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

g and me

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...

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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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Follow your bliss...backlash

I think you can find criticism for pretty much anything. I recently had someone say he was never going to read anything else from me because I wished for peace for everyone in the world. Eating healthy? That's the wrong kind of healthy.

Helping people? Don't help them too much.

Cute cats? Hey, why are you discriminating against dogs?

So, it shouldn't be surprising that there is some push-back about this idea of living a life based in passion.

And I get it. People like to argue about things. But I truly believe in this whole follow your bliss thing - even if it is a phrase that seems like it should be cross-stitched. The problem is that the intention behind the idea of pursuing your dream is sometimes misinterpreted.

I don't mean quit your job and move across the country

Yes, I get it - that is actually exactly what I did. But leaving my career wasn't the first step for me. First, I realized I was miserable and started exploring what I might find exciting in my life - then I read books about art history and going to law school and working for non-profits. I kept doing the job I had, the job that was paying my mortgage, but I took community college courses, too. Living authentically and with passion is about waking up to your life, not just sleepwalking and missing the whole thing. If it means signing up for a photography class on the weekend or volunteering at a shelter, that's amazing. If it means spending one evening a week checking in on your lonely neighbor or working on that freelance idea you've had for years - spectacular. Your job is merely one aspect of your life.

I don't mean that if you don't know what your passion is, you're doomed

I hear this one a lot. People say that it annoys them to hear "follow your passion" since they don't know what that is. When I left L.A. I had no earthly clue what was next for me. None. I had no skills beyond a film set. I didn't have a back up plan or helpful things like a high school diploma. And yes, that was terrifying but I kind of loved it, too, because there was no pigeonhole waiting for me. If you are similarly clueless, I am so excited for you. Because you get to play. You get to try stuff. Here are some of the random things I tried and failed at:

  • I volunteered at a museum and helped little kids glue goggly eyes on a neckties and turn them into snakes. That didn't last long because of my lack of glue gun skills and my affection for profanity
  • I was a teaching assistant for a college course, but when I realized that was mostly about collating paper and buying tampons for students who needed them, I decided to stop doing that
  • I worked at a radio station but again my use of bad language made me not a great fit
  • I was a tutor for an adult literacy program which I loved but found heartbreakingly devastating
  • I designed websites for non-profits which I also loved mostly because I got to make pretty things while wearing sweatpants
  • I took a certification class to become a mediator and realized that when people yell about getting divorced, I mostly cry

If you don't know what your talents are, or what you love - there is nothing wrong with you. You just get to go on an adventure with your own soul. Are you mildly interested in heirloom seeds? Greek mythology? Helping people with addiction problems? Great. Step one in Project Passion: go to the library and take out a bunch of books on the topic.

Look at that - you're already living a passionate and engaged life.

Go, you.

I don't mean that you should plummet your family into poverty while you pursue your dream of being an Ultimate Fighting Champion

I expect you to be a reasonable human being here, and really look at how your passion might affect you or those you love. Some dreams should just be dreams. Might you be hurting someone? Then maybe it's time to look at ways to embrace your passion in a way that is less all-encompassing, or maybe it's a chance to keep yourself open for something else you might love.

I don't mean that it's easy

Of course it's not easy. Why the hell would I bother talking about it so much if it was easy? Living authentically might be one of the harder things we ever do in our lives. It's scary and vulnerable and people criticize you. It's painful getting out of your comfort zone and sacrifices are inevitable. Sometimes it downright sucks. But the inner peace that comes from feeling like you are living a life that reflects who you are - that is entirely worth it.

I'm actually not telling you that you should do anything

I'm simply saying that my life got a whole lot better when I stopped pretending to be someone else and started focusing on what I thought success looked like. If you're happy with your life, I'm thrilled for you. Don't let anyone tell you how you are supposed to live. But I like talking about passion because I never thought I deserved it. I thought it was more important to keep other people happy. I thought I was too old (at twenty-two!) to take on something new. I felt the need to live out of momentum and not rock the boat. I assumed I was incapable of doing anything other than acting, so I was destined to be dark and tortured. But really, I was just scared and didn't think I deserved something that felt better to me.

If you feel like you need permission to live passionately: here it is. Permission granted.

You deserve to feel that puppy-love spark about your life. And if you don't know what would offer that, you deserve to give yourself a little time - ten minutes a day - if that's all you have, to listen to your heart and explore the world and see what warms your soul. Because when you are happier and more fulfilled - you are able to give more to the world. And I don't don't know if you've looked around lately, but the world really needs it.

For me - it all started with the tinniest little whisper from deep within my core:

I like books.

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An open letter to artists (I'm sorry, but it's for your own good)

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Dear writers,

I love you. You are my people. But please, please - stop whining about writing.

I recently read the introduction to a book that started with the author going on for eight pages about how hard it is to write a book. At the end of it, I felt like telling her - good God, don't write a book then! Go knit a sweater or paint something or join a soccer team! Do something that makes you happy! Why do I want to participate in something that you call a misery?

But this seems to be a trend with writers.

"Writing is hard work and bad for the health."

 - E.B. White

"A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than other people."

- Thomas Mann

"There is nothing to writing. All you do it sit at a typewriter and bleed."

- Ernest Hemingway

I don't mean to be calling bullshit on Hemingway, but let's face it - no one complains like writers. No one can translate suffering into such beautiful prose.

But I have a problem with it. It perpetuates the myth of artists as fundamentally tortured and mentally unhealthy. Personally, I want the world's artists to be okay, to stay alive and vibrant and pour their joy into their work. I don't want to think that the book I hold in my hands nearly sent you over the edge. And I certainly don't want my own life's work to be the death of me.

Why don't we see contractors or veterinarians flinging themselves to the proverbial fainting couch over their vocations? Why are there no quotes about scuba diving instructors torturing themselves for their work?

I have a theory. I think it's because as writers we worry that we need to earn our place in the world. If we tell everyone how hard writing is, we can justify the importance of our work. We think that suffering means we are serious.

It's time we let go of that.

There is nothing glorious in pain. Let's stop inflicting artistic misery on the world and thinking that makes our work seem vital.

Our work is vital.

Art is vital.

You know how I know this? Because the first evidence of humans making art is forty thousand years old. The first evidence of any sort of agriculture is only ten thousand years old. This means, as a species, we thought about making beautiful, essentially purposeless things thirty thousand years before we thought about coming up with a reliable way to feed ourselves.*

Yes, writing can be hard. It is emotionally engaging in ways that can be uncomfortable. It makes you dig deep into your own stuff, finding harsh truths and accessing universal struggles. You are inventing entire worlds. But it is also among the most cushy jobs on the planet. You're not tending to leprosy victims in a rural clinic or calling the parents of a car crash victim. You are not picking strawberries for twelve hours in the blazing sun.

The world will not have a greater appreciation for our work if they think we are dragging our souls through the mud for it. We don't have to be martyrs to do impactful work. Scars are not badges of honor.

Everyone has a voice. How amazing is that? So, let's use it. Proudly. Let's enjoy the work that we chose to do. Let's sit down to our work and pour our love and enthusiasm and passion on to the pages. Let's ooze delight all over the keyboard. Let's ditch the insecurity and believe that we earned the right to tell our story, just because we are alive. Let's not contribute to the negativity of the world - the tortured writer is such a cliché. It's boring.

And if writing is really that painful for you, if the vulnerability of creative expression really does send you to bed, paralyzed with endless writer's block and shivering with agonizing self-doubt...maybe it's time to close the Word document do something else.

There are plenty of other jobs available that are filled with rejection and pay next-to-nothing.

*for more on this, check out Elizabeth Gilbert's new book Big Magic

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Embrace your weird

Me. At my wedding. I've always felt like I was weird.

I'm goofy and dorky and awkward. I make faces like that when I'm supposed to be a composed bride.

Sometimes people stare at me. There is pointing. And whispering.

I didn't go to school the way most other people did. I had different experiences and I didn't know things that other people knew about. I didn't know how to play hopscotch or jacks, I knew how to play poker and craps - those were the kinds of games we played on set.

I was super insecure about that. I liked my job as an actor, I enjoyed working, but I also felt ashamed because it made me different.

I felt like I'd never fit in anywhere.

But I've realized that the vast majority of people feel like they are different for one reason or another. They think that they don't fit in. That they have to hide something about themselves so that other people will accept them.

But the problem with that fear is that it isolates us and keeps us in situations that stifle our talent and true purpose.

That thing that makes us feel weird is actually really important. That thing can make us powerful. Because if we can learn to embrace that, we can do anything. If we embrace our weirdness, we can be our true selves and bring our own unique perspective and experience to the world.

Hiding and feeling ashamed just doesn’t work. The desperate desire to fit in only makes us invisible.

I was always terrified to share my writing because I was worried that people would tell me that I sucked...and I didn’t know if I could recover from that. But I realized that I'd never be happy if I didn’t at least attempt thing I was most passionate about. It got to the point where it was more painful to stifle what I loved than it was to be criticized for it.

After I started this blog -- that really scary thing actually happened. There were some people who told me I sucked. Anonymous Huffington Post commenters said all the terrible things I worried people would say, that I was washed up and irrelevant and a bad writer and it made me cry and feel miserable.

It felt like a punch in the face.

But it didn’t kill me.

Because, actually, it didn’t matter what they thought of me. There are plenty of other things those people can read on the internet. There are lots of things about cats wearing sunglasses and endless Buzzfeed lists -- and I hope they enjoy those more than my work. Eventually, I stopped crying and went back to my desk and I wrote more. Because my job is to write. Because it's none of my business what those other people think about me - it matters most what I think about me.

That's what happens when you embrace your weird.

When you get comfortable with your weird, then you no longer feel the need to pick on someone else for theirs.

In embracing my weird, I wrote my first book. And then my second book. I started giving talks at colleges, high schools, and conferences. I brought to light everything that I was once ashamed of. I talked about how I never graduated from high school, that characters in books were my best friends, that I struggle with anxiety and panic attacks.

I've gotten to the point where I would rather fail than quit - and that's when cool things become possible.

——–

(By the way, this is pretty much what I talk about when I do workshops and talks. If you think your school/conference/company might want to hear more about embracing your weird - contact me - LisaJakub108@gmail.com) You can leave a comment here, or join us on Facebook or Twitter!

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Stepping back: lessons of 2014

feet As I said last year, I'm not really a fan of New Year's resolutions. They tend to be vague proclamations, glorifying some unrealistic ideal, and often resulting in a deep feeling of inadequacy and another lapsed gym membership.

I prefer to look back at what I learned over the past year. Once again, 2014 was a year of throwing myself into a free-fall of new and slightly terrifying situations. Some I managed okay, many I could have done better. But I can say this with total certainty: I showed up for my life.

Sometimes you need to believe in yourself even when some other people don't

I heard "no" a lot this year. I received a stack of rejections for my book. Each one made me want to hide in shame. But there was a tiny part of me that clung to a fundamental truth -- I came into this world to be a writer. That voice was almost drowned out by the much louder voice that said I should just quit this whole writing thing and take up cake decorating. But persistence tends to pay off. I could not be more proud that I found a supportive and enthusiastic publisher this year, and that my book will be published in June.

Sometimes people are more wonderful than you could have imagined

I remain in humbled awe of how kind you all are to me. You send me emails and tweets and Facebook messages and funny memes of dogs. You tell me about your families and your jobs and your dreams. You tell me how we are alike and how you feel connected. There are more of you now, and I can't always respond to everyone. But please know that I read every message and each one is more meaningful than I could ever express. You are why I show up at this keyboard every day.

Sometimes you need to do things that you swore you'd never do

I have continued to do talks at conferences and colleges. Two years ago, I would have said this was as likely as me becoming the heavy-weight champion of the northeast. The biggest shocker of all is that I actually enjoy it. This completely introverted girl with social anxiety and a general loathing for anything that requires more than sweatpants, actually has a good time talking in front of people. Go figure.

Sometimes the world fucking sucks

Robin Williams died. And it still breaks my heart.

And sometimes there is poignant beauty that comes from the world and its fucking suckiness

As a country, and as a little community here on this site, we started talking about depression, anxiety and loneliness. We connected and comforted each other and we told the people we love that we love them. We said the most important thing, over and over again. You are not alone. And you all inspired me to start working on my next book, which will be grounded in this topic. It will be honest and it will offer hope and it will be funny - because we have to be able to laugh.

Find a place inside where there's joy, and the joy will burn out the pain. ~Joseph Campbell

I wish all of you joy and peace in 2015.

xo,

~L

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Hey, wake up - this is your dream


A few weeks ago, I was sitting by a pond with my friend, T. It was a warm 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 12,000 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 has seasonal allergies and intestinal issues. I used to get frustrated and cry because no one wanted to publish my book, now I 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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Childhood choices: is it okay to recruit a 9-year old?

Jaden Newman is 9 years old. She also just became the youngest person ever recruited by a college program. Jaden plays basketball. I'm no talent scout but I saw a 30-second video of her playing - and she's damn good. Clearly, the University of Miami thinks so, too.

While I understand why many people are celebrating this fantastic achievement, it still makes me squirm a little. I'm not sure that we should be celebrating colleges recruiting 4th graders.

It's wonderful that Jaden is such a talented, hard working kid who has found something that she loves to do. But can't it just be left at that? Isn't that enough? Why does basketball need to be something that defines her future right now? There's a lot of baggage that comes along with being labeled a "phenom" before you hit double-digits.

I'm not sure why a university needs to take ownership of Jaden's future at this point. She should have the freedom to wake up next Wednesday morning and decide that she doesn't want to play basketball anymore and that she is much more interested in the debate team. Childhood is all about being free to explore who you want to be for the rest of your life. And if there is pressure of a college scholarship and this precedent-setting recruitment, I worry it will stifle her vision for herself.

Maybe Jaden really did find the thing she wants to do for the rest of her life at the age of three. Maybe this is just giving her a great option down the road. I hope that is what happens.

When I was three, I started my career and I identified myself as an actor for the next 18 years. Then, when I was 22, I slowly realized that I didn't want to do that job anymore. I had never even bothered to ask myself what else there was, because it hadn't occurred to me that there were other options available. I assumed I was incapable of anything else. Suddenly, I had no clue who I was. I identified myself as an actor before I identified myself as anything else. If you had asked me who I was, I would have said:

1. An actor

2. A girl

3. A Canadian

So, if I wasn't an actor anymore, was I anything at all?

For me, it worked out - I don't have any regrets. I was able to find a new path and eventually found my self-worth somewhere else (thank you, therapy). But not all kid actors end up in a good place. I hope Jaden knows that she has the ability to be something different if she wants - even if it doesn't come with the media attention and the prestige of college sports. Just because she is good at something doesn't mean she is required to do it.

When little kids say they want to be firefighters, we don't suit them up, put an axe in their hands and send them out there. But with sports, music and acting, it seems like the rules are different.

I believe that it's always important to know, wherever you are in life, that you are allowed to change your mind. None of us have to be just One Thing. If we all had to commit to what we wanted to be when we were little - there would be a whole lot of firefighters and ballerinas. And my husband would be a bird.

So, go do what you love, Jaden. Kick ass and have fun - whether you want to be a basketball player, a firefighter, a ballerina or a bird. I'm pretty sure you'd be awesome at all of them.

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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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Dueling definitions: the trouble with labels

I've been going to these writing conferences. They can be quite intimidating, especially for an introvert like myself. They are in huge open rooms with florescent lighting and too much air-conditioning blasting from dusty vents. There are armies of tiny water bottles and people who really want you to wear badges. I go to these conferences to learn how to do the non-writing part of being a writer. These things are about the chatting. The promotion of yourself. The handing out of cards. The perfecting of the encouraging nod at the lady who writes for The New Yorker and who, ironically, is telling a very boring story.

Even though I wish I could just stay home and put letters and spaces together forever without any human interaction - I need to learn, so I go to conferences.

I was at one recently and I was talking to a man. If you were going to cast a movie and needed someone to play the role of "Writer" you would hire this dude. He was old and white and wore a sports coat with elbow patches on it. He carried a leather briefcase that was worn and reminiscent of a saddle. You just knew he wrote with a fountain pen. It was all disappointingly cliché.

We chatted for a little while and then exchanged cards. His card had things like PhD written on it. When I handed him mine, he looked at it for a moment.

 

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Eventually, he raised his caterpillar eyebrows. He made a sound that was somewhere between a snort and that thing you do when you are trying to clear phlegm.

"Writer, huh?"

It was clear that whatever my credentials may or may not be, he wasn't buying it.

I wanted to crawl under a table and die. Conveniently, I was standing right next to a folding table that held all the published books of the published writers who were not me. The "real" writers who had books you could hold and run your thumb over the SKU number. Perhaps the weighty, profound thoughts contained in those published books would collapse the table, crush me and put me out of my hack misery.

I swore I'd never go to one of those conferences again.

But then I realized -- why did this guy get to define me?

I am a writer. You know how I know that?

  • Because I sit down every day at 7:30 am and write. And I don't stop for the next 5 hours.
  • Because I get up in the middle of the night and run to my desk to write down ideas I have for a story.
  • Because I've been writing to comfort myself and process the world since I was four years old.
  • Because if I don't write for a few days, I get a little crazy.

And yes, my words appear in magazines/blogs/online publications with a byline and a photo -- but above all, I am a writer because I say I am. I am the one who gets to define myself. Not Mr. Elbow Patches. Not anonymous internet commenters. Not even my family or friends. Me. Just me.

It gets dangerous if we let other people do our sorting and categorizing for us, regardless of whether we are talking about profession, politics, race or life choices. When others slap their own labels on us, we are vulnerable to their whims and biases. Most dangerous of all: when we let people tell us who we're supposed to be, after a while, we become inclined to believe to them.

Let us return to the enduring wisdom of Friends for a moment.

Rachel: It's like all my life everybody keeps telling that I'm a shoe. You're a shoe, you're a shoe, you're a shoe! But what if I don't want to be a shoe anymore? Maybe I'm a purse, or a hat... I don't want you to buy me a hat, I'm saying I am a hat! It's a metaphor, daddy!

That's why we love Rachel. She decided to be a hat. But it's challenging to be a hat. Sometimes it's easier to be the shoe everyone says you are.

I don't know if the man at the conference would have been happier if I was a shoe. I'm not sure what he wanted from me. Maybe if my card had said actor or housewife or frozen banana salesperson, it would have made him more comfortable. But for whatever reason, writer didn't seem to work for him.

So, I say this with the utmost respect: fuck him. Fuck the judgment and the assumption that he gets to define who I am and how I lead my life.

I'm a hat, dammit. A writing hat.

I don't know what you are. You might be a hat or a shoe or a frozen banana salesperson. You might not really know what you are. That's totally cool. That's the adventure and joy of life - you get to figure that out. And that's a constant process, because you will evolve and then you get to start the self-discovery all over again.

But however it all plays out, the crazy, twisting, hairpin turns of your life, please don't give the power of definition over to anyone else. It's your birthright. You get to keep that, regardless of how many tweed jackets, advanced degrees or SKU numbers anyone else has.

You define you.

 

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Why I write: losing and finding my voice

CameraAwesomePhoto Someone asked me recently why I write.

My immediate answer was: because I have to.

It's like asking someone why they blink. I've been writing ever since I can remember and at this point it's an automatic response. The part that is pretty new is the part where I actually let other people read the things I write. There was a very specific moment when I decided to do that.

Many people have stories of being reborn after an illness. They speak of the resulting spiritual enlightenment and a reordering of priorities. They wake up to their lives and are compelled to live in the moment. Usually, it’s brought on by cancer or something equally horrible.

I was lucky - my wake-up call was a little quieter.

I lost my voice.

I got a cold and just when I thought it was getting better, I went silent. Suddenly and completely silent.

This had never happened to me before. I always assumed that if you lost your voice, you could still whisper. Not true. Turns out whispering is just as hard on your vocal cords, so even that felt like I was being choked.

I could not voice a single word. No dinnertime conversation with my husband. No phone calls catching up with friends. No laughing. No errands that required conversing with anyone. No idle chatter with my dog.

Someone suggested to me it was like a silent retreat, which I’ve been wanting to do forever. I wish I had the inner strength to treat it as such — but it felt nothing like that. It was stifling and claustrophobic. I felt so miserable and bottled up that I couldn't even write.

I filled my days with noise. The TV or the stereo was always on, filling the air with sounds I couldn't express. I had always loved silence. My daily mediation was always so important to me, but now I found the quiet to be excruciating. The solace of silence that had been my savior through the hardest times of my life, was now mocking me.

I got depressed. I looked up voice loss on Web MD. I got more depressed. I was convinced I would be voiceless forever.

After ten days of silence, my throat started to heal and I got my voice back. I wanted to shout from the rooftop. I wanted to express every thought that came into my head. I just wanted to be me again.

For a person who always wants to just slide by and fade quietly into the background, the fact that I was desperate to embrace my me-ness was something of a revelation.

I’ve always been a people-pleaser. Never wanted to rock the boat. Always wanted to be a good girl. To fit in. But when I literally could not speak up and be heard, that was all I wanted.

In losing my voice, I found it again.

I realized that I had been choking my voice in the rest of my life, too. I never wanted people to read my work because I was scared of being vulnerable. The day I got my voice back, I decided to write the book I had been thinking about for years. I decided to stop playing small and hiding from my life. That was January 16th, 2012.

Having a voice is a precious gift, however you chose use it, by writing, painting, teaching, working out complex mathematical equations or starting a revolution. Sure, you might offend someone by speaking your truth. You might be laughed at or criticized or worst of all - ignored completely.

But all that is preferable to engulfing yourself in silence and never using your voice to better yourself or the world. Because one thing I've learned about life - you need to truly show up if you want it to be good.

Like the wise prophets Barenaked Ladies said:

"If I hide myself where ever I go, am I ever really there?"

- For You

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If you're a violet, be a violet: thoughts on authenticity

orchid My husband is reading this book for work called The Speed of Trust. He was telling me a story from it, that goes something like this:

The president of a university was preparing for a fancy dinner in his home. There were going to be government officials and major donors and other fancy people in attendance. As they were setting up, a delivery of beautiful, elaborate flower centerpieces arrived, which had been ordered by the development office of the university. But the president's wife came to him and said there was a problem. The housekeeper had already prepared centerpieces: single violets that she had picked from the garden and placed in butter dishes. The president looked at the fancy flowers and said "No problem. Just send the flower arrangements back to the florist. We already have the centerpieces that Lola made."

This story takes my breath away.

It's supposed to be a story about respect, but it also signifies something else to me. It's a reminder how beautiful it is when someone lives authentically and doesn't cave to the grandiose expectations of others. For many of us, the simplest thing is the best thing.

Sometimes I feel like a violet in a butter dish, surrounded by exotic arrangements. Right now, my book agent is sending the manuscript of my memoir out to publishers. As I learn my way through this process, I hear that what "sells" in actor memoir is drama. Rehab, Twitter fights, scandals...those long, ugly roads that I intentionally bypassed.

My book doesn't have those things. It has similar stories and themes as this blog - the challenges of growing up, figuring out who you are, and balancing that with what is expected of you. It's about those real life questions we all wrestle with, like how do we peel ourselves off the couch after we've had our hearts broken? How much do we give up so we can discover our true purpose in life? It's about the ways we are all the same and why it's never to late to write the script for your own life.

The point is: if you are a violet in a butter dish, there is no use in trying to be an exotic, towering orchid. And if you are an orchid, it's pointless to try to be a violet. One is not better or worse. They are just different. The real value comes in living whoever you are with wholeheartedness.

But it seems that because I don't have orchid-type drama, it's more challenging to convince publishers that people actually want to read that. According to those rules, if I would just have a psychotic breakdown and/or get a bikini wax on a reality television show, I would write a better book.

Sometimes that is frustrating, but this flower story reminds me that I don't write for the people who just want orgies and car crashes. I don't do it to be famous or to sell more copies than a Real Housewife. I am not going to dress myself up like an orchid and climb into a tiny box that someone else created, just to sell books. It's not worth it.

I write for me. I write because it's the air I breathe and it's the way I relate to the world.

I also write for you. I write for people who love to read and love to connect. I write for those who feel that words have the power to change things. Inspire people. Provide comfort when everything looks dark and scary.

That's why I write.  And why I will keep writing. I thank you for reading the words of a happy little violet in a butter dish.

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Conversations in Common: March Madness Edition

When it really comes down to it - we're all the same. Even, unfathomably, me and this guy. This is my friend Jim Miller.

LJ7

Jim and I have many things in common. Like:

- we were both more famous in the 80s than we are now - we both wore short shorts for our jobs* - we both retired in our 20s and needed to figure out what the hell to do next

But unlike me, Jim wasn't an actor - he played basketball. When we first met, I didn't know anything about him. I was mostly just concerned that the 17-inch hight difference between us meant that I needed to talk louder. But, it turns out that he could hear me just fine up there and we became friends.

And then people said stuff to me, like "Do you know who that is? That's Jimmy Miller."

There were actually italics in their voices.

The italics were well earned. Jim was MVP of the 1984 NCAA Eastern Regional championships as the University of Virginia advanced to the Final Four. He was a Parade All American, Converse Academic All American, he won a Hertz Number One Award that OJ Simpson presented to him (and no, he's not sure how to feel about that either). He played with Ralph Sampson. He was drafted by the Utah Jazz. He played in Austria and Spain. He was on little cards looking very sporty, like this:

BiJ4ZJ0IYAEKe7s

After years of having people whispering about me, now they were whispering to me, about Jim.

Let me make something clear: I think Jim was more famous than me. There was actually a POSTER of him that college students used to hang in their dorms. Sure, I was on the Mrs. Doubtfire poster but I was one of five people, and my face was mostly obscured by Robin Williams' breast. So I'm pretty sure this means Jim was more famous than me.

But regardless of who was more famous, we have a lot in common and that's incredibly comforting since I have spent so much of my life feeling like a weirdo. It's good to know that other people have left high-profile careers and are doing just fine.

I sat down with Jim recently to talk about his past and his experience with retirement - things we had never talked about before. After several hours of comparing notes, I was even more reassured that the superficial differences between people are so misleading.

When he thinks back on his career, his favorite things sound just like mine. He found that relationships and travel were the most rewarding part of his job. It wasn't all about the fancy things like sitting in the VIP section of a club on Sunset with Lawrence Fishburne. It wasn't all about the awards that he keeps in his basement somewhere. It was about the people. The places. The experiences.

I was most interested in how he made his decision to retire, and wondered if it had been as difficult as my decision had been. After being drafted by an NBA team and released, Jim was playing in the Continental Basketball Association - the minor leagues - playing with guys who were 10 years older than him. They were well into their 30s and still clung to their hopes of playing in the NBA. That possibility became less likely by the year, but they were still chasing the dream. Seeing that made Jim realize that he didn't "want to be one of those guys, lost in the CBA."

That instantly reminded me of a very similar moment in my life. I was siting in a waiting room in a casting office. It had taken me two hours in L.A. traffic to get to the audition and it wasn't even a script I was excited about. I saw a woman in her 40s come out of what must have been a bad audition. She looked exhausted and decided to take it out on the receptionist and yell at her about why they didn't validate parking.

There are moments in any profession where we get a glimpse of our own future - and it might not jive with what we want for ourselves. I was 22 years old. I really didn't want to be 40 and still going to crappy auditions where they decided to hire the buxom blond instead. I didn't have a devotion to the work that could fuel me through the hard times.

Jim and I talked about the difficulty of deciding to retire, even when the job was not fulfilling anymore. With professions like ours, you feel obligated to stick it out, give it one last try. But, finally, he said you just have to "have your 'Come to Jesus' moment and look in the mirror" and make the hard decision.

In his mid-20s, Jim retired from basketball - the thing that had been the center of his life since he was 9 years old. He had to figure out who he was beneath the basketball player, but he felt that since all his energy had been so focused, he was not properly trained for the world outside of professional sports.  I totally related - it seemed that neither one of us had any direction after retirement. So, he took to a trial and error approach, just like I did.

We both felt the pressure to do something "important" to fill that void. We needed to do something that somehow justified our decision to leave. Something that seemed just as cool. But really, what were either of us going to do to fill the massive void left by Hollywood or professional sports? Those careers have been idolized to such a degree (just check out E! or ESPN for a reminder of the extent of the hero-worshiping) that it's hard to imagine where you go from there that doesn't seem like a disappointment to other people.

But as Jim said, it can be really dangerous when you tie up your self esteem with what other people think of you. Because then you are living for others, not yourself. Your sense of self-worth needs to come from somewhere else, somewhere deeper than your resume. But that can be difficult when you've tied up your identity with one thing for so long.

Jim now loves being a husband, a dad and running his own financial consulting firm. He talks about this phase of life being his halftime. He is assessing the things that looked important in the first half of his life, and seeing if they still deserve his focus and energy. He is making adjustments. He is choosing to do some things differently in the second half. He's not afraid to change the line up of his priorities.

I find that so inspiring, because I think many of us operate from a place of momentum. We do what we've always done. We think we are too busy/tired/stubborn to do something different, even if it would make a huge difference to the quality of our lives.

But if we can just give ourselves a little break and really examine where we are, we can get back out there even stronger and play this life according to our own rules.

*proof of Jim and I in our short shorts.

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The Tiger Mother: race, success and lessons on the wrong thing

The Tiger Mother is at it again. She's getting folks all riled up by saying that the parenting style of some groups (such as Chinese, Indians and Mormons) primes their kids for success more than others.  Personally, I can't offer any opinion on parenting, since we've not chosen to go the kid route. My only parenting advice is that liver treats work well for convincing Grace to not attack the neighbor dog. People are getting all flustered about the racial implications of what she's saying - but I keep coming back to one thing:

What the hell does "success" mean?

Tiger mom says it's clear - income, occupational status and test scores. That kind of makes sense. It's a nice, clean, empirical way of measuring something.

  • Higher income = more success
  • Higher status = more success
  • Higher test scores = more success

That seems to be a widely accepted definition in our society. But I'm not sure I like it. By those measurable accounts, I was much more successful when I was 15 than I am at 35. Twenty years ago, I had:

  • Higher income - I got paid more.
  • Higher status - I was more "famous" (whatever that creepy word means).
  • Higher test scores - I rarely went to school, but the movie marketing people told me that I "tested well" with screening audiences, which resulted in more work.

But what about...oh, I don't know...happiness? Where does that rank? What about passion? Purpose? Authenticity? How do you measure that stuff and roll it up into success? In our culture it's pretty simple: you don't. You toss them to the side because you can't buy yourself a boat with purpose.

I have so much more joy and passion now than I did when I was an actor, but those intangibles don't seem to carry as much weight in some circles.

I recently made a list of the things that equal a successful life for myself. It mostly had to do with my family and friends, contributing to the greater good and taking care of my mind, body and spirit. None of them had to do with being on the cover of People Magazine.

But it took me a while to develop this way of thinking. When I left my acting career, I was scared of what people would think. Would I get thrown in a pile of useless "has beens"? Was I, at 22, washed up and destined to never do anything as good ever again?

I went through a phase where I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. I even visited a law school to sit in on classes and went to their campus store and looked longingly at the sweatshirts. At least if I was a lawyer, I'd have a fancy degree I could wave around. Something that proved to other people that I was still worth something.

It finally dawned on me that I didn't want to be a lawyer (no offense to the lawyers out there...especially my dad). I was just trying to feel like I had a justified place in the world and people would think that I was still successful. But what I really wanted was to be a writer. That less prestigious, less financially rewarding occupation was what made my heart flutter.

Ambition is wonderful. But I was being ambitious about the wrong things.  What I really wanted was a life that really fed my soul - not just my bank account and other people's opinions of me.

Being successful now means that my life has meaning. Being "known" never made me feel successful. Doing interviews didn't do that. Getting invited to fancy parties didn't do that.

What does make me feel successful is volunteering to clean litter boxes and write thank you notes at the animal shelter. Or getting an email from someone who was touched by something I wrote on this blog - which I offer for free and get paid absolutely nothing. Or making my husband laugh.

So, what if we thought about success differently? What if we thought about:

  • passion instead of income?
  • authenticity instead of status?
  • happiness instead of test scores?

I'm not sure that the Tiger mom would understand, but you couldn't pay me a million dollars to go back to being "successful." I'll take my poorly-paying, lower-status profession that makes me deliriously happy. And besides, I don't think lawyers are allowed to wear sweatpants to work.

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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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I can't do everything

I've always been one of those people who gets overwhelmed by the world. I think my emotional nature is a left-over occupational hazard from being an actor during my formative years. For 18 years I needed to be able to cry on cue, and it seems those floodgates just never closed. Suffering of any kind leaves me weak in the knees and injustice makes me feel like clawing my skin off.

I still have a touch of the drama, apparently.

But I realized that I can't just shut my eyes to the suffering in the world. I tried putting my hands over my ears and singing until it went away. That didn't work. So, instead of crying about it, I've decided there might be a little something I can do. But what? And how do I handle the fact that I can't fix everything? How do I save the whales and cure hunger and stop global warming? I'm one small person so how do I make a dent? How do I pick just one thing in this sea of need? It's useless, right?

But then I read this:

I am only one, But still I am one. I cannot do everything, But still I can do something; And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

- Edward Everett Hale

Hells yes, Mr. Hale.

I started volunteering at my local non-kill animal shelter. Which happens to be the place where we met our darling girl, Grace. I figure that I owe them, big time.

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So, I cuddle cats and clean litter boxes and let puppies chew on my fingers. I address thank you notes and fill out donation forms. I thought it would be too sad to work in a shelter. It's not. It's joyful. Even the photocopying is joyful. And it is one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. They are short-staffed during the holidays, so I'll be there to try to fill in the gaps.

The other day, I was opening up their mail and organizing the checks that came in. When donations arrived for $200 or $300, my heart leapt. That would buy so many treats! New beds! Pay for more surgeries!

But when I opened the checks for $5. That's when I lost my shit. That's when I cried.

Because those people understand so much better than I do that even a little bit helps. Those people, regardless of their financial situation, made the decision to do what they can and speak up for what they believe in.

I want to hug every one of them. Because they remind me of something that I don't want to ever forget. It's good to have empathy, but it's not so good when I drown in it and apathetically throw up my hands in defeat. The whole point of life is to wake up and do something meaningful. Make the moment count.

I can't cure cancer and I can't make sure every animal is in a forever home for Christmas. But I can spend twenty minutes talking to the new scared kitten that just came in and encouraging her to eat some food. I can write a note to the man who donated $5 and tell him that his donation meant something. That he means something.

And if I can do that in this season - this season that at its core is about love and giving - that's all I really need.

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35

I will be turning 35 years old next month and I kind of feel like a failure. You see, I really thought I'd have a pet monkey by now.

Other than that, I feel pretty good about 35.

Since I started contributing to a retirement fund when I was 4 years old, I don't tend to put much stock in traditional timelines. Not much in my life has gone the normal way. I never wanted the things the other girls wanted. I would stare blankly when they said they wanted to have a million babies with some boy, and I would just think - some real estate would be nice. You know, somewhere for my pet monkey to play. 

I didn't even think I'd ever get married. But at some point, I told my boyfriend I'd like to have a little party in Italy where we got dressed up and all our favorite people were there and we stood in front of them and promised to love each other forever and then it was legally binding.

He took that as "wedding" and I went along because I love him and got a pretty ring out of the deal.

Many of my friends live very by-the-book lives and I wonder what that would be like. Sometimes I have a twinge of jealousy because it looks so comforting and socially acceptable.

For example, my job title is "writer" which makes me enormously happy, but it also carries the same seriousness as a small child who decides to call herself "unicorn." There are very few credentials required. Identifying yourself as anything artistic tends to be followed by a head-tilt and requests to prove and justify yourself.

Many of my friends have jobs like Program Administrator of Something Awesome or the Director of All Things Important. My business cards come from VistaPrint, where a friend recently ordered some that looked equally official...for her toddler to give out at play-dates.

It can be hard when everyone else seems to be doing things on some culturally pre-approved time frame. When the engagement party is followed by the wedding and then the baby shower. When the graduation is followed by the job and then by the promotion to the corner office. But some of us do things in a different order. Backwards or sideways or not at all. And that is okay, too. I don't think that anyone on their deathbed has ever said, "I'm just so glad I did everything in a timely fashion."

There are few things I can say with total certainty after my almost-35 years of existence, but this is one of them: as long as you're still breathing, you have the power to change your mind, reinvent yourself and follow that bliss. It's never too late.

A complaint about being "too old" for something deserves to be followed by a smack upside the head. I've had several friends die.

At age 19.

At 21.

At 32.

At ages that should be about beginnings, not endings. The idea of bitching about getting older - a luxury that my friends never had - seems obscenely ungrateful. So, I'll skip the jokes about celebrating my 29th birthday "again" because I'm proud of my age. I don't want to live my life by the numbers.

So, come on, 35, let's see what you've got. (I really hope it's a pet monkey.)

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Storytelling: honesty or exploitation?

amazing-black-and-white-book-books-memoir-Favim.com-341079_large

When I first decided to be a little more open with my writing, I was really nervous. I was concerned about interaction with the faceless "public." But I soon realized that I absolutely love getting your emails and Facebook messages. Connecting with you all is a joy. I'm honored that you would reach out to share your stories and ask me questions. (You also tend to be a kind and hilarious group of people who write well, so that's pretty damn cool.)

Recently, I got an email that really made me think. I believe that it said some decent things in the beginning, but in typical me-style, I skipped right over them and got to the part that made me squirm.

...the only issue I have with your blog posts is that you keep pointing out that you "were" an actor. If you want to move on from your past as much as your posts seem to illustrate, why do you keep bringing up the fact that you were once an actor publicly on this blog? Are you exploiting the fact that you were once an actor to promote your book and blog site?

Ouch.

But after I licked my wounds for a bit, I realized that I really wanted to answer this question.

When I left L.A, I hid from my former career for more than 10 years. I rarely talked about it, even to my closest friends. I denied it when people recognized me. I was ashamed of the way it made me stand out and how I was treated differently from other people. I felt like a freak.

I've since decided that negating 18 years of one's existence isn't healthy and I wanted to have the freedom to talk about my life from age 4 - 22. And by "talk" I mean "write" because I'm a writer and that's what I do. I write about it, because my past exists, and I look like an idiot when I pretend there is not an elephant in the room. I'd rather invite that elephant to sit down and rest a while and not worry about trying to hide behind the ficus plant.

More than that, I wanted to write about the stuff that few others seemed to be talking about. Like the fact that actors are normal people. The fact that the entertainment industry is not automatically the right path for everyone. The fact that when you see the sausage being made, sometimes you don't want to be part of it. The fact that people, regardless of their profession, can change their minds and chose a dream that looks different from what people expected of them.

Am I exploiting my life? I don't know. Cheryl Strayed wrote Wild about walking the Pacific Crest Trail. In it, she talks about her past - so is she "exploiting" her drug history? Her mother's death? Maybe she is exploiting Pacific Crest Trail itself?

Writers tend to write what they know. Which is a good thing, because when we write about things we don't know - it makes for some pretty shitty reading material.

But he went on:

Almost a little hypocritical if you ask me. I honestly believe if you wanted to step away from your celebrity status completely, then you should change you name, make a classified pseudonym for all your public posts, and creative writing projects.

While I want to thank this person for his career advice, I also want to add that I've been doing that for years. I did change my name and have another successful blog that has absolutely nothing to do with my former career. I also wrote for non-profits and did communications consulting. You don't know about any of that...well...because I used a pseudonym.

In addition to that writing, I also want to write about pop culture. I'm a sociology nerd who reads soc textbooks for fun. I'm fascinated by the way we structure and institutionalize our lives and the way we, as a society, behave.  I want to write about the cultural pressures that come along with choosing a different path in life and I don't want to feel like I have to hide who I am. And who I am includes (but is not exclusively limited to) my past.

I wanted to write about some of my personal experiences because I think they are a way in which I can contribute to the conversation. I have some stuff to say that I hope can be of use to someone. I've shared some things about my life, and in return, people have told me the most wonderful, intriguing, inspiring things about their lives. That connection through storytelling is what it's all about for me. And I can't connect if I'm not honest about who I am.

He concluded by saying that actors have amazing opportunities and that:

This aspect alone in my mind is well worth the tradeoff of being labeled a "celebrity" with a "fan"base.

To that I say - awesome, you should go be famous. Enjoy.

And, if after this you still find me to be an exploitive hypocrite who was wrong to leave my job - that's okay. Luckily there are lots of other things that you can read on the internet.

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Authenticity

Here's the thing they never tell you in those self-help books about choosing your authentic path. It sucks.

Sure, it's the only real way to live a content and purposeful life and eventually you will be better off, but for a long while - it sucks.

When you draw a line in the sand and make a different choice, people sometimes doubt what you are doing. They tell you that you are crazy for giving up _____________ , and that you should really go back to the old thing and just stay in your nice little box with the tidy label and be a good girl.

Embracing your true self can be painful. It's full of moments of paralyzing doubt that make you wish that you had taken that manicured, easy path - instead of hacking your way through the jungle with a machete, getting whipped in the face with branches and bitten by vicious insects.

But, it's still worth it.

There have been moments in the decade since I retired from the film industry where fitting in felt so awkward that it brought me to tears. Trying to make myself a LinkedIn profile caused me to have a breakdown, because in the real world, my film "skills" are completely irrelevant. I'd never had any other work experiences and my education was pretty much an afterthought. How was I ever going to do this?

There have been times I thought that I should give up and go back to LA and be an actor again. Not because it was what I wanted -- but because it felt easier and more familiar. Acting was my safety school.

From the emails and messages that I've been getting since I started this blog, I'm realizing that I am not alone in choosing the path less-traveled. Many of you seem to be saying - I'm doing this crazy thing, too, and it's challenging and brutal and I totally know how you feel.

And you DO know how I feel. Because almost everyone has to deal with that moment when they realize that what they want is different from what other people want for them. That's the moment where personal, fundamental decisions need to be made.

So, let me just say this. Whatever it might be that feels authentic to you, be it painting or going back to school or opening a coffee shop or moving to Santa Fe - don't banish it just because it feels like an uphill battle. It might be terrifying and unfathomable at times, that's okay. There are going to be a lot of people who don't get it. That's okay, too. It's not their life.

In the scariest moments, be reassured that you are not alone. There are lots of us out here, just trying to live the truth, make a difference and have some fun in the process. And I think pretty much all of us would say it's totally worth it. Because I know this for sure: choosing to live a counterfeit version of your own life sucks even more than the struggle for authenticity.

I have the following quote on my bulletin board because it gets me through those moments where I feel tired or frustrated and maybe I accidentally read the nasty comments about me on the Huffington Post. Maybe it can be of use to you, too.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

~Theodore Roosevelt

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