thing went okay. Socially, it was challenging. I tried to just fade into the background but people would yell "Hey, Doubtfire girl!" from down the hall, and then they'd get nervous and run away when I turned around. I didn't really have friends, but that was okay -- I had all those pens.

I took an Introduction to Psychology class. The professor came into the room on the first day, shuffling a stack of impressive looking papers while extolling the importance of early childhood experiences on the adult psyche.

She asked us all to recall our earliest memory and share it with the random stranger next to us. I couldn't have been more offended by the intimacy of this assignment if I had been asked to whip out a nipple for my seat-mate.

The truth is, there is footage of my earliest memory.

cottonelle

I am on the set of a Cottonelle toilet paper commercial. A man is standing on a ladder, pouring a cardboard box full of cotton balls on my head. The commercial will be in slow motion: me with my unusually large eyes, joyously attempting to catch the fluffy cotton balls that rain down on me. I'm thinking it's strange that this grown man’s job is to dump cotton balls on my head. My job also feels ridiculous - catching aforementioned cotton balls - but I am barely four years old. I reason that it's okay to have a silly job since I'm just a preschooler.

But that was just not a memory to share with a complete stranger on the first day. It would have led to more questions and the kind of attention that I was trying to avoid. I was already desperately attempting to blend in with kids who were 10 years younger than me, kids who didn't have a husband and a mortgage and a 10pm bedtime.

So, I lied about my first memory.

"My first memory is of my grandfather," I said to the teenager next to me, who was twirling her hair and trying to look interested.

"He was pacing the upstairs hallway of his house. He had a heart condition and was pretty much restricted to his bedroom and that one hallway. I was walking behind him, my hands clasped together behind my back, mimicking his gate and posture. He always sang these Scottish bar songs and he would close his eyes when he got to the high notes."

This indeed is an early memory of mine - it's just not the first. This particular memory appears to indicate that I am a born follower and some sort of copycat. And a liar.

What does it mean that my real first memory was on set?

I'm not sure.

Maybe it means that my identity as an actor is so deeply rooted that I can never completely rid myself of it.

Maybe it means that I always questioned the viability of acting as a long-term career for myself.

Or maybe it just means that trying to catch cotton balls is pretty fun.

-------

Here's the whole commercial - if you are feeling nostalgic for Canadian toilet paper commercials from the 80s.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=td1IVbBpNh0?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

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Now and then: lessons from a shelter dog

Screen Shot 2018-04-03 at 8.41.49 AMThree years ago today, my own personal guru moved into our house. My husband and I went to the animal shelter just to "look."

We went to look for a puppy. What we found was an eight-year-old malnourished little mutt with eyes that were two different colors. She was not at all what we wanted. We couldn’t imagine adopting a senior dog and having to endure the loss of her so soon. We hadn't even completely recovered from the loss of Cleo a year earlier.

But when we sat with Grace in the courtyard of the shelter, I burst into tears. Jeremy immediately knew that this dog was our dog, because whenever something important happens --  I burst into tears. We decided that we didn't care how old she was. Whatever time we could have with this sweet soul was completely worth it.

We paid our $50 and we took home our Catahoula leopard dog/blue heeler/who knows what else.

We joyfully surrendered to the unknown.

But Grace was kind of a mess.

We knew very little about her past, other than the fact that she had been living on the streets for a while. Her claws were so long they wrapped around and dug into the pads of her feet. Half of her teeth had to be pulled because they were rotted. She didn’t know how to play. The sound of clapping made her cower. She had terrible nightmares that left her snarling and whimpering and snapping at anything she could reach. Life had not been easy for this dog.

Even with that history, watching her come into her own over the past three years has taught me incredible lessons about stillness, joy, acceptance, love, and indeed -- grace.

She reminds me that everyone has a past, sometimes wonderful and sometimes challenging. We need to acknowledge it, learned from it, and then let go. I don't know exactly what Grace has gone through. She has a deep affection for the sound of an ice cream container being opened, so she's clearly got some fond memories from her old life, too. But really, the details are irrelevant.

That's the amazing thing about her. Grace doesn't care if you're divorced or you got fired or your parents sucked at showing affection. She just cares about this moment right here. How it feels to be present together. Nothing else matters to her.

As I transition from total denial of my former acting career -- to embracing it and defining its place in my current life -- this is an incredibly valuable lesson.

We all carry connections to our past. As we should. Those experiences made us who we are and homage should be paid. Grace still gets excited when she sees a dumpster since that was presumably the only way she ate for a while. Similarly, I still retain some of my old acting skills like hitting a mark and memorizing dialogue effortlessly. But those things don't need to be in the foreground anymore. They don't need to take precedence over what is going on - just here, just now.

So, Grace and I learn how to put our pasts in the proper place. I still love and accept her when she feels the need to defend her food, and she does the same for me when I roll my eyes at the red carpet coverage of the Oscars. Then we both take a deep breath and feel gratitude that everything that ever happened brought us to this moment right here.

And there is a lot to be grateful for. Grace reminds me that just going for a walk can be an absolutely thrilling experience.

And sometimes sitting quietly on the porch and watching the birds is the best way to spend an afternoon.

And when you love someone unconditionally, you wait for them right outside the bathroom door, because it's just nice to be close by.

She teaches me that we are all in this together - this struggle to live the best way that we can while deciding how we want to respond to the world around us. We might not have control over everything, but we control our perspective and how we want to live in the uncertainty. Despite everything, Grace has chosen wholehearted joy.

And since we are all in this together, love is always the answer. Whatever wounds we have can be soothed by the love that comes from waiting outside the bathroom door for someone  - when you know they would totally wait for you, too.

Happy birthday, Gracie.

ETA: Grace passed away in 2016, but she holds a permanent place in my heart. 

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Flying in full color: how to travel without getting divorced

Travel tip #1 : get good at waiting I'm a travel junkie.

I want to go everywhere.

I don't care to spend money on jewelry or shoes or a new car. Just give me Southern Africa or Honduras or Tuscany. When I check into some tiny, dimly-lit hotel that is run by a little family and their mangy dog -  that's my happy place. My husband and I are starting to make some international travel plans for this year, so I thought I'd share my hard-won travel tips.

For the sake of preserving your relationship with your partner, it’s important to expel any preconceived romantic notions of traveling.

The actual traveling - the airport, plane, train, bus and taxi -  is about as romantic as bedbugs. You will not have bathed, eaten properly, nor slept a reclining position in an inordinate amount of time. You will be uncertain of what possessed you to leave your own zip code.

He will be worse.

He will smell like a sweaty donkey and will make stupid jokes to the guy at the check-in counter. He will not stop bouncing his leg.

I don’t recommend watching those old movies with the soft, dreamy, black and white travel scenes on ships or trains. It will skew your expectations. In reality, you will not be wearing one of those pillbox hats with the net thingy over your face. You have no hankie to wave. It will be nothing like that. Watching those films and thinking it should be like that, will just break your heart and cause you to wonder why your spouse is not acting like Cary Grant.

You did not marry Cary Grant. You did marry the live man that is standing next to you in the Munich airport, giggling at the prevalence of German porn.

But don’t go thinking you are some great prize at the moment, either. Your pants that still have something sticky on them where you sat on something sticky at the train station. Your underwear, (not the fun “vacation panties” that you have stashed in the bottom of the suitcase) will be the same underwear you have been wearing - if you have calculated time zones correctly - for three days.

So if you must, go ahead and watch the romantic travel films of the 1930s and smile smugly because you know it’s all a big myth. Because the sooner you get to that place where you smile kindly when the stupid jokes are made and the taxi driver uses twine to keep the passenger side door shut -- the better your world will be.

Because then, without resorting to murder or divorce, you arrive at your destination and are confronted with all the wonderful and terrible experiences that come with being in a foreign place and needing to learn how to use a composting toilet.

That’s when you understand who you really are.

Being removed from everything that is familiar uncovers aspects of you that lay dormant at home. You look at your Not Cary Grant and watch him come into his own perfect focus.  You're able to unabashedly adore his floundering attempts to use Pimsleur’s Beginning Italian to talk his way out of a parking ticket in Lucca. You will respect his willingness to try the pile of "meat" that the street vendor in Cape Town just offered him. The conversations that arise while enjoying trdelnik at the Prague Christmas market have a different depth than the ones occurring in real life, which tend to be interrupted by the need to switch the clothes from the washer to dryer.

Travel strips you down. By removing the veil of habit, routine and conventional existence, travel reveals who you both truly are.

So go, even though travel can be uncomfortable and dirty and exhausting. Forget how you think things are supposed to go and embrace the unknown. Go see the world - go get lost and get found.

There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind.*

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The last audition

When I left L.A. and moved to Virginia, I used breakup terms to explain my exit from the film industry. Figure out what I really want.

Find myself.

Get my head together.

It's a break, not a breakup. (Just FYI: it's always a breakup.)

My agent seemed to take it just about as poorly as my ex-boyfriends did.

I wasn't brave enough to make a totally clean break and leap head-first into the unknown Real World. If a script looked really fantastic... if the producers were really interested in me…you know…maybe….

I shoved a tiny wedge in the door and left it open, just a crack. It felt safer that way. Slamming that door shut tight would have left me all alone in the dark.

My agent slithered through that crack. A film was casting and the producers had requested to see me for a role. The project sounded interesting but if I agreed to this, was it just a matter of time before it seemed like a good idea to fly back to L.A. to audition for a guest spot on Everybody Loves Raymond? I really felt like I needed to get out of the film world, but I waffled, scared to leave behind the only moneymaking ability I had. My agent felt her 10% commission slipping away again.

“But, it’s Martin Scorsese!” She squealed.

Well, okay. This was a big deal. He was a big deal. (And still is a big deal.)

I agreed to audition and promptly started freaking out about the idea of going back to work. There was no offer yet, but it suddenly seemed that life needed to change. I needed to lose 4 pounds, get some color on my legs and not dye my hair “Mahogany 51” from a six-dollar bottle from the Rite-Aid. There were so many things to be done and they all sounded horrible.

But sometimes it’s hard to tell if a pounding heart indicates excitement or terror.

When an actor cannot get to the city where the audition sessions are being held, they can do an audition tape where they record themselves reading the lines at home and send it to the producers. They inevitably look like the most horrid home movies.

My boyfriend, Jeremy, was cautiously supportive of this audition. If he had been too supportive he would have been accused of thinking that me leaving L.A. was a mistake. Not supportive enough, and I would have said that he never truly loved or respected me. The poor guy was pretty much relegated to smiling and nodding.

My audition tape set up involved a bed-sheet duct taped to hang over a closet door, providing a neutral background. It always looked exactly like a duct-taped sheet. A complicated system of IKEA floor lamps and vertical blind manipulation created a lighting situation that made me look about 57 years old.

My dogs, having just moved across the country and into my boyfriend's flimsy, bare, grad-student apartment, were feeling a little needy and would bark and whine whenever they felt excluded. So, for the sake of the sound, one dog remained seated on my lap with the other curled up at my feet. We framed the shot close enough that the animals were cut out.

Finally we began. I had a lengthy speech before Jeremy had his first line. He said it and it was loud.

And it was British.

For some reason, he was using his from-the-diaphragm theater-training voice, although the microphone was mere inches from his face. He also had some sort of odd, Cockney accent. This character is not British. Jeremy is not British. There is absolutely no reason for this behavior. Ah! He is trying to make me laugh so I am more comfortable. He is probably not even filming.

“Stop, stop, stop.” I laughed and waved my hands in front of my face. Jeremy turned the camera off. Damn, he was filming.

“You were doing great. What’s wrong?” He asked.

“Yeah, I was fine, but what were you doing?”

“What do you mean?”

“Were you trying to be funny?”

“Did I say it funny?”

I explained to Jeremy that the mic is right near him and maybe he should be quieter so that our sound levels match. I assumed he knew the accent needed to go.

We started again, and again he was loud and even more heavily accented. I tried to get through the scene with the ridiculousness of the emotionally unsettled dog on my lap and the loud British man reading with me. It wasn't good. I wasn't good.

It was all just uncomfortable. I felt like a grown-up woman trying fit into the jeans she wore in middle-school. I was half-heartedly trying to recreate a moment whose time had past. 

When we finished, we watched the video back to see exactly how much of a train wreck the thing was.

“Wow,” Jeremy says  “I was really loud. And do I have some sort of accent? Oh, you did great, though.”

I did not get the job. I tried to imagine Mr. Scorsese watching this thing, squinting in confusion at the drooping sheet background, the dog ears that occasionally popped in to view and my loud friend from the British Isles. I could blame it on any of those things, but whatever the reason, there was no offer.

And that's how it goes. You usually don’t know the reason you don’t get a job. When it was released, we went to see The Aviator in theaters. Gwen Stefani played the role I read for.

It was at that moment, in the darkened theater, that I realized I didn't want to be Gwen Stefani. I wasn't longing to be up there, taking direction from even the great Martin Scorsese. I wanted to be right where I was. Living in a flimsy grad-student apartment, with a couple of neurotic dogs and a boyfriend who inexplicably broke into foreign accents. That was where I was truly happy. I didn't want the complication of trying to impress Hollywood with duct taped sheets and IKEA floor lamps. I wanted to have pasty legs and hair the color of Mahogany 51.

I had no clue what was next in my life, what might happen after those credits rolled, but I knew I was done with acting. I had done it already. It was that simple.

So, that was the last project I auditioned for.

That audition had been the breakup sex. It was the one more time that you go back and give the relationship that last chance...only to find it was as awkward and unfulfilling as you remembered. But we all need that one last fling, that experience that lets you finally walk away with a few good stories, but absolutely no remorse.

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Learning how to run

When I was 18, I was living in Los Angles, doing that thing that actors do - wait around for other people to tell them they are wonderful.  A friend of mine had just gotten that stamp of approval and was joining a hugely popular television show as a regular cast member. On her first day of work, she pulled up to the studio lot in her cute little Volkswagen Rabbit. One of the stars of the show saw her parking and said to her,

“Oh, honey, you're on a big TV series now. Get yourself a nice car.”

My friend felt flustered and embarrassed. She needed to fit in with her new co-workers. After they wrapped for the day, she picked me up and we went to the BMW dealership.

It didn’t take her long to pick the car that was suitable for her new job and new life. The pretty white convertible was sitting in the showroom, looking for all the world like the car a newly minted television star should be driving. It was sparkly and it smelled like leather and triumph. We collected the old scripts and discarded caramel macchiatos from the backseat of her Rabbit and she wrote a check. We sped off in the little white Beemer to test out the handling on the hills of the Laurel Canyon.

Being impulsive and a little extravagant was common in that world. I was never able to embody that fun breeziness with money -  yet another way that I failed at the whole Young Actor thing. I didn't come from money and was always unnerved by the large amounts of cash that would come and go in my industry.

But in truth, this confidently reckless behavior was kind of awe-inspiring. Personally, I was always convinced that Hollywood was done with me and I would never work again, so whatever was in the bank account had to last me until my actor’s union pension kicked in. I wasn't gutsy enough to be impulsive...except for this one time.

I had a call-back audition in Beverly Hills and stopped by the mall to get lunch at the Panda Express beforehand. At the Beverly Center, they had a very fancy pet store. (As a side note - I'm not advocating pet stores, it's all about the rescue dogs for me now.)

As I browsed, I locked eyes with this little dog. She was tiny, gray and shiny like a wet seal pup. She was an Italian Greyhound, which I had never heard of, but they are the dogs you always see at the heels of the Egyptian pharaohs in paintings. They are light, delicate little wisps of a dog who think that they can take down a Great Dane and they probably could, out of sheer determination. I needed her. She needed me. I held her in my palm and slapped down my credit card.

I called my agent and told her I was sick and couldn’t make the call-back. She said they would try to reschedule and I said something like “Whatever” as I signed the paperwork and they tried to cram my little ball of gray love into a cardboard box with holes punched in the side.

I hadn't really paid attention to how much she cost, I'm sure it was printed somewhere but I was too busy falling in love to really comprehend. How much could a dog be? $50? As they handed me her pure-bred lineage chart, which included names like "Chipwil’s Little Drummer Boy" and "Sandcastle Ginger D’Laviere,"  I started to wonder what I had just done.

A glance at the credit card slip stapled to her vaccination form confirmed that I had just bought a $1,800 dog.

At a mall.

In Beverly Hills.

My momentary freak out was followed by overwhelming joy. It seemed a small price for unconditional love. Support. Friendship.

Screen Shot 2016-10-18 at 10.08.50 AM.png

In homage to her historic roots, I named the pup Cleopatra, as in Queen of the Nile. She was a balls-to-the-wall firecracker in a leggy, 11-pound package. Macho dudes who hated little dogs thought she was cool. She seemed to own every tiny little step and made no apologies for herself.

Cleo could run like the wind but very rarely cared to do so. Michael Richards (who played Kramer on Seinfeld) once approached us at a café and asked to see her run. Cleo refused, stood stock-still and glared at him until he awkwardly apologized and went away. It didn’t even matter to her that Seinfeld was at the height of popularity; she didn't feel like running. Fuck him.

I envied Cleo's self-assuredness. I was the passive one of the pack, the one who so desperately wanted to be liked. I would tuck my tail and roll over for anyone. But Cleo was someone, regardless of her size, who didn't care what others thought and she knew she had something to offer, simply because she existed. Her sense of self-worth was profound.

I had paid $1,800 and I had found my idol.

Cleo passed away 3 years ago and I still miss her terribly. She remains my example of what it looks like to be brave in the world. When I'm doubting myself and feel it's safer to just let the Alphas tell me how to live and what kind of car I should drive -  I try to embody my little greyhound, informing Michael Richards that she had no intention of running for him, or anybody else.

We run on our own terms.

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