Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Learning to Live with Intention

A few weeks ago I turned 35. If we've talked, emailed, tweeted, or chatted recently, you already know that this birthday, more than any other, has sparked a lot of thoughts and ideas. I've been jokingly referring to it as an "existential crisis," but that's not entirely true. I don't feel like I'm in crisis - more like I've reached a moment of reckoning. Despite my lackluster professional career I'm an ambitious person with big dreams, and there's something about 35 that has a distinct "now or never" feeling. 

On the one hand, I know this is dumb. Age is arbitrary, everyone is different, and milestones are, at best, a moving target. Still. This birthday seems to have lit a fire within me, and I'd rather embrace it than question it. Which is why I'm deeming my 35th year as the one in which I learn to live intentionally. 

One of my favorite quotes comes from Annie Dillard, a brilliant writer and fascinating person. Back in grad school, I read The Writing Life and this passage was and remains one of my favorites:
"I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order - willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern."
This quote is shared all the time, by a hundred people a day. Search Google images, and you'll find that central idea - "How we spend our days, of course, is how we spend our lives" - photoshopped onto a countless images of the ocean. As an example, I made one in less than two minutes. Feel free to pin it.

While I like this snippet, it's context of the quote that I find even more powerful. The idea that routine, that scourge of free spirits, is precisely the thing that gives our lives meaning and shape. "A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days." As someone who feels unmoored without her paper to-do list and color coded Google calendar, this is good news.

And here is where I make a confession: despite my penchant for schedules, routines, and plans, I've allowed myself to become lazy. I used to get up early every morning and work on my novel. These last few months I've been sleeping late, hitting snooze until I'm rushing to get to work on time. I used to make mason jar salads every Sunday and eat them for lunch while reading a good library book. Lately, I zap a veggie burger in the office microwave and mindlessly eat it at my desk while scrolling through Twitter. Once upon a time I trained for marathons. These days, it takes all my energy to make it to the YMCA more than twice a week.

So what happened? Nothing specific - just the slow loosening of discipline. An object in motion stays in motion, and I slowed down. Part of it was circumstance. Money had been tight and I've been distracted by finding more freelance work and worry about the future. Part of it was the election, and the feeling that nothing I do actually matters, so why bother. Part of it was a series of rejections and disappointments that took the wind out of my sails. But these are all excuses, and I can see, suddenly and clearly, that they are not good enough.

I want to reclaim those hard won habits, get back on a schedule, and work toward a routine that is productive and affirming and results in good work and good health. Here is what that looks like for me:

  • Wake up early and write. I want to be at my desk by 5:30AM every weekday, armed with a cup of coffee and ready to write. The mornings are my most creative time, and too often I squander them by staying up late to watch one more episode of a show, drinking one more glass of wine, or laying in bed and scrolling through Twitter for an extra half hour when I should be falling asleep. To avoid these road blocks, I'm going to limit alcohol during the week, go to bed by 9:30PM, and sleep with my phone in another room. As my dear friend Nicola said, "I can end my 30s well rested, or with a published book." I choose book. 

  • Read more books. I am firm believer in the idea that reading good books is a key part of writing good books. So far, 2017 has been a slow reading year for me - I'm only at 17 books. There are currently 19 weeks left in the year, so my goal from now until December is to read 15 more. This is not an impossible goal - especially if it encourages me to watch less television, stop squandering lunch breaks, and unplug from social media. Three birds, one stone.
  • Get into fighting shape. A few years ago, a favorite blogger talked about the idea of "fighting shape" as a baseline level of fitness at which we feel good and capable and strong. I love this idea. These days I see fitness less as an exercise in vanity, and more as a way to ensure I'm capable of achieving my goals. When I'm fit and strong, and think more clearly, feel more optimistic, and have more energy for my goals. Lately, "fighting shape" has taken on a new layer - I want to be strong, mentally and physically, for the resistance against racism, bigotry, and white nationalism, and this year I will get back to that place. 

That's pretty much it. While this list of intentions may seem short, I'll have to work hard to maintain focus and momentum. And that's okay. I'm building "a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time." I am ready and willing and excited to change. 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Weekends Reads From Around the Web

Some things I read and liked this past week... 

Writers, Protect Your Inner Life, LitHub. "We’re living in a culture in which the Wall Street Journal publishes a front-page article about a dermatologist who pops pimples on Youtube, getting 2.4 million subscribers. As guardian of our inner lives, we must protect our inner selves from the Pavlovian part of us that responds, “2.4 million subscribers!” We must instead remember St. Exupery’s words that “what is essential is invisible to the eye.” We must wall off our inner selves from the colonizing part that assesses, quantifies, judges."

How to Spend the Last Ten Minutes of Your Work Day, Entrepreneur. I've started doing some of these (brain dump + a list for the next day) and I already feel more productive and less stressed.

Multilevel-marketing companies like LuLaRoe are forcing people into debt and psychological crisis, Quartz. "This isn’t a story about leggings, however. It’s not even a story about LuLaRoe. This is the story of rural and suburban disenfranchisement and the MLMs that offer desperate American women a chance at clawing their way out."

What to Say When People Ask Why You Aren’t Having Children, New York Times.

The Epilogue of 'The Handmaid's Tale' Changes Everything You Thought You Knew About the Book, Electric Literature."A big part of the horror of The Handmaid’s Tale is that, despite the suffering that women endure, future society regards the treatment of Gilead’s women as a simple fact of history; something to be learned about rather than cautioned against."

I Make $6,000 a Month Freelancing, Daily Worth. Some good advice here, especially if you're new to the freelance lifestyle or considering taking the plunge. Related reading: Freelance Achievement Stickers.

How to Have a Career: Advice to Young Writers, Sarah Manguso. "Be relentless. All over the world, people are working harder than you."

Annie Dillard's Classic Essay "Total Eclipse", The Atlantic. We'll be traveling to the PATH OF TOTALITY for the big event on August 21st. In the meantime I'm psyching myself up with this amazing essay. The Atlantic will keep it up until the 22nd, so read it while you can!

I'm Halfway Through My 30s and I've Made a Terrible Mistake, The Billfold. I published this short essay on The Billfold last week and it seems to have struck a nerve. Let me know what you think. 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

This Is 35

All I wanted for my birthday was a dramatic portrait of me and the ocean.

My birthday was yesterday. As usual, I celebrated a few days early with my annual backyard birthday bash, which featured a cornhole tournament (I won) and some light gambling (I lost). Last night after work (because as it turns out my birthday is not the national holiday that I imagine it to be) Nathan and I went out to dinner and drank fancy cocktails, which seemed like a very ~ thirty-five ~ thing to do. 

Per tradition, I will now attempt to capture life as a brand new 35 year old in my version of a digital time capsule. Here goes nothing. 

Thirty-five is a whole lot of existential crisis about my career, and what it means to have a job that doesn't, in the end, mean much. It's wondering whether I should have climbed the corporate ladder when I was younger, because my current rung feels so low. It's the slow realization that I put all my eggs in one basket, and then promptly dropped that basket down a flight of stairs. (Thirty-five is more dramatic than I anticipated.) Finally, it's reminding myself that it's not too late to start again, in work, in life, in anything, and starting. Again. 

Thirty-five is a crazy, mixed-up world. It's fear that my country's leaders do not have my best interests at heart, and waking every day wondering what political twist will be revealed next. It's anxiety and uncertainty and frustration in a broken system I am powerless to fix. It's abandoning national politics (with the exception of Twitter) and keeping my energy local. There's enough to fix here in Wilmington, and I stand a much better chance of being heard and helpful. It's organizing my precinct and meeting my neighbors and buying water because I can't even trust the river. It's kind of bleak, to be honest. 

Thirty-five is looking back on the last year of my literary career, and feeling... pretty good about it, actually. It's working on the same novel, still, while being pulled in another direction. It's short stories that are beginning to pile up into something that feels like something. It's writing slowly, publishing rarely, but making work that matters to me. It's creating in stolen moments - mornings, lunch breaks, right this very second - and wishing, always, for more time. 

Thirty-five is nearly five years of marriage, and fifteen together. It's a relationship with ups and downs, peaks and valleys, and good times that far outweigh the bad. It's doing our best to appreciate each other - it is frighteningly easy to take someone for granted, especially when your lives are so seamlessly entwined. It's loving nothing better than sitting on the couch at night with a box of wine and a Netflix original series, holding hands while the dog sleeps beside us. 

Thirty-five is friendships that have grown deep and wide and comfortable. It's cheering one other on, in person and from afar, and watching as we each transform into new versions of ourselves. Thirty-five is acceptance and appreciation and gratitude for the long and layered relationships that have and continue to push me and help me grow. 

Thirty-five is still mourning the loss of my dog, an on-going obsession with personal finance, and freelancing on the side because #sidehustle. It's a renewed passion for this blog and a disillusionment with social media. It's more library books and less breweries, more student loans and less consumer debt, more delegation and less grunt work. It's learning to be a better manager, asking for what I'm worth, and standing up for myself. It's reaching a turning point without realizing it, keeping my focus on what matters, and cutting out the bullshit. I'm thirty-five, and I simply don't have time for it. 


This was 31.
This was 32.
This was 33
This was 34

Monday, August 07, 2017

The Benefits of Renting a Home

This is not my beautiful house.

A few weeks ago Nathan and I happily renewed our lease for the third year in a row. We truly adore our little house. It's not perfect (a bigger kitchen would be nice, and I'd love a second bathroom) but overall these 900 square feet are comfortable, well-kept, and fulfill all our basic needs. Our rent is a steal, our neighborhood is friendly, and we're located in the heart of Wilmington, close to the bike trail, an awesome park, and multiple grocery stores. Plus our landlady was totally cool with the fact that we built a chicken coop and moved 16 of our BFFs (Best Feathered Friends) into the backyard, which was much appreciated. 

In fact, our living situation is so great that you might wonder why we don't just go ahead and buy our house, or one like it. While I will admit to having a bad case of real estate fever and regularly scrolling through Zillow, we're not in a rush to buy. This is mostly because we can't afford to, but also because there are some very real benefits to renting, which we're happy to enjoy for a few more years. 

If you think renting is pointless or are lamenting your own lack of a down payment, allow me to offer a counterargument. It might just give you a new lease on life.

First of all, renting isn't "throwing away your money."

Most people view homeownership as an investment, banking on the fact that their home will most likely increase in value over time. When they're ready to sell it, they'll make a profit. The flip side of this is that those of us who rent are not able to do the same. Instead of pouring our money into a house that will (eventually? hopefully?) pay us back, we'll never see it again. Hence the idea that we're throwing away our money.

This is always the first argument against renting, and it’s simply not true. You’re exchanging your hard-earned cash for a place to live, eat, and sleep. The last time I checked, those were all very valuable things. Plus paying your rent on time is an excellent way to build good credit, which will benefit other areas of your life. Finally, most people are paying someone else for the privilege to live in their home, whether or not they own it. I pay a landlord and call it rent; you pay a bank and call it a mortgage. Both of us have a roof over our head, and that’s what really matters. 

Renting gives you freedom and flexibility. 

My husband recently went back to school full time. In three years, he'll have a brand new career and a lot more earning potential. While I'd love to stay in Wilmington forever (building a community and making friends when you're an adult isn't easy) we need to keep our options open. Until he graduates and lands a job, we're not ready to risk a mortgage. Thus, we rent. 

When you’re renting, you can move whenever you want, within reason. If you get an amazing job offer three states away, you can accept it. If you realize your next door neighbors are backyard nudists despite the low fence, you can run. If the city installs a brand new set of train tracks inches from your bedroom wall, you can sleep soundly knowing a new rental is right around the corner. Sometimes owning a house is great, while other times it can be an albatross around your neck. Renting offers flexibility, and that’s a valuable commodity. 

You can call the landlord when something goes wrong. 

A few weeks ago, in the middle of an intense July heatwave, we came home to an uncomfortably warm and stifling house. It became clear very quickly that our AC wasn't working, so we apologized to our houseguests, opened the windows, and called our landlady. She in turn called the person who installed the unit a few years ago, and he managed to squeeze us in the very next morning as a favor to her. Our AC was up and running in less than 24 hours, and all it cost me was a generous tip. (A Sunday morning fix during the hottest weekend of the year deserves as much.) The moral of the story? I stayed cool while someone else solved the crisis. 

Do you know how to fix a leaking water heater? How much you’ll spend on a new roof? What the property taxes are in your state? I sure don’t, and that’s fine with me. While renting can be more expensive on a monthly basis, that extra cash means you don’t have to be the one who worries about getting things fixed, repaired, or replaced. Part of your rent pays for peace of mind, and that’s priceless. 

You're renting because you can’t afford a house. Yet. 

Thanks to YNAB, the best budgeting software in the world, we've got a modest savings account and a category optimistically titled "Dream Home." It currently has $0 assigned to it, which is the main reason we're happy to keep renting for now. 

You might remember a little thing called the housing bubble, which popped a few years ago. While there were a lot of complicated reasons for that crash, a major factor was that people were taking out huge loans to buy homes that were beyond their means. One of the biggest lessons that budgeting has taught me is the necessity of living below your means and embracing your limits. You can't have something just because you want it; instant gratification only feels good in the moment. This is as true for that extra piece of pie as it is for homeownership.

Despite all the benefits of renting, I would very much like to own a home one day. But I want to do it right, which means waiting until our careers are settled, our income has stabilized, and our down payment is secured. Until then, I’m happy to rent my heart out and reap the benefits of this freeing, flexible, and freewheeling lifestyle.

Are you an owner or a renter? How old were you when you bought your first house? My goal is to own within five years by the time I'm 40, which seems extremely do-able. 

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Right Here, Right Now: July Report

Grass, because I spent a lot of time in my backyard this month.

Where did July go? No, really. I'm asking because I barely remember it. Between extra freelance work, Nathan's summer class, and a heat wave that basically left us housebound, July felt like a flash in a very hot pan. Here's how it all went down.


Memoir and trauma! Apparently I didn't get the memo that summer is for light-hearted beach reads, which is fine with me. This month, my book club read Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by the illustrious Roxane Gay. The book dives deep into her struggles with obesity, what it means to be overweight in a world that won't make room for you, and how trauma continues to haunt in ways visible and invisible. I've read pretty much everything Roxane Gay has ever written and follow her Twitter account religiously, and still there were things in this memoir that were shocking and surprising to read. A really important and brave book that made me rethink a lot of my assumptions. The other book I'm currently reading is Imagine Me Gone, by Adam Haslett, which is about a family dealing with depression, mental illness, and their struggle to love and support one another. From what I've read in interviews, the novel is closely mirrors Haslett's own life. I'm about two thirds of the way through this one, but so far it's a keeper. 


So much freelance. When it rains, it pours. I'm not complaining, just trying really hard to manage my time (and failing - see lack of posts on the blog this month). I finally picked up my novel again and started working on the next revision, which has been... okay. The big and wonderful thing that happened in July was that Joyland, a favorite online magazine, published one of my short stories. I've been working on this piece for three years and it's one of my favorites, so that was very exciting and encouraging. If you like stories about suburban swingers, check it out


HBO, via the Red Box. We rented the HBO series The Night Of, without really knowing what to expect. What we got was an incredible exploration of crime, punishment, the prison system, and race relations in post 9-11 New York City. I guess this mini-series came out last year, and I guess people talked about it then, but I don't have HBO and have learned to ignore everyone who does. Now I want desperately to discuss it, so if you've seen it, let me know! 


Everything from Aldi. After years of jealously reading Ashley's Aldi posts, Wilmington finally got our own store. I went for the first time this past Sunday with my friend Kat, and I got a huge cart full of a week's worth of groceries and then some - all for the low, low price of $69.78. I cannot wait to see what affect this has on my grocery budget! (Also, add "friend-date at brand new grocery store" to the list of things people in their 30s get really excited about.)  


Coop space. A friend of a friend was selling a super cute chicken coop for just $50, which is way less than what we'd pay if we tried to build it ourselves. Naturally we had to scoop it up. I've reserved it for the silkies, and there's plenty of room in it for a few more down the road. What can I say - I'm obsessed with fancy chickens. (Speaking of - have you followed Ophelia and Orlando on Instagram yet?!) More photos coming soon, obviously. 


My senators. Please consider this your monthly reminder to call your senators. I love 5Calls,  which gives you phone numbers, scripts, and some background on the issues of the day. And with this administration, there is always something to call about. 

Goals for August  

Looking at my calendar, it seems summer is finally in full swing. I've got a birthday to celebrate (I'm turning the big 3-5!), a trip to Long Island to see my family, a solar eclipse, and a bunch of freelance. If I can also make it to the beach a few times, I'll be perfectly satisfied.


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