Day 44 – Fear of success

I was leading a workshop tonight, and at one point the discussion turned to the fact that people can lose motivation and start to procrastinate because they fear success.

That’s the point where most of the students in the room look at me like I’ve lost my damn mind.

Fear of failure? Now that makes sense. Failing sucks. It feels icky. No one likes to miss the mark have have to own up to a mistake. But fear of success? Who the hell would be afraid of being successful? How does that even work?

Trust me, I’ve got this one. And it can honestly feel every bit as icky as failing. See, fearing success comes from those moments when you start strong. You’re feeling good, firing on all cylinders. But then you hit a point where you start wondering if maybe you set that bar a little high. You start to question whether the pace and expectations you’ve set for yourself just might not be sustainable.

It happened to me in college. I hit the ground running when I arrived at Concordia. First semester, 18 credit hours and a 4.0. Second semester, 17 credit hours and a 3.9. I was making new friends. I was accepted into the Honors Program. I got a job tutoring in the Writing Center. I got an essay published in a national magazine. Life was good…but somehow all the great things happening on the outside just didn’t quite match up with the way I felt about myself. I’d always struggled with self-esteem and not quite feeling like I belonged, and soon that Imposter Syndrome started to take over and I suddenly felt like I was trying to maintain my balance on a very wobbly pedestal.

So, I did what any rational person would do when faced with the shame of admitting that they’re not perfect–I started to self-sabotage, because somehow that seemed a helluva lot less difficult than having to let my guard down and let somebody see that I was just a scared kid who couldn’t for the life of me understand what anyone else saw in me. I started withdrawing from classes, watching my grades slowly dip. I made bad decisions. I even got an F in one of my major classes because I didn’t complete the coursework in time after the professor gave me an Incomplete.

It took me a long time (and a whole lot of therapy) to finally reconcile my expectations of myself, to finally begin to understand that I am smart and capable, that I deserve to take pride in my accomplishments because I worked really fucking hard to earn them. I still managed to graduate with Honors, go onto grad school, build a good life and a successful career.

And I am so grateful for every minute of it.

But still, there are days even now (especially now) when my Imposter Syndrome still whispers, persistently, making me question whether I really have what it takes, whether I really belong.

I guess we’re all just works in progress, aren’t we?

Day 18 – My unfinished story

In 2008, I sat down and started writing a story. My story. Bits and pieces of my childhood, my struggle through adolescence and my college years, my adoption and reunion. It’s one those projects that nags at me. It bothers me that I haven’t finished it. But it’s also one of those projects that I can only handle in small chunks.

There’s something about delving back into some of the worst moments of your life that really drains you. And even now, this far removed, with a whole lot more perspective and distance and wisdom, I prefer to take it slowly, wading back into the memories like a tepid pool.

But the reality is, it’s been 11 years since this project started, and it just might be time to kick it into a higher gear and actually try to finish it.

Plus, I’ve apparently got some readers who are finishing their edits. Nothing like a little accountability to light a fire under you, am I right?

Day 14 – It’s here and it’s home

In all the writing I’ve done, I’m often given the most positive feedback on my ability to set a scene. I’m obsessed with settings, with painting a clear picture of my characters’ surroundings and establishing a vivid and concrete sense of place.

Dig deep into my psyche and there’s likely a link to my adoption. Adoptees often struggle establishing a firm sense of belonging. But my obsession also stems from the fact that my family moved around…a lot. From the time I was born to the time I graduated high school, my family moved to five different towns in two different states and lived in ten different houses, including a three-week stretch where my parents, sister, and I lived in my grandparents’ motorhome. My dad had a new job managing the Four Circle Co-op in Bird City, Kansas and we’d moved before he and Mom had a chance to find a house to rent, so we parked in a vacant lot across the street from the town’s only gas station.

We arrived in Bird City in the summer of 1986. I was five, and living in Grandma and Grandpa Luethje’s motorhome for a few weeks seemed sort of exciting at first, like an extended camping trip. Lindy and I fought over who got to sleep on the bunk bed that perched above the driver’s seat (an argument she won because my tendency to sleepwalk proved hazardous when the bed was more than three feet from the ground). It was a bit strange to be camping next to a grocery store on the main drag of a tiny town with one stoplight instead of some ironically-named campground out in the woods near a lake, but it didn’t much faze me at the time. It was just another pit stop on the parade of homes that dotted the landscape of my youth.

I can close my eyes and still see each house we ever lived in in detail. I can see the little  bungalow on Norris Avenue in McCook where our dog Tu-tu had her puppies. The concrete floor in the unfinished basement was always cold, but Dad built a makeshift pen with some blankets and spare pieces of plywood to keep the squirming black pups contained and comfortable. There was a little steel safe built into one of the concrete walls, and I sometimes imagined we were a family of spies locking away our collection of stolen secrets.

The kitchen was painted bright yellow, and Mom used to watch One Life to Live and General Hospital on the little black-and-white television that sat on the counter. Lindy and I shared the little bedroom at the front of the house (of course she got the top bunk), and Mom and Dad’s room was through the Jack-and-Jill bath. Sometimes when both bathroom doors were left open, Dad’s snoring would jolt me awake in the middle of the night, amplified by the bathroom tile.

I can see the first rental house in Bird City where we moved after the excitement of living in the motorhome officially wore off. The two-story house sat on the corner of Burr Avenue and West 3rd Street, just a block from where my best friend Mandy lived, which gave us license to spend just about every moment together when we weren’t in school or sleeping. There was a chainlink fence around the backyard, and in the winter the tumbleweeds would catch there and take over until Dad would eventually light a small fire to burn them, scolding us when we got too close or threw too many tumbleweeds on the crackling pile, sending orange sparks spiraling into the crisp autumn air.

There were two bedrooms and a large playroom with a 3/4 adjoining bathroom on the second floor, which meant Lindy and I finally had our own separate spaces. Our rooms were far enough away from Mom and Dad’s bedroom on the main floor that, for the first time, I could wake up and not hear Dad snoring. The entire second story floor was covered with mismatched scraps of brightly colored carpet. It gave the space a psychedelic circus vibe that started to hurt your eyes if you looked at it too long.

The kitchen had a set of ugly swinging doors, the kind you might see in an old-timey saloon–a wooden frame around a piece of orangish-brown opaque plastic. Mom nearly lost her voice hollering at us to “Stop running in the house!” as we chased each other down the stairs through the den and the kitchen and into the dining room, laughing each time we burst through those doors and heard the satisfying THWAP! as they slapped against walls and swung back into place.

Moving—to a new house or apartment, town or state—was always a nauseating mix of excitement and anxiety. I fancied myself an explorer, and I tried to imagine the fun new adventures I’d have when I arrived at each new place. But the unpleasant byproduct of the recurring upheavals was that it made it nearly impossible for me to ever feel truly grounded. I never really belonged anywhere. Thus, it became an exercise in survival for me to burn all the details into my brain so they wouldn’t get lost each time we packed up our lives and left another place behind.

When I graduated high school and decided to move to New York to attend college, everyone told me I was crazy. They couldn’t imagine a small-town midwestern girl like me fitting in in the big city. But this was the move I desperately needed. It was a chance to throw myself far outside my comfort zone and headlong into the depths of independence. It was a chance to figure out who I really was and who I was going to be.

And for more than 15 years now, Stevie and I have been doing a lot of moving of our own—from New York to Arizona to Nebraska, from apartments and rental houses to our very own homes, packing and unpacking boxes, trying like hell to find the place that fits.

Here we are now, living in a quiet neighborhood in the heart of the Heartland. We’ve got two sweet kids, one crazy hound dog, and a house filled with books and memories and mismatched furniture collected from our families and our childhood homes—a table that came across the country in a covered wagon, framed family photos whispering stories from days gone by, the faded floral couch and matching swivel chairs where Richie and Diane sat drinking coffee each morning in their living room on Long Island. Our walls are covered with movie posters, our children’s scrawling artwork, and photos of the people and the places that we love most.

We are a collection of the people we meet, the places we’ve been, and all of our lived experiences. Our genetics and our childhoods give us a starting point—where we’ve gone from there is a hodgepodge, mishmash, shaken not stirred blend of all we learned and loved and left behind along the way. It’s messy and it’s beautiful. It’s ours and it’s everything.

It’s here, and it’s home.

Life in pieces

As I try to get back into the writing groove with my memoir, I’m finding that the hardest thing is figuring out where to start. I have a pretty decent draft, but there are a lot of holes, a lot of moments and details that need to be fleshed out and incorporated into the story.

Each time I sit down and try to begin, I get overwhelmed and have a hard time figuring out where to start. Bits and pieces of my life begin flashing and get all jumbled, making it hard to pull them apart and hone in on one moment.

So, I made a list–I condensed all of the moments I wanted to capture and stories I wanted to tell into short one or two-word descriptions, and then jotted each of them into little slips of paper that I folded up and set aside.

And I gotta say, it’s a little strange to look at your life in pieces–all those big, powerful, defining, unforgettable moments reduced to little bits of paper strewn across a tabletop.

Once I had my little pile of topics, I put them all in a little bag and resigned to draw one each day to use as my starting point.

So far, so good, but there is still a long way to go.

Wish me luck.

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Grand Central Station

The best place I ever found to write was in New York City’s Grand Central Station. Seems strange, I know, but I spent countless hours during my college years, sitting on the cool marble floor of that beautiful building, back pressed against the wall, writing page after page as the bustling crowds passed by and never even seemed to notice me.

The thing about writing in Grand Central Station is that there is never an uninspired moment. Trains arrive and depart, crowds swell and taper, announcements echo through the speakers. An endless parade of potential characters plays out an impromptu performance that moves and changes with a life of its own.

There, in that space, I never seemed to have trouble tapping into something greater than myself. Call it God, the Universe, a muse, or even just inspiration—whatever name you want to give it, that’s where I found it, my own tiny corner of calm in the chaos. It was there that I lost myself, that I found myself. It was there that I found the courage to keep going.

New York will always be the city that saved my life.

There, on that dirty floor of the train station, my pen would fly across the empty pages on its own, filling the void with words and ideas from a place that I never even knew existed.

I’ve never found another sacred space to write quite like it. These days, I try to find space to write everywhere I can. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s magic.

And now that I’m finally feeling like the dust has begun to settle in my life, I’ve been able to create that space I need, that space that has been void from my life for too long as I focused WAY too much time and energy on everything but my writing and my family and myself.

I wrote pages today–pages–filling in one of the many holes that has been gaping in my memoir for far too long.

And it felt so fucking good.

And I’m finally starting to believe that it’s true–maybe God has to slam a door shut on us every now an then, because He knows it’s one we will never shut ourselves whether we’re too afraid, or too distracted, or we feel like we’ve already gone so far and we’re too invested.

So He trips you up and kicks your legs out from beneath you and He slams the door and locks it. And He makes you pick yourself up and dust yourself off and breathe as you gaze around in confusion and wonder at all the possibilities and opportunities that were right there in front of you the whole time, things you never would have taken the time to notice because you were too busy sprinting for that door with your blinders on, ignoring all the whistles and sirens and red flag warnings as you blew right on by them.

But all is right with the world again, and I’m excited for this new chapter because I know something really amazing is going to come out of it. I’ve got a story to write and a pen in my hand and when I close my eyes I’m channeling Grand Central Station. And I’ll keep writing, keep writing, keep writing because that’s what I do, and it’s never failed me.

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Operation Fitness

Growing up, I was a very active child. I spent more time outside than inside when I wasn’t in school or sleeping. And summer vacations were either spent at the local swimming pool, or cruising around town on my bike or rollerblades. I played softball, basketball, volleyball. I went out for track (but stuck to high jump, long jump, and discus because I hated running). I walked to school, unless it was freezing or pouring rain, right up until I got my driver’s license my junior year of high school.

But even if I was fit and relatively healthy for much of my life, somewhere along the line, it all just went off the rails. It’s something I’ll explore much more in depth in my memoir project, but sometime during middle and high school, I developed a very deep and inexplicable loathing for what I saw when I looked in the mirror. During high school and college, that manifested as an eating disorder and some seriously self-destructive behavior. Looking back, I can only thank my friends and family, my team of therapists, and God for bringing me back from the brink of it. Left to my own devices, the end results would certainly not have been so pretty.

For years afterward, I shied very far away from any sort of dieting or fitness crazes. I had to. Once you’ve gone down the rabbit hole of anorexia and self-loathing, I don’t think you ever leave it behind, not completely. Instead, you have to stay vigilant, checking in on it now and then and making sure you’re doing what’s necessary to keep it dormant. But now, 14 years and 2 kids later, I’m a good 30 pounds heavier than I have ever been, and it’s really starting to get old.

I’m not looking to make any drastic changes. Those never seem to last anyway. But what I can do is get my butt in gear and incorporate some more exercise into my daily routine (which I started tonight with a little strength training and yoga), and to start making a few healthier choices throughout the day. I mean, it’s not like I’m constantly eating total garbage, but I do need to cut the cereal and ice cream habit that has carried over since my pregnancy cravings with Henry.

And just because I’m a goal-oriented person, here’s my awful “before” photo to give me a little motivation.

Let’s get this party started.

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