My Most Precious Commodity

Photo Courtesy of Ritesh Nayak

Photo Courtesy of Ritesh Nayak

My last blog post was all about New Year’s Resolutions. Specifically, how far are you willing to go and what are you willing to sacrifice in order to reach your dreams?

I told you that you can’t have everything you want, and you need to prioritize your choices. I asked what keeps you awake at night, and I told you to have the courage to hold onto your passions, no matter how hard, unlikely or scary their paths.

What I didn’t tell you is what I have given up to be where I am today, and what I have resolved to continue giving up in order to keep being in this place. And by ‘this place,’ of course, I mean the world of an author.

This place is scary. It’s uncertain—ever-changing and always shifting in new directions. It’s hard to keep up with trends and the demands of marketing, and it’s even harder to invest your time (and your guts and your soul) into writing a manuscript you don’t even know if you will ever be able to get published. What’s worse, your life doesn’t exist in a vacuum, so investing said time (and guts and soul) into said manuscript means sacrificing many other things. 

This is a lesson I have learned all too well these last several years. I am currently a nighttime novelist, and I spend my days planning events for an animal-related non-profit organization. The workload is sometimes overwhelming, and I am very rarely not putting in my time for one pursuit or the other. However, I find both jobs to be rewarding. With both paychecks combined, I can *pretty much* pay my bills and break even each month.

It’s a hard life. More than once, I have wondered if I should put my writing on hold and/or spend my days working at a higher paying, less fulfilling job. And of course, who hasn’t dreamed of winning the lottery or having some rich, distant relative or philanthropic millionaire become their benefactor? 

I took a third job writing proposals for an accounting firm for exactly one day last year. I literally cried in the parking lot for so long after orientation that I wasn’t sure if I would be able to see well enough to drive home.

That’s when it occurred to me that money wasn’t my most precious commodity like I thought it was. My most precious commodity was my time, and the hours I would spend writing accounting proposals were hours I could spend working on my next novel instead.

So, I quit that job (after repeatedly apologizing to my poor brother-in-law, who had stuck out his neck to secure it for me). Then, I went home and pulled out my laptop to write, and I didn’t feel quite as destitute as usual when I realized I would still struggle to pay my bills every month.

I wouldn’t be going on a vacation any time soon, and I certainly wouldn’t be paying off the debt I had inherited from my time in Colorado. I wouldn’t be able to buy new outfits or go out to fancy dinners like most of my friends, and I would still get chest pains every time I realized I needed to go to the grocery store or fill up my gas tank.

But you know what? Nowadays, whenever I catch myself stressing out or longing for those comforts—and I still do, almost every single day—I stop myself. And I ask (sometimes out loud), “Is this worth it? Is this worth giving up on my dreams?”

Maybe someday, the answer will be yes. 

But until then, I refuse to quit fighting.

Some New Years Tough Love

Photo Courtesy of Jeronimo Sanz

Photo Courtesy of Jeronimo Sanz

It’s that time again. The dawn of a New Year.

Everywhere, people are shaking themselves free from their holiday excesses, and they are taking stock of their lives. They are evaluating their choices, their health, their happiness, and their goals, and they are pledging to do better this year. 

2015 will be different, they say, and most of them really believe it. They join gyms, they buy juicers, they read how-to books and they pin projects on Pinterest. They rush to the supermarket and stock up on organic vegetables, and they buy overpriced workout clothes or journals or craft supplies to spend more quality time with their children. 

They approach the New Year with a newfound ferocity, and they swear they aren’t going to quit this time. They are going to cook healthy meals, join a gym, achieve that perfect beach body, become a yoga pro, run a marathon, join the PTA, coach their kid’s soccer team, learn to sew, learn to play the guitar, find true love, rekindle their marriage, learn a new language, make time to travel, start a business, make more money, finally get out of debt, read more books, organize their living space, decorate like Martha Stewart and finally write that novel that’s been living inside their head for years.

Unfortunately, almost no one will actually hold true to his or her New Year’s Resolutions. By February, most people will begin to fall back into their old routines. By July, they won’t even think about their promises, and by November, they will throw in the towel, plunge back into apathy and promise that 2016 is actually the year everything will be different.

Why? Because change is hard. And here is the cold truth you may not want to hear: you cannot have everything you want.

I know, I know. I’m being a Debbie Downer. I’m writing this blog post at a time when almost everyone else is celebrating the limitless possibilities of the year ahead. But here’s another truth: I’m doing this because I care about you. And those plans and goals and dreams you have for 2015? I really want you to reach them, too.

There’s another side to New Year’s Resolutions, the side no one likes to talk about. True change requires two things: courage and sacrifice. 

Courage and sacrifice. These concepts sound simple enough, but the reality of their practice is much harder to accept. In order to reach your most critical goals, you must be courageous enough to sacrifice some of your smaller ones.

You want to spend more time with your children? Forget about sculpting that beach body during homework hours. Or, you want to finally write that novel? You may need to say goodbye to spending three hours a night prepping home-cooked meals. Your commitment to rekindling your marriage means you probably shouldn’t take up too many new solo hobbies this year, and your new business means a travel-filled, debt-free lifestyle probably isn’t in the cards for you right now.

I know what you're thinking: "But I CAN do everything at the same time! I just need to budget my time appropriately. I will take my kids running with me, and then I will brainstorm my novel while I grill free-range chicken and listen to a CD about how to speak Spanish. Don't you DARE tell me what I can and can't do this year, O'Kane!"

I concede; you may be right. You may be one of those freaks of nature who really can juggle everything without losing their minds in the process. But you're probably a little bit more like me, and I find that I can sustain two to three good weeks of 'doing it all' before my head explodes. (When this happens, I usually end up zoned out in front of my TV with a bucket of KFC in my lap and macaroni and cheese dribbling down my face.)

But you know what? That’s okay. That's normal. And this is where the sacrifice part comes in. As soon as you know what aspects of your life you are absolutely unwilling to compromise, it becomes easier to let go of some of the other things.

So, get to work. Do some soul-searching. Figure out exactly what keeps you awake at night. Is it your health? Your hobbies? Your career? Your relationships? How far are you willing to push to see real, sustained change in these areas? And how do you plan to overcome the setbacks you will inevitably encounter during your journey?

Because true change is never easy. And it usually doesn’t happen overnight. It’s gritty, and it’s scary, and it’s raw. It makes you dig deep—to the soft, untested places you never really challenge—and it requires you to say goodbye to many of the aspects of your life you find most comfortable.

But at the end of the day, you must believe it’s worth it. We are only guaranteed this one life, after all. If we keep procrastinating, it will slip right through our fingers.

Happy New Year, everyone. 

2015 is waiting. 

The Yeti Fight

Illustration Courtesy of Phillippe Semeria

Illustration Courtesy of Phillippe Semeria

I am pretty tall by girl standards: just shy of 5’9.” I hit this height somewhere around seventh grade, so—as you can imagine—it has been a bit of a blessing and a curse through the years. 

The benefits are numerous: I can gain weight without anyone noticing, I can rock leggings and boots, and it was never hard for me to get into bars or clubs when I was underage. (Not that I ever did that. Obviously. ;))

Overall, the tall life has been good to me, but it hasn’t been without its drawbacks. Pants and dresses are often too short, and I usually have to slouch in group photographs. The fear of standing out or being seen as a freak was crippling in middle school, and it was only recently that I finally lost my “tall girl slump.” 

Also, several years ago, someone I loved very much had a very big problem with my height. 

He wasn’t usually overt about his distaste for it, but he subtly made himself pretty clear. He showered me with compliments every time I wore flip-flops, and his compliments ceased the moment I put on heels. 

Through time, my wardrobe began to reflect his preferences. I had never been good at walking in heels anyway, so I slowly threw away most of the ones I owned. I pretended this was my idea, and I replaced them with ‘comfortable’ ballet slippers or flats instead. When I absolutely had to buy new heels, I made sure to get the shortest ones I could find.

For the most part, my shoes were hideous. They would have looked great on my grandmother, but there was absolutely no reason a girl my age should have ever owned them—unless, of course, she was trying to please someone else. 

After a few years of this, I finally started longing to wear ‘regular’ heels again. (My 5’6” sister had an incredible selection, and I would stare longingly at her closet every time I visited her.) 

An upcoming wedding promised to be the perfect occasion, so instead of rushing out and buying new flats like usual, I went to the mall and bought a brand-new dress and the most beautiful pair of silver heels I had ever seen. 

I tried the whole outfit on when I got home, and I couldn’t believe how gorgeous I felt in it. My legs were long and muscular, my posture was better, and I even found myself walking differently. I strutted in those heels like I was somebody, like I was one of those confident and sexy girls I had always wanted to be.

I couldn’t wait to show him how I looked, so I insisted he sit on the couch and wait for my big debut when he got home. I hurried to the bedroom to put everything back on, and then I sauntered out into the living room.

I expected his jaw to drop at the sight of me, and it did—though not for the reason I expected. “Whoa,” he stammered, looking me up and down like he didn’t even know me. “Those shoes are huge. You look like a yeti in those shoes.”

A yeti?? I can’t even explain to you the crush of devastation that seized me when I heard that word come out of his mouth. I’m surprised I didn’t start crying right on the spot, but I know my shoulders immediately slumped, and I felt like someone had just sucker-punched me in the gut. 

“A yeti? Seriously? That’s what you think I look like right now?”

He seemed to realize he had misspoken, but he felt compelled to justify his words: “I mean, you’re just so huge. You’re so tall in those shoes.”

Heat rushed to my cheeks. “Well then, could you at least say I look like an Amazon woman or something with slightly positive connotations?”

He huffed. “What’s the difference?”

Now, I was mad. “Oh, I don’t know. One’s a beautiful, mythical warrior woman, and the other’s a snow beast. Why don’t you tell me which one you would prefer?”

He held up his hands to placate me. “Okay, fine. Whatever. I’m just saying you look huge in those shoes.”

As you can imagine, the night quickly devolved after that. Soon, we were yelling at each other, and soon, I was ripping off my heels and storming to the bedroom to take off my dress. I was crying, and he was defending himself, and then finally, he was telling me I really didn’t look so bad, and I should wear the shoes to the wedding anyway.

I protested, but he insisted. He apologized for hurting my feelings, and a couple of weeks later, I showed up at that wedding with my brand-new dress and those beautiful silver heels I had briefly loved so much.

Only this time, the magic wasn’t there like it had been before. Instead of viewing myself as one of those confident and sexy girls I had always wanted to be, I now saw myself as a too-tall freak. Instead of admiring my long and muscular longs, I only saw how big my feet were. Instead of embracing my new and improved posture, I slumped even harder to make myself seem shorter. 

I suffered through the ceremony in a state of self-conscious misery, and I promptly hid my shoes under a table the second the reception began. I tossed them the back of my closet after the wedding, and I never wore them—or any heels—around him ever again.

I don’t tell you this story because I want you to feel sorry for me. I also don’t tell you this story because want you to dislike this guy. I tell you this story because I want you to know I finally found the courage to wear those heels again. 

I found them in a box in my garage a few months ago. I had never been able to bring myself to throw them away, so there they were, just where I left them. They were covered in dust, and they had mostly faded from silver to beige, but they were nearly every bit as beautiful as I had once thought they were. 

When I brought them inside and held them up against the other pairs of heels that now I wear practically every day, I realized how sensible they actually were. My imagination had somehow turned them into six-inch stripper heels, but in reality, they were maybe only three inches.

They certainly weren’t scandalous or inappropriate or huge like I remembered. And when I put them on again, I didn’t feel like a yeti at all. I just felt kinda… normal. Pretty—with slightly straighter posture than usual—but not that much different than any other day. 

That’s when I finally put into words what I had intrinsically known from the very beginning: the yeti fight had never been about me, anyway.

It had been about him. It had always been about him. It had been about he fact that he wasn’t quite 5’11,” and he had always felt self-conscious about that. 

Instead of acknowledging it, he projected his insecurities onto me, like his feelings of inadequacy were somehow my fault. The worst part is, I allowed this. I absorbed his fears like they were my own, and I cursed my height like I actually had the power to change it. 

This realization got me thinking. How many other times in my life have I dulled myself down for fear of making someone else uncomfortable? How many times have I slouched, or deflected a compliment, or made fun of myself, or minimized my accomplishments? How often have I kept my mouth shut, or apologized for no reason, or pretended to be okay when I wasn’t? 

The answer is: way more often than I would like to admit.

I thought about these things as I pulled those dusty silver shoes from my garage, and I made a pact with myself. Never, ever again was I going to apologize for being tall, or being brave, or being smart. Never, ever again was I going to pretend my feelings didn’t matter, just so someone else didn’t have to come to terms with their own uncertainties.

Because, when it comes down to it, I’m nearly 5’9.”

And that’s pretty freaking awesome. 

If a Tree Falls in a Forest

Photo Courtesy of Nicholas A. Tonelli

Photo Courtesy of Nicholas A. Tonelli

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

We have all heard this question before. It sparks a variety of debates: philosophical, scientific, metaphysical, religious. We dissect the nature of sound waves and air vibrations, and we ask ourselves if something can truly exist without being perceived and interpreted by something else.  

I can’t tell you the number of times I have thought about this question, but only recently did it begin to feel personal. I heard someone say it a couple weeks ago, and my response was immediate: “Of course it does! That tree isn’t making the sound for you or anyone else. That tree is making the sound for itself, and you better believe it can hear it!”

The passion in my answer surprised me, and it took me a few moments to figure out why. Then, it hit me. I was the tree. If my existence required validation from someone else, I had a lot of explaining to do. 

This got me thinking. What does it take to actually be considered successful? Intelligent? Beautiful? Valuable? Can we be these things just because we believe we are, or does someone else need to believe them, too? 

I think of all the writers I know. Some are published, and some aren’t. Some have agents, and some don’t. Some haven’t even finished their first manuscripts, but does this make them any ‘less’ than the ones who have?

(I know I personally had a bit of an existential crisis the day a literary agent sent me my very first rejection letter. I realized I had based my entire identity around the belief that I was a ‘writer,’ and I was terrified there would be nothing left if you took that away from me.)

What about the other standards we impose upon ourselves? Where do we draw the line between self-assurance and delusion? And at the end of the day, are we only worthy if the rest of the world agrees?

I ask, because I have been both in and out, both celebrated and scorned. I have been a wanna-be writer, a published author, a quasi-celebrity and an absolute nobody. I have been rich and poor, a prodigy and a failure. I have been someone’s soul mate, and I have also been the girl someone wasn’t sure they wanted to spend their Thanksgiving with.

I have been all of these things, sometimes at the same time, and the only consistency through it all has been me. 

What does this say about me? About the rest of the world?

I have been the same person this entire time; the only inconsistency has been the timing, the circumstance, and the unique way my energy has played off other people’s energies during their own journeys. So, if I have to sit around and wait for someone else to show up and listen for my tree to come crashing down, I may be forced to remain stagnant for awhile. 

Doesn’t that stagnancy invalidate my strength to just fall down for myself, just because I feel like it? And is the sound I create any less powerful, valid or meaningful if I’m the only one around to hear it?

Deserving My Christmas Tree

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I have been very proud of myself for the past couple of years. After I let one Christmas slip by undecorated in the wake of my divorce, I have been very good about bringing out my decorations in time for the holidays. Each year that passes sees me decorating a little bit more, and I was particularly proud of myself this year, because I even bought a string of lights and a little wreath for my front door.

I was so proud of myself, in fact, that I brought up the subject to a friend of mine last week. I went through my spiel about feeling like the state of my home should reflect the state of my mind, and I think I expected her to be very impressed by my initiative.

Instead, she cocked her head and said, "Do you have a Christmas tree this year?"

"A Christmas tree? Well... uh... no."

"Why not?"

"I don't know. I guess I haven't had a Christmas tree since I left Colorado. Think it must have gone into his pile when we split up our things."

"You haven't had a Christmas tree since Colorado?"

"No."

"Don't you like Christmas trees?"

"I love them."

"Then, why don't you have one?"

Inexplicably, I felt tears rising in my eyes. The answer instantly appeared in my subconscious, and I couldn't believe what it said: I don't deserve a Christmas tree.

I started stammering. "I mean... I guess I just think about families and babies when I think about Christmas trees. Like, you really have to have your life together in order to have a Christmas tree, you know?"

"You don't have your life together?"

"I mean, I do. I guess. But Christmas trees are for people whose lives are complete, you know? People who have everything figured out. People with husbands or boyfriends or children to help them decorate it. I don't have any of those things."

The words sounded ridiculous, but I couldn't help the sweep of sadness that overwhelmed me at the realization that I meant them. I honestly didn't think I deserved a Christmas tree now that I was single again. Some part of me thought I still needed to be punished for failing.

My friend said I should get a Christmas tree this year anyway, just to see how it felt. A few days later, I decided to take her up on her suggestion, so I drove to Target and found a fake, three-foot spruce tree. It was $27 and pre-lit, the smallest tree you could possibly buy that didn't have to sit on a tabletop.

But honestly, I couldn't stop my hands from shaking when I pulled that little tree from its rack. My heart was racing, too, and I felt like everyone in the store was just seconds away from realizing I was a fraud and telling me I needed to leave.

Who was I to barge in here and think I deserved a Christmas tree? I was just a struggling, 32 year-old author and divorcee who currently shared a 700 square-foot duplex with her dog.

But a funny thing happened when I placed that Christmas tree in my cart. No alarms sounded, and no one came running from the storeroom to snatch it away from me. Not a single person seemed to think I was doing anything inappropriate, and one employee even came over to ask me if I needed any help with the tree.

I didn't. Bolstered by this realization, I took a swing through the decoration aisle and grabbed a little star to top it, then I paid and drove home. I pulled out the ornaments I had been storing in my garage, and I sat on the ground and started decorating my Christmas tree.

It didn't take long. It was only three feet tall, after all. But I lit a spruce-scented candle and turned on one of the Pandora holiday stations while I decorated, and I explained the tree's significance to my dog when she came over for her first sniff. 

Then, I sat back and took my first look at my brand-new Christmas tree.

It wasn't the biggest or most elaborate tree I had ever seen. It was short and stubby, with lights in too-perfect rows and a squatty, little top that made it hard to put on my star. It didn't look as real as some of the other trees I had seen, and I had trouble putting on one of the legs when I first got it out of the box.

But it was still green and cheery, and it looked adorable wrapped in the little plaid blanket I found for it in my closet. It stood in a perfect spot beside my bookshelf, and the light it cast in my bedroom was dreamy and merry and calming.

It was my tree. And I loved it.

It was perfectly imperfect, but it was complete.

Just like me.