Monthly Archives: February 2015

the ability to fail

Last night, I went to my daughters’ middle school for Bryn’s 6th grade choir concert.  My girls love to sing, so I’ve sat through my share of school choir concerts.  Sabrina also takes private voice instruction and has performed solo in recitals that I have never missed.

In my experience, middle school choir concerts are typically a crap shoot.  Generally there is lots of semi-off-key singing, a few solos that you can hardly hear because the singers are too nervous to breathe, and the occasional stand-out voice that catches the audience by surprise and generates more than polite applause.   So, when I settled into my seat next to Sabrina, I figured I knew what was coming.  This wasn’t my first rodeo, after all.

The first two songs the 6th grade choir sang were typical – a folk medley, followed by a musical version of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  The next song was the choir’s hotly anticipated interpretation of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” made all the more exciting because Bryn had her first ever solo.  As the singing started and my spunky ginger-haired daughter made her way to the microphone at the front and center of the stage, I leaned forward and held my breath.  And then it happened.  Bryn opened her little mouth and, loudly, clearly began singing her solo part.

And she was terrible.

Not just terrible in the way that most 6th grade singers are terrible, but truly atrocious.  From her mouth emanated sounds for which there are no words.  Tones that are not associated with musical notes except in the loosest terms.  My little girl was completely, hopelessly tone deaf.

In the 30 seconds or so that it took for Bryn to finish her solo, I consciously worked to keep my face neutral and avoid Sabrina’s eyes.  I didn’t breathe and sat stiffly waiting for the aural torture to end.  When it did, I promptly got up and made my planned exit, shaking my head incredulously as I made my way across the parking lot.

See, the thing is, Bryn is the kind of person who, when she applies herself to a task, is nearly always highly successful.  Her smarts, determination, and sheer Irish stubbornness serve her well.  She has not yet encountered an academic subject, sport, or hobby that she couldn’t master, and I have always admired her for it.  She may not be the best, or the fastest, or the most knowledgeable, but she has always managed to acquit herself admirably.  It’s something that I’ve come to love and expect from her.

But singing, that which comes so easily and naturally to her sister, is clearly out of reach for Bryn.  She has spent nearly three years now singing in choirs, but without making any recognizable improvement in her voice techniques.

On the drive home, I began to wonder how Bryn would handle this realization when it finally dawned on her.  How would she take it?  Would she collapse in tears and shame?  Would she promptly give up singing, despite her love of it, in order to avoid future embarrassment?  Or would she be galvanized and apply herself even more vigorously to singing?

To be truthful, it won’t matter.  My beautiful daughter has many, many talents, but after last night, I am positively certain that singing is not one of them.  It is clear to me that inasmuch as Sabrina was blessed with perfect pitch, the ability to sight read, and a delicate, clear tone that sails through the air and settles on the heart, Bryn was gifted by nature with none of these things.  She can sing songs, yes, but she will never be the songbird her sister is.  No amount of training or practice will close the gap between them.  And, really, truly, that’s totally okay.  In most everything else that they have mutually attempted, Bryn easily surpasses her sister’s achievements.  So it is perfectly just for Sabrina to have this one thing at which she is plainly superior.

I’m not sharing this to shame Bryn, or to unfairly compare my daughters. But it caused me to consider the power and potential value of failure.  What happens when we want so much to be good at something, to excel in a particular direction or at a particular skill, but we are faced with the reality that we may eventually be okay at it, but we’ll never truly master it?  How many of us are able to be bad at something and still enjoy it?  How many of us can acknowledge and accept shortcomings in our abilities or natural talents that are other than we might wish? How do we perceive a failure to achieve and how does it affect our future efforts to achieve?  Do we embrace the opportunity to develop resiliency or become annoyed, frustrated or dismayed and give up.

In our society, we are told to never, ever give up.  We are supplied ample examples of people who refused to accept a limitation and overcame monstrous obstacles to achieve miracles.  I am inspired by those stories as much as the next person, and I know myself capable of substantial perseverance.  But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t learned through the years that there are some things that I am simply no good at.  Rollerblading, grilling steaks, and doing the splits, for example.

I, for one, have definitely been guilty of discarding or giving up on something once I discover that it’s truly not in my wheelhouse.  If it doesn’t come relatively easily, I’m likely to drop it.  The exception to this is when I derive so much pleasure from the act itself that my success at it is irrelevant.  However, if I don’t love it deeply and I have applied myself to the best of my abilities and I still haven’t achieved anywhere close to the success I would have liked, I move on.

And what of the people who fail and fail again and still persist at something until they become leaders above everyone else in their field, such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs?  Is their persistence the reason for their success?  I actually think not.  I have this little theory that there is some deep intuition that drives us when everything else seems to suggest we won’t succeed, some sense that we are meant to do this thing and do it well.  I, for one, do not have the natural aptitude to be a master computer programmer – my brain simply doesn’t work that way.  But then again, I can take words and convey meanings that others can’t, so I tend to think that life balances out.

I also know that there are plenty of things that I can do but not do especially well, and that I still enjoy.  Just because I’m not good at them doesn’t stop me from quietly enjoying them on my own time.  Gardening and cooking are in this category for me. With age, I have decided that this is what hobbies are for – those things we can do and enjoy, but not do well enough to ever do it professionally or to really shine at it.  In this vein of thinking, I hope that when Bryn is forced to relinquish her dream of being the next Katy Perry, she does not also set aside her true love of music and singing. I hope that she is able to enjoy singing for her own pleasure, even if no one ever pays to hear her.  And I hope, sincerely, that she confines her singing to the shower, car, and her bedroom, sparing the poor ears of those of us who love her deeply but never, ever, ever need to hear her sing publicly again. ❤

failure

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retrospective.

5 Months and 26 Days.

That’s how long it’s been since I last curled up with my little MacBook Air and poured my thoughts into this blog. Writing used to be habit, meditation, and prayer all melted into one, a late-night respite and means of organizing the thoughts colliding in my head all day. Since I’ve been writing for a living, however, I have found myself hard-pressed to embrace it after a long day of working, parenting, and partnering.

But my soul misses this blog. I miss the self-discovery. I miss the insights that unfold. I miss the marking of time passing and lessons being learned. And I miss the human connections with my readers through the gossamer threads of the internet.

As my regular readers know, I have never been one to simply journal here. In part because I am not comfortable sharing every corner of my life and in (bigger) part because I don’t believe that my life provides enough interesting tidbits to justify writing about. Having said that, however, i believe that readers of future posts will benefit from some contextual background.  So please bear with me, as this is a spectacularly long post.  So, grab yourself a cup of coffee and a Danish and settle in. Here we go…

Love Story

James and I have been in couples counseling with a new therapist since August. As indicated in my last post, all those months ago, we’d hit the make-or-break point and threw a Hail Mary pass in the direction of a couples therapist who came highly recommended. We had worked for a full year with our previous counselor, but with very limited long-term success. We agreed it wasn’t her fault, but we also agreed that we weren’t making enough progress to justify continuing. So we stopped in January of 2014 and gradually watched our relationship take two steps forward, three steps back over the next eight months. By the time August came around, it really did feel as if we’d lost our way and were hanging by a fraying thread.

But then a strange thing happened. Still madly imperfect, but using some of the understanding and tools that we acquired during our counseling sessions with the new therapist, we began to recover from mutually-inflicted wounds more quickly and more completely. There were definitely difficult disagreements and hurts during the fall and holiday season, but I noticed that we seemed better able to find our way back to each other. Our commitment seemed more solid beneath us, and I felt like fewer small things were blowing up into big things.

I have consciously wondered to myself if this is what it’s like for couples who stay contentedly married for many years… Perhaps they have the same grievances and difficulties as the rest of us, but they recover from them more quickly and without inflicting the deep cuts that are so very hard to heal later. I don’t know really because I wasn’t in one of those couples in my marriage. But I do know that what I have with James feels completely different from what I had with Bryce. I think Bryce and I worked at it because it was the right thing to do and because we so desperately didn’t want to end up divorced, like our parents. But I think that James and I work at it because we just plain love each other. Corny, I know, but sometimes the simplest answer is the best one.

Family Affair

2014 was, for me, a year of extended family drama. It began before 2014 actually did, in December of 2013, when James and I decided to offer my young cousin Brady the opportunity to move from Southern California to Colorado and work for James at his company. Brady has always been special to me, having arrived in this world on my 20th birthday. He had a tough time of it as a kid. Born to two addicts (one recovering and one not), he was raised mostly by my dear aunt, but was nonetheless an addict himself by his early teens. For nearly 10 years, he was almost completely lost to our family, but then, at 22, he asked a judge to order him to rehab. The judge obliged and Brady spent many months locked in a room at a low-grade state rehab facility, reading and praying and avoiding the drugs that were more plentiful inside the facility than out. When he got out, clean for the first time in about a decade, I sent him tickets to visit me in Colorado. He spent three weeks with us and fell in love with the area. And I was delighted to see the sweet boy I’d once known re-appear in his clear blue eyes. So, in December of 2014, when James said he was having a hard time finding good workers for his company, I proffered Brady, and after some consideration, James agreed.

Now, we all know it’s a bad thing to mix family and business, right? And it’s also a bad idea to mix business and homelife, right? Sure, we do. But that didn’t stop James and I from inviting Brady to move to Colorado, work for James, and live with us until he got on his feet.

Yeah, I know, I know. But it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Brady arrived in mid-March, but within a few short months, James and Brady’s relationship had rapidly deteriorated at work, spilling over into things at home. I increasingly found myself feeling caught between my soulmate and my little cousin. It was frustrating for all of us. Brady finally moved out, with considerable prodding from me and James, in June, after James’ kids arrived for the summer. Brady continued working for James, but even that crumbled by the mid-fall. James eventually asked Brady to move on to another job, and we made the difficult transition of separating from him professionally and staying close to him emotionally. That’s not easy in the best of circumstances, but in the midst of this painful separation, Brady had a serious car accident, totaling his car. To say it was a stressful period is a gross understatement.

Right after Brady arrived to work for James, my dad’s health took a very serious turn for the worse, and by April, I was heading to Seattle to be with him for three weeks and help my poor step-mom, who was exhausted and barely keeping things afloat. His situation was so serous that on the plane ride to Seattle, I prayed that my dad wouldn’t die before I got there. Three weeks, five doctor appointments, one surgery, and 1½ weeks in a rehabilitation care center later, my dad was well on the road to recovery and I was back on a plane for Denver. But the emotional roller coaster of it all, including the ever-possible drama with my step-brother, left my tank on empty.

As it turned out, my Seattle trip had repercussions through the rest of my year. Within weeks of my return home, my mother’s health seemed to nosedive. Her phone calls became increasingly alarming. She was in so much pain. She was depressed. She was lonely. She missed her granddaughters and wanted to be near them. She hated Southern California. She felt that she was probably going to die soon. Gravely concerned, I booked a flight in October to my mom’s dusty town outside Palm Springs to ascertain the situation in person. When I arrived, my mom was pale, achingly frail, and seemingly in constant pain. As an only child, I had always known the day would come when I would have to step in and take care of my mother. Apparently that fateful day had arrived.

I began making plans to move my mom to Colorado. We reviewed her finances, talked about putting her tiny house up for sale, and discussed the necessary medical care she would need. I lined up various doctors, a home health nurse, and a realtor to make my mom’s transition as seamless as possible. I moved James’ youngest daughter Chloe out of her room and prepared it for my mom to occupy until she found a permanent place of her own. After her house sold unexpectedly quickly in November, she packed up the rest of her belongings, but refused to ship her car to Colorado after hearing horror stories of cars that were shipped but never arrived at their intended destination. At her request, James and I flew to California and drove her car back to Colorado in advance of her arrival. It should have been a fun and restive road trip, but the timing and circumstances mostly prevented that. Even so, we got her 20-year-old Honda to our house 24 hours before she arrived by plane in mid-December. I took a deep breath and thought that the hardest part was surely over.

Exactly 26 days later, my mother boarded a plane and moved back to California. Don’t underestimate her, though. In those 26 days, She had inconvenienced me, James, and the kids, threw a few obligatory tantrums at various holiday functions, and then floored us all by announcing that was moving back. Less than a week later, she was gone. And I was left wondering what the hell had just happened.

In the days immediately before and after her departure, I began to unravel the craziness that had just blown through my life, leaving a swath of wounded feelings, bewilderment, and exhaustion a mile wide. Based on things my mother said to James during her final days in Colorado, I abruptly realized that the drama around her health had originated, consciously or not, with my trip to Seattle. My mother’s intense resentment of my dad and anger at my relationship with him prompted nothing less than outrage that I had spent three weeks in Seattle and only a few days visiting her during the same calendar year. So, consciously or not (and I choose to think, not), she had created a whirlwind of need and anxiety around her, prompting us all to figuratively and sometimes literally drop everything and focus on her. It was, of course, the kind of drama she had been concocting for much of her life, but I, in my distracted state, had failed to recognize it for what it was. My mom likes to tell people now that she “simply made a mistake,” as if she’d worn unmatched socks for a day. But the truth is, at some point in our lives, each of us has to be responsible and cognizant of the effects our actions have on others. Apparently that time has yet to come for my mother.

So, since her departure, I have worked to remind myself that she is on a different journey from me; to forgive myself for being taken in, yet again, by her ridiculousness; and to recreate the healthy boundaries that protected me from her machinations through most of my adult life. I manage these things with more or less success, depending on the day. And so it goes.

A Penny Earned

For me, 2014 was the year of living dangerously. At least in a financial sense. Never in my life did I have so many financial responsibilities and so little certainty that I could meet them. While in Seattle, I read a fascinating article about women who crafted a “career” out of several small jobs (in some cases, as many 15), rather than relying on a single job for financial security. Most of these women were stay at home moms, had been laid off in middle age, or had personal constraints on their lives that necessitated a high degree of flexibility. Inspired, I spent many late nights in my dad’s guest room in Seattle brainstorming about how I could do something similar, and when I returned home, I set my plan into action. I created a new umbrella LLC and spent the rest of 2014 freelance writing, providing life skills coaching for a young woman with substantial ADHD issues, and doing the occasional interior design job. I had a selection of business cards for different tasks and mostly worked non-stop. And when I say non-stop, I really mean it. My family became accustomed to me sitting in front of the TV at night, typing away as we all watched TV or they played games.

In fairness, however, my ex-husband Bryce ended up helping me out financially, although not exactly by choice. At the end of 2013, as my unemployment benefits were winding down, I attempted to engage my ex in some re-negotiations about child support. He brushed me off, and I reluctantly let it go. But then he did the thing that he shouldn’t have: he suggested that I wasn’t pulling my weight financially with the children and asked me to contribute more. Now, let’s remember, folks: I had been unemployed (and actively looking for a job!) for nearly a year, I’d run through my savings, and had begun to dip into my retirement accounts on a too-regular basis. Bryce earns a healthy salary in the six figures, and he wanted more money from me? I was incredulous.

Now, my ex-husband’s mistake was understandable, in a way. When I was married to him, I pretty much caved to his demands, so perhaps it was natural for him to assume that what he said, would go. But things had changed. I had changed. Unbeknownst to either of us at that point, in the time it had taken him to consider and refuse my initial request for a small increase in child support,  a new law had taken effect that completely revised the child support guidelines. In my favor. So, instead of being a good girl and going along nicely, I gathered all my legal wits about me and filed for an increase in child support. After my attorney buckled to Bryce’s demands (Bryce is a far superior attorney), I fired him and spent most of a weekend negotiating the fine print with Bryce directly. When the smoke cleared, I was set to receive nearly double the amount of child support to which I had previously been entitled, and significantly more than I had originally asked for. Bryce was annoyed, but resigned. After all, if he had simply acquiesced to my initial request and/or not insinuated that I was somehow financially negligent toward my children, he would be paying considerably less. But he didn’t. And my children and I gained.

And so I paid my bills. Not without a little anxiety and a lot of creativity, but hey, what does that matter? They got paid.

Kali Comes

For my birthday last month, just days after my mother left us, my 11-year-old daughter Bryn gave me a pendant of the Hindu goddess Kali. She mistook Kali for Sarasvarti, the Hindu goddess of music, writing, and creativity, who is something of a totem for me. As it turns out, Kali was a more appropriate choice given my circumstances, because she is the goddess of destruction, transition, and new beginnings. I wasn’t sure how or why this beautiful Kali pendant had found its way to me, but I embraced it, slipping it on a silver chain and wearing it next to my heart.

Within days, I had my first job offer since my firing in February of 2013. After careful consideration, I concluded that by accepting the position, I would actually be in a worse position financially than I was on my own. I had built a strong client base with good job security, and, while it wasn’t making me rich, I was paying my bills and enjoying a lot of flexibility that enabled me to spend time with my girls and James’ kids. That realization gave me a renewed confidence and sense that perhaps, finally, the worst really was over.

And then two weeks ago, I received another job offer, this time for a position that was a truly perfect fit for me right now. It’s 75% time, with good pay and benefits, doing creative and interesting work. I will still be able to keep my favorite freelance writing client, doing the work some evenings and weekends. And, maybe best of all, I probably won’t have to hire a nanny to be with my kids.

Ever since I got the offer, I have been walking on clouds. My first week of work – precisely two years after my firing – was challenging and exhausting but also fun and dynamic. I truly cannot imagine a job I would want more right now. After wondering, off and on for two years, if I might have become one of the terminally unemployable, I now find myself like a child on Christmas as I head to work in the mornings.

So, life at the moment, perhaps courtesy of Kali, appears to be in transition, but for the first time in a very, very long time, my intuition is at peace. And now that I am no longer writing nonstop for money, I am hoping to return to writing for the sheer joy of it.

If you’ve actually read this whole saga that I call a post, thank you.

Next time we’ll return to our regularly scheduled program.

My Kali pendant from Bryn.

My Kali pendant from Bryn.

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