It might be emotional — coming out to your family or while transitioning at work.
Or standing up, finally, to a bully or withdrawing from a toxic narcissist.
Or learning how to discuss a tough topic with someone you love.
Or struggling to reach rapprochement after estrangement.
Or visiting a friend who is dying and attending their funeral, making sure their survivors have the support they’ll need afterward.
It might be political –– switching allegiance after decades, maybe generations, of voting for one party and one set of principles.
Or door-knocking and phone-banking to try to get every possible voter to the polls for this crucial election.
Or choosing not to vote at all.
It might be physical — going through chemo, trying to lose (a lot of) weight, trying to stick consistently to a healthy eating and exercise plan.
Trying a new-to-you sport, maybe with a buddy.
Maybe committing to a daily/weekly routine.
Or getting the eye exam/dental checkup/skin check/colonoscopy/mammogram/physical you know you need and keep putting off because…ugh.
(Since late May, I’ve been carefully eating much less 2 days/week, [750 calories] plus consistently exercising. Fun? Not so much. But loving the results!)
It might be financial — living on a very strict budget to finally kill off your credit card debt or student loans or a mortgage.
Or asking for a raise or arguing intelligently for your value as a freelancer in a tight-fisted market.
Or really carefully reviewing your savings and investments, if you have some, to make sure your hard-earned money is working as hard as you are.
It might mean taking on an extra job, or two, to accumulate some emergency savings.
It might be spiritual — leaving a faith community that no longer feels (as) welcoming, looking for another one.
Or maybe another faith entirely.
Maybe it’s trying a silent retreat or daily meditation.
It might be intellectual — choosing to try a new way of working or thinking or reading/listening/watching that challenges you. that pushes your brain in another direction.
Maybe you’ll finally try to learn a new language, or a new skill or teach or tutor someone else.
Whatever the decision, it means making a choice. Shedding a prior behavior or set of habits, which only gets more and more challenging the older we get and more attached to those behaviors as the best (or most familiar) way through the world.
We’re blessed beyond measure if any of these choices are indeed choices, not sudden and unexpected terrors we have to face, let alone broke and alone.
Whichever new/scary direction you choose — as we all must if we’re to have a hope of significant growth in our lifetimes (and over and over!) — you may sit on the edge of that metaphorical cliff and think….nope! Nope! NOPE!
Pack a parachute! (Cupcakes? Liquor? A stuffed animal? A supportive friend?)
I hate the phrase “comfort zone” as if its limits were clearly demarcated and immutable.
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.)
I enjoyed this recent book review, which the blogger Victoria Best, a former lecturer at Cambridge, admits she found both challenging and beyond her normal taste. Her blog, Tales From the Reading Room is always smart and thoughtful:
(author Susan) Nussbaum was a drama student in her twenties when she was knocked down by a car. Now nearing sixty, she has spent her adult life in a wheelchair with partial function in her arms, working as a playwright and a disability activist. Good Kings, Bad Kings is her first novel and it achieves the wholly admirable feat of giving a memorable voice to some forgotten members of society.
Good Kings, Bad Kings takes place in a nursing home for adolescents with disabilities, a grim institution…
So much fiction is for comfort or escapism, so much is created with pleasing and appeasing the reader in mind, that you have to love a book that has the courage to tackle a really difficult subject…
Books should raise our awareness of the vulnerable and forgotten, we ought to be jolted out of our comfort zones sometimes. It’s one of the things we rely on writers to do, when most of us lack the courage.
Having recently visited a country of head-spinning poverty — average annual income is $1,080 — working for a week in Nicaragua, I’ve been thinking a lot about when, why and how any of us choose to leave or stretch our comfort zones.
The poverty there was stunning; in Bilwi, where we stayed, only 20 percent of people have access to running water. Most houses are made of wood and corrugated metal. Many people do not go beyond a primary school education as it’s not available in their village or they need the income.
It is profoundly — and usefully — unsettling to see how differently others live.
We often choose to create a cozy and familiar world for ourselves and then begin to think everywhere is like that or should be like that.
Just because we know and like it doesn’t mean it’s the best or only way to live, just the one we know and are used to. The one all our friends and family know and are used to.
I moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico with my mother when I was 14. I had lived my life in comfort in Toronto and didn’t especially want to go.
There, we lived in a simple apartment building with an empty field next door with cows in it. We had no telephone, only a pay phone on the street corner below. We got hot water by lighting a burner in the heater in the kitchen. We had no bathtub, only a shower. The floors were tile, cool and smooth beneath our feet — but not carpet or hardwood, which I was used to.
I only stayed there for four months before returning to Toronto.
But that experience changed me, for good, in many ways. Living, even briefly, within a wholly different culture — whether literally, or through art or music or design or a great book — will do that to you, if you let it.
Just before my 25th birthday, I received word that I’d been chosen, with 28 other journalists from 19 nations, to spend eight months in Paris and traveling through Europe reporting. I would leave behind all my dear friends, a thriving writing career, my dog, my apartment, my live-in boyfriend who wanted to get married. My identities.
I shrieked with excitement when I opened that acceptance letter, but the day my plane left I was weeping in a corner, unable to do anything but toss a few things into my suitcase. I knew, (as it did), that year would indelibly change and mark me.
I dedicated my first book to M. Viannay, shown in the photo above that I took of him on the balcony on Rue du Louvre, in gratitude for this extraordinary experience he created — one that shoved me abruptly out of my comfort zone and into an entirely new set of competences and friendships.
the Rite is the most over-documented premiere in history, and yet so many things are obscure. Was it the choreography that annoyed people, or themusic? Were the police really called? Was it true that missiles were thrown, and challenges to a duel offered? Were the creators booed at the end, or cheered?
There were certainly plenty of good reasons for outrage, starting with the high, almost strangled bassoon melody that begins the work, soon draped with fluttering, twittering woodwind sounds.
It’s often said that the pulsating rhythms of the Rite of Spring are what caused the outrage, but pulsating rhythms at least have an appeal at a visceral level (an appeal certainly felt at the Rite’s premiere, where according to one eye witness one excited onlooker beat out the rhythms on the bald pate of the man in front). It’s more likely that the audience was appalled and disbelieving at the level of dissonance, which seemed to many like sheer perversity. “The music always goes to the note next to the one you expect,” wrote one exasperated critic.
The trick is being open, being emotionally porous enough to allow something new — and possibly frightening — to enter.
I recently watched Australian film director Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 version of The Great Gatsby. Much to my surprise — as I love the 1970s version with Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan, (much better cast than Carey Mulligan) — I really enjoyed it, even though it’s crazily over the top, as he usually is; my friends’ reactions on Facebook were interesting.
Some were appalled by the film and shocked that I liked it. Because, harrumphed some, it wasn’t true to the book. He had thoroughly messed with their expectations.
We’ve printed, framed and hung a few of my Nicaragua photos.
Jennifer — the blogger who was on our team — and I have scheduled a phone meeting to plot our next adventure.
I’ve finished my malaria pills and my stomach, after a quite rough week, is back to normal.
We’ve left behind glowing red hibiscus for bare brown branches, 33 degrees Celsius (98 F) for 33 Fahrenheit, soft sunsets for pelting, cold wind-driven rain.
“Real” life begins again.
I wish it wouldn’t!
As many of you fellow travelers and adventurers know, re-entering “normal” life after a profoundly moving, challenging and fun adventure, whether personal or professional, can feel really unsettling. As one friend, who knows Nicaragua well after serving there in the Peace Corps and writing several country guidebooks about it, wrote: “Double culture shock. It sucks.”
My greatest challenge now, after 30 years working in journalism, isn’t money. We have no kids and have saved decently for what we hope will be a retirement with health to enjoy it.
It’s challenge. Or lack of it.
I tweeted the other day my motto: Challenge is my oxygen.
By which I mean, I feel suffocated by the tedium of much of the paid work I produce, even for Big Name publications like The New York Times. I work hard and do it well, but learn very little new about the world, or my craft or myself.
I’m not sure what my next steps will be, or if they’ll head in a new direction or if that will even be financially possible.
I do feel enormously grateful that WaterAid chose me to join their team and tell some of their story. I hope add more of this sort of paid work — overseas, using my language skills, working in a team, working on projects that actually make a real, quantifiable difference in others’ lives — to my life, even a few times a year.
How about you?
Are you ready for — or have you recently made — a re-set in your own life?
I’ve been asked many times why, when faced with challenge, I don’t just give up.
Fortunately, I’ve never faced sexual assault, chronic or terminal illness, war, famine or poverty. Some of the people who read Broadside have faced these very real traumas, so I don’t begin to suggest my First World problems are terribly compelling, but resilience and tenacity do interest me.
Who cracks and crumples, hysterical, and who soldiers on?
While at university studying Spanish and starting my journalism career, I volunteered as an interpreter for Chileans who had suffered, and/or witnessed, the rape, torture or death of their loved ones, neighbors and fellow citizens, who had fled to Canada and who were claiming refugee status. In that role, I listened carefully to stories so soul-searing I’ve never forgotten them, even when I wanted to. I went to the dentist with one man to see if the X-rays could prove, (which they did not) that his jaw had, in fact, been smashed by a rifle butt. Another told me, in the detail he had to to prove his claim, about watching his wife and daughters raped in front of him.
My personal challenges have included:
— being the only child of a divorced bi-polar alcoholic mother who suffered multiple breakdowns and hospitalizations, some overseas
— her multiple cancer surgeries
— the loss of both grandmothers when I was 18
— putting myself through college, living alone for three years of it
— being attacked by an intruder in my apartment, at 19
— selling my work to national publications, starting at 19
— three recessions since moving to New York in 1989
— moving to, and adapting to, life in Mexico, France and the U.S.
— getting divorced
— becoming the victim of a con artist
— four orthopedic surgeries since 2000, including full left hip replacement in 2012; 18 months’ of pain and exhaustion before the operation
When single, I didn’t give up for practical reasons — who would have bought the groceries or made the meals? The laundry and dog-walking? Turning to my family for help was rarely an option, for a variety of reasons.
If you fall to bits, who pays the bills?
I’ve always had health insurance — even paying $500/month for it when I lived alone for six years — and with it, access to medical and mental health help when necessary. I know that’s been a huge advantage for me, as has the freedom from the pressing financial and emotional responsibilities of children or grandkids.
Sent to boarding school and summer camp from the age of eight, I learned young to take care of myself, not to ask for help, not to rely on others for aid or comfort. The hardest part has been learning to ask others for help — and being pleasantly surprised and grateful at how willingly some offer it.
At my absolutely lowest points, I still had my health, some savings, a safe, clean home I could afford. Maybe having lived in Mexico at 14, or having traveled to a number of developing countries, helped me keep a sense of perspective — I was still deeply blessed with what I had, no matter how tough things looked at the time.
And some people still dearly loved me; their faith in me, and their generosity and kindness, helped me keep it together. One woman, after the con man scared the shit out of me and I seriously considered moving back to Toronto, gave me refuge in her home for three weeks there.
The only time I really gave up, and my body made clear I had no choice in the matter, was three days on an IV in March 2007 , hospitalized with pneumonia. I had never just collapsed, (even when I really wanted to), and allowed others to take very good care of me while I rested and recovered.
Finally, I do have a full time job and spent the bulk of my time working on that, so all of this other stuff was the extracurricular activity that filled in the cracks around the 60+ hours a week of VC work I was doing during this time.
I had a lot of time to reflect on this last week after I came out of my Vicodin-induced haze. At 47, I realize, more than ever, my mortality. I believe my kidney stone and depression were linked to the way I treated myself physically over the 90 days after my bike accident. While the kidney stone might not have been directly linked to the accident, the culmination of it, the surgery, and my depression was a clear signal to me that I overdid it this time around.