When I read (well, listened through Audible) to Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote one quotation stuck out to me more than any other. “Inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work,” so said Chuck Close from Inside the Painter’s Studio. I shared this quotation with a good friend of mine while I was giving her a ride to work and in her typical fashion she neatly flipped it into
“Losers have no discipline.”
As someone who does not like to classify themselves as a “loser,” I realized early on in this process that there’s more to writing than just saying I was going to do it. Sure, I had already resigned from my tenured job as an associate professor because I wanted to be a writer (amongst other reasons), but I was still in what I consider the “contemplation” stage. I know the transtheoretical states of change model (precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance) are more related to health behaviors than habits, in general, but I think there’s something to it, especially for my transition into a writer’s life.
If we start with the first stage of the model, the precontemplation phase, this is when I was still buying into the notion that salary, benefits, and accumulation of goods was how I should be living my life. It felt safe and secure, and so I continued ignoring my ever-growing list of professional and personal dissatisfactions.
It wasn’t until I was getting ready for my sabbatical that I considered a different way of life. I was moving to NC from IL and I had to decide what to do with all my stuff. I had a rental house full of furniture, media, and knickknacks and other than a few nice things, most of my belongings had been with me since my school days.
I decided to get rid of it all, look for a furnished apartment in Chapel Hill, and then invest in high quality home goods once I returned from my sabbatical. But once I started selling, donating, and giving away my belongings, I couldn’t stop. It felt so freeing! Things I thought I could never part with (like favorite books and clothes), I now gave away with complete joy and abandon. It got to the point where one of my colleagues jokingly asked if I was dying, that’s how much of my belongings I gave away.
So while I was free and unencumbered of stuff on my sabbatical, I realized I could shed the dead weight of my professional life, too. More than anything else, what I had enjoyed with my career in recent years was writing. I began to meditate on what a life like that would be like and thus I fully entered the contemplation stage of the transtheoretical model.
Up first – where I would earn income from? As I’ve already written about, I knew full well that writing can be a challenging field professionally. But being a writer, especially of children’s books, was now my life’s goal, and I wasn’t going to let fear stand in my way.
Up next, where I would live? My heart has always belonged to Chapel Hill and I feel very much at home there. But then I woke in the middle of the night and it came to me – I could be a professional house/pet sitter in the meantime. I thought this would be perfect, considering I love animals, and I had already dabbled in this with family and friends. As an added bonus – I wouldn’t have to buy any stuff again. EVER!
So I had a plan for my basic necessities to be covered and without having rent or utilities to pay, earning a substantial amount of money would no longer be a necessity. Now I was ready to prepare to be a writer. I continued NOT buying anything I would have to tote around with (some clothes being the rare exception), resigned from my job, bought a new computer, gathered up all my notebooks, and started writing (a little bit). I didn’t write every day, even though many days I could see stories in my mind. I had a hard time prioritizing it, especially when my narcolepsy wasn’t as under control as I would like.
I dabbled in writing challenges and prompts, miserably failing at NANOWRIMO in November, but occasionally I would be able to crank out a short story or children’s story. I had completely stopped working on my YA novel for reasons I couldn’t explain. I got sidetracked by meeting my husband (coincidentally enough, we met after I attend a writers’ group in Naperville) and eloping in Nashville. But then it hit me, one day in the spring when I was thinking about writing, I realized
I WAS BEING A LOSER AT WRITING!
And I didn’t want to be a loser (even though I had already come to terms that “failure” would be okay). I wanted to win!
I immediately started a writing practice – a minimum of 500 words every day. I favorited a list of writing blogs and online resources to pursue on a regular basis. I listened to the Great Courses How to Publish a Book. I brought a notebook with me everywhere to jot down story ideas. I started submitting stories to contests, publishes, and agents. At first, it was scary and hard, especially the unknown processes of finding publishers and agents, but once I got into the swing of things, I found it energizing and exciting. I was now full swing in the action stage of the theoretical model. So all that’s left is for me to maintain, now. And I think I will because as I told my friend that day in her car, “I DON’T WANT TO BE A LOSER!” It just took me a little bit longer to get there.
A young man arrived at work one morning. His boss greeted him with, “This stupid weather is going to ruin the fundraiser on Saturday,” and then proceeded to yell for the next 30 minutes about rain. His coworkers all said, “Hello, how are you?” and then each responded with “I’m so busy,” when they were asked in turn.
The young man’s day faded into oblivion, like every one before it. He gave a rote, “have a nice night,” to his coworkers before driving home. Once there, he wanted to collapse on his couch. But his dog greeted him at the door with a goofy grin and stamping feet, so the young man acquiesced. He got the dog’s leash, and they went for a walk.
But it wasn’t their typical walk. This time, they turned left instead of right. They walked for a long time as the young man wanted to forget about the stresses of his day. Then, they came to a bridge. How strange, he thought. He had never seen this bridge, but perhaps that was because they always turned right before.
Halfway across, they met an old man. He couldn’t quite place the man’s face, though it seemed rather familiar. He wondered if they had met somewhere before.
“Hello,” the old man greeted them.
“Hello,” came the young man’s response. Then they stared at each other. The young man thought again that he knew this other man, but he couldn’t quite say how. Maybe it was just the man’s eyes; they reminded him of his own, only with more lines.
The old man broke their silence. “What brings you to this bridge today?” he asked.
The young man shrugged in response.
“Do you know where you’re going?”
“Can you at least tell me where you’ve been?”
“Nowhere,” came the reply, punctuated with a sigh. Story of my life, the young man thought.
“Then it’s a good thing you came to this bridge today,” said the old man. “This is a bridge to everywhere.”
“How can that be?”
The young man craned his neck to see what lay on the other side, but the old man commanded, “Close your eyes,” so he did. “Now, what do you see?”
At first he saw nothing but infinite blackness stretching before him. Then all of a sudden he said, “I see me, with my dog. We’re by a lake somewhere. I’m fishing.”
“I see us a climbing a mountain, hiking among wildflowers and pine trees.”
“We’re on a beach, laying in the sun. Every so often we go swim in the ocean.”
“Good,” said the old man. “Now that you know where you’re going, don’t you think it’s time you got there?”
The young man opened his eyes. To his surprise he was alone on the bridge except for his dog. But he didn’t dwell on the old man’s disappearance. He and his dog started walking again. They had places to go.
Despite having assigned many failing grades as a professor, I don’t actually believe in the concept of failure. Sure in academia it means a lack of mastery of the material, but unless a student has earned an absolute zero then I would argue that they probably learned something. But when it comes to life, what really is failure?
When I consider the multiple times I thought I was failing in life – lack of friends in grade/high school, sucking at grad school, taking a leave of absence from my doctoral program, not being able to get to the post office by noon on a Saturday (if you have a sleep disorder or any other chronic illness that leaves you exhausted, you’ll totally get this one) – I take stock of what happened as a result of those situations.
My grade school and high school years were fraught with emotional dysregulation, immaturity, over sensitivity, and the beginnings of an autoimmune sleep disorder that unfortunately got misdiagnosed for 16 years. It took a lot of therapy, meditation, self-reflection, and help from integrative doctors, but I finally came to peace with my past and, in fact, have developed a stronger sense of sympathy and empathy for those I encounter who are still struggling, especially children. Plus, it informs my writing in ways I never would have been able to achieve when I first started writing.
I kind of got my act together in college, mostly because I could take long naps throughout the day, and I had more autonomy with my schedule. The same was true in graduate school, but then my narcolepsy (still undiagnosed) went full throttle to the point where I could hardly function. I was sleeping 20 hours a day, just barely getting my school work done and getting to class. I ate one meal a deal from Wendy’s, a biggie bacon double cheeseburger, biggie fry, and biggie sprite. I took antidepressants and saw doctors, but they would just keep switching the medicine or dose. I had a sleep study. It was invalidated because of doctor error. I felt demoralized, exhausted, and ready to give up. I fell behind in school and I wanted to drop out. But I didn’t know how I would tell my family and friends that I was quitting. At that point in my life, there was nothing worse than being a failure and I admit that in my darkest of hours I considered suicide as a possible way out. Then, I wouldn’t have to face anybody.
I credit my dogs with keeping me going.
I couldn’t imagine leaving Jack and Limit to be on their own because they had brought joy to my life like nothing else had. They also helped get me out of my apartment and moving around even though I was exhausted.
But I was still struggling, especially with school so I ended up taking a leave of absence from graduate school. That choice, one I initially thought would be the biggest failure of my life, turned out to be the single best decision I ever made.
I ended up getting a job as research assistant, but I ended up with so much more than just work experience. I made new friends, a group of women who are so delightful and loyal, that we still love and support each other to this day. In fact, we just celebrated our 10th anniversary of friendship with tea at the Carolina Inn this past October. I found a mentor who is incredibly skilled at seeing the best in people and helping them achieve their goals. He invested in our professional development and encouraged us to write journal articles. It was from this encouragement that I started on my path towards becoming a good writer. I also ended up with a research project I turned into my dissertation. After a year in the research assistant position, I returned to graduate school and two years later I graduated with my PhD.
I wanted more than anything to return to my research group and work there full time, but they couldn’t fund a full time position. I cried at work that day, feeling a sense of loss and fear. I ended up applying for assistant professor positions across the country (except for Kansas because I am terrified of tornados) and I started that fall in a tenure-track position.
That year was a miserable one, where I felt lonely and exhausted. I desperately wanted to return to NC and I talked about it all the time. I started falling asleep again at inopportune times, like on my desk at work or my couch when I was cooking something in the oven for dinner. Again, thank God for my dogs because they would wake me up.
I wanted to quit (again), but then some interesting professional and personal opportunities presented themselves and I decided to stick it out for another year. But I knew I couldn’t spend another year this tired, so I found a new doctor, this one specializing in sleep. Within five minutes of our first appointment she said to me, “I think you have narcolepsy.” No, that’s ridiculous, I thought. I knew what narcolepsy was and I even taught it in a survey of psychology course. But it turns out like everything else, narcolepsy is on a continuum and sure enough, one sleep study later I was officially diagnosed.
It was like I won the lottery that’s how different my life became.
I don’t think I ever would have been properly diagnosed had I kept my research assistant job or quit after my first year in academia. So that’s why it’s okay if I “fail” at writing because every time I’ve “failed” in the past it’s lead me to something even better. And I’m certainly not going to stop writing. I am a writer. Failure can’t take that away from me.
Lennie checked her watch. The bus wasn’t due for another twelve minutes. She sank onto the bench, shoulders hunched. The burden of the phone call Lennie received on her way to work that morning still weighed heavily on her.
Robert was in jail. She had warned her son not to get involved with his ex-girlfriend again. The two of them together were nothing but trouble and now trouble had turned into a 2:00am screaming match outside his girlfriend’s apartment, complete with slapped faces and shattered beer bottles. The stories always changed about who exactly did what. Lennie knew they both had their own versions of the story, not that either were ever fully right or wrong.
Lennie sighed. Why did they always have to resort to violence? Matthew 5:39 – “But I tell you do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” The latter part of this verse sat on Lennie’s couch at home, stitched on one of her pillows. She must have said it over a thousand times to Robert in his twenty-two years of life.
Lord, give me strength, Lennie thought. She closed her eyes at the invocation, repeated her prayer several times, and then opened her eyes. Lennie blinked into the sunlight.
To her surprise, she no longer sat alone on the bench. Lennie recognized the woman next to her as Sister Francis Marie. Lennie had volunteered at the St. Catherine’s soup kitchen on occasion and Sister Fran often provided songs during dinner time. Lennie could listen to Sister Fran sing for hours. She never knew which touched her heart more –providing a decent meal to others or listening to Sister Fran’s angelic voice.
Lennie could faintly hear that voice now amidst the bustle of the street. Sister Fran sang along to her headphones, tapping her feet. Lennie watched from the corner of her eye as Sister Fran stopped singing and searched for a new song. Her lips pursed as if concentrating on the holiest of tasks. Finally, Sister Fran began singing again.
Lennie knew the song. It had been on the radio several years ago. As Sister Fran bopped her head along and lamented about where the love had gone in the world, Lennie wondered the same thing. Well, I still have love to give, she thought, so that’s what I’m going to do. She imagined a beautiful angel wrapping up Robert and his girlfriend in her glorious white wings. She held the vision for a few moments in her heart and then let it go up into the heavens.
At that moment, her bus came and Lennie stood up. She didn’t feel so heavy anymore. Lennie took one more look at Sister Fran. Her prayer had been answered. Thank you, God, she thought and with a smile she got on the bus, ready to see her son.
A few years ago, I was sitting around a table with a bunch of academics. There was a general lament about a lack of time many of us were experiencing in order to get all of our professional and personal responsibilities done. I offered up the meditation I had started practicing for that specific semester: “Every morning when I start my day, I set an intention to get done everything that needs to get done. And, surprisingly, I find I have more time that I ever thought possible.”
The conversation could have gone one of two ways after that because my comment was jumped on by two people with very different responses. The first one said, “A-ha; that you need to get done,” but the second person snapped in a much louder voice, “Do you have a disabled spouse or an elderly parent living thousands of miles away?” This person was referring to my colleague at the table who had just addressed both those concerns as reasons why she was feeling so pressed for time.
A part of me wanted to cry, feeling like my colleague had personally attacked me, while another part of me wanted to retaliate with indignities such as, “No, but I have an autoimmune sleep disorder that is currently not responding to medication,” or “I have a cousin dying of cancer at the age of 43.” But, instead, I responded with, “Yes, you’re right. Thank you for that reminder.” This was, however, two years in to my regular meditation practice and so I chalk up my immediate peaceful response to that. You go, enlightened Kelly! Gandhi point for you! (Please note I did not come up with the term Gandhi point. I heard it in a student play at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and I have been using it ever since.)
When I got home that night, unenlightened Kelly took over and I spent more time than I care to admit crafting responses to my colleague in the event we would have the same exact conversation over again with the same exact people. In retrospect, however, it was good for me spend some time processing what happened because I later came to the conclusion that what bothered me the most is that I felt like my life was somehow invalidated because I didn’t have an ailing spouse or aging parent I couldn’t see on a regular basis.
This was not the first time I felt this way, nor was it the last. I do not have children and for most of my academic life I did not have a husband. So when I would engage in conversations with my colleagues about how “busy” we were and I would mention how I was spending my time, taking my dog on a lovely winter walk or spending the perfect afternoon sitting by the DuPage River, watching the clouds roll by,
I felt judged and ridiculed by my colleagues who rolled their eyes or commented on my single status as the reason why I could indulge in such luxuries.
But then a close friend of mine made this remark when I shared my plan to quit my job: “That’s because you have the privilege to do so,” and I felt the same invalidation of my life. I had been so excited to share my dream of becoming a writer, but then all of a sudden I felt like a spoiled little girl being reprimanded by someone for indulgence.
I began to question why I had been lucky enough to be born in a financially stable, upper middle class family which afforded me multiple opportunities in my life to further make me financially stable and secure. Not only was I able to graduate from college and graduate school completely debt free, I was able to find an academic job which compensated me with ample vacation time and decent money. So much so, that I am now able to invest full time in writing as career without having to worry about a steady source of income for the foreseeable future.
Here’s what I realized, though:
just because I perceived someone to have a certain opinion of me, doesn’t mean that it’s accurate
or taking the words of spiritual guru Wayne Dyer, doesn’t even make it my business.
I feel strongly that writing is a spiritual vocation for me and after decades of not writing, I find myself having a lot to say. I do believe that stories, writing, and, really, any type of creativity or art, can change the world for the better and I am finally ready to take up my part in this process. So to entertain others’ opinions of me or to feel guilty about things I have no control over, doesn’t serve me and it certainly doesn’t serve my writing. Because I envision a world where there are not haves and have-nots, where we all have the privilege of following our dreams no matter what they are, who we are, where we come from, or what our current circumstances are.
So I am going to keep on writing and working on staying true to myself. It’s not always easy and sometimes I fail miserably. I do, though, appreciate those of you who are reading my words, even if you disagree with them or question my choices. Perhaps you may have even rolled your eyes at my ideological vision (in which case MINUS 1 Gandhi point for you). But for those of you sending me love and support on this journey, I am ever so grateful (and PLUS 1 Gandhi point to you!).
“Adorable!” I hear my human squeal from the deck. She pulls her phone out and snaps a picture of me. I keep running, but I suppose I can’t blame her. I am an exceptionally good looking dog.
My official name is Bear; she hardly ever calls me that. More often than not it’s Big Bear — one of my many nicknames. Pooty Butt I don’t really care for. Not only is it unbecoming of a Berner, but my butt is pretty clean as far as dogs go. But now is not the time to think about my butt. No, there is something in the yard that shouldn’t be here.
I got the scent of it all the way in the house. I had to scratch at the door three times before she let me out. In that time, the interloper absconded. All that’s left is a faint trace.
I stake out under the deck. I will stay here for hours if I have to. I dig a hole, just in case that’s true. The dirt helps keep me cool in the August heat. Just as I settle down, I hear a voice above me. “Num nums,” she calls. “Big Bear, come and get some num nums.”
I wish she wouldn’t call them that – what am I, a puppy? I guess she still sees me that way, even though I now weigh 100 lbs. But she ponies up for the good stuff and I might need my strength later, so I go get my treats.
As she goes back in the house, the unwelcome scent nips my nose. I leap off the deck and run like a greyhound to the edge of the garden. Then I freeze. I see our uninvited guest. Its black body coiled like rope. The head raises. A soft tongue slips out in a hiss.
This creature is not my friend. Nor is it my enemy. Still, I know my human would rather it not be here. I cock my head, trying to get a good measure of it. Its tongue is still tasting the air, weighing the situation.
I want the snake to retreat back into the woods and find a new home. But how to convey that without scaring it to attack?
I take a step forward, then another. I do not bark; I do not growl. I inch ever so closer. Another lash of its tongue. I wait. Every muscle in my body alert, I am ready. Yet I do not want to preemptively strike.
The snake uncoils like a ribbon and retreats, slithering away. I watch until it disappears. The female calls me again. “Bear, time to come in.”
“There’s my Pooty Butt,” she says as I run to her. More like snake whisperer I think as she scratches my head. But she doesn’t know. She’ll never know if I have my way. I love her. And she loves me. We just have very different ways of showing it.
Artwork courtesy of Shelley O’Pearls, one of the finest mermaids in the seven seas. You can find her mermaid-inspired art and coloring books here: https://www.etsy.com/shop/colorfulbellydance
Colored by Kelly Kandra Hughes
Mermaid filter (seriously, that was its name) by Pixlr