Author Archive: mjdicker

Making Space for New Ideas

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I was 28 years old when I realized that I didn’t like where my life was headed.

To most people, I’m sure everything looked fine. I was in good health, was working full-time in the youth program that I’d co-founded, and had a busy social life in San Francisco. But I knew in my core that I wasn’t fulfilled by it all, and I wasn’t ever going to be. The hard thing was, I had no idea what I’d do instead. So I kept plodding forward.

I fell into a deep depression that winter. I felt like I was being swept away in a current of my endless To-Do lists for and social commitments. It was so bad that even when my family came together for Christmas at my parents’ house, which was my favorite thing in the world, it couldn’t lift my spirits. From behind the closed door of my childhood bedroom, I could hear my mom and sister laughing together in the kitchen. Normally I would have walked down the hall and joined them, but I just sat there by myself, because I didn’t feel like doing much of anything. I knew that if I didn’t make a big change of some kind, and soon, I would be in real trouble.

The only thing I could think to do was to get away and clear my head. I’d always wanted to take a reading retreat and hole up in a cabin somewhere, just me and a stack of good books. My nonprofit salary didn’t leave me much disposable income, but I found a hostel on the coast that was surprisingly affordable. After Christmas, I packed my Jetta full of books, art supplies, and my laptop — strictly for reading and writing, not for email — and drove out to the beautiful Half Moon Bay.

It was revolutionary for me to wake up and have the whole day to myself, with no plans or obligations. I jogged. I journaled. I sat on a bench and watched the waves crashing on the rugged cliffs below. At the hostel I sat by the fire and read for hours. Taking that retreat was the kindest thing that I’ve ever done for myself, before or since.

A day or so into my stay at the hostel — which I’d planned for two days but extended to four — I began to have ideas again. Actual ideas. I was used to keeping my mind and schedule so full at all times that I could only execute the tasks in front of me; there was no space for anything new. My brain was like a hard drive that was one hundred percent at capacity. Removing myself from my daily routine and endless To-Do lists — laundry! email! grocery shopping! — opened up a patch of fertile ground that allowed new ideas emerge.

I came into the retreat knowing that I needed to make a change in my life and hoping that I would figure out what it was. It was my last night at the hostel when I finally realized what was making me so unhappy. In addition to overscheduling and exhausting myself, I had been pushing myself to do everything perfectly. I was afraid to take risks and make mistakes. I’d grown so used to doing what I thought I should be doing with my life that I’d lost sight of what I wanted to do. It eventually dawned on me that all of these habits had all begun in school.

When I asked myself what I wanted, the answer was, “A fresh start. A school do-over. A chance to come out a happier person the second time around.”

The idea for a project began to form: What if I could go back to my childhood classrooms, from kindergarten through college, and do school over again?

That was the beginning of the Reschool Yourself project. It seemed like a nutty idea, but over the next few months after I left the hostel, through a series of emails and phone calls and face-to-face meetings, I received permission to do the project. I spent the fall of 2008 at my old schools, reliving many of my childhood experiences, and writing about how they were changing me. I finished the project much more grounded and whole than when I began. Shortly afterward, I moved across the country and began a completely new line of work. And yes, I ended up a lot happier than I was when I began.

If I hadn’t taken time away from my busy life in the first place, I can almost guarantee that I would never even have had the idea for the project. I would have miserably continued down the wrong path because I simply didn’t know what else to do.

We all have ideas just below the surface, waiting to appear when we create the space for them. It could be as small as a solution to a problem we’ve been wrestling with at work, or as big as an epiphany about the next chapter of our lives. But because we’re uncomfortable with silence or being alone, or because we’re addicted to being busy all the time, we fill up every spare second with noise. The shower is just about the only place that’s quiet and free of distractions, so it’s no wonder that people often have big ideas there.

I realize that most of us aren’t able to do exactly what I did and take four days off for a retreat, even during the holidays. It certainly wouldn’t be feasible for me now that I have a baby. But that doesn’t mean I can’t create the space to have new ideas. Lately, I’ve been working on not automatically pulling out my phone when I have a few seconds of downtime. When someone is running late for a meeting or I’m in line at the post office, I have to actively resist the sweet siren song of Facebook. Instead, I’ll just be still for a few moments and let the ideas come as they may. This weekend when I was in line at the grocery store, I thought, I want to bake something tonight. Hey, I can make a king cake!  If I’d been scrolling through post after post on social media, I wouldn’t be enjoying a piece of cinnamon goodness topped with colored sugar for dessert tonight.

There are other experiments in creating space that I’d like to try, as well. Here’s an excerpt from a Wired profile on Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos:

Bezos spends hours at a time thinking about the future: trawling for ideas, exploring his own site, sometimes just surfing the Web, particularly on Mondays and Thursdays, which he tries to keep unscheduled. “I catch up on email, I wander around and talk to people, or I set up my own meetings – ones that are not part of the regular calendar.” His surfing isn’t always confined to retail: Let the record note that on a Thursday in January he spent five hours on the Web using (his wife) MacKenzie’s MSN account, plumbing the depths of his space fascination and learning more about “roton” rockets.

If Jeff Bezos has the time to leave two days per week unscheduled, then I can probably reserve an hour a week, or even a few minutes a day. I’ll bet if every day we shut off all of our devices and just took a few quiet moments with our thoughts, we’d all be a little more grounded and have some new ideas that just might change our lives.

 

This post is part of the seven-day Your Turn Challenge hosted by Seth Godin’s team. Flickr photo by konvo.

Shutting the Door on the Resistance

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I’ve been working on a book on the Reschool Yourself project for the past six years. I would very much like to have it finished by now, but I understand why I haven’t. It’s simple: It’s the resistance.

Steven Pressfield describes the resistance as “an energy field radiating from a work-in-potential. It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.” He writes:

Resistance is what keeps an entrepreneur from making the cold calls he knows he has to, to get his business rolling. It’s the force that keeps an aspiring painter away from her studio, or makes a writer back off from the blank page. Resistance stops us from going to the gym, from meditating, from donating our time to a cause we believe in.

The resistance looked a little different for me each time. At first, it came as the daunting question, How in the world do I write a book? It was much easier to do other things — like clean the house and watch TV — than sit down and try to figure it out.

Eventually I decided to jump in and just start writing the book as best I knew how. It came in small fits and starts. I’d get up in the morning before my husband did so I’d have some quiet time to myself and get on a roll.  Then I would hit a roadblock in my writing and give in to the resistance, until I worked up enough courage to start again. Years passed like this, more quickly than I could have imagined.

When I had a baby in the summer of 2013, I understood the difference between my internal resistance and tangible, real-world obstacles. Whereas before I’d had to contend with the resistance alone, now I had to deal with it AND find the time and energy to write when every ounce of it was already going toward keeping a newborn alive.

Now that my son is a toddler, I write after he goes to bed. On good days, I put him down around 8 pm and write for an hour or two. On bad days, I listen to the resistance when it says, “Don’t you need to finish a bit of work? Don’t you deserve to decompress for a while after a long day?” And by the time that I’m done with these things, it’s too late and I’m too tired to start writing. I go to bed feeling like a failure.

I’m doing the Your Turn Challenge this week because I want to shut the door on the resistance.

Committing to doing something every day doesn’t give the resistance any opportunity to weasel its way into your mind. It cuts off any discussion about whether you’re going to do it or not. There are no excuses or negotiations. A commitment doesn’t leave room for if you’ll deliver — only for when and how.

I’ve already used this tactic to beat the resistance once. While I was doing the Reschool Yourself project and spending each day at my old schools, I knew that I was going to blog about my experience each night. Because of that commitment, I lined up the rest of my waking hours to make sure I could deliver my post. Throughout the day, I would think about what I would write that night, so when I sat down I was ready to start typing without hesitation, and I sat in front of the computer until I published the post. I wrote about eating lunch in the school cafeteriagoing to a middle school dance, and staying in my college dorms.

At first, I had to grind out each sentence. I would delete every other word because I couldn’t capture the perfect phrasing that I heard in my mind. But as I kept writing day after day, whether I felt like it or not, the words began to flow more easily. I even began to look forward to writing. This momentum slammed the door on the resistance and kept it out. But once I finished the project, I started blogging more sporadically, which cracked the door open and let the resistance slither its way back in.

I hope that posting every day for the Your Turn Challenge will shut that door on the resistance again and seal it tight. I hope it will translate to moving my book forward every day, whether I edit a section of the manuscript, put fresh words on the page, or publish a new blog post. I hope that being part of a blogging community will encourage all of us to make our big dreams happen.

The week, I’m sure that the resistance will tell me that I’m too busy or too tired to write a blog post every day. I’m sure it’ll say, “Cut yourself some slack. You have a full-time job and a 17-month-old. You should relax tonight instead of writing. Just post something tomorrow.”

And I’ll tell the resistance, “Thank you for sharing” — or, as Pressfield recommends, “Go to hell” — and write my post anyway.

 

This post is part of the seven-day Your Turn Challenge hosted by Seth Godin’s team. Flickr photo by t0msk

A Mantra for the Holidays: “What’s Not Wrong?”

 

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This holiday season, I’ve been nostalgic for the kind of Christmas that I was lucky enough to have as a child. It was my favorite time of year, hands down. My family and I would drive out to a local Christmas tree farm in my dad’s truck, sitting four abreast, and cut down a divine-smelling Douglas fir. Back at home, we would put carols on the tape deck — Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and New Kids on the Block’s “Merry, Merry Christmas” were our favorites — and string colored lights on the branches. We’d unwrap newspaper from each ornament and smile as we remembered the person who gave it to us or the fond memory that it brought back. My sister and I helped our mom make fudge and three kinds of butter cookies, and on Christmas Eve my family would go to Mass, eat a home-cooked meal, and open presents. The whole season was filled with excitement and real holiday cheer.

Now that I’m an adult and a parent and I live far from my childhood home, I’ve had a much harder time getting into the Christmas spirit. I now understand why the holidays are the most stressful time of year for a lot of people. Everyone is rushing — to get work out the door before vacation, to drive out to the mall and pay for their purchases, to get the house clean and the meal prepared before family arrives. Then there are the financial strains. Being practical and money-conscious, the whole concept of Christmas shopping is stressful for me, because I don’t want people to buy me anything out of obligation, and vice versa. On top of that is holiday fundraising and sending Christmas cards and taking Santa pictures and braving the long lines at the post office. AND, AND, AND. There’s a lot more effort that goes into preparing for Christmas as a grown-up than as a child, and it’s difficult to accept that it isn’t the magical, carefree time that it was back then.

I had a mini-meltdown the other day because I let all of this holiday pressure get to me. I’d been so proud of myself for turning around our Christmas card quickly, and for completing a mad errands dash that included picking up the cards, exchanging lampshades at Target, going to the pharmacy, and buying stamps before I had to pick up our son from school. But when I got home, I realized that the lampshades were the wrong kind, and the 4×6 card we’d designed looked too small compared to the 5×7 that we’d done last year. In that moment, all of the effort I’d gone to seemed to be for nothing. I could feel the dark clouds gathering over my head.

Darren tried to reason with me, as he always does when I get like this, but it was futile. I could see that the holiday cards on our fridge were of various sizes. I knew that not one single person would open the card, see our smiling baby boy, and say, “I would really enjoy this card, if only it were bigger.” In that moment, it didn’t matter, because I wanted the card to be different than it was, and because it wasn’t, it felt ruined altogether. That’s the trap of perfectionism, of course, and the reason that it’s a surefire recipe for unhappiness.

It took a mood-shifter — in this case, the star-studded musical sendoff for The Colbert Report — to snap me back to reality and stop ruminating. I could see that the lampshades and the Christmas cards and the rest of it all qualified as major #firstworldproblems. I was able to step back for a moment and ask myself, “What’s NOT wrong?” — and the answer was, “So much.”

Even though most of my family members live far away and I miss them, I am fortunate to have a family who loves me and would do anything for me. Even though toddlerhood has been very, very challenging, I have a healthy son who makes me laugh every day, and a husband who is a doting parent and my most unflagging supporter. I have a job that I love, a financial situation on the upswing, and a community full of caring neighbors and friends. There is PLENTY in my life that is not wrong.

I went back to Target the next day and exchanged the lampshades again, this time for the right kind. I got to see how much the Christmas card made my coworkers smile and accepted that it was great just the way it was. I made a point of listening to Christmas carols and baking cookies from my family’s recipe to get into the holiday spirit.

I’m coming to terms with Christmas being more of a crazy time than it was when I was a child, but perhaps I can make it as magical a time for my son as it was for me. No, our tabletop Christmas tree from Kroger is still not decorated, and it may not ever be this year. There will probably be a few more tense moments to come, whether the turkey isn’t ready when I’d hoped it would be or the baby wants to eat the cookies instead of the roasted vegetables. But in the midst of it all, I will keep asking myself, “What’s not wrong?”, so I can look around and appreciate all the things that Christmas is really about.

What’s NOT wrong in your own life? Leave a comment!

The Highlight Reel Is Not the Full Picture

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The quote above is from an Anne Lamott piece in Salon about forgiveness that really struck me. I love how she puts this. I tend to think of “people’s outsides” as “the Facebook version of their lives,” or “the highlight reel.” It’s easy to get tricked into thinking that everyone else has a picture-perfect life, while yours is humdrum at best — or that you’re the only one who is having a tough time. The reality is that our outsides tell only one part of the story. The high points may be authentic, but they’re only part of the full picture.

My own Facebook timeline is Exhibit A. Of the last few posts I’ve made, four are pictures or videos of my 15-month-old son being adorable, and one is an article about loving life in Mississippi. All of these moments and sentiments are real, but what doesn’t show up on the page are all of the other moments that have lately stretched my patience thin. I’ve been sick with a bad cold for the past week, which has coincided with Evan cutting four molars at once and my trying to wean him from breastfeeding. Consequently, he has spent a large portion of the week wailing and shedding heartbreakingly big baby tears. He’s been waking up at 3 am crying and then rising for the day around 5, which has left me feeling exhausted and eager to get through this phase.

On Thanksgiving Day I posted a photo of Evan enjoying little portions of turkey and all the fixins, but what I didn’t say is that he had raised hell all morning while Darren and I were trying to cook, to the point where it was hard to remember my blessings. I also didn’t mention how much I missed spending the holiday with my family, and when I didn’t get to join their Google Hangout because of a tech glitch, I nearly cried. That stuff doesn’t get a lot of likes on Facebook, so I keep it to myself.

When all we encounter are people’s outsides — the pleasantries exchanged in passing, the smiling family Christmas cards adorning our refrigerators, the vacation photos on Instagram — it’s not unreasonable to think that everyone else is having a better time than we are. They seem more successful, happier, and luckier in love, and their kids never throw tantrums in the middle of the grocery store.

The truth is that any given day is a blend of the sacred and the mundane and the challenging, and that we have no idea what’s really going on with people under the surface. It’s a relief to remember that we all have some degree of “screwed-up-idness” inside. ALL of us.

I love Elizabeth Gilbert’s Facebook feed (and really, I love her in general) because she makes a point of sharing her whole story with readers, not the sugarcoated version. This week she posted about how she has committed to exercising for 20 minutes per day in spite of how much she loathes it, but every day she tries to make excuses and talk herself out of it. Then she goes ahead and does it anyway. Several women commented that when faced with a dilemma, they ask themselves, “What would Liz do?” To this, she responded, “Often WHAT LIZ WOULD DO is get a little weepy, feel a little overwhelmed, beat herself up a bit…and then eventually get sick of her own drama…and only then: ACT. (I’m working on eliminating some of those preliminary steps!)”

In a recent talk, Gilbert said, “For me, peace comes when I … embrace the beautiful mess that I am,” she says. “And embrace the beautiful mess that you all are, and that this world is, and just let it be that.”

No matter how we present ourselves on the outside, we’re all a beautiful mess on the inside. So let’s stop comparing ourselves and embrace that, shall we?

Introducing the Reschool Yourself Book Cover

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One of my great fortunes in life is to have married an enormously talented graphic and web designer. Darren and I started dating just as I was beginning the Reschool Yourself project, and he volunteered to do the logo, website, business cards, and all manner of other design-related tasks. His latest beautiful creation is a cover for the future Reschool Yourself book.

Seeing this cover makes my stomach do a happy flip-flop because I can actually picture my book on the bookstore shelf next to my favorite memoirs of transformation, such as Eat, Pray, Love, The Happiness Project, and Wild. I can imagine running my hands over the cool, smooth covers of my hardback and seeing my own words in black and white as I flip through the pages.

Little by little, I’m getting closer to realizing the dream. There are many more steps to take before I can publish the book — more writing and editing and finding an agent and building an audience — but the cover gives me fresh motivation to keep moving forward. This image will be the centerpiece of my vision collage for the coming year, which has a pretty good track record of keeping me focused on my goals and making them a reality.

Perhaps one day soon you’ll see this cover in a bookstore near you. A girl can dream!

5 Ways to Silence Your “Thought Bullies”

A sign caught my eye the other day as I drove by a mom-and-pop paint store. It said, “THE WORST BULLIES CAN BE YOUR THOUGHTS.”

I love this kind of roadside wisdom — it pops up in the most unexpected places and sticks to you like Velcro.

This sign especially resonated with me because there has been no bigger bully in my life than my own thoughts. On the one hand, I’m fortunate that I haven’t ever been seriously bullied by other people. On the other, having my own thoughts bully me every day of my life has been just as debilitating. The Thought Bullies — otherwise known as Inner Critics — follow me around 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and they know all my weak spots.

Most times the Thought Bullies come find me in the middle of the night, when I’m most vulnerable. As a kid, they would whisper in my ear that robbers and murderers could break into my house any second. They planted worries about school, too, how it would affect my future. My mom tells me that when I was in third grade, I was studying for a math test one night and suddenly broke into tears. “If I fail this test, then I won’t get into a good college,” I sobbed. “And then I won’t get a good job, and I won’t have any money, and my children will staaaarve!”

It’s kind of funny now, the thought of an eight-year-old having a major crisis over providing for her future children. But at the time, the anxiety was very real. More than two decades later, I still have these kinds of episodes and easily work myself into a panic. Nearly every night since the baby was born — and really, since I was pregnant with him — I’ve been up sometime in the wee hours, and inevitably the bullies come a tauntin’.

These days, they berate me about the past, about things I’ve done and failed to do. They rattle off a litany of sins for which I should repent. Why did you act so huffy with Darren the morning before his big presentation? Why did you post something whiny on Facebook that does not reflect your best self? Then they twist the knife the way they do night after night: Why have you let the Reschool Yourself project collect dust for so long? Why haven’t you finished your book already? Pretty soon I’m wide awake with my heart pounding, instead of getting the sleep I need so desperately. There are a lot of names for this behavior: worry, anxiety, rumination, perfectionism, catastrophizing, and generally being hard on myself.

It’s not easy to reason with the Thought Bullies, so these are 5 strategies that I use to cope with them:

1. Snap myself back into the here and now.

It’s so easy for my thoughts to drift into the past or future and go around and around endlessly. The best place to start is to snap myself back to reality by doing something that gets me out of my head. In the middle of the night I can grab my phone and read The Onion or look at photos of Evan. During waking hours, I bake — which requires me to measure and mix and taste — or play guitar and sing, which helps me breathe easier. When I lived in San Francisco, I’d lace up my running shoes and sprint up and down the hills for 15 minutes. These days I’ll do a couple of quick yoga poses or stretches. Having a child around helps, because whether they’re screaming or giggling, they are very much in the moment and require you to be, too.

2. Give myself the advice I’d give a friend.

One of my greatest challenges is to treat myself the way I would treat a friend. I would never, ever say the things to a friend that I think about myself. NEVER! When the Thought Bullies say, Why did you screw that thing up? You’re so stupid!, I tell myself, Cut yourself some slack. You did the best you could with what you had at the time. Things turn out the way they do for a reason, even if it’s not clear right away. This is what I would say to a friend who was beating herself up, yet so rarely do I think to say it to myself, especially in the middle of the night.

3. Talk it out.

Darren has encouraged me to share with him what’s on my mind, which I was hesitant to do at first for a lot of reasons. I didn’t want to burden him or sound unreasonable; I also thought I’d be feeding my fears by verbalizing them. But the opposite ended up being true. Talking out my worries gave me a pressure release valve, and often just naming them out loud took their power away.

4. Write it down.

Darren suggested that I tell him every single thing that was worrying me, and he would write it down. “Get it out of your head,” he told me. So we made a long list. Getting rid of the critters we hear in the walls sometimes (squirrels, we think). Eating more vegetables. Repainting the bathroom. And so on. It felt good to have to stretch for items to add. “Now we can start knocking them out and checking them off, one by one,” Darren said, pragmatic as always.

Journaling, too, helps immensely every time I make time for it. Even a page at the end of the day allows me to be completely honest and process some of the worries that would otherwise haunt me.

5. Channel the anxiety into positive action.

I ask myself, “What would resolve this thing you’re worried about?” and then, “What’s one step you can take to get you closer?” When I was upset about getting so many late fees, I put recurring reminders on my Google Calendar to pay the bills. When the clutter around the house was driving me crazy, I bought new fabric boxes at Target to organize it. Anxiety can be productive when harnessed and directed toward a goal.

***

Schools today generally have some kind of anti-bullying curriculum designed to increase tolerance and compassion, and to teach kids what to do if they’re being bullied. Maybe one day it will include strategies for coping with your own Thought Bullies, who can be the worst of the bunch — and the ones that can follow you around for a lifetime, if you don’t know how to silence them.

What strategies do you use to deal with your Thought Bullies? Leave a comment!

A Quick Welcome

Welcome, new visitors!

I’m glad you’re here. Here are a few quick highlights of the Reschool Yourself site:

  • About RSY gives background on the hows and whys of the project.
  • The Archives let you follow the journey from the start, or look at certain periods like Elementary School.
  • Reschooling Tools will help you go through a “reschooling” process similar to mine.
  • Remember This? will bring back your own school memories so you can process them–or just enjoy the nostalgia.

I write about topics like overcoming resistance, finding contentment and gratitude in everyday life, and learning to value yourself. If you’d like to stay in the loop:

I’d love to hear from you, so leave a comment or contact me!

Hello, Stranger!

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Hello, dear friends. It’s been a while. Since doing the Reschool Yourself project, there have been a lot of developments in my life: I moved from California to Mississippi. I co-founded a nonprofit organization and a small business. I had a baby and started working in state government. And throughout it all, not a day has gone by when I didn’t think about the project.

From the beginning, I wanted to write a book about what was happening to me during Reschool Yourself — about what it was like to have a school “do-over” at 28 years old and get to be a kid again, about visiting with my past, looking it in the eye, and letting it go. I hoped that it would help other people go through a similar healing process and make their own fresh start.

But I got tired of talking about the project, paralyzed by the daunting task of writing a book, and just plain busy with other things. I started writing the book, then put it down, and picked it up again in fits and starts. I stopped keeping up the blog because I felt like I should use that time to work on the book. It’s been infinitely more challenging to find time to write at all since having a baby.

There’s a deep, nagging feeling in my body that this project won’t truly be finished until I finish this book. I’m working on shifting my energy from anger at myself for not doing it already to motivation to do it now. There are plenty of reasons why having distance from the experience will make for a better book: I can see the story objectively and have more perspective on how best to tell it; I can include only the most meaningful details and let the rest fall away. I trust that things happen in their own good time, and they will with the book, too.

But still, I often wake up in the middle of the night with my inner critic running wild, berating me. Why didn’t you just ride the momentum of the project and write the damn thing when you had few expenses and ample time? Now you have a full-time job, a mortgage, and a child! The Internet and social media are so cluttered now! Publishing is dead! 

With all of this crazy talk, it’s no surprise that I’ve let the resistance get the better of me — but I won’t again. I can’t keep beating myself up about not finishing what I started. I’m starting to blog again and post on social media, slowly overcoming the inertia of the period when I didn’t do these things.

The book is close to being done, and I need your help to get it out of my head and into the world. Publishing a book becomes much more possible when there are people waiting to read it. If what you’ve seen on this site has added something to your life, and if you think the book would, too, here’s what you can do:

Thank you! Hearing from you helps me put fuel in the tank again and move closer to the dream.

New Haircut, New Chapter

Although I’d had long hair for five years, one morning last week I looked in the mirror and decided that it really had to go. That’s the way it is with me and my hair. It kind of sits there for months and years at a time, and then suddenly, just like that, I can’t stand it anymore.

This time I was fed up with having long hair in the hot and humid Mississippi summer. I loved the way my hair looked when someone else styled it, but that someone was rarely me. I simply don’t have the patience to blow dry my thick hair for 20 minutes and then curl it. Instead, I pulled it into a loose ponytail and called it a day. Every day.

I was just as unadventurous when getting my hair cut every six months or so, only when it became absolutely necessary. I’d ask my stylist for the same long layers as usual and would think, “When I’m old and gray, I’ll regret not doing much with my hair when I was young.”

Given that I wasn’t doing anything useful with my hair, I had moments where I considered cutting it and donating it to Locks of Love, a nonprofit that makes hairpieces for low-income young people suffering from hair loss. Several of my friends had donated over the past couple of years, which I thought was awesome.

During the Reschool Yourself elementary school phase, I watched two kids get their hair cut for Locks of Love during an assembly, which brought tears to my eyes. One of the kids, Alex, was a 10-year-old boy who had been growing his hair long, at the risk of getting teased, so he could donate. The other donor was a younger girl, no more than seven years old, who was inspired by Alex and volunteered on the spot to cut her hair, too. The Locks of Love website says that more than 80 percent of donors are children. That blows me away.

So when I decided that my hair needed to go, it was a no-brainer for me to donate it. Here I was, cursing my hair daily for being tough to manage, and a kid with alopecia (an auto-immune disorder that shuts down hair follicles) or cancer could be making much better use of it.

I let my decision sit for a few days to make sure I meant it, and then I scheduled an appointment with my stylist, Ashley, at Smoak Salon. I arrived with a Ziploc bag for my hair and printed instructions to cut rubber-banded ponytails at least 10 inches long. The receptionist said, “You’re the one who’s cutting your hair off today! Are you nervous?” I said no, not at all; I was just excited. Ashley and her sister Suzanne, who owns the salon, were excited, too. I showed Ashley three pictures I’d printed of textured bob haircuts, and she said, “Oh, that’ll look great on you!”

On went the smock. Ashley measured my hair with a comb that doubled as a ruler and tied off seven ponytails around my head with rubber bands. “You ready?” she asked. “Yep,” I said. Snip. Ashley smiled and held up the first ponytail. I grinned back at her.

As Ashley continued cutting off the ponytails one by one, I thought about what I wanted the haircut to mean for me.

  • Breaking out of old habits that weren’t serving me.
  • Taking more risks (positive ones).
  • Letting go of old grudges and gripes that were weighing me down.
  • Snapping less and laughing more.

This year marked a major new chapter in my life: I got married and will soon be buying a house. I’m an official grown-up now. There’s nothing like a new haircut to commemorate this kind of change.

Ashley carefully evened out and layered the cut. “What do you think?” she asked, handing me a mirror so I could see the back of my head. “I love it,” I said. It was chin-length, shorter than I’d expected, but it was bouncy and summery and light.

Now, by running my fingers through my short hair or pulling it into a palm-tree half ponytail for exercising, I remind myself every day not to do the same old things I used to do.  Just because I acted a certain way last week doesn’t mean that I can’t change this week — or at least try. I just have to look in the mirror to see evidence that I’m different already, new and improved.

I Love Tongs Guest Post: School Lunches, a Decade or Two Later

My wonderful friend Heather Shellen invited me to guest post for her food blog, I Love Tongs, about the school lunches that I ate while reschooling on each campus. Here’s Heather’s very kind introduction, and an excerpt of the post. Read the complete post here.

A couple of years ago, my dear friend Melia made the amazing and brave decision to go back to school. As in start over from kindergarten. I’m sure your initial reaction is “Well that sounds easy!” but you and I both know that you would be out of the game at 3rd-grade Geometry and you are absolutely not smarter than a 5th grader. But her ambition and dedication to this project are not the only reasons I love Melia. This is a woman who never turns down a costume party or an SF Mission taco crawl. She can also school anyone in a game of early 90s trivia. I asked her to share some of her experiences with school lunch here, and she graciously obliged.

With all the national attention that healthy school lunches are getting these days, you might wonder how the lunches at your own schools have changed since you were a student. I wondered the same thing, and a couple of years ago I happened to have a chance to find out.

I committed the fall of 2008 to a “do-over” of my schooling, like Billy Madison but for real. I got permission to spend a week in each of my old school classrooms in the San Francisco Bay Area: kindergarten, first grade, and so on, all the way through college. The project was called Reschool Yourself, and its goal was for me to make peace with 17 years of school that I had found did not prepare me for life. (You can read more about the project here.)

Along the way, I dedicated myself to “method lunching,” eating cafeteria food with my fellow students. If there were options that had been on the menu when I was enrolled the first time around, I ordered those and assessed how they stacked up. Here are some highlights from my school lunch adventures.

1. Elementary School: Hot Dogs
El Verano Elementary School, Sonoma, CA

When I was a kid, the only day that I’d buy lunch instead of brown bagging it was Friday, because it was Pizza Day. Miraculously, 23 years later, Friday was still Pizza Day, so I planned to buy “hot lunch” from the school cafeteria on that day of the week.

Imagine my disappointment when I saw hot dogs instead. “We barbecue the first and last weeks of school,” said the lunch lady. “It’s a special occasion.”

At least they were chicken dogs. Here’s what I wrote about my lunch that day (read the full post):

The principal, who was graciously helping serve lunch that day, gave me an extra helping of peppered macaroni salad, a slice of watermelon, and a chocolate chip cookie. At the end of the counter there were bowls of fresh fruit, mini bags of carrots, and boxes of raisins, all for the taking; I was happy to see a broader, healthier selection than we’d had in the 80s…

I (was) surprised that the food tasted so good, the buttery cookie in particular. The hot dog wasn’t half bad, especially with relish and ketchup, and the pepper in the macaroni salad gave it an original flavor. The flailing arms of the (kindergarteners) had slid my watermelon wedge onto the table, and I left it untouched, following one of the cardinal rules in education: No matter how hungry you are, never eat anything that has touched kids’ fingers or their tabletops.

The best part of the meal was the chocolate milk, that thick, rich chocolatey goodness packed into a tiny carton. Turns out that the secret to the thickness is….corn starch. Yum. I drank half, enjoying it thoroughly, and pitched the rest.

Read the rest of the post on I Love Tongs.