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Posts Tagged ‘Pen Pal Project’

Pen Pal Project

Great Expectations

April 7, 2015, 6:30 a.m.

Dear Reva,

I’m writing to you at the last minute this week. I rarely work before school drop off at 8:45, but I’ve been struggling with what I want to share.

Normally, I write to you about personal things, but things I’ve had time to process. This week has been one of the saddest and most stressful of my life. I’ve had several of those weeks in the past year, but we weren’t writing to each other then. But I can’t come up with any other topics, really, because my busy brain is, well, processing.

Here’s what happened, in short: I spent a full day in mediation and arrived at a final separation agreement with my husband, and sold my house the same evening. In other words, I dismantled, in one day, a life that I had spent 15 years building. These are positive outcomes in many ways, actually, but I feel somewhat dazed. When I wake up in the morning these days, I’m often disoriented, as you are when you wake up in a hotel far from home, thinking that you are in your own bed, and wonder: where did that ugly lamp come from? I always need a few seconds to locate myself in time and space.

Being in the here and now: I told you in an early letter that this is my challenge, or as you yoga types like to say, a core aspect of my practice. I know this because I’ve been doing Moksha yoga recently – your influence! I find it unexpectedly grounding. Also, all the sweating makes me feels as though I’m expelling toxic stress, though part is mostly in my head, I’m sure.

I liked your letter about drinking. I’m interested in how we (women in particular, but men also) use numbing behavior to shield ourselves from discomfort and vulnerability. Drinking is one method, certainly, but perfectionism is another; as long as we are focused on the next achievement, there’s no need to stop and ask ourselves why, or even if, we really want whatever we are chasing after.

Have you read any of Brené Brown’s work? She does research on shame, and writes compellingly about the lengths that we will go to protect ourselves from vulnerability. Her point, a good one, is that if you numb one feeling, you numb them all: numb sadness, and you numb happiness, numb fear, and you numb courage. Check out her TED talk here.

I’m also intrigued, though not especially surprised, by the study you cite on women’s declining happiness levels. As Nora Ephron once said: “The major concrete achievement of the women’s movement in the 1970s was the Dutch treat.” I’ve been a stalwart feminist since adolescence, but really, doesn’t it seem, more often than not, like our generation of women got a raw deal?

And we’re supposed to be thrilled with all of our amazing choices! We can choose to have high-powered careers, for example, while other people raise our children, and be exhausted all the time, and wonder what it is all for. Or we can choose to stay home with our kids, and feel judged by working women, and guilty for squandering all our talents and opportunities. Or we can choose a middle road of part time or less ambitious work, and feel uncomfortable with the trade-offs we’ve made.

And many of us in every category are pouring a big glass of wine at the end of the day to numb feelings of frustration and disappointment.

In mediation this week, the mediator began by saying: “All divorces are about disappointed expectations.” I thought it a very profound observation, and true more broadly. Midlife, too, is about disappointed expectations, and a successful transition involves revisiting and recalibrating the expectations we’ve carried into midlife from other ages and stages. I am not saying that we should lower them, necessarily, but that we need to be more honest about them, with other people and with ourselves.

A lot of ink is being spilled these days about happiness, and I’m all for it.  We are the luckiest people in the world, and we should all be happier than we are.  But until we let go of old expectations, and stop numbing our disappointments, and come alive to what we really want from our relationships, our work and ourselves, happiness will feel elusive.  Elizabeth Gilbert circulated a quote this week by Howard Thurman, a preacher and American civil rights leader, and it struck a chord with me: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

It is spring, after all.

Yours,

Kate

Pen Pal Project

Turn down the volume!

March 23, 2015
My parents’ kitchen

Dear Reva,

I loved your last letter, which I read at Disney. It provided a few precious moments of serenity (perhaps sanity would be a more accurate word choice there) in a wild week.

You may find this strange, but creativity was on my mind over March Break. Not my own (I’ll get to that), but Big Vision creativity, which is very much on display at Walt Disney World. Love Disney or hate it – I would hold sympathy with either view – but it is impossible to ignore the sheer ambition of the place. I was struck both by the vast scale of the vision, but also the precision of the execution, in what was, not that long ago, a giant swath of Florida swampland. Fascinating, in a once-in-a-lifetime kind of way (hear that, kids?).

How and where do I harness creative ideas? I think this is a wonderful question, and the first answer to it is very much dictated by my life as a mother: however and wherever possible. I won’t say ‘in a perfect world’, because it wouldn’t be a perfect world if I were childless, but in a world where I had fewer domestic responsibilities, I would get my best ideas on long walks, alone, in the morning. I rarely take long walks alone, in the morning or at any other time, so I have to make do.

I was talking to my dad about this question last night. The manuscript for my second book is due in September and I will now become extremely disciplined about my productivity because I never miss deadlines. And so I am trying to figure out how to reduce the noise around me to focus on ‘hearing’ and ‘seeing’ the story I want to tell. I don’t mean literal noise, although that also needs to be managed. I mean the number of things that clamour for my mental attention, pulling my focus away even during times set aside for writing, and drowning out the sound of the characters’ voices.

Take today for instance. On Monday mornings, I have two hours blocked off in my calendar for writing. My house is being sold this week, so I’m living at my parents’ house. In preparation for today’s return to work, I spent yesterday doing laundry, fetching warm clothes and lunch boxes and school uniforms from my house, making a run to the one store in Toronto that makes the bagels that my son eats for his school lunches, and meeting with my lawyer to sign some documents. Organized! Prepared!

And then, at the end of the day, my younger son spiked a high fever which had him up twice in the night and sleeping with me. He slept, I should say. And then he vomited. So this morning, I slept (because I can’t write a coherent word on no sleep) and did more laundry. And now I am racing with the clock to get this letter done before I head out to pick up my older son from school, while my younger son swoons on a nearby sofa and threatens, at twenty-minute intervals, to vomit again. You see? LOUD.

image

I have a wonderful writing mentor who says that he prefers his life to be extremely boring when he is writing a book. I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, my life is far from boring right now. But the book is still due in September, and I know I’ll get it done somehow. Working mothers are good at finding a way.

Yes, I know there are some men who are excellent at multi-tasking and who contribute equally to childrearing and domestic labour. I know about these men because people hold them up as examples of the future of marriage, and I hear a lot about them every time a woman complains about gendered inequality within marriage.

I think men are encouraged to focus on work, and women are expected to focus on work and absolutely every other aspect of family life as well, and it is probably to everyone’s detriment, but certainly to women’s.

I suspect that this expectation of women, that we perform flawlessly on all fronts at all times, without any real acknowledgement of the value of our unpaid work, is one of the reasons why we compete so relentlessly with each other. Comparing ourselves with other women is the only way we can evaluate ourselves on the overall picture of our lives – our paid jobs, our volunteer jobs, our parenting, our homes, our bodies, our sex lives, our spouses – and determine our level of success or failure.

And since I don’t think the future of marriage is arriving any time soon, maybe we should try to lighten up on ourselves and each other. THAT would be revolutionary.

Yours,

Kate

Pen Pal Project

Faith and the Polar Vortex

william blake, ancient of days, inspiration, creativity, God
William Blake, The Ancient of Days

February 24, 2015

Toronto, depths of winter

 

Dear Reva,

The deep freeze persists. Just leaving the house to get the groceries or do the after-school pick-up feels like a polar expedition. We are living in the Canada of Canadian Tire commercials, and of the American imagination. I have a friend who has built an igloo in her backyard.

February does, of course, offer the pleasure of huddling in your soon-to-be former home, organizing your taxes, working out the details of your separation agreement, and contemplating the remnants of your shattered domesticity, for those who enjoy such activities.

Perhaps I should mention, since we’re tackling some socially awkward topics this week, that February blues come in a rather dark shade for me. Depression and anxiety simply adore February. It is their favorite time of the year.

So. You want to talk about God.

As Marilla Cuthbert famously said (in the film version of Anne of Green Gables, though not the book): “To despair is to turn your back on God.” It is a bad idea to turn your back on someone before giving Him a good long look; I suppose that is why every person I’ve met (or read) who has struggled with depression has also struggled with the big existential questions.

For the record, I did grow up going to church, in a low-key Protestant congregation, but I’ve never been a believer. I’m not a great joiner, either, and I tend to get prickly when people tell me what to think. I’ve always preferred the crisp certainty of the visible, ‘rational’ world to the messy excesses of spirituality in all its forms.

Consequently, religion has played no role in my parenting. I have occasionally felt that this is a gap in my children’s education. So much of human history is about the clash of religious traditions that I sometimes wonder how my children will make sense of it all without any personal experience of religious life (other than holiday celebrations, carefully stripped of any sacred overtones).

In the past few years, I’ve become much more open to conversations about spirituality. Part of this shift is a function of life stage, I’m sure; we focus more intensely on these questions as we age. But I recognize, too, that the search for more meaningful and creative work has changed my approach to, and probably my expectations of, other aspects of my life.

Have you read Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search For Meaning? I read it for the first time recently, and it is extraordinary. Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist from Vienna, was sent to Auschwitz as a slave laborer, and survived. From that experience, Frankl developed a theory about how people can find meaning in life, even in the most desperate circumstances: through work, through love or through courage and dignity in the face of adversity. Frankl believed, based on his observations in the concentration camp, that this sense of meaning, of belief in something larger and more important than the present moment, was more essential to survival than food or medicine.

Viktor Frankl
Viktor Frankl

That’s a pretty strong vote for faith. And while I wouldn’t put myself in the mystical camp just yet, I’ve traveled a long way from where I started. Engaging your creativity will do that, as anyone who makes art will tell you. Art is hard work – I would never want to suggest otherwise – but creativity itself is mysterious and inexplicable, even to the artist. It is both within and yet somehow beyond our physical selves. In this sense it is a lot like love. Or even, dare I say it, like faith.

Yours,

Kate

Link to Reva’s last letter: http://www.revaseth.com/penpalproject/february-blues/

Pen Pal Project

Finding Your Path

February 16, 2015

Toronto

 

Dear Reva,

When I was in University, I had an incredible summer job as an intern at a big publishing house in Toronto. Incredible, not because it paid well, but because it took me inside the beating heart of book production, and books were and always had been my one true love.

Among other tasks, like operating the postage machine, I managed the ‘slush pile’, the name we gave to the ever-growing stack of unsolicited manuscripts that required a cursory review and response. This was, of course, back in the days before email submissions. We had an imaginary Acquisitions Editor, whose name I cannot reveal even to this day, and aspiring authors would write long letters to him, and I would reply. Sometimes they would phone him, but he was always in a meeting.

Knee-deep in the slush pile one day, I was graced by a visit from the Editor-in-Chief, a brilliant and glamorous woman of whom I was entirely in awe. She asked about my progress. At that moment, I was drafting a rejection letter to an aspiring author in Iroquois Falls, who had penned a god-awful bodice-ripper (understand that I am not opposed to bodice-rippers in principle, but this one was ghastly).   Radiating positivity, I said something along the lines of: “I think it’s wonderful that so many people write, even if it ends up being just for themselves.” And she wisely replied: “People don’t write just for themselves. Everybody writes so that someone else will read it.”

And now that I’m a writer I can tell you she was absolutely right. We write because we are skilled at it, and because it gives us intense pleasure to line up the right words in the right order on the page, but mostly we write because we understand that the whole point of this business of living is to connect with other people, and the written word remains one of the most powerful connective tools ever devised.

You asked a great question in your last letter about drive and expectations. I’m going to defer that one to my next letter, as I want to think about it a bit more.

I will, however, take a stab at the question about how we know when it’s time to make a significant change in our professional lives. In doing so, I’m going to reveal a secret addiction. Here it is: I love Convocation speeches. I’m serious. I watch them on YouTube. And recently, I watched a Convocation speech by Neil Gaiman to a bunch of undergraduate Arts students, and it was fabulous.

In his speech, he talks about never having had a career plan, but rather an overarching life goal, which in his case was to make (eventually) a living as a writer of fiction. He imagined that goal as a mountain in the distance, and evaluated every career decision he made by asking whether it took him closer to the mountain or farther away. mountain, path to success, Reva Seth, Kate Hilton, pen pals, pen pal project, choosing your path, the right path

I love this metaphor. The mountain can be a specific job, but it can also be a set of professional aspirations, because often, even though we can’t identify the exact job we want, we can nevertheless describe the qualities that our ideal job ought to have (self-supporting, creative, in the public interest, international, and so on). And the idea of the mountain allows for this indeterminacy, because it permits many possible paths. The point is that you can be as non-linear as you need to be, as long as your path is moving you towards the mountain in the distance.

I’ve met so many people who struggle with professional dissatisfaction. Sometimes, the issue is that they genuinely don’t know what job would make them happy. These people (to play with the mountain metaphor) can see a whole range on the horizon, and they are overwhelmed. They know they have the ability to reach any one of the individual mountains in the range, but they are paralyzed by choice.

Other people know exactly which mountain they want to reach, but they don’t believe they can get there. The perceived risk of walking towards the mountain, of declaring themselves, is too great. Maybe they don’t believe they have enough talent to reach the mountain, or enough support from the people around them. Maybe they suspect that the cost of the journey will be too high, because it will disrupt the stability of core relationships in their lives.  And they may be right. Or not.

We can’t know. This seems like a bad thing from the perspective of people who like control, but it isn’t, necessarily. This is the road to a bigger life: the step out into the unknown, beyond the comfortable and the safe, beyond the things we already know we can do.

Whatever path you choose, I know there will be something amazing on it for you.

Yours,

Kate

 

Link to Reva’s last letter: http://www.revaseth.com/penpalproject/reality-bites/

Reva’s response to this letter: http://www.revaseth.com/penpalproject/february-blues/

Pen Pal Project

Birthday Angst: A Personal History

February 9, 2015

Dear Reva,

I love that photo of you in Jamaica. It looks like a Vanity Fair shoot of a Hollywood star at home. How do you manage to look so glamorous all the time?

Thanks, by the way, for the temporary tattoo. I still haven’t tried it. It is sitting, believe it or not, in my ‘to do’ file. The file is large. The tattoo keeps falling to the bottom, both figuratively and literally. Perhaps I need to move it as an action item onto my ‘to do’ list (that’s a promotion from the file). It could be #9 today, after going to the dentist, writing this letter, paying my Visa bill, learning how to use my new website, arranging for snow removal, finding an electrician to fix the light in C’s room, registering the kids for summer camp, and going to the post office. But I should probably find some time to write my book.

There, you see? This is why the tattoo lies neglected in the file. I wonder what else is in there. Hmm. I should probably check.

So…birthdays. The big decade markers have always thrown me, though I tend to freak out a year early, on the nines. At 19, for example, which came at the mid-point of Grade 13 (we had that in Ontario back in the dark ages), I despaired at my lack of accomplishment. Of course, I had been miserable for several years – there is nothing you could offer me in exchange for reliving high school, nothing – but my general misery was exacerbated by the sense that I had not accomplished enough before turning 20. I mentioned my high-achieving, perfectionistic tendencies, right?

At 29, I was agonizing over my career and my biological clock. I’d quit law and gone to work at the University of Toronto, but I was junior and uncertain about my professional choices, and was beginning to think about having a baby. I didn’t think I should change jobs again unless I committed to putting off pregnancy (I stayed at U of T and had a baby).

Thirty-nine, though … that was a doozy. I had two kids, and a very senior job, and a bunch of volunteer commitments. And I was entertaining at least once a week, and working on my marriage, and doing, I must say, an A+ job of all of it. And I was exhausted and burnt-out and beating back a nagging suspicion that I was living someone else’s life, except for the three hours on Sunday afternoons when I was writing the novel that eventually became The Hole in the Middle.

And as for 40 and 41, they were, I think, aftershocks of the trauma of 39, which didn’t resolve right away. It took a couple of years to quit my job after realizing that I hated it, and to muster enough confidence to call myself a writer. And, given how things turned out, I guess it’s fair to say that there were some marital issues brewing.

to do list, tattoo, to do file
My to do file, tattoo on top!

I love your idea that we should celebrate our achievements more often. I think you are absolutely right that high-performing women are usually ‘future thinkers’, which is to say that they are always focused on the next thing. I have a marvelous therapist who is trying to cure me of my future-thinking ways. I think I am incurable. Recently, as she shook her head in frustration, I said, “I’ll get there.” And she sighed and said, “Not there, Kate. Here. I want you to get here.” It makes me laugh every time I think of it.

Yours,

Kate

 

Link to Reva’s last letter: http://www.revaseth.com/penpalproject/think-need-celebrate/

Reva’s response to this letter: http://www.revaseth.com/penpalproject/reality-bites/

Pen Pal Project

Pen Pal Project: The First Letter

Dear Reva,

So here we are: pen pals. I’m delighted. I have so much to tell you.

Today is my birthday. I look younger than my age, people tell me, although generally not people who have seen my belly button. Belly buttons are remarkably revealing. Mine looks all of forty-three.

I am cautiously resigned to turning forty-three. This is an improvement, since I actively hated turning thirty-nine, forty, forty-one and forty-two. By rights, this birthday should have me kicking and screaming, since I find myself, unexpectedly and for the first time in my adult life, without a nest (I am surrounded by packing boxes) or a mate (my husband has flown).

But something quite magical has happened this past year: I’ve become a writer. It is no small thing. I’ve always wanted to be one. It turns out that if you want to be a writer, you have to write. Once I figured that part out, amazing things began to happen, until I found myself with a bestselling book in Canada and a two-book deal in the U.S. A magical ride, with one small bump: I now have to write a second book, and second books are hard.

Second books are hard because of imposter syndrome. I know so many women who harbor the belief that they are one misstep away from catastrophe and humiliation, as if they got the invitation to the Success Banquet by accident and will, at any moment, be discovered and removed. They don’t feel that they belong at the table. They don’t think they’ve earned it. And consequently, they can’t imagine that they might be able to repeat the achievement that got them in the door in the first place.

Kate Hilton, Pen Pal, The Hole in the Middle, Best Selling Author, Book Club, Book ClubsWhy do you think that is?

This demon of self-doubt is remarkably powerful. We are so quick to own our failures. We are so nimble at identifying all the ways in which other people are more successful than we are. But we see through a flawed lens. I remember sitting at a parent council meeting once, and the woman next to me said: “I saw your son eating homemade pizza pitas at lunch yesterday. How do you do it?” And I said: “He was eating cold, leftover delivery pizza.” Isn’t that astonishing? Her lens of self-criticism showed her a perfect lunch that wasn’t even there.

Imposter syndrome is, of course, the province of the successful, of the high-achievers, of the perfectionists. That’s the irony. The demon speaks our language. If we were unsuccessful, we wouldn’t have to worry about being revealed as frauds.

Have you read Amy Poehler’s book, Yes Please? You should. It is so bracingly honest. (Honesty is a topic I’ll return to in another letter, why it is that we spend so much energy lying to ourselves and to other people about who we are and what we want.) She talks about how she copes with her demon this way: “When the demon starts to slither my way and say bad shit about me I turn around and say, ‘Hey. Cool it. Amy is my friend. Don’t talk about her like that.’ Sticking up for ourselves in the same way we would one of our friends is a hard but satisfying thing to do. Sometimes it works.” How great is that? I’m going to try it.

Did I ever tell you that I write from an outline? Every scene is plotted and planned before I begin. Unfortunately, or perhaps not, this is a major way in which life differs from fiction. There’s no outline to follow, and you can’t see the plot twists coming. I think it’s going to be an interesting year.

Yours,

Kate

 

Here’s what Reva had to say in reply (about celebration, imposter syndrome, and having a new pen pal): http://www.revaseth.com/penpalproject/think-need-celebrate/