Facing Our Fears, Finding Our Voices

In her book Your Art Will Save Your Life, Beth Pickens debunks the myth of the lazy writer or artist. Procrastination, she asserts, is just a symptom of fear. In her words, “I don’t know lazy artists…artists have a whole extra job they are compelled to do, one that may or may not yield any income…. This is not the marker of a lazy person or a procrastinator.”

What a great insight! How many of your friends and family pick up their computers to squeeze out a few more words to up their daily word count before bed? How many are up before dawn to create something before starting their working days? How many beat themselves up if they don’t manage to do these things for a little while?

So take heart – we’re NOT lazy! We’re just afraid.

Very, very afraid.

But what are we afraid of?

Rejection is probably the most common answer among the writer’s I know. Even those who are aware that it’s part of the process still cringe with every rejection letter they collect. Even worse are the rejections that are assumed from silence. There’s nothing like sending your baby into the world only to discover that the person you sent it to can’t even be bothered to send you a two-line email saying, ‘thanks for trying, but this isn’t for me.’ I’ve been there; it stings.

What about recognition though? In many ways, I think this is the subtler, deeper fear. The angst that others won’t like our work, won’t like our message, and forever after will associate us with that work, or perhaps even transfer their dislike for what we created on to us personally.

This is such a tricky one because many artists are striving for recognition, desperate to take their places among the greats in their field. To be a household name. How many of us crave this because we’re hoping the masses will confirm the value of our work?

Then there’s the question of how much of your work is representative of you. How much truth is there in what people may infer about your opinions and values based on what you’ve written or made? The more of you that is in your work, the more it hurts when someone shrugs it off or criticizes it because they disagree with either the content or the style.

There will always be critics, though — those who have a different opinion or prefer a different style. So YOU are going to have to believe in your work, and be ready to shrug off those who don’t, regardless of the amount of acclaim it receives.

It’s not easy.

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The Sandwich Season

Over the last few weeks I’ve had three friends talk with me about caring for their aging parents or in-laws. None of their situations are exactly the same. One friend is trying to help her widowed mom move out of their family home, but her mom seems to be dragging her feet – for about two years. Another friend wants to help her parents make a decision and take action toward downsizing, but her parents can’t make up their minds. And another friend has in-laws in a different stage – they can no longer care for themselves. She and her husband are looking at the prospect of his parents moving in with them and considering what strains that would put on their marriage and family.

Ick. Ugh. Sigh. I felt like I should have cogent advice, but mostly I just empathized. My mother was ill for years with a lengthy list of physical and mental ailments. I spent the summer before she died in my old minivan with my three kids (ages 11, 5, and 3) and unreliable air conditioning. We were either dropping her off at the hospital, picking her up from the hospital, or running to the store to pick up her prescriptions. And we didn’t have one of those drop-down TV’s in the car, so we had to rely on good ol’ fashioned arguing and whining to entertain ourselves.

At the same time I was caring for her, I was getting one son fitted for a hearing aid and trying to figure out how to help a son who I’d eventually learn has sensory processing issues. The youngest had very little concern for his own safety and well-being, so parking lots (when we went to the pharmacy to pick up prescriptions) were like playing a game of Frogger with our lives. The term for this happy place, this place of caring for parents and your own young children at the same time, is the Sandwich Generation and it was coined by  Dorothy Miller and Elaine Brody in 1981. You’re the pickle (or salami or whatever lunch meat/topping you prefer) in the middle of two generations. I think of it more as a Sandwich Season since people move in and out of this phase. The term isn’t referring to one particular generation, like Gen X or Boomers. It’s whoever happens to be squished at that moment.

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Do Your Own Thing and Drop the Labels

Let’s talk about labels.

Helicopter mom

Free-range parent

Tiger mother

Snowplow dad

What do they mean? I’m sure each evokes certain images for you, the name alone conveying certain characteristics.

Labels ease conversation. They are short-hand for a set of values we think others exhibit. But there’s something unsettling about having others apply labels to us. It assumes a lot. It creates camps. And for everyone who happily subscribes to a camp mentality, there are others of us who prefer a middle ground.

Parenting is the most fluid job I’ve ever had. To choose a moniker to define my parenting style today seems silly, since it will likely change, probably imminently, certainly before I’m ready for it. It will change based on events, based on the age and capabilities of my child, based on my age and capabilities, based on the environment we find ourselves in, based on the people who are around us. To attach oneself to a set style of parenting at the expense of others seems limiting. To give oneself no space to respond to the situation and its requirements/opportunities feels stifling.

Of course, we all have preferences – rules or approaches we feel more comfortable with. Were I forced to declare a single parenting style, I might opt for drone: a middle ground between helicopter and free-range, where I’m aware of my child’sactivities yet hopefully from sufficient distance that he is not aware of my awareness – or at least not the full extent of my recon. In this metaphor, my child has the space to learn from his own mistakes, but should a real danger present itself, I will be prepared to blow it off the face of the earth with a laser-guided focus. Danger in this scenario is defined as an actual existential threat not just the potential to miss a resume bullet.

What amazes me when I think about the tendency to declare a parenting-style camp in today’s world is the fact that I’m not aware of any of these camps existing when I was a kid. Granted, that was a long time ago and I wasn’t a parent then, but my mom assures me that it’s definitely gotten weird between parents in the last thirty years. Back in the ‘80s, parents judged other parents if their kids were obviously unclean and may have clucked a tongue if they had a foul mouth or were known to bully others. Aside from those transgressions, at least in rural Maine, there seems to have been a live-and-let-live mentality among the parents of my youth.

When I think of the biggest difference between parenting when I was a kid and parenting now, it’s perhaps best defined by the degree of involvement in your kid’s life versus the degree to which you are involved in your own. The grown-ups from my childhood had their own after work activities and hobbies and there was no question that kids would be expected to amuse themselves and even sometimes forego events of interest to them because mom or dad had plans. Maybe that’s why parents didn’t spend so much time judging other parents – they were out living their own lives.

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The Funny Thing About Mental Illness…an Interview with Deena Nyer Mendlowitz

I’m so happy to introduce my friend Deena Nyer Mendlowitz as our guest this week. (bio here) Deena  is a former colleague from the social expressions industry. We sat through many not-funny  meetings about funny greeting cards together.  She is that friend who deeply believes in you and will encourage you in any pursuit. She’s also the first person who got me on stage to read my writing. (And that’s a serious accomplishment!) Her work in Cleveland (and elsewhere) to destigmatize mental illness is inspiring. Through comedy and candor she is educating and encouraging discussions on the way we perceive and treat mental illness. She is a mom and a creative force. We are grateful for the chance to interview her on The Space Between.


Note: The specific mental illness Deena refers to when speaking about her own experience is  Chronic Suicidal Ideation.

Deena, tell us a little bit about your creative pursuits at the moment.

Currently I host and perform in three shows monthly. I host my own live comedy mental health talk show, Mental Illness and Friends. I also host and perform in This Improvised Life, which is on the third Wednesday of every month at Happy Dog East. It is a live show that mixes true life stories with improv. I also host Dana Norris’ Story Club Cleveland Show the first Tuesday of every month at Bottlehouse East. People tell true stories from their lives based on a theme.

 At what point did you realize you were dealing with mental illness and not “just” emotions or phases or whatever we tend to pass these things off as? 

Five days before I was set to graduate college I attempted to end my life. Before that I’d never really even seen a therapist, besides after my grandmother passed away to talk about my profound sadness at that. The suicide attempt seemed sudden and out of nowhere, but really these were feelings I’d been contending with and fighting with and dealing with, all internally for years.

Since that day it’s just been a continued mission to build up skills to gain more resources because to me that’s how I fight this disease. There’s a quote that really shaped this:

“Suicide is not chosen; it happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain.”

I realized that I couldn’t have a lot of control over the pain, but I can have a huge amount of control over building up my resources.

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