Hello Holidays, Goodbye Focus

For ten-and-a-half months of the year, this is me:

via GIPHY

But as soon as Thanksgiving hits, I morph into something different:

via GIPHY

Trying to get me to concentrate on anything is like herding cats. I give up on being productive and spend inordinate amounts of time watching cheesy holiday movies and skipping around through podcasts. I’m tired of the current year, but too exhausted to get excited about the next.

This is unfortunate, of course, because now is the time of year I really should be paying attention. I need to finish up Christmas shopping, plot holiday travel, plan year-end blog posts and 2018 challenges, read for book club, and somehow remember to slow down long enough to enjoy time with family and friends.

It’s also hard for me because I’m a big fan of finishing strong. But my creative writing has fallen off, as has my reading. I’m not doing as well with my 2017 reading challenges as I’d hoped. The world is colder and darker, things are slowing down, and I’m in a bit of a funk.

One of the my favorite lessons from Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s Option B is to think about the things you’ve done well, and the things that bring you joy. You’re supposed to note a couple of each every day, but I think it’s a great idea to reflect on larger chunks of time, too.

Things I’ve done well this year:

  • Spearheading an advisor feedback program at my office. I just presented at a big meeting about how successful it’s been so far.
  • Rolling over three straggler retirement accounts into my current 401(k). Very adult, and gives me such a sense of accomplishment and relief.
  • Joining Toastmasters. I was scared, but I did it anyway. I’m actually the tiniest bit excited to give my third prepared speech in January.

And some things that bring me joy:

  • My husband introduced me to Trello and I. Am. Obsessed. The lists! The check boxes. I can’t even. The man just gets me.
  • Joining my first book club! Our conversations have been wonderful so far.
  • Finally accepting that I’m a minimalist. I’m having fun finding out what that looks like for me.

What have you done well this year? What brings you joy? Share in the comments!

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Review: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Non-fiction NovemberSeeing your parents grow old is a universal — and difficult — experience. In 2001, cartoonist Roz Chast could see the writing on the wall. Her parents were in their 90s, and not doing well. Her mother was in the hospital after a fall from a step stool, and her father’s senile dementia kept him homebound.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a chronicle of two lives at their end and a daughter’s attempt to make that end dignified — while not losing her mind along the way.

Quite the read

I picked up Chast’s memoir at an interesting time. My husband’s grandmother and my own are both well into dementia, and we’ve had many conversations with our families about their challenges.

The thing that struck me hardest, and yet wasn’t surprising, was how much the experience exhausted Chast. Dying is messy, expensive, and often takes years. It’s awful for the person dying, of course, but can be soul-sucking for their caretakers as well.

I see a lot of myself in Chast, particularly how she handles her father’s dementia. She tries to be a good daughter, but frustration gets the better of her often.

The book left me shaken. It gave me glimpses into my future that I don’t want to dwell on. Not only may I someday end up caring for an aging relative…I will someday be that aging, dying person. Will I be a good caretaker when the time comes, and will I end up in a home myself someday?

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? isn’t what I would call a fun read, but I do think it’s valuable. Not only is it excellent storytelling, it also focuses on a taboo topic that should be talked about more. Even if it makes us uncomfortable.

(I read this book for the Monthly Motif Challenge. November’s challenge was to read a book I’ve been meaning to get to all year but haven’t yet.)

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Consider Me Professionally Developed

Non-fiction NovemberI despise stagnation. If I’m not learning or growing, it feels like I’m dying. This is partially because it’s the way I am (learning is so much fun!), and partially because I’ve got a lot of baggage when it comes to job progression and success.

In my anxiety-infested brain, not having enough to do at work means I’m about to be let go. I have nothing to do, which means there’s nothing to be done, which means why would they keep me around? Is there nothing to do because there’s truly nothing to do, or is there really stuff to do but my boss isn’t putting it on my plate because she’s about to fire me?

This isn’t a logical chain of reasoning — not given recent events, at least — but it’s one I fight with regularly.

“What’s the plan?”

I ask, and am asked, this question daily. Being able to answer is fun for me. “First I’m going to do this, then I need to ask about this, then I can…” etc. I love planning, I love putting together a process and working through it.

It used to irk me that I wasn’t able to answer this question when it came to my career. Was I being myopic or ruining my life because I didn’t know where I “saw myself” in five years?

Turns out, not really. Fuck the Grand Life Plan. It’s impossible. Life changes too fast, and is too short to spend time trying to force it take a shape it no longer can.

Build your path as you walk it

“Winging it” is not my thing. I have goals and things I want to learn and improve on — but I don’t go overboard with life planning anymore.

  • I want to improve my public speaking skills, so I joined Toastmasters in June. Two speeches in the bag!
  • I’m working with my manager to take on projects that fit my strengths and give me growth and visibility opportunities.
  • I’m a member of my company’s career committee, which spearheads career development programs for everyone I work with.
  • I attended this year’s Texas Conference for Women. Incredible speakers and sessions that have inspired me to do better (and re-think what “networking” really means).

I’m also reading like a fiend. Here’s what’s kept my brain spinning the last few months:

  • The Game Plan (Steve Bull) – Straightforward, practical, actionable advice for developing mental toughness.
  • Option B (Sheryl Sandberg, Adam Grant) – When Option A isn’t going to happen, it’s time to kick the shit out of Option B. Wonderful advice on building resilience.
  • Everything that Remains (Joshua Fields Millburn, Ryan Nicodemus) – “Minimalism is the thing that gets us past the things so we can make room for life’s important things — which actually aren’t things at all.”
  • Project Management Absolute Beginner’s Guide (Gregory M. Horine) – I’ve managed small projects throughout my career, but I want to improve my foundational knowledge.

I also can’t wait to get my hands on Adam Grant’s Give and Take and Kelly Hoey’s Build Your Dream Network.

Life is exciting and fun and a little bit intimidating right now. Definitely a sign I’m on an interesting path.

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The Write Stuff: A Mixed Bag

Writing Challenge: The Write StuffWe’re rounding the last turn of 2017, and The Write Stuff isn’t steaming along quite as well as I hoped.

Goal 1: Finish four short stories in 2017

The Write Stuff, August 2017

I’d love to meet this goal, but the harder I push to come up with an idea, the less creative my brain seems. I’ve been relying on something in life to inspire me, but when you get down to it my life isn’t very inspirational. Unless people are suddenly interested in reading about a person who does the same things, day in and day out.

Goal 2: Write one in-character scene after every D&D session

(Formerly: Do as many of the 642 Tiny Things to Write About as I can)

Our whole group is suffering from what I call “D&D hangover.” We finally faced the Big Bad Guy, only to discover — dun dun DUN — that he wasn’t the Big Bad Guy after all. Now there’s a worse storm coming for our characters.

I wrote a short “Saying Goodbye” thing soon after our last session and posted it to our Facebook group.

This campaign is taking a break for the holiday season; I’m going to try to write a few smaller things here and there in the meantime.

Goal 3: Join a writing community (and actually share stuff for feedback)

No new “official” writing means I haven’t posted anything for review. I’d like to share some of my completed drafts with people — I’m just not sure how to do that, other than posting it directly to Facebook.

Goal 4: Document it all on this blog

Still plugging away. It’s a bit of a downer compared to my last update. Fall and winter seem to be the least productive time for me, creativity-wise.

How’s your writing going?

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Review: Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse

Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse, Faith SullivanMost people would consider Nell Stillman’s life rather ordinary. Harvester, Minnesota was founded when God was a boy, and no amount of modern conveniences seem able to drag it into the modern age.

But when you look closer, you see that Nell’s life is actually extraordinary. She raises her son alone, falls in love, experiences some of the horrors of war, and has an impact on the world around her.

Throughout the ups and down, literature is Nell’s constant companion. The books of Austen, Chekhov, and her beloved Wodehouse console her, transform her, and give her something to live for.

A total surprise

Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse started off as what I call a “quiet” novel: the plot is very domestic and calm — there’s no murder, explosions, or heavy drama. Nell is simply a good person with realistic characteristics and flaws.

Things change at about the halfway point. Her son is home from WWI, recovering from wounds and crippled by shell shock. She starts getting anonymous notes calling her a “whore” for loving a man who is not her husband. The Great Depression and old age sap the life from her dearest friends.

Now the quiet novel I was liking just fine became a study of the human condition, and I couldn’t stop reading. It was obvious the author wanted me to appreciate the classic books Nell was reading, but in truth I kept skimming over that stuff. I wanted to read about the characters.

The ending was so poignant, and hit me right in the gut. My husband found me crying on the couch with the book in my lap. Fortunately this is a sight to which he is accustomed, so it didn’t cause a freakout.

Sullivan has written a beautiful, heartbreaking, uplifting novel. The characters feel like family, and I love them. Please read this book.

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