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!

 

 

 

3 Steps to Having Everything: Eat S@#t. Fall in Love. Do the Work.

Besides being a writer, a blogger, and mom, I have a day job too. It just so happens that I work in higher education at a Jesuit University. Though I work mainly in an administrative role at a Center for Innovation, I get to teach storytelling and Design Thinking. (BTW, Design Thinking is simply another way of saying, I teach an approach to problem solving, critical thinking, and empathizing with others). Design Thinking helps creatives be creative, and it helps people who don't think they're creative access their demiurgic selves through a deliberate process. It helps one empathize, ideate, create, communicate, and finally, test out new ideas and processes. Simply put, I get to spend my days helping others "figure stuff out." I work with students, faculty, staff, corporate clients, startups, and all sorts of neat people who are bursting with passion and enthusiasm, but happen to be wrestling with defining, containing, or expressing their big ideas. 

It's, in a word, awesome. At least it's awesome, when I get to do what it is I love to do. 

Granted we all have to eat the proverbial "shit sandwich" that Buddhists (and now Elizabeth Gilbert) so wisely speak of.  Yes, we all know the shit-sandwich well. These are the tasks that one must bear down, bite through, and get over with before getting to the good stuff. No birth comes without the sweaty, horrendous, bloody final push.  No adorable baby comes without dirty diapers. No work of art comes without cleaning brushes. No decision gets made without the dreaded committee meeting.  No marathons get run without training on hills. You get the picture.

We all have to do things we don't like.  Me? What are the shit sandwiches I have to chew on? The usual. (I'm pretty sure no one likes to do them.) Emailing. Processing paperwork and invoices. Navigating office politics. Meetings. (And let's not forget the added double-decker shit sandwich that I as a women get to eat.) Yes, like most women, on daily basis we all must contend with (inside and outside of our institutions) big egos, misogyny, the random sexist comment, and still for many of us, unequal pay, and higher work expectations. And like most women, I have to bear down and bite through all the b.s. every day and serve it up with a smile. YUM! More please!  Lest I be perceived as ungrateful, angry, "difficult," or the dreaded "B" word. 

So what makes eating the shit sandwich possible? Bearable? 

The answer is simple: I am in love.

What? How did we go from eating shit to falling love? 

Let me explain. One of the perks of working at a Jesuit college is everyone is drunk on what I lovingly refer to as Je-ju (Jesuit Juice.) Students, faculty, and staff are well-versed in all sorts of mindful and meaningful quotes and practices that promote the examined life. One of my favorite quotes was just read aloud during a student award ceremony. The quote by Father Pedro Arrupe says, quite beautifully, 

What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.
- Pedro Arrupe, S.J.

The answer is I am in love with learning. I am in love with curiosity. I am in love with art. I am in love with creativity. I am in love with students, their passion, their curiosity, their eagerness to learn too. I am in love with the learners mindset. I am in love with books. I am in love with writing. I am in love with others' minds, which I learn so much from. I am in love with photography. I am in love with life. I race out of bed each morning to read my favorite books, write my 3-5 pages, connect with the friends who I love on social media. I spend my evenings in love with my kids, with my husband, and my home. I am amazed daily by the incredible students I meet (like my intern Ese, who just won the Student Employee of the Year), the trees outside that are blooming, the poetry I read each day, the food I get to eat and the coffee I drink. I spend each night before I close my eyes counting my blessings--thinking of all the people, place, books, ideas and moments I was able to experience during the day. 

By knowing what I love, and spending time with the things love, I have, as Arrupe so brilliantly pointed out, decided everything. I have decided what is important, what matters, and what I will fill up the days of my life with, what I won't, and what I will put up with (the shit sandwiches, if you will). I am lucky that I have more love than shit in my life. But, I'd venture to say it is a bit more than luck. It takes work--hard work--to fill yourself up with good things and things you're in love with. It means making some hard decisions. It means putting down the phone at 9 p.m. and going to bed. It means getting up early. It means attending the meetings and completing the paperwork. It means showing up, every day. It means being a professional. 

I often wonder, when I hear people complain about their lives, why don't they just don't fall in love. Why don't they do what they love? "I don't have the time," they say. "I can't," they say. And I understand. I was like them once. I too was once afraid to admit what I loved. It's a scary thing. It takes courage to go after the life you love. It takes strength and fortitude to bite down on the shit sandwich, in order to get to the good parts. It takes dedication. It takes work. 

But, it's worth it. 

Because, it's your life, we're are talking about. YOUR LIFE. Let me repeat: YOUR LIFE. If your life is is more shit than love, then what are you doing with your day? How can you change it? Or better yet, ask yourself before you do anything: Do I love this? Or, do I love (x,y,  or z enough) to eat this shit sandwich and do the necessary work?

If the answer is no, then get out there and find out what you love: It will decide everything.

Everything.

 

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. 

 

 

 

6 Things that Gretchen Rubin's book Better Than Before Taught Me About Myself and About Making Good Habits That Last

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I've been reading a bunch of life-changing books lately. (Why does that sound so familiar? Maybe because my life seems to change every time I read? Or maybe because just last week I wrote a blog about the books I was reading that were currently blowing my mind.)

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Choose the Good: Taking Back Our Lives One Choice at a Time

Choose the Good: Taking Back Our Lives One Choice at a Time

So I am trying to make good choices. In my last blog, I talked about my family's mission to "choose the good" in 2016. I know, that seems like kind of an obvious thing to choose, but really, there's more to it.

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Proof of Angels: You

Dear Readers, Well, it's finally time.

The book I can't shut up about (and I am sure you're sick of hearing about), Proof of Angels, is finally seeing the light of day. On November 4, 2014--exactly three years from the release of my first novel Proof of Heaven--Proof of Angels will finally be out there in the world.

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How to Get Your Book Published in 10 Exceedingly Difficult and Painful Steps

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At least once a week I get asked one of these three questions (if not all three): How did you get published?  

When did you find the time to write?

Can you help me/my wife/brother/cousin/aunt/niece/etc., get published? 

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Reading. Ah. Yes. That moment when you open the book find your place on the page and fall right into the world you left off on before sleep stole it you from you, your lunch break ended, or your kids called up from the basement moaning in hunger. 

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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.

 

Proof of Angels: The Story Behind the Story

angelspicI saw this image for the first time in an art book and became mesmerized with those little thinking angels who sat at the bottom of the larger Raphael painting. I loved the image so much, I ordered a print and hung it my college dorm room. (I know what you’re thinking: How many college kids have angels hanging on their walls? If it makes me sound any less lame, I hung it just above my posters of Bono and U2). I was totally captivated by these winged creatures—not just Raphael’s treatment of them, but the notion of angels themselves. Though I was raised a Catholic and we prayed to angels as children (“Angel of God, my Guardian dear…”) and I had seen angel pictures and statues in abundance in my childhood home—especially around Christmas—I really had no idea what these things were. I always thought that when people died they became “angels” who then watched over us here on earth. I later learned from a supposed expert on angels (yes, there are people who claim such expertise, I discovered, to my surprise as well) that the term angels suggests that they are not nor have they ever been earthlings—rather they are thought to be messengers from heaven. They also don’t always appear with wings. They can be radiant light, breath, and only sometimes appear with wings.  They also only take on human form when necessary.  (Duh! Explains Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life then!) According to this expert, the “laws of angels” makes it impossible for angels to interfere with human destiny unless instructed to do so (just like Clarence!). Makes sense (if this sort of thing makes sense to you to begin with). Angels are assigned various tasks, too, such as fighting evil, protecting humanity, safeguarding and watching over children, inspiring beauty, art, and poetry, healing and even helping humans crossover to heaven. Almost every faith has angels—Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jews and Muslims all do. And recent surveys have shown that over 80 percent of Americans believe in some form of angels. Angels like Raphael the Archangel are mentioned in the Jewish Torah (Deuteronomy), in the Koran, and in the many texts of the Christian Bible.  According to some angel experts—each of us are assigned two—and both guide us from life to death and only interfere when it is “not our time” according to God’s plan. Good to know all that fuss “To leave space for your Guardian Angel” when I was a kid in church was not for naught.

Good to know, sure, but in the end, to be honest, I just thought the poster was pretty. Eventually, like all of my college day’s fleeting passions (boyfriends included), the poster didn’t last long. I went on with life. And soon my nineties faddish obsession with angels disappeared along with my grungy plaid shirts, Birkenstocks, and bottles of CK I. (Thank God.)

Fast forward 20 years:  I am no longer a college freshman. My novel Proof of Heaven is released and I am visiting book clubs and attending signings. Everywhere I go (it’s really not many places but from St. Louis to Connecticut to D.C. and places in between) the people who were kind enough to read my book wanted me to write a sequel to Proof of Heaven. The only problem is: I don’t want to write a sequel. I have no intention of doing so. Nevertheless, readers want me to tell them what happened to Colm. But, I don’t want to tell anyone anything. That wasn’t my goal. My goal was for people to decide for themselves where Colm went (or didn’t go). I wanted people to go on a journey with him and come out the other side a little closer to what they believed—not what I believed.

Then one night while I was at a book club sipping wine and laughing with a bunch of women, a reader turns to me and says, “You should write about Sean. I want to know what happens to him. You should follow up with all the characters.” As most writers will tell you, after writing, rewriting, editing and proofing,  and then talking about the same characters for years—you’re over it. You want to move on explore other stories. I said, “Thank you for the suggestion, I’ll definitely keep it in mind,” and moved on to the assorted cheese tray, forgetting about it by the time I shoved the warmed brie in my mouth.

Meanwhile, something was happening to me--to my marriage--to my life. The year leading up the publication of my novel, was to put it mildly, one of the worst years of my life. And let’s just say, I’ve had some doozies along the way. So that is saying something.  And it was made all the more terrible because I didn’t tell anyone how terrible I felt, how miserable, sad, scared, lonely and depressed I was. Everyone around me was telling me: Wow! You’re getting published all of your dreams are finally coming true! You’ll be rich and you can retire on the Riviera! Some others, more passive aggressive types would chime in, Must be nice to have all that time to write and chase your dreams.  I always just smiled and nodded while thinking, Yeah, by “time” do you mean the hours I spend writing when you’re sleeping? (No, I didn’t actually say that. Uncharacteristically, I bit my tongue.) I was having a really, really crappy year. I was working around the clock--at not one, but two jobs--an editor by day in a nonprofit and an underpaid, overworked adjunct professor by morning and night. I was writing, quite literally in the middle of the night, whenever I could sneak away, all the while being a wife, working every day and raising my two kids. I honestly didn’t think life could get any harder, more difficult, or more lonely.

Then the phone rang.

My daughter Brigid’s school had called to tell me that my daughter was paralyzed on her right side. What? You’ve got to be kidding me? She could not move the right side of her body. She was having difficulty inhaling. I thought this is unreal. She was due to go onstage for her first school play that night so I immediately thought: She’s just panicking. She’s fine. She’s suffering from stage fright. She’s going to be just fine. Only she wasn’t fine. After a day and night in and out of the hospital and exam rooms at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital a doctor sat my husband and I down and showed us a film with what appeared to be a ping pong sized mass growing in Brigid’s lung. I was incredulous. I sat in disbelief shaking my head. My husband and I looked at each other: We thought the same thing at the same time.

No. No. No.

We asked the doctor what we should do. When in doubt, get it out. He told us the only way to know what it was to either, operate and remove it or conduct a bronchoscopy to extract and biopsy the “neoplasm growing in her lung.” A euphemism, we would soon discover for, The stuff we have no idea what to call that is growing in your daughter’s lung.

At some point in the days that followed I had I said to my husband, Greg, the doctor is right: When in doubt, get it out. He knew I was referring to the large black mole that was spreading on his arm. He assured me he had it removed once already and the test came back that the mole was benign. I asked him, for me, to go and get it checked. We didn’t need to take any more chances or test fate anymore.

On April first, as if some sort of cosmic April Fool’s joke, Greg received a call from his doctor who explained that the lab that she had sent his skin biopsy a year prior had made an error. It was not benign after all. After a few days, we got another call. Greg had, at the least, stage 2, possibly stage 3, malignant melanoma.  Anyone who has gone through a melanoma diagnosis knows what this means. If it’s stage 2 you’re saved, if it spread beyond the lymph nodes, you may only have months to live.  A couple of years if you’re lucky. We both felt like we’d been punched in the stomach.  Greg needed to have a large section of the skin and tissue on his arm removed. He needed to have sentinel biopsy and lymphs removed. More than anything he need to have the uncertainty and fear of impending death removed. But, that, we could not take that off of him with a scalpel. His own mother had died when he was a child of cancer under similar circumstances. She had her breasts removed, and was told she was cancer free, but the doctors had missed the cancer growing in her lungs and she passed away soon thereafter.  Needless to say, Greg was rightfully overcome by fear and anxiety. There is no way to overstate the black hole he was in.

We scheduled his surgery.

To say the next few days went by in a haze is an understatement. I still had to work. I had edits due for my book. I had kids to feed. I had a husband who very well could die if his cancer was not caught in time.  A daughter who wheezed at night and cried in pain as we tried to rid what was growing in her lung with an antibiotics, antiviral and antifungal meds--for what turned out to not be a bacteria, virus or fungus afterall. I honestly didn’t think life could get any harder. (Though, thanks to ample amounts of literature and the nightly news, I knew that life could always get harder. Life has boundless opportunities within it to get even harder still. So it’s not that I was comparing it to others’ tragedies, it was, for me, as tough as it gets.)

We scheduled my daughter’s bronchoscopy and biopsy, too.  Greg and Brigid were both operated on within weeks of each other. On the day of Brigid’s procedure, we woke at 3 a.m. and dressed in old bridesmaids’ gowns and tiaras and sipped tea while we watched Princess Kate and Prince William marry in Westminster. She told me she would grow up to marry Harry, and I wished for all the world that to be true.

In the days that followed waiting for results from both procedures, I can honestly say I came very near to complete physical and emotional collapse. I had never felt so alone and so terrified in my life. My fate rested completely in the hands of fortune or God or chaos. It made no sense to me whatsoever. If tests came back any other way than negative for disease, I very well was facing a world without half of my family. Honestly, I never said it out loud, but I felt it over and over: I just can’t do this. I am not strong enough to do this. Please take this cup from me. I prayed. I bargained. Give me cancer instead, God. Let me be the one to die. I felt somehow at fault. Blindsided. I had written a novel about a boy who dies and causes his mother immense heartbreak. Was life imitating art? Had I conjured this? Caused this? Was my fixation and anxiety over almost losing my son Colm several years earlier causing me to now pay by losing my daughter and husband? Did the universe act in such away? Could God be so vindictive? I admit it, I thought it. I am not saying it was right or good, but I felt totally responsible and yet totally powerless at the same time.

I couldn’t sleep at night. Nor could Greg. He paced. We didn’t speak to each other. The gulf between was growing deeper and deeper. We learned something monumental about each other that we hadn’t known until true crisis befell us.  When our fear response in our amygdala’s kicked in: He was all flight and I was all fight. He wanted nothing more than to go to our room, close the door, and lay in bed for hours. I wanted nothing more than to face everything and everyone head on. I thought if I made enough phone calls, looked up enough facts on websites, made enough dinners, folded enough laundry, wrote enough words, I would somehow defeat cancer--defeat this black cloud that descended on my family. I thought if I stayed busy--made sure everyone got to where they needed to be, every blogger got their article I was writing to promote my book, everybody I worked for during the day received my assignments on time--then all would be well.

But I was growing resentful and mad. I didn’t understand how or why he was so ready to give up. So ready to accept that the cards had been dealt and this was his fate.

I called my mother.

I remember it like no other memory from that time--as fixed and real--because I know up until I made that call, I was on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

It was in the middle of the day on Saturday and Greg was having an especially horrible time. I didn’t want the kids to see him like this and if I had to be honest, I didn’t want to see him like this. There is a reason, I thought, that some wise person made couples vow their love and marriage even in sickness and health. You don’t know your partner, you don’t know love, you don’t know commitment until the person you love is so ill and so far gone that they are completely unloveable. Unable to face him, unable to face cancer, and all that it might take from us, I packed our kids into our car and headed to the movie theater. (I swear we watched every animated movie we could during the months of March, April, and May of 2011.) I didn’t make it a mile from my house before I felt the wave of anxiety, fear, exhaustion, and sadness overwhelm me. I knew at any moment I was going to cry, scream, or crack in two. I pulled over into a gas station, stepped out the car,  started to fill it up with gas and dialed my my parents’ home number.

“Mom, I need you.”

I felt it completely. I wanted my mom. I was a 35 year old wife and mother of two and I wanted my mommy. I wanted someone to tell me I wasn’t alone. I wanted someone to tell me I could handle this. I wanted someone to tell me this would all work out, that in a few years it would be nothing more than a memory.  I needed her to remind me of my wedding vows--sickness and health. I needed her to tell me what I knew already--that I needed to stick by my husband, that I needed to give him hope, even if he didn’t have any. Even if I, a skeptical cynic, didn’t think he had much reason to hope.

I can’t remember any specific words she said. All I remember is my hands holding the gas pump, clutching it for dear life. As if that nozzle filling up my tank as the only thing holding me to the earth. I remember crying. I can’t do this all alone. Help me. I remember hearing her voice and feeling, no matter what the words, that I wasn’t alone. I do recall, vaguely, her reassurances that I was doing the right thing by taking the kids out of the house, taking care of myself. I remember her telling me she loved me. It felt as if the arms of an angel wrapped itself around me and calmed me instantly. Just minutes before I was so desperate so alone, and then suddenly, because of her, I knew I had the strength to carry on.

There would be many more days like that. And eventually Brigid’s neoplasm disappeared as mysteriously as it arrived, and Greg’s cancer was completely removed and he only has to go in for check-ups every six-months now. (It will always be, for me, one of those mysterious miracles. If Brigid had not gotten ill, we would have never noticed Greg’s arm; we would have never pushed to have it taken it out. Brigid in the end was fine, and so was Greg.)  In the meantime, my book hit the bookshelves and as happy I was to celebrate my lifelong dream come true, I have to admit, it was somewhat of a letdown. (Don’t get me wrong, I know how incredibly blessed and lucky I was  and am and I know ten years earlier I would have given a limb if it meant I would be published.) But, in my, admittedly CRAZY mind, I felt like I was an epic failure. I had imagined the moment of my debut as something so much more than it was. There was no starred Kirkus review. (I had some lovely reviews, I will admit that). I had No Debut Author feature story in Oprah Magazine. No review in the New York Times. No worldwide book tour, film rights, foreign rights packages. Oprah didn’t call me personally to tell me how awesome I am.  Go figure. It sold decently, but it was to me, not enough. It didn’t soar on the NYT best seller list. I know all of these are just fantasies of every budding writer. These are things every naive writer thinks is going to happen once they get that elusive pub deal. Instead the reality of publishing was surprisingly less dazzling. And I felt like a fool schlepping it on blogs and my Facebook fan pages. In a world that measures success by how many Twitter followers or Facebook Fans you have and how much money you’ve earned, I was coming up slightly smaller than a centimeter. I was nothing. A nobody. My book a pretty dust collector on my shelf. I lived my entire adult love struggling to fit writing into my 2 kid-2 job life and I was looking for a break, something, anything to make my--no, my family’s life--easier and I failed them. In fact I had made their life harder. When I should have been taking care of my husband and daughter and devoting all my time to them, I was working and writing and editing. And for what, I thought? Nothing special. Some bloggers and Amazon reviewers said nasty things, and I felt like calling them and personally chewing them out. Do they have any idea how hard I worked? Do they have any idea how much of my heart, soul, and life I put in that work? I have to admit it was crushing. Soul crushing. The entire year leading up to the publication of Proof of Heaven and the months following were rough. There is no way to pussy foot around that fact. We were overwhelmed with medical bills and debt. And then I was laid off. Perfect. Just perfect. Now I had no income. Then to add salt on the wound, another book with the same name Proof of Heaven by Dr. Alexander was soaring on the best seller charts. Granted his was a true story account of his near-death experience, but I still couldn’t help but feel slighted. By whom? What? I had no idea. I know the universe owes me nothing. I know that, but still, every time I got an email or Facebook comment from someone telling me they loved my book, only to realize they were talking about another Proof of Heaven, I very well wanted to scream.

But, every single time I was about to lose it, crack, come undone, call it whatever you want, something miraculous would happen. Over and over and over again, it happened. An e-mail would appear in my inbox. I would open it and it would be from someone who happened to read my book--usually by mistake. The writer of the said email would explain how they were looking for Dr. Eban Alexander’s book and brought home my book by accident. Nevertheless, they stuck to it and discovered that they didn’t hate it. (Thanks!) In fact many wrote to me to tell me how their book affected them, changed them, and in some ways comforted them after the loss of a loved one. I was touched. Overwhelmed. But, more than that, I took these notes as some sort of sign of encouragement that I needed to keep writing. Despite however badly I thought I had failed or let myself or my family down, I needed to keep writing. It happened more times than I could count. I would be frustrated and lonely and feeling like a complete loser, and someone would stop me in my kids’ school parking lot and tell me they read my book. It was like they were angels, actual messengers who knew how to reach out and touch me at the exact moment I needed them most. Many of these angels had a singular message in common, all them wrote to tell me that they had lost someone close to them, usually a child, and in a couple of instances more than one child, and many faced unspeakably difficult challenges along the way, and all of them had a deep and profound sense that they were not alone. They felt compelled to tell me that like the characters in my book, felt that someone was with them every day and watching over them, and that there was hope that they would see their loved one again. Some admitted that they had their doubts, but more so than not, readers felt strongly that those who had gone before them were watching over them and loving them. They had all the proof of heaven and angels that they needed.

And so I started writing Proof of Angels--a very different book than the one you have now in your hands. For months I was having visions of a woman Birdie who came to me in dreams--she was the first thing I thought of when I woke up in the morning and the last the person I saw when I fell asleep. I felt like I was having long conversations with an old friend.  And I realized something, I not only understood Birdie, I just may be bit like her.  I knew what it was like to have a vision of what your life would be like and then for reasons beyond your control things just didn’t work out the way you hoped. So you get a little bitter. A little hard. Not just hard on yourself but hard on others for no other reason than life was hard on you. I knew what it was like to be a single mom, a hard worker, and have this calling to create and make things beautiful--make art. I also got my character Claire who was completely unprepared and torn by her modern life--juggling a career, her children and husband--and feeling completely overwhelmed by the crushing daily responsibilities.

I thought I wrote my best work. I was so proud. So full of myself. So certain. This is it. This is the book. Three months after pushing send to my editor, I received a call from my agent. The news was grim. The book was unreadable. Not good. Nothing like they had hoped or expected. One reader stopped reading just a couple of chapters in. I tried to remain calm. I took the criticism for what it was: criticism. Meant to make me better. Meant to push me further. I had two options: Just give up the book or rewrite a new one from scratch. Instinct told me to do the former, but I knew not to give into that self-destructive urge. I knew I needed to keep at it. Fortunately, for me, my kids and Greg were at my parents’ house for the week. I could cry at night without having my kids hear me. I could process all the range of emotions I felt. I felt like a giant failure. A huge loser. I created characters that had become like family to me and others didn’t like them. It’s nothing personal, but it is totally personal. It was personal to me. But, it was also an opportunity. A second chance. My editor was giving me a second chance. Not many people get them. She owed me nothing. And yet she believed in me and I didn’t want to let her down. I didn’t want to let my family down. Myself down.

My mind circled back that week to all the people I had talked to over the past three years since publication--all of the stories of angels people shared with me and all the requests to find out more about the characters that lived and breathed inside Proof of Heaven.  To my editor, it seemed simple really: Tell what happened to all of them through Sean. After a couple of false starts, I pitched the idea of the book PROOF OF ANGELS to my agent and editor.  I wanted a book about second chances. About failure and forgiveness. About doubt and faith, and about all the angels who touch us along the way, the ones who might just bump into us long enough to nudge us on our way and the ones who stay in our lives forever and guide us indefatigably toward the light. It took me a long time, a lot of wasted energy to see what was so clear and simple right in front of me: write a sequel. I couldn’t have done it without my editor and agent. I couldn’t have seen through the darkness without their light. And was seemed difficult was in fact simple after all.

We’re not alone. Angels are among us. They are right here, every day, all around us, guiding us, guarding us, and lighting the way. I guess you could say, this cynic, like doubting Tom and bullheaded Sean, who had to find out everything the hard way,  finally believes in angels.