Welcome to Dear Life: An Unconventional Advice Column.
Your questions get sent to various authors from around the world to answer (and please keep sending because I have like 567 writers that want to answer your burning questions. Click here to submit a letter or email firstname.lastname@example.org.) Different writers offer their input when it comes to navigating through life’s messiness. We are “making messy okay.” Today’s letter is answered by Eva Hagberg, who is attending my Writing + The Body retreat in a couple weeks with author Lidia Yuknavitch! I am so excited to meet Eva, especially after reading this.
Send us your questions because there loads of crazy authors waiting to answer ‘em. Just kidding, they aren’t crazy.
I’m writing this to ask for some help….guidance, advice, maybe a miracle, anything to help this lost little girl (actually 35 and feeling old already) find her way.
Jen Pastiloff’s quote “Live with intention, with love, and with passion…” really struck me-mostly because I’m NOT doing that, I don’t know what makes me come alive or thrive(?) I’m 35 and feel like I’m barely getting by, existing. I’m trying to make a change in my life right now so that come 40 I won’t be on the same, no light at the end of the tunnel road.
You seem to have such a spark and are so connected to what you do and what you love and are so HAPPY! I want that.
I’m trying to reverse years of negative thought patterns and a long long battle with depression. It’s kind of like trying to stir cement as it begins to harden, not easy.
I need to move as I’m not in a great situation and am so torn over WHERE???? It really shouldn’t be that hard but I feel like at my age I can’t “F” it up again if you know what I mean? The couple places I’ve thought about are completely different. I’ve pro’d and con’d them to death and meditated and prayed and I just don’t know what to do.
Did I mention indecisiveness is a strong point of mine :-/
I don’t want to ramble on because I know you are crazy busy and actually hoping you might have time to read this was a long shot, but I desperately need some help getting this weight off my chest and a better life going.
Any response would be greatly appreciated!! Even if it’s just some prayers. I feel depressed, stuck and confused. Where do I begin?
Last night I dreamed that I wrote and published a best-selling self-help book called “That happened to you? Fuck that, that’s the worst!”
So some of that might be because I’ve been on an anti-Pollyanna kick lately… but I think what that dream was really about was compassion.
Compassion for someone who is suffering. To look at someone and not say “It’ll get better” or “Are you OK?” or “Stay strong this will be over,” but instead to say “Fuck that, that’s the worst!”
The reason I tell you this is not so that you say that, but to introduce some notion of compassion into your thinking.
I loved your letter because I resonated with it, particularly – the feeling lost, the feeling like you’re barely getting by, and particularly particularly the “at my age I can’t ‘f’ it up again if you know what I mean.” I know exactly what you mean.
Much of my twenties was spent running around New York like a hummingbird zombie. I don’t know that I ever actually breathed the entire six years that I lived in New York. And then I suddenly left – in retrospect, to try and pay off a karmic debt I never though I would be able to set right (spoiler: I’ve since set it right), but at the time, I didn’t know why. I just… left.
I moved to Portland, Oregon, and spent a year eating Oreos, walking in the woods, and bicycling very long distances. My career kind of floundered and I had basically no money. And then I applied to grad school in the Bay Area, mostly because my best friend was applying and he was my Portland roommate and I wanted to keep hanging out with him, and I got in, and moved down here, and still I was thinking about the future. My first semester of grad school I was already worrying about how to get a full-time tenure track job at Berkeley, so that I could stay there FOREVER. I wanted stability and security, and to know that I had made the RIGHT decision.
I hear that in your letter – that same desire to make the right decision.
So I wonder –
What are you looking for with the not fucking it up again?
What does not fucking it up again mean?
Here’s what I have learned in the two years:
I got very sick and my entire life turned around.
I had always thought that whatever else happened, I could count on my ability to write.
Then a piece of my brain got taken out through my nose and even though it wasn’t *that* part of my brain, my language was affected.
I couldn’t be the life of the party; I was the opposite.
I couldn’t entertain anyone. I had to be entertained.
Time slowed down, so much. I measured my days and weeks in doctor’s appointments and benchmarks I *should* be hitting – but wasn’t.
All of a sudden, I was much slower in grad school – I’d started and sort of accelerated all of my progress and now I was a year behind.
I wasn’t the bright star anymore. I felt like fucked-up dead weight being carried by the generosity of others.
And that’s when everything changed. And this is what brings me to you and your situation.
The clue, for me, is that “don’t want to fuck it up.”
What don’t you want to fuck up?
What are you looking for, that you think you should have, that is age-appropriate and “not lost?”
What does not being lost look like?
In other words – how do you want to spend your days? Because, to quote a million other people, your days are how you’ll make up your life.
I think the trick for you won’t be to think really hard/pray/meditate, do a “good” job and make the “right
decision. I think the trick for you is to say to yourself, “fuck that, that’s the worst!” about your indecision and stuckness— COMPASSIONATELY. And once you find compassion for yourself, as you are and where you are, that pressure valve might begin to lift. And once that pressure begins to lift, and you begin to open your eyes, and to pay attention – because that’s all we really have to do, I think, is pay attention – you’ll be able to notice the little nudges that the world gives you.
For instance, there years ago I believed that what would make me come alive/thrive would be to get published in the New Yorker. That was my BIGGEST dream. My biggest dare-to-dream, my if-this-happens I will be OK dream. And now, my biggest dream is that I am able to help someone with something that I say, or write. You say that you don’t know how to come alive or thrive – I relate to that. And I kept looking for external things. Publishing, so that seeing my byline could remind me – “I’m alive, because someone published me.” But I was forced to slow down and with that I realized – I feel alive when I’m with a friend. When my body feels good. When I’m being kind to myself. When I’m being kind to someone else. What are those equivalents for you? The micro-ones? The tiny ones that you think probably don’t count because they’re just, whatever, just for you?
One of my New Year’s intentions was to laugh every day. If something funny doesn’t happen organically, then I have to look for it. So I’ll probably spend some time on Buzzfeed looking at the LOL lists, or laughing at Pun Husky. Laughing is something that makes me come alive/thrive.
It sounds to me like you’re looking for the external situation that will change the internal one. Of course you are. That’s what we do! And I had such a bad external situation for so long – multiple days a week int the emergency room; excruciating pain almost all the time- that I had to elbow room for myself and my joy and my life into that 1% of space that most people don’t ever have to think about. I slowed down and at every turn felt for that compassion – and that’s what I encourage you to do too. Instead of weighing pros and cons and lists and more, sit with Barbara. Listen to Barbara. What does she need? A hug? A bath? A chocolate bar? Tiny kindnesses turn us around; they change us, over time. New behaviors lead to new pathways. I was never able to reverse my own negative thought patterns by trying really hard. But by taking different action – acting as if I cared about myself, acting as if I deserved to see the art exhibit without having to go for someone else, acting as if I wanted to take myself on a date – slowly I was able to change how I saw myself. I believe in your ability to do the same.
When I left New York for Portland and then Portland for Berkeley I had no idea if I was making the right decision. Even now, I don’t know if the decision I’m making today is going to pan out, work out, etc. So I act from what I know now to be true. That our time on this earth is limited and you can’t take your career with you. I also know this to be true: everything is fixable. Let’s say you move to a city you think you’ll love. Three months later you hate it. You have permission to move again. You have permission to try again. You have permission to do whatever feels right in that moment and in that day, because what you are doing – the assignment I am giving you, the job that is the most important job right now – is learning to be kind to yourself. Start with that, and the rest will fall into place.
Eva Hagberg is a writer, teacher, editor, and PhD Candidate in the one-person interdisciplinary Department of Visual and Narrative Culture, which she created at UC Berkeley. Her dissertation explores the intimate professional and personal relationships between three mid-century modernist architects and their wives, and offers a revisionist and narrative-focused understanding of what the work is, how it got made, and what it means.
Her work on architecture and design has been published in multiple publications including Metropolis, Wallpaper*, Dwell, Surface, the New York Times, T: The New York Times Magazine, and esquire.com.
She is the author of two books on architecture, Dark Nostalgia and Nature Framed, and of the best-selling Kindle Single, “IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD,” which documents her five-year search for a medical diagnosis and consequent travels in the land of maybe-cancer, and which was selected as one of Amazon’s Best Digital Singles of 2013. She currently lives in Oakland, California, and really likes to bake.
Please note: Advice given in Dear Life is not meant to take the place of therapy or any other professional advice. The opinions or views offered by columnists are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed physician or mental health professional. Columnists acting on behalf of Dear Life are not responsible for the outcome or results of following their advice in any given situation.