If I’ve learned anything this past year of saying yes, it’s this: your past failures and disappointments only define you if you give them permission to do so. I’ve fought against this a lot this year in every area of my life. It’s hard & necessary work. The truth is we get bitter or we get better. And it’s as simple and as difficult as that. I chose better. You with me?
I’ve been looking forward to this week for a year! On Friday I’ll be at M-W Cares Day, a character education program for over 2300 high school students, telling my personal story about how I overcame obstacles to become an author. The chair of the event read an interview I did when my book, Emerson Page and Where the Light Enters, first came out almost a year ago and contacted me to ask if I would be a speaker. At the time, I didn’t know how big this event would be; I just knew I wanted to talk to as many young people as I could to be the adult for them who I wish I had when I was their age. I’m so grateful for this opportunity to help them through storytelling. This is the work of my dreams.
More details about the event and day here:https://www.mw.k12.ny.us/monroe-woodbury-high-school/about/m-w-c-a-r-e-s/
“I saw that my life was a vast glowing empty page and I could do anything I wanted.” ~Jack Kerouac
No matter you age, your past choices, or your current situation, every day is a blank page. You can see it as empty, or you can see it as an opportunity. It’s the same page, just a different perspective. Your move.
I was walking home from a memorial service yesterday. The person being honored at the service poured his love into the universe, into every person he met, and it came back to him many times over when he needed it most. Even in the depths of his incurable illness, he found the light that every day offered. Right to the end. His life is a powerful example of the glow that comes from the blank page. He could do anything he wanted, and he chose to be of service, to create community, to welcome love into his life with wide open arms. And because of those choices, his impact will far outlast his much-too-short life. We should all be so lucky, and we can be, if we choose to be.
As I think about my own storytelling projects, I am reminded of my introduction to it when I was a young child.
I grew up in a rural area where Native American culture is still very much alive. We had a family friend who was a Mohawk chief, Chief Black Bear. We would often go to visit his trading post. He was a very tall, solid, regal man. I was fascinated by him. I remember the jewelry, items fashioned from animal skins, the art, and the tobacco pipes carved from natural items. I have no Native American heritage in my blood, but I somehow felt very much at home in his culture. I still do.
One year for Christmas, my mom bought me several books about Native American history. The way they live and what they believe makes complete sense to me. They take care of the planet and each other. They believe in the connectedness of the heavens above and the Earth below. And their storytelling—that’s what captivates me the most. They make deep wisdom palpable, even to a child.
Yesterday I learned about how some members of some tribes welcome people back from war. There is a recognition that they must have transition time. They go with the medicine man for a number of days to literally and figuratively have the blood washed away. The trauma of war is recognized and processed. They deal with this in the light so that it doesn’t get subsumed into the shadows. They grieve. They’re cleaned. They’re healed so that they can return whole.
Setting war aside, if we just look at our own grieving process today with any lens, we often don’t allow space or time for it. We are supposed to move on quickly and in earnest to sunny skies and smiles. We are told to let it go as quickly and cleanly as possible. Though truthfully we hang onto things inside of us. We don’t always give ourselves time to adequately mourn our losses and reflect on what we’ve learned. And so it piles up, and up and up and up until we literally collapse under it. We do ourselves a disservice all in an effort to get on with it. Except we haven’t gotten on with anything. We are playing a role, and eventually we will have to leave the stage and all of our grief will be there waiting in the wings. And we will feel alone and isolated and ashamed of it. And we will bear it until we can’t.
Our society is dealing with massive public issues now, issues that have been ignored and swept under the rug for too long by too many. Of course they now seem unwieldy. Look how much time they’ve had to grow unattended. We cannot and should not shrink away from dealing with them now, no matter how large they loom. If we don’t recognize and set ourselves on a course to solve them, that task will fall to the next generation and the generation after that. Bringing them into the light is painful, but it is the only way to create a better tomorrow. Have faith, and let’s get to work. We can do hard things, together.
I saw this list over the weekend:
- At age 23, Oprah was fired from her first reporting job.
- At age 24, Stephen King was working as a Janitor and living in a trailer.
- At age 28, J.K. Rowling was a suicidal single parent living on welfare.
- At age 30, Harrison Ford was a carpenter.
- At 40, Vera Wang designed her first dress after a career in which she failed to make the Olympic figure skating team and didn’t get the Editor-in Chief position at Vogue.
- At 42, Alan Rickman gave up his graphic design career to pursue acting.
- At 52, Morgan Freeman landed his first MAJOR movie role.
- At 62, Louise Hay launch her publishing company, Hay House.
- At 101, the artist Carmen Herrera finally got the show the art world should have given her 40 or 50 years ago before: a solo exhibition at the Whitney in New York City, where she has been living and working since 1954.
Know this: it is never too late to do what you love. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to achieve all of our dreams at an increasingly younger age. We beat ourselves up because we aren’t a 30 Under 30 or a 40 Under 40. Here’s my advice: forget about your age. Stop tracking your life’s milestones against someone else’s.
Life is about the long game; it’s about being a little bit better version of yourself today than you were yesterday. That’s the greatest win of all. Your life could change at any moment, at any age. Do something you’re proud of doing. Celebrate your wins, learn from your losses, and most importantly, keep going. You’re going to find your way. You’re going to find what you’re meant to do, who you’re meant to be with, and where you’re meant to be. I can’t tell you when, but I can tell you that if you keep looking and trying new things, you will find your best life.
“Never be defined by your past. It was just a lesson, not a life sentence.” ~Unknown
We get stuck, don’t we? Bad experiences from childhood, from broken relationships of many kinds, jobs that didn’t work out, things and people and circumstances that hurt us. We have a tough time letting go. When that work is tough, I remind myself that the effort is so worth it. If we don’t let go of what was, then we can’t make room for what’s in front of us now and what’s on the way. There are good things coming to us that we don’t even know about yet, and if we’re bogged down by our yesterdays we’ll miss out what’s meant for us now. Keep the lessons, but please don’t let them hold you hostage. Your past doesn’t hold the keys to the castle that is your future; you do, right now, just as you are.
“The sign of intelligence is that you are constantly wondering. Idiots are always dead sure about every damn thing they are doing in their life.” ~Vasudev, Indian yogi and mystic
Doesn’t that quote make you smile? And doesn’t it make you smile even wider when you realize it was said by an Indian yogi and mystic. I always appreciate a no-BS policy. We are all guessing, all the time. I love nothing better than hearing someone I admire say that they’re still trying to figure out what they’re doing. I love that they keep trying new things, exploring, and putting themselves in the role of a beginner. There’s a lot of pressure in the world to be an expert, to only do what we’re sure of. We hate doubt, but doubt is the key to everything. It keeps us hungry and hustling. It causes us to keep learning. It sparks curiosity and inquiry. It gets us talking and connecting with others. Keep asking questions, of yourself and others, and know that being uncertain puts you in the best possible company.
In Japan, “kintsugi” is an art form and method of mending. When a piece of pottery develops cracks, those cracks are filled with gold. The flaws aren’t hidden; they’re highlighted. We try so hard to give the illusion of perfection—in photos, in words, in life. What if we not only let our imperfections and flaws and mistakes and scars show, but we actually brought attention to them? What if we shouted them from the rooftops and claimed them as sources of strength and resilience and courage? What if we could celebrate them, in ourselves and in others? Imagine how much kinder and more productive we could be if we stopped being so afraid to try, and just decided to go for it without any concern of failure and success, only to embrace doing our best and learning every step of the way. What would you try first?
Pentimento is Italian for “repent” though its colloquial meaning in the art world is a bit closer to “show your work”. If you look at a number of Matisse’s drawings, you can see that he left his erasure marks so that we can see where and when he changed his mind and how often it took him multiple tries to get his work exactly the way he wanted it to be.
When I look at the path of my life, I see many pentimentos, places and traces of changing my mind, trying something new, exploring, and traveling in a new direction. Like Matisse’s sketches, you’ll see the marks if you look closely enough. And that’s okay with me. I don’t erase the mistakes of my life; I just re-arrange them. I put them in perspective. I try very hard to learn from them and be a better version of myself as a result of having lived through them.
I hope that as we begin a new year after what was a very difficult one, we’ll find a way to take a page from Matisse’s book. Let’s make use of our collective pentimentos so that we can craft a much better future together.
“Sometimes we fall down because there is something down there we’re supposed to find.” ~Unknown
This week I wrote a guest blog post related to my book that details the journey that led me to find Emerson. I had to take a long and winding road to meet her, and that road was often difficult to navigate. During the rough times, I would have given anything to have them end as quickly and painlessly as possible. Now in hindsight, I can see why they were necessary. The difficulties gave me so much more than they took away. The things they took from me needed to leave my life, and what I learned and the people I met in the process of my healing are now some of the very greatest gifts of my life. Experience is funny that way; it’s only with time and distance—sometimes a very healthy dose of each—that we see our difficulties for the treasures that they are.
If you’re going through a difficult time right now, I want you to know this: eventually, maybe years from now, you will look back on this very moment and I promise you that it will make sense. You will come to appreciate it as much as you appreciate every joy in your life. The road out of your difficulty may not be easy, but the strength you get from that climb and the view that you will find at the end of that road will make it all worthwhile. So keep going. One foot in front of the other. One moment after another. Breath to breath. That’s the best any of us can do, and it’s enough.