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

The Power of Self-Compassion

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Hello my sweet valentines,

I hope this month of love has been kind to you. I hope you’ve been able to spend time with people you care about and enjoy delicious treats (chocolate or not). I also hope you’ve given yourself love and kindness.

We all deserve to give ourselves the same support, care, and understanding that we show others. However, that can be easier said than done. We can so easily fall into the role of our own worst critic. One challenge we have is that we can easily observe our behaviors, which we can then judge through the harsh lens of hindsight. But our self-talk is harder to be aware of—let alone change—because so much of it is automatic.

Last month, I talked about using gratitude as a way to stay anchored in the present. One thing that distracts me from the now is negative self-talk. I can be very hard on myself. The heart of it often seems to be my desire to do right by others. Which is a lovely thing, of course! But values are meant to be guideposts for making choices in the present. They aren’t meant to be punitive. For me, self-doubt creeps in when I get stuck questioning my decisions over and over. Doing so becomes a painful cycle. The voice of self-doubt tells me that I can’t move on from the past and makes me distrust my ability to move forward.

I say “voice of self-doubt” because I am trying to . . . Well, I am trying to undermine its authority. I am trying to put a little more distance between that voice and me. I do not view or speak to others harshly, and I don’t believe that I deserve to be treated that way, either. That’s why I am working hard to give myself more self-compassion.

Dr. Kristin Neff is a pioneering researcher and author on the subject. She describes self-compassion as being there for ourselves with kindness, care, and understanding when we are struggling, just as we would be for someone else. Specifically, she breaks down self-compassion into three components:

  • Self-Kindness: Being gentle and understanding with ourselves, as opposed to self-critical and punishing.  
  • Common Humanity: Recognizing that we aren’t alone in our struggles, as opposed to feeling uniquely inadequate.
  • Mindfulness: Being aware of and open to our thoughts and feelings, as opposed to ignoring them or getting consumed by them.

You can read more about self-compassion on Dr. Neff’s website here.

Lately, whenever I am feeling down, I stop to recognize what is bothering me and name what I’m feeling (sad, frustrated, anxious, etc.). Once I’ve done that, I try to see if there is any self-talk underneath the emotion that’s adding to the pain of it. Often, there is. Maybe I’m imagining an unrealistic negative outcome to a situation, making it feel more and more believable the more time I spend on it. Or maybe I’m making a negative assessment of myself or my abilities based on a challenge I’m facing. Whatever the thought, it typically falls into the category of self-doubt/self-criticism. Recognizing that opens the door for me to meet it with self-compassion.

What that looks like varies a bit on the situation. I can say something kind to myself, acknowledging the impact that a feeling or thought is having on me, even if I can’t change it right away. I can dismantle a judgment I’m making by recognizing that I’m holding myself to a standard I don’t really believe in (and wouldn’t expect anyone else to live up to). The most compassionate response can also be an action. Engaging in self-care, asking for help, or breaking a task down into more manageable chunks (with more reasonable expectations).

I’m not always able to move past a negative thought or feeling in the way I’d like to. Sometimes, I can’t really make sense of what’s going on in my mind.  And I can still be too hard on myself. But even so, finding ways to show myself compassion has felt like discovering a superpower. Being in the cycle of self-doubt feels like listening to a soundtrack that can’t be turned off. Learning how to not only turn it off but transform it into something else entirely has been really, really cool.

I am proud of myself.

Whatever it is you need today, I hope you can give it to yourself. I know you deserve it, and I hope you can see that, too.

xoxo

Marie

Starting the Year with Appreciation

Photo by FLY:D on Unsplash

Happy 2022, my sweet Internet friends!

I love New Year’s. One of my traditions is to create a vision board, with visual reminders of what I would like to experience, accomplish, or feel during the year. I value the opportunity to approach the new year with a sense of intention. And in my mind, your “vision” for the year can be a work in progress. I haven’t finished my 2022 board yet!

Looking at my board, I can see how much I have to look forward to this year. At the heart of it all, though, I have one goal: to be present in each moment, as much as possible. To appreciate the big, exciting, moments, but also the ones that feel small or “skippable.”

My mind tends to wander off in all different directions: past, future, unlikely hypothetical scenarios. It’s not always a bad thing, but sometimes I don’t feel like I’m steering the ship. So I’ve been experimenting with different ways to help myself stay grounded in the now. I’ve been trying meditation. And about two weeks ago, I decided to start a gratitude practice. Or, as I’m calling it, my appreciation journal.

Merriam-Webster describes appreciation as “an ability to understand the worth, quality, or importance of something.” I think that’s just so perfect. I want to make a more conscious effort to acknowledge what is valuable in each day. So, before I go to bed, I’ve been filling out the following prompts in my journal:

  • I am grateful for . . .
  • I am proud of myself for . . .
  • I am looking forward to . . .

I’ve only completed nine entries so far—I don’t pressure myself to write if I’m not up for it!—but it’s already been a learning experience. Admittedly, the most challenging of the three is deciding what I’m proud of. I have a tendency to focus on what I could have done better, but I’m working on that.

Reflecting on the other two prompts, I’ve recognized that it’s easy to look forward to major events or feel grateful for out-of-the-ordinary acts of kindness. You don’t really need a journal to remind you. But on average days, there are so many things I look forward to without even noticing. My morning coffee. A phone call with a loved one. And the things I feel grateful for, as I’m wrapping up the day, could also be easily overlooked. A relaxing evening playing Animal Crossing. Someone showing me patience when I was feeling stressed.

This has made me realize how easy it is to generate more moments of joy on a day-to-day basis. Also, taking note of what you appreciate in your life breaks the cycle of overlooking the everyday good. In his essay entitled “Why Gratitude Is Good,” Dr. Robert Emmons, a leader in the scientific study on gratitude, explains, “I think gratitude allows us to participate more in life. We notice the positives more, and that magnifies the pleasures you get from life. Instead of adapting to goodness, we celebrate goodness.”

I know not everyone likes to write, but I think there are all kinds of way to make appreciation or gratitude a habit. You could make a goal to take a photo each day of something that brings you joy. Or, once a month, you could do something special for someone who brings value to your life. As a bonus, I would recommend checking out these resources on gratitude from Greater Good Magazine, where the above article from Dr. Emmons was published. They have interesting information on gratitude’s benefits and suggestions for how to practice your gratefulness.

Wishing you a moment of joy where you are right now. I am grateful for you.

xoxo

Marie

Getting Too Hot? Some End-of-Summer Thoughts

Photo by Tincho Franco on Unsplash

Hello my sunset sweethearts,

Doesn’t it feel like summer just disappeared in the blink of an eye? I know it’s not fully fall yet, but still. It feels like just a minute ago that I was with friends on the 4th, and now Halloween decorations are appearing on end caps. I’d say “too soon,” but I’ve already consumed a few mugs of pumpkin spice coffee myself. Anyways. Next month I am going to be sharing the next pick in My Dream Library series, but for this last post of summer I wanted to share a little life strategy that’s been helping me as of late.

A couple of weeks ago, I got stuck. I was starting to obsess over a situation where I wasn’t sure if I “should” have done something differently. (The Shoulds are dangerous woods to wander!) I kept going over and over it, way past the point of helpful reflection. The obvious thing to do, of course, was to talk it over with someone, to get unstuck. But I was embarrassed. I am fully aware that I often notice, think about, and worry over things that aren’t on anyone else’s radar. So I sometimes feel the double-edged sting of being acutely aware of my worries, but also completely cognizant of how overblown they probably are. I know saying them out loud to someone I trust always helps, but sometimes wish I didn’t have to.

As I was gearing up to ask for help, a thought popped into my mind: Your conscientiousness is such a lovely thing about you.

I’ve often thought that our greatest strengths can also be our greatest weaknesses. That’s easy enough to see, embrace, and love in others. Someone who has the biggest of hearts might have trouble protecting the boundaries they deserve. Someone who can get lost in the zone of their passions might also lose track of time when it matters. It’s all just shades on the same beautiful spectrum. Imperfect but radiant.

In that moment, I realized I’d been telling myself that I was an annoyingly, embarrassingly anxious person. But I could also see myself as a careful, thoughtful person. It’s heartbreakingly sweet how much I want to do things right. And that’s lovely. I just need to catch myself before I fall in the deep end of overthinking now and then.

Ever since then, when I feel my brain starting to take off, I imagine a thermometer. (There’s probably a better metaphor/visual out there, but this one’s working for me.) I ask myself, am I getting “too hot”? Am I moving towards the end of the spectrum where I imagine highly unrealistic, bad outcomes or get stuck on something from long ago? Or is this a situation where my attention to detail is a gift? Because it is. My so-called overthinking brain is also reflective, attentive, thoughtful, and creative. Sometimes it just needs to be steered in the right direction.

So, if you’re feeling frustrated with yourself, maybe ask: Is this thing that’s plaguing me, also what makes me great?

xoxo

Marie

Happiness vs. Joy

Hello my spring blossoms,

I sometimes wonder how often or thoroughly other people remember their teen years. If you haven’t committed to writing a book for young people based on your own experiences, do you still remember the first time you heard a song by your soon-to-be favorite artist, on a mixed CD in your first car? Do you still think about your first massive crush from time to time, or do you leave any thought of them behind, along with the so-earnest-it-hurts journal entries you wrote back then? Maybe it’s just me, or maybe some experiences are universally sticky in our minds.

The reason I decided to write for teens—when I was still a teen myself—was that I wanted to help other girls avoid the pitfalls I fell into. I spent way too much of my teen life being unhappy, and my faulty formula for changing that was based on changing myself.

I still want maximum happiness for all of us, but I’ve adjusted my perspective slightly. I’m taking an amazing course led by the incomparable Jess Weiner, called “WTF is Success?!?” We are working to redefine success and what it means to have a good life on our own terms. One of the recent exercises was to choose 3 non-negotiable values for your life. Doing so helped crystallize some things I’ve been reflecting on as of late. The first guidepost value I chose for myself was “joy.” I’ve decided that I’d rather focus on creating joy than chasing happiness. I get that those terms could be synonyms, but hear me out. The difference, as I’ve defined it for myself, matters.

One thing I’ve come to accept is that emotions can be fickle and, honestly, sometimes incongruous. If you’re someone who has struggled with your mental health, you probably know what I mean. As a teenager, I coulda/shoulda been happy, but often I wasn’t. That was true at times in my twenties as well. When you start tilting towards anxiety or depression, being happy feels like one more thing you’re bad at. And of course, being hard on yourself about it hardly helps.

I can’t necessarily control my emotions or what life throws at me. I may get a frustrating email at work, or a burst of anxiety out of seemingly nowhere. Already this year, I’ve felt both the bittersweet sadness of loss and the ecstatic joy of celebrating a new life. All of these experiences, all of these feelings, are worthy parts of being alive. I can’t promise myself that I will always feel happy. But I can make a commitment to create joy in my life, and sprinkle it throughout my days.

Even if I have a long day ahead, I can pause to make a good cup of coffee. I can sing off-key to Taylor Swift (still my favorite, years away from that mixed CD) while loading the dishwasher. I can ask my partner to sit on the back patio during sunset with me, even if it isn’t quite warm enough yet for that to make sense.

Looking back, my younger self may not have had a great handle on happiness, but she did know joy. Back then, it was a stack of magazines in my bedroom, episodes of “Hannah Montana,” and a perfectly chilled Diet Coke. If I could go back, I’d give her more of all that. Still, seeing my life now through her eyes—from my pink office and stuffed bookshelf to my wonderfully strange and cute cats—I can’t help but think, Man, she would really enjoy this. And so I will.

xoxo

Marie

Gold Coins & Phone Calls: Life’s Little Anchors

Photo by Ilse Orsel on Unsplash

Hello my little mermaids,

Has anyone else been feeling a little seasick lately? Since 2021 began, I’ve had so many weeks start out smooth sailing, only to be tossed over by unforeseen waves partway through. Near record-breaking snowfall (and cold). COVID-related disruptions. And more. I’ve found joy wherever possible. Snow is fun, and so are unexpected snow days! But I’ve also never looked forward to a so-called “normal” week more. “Boring” sounds good right now!

I recently read Didn’t See That Coming: Putting Your Life Together When Your World Falls Apart by Rachel Hollis. In the chapter on developing good habits, she wrote: “Your great habits and positive rituals are the anchor you need in the storm, not just because they’re good for you but because your brain isn’t wired to handle intense discomfort and keep making good decisions. Meaning, if you haven’t already built your muscle memory for making consistent good choices, you’ll find it nearly impossible to do so once life gets hard.”

She makes a great point, and I don’t know that I’d ever really thought about it that way. Stability in the good times can help you navigate the rocky seas with a little more ease. What has impacted me from that chapter the most, though, is the word “anchor” as she used it in that passage. It has been floating in my brain ever since I finished the book. You could think of a metaphorical anchor as a bad thing. Who wants to be tied down, stuck in place? Not me! But I do sometimes want to be held steady, which is what Rachel was describing.

The more I’ve thought about anchors, the more I see them everywhere. I’m a meditation novice, but the most helpful thing I’ve learned from my recent attempts is the technique of using your breath as an anchor. When your thoughts try to carry you away, you come back by focusing on your breathing. But anchors can be more personally specific, too. My daily phone call with my dad is an anchor that has steadied me for years. Sometimes when I’m anticipating a challenging day, I put a small object in my pocket. I use it as part good luck charm, part fidget object. Sometimes it’s a mini teddy bear, smaller than my palm, from when I was younger. Lately it’s been one of my grandpa’s gold coins. Tiny, sweet anchors.

Of course, there are times to get carried away. During the past couple months, I’ve listened to Taylor Swift’s evermore over and over again and got lost in the lyrics. One of my best friends had her first baby, and I’ve been swimming in joy, excitement, and love for her family. When she asked me to be her son’s godmother . . . let’s just say I will ride that wave of excitement forever!

All this to say, I hope this next month brings you waves of joy, and a perfectly suited anchor if you need one.

xoxo

Marie

“Getting What You Deserve” . . . 12 ½ Years Later

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

Hello New Year’s babes,

The other day on my drive to work, I had another time-travel moment. This time, a happy one. I remembered the first time I had a piece of my writing published. It was a guest blog for the website of Jess Weiner, one of my favorite creators and biggest inspirations. I was brace-faced and 17, and the post went up one week before my high school graduation. It’s no longer online anywhere I can find, but thankfully my dad had the foresight to screenshot it years ago:

I love reading things my Younger Self wrote; I always find a gem or two of wisdom from her to me. This time, it was the line “It seems to me that the root of all unkindness is a lack of respect, and the most basic kind is the kind we have for ourselves.”

The reason I was thinking about the blog post, though, is that I was thinking about the concept of deserving. I realized that when my brain is scanning in the background for mistakes I’ve made, what it’s doing is looking for reasons I don’t deserve to feel happy. Since you did X, you should feel Y. Decision Z could have caused A, B, C, D, etc. If so-and-so knew about E, what would they think? And on through the alphabet and back again. Logically, I know that the worst-case interpretations presented by my mind are literally never accurate. But emotionally, sometimes they feel terribly real.

When I was 17, being kind to myself meant believing I deserved everything I dreamed of and acting accordingly. Ultimately, that’s what I would want for anyone I love . . . and everyone I don’t know, too. But I think for me, right now, the idea of “deserving” feels a bit loaded. The math of life rarely adds up in a way that makes sense to me, anyway. I’ve been both blessed beyond measure and experienced pain I didn’t “earn.” I don’t have to look far beyond myself to see plenty of examples of things not working out for people as they “should.” Besides, one of the most important things I’ve learned this year is that mental self-punishment does not make me a better person. It doesn’t solve the past or give anything to those around me. In fact, it often makes me so internally focused that I miss what’s going on for people I care about.

So while I believe that we all deserve the absolute best in every way, heading into this new year, I’ve decided to stop thinking about what I deserve (which lately has devolved into negative, past-focused thoughts) and think more about the life I want to create. I don’t have to understand the past or future or fairness or even the oddities of my own mind to make today a reasonably good day, headed in the direction I’d like to go. I’ve already found, in recent weeks, that being just a smidge more intentional with my days—finding small opportunities to connect with others or make progress on my goals—matters. The flicker of hope is there.

Life has these beautiful moments of synchronicity now and then. Jess Weiner, who so graciously shared my words about creating your dream life many years ago, is starting an endeavor to help others build The Good Life, on their own terms. (You better believe I already signed up for the first workshop!) Heading into the new year, I wish you the space, support, and resources you need to build your own Good Life. One day at a time.

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