Abandoning the Quest for Balance

Your career goals and your home life compete for your attention.

Just this morning, before reading my Chani Nicholas horoscope, I said to Mani: “I feel like I’m a stay-at-home mom and running a business.”

This is true. Both are true. And I wouldn’t have it any other way — I am grateful every day that I can shape my work life around my family’s needs, without having to negotiate every small thing with a boss. I am grateful that my work has grown roots.

At various moments in my life, people have basically warned me about making things hard, or at least harder. Coming out, getting divorced, stepping into a brave new world beyond the closet and perceived security of nuclear family — a harder life. Self-employment (also beyond perceived security of traditional employment) — a harder life.

What I have found is so very different than “harder.” What I have found is that ease is part myth, part privilege, and part luck of the draw. There is no “easy” life. There is no “easier” path. No choice is without consequences, and yet so often we focus only on the (feared) consequences, not even getting a chance to find out what else could lie on the other side of a risk taken.

The chasm we leap into is usually not as deep as the one we might be settling for when we stay stuck in situations — relationships, careers — that require us to contort our psyches and bodies in painful, often invisible ways.

My career goals and my home life are so utterly intertwined. To experience these as competing would be detrimental to both. I’ve all but abandoned the popular quest for balance and accepted that some days, I feel like a rock star, and other days, all I want to do is nap and play with the puppy. I do not think twice about eating leftovers, ordering pizza, or having spaghetti for dinner three nights in a row. As long as we all have clean underwear and the bills are paid and we are spending time together, I’m good.

I do not adhere to a strict routine. I write on the fly (like now). I read all of the writing in my groups and offer feedback as quickly and thoughtfully as possible. I don’t exercise as much as I would like, but I’m also not at war with my body. Yay.

How much is enough?

Last night, Pearl needed help with his math homework. I needed help helping him. Thankfully, Aviva came to the rescue and explained how to simplify equations to the both of us. We watched some cute little kid videos. Everyone said “I love you” to everyone else before bed.

How much is enough?

I have ideas but know I need to carve out time — intentional, protected time — to play with and flesh these out, so that they can become new offerings to people who might wish to explore writing as a creative practice and a means of greater self-knowledge. I see this as utterly connected to the wellbeing of our world and the dismantling of oppression. Once again, the “parts” cannot be separated from the whole, nor can we do and be everything at once.

Two or three years ago, my wife could barely stand long enough to stroll the aisles of Target. As I write, she’s getting ready to go do some work. There is a rhythm to our lives once again, one I missed desperately and feared would not return. There is something to not taking normalcy for granted.

I just watched a short clip on an Instagram account I follow. The woman has lung cancer and has been sharing her experience. A few months ago, her message was simple: “Love yourself. No matter what.” She said the one thing she was feeling regretful of, as she hovered in the uncertainty of illness, was being hard on herself for all kinds of stuff.

I’m not sure how I got here. I could go back and reread, retrace the bread crumbs, and try to wrap it all up with a pretty ribbon. But you know me — that’s not happening. I will do what I always do: Hit “post” and call it practice. Share and call it showing up. No big lesson or message to impart, just me, and real life, and words and being and a brand new day.

The Often Overlooked Heart


I’ve been sitting here most of the morning. Sweat pouring out of my every pore. I am putting an a/c unit in my living room this afternoon, with the help of a local carpenter. She should be arriving shortly. I have misgivings about adding to the energy use that only jacks up the temperatures further, and I also have to be able to work. Mani’s mast cells are kicked up in this heat, and Chalupa is doing her best to stay comfortable with the tiny cooling area of her bulldog head. The heat is intense, all-consuming. It’s a shock to walk into an air-conditioned room or building, to remember that there are spaces we can go.

Not everyone can get to those cool spaces. I worry about those who are homeless, elderly, or cannot afford air-conditioners.

I tidied up a bit this  morning. Refilled the bird-feeders, emptied the big bag of dog food into the container in the pantry. Swept up bits of garlic peel from the kitchen floor. I only want to eat peaches and cucumbers and drink iced coffee. I promised Aviva we could go to a body of water this afternoon. I feel slow, sweaty, uninspired.

Every time I see a photo from someone on vacation, I have a pang of envy. It’s not pretty to write this. I resist the urge to delete, curate, self-censor.

I’ve written about envy before, and how it is a form of self-abandonment. And even just writing that sentence reminds me that rather than hanging out there, what I really need and want is to ask my heart what it needs and wants. Envy is a kind of compass, after all.

* * *

I had a powerful experience last Sunday morning.

A writing coaching client who has also become a friend — I’ll call her S. — offered me some time on the phone. It wasn’t a formal call of any sort, though it did become an unexpected two hours of being gently held and deeply heard. I spent much of our time sitting on the root of the red maple tree in our little front yard. Noticing the subtlety everywhere, of life, of light, of shadow. A bird — though I’m not sure what kind — sang joyfully and loudly from one of the nearby tall pines.

It was when I admitted that I felt uncomfortable accepting this gift of time, meaning without offering payment, that the tears first came. I realize how it is still hard for me to truly receive. To truly let down and spend time with my heart. Once those first tears came, it was as if the gates had been unlocked. I didn’t sob, but I did cry on and off for the rest of our time together, along with moments of laughter, insight, and silence.

For most of my life, I’ve had episodes of the kind of crying that has felt unbearable. This felt less storm-like and more cleansing, like the tears were gently washing over the grime of my often-overlooked heart, making it known to me again.

What I saw? Red, pulsing, tender muscle mass. It was visceral and vivid, not the figurative heart but the real deal, fist-size, pumping away.

I also saw something I can best describe as straps pressing into this heart of mine. The kind of straps that a big heavy box might have wrapped around it, designed to protect it from opening when it’s not supposed to. I saw these straps pulled too tightly, leaving deep cuts against the fragile tissue. With each deep breath inward and the on-and-off gentle bouts of release, I felt the straps loosen.

One thing was clear to me: The heart cannot heal when we never loosen those straps, those ties, the protective measures that keep us bound. And yet, it is not always simple. I feel like I’m someone who is fairly connected to my heart. There are so many layers, and this innermost space goes largely covered much of the time when I am busy doing life.

* * *

I’ve been aware for a while now that I need some kind of break, but it has remained undefined. But oh, wow. The noise around this in my head is so loud. At one point, I told S. the word “failure” popped into my head. Failure!

Also: The need to justify needing a break. Also: Fear. So much fear arising at the prospect of taking a break. Money is the presenting thing — and a very real thing to address since I’m my family’s sole provider — but beneath that, deeper fears that all source back to questions of being, doing, and remaining enough.

The world of online writing groups is so saturated, and I do not thrive when I’m worrying about keeping up or standing out. In fact, you could just shorten that sentence to: I don’t thrive when I’m worrying. Period. I most certainly am not of service to my community when I’m tired or tapped out — and there’s such a deep fear in sharing that, saying it, as if it is a kind of confession.

Really, the only confession here will not come as news to you: I am human!

I never expect anyone in my groups to be anything other than human. In fact, I’ve built this work of fierce encouragement for writing and life around just this: Recognizing the stories and voices that berate us, tell us we’re not enough, and insist that whatever we are doing, writing, or creating needs to be bigger, better, or different.

Culturally, these messages are ruthless and unyielding. Internally, no matter their original sources, they take on a life of their own, ever pulling the straps tighter around the heart. Strangling the heart. The often-overlooked heart that is the holder of the wisdom we need and the stories that are ours alone to live, much less write.

To get quiet enough to listen, to really spend time with this tender, innermost heart, feels scary. It’s not a thing we can measure. There’s no product at the end. You can’t charge money for it.

And at the same time, as I write these sentences and tune into my own knowing, something else arises: Gratitude. I feel grateful that the heart is immeasurable and unquantifiable. It is untouchable by commerce and capitalism and the tyranny of proving our worth.

I hear the voice so quick to jump in: But you have to pay your rent. You have to work. You have to make a living. You have to, you have to, you have to. 

Whose voice this is doesn’t matter. What matters is that I hear it and redirect my attention to the soft, fleshy insides of myself. The longing that I know belongs to my soul.

* * *

My soul has always wanted my attention. And truth be told, it has never led me astray. Trusting that call is always scary, though, because it means moving away from auto-pilot, hushing prescriptive or punishing voices, and trusting deeply. In the more distant past, I would have said trusting the Universe. Now, I am not shy to say trusting God. And trusting myself.

I hear another voice now, my Grammy’s. God is love, she would say in a sing-song voice. God is love.

To trust God is to trust myself is to trust love.

* * *

I have not yet determined what form this “break” will take. My dream is to go offline for most if not all of August. To remember who I am and how my heart feels, away from the demands of work and social media. To really soak in the fullness of these past three years — which is how long it has been since I left my full-time job in order to care for Mani through her illness and recovery.

Questions arise once again. Will what I’ve built here withstand my absence for a month? Will everyone who participates in my groups and works with me privately still be there when I return, or does the world move so fast that we forget each other that quickly and move on? I do not want to live my life and do my work by clinging out of fear, but by letting go, again and again, of the trapeze bars, knowing that I always land, even if I don’t land where I expected. How will we pay the bills if I take some off beyond just a day or two?

I don’t have answers today, and for today, I am not going to try to figure anything out. It feels good, just to come here. To write what’s really on and in my heart in the moment, to make that tender place a little bit known to you, and to name the trust I need to lean into now. To feel it as solid and real as the true root beneath my body, holding me up.

I will admit that I have a fantasy of being supported in this time.

While it’s easy to scoff at or right off, it occurs to me that there is no harm in allowing that, too, to be named and known. It’s not up to me to know what forms that support might take. But in the spirit of learning how to ask for and receive, in the spirit of truth-telling and transparency and real life, I’m going to leave it here.

* * *

It’s funny — that impulse to thank you for reading is there, as if perhaps I owe you something for the time you’ve taken to be on the other side of these words. And so it seems fitting to close with these words from Hiro Boga:

You don’t owe anyone anything. Whatever you give to anyone, whatever you do for them, you do out of love and generosity, not because you’re obliged to. Manipulation through invalidation and guilt is an old, old game. You don’t have to play. You can simply acknowledge the energy for what it is, and refuse the Trojan horse gifts of blame and shame so they remain with the giver.

You have both the right and the responsibility for your own life, for the fulfillment of your own soul’s purposes, which are always about experiencing and expressing qualities of soul. The more clearly you choose your true desires — which are the voice of your soul — and act to fulfill them, the more your life will be filled with joy, peace, creativity, power, abundance and delight, among so many other soul qualities.

By refusing to surrender your own well-being to the demands of others, you give them the gift of clear boundaries and a powerfully sovereign self. Our kids learn how to be themselves by the example we set for them. By being yourself, choosing yourself, choosing your sovereignty, you shine a light that illuminates your path and theirs. You give them incomparable gifts — the freedom to be themselves, to choose their own joy, to learn from their explorations and to grow in creative sovereignty.

The Squatter

There’s a squatter living in my head and she doesn’t pay rent.

She picks at everything I write and says: “You’re not a real writer. You write blog posts and Facebook snippets and ten-minute freewrites and none of it amounts to anything.”

She hisses: “Your books aren’t real books.” (No matter that three very real books are on the shelf.) She growls and taunts: “You need to go underground and do nothing but write for a year, get off of social media, and come talk to me when you have a manuscript.”

My wife observes that this doesn’t sound like me — and she’s right. It’s not my voice. It’s the squatter’s.

Call her my inner critic. I’m pretty sure she has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as she will stop at nothing to cut me down, keep me off-balance, and make sure I don’t get too big for my britches.

* * *

Wednesday afternoon. We — my wife and I — go for a short walk by the river. “I feel like I’m this close” — holding my thumb and forefinger about an inch apart — “to having a panic attack.” I take a deep breath and she squeezes my hand. I feel a surge of shame. “I should know better,” I think to myself.

I describe to Mani how scared I feel.

“Is it fear — or anxiety?” she asks, ever so gently. We start talking about the difference.

Fear = clear and present danger. Someone has broken into your house. Your kid was supposed to call an hour and a half ago and won’t answer her cell phone. A bear is running in your direction. You are choking. Your are a person of color and a cop has been trailing you for the last two miles. You’re being followed.

Lives are at stake. Maybe even yours.

But in this moment, there is nothing to fear. It’s the last day of February and we’re walking along a stretch of the Connecticut River in Hadley, Massachusetts. I’m taking a break in my work day to go with her to our local butcher.

* * *

Earlier in the day, I paid our March rent and gave thanks. Then I looked at our PayPal balance, and my mind — or rather, that squatter — started up with me.

“This might be the month when everything stops,” the squatter had said. “And you’re getting a puppy?! What are you going to do if you don’t make enough money?”

Really, lady? Do you never take a day off?

Then I remembered: She takes plenty of days off. Then she comes around, usually for just two or three days a month, and does everything in her power to freak me out completely. She convinces me that we are going to be destitute within weeks, that I missed some kind of magical window, and that my self-employment success has been a fluke for the past three years. My number’s up.

Oh, and by the way: Me even writing the word “success” is basically professional suicide, because I’m not supposed to be proud of my work or claim that it’s going well. (Maybe she’s a Jewish squatter and this is her superstitious edge coming through?)

* * *

“No,” I tell Mani as we walk. This isn’t fear that has me in its grips. This is good old-fashioned anxiety.

How can we be sure?

It’s entirely about the future and the past. None of the things coursing through my mind are grounded in real time. I’m jumping ahead and creating all kinds of dire scenarios, inventing stories, and going back over the places where I’d surely made fatal mistakes as a new business owner — ones that everyone can surely see but me. It’s only a matter of time until the whole thing comes crashing down.

I feel some relief, having told Mani what’s on my mind and weighing on my heart. So grateful for her presence and gentle reality checking.

You know what she tells me?

“You have a 100% success rate at surviving every single time you’ve ever felt anxious.”

She is right. One-hundred percent. I think back over so many of the most perilous passages of my life and can’t deny it: None of them have killed me.

* * *

It takes courage, so much courage, to keep going when there are no guarantees of anything.

The minute I return to the truth — that there is a guarantee of death — I come back to the solid ground of right now. The panic subsides, the tides go out and the full moon rises.

That night I have a dream where God tells me I’m working hard enough, doing enough, helping enough people. God tells me it’s ok to relax.

I wake up in the morning and decide to give the squatter a blanket and some lunch money. After all, she’s frightened. I’m the only home she’s got — and she keeps moving me closer towards the truth.

The Awesomeness of Being Wrong


Story: “I suck at following instructions.”

WRONG. 

It may not sound like much. But when the new kitchen island arrived on the side porch and Aviva and I attempted to lug it inside, that was my first thought. I slit the box open and carried the pieces upstairs, two or three at a time. I recycled and/or discarded the cardboard, styrofoam, and plastic. I winced at the packaging and got dizzy from the off-gassing. (As an aside, did you know that off-gassing emits as many as 99 known toxins into the air for up to 10 years? We are seriously reconsidering purchasing anything again that uses formaldehyde).

By the time I plunked the bag of hardware on the kitchen table and surveyed the dozens of pieces of pressed wood, I thought: Welp, my work here is done. Time to wait for Mani to come put this baby together.

After all, I suck at this kind of thing. That is the story I’ve told my whole life. Yes, I did manage to assemble a cute night table from Ikea a few years back (one of the drawers wobbles, but still…). And wait, I put together those two yellow desks in our room… No, no, I think. Those don’t really count. They were relatively straightforward jobs, nothing so big and complicated as this thing.

When we got a new bookshelf and TV stand for the living room, we even called friends over to help. Granted, it was as much an excuse to see them and hang out as a bona fide need for help. But still, the reassurance of other eyes and hands has historically brought no small comfort.

I used to be someone who waited for a man to put together the furniture. Then lo and behold, I married a woman who happens to be really good at this (she once spent hours and hours putting together a loft bed — with a slide — in Pearl’s room). I still didn’t have to look at my own learned helplessness.

* * *

Story: “I am someone who likes being taken care of.”

WRONG. Well, sort of wrong. 

At the same time, I remained ignorant of my own capacity and ability and power by wanting other people to take care of me. “Other people” most often implied people of the male persuasion. Fathers, husbands, guy friends — who can come put this damn thing together?

Now, I still like being taken care of. But being taken care of while knowing I am fully able to take care of myself is a whole different ballgame. Since my first marriage ended and I came out of the closet, so much about who I thought I was and the stories I told about myself have undergone seismic shifts — including this one.

I’ve been the breadwinner for the past three years, bringing in more income on my own than I did previously in my full-time job. I work a lot. I also get to be home when Pearl gets off the school bus, and go for spontaneous coffee dates with my teenage daughter who’s not in traditional school this year. Mani and I are both home all day, a reality that began as necessity when she was sick and became a choice when I became self-employed.

I was so scared to leave my job. SO scared.  That was 2015. Now I still have bouts of insecurity, both they don’t come quite as often or last as long. The fear no longer feels like terror or panic, more like an annoyance, a stinkbug that got in the house from under the garage door. I open a window and flick it back outside.

It feels good to let this story fall away. The one where I need someone else, probably a man, to make the money and to put together the furniture purchased with said money.

It also feels good  to redefine “being taken care of.”

* * *

I AM taken care of. I have a wife whose unconditional belief in me, patience, and presence is beyond anything I’ve ever known. She doesn’t coddle my rehabbing addiction to praise, and this in turn makes her support that much more reliable because I know it’s not contingent on her expectations of me. It just IS.

I can’t say what got into me last week, but I tackled those instructions like a boss. Once I started, I didn’t want to stop. One step at a time — ABC, 123, bird by bird — I put that baby together. I could hardly believe it myself — I was doing it! I’m someone who can read and follow assembly instructions, who knew?!

The best part, in addition to some mad satisfaction at my newfound badassery, was how WRONG I had been about myself. Wrong, wrong, wrong! All those Instagram posts saying how the mere sight of the instruction booklet stressed me out? Completely, fabulously, gloriously, magnificently WRONG.

Now we have a little more cabinet and counter space in our kitchen, and I have added a bit more evidence for myself of a new, true story. One where I’m capable, grown-up, and able to earn money, care for my family, put furniture together, stay when things get really, really hard, and forgive myself when I fuck up. Thankfully, finding out who I really am is an ongoing thing. I wonder what else I’m wrong about, and can’t wait to find out.

* * *

Story: I’m so much more than the stories I tell myself about myself.

RIGHT.

Same Sun, Same Moon

I’m in bed. It’s only 8:13pm but after a full day, it felt good to slip out of my clothes and under the clean sheets. In a little bit, I’ll turn off the computer and we will read a chapter from our current book before watching a show. Then Mani will put on a short meditation from the Daily Calm app (we call it the Daily Clam, after that one time I misread it), and with any luck, we’ll both get a decent night’s sleep.

This is more or less how it goes every night. When the kids are here, I read to Pearl and say goodnight to V before locking up. I try to motivate to wash the evening dishes, since it’s so nice to wake up to an empty sink in the morning when I go to make the coffee. Some nights, I get sucked into working late or just fucking around online.

Yesterday at the end of my run, I saw the fox again, the one who makes the occasional appearance in our driveway. He crossed the street and trotted down towards the woods near Sunset Farm. My mind wandered to tattoo daydreams.

Then I was home and the sweat was pouring and I was proud of myself for moving my body. I took a cold shower and shaved my legs and drank cold water and forgot what day it was.

Self-employment is a lot of things. One of them is flexible. Other than calls with coaching clients and my upcoming Monday night in-person group (which isn’t on my website, by the way, so if you’re local and you want to write with a small group of women for six weeks in Amherst, let me know), I rarely have to be in a particular place at a specific time. There is a definite rhythm to my days and weeks, but it’s one of my own making and shaping.

Sometimes I forget this and I revert to treating my life, not to mention my writing, like something to squeeze in around the edges. I’ll find myself bringing the same tension to getting to the kitchen table to greet a writing group in the morning that I used to feel driving to work — hurried, tense, late. Then I remember that no one in said group is checking their watch. I don’t clock in or out. There’s no payday or benefits office. I am all the things. This is both amazing and challenging. I wouldn’t trade it.

Today, I watched a video by a writer I admire. She’s very funny, irreverent, and ballsy. The video had nearly 35,000 views. I do not know how that happens. I do not know if that even matters.

Just now, I looked up from the screen and there was the waxing moon on the other side of our bedroom skylight, bright in the still-blue July sky as if to say: No, it doesn’t matter how many views you get. Thanks, Moon. The moon always has the best timing.

Today, I ran again. Just me and my tiny iPod shuffle and the midday sun. I ran north to UMass and around the little pond in the middle of campus. There was a group of young adults milling around with matching blue backpacks. Many of the women wore colorful headscarves and I imagined that they were a visiting group of students here for some summer program. I thought about the Travel Ban and wondered what country they were from.

Arcade Fire’s album “The Suburbs” has been my running soundtrack lately, along with some old-school Madonna and a smattering of other indie-pop songs that keep me moving. I didn’t run all winter, and then all of a sudden a few weeks ago, I started again. Just like that.

Summer and I are old friends. We share stories that don’t need to be revisited. We both enjoy fresh-water swimming and napping in hammocks and ice cream for dinner. Everything seems a little more do-able. My daughter is quick to correct me if I say there are more hours in the day, but she knows what I mean. I am a goner for heat and light.

On my bedside table, so many books. Half-read books, unread books. Paperbacks, hardcovers. On my head, more grey hairs every day. I pluck them, not in battle but more like a new hobby. My skin is changing. My life is changing.

Our lives are always changing. If we pay attention, we might even notice. But so much of the change happens while we’re so in the days, the news, the fury, the mundane, the passion, the questions, the sweat and tears of it all, that we don’t know until later. And then later is the new now and here we are: Kids older, bodies older, love a few layers deeper, understanding wider, with just as many places to be lost and found as ever.

I find myself running again. I find myself pounding the pavement, creating the rhythm of my own days in this life, loving my people, and not worrying about the numbers. I look up to find that the moon has already moved slightly further west as it starts out its nightly journey across the small slice of sky we can see. I marvel, like a child, that it’s the same sky, the same sun, the same moon, for you.