creativity, personal journeys, simple living, the writer's journey, who I am

The Gravel Road: Abandoning Societal Definitions of Success for the Self-Determined Path

Country Dirt Road
Photo by Scamp, Dreamstime Stock Photos.

Lately I’ve been struggling with the notion of success—what it means, how we define it, how we unconsciously internalize cultural definitions of success and make them our own. And, ultimately, what it truly means to lead a successful, meaningful, purposeful life.

This year, I’ve struggled with my writing. I’m approaching four years of writing full time, and while I’ve had some successes—won two contests, had a request for a full manuscript, indie published two short stories, written a lot—I haven’t had a “big” win. I’ve started to wonder what I’m doing with my time, if my writing will ever have an impact, make a difference. I’ve started to wonder if writing is enough. And all that pondering has squashed my creativity, left me spinning my wheels, stuck in a ditch on the side of the gravel road that is my journey.

I tried to make it an interstate. But it’s not. My journey to “success,” whatever that might be, is a curving mountain road that snakes its way through forests, traveling alongside wending rivers and babbling streams. I will spot deer and ravens, wild turkeys and countless squirrels, maybe even a bear or a coyote. It is not a journey one takes in a sports car, zooming down the interstate. It’s a journey for a battered hatchback. A journey of thought. A labor of love.

Acknowledging that I had, in fact, internalized a societal definition of success helped me realize that what I want most is an adventure. I’m reminded of the precious, lovely, moving words of Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day”:

“I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?”

Ah. There it is. What do I plan to do with my one wild and precious life?

And then the answers poured forth. My trip to Germany in August offered clues, if only I bent my head and listened. I stood in the spray of a waterfall in Triberg and hiked to the ruins of an old castle, but the moment that brought me most joy was when, at the farm where I was staying, one of the goats escaped her pasture. My husband and father were unsuccessful in trying to corral her, so I went to help. She walked up to me and leaned against me, and I gently took her horns and guided her home. It was simple. It was beautiful. It took me back to my childhood, the place that inspired me to become a writer, walking the woods of home and dreaming up stories, all the while surrounded by creatures, both wild and domestic.

I can’t say I have all of the answers. But I have made my peace with the fact that my definition of success is not the same one that society has laid out so neatly for me, like a parent setting out a child’s clothes for school.

I will follow my stories wherever they take me. I will listen closely, as only our most creative selves can, and I will create. Maybe it won’t always be in words. Maybe I’ll learn to paint. Last week I made lavender goat’s milk soap, and the simple creative act filled me with wonderful energy. There are so many paths to explore. I won’t always drive my battered hatchback down the gravel road. Sometimes I’ll see a winding mountain path that leads over an arching footbridge and into the mossy hills. Sometimes I’ll park the car. Sometimes I’ll walk over the bridge. It’s not always about forging ahead. It’s about seeing the beauty along the way.

Blessed be.

Now tell me, “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

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personal journeys, spirituality, who I am

Stranger than Fiction: Imbolc and lessons from winter

Today the Wiccan community celebrates Imbolc. Though we’re still in the midst of winter, with the potential for Nor’easters and cold days ahead, and though Punxsutawney Phil hasn’t emerged to peek at his shadow yet, we can still catch a glimpse of spring.

The cold days teach us to be grateful for the warm ones. The long nights teach us to be grateful for the sunrise. The days are steadily getting longer, preparing us once more for the equinox, with its equal day and equal night.

I’ve had one of those stranger-than-fiction weeks, a series of strange occurrences that I never could’ve imagined. As a journalist, I also call these moments “man bites dog.” (Because, when a dog bites a man, that is not news. But when a man bites a dog, that is news.)

Failure can be the foundation for success, and pain, the foundation for growth. In fact, as most of us know, we learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. As Jane Hirschfield writes in her poem “Waking the Morning Dreamless After Long Sleep”:

“But with the sentence: ‘Use your failures for paper.’ Meaning, I understood, the backs of failed poems, but also my life.”

Sometimes the winter seems too cold to bear. One lesson I’ve learned from the past week is that, as we walk through our days, we are often blind to how much pain the people around us are holding in. No one can carry that pain for them. No one can bear the winter’s cold but the person outside in the snow. But the flowers emerge following the spring’s thaw. Hirschfield goes on to say:

“I do not know where the words come from, what the millstones, where the turning may lead. I, a woman forty-five, beginning to gray at the temples, putting pages of ruined paper into a basket, pulling them out again.”

If we didn’t know winter, would we celebrate the spring? The best we can do with our failures is to learn from them, to build a better version of ourselves, to work toward recognizing that, despite pain, loss, and mistakes, we are still whole. I don’t believe we need to become whole. I think we need to realize we already are. The best we can do with the bad weather is to understand its place in the cycle of things and to smile when the sun rises. May your Imbolc hint of spring days to come, a reminder of light, healing, and the cycle of the seasons.

Life is a crazy journey. And you can quote me on that.

the writer's journey, who I am

Unwritten Bios: How the Places We Live Shape Us

“These fields stretch out like patchwork on my granny’s quilt. She used to tell me, ‘Life is a series of strange and mysterious things.’” –Jewel, “1,000 Miles Away”

The view from Buffalo Mountain in Southwest Virginia

I’m from western Pennsylvania, a distant and strange land also known as Steelers Country. Two college degrees, countless travels, and a few moves later, those mountains still live inside me. I know people who are ashamed of where they come from. And I can’t be. I’m grateful. My ancestors—who came from Ireland and Germany to settle in Pennsylvania in the mid-19th century—made incredible sacrifices for me to have a shot at my dreams. I’ve always known how hard they worked and how much they gave, and I’ve always given life, love, and art all I’ve got.

My great-grandfather worked in the coal mines; most people in my hometown (which is named after the freakin’ coal company, no lie) can trace their roots to the coal companies in some way. It was a shit job, too. He once walked home on a broken ankle. Another time, his clothes burned off in a fire. He was a coal digger before he finally landed a “safe” job riding the back of the cart that went down into the mines to be loaded up with coal. He had to jump off the cart and flip a switch that determined which set of tracks the cart would go down. One day, not long after landing his “safe” job, he was killed when the cart jumped the tracks and pinned him. He was 40 years old. My grandmother told me, point blank, “He had a horrible, miserable life.” I wish he’d had better. If he sacrificed so his children and children’s children and on down the line could have better, I am eternally grateful for it. I try never to waste a day of it.

Now, I’m glad I don’t live in western PA anymore. There wasn’t anything left for me there. The job market had dried up, and my hometown didn’t have much to offer, not even a bookstore. But I still carry the stories of my ancestors with me. Because of their sacrifices, I’ve had amazing chances. I’ve earned two colleges degrees, taught at a major research university, and, best of all, had the chance to practice the craft of writing. I’m a storyteller, and that is an amazing gift, one for which I am eternally grateful.

It’s hard to imagine that it’s been nearly six years since I left my hometown. It feels like so much longer. Today, my life is full of a new place, the beautiful mountains of Virginia and the small town I currently call home. No matter where I go, this place will stay with me.

The places we live, even if we leave them, remain inside us. They get under our skin, shaping us in ways we can’t understand until we’re away. I learned about magic and possibilities in the mountains surrounding my family’s farm. I also saw firsthand how fragile the land is, how irreplaceably precious. I’ve seen slag heaps so high they look like mountains themselves and water permanently tainted sulfuric orange thanks to acid mine drainage. But there are many places where the land is not scarred, and unspeakable beauty dwells there: ferns and grapevines, maple and apple trees, and tiny creeks swollen with clear water in the spring.

Today, nature infuses my stories. I can’t help but let it. In so many ways, my stories are born in the natural world. A full moon, a constellation, morning mist at the brow of the mountain, a tree’s gnarled roots, or the ocean’s lullaby—these are the birthplaces of my stories.

What is your unwritten story? How have the places you’ve lived left their traces on your soul?

personal journeys, the writer's journey, who I am

Learning from Icarus: A Different Kind of New Year’s Resolution

In 2012, I’m taking a different approach to the ol’ New Year’s resolution. It’s not something concrete, as mine tend to be (write 200,000 words, do yoga twice a week, etc.). I’ve settled on something a little different, but far more practical.

For those of you who follow my blog regularly (an act that I truly appreciate, BTW), you know that I’ve made some changes in the last few months. The biggest change is that I quit my teaching gig to give more attention to other areas of my life, especially writing. I have to admit that I’m not always a risk-taker, and leaving a paying job for a non-paying one was certainly a risk.

It’s part of a new approach I’m taking to my life, one I should have taken a while ago. So please, use my tale as a cautionary one, if you’d like, and learn from my mistakes.

I don’t know why, but somewhere along the way, I developed a negative pattern: the inability to say no. Not “no” to drugs or bad ideas. But “no” to opportunities, to good ideas, to exciting chances. It doesn’t sound like a negative thing. How could drive, determination, and ambition be bad? How could saying yes to opportunities be negative? I learned the answer: when doing so pushes you further away from the path you want to take; when trying to do everything leads you to be overworked, uncreative, and burnt out. All work and no play really does make Janelle a dull girl.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a tendency to overreach. Like Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and plummeted into the ocean, I’ve tended to push myself too far. I stretched myself too thin, wanting to do and be everything: a PR gal, an editor, a writer, a blogger, a teacher, and so on.  I don’t think even Wonder Woman could pull that off.

As a result, my health began to suffer. I worked nonstop from morning until my head hit the pillow at night. I was doing things I liked, but I was too busy and worn out to actually enjoy them. And thus, I worked myself to the point that I burnt out.

Greetings from Hilton Head Island, S.C.

I spent the holiday season in gorgeous Hilton Head Island, S.C., combing the beaches, eating at great restaurants, snuggling up with my hubby, flipping through magazines (my dirty little addiction), and getting some much-needed R&R. And after toying with a number of New Year’s resolutions, I came to this conclusion: My resolution? Treat myself better. Say no. No to overdoing it. No to pushing myself to go jogging when I’m already exhausted. No to working around the clock. I don’t have to accept every opportunity that comes my way. So I’m going to say yes to what I really want out of life: a writing life, a life well-lived, happiness, art and creativity, time with family and friends.

Writing books isn’t just what I want to do; it’s my purpose, my calling, and my dharma. I won’t be truly happy unless I make room for storytelling. This blog is part of that journey, because storytelling isn’t something we do in solitude. It’s a collective journey. We have to listen to ourselves, our characters, and each other.

So 2012 is the year of drawing the line, a year of boundaries. I’m not working at 10 o’clock at night. I’m not working through lunch. I’m not neglecting myself, whether that means nurturing my body or my creativity. So a word to the wise: Just because you can push yourself further doesn’t mean you should. Save the cheetah speed for the big deadlines, not the everyday.

Ultimately, New Year’s resolutions only work if they are part of our larger journey. We have to weave our resolution into our overarching goals. And my resolution is to make time for me—mind, body, and soul. So when you make your resolution, whatever it may be, make sure you’re thinking about what you really want, what you really need in life. What’s most important to you? As my father-in-law recently reminded me, we only get one life. We can choose how we live it. Make a resolution that suits you and where you want to be and go.

Author Louise Behiel offers a list of questions that can help you tailor your resolution and make it a perfect fit this year. Check out her tips here. And Martha Beck, life coach, author, and frequent contributor to O, The Oprah Magazine, gives her advice for how to finally keep that resolution.

Do you have a New Year’s Resolution? What are your goals for 2012? And how does your resolution fit into the bigger picture of your life and your journey?

decorating and organization, who I am

Stop the Yuletide Clutter: A few thoughtful holiday gifts that don’t take up much space

Gifts don’t have to take up a lot of space to be full of heart. I know few people who can honestly say, “I don’t own enough stuff”—at least not in America, where we have consumer fever so bad we ransack stores during the holiday season like starving wolves picking a caribou carcass clean.

I grew up in a big farmhouse with lots of space, and we filled every nook and cranny. (Granted, there were five of us, and we often entertained long-term guests, usually extended family—so we also filled that space with memories.) But I knew how much work it took to keep that house clean and how difficult it was to manage that much stuff. And since I moved out on my own, I’ve always lived in small places—apartments or tiny houses—where keeping everything I’ve ever owned wasn’t an option.

I love tearing into presents under the tree. I’m a Sagittarius, and I like the excitement and anticipation that comes with gift giving and receiving. (I’m often more excited watching someone open a gift I bought them than I am opening my own presents.) But I think we’re at a stage where we can look for ways to give gifts that don’t just add to the clutter of our busy lives. I believe that often times, less is more.

Here are a few ideas that I’ve come up with. Feel free to share your own. I’m always open to new ideas!

1.) Secret (or not-so-secret) Santa. In my family, by Christmas day, we all know who got whose name, but it’s the spirit that counts. Simply set a price limit (we generally do $25) and draw a name from a hat. Instead of buying seven or eight gifts, you’re buying one. You also have more time to focus on buying something unique for that person. My husband and I do this with both my family and his, and I can assure you that the spirit and joy of the holiday is not at all hindered by the fact that we get fewer gifts. If anything, it’s enhanced.

2.) Give an experience, not an object. Give a stressed-out mom a day (or afternoon) at the spa, a busy couple a gift card for their favorite restaurant, a music lover tickets to a concert. If the recipient has always wanted to learn French cooking, yoga, karate, or guitar, now could be a time to treat them to an experience instead of buying something that they’ll have to find a place for. I always love a gift card to Target, but if you want something more personal, you can purchase a gift certificate or card that appeals to the recipient’s unique tastes and interests.

3.) The much-loved basket full of goodies. I love filling baskets with handmade soaps, all-natural bath products, or the recipient’s favorite foods. My mother-in-law used to make homemade hot cocoa mix and put it in a mason jar topped with a piece of festive cloth and ribbon. It never went unused. If you’re a cook, baked goods in a Christmas tin will make a yummy treat. Farmers markets and natural-food stores often stock locally made products, anything from artisan cheeses to all-natural lotions. You’re being kind to the planet, creating a vibrant local economy, and giving someone a gift they can use but that won’t require long-term storage. The best part is that you can tailor the basket’s contents to the recipient, including their favorite foods, soaps or lotions with their favorite scent, etc.

4.) Go digital. If you’re shopping for a bibliophile who also owns an e-book reader (or uses an iPad or smart phone to read books), an e-book allows you to give them a gift sans wrapping paper—and they won’t need to buy a new bookcase to house their growing collection. I can keep a library of 3,500 books on my Kindle. When I move, it’ll be much easier to move those thousands of books than it will be to pack up my hard copies. Digital music files allow you to give someone a good soundtrack for their days (and nights) without buying a CD or vinyl (yes, my musician friends assure me that vinyls are back in style).

5.) Give the gift of giving. Lots of nonprofit organizations allow you to make a donation in recognition of someone else. If you know someone who’s a cancer survivor, an animal lover, or who has an issue he or she is passionate about, a gift to a beloved cause can be just as nice as one wrapped up in paper and bedecked with a shiny bow.

What about you? How do you celebrate the holidays without amassing a house full of stuff?

A dose of holiday joy: A few feel-good Christmas stories

If you feel like you’re seeing more grinches than carolers this holiday season, here’s a round-up of inspiring holiday tales from around the web:

Secret Santas Share the Wealth, $100 at a Time

Kmart Shoppers Pay Off Other Shoppers’ Layaways:

Finally, in the wake of a senseless tragedy, the Virginia Tech community is showing the world that, in the face of hate, we can sow seeds of love; that the community is one defined not by tragedy, but by resilience; and that the university motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), continues to thrive. See how students established a memorial fund for the family of a fallen Hokie.

Whatever holiday you celebrate, and however you share and spread joy, I hope your season is full of gratitude, love, and friendship. Happy Holidays.