On the Diving Board

“Oh, mirror in the sky
What is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changin’ ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?

Well, I’ve been afraid of changin’
‘Cause I’ve built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Even children get older
And I’m getting older too”

I’ve been hearing his song a lot lately, it comes on the radio or appears on a playlist as if to pick a scab, poke my my inner doubts. I have always loved “Landslide” by Stevie Nicks and the lyrics are feeling more relevant than ever.  Can I handle the seasons of my life?  A great question. For a woman approaching sixty, a mother, it’s easy to tie my life’s purpose to my children, wipe tears as they leave the nest, or as an athlete to face inevitable aches or physical limitations. The challenge is to allow life-defining chapters to end, to not be afraid of changing….

My son was graduating from his MBA program this spring and heading out on new adventures. During a recent drive, I said, “This is an exciting time, but don’t forget, transitions can be unsettling.” Who was I fooling? He was no longer a little kid whose teacher needed to give me practical advice on how to guide children from one school to the next.  Maybe he needed the reminder that change can bring up fear, but in all honesty, I was speaking those words to myself.

This time of my life sometimes referred to as “bridge years,” when kids are launched and out of the house, yet we aren’t sitting in rockers knitting sweaters or playing grandma.  It’s a shoulder season nobody really prepares you for. There was a time when people retired and lived on golf and bridge at age sixty.  What if you feel too young to be old? Is it presumptuous to want more? More time? More meaning?

So much in my life feels like a transition right now, and based on my discussions with peers, I am not alone. Those of us who are fortunate to have our health and bandwidth, there is still a lot we can do, but the fear comes when trying to figure it out. We had a lot of time to think, to work up righteous indignation during the pandemic. Now the question is, will we act on those ideas? Will we seize the learnings from that major life disruption and become new people?

Like Nahshon, who is the first jew to jump into the red sea before it parts and the Egyptians are in hot pursuit, it takes a literal leap of faith to leave behind what could be very comfortable and take on a new challenge. 

I’m here to say to others who also feel nagging self-doubt, I am on the diving board.

Please join me.

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Mother’s Day is Complicated

I’m the first to recognize Mother’s Day as complicated.

Invented in 1908 by Ann Jarvis to celebrate her own mother, a Sunday School teacher and caregiver of soldiers during the Civil War, Mother’s Day was co-opted by greeting card companies by 1920 and today represents a multibillion-dollar enterprise. Despite her own campaigning for the holiday, Jarvis became disgusted with its commercialization and by 1924 was having petitions signed to rescind it. She accused florists and greeting card manufacturers of being “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations.”

Still, who doesn’t enjoy being recognized with a thoughtful card or a beautiful bouquet?

mothers-day-is-complicated-woman-with-bouquet-jeanne-blasbergFor all the happy families gathering around their mothers for brunch next Sunday or celebrating her with flowers and cards, there are an equal number of people for whom the holiday brings dread and pain. I’m not talking about the eleventh-hour panic striking the hearts of fathers and kids searching for gifts that will live up to Mom’s expectations, although there is probably an essay to be written about the command-performance aspect of Mother’s Day. 

I’m talking about the year you lose a mother, or the year in which, having lost both your mother and your mother-in-law and your grandmothers, you find yourself not needing to buy any cards at all. Suddenly, the issue of commercialization doesn’t seem so important, and every card you receive (or don’t) takes on a new meaning. 

I’m talking about those Mother’s Days when maybe you’ve chosen to cease communication with your mother for months or maybe years, and despite knowing this is the best and healthiest choice for everyone, you are overcome with guilt because it seems everyone else in the world is able to have normal family relationships, that everyone else ended up with a mother who was easier to love. 

I’m talking about the pain of Mother’s Day for women who have lost children, or the pain felt by women who gave birth and surrendered their children for adoption. There are complications for stepmothers and biological mothers, surrogate mothers and motherly figures. The scenarios are endless.

mothers-day-is-complicated-pressed-flowers-jeanne-blasbergWhy am I talking about these hard and complicated Mother’s Days? It’s not because I’m trying  to be a downer. But I personally have experienced both the highs and lows of the holiday. I had a therapist with whom I spent a session expressing my anxiety over Mother’s Day and she told me that it was the most problematic holiday for so many of her patients. In a perverse way that made me feel better. I wasn’t alone in these hard and complicated feelings. For a while I imagined forming a group for all of us for whom this holiday isn’t just brunch and bouquets, the Mother’s Day Haters Club. Wanna join?

I’ll admit, it’s sort of ironic for an author obsessed with writing about motherhood to be the founder and president of the MDHC. (Not to mention an author who does a Mother’s Day giveaway of her books most every year—haha.) But then, that’s also the point. Motherhood, in all its forms, is hard and complicated. The stories I’m drawn to don’t shy away from those complications, and neither should the holiday.

Mother’s Day, I’m sure, is neither all good nor all bad for most women. A thoughtful card might land in the mailbox, or the phone might ring with a loved one calling, but it is also a day when both men and women feel loss, for people we no longer have in our lives, or people we never had in the first place. Recognizing these complications, rather than falling prey to the pressure of commercialization or perfectionistic ideals, helps us not only to be sensitive to the potential difficulties of Mother’s Day, but also to stay grounded in our approach to the true meaning of a holiday that can be quite joyous.

mothers-day-is-complicated-baby-feet-jeanne-blasbergI am so glad I made the choice to become a mother. My relationships with my children are my greatest blessings. However, Mother’s Day isn’t the one day I look to them to manifest appreciation. We have loving relationships in which nobody has to give thanks or keep score.  Their existence is enough. I hope for them, as flawed as I may be, my existence is enough. 

For me, the second Sunday in May is the perfect temperature in Rhode Island to plant my vegetable garden—or, as I wrote in a recent essay, to reconnect with Mother Earth. It is a day to be grateful, with others or alone, hands in the dirt or reading or writing. My friends and I might exchange a few texts, my husband might bring me a cup of coffee. In my life, as in my writing, I’d rather recognize the complexity of human emotion surrounding motherhood instead of letting capitalism dictate some rosy ideal of what it looks and feels like. 

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This Earth Day, Celebrate our Ultimate Mother

This essay was originally published on Medium.com.

We have a friend with a large Andy Goldsworthy sculpture on his property. It looks like a human scale beehive, exposed to the wind, rain and sun which means it’s slowly eroding…

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Small Bites of Fear Each Day

This essay was originally posted on Medium.com.

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I have started wondering why I like to ski so much. Yes, it is the beauty of the mountains, the fresh air, the social component, but it’s also because I regularly push myself. Every time I drop in somewhere steep or carve early morning turns maybe a little too fast, I take nibbles of fear. I’m not being extreme, just challenging myself enough to enter an alert state, entirely in the present.

You practice how you play, and you play how you live.

Why consume daily doses of fear like multi-vitamins? Maybe because, as a coach once told me, you practice how you play, and you play how you live. Practicing how to live alongside fear develops important muscles, the same ones you need to take any risk, to fall in love, to have a child. Traveling abroad and training for a marathon have been similar opportunities for me to flirt with fear. I credit facing those challenges with helping me write novels.

jeanne-blasberg-small-bites-of-fearI have been so enjoying keeping up with the Story Club with George Saunders. One of the latest editions of this online master writing class was titled “Joy, not Fear. Unless fear is helpful.” He writes of a peril in writing being “the disappearance of joy in the face of fear,” defining the latter as caution and the former as daring. And so as I think about that sensation to which I am addicted when I ski, the wind screaming over my helmet, it is a fine blend of anxiety and elation, and maybe it is my joy muscle that needs exercising.

Listening to a skiing podcast THE LAST CHAIR which featured Kristen Ulmer, the first and one of the greatest female extreme skiers in the world, I learned how she turned that experience into a career as a high-performance facilitator and a fear/anxiety expert. One of her pearls of wisdom was to rename fear, to be aware of a state of heightened excitement and awareness, and to not think of it as a negative, but rather to think of it as a superpower. Our relationships with fear, after all, define our lives and can stand in the way of happiness. She wrote a book called THE ART OF FEAR which is a deeper dive into the topic. And of course Lindsey Vonn’s RISE: MY STORY sounds like a great companion story, both on my TBR!

The winter Olympics have shown outstanding examples of athletes who consistently overcome…

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Digitally Connected: Are We Keeping Track or Trapped?

This essay was originally published on Medium.com

The first time I did a long drive by myself, I was nineteen. It was 1985 and I drove from Dallas, TX back to college in Northampton, MA with a detour through Detroit (long story), a hot minute in Canada and some time in upstate New York. A cooler filled with green grapes and diet coke within arm’s reach, I nibbled the whole way and biting into a grape still brings back the smoky, beige velveteen interior of my beloved Delta 88. It was a chocolate brown Oldsmobile sedan my grandparents handed down to me. It was a car, but it was also connected to freedom.

I left Dallas in late August with some cash, a family credit card “to be used only in the event of an emergency,” and a AAA Triptik. For anyone under the age of fifty, Triptiks were little spiral bound cardboard books created especially for your journey, a nice perk of AAA membership made obsolete by GPS. After getting pulled over for speeding in Hope, AK, a sheriff took me to station and basically held me hostage until I forked over $200, either that or “called my daddy.”

My cash reserves depleted, I continued on a little jittery, nothing much left for lodging between Hope and Detroit. The only thing that soothed my nerves were grapes, an occasional cigarette and watching the odometer spin. I sang along to whatever was on the radio, flipping the pages of the Triptik. All night long thinking, just turn one more page, one more page, get within x miles of x town and then pull over and look for a motel, or a place to sleep in the car.

Years later, I’d be running on a treadmill, the metrics of my effort lit by red LED lights and I’d be connected to a similar recess of my brain, the one that said, just five more minutes, just twenty more calories, just another half mile. I am wired for these little incentives, a gerbil on her wheel, a rat in the laboratory adapting to the most boring of incentives.

jeanne-blasberg-digitally-connected-tracking-or-trappedThirty seven years later, I’m driving an SUV, basically a computer on wheels from Westerly, RI to Park City, UT with detours in Madison WI and Denver (long story) and each day I set my destination in the WAZE app on my phone and take pleasure in the miles whittling away, the ETA getting closer to the time on the clock display.

And when I check in to my Residence Inn with two dogs, their food, my smoothie fixings, a yoga mat and a foam roller, it hits home how so much of my life has changed, but then again hasn’t. When it’s just me and the road and the thoughts in my head, I could be any age. But I don’t need a Triptek anymore, and I have enough funds to stay in hotels. But that endurance mindset is still with me, only now I’m hooked up to devices—constantly connected. It hits home just how hooked up I’ve become, because I’m carrying all these god damned chargers! Most notably for my Apple watch and my Oura ring which have cemented me in a permanent laboratory rat mentality — what kind of sleep score will I have tonight? How much REM sleep, where will my heart rate settle? Need to get my steps in somehow, wonder how my recovery will be?

Am I alone in being motivated by this stuff? …

Continue reading on Medium.com.

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Wishing You Less in 2022: What’s Your New Years Priority?

As we move toward another new year, I’m considering what’s a priority. On a recent Saturday afternoon, my husband and I were walking in Boston’s Back Bay and shared a stunned expression. We had a free afternoon in front of us. No plans or commitments – I hadn’t felt like that for about twenty-five years. What were we forgetting? 

It certainly had something to do with a COVID variant cancelling plans, our kids moving on, and parents passing. We had spent so many years as that middle generation, sandwiched between our kids’ needs and activities (which were often very fun, don’t get me wrong) and spending time with our parents (also a blessing). Now that those two slices of bread are gone, we’re just a piece of cheese and a slice of turkey coated in mayonnaise, looking around and wondering what to do.

Maybe it’s not a great metaphor for a couple of vegans, but it’s a fun one! And it’s apt for the crossroads we’ve found ourselves at. The easy solution would be to find something new to be our bread. Or perhaps to try out a substitute—a bun or a tortilla. But the upheaval of the past few years has also taught us to value simplicity, adaptability, and inventiveness. Now, instead of reaching immediately for something to add to our lives, we find ourselves pausing to consider. We wonder: what we might become without any bread at all?

I’ve written previously about reassessing just about everything during the pandemic, the most significant of which was our family home in Boston. We ended up selling it this summer along with almost everything inside. These days, when people ask me if I miss it terribly, I tell them what I do miss is my kids being in elementary school and middle school, all the running up and down the stairs, dinners around the dining room table, them doing homework at the kitchen table while I cooked and quizzed them on vocab. If I can’t get those years back, then I am okay letting go of the house. Downsizing is what people do when they get older; they simplify.  However, I would advise people of any age to wake up each morning and choose who and what they want to keep in their lives.  

essentialism-greg-mckeown-book-review-jeanne-blasbergIn Greg McKeown’s recent book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, he highlights how much energy can be redirected to the pursuit of our highest priority when energy being spent on “non-essential” issues or tasks is cut back or cut off entirely. (In other words, there’s no need to keep a toaster or a panini press when your bread has flown the coop!) There was a time when I said yes to too much, so while you might not really need a book to help you say no, it is affirming to see best-selling books espouse this movement. 

While I’m plugging motivational books, another one that has made an impact on how I think recently is called The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks. It can’t really be summed up in a simple prescription, but the gist is training the brain (mine had defaulted to worry mode) to extend periods of contentment. Human beings are wired to self-sabotage when things are going too well for too long because of an inner fear or feeling fundamentally flawed or undeserving. The goal is to shed those shackles and allow things to go well all the time, the pursuit of a life full of creativity and joy and discovery in the genius zone.  Although these two books weren’t suggested by the same person or at the same time, there’s something to be said for the synchronicity of picking up simultaneously at a time when they spoke to me. 

big-leap-gay-hendricks-book-review-jeanne-blasbergA funny aside in McKeown’s book is that at its conception, the word priority was intended to describe the single most important thing in one’s life. It has only been in the last hundred years that priority was made plural and it became acceptable for people and organizations to have multiple priorities. 

Tempting as it may be to turn back the clock on this particular linguistic shift, the truth is it’s unreasonable to expect ourselves to whittle our contemporary lives down to a single priority—no matter how devoted we may be to minimalism and downsizing

Perhaps in other times and places, the various aspects of our lives were more unified. We farmed to survive. We lived where we worked. The whole family was in it together. But despite the recent shift, for many, toward work-from-home, the spheres of our lives are no longer so intertwined, and often we find ourselves pulled between them. 

So maybe the plural priorities isn’t going away any time soon. But understanding this etymology can be a reminder to ourselves that plural doesn’t have to mean infinite. We can place limits on our lists. Perhaps it would be more realistic to suggest focusing on a single priority in each main area of life. Some people might take the “4 burners” approach: family, friends, work, and health. Personally, I like the idea of three focus points. 

For the foreseeable future, these are mine:

  1. My family
  2. My writing/artistic life
  3. Investing in regenerative agriculture

What is this agricultural interest on your list, you might ask? Am I reverting to that all-inclusive farm life after all? Stay tuned and suffice it to say that it’ll be a great story. But throw it also in the bucket of assessing our lives, deciding we have another big chapter left to complete and one priority we have is leaving the planet a better place. 

jeanne-blasberg-grey-1928-priority-sweaterTomorrow I begin driving to Madison, WI, then through Iowa and Nebraska to Denver, Colorado and ultimately to our new home in Park City, UT. Packing was simple because I don’t need much. (Lessons learned from #vanlife with our daughter.) My husband gave me the greatest sweater for Hanukah, the numbers 1928 splayed across its front. That number is special to me so I see it as good luck, a connection to loved ones, and just pretty damned cool that he found it in a store and snatched it up knowing it was meant for me. That is love. It means so much to me I told my husband I will likely wear it everyday of the entire winter, so that solves a lot of fashion questions. I guess that makes it my single priority sweater! 

This year has been all about cutting back, revising. In fact, I just sent a major revision of my novel-in-progress to my fellowship mentor at Bookends which has been an incredible experience to date. But the revisioning doesn’t end there. As writers, we learn that a new draft means completely re-seeing what’s come before, sometimes letting go of old ideas and plot threads, sometimes whittling away the words that bog it down. The same practice has imbued my life outside of writing. 

This next cross-country journey (including all the side-winding) would not have been possible if we hadn’t let go of that which was holding us back. Embracing new dreams, reinvention, call it what you want, it is a powerful drug.

So as this breadless cheese and turkey pair face the future hand in hand, we’re no longer thinking, how do we fill in the gaps to go back to being a sandwich? These days, we’re wondering what we could become with everything else stripped away. Might we melt ourselves into a casserole or roll up into a roulade? How can we highlight the ingredients we already have, rather than overpowering them? No matter what we make of it, we’re facing the future a bit lighter, a bit less, and with plenty of room for levity, possibility, and hope.

I’m looking forward to the report I’ll write from the other side!!

 

Wishing everyone safe travels in the new year along with peace and good health and freedom from your clutter.

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The Value of a Grown-Up Gap Year

This essay was originally published in the Travel section of Moms Don’t Have Time To as “The Value of a Grown-Up Gap Year.”

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A Quest for Quiet and the Ability to Live in it

This essay was originally published on Medium.com.

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New Year’s Books and Wishes

Welcome 2021! I know the trouble isn’t over and life will never be the same, but I am so glad to turn the page on the calendar. I greet the New Year, not with bubbly champagne at midnight, dressed in heels or a fancy dress, music playing in the background, but on this bright morning having gone to sleep early after a simple dinner on the sofa and Netflix, cuddled up in front of a fire with my husband and my dog.

jeanne-blasberg-simple-new-years-eveI gained enough wisdom in 2020 to know that is enough. More than enough, and how lucky I am. I learned to stop making plans out in the world, trotting the globe, and to look for solace in my inner life, reading and writing, thinking and listening to audiobooks and walking, just breathing. This year, I will leave the rose-colored glasses behind, the naïve, blind privilege that assumed all my tomorrows will play out as I want them to, of course they will, why wouldn’t they? There is definitely a sadder, subdued flavor to life now and what I foresee in the new year, but in a lot of ways it is truer, more real. The greater forces in the universe have imposed humility on a population that increasingly expected instant gratification and service at its fingertips. This time last year, John and I accepted a spontaneous invitation to celebrate New Year’s in the Dominican Republic, without a second thought. What a luxury to not have a second thought. Remember when we did what we wanted when we wanted, our choices seemingly without consequence? 

Sitting around on a boozy, moonlit night in the DR, I set an intention to practice more patience and to go to bed earlier in 2020. Ha. I ended up having no choice.  But instead of patience, what I think 2020 really taught me was acceptance. The Serenity Prayer embossed on a gold medallion I keep by my computer has never been more poignant – God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. There is such peace in acceptance, to end the struggle against what is.

Acceptance isn’t letting people step on you. Acceptance doesn’t mean I will take shit. Acceptance is finding joy in small things: the way the sun streams through a window and hits the floor at a particular angle, birdsong, the smell of a new bar of soap. I hope to carry an enduring ability to sit and observe into the future, along with a certainty that reading and listening is the best escapism, and, of course, an insuppressible desire to make art.  

jeanne-blasberg-new-year-beginI’m still just that little girl afraid of the dark, wanting one more book before bedtime to ward off the unknown, and the promise of a goodnight kiss. As a grown up, I’ve created my own rituals, both am and pm, which attract eye-rolls from my family. But in the New Year, I will embrace them openly. My morning routine, I know, is responsible for leading me step by step to my writing space for the past nine months, ushering me through the chaos and doubt of a resistant brain. 

Humans are creatures of routine, but we are also resilient. And just like plants turn toward the sun, we bask and grow in love. I have faith we will continue to care and to love. We will survive pestilence and divisiveness, the required muscles becoming stronger for the effort. So, I’m not wishing anyone fireworks or ecstatic pleasure in 2021, just a peaceful way, one on which we make steady progress, some forward motion each and every day. In 2021 let’s prioritize acceptance, courage, and serenity. That would be more than enough. 

PS – You can check out the Review section on my website to see what I’ve read recently, but in the spirit of looking forward here are the titles on my TBR pile:

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

The Best of Me by David Sedaris

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

The Mermaid from Jeju by Sumi Hahn

Dreamland by Sam Quinones

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante

 

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AT HOME before it was a thing…

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