Where you can find us

@amygutman in @pajamatown, on vacation from @planbnation

@amygutman in @pajamatown, on vaca­tion from @planbnation

As you may (or may not) have noticed, Plan B Nation has been on hia­tus for more than a year.  But!  Start­ing this week, you can now find us (us being me) else­where on The Inter­nets. New online for­ays are:

Pajam­a­town (on Tum­blr) — Dis­patches from a New Eng­land win­ter with music, recipes, books, and (of course) ran­dom mus­ings. That’s @pajamatown on Twitter.

The Ques­tions Project — An exploratorium-cum-blog that I’ve been mean­ing to launch for years. The premise: It’s often wiser to seek the right ques­tion than the right answer.  I’ll be pos­ing ques­tions as they come to me, as well as some that have lin­gered.  I hope you’ll share some of your own along with reflec­tions on mine. Let’s have a con­ver­sa­tion. (No inde­pen­dent Twit­ter account to date–will be tweet­ing from @amygutman)

So that’s it for now. Wish­ing you a peace­ful Thanks­giv­ing in these strange and per­ilous times.

Me vs. Fear of Rejection (with a happy ending)

crushed paper - writer´s block - crumpled paper with unfocused background

A cou­ple years back, in quick suc­ces­sion, I sub­mit­ted three essays to a well-respected web­site, all of which were snapped up.  My fourth attempt didn’t fare so well—Not for us, my edi­tor said—and I haven’t sent her any­thing since.

I am the first to say that this is patently ridiculous—a fact of which I was reminded this week as I read writer and writ­ing coach Linda Formichelli’s wise and prac­ti­cal reflec­tions on the sub­mis­sion process.  Here is what she said in a Face­book post excerpted from her upcom­ing e-book:

I just did a rough count, and what I have to tell you isn’t pretty: Between 1996 and 2012 I sent out 200 queries—each one to mul­ti­ple publications—and sold 60 ideas. That’s a 30% suc­cess rate—or a 70% rejec­tion rate. If I sent each query to four mag­a­zines, that means I received 480 rejec­tions. (And that’s not even count­ing the untold num­ber of infor­mal ideas I sent to my edi­tors via email once I became more estab­lished that were rejected, or the let­ters of intro­duc­tion I sent to trade mag­a­zine edi­tors that went nowhere.)

So how was it that I’ve been able to write for around 150 mag­a­zines, with most of them giv­ing me mul­ti­ple assign­ments over the years? How was I able to make a living—a good living—mainly writ­ing for magazines?

It’s because I was too stub­born to give up, even when I was fail­ing most of the time. And every time I made a sale, I wowed the edi­tor so she would give me more work.

So how can you get over the idea of rejec­tion? Here’s the thing: Rejec­tion isn’t about you. If your idea or writ­ing are rejected by a prospect or edi­tor, it’s a sim­ple busi­ness deci­sion: Your offer­ing was not right for the prospect at this time.

When you’re approached by a sales­per­son at the super­mar­ket ask­ing if you want to sam­ple a new brand of pita chips and you say No thanks, does that mean the sales­per­son per­son­ally sucks? Is it a judg­ment call on the actual per­son hand­ing out the chips? Or even on the qual­ity of the prod­uct itself?

No. Your rejec­tion of the offer means you’re full because you just had lunch, or you can’t eat gluten, or you’re not in the mood for a snack, or you’re a vegan and the chips have cheese pow­der on them.

The prod­uct doesn’t suck, and nei­ther does the sales­per­son. It has noth­ing to do with them.

It’s the same with writ­ing. If a prospect says no, it can mean any­thing from “We don’t need a free­lance writer right now” to “I had a fight with my spouse this morn­ing and I’m in a foul mood.”

If you let the mere thought of rejec­tion keep you from try­ing, then you’ve already failed. You’ve pre-rejected yourself!

The best thing you can do when you’re start­ing your career as a writer is to develop a thick skin to rejec­tion. Eas­ier said than done, I know. But the ones who get rejected the most are the ones who suc­ceed, because it means they’re putting their work out there.

Yes, eas­ier said than done—and for some of us more so than oth­ers. Over the years, I’ve come to real­ize that I have an absurdly height­ened (and self-defeating) response to per­ceived rejec­tion.  I really can’t say why. Tem­pera­ment? Child­hood expe­ri­ences? Cul­tural mes­sages? For what­ever rea­son, I quail at the prospect of push­ing myself—or my work—forward when I have even the faintest glim­mer that inter­est may be lack­ing.     

But you know what? I’m get­ting bet­ter. The most help­ful thing has sim­ply been being aware that this is a thing I do and that the mere fact that I am think­ing some­thing doesn’t make it true. Some­times it also helps to play with gam­i­fy­ing the process. So what if I send this here? I won­der what will hap­pen?  I also try to focus on actions and mea­sure suc­cess in those terms. Sub­mit­ted the essay to three out­lets? Excel­lent! I win. Whether it’s accepted or not has noth­ing to do with me.

I had a chance to deploy all of these strate­gies a cou­ple weeks ago, when an essay I’d sent to two edi­tors went into a media black hole. One edi­tor never responded at all. The sec­ond, just back from vaca­tion, said she didn’t know when she’d get to it and didn’t want to hold me up. I almost gave up then, but for some rea­son, I decided to first reach out to another writer, some­one I’d met on Twit­ter who I thought (I’m still not quite sure why) might have another idea. And, as it hap­pened, she did. The piece went to her edi­tor at Forbes.com who got back to me super quickly. “I’m blown away. I love this piece, and I’d be happy to pub­lish it as a guest post,” she wrote, before going on to offer me a paid blog­ging contract.

To say this email made my day would be putting it mildly. The piece went up this week. It’s called The Day Job Is Hav­ing Its Moment, and you can read it here.

So in the end, I was lucky that the first two edi­tors passed on this piece. It doesn’t always end this way. But remem­ber: It some­times does.

Plan B Nation on vacation

Main lakeA few weeks back, it hit me that I’m try­ing to do too much—especially given that I’m hap­pi­est with a good bit of down­time. How to rec­on­cile Type A ten­den­cies with my need for a bal­anced life? It came to me, a strat­egy: “Seven things in seven hours.” Rather than cram­ming week­end days with end­less to-do list items, I’d limit myself to one per hour. I’d be selec­tive, strategic.

But when I sat down to make a list, that’s not what I wrote. Instead of typ­ing the word “things,” I typed the word “days.”Seven days in seven hours. I had to laugh. It so exactly cap­tured the absur­dity of what I’ve been try­ing to do.

BananagramsWhich goes to explain why Plan B Nation is on extended vaca­tion. When I took a week off from my Har­vard com­mu­ni­ca­tions jobs last month, I’d planned to spend a lot of it catch­ing up on blog­ging. Luck­ily, I quickly deter­mined that this was a bad idea. Instead, I vis­ited Polly in Maine and pretty much took it easy. Banana­grams, dogs, kids, long walks, books—that’s pretty much what my vaca­tion looked like.

Then last week, with­out quite mean­ing to, I went on a writ­ing ben­der, result­ing in two pieces that went live yes­ter­day. Along with my Atlantic debut—a piece on women and drink­ing (includ­ing my per­sonal take on AA)—I also wrote about so-called “slash careers” on the Cognoscenti blog. Lawyer/writer, minister/physician–you get the idea. It’s a piece I’d had in the pipeline for quite some time, and it felt great to finally get it out of my head and onto the web.

Seven things in seven hours. Clearly, my efforts to pare down are a work in progress. There are so many things I want to write, and far too lit­tle time. But if I’m still tak­ing on too much, I’m also tak­ing breaks. This after­noon, I got a mas­sage. Tomor­row I have yoga. And as soon I get this post up, I’ll be watch­ing House of Cards.

dogs in maine





I am Adam Lanza’s mother.” The story is (still) unfolding.

First Advent and first candle is lit

Yes­ter­day, along with hun­dreds of thou­sands of oth­ers, I clicked “like” on Liza Long’s elo­quent, com­pelling, and now noto­ri­ous “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” blog post, with its sear­ing depic­tion of life with a vio­lent men­tally ill teen. “I love my son. But he ter­ri­fies me,” was her mem­o­rable summation.

Today, if not pre­dictably then unsur­pris­ingly, I (along with hun­dreds of thou­sands of oth­ers) awoke to a vit­ri­olic explo­sion over this same post. The open­ing salvos came from blog­ger Sarah Kendzior, who blasted Long’s piece as both dis­hon­est and exploitative.

Liza Long, the woman who wrote the viral post ‘I am Adam Lanza’s Mother’ is being held up as a heroic woman war­rant­ing sym­pa­thy for bring [sic] the plight of her men­tally ill son to the pub­lic. Her blog tells a dif­fer­ent story,” is how Kendzior began her own soon-to-be-viral post.

But does it? Does it really?

To make her case, Kendzior points to what she described as “a series of vin­dic­tive and cruel posts about her chil­dren” in which Long “fan­ta­sizes about beat­ing them, lock­ing them up and giv­ing them away.” She also ques­tioned Long’s grasp on real­ity: “In most posts, her allegedly insane and vio­lent son is por­trayed as a nor­mal boy who incites her wrath by being messy, buy too many Apple prod­ucts and sup­port­ing Obama.”

First of all, let me stip­u­late that I’m of the view that Long’s pub­lic air­ing of her parental frus­tra­tions went well over what­ever line is rel­e­vant to such things. What starts on the Inter­net stays on the Inter­net and Michael (or what­ever his real name is) is likely to live with the fall­out here for a good long time.

But there’s a sec­ond line of attack here that strikes me as far more prob­lem­atic: The notion that Long’s seem­ing incon­sis­ten­cies are tan­ta­mount to decep­tion. (Slate’s Hanna Rosin—one of many pil­ing onto the Liza Long back­lash—went so far as to call her “an imposter,” point­ing to the blog as evi­dence that she is “not to be trusted.”)

Maybe. Maybe not.  In recent weeks, I’ve been think­ing a lot about how we tell our sto­ries – in part because I just taught a col­lege sem­i­nar where (as I talk about here) this was a cen­tral theme. And this is what I think. Or rather, this is what I know: Find­ing the sto­ry­line in trauma tends to take a lot of time.

I have no trou­ble – no trou­ble at all – imag­in­ing a mother in Long’s posi­tion craft­ing a story where her trou­bled son is a nor­mal boy. A dif­fi­cult boy. A chal­leng­ing boy. But nor­mal, all the same. And I have no trou­ble imag­in­ing how this story could evolve – how a vio­lent tragedy of epic pro­por­tions could abruptly cat­a­pult her into a place where every­thing has changed.

Our stories—like our lives—are works in progress. For those of us who choose to share them pub­licly, there are gifts and there are dan­gers. It isn’t always clear which path is the right one. But mak­ing an unwise choice here doesn’t mean we’re lying.

At the top of Liza Long’s per­sonal blog there’s now a joint state­ment from her and Kendzior ask­ing the blo­gos­phere to cease and desist from the cyber free-for-all. It car­ries this pref­ace from Long: “Many of you have seen Sarah’s excel­lent blog in the past few days. I think she makes some impor­tant points about children’s pri­vacy. We have been in con­tact, and I am truly impressed with her pro­fes­sion­al­ism and her con­cern for chil­dren.” That strikes me as a response of uncom­mon grace – and a good reminder that we’re all far more than the sto­ries that define us.

The why is the how

So yes, I am grate­ful to be so busy: I am grate­ful for my job (or rather, jobs), grate­ful for my many friends, grate­ful for the oppor­tu­ni­ties of this vibrant and entic­ing city.

But I am also frustrated.

In recent weeks, I’ve strug­gled to get back to a reg­u­lar writ­ing sched­ule. One or two posts to this blog each week seems like a rea­son­able goal. But rea­son­able though it may be, it hasn’t been hap­pen­ing. Two weeks ago, I forced myself to the key­board in the chilly dark­ness of Mon­day at 4 am. (No time for writ­ing over the week­end? See how you like this!)  And, yes, I did get the post done, but I was semi-conscious at work.

The fact is, most writ­ers also have other jobs. It’s the nature of the beast. So how do peo­ple do it? Where do they find the time?

For answers, I turned to friends who have impressed me with their bal­anc­ing acts.

First to come to mind was Car­olyn Edgar, a law school class­mate who seems to do the impos­si­ble on pretty much a daily basis. The 2012 recip­i­ent of the Cor­po­rate Coun­sel of the Year Award from New York City’s Black Bar Asso­ci­a­tion, she serves as VP of a For­tune 500 company—not exactly your typ­i­cal low-key slacker day job. Out­side of work, she’s a sin­gle mom and also man­ages to put in reg­u­lar time on the yoga mat. And then, there’s the writ­ing: Along with her own very active blog, she writes about rela­tion­ships, pol­i­tics, and par­ent­ing for sites includ­ing Huff­in­g­ton Post and CNN.com. Oh, and last month—just for fun—she com­pleted the marathon NaNoW­riMo, a chal­lenge that I’d find daunt­ing even with no job at all.

So how do you do it? I asked her. I really wanted to know. She got back to me the fol­low­ing day, bring­ing to mind the old adage that, if you really want some­thing done, you should ask the busiest person.

I’ve been giv­ing a lot of thought to your ques­tion. I ask myself all the time, why do I do this—especially when I’ve stayed up until 3 am edit­ing and for­mat­ting a blog post, drag­ging into the office the next day, and see­ing only 3 com­ments on the post or 4 retweets of the link on Twit­ter. And then I remember—I do this because I love writ­ing. I blog, even though I have two kids and a demand­ing, full-time career—because I am a writer. I feel more com­plete when I write than I do when I don’t.The writ­ing fits into the tiny inter­sti­tial spaces in my life, between the con­fer­ence calls and the draft­ing, between super­vis­ing home­work and get­ting the kids off to bed. It often sup­plants sleep, but see­ing peo­ple engage with the thoughts and ideas I share ener­gizes me in lieu of sleep (that is, until my body says enough and shuts down, as it has this weekend). 

Inter­est­ing, I thought. All of that res­onates. But while I under­stand the why, I still don’t get the how.

Mean­while, I heard back from Kate Gace Wal­ton, another mother of two. Along with  full-time employ­ment, Kate launched and edits Work Stew, a fas­ci­nat­ing blog about the hows and whys of all things work-related. Who bet­ter to ask about jug­gling writ­ing with a demand­ing job? Here’s what she had to say:

Being an insom­niac really helps! I’m at work from about 8 to 5 Mon­day through Fri­day and my evenings are spent wran­gling the kids, ages 5 and 3. (My hus­band has a long com­mute and trav­els a lot, so unfor­tu­nately he’s not around to do much evening wran­gling.) But some­time between 8 and 9 the house finally falls quiet, and from then until the wee hours, I focus on Work Stew—writing, post­ing, review­ing essays from con­trib­u­tors, and edit­ing pod­casts. Also, and this is huge for me: every Tues­day night, the kids stay at my par­ents’ house. That gives me a free evening to record inter­views with­out any shriek­ing in the background—and to catch up on var­i­ous other tasks. I do a lit­tle bit on Work Stew over the week­ends, but for the most part I try to unplug from it—partly so that my fam­ily can have a break from see­ing me attached to a screen and also so that I can think about where it should go next … and by “next” I mean in the next week or so.

And then, like Car­olyn, she headed straight for the whys:

Two rea­sons: 1) I love it and 2) it helps me. To elab­o­rate on point one: the three things I want from life are Con­nec­tion, Flow, and Won­der. Work Stew allows me to con­nect with won­der­ful peo­ple in mean­ing­ful ways. Writ­ing and edit­ing are very reli­able sources of Flow for me. And the chance to learn how all these dif­fer­ent peo­ple are grap­pling with arguably the most fun­da­men­tal and uni­ver­sal of questions—What should I do with my life?—well that’s  this heathen’s ver­sion of church! Truly, I’m filled with a deep sense of won­der when I think through the 100+ sto­ries the con­trib­u­tors have told in essays or interviews. 

And on point two: I find other people’s sto­ries not only won­drous, but help­ful. On a very prac­ti­cal level, Work Stew has helped me to think more cre­atively about my own (decades-old) work conun­drums. I still stew, of course, but more pro­duc­tively and pleas­antly than ever before. 

As I read this, some­thing clicked into place. We can talk about time man­age­ment and pri­or­i­ties and hours of sleep, but in the end, the bot­tom line: There isn’t really a “how.” There isn’t enough time, but you do it any­way.  You write because not writ­ing sim­ply isn’t a viable option.

By far, the hard­est time dur­ing my long stretch of unem­ploy­ment was early on when there wasn’t a sin­gle soli­tary thing that I really wanted to do. Noth­ing called to me. I didn’t have a why. In ret­ro­spect, I can see that this was just part of my tran­si­tion, but at the time, I felt myself veer­ing towards hopelessness.

There needs to be a why. There always needs to be a why. And when the why is strong enough, it pro­pels us into the how.

Gratitude for what I have – and also for what I did not

Vintage Thanksgiving Day Postcard

This has been a year of big changes for me, most of them for the good. After three years of under and unem­ploy­ment, I rejoined the work­force this Sep­tem­ber in a full-time job that, I’m happy to say, seems to be going quite well. While I miss the daily rural beauty of west­ern Mass, I’m also deriv­ing real (if sur­pris­ing) plea­sure from being back in a city. Plus friends and a weekly UMass Amherst teach­ing gig still draw me back on a reg­u­lar basis.

My sit­u­a­tion at this time last year was very dif­fer­ent – as reflected in the title of last year’s hol­i­day post: Thanks­giv­ing in Plan B Nation (or how to be grate­ful when you don’t feel grate­ful). I had just started this blog – that post was its fifth – and was still hav­ing a hard time mak­ing sense of my life’s tra­jec­tory. I’m doing what? I’m liv­ing where? All that work, all those cre­den­tials, and I’ve ended up here?

This year, I have no trou­ble tap­ping into grat­i­tude: Work, friends, writ­ing, home – all of it, right at the moment, feels pretty good, a tes­ta­ment to how sud­denly life can turn around.

But along with these obvi­ous rea­sons, I’m grate­ful for some­thing more: I’m grate­ful both for what I have now and for what I didn’t have then.

I’m grate­ful for how this time in the jobs wilder­ness forced me to expand my sense of who I am apart from my credentials.

I’m grate­ful for the ways it led me to become braver as a writer – to take risks that I likely wouldn’t oth­er­wise have taken.

I’m grate­ful for this blog and other writ­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties – for the intel­lec­tual sus­te­nance, sup­port, and friend­ships, con­nec­tions that I am tak­ing with me into this next stage of life.

I’m grate­ful for hav­ing had a chance to move to the coun­try and deepen my ties to a part of the world I love.

I’m grate­ful for the ways this stretch of life fos­tered greater com­pas­sion for mil­lions of peo­ple strug­gling for rea­sons that are often largely (or entirely) beyond their control.

And most of all, I’m grate­ful for the fact that I can feel grate­ful – for the fact that I had the resources to nav­i­gate these chal­lenges with­out being crushed by them. In that, I was very, very lucky. Many, of course, are not.  As I look to the future in Plan B Nation, grat­i­tude strikes me as an excel­lent foun­da­tion for think­ing about how to change this.

My Plan B Nation story — and ours

rock climbing is fun!

There are times you look back and say: “Why was I so freaked out? That wasn’t such a big deal.”

And there are times you look back and say: “I can’t believe I did that.”

The past few months put me squarely in the lat­ter camp. I feel a bit as if I’ve doggedly scaled a steep and treach­er­ous incline. Peer­ing down from the sum­mit, my stom­ach flips as I gauge the pre­cip­i­tous drop, the jagged rocks below.

Metaphors aside, here are the facts: Over the course of about six weeks – mid-August to late Sep­tem­ber – I applied for and accepted a full-time job, packed up my two-bedroom-with-basement rental in west­ern Mass, found a new apart­ment in Boston (and this was in Sep­tem­ber when, as real­tors repeat­edly told me, EVERYTHING is gone), moved, and started the afore­men­tioned job. Oh, and I also defended a case in hous­ing court and began teach­ing a weekly sem­i­nar at UMass Amherst, a solid four-hour roundtrip from where I now live. Not sur­pris­ingly, I’ve yet to unpack, and my apart­ment resem­bles a cross between a pre-renovation Bram­ford (shout-out to Rosemary’s Baby fans) and a hoarder’s stor­age unit.

Given the level of ambi­ent chaos, it’s also not sur­pris­ing that this blog went silent in early Sep­tem­ber. I was last heard from on Sep­tem­ber 9, when I wrote about los­ing 20 pounds on the stress-induced Blow-Up-Your-Life Diet. And as I’ve stum­bled through the early stages of life in a new neigh­bor­hood – How do I reg­is­ter to vote? Where is the clos­est dry cleaner? And, per­haps most impor­tantly, where do I get good cof­fee? – I’ve felt that I sim­ply don’t have the band­width to blog as well.

I say “felt” because it recently struck me that there’s more to it than this. It’s not just that I’ve been crazy busy, though that’s cer­tainly true. It’s also that I’ve lost my sto­ry­line, the iden­tity that’s defined me.

Hard as unem­ploy­ment was (and it was plenty hard), it ulti­mately launched me into a new life – and a new iden­tity. As I chron­i­cled my expe­ri­ence of the Great Reces­sion, first in Salon here and here and later on this blog, I found new sources of mean­ing and new sources of pride.The per­son I became was braver and stronger than the per­son I’d been. She was also a more con­fi­dent writer and a more com­pas­sion­ate per­son. “I’m the poster girl for fail­ure!” I quipped to a friend some months back. But by then I didn’t mean fail­ure as fail­ure: I meant fail­ure as a kind of suc­cess – fail­ure as the path to a life no less rich for hav­ing been unchosen.

Last month, in a piece on the New York Times Moth­er­lode blog, K.J. Dell’Antonia reflected on the chal­lenges of stay-at-home par­ents seek­ing to return to the work­force. Not hav­ing kids myself, it’s some­thing I likely wouldn’t have read, except for the fact that K.J. kindly pointed read­ers to this blog, sug­gest­ing that they might ben­e­fit from think­ing about work issues in a broader con­text. To par­ents feel­ing regret for deci­sions made years ear­lier, she offered these wise words: “It’s not just that ‘what’s done is done,’ but that the way you really feel about your years and choices is col­ored by your cur­rent discouragement.”

I can think of no more impor­tant reminder. Where we are now is not where we’ll be in a week or a month or a year. Even when changes are mostly pos­i­tive, as mine have been lately, find­ing the new story takes time. In any big tran­si­tion – and being on my sec­ond in the past four years and my [insert large num­ber here] since col­lege, I feel I can speak with some author­ity – a crit­i­cal piece involves mak­ing sense of the unfold­ing plot­line. Who am I, now that I’m no longer the Har­vard grad-turned-chronicler-of-unemployment? Who am I, now that I’m back in the work­force and trans­planted back to Boston? I am the per­son I was before, plus the per­son I became dur­ing those years, plus the per­son I’m becom­ing. What is her story?

That’s what I’m fig­ur­ing out now.

Job? Check.

Bolso pistacho

I am among the lucky.

After some three years of freelance-punctuated unem­ploy­ment, next month I’ll be return­ing to work. And not only will I have a full-time job, I’ll also have the oppor­tu­nity to work with peo­ple I really like on issues that really mat­ter. As a mem­ber of the Har­vard School of Pub­lic Health’s exter­nal rela­tions team, I’ll have the priv­i­lege of sup­port­ing glob­ally sig­nif­i­cant work in areas rang­ing from dis­ease pre­ven­tion to diet and nutri­tion to health care policy.

I feel both for­tu­nate and grate­ful – espe­cially given my appar­ent demo­graphic handicap.

As the New York Times reported in May, “[a] worker between ages 50 and 61 who has been unem­ployed for 17 months has only about a 9 per­cent of find­ing a new job in the next three months.” (While I’m at the low-end of that range, I’m squarely within it.)  And if that’s not enough: The num­ber of unem­ployed peo­ple between the ages of 50 and 65 has more than dou­bled since the onset of the Great Recession.

The result is noth­ing short of a national emer­gency,” the arti­cle con­tin­ued. “Mil­lions of work­ers have been dis­con­nected from the work force, and pos­si­bly even from soci­ety. If they are not recon­nected, the costs to them and to soci­ety will be grim.”

Given the focus of my new job, it seems fit­ting to point out that unem­ploy­ment is a press­ing pub­lic health issue. To wit, the Times cites stud­ies link­ing unem­ploy­ment to can­cer, heart dis­ease, and psy­chi­atric prob­lems. One study esti­mated a 50 to 100 per­cent increase in death rates for con­sis­tently employed older men imme­di­ately after a job loss.

While my own story has been less har­row­ing health-wise, these years have unques­tion­ably been the most chal­leng­ing of my life. And as I wrote in Salon last fall, “Cop­ing with pro­longed job­less­ness is hugely demand­ing .…Two years of job hunt­ing has required infi­nitely more of me than any of my lauded past achievements.”

That said, while I wouldn’t have cho­sen it, I can’t say that I entirely regret the past three years. There’s some­thing to be said for hav­ing been swept up in the larger story, for lessons that can come in no other way than liv­ing into them. For all my Har­vard degrees and impres­sive resume, I was not immune – nor do I think I should have been. I’m reminded of an inter­view with the late actor Christo­pher Reeve after the acci­dent that ren­dered him quad­ri­plegic. Asked whether he some­times asked “Why me?” Reeve responded: “Why not me?”

Cut loose from expec­ta­tions, I also found a new voice as a writer – I stopped wor­ry­ing about what peo­ple would think and started tak­ing big­ger risks. This was a tremen­dous gift and one that I carry with me. As I wrote here, blog­ging changed my life, and I’m deeply grate­ful to all of you who’ve shared this space with me over the past nine months. I can’t imag­ine the past year with­out Plan B Nation – or with­out you, its readers.

Now that you have a job, will you keep writ­ing the blog?” a friend asked curiously.

My answer: Absolutely.

Going back to work feels like reach­ing home in a storm. I’m grate­ful for the shel­ter, grate­ful for the sus­te­nance. But out­side, the gales are still blow­ing, and many more are home­less. We’re all still liv­ing in Plan B Nation, whether we see it or not.

Notice to Quit

Two days ago, I arrived home to find two mis­sives stuck in my front door. The first was a lovely mes­sage from neigh­bors invit­ing me for drinks before a book­store read­ing that night. The sec­ond was not so lovely: I’d been served with a 30-day Notice to Quit, the first stage of evic­tion proceedings.

The legal notice wasn’t alto­gether unex­pected –  for var­i­ous (good) rea­sons, I’ve been unwill­ing to sign a lease for the upcom­ing year, and I knew that the own­ers weren’t happy that I’d opted to go month-to-month.

But “not unex­pected” isn’t the same as “totally fine.”  I could feel my whole body clench­ing as I thought about what came next.

By the time we got to the book­store, I’d calmed down a bit, bol­stered by my neigh­bors’ warmth and con­cern, as well as their canapés. Still, I was feel­ing no small dis­tress when I bumped into my writer friend Cathi (on break from her own author tour for her ter­rific new novel Gone).

That’s great for your blog!” was her wry response, after my story spilled out.

The words caught me by sur­prise — and the sur­prise itself sur­prised me. She’d reminded me of some­thing I already knew. Why hadn’t I thought of that?

If you’ve been read­ing this blog, you know that I’ve been giv­ing a lot of thought to the power of writ­ing to trans­form painful expe­ri­ences. I’ve writ­ten about it here and also here and here. It’s not a goal I set out to achieve but some­thing I’ve sim­ply watched hap­pen. A won­der­ful and mys­te­ri­ous cre­ative alchemy.

But this time, that go-to strat­egy had totally eluded me. I couldn’t help being curi­ous about why that was.

We grow through stretch-not-break chal­lenges. That was one of the first thoughts that came to mind, an idea gleaned some years back in an adult psy­chol­ogy class. Too few chal­lenges? We stag­nate. Too many? We get overwhelmed.

Legal pro­ceed­ings are stress­ful in the best of cir­cum­stances, and for me the push to move tops off a num­ber of other stres­sors. A sick cat. Sick me. An ongo­ing search for work. The more I thought about this, the more things fell into place. That I’d stall out when con­fronted with another big chal­lenge makes total sense.

Accept­ing – mak­ing peace with – this fact feels like a first step for­ward. Stress is hard. Stress takes a toll. That’s a fact of life. Feel­ing unmoored and being slow on the uptake, is sim­ply cause and effect. So that’s what I’m sit­ting with, this sense of how things are. I have no idea what comes next, but this is where it starts.

40 ways to appreciate a kidney stone

At the er for a migraine

I wake up a lit­tle before seven with a sharp pain in my lower back. Just that old pulled mus­cle act­ing up again—but man, this time it really hurts. I gob­ble a bunch of Advil and hob­ble back to bed.

A few hours later, I’m up again. While the pain has abated, it’s still there, and I briefly won­der if I should mosey over to the Emer­gency Room. But no, I’m being a wimp. I pop a cou­ple more Advil, pack up my com­puter, and head off to a café. It’s Monday—Memorial Day—but I didn’t make any plans, in part because I really need to motor through a bunch of work.

I’m eat­ing my crois­sant and sip­ping cof­fee when the pain washes over me again. I look up from my lap­top screen. This really doesn’t feel right. And yes, it seems silly to go to the ER because of back pain, but you know what? I don’t care.

Well, as you’ve likely fig­ured out by now, this wasn’t just my ancient sports injury giv­ing me grief. It was a kid­ney stone. I’m still not sure exactly what this is—something about a cal­ci­fied some­thing try­ing to find its way out—but I do have one salient piece of advice:  Refrain from get­ting one.

It’s really good you came in,” said the med­ical tech­ni­cian, who started the IV drip to admin­is­ter pain meds and fluids.

I hadn’t brought any­thing to read, but I did have my iPhone. “Hol­i­day greet­ings from the Coo­ley Dick emer­gency room! Work­ing hypoth­e­sis: kid­ney stones. #tmi,” I typed into Facebook.

Thanks to social media, I had instant company.

I read a great essay a few days ago about how you can make dif­fi­cult expe­ri­ences bet­ter by craft­ing the story that you’ll later tell about them. Or some­thing like that,” my writer friend Megan quipped.  She was talk­ing about this, and in fact, I already was.

At the time the pain struck, I was fin­ish­ing up a col­umn for Sec­on­dAct about doing a Plan B Nation-style Hap­pi­ness Project. The idea, of course, grew out of lawyer-turned-writer Gretchen Rubin’s #1 New York Times best­seller The Hap­pi­ness Project. I’ve some­times jok­ingly call Plan B Nation  “a Hap­pi­ness Project for the rest of us”—for those who don’t already have Rubin’s pic­ture per­fect life—and I wanted to write about that.

But lying in the ER, my mind wan­dered to two of Rubin’s pre­vi­ous books—Forty Ways to Look at Win­ston Churchill and Forty Ways to Look at JFK.  And then: Forty Ways to Appre­ci­ate a Kid­ney Stone. The title just popped into my head, and I decided to make a list. (If you’re inter­ested, you can read it below. In fact, I only came up with 25, but in def­er­ence to whim­si­cal­ity, I left the title unchanged.)

Two days later, I was telling my writer friend Lisa about my mis­ad­ven­ture. “I was so con­vinced it was that sports injury that I blocked out any other option.”

As it hap­pened, Lisa had her own such story. Walk­ing down a dark Brook­lyn street a num­ber of years back, she caught sight of three suspicious-looking char­ac­ters ambling towards her. If you see some­thing sus­pi­cious, always look at your watch. A friend had described hav­ing done just that after see­ing a plane fly low over Manhattan’s Twin Tow­ers. Now Lisa did it her­self. In an instant, she saw her­self on the wit­ness stand, Law and Order style. She alone would have the facts! And then, she was mugged.

Oh! I’m not a wit­ness! I’m the vic­tim!” was her first aston­ished thought.

You might say our minds have minds of their own. They assume “facts,” cre­ate sto­ries, and often won’t shut up until they get us to act accord­ingly.  At times, this is a great thing. Our lives depend on it. But help­ful as our minds may try to be, they some­times lead us astray. Their first impulse isn’t always the right one. That’s why we need to keep them open.

Forty Ways to Appre­ci­ate a Kid­ney Stone

1. It wasn’t some­thing worse

2. I got to meet the super nice super kind peo­ple in the Coo­ley Dick emer­gency room

3. I wasn’t out of town

4. I didn’t have the dis­ap­point­ment of can­celling hol­i­day plans (had been feel­ing a lit­tle glum about not hav­ing any. Now I was glad.)

5.  It didn’t hap­pen right before a work deadline

6. I wasn’t screw­ing up any­one else’s hol­i­day plans

7. It gave me an oppor­tu­nity to test my story-creating tool—and find it worked again

8. It led me to appre­ci­ate health in a way I hadn’t the day before

9. It gave me another way to reflect on the qual­ity of open­ness that I’ve been mulling; the abil­ity to see out­side expec­ta­tions. In brief, my ini­tial ten­dency was to attribute this to a flar­ing of a sports injury. In fact, it was some­thing different.

10. I told a nurse about Gree­nie pill pock­ets for her aging cat

11. I appre­ci­ated liv­ing in a place with easy access to med­ical care

12. I now know what these symp­toms mean in the event they strike again

13. I know I should be drink­ing more water.

14. Another way to con­nect with friends

15. It gave me a chance to see that, at least some­times, I’m get­ting bet­ter than I used to be about life not going accord­ing to my plans.

16. It gave me a sense that I’m not as much of a pain wimp as I’ve always thought of myself as being.

17. I didn’t have to take the heavy duty painkillers.

18. I had the heavy duty painkillers in reserve, which was reassuring.

19. Appre­ci­ate FB—didn’t have to call any one per­son but had com­mu­nity sup­port, felt not alone + knew I had some­one to call on if it turned out I did need help

20. Friends who offered to help

21. Made me appre­ci­ate insurance

22. Made me appre­ci­ate Mass, where health insur­ance is affordable

23. Made me appre­ci­ate my apartment—quiet, rest­ful, safe space to recuperate.

24. Appre­ci­ate my car—that I was able to drive myself to the ER

25. Writ­ing about this gives me a chance to con­nect with others—and maybe help some­one else who ends up in this place in the future. (Research sug­gests that help­ing oth­ers makes us hap­pier than doing things for ourselves.)