We live in a culture obsessed with being perfect and efficient and productive.
And a culture based on an industrial production model, aka laissez-faire capitalism, doesn’t really allow for much humanity, the times we’re slowed by grief or panic or confusion.
We can’t all operate at 100 percent all the time, even if some people expect it.
We get sick, with an acute illness, or a chronic illness or, worst, a terminal illness.
We nurse loved ones with these afflictions.
I see so many people flagellating themselves for not producing more (why not producing better?) or not meeting others’ (unreasonable) expectations or failing to keep up with others who may have the advantage of tremendous tailwinds we’ll never see or know exist.
We could all use a little break, no?
A common phrase among fiction writers is their WIP, their work in progress, i.e. a book or poem or essay they’re plugging away on, whether with a contract and a publisher or just a lot of hope and faith.
We’re all a work in progress, really.
Getting older (I have a birthday soon!) is a great way to slow down long enough to reflect on the progress we’ve already made, not just scrambling every single day to do it all faster and better.
It’s so easy to feel inadequate when deluged daily by a Niagara of shiny, happy, successful images on social media.
As if those were the (full) true story.
But everyone has a wound and a dark place and a weak spot, likely several, and they often remain well hidden, sometimes from ourselves and sometimes for decades.
Many professional writers, as I do, live and/or earn our incomes in solitude, working freelance at home or in a cafe or library.
As a result, entire days, sometimes weeks, can go by without seeing another member of our industry face to face — people live far away, have long commutes or are simply too busy cranking out copy to have a long meal, or short coffee, with one another.
It’s a real loss.
We all need colleagues with whom to talk shop, gossip, hear about their latest project, cheer them when they win well-earned awards.
We need to give, and receive, fierce hugs and hear “Hey!” from across a crowded room.
And, yes, commiserate if it’s not been such a great year so far.
Last week reminded me how incredibly important it is so get into the same room with people whose work, and values, you like, respect, admire and hope to emulate.
The ASJA is a member-only group, but Saturday is open to other writers at all levels; we focus on non-fiction and journalism.
After the sometimes shockingly filthy air of online-only communication — poisoned in so many groups by misunderstanding, grandstanding, rank amateurs and even bullying of those they deem unwelcome — being surrounded by smart, talented, proven professionals who actually know, like and respect one another’s work was truly a hit of pure oxygen.
The very first person I saw was a male tech writer, a friend of many years, who asked me about blogging.
Others asked how my work was going, or told me how much they enjoy my blog.
I met many new writers, and those with decades of work for every imaginable magazine, authors of multiple books, some of them New York Times best-sellers.
We’re all thirsty, at every level of experience, to learn more, to improve our skills.
On Saturday morning, I spoke on a panel with two other writers about coaching, a service I offer fellow writers. In the audience were two talented younger women I spoke to at length afterward — one from my hometown, Toronto, one from Alabama.
Here’s the full list of every panel, as they were all taped for late sale — you can order them! (Mine is S09 on May 21.)
Such a pleasure to meet new people with thriving careers!
A group of us went out for lunch — women from Austin, Texas, New York, Boston, all of whom had never met. There’s an immediate, automatic comfort among fellow writers who know the real pressures of paying the rent/mortgage/health insurance from our writing, editing and teaching.
That afternoon, as other ASJA members do every year at the conference, I also mentored a young woman from (!) Sydney Australia; we mentor writers at the conference who pay a small additional fee and can ask us anything they want about the business of writing for a living.
It really is a meeting of peers and colleagues, not just idle chitchat.
We don’t just go to exchange business cards and polite pleasantries but, in a few more intimate conversations, to dig deep into the joys and challenges of what it means to still try to produce smart, thoughtful journalism in an age of listicles and clickbait.
The word “friend” only became a verb thanks to social media.
One once befriended someone or made a friend; note the verb to make.
It takes time, and effort and consistent interest.
It also requires a shared sense of values and expectations if it’s to last more than a few days or weeks.
Today it’s become a word with multiple meanings, some of which...don’t mean a thing.
Having just weathered intense cyber-bullying by an online group fellow women writers, (none of whom have ever met or spoken with me), I spent some time culling my “friend” list on Facebook.
More than 200 people are now gone from my list of “friends”, as I realized I’d allowed myself to accept requests from people I didn’t know well, assuming — innocently, hopefully and very stupidly — that everyone who wanted to be my friend also knew, and shared, my values, ethics and/or professional expertise.
Several of these women proved to be Trojan horses. Lesson, painfully, learned.
So, back to true friendship.
This week also reminded me what it looks and feels like:
Face to face conversation.
On Monday I went for lunch with a woman who lives across the street from us, and who I hadn’t spent time with for at least six months. We’d had a disagreement last fall, and stopped our weekly walks.
I wasn’t sure we would continue our friendship. We seemed, suddenly, just too different.
Then she was felled, (luckily, getting better now), with a challenging acute illness.
I took her flowers, shocked at the trials she was facing and sorry for her difficulties.
This week, I returned to the relationship with a deeper gratitude for her good humor, her sense of perspective and delight in her recovering health.
Like a handful of people, she knows me very well.
There is something so comforting talking to someone who just knows you, loves you and accepts your quirks.
On Wednesday, I met another friend, a newer one, and we went to the Met Museum after having lunch at Cafe Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie, both on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
We’re still getting to know one another, and she is a working artist and art teacher — we geek out over things like Vikings and monstrances.
On Thursday, I caught up with a woman who was originally a story source, a brilliant (Harvard MBA, ho hum) finance expert.
I feel so lucky when I meet and get to know a woman who’s both wicked smart — and deeply kind. What a pleasure to see her, even once a year when she visits New York.
On Saturday — (this is not a typical week!) — I had breakfast with a fellow writer, a specialist in medical topics, visiting from Toronto, then we both spoke on panels at a writers’ conference.
A woman I’d never met before stayed behind after my panel to talk to me….and we kept talking until midnight when we had to run for our respective trains to get home.
Whew! What an energizing, delicious gift this week has been.
The gift of friendship.
And how helpful, for all of us, to see the world through others’ eyes and their perspectives. It’s so easy to get caught in your own little worldview, trapped by your own firmly-held opinions.
A key difference I’ve seen here in the U.S. is a discomfort with, (understatement, more like terror of), major differences of opinion, certainly on issues like politics, religion, feminism, the usual flashpoints. If you don’t agree 100 percent on everything, discussion (certainly online) flares into nasty, name-calling argument and boom!
There goes your “friendship.”
I’m slow to make new friends.
Having been betrayed by a few, I’m now much warier about letting a new person in close.
True friendship takes time to grow, to deepen, to broaden.
You may have to forgive them, (and they you!)
Intimacy can be challenging.
Some flee at the first sign of friction.
Coming from a family of origin whose typical stance is estrangement or anger, my friends are my family.
Few things are as precious to me as the intimacy of friendship, old and new.
How about you?
Do you make friends quickly and easily?
Have you weathered the sting of deception and betrayal?
The two initial (male) designers of the Brooklyn Bridge were both felled by illness — only the fierce determination of Emily Roebling brought this world-famous landmark to completion.
I mentioned this intermittent fasting regimen to someone recently, a man my age, a fellow journalist, slim and trim.
I was stunned by his immediate reply: “Oooh, that sounds hard!”
Like “hard” was a bad thing, something to be feared or avoided.
It is difficult!
It’s not simple or fun to cut your consumption by 50 percent or more and try to keep going with normal activities.
But people cope with much more difficult challenges every single day: serious illness, unemployment and underemployment, debt, family dramas, homelessness — and the kind of hunger no one ever chooses but that poverty imposes.
One of the pleasures of doing something difficult, despite initial frustration and weariness with it — whatever it is — is getting past that initial “oh shit!” moment and eventually easing into an ability to handle it, even enjoy it, even do it well.
It might be the many challenges of immigration, and learning a whole new language and culture.
It might be, and often is, the first year of marriage when you think…who is this person?!
It might be a new job or your first job after college or an internship where they never really tell you what to do but expect you to do it really well anyway.
The sexy new word for surmounting difficult is “grit” and many books are being published praising it and wondering how to inculcate it into privileged people who’ve never had to scrap or scrape — hard — to get what they want or need from life.
But it’s truly enervating and exhausting to live this way for years, even decades.
It can feel overwhelming and impossible to get out of a hard situation, one you didn’t choose, whether an abusive family or origin (or marriage), a lousy job whose income you and your family really need or even a behavioral tic of your own that you now see is causing you problems.
I don’t fear most things that are difficult and generally enjoy a challenge.
I don’t respond well to people who expect life to be a smooth, easy ride, cushioned by wealth and connection and social capital.
Because, for so many people, it’s not.
(Witness the current U.S. Presidential campaign and the face-palming reaction of those who had no idea life was so difficult for so many fellow Americans.)
And being scared of things that are hard can paralyze you from taking action.
But there’s also a crucial difference between a chosen challenge and one imposed from beyond your control.
Then the real challenge is how to meet it, if possible with grace and courage. (And the biggest posse of support you can muster.)
The traditional view of mentoring is that of a wise(r), old(er) person with the time, skills, expertise, insights and contacts to help a younger person enter, or climb the ladder of, their chosen profession.
You might find a mentor in a family friend, a neighbor, teacher or professor, a coworker or fellow freelancer.
But here’s the thing.
I think mentoring is no longer, as many people see it, a one-way street, with the person arguably with all the power and connections helping the person with none, or many fewer.
The economy has changed.
Entire industries have shifted, shrunk or simply died and disappeared.
Many people my age — I’m in my 50s — are scrambling hard now to earn a good living freelance; even if we wanted a full-time job with benefits, at the salary we enjoyed a few years ago, it’s quite likely out of reach.
So while we have decades of experience and skill we can and do share, we’re also now working for, and with, people half our age or younger who are the new gatekeepers.
A few others have been, frankly, shockingly ungrateful and entitled, delighted to use me in whatever ways they thought most expedient and then...buh-bye!
Not cool, kids. Not cool at all.
I recently applied for a part-time editing position, one in which I’d be working closely with — i.e. managing — several young staffers. I needed proof of my ability to do so, and asked several Millennial friends, (i.e. mentees), to write me a LinkedIn recommendation.
Fortunately, several came through for me, and their words have been both touching and just what I needed. One blew me off with two snotty little sentences. That was…instructive.
Mentoring 3.0 is no longer the CEO in his or her corporate corner office pontificating.
Not everyone who can be helpful to you now has a Big Fancy Job.
They might not even have a “job” anymore!
Nor is everyone who can be helpful to you de facto eager to have you — (and never ever use this hideous phrase!)— pick their brain. Just because you need help doesn’t mean everyone has the time or energy to help you.
Before you clutch someone’s ankles, insisting you desperately need their help and advice, show us what you’ve already tried to do.
Even if you’ve failed, at least you thoughtfully and sincerely tried. Effort is huge.
We need to know you’re listening and will actually do some of what we suggest; nothing is more annoying than making time to really listen carefully and offer our best advice, contacts or insights — and you fail to follow through.
Oh, and yes, a thank-you, (even on real paper with a stamp), is very welcome!
If you’re lucky, you’ll find a mentor who’s flexible, savvy and able to pivot whenever and wherever necessary. Treat them, and their valuable time, with the respect it deserves.
No one owes you this!
And if they turn back to you — and ask you for some help in return — don’t shrug and ghost.
I loved this recent post by a friend and colleague, a Toronto-based travel writer, Heather Greenwood-Davis, who has seen much of the world, and even took her two young sons and husband globe-trotting with her for a year.
Heather trained as a lawyer and did well, but…
My marriage suffered. My friendships suffered. My health suffered. I began to shut out the world and as a result the very people I thought I was suffering for.
It made no sense.
What was the point of a full bank account if I wouldn’t be around to enjoy it with them?
And so I downsized my career and upsized my happiness. I followed my passions and though there was an immediate hit financially, the life I’ve been able to craft with my family has more than made up for it. The happier I became, the more I earned.
As long-time readers of Broadside know, this is really one of my obsessions and an issue I care very deeply about.
Do you know this book — written by Elizabeth Warren and her daughter? — The Two-Income Trap? It argues that chasing the American Dream might be a fool’s errand.
If you’ve never read this classic book “Your Money or Your Life”, it’s an eye-opener. It makes clear, in plain and unvarnished language, the very real choice we make — we spend our lives focused on making (more and more and more) money, grow old and die.
That’s normal life for 99% of us.
But should it be?
Do we all really need the biggest, fastest, shiniest, latest, 3.0 version of everything?
The tiny house movement addresses this longing as well, as some people choose to live in homes of 200 to 300 square feet, giving them the financial freedom to make less punishing choices than staying in a job they loathe to…pay the bills.
And so many students are graduating college with staggering debt and having very little luck finding a good job, the kind they hoped that college degree would help them attain.
Whatever loyalty many people once felt to a job, employer or industry….Today? Not so much.
Every year, surveys show that a staggering portion — like 75 percent — of Americans are “disengaged” at work.
They arrive late, take sick days, dick around when they’re supposed to be working. They hate their jobs or, at best, feel bored, stifled, under-challenged.
This is brutal.
This is heartbreaking.
We only get one life — and it goes by very very fast.
I so admire Heather for making a decision that goes against every sociocultural imperative: get (and cling to) a fancy job, make tons of money, make more, buy tons of stuff, buy more.
We’re urged by everyone — friends, teachers, parents, bosses — to keep climbing the ladder of material success and professional glory, no matter what it costs you emotionally, physically, intellectually and spiritually.
I live in the same one bedroom apartment I moved into in June 1989.
If you had told me this would become my life, I would have laughed. I moved around a lot, and liked it.
I’d never before lived in any one domicile more than four years — and that was back in high school, with my father.
But my chosen life in New York also threw me a bunch of curveballs: three recessions in 20 years, a brief first marriage, an industry — journalism — that fired 24,000 people in 2008 and is in serious chaos today.
Life, if we are lucky, is a series of choices that reflect our deepest values, principles and priorities.
I didn’t want to change careers or leave New York, still the center of journalism and publishing.
I had no wish to assume enormous student debt to return to college to retrain for an entirely different line of work.
I didn’t want to move far upstate, or out of state, where I could live more cheaply, and possibly face serious social isolation, which I’d hated in New Hampshire.
My stubbornness created its own challenges!
I don’t have children, so did not have those serious financial responsibilities to consider.
I’ve been very fortunate to have maintained health insurance and good health (even with four orthopedic surgeries in a decade.)
My priority, always, has been to create the freedom to travel and to retire, (and we have) and to work on issues and stories that make sense to me.
It means making, and spending, less money.
We’re outliers, in some key ways:
We drive a 15 year old Subaru with 166,000 miles on it.
We don’t buy a lot of clothes and shoes and electronics; our splurges are meals out and travel.
We’re not close to our families, emotionally or physically, so we don’t spend thousands of dollars each year on travel to see them, gifts for them or their children.
I realized — after working at three major daily newspapers and a few magazines — work is just work. Like many others, I’ve also been bullied in a few workplaces and terminated from a few as well.
That left some bruises.
I enjoy writing. I love telling stories.
But it’s only one part of my life.
I have many interests and passions, not just the desire to work, make money and become rich, famous, admired.
I’ve become a nationally ranked saber fencer.
I’ve been able to help care for my parents through health crises because I didn’t have to beg an employer for time off.
I’ve been able to help friends as well, like taking a recent day off to get a friend home to Brooklyn from Manhattan after day surgery.
Now that my husband is also full-time freelance, we can take a day or two during the week and just have a long lunch or go for a walk or catch a daytime film.
Jose and I really enjoy one another’s company.
I’d much rather have a day with him, just chatting and hanging out, than making an additional $1,000 to buy…something.
We met and married later in life, and we have both had terrific, satisfying careers in journalism.
This lovely young girl survived a rough, strange childhood…
This week is awash with reminders from every direction to celebrate your mother — to buy her flowers and presents and take her out for dinner.
It’s a time of sentiment and emotion and gratitude for all that nurturing and support, feelings we’re all meant to share.
Not for some of us.
My mother has one child.
She wants nothing to do with me; the details are too tedious to repeat here, but she can’t be bothered acknowledging my existence.
She lives a six-hour flight away from me in a nursing home.
She has plenty of money to pay for it so needs nothing material.
She has a devoted friend — a woman my age who is rude and nasty and bizarre to me — so she’s all set in that department as well.
She is bipolar and suffers several other conditions.
I lived with her to the age of eight, when my parents divorced and I was sent to boarding school and summer camp, arguably steeped in the kind of privilege that protected and cherished me and made me feel safe and secure and valued.
Boarding school meant sharing a room with two or three or four strangers, most of them young girls like me who didn’t want to be there.
It meant a life regulated by bells — 6:55 wake-up, 7:10 go out for a walk around the block (neighbors set their clocks by us), 7:25 breakfast in the dining hall, seated at a table chosen for you.
We ate when we were told to and ate whatever we were given, whether we liked the food or not.
To make a phone call meant filling out a permission slip detailing the reason you needed to speak to someone.
No one hugged or cuddled or kissed us. That would have been weird.
Boarding school also meant having no privacy, ever — even the toilet stalls and bathtub surrounds didn’t reach the ceiling and girls would throw paper bags of cold water over the walls.
So I quickly learned to be private, self-reliant and extremely cautious about opening up to others.
Luckily, I loved summer camp and looked forward to it every year.
But this life meant I spent little time with my mother; I lived with her full-time only in Grades 6 and 7.
She threw great birthday parties and we enjoyed a comfortable life. Over the years, living very far away from her, I saw her once a year or so.
She taught me a variety of skills: how to be frugal, how to travel safely and alone, how to set a pretty table with linen napkins and candles, to read widely and voraciously.
But I’m not sure she really ever wanted to be someone’s mother; her own mother was often a selfish monster to her, although very kind to me.
Then I left her care forever when I was 14 after she had a breakdown in Mexico, where we were living. I couldn’t take how scared this made me feel.
She inherited money so, in my early 20s, she traveled the world alone for years.
The only time I saw her was flying, at her expense, to wherever she was at the time — Fiji, Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica. Some of the trips were terrific, others less so.
If I didn’t get on a plane and go to her, I would not have seen her.
I learned to do what she wanted.
It all looked so glamorous from the outside.
But she had many breakdowns and hospitalizations, starting when I was 12 and continuing for decades. As her only child, I had to make snap decisions about her care with no outside advice or guidance. It was exhausting and overwhelming.
I rarely told anyone. What would I have said?
She drank. She had multiple health crises. She had no male companions and few close friends interested in helping out.
We later had about a decade where we got along, seeing one another once a year or so while exchanging regular, loving letters and phone calls and birthday cards and Christmas gifts.
For the past six years, we have had no contact and likely never will again.
This makes me sad and angry.
When I see women enjoying their daughters, and vice versa, my heart hurts.
If you and your mother love one another, this is a great gift.
If you have children — which I don’t, by choice — cherish their love for you and devotion to you. Savor it and protect it.
Millions of people hate Mother’s Day, for a good reason.
And reasons usually only our very closest friends ever really understand.
It’s socially taboo to not love your mother deeply, these days professing it loudly and repeatedly over social media.