The Counting Down of Days

I’ve always been a calendar counter.  When I was a kid, I used to pick something in the future to look forward to and write numbers across the little boxes on my wall calendar.  I’d cross them off with big markered x’s, even occasionally adding a half slash around noontime.  As a now-Buddhist, this isn’t ideal.  The days and moments leading up to a change are not to be scratched off a calendar or discounted as unimportant.

And yet about a year ago, I began counting.  The months at first, then the Mondays, then the workdays.  Last June I could say for certain that I had 12 months left until I could walk away from a desk life.  And even though it had been very good to me, I disconnected from a part of myself.  And so I counted. And I set my sights on the landmarks that would remind me of the passage of the year.  The seasons, the holidays, the little celebrations in between.  I wanted to time to pass so quickly that I discounted the most obvious factor–one that you’d think I would have learned after 30 years of counting–life happens, and sometimes really happens whether you decide to keep your head down and count the hours or not.  A year ago, I saw the upcoming 12 months as just that–time to be passed.  And now that they are gone, I see them for what they were: a year of life changing, earth-shattering changes, troubles, and celebrations.  Long sleepless evenings, beautiful nights of friendship and love, and endless reminders of the strength of a strong community.

To honor a year that never deserved to be counted down on a calendar, here is the year I never expected–the year that lead me to the start of my Camino, or perhaps was the beginning of it in the first place:

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Wisdom for this Year’s February Thaw

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When I walked into school this morning, a flying-v of geese headed north overhead, presumably returning early from the winter.  “February Thaw,” as one of my friends recently told me this strange stretch of weather is called, is confusing to me.  Everything since November has felt like a reason to worry, this unseasonably warm weather included.  And yet I can’t help but feel that we have desperately needed a little relief from the elements recently.  I haven’t been able to craft a blog post in my head, but I did want to write for the sake of writing.  I miss it, and I’ve become so busy this month that my writing brain keeps getting pushed to the back of the shelf.

So first I just want to send out a general cheer of gratitude to everyone in my community, both online and in real life.  I’ve watched actor friends set their art aside (or redirect its purpose) to stand up for human rights or protect the parts of the earth they are inspired to fight for.  I will look back on this time as both terrifying and humbling.  I always knew the people I am graced to know in some way or another are genuine, hardworking people.  But these past few months have left me speechless.  The women’s bathroom at my job is covered in motivational quotes and instructions on how and where to march and protest.  My Facebook feed is packed with persistent protesters, people suddenly running for local office, and those simply standing up day after day, even though so often they’re told it isn’t worth standing.  And so, I tip my hat to you this morning.

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Day 18: The Day I Freed the Horses

For the final 30 days of my twenties, I am writing one personal narrative a day that has impacted my life until now.  To read more about my challenge, feel free to check out the first post.  

Also, this 30 Day challenge is also to support a wonderful charity, Zara Aina.  Please check out my fundraiser here and if you’re able, please consider throwing a few dollars toward this amazing cause.  It would mean the world!

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I have to begin this story by telling you that I am eating one of the best breakfast wraps of my life.  A deli in Upper Montclair has gluten-free wraps, and so my painful hiatus away from savory, cheesy, Jersey-worthy breakfast combinations can finally come to a close.  The other reason it’s so delicious is because I’m in a pretty good mood today.  At several times in my life, I’ve found that after a long stretch of bad luck or extreme battles with anxiety, I emerge into a period of great gratitude and peace.  It’s like that feeling when you are so exhausted but can’t sleep for days, and then you finally take an amazing unexpected nap and wake up with a new lease on life.  Because of this, my chorizo, egg white, spinach, and cheese wrap is one of my favorite meals so far this month.

The fall weather this morning, and this general feeling of serenity, reminds me of a very odd time during my teenage years when my family’s struggles from my childhood began to truly set in.  We had only been living in Vernon for a few years, and the threatening presence of our past life in Plainfield still left a trail of destruction in our daily lives.  But I was finally getting to an age where I was mature enough to realize how close we came to never moving at all, and how lucky I was to be standing in the beautiful countryside of Sussex county–safe, with friends, with a clear head.  Unfortunately, gratitude for making it through a different experience is often not enough to erase the physical and psychological aftermath that inevitably follows.  And in a way, during high school, I knew that a storm was not far off, that at some point soon I would have to begin working through the stress it caused all of us.

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Day 15: The Last Day of the Camino

For the final 30 days of my twenties, I am writing one personal narrative a day that has impacted my life until now.  To read more about my challenge, feel free to check out the first post.  

Also, this 30 Day challenge is also to support a wonderful charity, Zara Aina.  Please check out my fundraiser here and if you’re able, please consider throwing a few dollars toward this amazing cause.  It would mean the world!

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The last town eefore our final trek to Santiago de Compostela was relatively anti-climatic.  At this point, we were beyond hoping to be romanced by Spanish villages or magnificent churches, and mainly longed to return to hot showers the and luxury of shaving your legs (something I never thought I’d say). But the morning’s weather was stunning, and the group launched their packs onto their bodies with extra vigor and hope.

On one hand, we were returning to the real world.  I had lost touch with my boyfriend about a week prior, a situation that was significantly stressing me out, and I also had a ton of loose ends to tie up with the job waiting for me back home.  As much as I wanted to be in the moment, five weeks away from responsibility was starting to take its toll.  On the other hand, we were returning the real world. Traffic jams, email, days of sedentary life.  Not to mention the pressure that the Camino itself hangs over your head–that you will have worked through all your demons by the end of the hike, returning to the old world as a newly enlightened super-being.  Physically, I had changed, my ankles and calves were tree trunks at this point, and I was so suntanned that I looked like one of the mothers from my childhood lake community that lathered themselves in coconut tanning oil.  Psychologically, I fussed less, and I know that sounds little, but for someone with life-controlling anxiety, this was huge.  One of my hiking mates mentioned that I talked way less about money stress, and I just generally had a freer mind to think about other things.  But as far as my life-altering breakthrough, nothing yet.

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To Reach Others, You Must Reach Out

Almost a year after reaching my 100 follower goal, I just got the notification that I hit 200!  Neato, team!  I love to think that a community has gathered over the past five years to share in my mental wanderings through the ups and downs of pursuing this wacky career.

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Blogging has taught me something way more valuable over the years though.  I meet many actors and writers alike, including myself, who say that they want to pursue this career to affect people–to challenge their thinking, to touch them emotionally, to support them through a life change.  When I was 13, I was in a show at The Growing Stage, an incredible theatre for young audiences in North Jersey.  The show was about an orphan searching for a place to feel at home without a family.  It was one of the most beautifully written shows I’ve ever been a part of.  After one of the performances, an older woman approached me, probably in her 80s, and said that she grew up as an orphan in a similar time and part of the country and really appreciated the show and how it made her feel less alone.  This has never left me, and I use it as an example of why I stay in theatre each time I get disheartened.

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Motivational Posters and Funky Monday Mornings

I’m having one of those mornings.  I feel like the day hasn’t actually started.  First of all, it’s super gray outside.  Maybe-you-should-just-go-hide-in-the-back-of-the-library-all-day type of gray.  Also, I’m currently out of projects with deadlines, and man do I love a good deadline.  The hardest thing about art-related careers is that no one forces you to work.  When inspiration is low, doing that one thing to move your career ahead is difficult to find if you’re not running through the happy fields of creative abundance.  And unless you want to bang your head against a wall a few times, it doesn’t feel like inspiration is going to magically drop in.  It’s not like an office job where you have things waiting for you whether you like it or not.  Without an artistic project to chip away at, you’re left sitting staring at the birds hop around in the front yard.

As you know, I am in limbo of these two worlds.  I do have office work, but I also am trying to build my artistic career.  When these two are out of balance, I get grouchy.  I feel like every ounce of creativity stayed in bed while I somehow got myself in the car and to my desk chair.

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Downstairs, in one of our hallways (I work in a school office), there is a poster of the ocean with the words “SUCCESS” written across the bottom. It’s a bit like the one above.  Whenever I go past it I have a mini-existential crisis.  Is laying on the beach considered success?  Or is it the feeling you get when you’ve somehow gotten yourself to the beach?  I snap out of it, realizing that there are confused fourth graders watching me glare at the beach poster with a twisted, bitter look on my face. Good ol’ Crazy Administrator McGee is lost in the 4th grade hallway again.  Someone should shuffle her back to her office.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about what picture I would choose to replace that ocean with.  My first thought, ironically, is a picture of the Atlantic ocean in Cape May, NJ.  Having the freedom to lay on the beach and write in Cape May all summer is actually a huge form of success for me, but there are other options too.  I’m also a big fan of the following:

  1. A rehearsal studio
  2. A piano
  3. An empty theatre before tech
  4. A hiking trail on a warm summer morning
  5. A table covered in food that I’ve cooked, surrounded by people I know (Stole this one from Under the Tuscan Sun. Because I have thing about wanting to be Diane Lane).
  6. And this long-standing daydream of me standing in the doorway of a log cabin with a cup of coffee and a dog sitting at my feet.  I don’t where this one comes from–but it appeared to me when a mediation exercise once asked me to envision my idea of success.  If this moment ever happens, I’ll post it here and freak out a bit.  Just need a log cabin and a dog.  Good on coffee.

As you can tell, my main way of bursting out of a creatively funky morning is writing down any darn thing that comes to mind.  Like this post. In case you feel like keeping the conversation going: what would your success poster look like?

If you had a funky morning too, I hope it gets better, and that you find a way to break through the cloudiness of the weather.

Thanks as always for reading:)

Confidence vs. Context: An Artist’s Dilemma

Creative Commons by Josefa Holland-Merten

Creative Commons by Josefa Holland-Merten

When I was little, and acting came more easily to me, I was constantly told to make sure it “didn’t go to my head.”  Because I was an anxious child, I immediately tucked this idea up on the shelf with the other “Things to be Super Terrified Of,” and decided that being conceited was one of the worst fates of the artist.  To go a step further, I started to wonder: why are people mentioning it so much?  Has it already happened?

It wasn’t until my teens that I realized I was actually afraid of confidence itself.  My dad, always my strongest supporter, would step in for me when asked what show I was working on–not because he was overbearing, but because I would shut down when someone gave me an open door to celebrate my work.  I started to realize that my fear of big-headedness had ruined my ability to believe in what I was doing.  These fears were confirmed when a bitter acting teacher  in high school announced in front of my class that I “thought I was better than everyone else because of my ‘big, fancy’ professional credits.”  So I shut  my mouth and that was that.

Fast forward fifteen years, and it’s very clear I am not remotely alone in this feeling.

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January List of Awesome for Your New Year’s Resolution

Creative Commons Photo from Morgan Sessions

Creative Commons Photo from Morgan Sessions

At least in the world of blogging, I have remained rather silent the past several months, only emerging out from under my writing rock yesterday, just before the New Year.  While comfortably hibernating, I have been surprisingly busy otherwise, mainly focusing on trying to get my stubborn creativity rolling again.  It happens — you have a huge burst of motivation, make all these super tangible and well-thought out goals, and suddenly your brain is physically incapable of producing anything new.  Blank pages, deleted blog posts and cancelled yoga plans abound.  But it doesn’t need to all be for nothing. These periods of rest are vital to having anything to write/act/sing/create goals about in the first place.  Without material and space in your mind to organize it, you’re just shuffling through a busy frustrated brain of jumbled and misguided creativity.

So as you embark on your New Year’s Resolutions, here are some tools and recommendations I used throughout my silent days of creative solace.  Please feel free to add your own in the comments of this post, I would love recommendations throughout January!

For the Creative Soul:

The Compass Podcast by Leah Walsh

I’ve written about this lovely podcast in the past, but it has seriously helped me through the fall, while taking a rather challenging acting class.  Leah is a friend of Ben and I and a very talented NYC actress.  In the Compass, she interviews artists from across the theatre world, and explores how they avoid “going to the dark side” and what the “dark side” itself means to them.  The podcast uniquely reveals the vulnerabilities that artists face in an unpredictable and emotionally exhausting field, while reminding you that you are not alone when you have to take that lousy side job or feel as if you are somehow professionally behind your peers.  If you need a creative boost, check this out.

The Artist’s Way and Blog by Julia Cameron

I realize this book has been around forever, but in case you have never read it or haven’t picked it up in a while, I cannot recommend Julia Cameron enough.  She mixes discipline with creative kindness to spark you writing/creating again.  Even if you are not a writer, but feel stuck otherwise, her philosophy will provide you with a practice to slowly climb back into the the light of day.  If anything, check out her intro’s for Morning Pages and Artist Dates.

For the Spirit and Mind:

Notes from the Universe

When I roll out of bed, I reach for my phone, no matter how many times I have tried to train myself otherwise.  Old habit.  But adding Notes from the Universe was guaranteed was to add some positivity to my inbox at 6:15am.  It’s always there, ready to be perky and motivational.  It’s literally just a daily personalized message that sets you rolling.  One of my favorites, as an example:

“Never compromise a dream, Ginny.
Do what you must. The fears, beasts, and mountains before you are part of the plan; stepping-stones to a promised land; to a time and place that is so much closer than even you suspect.Don’t let your eyes deceive, Ginny, for even as you read these words, your ship swiftly approaches.

Tallyho,
The Universe”

Clearly, they are a delight for difficult mornings.

Pema Chodron

If you’ve met me, then you’ve probably been told to read one of Pema Chodron’s books.  I try to pawn them off on everyone because she is magical.  She is an American Tibetan Buddhist monk and speaker with the personality of your favorite friend that always knows how to break you out of your head.  I also preface giving out her books with, “I know the titles sound like cheesy self-help books, but don’t be deterred by that, they’ve changed the way I see the world.”  Even if you are not interested in Buddhist practice, the philosophical viewpoints of Buddhism are practical for everyone’s life and challenges.  She rocks.  In my opinion, start with When Things Fall Apart.

Marie Kondo

The very popular new book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up has officially roped me in.  Her tone of writing is not completely up my alley, but her practice and the discipline of maintaining it, changed the way I felt about my home in about a week.  I was incredibly skeptical.  And no, she is not paying me to write this.  I spend so much less time fussing over my house now.  So not only does my home not look like a tornado went through it every day, but it has given me the gift of more time.

For the Body

This is a tricky suggestion section for me to write, since I deeply believe in finding your own relationship with food and exercise that works best for you.  I am not into  most trends and plans, but simply into feeling out what your body needs to be safely and properly nourished.  This is a continued journey for me, and a huge part of my resolution- not for weight loss but more to feel more present and healthy.  I feel it’s my responsibility to find out how healthy I can feel, without ever sacrificing a positive body image or peace of mind.

So here are a few things that have helped me recently, or I am trying this month:

The Whole Life Challenge

Our fabulous friends, the Weisman’s, are not only our new neighbors but also motivating me to join them in The Whole Life Challenge this winter.  In a nutshell, you join a team, sign up for their app, and choose a plan for 8 weeks.  They range from giving up gluten to giving up practically everything processed.  We are taking the middle ground from mid-Janury through mid-March, giving up added sugars, glutens, most dairy, and a range of other things.  This works for me since I have been on the hunt for the ingredient that has been making me feel spacey for quite some time.  So this may narrow down the culprit.  The challenge also gives you points for daily exercise, water intake, and reflection.  It’s all light-spirited and has no pressures about buying their shakes or looking good for anyone else.  It seems to me to be focused on a lifestyle shift.  But I’ll let you know how it goes.

Tastespotting

My love of cooking was sparked by three things: cooking shows, staring at pictures of delicious food, and eating something I created.  Tastespotting had a lot to do with it.  I have never been great at following directions to a t, mainly because I like to take creative liberties (which is why I’m a terribly baker).  But to get me started, I go here for inspiration.  Cooking at home not only saves you money, but also supports healthier and whole-food based meals.  You also get to show off on Instragram.

Jessica Smith TV

If you’re like me, and fitting a gym membership into your budget is just not doable half the time, go make friends with Jessica Smith TV.  I found her one day when I was looking for a barre workout online, since the in-person ones in my area are upwards of $30 a class.  Gaaaah.  She now has a very wide range of videos, a super positive attitude, and most importantly, an adorable dog named Peanut that sits at her feet.

For the Wallet

Learnvest

If anyone in the future ever asks me about how I finally roped in my student loans and credit card debt, I will tell them I have Learnvest to thank (and Christina Kosyla for telling me about them).  Geared toward women taking control of their personal finances, Learnvest pretty much taught me how to budget.  Their articles are also practical, easy to read, and make you feel like you don’t have to fall into the trap of reading those, “Millennials can’t handle their money” articles.  Because that’s BS.

The Financial Diet

If you need a good daily read, check out The Financial Diet.  They are even more down to earth than Learnvest and get straight to the point.  If you have ever felt alone or guilty about any lousy financial choice, this website covers it in a very honest way.  I greatly appreciate that people from our generation are being proactive about rising out of the stereotypes as entitled or irresponsibly spenders.

 

As I got rolling with this list, I realized I have way more I would love to share, but am out of time (and space!).  So I think I will try to keep this list thing going, especially if you find it helpful.  As I said above, please leave your recommendations below and I will happily look into them and spread them around.  I am particularly on the hunt for a website to replace my Facebook binging.

 

Happy New Year everyone and enjoy the day!

The “Start Where You Are” Email

 

Creative Commons by Francesco Gallarotti

Creative Commons by Francesco Gallarotti

Yesterday morning, after a frustrating drive to school (slammed on my breaks which sent my purse flying, spilling juice all over my laptop) I pulled into a street parking spot.  Just as I went to open the door, a garbage truck pulled up and stopped approximately 6 inches from my window, trapping me in the car.  No, I wasn’t in danger.  But I was already late and had a sticky lemon-scented laptop to attend to.  So I shimmied over to the passenger door, leered at the garbage man who had chosen to trap me inside (who understandably ignored me, because who wants to deal with a whining 20-something at 8am), and stomped into work.  The rest of the morning preceded similarly.  It was definitely “one of those mornings.”  And it turns out, it was one of those mornings for most people I came across.

By the end of the day, I waited for the clock to creep toward 4:30 so I could just climb back into bed and pretend the day hadn’t happened.  I made it to 4:15, and into bed I went.  I wish I could say that all was solved when I climbed back under the covers, but things rarely are when you go to hide.  My frustration was not just about garbage trucks, the bad day, the lemony laptop, or this never-ending flu-bug.  My frustration is that I have been burned out for two weeks, and haven’t come out of it yet.  This is a particularly long stretch of feeling fried and worn out.

“Start Where You Are”

I’ve been sending out a series of emails to people and organizations I’ve been working with, explaining why I’ve been MIA, and this morning I received a kind response from the mediation center I haven’t attended since September.  No guilt, no pressure, just the simplest calming message of we will be here when you get back.  The other helpful phrase, which is most likely a quote via Pema Chodron, was “Start where you are.”  Sometimes the beginning of the burnout cure is an internal or external reminder that no one is expecting more from you but you.  As much as I continue to want high expectations for myself, I cannot pretend that I am somewhere that I’m not.  That is where the burnout comes from.  It is a delusion that I can, and should, take on more than I currently am, despite my mind and body’s message.

Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset

One of my favorite things about having a fulfilling “survival job” is the education I have been unexpectedly receiving along the way.  When you reach out here, the whole community throws something back.  It’s pretty incredible.  On that note, my boss passed a book on to me the other day about Fixed vs. Growth Mindset.  It is used a great deal in education, but seeps into every type of career and personality.  Mindset by Carol Dweck is a leading text on this study, and was thrown my way last week.

Someone with a Fixed Mindset generally believes that they are born with (or without) a certain talent, and often spend a majority of their careers proving that this is so.  They are “great at math” or “terrible dancers” or “a child piano prodigy.”  Natural talent does run the gamut person by person, and this shouldn’t be discounted, but Dweck explains that setbacks can strike a harder blow for those who think this way.  Their innate talent is their identity, and when the world does not recognize this, they often freeze and do not know how to proceed.

Growth Mindset on the other hand, creates the impetus to focus new efforts on a discovered talent or passion, opposed to only depending on what you have at the current moment.  Dweck explains that growth mindset students (of all ages) flourish when they make mistakes or are faced with greater difficulty, because they see it as an opportunity to grow. They know there is more to themselves when practice and effort is applied.

I have been coming across an interesting pattern in both my own thinking and some recent acting classes/workshops I’ve attended.  There is a fear, especially in the arts, that we are deluding ourselves- that we are waiting for the day for someone to simply say, “You’re not actually talented.”  We are waiting for validation of sorts, waiting to know if what we have is even enough to build a career upon.  Even in writing it out, it’s clear that this mindset is not helpful.  It’s distracting and discouraging, and doesn’t do anyone any good.  This comes from the fixed mindset, and I am completely guilty of it on many days.  I was cast much more as a child, and now am having great deal of trouble.  For years, this bewildered me because of my fixed mindset and the idea that my training was complete.

This is also one of the many issues of performance reality shows.  Someone sings on American Idol, and a showy “judge” tells them they shouldn’t waste their time with singing.  Obviously this is an extreme case, but a fixed mindset in a teacher can be just as harmful as one in a student.  As a teacher, a primary goal is to to find a way to build on each student’s particular strengths, and help them develop coping and bounce-back skills for moments of discouragement.  This approach is often misunderstood as the “everyone kid gets a gold star for just trying” approach.  It is not this.  The approach is more about marking where you began, building on your strengths, and marking where you finished.  If a tactic didn’t work, you change it next time around.

Artistic Benchmarks

But with actors, we cannot obtain that validation through the same benchmark as many other careers- employment.  Honed talent, trained skills, and business organization is all within our control, getting the job is not.  And so, even though this growth mindset significantly reminds me that I am still growing, and more importantly, still can grow, it does not provide dependable benchmarks for charting growth.  It is our job to find personal ways to recognize where we’ve grown and where were struggling, and to use these to gauge our development as artists.

But going back to two of my favorite phrases, we can only “Start where we are,” and “Chop wood, carry Water.”  I like the first one because it doesn’t say, “You are where you are.” or the ever-popular, “Be in the moment.”  The verb is start, it encourages motion. “Chop wood, carry water” is a popular zen phrase which reminds us that our daily efforts are all we can do to reach the career/personal/spiritual balance we strive for.

So as much as these burn-out phases make me want to throw up my arms and do something drastic, I am reminded that no sudden change will “fix” things.  The effort I put into my career, bit-by-bit, is not for nothing, even if it feels that way right now.  And as that sweet email reminded me, I can start here even if I am exhausted, because where else could I start?  The important thing each day is starting at all.

Blogher Publication and a Post about Tigers!

What Peeple Totally Got Wrong About the Internet

Blogher is the best!  They have featured my recent post that railed against the upcoming app Peeple.  I’m very happy to play a part in getting the word out there, especially to an audience for a website I deeply respect.  Feel free to check out the article above.

 

And then the part about the tigers…

Creative Commons Photo via Paula Borowska

Creative Commons Photo via Paula Borowska

Last night I had a super funky dream.  My husband and I were driving through the woods on a piano (apparently a motorized piano) with all of our belongings strapped to it.  Here’s the kicker- the woods were filled with escaped zoo animals.  Like, large angry ones, especially Tigers.  I kept yelling, “Hey look, another tiger!” as I tried to get the piano-car to speed up.  Seriously, brain?

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