Posts

In These Times, Can Reading Fiction Help Create Empathy?

On election night, I, like many, had a meltdown when Trump was in the lead. From the get-go, I struggled with much of his rhetoric, and that it somehow didn’t prevent him from being elected (perhaps the biggest bitter pill to swallow). I also have some friends and family, people I trust and respect, who are kind, intelligent, and reasonable, who have a different view and a long informed knowledge of history. I am choosing to listen to what they have to say, and take solace in this as we move forward, and hope that things aren’t going to be as doom and gloom as most fear. I take heart in the fact that this wake up call may be a necessary, if not terrifying step – like the root and catalyst for all change. How it will unfold, I do not know.

The morning after the election, my husband and I were woken up (after what was sorta called sleeping) by Gemma, our elderly dog, when she came into the bedroom then suddenly fell over, her front legs giving. “Oh please, not today,” I thought, rubbing her legs as she lay down on the rug peacefully and cluelessly (lucky girl). My husband and I sat there together for a long moment, before I asked him (he had gone to bed after I did), “So, is it official?”

We sat there in stunned silence for another twenty minutes. I didn’t want to turn the TV on, but mostly, I didn’t want to face what I knew would be a (justifiable) barrage of Facebook posts full of anger, blame, and grief, and a warrior mentality to immediately begin fighting. I sensed it would only intensify my fear and sadness and was reluctant to fall further into a spiral of despair – call it selfishness, or self care – that somewhere in my core, for me, I knew would be corrosive and futile.

Then I thought of my novel, and shame coursed through me. Only a week prior, my agent had finally given my last of countless rewrites the green light, and my book was finally out on submission to publishers. I had been overcome with joy, relief and hope. But in that moment, I knew that given the election results, things could come to a halt. Would the economy tank? Would the editors be too devastated to read it?  I was crestfallen and worried, and ashamed that I was. I shook my head, pushing the thought away. How could I be thinking about my needs, my dreams, how my life could be impacted, when the effects for millions of others was going to be far greater?

In the ensuing days, I went through the motions of going about my business. I have an important job as the Executive Producer and Head of Sales for a production company. Important because the directors whom I represent – my directors – count on me for their livelihood. To promote them so that they can work and put food on the table for their families. My responsibility for that tiny tiny thread in the fabric of our world was all I could do in.

I spoke with other writers, and with my wonderful agent, who said something that comforted me, not just personally, because of my own aspirations, but which sparked a larger notion. “I believe now more than ever, that people need books. Not just escapism, but female driven, female empowerment novels.”

I am encouraged by this, surely. I believe that people will come from protesting in the street to my local cafe which I have been coming to for 10 years, where I have built a community and cleave to for comfort, conversation, and friendship (and wine). I believe that people need this now more than ever.

Because now more than ever, we need to find empathy for others. We need to try to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, rather than closing our ears and hearts. It doesn’t mean we have to agree, no. It doesn’t mean or have to elicit a knee jerk reaction that anyone is trying to change our minds. We shouldn’t fear feeling moved, feeling compassion for others, or that it will somehow impede upon or influence our own positions. If we believe in what we believe in, why should it?

Recent studies show that reading fiction makes us feel for others (WSJ – http://on.wsj.com/2fi2XeC).  “The more fiction people read, the better they empathized….Reading fiction causes a spike in the ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions. It influences ability to intuit the emotions and intentions of people in the real world.” Yes, the real world. The world we live in.
tumblr_mepevqdzaf1rk8si6o1_500-650x400

Naturally, I hope that this finding bodes well for my own novel’s success. But it also underscores and magnifies the reason I read, and write, in the first place. I write to connect with others. I write to inhabit the experience of others, to be inside their skin in my imagination and in my heart, and to better understand them. To FEEL them. I write in order to constantly build that muscle, and perhaps create a shorter path, a short cut, to empathizing with other human beings’ pain and grief, in the moment that it rises to the surface, and as it percolates below it. It ignites my compassion cells, which like all of us, because it’s human nature, tend to lie fallow because we are consumed by our own self-serving lives.

And yet, while straining to put oneself into another’s shoes is a valuable and critical step, it is impossible to do so completely. I don’t profess or expect that I can ever understand – on a visceral level – in my guts and bones, what it’s like to experience someone else’s pain. I cannot inherit anyone else’s emotional and cumulative beliefs and experience. I can only try.

There is much we can do now to mend the hurt, but I think I’ll start there.

Running, Writing, and When an Addictive Personality Can be Useful

Screen Shot 2016-08-07 at 10.27.23 AMI’ve had people ask me recently, “How did you write a novel, with a full time job? And how are you, a forty something Jewish chick who was never a sports or exercise enthusiast, suddenly running every day?”

Because of motivation and discipline – sure. Both are required to complete an arduous and lengthy task like a book. And to suit up in warm running clothes to get out the door on a winter day to run by yourself, without anyone to crack the whip.  But underneath it all, I think it’s what you call an addictive personality. Wrapped with impatience, restlessness, and the desire to surpass your personal benchmarks.

I didn’t grow up in a household of artists, surely not writers. We didn’t exercise regularly or use the treadmill in the basement. As the middle child, I was the artist – but mostly – that stems from wanting to do things my way. The hard way. If it’s not a challenge or a lofty endeavor, I’m not interested.

In the last year, my husband and I moved from Chelsea, in the heart of the concrete retail jungle, up to the upper upper west side, adjacent to Riverside Park. Just when I was fantasizing about a country spot, amidst cows (and lots of dogs), we made a compromise. Columbia students, families, and grand stately buildings, and…the park. And the river.

I started running. Accompanied by a cheesy 80’s/90’s dance mix on my ipod (including “Love is a Battlefield,” when I’m tempted to shimmie like those bad-ass broads in the music video), along with the wind, the water, and trees budding with bursts of pink. And dogs! Everywhere! Zooming by like escapee bumper cars , before taking a brief hump-break in the middle of my running path (Another perk about running in the park… there are no dogs at the gym).

And, alone time. Time to process the events of the day before, and the looming anxieties of a new day. Afterwards, the cobwebs in my head and the knots in my body and soul disappear. I feel weightless, and yet with more import. New ideas spring forth and connect seamlessly with old ones like reclaimed puzzle pieces.  When people offer to run with me in the park, I wonder: “But how will I solve a work conflict, and fortify myself for my drinks with clients tonight? How will I come up with any ideas while I’m making conversation? (or breathe properly, for that matter). How will I solve my writing block, if I’m turned outward rather than inward?”

And then I wanted to know how far I was actually going, so I successfully downloaded an app (I can’t believe it either). I started to compete against my self.

My knees suck. I had knee surgery on my right knee decades ago, and my left knee is up next. I have no business running. But my mind and the ensuing euphoria don’t give a hoot.

When my parents saw how often and how far I was running, my father said, “Four miles? Oy. Try one.” My response: “I’m sticking to the dirt paths. Don’t worry, when my knee throbs, I stop.” Dad: “Once it hurts, it’s too late.”

Around the same time, I dusted off a novel I had started five years ago. Once I rewrote it, I began the daunting and depressing task of querying literary agents (once again) and couldn’t sleep as I waited, waited for that email in my inbox for someone to say, “I get this. I love this. I can sell this,” I ran.

When I got an email from an agent who loved my book and wanted to meet me, I ran. And a a week later, just after 9am on a Monday, when I got an unexpected call from another agent, my dream agent who had passed on a previous project but with whom I’d felt a connection, she said she wanted to represent me and my novel –  I ran. And cried.

Neither of these pursuits were in the foreground before, or endeavors I thought I’d embark on independently. I used to, a long time ago, write screenplays with my ex-husband. I’d intermittently attend spin classes, surrounded by other people, but that didn’t last.  Several months ago, I tried to embrace a restorative Yoga class at Canyon Ranch with my mother and sisters, even though I knew that following directions and syncing up with other people’s movements has the opposite effect of “restorative” for me. Two minutes into the class, when everyone’s eyes were closed, I bolted. My sisters didn’t have to ask where I disappeared to. The grounds were graced with a secluded treelined running path.

When I submitted my rewrite to my agent, she said: “I’ll peddle as fast as I can. In the meantime, as you wait, run a lot!’

And so I did. Until my right knee called it quits. I began limping, and this time mind over matter (and Alleve) didn’t fix it. Ten days passed where I hoped it would pass, and a malaise and depression descended where all of my stressors felt more pronounced (aka: dramatic). I finished yet another rewrite on my book and sent it off to my agent, but now, I couldn’t just run the stress and time off.

Eight months prior, an orthopedist had prescribed Physical Therapy, but I had ignored it. This time, not running was simply not an option. I told my PT at my first consult: “Don’t tell me to swim. It’s not gonna happen. I need to run again.” He suggested biking, but that didn’t stick. It’s too cumbersome. The sweat in my helmet, the fear of falling or slamming into scaffolding (that happened), and not being able to run errands after – don’t provide me with the same escape and freedom as running. Biking doesn’t feel like flying.

I’m thrilled to be running again. To slower mixes (The Fray… snooze), and for less time (really, Dad!), even though the other day I wanted to sneak in another mile, until a bee in the park decided that it wasn’t a good idea and stung me on my left butt cheek – right through my shorts emblazoned with the Under Armour logo (False advertising. Under Armour….my uh…ass). I’ve discovered a new use for frozen peas.

So I’m officially obsessed. With setting my own record. Against myself. With pushing past my own expectations of myself…before I move the goal post another mile. Or write another book. My knees (and the bees) will just have to pipe down.

Screen Shot 2016-08-07 at 10.13.04 AM

 

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.

 

Is Your Work Who You Are?

If you’re anything like me, an ambitious and neurotic New Yorker, it’s likely that your job has pretty much taken over your life, or it’s constantly trying to. Pushing its heavy presence against your weary resolve daily, and you either push back, or give up and let it become not only an expression of your identity, but who you are.

The first question people are usually itching to ask after a name exchange is: “So…what do you do?” And if they don’t, it’s likely because they’re pretending; choosing not to ask in order to minimize its importance. In my 20s and into my mid-30s, when I was climbing the Hollywood ladder, the answer to “What do you do?” was everything, like two dogs sniffing each other’s asses in the dog park. The subtext being, “Who are you? Are you somebody who has value to me? Are you worth further conversation (or moreover, an actual meeting)?

For fourteen years, my identity was determined as “Producer/Screenwriter” (or to my Mom and Dad, “a movie person doing that movie stuff”). So when I left that life, on the heels of my divorce, my identity shattered. I took up producing for an Advertising agency, followed by representing directors for a production company, while writing and creating new work on the side. My identity had changed, but it felt fractured, like a split personality. Today, when people ask me, “What do you do?” there is almost always an imperceptible hesitation. If I’m meeting clients or ad industry folks, “I’m the east coast rep for a production company” is the answer. If I’m at a book reading, a writing conference, or commenting in a private Facebook writers group, I’m an author with an agent, a blogger, and a published essay writer; an artist with demons and moods and anxiety-ridden uncertainty about what comes next.

Which one am I? Which one defines me? Which one reflects the “true me”? writing-freelancer-1

But as my therapist and my husband (that’s two different people by the way, the latter often being both) have repeatedly pointed out, why does it have to be one or the other? Why can’t I integrate both personas? Why can’t I be both the sociable businesswomen, and the scattered creative with a bottomless need for the expression of feelings and ideas?

This last month has been laden with shifts and challenges in my job, and when that happens, the writer-me suffers. The writer brain shuts down from work overload, save the little voice that screams out for attention. “Hey! Hey you! Ef you for turning your back on me. Get back here and feed me.” It doesn’t give a hoot what else I have going on, and I’ve given up trying to mute it.

To be honest, I don’t want to. When I heed that voice, I create. And when I create, I’m happier and more productive – in my personal interactions and in my work. A few weeks ago I wrote a TV pilot, a half-hour comedy in the spirit of early divorced Cougel (and boy was she funny. As in, an absurd hot-mess). I didn’t think I had it in me to write in script format again – it’s been almost a decade – but it came back to me in an instant, like my native language. After I finished, I was bopping around Manhattan with boundless energy and positivity, not knowing what to do with myself (It wasn’t pretty on the outside, but it felt pretty on the inside).

And then, a little light bulb went off. The TV show’s setting and some of the characters and experiences – they’re inspired by my advertising life. By the other-me. The advertising person that I was and have been for seven years infuses this me – the writer-me, in subtle but powerful ways. And with the time and distance, I am finally able to look back on that mess of a me with affection and compassion. Because she IS me.

I guess that’s called living. Living a creative life and creating a life that begets creation. Or, as a couple of eminent writers once said:

“We are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing – an actor, a writer – I am a person who does things – I write, I act – and I never know what I’m going to do next. I think you can be imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun.”
― Stephen Fry

“In order to write about life first you must live it.”
― Ernest Hemingway

When Facebook Friendships Are Stronger Than 'Real' Ones

When I began writing my memoir, I realized that I was lacking a writing community. While writing my previous books, which were novels, I had unwittingly created a protective bubble around my self. My creative instincts at the time were undeveloped, my voice shaky. When I would hit writer’s block, friends would suggest I workshop my draft with a writers group so that I could get feedback, but I was hesitant. Rationally I knew it would be helpful, but I couldn’t do it. In my twenties and most of my thirties, I had shared the craft of storytelling with my ex-husband, and inevitably, my own voice had become muted. So when starting over on my own, honing my own instincts, I think I was wary of allowing other people’s suggestions to influence the unformed story I was attempting to manifest.

I wrote the first draft of my memoir the same way, but when it came time to get it out there, i was stumped. Was it ready? Was it in the right format? Should I be shopping a memoir proposal, a business plan for the book, rather than a manuscript? What was the best way to query agents, and what would the grueling submissions process be like when what you’re putting out there isn’t an imagined story with fictitious experiences (not that that isn’t painful!), but the inner workings of your heart and soul, laid bare?

And then I received an invitation on Facebook to join a large private group of women writers, which consisted of novelists, memoirists, essayists, teachers and bloggers. I somewhat impulsively posted a question about memoir submission in the memoirist group, and to my delight, received a cascade of useful advice I consequently put into effect.

And along the way, I made friends. I attended a writer’s conference for this group in NYC, where I didn’t know anyone but on my way out, ended up standing in the bathroom line between two women who I instantly clicked with. (And I’m glad I waited, rather than my usual maneuver of ducking into the no-line men’s room). We couldn’t stop talking for hours, and now we are friends, providing feedback on each other’s work, and meeting for dinners to talk about life, love, and writing. I’ve attended cocktail gatherings (go figure) and became inspired by strong and brilliant women who share my passion and who have come out on the other side – who’ve provided me with unsolicited support and comfort, and moments where I’ve been able to reciprocate in kind.

article-0-0DBAA46100000578-467_468x352

But when I finally secured an agent who began sending my book out to editors, I felt alone again. I went about tending to the needs of my day, but anxiety sat in my pocket like a hard stone. I stared at my inbox, waiting for news from my agent, wondering if what would come would suddenly change the texture and trajectory of my life. There was no advice my close friends and family could give me, or that a community of writers could give me now, no to-do list to follow. All I had was feelings, and lots of impatience (although that’s nothing new), that were mine alone to sit through.

I was wrong. A writer in the group named Joan, who lives in Colorado, saw that my book was out on submission and reached out to me in private message. Joan was in the same situation I was (but with a vastly different life story). She too had a new agent who now had her baby in hand to send out into the world. What was it like? How did I feel? We began pinging one another when a rejection came in. Or when we were irrationally worried or bereft. And then, Lily, another memoirist on submission pinged me too, and we invited her into the group.

That was in March. Our virtual friendship continues to blossom in unexpected ways, unique to the norm of Facebook friendships. We check in with each other almost every day on memoir status, and sometimes also, about life. When I received some exciting news about my memoir’s potential, my hands shaking, that Facebook message box was the first thing I searched for. When I received bad news, fighting tears, I found myself doing the same. When two of us were receiving updates from our agents, but one hadn’t heard anything, we helped her brainstorm what to do. We listen. And sometimes we disagree with one another, implementing tough love, the kind usually reserved for my sisters and closest friends.

When a close work colleague of mine asked me how my book was going, I surprised myself by saying, “It’s going okay, thank you,” my typical urge to unburden myself eradicated. Because I had my support – the kind I needed, without knowing that I did.

While out to dinner with a client in Soho a few weeks ago, I saw our three-way chat box light up. I was unable to read it but the CAPS and “!!!!!!” relayed what we had all been waiting for. Joan had received an official offer on her memoir. She was freaking out. Her husband wasn’t home, and she was pacing her apartment alone. My heart soared for her. I couldn’t get out of my dinner fast enough. As soon as I left, I messaged her: “Can I call you?”

She picked up on the first ring. “Joan?” I said. “Yay!! I’m so happy for you! This is huge!” and other such congratulatory cheer. Her sweet voice – that I had never heard before – was pitched in excitement. She had spoken to her husband, her therapist, and… me. A woman she had never met before, on this most significant milestone.

When I received some disappointing news a few weeks later, and felt as if I was jumping out of my skin with worry, I wanted to go meet Joan and Lily for margaritas. But the three of us know, that that time will come, as we continue to hold one another’s virtual hands on this long beautiful journey.

A Birthday Coupling: Sharing My Birthday With My Beloved.

My husband’s birthday and mine are one day apart in May (conveniently, mine comes first, so we basically get to celebrate my birthday twice).

Neither one of us is into astrology, nor have I ever analyzed or researched what this actually “means” beyond the fact that it underscores my certainty that he and I are spiritually paired. We share a unique bond, like Gemini twins.

On every birthday since we met, my husband surprises me with an unexpected gift that demonstrates he knows what I need, like a new iPhone, business cards for my writing and blogging promotion, or an artsy ring from a store he knows I like. I usually buy him clothes, because I’m lame, and because I know which store in Manhattan carries men’s XXL (Banana Republic, J Crew, no. G-Star, yes) and I’m too impatient for anything that requires craft.

He is the opposite. On my fortieth birthday, a few months after we had gotten back together, he surprised me with a “me” video montage that highlighted and celebrated my journey from divorcee to meeting him. When he proposed to me, on a beach overlooking Bermuda, his proposal came by way of a video card too. And for this birthday, I awoke to his most poetic card yet. Our story in title cards, set to a song with ethereal lyrics about how tiny and inconsequential we are in this vast universe, solitude imbedded in our DNA. And when we weave our souls together in love, like two intertwined DNA strands, it eases this solitude.

I assumed that was my present, until we got home that night from a party. I was recounting an anecdote from the evening, getting ready to wash up and he told me to come over to the couch where two large sketch pads and packs of charcoal and pencils lay.draw “I think you should draw again,” he said. “You’re an artist.”

An artist. I was. It was how I had begun. When I was a kid, I went through a vicious bought of insomnia, and would lay out paper and colored pencils on my desk, my comforting friends who I knew would be there for me later in the quiet loneliness of the night. I attended the School of Fine Arts in college. I see feelings in pictures and cheesy visual metaphors. But amidst life and my job, where I nurture and sell other artists, I had forgotten that I was one.

I stood there in shock, tears streaming down my cheeks. My reaction surprised us both. I hadn’t told my husband that I missed drawing, nor had I even had a fleeting fancy to buy some supplies. But I had been feeling frustrated with my writing. While my book is out on submission, I’ve been plotting other endeavors. Go back to revising my novel. Have it ready to go once the memoir’s fate is revealed. Write a new blog post. Write and publish an essay in The New York Times (as if the only thing that’s stopping me is writing it). Like Ann Packer wrote in a recent piece for the NYT, being between projects is a strange and anxiety provoking place – always feeling like you should be doing more, doing something. I had been feeling stuck in between indeed, but I didn’t know it.

But my husband knew. “I thought it might be good for you to be visual, get back to your basics. It could help your writing,” he said.

For a moment, I wished he had included some black pens in the gift, so I could make my typical ink designs, which are really just sophisticated doodles, but then he told me he left those pens out intentionally. IMG_1255 Doodling is my crutch, my safety blanket, my nervous energy worked out on a page. But I wasn’t going to grow from that. Doing the same thing I always do wasn’t going to inspire fresh ideas or manifest a buried emotion in a new form.

So this year, a new light was shed on the meaning of our back-to-back birthdays. Yes we share a midnight between two days on a calendar, but mainly, we share something more rare – the intangible and ephemeral. The gratification and fulfillment of being seen and understood, sometimes better than you understand yourself. It eases the gnawing sense of solitude we carry around as not only artists, but as humans.

Oh, and by the way, I’m not promising to share any of those would-be drawings, as programmed as I may be to share my private life and feelings. I’ll save that urge for this blog.

Embracing Rejection: Turning No into Yes.

I’m used to rejection, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt when it happens.

The rejections in my life are professional and two-fold – both as a sales representative and a writer.

As a sales rep, “no” is more frequent than “yes.” I represent ten directors, talented and seasoned pros for whom I secure commercials for them to direct. I feel responsible for their livelihood and aspirations, and doing so requires perseverance, a thick skin, and an abdication of control (or deluding myself into thinking I have some).

I hear about a project that may be right for one of my directors, and my job is to contact the gatekeeper in charge – the advertising agency producer. I used to be an agency producer before I transitioned to sales, so I certainly understand their position of being bombarded by hundreds of reps like me in an attempt to sift through the emails to find a match to present to their creative teams and clients. Often, my email (I don’t believe in hounding via phone) doesn’t make it through the noise, and the lack of response doesn’t upset me. Because I’ve been there. So when I do get a response and am asked to send reels, I rejoice. And when the reels get viewed and shared (we reps have spy-ware so fyi we know when this happens) I experience a win-thrill. I got a chance to throw the ball into the basket! Whether or not it goes in however, is not up to me. My job is to sit on my email-hands and instead send Jedi waves through the ether (“This is the director you’re looking for…”).

I try to turn a “no” into a “maybe,” and a maybe into a “yes.” And in the crazy ever-changing business of advertising, when that actually does work (I like to believe it’s because of my mind force) the ball can still bounce back out of the basket, even after it’s gone in. (Forgive the metaphor – I played basketball aka Jew-Ball in high-school and I sucked but played Center anyway because I’m a tall Jew). In a sense, I move air around for a living – trying to make a match between a project description and a person via the interwebs. Like a real estate broker without an abode or a shoe salesman without the shoes.

But my real currency is relationships; befriending and wining and dining the gatekeepers – many of whom have become long lasting friends – with the hopes that my email will break through the next round of clutter. Because if the gatekeeper doesn’t know me, the lack of recognition – just my name in the signature of an email – gets lost, confused, and sometimes, I’m mistaken for a dude from India.

But in the last week, I’ve found myself suddenly reacting with sensitivity and frustration (privately) to these rejections, and I couldn’t figure out what had changed.

Until I realized that earlier that day, I had received another kind of rejection.

My memoir is out on submission with my literary agent. My writing rep. In a sense, she has my job – sending material to the gatekeepers at publishing houses who say yay or nay to my book. She’s a straight up thick-skinned gal (my kind of woman), and we agreed that whenever she receives a reply from an editor, good or bad, she should feel free to hit “forward” so I know what’s happening, no emoticons or hand holding required. I’m cool with this, but on a particular morning last week, on the heels of a rejection from an agency producer, my agent forwarded me an editor rejection, “Not for me. Thanks.”

Ouch. My thick skin spontaneously melted into flimsy skin. It took a few forwards to my husband and to my group of writer pals to get over it and move on. In truth, I prefer the straight up pass, rather than a long explanation of tropes or apologies.

And yet, I keep going. Writing essays and submitting them to anonymous editors. Writing books and putting them out into a vast world of unknowns. Curating director reels and finding out of the box ways to get them viewed and considered, and trying really hard to let go of the outcome. Assuring my directors, just like my agent assures me, that it just wasn’t a match. Believing in my directors’ talent, like my agent believes in mine. But mostly, finding a way to recycle my belief in myself and not take the rejections personally, because as the old saying goes, it really isn’t personal.

The antonym for “rejection” is “acceptance” and “choice.” So I choose to embrace my choices and to do what I must. To keep going. Repeatedly hearing “no” is not going to stop me from exercising my throwing muscles, over and over, and reminding myself that the more “no’s” I get, the closer I get to a “yes.”

A Writer's Retreat into Beauty

About two months ago, a writer named Dani Shapiro who I admire and whose spiritual memoir, Devotion, inspired me to write mine, posted on Twitter that she was going to be teaching a writing seminar based on her latest book, Still Writing, at the Kripalu Center in the Berkshires. I had never heard of Kripalu, but apparently it’s famous. That is, if you do Yoga. The last time I tried Yoga was ten years ago at the Crunch Gym in West Hollywood, because it was fashionable to do so, where I pulled a muscle in my pinkie toe (I didn’t know toes had muscles, but apparently this one gave me an excuse to bail).

On impulse, or perhaps instinct, I signed up for the retreat on the spot. I hadn’t done this kind of retreat before because it had never appealed to me. Back when I was a mopey, single divorcee, my solo trips had consisted of a brief jaunts to exotic places where I could hangout or write, without any kind of structure or program where I had to interact with other people. But this time, something was different. Perhaps it was because I had just initiated a change in lifestyle: healthy eating, no drinking, and an opportunity to maaaybe try Yoga again. My husband, who cherishes his solitude and encourages my need to cultivate my own, was supportive of my weekend adventure.  writing

I packed three identical workout pants, yanked from that neglected shelf in my closet, and a bunch of leggings as backup. And in an even more atypical move, I left my makeup and my blow dryer at home.

It was a pleasant train ride along the Hudson. As we got closer to Massachusetts, I noticed tufts of snow dotting the rolling hills and lacing the bare trees.

A shuttle picked me up at the train station for the one-hour ride to Kripalu. In it, I was pleased to meet three women, one of whom blogs for The Jewish Week, and another Jewish writer who is also part of a Facebook writing group I belong to called “Binders Full of Women Writers,” or in this case, a shuttle full of Jewish ones. We immediately began chatting about our stories, our lives, our writing, until at one point I turned to the driver who I was sitting beside, after noticing he had a slight accent, and proudly asked him, “Are you Israeli?” to which he replied in Hebrew, “Yes, and I’m sitting here listening to your ‘shtooyot’!” which means, “silly conversation or petty shit.” If it sounds rude, it wasn’t – at least not in Hebrew.

It was dark at Kripalu when we arrived, but I could already tell the campus was beautiful; secluded and vast and surrounded by the Berkshire Mountains. Retreaters were filing into the reception area with their duffels, knit hats, and socks shoved into Ugg slippers or Birkenstocks. The place was rustic and smelled like pine and vegan food, a scent that surfaced a memory from when I was fifteen and my best friend and I decided to raid her stepfather’s health food store for snacks with enticing names like “Rice Dream” and “Carob Chew.” I had never tried these kinds of snacks before (my family was non-Yoga and non-health food; we were more of a treadmill and shnitzel type clan), and decided after one bite, that I did not need to try it again. Like, ever.

As we checked in, my shuttle mates informed me that they were going to be lodging in the “dorm.”

“You mean like college?” I asked.

“Yes,” the Binder replied. “Except with bunk beds.”

You can imagine my relief that in a rare moment of wise planning, I had actually booked my own room. I’m not only too old for shares, but I’m a light sleeper, and if I don’t sleep well, you don’t want to go near me. But besides, I knew that if I didn’t have the mental space and solitude to curl in to, that I wouldn’t be fully benefitting from the writing sessions, and I certainly wouldn’t be awake enough to get up for Yoga at 6am on a Saturday.

I slept well, and woke at 6am. Just in time for Yoga! But, I didn’t go to Yoga. I told myself that there were grounds to explore and healthy foods to eat. And social media to cram in before I exited my room into the “no electronics allowed” zone. I could try Yoga that afternoon, and the next morning too.

I went to the cafeteria in search of coffee and scoured the beverage options. Filtered water, a cabinet of teas, hot water, spiced tea, soymilk, apple-something tea, but no coffee. I signed up for the no alcohol thing, but no caffeine when trapped on a campus with no Starbucks in sight was not cool. I looked around and noticed that despite the clattering of trays and scraping of chairs on linoleum, it was unusually quiet. I walked to the entrance and asked a smiley employee, “Is there any coffee here?”

She whispered something in response, but I couldn’t hear her, so I asked the question again, louder.

“Downstairs…” she whispered again, but it sounded more like a hiss. “In the café.” And then she put her finger over her mouth in the “sssh” position and pointed to the rather large sign on the door that yelled “SILENT BREAKFAST.”

“How could you be placid and silent without coffee?” was what I wanted to ask her, but I did not.

When I walked into the large room where Dani’s session was beginning, I immediately felt at home. I even remembered to take off my shoes and leave them in the cubby upon entering, and had a big water bottle as a Yoga prop. There were small folding chairs lined up in a semi circle, and Dani sat Indian style on an elevated platform with candles and yogi things behind her. She began the session with a brief meditation, asking us to get in a comfortable position, close our eyes, and pay attention to our breath. I wondered if this could qualify as my Yoga sampling for the weekend.

My mind began to wander immediately. Shit, did I turn off my phone? Why didn’t I leave it in my room like I was told to do upon check in? It’s ok. It’s too early for anyone to call, or expect me to be awake – even Mom. Is there anyone here I might like or click with? Or is the whole point not to? Maybe I’m supposed to sit in solitude, silent breakfast spreading into silent bedtime. Shit, my phone is so going to ring….

The next thing Dani said snapped me back to the present: “Now imagine a person in your life who is kind… your beloved…“ and my husband’s smiling face rushed in, looming large in my mind’s eye (and he’s 6’7” large already). I was pleased to see him (and it would have been weird had it been anyone else, although Mom paid a visit the next time).

“And say these words silently to yourself,” she continued. “May you be safe, may you be strong, may you be happy, may you live with ease…” I found myself surprisingly in the moment, a warmth spreading up through my chest and outward into the room, stretching towards my husband who was a hundred miles away in New York. It felt like prayer, something I was pleased to discover had become familiar and cozy.

When the meditation portion of the program had concluded, I turned and met eyes with the woman sitting next to me, her leathery skin and sandy hair gave her the appearance of a carefree hippie from California, but behind her glasses, her brown eyes were packed with layers of pain. It didn’t take long for her to tell me the reason. Her husband of 37 years, her beloved, had died two years ago. She had come to this retreat because she was still sifting through her grief by searching for the story line – perhaps a lifeline to a new life. At some point during that session Dani said something, about the “accumulation of losses,” and how this “burden is a blessing,” and this woman and I found ourselves looking at one another again, our hands suddenly grasped, both of us tearing up, as my heart ricocheted from the force of her grief. While at the same time, somewhere on the periphery of my consciousness, I realized that perhaps I had also hooked into the moment where the accumulation of my own losses had materialized into a blessing.

As the session dispersed for the day, Dani left us with a final thought: a reminder of why meditation (in whatever form) helps silence the chatter, the clutter, and makes room for the awareness and discovery of beauty in the every day… in the ordinary.

“It isn’t easy to witness what is actually happening,” she writes in her book. “…The eggs, the cows. But my days are made up of these moments. And if I dismiss the ordinary, waiting for the special, the extreme, the extraordinary to happen, I may just miss my life.”

As the retreat came to an end and I began to gather my things, I noticed the orderly stack of exercise clothes I had optimistically unpacked. I had never put them on, and it dawned on me that I didn’t need to.

Because I hadn’t come here for Yoga. I had come here to notice the ordinary moments, and to feel them in my bones. The silence, the snow on the mountains, a widow’s downturned eyes, and the sounds of strangers – now friends – breathing in the space around me.