Gone Out

There are about six weeks left in this year, which is just nuts. Thanksgiving is next week, and yesterday we got our first real snow. A layer of white knitted the tree branches into delicate lace, while thick layers of white velvet draped on prickling pines. People complained. It was a great day.

This first snow filled me with a feeling of ridiculous hope. There was just something about the fact that something so beautiful can come from wind and cold, and that if that can happen, anything can.

These past few months, I’ve had a good season of writing. But I’ve decided I want to finish out the year being more thoughtful, more contemplative, than productive. I want the space to really notice the beauty and joy of these last few weeks, and to enjoy them without stress, without hurry.

There are some projects I’d like the space to to work on without an immediate need to share. And I want to get back in the habit of producing good work which I share because I love it, not producing just to share.

All this to say, I’m taking a blogging break for the rest of the year. It’s a little retreat, a self-conference. Have a lovely rest of 2018, as we look forward to the new year with joy.

Getting Shtuff Done: a Journey in Productivity

I’ve always had a hard time keeping good habits. I have lofty goals and good intentions, but these fall victim to procrastination and apathy. Soon I carry a string of failed attempts and a load of doubt that I could ever be successful again.

If you’ve ever read some of Gretchen Rubin’s research on human nature, specifically her Four Tendencies personality studies, my tendency is to be an Obliger, which means that while I dutifully meet the expectations of other people, I have a hard time keeping promises to myself. This rather self-sabotaging mindset means it’s incredibly difficult for me to stick to my goals, no matter how much I want them.

Writing, I’ve found, is a very risky career choice for someone like myself, because in writing, you have to make yourself write. You have to find that motivation. It’s not a job in which you clock in and out at a certain time and meet a defined list of expectations set by someone you fear and respect. No, it’s just me, and my thoughts, and a string of projects with some loose deadlines. (Loose deadlines, by the way, are Kryptonite to an Obliger).

Rubin’s advice to Obligers is to create external accountability, like deadlines in your work, friends who will join you for a morning run, or reading groups that will incline you to read. While I have found that advice useful, it also left a gnawing feeling that I wasn’t quite getting to the root of the problem. And this was the problem: I am afraid to commit to my personal priorities, because I am afraid they aren’t worthy. I am afraid to stick up for them, to say no to other things, to endure the hard times my priorities require.

Take exercise, for instance. I’ve never been very good at working out, because I’ve always been defeated before I finish. I don’t let myself start at a comfortable pace, my pace, on my terms. I let myself get swept up in someone else’s idea of good exercise, and then I get burnt out. And of course, I spend too much time worrying about how my body looks instead of how I feel.

When a few months ago, Alex and I restarted the habit of going to the gym regularly, I began this new habit differently than I ever approached anything before: I gave myself the freedom to do what I liked. Truth is, I don’t like being overly sweaty and in pain for a whole hour. But I do like running a mile at a time, and I do like lifting weights, and I do like yoga. So that’s what I did. I let myself set low goals, because even those low goals were higher than doing nothing. For a while I waited for the other shoe to drop; I’d started out so well so many other times, only to fail.

But this time was different; this time I actually enjoyed working out, which I’ve never in my whole life been able to say. I enjoyed it because it was my own goals on my own terms, and I was hitting those goals, week by week.

That’s when it dawned on me: I didn’t have to try to trick myself into meeting goals. I had discovered a simple, oft-forgettable truth: getting stuff done feels good.

I think we so often fall into a victim mindset, if even a little. If you’re naturally more inclined to it, like me as an Obliger, it’s even easier. You get used to the feeling of failing yourself. And I’m not sure why, but suddenly I just got fed up with it. I didn’t want to have to have some kind of external structure to do the things I loved and wanted to accomplish: I wanted to accomplish them because it feels good. 

It feels good to have a yoga habit. It feels good to eat salads. It feels good to read. It feels good to floss.

And I don’t mean “feels good” just on the surface level, the physical level. I mean it feels good on a deep, soul level. It nourishes my mind, body, and spirit. It makes me more of who I really want to be.

And I think you have to discover, for yourself, which lofty goals create that kind of soul-level good feeling for you. There are many good habits we keep that might not be the best for us, our specific personhood and calling. There are good habits that feed you on that physical level, but not on the soul level.

Realizing that made me narrow down my daily goals so I can meet my ultimate, long-term ones. It helped me carve out time for prayer and meditation. It helped me write 20,000 words of my graduate manuscript in a month (I still have no idea how that happened).

It’s not a fool safe, one-and-done process; it’s an ongoing one. It takes overcoming laziness and doubt and fear moment by moment by moment. But I’m learning that motivating yourself by fear or frustration, by competition or by other people’s values, is never a sustainable way to build your life. You have to figure out what you value, stick up for it, and run for it with abandon.

So today, what are some things you value? What are some goals you have? Why do you want them, and what has kept you from reaching for them?

And how will it feel to get them done?

Craving Color: Painting the World Orange

This time of year is dangerous driving weather for me.

There’s so much going on. The trees are all changing colors, and there are so many different shades within those colors. I can count five different yellows. Not to mention the flaming scarlet, orange tinged with pink, warm browns against ashy browns. And by the time one tree completely drops its leaves, another one’s color deepens, and so any given landscape changes multiple times within a week. It’s dizzying.

I’m usually someone who’s drawn to more cool tones. Blues and grays are my lifeblood. When I do my laundry, all the clothes match each other. So it’s funny that in this season of riotous color, I feel drawn to the burning orange and spicy red and melting yellow. I’ve even—gasp—bought a few pieces of clothing in bright, rich colors that are totally out of my character.

I first noticed this color craving several weeks ago, before the leaves had even begun to turn. I got this insatiable urge to paint everything in my life orange. It was weird; like I said, my belongings are a tidy collection of blues, grays, browns, and off-whites. Sometimes I’ll go crazy and buy something burgundy. But I kept being drawn to orange. I noticed it in everything, my eyes locked onto every scrap of it, and I savored it like I was eating a visual chocolate cake.

Again: weird. Soon I began to wonder if this craving for the color orange was a subconscious craving for something else. I don’t mean to get all metaphysical, but I do know that colors speak to us, across time, across cultures. Color symbolism and color theory are fascinating to me, because while we might all perceive color slightly differently, there is still so much meaning that is shared and universal. For all the things we disagree on as humans, we can all, millions of us, still agree that certain colors mean certain things.

So on a whim I did some research. Orange is commonly thought to symbolize balance, joy,  warmth, energy, and enthusiasm. It’s a fun color, not as aggressive as red but not as calm and laid back as yellow. In some cultures, orange has ties to spirituality and is reserved for monks or priests.

Learning all this was sort of spooky, because my theory that there was something more to being drawn to a color was proven correct. Orange, and all it represents, was what I wanted to be more of. I was coming out of a season of transition, restlessness, confusion, and stagnation. And suddenly I was waking up every morning wanting to feel different, wanting to literally paint my life orange.

With this in mind, I’ve been trying to cultivate more orange-like attitudes in the past few weeks. I want to have balance in my life between enjoying the moment and working for the future. I want to have joy and enthusiasm. I want to be warm in my heart and warm to others. I want to be connected to the spiritual side of things and not merely stay stuck in the mindsets of the physical. I want to burst with creativity, fun, health, and vibrancy. I’ve also been trying to create little pops of orange in my life by adding in new and unfamiliar experiences. This doesn’t come easy to me, but it does reap a lot of joy.

As autumn deepens and the world starts to actually look how I wanted to paint it, I find myself drawn to other colors too. Rich plum, brilliant emerald, and that delicious melting yellow. Perhaps I’ll do some research on those colors as well. Who knows what I could learn from them?

Thinking Generously: How One Mental Tweak Made Me Richer

One thing my husband Alex and I decided to do at the beginning of our marriage was to commit to being generous. As two newlywed college students, of course, this was a lofty goal. But we made the commitment to, at the very least, be a couple who tithed.

If you’ve never heard of tithing, it’s a practice in Christianity in which you set aside ten percent of your income to give away. Typically, this means giving to the church, although it can also mean just giving to someone in need. It’s a practice commanded by God to reinforce perspective about money: that it’s not the most important thing in life, that we are always fortunate enough to be generous to others, and that all our blessings—not just the financial ones—come from God and are important. Setting aside our money is a physical representation and reminder of these things.

Alex was especially excited for us to do this together, because he’s an incredibly generous person, and the chance to get in the habit of giving to others was a big life goal for him. While I wanted to be generous too, I wasn’t as enthused. I’m a worrier, a very practical person. I need to know how we’re going to accomplish what, and I have a hard time trusting that everything will turn out okay.

Our mission to give generously, even when it was hard for us, was a bumpy road at times, but thankfully we’ve been able to give the ten percent (and at times, even above) that was our goal. Even better, this mindset of being generous has bled into a few other areas of life, and I’ve learned several lessons from it:

Our culture operates on a scarcity mindset. This is the opposite of a generosity mindset. Scarcity says, “There’s not enough,” “We won’t be okay,” and “We have to gather and hoard so we have enough resources to spare.” This mindset operates well in the American Dream, which is all about upward mobility and increasing wealth. While those values aren’t necessarily bad goals, it’s interesting how our quest for abundance leads us to be obsessed with having enough, and how some of the most fortunate people in the world (us), end up so unsatisfied.

When you put on a mindset of generosity, you feel richer. Like I said, I’m a worrier. I tend to have that scarcity mindset, and I justify it by telling myself that I’m thinking wisely. But a generosity mindset offers true wisdom by putting things in perspective. Generosity says, “I don’t need to scrounge and hoard; we’re gonna be okay.” Generosity says, “I am truly blessed, and I have abundance—however small—to give to others.”

Scarcity and generosity aren’t just about money. This is truly important. When I started challenging myself to think generously, it bled into so many other things. I learned to think generously about my time: when someone asked me to take time to help them out with something, a generous mindset helped me feel more rich in time instead of fretting that I’d not have enough time to get other things done. A generosity mindset also helped me with forgiveness: it reminded me that there is so much grace and love to give, and I don’t have to be stingy with it. In my relationships, I don’t have to worry about keeping score, thinking, “well you did this, so I do that, and because I did that, you do this.” No, with a generosity mindset, I can be lavish in my relationships, and leave the emotional math at the door.

Thinking generously actually helped me be more disciplined. You’d think that being really generous would make for a less than happy bank account. But miraculously, that’s not the case. Thinking generously takes the desperation out of managing my resources; it shifts everything into perspective. I am free to make decisions based on the needs I have and the needs I want to help others with, instead of trying to scramble to prepare for a theoretical famine down the road.

It may sound like a lot of mind games, but getting in the mindset of abundance, rather than scarcity, truly makes me feel like I have more at my disposal. Because I feel richer (and not just in money), I feel satisfied, more taken care of, and more peaceful. When we realize that every blessing we have, whether it’s time, money, relationships, skills, etc., is a resource and a form of power, we can feel better equipped to use that power for good. We don’t have to feel like we’re at the mercy of these things; we can think generously, and give willingly and freely.

Soon we find that generosity never reduces what we have; it only multiplies it.

Masala Sauce: Anger, the Internet, and Indian Food

A few weeks ago I made Indian Masala sauce. It’s a tomato base with a blend of amazing spices: curry, garlic, cinnamon, nutmeg, red pepper. Butter and cream. It’s tomato-ey and spicy and cozy and creamy all at once. It’s called a simmer sauce, because you’re supposed to keep it on low heat for an hour or so, letting the flavors blend together.

The thing with tomato sauces, I’ve found, is that you can’t just let them have a pleasant, tiny-bubble simmer like you can with water or milk. The heat stays deep at the bottom, mingling with all the stuff you’ve put in the sauce, until suddenly, big bubbles reach the surface, pop pop, splattering red all over the stove. And on your clothes, if you’re unlucky (I am).

The masala sauce has become a metaphor for me, as most things in my life do. In this case, the masala sauce reminds me of myself, especially those feelings I tend to keep deep inside.

I don’t usually consider myself to be an angry person. I’m pretty even keel, keeping a straight face and feeling my emotions on the inside. This sounds pretty good, healthy even. But feeling all your feelings on the inside doesn’t mean they don’t exist; it just means other people can’t see them.

Take anger, for instance. I usually keep my anger close to the chest. It bubbles deep in the sea of my soul, making the waters bitter and murky, poisoning myself and the people closest to me. Now, I truly do mean well. I truly do love people. I truly am kind. I’m not one of those perennially angry people who get cut off in the grocery line and unleash a string of expletives. Out loud.

No, my anger is like the masala sauce. The blend of introversion and high sensitivity and empathy, my own personal curry, combine with the garlic of current events and the cinnamon of relationships, the nutmeg of tender memories, the red pepper of painful events. Butter of better judgement, cream of spiritual wisdom. And in the thick, murky tomato sauce of clouded perspective, all these things blend together. Add heat (the stress of really anything), and there’s my anger. It looks good and smells amazing on the outside, but if you get too close, it’ll sear and stain.

Last week I took an unplanned social media hiatus. It was only for a few days, and it wasn’t a straight fast, but it was a big reduction in how much social media I consume. While I didn’t experience a drastic change in my inner psyche, I did notice something: I wasn’t as perpetually, simmeringly angry.

I think we underestimate how much scrolling through the inner thoughts and opinions of friends and strangers can completely overwhelm us. If you’re like me, you have a wide variety of friends and people you follow, all from various social, religious, economic, and political backgrounds. My average day on Facebook is a mental Red Rover. As someone who has a lot of empathy, this is emotionally exhausting, and I want to scream, CAN ALL MY FRIENDS JUST GET ALONG? Social media often feels like one of those cartoon fights where everyone’s in a cloud of dust kicking and punching each other. It’s easy to feel like the real world is this way too, and then it’s easy to feel utterly, perpetually… angry.

So part of my fast was a simple act of removing myself from it all, to enjoy the feeling of thinking my own thoughts and making sense of my own experience, without the filter of others’ opinions. Even if your friends and followers aren’t actively attacking your viewpoints, it’s easy to feel that sense of judgement, that sense that you need to polish up your life and thoughts before presenting them. All this stress, real and perceived, mixes with our personal blend of anxieties and insecurities, with the pain of current events, the peppery taste of snark. And soon we’re all simmering, stewing vats of masala sauce, bubbling up at each other, searing and staining.

I’m still learning what to do about this. I think there’s a place for anger, if only as an indicator that something is going on under the surface that needs to be addressed. I think anger can be useful, but I also think that none of it are well equipped to handle it wisely. Anger attaches all our strong parts to our vulnerable ones, riddling otherwise righteous intent with selfishness. The pot boils over with so much stuff that we can’t distinguish the helpful from the unhelpful, the actions we must take from the actions that are reactive.

The only thing to do, I’ve found, is to turn off the heat. It’s only when the pot has cooled down that you can start to work with the sauce. That looks different for each of us, but I’d bet that for most of us it means stepping back and trying to relate to each other, and not merely attacking the issue at hand. It means challenging the way things are and asking how they got there in the first place. It means curiosity: why are we reacting this way? What do we all want? How can we really get to where we want to go?

For me, it’s important to remember that anger, whether it simmers (stays internal) or boils over (is externally expressed) is only useful if I do two things: think about it critically, and then once I’ve made sense of it, express it.

For someone who tends to fly off the proverbial handle, this means asking those deeper questions, and for someone like me, it means not stopping at those questions, but continuing on to share my feelings after those questions have been asked.

I wonder what would happen if we got more curious about our own thoughts and the thoughts of others. I wonder if it would look more like integration than division. Because the truth is this: no matter what your cooking methods are, all food has to cool down before it can be eaten. And eating—that act of communion and comfort and joy—is the whole point of food—ideas and emotions—in the first place.

I wonder what could happen if we learned to enjoy that meal together.

 

 

Are You Finished?

At the beginning of this summer I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in Ireland as part of my master’s program. I spent most of those two weeks in writing classes, learning about the craft and business of being a writer.

Each day for two hours or so, I sat down with a little group of fellow students and our mentor, and we workshopped each other’s writing. Workshopping, for writers, is always an inspirational and terrifying experience. It usually consists of sharing a story or a piece of one, and giving your colleagues free reign to say whatever they think of it. Thankfully, my classmates are kind people, but it’s still a fragile experience. While you end up learning a lot about what works and what doesn’t work in your writing, you are putting a piece of your life on a literal table to be dissected. Hours spent thinking, feeling, remembering, and writing are all boiled down to a few sheets of paper that can be marked up and crossed out, and it’s easy to feel judged as a person when the work is the actual thing being judged.

Workshopping, though, is a part of being a writer. Even if you never have a formal sit-down in a room somewhere on the campus of an Irish university (though I definitely recommend it), every writer has to send their work to someone at some point. It might be a friend, a teacher, an editor, or a publisher. In all of these situations, the work will be judged, and you have to learn to chant I’mnotbeingjudged I’mnotbeingjudged in your head the whole time.

For most creative pursuits, the principle is the same: the artist must separate herself from the work in order to take constructive criticism, and to offer constructive criticism herself. You can only grow as a writer if you learn to look at your work objectively.

When the day came for me to share my short story with the workshop, I selected a piece that was several years in the making, and had been written and re-written a few times. I liked the story; I felt confident about it, and that’s really rare for me, let me tell you. The workshop went well, with some good discussions and suggestions from the class, and afterward we had a coffee break.

Usually after a workshop, I stuff all the copies of my work, copies with the scrawled notes and opinions of other people, the teacher, and myself, into a folder. I forget about them for a few months, until I feel strong enough to look back and start working on the errors.

During the coffee break, our mentor, a celebrated Irish writer in her sixties, took me aside. She had a few thoughts about our workshop, and we chatted. Then she asked me,

“Now tell me, is the story finished?”

I felt ill-equipped to answer. “What?”

“Do you feel satisfied that the story is finished?”

“Um…” The truth was, I did. Despite some minor things the class had pointed out, I felt like the story was finished. But I didn’t feel like I had the right to say such a thing. Please tell me, celebrated Irish writer; you’re the expert.

But I answered truthfully. “Yes, I do.”

“Ah, good.” She smiled, satisfied, and we finished our coffee break.

It was a simple question, but it turned my perception on writing and workshopping and the endless cycles of editing on its head. So often in my experience as a writer, I’ve turned to whatever workshop I’m dealing with (formal or informal) to validate whether I’m a good writer or not. I come prepared to feel the burn of judgement, to feel foolish for saying this or that. The little morsels of “I really liked this part” and “you did that well” give me comfort. But at the end I still stuff my work in a folder, feeling rather inadequate, promising myself I’ll work on it later, when I’m ready.

Sometimes, yes, the work is trash. Sometimes other people are smarter than me, and find things to improve in my work. More often than not, actually. But the fact remains that I am still the writer, and as the writer I retain the right to be finished. I retain the right to open the door for suggestions, let a few in, and then shut the door and say, “The discussion has been closed. Thank you for your comments; your insight is very important to us.”

This is a tricky balance, because you don’t want to be too puffed up with the pride of creativity. You don’t want to be that person in a workshop that says, “Well joke’s on you idiots; this here is a finished story! Suck it!” But you don’t want to be a fearful quivering sap either.

I’m learning to go with my gut on these things. I can usually tell I need to pay attention to a constructive criticism when it stings, when it resonates with some deep sense inside of me that says, “Yes, they’re right; that was a bad idea.” Sometimes whole stories feel that way.

But there are times when a suggestion is made for my work, and a very tiny, calm voice in my head says, “No. I disagree.” This voice has thought about it, and is making a level-headed decision, with no hysterics or emotional pain. That’s the voice of the authority-bearing artist, and that’s the voice I can trust.

So for the aforementioned story, I made a few minor changes, and then I put it in a new folder on my computer: “Finished Work.” It was weird to see it so blatantly put. It seemed audacious.

But it also felt good to tell myself I had finished something, to tell myself and the rest of the world that I had worked hard and done well and would work no further. It felt good to think that no matter how ill-received the story might be in the future, that going back and changing it was not an option. From now on, if people didn’t like it, it was a matter of their opinion, and not of my own shortcomings as an artist.

I’m still getting used to this feeling. It’s still frighteningly presumptuous to me. But that artist’s voice still rings in my heart, the one that politely disagrees with my doubts and tells me, “This is finished.”

 

 

Too Fine a Point

I always assumed I hated real pencils.

I remember long days in high school, spending all this time trying to sharpen my pencils into a fine point, hearing the shh shh shh of the pencil sharpener shaving away thin layers of wood and graphite. Then finally, the perfect point. Then pressing against it to test its strength, and snap. Broken. Or even worse, broken deep in the pencil shaft, gouging out a piece of wood with it. Ribbons of shavings stuffed into the pencil sharpener, the quickly dulling blade, fine flakes of graphite staining my hands gray, pencils growing shorter and shorter until they were the same length as my fingers.

I quickly switched to mechanical pencils. Finally, a point that was always sharp, and all you had to do was click click. I scavenged the best mechanical pencils I could find; I hoarded them. My favorite was the Mother of All Mechanical Pencils, with a retractable eraser you could screw up and down like lipstick.

Jenny, my best friend, has always loved real pencils. When she told me about her affection, I sighed in longing. I wished I could love pencils as she did. But all the promises they made of simplicity, practicality, and a certain quotidian charm, had proven empty to me.

But then Jenny got me a collection of lovely floral pencils from the Target dollar section. And you can’t not love something your best friend gets you from the Target dollar section. The pencils came pre-sharpened, which was a boon. I used them, and fell in love with them, and when the points finally dulled so much that they were useless even for underlining in books, the thought of going back to mechanicals was one I couldn’t bear. I had grown to love the feel of solid wood and graphite in my hand, and the flimsy plastic of a mechanical pencil can’t compare to it.

So, committed to the idea of loving these pencils, I bought a pencil sharpener for them. I figured, if it’s a new pencil sharpener, perhaps it won’t be like before. I had great optimism and began sharpening. But soon the old pattern emerged. Shh shh shh. Shh shh shh. Wiggle wiggle. Snap. Damn.

Once again, I had pencils as long as my fingers. But at least they were floral. At least they looked pretty in the pencil cup on my desk. We moved house, and I took the useless pencils in their pretty pencil cup with my desk and set them up in a new space. Every so often I looked at them ruefully.

Finally, one day I couldn’t take it any longer. I went searching through the new house, which we share with other people with belongings unbeknownst to me, for a forgotten and unused pencil sharpener that might magically help my ailing floral pencils. I found one, teal blue and gray. It was stuffed with ribbons of wood shavings, the blades caked with graphite. I took it apart and scraped off years of pencil sharpenings with a letter opener. I put it back together again.

I also found a single pencil with a tiny gaping hole where the lead should be. The sight was one I had obviously seen before. It sent shivers down my spine. But the pencil itself, I realized, was a Dixon Ticonderoga #2. And in case you didn’t know, Dixon Ticonderoga #2s are the best pencils forged by human hands. I was first introduced to them back in grade school when I took a standardized test at the public school. No homeschool or Christian school, which were the scope of my educational experience, ever had the resources to invest in Dixon Ticonderoga pencils. Only a public school, with government funding, could ever afford such a luxury.

But now I had one, in my hands, free for the taking, along with a teal and gray pencil sharpener. I sharpened the Dixon Ticonderoga #2, and the shavings slid off the pencil like slices of butter. The perfect point.

I took my loot to my desk and sharpened my floral pencils. One by one, the perfect point.

Now I have four pencils in use, and I occasionally line them up to behold their beauty. They have bewitched me, body and soul.

I realize this might all sound rather over the top. I realize not everyone is as excited with the nuances of office supplies as me. But my pencil issues taught me something, as office supplies can do. Things aren’t always as perfect as we’d like, be they people, situations, or pencil points. But that doesn’t mean the thing itself is wrong; sometimes it merely takes time, practice, and a new mindset to sharpen those things into what we’re searching after. The important thing, I’ve found, is to not give up.

Get you a best friend who loves pencils. Get you a new sharpener. Enjoy and adapt to every stage. Keep searching. Keep sharpening.

 

On Being a Lefty

As a young child, I was the only left-handed person in my immediate family. (As it turns out, my youngest brother is also a lefty, but because he’s ambidextrous in many areas, I like to think I’m the only true lefty. We can ignore the fact that I swing a baseball and a golf club right-handed.)

My grandmother, my Mom’s mom, was left-handed too, and she grew up in the thirties and forties, when society was not so kindly to left-handed people as it is now. Schools forced children to use their right hand in writing classes, even punishing kids for daring to prefer another perfectly good hand. My grandma, however, was lucky to have parents who didn’t force the issue, and she grew up a proud and unabashed lefty. When she had two sons who were left-handed (my uncles), and several left-handed grandchildren (one currently present), she encouraged it as a badge of honor.

“Lefties are the only people in their right minds,” she would joke. (Because the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, and the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body. Get it? Har har.)

As a kid, I felt especially honored to be the only one in my household with such a skill. I didn’t realize, and perhaps you haven’t either, that society is in fact biased toward right-handed people. I used can openers with mild discomfort, not realizing they were made to go the other way around. I used scissors with intense discomfort, because my left-hand fingers didn’t conform to the intended right-hand finger angles. When I was at summer camp and we were practicing archery and they gave me a left-handed bow, I was upset because the tension was all off, and I was used to practicing on my brother’s right-handed bow.

“Can I try a right-handed bow?” I asked.

“Aw, honey, you don’t want that. You’re a lefty.”

“Dammit Carl, give me the right-handed bow,” I would have said, if I were me now.

Carl (or Bill or whoever) did, and I massacred a foam deer with one well-shot arrow.

Take that, Carl. Or Bill.

When I go shopping and sign credit card receipts, the cashier either says, “Whoa, you’re a lefty!” or “Whoa, I’m also a lefty!” As someone who doesn’t like attention being drawn to herself during what ought to be a normal business transaction, I learned to cover up my embarrassment with snark.

“What’s it like being a lefty?” asked one cashier at a jewelry store.

“You get used to it,” I said, and did a pen drop and walked away with my earrings.

Perhaps the most perplexing instance of this came recently, when I was working at a bank. If you’re a lefty who works at a bank, watch out. Every time you fill out someone’s deposit slip, they go nuts that you dare to write out their account number with your left hand. It’s practically un-American. I’ve never been made so aware of my hand dominance in my life.

One day this ragged-looking fellow, about thirty years old and wearing a beard like a brown brillo pad, came up to my window and wanted to take out some money. Whatever his particular transaction required, I had to ask my coworker for help, and she stood next to me while I filled out the man’s withdrawal ticket.

“She’s a lefty,” he said, not to me, but to my coworker.

I continued writing out the withdrawal ticket. Account number. Date. Name.

“Lefties are as mean as cat shit,” he said, to my coworker.

I’m sorry if this language offends you. If it helps, it offended me. We finished the transaction and then I went to the bathroom and stared at my face in the mirror.

Lefties are as mean as cat shit. As mean. As cat shit. The words rang in my head. I felt stunned and vaguely harassed. Vaguely insulted. Vaguely mocked.

But most of all, I felt just… What the hell does that even mean? Is cat shit inherently malicious? Are lefties somehow biologically related to cat shit in a way that righties aren’t? Is this a scientific fact I missed? Have there been studies done on this? The guy didn’t even cite his sources. A philosopher of his caliber should know better.

(I still want to know what this means. If someone can enlighten me, please do.)

I’m still proud to be a lefty, and I still cannot, for the life of me, understand why people act so weird about it. It’s not like I chose left-handedness. It’s not like I chose to live in a world that favors righties by the very makeup of its appliances and school desks, by the fact that most languages are written left to right, or that smug guys named Carl or Bill think they can decide what bows people will use. And don’t even get me started on musical instruments.

But in a way, being left-handed has offered me perspective. How often do I make assumptions about people based on biological facts they can’t control, like Brillo-Beard did to me? How often do I make unconscious comments that bewilder and offend others? (I still really want to know what “mean as cat shit” means.) How often do I assume life is the same for everyone, not seeing the little adjustments and painful adaptations people make to fit in, like I have to make with can openers and scissors? How often do I simply not see that society is better designed to help out some people and not others, because the design happens to favor me?

This realization is the key, I think, to fixing those seemingly insurmountable issues we come across in society. Our biggest problem is usually not that we disagree, but that we misunderstand each other. That when someone asks, “What’s it like being a lefty?” we offer the snarky answer instead of the honest one. It’s only when we’re honest that we can start coming up with solutions.

So see guys? I’m not mean as cat shit.

A List of Tooth Complaints

I have a recurring dream in which I have a loose tooth.

Damn, I think to myself. I’m too old for this. Okay; I’ll just take out this one tooth, and no one will notice.

So I wiggle the tooth, and little by little it becomes looser and looser, and then it falls out. Mission accomplished. Except, in a weird turn of events, the tooth isn’t the only thing that wants free of my jaw. There’s another loose tooth, and another, and then a piece of bone I can’t recognize, and then another, and suddenly all this bone and enamel has come from my mouth.

Damn, I think to myself. I never knew there was this much jaw in a jaw.

I wake up feeling hot and cold, my heart pounding. I feel my face, tapping my jaw to make sure it’s still solid, running my tongue over my teeth. All twenty-eight, still intact. I lay back down and replay the dream in my head, cringing at the memory, the feeling, of pulling teeth out of my jaw.

I don’t remember when this fear of dental injury first started, but in the past few years I’ve noticed I carry a certain squeamishness around teeth. Odontophobia, I’ve found it’s called. Maybe it’s due to a few things:

The time I was five and an older kid told me about how he’d knocked out his two front teeth on the handlebars of his bike. I remember cupping my hands over my mouth and thinking, that will never happen to me, you barbarian.

The time I was eight and a dentist extracted one of my baby teeth. The tooth died right in my mouth and wouldn’t budge to let the new teeth grow in. The tooth was gray. They gave me a tiny red plastic treasure chest to put it in. (That’s a terribly morbid thing to do to a child.)

The time I was fifteen and got braces (thank you dead gray tooth) and felt wire cutters just a little too close to my teeth for comfort.

The time I was seventeen and got the braces off, and they had to scrape cement off my teeth. (Scrape. Cement. Off my teeth.)

The time I was eighteen and I got all four of my wisdom teeth out, which were so impacted in my gums that I had to be drugged into a deep sleep while the oral surgeon cut them out, and I was in pain for a week and looked like a chipmunk for two, and they gave me all four wisdom teeth to take home in a sandwich bag. (That’s a terribly morbid thing to do to a college freshman.)

The time I confided to my best friend that my greatest fear is a razor somehow, magically, coming into contact with my teeth and… I don’t know, shaving them? And every time she mimes shaving her teeth like it’s some kind of joke just to bother me, and how my mouth tastes like vinegar every time, and how she’s not even miming it the way I really imagine and fear it, but I’m definitely not telling her how I really envision it, because best friends are terrible people when they know your greatest fear.

(It’s not a joke Jennifer!)

And then the dental hygienist wonders why I don’t floss enough. Haven’t my teeth been through enough, lady? Have mercy!

Clearly I have some deep-seated tooth trauma I need to take care of. And the funny thing is, I didn’t realize how much until I wrote out my list of tooth complaints just then. It’s funny how the stuff that bothers you, the memories and fears, lurk in your subconscious and only peek out from time to time, like when you have a weird dream about pulling bone from your jaw or when your best friend asks if you want to brush your teeth with a Venus razor. (Shut up Jennifer!)

This isn’t only true of teeth, either. There are several areas in my life where I’m coasting along, doing my own thing, and then a stray word from someone else or an unfamiliar circumstance or a random memory in my head sends me on a road of cringy anxiety.

Just this week I got to the bottom of tender subject that has been bothering me for months. I was talking to my husband, thinking out loud, and suddenly the list of complaints spilled out, and it led me, like a map, to the real root of the problem (root. teeth. hm).

It was awful and wonderful and painful and cathartic. Like pulling out a tooth, wiggling and wiggling and feeling sharp jabs of pain, then finally taking a deep breath and pulling. It hurts, a lot. But then the pain is worth it, because the pain has gotten you somewhere, and like that dead tooth from when I was eight, there’s now room to grow.

There’s room for a beautiful smile.

(I still don’t understand the red plastic treasure chest, though.)

Rest in Solitude, Heal in Community

This summer has been a season of transition. Amidst moving, new living situations, new jobs, and new prospects for the future, I’ve found myself overwhelmed and suddenly unsure of everything. It’s interesting how when you’re in a life stage that has a deadline (i.e. school), you look forward to the time of endless possibilities, and then when the gate opens and you have the freedom to do anything, all those endless possibilities suddenly seem like too much.

I’ve noticed that I freeze up whenever I have too many choices. Just ask my husband how long it takes me to pick out cold medicine at Walmart. I’ll stand in the aisle, staring blankly at the shelves while my nose runs and my eyes water and I whine that my head and body and everything hurts. You know how they make fun of men for being bad at being sick? They never met me.

“Just get the DayQuil,” Alex says.

“But there might be another brand with more caplets in it for less money!” I cry. “I have to look at them all. Or I could get liquid medicine. But there are so many brands of that! Oh, I hate being sick! Oh, to be well again!” and I wring my hands.

Thirty minutes later, we walk out of there with a box of DayQuil.

(I’ve since learned that a store with less options, like Aldi, is a better bet for me.)

As with DayQuil, so with life. The choices and decisions pile up until I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what I want, and I don’t know what I even value.

My approach to overwhelmth is often to retreat, monklike, into my own space and where I feel comfortable and in control. Since I’ve started doing research on human behavior and psychology and have discovered the ins and outs of introversion, of which I am a subscriber, it’s become a little easier to excuse my monkish state and to be okay with excessive solitude. I’m recharging, I tell myself. I’m self-caring. I’m figuring things out in the quiet.

And many times, I am. I’m still a firm believer that we find rest in solitude. And that goes for all of us, not just those introvertedly-inclined. We all need a moment to be with ourselves, to tune into our inner minds and hearts. I discover a lot in prayer, in reading, in yoga, in writing. These are all things that pack the most punch when I do them alone.

But solitude is only one side of the equation. Self-care only goes so far, and self-care doesn’t always look like sitting alone on your bed with a candle (don’t do that; it’s a fire hazard). Human beings are made for community, too. We may find rest in solitude, but we find healing in community. It’s in community where I gain perspective, where I realize that the things which freak me out most in life are not things I carry alone.

In The Quotidian Mysteries, a collection of essays which is just an excellent book that everyone should read, writer and poet Kathleen Norris talks about how the everyday routines we take for granted serve to ground us in reality. And part of this is spending time with others:

[We] need the daily love of other people to reassure us that our lives have value.

In community I find solidarity, and I learn to pay attention to other people’s needs and fears too. In community I can be honest about my failings and find some catharsis. And often, community even connects me with people who have answers to the very questions that are overwhelming me, from the family friend who knows of a job I’d be good at, to the new friend who’s doing good things in my hometown, to the best friend who understands how I feel and prays for me.

Engaging with community can be as simple as putting aside my work to chat with my husband, taking a day trip with my family, or socializing after church. Or it can be as complicated and challenging as introducing myself to someone I haven’t met or going to an event I’m nervous about.

Solitude is only good when it doesn’t become loneliness. When I’m lonely, I forget who I truly am and I forget that my life has value. I need my friends, my family, my community, to connect me with the world again. And the beauty of it is that they need me too.

Giving love away doesn’t deplete or decrease; it only multiplies. And taking part in community only multiplies and strengthens the ties we have to each other and to our inner selves.

When I do that, the wall of overwhelming life doesn’t see so scary anymore.