Putting off tomorrow.

“Procrastination is the thief of time.”

-Edward Young

Over and over and over again over these last two and a half years, I’ve reminded myself how precious time is; that it shouldn’t be wasted. After all, I’ve seen it in action: the way a mere phrase or phone call or the briefest of moments can permanently alter every cell in your body, so that afterwards you never think or dream or breathe the same way again. I don’t need anyone to tell me that all we have is this moment, this one, right now. I already know.

And yet. As I sit here, writing this to you, I am – at this very moment – procrastinating. I am putting off doing things that are important to me. Even after I resolved that I wouldn’t, I am still finding ways to stall. I am making excuses. Why?

I have a plan. It’s sort of epic. Can I tell you about it?

Ever since my mother died two and a half years ago, a story has been kicking around inside of my brain. Scenes of it play in my mind like a movie. It is a movie. Well, not yet. After mom died, I wrote the story in fits and starts – sketches of scenes, bits of dialogue. But I couldn’t really get a rhythm going because too much was happening. I was too messed up. I couldn’t see it or admit it at the time, but I was. My dad was sick, my grandmother was sick, the person I loved most in the world was abruptly gone with all kinds of questions surrounding her death, and oh, on a side note, my personal life was an utter disaster. My world had flipped upside down.

To make everything worse, I couldn’t write. I felt stupid, clumsy. My tongue was thick in my mouth. Words were stubborn, refusing to string together to form sentences. The thing that had always come easy for me, the thing I’d fallen back on when all else failed, had suddenly become impossible.

But little by little, it started to come back. I started writing again. And over the last two plus years, I have written a lot. I wrote while my life changed. I wrote through all kinds of moments – heartbreaking moments and sweet moments, laugh out loud moments and joyful moments. You see, once you get through the worst part of a trauma, once you realize it won’t actually kill you, once you realize that you still care enough to pick yourself up and keep on living, you become capable of experiencing profound joy. And it’s often joy where you wouldn’t expect it:  in small, seemingly insignificant moments that you never even realized were beautiful until you looked at them through the lens of loss. Even though you’re sadder and more broken, when you laugh you really mean it, and when you love you really mean it, and even though you wouldn’t wish what’s happened to you on anyone, your dirty little secret is that you don’t want to go back to the way you were before, because the old you was oblivious, fumbling around in the dark, while this you is awake to everything. And once you’ve woken up, you can’t go back to sleep.

But this is not meant to be a blog about loss, it’s meant to be a blog about procrastinating.  See? I’m doing it again.  OK, to get back to the point:  the story that has been kicking around in my head for the last two and a half years while I tried and failed at writing it is finally taking shape. It’s a screenplay of a movie that is based upon my life.

The story is set in Olympia, Washington, the town where I went to high school and where I plan to film the movie. That’s right, I’m going to make the movie myself. I know just enough about producing films to be terrified of how much work it will be, how much money it will cost, and how much I still need to learn. Basically, I know enough to know that I don’t know enough. Not yet.

But in allowing myself to feel overwhelmed about the filmmaking part before I’m even there yet, I’ve been putting off the step I’m on now, which is sort of crucial: finishing the script. I’m self-aware enough to recognize my own resistance, and resistance and I are currently locked in a daily tug of war.  I’ve got post it notes with motivational sayings all over my house, an accountability circle where I bring in pages of the script every week, and plans for a table read of the full script in May. But every day when it’s time for me to sit down and do my work, I’m like a petulant child who doesn’t want to go to school, looking for any excuse I can not to go.

What the hell is my problem? This story is important to me, and I want to tell it. Yes, writing it is hard. Yes, certain scenes aren’t coming out the way I want them to, at least not yet. But I’m making everything so much harder than it needs to be with my acrobatic stalling techniques. If writing this script is the thing that matters most to me, why will I do nearly anything to avoid working on it?

Maybe it’s the fear of failure thing. Maybe it’s the fear of success thing. Maybe it’s the fear that I’ll actually accomplish my goal and after all the blood, sweat and tears, I’ll get to the other side of it and realize that this process didn’t heal my life the way I’m hoping it will. Maybe I’m afraid that no matter what I do, nothing will ever change.

I think to some degree, my resistance is probably rooted in all of these things. But even though I’m scared, I’m also stubborn.  I’m going to battle through this, just like I’ve battled through everything else these last couple of years.  Because for all the challenges that lie ahead, I refuse to believe that I could have treaded through such deep water simply to give up. Our heroine battles through the worst experiences of her life, stands upon the precipice of utter despair, and then – throws in the towel. Now that would make a lousy movie.

If you’re anything like me – if you’re feeling overwhelmed by a big dream that you badly want to accomplish but don’t know where to start or what to do – this is what I suggest: start small. Break down your big dream into as many small tasks as you can, and just do one thing at a time. Do one small thing every day that keeps you moving forward. Don’t worry about what could go wrong in the future – it either will or it won’t and you’ll deal with it when you get there.  Just do what’s in front of you every day.

Now let’s see if I can take my own advice.

Until next time, friends.

Things my mother never did.

I think I know what’s wrong with me. No, that’s not true. I know I know what’s wrong with me. Or at least, I know one of the things that’s wrong with me. The Big Thing.

I have been putting off writing this, because the act of writing it, of putting it on paper, makes it a real thing. A real thing I can’t run away from, a real thing I’ve got to face. I’ve spent a lot of time over this last year 2014 alone; alone with myself and my thoughts, taking time and space – the likes of which I’d never allowed myself before – to process and to grieve a string of losses and difficult life events. And as 2014 drew to a close and I thought about the ways that I wanted 2015 to be different – and I want it to be different in just about every which way – I kept coming back to one thing: the truth must out.  We are only as sick as our secrets, and until I start telling the truth about the darkness – difficult as it may be – the darkness is going to continue to own me.

Summer 1988

So here goes. For as long as I can remember, I have been living with a tension between two powerful and conflicting emotions: anger and guilt. It wasn’t until the death of my mother two years ago and the subsequent unraveling of my nuclear family that I began to realize how profoundly this tension had been affecting me, how it had affected my entire life.

I am angry. I am angry with my mother. I have been angry with her for a very long time. You see, for most of my life, I was the parent, and she was the child. She was a fragile dove that needed to be protected, and she leaned on me to help her, to fix her, to save her. But I was never very good at it. I am angry with her because she knew that I was ill equipped to give her what she needed, but she insisted upon it anyway. I am angry with her because she set me up for failure.

And you would not believe the guilt that my anger produces, the way that it spins through my stomach like so much fire. The guilt is relentless. I am haunted because I think and feel such awful things about the person I loved more than anyone in this world. I am guilty for admitting these things, for saying them out loud. Guilty for being a horrible, selfish, ungrateful daughter. Guilty for not wanting to grow up to be like my mother, for – in point of fact – being terrified of growing up to be like her. And, most of all, guilty because I let her down when she needed me the most. Guilty because she died on my watch.

Mom frosting cake

Guilt and anger are a potent enough cocktail, but when you mix in grief and regret it’s enough to knock you sideways. And it, that, is what has been keeping me stuck. I never wanted to be like my mother when she was alive, but now that she’s gone, I can’t seem to stop embodying her worst traits. The chronic anxiety, the depression, the self-isolation, the use of alcohol as a coping mechanism, the stubborn refusal to ask for help. My 2014 was a dark year awash with all of these things, and all of them – I can only assume – have been some sort of twisted, semi-conscious attempt on my part to keep her alive.

Please don’t misunderstand me: my mother was wonderful. She was kind and sweet and loving and generous. She was a much better person than I am. But she was always so unhappy. She wanted more from her life than what she got. She gave up on her first dream of becoming a professional tennis player because her parents didn’t support it and she wasn’t strong enough to stand up to them. She was never very happy as the office manager of my father’s law practice, but she was good at it and it gave her the flexibility to raise a young child (me). But I grew up, and dad closed the law firm, and there were still so many things that she wanted to do. She wanted to go back to school and pursue a master’s degree in psychology, she wanted to refine her (already impressive) culinary skills with additional classes, she wanted to volunteer for political campaigns and charitable organizations, she wanted to travel the world. More than anything, I think my mom wanted to feel that she had value. That she could make a contribution that was important, a contribution that other people would notice and appreciate. But she was paralyzed to take that first step. There was always tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. And as the years went by, I watched her put together a life built on deferred dreams, a life where she preferred to look back on the past with fond nostalgia, and a resignation that her best years were already behind her.

But here’s the thing about dreams. They don’t die quietly. Hers certainly didn’t. They tortured her with visions of a life un-lived and she stuffed them down and pushed them aside and put everyone else’s needs before her own and she drank to dull the sharp edges of pain and longing.

Mom Dad Wedding

As she got sicker, the signs that had always been there – that I’d been too deep in denial to acknowledge because, in spite of the very personal resentments I’d harbored toward her, she was still my mother, and therefore, perfect – grew stark and outlined in thick edges. She had always lived with a bit of a disconnect between fantasy and reality (don’t we all?), but that disconnect turned borderline delusional. Her already small frame whittled away to nothing, her eyes turned hollow and vacant, she stopped making sense. I implored her to get help and her only response was to invent a therapist she was ‘seeing’ to get me off her back. (I know this because, well, Google. That, and she was a terrible liar.)

In the end, dying was the most purposeful thing that she’d done in years. She’d made up her mind that life wasn’t worth living anymore. She shunned all help. She shunned me. And she drank until she didn’t hurt anymore. She drank until she disappeared. And when she died, I started disappearing, too.

So here I am, two years after her death, still sitting at the cross streets of anger and guilt, streets intersected by avenues of grief and regret. It’s a four way stop full of monsters, and until now, my foot has been placed firmly on the brake pedal. And so, for this New Year 2015, I made a pact with myself. I’m going to start doing all of the things my mother never did. I’m going to do them actively, defiantly, and on purpose. Things like asking for help. Things like telling my truth, even if it’s uncomfortable or ‘inappropriate.’ Things like pushing myself out of my comfort zone and signing up for big, scary adventures. Things like not putting off my life. I’m going to take her mistakes and self-sabotage and heartache and unfulfilled dreams and use them as a road map to do the opposite, at Every. Single. Turn. And I’ve already started: I’m in the process of shopping for the most amazing therapist ever, I’m nearly two weeks into an thirty-day alcohol and sugar-free detox during which I’m digging in and focusing on my creative work, and soon, I’ll be leaving on a solo trip to Europe. And there are other things too. Things I’m not quite ready to talk about, but that are quietly, actively at work beneath the surface of my life.

Rejecting my mother’s life and her choices in such a cold and calculated fashion makes me feel like a malicious, rebellious child. And maybe that’s what I am. But at this point, after all of the darkness, after all of the self-sabotage and regret, making this choice sort of feels like life or death.  Along the way, I hope that I can finally learn to let go of the anger, and forgive her. I hope that I can finally learn to let go of the guilt, and forgive myself.

It’s worth a shot.

Until next time, friends.

disneyland

 

Tennis.

I spent a lot of time this past Labor Day weekend glued to television coverage of the US Open. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always found something soothing about the game of tennis. The rhythm of a long rally, the squeaking noise the shoes make as players scuffle across the court, the sotto voce commentary. But the main reason I can’t let a major tournament pass by without at least tuning in is because of my mother.

My mom played tennis throughout high school and college, and in her day, she was superb. Though I never got to witness her play when she was at the height of her game, I’ve heard the stories. I’ve seen the trophies and awards she won, listened with rapt attention to the tale of the legendary match where she and her female doubles partner outplayed – and beat – the boys.

We are not Helpless we are women

Throughout my life, I was keenly aware that mom’s biggest regret was the fact that she didn’t pursue a pro career. She certainly wanted to, and from everything I understand, she was good enough to at least give it a shot. But her parents – both successful court reporters – were adamant that she choose a more conventional life, and they pushed her to attend law school. Mom didn’t push back, at least, not hard enough. She went. And she failed out – or dropped out, I was never sure – after her first year at Gonzaga. Mom ended up following in her parents’ footsteps and becoming a court reporter too. Her career was short-lived (she worked just a few years before marrying my dad and moving to Alaska, where she managed his law firm), and I’m not sure that she ever enjoyed it. She suffered from severe anxiety throughout much of her life, and she once confessed to me that she’d get so nervous about the pressure of the job that she’d often throw up before showing up for work.

The reminder of her unfulfilled dream was a constant companion throughout my childhood. It was present when we rose early on weekend mornings to watch breakfast at Wimbledon, present in her obsession with Chris Evert (her favorite player), present in the infamous screaming match she got into with my grandmother during a holiday dinner we hosted at my parents’ house in Olympia, during which years of my mom’s suppressed rage boiled to the surface and the only thing that kept my grandmother from storming out of the house was the ice storm swirling outside, making the roads impassable.

And it was especially present in the fact that my mom was constantly signing me up for tennis lessons, whether I wanted them or not. I was a good kid. Quiet, shy, polite, I earned straight A’s in school and generally didn’t rock the boat. I was my mom’s only child, and a tremendous source of pride for her. I felt the weight of that pride from an early age, and, not wanting to screw it up, I towed the line, and for the most part, stayed out of trouble.

Mom Tennis

A rare exception was one summer in Anchorage, when my tennis instructor called our house, concerned, because I hadn’t been showing up for my lessons. I was 11 or 12, old enough to walk by myself from our house on Hidden Lane to the tennis courts at a downtown recreational area called the Park Strip, and bratty enough to decide that I’d rather blow off my lessons in favor of killing time at Fifth Avenue Mall with my friends.

Busted, I confessed to my mom what I’d been doing. I felt my face flush with hot shame as I admitted lying to her, telling her that my lessons were going well when I was really hanging out at the food court with my buddies. I prepared for the storm of her anger – after all, I deserved it – but it didn’t come. Mom didn’t yell. It was much worse than that. She looked sad – almost as though she might cry – and so, so disappointed in me. It was as though by rejecting the sport that she loved so much in such a cavalier, spoiled, pre-teen way, I had destroyed her dream all over again. I had let my mom down. And it felt awful.

She never signed me up for tennis lessons again. I went on to dabble in various other sports – volleyball, softball, track and field – but I never got really good at any of them. In my heart of hearts, I was a nerd, a bookworm who loved making up stories, who loved poetry and art, who sang in the choir, who read Shakespeare and imagined myself a regal, corseted, high-born lady in Elizabethan England.

I don’t think my mom ever fully understood my decision to pursue a career in the arts. She didn’t feel the goose bumps I felt when sitting in a darkened movie theater, didn’t know the rush I experienced from standing on a stage in front of a live audience. She certainly didn’t understand the draw of Los Angeles, with its urban sprawl, and smog and traffic and crowds.

My mom and I were very different people with very different dreams. But I think the fact that she lived with the regret of giving up on hers also made her so fiercely protective of mine. Time and time again, she defended my choices to family members and friends who didn’t understand what the hell I was doing. She offered financial support when I struggled, which was often. She sent me flowers on every opening night. And when she did travel to Los Angeles to see me stand up on a stage and tell stories, she was so very proud. And she made sure everyone knew it. Especially me.

Mom frosting cake

I’ve spent the last two years overwhelmed by grief. First, in denial of it, pushing myself to ignore it, throwing myself into work, pretending it didn’t exist. Later, paralyzed by it, unable to make important decisions, unable to move forward with my life. Finally, lately, I’ve been succumbing to it, allowing it to wash over me, to consume me.

But it has only been very recently that I’ve begun to get angry. Angry for letting circumstances that are out of my control dictate my fate. Angry for acting like a victim, for feeling sorry for myself, for sleeping too much, for whining too much, for indulging in my vices too much. And mostly, angry for abandoning my fighting spirit.

Watching the US Open this past weekend made me miss my mom something fierce. But it also made me feel closer to her than I have in a long time. It made me pay attention to her ever-present voice in my ear, telling me to be as brave as she knows I can be, to stop moping, to get off the couch and to fight for my life. Watching the US Open made me remember that the greatest gift my mom ever gave me was her unwavering belief in me. It reminded me that the worst thing I can do – like that summer when I ditched my tennis lessons – is to let her down.

Sometimes it takes something as innocuous as a tennis tournament to remind us that our dreams are fragile, precious, ephemeral things, and if we don’t grab onto them, they can disappear. Many people don’t get to live their dreams, either because they’re afraid to, or because life throws obstacles in their way that they don’t think they can surmount.

I am one of the lucky ones. Despite circumstance, despite pain and trauma, despite grief, I have everything I need to live the life I want, and the only person standing in the way of that is me. And though my dreams might look different than they did when I was 18, that’s OK. Because I’m different, too. The thing that hasn’t changed – that has never changed – is my desire to stand on a stage, or on a set, or behind a camera, or in front of a computer, and tell stories. Stories that entertain, that inspire, stories that have the power to heal.

Thank you, mom, for reminding me how precious my dreams are. I promise that every day, I will continue to fight for them. I promise that I will never give up. I promise to do it for you, and most importantly, I promise to do it for me.

Until next time, friends.

Curtain

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