A girl and her cat say good-bye

Clarence

Clarence

He loved dried apricots, rotisserie chicken, and sleeping in the sink. He detested other members of his species. He cost $70, shots included, and I acquired him back in 1996 while still working in Manhattan as a lawyer.

It wasn’t my idea to get a cat. The directive came from two separate friends, both exasperated by my failure to get over a not-so-recent breakup. They thought that a cat would be good for me. I suspect they hoped it would shut me up—or at least shift the conversation.

He came home with me in a taxi cradled in my blue Coach purse, having won release from a cardboard box through piteous kitten mews. An antic feather-light ball of fluff, he developed a disconcerting habit of racing through my Upper West Side apartment and hurtling off the bed, legs splayed in all directions, nothing to break his fall. I named him Clarence—not for Clarence Darrow, the most frequent of all first guesses, but for Clarence, the disheveled Angel Second Class who struggles to rescue George Bailey from despair in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In time he grew regal and immense (“large-boned,” my father called him). “Such a small tongue—and so much kitty,” a boyfriend once observed, watching the cat’s prolonged and painstaking grooming process. “Clarence is a ceremonial cat–not for everyday use.”

Seventeen – almost 18 – years is a very long time, and we went through a lot together Mr. C and I. We moved from New York to western Massachusetts to Cambridge then back to western Mass and finally to Brookline. I quit law, published two novels, cycled through jobs and unemployment. Through every challenge, every disappointment, the cat was there beside me—splendidly furry and impervious, purring and reassuring.

He’d been losing weight for more than a year, and it was clear something was wrong.  Kidney failure was one possibility. Cancer was another. Diagnostic tests were inconclusive. I began giving him subcutaneous fluids to help with hydration, pills to stimulate his appetite. (“You . . . you are like a nurse for your cat!” sputtered a courtly Latin gentleman on hearing of my ministrations.) Then, six weeks ago, with his appetite flagging, came another round of tests. The verdict: Late-stage cancer, in both his abdomen and lungs. When I brought him home, groggy and weak, from the hated animal hospital, I whispered to him a promise that he’d never have to go back.

I knew that I wanted him to die at home, but that’s all I knew. I didn’t know what that would entail, or what I should do or when. Not surprisingly, it was one of those times when the Internet proves a godsend. With a bit of searching, I discovered Harbor Veterinary House Calls, which not only does home visits but also offers pet hospice care. As the lovely and kind Dr. Maija Mikkola Curtis explained on her first home visit, hospice care for animals—as for humans—is about quality of life. She told me to think of her as a partner, to email her if I had any questions at all about ongoing treatment or next steps.

The next weeks were pretty good ones for Clarence—lots and lots of rotisserie chicken, tuna, and attention—but by the end of last week, he began a precipitous decline. He stopped eating and took to retreating to the darkest reaches of a closet. Already frail, having dropped more than half of his weight in the course of the past 18 months, he grew even weaker and frailer. With a heavy heart, I contacted Maija, and she came out the next evening.

We watched Clarence for a while, Maija and I, as I reached a final decision. “The spark has gone,” she said quietly. I had to agree. The process of euthanasia was simple and very peaceful. I’d already been saying good-bye for a very long time, and I petted and whispered my love to him as his life ebbed away.

Early last month—shortly after learning how very sick Clarence was—I  happened on an advice column about a guy who was spending thousands of dollars to keep his cat alive despite living on a disability pension and, from the perspective of his best friend (the letter writer), having “no extra cash for luxuries.” I loved the columnist’s response:

It may be that your friend’s relationship with his cat is something he truly cannot live without; it may be that he feels something toward this cat that is beyond the understanding of outsiders and without the protection of social sanction or naming. . . . [P]erhaps eventually we will come to see that a man’s relationship with a cat is not simply that of a person to a luxury item, but something else, something sacred.  

I’m down with that.

The house is very quiet when I get home these days. “Where’s the boy?” I call. Not because I’ve forgotten but because it’s what I do. I’ve also taken to scrolling through Petfinder, gazing at the pictures of the countless cats waiting to find homes. There’s Glad who reminds me oh-so-much of Clarence. (Would that be strange or good?) There’s sweet-faced Herman with his gorgeous coat and playful goofball Mr. Then I look at a photo of Clarence that Monica took in April.  So present, so very there. He was—is—a beloved being. You are a beloved being.

Follow Your Heart 2.0

Big Heart of Art - 1000 Visual Mashups

In 1998, I walked away from a six-figure job practicing law to write a novel. I had never written a novel before and had, what is in retrospect, a laughably (or rather frighteningly) small cushion of savings. A year later, I had a lucrative deal with a major publisher.  My first novel was a People magazine Page-Turner of the Week. We sold tons of foreign rights.

Do what you love, and the money will follow. Along with being the title of a popular self-help book, it sums up a distinctive ethos of a distinctive time in American history—an Oprah-fied vision of possibilities where the only limits were the boundaries of our dreams.

Times have changed.

Looking back, the Follow Your Heart love fest was a reflection—you might say a symptom—of an economy in overdrive. The widespread failure to see this link was a significant if not surprising vestige of ways of thinking that have deep roots in western culture. It is the same point made by any number of characters in Jane Austen’s novels and stated with particular clarity in E.M. Forster’s Howards End. “You and I and the Wilcoxes stand upon money as upon islands,” Margaret Schlegel tells her aunt. “It is so firm beneath our feet that we forget its existence.”

The danger of such forgetfulness is now apparent from any number of cautionary tales, most recently Elizabeth Wurtzel’s meltdown in the pages of New York magazine. “I was alone in a lonely apartment with only a stalker to show for my accomplishments and my years,” writes the bestselling author of Prozac Nation and graduate of Yale Law School, now in her mid-40s. “I have no husband, no children, no real estate, no stocks, no bonds, no investments, no 401(k), no CDs, no IRAs, no emergency fund—I don’t even have a savings account. It’s not that I have not planned for the future; I have not planned for the present.”

And should this example not be sufficiently chilling, we also have the object lessons of once high-flying Oprah-endorsed celebrities brought low by financial missteps. Most visible among these is Sarah Ban Breathnach, author of the blockbuster Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy, Oprah’s favorite book of the year for 1996. After making a fortune proclaiming the joys of simple living, Breathnach went on a spending spree, with purchases including Sir Isaac Newton’s “chapel” in England and Marilyn Monroe’s furs. She ended up with nothing. (While Simple Abundance spent years on bestseller lists, her December 2010 comeback effort—Peace and Plenty: Finding Your Way to Financial Serenity—is ranked 396,776 on Amazon.com as of this writing.)

My own story lacks both the highs and the lows of either Wurtzel’s or Breathnach’s— after publishing two books and struggling with a third, I ultimately made my way back into the paid workforce—but looking back, I see a similar thread. I too had a tendency to see the present as prelude, to live as if success, once achieved, laid the groundwork for the future. (Which is true to some extent and in some ways but not to the extent or in the ways that some of us seemed to assume.)

All of which goes to explain my interest in a trend that I’ve taken to calling Follow Your Heart 2.0. In this iteration, we no longer have a stark dichotomy between idealism and practicality. Rather, the new model recognizes that contentment generally requires stability as well as passion. It’s Follow Your Heart remixed for the 21st century.

An especially clear formulation of what I’m talking about appears in The Start-up of You, a book by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and co-author Ben Casnocha. The pair urge their readers to consider three interlocking pieces when making work-related decisions: Assets, aspirations and values, and market realities. Assets are the resources we bring to the table—our talents, education, and skills, as well as our bank accounts. The other two categories are pretty much what they sound like.

Significantly, the authors aren’t telling readers to forget about their dreams. Rather, they’re saying that dreams exist within a larger framework. Depending on your goals–and depending on your needs–context, including the market, may be critically important. “Of course, it’s worth mentioning that [her] passion is mobile payment systems,” Work Stew blogger Kate Gace Walton remarked dryly of one successful entrepreneur. All dreams are not created equal.

For those of us with ample stocks of education and social capital, the late 90s economy was forgiving and often fun. Risks were not so risky. You could always get a job. The economy circa 2013 is a very different place. “$100,000 is the new $300,000,” one literary agent remarked to me, shortly after the Great Recession began. Five years later, it seems increasingly unlikely that we’re ever going back.

More and more, I’m seeing Follow Your Heart 2.0 infuse the popular conversation—and I think that’s a very good thing. It’s apparent in Marci Alboher’s excellent new Encore Career Handbook, which acknowledges the critical role that finances play in making a transition to more meaningful work in the second half of life. It’s also central to Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, which makes the case that passion most often follows hard work and success, not the reverse.

As for me, I’m older and wiser (I think), but I still have a strong inner sense of direction, and I struggle when circumstances channel my energies into other things. For many of us, work that feels meaningful is a big part of what makes life worthwhile, and there may be times when pursuing that is worth almost any sacrifice.  But today, the stakes are different, maybe higher, for many of us. Happy endings are harder to come by. Uncertainty is guaranteed.

Purpose. Passion. Paycheck. (Plus a book giveaway.)

Encore Career HandbookI first encountered the remarkable Judy Cockerton when she spoke at Harvard Law School, where I was working at the time. Her topic was Treehouse, the innovative community she founded in Easthampton, Mass., where families adopting kids from foster care live side by side in a neighborhood setting with people over 55 who serve as honorary grandparents.

My first thought: “This is terrific! I want to work with her.” (Which, years later, I did, taking on several small projects as a volunteer. I also wrote this.)

That reaction has been widespread—and this year Judy (now my friend), was one of five people to receive the $100,000 Purpose Prize for 2012, an award for social entrepreneurs over the age of 60. For me, as for so many others, her vision, commitment, and determination to “reinvent foster care” are ongoing inspirations, and I’m thrilled that she’s getting the recognition she so deserves.

But if Judy is unique—and she most certainly is—her broader aspirations are not. Behind the high-profile Purpose Prize is a larger trend, as growing numbers of baby boomers seek work that is both personally meaningful and serves a larger good. Promoting this trend is the goal of Encore.org, the nonprofit that awards the Purpose Prize, and the topic of an endlessly useful new book by Encore.org Vice President (and former New York Times columnist) Marci Alboher.

Marci Alboher

Marci Alboher

Being something of an encore careerist myself—as well as a fan of Marci’s previous book on “slash” careers that combine two vocations—I couldn’t wait to get my hands The Encore Career Handbook: How To Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life, out just this month. I wasn’t disappointed.

First and foremost, the book is jam-packed with excellent practical guidance. Here are three big-picture suggestions that especially resonated with me:

Get comfortable with uncertainty:  Uncertainty is part of any transition—and moving into an Encore career is a transition. The good news is you’ve likely already had some experience, transitions being a hallmark of life in Plan B Nation. I think about this a lot (as you know if you read this blog). I’ve written about transitions here. And here and here and here.

Get connected:  In the end, it’s all about the people you know—and those you meet. If you’re lucky, you (like me) will find this a lot of fun. Marci suggests a number of specific ways to engage your friends and others in the encore career change process. Strategies include using others as a sounding board (akin to the idea of having a personal board of directors), working with career coaches, joining a group or taking a class, volunteering as a way to try on a job or sector, and building vibrant networks (both virtual and real-life). I’ve long been a big believer in always erring in favor of connection, and there are some great ideas here about how to go about that.

Get a handle on your finances: An encore career search means seeking “purpose, passion, and a paycheck,” as Marci puts it. But exactly what that paycheck needs to look like will depend on your situation. Encore careers often—though not always—pay less than the jobs they follow. What kind of trade-offs are you willing to make? What is your risk tolerance? Can you think of creative ways to bring in extra cash or, conversely, to reduce expenses? (The book offers many suggestions.)

There is also lots of excellent nuts-and-bolts stuff: How to go about preparing encore career resumes and cover letters (along with samples), extensive resource and reading lists, basic business planning guidance, and an appendix of promising encore jobs.

Once you start paying attention, encore careers are everywhere. In my own office at Harvard School of Public Health, my colleague Patti came out of the world of hedge funds. “I didn’t want to die having only been a banker,” she said wryly over a recent lunch. My colleague Chris, like me, spent time in corporate law.

That said, encore careers often don’t come easy, even for those with excellent credentials willing to take a pay cut. In his searingly honest Diary of a Company Man: Losing a Job, Finding a Life, former Time Warner executive James Kunen describes his uncertain path to ultimately fulfilling work teaching English as a second language. “Everyone loves doing something—I love reading at the beach—but not everybody loves doing something that you can get paid for,” he reflects at one point. Closer to home, my friend Kenny—whom I met when I interviewed him for a Psychology Today piece on career choices—had a hard time finding public school teaching work after completing Teach for America training in his 50s.

But just because something is hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible—or that it’s the wrong thing to do. And thanks to Marci Alboher’s excellent book, it’s now easier than it was.

Want to win a copy of The Encore Career Handbook? Thanks to Workman Publishing, I have two to give away. Tweet a link to this story with the hashtag #encorebookwin. I’ll pick the winners next weekend.

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.

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.

This is what transitions look like

Over the last couple of months, I’ve lost more than 20 pounds on what my friend Molly refers to as the Blow-Up-Your-Life Diet. I’ve been apartment searching in Boston, packing to move, preparing to start a new full-time job after three-plus years on my own, and starting to lead a seminar at UMass Amherst entitled, ironically enough, “Living Strategically.” (I taught my first class last week by the way. Let it be said: I love my students. And I love teaching.)

On second thought, “living strategically” isn’t so ironic after all. If not for the strategies I’ve learned, practiced – and blogged about here – over the past few years, I’d undoubtedly be in far worse shape than I am today.  Hard as things are right now – and they are pretty hard – I have tools and perspective.

That is when I remember to use them.

Last week, I was going through an especially difficult patch. I’d made the two-hour drive into Boston from western Mass based on a realtor’s promise to show me four to seven apartments only to discover on arrival that none of them accepted cats, despite my having clearly indicated that one would be coming with me. I start my Boston job a week from tomorrow. I still have no place to live, and once I find one, I’ll still have to move. It all began to seem utterly overwhelming. Was this whole thing a mistake? What had I been thinking?

And then, just in time, I remembered: This is what transitions look like. Not in every specific, of course, but in the experience.

In life coach Martha Beck’s Change Cycle model of transitions, I’m right on track, smack dab in the middle of Square 1 (Death and Rebirth). “The bizarre, formless, zero-identity netherworld of Square One is what anthropologists call a “liminal period,” Beck writes in Finding Your Own North Star, describing such a time as one “where you’re on the threshold between identities, neither inside nor out, neither one thing nor the other.”

She continues: “During most of Square One, you’ll probably feel panicky, groundless, and desperate. Problems and complications seem to attack from all sides: big ones, little ones, strange and unfamiliar ones. You rush around in frenzied activity but feel as though you’re getting absolutely nothing done.”

Yes! And yes and yes. That is exactly how I’ve been feeling.

For his part, transitions guru William Bridges describes this uncomfortable stretch as “the neutral zone,” a “period of confusion and distress” that follows an ending and precedes a new beginning. He devotes an entire chapter of Transitions to this difficult time, including a number of suggestions to ease the way.

The first of these: Surrender — we must “give in to the emptiness and stop struggling to escape it,” he counsels.

If you’re caught in a riptide, you’re supposed to stop fighting and let yourself drift. If you’re facing an angry bear, you should lie still, pretending to be dead. (At least, this is what I’ve always heard; in the interests of full disclosure, I’ve tested neither of these.) Both of these responses would seem to go against our basic survival instincts. I imagine that, in the instant, knowledge is often a poor match for adrenaline-powered impulse.

But, as I know from long experience, the first impulse isn’t always the right one.  As I continue through this month of dramatic change and uprooting, I’ll be calling on the collective wisdom of all who have gone before me (and here, I include not only others but also my own past selves.) While surrender doesn’t come naturally, it’s nonetheless what’s called for.

Life Experiment #9:  “The present moment is the mother of the future. Take care of the mother, and the mother will take care of the child.” I love this line from one of my Buddhist teachers. The focus of this month is surrendering to – and caring for – the present moment, the only thing we ever have to work with.

On stress. And coping. Plus a housing court update.

NIGHT

There’s a famous study showing that when stressful life events pile up, illness is more likely. This is true whether the events are good are bad. Among the 43 life events studied, marriage and outstanding achievement take their place along with divorce and job loss.

I don’t even want to think about how I’d score on this test right now (though feel free to test yourself.)  Over the next month, I start two new jobs – along with my new fulltime job at the Harvard School of Public Health, I’ll be teaching one night a week at UMass Amherst. I’m thrilled about both of these. But man, it is a lot. On top of that, I need to find a place to live in Boston, pack up my Northampton apartment, and move. My cat’s been sick. There have been family problems. Also: I’m exhausted.

The course I’ll be teaching is called “Living Strategically,” and it considers ways to thrive amidst the challenges that come our way. Talk about teaching what you need to learn! For obvious reasons, this is a topic that deeply interests me, and one that I never tire of exploring in this blog among other places. There. Are. Tools. This is the core insight.

These days, one idea is proving especially helpful, and I’m doing my best to remember it at every opportunity: Feelings and thoughts are not facts. They are simply thoughts and feelings. It helps to repeat this when I’m hit by overwhelm, when I can’t imagine how I’ll ever get through all that needs to get done. I think about my friend Molly, who made a similar transition last year. If she could do it, I can do it. I will do it.

I’m also doing my best to lean into the good.  To remember that the stress – while intense right now – is far from the whole story. For one thing, I’m going back to work! This is a great thing. And while the changes under way feel overwhelming, they are not as extreme as they might be. I’m moving back to an area where I’ve lived before. I’ll even be working for the same institution, just at a different school. I’ll still be an easy day trip from the lovely place where I’ve been living and love. (Some brave souls even do a daily commute, though I find this hard to imagine.)

Also good: The eviction saga is over; housing court is behind me. I got what I needed – time to pack and move – and can focus on the future.

While chronic stressors often predict illness, it’s not inevitable, as shown by research exploring the topic of stress hardiness.  There. Are. Tools. There are strategies. I doubt that I’ll ever remember these weeks with any special fondness. But in 60 days this will all be behind me. That is my new mantra.

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.

Becoming the sun

Sun and Leaves

A decade or so back, during a strange and difficult time, I paid a visit to a therapist who came well-recommended by friends. While I remember very little of the session a single line from our conversation has haunted me for years. “You’re like the moon, and you need to be like the sun!” His voice carried both urgency and what struck me as exasperation, and at the time, it left me reeling, baffled, and not a little chastened.

You need to be like the sun. What was he talking about? It was all that I could do at the time simply to keep afloat.

I left the office feeling overwhelmed. I never went back. Still, the fiercely spoken words somehow stayed with me. Over time, they came to serve as a sort of koan in times of distress and doubt. Over time, I began to listen, to ask what they have to teach me.

The moon takes on reflected light. The sun gives out its own. That was the first and most obvious association. Often the image rises up as I ponder a relationship, especially as I make (not always successful) efforts to choose more wisely.  What am I hoping to draw from another that I might become the source of? And this becoming-the-source-of, how might, I go about that?

I’ve been in a bit of a slump during the past week, hard to say exactly why. There are reasons — there are always reasons  — but sometimes they fade to the background, while at others (now for example), they take center stage.  Maybe it’s the heat wave of the past few days. Or coming to the end of a big project, with space opening up on the other side, yet to be filled. Maybe it’s the fact that I need to move house and have yet to figure out where. Maybe it’s a certain kind of aloneness that’s been weighing on me lately, coupled with a sadness around several friendships apparently on the wane. Most likely it’s a combination of these things and likely others too.

You’re like the moon, and you need to be like the sun. Yes, it’s about giving off light but also, I find myself thinking now, about occupying the center, not revolving around. I’m at the center of my own life. The sun is at the center.

Travels in Plan B Nation: 3 years, 5 lessons

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Last month—April 10, to be exact—marked the third anniversary of my exit from the salaried workforce and my entry into what I’ve taken to calling Plan B Nation. After four-plus years at Harvard Law School, where I’d handled speeches and other behind-the-scenes writing for then-Dean (now U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Elena Kagan, she decamped for Washington, D.C., and I decamped for parts unknown at the peak of the Great Recession.

It was, to put it diplomatically, not an easy time. The economy was in free fall, plus I had no idea what to do next. Which maybe wasn’t such a bad thing because, had I known what I wanted to do, I likely couldn’t have done it. (Did I mention the Great Recession?) Floundering in spring 2009 put me in excellent company. Yes, I was freaked out and unemployed, but I certainly wasn’t alone.

In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the road I’ve traveled since those anxiety-ridden days and feeling a lot of compassion for the me who so stolidly trudged through them. I’ve also been thinking about what I’ve learned and what might be worth sharing. Here are five of the biggest lessons that I still carry with me.

1.  Transitions take a long time.  

I’ve written about this before, and it’s a really important point.  In New Pas­sages, best­selling author Gail Sheehy ball­parks two years as the min­i­mum time needed to sta­bi­lize fol­low­ing a lay­off or other “life accident.”  Five to seven years is common.  A related point: Transitions tend to meander—to be less like ladders and more like the classic labyrinth, where you wind your way slowly towards the center, almost arrive, and then suddenly find yourself on the outer rim, and then, just as unpredictably, back at the center again. I often find it helpful to remind myself that this is just the nature of the beast.     

2.  Sometimes the grass is greener because it’s greener.  

I put off leaving the Boston area for more than a year on the theory that wherever you go, there you are. Could moving to another place really make me happier? I’m happy to say that the answer is an unequivocal Yes. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that moving to an area that I love is probably the single most important step I’ve taken to move my life forward.  In particular, moving to a place where I have a strong network of friends has made everything far easier—as well as a lot more fun.

3.  If you don’t know what to do for sure, start moving anyway.

Transitions, by their nature, generally involve a temporary loss of clear inner direction.  That was certainly the case for me: I was searching without really knowing what I was looking for (which, not surprisingly, made it really hard to find).

Looking back, one of the most useful things I did during this time was to take action even if nothing felt quite right—to experiment, try things out. That’s how I came (lackadaisically, glumly) to write my very first personal essay—which led to a blog on Huffington Post, which led to writing for Salon, which led to this blog, which led to writing for SecondAct (including Notes from Plan B Nation, my new monthly column), Psychology Today, and a bunch of other stuff, which, remarkably enough, actually does feel right and for which I feel really grateful.

And you don’t need to take my word for it: I’ve since come across similar advice in books by career guru Barbara Sher and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman. “You won’t encounter accidental good fortune—you won’t stumble on opportunities that rocket your career forward—if you’re lying in bed,” Hoffman writes in The Start-Up of You. “When you do something you stir the pot and introduce the possibility that seemingly random ideas, people, and places will collide and form new combinations and opportunities.” I couldn’t agree more.

4.  Be kind to yourself.

We’ve all heard a lot about mindfulness by now, but this quality doesn’t really get you very far unless it’s paired with self-compassion. Psychology professor Kristin Neff is a pioneering researcher on this topic, and her book Self Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind is geared to a popular audience and provides an excellent roadmap for further exploration.

5.  Let yourself be surprised.

The biggest difference between lucky and unlucky people may be that lucky people are open to seeing the unexpected. (For more on this, check out this reported research.)  Expanding your peripheral vision can do a lot to expand your opportunities.  I’ve found it to be useful—as well as fun—to consciously expect the unexpected. (Most recent example: I’m about to go off to look at a potential new home that I discovered last night on Facebook.)

Strangely enough, my Plan B Nation life has turned out to suit me far better than the life I had before. I’m finally doing work that feels both meaningful and creative. I have a great community in a place where I love living. The road I’ve traveled to get here was pretty remarkably hard, but that doesn’t tell me I did something wrong. It simply tells me that I’m human.