What I Mean When I Say That WILD is My Favorite Book

Last year, I read Cheryl Strayed’s WILD, and it immediately displaced any other book as my favorite. If I could give it my top five favorite spots, I would. When I read WILD for the first time, the first chapter grabbed me right in the heart. I cried for a long time. I put down the book for weeks. I picked it up and read more, and cried again. This happened the second time I read it, and the third. It’s still hard for me to think at length about this book without tearing up.

On one level, I connected with young Cheryl as she breaks from her life and starts what seems less like a new chapter than a new book entirely. After I graduated both college and a terrible depression, I quit my job, moved to New York, and decided I needed to stand on my own and chase my dreams. And I have. It’s worked out really well for me, on the whole, which I know isn’t always the case. I know how lucky I am, and when Cheryl succeeded, she wrote about it in a way that I identified with.

But for every time that I felt close to the story for our similarities, I felt my heart cleaved in two when reading about Cheryl’s losses and failures. In college, an on-and-off serious relationship nearly destroyed me wholly, in ways that are so similar and so different from hers. I’ve also struggled with my relationship with my family, primarily my mother, for the last decade, to the point where only in the last year or two have we really been able to start healing our relationship and have the closer bond we both want.

My mom and I don’t usually talk about how things make us feel in relation to each other. We talk a lot about food. We send each other pictures and recipes over text and Facebook. We talk about books sometimes, since she wants to get back into reading and I can give her strong recommendations. We talk about what we’ve been up to lately, when we do talk on the phone about once every week or so. Usually we call when there’s been something momentous to discuss, but otherwise we don’t have much that fills the blank of “What else?”, the unspoken family motto. It goes without saying (though we do) that we love each other, but we talk about how we do what we’re doing, rather than how we feel about what we’re doing. We just don’t talk about feelings that much.

It’s not that we don’t love each other. We do, intensely. But we love each other in a different way than my boyfriend’s family does, and from your family does, and anyone else’s, probably. It would likely be appropriate to quote Tolstoy here, but I wouldn’t say that my family is unhappy. I would say that there have been events in everyone’s lives that have drained intense emotion from us, drawn it out in such a way that we no longer have the strength to bring it to the surface with regularity. We are happy, but that happiness is tempered by the unhappiness we’ve wrought on each other and that’s been wrought on us. No one is really to blame. That’s just how it is.

It’s not bad. It’s just different. It’s just how we are. I used to think I wanted to talk to my family every day and share all of our emotions, but as I’ve gotten older and thought on end about the relationships in my extended family, I don’t think that’s in the cards for us. And I’m okay with that now, for some reasons, but many of them are that that’s not how my family shows its love. We do talk and show our live by sharing things we know our family members will like. We’ve always been big on gift holidays because that’s how we express things. Mere words tend to lose meaning with us, given our history with empty conversation, and so we like to back them up when we can.

Something I’ve learned in the past year is that my mom and I have a growing bond over cooking and recipe sharing. Since I started living alone, like an adult, I’ve started taking a strong interest in learning how to really cook, and not just from basic recipes. I always took it for granted that my mom was good at cooking, but now I know that it’s one of her great loves. More and more, it’s one of mine, too—and I’ve learned that I’m good at it. When I visited over Christmas last year, we cooked together almost every day, learning from each other and spending time reading cookbooks and recipes together. These are the bonds I make with my mother, and they mean more to me than almost anything. I think she knows that.

But it matters when I read WILD and can’t get through the mom chapters without having a thorough cry. When I first read this book, I knew that I didn’t want to miss out on this relationship in my own life, especially considering how fraught with tension it’s been over the last decade of our lives. Maybe I don’t have what some people would now consider an ideal relationship with my parents, but it works for us. Over the last ten years, we’ve all learned a lot about what depression means and how it can affect a family dynamic in almost every way. It hasn’t been easy on anyone, and that compounded on extended family issues has been even harder.

My mom’s family has a history of Alzheimer’s disease. I remember going to see my grandmother, my mom’s mom, in a nursing home, and watching my mom be vulnerable in a way that doesn’t happen very often, in ways that I’m not sure I’ve seen since. I remember my grandmother, my Nana, when she was in full control of her faculties and making me elaborate birthday cakes when we’d visit my mom’s small hometown, and as I grow older, thinking about how the slow, sad change must have affected my mom and her sisters affects me, as I translate it to my own possible future. I can more accurately imagine the reality of the future, and it scares me. The older I get, the more afraid I am that this could—and likely will—happen to me, and I’m afraid of wasting opportunities. It’s especially hard since I live 1500 miles from home right now, but we do what we can.

I think sometimes about what my life will be like when my parents die. It’s very upsetting and I don’t like to think about it, but I do. I wonder how I will feel, how my relationship between my brother and I will be different, and what it will mean for my life. I also know that nothing can prepare me for how I will feel, but now that I’m older, I feel like I have a better handle on things than I used to. Or, at least, I can understand what the reality is, especially regarding mental illness.

When I read WILD, it feels like I’m preparing myself a little better for the eventuality. I sometimes don’t think we talk about grief enough, especially in regard to parental death, and it’s something that my generation is starting to face as a matter of eventual course rather than by horrible, untimely accident. And that scares me. It scares me that there’s little I can really do to fend off my fears. I wonder if I’ll dissolve into nothingness again, and hope that I won’t. I wonder if I’ll need to make a major life change, and hope that I won’t. I wonder if my life will ever be the same again, and I know that it won’t.

No, I’m not consumed by these fears, but as someone who’s always needed to prepare for major changes, sometimes it scares me that this isn’t something you can ever really be fully prepared for. I can’t imagine what it must be like for people who have already had to face this, whose lives were altered too soon. We can never be ready, really.

Cheryl Strayed is known for her raw voice, one that holds you together while you work through every day tragedies. Nothing that’s happened to her is so crazy that it hasn’t happened to anyone else, but what’s different about her writing is that she wants you to experience your grief. She wants you to know that it’s okay to have a wide range of feelings about things that happen to you. Her long-running (now defunct) advice column for The Rumpus, Dear Sugar, is one that will change your life if you let it.

There’s no real way to end this except to say that my former book club didn’t fall in love with this book the way I did, and for a book that affected me as strongly as this one, I can’t understand why. Cheryl’s return from the brink brought up feelings I thought long buried and inspired new thoughts, even new fears. At its simplest, it could be called a quarter-life crisis, I guess. But really, for me, it was about understanding what it means to be catapulted into adulthood in the way that we all are.

Thanksgiving 2013: Reflection

It’s two days before Thanksgiving, and I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about it this year. I’ve lived in New York for a few weeks shy of two years, though it feels still like I just moved here, and things have changed for me so much in the last six months and in the last year.

When I moved here, I had no job, no friends, nothing except an unpaid executive assistantship (disguised as an internship, but that’s what it really was) and my savings account. After four months, the internship ended and I moved to Brooklyn from Westchester county, again sans job and with a smaller bank account balance. I started working “part time” for a fab lady retail company, by which I mean I was a part time employee working full time hours to scrape enough together to make ends meet. It wasn’t enough, though, and my parents paid my rent for five months until I got promoted and also a second job as a social media consultant/coordinator for a start-up. I’ll never be able to really tell them how much I appreciate their support. I basically spent most of that year killing myself working and not doing much else, because I still didn’t really have many friends. I did meet my permanent friends and Harry near the end of the year, but I would consider that the major high point of the year.

In January, I left my second job and in February became a manager for said fab lady retail company. I did that until September, at which point my dream job tapped me on the shoulder and said it was time. Here I am, three months into the job I moved to New York to get, and I have to say that I’m still blissfully happy, thrilled to be working in and learning about the book industry—a dream I’ve had literally since middle school. That’s also something I think I pitched in my interview, by the way—I really threw it all in there when I came in, knowing this might be my only shot at the industry, and I guess it worked.

To be honest, I spent most of this year killing myself working, too. But the difference is that I’ve been doing real jobs. Working in retail management may not be most people’s dream job, and honestly it wasn’t mine, either, but I loved a lot of things about it and I learned a lot about effectiveness and efficiency, all of which translated easily to my current position. And now I’m working full time in a job that I love, with real pay and real benefits

I didn’t think this was going to be one of those Thanksgiving posts, but I guess it is.

The last two years have been hard, but I knew it would get better—and it has. I have friends and family who love me, most importantly, but I also have the job I want and I’m living in the city I love. It doesn’t hurt that I have two cats now, either. I know I had a lot of help getting here, and I’m thankful beyond belief for that. I know I talk about the last couple of years of my life a lot, but they really meant something to me and I think it’s important to talk about the hard times as well as the good ones (As an aside, talk about your feelings! Don’t keep them inside and be sad!).

But let’s get back to the now. The hard times are, for now, over. Sometimes it feels like I’ve been incredibly lucky and am having one of the best years ever that has to end sometime, but then I think about how bad the last six or so years were and wonder if this is my good time. I think it must be. I think I deserve it.

The office is slow this week because people are taking vacation to visit their loved ones for the holiday (and hopefully get out before this alleged huge storm hits). People here love to take vacation and to encourage others to take vacation, and I love that. People here genuinely want everyone to be happy, from the top down. It’s bizarre and like nothing I’ve ever experienced, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Working for a major book publisher means being surrounded by people who are thrilled to be directly impacting the industry, and thrilled to be doing it every day.

There are good days and there are less good days, but there aren’t really bad days here. Maybe those are to come, but I’ve yet to run into people who were having a really bad day. It’s easy to have a good day when everyone has a common goal and the industry is doing well, finally, and effective visible change is happening every day. It’s easy to have a good day when you wake up and go to your dream job every day. It’s easy to have a good day.

Anyway, all of this to say that I’m happy, I’m what I would consider successful, and I’m ready for 2014. Let’s do the damn thing.

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big announcements!

it’s been the most beautiful week, hasn’t it? I’ve been mum for about a week, but I have to say that there’s a good reason, and it’s not just that I’ve been enjoying this crisp fall weather.

over the last few weeks, I was working toward getting a job as an assistant with a big publisher, which you may recall is my main goal for moving to the city. I’ve spent most of my life working toward this, and I’d spent nearly two years trying to break into the industry without any success. it was getting to the point where I had considered giving up, but I didn’t, and finally my perseverance has paid off.

so, basically, a very vague description of it is that it’s now my job to know about books that are in the process of getting released, which is kind of my dream job. it’s exactly my dream job, really. I won’t talk about it much here, probably, because that’s not professional, but just know that I’ve finished the first week and it was everything I wanted it to be (and more).

but, really, things are pretty amazing for me right now. it sort of feels like everything is just lining up so wonderfully and ideally. still trying to figure out what happened, but I’m more than happy to roll with it and work at it every day so that things keep getting better.

I know that a friend or two of mine have been frustrated lately with the job search (aren’t we all?), but I’ve been thinking about that a lot. when I moved here, I didn’t think I would get my dream job straight out of the gate, but I thought I’d be able to at least get something in my field. clearly, however, that didn’t happen.

it took almost two years, and it’s been a pretty rough two years, but I stuck it out and kept trying and working toward my goal, and honestly, I made it. only now do I feel like I can take a quick breather and relax a little bit, but I’m here.

I mean, if tiny me can make it, so can you.

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steps to achieving a work/life balance

when I was in college, one of my roommates lived by the idea that you go to class and do work from 9 to 5. then whatever is urgent gets worked on until it’s done, but otherwise you shelve it until the next day. school is a job in itself, but it is not your life.

another person that I went to school with had the same philosophy, except that she didn’t stop at 5. she didn’t stop when the urgent items were done. she worked all night, going above and beyond so that she could know more than anyone else. she got five or six hours of sleep every night, at the very most, and worked herself to the bone.

as far as I know, they both still work the same way in their real jobs, now that we’re out of school. they’re both happy, they say, and while it’s true that everyone has their own way of working, I find it really hard to believe that the person working continuous 70-hour weeks is truly achieving a work/life balance. when work is your life, you’re not really living. at the end of the day, you should love what you do, but that shouldn’t be all that you do.

developing a work/life balance–having time to myself and to Harry and to my friends and to my hobbies–is something that I’ve dedicated myself to a lot this year. it’s hard, when you love your job, to not go home and plan for the days and weeks ahead. it’s hard to accept that some things just have to wait until the next day. but the most important part is realizing that your productivity during the workday has to come from yourself–you have to make the balancing act happen from 9 to 5 so that you can have the weeknights and weekends off.

  • prioritize your time. if you don’t know what the highest priorities are, ask. someone else will be more than happy to help you figure it out until you can do it on your own. in the end, everyone benefits from it, anyway.
  • manage your time. if it means making a list at the beginning of the day of everything you want to get done and then crossing it off, do it. there is no shame in lists, there is no shame in personal accountability, there is no shame in finding a time management method that works for you.
  • make longer-term goals for your work. look at your job and think about what needs to get done this week. this month. in the next six months. where do you want to be in a year? the day to day focus is crucial, but it’s just as crucial to keep one eye on the future, so that you know where you’re going. when you’re looking at the next month of your work life, the day to day prioritization can get a bit easier. know where you’re going so that you know what needs immediate attention. bonus tip: look at the last six months and see where you could have planned better to make your life easier, and apply that to the upcoming six months.
  • have hobbies or permanent plans for post-work hours. don’t let yourself veg out at home every night because you don’t have anything better to do. if it means taking a class, grab a friend and do it. Harry takes improv classes every week and loves it. we all have friends we don’t get to see as much as we’d like – grab them for a monthly cocktail or coffee. start small – monthly is doable, and if you do enough things monthly, the evenings add up. take time to recharge yourself in the best way possible, but be open to the possibility that filling your time with friends or hobbies might be a different yet still invigorating way to recharge.
  • don’t work at home. listen, this one is important. yes, it’s true that having a job means that you will work sometimes from home, sometimes after you’ve already left the office, sometimes when you don’t want to. but by making working in the evenings a regular habit in your life, you’re setting yourself up for long-term failure in your personal life.

it’s not about refusing to go above and beyond in your job. it’s about finding the daily path that works best for you so that you can preserve your work time for work and your home time for home. if you’re finding that you have too much work to complete during the day, maybe it’s time to work on restructuring how you spend your day and working it out with your coworkers or supervisors. it is entirely possible to go above and beyond while still keeping it inside working hours. in fact, it might be better.

if you know that you’re wasting your own time during the day, then stop it. make a plan. stick to it. make changes as necessary.

but most importantly, live your life. let work be a healthy, enjoyable part of your life, but don’t let work be your life.

A Night at UCB with Vinnie G

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This weekend a few friends and I were lucky enough to nab some tickets to the weekly ASSSCAT 3000 long-form improv show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. We’ve been a few times before, but tickets sell out at least a few weeks in advance, if not a month or two, so we’ve been counting down to this day for a while. I’m on the far left in the picture above, with my friends Michelle, Laura and Rebecca. Harry and Jack were there, too, so graciously taking this picture for us.

The thing about going to these shows is that there’s one at 7:30, which is ticketed, and one at 9:30, which is just standby. When you get there, though–at least an hour early–everyone stands on one line down the block, and then at about 7 the ticketed people are able to go pick up their tickets and head inside. It’s pretty ridiculous, and since it’s about a million degrees outside every day right now, it wasn’t our favorite thing in the world. You can see in the picture above that they handed out paper fans, but they weren’t exactly good for much more than just waving around the hot air.

However, we had a really great time, as always. The guest monologist this week was Vinnie G from Jersey Shore, which was a hilarious surprise. When they announced it, we all had mixed reactions of “What is happening?” and “This is the weirdest and best thing that has ever happened ever.” He was pretty funny and did a good job giving the house team something to work with, and I feel sort of like I know him on a lot more personal level right now. You never really know what people are going to say until they’re put on the spot like that, I guess, and we all learned some very interesting things about Vinnie that night. Nevertheless, he was great, the team was great, and as always, I laughed until my face hurt.

Also! Jumping in with the team that night was comedian Zack Woods, who you might know better as Gabe from The Office. He’s pretty hysterical, as well, and I hope I get to see him again because he was great.

Anyway, ASSSCAT is always the best time, so if you have the chance to go, I’d always recommend it. It’s so much fun and you won’t be disappointed!

 

Weekend Escape Upstate

 

As promised, here’s an update from the weekend. Harry’s parents have a house in upstate New York, so we went to spend the weekend away from the city, and it could not have come at a better time. I really needed a break post-move, as you probably remember, and this was exactly what I was looking for.

On Saturday morning, we got on the Metro North with friends Laura and Michelle and headed up to spend Saturday planning details of Laura’s wedding. She’s getting married here in June, so needed to hammer out some last minute details so we can really start making final progress on things, and I would say it was definitely a success.

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Of course, no weekend is complete without some serious relaxing, so before Laura and Michelle left in the evening, we spent plenty of time eating barbecue, sitting around, and just generally enjoying being away from the city for a day.

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And, of course, when I woke up Sunday morning, this was the view from the deck outside the bedroom, and pretty much my entire day was made.

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I had a pretty rough week last week in a couple of ways, but this weekend has left me feeling relaxed, refreshed, and very, very happy with life in general. I feel like now I’m ready for summer, ready for fun and friends and lots of time spent together outside.