Not being a beach person, I don’t spend the year eagerly awaiting summer, as many of our friends do.
And this summer has felt like a series of waves smashing us both in the face:
— Husband now using insulin and adjusting to all that it entails
— My breast cancer diagnosis right around my June 6 birthday
— The ensuing tests, procedures and appointments that have consumed precious days of lost work/income since my husband and I are both wholly freelance, with no paid time off that we don’t fund ourselves. (Thank God for savings.)
— Multiple $100 co-pays to have some of these tests and procedures.
— An infection in my breast, six weeks post-op. Extremely painful, but resolved. Breasts are such sensitive things!
— Two friends widowed the same week, a friend’s young adult daughter dying and the sudden and shocking death of a former colleague and friend.
— Far too many days shuttered indoors with AC blasting, curtains drawn, escaping 90+ degree heat
— Far too many days with torrential rain
OK, what’s been good?!
— Meeting a new Canadian-in-the-States friend, a fellow writer living in Oakland, CA and his husband who came to NYC and joined us for dinner.
— The thoughtful gift of a classic Hermes silk scarf from a friend; it belonged to her mother, who died last year and was a dear friend of ours.
— So many loving cards, emails, flowers and phone calls from friends worldwide as I adjust to a new reality.
–— Blowing insane money on a designer handbag, (on sale, dammit!) after my diagnosis
— Jose made us gorgeous new wooden planters and the brilliant orange marigolds and fragrant lavender have been amazing. I love watching bees dive into the salvia each morning.
— Discovering how multi-talented my friends are, both journalists like me, one of whom made us home-made soap, the other really delicious home-made bread. I love all things artisanal and am in awe of such colonial skill.
— Snagging a potentially very good new freelance opportunity after seeing an editor participating in a Twitter chat. We met in NYC for lemonade and hit it off.
In a new working paper, co-author Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, found that discussing failures can help to humanize the sharer by making them seem more approachable and relatable in the workplace. It also generally increased levels of so-called “benign envy,” which can motivate and drive employees to perform better.
However, the enemy of benign envy, according to the paper, is “malicious envy”: The type of envy others feel when we talk about our achievements much more often than our struggles. Projecting that image of perfection can be especially harmful for those in leadership positions who risk coming across as disingenuous, Ms. Brooks and her colleagues found.
A simple way to understand this is to look at the polished-though-unrealistic lives many of us present on social media.
One of the most powerful lessons I learned last year — despite their towering reputations lasting centuries — is that Japanese print-making legend Hokusai, Michelangelo and even Leonardo da Vinci all suffered setbacks and penury and failure.
I’ve spoken here a few times about the many failures I’ve experienced in my life and career, but let’s review a few.
The only true value of failure is learning something useful.
— Moved to Montreal age 30 for a staff newspaper job I had doubts about (not a very good paper.) Was gone within 18 months after some unpleasant interactions with my boss and a union that shrugged and wouldn’t help.
Lesson: trust your gut.
— Moved to a small town in New Hampshire, pre-Internet. Despite efforts, made no friends and, again, left within 18 months to move to New York, just in time for a recession.
Lesson: I’m not a rural girl!
— Took six months, crying every day, to get a magazine editing job after cold-calling hundreds of strangers.
Lesson: Re-starting your career in a highly-competitive industry in a highly-competitive city with zero social connections is really hard.
— Married in 1992, husband walked out 1994.
Lesson: Don’t marry someone who won’t do the work to go the distance.
— Have applied many times for competitive fellowships like the Knight-Bagehot (to study business at Columbia), the Alicia Patterson (tried three times), a Canada Council grant (worth $20,000 Canadian) multiple times.
Lesson: Thousands of competitors want the same bag of goodies. You can keep trying, even if you feel pissed off and humiliated.
— Spent many hours in 2018 producing two full book proposals, both of which were rejected by five agents. Fun!
Lesson: Intellectual growth — creative growth of any kind — is almost always going to be unpaid, speculative and suck time away from paid work. How much do you want it?
I admit, though — I’m much less amused by failure at this point in my life.
I want to stop working within five years, ideally sooner, which places a lot of pressure on me to to do good work and well-paid work and work that I really care about and am proud to have produced.
All of which now run directly counter to current industry trends in journalism.
I’m not someone who spends her days consumed by envy when I see social media brag-fests. Sure, it hurts to see people winning, especially if you feel like you’re losing. But it doesn’t accomplish anything to focus on their success and your (relative) failure.
No one succeeds alone, so I’m also attentive to people’s headwinds and tailwinds — the many invisible forces beyond talent, skill and experience — that can propel some people to massive/quick success while the rest of us struggle.
That might be family money, social capital, alumni connections, anything that offers a leg up.
Some of my younger friends, in their 20s and 30s, end up consumed with envy at their peers’ glittering achievements, which is a terrible distraction. I do think, once you’re past 40 or 50, life should — ideally! — have brought you some of the rewards you once coveted.
A feeling of success, despite the inevitable setbacks and failures we all experience.
I’ve also found that some things we’re completely obsessed with at 25 or 35 or 45 can shift so that not getting it — i.e. what we once would have deemed a failure — is no longer a goal we even want.
It’s too easy to focus solely on one area of accomplishment — work — rather than being proud that you’ve been a great friend or spouse, have managed to regain and maintain good health, have planted a thriving garden.
We’re all diamonds, multi-faceted, and several sides will always catch the light.
We also all have many successes, if we take time to notice and celebrate them.
Do you start most sentences with “I think” or “I feel”?
Having, managing, expressing (or suppressing) feelings is a big deal in my life.
As someone who faced and had to cope alone with mental illness and alcoholism in one parent and frequent work-related absence in another, I learned early that no one had much interest in hearing how I felt about all of this.
So I learned to bottle it up, or to share only with close friends.
Living in boarding school and summer camp ages eight to 13 (school) and eight to 16 (camp) also meant being surrounded by strangers, some of whom became close friends — but some of whom were bullies.
You learned to keep your counsel.
So a recent workshop at a writers’ conference — where the audience was urged to write “I remember” and dredge up some memories — proved both painful and illuminating for me.
Some of us then read our initial sentences to the room, maybe 150 other professional writers; I did, as well.
I was amazed and moved by what I heard.
It made me much more aware of how limited my ability to express some feelings still is — even later in life.
I’m reluctant to show vulnerability.
I very rarely say “I love you” to someone, even when I feel it.
I’m much more comfortable (which tends to unnerve others) expressing dismay, outrage or frustration — less tender and delicate emotions.
Except — thanks to a diagnosis I received since writing this post (tiny/early/contained breast cancer) — my view has shifted radically and I’ve told a number of friends, neighbors and even professional colleagues.
This is not something to face alone.
It’s also exhausting keeping up a brave face when I don’t feel at all brave or badass but feel worried and tired dealing with six (!) doctors, even if all of them are people I like.
The greatest challenge so far has been managing my anxiety, a battle in itself, while absorbing and making lucid decisions about treatment. It’s a lot to manage.
Are you at ease having and expressing your feelings?
You want(ed): a job, a friendship, a sweetie, a fellowship, a grant, a book or film or music deal.
When you or your idea face (repeated) rejection, it can feel annihilating.
I grew up in a family of freelance creatives, who wrote television shows and directed films and series and wrote and shot magazine articles. I saw, firsthand, what it’s like — emotionally, intellectually and financially — to put in a lot of hard work and hope only to discover that your ideas won’t receive funding.
Rejection is a powerful sorting process, quickly winnowing out those who really want it — and may still not get it! — from those who don’t. Maybe they’re ambivalent or don’t work hard or missed the deadline, again.
When you “fail”, (which to me is only temporary; if chronic, that’s not good), what’s your back-up plan?
Aircraft manufacturers plan for failure, creating planes that can still fly and land safely if an engine malfunctions.
Football coaches have a playbook, and everyone, everyone, needs a Plan B, C and D.
If we’re not thinking ahead to the next step, and the one after that, defeat can feel permanent.
I spent the past six weeks working on a book proposal.
Thanks to referrals from generous colleagues, I found top New York agents who replied to my email within hours. I worked with one for several weeks, but we quickly saw — to our mutual regret — this wasn’t a project he felt invested in, and I did. With the best humor and grace we could each muster, we parted ways.
The next agent replied to my email within half an hour — with tart, tough analysis of my idea’s weaknesses (yes, plural) and the intense competition it would face.
To say that — in British terms — these two men were chalk and cheese, is an understatement. Whew. One was lovely, kind and gentle and encouraging, even if I could tell this wasn’t probably going to work out.
The second was brash, abrasive and cutting.
But neither was a fit.
So, for now, I’m putting that goal on hold; both taught me about the current marketplace (useful) and, essentially, reminded me of the kind of person I want to do business with.
None of this, sorry to say, is unusual within the cruelly competitive world of journalism and publishing.
Pretty much every creative field I know — art, music, dance, design, film, theater — is equally filled with smart, talented, well-trained, determined thousands who want the same things we do: money, attention, a job, a gig, a contract.
In my decades in this business, I’ve been rejected so much it just feels normal — I tried for eight years before I was hired as a reporter at the Globe & Mail, Canada’s best newspaper.
I tried multiple times, never successfully, for the Alicia Patterson fellowship, (one of 14 finalists among 387 applicants that year.) The latest winners of the McGraw Prize, awarded to seasoned business writers — all three of them — beat out the 77 others who sent in their ideas.
Both of my previous books were rejected 25 times before finding a major publisher.
Whether we welcome it or not, rejection offers us information we have to process.
Simply stamping your foot, shouting”It’s not fair!” or pouting in a corner won’t get it done:
What did you fail to include?
What skills do you need to strengthen?
Could you have prepared more thoroughly?
Would additional training or education help you succeed?
Is your network powerful enough to guide, mentor and promote you?
I would never dissuade anyone from following their dreams.
I would strongly suggest having a thick, strong coat of armor — for your bank balance and ego — if you do.
Much of the scientific research on resilience — our ability to bounce back from adversity — has focused on how to build resilience in children. But what about the grown-ups?
While resilience is an essential skill for healthy childhood development, science shows that adults also can take steps to boost resilience in middle age, which is often the time we need it most. Midlife can bring all kinds of stressors, including divorce, the death of a parent, career setbacks and retirement worries, yet many of us don’t build the coping skills we need to meet these challenges.
I’ve long been interested in, and I most admire, people who are resilient — partly because if you’re not, life can end up morass of poor-me-why-me? misery.
Having said that, if you’re struggling with chronic illness and/or persistent poverty, let alone both, it’s damn hard to get out of bed in the morning with optimism.
But a strong filter also creates real problems, because it effectively lies about reality to both the healthy and the sick. It lies to the healthy about the likelihood that they will one day suffer, hiding the fact that even in modernity the Book of Ecclesiastes still applies. It lies to the sick about how alone they really are, because when they were healthy that seemed like perfect normalcy, so they must now be outliers, failures, freaks.
And this deception is amplified now that so much social interaction takes place between disembodied avatars and curated selves, in a realm of Instagrammed hyper-positivity that makes suffering even more isolating than it is in the real world.
I have friends and family who’ve survived sexual abuse and assault, negligence, brutal and costly divorces, serious illnesses…It’s not just a matter of surviving, (which can be difficult and isolating enough!) but coming out the other side with some hope or optimism intact.
You have to somehow believe it’s going to get better, even with much current evidence to the contrary.
I’ve written here a few times about some of the challenges I’ve faced, even as a relatively privileged white woman: mental illness and alcoholism in my family of origin, multiple family estrangements, job losses and protracted job searches, three recessions, multiple surgeries, divorce, criminal victimization.
But…it could always be worse.
I was struck, limping for a month through multiple European cities wearing a large and very visible brace on my right leg after re-injuring it on a bike ride in Berlin, how many people sympathized: “Oh, poor you!” or “You’re so brave!”
My choices? Stay and continue on, and limp, or leave in the middle of a cherished and otherwise wonderful vacation; popping painkillers and wearing my brace were not a big deal, and probably looked worse to others than it felt to me.
But bravery to me is a much deeper, and stronger quality.
You can only know really know how much you can handle once it’s thrown into your lap — often without warning.
If you have health, friends and some savings, tough times are more bearable than if you’re ill, broke and lonely, when it can feel like the whole world is aligned against you.
I decided to marry my husband after he responded with grace, speed, decisiveness and generosity to a crisis within my family. His resilient and optimistic character revealed itself in ways that no movie date or romantic holiday could ever have shown me.
His resilience was one of — and still is — his most attractive qualities.
I value resilience highly, wary of people who spend their lives throwing pity parties, especially the otherwise privileged who are shocked! when difficulty strikes.
We have an example of resilience in our home, a weary little geranium plant who I’m always sure is about to kick the bucket at any minute. Instead it keeps on blossoming and blooming, even on its two scrawny stems.
It’s a shriek of outrage/grievance/shock that happens when:
Someone says the wrong thing.
Someone touches you in a way that feels aggressive.
Someone disagrees with you.
Among some younger and apparently ferociously ambitious women, I’m seeing a kind of mass fragility I — and my peers — find astonishing:
Every day, someone shrieks in fury that someone has been racist or sexist or mean to them — which they might well have, but not actually have intended as a personal attack.
Every day, someone says “You’re shaming me!” when all you’ve done is politely, if firmly, disagree with them or share an alternate view, which is now, for some, unforgivable.
Every day, though, I also hear pleas for advice, insights, mentoring.
Every day, the demand to march into HR and get them to fix it, right now.
Every day, the need to school others in how to speak and behave, including those who have the ability to hire — and fire — them.
Every day, a chorus of virtue signalling; dare to challenge or contradict the group, and you’ll be banned, shunned, blocked and bullied — for your lack of sensitivity.
This, often arising from women who have already acquired the relative privilege of a college education and/or paid employment, has rendered me and other women at the top of our professional game, women who have spent years teaching and mentoring, both mystified and repelled.
Because women who have already spent decades in the working world didn’t harbor, or share in fury, the naive fantasy that life would be easy or that it even should be.
The world is full of very sharp edges!
Anyone you meet can challenge or even threaten you, economically, politically, emotionally or physically.
Yes, life is often much more difficult when you’re a person of color, transgender or LGQTBA and the daily fight for social justice is still a necessary one.
I’m speaking of something different, something that feels both more privileged and more unlikely because of that innate power.
Many older women are second or third-wave feminists, every bit as filled with righteous indignation as anyone today ranting and raving about how terrible everything is.
Yet we’re now being lectured to by finger-wagging neophytes on how to speak and behave.
We already know that moving ahead through a male-dominated world could be hard and it still is.
We already know that situations one expects to be civil can get weird, even frightening, and they still do.
We already know, no matter our skills, credentials or experience, we’ll probably have to listen to some absolutely appalling crap and we still do.
These depressingly shared experiences could create powerful inter-generational links, but that’s not what I and my peers are seeing; instead it becomes a dialogue of the deaf and one that older women like myself eventually just walk away from.
No one deserves to be mistreated, overlooked, underpaid and ignored.
We get it!
But older professionals never enjoyed the luxury of a “safe space”, nor would it even have occurred to us — while weathering three American recessions in 20 years — to expect or demand one.
My husband, of Hispanic origin, has heard shit, socially and professionally, I can barely believe. Yet we’re both still working and achieving our goals. If we’d stood up, (as we very much wished to each time someone was rude to us), and shouted “How dare you?!” — we’d possibly have lost a well-paid, hard-won job and probably damaged our careers.
The only safe space I know of is a locked room to which only you have the key.
Talk to people living in Syria or Myanmar or Mexico — where heads literally roll in the streets — about what a “safe space” looks like to them.
There’s a phrase from the Bible, (even though I’m no ardent Christian), that I find powerful and moving: “Put on the armor of light.”
It takes guts to face your feelings and try to work through them, certainly when they’re painful or confusing. I’ve found it simpler to just ignore and/or bury them.
Writing publicly about your most private emotions? I’m still deciding how much of it I want to do.
I’ve not struggled with panic attacks or severe anxiety, occasionally with depression. I haven’t been sexually abused or attacked. Therapists — starting in my teens when I was bullied in high school for three years — have helped.
I grew up in a family most comfortable expressing a limited set of emotions, often anger. There was usually plenty of money, and good health and interesting work, so there was no obvious source for it. Material wealth and a sort of emotional poverty are a challenging combination.
No one got hit, but verbal attacks weren’t unusual.
My mother is bi-polar and hated how her medication tamped down her energy and creativity — so her terrifying and out-of-the-blue manic episodes were a part of my life, beginning at age 12 and continuing into my 30s. These included police, consular officials in three foreign countries and multiple hospitalizations, including a locked ward in London.
As an only child, my father (then divorced) usually off traveling for work, I had no backup.
She also drank a lot, and smoked, both of which eventually have ruined her health. No one seemed to care very much, which was both understandable and heartbreaking. She was Mensa smart, beautiful, funny.
We gave up on our relationship in 2011; I live a six-hour international flight away from her.
It’s a source of deep and un-resolvable pain. I don’t write about it because…what good would it possibly do?
I have three half-siblings, each from different mothers; we’re not close.
When people rave about how awesome their family is, I feel like a Martian; I left my mother’s care at 14, my father’s at 19, to live alone.
I hate explaining this. It feels like telling tales out of school, or people react with pity or they just can’t relate to it at all.
Which stops me from writing about it, except for here, something, I suppose, of a trial balloon. I still don’t have the distance, or skill, to make it all beautiful, an amuse-bouche presented prettily for others’ enjoyment.
I wonder if I ever will.
My parents divorced when I was 7, and I spent my childhood, ages eight to 14, shuttling between boarding school and three summer camps. Camp saved me. There, at least, I felt wholly loved: as a talented actress and singer, an athlete, a friend and an admired leader of my peers.
But you quickly learn, when you share your bedroom with strangers, none of whom you chose, to keep your mouth shut. Guarded = safe. There’s almost nowhere completely private to cry, or comfort yourself.
At my private school, no one ever just asked: “How are you? Are you OK?”
The ability to be emotionally intimate is very much a learned, practiced skill.
Not surprising, then, that I became a nationally-ranked saber fencer!
I also work in a highly competitive field — journalism — where emotional vulnerability can provoke (and has) attack, ridicule, gossip and bullying. A friend in India once defended me there against a lie that took root in Toronto, where I worked, carried overseas by someone who thought this was a cool tidbit to share.
Luckily, later in life, I met and married Jose, a man fully at ease with having and expressing his feelings and hearing mine, a deeply loving person. He was the much- cherished youngest child of his parents, a small-town preacher and a kindergarten teacher. He was a late-life surprise baby, born after the stillbirth of a brother.
A fellow career journalist, working at The New York Times for 31 years in photography, he’s also quite private and cautious about who he lets in close.
I’m so grateful every day for his love and support.
How do you cope with your difficult feelings, of sadness or anger or loneliness?
Do you share them and/or blog or write publicly about them?
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.
It’s a wonder, really, that so many of us are able to survive, even thrive!
As an undergraduate student at University of Toronto I studied Spanish and, for a while, volunteered to do interpreting work with Chilean refugees who came to Toronto fleeing the repression, abduction and torture of the regime of former dictator Augusto Pinochet.
As some of you know, it’s exhausting to confide your worst moments ever to a total stranger, to relive them over and over to prove how much you’ve suffered. For a man of Latino heritage, having to do so to a young Canadian girl, me, must have been so difficult.
I won’t share here what they told me, but it was terrifying and I will never forget it, no matter how much I’d like to.
I vividly recall my first protest. Various organizations and individuals came together in outrage over a subpar sentencing recommendation for a convicted rapist. Armed with a sign demanding our justice system take rape seriously, I marched in front of the court alongside veteran activists, and every time I tried to join in the chants (“If you do the crime, you must do the time!”), I choked up.
That lump in my throat wasn’t borne out of sadness, but from an overwhelming feeling of togetherness and pride. I was incredibly proud to be part of a movement that dedicated itself to protecting and promoting women’s rights, one that fearlessly advocated for sexual assault victims.
Feeling of awe aside, I remained unconvinced of what end result, if any, our action would have that day. As it turns out, our protest and an online petition made a difference; the judge handed down the maximum sentence.
That triumph—my first real taste of feminist activism—taught me a powerful lesson I’ll never forget: that speaking up can make a tangible difference. And not just in one’s own healing journey, but in the lives of others. I loved playing a part, no matter how small, in that process.
It’s a perpetual dilemma when, if and how much to reveal to someone new to you, to peel back the onion and trust them with something deeply difficult.
I had two friends who were abused as young women, one by a relative, who took many years to finally share that with me. One always wore layers and layers of clothing and scarves, and I wondered why.
Then I knew and understood.
Only when I took the chance, here, and blogged about dealing with my mother’s mental illness did another person who reads Broadside open up about her own experiences with it, sparking a deeper intimacy and growing friendship as a result of taking that risk.
I’m now reading a small, slim book by a man who knows a great deal about survival — Sebastian Junger. The book is Tribe, and he examines the social dislocation so many of us now feel in an era of constant “connection” but often very shallow links to others.
What he focuses on is how we all float around, working, marrying, (or not), having children (or not), but how some of us long, very deeply, for a profound sense of belonging.
He writes of a young woman who lived through the war in Bosnia and who misses the powerful camaraderie it produced then.
Junger’s book talks about how a true tribe requires some sort of initiation, and a very deep sense of shared values.
For decades, journalism, has been the tribe I’ve been proud to join and belong to.
No matter how much some people viciously deride “the media” and call us “presstitutes” I’m still happy this has been my choice.