Fill 'er Up: How Choosing the Good Leaves No Space for the Bad

Invest Your Love.JPG
Where you invest your love, you invest your life.
— Mumford and Sons

 

We are getting near the half-way point of year. I know that's a hard pill to swallow. It's going to be June soon. Wasn't it just Christmas? How in the world is it possible that my kids only have 15 days of school left before summer break? If you're like me, this time of year usually incapacitates me. (I may or may not have tried to start my car with a remote control during one of these weeks). There are endless field trips, permission slips to sign, classes and camps to sign up for, tests to take, year end projects to finish, not to mention recitals, performances, award banquets to attend, and work schedules to juggle.

But, not this year.

This year is different. Everything is different. And I have to say it's because of one simple mantra that I've been repeating over and over all year long: Fill up on the good, Mary.

Back in January, my family chose "Choose the Good" as our family mission statement for 2016. We agreed we would all try to make good choices. OK, I realize that's a little vague. So we did qualify what "good" meant. If ever there was a decision to be made, we vowed, we would stop, think, breathe, and choose the best option. (And by best option, we mean the healthiest option.) We are trying to choose the options that would most likely give us joy, peace, happiness, health, and fulfill our daily lives. Reading books, spending time together, forgiving each other, hiking, walking, eating good foods, and trying our best to improve ourselves and our world--all constitute the "good." If we are hurting someone, ourselves included, it's not a good choice. Pretty simple.

What I discovered in the past six months is something extraordinary: By "filling up on the good" it became nearly impossible to choose the bad. Miraculous things happen when you "choose the good"--there's literally no room for bad.

I started waking early to read, as I used to do for years. Turns out when you start your day filled with the things you love, value, and prioritize, there is no chance they'll get lost in the daily shuffle. By 6:30 a.m., I've read a classic and a contemporary piece, written a bit, caught up with friends on social media, meditated, and stretched. Filled up with amazing and inspiring literature, I have no desire to turn on crap-news television, or even listen to mind-numbing talk radio. Filled up with delicious hand-pressed coffee and whole fruit, I don't crave sugary sweets, junk food, or a Starbucks hit. Filled up with kindness and positive affirmations from posting inspiring quotes on social media, I don't have space for negativity, toxicity, or even complacency. I feel ready to take on the day. No space for whining, complaining, or feeling down.

I'm positively charged; I'm full.

During the day, I've been filling up on amazing books, the occasional phone call/FaceTime sessions with long-distance friends, coffee and lunches with nearby friends, long walks, book signings, delicious, whole and clean meals, movies, game nights with my kids, and lots and lots of rest and naps on Saturdays and Sundays. It's amazing when you fill up on the good--rest, kindness, and freedom to enjoy the things you truly love and value--how much more grounded, centered, calm, and fulfilled you will feel. I am not running around like a crazy person, trying to cram in activities, projects, and whatever else that used to suck up my time.

I'm being intentional; I'm full.

By filling up on whole and real food (as little processed stuff as possible), I don't crave a glass of wine at the end of a long day of work. I don't crave a giant bag of nacho chips and faux cheese after a full day of denying myself "real food," because I am "trying to lose weight." Instead, I make sure to be full. I've been choosing to nutritious foods that sate me. And I've lost weight. LOST IT, PEOPLE!  If there is a delicious piece of cake offered, I eat it. If there is a steak on my plate, I eat it. If there is a beautiful, artisanal sandwich created for me, I eat it. I enjoy it. Then I stop when I am full of all that is good.

I'm satisfied; I'm full.

I fill my head throughout the day with beautiful art, lovely verse, and great music. I don't have time to surf the web, to mindlessly flip through catalogs, watch meaningless, time-sucking reality television. And I don't want to.

I'm inspired; I'm full.

I go to bed when I am tired. I don't force myself up with endless cups of coffee "to get one more thing done." I turn off my phone at 9. I sit and talk to my husband and fill my heart up with good things--humor, insights, and shared thoughts. I go to bed tired and ready to rest. I fill up on sleep--good solid, dream-filled sleep. So in the morning, I don't need to fill my body up with bad stuff--like Coke or sugar or any other of the toxic stuff we put in our bodies to "wake them up."

I'm rested; I'm full.

I have been filling up on writing too. I am doing it every day, all day in fact, while my kids are at school. By filling my day up with what I love to do, everything else--stress, anxiety, and feelings of worthlessness and ineptitude--have ceased. It's easy to feel like crap when you're pulled in ninety different directions, answering emails, attending meetings, getting only a quarter way through a project before being pulled to another. It's impossible to feel full, if one never feels like they're "finished." Each day, I have a little goal for writing. I achieve that goal, and I am full.

I'm accomplished; I'm full.

By filling my day up with things I love to do, and designing every aspect of my day, with intention and purpose, aimed solely at "choosing the good"--I have reclaimed and restored my life.

Is there anxiety? Is there worry? Is there fear? Yes. Every parent worries about their kids. Every human worries about making ends meet and providing for oneself and one's family, but there is less space in my brain for all that now. I can't worry about money, the future, and things I can't control, because I don't have the time. I've filled my days to the brim, and it's made all the difference.

You can be full too!

It's amazing how tiny choices can add up to such huge life-changing movements. If you're interested in doing it as well, I'd say start small. Try these 3 steps:

1) Start from a place of abundance, not deprivation.  Instead of saying, "no more x, y, z" (Coke, candy, wine, sugar, etc.), ask yourself instead: "What do I love?" Answer that question and then fill yourself up with it, and see where it gets you. Listen to your body and watch the time. If you are doing something and an hour goes by and it felt like a minute,  guess what? You love it. You've reached a state of flow. So go with it. Keep filling yourself up with that.

2) Make a list of all that you do in a day. If there isn't one thing on your list that you love to do then you have some rearranging to do. When I first made my list, I was astonished how little I slept, how little I read, how little I wrote, how much television I watched, how much time I spent driving and working, and how burnt out and stressed out I was. Awareness is half the battle, friends.

3) Read. Read. Read. Carve out 20 minutes to start. I set a timer for me and my son, just before my husband comes home from work. We sit quietly and read together for 20 minutes. I've read nearly 30 books this year so far by reading in 20 minute chunks here and there throughout the day. It's amazing how quickly it can add up. If you want to kick start your "good life" today, then I suggest reading these books:

Design the Life You Love: A Step-by-Step Guide to Building a Meaningful Future by Ayse Birsel (Don't know what you love? Don't know where to begin? Birsel's book will lead the way. One of my favorites so far this year.)

Better than Before: What I Learned about Making and Breaking Habits--To Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life by Gretchen Rubin (Can't say enough about this gem of a book. Rubin will help you figure out the best way to structure your day to rid yourself of unhealthy habits and replace them with positive, life-fulfilling ones. I can honestly say, her book changed my life. Go read it, now.)

Day Designer: The Strategic Planner & Daily Agenda for Living a Well-Designed Life by Whitney English (Stop making long lists and losing them. With this carefully designed planner, you can carefully plan out chunks of your day, so that you actually schedule the things that bring you the most happiness and fulfillment.)

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield (Already bristling a little? Feeling a little resistant? Think I've got it made? More time than you? More money and resources? I assure you. Nope. I've got the same 24. I've got bills. I've got kids. I've got responsibilities. This book is a swift kick in the ass for every whiner out there who says:I don't have the time. I don't have the money. I don't have a good family. I don't have a husband. I don't have a wife. I don't. I can't. I won't. Pressfield's got no time for that b.s. He's used those excuses himself. If you're serious about changing your life, and serious about living your life with purpose and dignity, get his book and read it ASAP. You won't regret it.)

Now go fill 'er up!

 

 

 

A Bad Day at the Office

For nearly twenty-four years I've worked in offices of some kind or another. As a teenager, I worked in various doctors' offices. As a college student, I was an assistant in my school's law department. During grad school, I was a research assistant to several professors. After grad school, I settled into corporate life as I worked my way through three different organizations over the course of seventeen years.

Each place had different height cubicle walls, different ergonomic swivel chairs, different acronyms for team meetings, but by and large, all came with same basic nonsense. Yes, each came with a their own cocktail mixture of office politics, territory wars, egos, incompetent leaders, competent employees, pointless meetings, stacks of paperwork, bottomless inboxes, and constant change. The one thing you could get used to in all work places was that nothing stayed the same.

Just get used to a software? Guess what, we're upgrading this year! Like your new boss? She's so good, she's being promoted!  Like your office? Super. But, we're gonna need that one for someone else. Yeah, about that job of yours...it no longer exists. Ba-bye. 

Change is something we can all count on in. Being able to roll with it, makes for a good employee. Most of us get that. We know if we smile enough, nod politely, do a great job, and feign excitement every now and then, we're sure to get that gold star. Maybe a raise. (Who we kidding?) Okay, maybe we won't get fired or asked to "step down." 

But, sometimes, yes sometimes, smiling, nodding, doing a good job, and feigning excitement become impossible. Sometimes it's all too much. Sometimes, people can be real jerks. They're human after all. And humans can lie. Humans can steal. Humans can deliberately harm other human beings, and it's time to say: Enough is enough. It's time to call in the top brass and get some help. 

But what if they fail you too? What if they too know that the rules to stay ahead of the game are to smile, nod, feign excitement, and pretend everything is OK?  Maintain the status quo at all possible costs, please. What if their job is on the line? Their reputation? Why would they put their neck out to help you? 

It takes courage. It takes integrity. It takes a person who knows the right thing to do. It takes a supreme sense of justice, and a willingness to stand up and say: The buck stops with me. It takes a leader.

It takes someone like my dad.

Throughout those twenty-four years of work in an office, another thing besides change stayed the same: It was a picture I hung up next to me in every office that I've worked. It's the picture I have posted here of my dad, who was then a father of six (he eventually had eight). I am the one looking at him in awe.

And I still look at him in awe every day. 

The reason I kept that picture by my side is this: Shortly after this picture was taken, two of his best friends died in a fire. That is what defined (for me) what a bad day at work was and always would be. It gave me perspective. It served as a reminder--that whatever I am experiencing at work or in life--it will never ever be as difficult or as intense as my father experienced it.

My dad had monumental bills to pay supporting eight kids--most of whom went not just to college but graduate schools and medical school as well. On top of that, he had days where he was unable to save a toddler from a swimming pool, or several children from a burning house, or a teenager from an engulfed car fire. He had days when he had to call home and tell my mom, my brothers, or my sisters that one of the people he saw die or seriously injured while he was on duty, was one of their friends. 

Nevertheless, my dad went to work every day with a smile. He loved what he did. He always said, "I never went to work a day in my life, when I was a firefighter. It's not work when you love it." 

My dad worked extra shifts. He worked long nights. He fought hard for his union and his men. He was no wilting flower. He earned his nicknames "The Pitbull" and the "Toxic Avenger" honestly. You didn't want to be on the wrong side of the argument that Phil Curran was fighting. He knew what was right, what was just, and he sure as hell wasn't going to back down. (Though as a teenager, I sure as hell gave it a try!)

Every time I thought I was having a bad day at work, I looked at my dad's picture. I looked at him balancing a baby on his lap, smiling, and not knowing that when he walked out of the door that day if it wouldn't be his last time. I thought of the lives he saved and touched. I thought about the battles he was willing to fight to make sure his men had access to health care and pensions. I thought of his inexhaustible sense of duty, his commitment to his family, his belief that work was one of the noblest ways to serve his Creator. And those thoughts centered me. They made me realize there are really no bad days at the office. Though when I saw injustices and things worth fighting for, that picture gave me courage. Granted I didn't need the kind of courage it requires to walk into burning buildings, but we all know that just living life requires courage all the same. 

When I left my office job for the last time on Monday, the last thing I took was the picture of my dad that I had taped to my shelf. I looked at him and smiled. He got me through another day at the office. I thanked him for it. I thanked him for his smile. His compassion. His courage. I thanked him for the work ethic he instilled in me and in everyone of my siblings. I thanked him for giving me the ability to roll with the punches. To hold my head up high. I thanked him for showing me that when you do what you love, it's never work. It's a gift. It's an honor. It's just a another day at the office. Just a day. And the beauty of that is tomorrow is another one too. And if you're one of the lucky ones you get to wake up, and live it. 

So I am happy to announce today, I am moving my Dad's picture to my own office. From now on, I too will never be going to work--because I'll be doing what I love--day and night: Writing and reading, reading and writing.

Thanks, Dad, for your courage, your bravery, your strength, your leadership, your willingness to fight the good fight,  your hard work, but most of all, thank you for showing me how to live a life I can be proud of and spend every day doing what I love. Slainte.

My home office. 

My home office. 

 

 

 

5 Things I Do Before I Go to My Day Job

Like most women I don't get a lot of time to myself. As soon as my kids are up, my life becomes about them--making sure they're fed, dressed and ready to go; signing permission slips that "slipped past" me the night before in the midst of the afternoon and evening minivan-patrol (which entails four hours every weeknight driving carpools of kids to various theater, choir, musical instrument practice), and listening to them tell me about their upcoming days. (Granted, there's that whole getting-myself-ready-to-put-a-full-day-in-the-office-by-8:00 a.m. I have to do as well, but at this stage in the game, I can do all that in 10 minutes flat.  Brush hair, brush teeth, apply mascara and lipstick, throw on dress, and I am out the door. OK, it may take twenty minutes if I am going for a good-hair day and decide to pull out the straightener.) 

So I know if I want to get the "Big Rocks" in, as they say, I have put them in jar first thing in the morning. So each night, before I got to bed, which admittedly is early--usually around 9:30 or 10 p.m.--I always make a list of things I absolutely need to get done by 7 a.m. so that no matter what happens during the following day I have already done what it is that I love to do, want to do, and genuinely fills me up as a human being. Moreover, if I do it before 7 a.m., nothing--no hijacked day, no long meeting, no traffic jam--will be an excuse for why I didn't get these things done.

So to answer the question I am most asked: How do you get all that reading and writing done? I have a simple answer: I wake up in the middle of the night to do it. Actually, it's more like 4:30 a.m., sometimes 4:45 a.m. I have an alarm, but I often don't need to set it. My body is well trained and wakes up a few minutes before. 

So here are the 5 Things I Do Before I Go to My Day Job:

1. Exercise.

4:30 a.m. The first thing I do, like a good Irish girl, is to put the kettle on. Granted it's to boil water for fresh pressed coffee, not tea, but I used the kettle for a very good reason. While the water is boiling, I have fifteen minutes to do some mat work. I do about 100 Pilates sit-ups, leg lifts, push-ups, and planks, and then stretch. By the time the kettle whistles, I am done, and I feel totally awake and energized. (Note: That's not all the exercise I do. I will walk throughout the day, and try to reach 10,000 steps as well. Sometimes that means a walk before or after dinner too.)

2. Read a classic.

4:45 a.m. I pour myself a cup of fresh-pressed coffee, peel a grapefruit, and bring it over to the kitchen table where the book I am reading is already opened to the page that I left off on the day before. Right now I am completely immersed in War and Peace.  It may be two-hundred years old, but it's still spot-on about the human condition. I actually pop up out of bed each morning excited to find out what is in store for all my favorite Russian aristocrats. (Listen to a recent podcast discussion of the book, which I participated in, here.)

3. Read a contemporary book.

5:30 a.m. I move my bookmark to the page I left off on War and Peace, and move on to a contemporary book. I read no less than three contemporary books at any given time. (This week I am reading Patti Smith's M Train, Charlie Duhigg's The Power of Habit, and Matt Haig's Reason to Stay Alive. I alternate each book each day, and then pick one to carry one in my purse if I need a cerebral "hit" while waiting in carpool, standing in line somewhere, or waiting for dinner to cook.)

4. Write.

5:50 a.m. It's time to start writing. I can write 3-5 pages in about a half hour, and so that's what I try to do each day. I sit at my computer and write without any goal or agenda until 6:00 a.m. The first ten minutes is not always great. In fact, sometimes I know I am just "stretching" and have to delete almost everything I wrote, but sometimes I don't. I usually get a good flow going and I try to wrap up at 6:30 a.m., so I have something left in the tank for the next day. (A helpful hip from Papa himself.)

5. Get social.

6:30 a.m.  After I quickly drive my daughter to the Metro bus stop (it takes 2 minutes), I come back and I post a photograph or a quote from the books I am reading to Instagram and hashtag the hell out of them. I do this for two reasons: 1) Hashtags help me quickly explain to my audience why I chose the said quote or picture and 2) It helps my potential audience find me. (So far, it's been working). I spend about 15 minutes going through my social media pages and posts, respond, engage, and repost. (Like it or not, this the work of the modern-day writer...I just happen to love it). I try to be off social media and my phone by the time my son wakes up at 7:00 a.m. Because once he's up, I'm all his and we're in "get ready to get the heck out of the house by 7:30 mode."

Now, I know waking early is not for everyone. There are plenty of night owls out there that find their optimum time is after the kids go to bed (which works too, I know). But, for me,  I am always far too drained by the end of the work day to do anything more than nod occasionally in acknowledgment from across the dinner table as my kids speak. I know there are so many of us out there in the same boat.  So many of us spend our days working hard for everyone else. And it's hard to find a minute for ourselves. But, we must. YOU HEAR ME: WE MUST. If we don't do it now, then when? There is never going to be a perfect time to read, to write, to exercise, or do any of the things that matter to you and that fill you up as a human being. There will always be something. So if there is something you want to do, and feel like you have "no time" to do it, my humble suggestion is this:  

Find the time.

Make the time.

Today.

Then guard it with your life.

Become a fierce defender of your precious time. It is all that you have. There is no shame in doing what you love. There is no shame in doing the work that fills up your tank. Honor it. Love it. And for god-sake just do it. 

 

 

 

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Lego by Lego: 12 Things Building the Death Star Taught My Son (Umm, Me) About Writing…Life

SAMSUNG CSCSomething awesome happened in our house last night. It was a moment 4 years in the making. Half of my son’s life, as he likes to point out.  An hour after dinner, he rushed upstairs from the basement with a huge grin and wide eyes and exclaimed: “I did it! I did it! I have one more piece and I want you all to come downstairs to see it! Bring your camera, Mom!” Of course, we all knew what he was talking about, and of course I was going to bring my camera. As I say to my kids on an hourly basis. Bring my camera? Is the pope Catholic? Now I have to admit I am one of those moms who is all sorts of proud. Every day. It doesn’t take much. I have to admit it, I am easily impressed. I hear myself sometimes, and I even cringe. My daughter has to tell me to shut up on an hourly basis, lest I make a fool out of myself or her.  But seriously, did you know how easy it was for you to walk? I say to her, one afternoon while trying to convince her of her own amazing-ness. You were only 10 months old. 10 months! You just got up and walked. Cue teen eye roll and exasperated exit out of a room. We also have an embarrassing video of me during my son’s first bike ride. While my son is cruising around the cul-de-sac on his two-wheeler, I am heard off-camera blabbing to my neighbors what a preternatural genius he is—He potty trained himself at eighteen months old, you know. He’s gifted. Truly.

I am that mother. As Jimmy Fallon and my teen say so perfectly: Ew.

But, last night was different and today’s blag (Blog-brag--wait is that a thing? My daughter says that it’s decidedly not a thing) is different. Somehow the pride I feel inside is completely different. There was something sort of monumental that happened and I couldn’t put my finger on it in the moment, but then as I sat and watched him arrange all of his Lego men on the newly built Death Star, the 3,803 piece Lego set that he had just completed on his own, something hit me. My 8 year-old figured this proverbial s@#t out before I did. He figured out life already.  It took me entire lifetime. Yes, it took twenty-nine (ahem, give or take a few) years to figure out what he did at the ripe old age of 8.

Here’s the 12 things I Learned Watching My Eight Year Old Build the Death Star:

1. If you love something enough, it’s worth the wait.  He was not much more than 4 years old when he saw the Death Star Lego kit in either a Lego Magazine or catalog and asked Santa for it. There was a discussion, I vaguely recall, about managing one’s expectations and a reminder that Santa was going to be busy bringing food to starving children, and he wasn’t going to have space or money to bring a 4 year old a 450 dollar Lego kit. (Yes, I did my best impression of good Irish Catholic mother on that one…two parts guilt and one part reality check). He asked for a vacuum cleaner instead. (Really.) But, the next year, he asked again, and again we said something like, Probably not going to happen, kid. But, we made a deal. His dad and I said: “You earn and save the money for at least half, we’ll think about getting it for you for Birthday/Christmas one year.”  That was at five years old.  And I hate to admit this: At the time I never thought I’d see the day. Not because I didn’t think he could do it, but because he had a lot fleeting obsessions that came and went. Once, for example, he asked for a giant RV with a swimming pool in it. Another time, a helicopter. A real, life-sized helicopter.  So it’s not like he had a good track record for asking for gifts we could actually afford to give him--or even existed. And then there was the obvious:  Where was a 5-year old kid going to get that type of money? Turns out—birthdays, Christmases, First Communions, and piggy banks can add up. As the possibility grew closer that he would have enough money, we added a stipulation—if you have enough money to pay for it, and the taxes and give to charity, you can buy it.  He agreed to the terms. All the while, I was thinking: This is never, ever going happen. (Nice. Way to believe, Mom!) But, sure enough on May 5th   2014, he pulled out his wallet. Not only did he have the 450 bucks, plus tax saved, he had money for charity. Game on.  He didn’t let a silly thing like money get in the way of what he wanted. He didn’t give up and say: “That will never happen. I can never save that much.” It’s true, if you want anything badly enough you’ll find a way. And he did.

 

2. You need a lot of people around you rooting for you. The following Saturday, the entire family piled into the minivan and we were headed to the Lego Store.  He knew this was a big moment. He recognized it, even if we didn’t. He wanted all of us to be there to see him pull out his own Star Wars wallet and celebrate his long-awaited and hard-fought victory to finally get what he wanted. He knew instinctively that some things in life are better when shared with those you love. And it’s OK to celebrate yourself. It’s OK to say: You know what? This is a big moment for me. So often in life we are told not to feel too much. Not to get too excited. To lower our expectations. Not make such a fuss. But, here’s the thing:  Most of our lives are pretty mundane. We don’t celebrate enough. And some of us have been conditioned not to share good news lest we be perceived as a showoffsky or a braggart. We hide our successes in the shadows and mistakenly call our shame over our successes humility. We don’t need to be embarrassed when we’re happy, proud, or excited. These moments should be celebrated and shared—especially with those you love. (And other people are handy to have around to shoulder the weight of load—literally—the box weighed more than him.)

3. It can be overwhelming at first. So take it Lego by Lego. As soon as he got home, he wanted to tear open the box and get started. When he opened the box several individual boxes were stacked in it along with a 193 page instruction manual. Yes, he knew building a Death Star wouldn’t be easy, but seeing the work in front of him was a different story. The manual was half his body length, and almost two-inches thick. Everything about the project before him seemed huge—no, gargantuan. I looked at him on the floor next to the giant box and thought: This is too much. How on earth is he going to do this? I warned him to be patient. And he looked at me like I just fell off the Stupid Truck.  Well, um, duh. (He didn’t say that. He’s too polite. But he didn’t have to).  “I know, Mom. I’ll just take it Lego by Lego. One bag at time. One box at a time. One page at a time.” One page at a time. Seriously, that’s what he said to me. Add to the Why the hell didn’t I think of that? file.

4. Follow directions. Greats have gone before you, and paved the way. Don’t ignore their advice or instruction. They are there to help you. Not only was he going to take it one page at time, but he was going to review all the directions carefully. He carefully studied the manual. Yes, he’d been building for years and knew his stuff, but that was no substitute for following the rules set down before him. He knew that he needed the guidance.  He couldn’t get too cocky. The guidelines were there to help him, not hurt him. It was OK to follow other’s advice and instructions. In fact, that’s what makes the greats so great. They read others. They study. They take in everything they can.

5. You’re going to mess up. Fail. Have to start over. It’s gonna suck. But, if you want to see this through you have to do the work. Stick to it and remain calm. Two nights into the big build, he came running up the stairs—tears were in his eyes. His arms were literally over his head in surrender. “I can’t do it, Mom! I can’t! I pressed in a piece and the whole thing collapsed! It collapsed!” He sobbed. It was terrible. Over 15 hours of work had already gone into the build, and he was looking at having to start over. Ah, the brutal feeling of failure and defeat. I walked him back downstairs. The site looked grim. Gray and black pieces were spread out all over the carpet. I rubbed his back and said. “You did it! You failed!” He looked at me like I was nuts. I didn’t back down, “Don’t you know? All the greats have to fail at least once, if not a thousand times, before they make something great. You’re one failure closer to making magic happen! The only way to figure out what you did wrong or what works is to fail. You did it!” I sat with him and he sniffled through the first few snaps of Lego bricks, and before he knew it he figured out a way to get the pieces back together. He found a structural problem at the center of the Death Star. He needed to fix it otherwise it would keep collapsing. If he didn’t fix it now, it would have happened much later, with much more disastrous consequences, and lots of more wasted hours. He was, in the end, grateful for the fail. For sticking to it. For learning from his mistakes. It happened again a few times. But, he never came up from the basement crying again. He knew he had it in him to fix it, and he knew he was one step closer to being a Master Builder with each successive failure and lesson learned. He also learned it’s not the failures that make or break you; rather it’s how you handle the failures, learn from them, and move on.

6. Sometimes you need a little help from your friends. Asking for help is not a weakness. It takes great courage and strength to know you can’t do something on your own. At first he was upset that he needed me. He said, “I can do it.” But, then something softened as I walked around the room picking up Legos. He realized that it was OK to ask for help. It wasn’t a sign of weakness. It was a sign of courage. Sometimes two brains are better than one. It’s absolutely essential to have someone else to bounce ideas off of, or sometimes, simply get another perspective. It’s important to have someone who you can share your angst or frustrations with. It’s OK to seek out someone who will understand. Every great artist needs a circle of support. They need critics, too, but constructive ones who will hold them accountable and push them to be better. It doesn’t take away from your own accomplishment to have others help you along the way. It adds to it.

7. Once you find your groove, something awesome happens. There are few things more consuming or pleasurable than getting lost in one’s own work or craft. You know you truly love something or are doing what you’re meant to do when the hours fly by and it feels like only a minute has passed. This is a thrill few people get to experience. If you find it, ride the wave and hold on tight.  There is nothing more satisfying in life doing what it is that you love or feel like you were born to do. And when find that something, never, ever let it go. It will sustain you always.

8. It’s OK to be by yourself—with no friends, no music playing, no television on, and simply work. Some of your best times in life will be by yourself and that’s OK. 

9. It’s OK to get lost in your work, but even though you love what you do, and want to do it day and night, responsibilities and stuff that you don’t want to do still have to get done. Not long into his building experience, Colm came down with an acute case of Deathstaritis. Symptoms included headache, stomach ache, involuntary retching, knee aches, earache, elbow pain. He was in so much distress he was unable to attend school. He just couldn’t possibly make it.  We all knew what he was up to. The Death Star awaited in the basement—and school and all that nonsense was getting in the way. We had to have a nice little reminder over breakfast, that even when you find the thing that you want to do all the time, all the pesky “have-to-dos” in life still need your attention. Like school. Basic hygiene. Sleep. Eating. And when you get older—paying the bills. Yes, sometimes you need to keep your day job while you pursue what you love to do. You can’t let your love-to-dos get in the way of your have-to-dos, and someday if you’re lucky and work hard enough, the love-to-dos and have-to-dos overlap. But, until then, stay the course and don’t lose sight of your responsibilities or all the people in your life. Your work is good and fun and meaningful, but it is not and cannot be everything.

10. You have to protect your craft, your work. People will want to destroy it. Taint it. Take it away from you. Don’t let them.  A couple of things happened that he wasn’t expecting along the way. A few people tried to crap on his dream. It was bound to happen. An adult with a “It must be nice to have parents who spoil you” or "Lucky kid! Getting whatever he wants!”  He was gracious—and didn’t say anything, even though he knew he paid for it with his own money and worked hard, and wasn’t just some spoiled kid who got whatever he asked for. And then there were competitive kids in school: “Oh, I built one of those. It was nothing.”  There are always going to be competitive, Captain Buzzkills in life who want to shit on what you do and make you feel badly about something you’ve accomplished or achieved because they haven’t been able do it, or because they don’t like the idea of anyone else in the world being happy. They are everywhere. And they suck. Literally. They suck the joy out of so much, but mostly their own lives. Don’t let them suck the joy out of yours. When it came time for his sister’s graduation party and we knew lots of little ones were going to be running around the basement, I suggested we move it and keep it safe. He was grateful for that. I knew he would be devastated if someone even accidentally kicked it or destroyed it. It meant too much to him.  He hid it and we talked about the importance of protecting your “Stuff”—not just your stuff, stuff. But, all of your “stuff.” The things that matter most to you are the things that are most vulnerable. And things that took a lifetime of hard work that can be destroyed in a moment, because of another’s thoughtlessness or even, sadly, maligned intentions. So take care.

11. Enjoy the thrill of completion. Celebrate your accomplishments whenever you can and embrace the moment of success. There is no better feeling in the world when you finally complete something that you've worked hard to achieve. We have graduations, birthdays, anniversaries to mark momentous occasions.  When we finish a labor of love it is deserving of a celebration—now I am not talking ponies, jump houses, and all that ridiculous-ness, I mean a simple honest to goodness moment where you can sit back and look at what you’ve done and revel for a minute. Call your parents down to the basement. Shout “I did it!” And take a picture. You won’t be sad that you did.  That feeling, that moment of celebration is the seed for another great accomplishment waiting around the corner. It will sustain you and drive you again and again.

12. Get out there and play with your creation. Have fun. Battle away. It’s all yours.

 

Calling All Angels

Angel  

Train's popular song "Calling On Angels" begins with a universal cry for help:

"I need a sign to let me know you're here... 

...I need to know things are gonna look up"

It's no wonder that the song struck a chord with so many. You don't have to be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, spiritual, or religious to cry out for help in the darkness for someone to help you in your moment of need or feel the need to have someone assuage your worries, you just have to be human.

And we've all been there. (I was there this morning. And last night. And five minutes ago...). Sometimes I don't know who or what I am talking to when I cry out into the darkness,  but I do it anyway. "Just help me get through the next five minutes."

"Help me get through this tough conversation."

"Help me get through this job."

"Help me get through to my daughter."

"Help me be a better mother. Friend. Writer. Wife. Daughter."

"Help me be better."

"Help."

And though I often cry out into the ether, more often than not, I actually call on my arsenal of angels here on earth, too. My husband. My parents. My sisters. My best friends. My neighbors. Other parents. And I know I am not the only one. What's fascinating to me is that when I ask people who their angels are (not "if" they have them or not, which seems to go without saying), no one needs more than a second to reply:

My mom.

My sister.  My husband.

My grandmother.

My best friend.

My dog.

Many, however, will have difficulty choosing just one. (I know I couldn't). They could sit and talk with me for hours about just how many of these angels they've had in their lives, or how one in particular changed the entire trajectory of their life. Now mind you, many will tell me their angels are still alive and well. Others will say, "My grandmother passed away, but I know she is with me and watching over me."  The term angel simply means that someone touched them profoundly, deeply, and transformed them in some way. And what I find fascinating  is what they don't call the people who they seem somehow indebted to.

Oh that daughter of mine, she is my mentor.  

Oh that husband of mine, he's my guide.

Oh that BFF, she's my hero. 

That EMT was my Savior.

No, the word they use to sum up someone who saved their life or steered them back on course during a difficult struggle or stood by them during moments of despair or have just been a steadfast presence in their life is quite simply: An angel.

And let's face it, we all have them. There isn't one person on the planet who doesn't have someone whose got their back or had their back at some point. (Whether we choose to acknowledge it is up to us, not the angel(s).) None of us is alone or gets where we are in life without them. In the beginning, the angels are our parents. Our mothers, in particular, who carried us in their wombs and who brought us into the world,  and the ones who fed us, and cared for us and made sure we slept, ate, and were changed. These seemingly simple acts ensured our survival,  for that alone we owe a lifetime of gratitude, despite whatever transpired between that birth and death. Then there are all the people, the siblings, the grandparents, the cousins, the teachers, the playmates, the coaches, the infinite number of people who affected us in someway on our journeys to adulthood. I think of my friend P.J. in kindergarten. I still remember her approaching me in the mock mini-kitchenette of Mrs. Roach's classroom and suddenly feeling all the anxiety and fear of starting a new school and being away from my mother for the first time in my life dissipate with her friendly smile. Her twin boys are about the same age now that P.J. and I were when we first met and I have to say, whenever I see pictures of her boys and see their smiles, which are all hers, I can't help but feel gratitude for their mother's friendship. I think of my third grade teacher (also my Kindergarten teacher), Mrs. Roach, and how she read my essay aloud to the class and cracked up laughing while she did it and said, as she handed me the paper back, "Good job." It is because of that angel, I kept writing. And then there are all angels that came into and out of my life--far too soon--and left holes and giant, full-body-not-just-heart-aches, but who I never felt far away from, even when they were gone. Somehow they lived inside me anyway. Their voices guiding me long after they were gone from this earth. And I think of all the ones who came in not-so-benign forms. The ones that yelled, cajoled, and forced me into uncomfortable spots, who pushed me, and made me tougher, stronger, more resilient--not because they were mean, but because they loved me and knew what was best for me when I was too far in the dark to find my way out without them.  I think of all the second chance angels, who despite my worst days, my lowest lows, opened their arms and let me back in. Gave me a second shot. Forgave me. Loved me. There are merciful angels who I never got their names, but they pulled me out of smashed cars, let me hitch rides, wrapped my wounds in ERs, sewed me up in ORs, resuscitated me in ambulances, held my hand in lonely waiting rooms. Sometimes their actions were as small as letting me and my wailing baby cut in line at the grocery store so I could get home to feed him. Sometimes their actions were as monumental as driving all night to get me in my darkest hour. Sometimes they were anonymous. The bearers of  500 singles in an unmarked envelope left at my door so that I could pay my rent and avoid eviction. The maker of a sandwich left at my doorstep when I was pregnant and hungry and had no money for food. Sometimes they were all but invisible--the missed traffic light, a moment's hesitation, that helped me avoid a wreck. Sometimes they were the wreck, the lesson learned. Slow down. Pay attention. Be better.

And maybe that's why I wrote Proof of Heaven, and then Proof of Angels. Maybe, I have always known that I would be nothing without them, and I could spend my whole life saying thank you, thank you, thank you to all of them,these angels, and it would never be enough.  No book would be enough. No blog post would be enough. And in the end maybe that's the point. Or maybe it's so I take a moment every day to not only say thank you to an angel, but to be an angel to someone else as well.

And so I ask who are your angels? And what kind of angel are you?

Comment below. I will pick a winner at random next week to receive a free copy of my next novel: Proof of Angels.