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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Accurate not arrogant: admitting your strengths

 

What are you really good at?

Does that question make you squirm? Or is it just me?

Perhaps it’s a product of my humble Canadian upbringing (heaven forbid a Canuck be proud of an accomplishment) but the idea of talking about the things I’m good at seems about as fun as a bikini wax.

But isn't there a difference between confidence and arrogance? Between honesty and grandstanding? Isn’t it our right as people of this planet to embrace the things we are good at – isn’t that, in fact, our societal obligation?

Why can I only admit that there are some things at which I do not completely suck? I say things like “decent” to describe my writing, my yoga, my workshops. I cringe when asked to promote the two books I've written. But ask me where my weaknesses lie and I’ll launch into a calculated and comprehensive attack detailing my sub-par spelling skills, fashion sense, and map-reading abilities.

Not everyone is this way. Other people can stand with pride and say “Hey, I’m good at this” and not be struck by lightning or fall so madly in love with themselves that they are rendered useless to the outside world. Other people can accurately name their strengths and then identify their weaknesses in an equally factual manner.  I know that these Other People are not just mythical creatures but they truly do walk around among us. I am married to one of these baffling mortals, which makes it all the more frustrating that I’ve not picked up on this particular habit.

If this is indeed a habit, it can be adjusted. So, here’s my plan: I’m going to write down at least ten things that I am good at. From big things to little things. From the serious to the silly. From my ability to self-motivate and hit even the tightest of deadlines to my talents as a Stuffed Animal Surgeon. I'm a devoted friend and I can cook without a recipe. I love to give away books and I can carry a six-foot-tall Christmas tree all by myself. I’m going to put that list somewhere I see it a lot and I’m going to look at it until the sight of that list doesn't make my skin turn inside out.

Because here's the real issue: if we don't proudly stand up and own our talents - we get overlooked. If you're locked in "move along, nothing to see here" mode, you are absolutely going to miss out on some awesome opportunities. And those opportunities are not just great for you; they are chances for you to empower and inspire others. That's your moment to contribute some of your unique goodness to the world.

So, don't be selfish and keep all your awesomeness to yourself.

Stand up.

Be seen.

Take up space in the world.

It's your birthright to be here.

I want to hear it: what are you really good at? (Seriously, leave a comment and tell me.)

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How to love someone who has anxiety

"What should I say?"

I get this question a lot. It almost always comes up when I do speaking events at colleges and conferences. During the Q&A, an incredibly kind and thoughtful person stands up and says, "I don't have anxiety, but my partner/friend/parent/kid does. How do I help them?"

I first tell them they are pretty much an angel walking around among us. They care so much that they came to a talk about someone else's issue just so they could learn to help. I hope that a million blessings fall on their heads.

Then I say that I don't have a one-size-fits-all answer, but I can tell them what helps me when I'm in the middle of an anxiety spiral:

Ask if there is anything you can do 

99% percent of the time, I'm going to say there is nothing you can do. But it's going to make me feel loved and supported that you asked. And on the occasion that I really do need something (Can you bring over dinner? Meet me at the gym for a workout? Get me out of this social obligation?) I'll know you actually mean it.

Understand that I don't need you to fix anything

Most of the time, I just need to explain what is in my head and have someone hold my hand and say something like, "ugh, I'm sorry, that sucks." Please know there is zero pressure on you to fix whatever is going on. And you definitely don't need to fix me. I'm not broken. I'm just a girl with some anxiety.

Let me cry

Crying is good for me - it's a release valve. Trying to shove those emotions down is much worse than just crying it out for a little while. If you can just sit with me through the uncomfortable ugly cry and maybe get me another Kleenex, that is incredibly meaningful.

Tell me you get it, that you've been here (if you really mean it)

This is a controversial one. I frequently see the advice that you shouldn't tell a struggling person your own stories of struggle or say that you know how it feels. But personally, I love it when someone does that. It makes me feel less alone to know that other people have had to deal with this shit, too. It reminds me that things won't always feel this hard. So use your own judgment with this one. But always make sure that you are listening first, and sharing your experience as a distant second.

Be silly with me

Lightening things up always helps me put things in perspective. Not in dismissive "it could be worse, you could be a Rohingya refugee" kind of way -- but let me know we can laugh together and it's not always about my anxiety.  Cute animal memes or cuddling up together for an Arrested Development marathon might seem frivolous, but it can help to stop the Doom Spiral.

Text to check in the next day

The "Just thinking of you and sending a hug"  text is a wonderful thing. A well-timed heart emoji has been known to turn my entire day around. For many of us with anxiety, we worry that people will decide that we're annoying or overreacting or just too much to handle. A quick check-in lets me know that you're still here, that my anxiety didn't freak you out, that you love me for who I am, which is so much bigger than the anxiety. (And you know that phone anxiety is a legit thing for some of us, right? So yeah, a text is better than a call.)

It's not easy to love someone with anxiety. So to all those friends and family members who care to learn and support us -- thank you. We're grateful from the bottom of our anxious little hearts.

**Want to read more from me about anxiety and depression? I wrote a whole book on the topic -- Not Just Me: Anxiety, depression, and learning to embrace your weird. **

Have additional ideas that have been useful to you? Please leave them in the comments!

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Writing & Wellness Yoga Retreat in Boone, NC!

Join me for a Writing & Wellness Yoga Retreat at the Art of Living Retreat Center in Boone, N.C. Nov. 2 - 5th, 2017!

You already know me, but you'll also get to know my retreat co-leader, the amazing Cecily Armstrong! Cecily’s trainings span decades and explore all facets of the mind, body, and spirit. She has a Health Coach Certification from the Integrative Institute of Nutrition and is a graduate of the Barbara Brennan School of Healing. Cecily has been teaching yoga for twenty years and is a facilitator at the Hero’s Journey.

Join both of us for a fun, restorative and empowering retreat exploring various aspects of emotional and physical wellness.

The retreat will include:

writing exercises to understand anxiety & the inner critic

nutrition talks - examining both physical and emotional nourishment

discussions on purpose, connection, and authentic power

yoga, meditation, and pranayama

healthy Ayurvedic meals (all included in the registration price)

free time at the beautiful retreat center - massage, pottery, hiking

You'll return home with tools to help you live a more happy, healthy, vibrant life. And we'll have a whole bunch of fun, too! This retreat is open to everyone. No writing or yoga experience necessary.

Tuition includes accommodation and meals for 4 days/3 nights:  starting at $677   *$50 off for early birds registering before September 1st!

Get more information and register at: artoflivingretreatcenter.org

And please let me know if you have any questions! Hope to see you in North Carolina!

 

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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Burn it up: impermanence and playing with fire

I was talking to a friend about how much I like to burn my writing. I don't burn it all the time, but when it's something I feel like I need to release, it's incredibly powerful cathartic ritual. That got me thinking about a wedding I attended two years ago.

I didn't want to go to the wedding because I had nothing to wear.

It's humiliating to admit that. It's such a frivolous, stereotypical girl excuse. I'd been to a million weddings, but nothing quite like this. There were going to be a lot of people there and my social anxiety was running pretty high.

It was silly to think that I was worried looking out-of-place...with a bunch of people who take looking out-of-place very seriously. The wedding was done "burner-style" (think Burning Man) and grounded in the spirit of community, art and self-expression.

When we arrived at the farm in rural Virginia, there were tutus and masks and glow in the dark hula-hoops. There were hot pants and frilly bras -- and the women's outfits were even more eccentric. There were also 60-year-old women in lawn chairs wearing Laura Ashley dresses that would have been right for a church picnic. There was literally nothing that I could have worn that would have been inappropriate. And if I had worn literally nothing, I suspect that would have even been okay, too.

People had set up camp for a week and there was swimming in the river and fire dancing and a tent full of dress-up clothes. There was home-brew and dune buggies and of course, there was a wedding ceremony, in front of a two-story temple that our friends spent months building from scrap wood and fallen trees. We placed paintings, poems and wishes for the couple inside the temple, hanging them from branches.

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And after the ceremony, after the "I do" and the kiss - we burned it all to the ground.

There was such joy in watching it burn. It was a profound sense of release.

Of letting go. Of surrendering to life and the inevitable destruction.

Because eventually, everything deteriorates and falls apart and there is no sense clinging to it. Permanence seems comforting but it's an illusion, and that makes this moment now even more precious. You have to love it with all your heart while it's here. Because one day, it won't be. And neither will you.

Letting go means opening up more space for joy. Not even love can survive if you cling too tightly. Love works when you let the other person be who they need to be and love them through it. As my friend said in his vows "I love you and I will love who you become." Nothing is static. People change.

What a profound statement at the beginning of a marriage.

This wedding was full of joy. The bride wore a purple top. They danced down the aisle and basked in their weirdness. I have always been ashamed of my weirdness, and it did me good to see people so comfortable with theirs. I cried happy tears from beginning to end of the ceremony.

It was just so very them.

We let it all go, and we burned it all up.

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*****

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Looking back: lessons of 2015

I tend to be a pensive person anyway, but the fact that Christmas, my birthday and New Years all cram into one week - I go into major reflective mode. It was a complicated year in many ways. But isn't that how it always goes? Ups and downs, success and challenges, joy and suffering. But I learned some important things this year:

Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable can have some serious rewards

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This one shocks me. Public speaking seems like a terrible idea for an introvert with social anxiety. But I get to talk at conferences, schools, libraries and organizations about the topics I love - authenticity, passion, living your true path even if it's different from what people expected. It's never easy, but every time I do it, I realize that it doesn't kill me. It's actually good fun and I've met some incredible people. I'm looking forward to the events I have scheduled for 2016.

 

Need something? Start something.

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Here's the thing about being a writer - you spend a whole lot of time alone, starring at a screen. I love talking to other writers at conferences, but realized I was missing that at home. I wanted that kinship but I didn't really know where to find it. So, I created it. I invited a few writers to have tea with me on the first Wednesday of the month and talk about our work. And books and words and pens.

This little group now brings me such joy. We get together to talk about things that spark or challenge us and we commit to accomplish certain things by our next meeting. It's all very responsible and keeps us accountable. But more than that, we have a deep sense of community and connection. We send  little messages of encouragement and vent to each other when Salon.com doesn't return our email. (Ahem.)

It's so important to have a support system - but these things aren't automatic. I had to reach out and create the community that I was missing. I didn't know the people in my writing group very well when I invited them to tea, but now they are my sisters in words. It takes some courage and effort, but it feels amazing to mindfully create the things you need.

 

Being a teacher doesn't mean you have all the answers

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I started teaching an online memoir writing class this year through Writing Pad. I was scared out of my mind to do it. Like, two hours before the first class started I was pacing my house and crying. What if my students grilled me about non-defining relative clauses? What right do I have to tell anyone anything? I don't have any fancy degrees. Hell, I was tossed out of high school.

And at the end, my class and I were all swapping information and saying how much we loved each other.

I found that my job was to encourage others to be their most brave selves so they could share their stories. My job was also to be myself and put my own spin on things, like talking about the Hero's Journey as it pertains to Dr. Seuss. I'm thrilled to be able to teach another class in January.

I'll be a student forever

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Yoga isn't just exercise for me - it's a way of life. I wanted to learn more about the practice, so I took a yoga intensive teacher training this year.

Yoga for me has been such a powerful tool for getting my anxiety under control. It's a full body/mind/spirit cleansing. Whenever I get overwhelmed and need to get my head right - I hit my mat. I love being able to share that with other people. And it's fun to do yoga-pretzel poses at parties.

 

Marking death is celebrating life

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My Gramma passed away this year and that loss is still sharp for me. But I get my love for words from her, so I feel like I get to continue in her footsteps. She was my first yoga student and one of my first blog readers. I will continue to work on my terrible spelling in her honor.

 

Everyone defines success for themselves

I got to open a big box and it was full of my words. And while it's fantastic that my memoir You Look Like That Girl was published, I've been staying away from the reviews, sales stats and the Amazon rankings. I don't want to get caught up in those traditional markers of status. That stuff doesn't matter to me nearly as much as getting a note from someone who said they enjoyed it and felt that it resonated with them somehow. Besides, I figure if I made it to some best seller list or won a Pulitzer - someone would let me know.

I write because I think words are an incredible way to connect. That's why I love personalizing books for people. There is something really cool about the idea that the book goes directly from my hands to yours. And recording the audiobook was crazy good fun - I like that I get to keep people company on their commute.

 

Book tours and interviews are cool...but...

11745595_849950275089158_6295815062876178221_n

I did a book tour for You Look Like That Girl and read in bookstores all over the place. Sometimes lots of people showed up, sometimes not so much. I did live interviews on morning television and I called in to twelve radio shows in two hours. Sometimes I was eloquent and witty, sometimes I got tongue-tied and spilled something on my shirt. Some interviewers were great and others made me respond "I'm not going to answer that" - repeatedly. It was fun and I'm grateful to have had the experience because it allowed me to connect with even more people. But it was also nerve-wracking and I had to wear nice shoes and they put lots of makeup on me. Life is this continual balance, and I'm just learning how to surf those waves without falling on my face.

***

What is 2016 going to be about for me? More writing. More connecting. I'm working on my next book - it is about anxiety, panic attacks and depression. It's my story, as well as the stories of others, told with love, humor and a whole bunch of legit sciencey research. This topic is incredibly important to me, and a big thank you to those of you who have contacted me to say that you are looking forward to reading it. That keeps my fingers on the keyboard, even when there is a Downton Abbey marathon calling to me.

As always, I am entirely grateful for all the support I've received from readers. I could not be doing any of this without you and so thank you thank you thank you. The community that we have created around this blog and social media has given me faith in the humanity that can be found in the world. There is a lot of crummy stuff out there - and there is also so much kindness. Y'all rock.

Okay, now you go. What were the coolest things you got to do in 2015?

Happy new year, everyone!

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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.

There's real famous. Then there's me.

It is possible to leave Hollywood.

It's not easy.

People wrinkle their foreheads at you and ask "why?" in this tone that makes you feel like you have just announced your intention to dress yourself entirely in tinfoil. People say you're crazy for walking away from a good career just because it wasn't making you happy. But it can be done. You can leave the film industry and do new things and you can almost leave it all in the past. Almost.

Certain things tend to linger.

I've been friends with people for a while and they have no idea that I used to be an actor. They know me as I am now, a writer and a yoga teacher and a wife and a dog-mom. My acting past is simply not relevant. Usually, it will come up because I have to explain why I never graduated from high school or why I have DVDs of the movies that are still in theaters on my coffee table.

It's not like I'm legitimately famous. It's not like I walk into a room and I'm Jennifer Lawrence and everyone starts squealing. Occasionally, people recognize me. Often they squint at me and ask if we knew each other in high school. Or, it's just odd.

My past creates certain challenges when making new friends - because I don't know if they know, either from recognizing me or hearing about it from someone else. So, I don't say anything, because saying something would be obnoxious. Why does my old job matter now? Who's like "Oh, just so you know, 15 years ago, I worked at The Olive Garden, I hope that doesn't make things strange now."

So when I dance around the issue of my past, when I get flushed and nervous and look at my feet while using vague language like, "I was in Honduras once, for this...um...you know...work thing...." I look like I might be a repentant drug lord.

So, I test the waters and mumble "Oh, dunno if you know or not, I used to be an actor, so um...yeah...there's that." And I nervously wait for their reaction and try to come up with an excuse to check my phone.

I've had people get weirded out and uncomfortable, thinking this somehow makes me exotic and un-relatable because actors are apparently made of different stuff than regular folk.

I've had people get too excited and too comfortable and then they only want to talk about whether or not Fran Drescher really talks like that.

And then there is my all-time favorite reaction. When one of my friends found out, after months of knowing each other, she looked at me and said "Oh my God, it's like, you're....fake famous. That's hilarious. Hey, hand me that yoga mat."

She's right. I am fake famous. I have this little bit of recognizability, but I don't get mobbed in public or walk the red carpet anymore. I never enjoyed those things, they just sent my anxiety into overdrive. I like my life so much better now.

As it turns out, the authentic me is much happier being fake famous.

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How to care for your introvert: a helpful guide

mr fox Does the photo above look familiar to you? If so - congratulations! You're in a relationship with an introvert!

This introvert might be your romantic partner, friend, child, parent or even yourself. No two introverts are exactly alike - some are more introverted than others, some are outgoing introverts, some are shy introverts - but these simple care tips will help you to have a long, enjoyable relationship with your introvert.

  • Give your introvert a minute. We are not always fast on our feet and sometimes we need a while to adjust to a new situation. We need to quiet the voices in our head and figure out what we really think. We'll get back to you as soon as we can get the words together in a succinct way.
  • Understand that if we never call you, it's because we have a deep and eternal hatred of talking on the phone. Texts or emails are how we connect.
  • Please don't tell us to not be shy. Shy is different from introverted, anyway, and it's pretty much like telling someone not to be tall. It also insinuates that there is something wrong with us. Not everyone needs to be extroverted.
  • Last minute invites are often challenging for introverts. Dinner with just one close friend usually takes several days to gear up for. Large gatherings (more than three people) need even more emotional prep. Sometimes, we just can't manage it. No offense. But please keep inviting us to things, with as much notice as possible, because we have a wonderful time when we're psyched up for it.
  • New people can be intimidating, but we'll warm up. Introverts don't need an army of friends, but we have a tight inner circle of people who we love wholeheartedly.
  • If we leave early, it's not because we are having a bad time. It means we are leaving before we get overwhelmed. We probably had an absolutely lovely time.
  • We love the environment but we're not carpooling because we need to have our own get-away car, in case we need to leave early. (See above.)
  • We are not judging you, we're just good listeners. We are not bored or annoyed or zoning out. We like observing. We're just taking it all in and we'll share our thoughts when it feels appropriate.
  • Small talk will make us want to peel off our fingernails, but engage us in a conversation about the deeper things in life and we'll talk for hours.

Trouble shooting

  • "My introvert is being quiet. Sitting on the couch, reading a book and looking serious. Is there something wrong with my introvert?"
    • There is nothing wrong with your introvert. This is her natural state. Allow her to recharge. Maybe bring her more tea.
  • "My introvert said she didn't want to come out with me to a concert with all of my friends. Does she hate me?"
    • No. Your introvert still loves you. In fact, she loves you so much that a quiet dinner and a Netflix binge sounds much better to her.
  • "My introvert invited me to go to a loud concert with all of her friends/is talking in front of a large group/seems to be enjoying the company of others. I feel like I don't know her anymore. Is my introvert still an introvert?"
    • Yes! But sometimes even introverts enjoy extroverted activities. Some introverts are great at public speaking and performance. Just be aware that she will likely need lots of downtime afterwards to recover.
  • "Only, like, two of these things apply to my introvert."
    • People are different. We are not actually like plants. This is just the guide I wish I could hand out to everyone in my life.

(For a great read on introversion - check out Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking by Susan Cain.)

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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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Hey, wake up - this is your dream

10343660_653968978020623_5106178268475466416_n A few weeks ago, I was sitting by a pond with my friend, T. It was a warm fall day and the pond looked as if it had been ripped out of Idyllic Ponds Monthly Magazine. There were gently rustling reeds, lazy koi fish kissing the surface of the water and a heron, arrogantly surveying it all from the shoreline.

T is a writer and an English professor and we were talking about writerly things, like muses, death and Scotch. We talked about my book being published and he told me about the novel he was working on. We were perched on a wobbly stone bench and T stood up to stretch his legs and smoke a cigarette far enough away that I wouldn't complain about it too much. He exhaled pensively for a moment and looked back at me:

"So, I have to ask you this, what's it like to be living your dream?"

I laughed at him because the question seemed absurd. It feels strange to think of your own life like that. Most of us are more likely to tally up all the things we've not done, and focus on them.

When I look at my incredibly talented writer friend, I see his MFA that I'm envious of and his job in the academic surroundings that I admire. He's a creative soul whose apartment is filled with Escher prints and typewriters and masks that he made in college. But he'll downplay it all, even the things he's published, waving them away like the cigarette smoke that still manages to get in my eyes. And all the while, I'll feel inferior because I don't have advanced degrees and I don't even know how to make a mask -- and I'll wave away the beautiful moments in my own life.

Why are we compelled to move on to the next thing and discard our accomplishments? I've always felt that if just one person enjoyed my work, I'd die happy. But now Facebook is telling me that I need to keep tabs on pages that are similar to mine so I can "keep up." Suddenly, I'm in a world where 8,000 Facebook fans doesn't feel like enough.

Why do we change the rules on ourselves?

If we really were living our dream -- would we even notice?

When I get still for just a moment, I realize how astounding it all is. I'm a writer. That's the dream I've had since I was eight and compiled the Collected Works of Lisa Jakub. I'm also healthy and I have friends and family and a place to live. That's a dream, too.

So, my answer to T was rather dualistic:

Living my dream is wonderful. And it's exactly the same as life before I got a book deal.

I think most of us assume that if we are living our dream, then everything must be all shiny and effortless. Therefore, if it's not perfect, we can't be there, yet. I still have maintenance issues with my car that require me to spend three hours waiting at the repair place. My dog is still half blind and has seasonal allergies. I used to get frustrated and cry because no one wanted to publish my book, I still get frustrated and cry because I have meetings with my publisher and I worry about disappointing them.

People have said that it must have been easy for me to get my book published because of "who I used to be." I won't detail the mountain of rejections from agents and publishers, the endless emails saying that no one is interested in a Hollywood story from a no-longer-famous person that doesn't involve orgies and rehab - but I'll just say, getting published was not easy.

But this is what we do, as humans. We tend to assume that everyone has it easier and better than us. They have connections or innate talent or more money or prettier hair. But none of that means that they don't have troubles and stress and heartbreak. It's just in different packaging.

Knowing those concerns are universal makes them feel so much more manageable. This is simply what it means to be alive. We might as well find some joy and gratitude in there, because life is never going to be perfect. For any of us. No book deal/MFA/sweet car will cure the essential human condition of uncertainty and unease.

But maybe being alive, being truly awake in your life, is the real dream.  Maybe the rest of it is just icing.

The ducks in the pond paddled towards us, looking up expectedly with their cutest begging duck faces. Since I only had bottled water and T only had gum, neither seemed to be appropriate offerings. The ducks got tired of watching us wax philosophical and glided away, muttering what I'm sure were disappointed profanities.

T and I left the pond to wander through the fallen leaves that were mostly obscuring the pathway. Kicking the leaves aside, we made our own path.

Back to our lives.

Back to our dreams.

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The freedom to fail

I've been thinking about vulnerability lately. I suspect that's because this blog just passed one million views, I'm working with my editor on my book and recently did a reading of a chapter for an audience of about 100 people. All this is wonderful and I'm so grateful but it also kind of feels like standing naked in front of a football stadium.

Therefore, I've been thinking about what it means to put yourself out there, letting yourself be seen for the truth of who you are, and standing courageously to take whatever comes - praise, criticism or a sarcastic slow-clap of indifference.

I don't know about you, but that sounds scary as hell to me.

I doubt I'm alone with this. I see people struggling with perfectionism and fear of failing all the time.

Not wanting to ask for the raise or promotion at work.

Not wanting to try a new yoga class because other people might be more flexible.

Not wanting to bring up the difficult conversation that needs to be discussed.

So, what do we do about it? It's easy to look at someone else and tell them to go for it and no one at yoga cares what you look like and communication is important. But how do we do that for ourselves when we are terrified to fail at our jobs, fail with our friends, fail at being perfect?

I don't know the answer, but I wonder if there isn't peace and beauty to be found in the ordinary. In America, we are obsessed with the extraordinary. We think we need to be famous, or be in the top 1% of whatever, or do something that no one else has ever accomplished.

It doesn't have to be that way. We don't tend to expect that from anyone other than ourselves. It is possible to let go and enjoy our imperfection. Because in our imperfection, we find our individuality, our spirit, our joy. The people I love and respect most are the ones who embrace their beautifully flawed human-ness.

I had this thought recently:

When I'd rather fail than quit, everything becomes possible.

I've been held back by being afraid to fail for too long.

What if people think I'm a terrible writer?

What if I really am as washed up and irrelevant as anonymous HuffPo commenters say?

What if I make spelling mistakes in my blog posts?

I'm tired of living in fear that I might fail or look stupid or fall on my face.

I might.

But on the other hand -- I might not.

(Okay, when it comes to spelling in blog posts, I definitely will make mistakes, but luckily you readers are kind enough to gently point those out without too much ridicule.)

The point is that I might be able to reach people and connect and make some sort of a difference somehow - and that possibility is too valuable to give up just because I'm feeling like a scaredy cat. It seems that lots of people have an opinion about my life. I just need to remember that my opinion counts, too. In fact, it counts most.

So when I saw this sign while I was out for a walk, it totally stopped me in my tracks.

free

What would I do if I were free from worry and fear and self-doubt? What would I do if I stopped being so concerned about seeming perfect? What would I do if I had faith that I was fully capable of picking myself up even if I did fall on my face?

Who knows?

But it just might be fun.

(For more on perfectionism and vulnerability - check out the staggeringly insightful Brené Brown.)

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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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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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Stepping back: lessons of 2013

I'm not a fan of new year's resolutions. There are just so many ways to screw up my vague proclamation to "be healthier" or whatever. I'd just be setting myself up to spend the entire month of March wallowing in my abandoned resolutions and a pint of New York Super Fudge Chunk.

But I do love to step back and take time to reflect on life. This past year has been a significant one for me. I threw myself completely out of my comfort zone and learned a lot as I flailed around in free-fall. So, here are my favorite lessons of 2013.

People are cool

I was terrified of you all. I was terrified to put my writing out there and be more public. I was afraid to fail and look stupid. I had been so happy hiding out and only writing for myself, but I realized that I could be even happier being truthful about my life - my whole life - and connecting with people. And I found that you are lovely, funny, encouraging folks and I'm happy to know you. My writing means the world to me, so thank you very much for reading my stuff.

Anonymous commenters can be less cool

When I found out that the Huffington Post did an article without my knowledge (an article about me and this blog that stung with a little snark) their comment section was quite active. Some comments were fine. But others were decidedly haters. This was not constructive criticism, not thoughtful opinions that differed from mine, just general nastiness from behind the cowardly anonymity of a keyboard. My feelings were hurt and my thin skin ripped into tattered shreds. I almost called the whole writing thing quits, I wanted to just go back to my little cave and be forgotten. But what would that say about me as an artist if a little name-calling defeated me? So, I got really good at repeating this:

“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet” - Mahatma Gandhi.

I'm pretty sure that Gandhi would approve of my decision to no longer read HuffPo comments.

Teenagers are people and therefore cool

I had the opportunity to talk to high school students about authenticity. I loved it. They were awesome. They inspired me and made me feel welcome and not like an awkward lady who was old enough to be their mother. They asked great questions. They laughed at my jokes. And if they fell asleep at any point, they hid it beautifully.

Being brave is cool

I traveled to New York to attend a couple of writery events this year. I was horribly nervous, but they were rewarding beyond my wildest dreams. I signed with my literary agent at one conference, and met incredible people like Sharon Saltzberg and Elizabeth Gilbert at another. Oh, and I got a shit-ton of free books...and what is better than that? I think being brave should always be rewarded with a suitcase full of not-yet-released hardcovers, even if you have to haul them on and off a train by yourself.

Meditation continues to be cool 

While it's great writing about almost being drowned by a manatee, why residuals are pitiful and the fun stuff I get to write for HelloGiggles, I really love delving into deeper things, too. I published an article about meditation, one of my favorite topics, in Elephant Journal this year. Meditation has without a doubt saved my life. I love being able to share that with others who might suffer from anxiety or panic attacks.

Words are really damn cool

I'm always so thrilled to get your emails and Facebook messages - even if it takes me forever to get back to you. I love hearing your stories and I'm in awe of the way that words connect us. I'm so grateful that we can realize that even when our circumstances look different, we all tend to ask the same questions. We wonder what contribution we want to make in life. We all worry that we are different and might be rejected, we all want to be seen, accepted and understood. And when we talk about those things, we are able to create that bond. Yay, words!

Everyone loves Grace

My little pup really is special and you all have proved it. Thanks for tolerating all the ramblings of a proud dog-mom. Our shelter dog reminds me on a daily basis that it's never to late to reinvent yourself and embrace all the joy that is around us.

It's been an incredible year for me, and I can't wait to see what 2014 has in store for all of us. I wish you all the very best for a happy and healthy new year!

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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.

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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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In which I attempt to impress my niece with "Teenaged Girl Underwater"

My 7-year old niece wants to be a marine biologist. She was explaining that her first favorite are great white sharks, but dolphins are her close second favorite. At the time, she and I were standing on a paddleboard, cruising around the sadly shark/dolphin-free Bass Lake in California. I don't get to hang out with her, or my 5-year old nephew, very often, since my sister-in-law and her family live on the opposite side of the country. As an only child, I was never sure that I'd have the chance to wear the label of Auntie - so whenever I do see them, I always bring gifts to try to bribe my way into being Cool Aunt Lisa. I'm not naturally good with kids, so I rely on books, baseball hats and interesting stories. I jumped at the chance to get into her good graces.

"I got to swim with dolphins."

She quickly turned around on the paddleboard to look at me, almost dumping us both off.

"Really? Why?"

Shit. I hadn't really thought this through. Should I just say something about Sea World? No, I shouldn't lie to 7-year olds.

"Ummm. Well. You know I used to be in movies, right? Didn't you see that one with your Grandma?"

I thought I had remembered that she came across Mrs. Doubtfire with my mother-in-law, and she had been totally confused about why Aunt Lisa was on TV and looking so young. Other than that, we'd never talked about it. In fact, my former acting career so rarely comes up with any of my in-laws, it's easy for all of us, including me, to forget it happened at all.

"No. Ohhhh. Wait. I do kinda remember that."

I explained that I had done a TV movie called Bermuda Triangle and that's where I got to swim with dolphins. And actually, there was a shark in it, too.

"Great white?" She asked.

"No, it was just a blacktip reef shark." She tried to cover her look of mild disappointment.

I tried to get my cred back.

"I think there might actually be a clip of it on YouTube, if you want to see it." She brightened and nodded, but she was clearly lost in a different thought.

"You know, I think being on TV runs in our family. My Grandma used to be a dancer and she was on TV. So, it's just like that!"

(When her Grandma was 8 years old, she was in a dance troop called the "Hi-Steppers" and they were once on some sort of variety show wearing top hats and white gloves.)

"Yep, just like that!" I agreed.

When we got back to dry land, I was able to find clips, here, here and here to show the kids my dolphin encounter. I tried to ignore the fact that these were clips of me in a hot pink bathing suit in family-friendly TV movie that somehow got removed from context and categorized under the slightly pedophile-ish sounding title of "Teenaged girl underwater."

As my niece told me about her school play and swimming practice, it got me thinking about what I was doing when I was her age. I was filming a seriously intense movie with John Malkovich called Eleni. (And since my entire life seems to be on YouTube, you can see my somewhat terrifying scene at about 23:15.)

These clips remind me why it's challenging to explain to my young friends what I used to do. Because the movies still exist, and while the experience of working was formative for me, the finished product - the actual movie - was not.  It's kind of like having your yearbook pop up unexpectedly.  It seems totally dated and you can't believe your hair really looked like that. It's an inadequate representation of something that is simultaneously important and irrelevant.

Those movies have nothing to do with her relationship with Aunt Lisa, and yet, when my niece stumbled into the TV room post-nap that one time - there Mrs. Doubtfire was, pretending to be something that she needed to care about, just because it was right in front of her.

In the end, while the dolphin swimming was sufficiently interesting for a few moments, the Junie B Jones books I got her had a more lasting impact. I also taught her some yoga postures that seem to have solidified my position in her heart.

Together, the two of us can really rock out a Tree Pose.

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