The Only Thing We Have To Do In Life and a Great Big Thank You

Over the course of the last nine months that I’ve been sharing my writing, I am always pleasantly surprised when old friends and family members tell me they read my blog. I’ve never assumed anyone would. What’s even more is that they tell me they enjoy it! I am so grateful to these people and to my fellow bloggers for reading my work and becoming a part of my story. In honor of this, I decided to re-post the first piece I shared with the blogging community, my friends and family. Once this piece was published, it was Freshly Pressed and helped share my writing with hundreds of people I have never met. For those of you who have followed me from the beginning, I am forever grateful. For those that have begun to follow me over the course of these months, thank you so much! And to my future readers, I hope you enjoy my work as much as I enjoy doing it. You all inspire me to continue to do what I love. Have a wonderful day 🙂

The Only Thing We Have To Do In Life

I had a teacher in middle school who used to say the only thing in life we have to do, is die.

As a kid, it’s unknowingly easier to understand this concept. Rather than do things because we feel we have to, for the most part we do them because we want to. We dream of becoming an astronaut, ballerina, or movie star, and unaware of the “realities” of life, believe that one day we will achieve these dreams.

As we get older however, we’re bombarded with distractions–from the media, our jobs, our teachers, even our families–that make us believe these dreams are made for someone else–that they’re too outrageous and unachievable for ourselves. And before we know it, we find ourselves swept up in the trivial things we do day to day. Waking up on time, getting to class or work, running errands, watching TV, making dinner. Suddenly, it’s easy to believe we have to do these things. But actually, we don’t.

No matter what we do in life, the end result is the same. We die. Death; it’s the great equalizer. The one thing we all have to do. Everything else simply fills the time.

Knowing that this life will end leads me to believe that the only thing we all want, while we have this time, is to be happy.

So we can choose to be happy one of two ways:

  1. By doing what we are told we should do.

OR

   2. By doing what we want to do (and sometimes these things align with what we’re told we should do-like getting a college degree or falling in love, for example).

Choosing option #1 can be easy, falling into the pre-determined track of life that has been laid out before us. Go to school, get a degree, find a job, get married, have kids, and one day retire to an over 55 living community in Florida. I’m sure there are people who do get fulfillment out of leading this type of life, but I know that there are others who do not. And since you’re still reading this I know I’m talkin’ to you!

That’s why we have choice #2. However, choice #2 requires some work. We must accept that we will die, and then strip away distractions to look within ourselves to see what we want out of life right now, regardless of what anyone else may say. It requires being honest with yourself to see what really lies within. I don’t think it’s easy. I think it takes dedication to yourself and the dreams you had as a little boy or girl. Once we acknowledge our mortality, it’s easier to go after the things we truly want in life.

Many of us have ironically read Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken” in our school years. Frost writes of “two roads diverged in a yellow wood” and the narrator must decide which path to take. Ultimately he chooses “the one less traveled”. I distinctly remember my teacher emphasizing how important it was to take this road “less traveled” in our lives and to not blindly follow others in their choices. We were encouraged to make our own decisions, even if they were less popular. I’m sure others who have studied this poem have been told something similar. Ironically however, as I’ve experienced myself, if we do take the road less traveled, or make a third road of our own-by taking time off of school, or not going to college at all, for example-it’s frowned upon. Frost ends his poem by writing that taking this road less traveled “has made all the difference”.

So here’s what I say; let us make a conscious effort every day to be the judge of what will make our lives fulfilling to ourselves. Let us judge our happiness by our own standards rather than others- a kind of “happy relativism”. Let us not allow others to define what will make our lives meaningful. I think it’s something we must work on every day, but eventually it can become a lifestyle. And let’s see just the difference it can make.

yellow wood2

Synesthesia*

AbbeyUnderATree

Sitting beneath the old maple tree, the sun streams through the space between the leaves. It starts slowly, warm and languid like the sluggish drawl of your aging uncle from North Carolina who you always lean closer to understand. The sun shifts and a slow sizzle begins. Like when your grandma fries chicken cutlets on the stovetop. It is a gentle hum like that of the honeybees that fly around your backyard in summer.

The sun shifts and people begin tap dancing on bubble wrap. The oil in the frying pan is popping. The bee is buzzing in your ear. A blaze ignites and crackles across your skin. The orchestra shrieks dissonant chords. The sun shifts and you walk home; the final cracks of the fire snapping with every other step.

In bed, the wail of a high falsetto keeps you awake. After hours, it softens to a gentle hiss. As night turns to day, you awake in silence. Until you flip on your side. Screams erupt like magma from a volcano. You rush to the shower where violin strings are plucked in perfect time to the drops of water that pelt your skin. Once out, the orchestra is muffled with each pat of your white terrycloth towel. The final strings are silenced as you glide a cool liquid across your skin and all that is left is the crisp crunch of autumn leaves under foot over the next few days.

Next time, you promise, I’ll wear sunscreen.

*Synesthesia is when one sensory stimulation also stimulates another sense. For example, people who have synesthesia may experience numbers as shapes. Days of the week may have specific colors. If you are interested in synesthesia, I highly recommend reading the book, Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet. Excellent read.

What? I Actually Learned Something This Summer?

endofsummer

The end is near. This Saturday I leave to start my third semester at college. And I’m still trying to figure out what to do with my summer.

Part of me is upset that I didn’t make this summer as memorable as last. Back then, I had made a list of things I wanted to do and made sure that on every free day I had, I crossed something off. This summer, I ended up spending most of my time trying to balance work, volunteering, writing, packing and moving and “free time.”

So maybe it was a bit of a bust. But I must admit, even though I didn’t have the most amazing summer of my life, I managed to learn a lot about myself and life in general.

And since I like making lists…

1.     The names of the people on the books we read are of real people. In other words, there are people out there that have careers as writers. It is a real profession. It could be my profession. Somebody’s gotta do it, right?

2.     The lesson of why not? As in, why not follow your dream? Why not aim higher? Who says it can’t it be you?

3.     The ability to laugh at yourself. You can’t always take yourself so seriously. Accept it, we’re human. We make mistakes. And instead of beating ourselves up over the silly ones, we need to laugh at them. Find the humor in the things you do. The more you laugh, the happier you are, the more you enjoy life.

4.     Technology does not have to be the enemy. It can be a blessing in disguise. It allows us to share our work with people all over the world. We don’t need to be published in order to have our words affect the lives of others. Part of the dream of being a writer can be realized simply through the blogging community.

5.     The belief that everything that has happened in my past and that is happening now will somehow connect in the future. The people that I love and spend time with now will help me achieve my dreams. The things I do now will affect the work I do in years to come. It might not all connect now, but someday it will.

6.     The best compliment to receive is one about your work. Whether it be the work we do to improve ourselves or in our careers. It is nice to have someone recognize the things we put time and energy into rather than something as easy as, “I like your shirt!”

7.      The biggest inspiration is people’s minds. And admiring their hard work.

8.     And the most exciting one for me: you never know who you’re going to meet.

For example, I was volunteering at Blythedale Children’s Hospital for five weeks over the summer. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I’d greet the thin, white-haired man that sat behind the Welcome Desk. A short “Hello, how are you?” and “Have a nice day!” It wasn’t until my last day of volunteering that I mentioned I was getting ready to head back to university. He asked what I study and I hesitantly replied, “Creative Writing.”

His eyes widened and a small, closed mouthed smile formed on his lips. At first, I couldn’t tell if this was the same grimacing smile I typically get when I tell people I’m pursuing Creative Writing. It’s usually followed by a, “That’s nice…” while I know all too well they are thinking, “Good luck with that!”

Instead he said, “No kidding! I had worked in the corporate world for many years and gave it up to pursue creative writing.”

I was shocked, to say the least.

He told me that even though he was making a good salary at his corporate job, he knew that if he hadn’t stopped when he did, he would have never taken his writing seriously. He’s written three novels so far and is focusing on getting them published now.

Then he said, “If there’s one piece of advice I would give to you, it would be this…”

9. “Don’t wait. Don’t push it off. Do it now.”

Do-it-

Fake It ‘Til You Make It

After my dad passed away, I had a really hard time having conversations with friends and family about “stupid things”. The Dancing with the Stars gossip. The babble about cute boys that you never actually get the nerve to talk to. The daydreams about meeting celebrity crushes that almost never come true (I say almost because I’ve still got hope that I will one day meet mine. Harry Styles, I hope you’re reading this.)

These silly conversations help relationships last. Because if the only things we ever talked about were serious, deep, and existential subjects, our relationships would not only be seriously depressing, but also very short. Because no one wants to hang out with a person that can’t enjoy the fluff of life.

And I had become that person. Sure, I listened to friends and family talk about the “stupid things” but while they talked, I barely listened. I nodded and smiled, but inside my head thought about how ridiculous it was that they cared so much about how their little sister borrowed their shirt without asking when my dad was still very dead. I had become so wrapped up in my own life that I could barely take an interest in anyone else’s. And it had created distance between me and the friends and family I cared very much about.

When I started seeing my bereavement counselor, Mary, (written about here: https://abbeygallagher.wordpress.com/2013/07/10/skiing-with-my-bereavement-counselor/) I told her about this problem. How I would have dinner with a friend and while they went on about the things in their life, my mind would wander and think about more serious subjects. Most of all, my dad.

She gave me an assignment. Instead of just nodding and smiling, I had to start these “stupid conversations” and really practice listening to the other person speak and not let my mind wander into the depths of Abbey-La-La-Land.

And because I wanted to get better, I did what she said.

But it was so much harder than I thought. I struggled to care about the “stupid” things my friends and family cared so much about. It all seemed so trivial compared to the loss that I was dealing with in my life. After a week, I told Mary how impossible I found her assignment.

That’s when she gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten.

“Fake it till you make it.”

I couldn’t believe a licensed social worker was telling me to pretend to care and pretend to take an interest in my friends and family in the hopes that one day, I really would. But I figured she must have known something about what she was telling me so I gave it a shot.

For a while, I had to consciously pretend in those conversations. But as time went on, it became easier to engage with others about silly things. I no longer had to keep track of whose turn it was to speak and I no longer pretended to care. I really did. Her advice had proven true.

And it certainly doesn’t just apply to these “stupid conversations.” I carry this advice with me everywhere I go.

For example, the other day I saw one of my aunt’s who I rarely ever see. She’s from my dad’s side of the family, married to one of his brothers. However, she lives over a thousand miles away in Florida. Which particularly stinks since I love spending time with her.

After seeing me, she texted, and among other things, wrote,

“It is so nice to see how comfortable you are as yourself.”

I was completely surprised.

Firstly, because someone had acknowledged all the hard work I’ve done these last few years on becoming a healthier, happier, and more confident person in a very direct and straightforward way. It wasn’t just a passing comment. By writing the message to me, there was a sort of permanence to it.

And secondly, because even though I’ve made tremendous progress, I still struggle to feel comfortable in my own skin sometimes. But every day I look in the mirror, smile wide and pretend I’ve got all the confidence in the world. Because I know that eventually, one day that confidence will stick.

The Time Is Now

oldclock

Now that I’ve had my revelation that the kind of life I lead is entirely up to me, (as written about here: https://abbeygallagher.wordpress.com/2013/07/27/a-best-friend-as-inspiration/) I had another revelation in succession.

I can start making changes right now to live the life I want. I don’t need to wait until I “grow up” to start making serious decisions for myself. I am alive now. I could start today. I could start this very minute. But just like all my great insights, it’s nice that I had it—but what was I going to do about it?

Once I realized believed that I could begin making changes right now to begin leading the life I’ve dreamed of, I started doing just that.

I quit my stupid job at the accessory store. Yes, I need the money, but after a few especially sour shifts within the last few days I said enough was enough. The work I really want to—and need to– be doing—my writing—wasn’t getting done the way I wanted and since I don’t plan on becoming the manager of a retail accessory store in any future—near or distant–I figured I had to prioritize.

Now I have structured time to get writing done. Because I’m no longer just writing for this here blog. Aside from my journal, I’m currently working on pieces to submit to literary journals and websites. The moment I send my first story out, you’ll be the first to know. I want you to go on this journey with me. Because it’s about time I start practicing what I preach. Enough of me encouraging my readers to reach for their dreams and never settle while I muddle through at a school I don’t feel stimulated at and a town where everyone seems to move in slow motion. It’s time I started taking my own advice.

I’ll be sure to keep you posted on the many rejections I’m looking forward to receiving as well. Because like my professor at NYU said, rejection is a part of being a writer. We can’t let it get us down. We have to keep writing and sending our work out there. If it gets rejected, that means it’s out in the world. And if it’s out in the world, you never know whose hands it may get into. And they may just love it.

Without my retail job, I also have time to get myself ready to move back to New Paltz for the fall. Which mainly involves buying extra pairs of underwear. I’m not looking forward to moving back, but now that I know I will only be there for one semester, it feels manageable. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. And that light is the glowing city skyline of New York.

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A Best Friend As Inspiration

abbeyandmichelle

(Michelle and I in 2009)

While I was in New Paltz earlier this week, I met up with my oldest friend, Michelle. We’ve grown up together since kindergarten and stayed best friends even when she moved away to North Carolina during middle school. We clung to each other in those years mainly because we saw a lot of ourselves in the other. We were both bright girls, living with single mothers who both had/have mental health issues, and were extremely close to our grandparents. We believed in staying on the “straight and narrow” and fantasized about the day when we would be old enough to live on our own and leave behind a childhood tainted with painful memories.

As time went on, we went down our separate paths. Michelle moved back to New York, but went to a different school and made new friends. Ones that were nothing like mine. But no matter how different we became—Michelle with her color coordinated closet, superior interior decorating skills, and name brand purses; Me with my thrift shop clothes, messy and disorganized bedroom, and more books than fit on the shelves—we always stayed in touch. Always made time to see each other every few months to catch up and reconnect.

So when I saw her this week, it was no different. She brought the newest addition to her family, Willow, her eleven-week-old puppy and we found an outdoor patio to sit and have lunch. As she told me about the positive changes she’s made in her life recently, I couldn’t help but feel extremely proud of her. And the more I listened, the more inspired I became.

She has a job that has provided her with enough money to put the down payment on her first apartment. She’s heading back to school with a clear focus on what she wants to pursue. She’s switched her lifestyle to become healthier and I can tell that all it’s done is made her happier.

It didn’t hit me till I was thinking later that night, but she is living the dream that we had fantasized about when we were younger. She’s entirely independent. She doesn’t have any ties to the unhealthy influences from her childhood. And all because she took the initiative to create the life she wants to live. It was her decision. Her choice.

And so as I thought about it, I became even more sure of my plan to move into the city in January. Studying at New Paltz was a great way for me to transition from living with my grandparents’ and moving on from the loss of my father. It was a small school, relatively close to home, in a small, quaint village, with a slow pace of life that helped me adjust to “college life.”

But now that I’ve dealt with the loss of my father and know how to navigate my way through college, I’m ready to live the life I’ve dreamed of. And as much as I wish it included New Paltz, right now it doesn’t. I not only know that I have the ability to choose my path in life. I believe it. No matter how grand or wild it may seem. I don’t need anyone’s permission. It is my decision. My choice. My life. And I can’t tell you how liberating that finally feels.

Steal Like An Artist*

I’ve been home for about a month now after being part of the creative writing program at NYU and I have to admit, I feel I’ve hit a creative slump. It probably seems ironic that after being part of such an amazing writing experience, I would come home and feel my inspiration and work ethic had dried up. But after thinking about it for a while, I don’t think it’s ironic at all.

Because while I was at NYU, I was living in a fast-paced environment, surrounded by others who were working hard just like me to achieve their dreams. I was supported by a group of fellow writers and I watched them succeed. But now that I’m home, I feel I’m in the doldrums.

I no longer see and speak with my writing support group every day. I no longer have the opportunity to attend literary events that were so common in the city. And I’ve had too much time on my hands to think about projects I’d like to do. So much time that I think too much about them and instead of getting them started, think about how overwhelming the possibilities are.

But not creating work has been bringing me down. I need to get back into the swing of things. So instead of sitting on my butt one more day, I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands.

A few weeks ago, I was given the book “Steal Like An Artist” by Austin Kleon as a gift from a fellow writer.

steal-first-look-1

What better way to get out of my creative slump than to read someone’s advice about getting out of your creative slump?

I won’t list the ten secrets here because I really want you to read it for yourself, but I will share a few key things that I got out of it that I know will help me kick my butt into gear in order to get work done.

  1. Study one writer that you love inside and out and then study the writers that influenced him/her. This is your creativity family tree. Look to them for advice. Even if they’re dead.
  2. Write down your favorite passages from books, print out your favorite photographs, paintings, and headshots of your favorite authors and put them in a notebook or hang them on your wall so when you need motivation all you have to do is flip the pages or look around your room.
  3. Write down your ideas when you have them. That way, if you are ever sitting at your desk unsure of what to write, you can look through the book and start working on one of those ideas.
  4. Don’t forget to use your hands to create! Computers are extremely useful when it’s time to finalize a project, but when starting out it can be too easy to erase and edit before you’ve even got your idea down.
  5. When you run out of ideas, do something boring like folding laundry so your mind can wander.
  6. Don’t be afraid to create stuff that isn’t “good.” Now is the time to experiment. Enjoy it.

There’s so much more that this small book has to offer, so I highly recommend checking it out for yourself. I think each of us can take something different away from it. So for those of us in a creative slump, let’s get some art made!

*I stole the title from Mr. Kleon himself!