Grossly qualified

For years, I was in the closet. Quite literally, I sat in my closet, writing for hours in hundreds of 180-page, spiral-bound notebooks, for most of my childhood: telling whatever little story that popped into my head, writing about Hootie and the Blowfish, drawing sketches, and filing it all away for myself. This year, my parents sold my childhood home and cleaned out that closet and the notebooks I left behind. With my permission, my parents put the notebooks on the curb for bulk trash pickup by the village trash collectors. In my mind, these notebooks were getting a somewhat unsentimental funeral, but one that felt right, as they had always been private for myself only (or so I had hoped). 

Within hours of being left on the curb, I had a message from a teenage girl who trash picked my notebooks and wanted to know if I wanted them back. She summarized what she found in them, clearly having read through things that I never thought (and really hoped would not) see the light of day. After much hand-wringing, I finally wrote her back. “I’m a writer now. These writings got me where I am today, but they’ve played their role.” I requested that she destroy them. 

After years of fiction and non-fiction writing; livejournals and microblogs; classes and notebooks; blogs and literary magazines, I did it. I called myself a writer. I told this strange garbage-picking teen, in so many words, that I had become the person that I always wanted to be. And I believed it. She responded (I imagine while popping her bubble gum and TikToking), “k.”

There’s nothing I love more than watching someone do something I could not, would never, be able to do myself. It’s why I loved Project Runway in college and spent hours in front of the Great British Baking Show over the last couple of years. It’s why I so frequently find myself at #BOSSBABESATX events, like I did during the kick-off of SXSW 2017. I sat and listened to a group of successful business women at the top of their creative fields answer the question “how do you deal with impostor syndrome” – and two answers knocked the wind out of me. One woman admitted what a process it is every day, talking herself out of feeling not good enough for the work she does and the life she leads. Another woman said, deadpan, that she doesn’t struggle with it at all. Her seat at the table is 100% hers. 

Sidney Gish has a song entitled “Impostor Syndrome” where she sings, “Every other day I’m wondering / what’s a human being got to be like? / What’s a way to just be competent? / These sweet instincts ruin my life.” Sidney emerged as a Mitski-tour-approved singer-songwriter before she could legally drink. Her voice rings with authenticity and creativity, writing about the human condition in a way only a young person can. She has a seat at the table. But, like the first woman I heard speak at Boss Babes, she can’t help but feel like she’s about to get caught for not being enough. “For human grossly underqualified / For canine grossly overqualified,” she says of herself.

For years, I didn’t describe myself as an artist. I told my paternal grandmother I wanted to be an artist once, and she told me, “Don’t be an artist. Artists are kooky!” Into adulthood, I (a pretty certifiable kook) painted and created and it was just a thing I did. I wasn’t serious or talented enough. Today, I own it. Is it confidence? Well, maybe. Is confidence when you give up caring what other people think of your own conception of who you are? If so, then yes. I’m an artist and I’m confident.

So why is it so much harder to characterize myself as a writer? Part of it is the ebb and flow of my writing practice. In 2013, I wrote every day and published it on my blog, Make. I went on to found Side Dish, a literary blog for people who wanted to be creative but maybe didn’t have that space in their professional lives. In 2016, I started Yoga Farts, which flourished for a year or two but has lately been dormant. 

If my confidence is less about believing in my own abilities in a way that I didn’t before and more about believing that I’m the one who gets to define me, then what does that mean for my seat at the table? I’ll be the first to admit that I live and die by the attention and praise of others, and it pushes my creative boundaries to know that someone is watching. I used to compare myself to other people. To writers who could find that right word and the right audience. To painters that could make a photorealistic dog instead of a cartoony one. It didn’t serve me. Every inch of growth I’ve had as a creative being has been from saying to myself, with eyes on my own paper, I want to do this and so I will. 

So this month, I’ve been reconceptualizing. Maybe it’s less about the seat and more about the table. You’re invited to join me any time, but it’s my table. I bought it off Craigslist for $25, and it has fizzy water rings all over it, and it’s mine. It’s where I paint and it’s where I write. It’s where I decide who I am.

Sleepwalk with me

My on- and off-again friend, depression, has silently, slowly been holding me back, like an older sibling with her palm on my forehead as I swing my fists, unable to strike my oppressor. This is not my friend depression’s usual approach with me; usually, she comes in slowly, getting ever louder as she pushes my pressure points and sore spots. Unlike for many, my depression is usually a screaming, crying pain, rather than an inert whimper. Ever the shapeshifter, depression arrived this year and made writing and painting excruciatingly painful – but in creation’s pain, it became so much more important, worthwhile, and fulfilling when I was able to eke out a piece of work.

A friend (a real friend, not my jerk depression) recently shared an essay I read years ago, that resonated differently for me this time. In “The Cost of Daydreaming,” Vivian Gornick writes:

Ever since I could remember, I had feared being found wanting. If I did the work I wanted to do, it was certain not to measure up; if I pursued the people I wanted to know, I was bound to be rejected; if I made myself as attractive as I could, I would still be ordinary looking.

Around such damages to the ego a shrinking psyche had formed: I applied myself to my work, but only grudgingly; I’d make one move toward people I liked, but never two; I wore makeup but dressed badly. To do any or all of these things well would have been to engage heedlessly with life — love it more than I loved my fears — and this I could not do. What I could do, apparently, was daydream the years away: to go on yearning for “things” to be different so that I would be different.

When I was growing up, I tackled my “fear of being found wanting” with achievement. I worked tirelessly to be praised and to have a piece of paper or a stroke of ink proving that I was not wanting. When I graduated from college, a switch flipped in me. My ceaseless endeavors towards having the best and most education gave me a bad taste in my mouth. I wanted to be free. I wanted to accept myself and let go.

It was only after I’d given myself space and accepted myself that I started to feel my psyche shrinking, as Gornick said. It took years of ebbing and flowing, but here I am, half myself in everything I do, sleepwalking, latching onto big goals and outcomes that are always just around the bend, out of my reach. No ink nor paper to show for all of my half-work and bleary-eyed daydreaming, but also no satisfaction.

Creating is an uphill battle for me lately. I get excited about a project, prep for it, and drag myself through molasses to get started. Every brush or keystroke makes me feel more myself and more satisfied with my life, but each is harder than the last. For me, art is about revealing myself; laying myself bare: here are the colors I love; here is my weakness; here is my strength; here is the nose I got in the neighborhood of correct; here are the people I care about; here’s what I was too self-conscious to paint right the first time, but got right the second time; here is how I spend the last slants of late fall light after coming home from work. Since starting to paint for clients in 2011, I’ve had to unlearn my instinct to poke fun at what I do to alleviate some of the pressure of hoping people like what I have to share. I have had to stand next to my writing and my paintings and say, “Here I am. This is me.”

unnamed

The only piece of art I’ve finished in four months is this painting of Miranda July for Sandy, a person who has always supported me and artistically inspired me. I’m proud of this piece because I think I got Miranda July’s spirit right, but also because it was a trial through the thick of my creative mental blocks lately. In the end, I had to fight the final boss of my depression: putting all of myself into something and accepting I might fail with no one to blame but myself. I knew that if I were to stop, it would be an even greater failure. I would be going back on my word (and my Venmo) with someone who believes in me.

Gornick’s essay talks about the vacancies left when you stop daydreaming and start holding yourself accountable for the moments in life that you hold onto or let pass away. Knowing what activities help me grasp these moments has been half the battle: it has taken years to peel back the layers of myself and find that all along, the things that make me happy are the activities I loved as a little girl. Now that I can see the emptiness of achievements and the wholeness of art, I have a map of where I’m going and what I’m fighting for, but the guiding force is the people who see me, who have always seen me, as capable of failure, but as more than enough.

Let’s Get Out of This Country

Yesterday, one of my all-time favorite albums, Let’s Get Out of This Country by Camera Obscura, turned 12. In 2006, I was a fresh college student. I had spent the last couple of years in my hometown not hiding the fact that I was too cool for the suburbs (my Myspace profile song was “Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying” by Belle & Sebastian, subtly). For all my complaining, I had the hardest time fitting in in college, missed my home friends dearly, and figured out maybe it wasn’t a place I was trying to get away from – it was me.

Camera Obscura hit me like a ton of bricks with Let’s Get Out of This Country. Sweeping strings and cheerful melodies and lyrics about trying your damndest to be happy – what more could an 18-year-old need?

I’ve tried to excerpt the title track’s lyrics in some meaningful way, but honestly, listen to it. If it doesn’t remind you of the ache of being a teenager, driving past cornfields, and wanting someone’s affection and validation so badly it hurts, I’ll give you your money back. Tracyanne Campbell, the most perfect twee frontperson since Stuart Murdoch, sings, “Let’s get out of this country / I’ll admit, I’m bored with me.”

I told myself this summer, I’m going to celebrate where I am. I’m going to love my home, my body, my partner, my city, my pool, and my work. I’m going to read my story as something new and fresh, a soon-to-be bestseller, a beach read instead of a murder mystery or an atmospheric modernist novella. I’m going to use the ingredients I have to make something great. Like Pam on The Office, I get 3 additional vacation days plunked into my account on June 1st – and I always want to keep my pretties safe, for a trip to Bermuda or a long weekend in the Hill Country, ya know? However, just like Pam, I made it exactly -4 days before deciding to take my vacation days and get the hell out of Dodge. When the anniversary of my favorite album came around right as I booked our tickets, I felt 18 again. “Let’s get out of this country / I have been so unhappy / Smell the jasmine, my head will turn.” It’s time for travel to turn my head right around.

Sam and I are headed back to Chicago, my first time showing him around in the sweet spot of July, when it’s perpetually a little hot, a little drunk, and little late to be walking home at night. Instead of plowing headfirst into the Malört, I want to be able to bring back something fresh from the garden of Chicago to add to the metaphorical spice kitchen of my Austin life. I want to find a cathedral. I want to be dislodged like I was when I was 18.

I have made countless aspirational lists, small goals and big goals, to-dos and to-don’ts. So instead, I’ve decided to pursue feelings. If I’m going to get out of this country (because Texas is a country, right?), I’m going to get something out of it that can last me through the fall.

Freedom

By all accounts, I have a lot of freedom. I can tweak my work schedule to come home at 4.30 pm to sit by the pool. I have lax painting deadlines and seemingly endless free time. Why don’t I feel free? A lot of this is the pressure I put on myself, and some of it is my good pal mental illness. I always feel like I should be doing something – a pathology that a therapist pointed out to me years ago. “You do know that you don’t have to do everything, right?” Reader, I didn’t. I didn’t know. Being an adult meant getting my chores done, having a fulfilling social life, working my butt off at my art, and having big goals and aspirations. So, this summer, something new: no daily quotas. If I get nothing done, well, so be it. If I paint the last supper in one go, so be it. Both things have equal weight. The days I do nothing give me the fuel for the days I do something. I’m going to pursue that summer feeling.

Fun

One of my least favorite phrases in the “English” language is “the Summertime Chi.” Please god, why? However, the concept has a name for a reason. Summer in Chicago cannot be paralleled.

Street festival after music festival after late night patio after beach afternoon after boat ride after free day at the museum – and then it’s over. Austin doesn’t always feel this way. I feel like I’m dragging people out of their A/C. I feel like I’m searching out the next thing to do, instead of it plopping into my lap. I am hoping my trip to Chicago gives me that boost to chase fun, by any means necessary: to say “screw it” to my problems when it means a hot sauce festival, or a comedy show, or a swimming hole.

Peace

I’ve been hiding out. I’ve been radio silent on the blog. Why? I’m afraid to bore everyone around me with the one thing that really sparks enthusiasm from me this year: our wedding. I’ve always loved weddings, but many of my friends aren’t shy about their negative opinions of weddings, marriage, and the wedding industrial complex. Fam, the wedding industrial complex is only as strong as you want it to be. So while my IRL vocal vomit of excitement over Save the Dates and dresses and DIY projects has been a leaky tap, I’ve been shy about writing about it here.

I hope to find peace with my passion over this event and this union and to share something that has me creatively inspired. I hope to not be my own worst critic. I hope to fight the strongest bit of the wedding industrial complex for me, which is the backlash that makes me ashamed. I love color-coded spreadsheets and shoe shopping. When Campbell sang, “Find a cathedral so you can convince me I am pretty,” I felt that. Convince me I’m worthy. But, well, fuck it. I’m worthy, full stop. I want to find peace in knowing that who I am and what I do is only as important and valid as I decide it is! I’ve decided it is.

∙ ∙ ∙

The holy trilogy of summer feelings: Freedom, fun, and peace. Sometimes, what I have isn’t quite enough. What I need is a new set of priorities, and I hope I find them in the Summertime Chi – or maybe in a 12-year-old summer soundtrack.

 

The Flamingo Queen: This Is 30

I’m a straggler – so many of my friends are already in their dirty, flirty, nerdy 30s and loving it, even those who had to be dragged kicking and screaming into their own 30th birthday parties. This is (mercifully!) the last month of my 20s, with only 17 days to go. As I hurtle head-on into that milestone, I’ve been taking stock of my life. There’s a lot of talk in those horrible “Why aren’t millennials buying Ferraris?” articles about people of my generation not being where we thought we’d be, mostly based on our parents’ lives, at this age. I’m not a homeowner (thank GOURD – if I ever have to do a lawn care task, it will be too soon), I’m not married (on my way there), I’m not making enough money to support a family, and I haven’t made a name for myself in my career, in my artistic life, in my popstar aspirations (Emma XCX), etc. On this blog I spend a lot of time musing on what I’ve learned, but today I want to imagine the person I hope to be in my 30s, the things I hope to learn, and the cocktails I hope to drink.

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  1. Try an aperol spritz: what are they? People in New York drink them. I want one.
  2. Wear jumpsuits: you’re really cool if you wear a jumpsuit, it’s science. I must find one that works for my decidedly short corporeal form.
  3. Speaking of the tragedy of corporeality, stop self-body shaming. Part of this is knowing who I am and demanding people give me respect and adoration where I am in the present.
  4. Enjoy the silence. My therapist always asks me why I’m afraid of being boring, and I get all in a huff. I’m not afraid of being boring – no chance – I’m afraid of being bored. But why? One goal is to let there be empty parts of my life and to stop filling every nook and cranny with the junk food of life: people and things that make me feel bad in the end.
  5. Paint more. Yesterday, I was so tired from work and post-work weight training that I could barely stand to paint. But I did it. I painted three strokes and collapsed into couch potato life. Forcing myself to do a tiny bit is better than adding another day to the creative trash heap. Keep going.
  6. Challenge myself physically.
  7. Go to Big Bend. When I was 13, I went to Santa Fe with my mom to see Ghost Ranch, where Georgia O’Keeffe lived and worked for so many years. I still look back at those drives through the desert with boundless fondness. The desert: a land without allergies. An endless landscape of reds and purples. I want to feed that part of me that is a baby Georgia O’Keeffe. I know this is possible without (gulp) camping, and I’m ready to make it happen.
  8. Ride my god dang bicycle, which has sat lonely in the below-the-stairs bike rack since LAST MAY.
  9. Walk, walk, walk.
  10. Be proactive about my health. This means finding a doctor I don’t actively loathe, continue collecting sensible footwear, and skipping the third glass of wine.
  11. Plan the most Sam and Emma wedding possible – and don’t cave to the pressure to do it any other way. That’s right! I’m buying the pink flamingos that are on my wedding Amazon wish list. Wedding spoilers abound!
  12. Cultivate a community where we live. This is the first home I’ve ever had as an adult where this feels feasible. Our neighbors look out for each other, bring by treats, finish bottles of wine with us, take in our stranded packages, and share their dogs. I want to work on being a neighbor I would enjoy and appreciate.
  13. Wash my face every night, even on nights when I could fall asleep sitting up in my clothes.
  14. Volunteer my time.
  15. Learn a new craft. I think I might be ready to take the plunge into fiber art, after months of channeling my wedding anxiety into pom poms.
  16. Practice for skeeball. I’m pretty good, but I could be very good, right? 
  17. Send care packages. This used to be one of my favorite activities. I love assembling prayer candles and candies and shipping them to the people I miss so much.
  18. Defend myself when I’m feeling attacked. Boy, is this a big one this week. After a crappy interaction with a doctor and a friend, I smiled and nodded and, in so doing, internalized some of their piss poor attitudes about me. I bounced back, but why didn’t I speak up? That’s not me. Defending oneself is often about being vulnerable, almost crying, and trying to control one’s temper and timbre. Why don’t I trust myself to do that? I am powerful.
  19. Listen to a new band every week.
  20. See live music two times per month. A new study finds that seeing live music twice a month can help you live happier and longer. Let’s live forever, baby!
  21. Seek adventures, big and small. Take the long way home. Say yes.
  22. Wake up early. Early mornings, my old friend, make me feel more like myself and are the engine of my creative life.
  23. Keep in touch with people I miss and love.
  24. Pay compliments.
  25. Go to therapy regularly, even though it’s expensive and sometimes I don’t have much to say. Keep pushing.
  26. Hustle. Promote my business and make art that changes people’s moods.
  27. Save money. Hello, wedding joint savings account, my first real foray into saving (that’s right, mom).
  28. Support my friends’ art. They’re incredibly talented and deserve my attention and money.
  29. Push myself at work. Put in the time.
  30. Be the Flamingo Queen. A couple of weeks ago, I wore this dress. I was nervous to attend a formal event in something so Emma and so loud, but all night, people (timidly and bombastically) came up to me to pay compliments to the blessed dress. Getting in the elevator after the wedding, a little girl said to me, “I like your dress.” Then, quietly, she turned to her mom and said, “She looks like the Flamingo Queen.” The happiness and wisdom I gained in that moment is unparalleled in my 20s. People respond to positivity, to me being myself, to statements, and to playfulness. I had felt unsure if I was still young enough to make that statement and to be the Flamingo Queen, but b*tch, where’s my crown? Watch the throne: 30-year-old Emma is coming.

Block party

When I started this blog in September 2016, I was a bit of a mess. I felt really isolated, really bad about my current state of affairs, and really ready to make a structured change. Some things about the blog have improved my life significantly – writing about weight gain and how to be honest with myself come to mind. Some things have not stuck the same way – I’m thinking of pieces about getting back to old habits and de-cluttering my dresser (oh lord, if you saw my dresser now, dear reader). Writing has always been a way to narrativize my existence, a way to create a vision of progress when the predominant feeling is stagnation. There’s a whole field (that I don’t understand!) called narrative medicine that studies patients telling stories rather than just describing symptoms, and how it helps physicians understand the individual and their affliction more fully. This field has always given me a sense of validation for my writing and my storytelling – if a doctor thinks stories save lives, well then, my GOD…

Sometimes, just sometimes, the chaos and mess in my life resist the pull of narrative like a cat resists taking a pill. I worship stories about the magic of the ordinary, certainly (please see my masters thesis) but if you’re not Virginia Woolf (I’m not), telling a story of how you went home, idled on the couch until the sun went down, and went to bed – well, let’s just say that you might not be all that compelling.

My problem isn’t writer’s block exactly – it’s something more existential. Liver’s block (that sounds like what happens to you after the infinity ciders of SXSW)? Framer’s block? Experiencer’s block? Unable to tell the story of my progress to myself, I am unable to make art from it. I don’t feel like I’m learning to live and care for myself better, and as such, I’ve written a big, fat, critically-scrutinized THE END.

Once a year, SXSW comes around and reminds me about the best parts of my life and my city, and this year, it has kicked my experiencer’s block right in the tush. The fun and activity of new experiences has me shook. Now’s not the time for major revisions to the narrative of my life – it’s time for a new story entirely. I used to start new stories with great frequency earlier in my twenties. I wrote an academic story, then I wrote a lapsed academic story.  I wrote a bad boyfriend story or two that were published to fan acclaim. I wrote a new state story that was warm and inviting. I wrote a serious story, I wrote a funny story, I wrote a drunken sea shanty. You get the picture. It isn’t the characters or the setting that need retooling. No, it’s the life inside the narrative itself that needs to be willed into existence. I need to strike the right tone, to make the big choices, to discover hidden truths in the same old structures that I still call home.

I’ve decided to start with short stories – with little somethings about how I spend a day. I’ll post the greatest hits here. Other creative people, I’d love it if you could submit your own one-day-stories that I can share with my people. How are you understanding your own progress in the context of your ordinary life? What’s the driving force, who’s the antagonist, and what’s the style? Together, let’s see if we can start a new story.

If I shine

I have always been good at friends (braggy, I know). I don’t mean to say that I’ve always had a ton of friends, or felt extremely close to the people around me; I mean that the people I choose to share myself with are special. I don’t suffer fools, and I make a special effort to connect with people who are creative and dedicated to their own happiness in an authentic way. I have had my share of bad feelings about being locked out of groups of people (even lately! I’m almost 30!) but usually, upon reflection, it’s the people who (like me!) want to cultivate a totally welcoming, collaborative lifestyle that make me tick.

Most of this skill I’ve developed is selfish. Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow coined the term Shine Theory™ to talk about women reflecting success onto each other – if I shine, you shine. I find this to be an incredibly helpful attitude when approaching my friendships. I like to be around people who bring out my best qualities, and I like being around people who I’m happy to pour my positive attitude into. I also take particular joy in someone telling me, “You have the best friends.” I do – and they’re yours for the sharing.

I write about friendship today because I’ve been in a creative rut. After a month of super intense painting in December, I took a month off and found my writing practice fall off too. The only creative pursuit I could really engage with was making pom poms – something I’m doing with my wedding planning energy for decor. Wedding planning has been a fun way to channel the tepid stream of my creative energies into something real – but let’s be real: my wedding is more than a year away, it’s one day of my life, and I have things to write and paint somewhere inside of me in the meantime. Since December, I’ve painted two things and written one post. How’s a girl to blow away the cobwebs?

Sometimes, I have to dig into my friendships to find the positive energy I can’t find within myself. Last month, a long distance bestie came to visit and reinvigorated my appetite for fun. Spinning around the dance floor at the White Horse, blurry-eyed and fancy-free, I remembered that I have a sense of adventure. Walking through Pease Park, I remembered I had a sense of reflection. He had given me back two of the key ingredients of my creative self.

Another good friend has asked me to support her – and to have her support me – in maintaining creative goals. We’re two writers – check her out at www.rosetruesdale.com – her in a state of transition in Berlin, me in a state of (reluctantly and enthusiastically) settling down in North Loop, Austin. My goal was small: to write once a week every week of March. When my alarm goes off, I think to myself, is today the day? Most days the answer is no. Today is the day to sleep my head off. But having some accountability meant that today, feeling rested, I cracked my knuckles over my 9-year-old laptop and here I am.

Sometimes, digging deep isn’t enough. I’ve learned to not get too freaked out by the ebb and flow of my creative tides, but I know that I feel better when I’m putting myself out there. That’s where you come in. What are some ways you motivate yourself to keep going? What are small goals and projects that bring you joy? Who are your creative engines – your motivators, who you know or don’t? If you shine, I shine – let’s hear it.

Super Us

Years ago, when I was feeling especially normal and non-super, I read Emily Gordon’s fantastically silly Super You, a self-help book about using your past and your weaknesses to become powerful. Gordon, who you may know as the writer of The Big Sick, says, “Change is mandatory, growth is optional, and greatness is inside all of us.”

I’ve changed, I’ve grown, and I’ve gotten slightly, steadily better at acknowledging my greatness – but lately I find that so much of my power is derived from the greatness in other people. I’m planning a wedding, and you can find me slack-jawed looking at a chateau wedding with thousand- dollar napkin budgets on wedding blogs, wondering just how we are going to do it. As I ride a rollercoaster that is so far very fun, with slight obstacles, I anticipate that there will be an upside down portion, a steep decline, and a stretch where we’re whizzing at 100 mph in the dark. However, I’ve grabbed ahold of my wedding motto, and it’s slowly becoming my life motto: people first.

What does people first mean? It means following these steps:

#1: Be super

This is the part I learned how to do from about 400 years in therapy, 4000 self-help books and podcasts, and 4 million really supportive friends. I try to focus on what I’m good at, both in life and in wedding planning. I’m an Information Professional, so I’m able to find information that your average bear might miss. This led me to some off-the-beaten-path wedding venues with a boatload of character. I’m crafty and I have an artistic vision, so you’ll find me on a Tuesday night tying myself up in yarn because I saw something on the Internet that inspired me and might look good hanging from a wedding guest chair. I’m a super planner, so I am patiently (okay, impatiently) explaining my five-hue color-coding system to my eternally understanding fiance (“No, the mauve means we definitely maybe need it – what about this aren’t you getting?!). Like with all of my big projects, I try to start from a place of strength.

#2: Be vulnerable

This is the least fun part. If Batman is any indication, part of being super is that you have to get really mad about your parents getting murdered… or something? I have to feel the feelings instead of ignoring them, and continue to be great. In the frame of wedding planning, this has meant having a glass of wine and sobbing to Sam, “I don’t want to be a normie barn wife” after seeing some very cute, very un-Emma-and-Sam barn venues. It has meant lying down on the couch with my head in my hands when the 3 wedding coordinators we met didn’t seem like they’d be my new best friend. It has meant getting really mad at Etsy wedding dress return policies. These moments of vulnerability when working on a project are the part in the superhero movie where things get creative and dramatic and I usually wake up from my movie-nap.

#3: Find your heroes

I don’t know what the Avengers are and I can’t give it a goog, but I imagine it’s something like a really cool gang of very super monsters and doctors or something. Lately, if I can’t do something alone, I am trying not to blame myself for not being good enough. Instead, I look for someone who can support me. Sometimes, I don’t have to look far. After the Normie Barn Wife episode of 2018, I stopped what I was doing. It wasn’t fun, and it wasn’t our fault. My mom always says, “Be still and listen.” This is a great way for my Avengers (or X-men or Fantastic Four or whatever of these comic book things is most applicable) to find ME. One of my super powers is that I’m a connector – I connect with people and then I bring them together. When I hit the obstacles of not wanting to be married in a barn and wanting our wedding helpers to be totally rad, I waited, and someone special appeared. This means, with a little effort, I’ve amassed a crew of a fun and dedicated maid-of-honor, a punk rock, ranch-owning Austin writer and wedding expert, and a wedding helper that doesn’t balk at the word “port-o-potty” in a world of candy-colored chateau weddings. It turns out acknowledging my own power has magnetized me with other powerful people.

★ ★ ★

Okay, so I said people first, but really I meant people third. Therapists and wedding bloggers have two things in common: they wear cute shoes and they always tell you to ask for help. But it’s a process. Without all of the demolition I’ve done on my hang-ups and have-nots, without those moments of persistent weakness, I wouldn’t be able to find the right help. This concludes my lengthy confession that I have never seen a superhero movie or opened a comic book.

Matches struck unexpectedly in the dark

It’s day 13 of my favorite season – Thanksgiving Advent. It’s nearly a month of suggestions to make your day a little bit better, and then your month a little better, culminating in the best day of the year: a day to be thankful that you have food, traditions, family, friends, and most of all, you’ve met dogs before.

Thanksgiving Advent reminds me of a favorite Virginia Woolf passage from To the Lighthouse. She writes:

What is the meaning of life? That was all- a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.

During Thanksgiving Advent, I try to fabricate these little moments, to take out all the flimsy matchbooks I’ve collected from restaurants and get sparking. Instead of waiting for these daily miracles, I push my friends and family to make them for themselves.

I thought it was time to check in with myself (and you) about this little tradition to talk about things I’ve learned this month. Here’s what we’ve done so far:

November 1st: Uninstall an app that isn’t contributing to your happiness.

November 2nd: Tidy up

November 3rd: List your finer qualities

November 4th: Send mail

November 5th: Order something new

November 6th: Get an audiobook

November 7th: Make a signature cocktail

November 8th: Compliment a stranger

November 9th: Confide in someone

November 10th: Make a meme of your pet

November 11th: Throw out three things

November 12th: Do something you’ve been putting off

November 13th: Vocalize the best in even the worst thing that happens to you today.

The big themes of Thanksgiving Advent are self-care, whimsy, responsibility, and variety, which are the major categories I’ve been working on for self-improvement (except the whimsy – I’m honestly the mayor of Whimsy Town. See Thanksgiving Advent as a concept as an example).

As for self-care, I’ve found Thanksgiving Advent to be a great reminder to believe in myself. I’ve hit some rough patches lately, some personal and some inspired by the onslaught of reminders about violence against women. Above all, I need to believe that I can, and have, and will, overcome what life throws at me. Somehow, writing down that I have good hair and adding a maraschino cherry to a whiskey ginger and pressing the tiny X on NextDoor put me in a place to stand, face against the wind, ready to bop the next whack-a-mole of life.

One new thing I’ve noticed about Thanksgiving Advent is that I relied more heavily on “responsibility” ideas. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m months away from 30, but I have a newfound appreciation for the joy of having done something that I dreaded but has improved my life. Things like tidying up, throwing things away, confronting something I’ve been putting off – these are the tasks that have a long-term resonance on my happiness. Yesterday, I put brush to canvas on a really intimidating, exciting painting commission, and looking at it right now, I feel like a Real Painter.

Today is my favorite Thanksgiving Advent, something I relentlessly strive for on a daily basis: Vocalize the best in even the worst thing that happens to you today. In other words, avoid flailing or wallowing in life’s tiny turmoils or big obstacles. Challenge yourself to feel lucky and to push through.

One more thing I’ve been feeling this TA season: the rush of connecting with other people who just need a reminder to be happy as the days get darker. Lots of you have reached out to say how a particular task helped you. Even more acquaintances or long-lost friends favorited TA Instagrams, or sent me a cat meme. Thanksgiving Advent has me doing some of my favorite things: sharing positive experiences with friends, old, new, and in-between; being the star of the show (being honest here – you probably already knew this about me by now); fostering creativity; letting fate take the wheel; and helping people get over the hump of a bad day. These are my little illuminations, these moments of connection as we share a daily miracle. By Thanksgiving, we’ve built a path lined with luminaries.

Baby steps

It’s 10 am. I’m about to take my break, a nice walk in the Texas sun to slay my coworkers in a pedometer challenge. I stand in the work room, arms out, and drop my torso down near my knees. 1, 2, 3, 55 times.

What’s up, lil pup? I’m addicted to quantifiable physical challenges – this time the 30-day Squat Challenge app. I’ve written about my past forays into running, an activity I’ve put on hold for the time being because of recurring foot injuries. Now I’m getting experimental with new activities. I’m 13 days into the squat challenge, doing 60 today. I’ve integrated hand weights back into the mix, huffing and puffing, thinking about Madonna’s Gollum arms.

These new physical challenges – the pedometer, the squats, the Michelle Obama quest – they’re part of a larger experiment for me. I’m embarking on new routines to seek new fulfillment. A friend recently asked me what my goals were for the next six months and I was blanker than a ‘90s kid’s check. Now that I’ve finished school, gotten a job, revamped my painting business, and set up a comfortable home, I am reframing my goals. They are no longer these big adult milestones – they are smaller, quieter, check marks on a to-do list, adding up to a marked up piece of paper crumpled in the recycling.

Here are my new micro-goals, quickly amassing check marks and contributing to a feeling of progress:

  1. Eat more vegetables – even if this means hiding spinach in my food, like I’d do for a child
  2. Practice my yeses and my nos: cancel when being alone will contribute to a balanced brain; take on new challenges that scare me.
  3. Do a little bit everyday. This is a holdover from my Make days. Even if I have to force myself to paint one stroke, it’s momentum that adds up.
  4. Get back on the horse. One piece of fried chicken doesn’t mean a spiral into a life of sin. One mistake at work doesn’t mean burying myself in tasks I know are easy.

The check might not be blank, but $5 a thousand times is, well, you know your times tables.

What are some of your smaller goals right now? What are the baby steps that are contributing to your mental or physical health? How have you found happiness through small changes?

Side A

I’ve been on a tear. I’ve been tearing through creative pursuits, work projects, new albums, favorite recipes, and self-help innovations. I’m riding the wave with the ducks I have in a row for the first time of my twenties (and it’s about damn time): a balanced brain, a happy relationship, a decorated home, a great job, at least $100 in my bank account right now maybe (unclear). The thing about waves is that they crash, and for me this happens when I’m required to sit still. The other night, after exhausting all the creative work I could do, I cried because I was bored, because I was hungry, because it was Sunday, because life is expensive, 🎶 because because BECAUSE – because of the wonderful things I’d done 🎶and had left me listless.

There’s no one self-care experiment I’m trying right now, so here’s a post as mixed up and energetic as I am. Lately I’ve been up to some:

Listening

I got the idea early (can’t sleep past 5 am club!) yesterday morning to create a playlist of songs about loving yourself. Obviously it’s mostly Lizzo and Beyonce, but also some Santigold, Amber Coffman, and Avey Tare. I’m opening up this playlist to everyone! Please share with me your power songs.

Reading

I lose the term “reading” loosely here – perhaps scrolling would be more apt and honest. Out of the thousands of memes, I plucked an amazing thread on free/cheap self-help that I found really helpful and I want to keep as a lifeline during harder times.

Experiencing

We all know I love #bossbabesATX, especially their fantastic meets where you can mingle and share projects. Lately they’ve been crowdsourcing answers to discussion questions and posting some of the answers on their blog. I found the conversation about self-care right up my alley, and laughed out loud at some of these cute and honest answers.

Striving

I find myself working through health and fitness goals and being so discouraged by my setbacks, which spawn new and harder setbacks. After some soul-searching, I’ve found a coach who can help me through some of these tougher hurdles (the frequency and consistency of my exercise; drinking; mindless eating). She’s something of a life coach, a dietician, a motivational speaker, and a personal trainer (easy on this aspect). So far, one of the greatest things is telling her some small victory for me and having it be celebrated and claimed, like a mountain climbed. I’ve learned that asking for a little extra help can do wonders. I’m sure some of her wisdom will spur future posts.

Showing up for myself

In an effort to harness some of my creative energy for good, I created an Instagram just for my paintings. This puts all of my (admittedly poorly documented) work in a single place I can point to when people ask what I create. The results have been astounding to me. People have been loving my work and dreaming up custom painting orders. I do my paintings for little profit – I spend a good deal on monthly supply orders and charge about $35-$60 a painting – but I decided that some of my extra cash would be used to help my neighbors in Houston, through the Houston Food Bank. Painting orders are open now – just shoot me an email at martin.emmamarie at gmail dot com!

• • •

That’s my self-care mixtape for right now. It didn’t require too much rewinding or hitting record at the exact time a song came on the radio. It wasn’t given to me by a high school boy in the 1990s. There are no Promise Ring songs about it. Nevertheless, I’ll hope you’ll submit your own tips for me to explore and songs for me to sing along to in the shower. Don’t leave out Hüsker Dü.