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The Guilt Diet: How and Why I Fell Off the Wagon

Posted by Deborah Huso on Jul 24, 2012 in Mothers and Daughters, Relationships

I know a lot about guilt, at least when you consider I’m not Catholic. In fact, I was raised Lutheran, and the great thing about being Lutheran, idealistically speaking anyway, is that not only do you not need intercessory prayer to wipe away your sins, your sins aren’t really anybody’s business anyway. At least that’s what Martin Luther said. All that muck is just between you and God.

Or between you and your mother.

If the Judeo-Christian Diaspora had need for a patron saint of guilt, my mother would be it. No improper action is unworthy of her note. Just the other day, in fact, as I sat across the kitchen table from her, to give her 20 minutes of painful and dutiful conversation, she remarked on my use of a four-letter word in referring to a less than ethical colleague. “Do you talk like that in front of Heidi? I just cannot believe the language you use.”

I am 37 years old, and I suddenly decided it was time to grab my four-year-old and hit the road before my mother began remarking on the unusual color of my toenails or advised me it was really not appropriate, given my age (nevermind I have great legs), for me to wear skirts with hems above the knee.

My mother comes by her guilt-inducing tendencies honestly enough. The great-granddaughter of Norwegian immigrants who managed to prosper through dedicated and pretty much non-stop labor in the rich soil of the American Midwest, she was raised on a solid diet of hard work, steel nerves, and eternal faith that anything that could go wrong would go wrong. Leisure time is the next best thing to a sin in this world view, and love is reserved for children who are under the age of back talking. Spouses, adult relatives, pets, and neighbors can fend for themselves unless, of course, they have reached drooling stage at which point you tend to them with a rough and exasperated sense of duty.

When you come of age under this kind of rearing, guilt becomes an everyday thing, hardly noted oftentimes.  You think being reminded for the 923rd time that it is all your fault your parents had to sell a quarter of the farm to send you to college is normal. And you really don’t think about the fact that the reason you haven’t told your mother you’re going on a European vacation is because you don’t want to feel bad for enjoying yourself and (God forbid) spending hard-earned money on something frivolous like seeing the palaces of the Russian czars or taking a gondola ride on the Grand Canal.

There is nothing healthy about consuming a steady diet of guilt, however. Guilt represses and controls, which is, of course, what it is designed to do, but most of us who have been raised on a guilt diet, whether it’s one of moderate or gargantuan proportions, end up leading lives where duty (however it is defined by the ones holding the guilt strings) holds sway over everything else…including happiness.

And if you think happiness is for the afterlife and not for the here and now, well, you might as well stop reading. I have no argument for the doggedly, miserably faithful. Ecclesiastes noted that “all is vanity,” and “all go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.” In other words, we’re all headed for the same destination whether we live lives burdened by guilt or not, so why waste time feeling bad for being who we are and for enjoying the life we have been given?

It is a question I have often asked my mother. She has never been able to come up with a satisfactory answer. Perhaps that’s because the answer is ultimately that she, like so many people, from priests to politicians, has found guilt to be a handy way of getting what she wants from other people. If you can make someone feel bad enough for pursuing his dreams, perhaps he won’t pursue them and leave you behind. If you can force someone to be devoted to you by reminding her all the time of all you have done for her, perhaps she won’t abandon you, no matter how horribly you treat her. It is the same thing churches and governments have used for millennia—do the “right” thing, and no harm will come to you; no one will judge you; and life will never be hard. You certainly won’t have to make tough choices.

And, in the end, isn’t that why most of us raised on guilt diets stick to them? Much though we may resent the steady ingestion of our unworthiness, it’s far preferable perhaps to having to put ourselves out on a limb and risk censure or ridicule (or maybe disinheritance) by doing our own thing.

I think perhaps it was watching my father that finally made me ditch the guilt regimen. Raised by a rigidly religious mother and a father who was eternally disappointed in him, my dad ingested guilt almost from the cradle. The result was that he was and still is always trying to please with some ragged hope that maybe one day he’ll be good enough. His parents are long since gone from this earth, but my mother has done a fairly good job of assuming their place and discouraging my dad from following his heart if it in any way leads him away from her…even if only for a day.

Guilt like this is everywhere, and sometimes it’s not other people who impose it on us.  Sometimes we impose it on ourselves.  How many women friends do I have who are reluctant to go out for the day with friends or to take a vacation without their kids?  Somehow they have ingested the idea that they are poor wives and mothers if they give any attention to themselves. So they doggedly devote themselves to their duties—taking care of their careers, their spouses, their children—to the exclusion of caring for themselves.  The result is a life of groundhog days.

Not too many weeks ago I was standing in the prettily landscaped backyard of a well-to-do friend who, like so many of us, on the surface has it all.  I could not help but remark, as I watched our children playing together and her husband grilling on the deck, “You have a good life.”

She literally guffawed, “Yeah, right.”

I knew what it meant, and I kind of chuckled, now admiring the new deck furniture she had purchased, pretty green cushions and a jauntily tilted patio umbrella.  “Well, at least you have great deck furniture,” I said.

We both fell into stitches of laughter. Because it was all too true. When we let duty rule our lives too much, we end up clinging to absurdities for our happiness. Maybe we resent our spouses or hate our jobs, but at least we have a really nice car. Or maybe we’re angry we have to work horrible hours, but at least we have a really beautiful house to sleep in. We cover our guilt with salves of pretense.

I’m not sure when exactly I gave up the ghost and decided to start eating life raw and real. Perhaps it was somewhere between my mother remarking, “well, it must be nice to be rich” and me replying, guilt-free, “yeah, it is,” and walking out at Christmas one year when she told me to “get out,” fully expecting I would never be so lacking in guilt as to actually do it. The funny thing about resisting the guilt diet is that the more you call the bluff of the guilt reapers, the more they back off…or at least keep their guilt-inducing opinions to themselves.

Plus, you’ll find out who really loves you. Trust me, it’s not the person who tries to make you feel bad for following your heart or doing your own thing. It’s the person who makes you feel good for being who you are.

 

 
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Didn’t Get a Lexus for Mother’s Day? You’re Not Alone….

Posted by Susannah on May 10, 2012 in Motherhood, Mothers and Daughters, Relationships

I’ve heard more negative flack about Mother’s Day than I care to think about.  This Sunday in May is so built up that nothing short of the honor afforded to the Queen Mother could even begin to meet the expectations of the average over-tired, overwhelmed, and over-stressed Mother.

Why is it the mere mention of Mother’s Day is often met, not unlike Valentine’s Day, with groans and eye-rolling from many otherwise reasonable women?  I think it has to do with the breadth of space between Hallmark-inspired expectations and sobering reality.

This crevasse is littered with disgruntled moms who remember years of making brunch for their mothers-in-law while they themselves had very young children tugging at their skirts, golf outings scheduled by husbands while moms stayed home with the kids, boxes of favorite chocolates thoughtlessly given in the midst of hard-won weight loss goals….

I remember my first Mother’s Day.  I was in a group of young mothers who all had children born within a few months of each other.  Usually this group offered comfort to me as we all commiserated over the common experience of new parenthood.

The problem was that one of these women got a Lexus SUV for Mother’s Day.

Excuse me?!?

Though no one bothered asking, we could assume there was a bouquet of roses arranged elegantly on the hood with the big bow…and dinner reservations with a babysitter arranged.

You can imagine how the conversations went at home that evening…between every couple but one.

So why has this Sunday in May become the resting place for such a storm of emotions?

In an effort to figure out just what the problem was, I decided to interview some women who actually looked forward to Mother’s Day and all the sentiments it supposedly embodies.  The resounding message from every mom with a positive view of the day was that, like most events for women, Mother’s Day joy is up to you.  That’s right, Mom. Don’t expect hubby and the kids to rise to the occasion on this one.

I was most impressed with Danielle, whose husband gave her the day off on Mother’s Day.  Of course, she reciprocated on Father’s Day.  This is what Danielle, mother to two sets of twins, had to say:

“Not sure how we started it, but I’m pretty sure it was when we realized that with four young kids, there is no such thing as a true day off, ever.  So we let each person spend two days a year — their day (Mothers/Fathers) and their birthday in any way they choose: your time is your own, and no one can make demands on it.”

In other words, you can make the family go for a day hike with you, or you can go spend an entire afternoon at the spa…blissfully alone.

Ask Danielle if she likes Mother’s Day, and you’ll hear a resounding “yes.”

Another very content mother of four told me she recognizes Mother’s Day by remembering that she is a mother because of her kids.  It’s more like Mother-Child Day to her.  “All I want is a day of treasured memories,” Christine told me.  “A Great Mother’s Day is when the Mom realizes it’s not truly her day!”  Christine makes sure she carves out other special moments to pamper herself during the year but doesn’t make Mother’s Day about herself.  As a result, she never gets the Mother’s Day Blues.

Perhaps these two great moms know the little secret that it took me years to figure out.  Some of the best mothering advice I’ve ever received was: claim the time you need.

As I was complaining about how my husband spends an hour or two in front of the television many nights, a wise friend of mine asked me why I don’t do the same.  She continued to say that the reason I don’t have down time is that I don’t take down time.

I had to admit she was onto something.

Maybe my relaxation wouldn’t take the form of a prime time show but an afternoon latte with a friend, a walk at lunch, a rest on the sofa with a magazine on a Sunday afternoon, or a decadent piece of chocolate eaten when no one was around to beg me to share.

Unfortunately, mothers overall tend to play the masochist.

Few mothers, especially those with very young children who need a break the most, really know how to give to themselves without feeling guilty about it.  But this “mother-as-martyr” serves no one and only heightens the resentment so many overworked and under-appreciated moms already feel.

Mothers need to adopt a new paradigm.  That means we have to stop begrudging the fact that our family hasn’t given us the proper deference on the one day artificially pumped up by Hallmark and brunch venues to honor all our sacrifices.  Instead, we need to give ourselves the gift of kindness on a regular basis.

But this advice doesn’t always work for the most vulnerable of mothers–the new ones.  Not only do they lack the perhaps unfortunate experience necessary to understand no one is going to pamper them but themselves, but they also likely have the least ability to do it amidst piles of soiled diapers, inconsolable crying (that would be the baby’s, just to clarify), and the general sleep deprivation that leaves them too mentally fried to pour formula into a bottle without spilling much less pour themselves a glass of wine.

New dads, step up to the plate.  This is the one special Mother’s Day that rests squarely on your shoulders.  This is the Mother’s Day where your beloved has embarked on a journey that will shape the rest of her life.  She’s exhausted and overwhelmed, questioning her abilities, her sanity, and maybe even her choice to become a mother in the first place.  She needs some affirmation–to be told that she is still beautiful to you, that you are astounded at the miracle of her strength, and want to honor her.

The deal is that if you exceed expectations on that first Mother’s Day, you’ll be set for the next 18 years. Because honestly, the kids will make sure the rest of her Mother’s Days are full of scrawled hand printed cards and Dixie cup marigolds.

So what if you can’t buy a Lexus SUV?  It doesn’t need to be that big, but a handwritten card that makes her cry is a good start.  And, in a pinch, even a Hallmark card with lots of mushy stuff could work if she’s into that.

And see if you can’t swing a good piece of jewelry that’s classic and substantial enough that your newborn infant daughter may consider wearing it for her wedding someday. And for super-bonus points, don’t forget to mention this line of sentimental “daughter’s-wedding-day” thinking as you’re sliding it on her finger or holding her hair back from her ears as she puts on the diamond studs.

Don’t have such deep pockets or are lucky enough to be married to a non-bauble-loving woman?  How about planting a pretty flowering tree that will “grow with our new baby?”

The key is to put real thought into it.  It will pay off in future years.  Don’t be afraid that you’re setting a precedent (for I know that’s what you fear).  Instead, realize you’re paying it forward.  By overdoing it this year and putting the idea into her head that this is your year to do Mother’s Day, you’ll avoid beginning her life as a mother with that snowballing of resentment that causes women to say they hate Mother’s Day with as much passion as they do V-Day.

But ladies, remember that, aside from the first Mother’s Day when you’re having enough trouble taking care of a tiny little one much less yourself, redesigning Mother’s Day rests on your shoulders.

Anytime a woman depends on others to meet her needs, she will end up short. If you really want your Mother’s Day to be perfect (or any day really), make it that way, and seize your own joy.

 
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“Mind-Fuck For Girls”: Why I Don’t Believe in Fairytales…or Do I?

Posted by Deborah Huso on Mar 2, 2012 in Motherhood, Mothers and Daughters, Relationships

Coral, gold, and gemstones on Ponte Vecchio

Last Saturday I promised my four-year-old daughter movie and pizza night if she behaved herself all day while I caught up on work in the office.  I don’t know as I would go so far as to call my daughter “girly.”  She hates baby dolls, loves cars, trucks, trains and LEGOs and is especially fond of getting as dirty as possible when outdoors, but she also has a fondness for all things Barbie and princess.  I’m okay with Barbie, and I’m actually okay with princesses, too, as long as we’re just talking about dressing up in a fabulous gown and looking beautiful for the day.

But there is a point at which my tolerance runs a little thin. Heidi persistently asks for Disney princess or Barbie princess movies–you know the ones where the girl finds her “one true love” and lives “happily ever after.”  And much though I’d like to pretend my efforts to make her strong, independent, and choosy are overriding all this falderal, I know they’re not.

I still try though and resisted Heidi’s begging for yet another Barbie princess movie last weekend and chose instead the movie Enchanted. You may have seen it. It’s a little bit of an anti-fairytale with the otherworldly princess rejecting Prince Charming in favor of an imperfect marriage to a New York divorce lawyer. It still has the flavor of happily ever after, but it’s a slightly better twisting of reality.

Heidi loved it, and she even got it when the princess fought the dragon instead of the divorce lawyer. But still, it wasn’t perfect. Because the princess fails, and both she and her lover are saved by a chipmunk. Women are still not allowed to save themselves in fairytales.

A friend of mind calls Disney princess “mind-fuck for girls.” I think that’s an apt description.

Rare is the woman, no matter how intelligent, who does not suffer to some degree from a childhood of fairytale mind-fucking. I always thought it had bypassed me.  Instead of browsing through catalogs at pictures of stunning wedding gowns as a pre-adolescent girl, I was cutting out pictures of my dream house…which I did eventually build, by the way. It seemed to me, even when I was quite young, that I had a much better chance of building the perfect house than of finding the perfect man.

You can control the construction of a house. Love is something else entirely. It runs where it wants to without asking anyone’s permission in advance. And most men are not prepared to be Prince Charming. They didn’t grow up watching princess movies. So there’s an emotional disconnect between boys and girls right from the get-go. My preschooler recognizes it already. She told me in the car one day, “Boys are stupid, Mommy.” I nodded, for there was much truth in this statement. And then she continued, “Daddy is a boy, so Daddy must be stupid.”

I laughed aloud, as I often do when profundity on a grand scale comes out of Heidi’s mouth. One of my girlfriends told me Heidi is far more advanced than we ever were as girls if she already gets the idea that guys don’t get us.

Even though my parents raised me not too put too much credence in fairytales and to make my own way in the world without relying on anyone else to make it for me, they apparently did not protect me enough. Because I still grew up believing that maybe, just maybe, I would fall in love with my best friend and live happily ever after.

A Better View than the Jewelry: the Riverscape from the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy

It didn’t happen. Not for lack of trying. I think, like so many women (especially young ones), I did my best to cram romantic partners into my personal visions of Prince Charming. And the poor men could not help but fail. My former husband had no idea I actually wanted to be proposed to at the lovely overlook where we first watched the sunset on Skyline Drive. I honestly don’t remember exactly anymore how he asked, it was so unmemorable. Others were worse. Like the boyfriend who foolishly told me he’d bought me a diamond just out of the blue with no indication beforehand that marriage was even on the table. I told him he better pay off his college loans and credit card debt before he dared show me the thing. Thank heaven for that caveat. We broke up long before he had his finances in order, and I was saved from what probably would have been a disastrous marriage.

So I don’t have a romantic proposal story about being carried off on a white horse into the sunset to pass onto my daughter. But then my mother didn’t have one to pass onto me either. She got her engagement ring in the mail. (My dad was in the Air Force in Texas at the time.)

And maybe these anti-fairytales are better anyway. For what pain women suffer in believing that a man will sweep them off their feet one day and love and cherish them forever after. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, mind you. But it’s rare. In my 36 years, I’ve encountered only one such couple. They were in their 50s when I met them, working at a museum where I had a part-time job during grad school. They’d been married 30 years. Every day at the end of work, that man would come into the gift shop where his wife worked, scoop her up off her feet, and kiss her. And she would giggle like a young bride. It was amazing to watch. Everyone in that museum shop would turn to look, no matter how many times we had seen it. And we all longed to be so lucky.

Because a lot of it is luck in the end, isn’t it?  Chances are Mr. Right is out there for you.  But chances are he lives on the other side of the country or maybe halfway across the world. He may not even speak the same language as you. How do you find him? That man whose personality is so magnetic that you’ll forgive him a thousand times for failing to put his socks in the hamper or for failing to pick the kids up on time? (Because you know the reason you’re really mad at your husband about his sloppiness and forgetfulness is because you’re mad at him for not being Prince Charming, right?) He’s not your match, and both of you know it, so you spar over the kids’ grades, whose turn it is to do the grocery shopping, why his mother is coming over again, and what to do on the weekend that everyone will enjoy.

Most of us settle for Mr. Half-Right. Or maybe even Mr. One-Quarter-Right because we know that our chances of finding the true Mr. Right are very slim. And someone told us somewhere, likely in a fairytale, that we have to get married, have kids, and pretend to live happily ever after with our “one true love.”

I’d like to think I’m over it. Sometimes I think I am. I’m a realist at least 85 percent of the time. I know men and women often don’t speak the same language, that they have wholly different expectations, that neither gender can be expected to read the other’s mind. I know that 90 percent of the time when a man hurts me, frustrates me, makes me crazy, he really has no idea he’s doing it.

But then something will inspire me to start believing in fairytales again…or at least make me want to believe. It happened most recently last November when Dorothy and I were in Florence, Italy, walking the famous Ponte Vecchio. In case you don’t know, it’s a famous bridge spanning the Fiume Arno that is lined with shops selling gold and silver jewelry. I’ve never been much into jewelry. Once when my former spouse suggested he should update my engagement ring, get me something with a bigger diamond, I told him if he had that much money, I would be far happier with a fantastic vacation or a piece of land. (I never got the diamond, by the way, or a vacation, or a new piece of real estate.) But something about this romantic 1345 bridge in Florence, overlooking the river, with its shops of jewelry and the couples hand-in-hand walking across it gave me a little regretful thrill.

“Wouldn’t it be grand to get proposed to on this bridge?” I suddenly said to Dorothy. “And then go into one of these shops and pick out your ring?”

Dorothy, like me, is something of a cynic about love, but even she had to agree. Yes, that would indeed be fantastic. And so we stood there a moment in between all the glistening shops, looking out over the water and the city, daydreaming about something that was long gone for both of us. And I think we felt a little foolish that we even had such a girlish daydream—two business-owning women who had paid for their own trips to Italy and gone unaccompanied by husbands or lovers.

The “mind-fuck for girls,” as my friend called it, apparently outlasts education, prosperity, experience, even divorce. Which really leads me to wonder what it’s all about, why we can’t let go. Is it something like the “Hope” of Pandora’s Box? Does the idea that the “one true love” is out there somewhere keep us trudging onward in the most hopeless of circumstances, enduring the string of dates with men who are not “the one,” sifting through them all, wondering, and wondering if Prince Charming is ever going to show up? Do we really go through all of this thinking we’re going to be the rare and lucky woman who truly lands Mr. Right??

Maybe.

I know there have been times in my life when I have wanted to shout like Charlotte in Sex and the City, “I’m 35! Where is he?!”

I remember watching a friend of mine walk down the aisle a few years ago. And if anyone had been through the relationship ringer, she was it. I remembered her lamenting during her days as a single, dating woman, “I’m exhausted by it. I am exhausted by dating men, none of whom are right. I just want to give up.” But one day, years later, she walked down the aisle arm-in-arm with the man she believed to be “the one,” and the beaming smile on her face gave me hope for a moment.

Maybe this will be it, I thought. Maybe she really found him, and they’re going to be in love forever. She’ll prove it’s possible. I even told her so.  “Make me believe,” I urged her.

But that’s not how it happened. Her husband is not picking her up into his arms at the end of every workday and planting an “oh, my god, I am so in love with you” kiss on her lips. The question is though: does he need to be?

And I’m afraid the answer might actually be “yes.”

But do I say that because I’ve been mind-fucked, too?

Probably.

But I do know two women who found love in their 60s…finally. And at least one of them is quite madly in love. I think of her sometimes when I start feeling hopeless. I remind myself there is always that five percent or less chance that something magical might indeed cross my path one day.

Crazier things have happened.

It never crossed my mind, for example, when I was the child of hard-working parents just barely getting by at times that I would one day enjoy the luxury of standing on the Ponte Vecchio looking at diamonds and coral pendants and perhaps, more importantly, looking across the centuries-old architecture of the city where Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci once lived.

I bought a ring for myself that day. It was not a diamond. It was not even expensive. I bought it from the jeweler on the bridge with only a few dozen pieces in his window. He told me he was able to sell the same pieces as his neighbors so much cheaper because of his low overhead. I slipped it on my finger, pulled my leather gloves back over my hands, and proceeded on my way to the Galleria degli Ufizzi to look at the original paintings of Botticelli, Raphael, and El Greco, something I also would never have imagined being able to do on a typical writer’s salary.

It did not occur to me until later that I had done my best to live out my fairytale thus far. And perhaps that simple gold filigree band was something of a self-engagement ring for me, not on the scale of the famous right-hand diamond. My fairytale is not quite that big, not yet. And I suspect if it ever gets that big, I’ll be buying more land with mountain vistas or maybe checking out Antarctica, not frittering money away on diamonds. Who knows?  That is the beauty of it, too. The not knowing what’s around the next bend.

In the tale of Pandora’s box, humanity is saved by hope. But hope is not sitting on a windowsill wishing for Prince Charming to come dashing around the corner. Hope is active. It is work. It is believing…and doing…and being…even when the evidence suggests that the game will not end as you would like. It’s still worth a bold attempt. Don’t leave it to princes and chipmunks to save you. That’s great if one comes along and gives you a lift. But try lifting yourself first.

 
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The One Four-Letter Word You Won’t Hear in My House

Posted by Deborah Huso on Dec 20, 2011 in Motherhood, Mothers and Daughters, Success Guide

My assistant tells me I curse too much. She has advised me that perhaps I should make a New Year’s resolution to curse less. Even my husband says there are times when my language could rival any sailor’s.

Are you surprised?

If you know me in my professional incarnation, perhaps you are. I am calm and cool as can be when on the phone or in an interview with an editor, publisher, or client—the epitome of professionalism and courtesy. And it’s not an act. No, it feels perfectly natural to be accommodating and kind to the people who pay my bills.

But once the phone is hung up, the deadlines are looming eerily, and the wireless office network has decided yet again to go on strike, the four-letter words start pouring out like spilled coffee. And pretty soon, the office is resounding with phrases that would make my mother cower in shame and which, fortunately, make my assistant devolve into giggles.

However, there is one four-letter word that is off limits, a word I never speak, a word I never allow anyone I care about to speak. And that’s can’t. If you want to get me really fired up, just say “I can’t” within earshot.

Even my four-year-old daughter knows this word is taboo. She knows if she makes the error of saying it while trying to put a floor puzzle together, she’ll be the recipient of Mommy’s so-called “look of death” and will receive no empathy whatsoever, just a tirade on how there is no such thing as “I can’t,” that she can put that puzzle together all by herself, that she will put it together, and that she will do so without any help from mommy. Silence and diligence ensue. 20 minutes later…Disney princess puzzle completed, and a delighted, “Look, Mommy, I did it!”

I’m not sure where my aversion to can’t came from. My mother would likely contend I’ve hated the word since at least age 2 since my common response to her telling me, “No, you can’t do that,” would be to do it anyway. And I’m afraid my husband would agree with her on that point. Both have since learned that “you can’t” is like giving me a call to action—some sort of weird reverse psychology phenomena that makes me dig my heels in and pursue whatever action I’m being told I cannot pursue.

But what can you expect? I come by this honestly enough. Raised by Midwestern Lutherans of Scandinavian descent, I have to say that bullheadedness is part of my cultural inheritance. You can’t live in a part of the country where the announcement that it’s 20 degrees below zero with the wind chill factored in results in a response like, “Well, I sure am glad it’s warmed up today,” without being stubborn. Stubborn is the key to survival, as is doing the seemingly impossible—like hauling your truck out of a half frozen lake after an ice fishing expedition gone bad or shoveling the front walk with diligence despite the fact the snow is shoulder-high.

Yet there were times in my life when I was tempted to succumb to the words “you can’t” and almost did—like when some of my most admired college professors scoffed at the idea I wanted to be a writer, thinking I’d be far better off pursuing an academic career instead, or when I decided to build a house on a shoulder of the appropriately named “Snowy Mountain” with a near mile-long driveway with a 300 ft. elevation gain. I didn’t listen, and that willfulness has made all the difference in my life.

Perhaps that’s why, when I hear people I love say, “I can’t,” I get all fired up. To me, those words speak grief. They say that what we want or need is impossible to have. They say, “I’ve given up. I’m not capable. I don’t believe. The opportunity has passed me by.”

Yet listen, and you’ll hear these words spoken all the time, and you never hear them in the context of anything good.

A friend of mine said to me recently, “My job is high stress, exhausting. I’d love to do something else, but it pays well, so I can’t quit. I have to provide for my family.”

Then an editor acquaintance told me she and her husband dream of selling all their possessions and moving to Paris, “but we can’t,” she lamented. “We have a toddler.”

I find myself scratching my head at these statements, wondering what they mean. Is caring for one’s family incompatible with a rewarding and happy career? Does living in Paris mean one can’t have a child under age four? I don’t think so. I don’t really think it’s an issue of “I can’t.” I think it’s an issue of, boy, it would be a big change and a lot of trouble, and what if it’s not worth it in the end? Better just to stay here with what I’m doing where it’s nice and safe.

“I can’t” has nothing to do with ability or even guilt. It’s all about fear.

I’d be lying like crazy if I ever said I wasn’t afraid. I’m afraid a lot. I find myself facing fear on an almost daily basis on things ranging from terror of falling off that paddleboard into an icy cold river once I finally get the gumption to get off my knees and stand up to near paralyzing anxiety at the thought of overhauling my life for a better chance at happiness. And while, “I’m afraid!” will creep into my head, “I can’t” doesn’t.

Because it’s perfectly okay to be afraid.

The problem arises when we let fear keep us from living the lives we’re meant to live. We love to say we can’t do this or that because we don’t have enough money, don’t have enough time, because we’re too old, because it will disrupt the lives of our children or will make our friends and neighbors raise their eyebrows. Well, I have to report the following: You will never have enough money or time. You are never too old. And you will disrupt your children’s lives despite your best efforts not to. Plus, your friends and neighbors are always going to find something to raise their eyebrows over whether you give them cause or not.

Don’t wait until the time is right…because it never will be. There is always a ready excuse for failing to move to Paris, failing to start your own business, failing to leave that hateful job. Because living life is a bit like falling in love. You’re going to get burned a lot before you get it right, most likely, and the longer you wait to live the next chapter, the less time you have to make the climax, the conclusion your own.

Sometimes my 70-year-old father will lament that he’s never traveled to Alaska (though he’s always wanted to), that he’s never hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon (despite the fact it’s been on his bucket list for years), that he’ll never see a Norwegian fjord (even though he’s dreamed of it). When I ask him why, he’ll often say, “I’m too old,” or “your mother wouldn’t come,” or any other of a long list of excuses that really don’t suit the man who made me believe I really could understand trigonometry and, much later, was the only supporter of my biggest, wildest childhood dreams.

And I have to remind him, in reverse parent role, that his age is all the more reason to go and to go now. Because time is slipping, health is temporary, and the world is big. Don’t waste it living a life that isn’t yours.

A few weeks ago when I was visiting my family and was seated at the dinner table with my parents, my grandmother, and my daughter, my four-year-old pointed to my plate where I had left some of my mother’s very good but far too calorie-laden lasagna and said, “Mommy, you didn’t finish your dinner.”

She saw the injustice, as I was requiring her to finish hers. I smiled at her and replied, “I know, sweetie, but I’m all grown up, so I can do what I want, and when you’re all grown up you can do exactly what you want to do, too.”

My mother shot me a glance and said quickly, “No, you can’t.”

I looked back at her, the woman I’d willfully defied since childhood, not because I wanted to make her crazy but because I had a very definite vision of what I wanted from my life that she did not always share, and then turned to my daughter, and said, “Heidi, you can do whatever you want when you’re grown up, and don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.”

My mother, wisely, said nothing. She and I had been down this road a thousand times before. And to be fair, I’ve had my doubts at times about what I can do. I always knew I’d be a writer, but I never dreamed in a million years I’d ever be able to buy a farm on it, build a house on it, support a family on it. That I’ve been able to I can only credit to one thing, and it’s neither ability nor intelligence—it’s a high dose of bullheadedness.

And perhaps it’s that bullheadedness that turns me into a spastic ball of adrenaline when the stakes are high, the deadlines are looming, and the life I want is so close I can taste it. I think my assistant knows this, so she tolerates it when the four-letter words come rolling off my tongue on one of those days when there is so much to accomplish in so little time. One four-letter word she knows she won’t hear is “can’t.”

Instead, I release my anxiety in a string of epithets and then get down to the business of doing what needs to be done. Because no matter how crazy, tragic, or overwhelming life becomes, I can meet it with strength, if not always grace, as long as I keep the end goal in mind. And when the time comes to take a wild leap of faith, I may not feel ready, but I’ll be damned if I’ll say, “I can’t.” Nope. The only valid response to meeting a challenge, an opportunity, a dream head-on is to say, “I can.” And then do it.

 
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Listen to Your Mother (And Your Grandmother): 20 Practical Life Lessons

Posted by Deborah Huso on Nov 13, 2011 in Motherhood, Mothers and Daughters, Success Guide

My grandmother: training the next generation

You’ve heard the old adage, “Listen to your mother.” Well, when your mother is a teacher accustomed to having other people listen to her and bend to her will, you learn pretty quickly that listening is in your best interest, at least when your car is still on her insurance policy….

The same goes for a grandmother who has been at one and the same time a factory worker, farmer, homemaker, and mother and who can churn out hundreds of lefse in one day (and yes, because it’s a Scandinavian food, you can only make one at a time), get 20 different bowls of food hot and steaming on the dinner table all at the same time, and chop an invasive black snake’s head off in one fell swoop with a kitchen knife without compunction.

I grew up under the example of these stern women, influenced by their relentless stoicism in the face of adversity, their insistence on getting what they want, and their dedication to seeing that the world bend as much as possible to what is right and good…or at least what they believed to be right and good.

Perhaps it was their stoical Scandinavian ancestry and the sense of personal responsibility that comes of being Lutheran that made them the unyielding, witty, and fearsome creatures that they are.

It was my grandmother who taught me how to sew, how to make things grow, and how to laugh at the absurdity of everyday life. She passed on to me old family recipes, showed me how to kill bugs with soap and water, how to stop the itch of a mosquito bite, and instilled in me the usefulness of knowing how to drive a tractor.

And then there was my mother, who, after four decades of reading, studying, and teaching the eternal truths of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dickens and watching the careful interactions of young people dancing in that netherworld between childhood and freedom, tried to pass onto me her, at one time, nearly flawless understanding of human nature.  Better informed than a psychologist on what made people tick, she gave the soundest advice on how to handle human interactions. It was advice I rarely followed but always learned I should have.

From these two women came practical life lessons that I have often taken for granted as much as washing one’s hands before dinner. But their simple advice, both spoken and demonstrated, has often been my guidebook through the twisting path of life:

  1. Ignore negative criticism; accept constructive criticism and compliments graciously.
  2. Never send form Christmas letters. The only person who cares that your two-year-old has an IQ of 160, that your daughter just got accepted to Harvard, and that you and your husband spent three months last summer flying around the world in a hot air balloon is you.
  3. Do send personal, handwritten thank you notes, especially after weddings and funerals.
  4. Have the willpower to walk away when you don’t get your asking price from a salesperson. This is especially true when shopping for cars or buying homes.  You’ll likely get a call in the morning….
  5. Buy 12 five-piece place settings, even if your dining room table only seats eight. Despite the china salesman’s demonstration, you can only stand on a teacup so many times before it breaks.
  6. Turn off the television. You’ll find you have a lot more time on your hands than you think.
  7. Keep a garden. You never know when it might come in handy to know how to produce and preserve your own food.
  8. Pick your battles carefully. Nobody listens to the person who always complains and criticizes.
  9. Learn how to do your own taxes and home repair or marry somebody who can do them for you.
  10. Never say anything you wouldn’t want repeated.
  11. Always say “please” and “thank you,” especially to your spouse, your children, your employees, and wait staff.
  12. Avoid airing your political and religious views in public.
  13. Remember that skepticism is your best defense against salesmen, politicians, lawyers, doctors, and the media.
  14. Maintain high standards. Others will emulate your example.
  15.  Always remember and recognize the birthdays and special holidays of your friends and family, even if you think it’s just an excuse for Hallmark to make more money.
  16. Wear high heels to church, even when you’re 80. How you dress reflects how you feel about what you’re doing.
  17. Never stop doing anything you love, even when you’re 90. You are as young as you act, no matter how it feels.
  18. Don’t go to sleep when passing through the Grand Tetons. That might be the day a grizzly bear crosses the road.
  19. Friends are people who call you when you’re troubled, not just when they are.
  20. Remember that happiness comes from living up to your own expectations, not other people’s.

 
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The Writing Life

Posted by Deborah Huso on Oct 24, 2011 in Mothers and Daughters, Success Guide, Writer Rants

The author at work in the "summer office"

More than a decade ago, when I was just beginning to launch my career as a full-time freelance writer, I remember driving through Goshen Pass in western Virginia, pulling off the road periodically to frame scarlet sugar maples and golden poplars in my camera lens for a fall getaway article I was writing.  Still giddy at the idea I was actually pursuing this crazy dream of mine to live by the written word, I turned to my travel companion, a friend who had accompanied me on so many of these writing journeys, and said, “You know what?  I’m a writer.  I’m actually a writer.”

He regarded me with understandable puzzlement and said, “Well, of course, you’re a writer.”

“No, really,” I insisted, as if daylight had suddenly shattered through the sodden tree limbs overhanging Route 42, “I’m a writer.  I’m actually making a living by writing.”

Of course, this was not news to my friend.  But somehow it was news to me.  Through late nights at the computer and endless prospecting for freelance work, I had somehow been so caught up in the business of making a living by my craft that I had failed to notice the point at which I actually became a professional writer.

But then the question remains, what exactly is a writer?  And have I, for the past 30 years, been selling myself short because I was not, for nearly 20 of those years, earning a living wage as a writer?  How many writers, after all, can earn a consistent living wage by their craft? After all, it took me two decades to figure it out.

You see, I was not suddenly a writer while photographing autumn foliage in Goshen Pass.  Nor was I suddenly a writer when I published my first newspaper article or my first short story.  If we want to talk about writing and what it means to be a writer, well then, I have to go back much farther, to a period that doesn’t appear on my resume.  Because I have been a writer almost since I could hold a pen, quite literally.

I wrote my first short story when I was six years old.  I was no child prodigy.  I had been reading biographies of famous Americans written for young children and had loved them so much I wanted to write my own.  So I wrote a story (though I probably considered the effort great enough at the time to be called a book) about a pioneer girl named Ellen Kay Brown.  And I illustrated it, too, with pencil sketches of girls in bonnets and fathers with grisly beards.

I handed the notebook-paper story to my mother, a high school English teacher, for my first critical review.  She didn’t paste it to the refrigerator with a magnet or smile and exclaim how proud she was of my effort.  She took it in her hands quite seriously, as she would a research paper on Hamlet or Macbeth, and, red pen in hand, proceeded to critique my first attempt at literature, circling my childish “enuff” and changing it to “enough,” capitalizing proper nouns, inserting punctuation.

Was this some cruelty on her part?  I never for once thought so, but perhaps some more indulging parent might.  This was par for the course in a household where books lined shelves in rooms upstairs and down and where anyone of blood relation would know the difference between “can” and “may” as well as “lie” and “lay.”

I took my little manuscript back, absorbing her red corrections, recording their sense for the next effort, and thus began a ritual between us that lasted until I left home for college.  I wrote; she critiqued quietly with her red pen.  By the time I graduated from high school, I was one of only a select few in the world who knew, as if by second nature, when and when not to use commas as well as how to give stylistic flair to an exam essay (though my mother claims no responsibility for the latter skill).

Today my mother keeps all these carefully reviewed manuscripts—penciled short stories, illustrated poems, carefully typed essays—in a cabinet in the library.  They are small treasures to her, the woman who said, when I declared at six years of age that I was going to be a writer, “It’s never wise to count your chickens before they hatch.”

But I’ve always been counting chickens, hatched and unhatched, and I’ve never assumed anything other than success.  That has been my way.  It would have to be my way.  Only a dreamer could ever believe it possible to make a career out of language.

But still the question—when did I become a writer?  My first sense that I might be one actually came when I was a senior in college and my mentor and three-time history professor said upon reading my senior thesis, “There’s nothing I can tell you about writing.  I wouldn’t know how to critique you.”  My mother never said this, but on the infrequent occasions when I showed her a college or graduate research paper, she would read it, first page to last, hand it back, and say only, “Looks fine to me.”  Flipping through the paper, I scanned the pages for the familiar red ink—nothing.  Full circle at last, I thought.

Yet no writer who is a good writer ever thinks his or her work is good enough.  I read articles I wrote only months ago and think today they look horrible.  I have become my mother minus the red pen.  All things can be improved upon.

Yet all writers know this, and all writers know, deep down, that it is not so much the paycheck that justifies them as authors.  It is the constant development, the constant effort.  I have been a writer since I was six.  An editor might be intrigued to know that I have more than three decades of experience.  But would that intrigue persist if she knew the whole truth?

Probably not.

And that is the sad reality of the writing life.  Until you have a paycheck from a publisher, and preferably several, you are not a writer.  Your skill level, your decades of practice, your passion are irrelevant . . .  at least to most editors.

Did you ever notice that the editor who constantly sent you rejections of your pitches suddenly changed his tune when one of his colleagues took a chance and published your work . . . with success?   Yes, once you have a few publishing credits behind you, the rejections trickle to a minimum.  Which makes you wonder—does good writing count for anything?  Or are editors, like movie producers, tied to the tried and true?

Well, yes and no.  Good writing does count for something.  After all, it’s easier to publish good writing than bad.  But getting good writing noticed, in the end, is a matter of luck.  For myself, I ran into an overwhelmed newspaper editor willing to take a chance on me and the editor of a start-up lifestyle magazine with a dearth of authors.  After that, everything began to fall into place.  Just ask Nicholas Sparks how he became a best-selling author overnight.  His answer, like that of so many other wildly successful writers, will make you dream like the daily players of the lottery and gnash your teeth at the same time.

It is luck.

But it’s also persistence.  Beat the statistics by flooding the market.

I guess my mother, my original editor, knew a thing or two.  I kept passing her the notebook paper, and one day it came back without red ink.  Was it talent, or did I beat the odds?  Perhaps a little of both . . . but maybe it’s time I started playing the lottery.

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