What I Learned from 2017

It’s been a rough year, although I realize how blessed I am to have the life I do. I don’t have complaints about what the year has brought. It’s just been hard for many reasons. There have been lots of emotions and new experiences. Some relationships got stronger; others need some TLC. I can’t change anything that happened in 2017 so I have to live with and learn from every decision, choice and action. So, here’s what I learned about life and myself in 2017.

You have to nurture relationships, even the ones you’ve had your entire life. You can take for granted what’s always been there. Every relationship takes work. Relationships do change. I’m further apart from others now than I was 10 years ago, while other old relationships have been renewed and made stronger. Whether you are 10 miles or 1,000 miles apart, you have to put the effort in, or then suddenly people just become somebody you used to know. My list of relationships that matter isn’t very long. I’ve considered myself a failure at relationships most of my life. I attribute most of this to fear, not being uncaring. When you’ve lost a lot, it’s hard to think anyone will stick around. I’m going to try harder to reach out, not retreat, as that’s been my MO for far too long.

20 years is a long time. It’s two decades. It’s long enough to have completely changed or evolved. My mom’s been gone for 20 years. So, I should be all healed up, right? No, the distance between the loss and the present doesn’t matter. Time doesn’t heal all wounds. Everything doesn’t happen for a reason. Really horrible things happen to people all the time. There’s nothing that will ever make it okay. In two decades, I’ve forgotten a lot, and I hate it. I hate that it’s hard for me to remember how she sounded or what her hugs felt like. That’s what 20 years does; it eats away memories and moments you want to hold onto.

We have to move. Not just from our condo but out of this city. I don’t dislike Charlotte. It’s fine. It’s got what most major cities have, but it has never felt like home. And, it never will. I’ve been trying to get to the West coast for over 10 years. I just need a few things to happen, and we can go. I like to wander. I’m not lost. I’ve lived in my current home for over four years. That’s longer than I lived anywhere since leaving the home I grew up in. Yes, it’s time to go. We hope you’ll visit us because we’re going to move somewhere you’d actually want to go.

I really like my husband. I already knew this, but it was confirmed. I say this because it’s important to like your significant other, not just love him/her. He really is my best friend. We can have fun anywhere. He’s so funny and kind. I’m so glad I still like him, and I guess he still likes me, too.

Deserving happiness is different than finding it. I’ve had many people tell me I deserved to be happy. Am I deserving because I’m out there doing good in the world? Do I deserve it because I’ve had a lot of pain? To say I deserve something without knowing if I’ve worked for it seems hollow to me. I don’t deserve happiness any more or less than others. What matters is if I think I deserve it, and if I’ve got the guts to find it. Happiness isn’t at the end of rainbows. It doesn’t happen if you win the lottery. It’s not what comes after you’ve crossed off all your “happy list” items. Happiness is not constant but also not fleeting. I don’t get to choose my happy days, and I also can’t snap my fingers and get happy.

If you’re going to put everything into a brand, it should probably be your own. I’ve worked for years helping other brands grow and telling their stories. I’ve had a lot of success and become a better writer and marketer for it. But I also realized that the harder I work for someone else’s brand has little correlation to being recognized or trusted. I, honestly, don’t know how much more I can do to get a seat at the table. I know I deserve it. So, if others don’t then that’s their loss.

Big brands just don’t get marketing (most of the time). There are exceptions. In my experience, the bigger the brand, the more bloated the ideas. If I could say one thing to CEO, CMOs and all the leaders, stop marketing to yourself. You are not your audience. Your personal preferences should have zip to do with marketing. Instead, look at your data and understand your customer. Until leaders can do this, these brands will continue to lose market share and fans. If you’re not disrupting your industry with logic and creativity then you’re dying.

I should trust my gut more. I’ve been a freelancer for over a decade. I’ve worked with some great people and brands. I had never really had any nightmare clients. Well 2017 changed all that. I had several horrible experiences where I should have listened to my gut. When someone comes on too strong and sounds like an evangelist, this is a red flag. If someone hires you for your expertise then disagrees with whatever you say, then they obviously don’t need you. Don’t keep going back for more. And when someone doesn’t value your time, they don’t value you. I had a call with a prospective client, wherein I had sent her specific questions to facilitate the conversation. When I called her at the agreed upon time, she was out shopping. I asked if it was still a good time, and she said yes. She hadn’t looked at the questions, and I could barely hear her. She wasn’t taking me seriously, and I should have ended the conversation and the relationship then. In 2018, I will not chase any work like this. I’m going with a strict zero tolerance rule on people being flaky, rude, belligerent, arrogant or petty.

I have a great belief in the power of learning and growing. I’m a bit disheartened by the fact that there still is much hate, indifference and ignorance in this world. That means so many aren’t learning or growing. They are devolving instead of evolving. No matter what level you are at in living a “healthy, normal” life, heed this advice. Be bold. Be you. Be hopeful.

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So This Happened: Life Gets Wet Sometimes

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From the So This Happened Stories

That sudden summer storm always hits at the worst possible time. I drove into work last week because I had an appointment that afternoon. I have to park in a lot about eight blocks away because it costs the bargain price of $7 (compared to $25!).

The sky was looking dark, but I had an umbrella. Only a block in, the sky opened up, angry with rain, wind and hail. I was able to take shelter. I think storms are worse downtown because the wind gets trapped between the buildings. Things started whipping around. The top of a trash can flew off and came down about a foot from where I was standing. So I’m trying to hide, thinking it will pass. But it’s going to cause me to be late. I send a quick email to advise I’m running late to be courteous. After about five minutes, it’s not getting any better. So I just go for it. The water is about two inches deep. It’s hailing on my head; I can feel it through the umbrella. But I’m determined. I press on. Finally, I get to the lot. I’m on the sidewalk about to turn into it when a car speeds by and splashes me. When something like that happens, you think really? Am I in a freakin bad sitcom? But it happened. This is real life. At this point, I can either laugh or cry. I chose to laugh.

I get to the car. I’m wringing out my dress. Luckily, I have other shoes. I also happen to have lots of supplies in my handbag, which has been categorized as being very “MacGyver” like because of my many supplies. I turn the air on to dry out. I suppose I could have just given up at that point and not gone to the appointment. I was wet, tired and defeated. But a lot of life is about showing up. So I did, apologizing for my appearance. We laughed about it.

So it was embarrassing and funny, and I wanted to share it. Little things like this are just part of my believable life. And there’s a story and lesson to be shared.

Go Find Your Best

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Depression is part of my life. Maybe a lot of people wouldn’t admit this. Depression is still one of those whispered words. However, I’m not ashamed. It’s something I want to talk about. It’s something we should all be able to talk about. I don’t believe suffering from depression makes me deficient or that there’s something wrong with me. Depression for me isn’t just an episode or something that comes and goes. It’s always there, but with a great therapist and medication (also something I’m not ashamed of), I’m doing okay. Some days are better than others, but I would dare to say I’m pretty emotionally healthy.

It’s been a long road though. I went to see a therapist for the first time at 15. My mom had enough insight to know that whatever was going on with me wasn’t just typical teenage angst. At that age, I had already been through a lot, but this deep sadness I had didn’t seem linked to one specific thing, and it wasn’t something I could really articulate yet. I couldn’t just have a good cry and be back to normal. I couldn’t get happy. I didn’t really understand how therapy worked then. I was scared and had no intention of being open with someone I didn’t know. She was a very nice lady and didn’t pressure me to talk about my feelings. It was a good first step.

As my teen years progressed, life got even more complicated. I was thrust fully into adulthood after my mom was diagnosed with cancer. Gone were worries about boys or popularity. I was watching my mom die. I had to be strong. I had to quell feelings of fear. I had to survive.

At 17, I started going to a new counselor who was a really wonderful woman. Eventually, I began to trust her. I also began to understand how therapy works. It’s not simply about going in and talking. Part of it is, but it’s about what you do with the words and feelings that start pouring out. It’s about redirecting internal dialogue, learning coping mechanisms and being open to change. Although cognitive therapy helped, there was still a lot of crippling darkness. By 18, I would begin taking an anti-depressant to help. Medication didn’t solve everything or make me feel “better.” It just kind of got me to a point where I could function better.

When I went away to college, I stopped therapy. I thought I was capable of facing the world and had learned some tools to manage the depression. And honestly, I felt like it was a stigma to be depressed or go to therapy. Very few people knew that I had been in therapy or was on medication. It wasn’t something I wanted to broadcast. At that time, I was ashamed and embarrassed. Even though I knew therapy was a good thing. Why couldn’t I just get through life on my own? After all, I was beginning to understand that the only person who would always be there was me.

So there I was on my own, coping. Just not in a healthy way. I tried to push darkness and worry away. Then my mom died, and the world kind of stopped. I had just turned 19, halfway through my freshman year of college, and I just kind of froze up. I have never been the same. But I did a good job of seeming fine. I was the person that wouldn’t fall apart.  I was the person that didn’t need help. I was the person that would survive. But those people that really knew me, knew that I was not okay. They knew that I was pushing them away and fading away. So one of my friends made me find a new therapist. I agreed to go back to therapy.

My next therapist got me back on meds and met with me sometimes twice a week. She was a very smart lady. I wasn’t going to lie my way out of this or hide things. We talked a lot but also did a lot of role play, where I could have conversations with people in a safe environment. But in a way I told her what I thought she wanted to hear. I still wasn’t convinced I needed therapy. I had a right to be sad. It would pass. This was a whole lot of denial. But we believe what we want to believe about our lives. We build our own house of lies. And feelings were just too much. I didn’t want to feel them or talk about them. My preferred feeling was numb.

So I quit therapy again. I was fine. I was making my way through life, graduating college, surrounded by lots of friends. Feeling like a pretty normal early 20-something. Except my life was nothing like my friends’ lives. I bought my first house in college and that was my home. There was no other home to go to. But I had my life together. I got a job, met a great guy, made plans for the future. And then I was married and working in the industry I wanted to be in. I had a nice house, a closet full of beautiful clothes and plenty of money in the bank. Why would I be sad?

Then I turned 30 and realized everything was a charade. My preferred feeling was still numb, and the truth was I had dealt with nothing. A friend recommended a therapist, and for the first time, I think I was really ready for therapy. I connected with my therapist like none of the others. It was here I began to learn how to save my life. And she helped me feel feelings, which was something I had avoided for over a decade. It was overwhelming, even paralyzing. I started to understand that feelings aren’t permanent. It’s okay to feel them. It’s good to feel them. They don’t last.

It took me years of focused therapy and trying lots of meds before I fully became aware of everything that had happened to me; to look back over all the pain and loss. I’ve dealt with some things better than others, learned a lot about forgiveness and acceptance. But I’m not “cured” or no longer depressed. It doesn’t work that way. Even after you become aware, depression doesn’t disappear. It’s been 8 years since I first walked into my therapist’s office. I still see her every other week. It’s a good gut check. It’s a time I can be brutally honest about my choices, my past, my fears and most importantly my hopes.

I’m not perfect! I consider myself to be beautifully damaged. And I know that “damaged” may seem like a negative word. But we’re all damaged. Life changes us. It beats us up a lot, throws us down dark holes, surprises us with grace and shapes who we are. I don’t let depression define me, but I accept it as part of me. There’s nothing “wrong” with me or anybody else who suffers from mental illness. So it’s okay to say it out loud. To say, “I’m depressed.” If I can say it, you can say it. If you’re depressed, get help. If you are getting help, keep at it. After all, you’ve already made it through the worst. Now go find your best.

How I Developed a Work Ethic

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I owe much of my work ethic to my mom who was my number one role model. My mom worked hard and believed that in doing so she could make a better life for us. When I was five or six years old, she had a full-time job as a teacher, went to graduate school at night 45 minutes away and had a second job on the weekend. As a single mom, this was hard work. She was lucky to have help from her parents, who often babysat.

But I knew that my mom was trying to better herself, not just to make more money but to be better educated and prepared for the future. My mom pushed me hard academically. We began discussing where I’d go to college when I was in kindergarten. She made it very clear that she had big plans for me, and I embraced those plans. I wanted nothing more than to make her proud.

So by watching her work hard and having her push me hard, work ethic became engrained in my brain. As a child, I won lots of awards and was routinely the brightest star. I won those awards because I worked hard – this was way before the “participation” trophies.

I was always very interested in making my own money. Before I could actually get a job, I talked my friends into having yard sales and made hair bows that I also sold to my friends. By the time I was 12, I did have a job, although it was only on Saturdays cleaning offices. At 16, I had a real part-time job and never stopped working. I worked throughout college as a nanny and then of course after graduation, I got my first post college job, which was a wonderful experience, mainly because of the mentors I had. I already knew how to be on time, be reliable, ask lots of questions, think about the things no one else was thinking about and never think something wasn’t my responsibility just because it was outside of my normal duties.

No one is born with work ethic. It has to be developed. Even if you didn’t have to get a job until after college that doesn’t mean you don’t have a work ethic. We shouldn’t equate having a job to work ethic. It’s not the same. Work ethic is about looking at a position or your career as more than just a paycheck. It’s about looking at any job as an opportunity. I’ve had lots of jobs I didn’t love. But I always showed up and tried to find opportunity in all of them.

I thank my mom almost every day for so much that she imparted to me. I’m so glad that she was such an amazing role model who told me I could be and do anything. Not everyone has that kind of cheerleader. And maybe that’s why not everyone is able to develop work ethic. Whether you are 20 or 40, you have learned or will learn that life’s not fair, and it rarely turns out as expected. But we must make the best of the hand we’ve been dealt. Having a strong work ethic has helped me get through many of life’s hardships. To me, it’s a critical asset to have in life. And even if I won the lottery, I’d still want to work (just maybe a little less and with a view of the beach!).

Can We Just Talk About the Weather?

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I’ve read many articles over the years about how to engage with others, whether it’s peers, co-workers or romantic interests. Again and again, a lot of the same advice resurfaces, urging readers to ask questions and get the person to talk about him or herself. Because obviously everyone’s favorite topic is themselves. I’m sure that’s true for a lot of extroverts or people who have an exceptional self-image. But for some people, asking a lot of questions of a personal nature is their worst nightmare. I certainly fit into that category. Not as much now as it was years ago because of a lot of work I’ve done. But I was recently shocked at meeting a stranger and being bombarded by personal questions. I answered them as indirectly as possible with a smile and fought back the urge to tell her it was none of her business. Some people are just nosy. I’m not saying it’s horrible to be nosy. But the notion that everyone wants to tell you their life story just isn’t true. Sure, it’s nice for people to take an interest in who you are (as long as it’s genuine), and most questions, which make me pause, are pretty harmless. The answers are just too complicated.

The simple question, “Do you have children?” is harmless enough. It’s certainly a normal question to ask, but to me it, it’s not casual. It’s often a trigger and flood of feelings that all leads to the simple answer of “No.” Yet, I don’t say no. I say, “I have two dogs and a cat. They are my children.” It’s an answer I’ve crafted that represents who I am and where I am in life.

For me, I’m not very forthcoming with my life story. It takes a long time for me to be comfortable with others and build trust. There are only a handful of people in the world that I genuinely trust with real information about my life, and I’m fine with this; I’m more than fine actually. I’m happy with this decision.

This is in no way a condemnation on those that like to share. I’ve shared many deep and personal stories, too, through my writing. It’s my outlet, but it’s also on my terms.

And while I no longer feel like a deer in headlights when asked simple questions, I’d still prefer conversations with strangers to focus more on movies, books, travel or other interests, which certainly provide insight into someone’s personality but don’t get too personal.

So to all those posts and articles on tips to influence, engage or win people over, I say it’s not the ideal approach for every person. Not everyone has the ability to answer your questions without feeling a bit traumatized by the experience. I don’t have simple answers to simple questions. My life just hasn’t been simple or conventional. I’ve learned how to answer questions that allow me to be comfortable. But not everyone has this awareness (it’s taken me years to cultivate). So I ask that you pause and consider your inquisitive tendencies, regardless of how well the intention may be. Because there’s always a topic to chat about that doesn’t have any implications: it’s called the weather.

I Write Every Day

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I’ve been lucky enough to have been able to take my skill and gift and turn it into a career. Yet, most of the writing that I’ve been doing for the last few years hasn’t exactly given me fulfillment. So I’ve decided to do something about that, and that’s why I’m here right now, trying to get myself to a place where writing is fun again.

When I say I’m a writer, which is typically how I identify myself both professionally and personally, I don’t mean that my degrees or experience have made me one. I came this way out of the womb. I’ve often said that writing is not necessarily something you can teach. Although, it seems to be a major part of most curriculum. You can teach someone how to write an essay or research paper with a formula. But a real ability to understand how to craft a voice, the rhythm of words and the infamous “showing not telling,” I believe is something that is a raw talent. That talent can be shaped and nurtured. Thankfully mine was.

I wrote my first story when I was five. It’s interesting to me that many of my first short stories were about ghosts or mysteries, sometimes leaning a little dark for my age. But it was what I was interested in at the time and also probably a reflection of what was going on in my childhood.

I didn’t just write these stories. I loved to read them out loud. Sometimes I’d even tell stories on the fly; making it up as I went along. I suppose I had a very healthy imagination.

And lucky for me, I had a very encouraging mother. One who also happened to be an English teacher. It wasn’t enough to have a voice or think of a neat twist to the story. Grammar, syntax and structure were also equally important. She guided me from this perspective so that my ideas blossomed into well written stories.

She also gave me a love for reading. There were very few times in my life that I remember my mom not having a book on her nightstand. She read everything from fiction to biographies. And she let me read her books (not when I was five, but not too long after). She let me experience beautiful writing like Joyce Carol Oates, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and many more. I read “Gone with the Wind,” “Jane Eyre” and “Old Man and the Sea” at a relatively young age, yet I understood most of the concepts. More importantly, I understood this was real writing – this was what I wanted to do.

As I aged, the books became more complex and more adult, as did my writing. I started focusing a lot on poetry in middle school (okay a lot of it was about unrequited love), but I have some of those poems still. And they aren’t that bad.

As teenager, I really started to develop my voice. Much more of my writing became personal and introspective. My life was changing; everything was slipping out of my control. I needed an outlet. Writing saved me. And it helped me achieve, as I started to win writing contests and get published.

So I went to college and took many creative writing classes. My professors were easy with both compliments and criticism. I struggled to find focus – what did I want to write about? What was I going to do with this degree in English?

I graduated and was unsure. My life was at a critical juncture. Should I go to law school (that’s what my mom wanted, and of course it was so important to me that she be proud)? Should I try to get a job writing? What kind of jobs were those anyway?

My first job out of college was actually in the legal field as a litigation assistant. I thought I’d figure out if I did really want to law school. It was a great job for many reasons – great mentors, lots of life lessons and the creation of really thick skin (when plaintiff attorneys cuss you out and tell you that you are ruining peoples’ lives, it’s best not to take it personal).

But I wasn’t giving up on writing. I was happily becoming published on new online journals. I finished my first novel at 23; the second one by 25. And for many, many years, I tried to get a literary agent. The rejections mounted. I started on the third novel. Then being a novelist didn’t seem like something that was going to happen. So I took another road and got my MBA in marketing.

So yes, I do write every day. I’ve written about everything from country clubs to data governance. No matter the subject, I still try to remain true to a voice and an objective to keep it simple and interesting.

But I’m back to believing that I can still do this. I can still one day see my books published and in book stores. I’m dusting off that third manuscript and developing a memoir about my life.

I’ve still got a lot of stories to tell. And I hope that you’ll want to listen.