The Stories That Make Our Lives

"Story is the vehicle we use to make sense of our lives in a world that often defies logic." - Jim Trelease
Jim Trelease’s website (original quote source material unknown)

Hello, my dear Internet friends,

I hope your summer is in full swing in the best way. And if you happen to be tuning in from the southern hemisphere, I’m sending you winter well-wishes!

In March, I wrote about challenging my expectations for myself (and life itself), “practicing my flexibility muscle, [and] balancing what I want in a given day with the reality of what’s presented.” In May, I reflected on the resistance I feel in the face of unexpected challenges and how “I have learned—am still learning—that instead of resisting, I need to embrace what is so I can decide what I want to do about it.” This month’s post feels like a natural progression from those two. Some chapters of life are apt for learning certain lessons or exploring particular themes—if we’re open to reading them that way.

This month, I’ve been reflecting on how crucial storytelling is to the way we experience the world and understand our lives. Our personal memories are often stored in narrative form. Our friendships are built on shared experiences, from the humorous tales we recount with glee to episodes of support in hard times, which stay written on our hearts even if we never speak them aloud. And when we go through something unexpected, we try to make sense of it through story.

Expectations can exist in our minds as stories. Scripts—or at the very least, loose outlines—for how we anticipate certain events or facets of our lives will go. I often don’t realize how attached I was to an imagined version of the future until life goes off-plot.

That upending of expectations can feel like loss. Loss of what we hoped for. Loss of control. We are the authors of our own stories, but we’re not the authors of the world (or other people). Story collision is bound to happen. Sometimes in a spectacularly serendipitous way. Sometimes in a painful one.

When that happens, where does it leave us? With a new story. Already lived through, but not yet shaped for memory. It may feel hard to hold at first. But once it’s in your hands, it’s yours. Yours to craft as only you can. What may have felt in the moment like a story of disappointment or self-doubt can become one of resilience and growth. Of love and connection. Or maybe you’ll write a story bighearted enough to hold all of it. Every shade of the experience coming together to form a mosaic. One that looks a lot like life as it really is. As Kathryn Schulz writes in her beautiful memoir Lost & Found, “We can’t get away from this constant amalgamation of feeling, can’t strain out the ostensible impurities in pursuit of some imaginary essence, and we shouldn’t want to if we could. The world in all its complexity calls on us to respond in kind, so that to be conflicted is not to be adulterated; it is to be complete.”

From one storyteller to another, I am simply encouraging you—as I’m encouraging myself—to be mindful of the narratives you “write” about your experiences, even if they never leave your own mind. Expand your story’s frame to capture the bigger picture. Treat each “character” with compassion (including yourself). Highlight the scenes of connection, meaningful details, and lessons learned that you want to carry with you.

Because one by one, your stories make your life. And you deserve one that’s been written with care.

xoxo

Marie

A Few Blossoms of Light in March

Hello my spring blossoms,

Whew. What a month. I don’t know about yours, but my March somehow managed to both exceed expectations in the best way and present challenges I never could have anticipated. Such is life, huh?

For this month’s blog post, I wanted to share a few pieces of creative work that have resonated with me lately. After listening to the podcast episode below, I realized a theme was emerging. The things that have stood out to me most this month have asked me to challenge (or at least question) my expectations—of myself, of my time, of how life “should” go. They have asked me to slow my pace. To work with the present moment as it truly is, so as not to miss life as it happens.

For me, that has involved practicing my flexibility muscle, balancing what I want in a given day with the reality of what’s presented. Little hassles. Major stressors. Human limitations. I had a day where I was trying to get things done, but I was only half-awake. I didn’t sleep well the night before (some of the stress of recent challenges was catching up to me). Normally, I would try to coffee up and push through, but I questioned if a different approach might be better. I had room in my day to be flexible. Might I get more out of my time later if I took a break now?

So I did the unthinkable. I laid back on the couch, pulled my fuzzy pink blanket over me, and fell asleep. My fluffy gray cat was purring on me as my alarm went off. I still had plenty of time. I grabbed a coffee, put music on, and got back into things, more refreshed than I’d felt all day—or maybe longer.

If that isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

I hope one of the pieces below gives you something helpful to carry into the next month. If anything (a song, an article, a podcast episode) has made your March, please feel free to share in the comments!

An article: “I trained myself to be less busy — and it dramatically improved my life” by David Sbarra, PhD for Vox

I came across this essay while searching for articles on an entirely unrelated subject, and I have read it multiple times since. I don’t think being busy is inherently a bad thing. I also understand that there are times in life when we may not be able to take anything off our (very full) plates. What Dr. Sbarra is really challenging is mindless busyness. Being busy for busy’s sake, and barreling through an overstuffed calendar because we think that’s what we’re supposed to do. I think that even without removing anything from our schedules, we can check our pacing—and our expectations. Are we rushing through life, or are we living in it? Are we being reasonable in what we expect ourselves to get done?

A podcast episode: “Are Your Expectations Too High?” from The Science of Happiness

The Science of Happiness is hosted by psychologist Dacher Keltner, PhD and co-produced by PRX and UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

In the first part of this episode, Dr. Keltner talks to Julie Santos, who was born in Costa Rica and spent summers there growing up. When she visited just after graduating college, she observed how expectations—and an ability to celebrate anything that exceeds them—seem to be linked to happiness in the country’s culture. Her reflections have made me think, what if we all stopped to show gratitude when things rise above our expectations, even just a little? Could boring or stressful tasks feel less burdensome if we don’t expect to hurry through them?

A quote by Kurt Vonnegut

A while ago I watched a video of a lecutre by the late author Kurt Vonnegut. He shared an anecdote about his Uncle Alex, which he said he’d included in every lecture he’d ever given. He also shared it in one of his nonfiction books, A Man Without a Country:

. . . his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

I have been following his advice. It’s a simple strategy—reminiscent of what Julie Santos observed people in Costa Rica doing—but so powerful as a happiness checkpoint, ensuring that we don’t miss the ordinary (and sometimes extraordinary) joy that surrounds us.

xoxo

Marie

The Time Traveler’s Life: Finding Gratitude in the Now

Photo by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash

Hello cyber friends,

Guess what? I’m a time traveler. No, really. It’s actually quite impressive. I just go about my day—working on a project, making dinner—and all of a sudden, I’m transported back to a moment I had completely forgotten about.

Sometimes, I end up in a memory from a few months ago. Sometimes it’s years back. I don’t actually run the time machine myself, so I have no control over where I end up. It can be any one of the Greatest Hits of my so-called “mistakes” (or simply things I could have done differently). No matter where I’m sent, the trip is so quick I don’t even notice it. I’m just there. Reliving the moment. Rewinding it and playing it back. Sometimes playing it forward to imagine all potential (negative) outcomes. It’s really fun, really great.

Okay, not so much. But such is life in my mind some days.

The other day I had the thought, why can’t my brain randomly send me good memories? Why can’t I suddenly be sent back to walking the canals in Amsterdam? Or have my senses overwhelmed at the thought of a really good meal I’ve had? If I have to obsess, why can’t I play through all the potential positive outcomes of every good choice I’ve made?

Of course, I understand why. We’re all a little bit caveman on the inside. Our ancestors survived by successfully monitoring for, assessing, and responding to threats. So we’re wired to do the same. Unfortunately for some of us, those threat detection systems can be a bit overzealous.

I cannot change my default settings, unfortunately. (Although I have learned that basic self-care tasks, like sleep and exercise, really do help.) That being said, if my brain is a machine, I have a choice in how to use it. Sure, maybe it doesn’t automatically focus on what I want. But I can redirect it. At least some of the time.

With the holidays upon us, I have been thinking a lot about gratitude. I realized that I think of myself as a grateful person, but maybe it’s better to think of gratitude as an action rather than a state of being. Before Thursday’s dinner, my dad said that his friend had shared the following via text: Remember that Thanksgiving is a verb. Put another way, in this quote by Larissa Gomez: “Being thankful is not always experienced as a natural state of existence, we must work at it, akin to a type of strength training of the heart.” We can practice and get better at it. We can hijack the machine, and time travel to our favorite memories.

Or stay present. I have gotten into the habit lately of periodically wiggling my toes. Doing so has been a helpful reminder that I am physically here, right now. Not in unknown goods or bads of the past or future. Now when I do, I try to also notice the moment. I see through the window to my left that it’s sunny outside today. I like to think a lot of my neighbors are putting up their Christmas lights. To my right, I see one of my cats snoozing on the couch. He is covered in Christmas tree sheddings, which makes me think he was laying under the tree again this morning. He looks so peaceful right now. He is here. I am here. We are okay. We are more than okay.

This year has been brutal. I know the holidays can bring mixed feelings as well, especially in 2020. But we are here. My primary goal, as we wrap up the calendar, is to continue practicing gratitude (and by extension, joy). So many things are out of my control. I cannot rewrite the past, no matter how many times I live through it. The future is great and all, but I can’t live there, either. Besides, it’s all ultimately made up of an infinite string of Nows. And I no longer wish to miss any of them.

xoxo  

Marie

Some Thoughts on Worms: What I’ve Learned About Dealing with Negative Feelings

Hi, Internet friends!

A while back, I was going for a walk in my neighborhood. It must have recently rained, because I was thinking about worms. I have always had a weird fear of worms. When I was a kid, I couldn’t even handle an image of a worm touching me, let alone a real one. I really liked helping my mom in the garden on Mother’s Day, but I usually wouldn’t put the flowers in the ground myself, for fear of a worm squirming my way and touching my glove. As an adult, if a harmless spider ends up inside, I can carry it outdoors in my bare hands. But even just the thought of touching a worm is still a little overwhelming.

Umbrella
Photo by Gabriel Santiago on Unsplash

As I was on my walk that day, I was thinking about the reason we have fear from an evolutionary standpoint. If we’re in the presence of something that could hurt us, it’s important that we act quickly. If you had no fear, and you were out in nature when a large animal came by, you could find yourself in a bad scenario. Fear, like all negative emotions, can be both painful and valuable.

The thing is, though, a worm is not going to hurt me. It just isn’t. But my emotional reaction treats it as though it were a bear. Because sometimes, our feelings are just flat-out wrong.

Across my life so far, I have dealt with some mental health struggles, as well as the regular fluctuation of feelings that comes with being human. Along the way, I’ve learned that while our feelings are always informative, they aren’t always telling us the truth. For example, when I’m feeling down on myself, my first instinct is to retreat. Be alone. Give up on the big things I want to do. But actually, it’s just as valuable in those times, if not more, to be active, whether that’s by getting exercise, hanging out with friends, or working on a project. In fact, by acting contrary to my feelings in those moments, I can almost always change how I feel for the better, even if only a little.

I am by no means suggesting you should ignore your feelings. On the contrary, I think there’s a lot of value to be found in sitting with your feelings to see where the truth is in what they’re saying and how you can challenge them if necessary. For me, getting outside perspective can be invaluable.

I’m also thinking that this spring, I need to rectify my relationship with worms. It’s been long enough.

xoxo

Marie

 

5 Quotes to Help You Through Tough Times

Hey,

I apologize for my radio (internet?) silence during recent months. I’m hoping and planning to start posting regularly again. In the spirit of doing so, I’m including below some of my favorite quotes about overcoming challenges by women I admire.

I’ve been working on an article for one of my favorite sites about a technique for getting through tough moments. Funnily enough, the process of writing the article has been challenging in itself at times. I’m very invested in the piece, but my desire to make it great has occasionally lead to frustration. So today, when I’d passed the verge of tears while trying to edit the introduction, I decided it was time to hit pause on that project and turn my attention to words of wisdom from women (real and fictional) who have channeled their challenges into greatness.

Without further ado:

“When I’m not feeling my best, I ask myself, ‘What are you gonna do about it?’ I use the negativity to fuel the transformation into a better me.” – Beyoncé

Beyonce Superbowl 2016
Instagram: @beyonce

“Since I went to treatment, there have been days when it’s felt really easy, and I’ve felt great about where I am. But then I have moments when it’s not. That’s life. You can’t just take your mind and your body into the shop and get it fixed. It doesn’t come out repaired. It’s not like a car. It takes time—pace yourself. Every day is a new opportunity to change your life and be who you want to be.” – Demi Lovato

Demi Lovato no makeup selfie with Batman
Instagram: @ddlovato

“Just take it ten seconds at a time. Everything will be okay.” – Kimmy Schmidt, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”

This one is even better with a little context. On the Netflix original series “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” Kimmy is a incredibly cheerful and sometimes naive young woman adjusting to life in New York after being trapped in a cult for 15 years.  The show is very funny, but one of my favorite parts is when Kimmy insightfully tells the boy she is nannying that “all you gotta do is take it ten seconds at a time.” She was referring to her time in the bunker, where she took on the responsibility of “turning a heavy crank, the purpose of which is unknown to this day.” She found she could get through the laborious task if she approached it ten seconds at a time. I’ve been able to apply the same principle to less drastic situations. When you’re struggling, the first thing to do—always—is seek help. But sometimes, you’ve gotten help, and you know what to do, but it’s still emotionally difficult. So, what you can do then is break it down, and just focus on the next ten seconds—or ten minutes, or hour—at a time.

You can watch a clip from that episode here, and stream the entire first season on Netflix.

giphy
GIPHY

“You go on by doing the best you can. You go on by being generous. You go on by being true. You go on by offering comfort to others who can’t go on. You go on by allowing the unbearable days to pass and by allowing the pleasure in other days. You go on by finding a channel for your love and another for your rage.” – Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed is an excellent writer, and recently released a book of quotations (cover pictured below). It was hard to choose just one of the quotes to include on this list!

Chery Strayed Brave Enough cover
Instagram: @cherylstrayed

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face . . . You must do what you think you cannot do.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt
Time.com

Do you have any favorite quotes that inspire you in tough times? Please share them in the comments below!

xoxo

Marie