No is a complete sentence

Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 12.06.48 PM.png I did a keynote speech at The Lady Project Summit recently and Avery and Erica made a meme of it. Which flatters me beyond belief. I LOVE being a meme.

It captures something that I said during the Q&A section of my talk when a woman in the audience asked me about finding balance. Dozens of heads around her nodded as if they were equally baffled by this idea of how to have a balanced life while still having clean clothes, a side-hustle, fulfilling relationships and a strong core.

Like many people, I have a hard time saying no. There are a million prettier ways to say this, but the reason I struggle to say no comes down to one thing:

I want people to like me.

Actually, I want people to love me.

That desire has been prevalent my whole life.  I have always tried to make people happy: I do what they want me to do, I am who they want me to be. I want people to think that I am reliable and kind and just...good. In the brief moments where I feel like maybe I've succeeded, there is this emotional high. But then, like all things, that feeling of approval fades. And I have to find some other hoop to jump through to prove something to someone.

It's not one of my most charming attributes.

It's not a bad thing to want to help people--a life of service is a beautiful thing. But when it happens in place of your own needs, it's unsustainable. You burn out. And then you're no good to anyone.

I had to say no to someone recently. Two years ago I would have said yes because it would have satisfied my people-pleasing nature. I would have hated every second but I would have done it, waiting for that moment when someone patted me on the head and called me a Good Girl. Which might happen. Or it might not.

But I took a deep breath and tried not to cringe visibly as I said no. I didn't go into a diatribe about why I had to say no. I just said that wasn't going to be possible. (And then I blurted out "sorry" because that's my reflex - it was like trying to hold back a sneeze.)

And it all felt terrible.

But then pretty soon, it didn't feel terrible anymore.

Because I wasn't being selfish. I was being reasonable. It was not something I could have done without being totally overloaded and resentful. It was not going to be good for anyone.

No is a complete sentence.

I can't make everyone happy all the time.  I'm going to do things that piss people off and make them mad at me. Not everyone is required to like me.

But I like myself a hell of a lot better when I say no sometimes. I remember what my priorities are and I include myself on the list of people who deserve to be happy.

And then I can give my own self a pat on the head.

Good girl.

——–

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"To be completely honest..."

"I hate that phrase --  'to be completely honest.' Why do people say that? As if I want you to lie to me."

My friend was saying this as he and I were sitting at an outdoor bar that has swings instead of seats. We were trying to solve the problems of the world over beer and french fries. So why do people start off this way when they are about to admit something difficult about their lives?

It does seem like a silly caveat, but of course there is a reason we feel the need to ramp up like that. We live in a culture where someone says how are you and the other person says I'm fine. It's an automatic exchange. We live in a world of the thoroughly filtered selfie, the cherry-picked Facebook photo, the emotions boiled down to emojis.

It feels safe and easy to wade in these tepid, shallow relationship waters in which we risk nothing. We learn nothing. We are never vulnerable and we miss the opportunity to create a more meaningful relationship.

My dog, Grace, passed away two weeks ago. She was my best friend, my writing partner and my muse - and I am struggling to put words to my heartbreak.

I'm sad.

But I want to put a better spin on it. I don't want to make other people uncomfortable. I don't want them to think they need to do anything for me. I don't want them to worry.

But to be completely honest, my anxiety is acting up.

To be completely honest, I find it hard to focus.

To be completely honest, I cry a lot.

And this is the part where I'm supposed to pretty up my sadness and say things about how lucky we were to have Grace and how much she taught me and how someday I'll learn how to work and walk and breathe without her. I'll be okay.

It's all true.

But to be completely honest, I just miss my best friend.

When we are finally open about how we really feel, it's tempting to follow up with an apology because it feels too vulnerable, too honest. We feel guilty about having those not-so positive emotions - but that is just part of the human experience. Sadness, disappointment and loss are inevitable. I look around at the things that are going on in the world and every morning it seems there is news of more brokenness. There are real, massive, deeply troubling problems.  Many of us are struggling and many of us are not talking about it. But talking about it is what we need most.

When another friend asked me how I was doing - she really asked, looking deeply into my eyes -  I fell into her arms and sobbed in a yoga change room. Afterwards, I was tempted to apologize for my public melt-down, the open display of my true emotions.

But  I wasn't sorry.

So I sent her this. And with that show of gratitude and a heart emoji, I healed my own heart a little bit.

All while being completely honest.

 

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*****

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On letting go: growing pains and book publishing

I'm getting to the point with my book where I need to submit the final draft of my manuscript to the publishers. Because then, copyeditors and proofreaders can do their work and try to make some logical sense of the random places where I chose to put commas. Then, it will go off to the designers and on to the presses and off the presses and into cardboard boxes to go off to bookstores. It's entirely exciting.

And incredibly painful.

Because for the last several years, I've been watching this book grow from a crazy idea, into the 275 page manuscript that sits before me. I've been getting up in the middle of the night with this book. I've been startled awake by the persistent, restless whimpering of a thought or a memory or a funnier word choice - I get out of bed and rush to this computer. I sit in the glow and nurse my book to better health.

And that time is almost over. That part of my job is done.

Now, I have to send this book out into the world.

To be adored or criticized or ignored.

Not to be too dramatic or anthropomorphize too much (who am I kidding, I'm a writer/former actor and my car is named Gwen) but I feel like I'm sending my book off to college to live her own life and I'm not sure if I've done enough to prepare her. I'm not sure if she's strong enough to make it in the real world. I'm worried about where she's going to sit in the cafeteria.

Why is it that humans have such a hard time letting go? We live in a transient world, full of constant change. Births and deaths and seasons and uncontrollable events. And yet, we always assume that some things, if we hang on tight enough, will last forever.

But let's face it, that desperate clinging never feels good.

There is such beauty in change. In growth. We see that all around us right now. It's fall and the trees are turning magenta in preparation to let go of their leaves. It's the essential nature of life.

One of my favorite Buddhist stories is about a monk and a glass of water. He says, "I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.” *

I love this idea. This understanding that everything is impermanent, so why not embrace the present moment, with all its joy and discomfort and transformation -- right now? Why not surrender to the realities of this world and just choose to be happy in the face of it? It's all temporary. Even you. So have a blast and love wholeheartedly, before it's gone.

And then let it go with grace.

I want this book to go out in the world. Because I want you to read it. And because I want to sit up at 4 AM in the glow of my computer screen, and nurture another book into existence.

So, now you know where I'm going be the next few nights, until I have to turn my manuscript into an email attachment and push Send. I'll be sitting right here, enjoying my little baby...while she's still just mine.

And then I'll let it all go, and get ready for whatever comes next.

——–

* This version of the quote is from a wonderful PBS documentary called The Buddha. It's a great introduction to the concepts of Buddhism and it has "Keep Until I Delete" status on my TiVo. Even though "Keep Until I Delete" reflects an amount of permanence and control that is clearly not very Buddhist...

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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.

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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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