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dear life

cancer, Dear Life., Guest Posts

Dear Life: How Do I Knock Down The Walls Cancer Has Built Around Me?

November 9, 2014

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black

By Joules Evans.

Welcome to Dear Life: An Unconventional Advice Column. Your questions get sent to various authors from around the world to answer. Different writers offer their input when it comes to navigating through life’s messiness. We are “making messy okay.” Today’s question is answered by Joules Evans, author of Shaken, Not Stirred. A Chemo Cocktail.

Have a question for us? Need some guidance? Click here. Please address it as if you are speaking to a person rather than life or the universe. Need help navigating through life’s messiness? Write to us!

 

Dear Life,

I’m 32 now – 30 & 31 were filled with having double mastectomy, painful reconstruction, chemo and radiation. I’m starting heal my mind, to get back into the swing of life and letting myself look at possibilities I haven’t in years – seizing the day, romantic possibilities.

I like a boy – it’s crazy, it’s been a long time. How do I knock these fucking walls down and start acknowledging I do deserve something great in my life. My body is literally what is left of a battlefield. I look at myself in the mirror and feel so broken and impossible to love. I worry so much I will open up to this guy I will be completely and utterly rejected.. and even more broken than I started out. Help.

Love & light,
BC Survivor

Continue Reading…

Dear Life., death, Grief, Guest Posts

Dear Life: How Do I Feel Alive Again After Losing Someone I Love?

May 31, 2014

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-blackWelcome to Dear Life: An Unconventional Advice Column. Your questions get sent to various authors from around the world to answer. Different writers offer their input when it comes to navigating through life’s messiness. Today’s question is answered by author Megan Devine (check out Megan’s earlier gorgeous essay on The Manifest-Station.) Have a question for us? Need some guidance? Send an email to dearlife at jenniferpastiloff.com or use the tab at the top of the site to post. Please address it as if you are speaking to a person rather than life or the universe. Need help navigating through life’s messiness? Write to us! Here is the link to submit your question.

Dear Life,

So I’m less than two years from losing my boyfriend in a motorcycle crash (we had a real life planned and I miss thoughts of that life) and I feel like I should get a pass for the first year because I was a zombie.

Now, however, I’m “alive” again and I’m struggling to find my motivation. Is that normal? How do I start caring again? I just can’t get there, about anything.

Things I’m unaware of hit me at the strangest, most unexpected times and I constantly feel apologetic for it. I’m now a crier, and before this I’d been through so much that made me cry that I’d become immune to tears. But here I am, near tears when I don’t know they’re there and I find myself angry at myself for that. Help?!

 ~Motorcycle Widow

Image courtesy of Simplereminders.com

Image courtesy of Simplereminders.com

Dear One –

Two years is so early. It’s just a blink, isn’t it. Somehow it’s both an eternity since you last saw him, and just a moment ago that he was here. Of course you had “a real life planned.” Just because you weren’t married doesn’t mean your life together wasn’t real or serious. But we do that, don’t we – justify and defend, because so much is taken from us: the world doesn’t always see a boyfriend or a partner the same way it sees a husband or wife. Be assured, please, my love, that your relationship was real, is real, and it makes perfect sense that you miss that life, and that tears are now commonplace.

You ask about finding motivation, and whether it’s normal to struggle at this point in your grief, in your life.

It is. It’s entirely normal. When sudden death erupts into your life, your whole way of understanding the world is rocked. Knowing that it can all disappear at any moment tends to change a person’s interest in things. Previous interests – even things you loved – can seem futile.

You aren’t the person you were before. This experience of love that you’re living has knocked you off course. When you gain your footing again – and that takes the time it takes – you’re going to be facing a different direction. You’ll have to find out how you fit here now, who you are in this new place.

Another thing to remember is that grief is intense: it’s physical and emotional and spiritual and all sorts of other things. It takes a lot of energy to grieve. The first year, as you say, is a zombie year. For many people, year two is worse: your systems begin to come back online, your gaze is just slightly lifted from your feet. The world has changed. You have changed. You are still changing. The world hasn’t righted itself, and you are just aware enough to know it.

You’re aware enough to know you aren’t where you want to be, and still broken-hearted enough to not be able to do anything about it.

That you want something different for yourself, even as you have no energy to find something different – that is the beautiful place. That’s the place to lean on.

If there is any glimmer of interest, any spark of light or fascination, capture it. Lean into it. Lean towards it. Hurl yourself to face in that direction, even if that’s the only motion you can make. Face what is good. Face what is love. Want that for yourself.

Get greedy for those moments when you drop into your core, when you feel – not “right,” but righted. Darling, if anything draws you – follow it.

It doesn’t matter what you might “do” with any of those fleeting sparks of interest. You don’t need to find your direction, your path, through the rest of this life. You only need to take notice of what draws you, right now, and follow it. As best you can. One tiny little glimmer at a time.

 

And sometimes, there are no sparks. The world is empty and boring and full of things that make you cry.

You want it to be different. It isn’t different. That’s annoying.

You can’t fake interest. You can’t just tell yourself to buck up and get on with it, throwing yourself into things that are empty and dry. It won’t work.

At the same time, you don’t want to be this way.

You don’t want to cry. You don’t want tears leaking out at every possible moment, making you splotchy and weepy and red.

At the same time, there’s not a damn thing you can do about that.

Being angry at your own broken-heart is such a tricky thing.

It turns into this giant, escalating storm: tears. Then angry at tears. Then angry at yourself for being angry, for being unable to come to yourself with love. Angry that this is what you’ve got now: a reason to have tears, and anger about tears, instead of the life you were living. You had a good life. Now you don’t. More tears. More angry at self for having tears. And on and on and on and on it goes.

Can you just notice it? I mean – catch yourself? A thousand times a minute if you have to?

Can you recognize when you are heaping on the judgment and anger and frustration at who you are and what this is?

What this is is a broken heart inside a deeply changed human, still alive in a world that doesn’t make any sense.

The path here is to honor that, somehow. To allow it, to let it be okay that everything sucks and there is no point. To somehow stop apologizing for having a sensitized heart.

It isn’t easy. None of this is easy.

And you are here, still, now.

You deserve a life that is honest and true, even – or especially – when what is true is pain. When what is true is the blank space: the places that haven’t filled in.

The road here, the ‘what do to’ here, is to want love for yourself, even when you have no idea what that looks like. Even when you have no energy to explore it, even if you knew what it was.

I don’t know if it’s possible; I don’t know if it will help.

But heave yourself in that direction. Turn yourself back towards love.

Moment by broken-hearted, weepy, disinterested moment.

As often as you can.

Let love carry you.

Love, Megan.

 

Megan Devine is writer, grief advocate, and clinical counselor. Her partner drowned on a beautiful, ordinary, fine summer day, and she’s stayed alive after that.

Megan is the author of the audio program When Everything is Not Okay: Practical Tools to Help You Stay in Your Heart & Not Lose Your Mind. Roughly every six weeks or so, she hosts a 30-day online community of writers and grievers in the Writing Your Grief e-course. If you want to talk about your grief, you can even pick a time on her calendar for a free 30 minute phone call. You can find all of this, plus weekly posts, resources, and the weekly letter, on her website, www.refugeingrief.com.

You can find more of Megan’s words on Huffington Post, Modern Loss, and Open to Hope.

Follow Megan Devine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/refugeingrief

 

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.

 

Megan Devine.

Megan Devine.

Jen is available for public speaking engagements or workshops via info@jenniferpastiloff.com. Submit to the site by clicking the Submissions tab up top. You can also submit your Dear Life question there or via the email address above. All of Jen’s events listed here. Next up:  Vancouver.

Join Jen Pastiloff, the founder of The Manifest-Station, in The Berkshires of Western Massachusetts in Feb of 2015 for a weekend on being human. It involves writing and some yoga. In a word: it's magical.

Join Jen Pastiloff, the founder of The Manifest-Station, in The Berkshires of Western Massachusetts in Feb of 2015 for a weekend on being human. It involves writing and some yoga. In a word: it’s magical.

Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Click the Tuscan hills above.

Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Click the Tuscan hills above.

Book Feb 14th, 2015 in London with Jen Pastiloff.

Book Feb 14th, 2015 in London with Jen Pastiloff.

Dear Life.

Dear Life. Jealous of Friends Relationships. Answered by James Claffey.

March 15, 2014

Welcome to Dear Life: An Unconventional Advice Column With a Spin. Your questions get sent to various authors from around the world to answer. Different writers offer their input when it comes to navigating through life’s messiness. Today’s question is answered by author James Claffey. Have a question for us? Need some guidance? Send an email to dearlife at jenniferpastiloff.com or use the tab at the top of the site to post. Please address it as if you are speaking to a person rather than life or the universe. Need help navigating through life’s messiness? Write to us!

bryant-mcgill-count-blessings

Dear Life,

How can I be happy for my close friend’s relationships when I am in such a crappy place in my own relationship? All I can feel is jealous of them and that in turn makes me feel so guilty. My first friend just got engaged. It’s going to be her 2nd marriage and I’ve met her fiancé. He’s a very nice guy from what I could tell in our short meeting and she speaks highly of him. How compassionate, supportive and sensitive he is. They are very much in the “lust” stage of their relationship so the sex, of course, is great and copious. She received a gorgeous blue sapphire ring surrounded by diamonds for an engagement ring. They are very happy. My second friend, is also in a very romantic, dedicated relationship. She is closing on a house and in a very good place in her life. On the surface, I’m so incredibly happy for them. I’m happy that things are going so well for them after having to go through divorces that involved young children over the past couple years. Divorces are never pretty or easy. Below this thin veneer I am green with jealousy and blue with sadness. Sad for myself because I’ve been married almost 23 years and I’ve never had it as good as they do. In the beginning of my marriage (which was when I was 18 and didn’t know any better) things were as good as I could expect. We were two very young children really, working hard to pay mounting bills. My son came along, we worked harder, bills mounted higher – stress grew over jobs and life in general. During all this time, we never worked on “our” life together. After many, many years, it finally occurred to me that I was not a priority on my husband’s life list. His list generally goes like this 1. Son 2. Work 3. School 4. Me. I’ve read many articles on marriage and it’s a reoccurring topic where in a marriage, the spouse should be just under a person’s relationship with God. I’ve tried to speak with him about this but I never find the right words to express just how much he’s hurt me over the years. Sex happens just enough times to count on one hand during the course of a year. He’s emotionally numb, emotionally distant and intimacy has always been an issue for us. Now I’m not innocent. I’ve pulled away over the years and I don’t open up anymore. There’s no feeling of security, of being understood. There’s never been any permanent change from previous conversations, so I’ve stopped communicating. I haven’t really helped the situation. I want out because I deserve to be loved and romanced and sexed! I’m still young enough that this is important to me. I crave intimacy and deep conversations. Shared life goals and Sunday breakfasts in bed. Unfortunately, we’re fairly deep in debt and my job is a seasonal job that doesn’t pay much. I’m scared of leaving and living below the poverty line for the rest of my life. Much as my mother has had to do since she left her marriage over 20 years ago. I have no savings, as it had to be used when I left my good paying job (that was making me sick) to follow my passion. It’s a passion that historically, doesn’t pay much. Especially when you’re a beginner. Not having enough money is my main fear and my second fear is being alone for the rest of my life, coming in a close third, is having to give up my dream job. To make things even more interesting is the face that I still love him very much. If he opened up to me, I would crumble. He is just so familiar to me, has been my safety net for so long. He’s a kind and good person. He’s my son’s #1 person, they have a super relationship. He works hard, is working on his Master’s degree and will keep “climbing the ladder” so to speak. On the surface, I have it all – a smart husband who loves his job, a wonderful son, a big house, and my dream job. I still yearn for more. For more closeness, love, and intimacy. I ask myself – If nothing changes, can I stand this one more year? (It’s been over 5 years that I’ve felt like this) Can I stand to live this way 5 more years? No, I can’t. If I leave, there’s a 95% chance that I would have to leave my dream job to find another position that pays enough for me to live on my own. I’m only good at one other thing, which is what I left due to sickness. Not looking forward to ever having to go down that road again. I get mad at myself that I am only “good” at a couple things. That I never got good enough to make decent money to live on my own. We tried marriage counseling years ago but it didn’t “click.” I’m hesitant now because I want someone who is basically a miracle worker. I don’t want to dig up the past, rehash everything and then go from there. I want to start with today and move forward. I’m tired. So, so tired that the search for a miracle counselor seems impossible. To go back to my friends – I genuinely want to be in their happiness with them. To share this wonderful time in their lives I don’t think I can as all I can see is myself crying for myself. They are aware of what is going on in my life, we’ve had many talks about it. So many that I shy away from participating in further conversations about me. I refuse to perpetuate this story of me. It never changes anyway, there’s never anything new to report. When they ask how things are going my response now is “Same ‘ol, same ‘ol.” Then I change the subject. I’m tired, scared, and so confused as to which way I should point my intentions. My energy is so low. Most days I feel I’m in a hopeless situation, that I’m literally stuck. Some days, courage pokes it’s beautiful head up and I think I can do this. Either work on this marriage more or leave. I pray for more courage and bravery and insight. Writing this all out is a relief in a way. Maybe this will stop the recording in my head from running over and over for a little while. It’s amazing just how much room it takes up in my head, how much weight it places on my shoulders. I am dreading Valentine’s Day too. Ugh, it hasn’t been a good holiday for a long time. It hurts to hear about all my friends’ dates, presents, etc. Thank you for creating this space where anyone can write about anything and possibly get a response. I was very hesitant to write this. There are a lot of people in a much worse off situation. I’m working on making myself a priority and believing that my feelings count. By writing this, it’s another small step to confirming that I count. Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, Warmly, ~G

Dear G.,

You count. However difficult the landscape of your marriage and circumstance, you count. How hard it must be to watch your friends’ parade of happy events pass in front of you as your own life bears witness. You are a bit like what my father used call “a ghost at the feast.” You have to shake off the “weltschmertz” burdening you and come into your own space and claim your better self back.

Certainly your friends lives sound marvelous. Who wouldn’t want the joys you describe, yet, as with most relationships we see, the perfect ones and the problematic ones, we are only ever granted the vision of what those relationships look like from the outside. There are plenty of miserable couples in this world, holding it all together—the marriage, the house, the cars, the fancy vacations, the kids—but behind the curtain, when they’re alone and exposed to each other, they are as flawed, troubled and fucked-up as the rest of us. As Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I have been on both sides of Tolstoy’s family seesaw, and let me tell you, there is life on the other side of divorce, no matter the circumstances, no matter how painful the split. I could be you. I was married to a woman for some years, fell out of love, lost our bearings, and in a last ditch attempt to reconcile I agreed to a vacation in the desert before the school year began. Too much wine, too little self-worth, too little strength and I swam in an infinity pool of red wine and forgotten anger. She became pregnant; I met my present wife/partner, and left my marriage behind. Had I stayed who knows where I’d be now? Back in San Diego, married, for the child’s sake, my creativity unfulfilled.

I left. Divorced. Moved away. Went to grad school. Became a writer. Figured out how to forge a relationship with my son, despite my ex’s deep, abiding anger. The truth is, you’ve got to take care of yourself, selfish as that may sound, and your husband is not doing that for you. From what you write you are the one doing all the emotional work in the marriage, and that’s not sustainable. You are low on the priority list. Elevate yourself, leap, and allow the universe to catch you as you fall into the great emptiness of possibility. Sure, you have the dream job, but clearly that’s not cutting it for you. That miracle counselor doesn’t exist, and if your husband isn’t prepared to dig deep and fix the ancient ironworks of your marriage, then you have to save yourself.

I’m a writer. I tell stories. We all tell stories about ourselves. You need to change the narrative of the story you are telling about yourself. Tell the truth. When someone asks you how things are, tell them straight, “My life is shit. I’m married to a man who doesn’t value me the way I need to be valued.” Testify your own truth. Stop hiding behind the drapes and pretending all’s perfect in that big house of yours. Claim your space in the world, even if it takes telling your husband the marriage is over unless he redefines how he treats you. I know, the safety net, the fact that he is kind and familiar to you, is all well and good, but do you want to die with a fat bank account and a bankrupt soul?

What you have in your life right now is an illusion of the real world, it’s like one of those fake pies in the restaurant case, looks great, but you don’t want to bite into it! Listen, this life is yours to claim. Stop being cowed by the expectations of your friends and family, they don’t live in your skin. You need to take your courage and invest in your own future, and if he wants to join you for the journey, great. If not, no matter, you can make it on your own. Good luck!

JC

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James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA, with his family. He is the author of the collection, Blood a Cold Blue. His website is at www.jamesclaffey.com.

 

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.

*****

Jennifer Pastiloff is a writer living on an airplane and the founder of The Manifest-Station.  She’s leading a Retreat in Costa Rica at the end of March and a weekend retreat in May to Ojai, Calif as well as 4 day retreat over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif. All retreats are a combo of yoga/writing for all levels. She and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out her site jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up is NYC in March followed by Dallas, Seattle and London. 

Beating Fear with a Stick, Dear Life., Guest Posts

Dear Life: I’m Tired Of Being Afraid.

February 28, 2014

Welcome to Dear Life: An Unconventional Advice Column. Your questions get sent to various authors from around the world to answer. Different writers offer their input when it comes to navigating through life’s messiness. Today’s question is answered by author Gayle Brandeis.  Have a question for us? Need some guidance? Send an email to dearlife at jenniferpastiloff.com or use the tab at the top of the site to post. Please address it as if you are speaking to a person rather than life or the universe. Need help navigating through life’s messiness? Write to us!

bryant-mcgill-fear-love-choice

Dear Life, I’m tired of being afraid. 

And I mean afraid in every sense of the word.  I’m afraid of everything. I’m afraid of being robbed.  I’m afraid of being raped.  I’m afraid of being murdered.  I’m afraid to walk to my car alone at night.

I’m afraid of being alone.  I’m afraid of dying.  I’m afraid that when I die I’ll be all alone in that moment.  I’m afraid of history erasing me and no one will know that I lived or who I was.

I’m afraid that Heaven might not exist.  Or that God might not exist.  Or at least in the way that I think He does.  I’m afraid I won’t be good enough to be with Him.  I’m afraid I won’t make it into Heaven if it is there.  I’m afraid there’s nothing after this life.

Oh, how I want to cling to this life just like I’ve wanted to cling onto anyone who has ever loved me.  I want to hold it firmly in my hands and never sleep because it might leave me.

I’m afraid to take a chance.  I’m afraid.  Do you hear me?

I AM SO AFRAID!

I am afraid that I am wasting my life and I don’t know how to change it.

I work two retail jobs.  I’m a full-time assistant manager at an electronics store and a part-time sales consultant at a jewelry store.  I have one day off a week where I’m either cleaning house and running errands or I sleep in and then watch Netflix all day.  Either way I don’t feel rested.  I don’t feel happy.  The sucky thing is I barely make enough to pay my bills.  I don’t know how people can live alone.  Or travel or live unconventional lives.  I am draining away.  I am stuck in this hamster wheel of a meaningless life.  And I see other people on their hamster wheels next to mine.  We never touch or talk or get off of it.  I JUST WANT OFF!

In small moments I feel magic.  When I sit in my kitchen in the quiet sunshine or when I lie down next to my dog on the floor.  When I look up at the stars or see my breath in the winter air.  When I hear a really good song on the radio or cry really hard that snot runs down my face.  I sigh and think this is life.  But those moments are so fleeting.  I don’t feel real except in those moments.

I want to feel real all the time.  I want to LIVE life and not merely exist.  Why do I have to work 2 jobs?  Why can’t I travel?  Why can’t I do lunch with my girlfriends whenever I want?  Why can’t I go to Italy and eat pizza and gelato like Elizabeth Gilbert?  Just… Why can’t I!?

I hate that an unconventional life is unconventional.  I hate that my dad said quitting my job to go on a month long road trip with my best friend was irresponsible.  I hate that he says I have to wait until I retire to do things like that.  I hate that after I did it and it took me 9 months to find another full-time job and went into quick spiraling debt that he thinks he was right.  I hate that I need money.

I hate that I’m afraid to quit again.  That I’m afraid to not pay my bills on time.  That I want to be an entrepreneur but I don’t know what I’d do and I’m afraid.

I am so afraid.

I don’t know what to do.  But I’m sick of being afraid.  How do I stop?  How do I start?  What do I do?

Sincerely,

I just don’t want to be afraid anymore.

***

Dear I just don’t want to be afraid anymore,

I hear you.

I’m afraid, too. As I write this to you, I am in a lull between pain. The pain comes and goes like labor, like something’s squeezing me with sharp, hot talons. This is a chronic issue–it flares up every few months; I am lucky that it’s not more frequent, that it’s not something I have to live with daily. When the pain does come, my first response tends to be fear. I am scared I am going to feel the pain forever. I am scared I am not going to survive it. I am scared of the vomiting that usually accompanies it. I am scared the pain will thwart any attempt to function in the world. But sometimes I am able to get beyond this fear, to get to a calmer, clearer place inside myself, where I can ride the pain with detachment, where I know it will pass and I will be okay. This time, I have been calling upon a handy tip I learned in childbirth class: to stop labeling pain pain. To think of it, instead, as an “interesting sensation.” This helps quite a bit. When the pain comes, I don’t clench my body in fear (which, of course, only makes the pain worse.) I try to breathe–breathing is important, in pain, in labor, in life–and chant “Interesting sensation; interesting sensation” inside myself. This allows me to reframe the pain, to look at it with some measure of curiosity, even with a sense of wonder. It keeps me from getting too attached to it. It helps me remember that the pain is not me, that I don’t need to give it so much power.

I suggest you do something similar when you are beset by fear. As the fear starts to clutch your ribs, take a deep breath and try to label it an interesting sensation. Gaze upon your fear with the eyes of a researcher and a bodhisattva all at once; dissect it with curiosity, but also with compassion. What is this fear–does it have a color, a texture, a scent? Why have you given it so much currency in your life? When you start to look at it in a more detached way, you will start to gain power over it rather than let it hold power over you. You will be able to let it go more easily. Fear creates a buzz in the brain, a clatter in the heart; when you find a way past that, you can reach the deep, quiet well inside yourself, the place that knows what you need, what you need to do. The place that’s beyond convention. The place that’s simply true.

Today, I was thinking about what I could share with you that might be of help and three perfect Facebook status updates appeared in my feed, all in a row. These updates felt like getting a cherry cherry cherry in a slot machine, like I had hit the jackpot just for you. The first was from our own Jennifer Pastiloff–it was a sign, white with plain red letters and a red border, like a street sign (or, in this case, like a sign you’d see at a campsite); it said “PLEASE DO NOT FEED THE FEARS”. Remember this; heed it–think of your fears as bears; if you keep feeding them, they’ll keep hanging around, growing bigger and more vicious with each scrap you throw their way. If you stop feeding those fears, they’ll eventually slink off into the woods and leave you alone. You are giving these fears so much of yourself right now; you are feeding them with the energy and time you could be using to build a life more in line with your deepest desires (and it really feels as if one of your deepest desires is to be free–free from convention, from expectation, from the daily grind. Freeing yourself from fear is the first step toward all of that.)

The next update was a quote from Jack Canfield, shared by Elizabeth Gilbert. Canfield said “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” Over the image, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote “Forza, forza, forza!”, which in Italian means “Power” but can also mean “Go! You can do it!” Even if you can’t eat gelato and pizza in Italy like her (and–who knows?–maybe you’ll find a way someday!) you can take this from her right now. Forza. When you break through your fear, everything you want will be waiting for on the other side.

The third was this wonderful quote from Anais Nin, on what would have been her 111th birthday: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” You are letting fear shrink your life–remember that you have the power to make your world expand again. You’ve done it before. You did a brave thing, quitting your job and taking your road trip. I hope you have some fabulous memories from that trip that can help cancel out your father’s voice, at least some of the time; cherish those memories, and the courage it took to take that journey. Try not to let your father’s disapproval blunt you or make you cower from your own sense of adventure–instead of worrying about your parents’ expectations and being beholden to the generation before you, think about being beholden to the generation that comes after you. Even if you never have children yourself, ask yourself how you want to be remembered by future generations. Do you want girls growing up today to see a woman governed by fear, or do you want to show those girls that it is possible to live a fearless life even when one is inside the hamster wheel? And it *is* possible, you know. There are ways to be unconventional even within a conventional life. You can bring more meaning and fun and wildness into your day even if you keep your current jobs. It’s all about paying attention and finding moments of hilarity and connection and grace. It’s all about cultivating more of those moments of magic you already own, even if fleetingly, when you look up at the stars. Letting go of fear will help you tap into more of those moments. Fear contracts you, makes it hard for you to see the world around you with open eyes and an open heart; when you get beyond the fear, beauty rushes in. Be a beauty seeker. Take Jennifer Pastiloff’s advice and write down five things you find beautiful every day. This in itself can save you. The more moments of beauty and humor you find, the more fear will loosen its grip on your heart.

And it wouldn’t hurt to take some practical steps toward making real changes in your life: you say you want to be an entrepreneur, but you don’t know what you’d do. Do what you can to figure that out. Write lists of things you love, things that get your heart pumping, and imagine what sorts of jobs could spring from them. Do research. Take classes. Spend time in nature. Make things with your hands. See what speaks to you most clearly, what calls you most deeply. See what you can do to make it work. And take a self-defense class–it may help alleviate your fears of being attacked if you know how to attack back.

As for your grappling with your faith, I can only begin to imagine the deep fear that comes from questioning one’s long-held beliefs. I’ve never believed in God or Heaven, myself, at least not in the traditional Judeo-Christian conception, and I feel for you as you struggle with this profound dilemma. But I also ask you to ask yourself that if this is all there is, is that really so bad? In a way, doesn’t it make this time that we have here on this beautiful, complicated planet all the more precious? History may erase us, but at least we have this moment, and if this is all we have, why not put everything into making the very best of the time we are given? Sure, we have to face pain and fear and crappy jobs and the scourge of money, but we also get to face the sunrise and the feel of the dog’s fur under our fingers, and great music and art and life’s glorious absurdities. Let’s relish those things, those moments. Start with this very moment. Take a deep breath. Take a few more–let yourself settle into your own skin. Let fear evaporate; let it rise from your shoulders like steam. What do you notice? What is around and inside you right now that is gorgeous and surprising? If you take time to notice these things, you’ll feel your innate sense of wonder grow instead of your fear. You’ll find yourself smiling more. You won’t worry so much about being alone because you’ll find that you’re great company, yourself. You’ll find yourself ready to take more chances, to step into a more expansive and courageous life. Fear is just an interesting sensation. You don’t need to give it more power than that. I am taking my own advice right now as another pain comes on–breathing, breathing, breathing through it, seeing it with detachment, knowing it will pass. Knowing beauty surrounds me even in the grip of the attack.

You have the power to change, and your desire for change–desire I can feel thrumming right off the page–will help fuel that transformation. To start, all you need to do is take a deep breath, find that clear, quiet well inside yourself and move from that place, not the skittish, frantic place of fear. I have all faith in you. You wouldn’t have written to “Dear Life” if somewhere inside of you, you didn’t have faith in your own ability to change. You can reach beyond your own fear, and when you do, a more spacious, joyful life awaits, even if none of the external realities of your life change. You can do it. I know you can. Forza!

With love and solidarity, Gayle Brandeis

Gayle Brandeis grew up in the Chicago area and has been writing poems and stories since she was four years old. She is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), Dictionary Poems (Pudding House Publications), the novels The Book of Dead Birds(HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change, Self Storage (Ballantine) and Delta Girls (Ballantine), and her first novel for young readers, My Life with the Lincolns (Holt). She released The Book of Live Wires, the sequel to The Book of Dead Birds, as an e-book in 2011.

Gayle’s poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies (such as Salon.com, The Nation, and The Mississippi Review) and have received several awards, including the QPB/Story Magazine Short Story Award, a Barbara Mandigo Kelley Peace Poetry Award, and a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. Her essay on the meaning of liberty was one of three included in the Statue of Liberty’s Centennial time capsule in 1986, when she was 18. In 2004, the Writer Magazine honored Gayle with a Writer Who Makes a Difference Award.

Gayle teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Antioch University and lives in Riverside, CA, where she is mom to two adult kids and a toddler.

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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.

Mother's Day Retreat! Join Jen Pastiloff in Ojai, Calif this May for a life-changing weekend retreat. May 8-10th. No yoga experience required. Just be a human being. Click photo to book. "Here’s the thing about Jen Pastiloff, folks. Here’s the revolutionary thing. She listens. She listens with an intent focus, a focus that follows your words inside you. Because she has hearing problems, she watches your lips as you speak, and she plucks the ash of your words from the air and takes it inside herself and lays it beside her heart, where before too long your words start beating as if they were strong, capable, living mammals. And then she gives them back to you. Boiled down, this is the secret to Jen’s popularity. She can call what she does Beauty Hunting–she is for sure out there helping people find beauty. She can start a campaign called “Don’t be an asshole” and remind us all to stop a second and please, please, please be our better selves. She can use words like attention, space, time, connection, intimacy. She can ask participants to answer questions like What gets in your way? What stories are you carrying around in your body? What makes you come alive? Who would you be if nobody told you who you were? All of that is what it is. But why it works is because of her kind of listening. And what her kind of listening does is simple: It saves lives." ~ Jane Eaton Hamilton.

Mothers Day Weekend 2016, May 6-8! Join Jen Pastiloff in Ojai, Calif this New Years  for a life-changing 3 day retreat.  No yoga experience required. Just be a human being. Click photo to book.
“Here’s the thing about Jen Pastiloff, folks. Here’s the revolutionary thing.
She listens.
She listens with an intent focus, a focus that follows your words inside you. Because she has hearing problems, she watches your lips as you speak, and she plucks the ash of your words from the air and takes it inside herself and lays it beside her heart, where before too long your words start beating as if they were strong, capable, living mammals. And then she gives them back to you.
Boiled down, this is the secret to Jen’s popularity. She can call what she does Beauty Hunting–she is for sure out there helping people find beauty. She can start a campaign called “Don’t be an asshole” and remind us all to stop a second and please, please, please be our better selves. She can use words like attention, space, time, connection, intimacy. She can ask participants to answer questions like What gets in your way? What stories are you carrying around in your body? What makes you come alive? Who would you be if nobody told you who you were? All of that is what it is. But why it works is because of her kind of listening.
And what her kind of listening does is simple:
It saves lives.” ~ Jane Eaton Hamilton.

 

The 12 Day Detox is here. Sign up now for the next cleanse on November 30th. Space is limited. This detox comes at just the perfect time. Reprogram your body and mind as we move into the holiday season. This is your time of rejuvenation and renewal.This is not a juice fast, or a detox based on deprivation.

The 12 Day Detox is here. Sign up now for the next cleanse in May. Space is limited. This detox comes at just the perfect time. Reprogram your body and mind as we move into the holiday season. This is your time of rejuvenation and renewal.This is not a juice fast, or a detox based on deprivation.

 

Dear Life.

Dear Life. So Sorry. Answered By Elizabeth Tannen.

February 25, 2014

Welcome to the newest installment of The Manifest-Station. Dear Life: An Unconventional Advice Column With a Spin. The questions get sent to various authors from around the world to answer. Different writers offer their input when it comes to navigating through life’s messiness. Today’s question is answered by author Elizabeth Tannen. Sometimes the responding author will share their name, sometimes they choose not to. Have a question for us? Need some guidance? Send an email to dearlife at jenniferpastiloff.com or use the tab at the top of the site to post. Please address it as if you are speaking to a person rather than life or the universe. Need help navigating through life’s messiness? Write to us!

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Dear Life,

I found myself apologizing to my 27 year old daughter because apparently I raised her wrong. All the “things” I did wrong during her childhood are now affecting her life and shes basically cut me off from her life while she goes to therapy and al anon. Make no mistake, I freely admit I made mistakes a lot, but all I could say when she called was I’m sorry…and I also told her to get mad and work it out. I am but (here’s the excuse part) as a single mother with not the best support system from her Dad, things were not easy for me. What’s hard now is that I don’t get to talk to her, and I don’t get to see her and I miss her terribly. Sorry for the long response but when do you stop saying you’re sorry in this instance.? I worry for my girl, she’s working full time and also working on her masters in psychology. I worry that the intense therapy weekend sessions that she attends is going to make her hard and impersonal. I raised her to be a loving sweet girl and I know I need to back off and I have, but the hurt and everyday pain that I feel is at times unbearable because we were so close and now I can’t even call her or text her. I’m working on myself, to better my self and fight an ongoing battle with addiction to pain meds on top of all this. I am clean and sober and I want my daughter back. Life, I’m sorry, I know I’ve made wrong choices, I just don’t know where to go with this. So, my question, among a few, is, “when do I stop saying I am sorry”

Signed, Sorry

***

Dear Sorry:   

The thing about parenting is that everyone messes it up. It’s just a matter of how much.

The other day I talked with a man I know who’s got grown kids. I should say that I know him in a professional context, which means I actually have no clue what he’s like as a parent, but it’s hard to imagine that he’s a complete 180 from the man I do know: well-adjusted, highly spiritual, compassionate, warm, soft-spoken, exceedingly generous. Essentially, someone you’d think of as a real candidate for Most Awesome Dad Ever. And, whaddyaknow, his kids—now adults—are complaining: telling him all the things he did wrong, all the ways he’s messed up their lives.

He’s baffled. “I thought I was the perfect parent!” he told me.

The problem with that, of course, is there’s no such thing. Or, rather, being a “perfect parent” means something different for every kid, cause every kid’s got different needs. And unfortunately, most children don’t have the tools to express those needs very clearly (to say nothing of whether you’re equipped to respond)— until they’re thirty and decide to blame you for all their problems.

It sounds like you were dealing with some really tough circumstances, and I’m sure you did the best you could. Most parents, most people, do. I also believe your daughter, when she says that some of the choices you made as a parent weren’t the right ones for her as a kid. It’s good that she’s using the tools of therapy and Al Anon to help herself work through whatever it is she needs to work through. And, frankly, if that process leads her to the decision that she doesn’t have space for you in her life right now, as unfair and sad as that may be, there isn’t a whole lot you can do.

But to your question of how much you ought to apologize: I think the real question is what do you need to do to get your daughter back. And the answer is: whatever she needs.

Here’s another thing about parenting: it’s kind of the opposite of Fox News (or, depending on your point of view, exactly like Fox News): not even a little bit fair and balanced. Here’s how Adam Gopnik put it in a recent New Yorker article:

“In order to supply the unique amount of care that children demand, we have to enter into a contract in amnesia where neither side is entirely honest about the costs. If we ever totted up the debt, we would be unable to bear it.” (Leave it to Adam Gopnik to dispense essential wisdom about parenting in an essay about bread.)

But anyway. In other words, the normal rules of human interaction don’t apply. Kids have irrational expectations of their parents, because parents provide an irrational amount of care for their kids. Usually they’re willing to do it because the connection is so important—as it sounds like it is for you.

In order to accept you back into her life, your daughter may need you to keep apologizing forever. She may need you to not talk to her for six months, or a year, or two. She may need you to tell her why you made the choices you made. She may need you to sit in a hundred degree room and stare at a blue wall and watch The Cutting Edge five thousand times. I can’t tell you what she needs, of course—only she can.

So, my advice is to ask her. And then decide whether it’s worth it.

And, finally, a word about sorries: there are different kinds. A guy once told me he was “sorry that I was upset” after he tried to manipulate me sexually. Needless to say, apology not accepted. I don’t know how you’ve apologized until now, but moving forward, don’t apologize for her feelings. Apologize, genuinely, for the mistakes you made. Tell her you are sorry, but you can’t change what you’ve done. You can only listen to her now, support her now, and hope she’s willing to let you back into her life.

~Elizabeth Tannen

Elizabeth Tannen is a writer, editor and teacher based in Minneapolis. She writes the blog Dating in the Odyssey Years, and teaches with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. She’s currently an Artist in Residence at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico.

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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.

Jennifer Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. She’s a writer living in L.A. (and on an airplane.) She’s leading a Retreat in Costa Rica at the end of March and her annual retreat to Tuscany is in July 2014. All retreats are a combo of yoga/writing and for ALL levels. Jen’s annual Labor Day Retreat to California (her most popular) is booking now. She and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October.  Check out her site jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you.

Dear Life., Guest Posts

Dear Life. How Do I Stop Trying To Save Everyone?

February 23, 2014

By Elizabeth Crane.

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black

Dear Life!

Welcome to the newest installment of The Manifest-Station. Dear Life: An Unconventional Advice Column With a Spin.The questions get sent to various authors from around the world to answer. Different writers offer their input when it comes to navigating through life’s messiness. Today’s question is answered by author Elizabeth Crane. Sometimes the responding author will share their name, sometimes they choose not to. Have a question for us? Need some guidance? Send an email to dearlife at jenniferpastiloff.com or use the tab at the top of the site to post. Please address it as if you are speaking to a person rather than life or the universe. Need help navigating through life’s messiness? Write to us!

Elizabeth Crane answers today’s DEAR LIFE.

Dear Life,

I play the same cycles over and over in my life. I’m sure everyone does to some degree. The part I continually find myself is that of caretaker. And it has finally begun to exhaust me and I also believe led to cancer in my body. Yet every time I swear it is the last time, I do it again. Upon reflection I see that taking care of another is the only place I feel I matter. The only time in my life I feel I have a purpose. Truth be told, it’s the only way I think people love me. I did it with my siblings. I’ve done it in nearly every friendship I’ve ever had. I did it with my mother. And I even did it with my abusive father. For some reason, no matter how poorly he treated me I felt sorry for him and would do what I could to take care of him. At 16 when I worked full time while going to high school helping to support my single mother and hoping to save for college, I even snuck my own money into his wallet after I knew he had gambled away his rent money.

Cognitively, I can see the cycle and how it all began. But I simply cannot seem to find a way to stop playing that role of the person who give up my dreams, my hopes, my wants, my needs for anyone else’s happiness. Maybe it’s that I simply cannot understand how someone can love me if I’m not doing something for them or supporting them in some way.

I do not mean to appear “poor me” at all. I take responsibility for putting myself in this position and for thinking this way. But how do I stop?

Thanks, K.

***

Dear K.,

You got this. Feel free to scroll to the end if you’re in a hurry, because the solution is super simple and even though it’s long-term simple, it’s still really good. (Is change ever not super slow? I like to think I’ve changed a lot since the days twenty years ago when I was in my apartment alone, feeling sorry for myself, wondering how not to think that the world was generally against me and so why bother – which is very much not the way I think now – but that was a long-ass process that involved a whole bunch of continued effort on my part.)

Before that, though, you said something sort of off-handedly that is sort of a bugaboo of mine, something very much along the lines of things my mother (who died of cancer) used to say. You mention that you believe this behavior led to cancer in your body. I know that there are those who hold very strong beliefs along these lines, and in a sort of general way, I don’t think there’s harm in looking at how our beliefs create our existence and where we can create new, more positive beliefs. HOWEVER. Sorry, sometimes I just get capsy. However.  To me, this kind of statement implies blame. And I just can’t get down with that. I don’t know about you, but I’m the sort of gal who’s inclined to blame herself for all kinds of things I’m not actually responsible for, and to take on blame for something like an illness – seems not only unhelpful but soul-damaging. So I’d personally like to relieve you of that. There’s so much that’s not known about cancer, all kinds of cancer. My mother was a vehement non-smoker her entire life, wouldn’t come within ten feet of a smoker if she could avoid it, and when she was 63 she somehow still died of lung cancer (there are different kinds, and this kind is more common than is known about, and is not caused by smoking or second-hand smoke). A ridiculous number of people on my mother’s block had some form of cancer all around the same time. Our world is polluted. That’s but one possible contributing factor. I’m not a scientist, don’t write me letters about this, people. I’m just saying there are all kinds of studies and actual sciency-things out there that explain where cancer comes from, and I’m on board with science. Do I also believe in the power of the mind? Sure I do. But not in this way. I can’t. Because it basically means that significant numbers of the people I’ve loved and/or been related to have created some kind of awful illness in themselves; my dad died of Parkinson’s Disease and nobody had a more cheerful disposition than that guy. So… I can’t urge you strongly enough to let that idea go. There are lots of caretaker-types out there who don’t have cancer. It just doesn’t add up. I’m not judging you. What I want is for you to not judge yourself.

So, to the primary topic – caretaking: By way of my own experience, I did this in my own way with a close friend for over fifteen years. This was a friend who I related to, who was super bright and funny and who helped me very much at a difficult time in my life, and who, when I was down, was tremendously compassionate and always knew the exact right thing to say.

But a dynamic existed between us, one that took me many years to become fully conscious of, wherein – I was sort of recreating an unhealthy pattern that had existed in my relationship with my mother. I’m talking about emotional caretaking. My mom was given to emotional extremes, and the primary lesson I took away from that as a kid was to avoid conributing to that at all costs. My purpose in life as a kid was largely “prevent Mom from crying.” I was a six-year-old Executive Assistant in the Department of Crying Management. And it was a job I sometimes assigned myself in my adult relationships. So while I might not be any kind of – chicken-soup maker or financial supporter (hahahahahahaha) or drop everything and come over-er, I have been known to tell you what I think you want to hear, and it turns out that this can be incredibly damaging. It’s dishonest. I too, have in the past wanted to be loved so much that I not only sacrificed who I was, but harmed others. And I wondered that same thing – could anyone possibly love me if I wasn’t doing something for them? It turns out the answer to this is a million times yes. Better, we don’t even have to understand why; we only have to accept it. The unconditional love of friends sustains me beyond measure. My friends are not saints. They’re beautiful, flawed people, like me, and they loved me until I learned to love myself. Those people exist for all of us, especially if we know where to look. And I happen to know exactly where you should look!

In any case, whatever fault I once believed lay outside me, the first thing I have to do is take responsibility for my part, and you have already acknowledged that you’ve done this, and that’s huge.

Here’s where the slow/simple part of the solution comes in. It’s called Al-Anon. That’s it, that’s the whole thing. Absolutely, a good therapist in conjunction with this can also be of great help. But this is what Al-Anon is all about. How to create boundaries, to say no when it’s appropriate, to learn how to take care of yourself and create healthy relationships with people.

I wish I had a speedier solution.  But I can offer you this one assurance based on my own experience.  This can absolutely change, and I look forward to hearing about it.

~Elizabeth Crane.

Elizabeth Crane is the author of the story collections When the Messenger Is HotAll This Heavenly Glory, and You Must Be This Happy to Enter. Her work has been featured in McSweeney’s The Future Dictionary of America, The Best Underground Fiction, and elsewhere.

Bio

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.

All Jen Pastiloff’s events listed here. Up next is NYC Sat Sep27.Click here to book.

Jen Pastiloff is part of the faculty this year at Other Voices Querétaro. It is a vibrant, multi-faceted writing program in Querétaro, Mexico. Focusing on both fiction and nonfiction, as well as on the ins and outs of contemporary publishing. Application: We're keeping it simple! Admission forms and letters of recommendation are not required. Please email Gina at ovbooks@gmail.com or click photo above. Also on faculty are authors Emily Rapp, Gina Frangello, Stacy Bierlein and Rob Roberge.

Jen Pastiloff is part of the faculty this year at Other Voices Querétaro. It is a vibrant, multi-faceted writing program in Querétaro, Mexico. Focusing on both fiction and nonfiction, as well as on the ins and outs of contemporary publishing. Application: We’re keeping it simple! Admission forms and letters of recommendation are not required. Please email Gina at ovbooks@gmail.com or click photo above. Also on faculty are authors Emily Rapp, Gina Frangello, Stacy Bierlein and Rob Roberge.

 

Click to order Simplereminders new book.

Click to order Simplereminders new book.

Dear Life., writing

Dear Life: Who Are My Peers?

February 12, 2014

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88Welcome 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 dearlife@jenniferpastiloff.com.) 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 Angela G. Patel, who also is an editor for this site (and one of my closest friends) and… who is attending my Writing + The Body retreat in a couple weeks with author Lidia Yuknavitch! The retreat is sold out but email info@jenniferpastiloff.com to be added to wait list.

Send us your questions because there loads of crazy authors waiting to answer ‘em. Just kidding, they aren’t crazy.

Well okay, maybe a little. Aren’t we all? xo, Jen Pastiloff, Crazy Beauty Hunter. ps, I will see you in Vancouver in a couple weeks! My first workshop there! 

 

Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Click the Tuscan hills above. No yoga experience required. Only requirement: Just be a human being.

Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Click the Tuscan hills above. No yoga experience required. Only requirement: Just be a human being.

By Angela Giles Patel.

Dear Life, 

Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward’s remarkable memoir, an extended exploration of the deaths of five young black men in a Mississippi community (including Ward’s own brother), caused me to look anew at my own life, which also has been marked by trauma: Sudden loss of a parent at a young age; chaotic adolescence culminating in pregnancy and marriage at the age of 18; a marriage marked by violence and drug abuse (my husband’s); an acrimonious divorce followed by a decade of custodial interference; single parenthood in a hostile urban environment; poverty; emotional instability; the experience of 9/11 as a resident of New York City; life-threatening disease; the sudden loss of an adult child; and now the recurrence of life-threatening disease. Yet I am white, well-educated (MFA from a major university), well-spoken, and, for now, after many years of struggle, financially comfortable. So people assume—and I generally do not set them straight unless I know them very well—that I have led a relatively easy life. Largely because of the trauma in my life, I stopped writing for many years, only recently picking it up again and finding great solace in the process.

The question that plagues me? Who, exactly, is my peer group? White people of my educational status and socioeconomic station seem to lead suchcharmed lives in comparison. Yet who else available to me has the literary insight to give me the feedback my writing needs? Because of the lag between my MFA experience and my return to writing, I have lost touch with my teachers. And while I generally felt supported and valued by those teachers, I felt like a fish out of water when it came to the other students.

I recently moved out of New York City to a much smaller city in a different region of the country. In my new town, I have spent time in a critique group with other writers, all of them younger than me, some of them with children still at home, most of them married, all healthy…. And while they have been generous and insightful in many ways, as I continue writing I feel the lack of an essential understanding, and I feel increasingly that the poems and other writings (fiction and nonfiction) I am excavating from my traumatized interior are burdensome to them and impinge on the happy lives they are trying to build and maintain. I don’t think it’s a matter of age, although I am sure that age plays a role (I am in my mid-50s). Most writers in workshops are relatively young. Older writers with the skill to offer literary criticism tend to be 1) successful already and, hence, unlikely to be interested in offering criticism on a regular basis, and 2) ready to settle back and not work (or network) so hard, having already established connections with other writers and artiststheir age.

My question really is an existential one in this era when the fortunate can afford to isolate themselves from the unfortunate—and usually prefer to—and tend to be fundamentally uncomfortable hearing about difficult life experiences. Yet, I feel very strongly that the unfortunate often have extraordinary insight into the true nature of this earthly existence—but very few avenues for expressing it. I don’t know how I would have survived, emotionally and intellectually, without books by writers like Jesmyn Ward, Viktor Frankl, Sylvia Plath, and others that reflected my own inner experience.

Somewhere there must be good writers who can offer feedback without feeling uncomfortable about difficult subject matter, who have the personal and artistic integrity to see the intrinsic value of such subject matter, and who can offer literary criticism without trying to psychoanalyze the writer in the process (a common problem). How do I find them?

I know it is important, in the meantime, to continue writing. I know someone else’s response shouldn’t be the dominant reason one writes. And yet it is hard to continue over time without a peer group and without feedback. One can only get so far on one’s own.

Thanks for the chance to pose my question,

Aspiring Writer

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Dear Aspiring Writer,

The comfort you have found in writing is quite familiar to me and you are absolutely right, there is great solace in the process. As writers we have to write, even when it hurts. And there comes a time when every writer has to decide if they want to share what they have written.

Clearly, you are at the stage with your work where you want your voice to be heard, but I am not convinced that you are looking for peers. I am even less convinced that the peers you think you deserve exist. Your criteria is stringent and exclusive, and by that I mean terribly narrow. You dismiss younger writers because they are inexperienced and can’t relate to your work, and you dismiss older writers because they are above putting in the time you think your writing deserves. You want to have people who can relate to your pain read your writing, but they need to be of a certain class so that they can offer you “literary” feedback. No matter how good your writing is, and I have no doubt it is good, you have whittled your potential peer group to a nub.

Here’s a thought: stop looking for a peer group and start looking for a tribe. Look for people who connect with your soul, not your experiences. Put together a group that can give you a variety of opinions. Don’t dismiss feedback because it isn’t literary enough, some of the best feedback you will ever get will be a gut reaction rather than a clever assessment. Honest feedback will tell you when you are being self-indulgent, so here is some honesty: you need to look at why you want people to interact with your work. If it is to congratulate you on what you survived, that’s fine but you need to own that and not hold unsuspecting readers accountable. If it is to get feedback on the quality of your work, you need to own that as well, because it takes a heavy dose of humility to have your painful experiences rejected, trust me on that one.

If you are writing for more than you, if you are writing because you feel diminished if you don’t write, if you are seeking to hone your craft, then absolutely get your work in front of people however you can. Go to readings, check out a local indie bookstore for author events, ask booksellers about book clubs and writing groups. There are also a number of online forums for writers. Stanford has a decent writing program that covers most genres. LitReactor has classes as well as reading groups. You get the idea.

Be prepared though, the hardest part of getting feedback is really listening to the feedback. You need to be humble enough to hear what is being said, grateful enough to listen to the finish, gracious enough to be grateful, and brave enough to reflect on it. Believe me, it’s not easy. Rejection hurts, especially when it is a rejection of your own experience and pain. But it happens. Often. Never forget that you can learn something from everyone you share your work with. As you form your tribe, feel free to send a sample of your work to “Dear Life” and I will be happy to chime in.

All the best,

Xx Angela

 

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.

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Dear Life.

Dear Life. Unconventional Wisdom.

February 10, 2014

Welcome to the newest installment of The Manifest-Station. Dear Life: an unconventional advice column with a spin. The questions get sent to various authors from around the world to answer. Different writers offer their input when it comes to navigating through life’s messiness. Today’s 2 questions are answered by author Robert Wilder. Have a question for us? Need some guidance? Send an email to dearlife at jenniferpastiloff.com or use the tab at the top of the site to post. Answers will vary according to the voice/personality/sense of humor of each author. Need help navigating through life’s messiness? Write to us!

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***

Dear Life,

Life has never felt easy. As a four year old I remember worrying if my parents could pay the bills. I remember going home early from kindergarten with stomach aches I couldn’t explain. I remember wanting to speak, but not feeling the courage to do so. I remember hearing them fight all through the night, doors slamming and the sound of a hand hitting a face. I remember wondering why they kept having more kids. And then I remember taking care of those kids. I remember begging my mom to leave my dad. And then she did. And I remember the poverty that came I wasn’t expecting. Life. It only got harder. I remember wondering why everyone had when we didn’t. I remember people leaving cash in our mailbox because “your mom is a hard worker but has no way to buy you gifts.” I remember through that time having a crush on a boy and then hearing him call me homely to my best friend. I remember my best friend dating him then. I remember everyone saying I was so responsible and helpful and going to go places in this life. I remember the adults saying that the bullying would stop as I got older. I remember them saying if I just got good grades and worked hard that I could become anything. I believed them.  They were wrong. Or they lied.

I remember at 17 filling out the financial aid forms to go to school. Not a person to help me. I remember the joy of opening my acceptance letter to school and the response I got was “I can’t help you in any way.” I remember being embarrassed of my second hand clothes in my new world I moved to. I remember staying up all night to do my homework after a long night of work. I remember the boy in college that I thought really liked me. I remember doing whatever I could to make sure he did. And then I remember that he never called me again. I remember the shame. I’ve never lost the shame of the things I did to get them to like me. I remember working and studying and working some more. I remember I still believed that I was meant to do great things. That I could be the one in my family to make it out. I remember those with daddy’s that cared got the better internships and jobs after school. I remember I didn’t know how to play the game. I didn’t have anyone to show me. 

And as the years continued, I remember the slow death of my hopes and big dreams and all I thought was possible to those who worked hard. I got tired. I got so tired. I gave up. 

I have settled. I live a life that looks nothing like what I ever said I wanted.

How do I get them back? The dreams? The idea that things are still possible…even for me? Will life ever feel easy?

Signed, Will it ever feel easy, in Missouri.

***

Dear “Will It Ever,”

It seems as if you’ve hit rock bottom. What to do? I know this is no consolation but everybody is suffering. Everybody I know at least. Death, bad divorce, drug addiction, abuse, bankruptcy, you name it. Life is really hard, but I think I have a prescription for some temporary relief: Contron. I know Contron sounds like a combined comic
book/futuristic convention, but it’s not. Contron is a twenty-year-old, unemployed, low-fi bedroom singer living with his mother in Pensacola, Florida. Contron writes songs about sadness, drugs, heartbreak, abortion, going to the moon, picking daisies, but mostly sadness. My seventeen-year-old daughter turned me onto the gospel of Contron,
and I feel (slightly) healed. Why? Humanity. Contron makes art out of misery, and that my Dear “Will It Ever” makes me hopeful. I know how it is to have loss. My mother died when I was seventeen; my father is only weeks or months away from leaving right now. There’s more, but I will spare you. My advice: find the humanity in everything. Oh, and listen to Contron here:
https://contron.bandcamp.com/album/contron

Good luck,

Rob Wilder

                                                           ***

Dear Life,

This comes to you from the other side of the world. Why is that I always feel like I’m in the wrong place? And is where you are even relevant?

Why is it that I constantly make the wrong decisions? I keep
on shoving myself into situations that don’t seem to agree with me… I see
myself as a rather conscious individual: I take care of myself from a
nutritional point of view, I meditate, I walk/cycle every day, I do
Pilates, I practice gratitude… and I question my life regularly… maybe
a little too regularly.

Pre-2013, I had a nice little set-up in Brussels (Belgium), with a
part-time job at a law firm, doing the occasional translation job and a
small community of dear friends to help and support me. For the two years
prior to 2013, I was engaged in a long-distance relationship with someone I
met online, and who lives in London. After 2 years, I sort of pushed myself
into making “a decision” as to where this relationship was headed. I
decided to move to London, to be with him, dragging everything I own with
me (and later dragging it all back again). After barely 6 months in London
and many spanners thrown into the works, creating all-round bad vibes: “we”
weren’t really functioning, which led to me not really functioning as an
individual either (I seemed to be paralyzed on many levels). One evening,
after yet another horrendous altercation with our obnoxious down-stairs
neighbor, I felt like it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, stuffed
some clothes into a small suitcase, and left. I went back to Brussels,
where all of a sudden, job opportunities were falling into my lap. I was
couch-surfing but it was summer and I didn’t mind… I was being received
with open arms by my friends and I will eternally be grateful for this.
However, after about a month and a half of that, I decided to go back to
Ostend (a seaside town in Belgium, where I was born and grew up), to be
closer to my family while I decided what I was going to do…

In the end, I decided to stay in Ostend to be by the seaside, go for daily
walks along the seafront and the beach, etc. Idealizing the prospect of it,
no doubt…
I rented an apartment which is pretty spectacular (in a certain sense). I’m
on the 12th floor of a tall building, of which there are only 2 in the
city, so my view is amazing. It’s a small flat, so it’s easy to heat and
maintain, and thanks to my 2 floor-to-ceiling windows, it never feels
enclosed or claustrophobic. It seemed like a perfect set-up. On top of
that, the place is relatively affordable, despite the fact that I’m
surviving on unemployment benefits. Anyway, the plan was to find a
part-time job and try to find translation work, which I’ve always done on a
free-lance basis… you know, trying to find a workable solution to make
ends meet and not get bogged down in a job that would suck the life out of
me.

(Oh dear, this is going to end being a novella… I apologize sincerely…)

The above is a seriously abridged version of my background. It doesn’t
mention that I’ve been doing this my entire life… My trajectory to date
(25 years) has been as follows: Ostend – Brussels – London – Brussels –
Chicago – Brussels – London – Brussels – Ostend.
Yes, unsettled might be the right choice of word!!

To get to the point… I have been in Ostend for 3.5 months now and I’m
feeling defeated, completely out of whack. There is no work in this small
town! Unless, you are willing to work retail or do cleaning jobs. Not that
I look down on those… not in the slightest! I just know that it would
cause me to slide into a deep depression again. I need to have work that is
worthwhile and has added value…

I’m not connecting with people… This town is a bit of an elephant’s
graveyard, populated mainly by elderly people. Hence, there is no
motivation to change things… and when there is, there is opposition from
the municipality, who do their utmost to make this place as comfortable as
possible for aforementioned elderly and as unattractive as possible for the
younger generation. That’s why they all move away…

I thought I’d enjoy the peace and quiet, but I’m not! It reeks of death,
honestly…

My brother has his family and job and is perfectly happy in his way of
life. It’s actually a joy to behold. They just bought a house and they’re
thinking of buying garages and renting them out as an easy investment with
high yields. I understand, but couldn’t possibly imagine being stuck in
that kind of life. They seem to be perfectly content with their lives,
although my brother did mention the other day that he doesn’t find
fulfillment in his job… that said, he accepts his present situation
graciously.

I envy that… I wish I could be happy with a bog-standard, conventional
way of life. My reasoning, though, is as follows: these are not the “simple
things” in life, as my brother claims. As far as I can tell, he is enslaved
to a system, which forces everyone to spend their life in servitude. You do
work that offers no personal fulfillment. You’re part of a huge machine
that serves only itself, under the illusion that is doing good by providing
“work”. You are enslaved by a system that forces you to work your ass off,
in exchange for a measly wage that then immediately heads out the other
way, to pay bills and taxes, etc. Your work isn’t even benefiting anyone in
particular, except for that huge company that has “given you a chance” only
to enrich themselves even more… How can that be fulfilling? That is not
why we were set on this earth, is it? All of this begs the question as to
why I was set on this earth? Not to sit around getting worked up about the
status quo, I hope!? It seems like I should be doing something to change
that status quo!

I feel like I made the wrong decision, AGAIN, by deciding to move to
Ostend. I am increasingly plagued by a sense of dread… I don’t want to do
a “whatever job” just to pay the bills. I kind of like my apartment but I
feel anxious here… There are “antennae” on the roof of the building and
I’m convinced that the weird humming noise I constantly hear, is down to
the radiation they are emitting. It’s disrupting my sleep. I feel detached
from nature (despite the sea and the beach). In London, we had an allotment
(a plot of land in a community garden) and it was my life… I spent most
of my time there tending my vegetable garden. If anything… that was a
valuable lesson I learned by moving to London (of all places!): that I need
to be in close contact with nature!!
I feel like I should just pack up and leave… become a WWOOFER, go
volunteer somewhere… do something worthwhile…

Except… am I making the right decision? How do you make a living? Am I
also caught up in the same-ol’ same-ol’ pattern of trying to maintain a
grasp on the “future” (which, to all intents and purposes, doesn’t exist)?
A friend of mine is doing just that, but he has his property in Brussels,
which he will be renting out while he’s in Italy learning about
permaculture. When/if he decides to come back he will have money in the
bank! I know (from experience, mind you) that there is no point in
projecting into the future and yet, I get caught up in it every single
time. I don’t trust my gut instincts anymore… They change at the drop of
a hat… As much as I want to step out of this contrived society we live
in, I don’t trust my gut enough (it’s so fickle) to, once again, follow
what I’m feeling right now and just do it… It might, after all, be a
momentary thing… Following what I feel deep down inside has led me to
waste buckets of money, time and energy. For instance – and this is just
one of the obstacles – how do I get out of my rental agreement, which has
just started and is  meant to be an agreement for 3 years? If I break that
agreement, I have  to pay 3 months rent… I don’t have that kind of
money…

I have always suffered from bouts of eczema and know that it’s mainly
related to my emotional state. Right now, it is about as bad as it has ever
been, which says one thing: I am on the wrong path… again…

Stuck, stuck, stuck… all tied up in knots… I am very conscious of the
situation in this world… I am feeling “the shift” like nobody’s
business…  I just don’t know how to step out and head in another
direction… I am 50… I am unsure… I am willing but don’t seem able…It is killing me…
Signed, Stuck.
 
***

Dear Stuck,

Wow. Sounds like you have 99 problems and calm ain’t one. A wise friend once told me (when I was feeling anxious. Maybe not as anxious as you, but close) that when you don’t know what to do, do nothing. He didn’t mean sit on the couch, drink cheap beer from Owl’s Liquor (really near my house) and watch Enlightened although that sounds 
great right now. He meant don’t make any grand decisions or sudden moves. Sounds like you’d be unsettled in London, Paris, or Espanola, New Mexico (near my town).

It was my birthday on Sunday, and I had over 400 pages of grading to do. Grading 400 pages of high school work would drive anyone insane. Believe. I was crawling out of my skin. But I plowed through, setting hourly goals, and taking breaks. Maybe I screamed some; my memory is foggy when it comes to outbursts. I suggest you give Ostend, 
which sounds lovely by the way, at least six months. Get a job that will pay your bills; tell yourself it’s only temporary, and continue to do your meditation. Try walking and lying meditation as well. Write in your journal (read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones) and chill out. Tell yourself that you will not make any major decisions for six months. Stick to it. Don’t envy anyone else’s life. Don’t worry about the world; the world can take care of itself. Just take it day by day. And read some poetry. I recommend Matthew Dickman, Laura Kasischke, Dorianne Laux, and 
Tony Hoagland. Read it aloud. 

Good luck,

Rob Wilder

PS It’s not the antennae; it’s your state of mind, yo.

Robert Wilder is the author of two critically acclaimed books of essays: Tales FromThe Teachers’ Lounge and Daddy Needs a Drink, both optioned for television and film. He has published essays in NewsweekDetailsSalonParentingCreative NonfictionWorking Mother and elsewhere. He has been a commentator for NPR’sMorning EditionThe Madeleine Brand show, and On Point and other national and regional radio programs including the Daddy Needs a Drink Minute which airs weekly on KBAC FM. Wilder’s column, also titled “Daddy Needs A Drink,” is printed monthly in the Santa Fe Reporter. He was awarded the 2009 Innovations in Reading Prize by the National Book Foundation. Wilder has lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the past twenty years.

Visit Robert Wilder on Facebook.

 

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.

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Jennifer Pastiloff is a writer based in Los Angeles. She is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Jen will be leading a Retreat in Costa Rica at the end of March and her annual retreat to Tuscany is in July 2014. All retreats are a combo of yoga/writing and for ALL levels. Read this post to understand what a Manifestation retreat is. Check out her site jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Jen and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October