Category Archives: self-help

An Update

ccI haven’t written here since March, and for good reason.  My health sort of blew up in early April, right around the time I was heading to the Associated Writers and Publishers Conference in Minneapolis, MN, which also happened to be the time my busy semester was coming to a head.  I’ve struggled in that time with anxiety, insomnia, migraines, nausea, muscle pains, and weird nightmares, to the point where my doctor sent me to a neurologist to rule out a tumor [side bar: not sure it was the smartest practice for her to use the T word with someone struggling with anxiety, but I digress].

After some preliminary tests, so far it seems there’s no real reason to worry–that what I really need to do is better figure out how to relax so that I can sleep better.  It’s amazing how much of our health depends upon sleep–and how hard it actually is for me to relax, despite trying so hard [Second side bar: I recently had the epiphany that it’s perhaps that I’m trying too hard that is in fact what is preventing it from being natural.  What is relaxing about your mind screaming, “RELAX?  Why can’t you just relax?”  Nothing, actually.  Nothing.  I recently had a horrible experience with a massage therapist who actually took that approach.  She seemed frustrated that she wasn’t strong enough to dislodge some of the knots in my back, and therefore kept exasperatedly asking me to “let go,” to which I got angry and anxious and couldn’t help but retort, “I’M TRYING.”].

To that end, I’ve decided, after prompting from my doctor, to abstain from drinking alcohol (for the most part–I cheated on my birthday and at my brother’s graduation), to restart taking my daily vitamins, to restart a twice daily yoga and meditation practice, to create a bedtime ritual devoid of screens, to try to eat more veggies as the basis of my plate, and exercise every day, supplementing the hard pounding of running with lighter activities like biking and swimming or even just long walks.  It’s amazing how tight my muscles are because of nearly fifteen years of running.  I sometimes catch myself with taut muscles even just sitting at my chair, and once I catch myself, I can coax myself into softening.

Part of the issue is that I just had an overly busy semester: four classes, full load of teaching, belligerent male students, a second job tutoring undegrads in Spanish, lots of travel, helping my brother move, a persistently sick cat, freelance deadlines, applying for the non fiction editor position for our literary magazine.  I am just burnt out.

Throughout all this, my lovely boyfriend has been super supportive, more so than anyone I’ve ever met, and I remain ever grateful that he walked into my life last August.  He is so good to me, so kind, thoughtful, and funny.  I love laughing with him and feel so at home in his company.  At his and my mother’s coaxing, I took the six weeks I had in between my spring semester at UNCW and my summer semester at Bread Loaf’s Oxford campus (where I am now) forgoing new opportunities in exchange for relaxation.  I leisurely read some (not as many as I probably should have, but enough of that) of my books for Bread Loaf at the pool, at the beach, in my apartment on some of the more steamy, humid days.  I worked out twice a day, doing lighter activities, deeper stretches.  I did more with less, and it felt wonderful.

I guess though I’m glad I had the busy spring semester I had, if only because I needed that second job to save up for England, and because I have now arranged to give myself the gift of a third and final year of my MFA [Side bar: I have no idea how anyone does their MFA in TWO years], when I only have to concentrate on my teaching, my thesis, and participating in the editorial work for Ecotone (I got the non fiction editor position, to my surprise and delight).  I will be able to continue to do more with less.

I’m also grateful to be back in Oxford for my final summer with Bread Loaf.  It’s so beautiful here.  I studied abroad in 2008 at Oxford, at Worcester College (for those who aren’t aware, Oxford University is comprised of many colleges that function together much like a federal state under the umbrella term “Oxford”).  It’s just as magical as I remember, if much more congested with obnoxiously large and fundamentally slow tourist groups that make getting from point A to point B a painfully drawn out labor of patience.  I am relieved also to have experience with this city.  I’m amazed at how much is flooding back into my memory as I walk the streets and remember short cuts and favorite haunts.  I’m particularly grateful also to have already done many of the touristy things here so that I can use my time outside of class to focus on my reading and writing.  For example, today a group is heading to Blenheim Palace, the grand family home of Winston Churchill, and I’m staying behind to write here and catch up on work (and to save money for excursions that I haven’t actually tried before).  I also happily feel as confident as I’ve ever felt as a student, thanks to all that has brought me here–a good thing given that I have a ten page paper due next week, and two 18-23 page papers due in three weeks.

I had a hard time getting here, though, which undid a lot of the nice relaxation I managed to gift myself with before leaving Wilmington.  I decided to fly out of Raleigh, to save money, and to book a non-direct flight via JFK to Heathrow.  My flight out of RDU ended up being hours delayed due to weather, which whittled my three hour layover down to minutes.  Having never been to JFK’s airport before, I didn’t realize that I would have to switch terminals and that that was the reason for having a three hour layover in the first place.  I nonetheless sprinted, at 11PM, through terminal 7, dragging my impossibly heavy carry-on behind me (I was instructed it was important to bring all the books I needed for the term on my person in case my luggage was lost and because there was not a bookstore in Oxford guaranteed to have the editions I needed for my primary texts).  My legs were shot by the time I reached Terminal 8 huffing and puffing, only to have an airline employee scoff at me and tell me to just go straight to ticketing to be rebooked, because there was no way I was going to make the flight, since I would have to re-go through security after taking a train ride from one terminal to the next.  I also nearly got on the train to the city proper instead of the terminal, because they are right next to each other (of course) with no signage I could see.  I leapt off at the last second, sweating, after bellowing to the passengers, “WHERE IS THIS TRAIN GOING” in a panic.

After being rebooked on the next flight available–which was to be ten hours later at 9 AM–I meekly asked the ticket agent where I was supposed to spend the night.  “We can’t give you a hotel,” I was told, because my flight over to JFK was American, yet my flight to LHR was British Airways/Iberia.  I’d have to go back to Terminal 7, which I could not do because the trains were no longer running and most employees except the cleaning staff had left, and besides the point, the ticketing agent was deeply doubtful I would get a hotel voucher for a weather-related delay on a “code share” flight (a flight where two or more airlines share in the profits and therefore can shirk responsibility as to who is responsible for putting up delayed passengers).

At this point, I simply burst into hot, soft tears, apologizing to the ticketing agent for crying (side bar: WHY DO WE AS WOMEN FEEL THE NEED TO APOLOGIZE FOR OUR FEELINGS), saying, “I’m just so tired. I don’t know what to do or where to go.”

Somewhat pityingly, the man pointed to a plush arm chair in the business class lounge, telling me it was actually quite comfortable, and that I only needed to wait four hours before I could get in line to get checked-in for my new flight.

Still sobbing quietly, I called my mom and boyfriend, both of whom were still up, and both of whom tried to urge me to find a hotel.  My boyfriend was especially adamant that it might not be safe for me to sleep in the lobby of a terminal, not being through security, in NYC, but he backed off when I started to work myself up into a perfect panic not knowing where I would go or even how to get to a hotel.  I was also just exhausted at this point, not having slept well the night before my trip, and having sprinting while carrying a heavy carry-on bag for what felt like 30 minutes, all with a fist of panic around my heart regarding missing my flight.

My boyfriend then lulled me to sleep (after calling the airlines to give them a piece of his mind for not putting me up in a hotel) with sweet reassurances that I was safe, that he wished he were with me, that he had his arms around me.  I managed to doze in the arm chair next to a Spanish family in the same boat, only to be woken up by an unsympathetic cleaning crew member telling me I had to vacate the business class lounge because he needed to vacuum.  Wanting to retort, “you can’t just vacuum around my snot streaked person, jerk face?  It’s 2 AM for god’s sake,” I nonetheless got up and moved to the middle school esque desk like chairs right by the door that was blowing in cold air from outside and decided I might as well write a blog for Ploughshares that was due that weekend since there was no sleep to be had.

I got through the next day in a blur, only to arrive to my hotel in London very late, where I was overjoyed to discover my room had a large tub.  I took the hottest bath I could manage before drifting off to a deadened sleep after having been awake for nearly 24 hours.

I got to Lincoln College, Oxford (where Bread Loaf hosts their summer session over here) and unpacked, delighted to have my own private little room and bathroom overlooking a grove quad.  I was also delighted about England’s lush green hills and cooler summer weather–a relief after North Carolina’s swampy 100 degree humidity.

I then dashed back to travel mode, having gotten through orientation quickly so I could take a three and a half hour train ride up to Liverpool to participate in a conference on Silence and Meaning Making, at which I’d had my project on  silence and women’s poetry accepted.  The travel there was likewise fraught, as it turned out to the hottest day on record in the UK, and I got lost, only to discover my accommodation was 30 minutes outside the city center and not easily accessible to the conference site, so I arrived quite late.  The ordeal stressed me out so much I decided to come back a day early to Oxford, though I’m glad I presented and had the experience of meeting academics from all over the world who are interested in what I am interested in.  I also am submitting my paper for publication in a book on silence that the conference committee is editing.

Since settling back into Oxford, my favorite moments have been the quiet ones I spend on my own, either at writing at my desk listening to the bells, reading in my little armchair, walking in Christ Church Meadow and looking at the cows (yes, cows), staring up at the spires, sipping tea, wobbling on the cobblestones, waltzing past the tourists into the private, grandiose libraries, or running past the beautiful lush gardens alongside the river at University Parks.  Not to say that there aren’t wonderful people here and social moments–we have BBQs, pub quiz nights, formal hall dinners, lectures, receptions, excursions to London and Stratford to see Shakespeare–but after the semester I’ve had, those quiet moments are the ones I relish the most.

My classes are extremely interesting–the American Novel since 1945 and an independent study on women writers and the sonnet.  My professors are sharply smart and keep stunning me into new ways of thinking about literature and are very encouraging of my interest in creative writing, even going so far as to allow me to do a creative component to my final research papers–something I wasn’t sure I’d be allowed to do at Oxford, but that will set me up nicely for my return to my thesis in the fall.  Furthermore, I was nominated by my graduating peers to the executive committee to help plan Bread Loaf Oxford’s graduation ceremony (a nice vote of confidence in my eloquence, dependability, and organization skills) , so I’ll be doing that here as well.

I miss my family, my Daisy, and my boyfriend something fierce, however, and can’t wait for them to come visit me for the graduation, followed by a week trip up to the Lake District.  After my parents leave, Jason and I will stop off in London for a few days to stay with friends.

All in all, of the 15 resolutions I made in 2015, I have been successful at keeping all but five, and as we’re only halfway through the year, I still have time to work on 1. developing a better editing routine for old work 2. writing more poems 3. submitting work 4. maintaining my twitter and 5. blogging here more regularly (though my Ploughshares gig does mean I’m regular in one venue, even if not here).

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Filed under creative writing, positivity, self-esteem, self-help, vacation, women, writing

Whenever I Feel Lonely and Insecure, As I Have Lately, I Try to…

–breathe evenly and consistently and not hold my breath.

–do/teach yoga

–run

–go to the gym

–reread Harry Potter

–look at cat memes on the internet

–cuddle/play with Daisy

–sit in the sun

–call a friend

–get ahead on homework/work projects

–binge watch Parenthood or Parks and Recreation

–cook natural foods/avoid snacking even though all I ever want always especially when sad is Cheetoes.

–read a frivolous magazine

–journal

–practice gratitude

–call family

–list out what i like about myself

–plan a getaway

–sign up for a race

–clean my apartment

–snap out of the past

–forgive myself for not quite yet knowing how to let the little things go

–remember that i like being with just me

–take a bubble bath

–light some candles

–buy something new and pretty and comfortable that fits me

–daydream about solitary hikes in the mountains/beach naps

–give/receive hugs

–remember that it’s okay to be sad/anxious sometimes, that it will pass.

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Literary Self-Help? Can It Exist?

nymagcoverI’ve been thinking a lot lately, as someone who studied the “canon” in college and attended one of the most prestigious (positive connotation)/hoity toity (negative) universities in the world, about my love for so-called self-help literature that has crossed over into best-seller territory, and even, some say (some more derisively than others) into “chick-lit” territory.  Over the last five years, I’ve fallen in love with titles like Eat, Pray, LoveTiny Beautiful Things and Wild, all three by women who fearlessly share their bottom hitting and weary introspection that allowed them to make themselves a ladder.  I’ve also developed an obsession with Taylor Swift (I may or may not have been blasting 1989 on my way back from yoga today).  I’m not sure why I feel that’s relevant, but it is.  I’ve also been devouring psychology books, including Unquiet Mind by Kay Jamieson, several self-help books by Harville Hendrix, Amalie Chance, and Steven Carter and Julia Skotol as I’ve been seriously trying to answer for myself questions about how I fare in my relationships.

In my current MFA circles, this is generally met with scorn, especially by my male peers, a scorn that bristles my neck hairs and sends me into fits of defensiveness.  I’m not sure what it is that so irritates my colleagues: that these writers are commercially successful with “the masses” as opposed to an elite, referent loving crowd; that these writers are commercially successful when my peers are not; that these writers are successful women writers; or that they dare to bare their deepest faults and most earnest wishes for wholeness in an wholly un-ironic way in writing when irony seems more hip(ster) these days.

I came across a self-help column in New York Magazine through a friend from high school posting it on her facebook (side note: this alone is reason enough for me never to quit facebook: I have pruned my friend list to people A. I actually keep in touch with in the non-virtual world or B. who continue to post fascinating articles that don’t get lost the way they do in my twitter feed, since my twitter feed is swept up by professional organizations who post 2-5 times a day).  This article reminded me of why I have fallen so hard for such titles when my own inner literary snob side cringes in embarrassment (driven no doubt by said colleagues above, some who include professors).  The answer, written by “Polly” for the “Dear Polly” column, hit me like a stack of ill-placed books.  I felt seen.  I felt my deepest, most obsessive questions about myself and my past failed relationships answered, not definitively, but answered in a way that gave me much needed perspective.  The blend of kind-hearted exasperation and teasing alongside serious reflection on matters of the heart in the response made me feel wrapped in a blanket just out of the dryer.  Like a small fluffy kitten curled itself deep into the darkest, dankest place in my own heart.  I felt a little bit of good-natured shame at recognizing myself in the plea that prompted the response.  I don’t know why it’s often easier said than done for smart, over-achieving women to find successful relationships–but it is.  I myself have been torn in knots over someone who fits the general description of this article to a damn T several times–and I couldn’t ever figure out why!

I’m coming to a place in my life where I don’t mind owning my hurt, because it means owning also what I’ve learned over the years by making such mistakes–and what I’ve learned has opened me up to appreciating someone more fit for me. And aren’t those kind of changes what drives most character studies in great literature?  Isn’t there a sort of quest involved in improving yourself?

Some of the titles I mentioned above get flack for not being more interested in the social plight of non-white women, especially when their healing process takes them to other countries/wildernesses  to benefit from expensive tourism.  And I get that.  But in today’s post-Freud world, how can we start to educate and improve the world around us if we can’t first start with ourselves?

I may just be posing this to make myself feel better about my current trend in book selections.  But I wonder what other readers think?  Can “self-help” lit be literary?  What about “chick-lit”?  Are these categories useful or out-dated?


As a personal update, Daisy went a week flea free, until my new boyfriend found some on her this morning before we hit up the farmer’s market.  After all that work last Friday, which was supposed to last a month.  I’m devastated.  I am the kind of person who hates feeling like she did EVERYTHING SHE WAS SUPPOSED TO DO, and the result was still a failure–and in this case, a waste of a lot of money I don’t really have at this current state of being on my third Master’s degree.  I’m pretty sure I used every flea product on the shelf at home depot/the pet store in one way or another in the past three months.  I wonder if I am just to accept fleas as a reality until winter, when hopefully they might all die of frost.

In professional news, next week is Writer’s Week here at UNCW.  I’m looking forward to my get out of grad class free pass in order to check out some writerly conference style events and readings.  As an added bonus, my students don’t have anything to turn in this week, and I get a break from grading, too–though some are coming in for grade-panic conferences, now that the semester (whut) is nearing to a close.

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