Motivation - and Happiness - Come in Unexpected Ways

I’ve been flying high this week – full of boundless energy – despite the never-ending string of holiday parties. Maybe it’s because I’m drinking less alcohol (and more water), sleeping better, and feeling the holiday cheer.

Or maybe it’s because I’m happy.

But where does that happy sensation – that lack of restlessness and steady gratitude – stem from? Here are a few guesses:

1) Honoring the Artist in You: When I’m writing, I feel balanced. It nourishes my soul and keeps me sane. I always need a project to chew on, or I’m restless and aimless, over-focused on mundane minutiae, which leads to overthinking and mood swings. Me without a writing project is akin to my dog without a chew toy – she starts tearing up toilet paper and downing pills.

Several months ago, I was struck with a bout of malaise and depression, as my memoir was out on submission and out of my control, and through a series of self-orchestrated and serendipitous events, I became inspired to write a TV pilot – a format and industry I had been averse to confronting for a decade. Upon its completion, when it was time to switch into producer mode and generate momentum for myself, I felt nervous and vulnerable. I needed to reach out to film industry folks: agents, producers and established writers with whom I hadn’t spoken to in ten years, when I left my ex-husband and left that world behind. Would they respond? Did they remember me, and remember me fondly? To my surprise, many of them responded with warmth and an eagerness to read my work and reconnect. Rekindling those relationships not only ignited my confidence in my work. It rekindled my belief in myself.Screen Shot 2015-12-20 at 2.32.20 PM

Bouyed by the momentum, I ached to write something new. A novel that had been dormant since 2011, who’s faded promise I had mourned, like a neglected dusty diamond in the drawer, bloomed back to life. Suddenly, after not being able to touch it, I was inspired to again. I dove back into it, the puzzle it poses keeping my mind and soul engaged, the challenge of tasting the finish line motivating me to complete it.

When I did, I eagerly called up my book agent, who has been representing me for my memoir and therefore didn’t yet know another book existed. When she told me this time of year is busy with reading manuscripts, I asked her, “Well do you have time to read another book?” Her surprise and excitement mirrored mind. I couldn’t believe I had another book too (kinda still don’t!). And the ensuing gratification (not to mention, hope) is the daily gift that keeps on giving.

2) Get That Blood Flowing: I began running in Riverside Park over the summer, but when an old knee injury surfaced, I stopped. For months. But last week, I began again – walking , that is, with an occasional jog spurt (wogging?). 12374916_10153824052664791_2819095347479621341_oGetting out in the fresh air with my cheesy dance mix blaring, my feet mushing into the soggy leaves and the wind blowing off the Hudson River changes my outlook and makes the usual daily hurdles (hangovers included) easier to tackle.

3) Being Open to Unexpected Friendships: I’ve always been grateful for my tight knit group of friends, my soul sisters and brothers, not to mention my sisters and parents. But curiously, only a few of them (who live in LA) are writers. I never realized how much I needed that until recently, when a woman I met through a Facebook Writers Group, Lynn Hall, with whom I bonded with on Facebook messenger when both our memoirs were on submission to publishers, began messaging each other daily. And when Lynn’s memoir sold, as she paced in her home in Boulder, bursting with excitement, I spoke to her for the first time. When I finished my novel, and needed a fellow author’s feedback, she volunteered. When she finished reading it (in one sitting!), I woke up to a message on a Saturday morning, “Wake up, you NY-er. I want to tell you how much I loved your book!” And in the following weeks, as I rewrote it, Lynn was there for me every step of the way, reviewing paragraphs and brainstorming ideas, as I was for her with an essay she was writing. Looking back, I don’t think I would have gotten to the finish line as quickly – or as happily – if I didn’t have her.

And next week, I will be meeting her – my pen pal – for the first time, as my husband and I stop in Boulder on our way back from Kansas where we will be celebrating Christmas with his family (read about my first Christmas here).

Lynn is also an avid marathon runner and hiker, the endorphins it provides alleviating her chronic migraines. I could tell from the change of pattern in her messages over the last few days that she’s been down, so the other morning, when she was struggling to get off the couch and go for a run, we discovered that despite the distance between us, we can also be one another’s exercise motivators too. She wrote a post about it that moved me to tears (and she is a fabulous writer with a triumphant story and memoir forthcoming from Beacon Press): “I have a migraine. I think I’ll go for a run,” said no one, ever. 

4) Family. Husband. Home: Last but certainly not least, I look around at my cozy home, my snoring aging dog, and my kind husband, as he completes his first semester of his Masters program (while having a full time job), where he’s applied himself with a tireless focus, diligence, and passion of which I have never seen. We’ve been married a little over two years, and I’m heartened by how we continue to discover new facets in one another, and in our relationship. thanksgivingtable.jpgWe also got to host our first Thanksgiving with his family and mine – gathered around a dining table that commingled flourishes from my former life and the love and growth of the new, emblematic of how far I’ve come. And, with the help of my dog walker, a fabulous gay man who is also a chef, I’ve learned to cook, and now I actually like it (I can make soup!). It’s motivated me to not only cook meals for my family, but contributes to my personal advancement towards maturity and motherhood.

As everything is fleeting, and the New Year will inevitably bring both joy and set backs, I may as well harness and celebrate the blessings offered in the present.

Wishing you all a happy and healthy holiday and New Year, full of gratitude.

 

Thanksgiving: Where receiving can be as important as giving.

The abundance of Thanksgiving posts out there pre-Thursday turned off my writing switch. All the pertinent topics had been covered, ranging from the obvious gratitude articles to the difficult travel day posts. I posted a link to one I particularly liked called, “Can you be thankful for what you don’t have?” to my Facebook page because it inverted the way we normally think on Thanksgiving. On a regular day, when we see another person’s misfortune, it’s easy to tell ourselves, “I should be grateful. Thank goodness that didn’t happen to me, or someone I love.”  But does that really work? Perhaps such thinking is superficial. It rushes out of our heads as quickly as it rushes in. It sometimes makes us push aside legitimate grievances, out of guilt, and allows us to avoid dealing with our reoccurring issues. But only for a moment.
In the weeks preceding this holiday, I’ve been a mopey brat, and I haven’t liked it one bit. I’ve been feeling sorry for myself, despite all the tangible good things I could check off on a list. It bothered me. Because in the years since my divorce – where I was close to rock bottom – I’ve taken warm pride in discovering the joys of gratitude. Gratitude has come in the smallest and most random forms: a surprise phone call from a relative, connecting with a stranger, a perfectly formed sentence, the fact that my parents answer the phone because they can, and the ability to be present for a friend in need. But in the past few weeks, none of these things were working. Why?
Oh, break-up blues is an easy one, right? But how long is that card good for? My ex-cub and I broke up over two months ago. So what if I’m going to be “alone” for the holidays, when last year he and I spend Thanksgiving and Christmas together. So what if going home to NJ, where everyone is married with children underscores my “differentness.” So what if (per my last post) the dating scene looks bleak and I’m not getting any younger.  So what if I’m not feeling impassioned by my day job or my writing on the side job. At least I have a job where I work with people I adore. At least I wrote a novel. What more could I ask for?
All of the above is 100% true, yes. But does this kind of talking to yourself really work? Does it automatically lift your spirits, like a “snap the F out of it” switch was flipped?
For some people, it totally works, like for my father, and some men I know. When my sisters and I were little girls and we’d cry over a boy or missing our camp friends, my father used to say to us (and he still does), “Who died?”
That used to frustrate the hell out of me. “Why does someone have to die, Dad, for me to be sad? Don’t I have a right to be sad when things aren’t going my way?”
On Thanksgiving morning, I woke up to the sun shining (ok- well at least it wasn’t raining) and my dog licking my face. My older sister and her family were in the city for a Bat Mitzvah (on Thanksgiving?) and were picking me up to drive to my parents.  I had something to look forward to. Two hours of traffic, yes, but in a car filled with my nieces and nephew fighting over my Blackberry (I didn’t even know there were games on it) and iPad (the smudgy fingerprints after wards are worth it), playing with apps that my ex-cub had had the foresight to download (“for the kids”). I felt my gloom start to lift, although there was still a nagging ache. Then a friend of mine, who went through a divorce when I did, messaged me that she was feeling down. Her sincere email, on any other day, would be something I would hungrily indulge, where I’d give advice and talk about how I feel the same way. What are we doing with our lives? What is going to happen? We are in our late thirties and still processing these damn divorces? But after I got her email, it hit me. “No. No,” I replied. “Sorry, but I’m not going to feel sorry for you.” Or myself, I thought. “We have so much to be thankful for.” (I had to wrestle my Blackberry out of my niece’s hands to write this, but still). “You have to let the good stuff in,” I wrote. “But first you need to see it, in order to receive it. So get that dark shit out of the way and make room!” (Huh. Good stuff, Cougel, I thought to myself, before hitting ‘send.’) My girlfriend, rather than taking offense, thanked me. The light bulb went on, for both of us, and I was grateful for her message – a necessary mirror to my own unfounded self pity – and grateful to have her in my life.
My mother made a beautiful meal and decorated the table with brown leaves (it’s the thought that counts). She was pleased to see me eat seconds. And pleased to see that I’d put on some weight, “You don’t look sick anymore,” she said.  After dinner, we watched “The Godfather,” although watching my father laugh and gesticulate while reciting the lines is better than the movie. And then, since we were sitting around with newspapers and laptops, I decided to reinstate my J-date account. Maybe there’s something to be said for a dating site that attracts people from the same culture, whom can actually pay for the service. What a revelation!  I even let my mother sit next to me so we could look through all the profiles together. I expected her to say, “What’s wrong with him?” every time I dismissed someone, but this time, to my surprise, she nodded and said, “You know best, mamaleh.”  I even let her chime in on what photos I should include (she nixed the one where I was holding a martini glass in my hand).
I thought back on the post I had read a few days prior, “Can we be thankful for what we don’t have?” and to my pleasant surprise, I didn’t need to conjure up all the bad things that thankfully hadn’t happened to me – or list the tangible “good things” –  in order to be thankful for what was right in front of me.