Category Archives: Faves

Meet Marissa Mayer: Chief Progress Thwarter

This just in from Yahoo: CEO Marissa “My Baby is Easy” Mayer has pissed off working women for the second time – and managed to get under the skin of working parents, introverts, creative business types, hard-core software developers, and basically anyone who isn’t exactly like Marissa.

Her latest mandate puts the kibosh on work-at-home arrangements, requiring all employees to work full-time in the Yahoo offices. Her explanation for this nonsense is that flexible work arrangements inhibit innovation and that “face-to-face interaction among employees fosters a more collaborative culture.” Pundits and academics everywhere are pointing to her attempt to mirror Google’s culture, including this New York Times quote from an analyst: “She brings all the Google lessons to the table, and Google is very focused on having your life revolve around their campus so you can spend a significantly larger chunk of time at work.”

Isn’t that FANTASTIC?! At a time when work/life balance is spinning off its axis, yet we have more tools than ever to recalibrate it, we’ve got this Woman in a Bubble with 17 Nannies telling people how, when, and where to work. First, women were up in arms over Marissa’s own virtually non-existent maternity leave. But despite the fact that family leave in the U.S. is sorely lacking in comparison to other countries, I was willing to give her some leeway. Regardless of how much parental leave is available, the amount of leave one takes is a personal choice. If Marissa loves her work and its intrinsic rewards make her a better mother, then far be it for me to judge. The question is whether she expects other women at Yahoo to make the same choice – and that is the core of the work/family debate, particularly for mothers. The beauty of where we’re at today isn’t whether it’s best for a woman to stay home versus work, or to take gobs of maternity leave versus just a few short weeks, but that she can choose. And that all of us, as women, support those individual choices. Bashing other women and insisting that our way is the right way isn’t really what sisterhood is all about. So long as Marissa’s on that bandwagon, I can overlook the maternity leave thing.

But that need to support individual choices is the foundation of why I cannot and will not accept this abolishment of the flexible working arrangements that allow so many parents to feel like they are – for the first time in history – given the resources to strike a balance between a fulfilling career and caring for their families. And it’s more than a working mom/dad thing. It’s also a work style thing. I agree with Marissa that face-to-face interaction is crucial to innovation; the “mindmelds” and “brain dumps” that occur throughout the day are critical in the product groups, where specs are written and features managed. Indeed, this is Marissa’s background, the hallmark of her days at Google – and she was exceptional at her job. But this new policy makes the assumption that everyone works as she does; and frankly, that everyone does the same job (or at least the job she deems most important). And THAT is a giant management misstep.

What about the employees who aren’t tasked with innovating? What about those who are executing on specs and strategy – the developers, designers, writers, marketers? Many of these people work best alone, away from the distractions of the office, in order to tap into their creativity, to access the all-important “flow” that allows them to produce. Clearly Marissa hasn’t read Susan Cain’s influential “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” The book features a case study of one notorious introvert who took full advantage of flexible working: Steve Wozniak. (Perhaps you’ve heard of him, Marissa? He’s kind of a big deal in the Valley.)

An effective manager understands that people work in different ways – and empowers their employees to work in a manner that garners optimal results. They trust their people and give them choices. This is why, during my time at Microsoft, flexible hours and telecommuting were customary. In fact, if you needed to hang your desk from the ceiling, plaster your office walls in aluminum foil, or communicate with colleagues via puppets (pinky swear – on all accounts) in order to produce, so be it. The proof in this pudding comes from one of my favorite former Microsoft execs, Brian Valentine, who led the Windows team in its heyday: “I make sure everyone on my team understands their role and that they have what they need to execute. Then I stay the hell out of the way.”

Let’s also not forget that Marissa’s sought-after innovation is what allowed a global, virtual workplace to emerge – it’s what gave rise to email, Skype, and Live Meeting. A move like hers flies in the face of what thousands of high-tech employees have bled, sweated, and teared to create. And while I understand that not everyone is productive while working from home, if you’ve got issues with people being distracted by Judge Judy and piles of laundry, you have a people problem, not a policy problem. Manage out the dead wood, Marissa – don’t assume they’ll shape up if you insist they work like you. (And P.S. – just because it’s a high-tech company doesn’t mean it’s Google. Best practices, yes. Copycat bullshit you think will automatically translate, no.)

I had high hopes for Marissa. Not only is she the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company, she’s the youngest female CEO, and a member of my generation. But her timebomb back to 1962 is an incredible slight to the women who blazed the trail before us, who in all honesty laid the groundwork that’s allowed Marissa to be where she is today. It’s not clear whether she’s unaware of or apathetic about these stalwart efforts – but either way, it’s a problem. So many of us Gen X women were hoping she’d serve as a beacon for progress, that she’d own all parts of herself – the masculine and feminine sides we’d peeked at and wanted more of: the math/science whiz, techie, cupcake baker, fashion fiend. That’s the example we want to set for future generations – of both women and men: that you can be anything and EVERYTHING you are. That you have choices and can decide what’s best for you.

With that in mind, we loved Marissa for her strength and independence, and hoped there was a nurturing, team-spirit side as well – the true definition of being a whole woman. Instead, she distanced herself from the pack and, through her actions (always louder than words), has seemingly shamed choices different from her own. That’s simply not sisterhood. It’s not even humankind.

And it’s nowhere near progress.

Holiday Wishes and Wisdom

Holiday greetings, tidings, and well wishes to you, dear family and friends! I hope this finds you healthy, happy, and looking forward to the new year.

After seven years of major metamorphosis – divorce, two cross-country moves, performing on various stages, selling a home, buying another, starting a business, growing a business, stabilizing a business – 2011 marked a slowing of change in my outer world. There were, of course, highlights: bidding adieu to clients I’d outgrown (no offense, Microsoft); welcoming new clients – including HTC, where my friend and former colleague, Michele, is creating the internal communications function from the ground up, and has enlisted me to help her in this exciting endeavor. There was also a fair amount of travel: Palm Springs, NYC, Maui (photos here), Lake Chelan – mostly with cherished friends, as well as some rejuvenating solo time. And I awoke my dormant performer by joining the Seattle Ladies Choir for their premiere season. Given that my last forays onstage were of the improv / comedic nature during my time in NYC, it was wonderful to exercise the lungs through song – for the first time in 25 years.

But perhaps the most interesting development of 2011 was the realization that many people are in periods of significant transformation. Over the course of the year, a number of them found their way to me – either through mutual friends or just as we got to know one another better – and I found myself repeatedly being asked, “How did you do it?” How did you recover from the loss of a 15-year relationship? How did you build a successful consulting business, doing what you love? How did you buy a home and create financial security when you’re single and self-employed?

When people ask these questions, I sense they’re seeking a clear answer, a sage bit of wisdom that will help them find their way through the dust clouds, fog, and cobwebs that life repeatedly throws our way. But our lives are an amalgam of the many choices we’ve made throughout our journey – thus, no one move someone makes, even if it was revolutionary for them, will cause the same effect in another person’s life.

What I can offer, however, is this: all too often, when the dust swirls and blurs our view of what’s ahead, we freak out and start looking for detours to escape the uncertainty. But compare this to driving when visibility is so poor even the fog lights don’t cut it – panicking and detouring could send you off the road and into a ditch, or over a cliff. Instead, you’d be wise to stop and wait for conditions to clear, for the road to reveal itself. And the same applies in life: stop, breathe, tune into your inner voice…and let it show you the way.

That’s the best piece of advice I have, the one I credit most for helping me get to this point. But it really pisses some people off because they want something concrete, some step-by-step guide to barreling through the unknown. Believe me, I’ve been there. It’s unnerving to just pull over and get quiet for a while. And allowing that inner voice to come alive and guide you requires a lot of time, a lot of soul searching, a lot of brutal self-honesty, a lot of risk-taking, a lot of courage, a lot of tackling life alone, a lot of tears, a lot of teeth-gritting, and a lot of letting go. When that inner voice narrates the GPS of your life, you have to be ready to accept that it’s lonely out there on the road paved by choices all your own. You’ll veer away from some of your relationships and activities as you make room for new people and opportunities better suited to who you really are – and, more importantly, who you’re becoming.

So – if you have an inner voice you suffocate with a pillow, stop it. And if you think you don’t have an inner voice, you’re wrong. It just got so sick of you not listening, it finally gave you the finger and went into hibernation. Either way, you can jab an IV of Jolt Cola into its jugular by asking yourself this question:

“If I had only six months to live, what would I at least try to accomplish?”

Close your eyes and really imagine a doctor giving you this jarring prognosis. What comes to mind arrives courtesy of your inner voice – these things are your passions, your purpose. Sure, there’s bucket list stuff like skydiving and traveling to India and riding naked on a Harley (no judgment). But then there’s the real stuff, the Six Months to Live list. We’re talking going to medical school, figuring out how to sell your art, boot-scooting your mega-yum cookies out of the kitchen and into the cases of your own bakery. Remember, you only have six months left – you may not actually get your M.D. or see a painting sold, or proffer that first double-chocolate-cherry-macadamia bite of sinfulness, but you’ll literally die trying.

My wish for you in the coming year is that, even with the hustle and bustle and electronic madness of modern life, you’ll carve out some quiet time to listen to your inner voice. And that you’ll start letting it guide you – from the bucket list stuff all the way to the real, Six Months to Live List stuff. I also hope you’ll keep in mind that no one ever “arrives” or is fully enlightened. We’re always evolving on this topsy-turvy ride called life, though I believe we arrive at certain mile markers along the way that indicate our preparedness for various challenges – relationships, career success, children, unearthing our unique gifts and giving them back to the world. Because there is something you can do better than any other. Your inner voice knows what that is and, if you obey it, you’ll do it – before the ride is over.

Blessings, peace, health, and happiness to you and those you love – this season and throughout 2012.

With much love,
Nicole

This was not an accident

Dear Clients,

While I love you dearly and am eternally grateful for your business and partnership, I regret to inform you (for the 400th time) that I’m not interested in a full-time job at your company. While flattered, I repeat: I. Am. Not. Interested. In. A. Full. Time. Job. At. Your. Company.

Please stop asking me.

While it may seem puzzling to you – you who presumably enjoys the “security” of your job and the “benefits” you receive as a result of it and the “career path” a corporate job offers, I’m not self-employed by chance, but by choice. This is not a path I’m on because I was laid off during an economic downturn and needed something to do, it’s a path I chose because it’s what I was meant to do – and how I was meant to work. I, in fact, had a “secure” full-time position at a global consulting firm and paid $4,000 to get out of that contract in order to lead this life of what’s come to be known as “solopreneurship.” And though it may seem odd to those who take direction vs. make direction, there is indeed a strategy behind what got me here – and a strategy for where I’m headed.

I’ve endured a lot of pain and learned many lessons on the road to becoming an incorporated business in this country. And it’s actually quite an enormous responsibility to run an incorporated business in this USofA, what with the laws and taxes I have to comprehend and consistently uphold to keep Uncle Sam’s pesky finger out of my ass. Some people may come into this way of life by accident – but you sure as hell don’t continue it by accident or because it’s easy or because it’s any sort of free ride. You keep at it because you have a gift, a valuable and marketable talent, a keen business sense, a strong gut, a steel backbone, the ability to wear many very fashionable hats simultaneously, a fuckload of will, and a whopping dose of self-discipline that makes it worth every second.

That’s why I’m here.

That’s why I work the way I do.

That’s why I choose who I want to work for, what I want to work on, and when I want to work.

That’s the incredible payoff that comes with taking the risk I took five years ago – and continue to take every day. Because I’ve actually chosen freedom and flexibility over “security” and salary. And I cannot, will not, do not want to work any other way. So take your badge, your benefits, your paid vacation, your parking pass, your reviews and your rigmarole – and give them to someone who still believes they actually stand for something.

Thank you for your business. I really do mean that as I truly couldn’t be where I am without you. But please keep in mind that I do indeed like where I am.

Very sincerely yours,

NICO Inc.

The Leap

Have you ever watched a frog hunt an insect? Sometimes the bug positions itself smack in front of the frog’s face for consumption – but even bugs have Darwinian instincts, so that’s fairly rare. Instead, the best way for the frog to go after what it wants is to abandon the comfort of its lily pad, leap into the air, and completely surrender itself to the quest. It understands it may splash back into the pond without its intended prize. It understands it might plop smack into the jaws of a crocodile. The leap is a risk. The leap is also possibility. The leap is where the catch happens.

Granted, the frog’s life depends on bugs for sustenance. And while we, as humans, no longer need to hunt prey to survive, as evolved beings, we need to hunt experience. Personal growth. Authenticity. That’s what allows us to survive and flourish in the 21st century. We’re no longer on this earth simply to propagate the species. We’re here to uphold it and help it evolve – through our unique, individual gifts. Each of us has at least one and our job is to serve it up to the world. That’s why we’re here.

Maybe your gift is creating objects or systems that make the world run more smoothly. Raising children who will give back through their own gifts. Cultivating or preparing food that nourishes, sustains, and pleases. Healing people or animals. Educating, entertaining, connecting, making others laugh, cry, think, act. But you do have a gift. Your job is to figure out what it is and use it. Otherwise you’re missing the point of modern existence.

I first thought about the frogs years ago when I’d just taken my own leap of faith by quitting my cushy, stable consulting job and vowing to succeed as a freelance writer/new business owner in New York. I was living off my savings. Temping at BofA at a 95% pay cut. Ushering off-Broadway plays in exchange for free admission. Coughing up $5 every now and then to check out up-and-coming comedians and musicians in the East Village, Lower East Side, and Brooklyn. Losing tons of weight because all I could afford was produce and I walked most everywhere to save on MetroCard fare.

But the leap paid off. I’m my own boss, in charge of my workload and workday. My main goal was to simply work independently and escape the weight of the corporate thumb; instead, by being true to myself and my gift with words, I’ve experienced a level of success beyond anything I ever imagined (not that I ever aimed that high…this is no Zuckerberg venture I’m running here). My low-carb, high-cardio lifestyle actually stuck and I’m healthier as a result. I’ve also had the absolute pleasure of watching some of today’s most talented artists – often just a few feet from the stage – pay their dues and rise through the ranks. Being true to themselves and reveling in the journey.

When I tell people my story, they often say, “It was worth the sacrifice.” But “sacrifice” implies loss, reduction, negativity. I would never define those years, those “salad days,” in such terms because I gained so much during that time. It was simply leaping off one track and onto another. Releasing my grip on the old, the comfortable, the unsatisfying to usher in the new, the adventurous, the soul-feeding. The authentic. And that time I was in the air, in between – that was the best part.

Do you ever think about leaping? I’ve been thinking it’s time for me to do it again. To usher in the newer, the uncharted, the soul-sustaining. The even-more-authentic. And so my thoughts return to the frogs as I remind myself – and you – that the good stuff rarely just drops by the lily pad. It doesn’t even arrive with the landing. The good stuff – the really, really good stuff, where dreams are realized and gifts are given – is in the leap.

End the Facebook friend bloat!

It’s about time Facebook got its own holiday.

Jimmy Kimmel, host of ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” has designated November 17th “National Unfriend Day,” urging all of us to scan that Facebook friend list and get rid of the extra baggage.

I conducted a significant Friend Purge two years ago and have never been happier with so few people in my network. I simply could no longer handle being bombarded every day with news about the toddler of someone I worked with (and barely, at that) five years ago. Someone who would make no effort to be in my life were it not for Facebook – and frankly neither would I – and who never commented on my posts, nor did I comment on hers, nor did I frankly give a shit and she probably didn’t either. People said, “So just hide her from your news feed,” but then wasn’t it also creepy that she had a window into MY world? So then it was, “Well, create different levels of friend lists and block her from seeing your posts.”

REALLY?! Are THESE the dilemmas we’re entertaining these days? We’re in the second worst recession in history, we’ve got lines around the block at food banks, AIDS-stricken women in Africa are being gang-banged until their vaginas fall out, and we’re creating DIFFERENT LEVELS OF FRIEND LISTS?!

Honest to God, people. If you can’t let someone fully into your life – or not at all – on a social networking site, you’ve got some big boundary questions to ask yourself. Do we really think deleting someone from Facebook speaks to our character? Are we THAT ridiculously insecure? I recently realized I hadn’t seen anything in the news feed from one of my friends (who is NOT an ex, just to put the question to rest right off the bat) and checked his profile page to see if he’d gone AWOL. Nope – I just can’t see his posts. Or most of his photos. I’ve clearly been demoted to the D List of his life. And in all honesty, I’d rather he delete me altogether. Because it’s more of a passive-aggressive bitch slap to put up a “No Trespassing” sign than it is to just fucking board up the place.

When I pruned my friend list, I set some guidelines for myself regarding who  made the cut: 1) people who are actively in my life on a regular basis, with whom I’d be in touch with or without Facebook, 2) people who have been in this category but whom I no longer see on a regular basis (generally due to geographical distance), and 3) people I’ve spent time with and just think are truly exceptional people. Considering that Oxford anthropologist Robin Dunbar tells us our brains can only handle 150 friendships at a time, I think I’m doing just fine at 132. But if Dunbar’s theory isn’t enough ammo for you, put Jimmy Kimmel’s litmus test into action: Post on Facebook that you’re moving on Saturday and need some help. You’ll have your answer soon enough.

Truth be told, I love technology. But let’s face it – its prevalence has driven many people to lose touch with what has true meaning in their lives. And *who* has true meaning in their lives. And what’s just white noise that keeps us a) procrastinating by wasting time on Facebook, b) believing all these people are truly our friends, or c) both a&b – all of which ultimately prevent us from asking ourselves tough questions about what we want from our time in this world and whether our lives are structured in a way that’s pushing us toward those things. And when it comes to the friend list, we need to remember that this isn’t fifth grade. Everybody doesn’t need to be our friend. It’s OK to lose touch with people. It’s OK to let them drift from your life – or cut them out entirely via a social networking site (say those last 10 words again – and remind yourself how utterly stupid it is that you even have this dilemma in your life). It doesn’t make you a bad person, it doesn’t make them bad people, it doesn’t mean you don’t wish them well or have fond memories of the time you spent with them. What it does mean is that you honor the fact that people change and friendships change – and sometimes even fade away. As Eat, Pray, Love‘s Richard from Texas would say, “Send them some light and love every time you think about them, then drop it.”

So this Wednesday, November 17th – just drop ’em. And if you’re my Facebook friend and you decide to unfriend me, well…light and love to you. It was good while it lasted.

Going through The Muck

Friday, August 13th. I was on the phone with my friend Jodi, who was driving with her 12-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son from JFK airport in NYC to her home in Connecticut. We’d been playing phone tag all week and, with the kids conked out in the car, she took advantage of a late-night freeway drive and Bluetooth technology for the two of us to catch up.

About 20 minutes into our call – and not long after she’d confessed having just shelled out $1,800 to have her car repaired and serviced while she was out of town – Jodi told me all the warning lights on her instrument panel were suddenly illuminated. She frantically wondered aloud what the hell was going on and I told her to pull over immediately and cut the engine. Most likely it was an electrical failure, and she needed to get off the road. I stayed on the phone with her while she pulled safely onto the shoulder (“all the way into the grass,” she reassured me) and then let her go to call AAA. I asked her to let me know when she’d reached them; about 15 minutes later I got a text saying a tow truck was on its way, but the kiddos were awake, and that she’d call me the next day to finish our conversation.

Relieved, I exhaled and turned in for the night.

The next morning I awoke to a text from Jodi. While waiting for the tow truck, she and her children were hit by an 18-wheeler whose driver had fallen asleep at the wheel. Her daughter was unconscious in intensive care with four cracked vertebrae, a skull fracture, concussion, a broken rib, and multiple contusions. Jodi herself had two broken ribs, a concussion, and one hell of a shiner. Her son had somehow managed to escape with only cuts and bruises. In just seconds, her life was turned on its head. Everything was up in the air. As the last line of her text read, “Bad situation. Lucky to be alive.”

I sat in bed, phone in my hand, staring out the window, tears streaming. How had I been on the phone with her one minute and not even a half-hour later, she’d been slammed by a semi and praying for her daughter’s life? I thought about how much kindness Jodi and her children had shown me during my years in New York. They’d welcomed me into their home on two holidays in 2008 – my last in New York, coincidentally enough. I’d spent Thanksgiving with them that year, laughing hysterically, whipping up Bermuda rum swizzles and my traditional “White Trash Broccoli Dish,” alongside Jodi, the kids, her boyfriend Tom, and our dear friend Mary. Then that Christmas, when the Seattle snowmageddon left me stranded alone in NYC for the holiday, Jodi reached out and invited me to spend the holiday in her home. I’d originally planned to splurge and take myself to dinner somewhere totally over-the-top Manhattan, like Chanterelle. But let’s face it – a fireplace and good friends beat that any day.

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that Jodi was a wonderful friend AND an incredibly accomplished woman AND a doting single mother AND was being a responsible driver by pulling onto the shoulder AND was doing the right thing by not continuing to drive after her car turned into a carnival of lights and INSTEAD called AAA – much less the fact that she even HAD a AAA membership, which was above-and-beyond the call of duty responsible. And for all that, some asshole professional (!) driver who knows better than anyone not to get behind the wheel at 2 a.m. when you’re sleepy comes along and carelessly fucks up her life????

Really? REALLY?!?!?!?!?!

That was all it took. I was off on a tailspin. It wasn’t enough that I’d just lost 80% of my income two weeks prior. Oh, and my relationship. And a dear member of my family had written me the day before to tell she was going through rough times in her marriage, in her life. One friend had just lost his mother. Another friend’s mother had been diagnosed with brain cancer and given four months to live. I’d just had the fourth person in my circle die before the age of 40 and the sixth person in my circle get cancer. And how about this whopper: one of my dearest friends was diagnosed with TWO types of cancer in the last 18 months.

What the fuck was happening?!

I just sat there in my bed. Sobbing. Sobbing. Sobbing. What can I say – I’m a Libra. I hate injustice. I hate when things aren’t fair. I hate when I don’t have information. I hate when I don’t understand why things are happening. Aside from chronic impatience and wanting to control the universe, my next greatest challenge in life is learning to live with unfairness and uncertainty. The Not Knowing, the gray areas – that’s where I get stuck in life’s Pool of Muck.

And I. Don’t. Like it.

Believe me, I’ve tried countless times to pull myself out of The Muck by focusing on the positive. And I tried it here too. But Jodi’s daughter is alive! But I’d landed another project that would replace the lost income, if only for a few short months! But the colleague who passed away had inspired so many with his courage and determination! But my other friends have all successfully battled cancer and are now back to living healthy, active lives! And hey – I’m healthy, my parents are healthy, I have a beautiful home and wonderful friends, and….

Blahblahblah. BULLSHIT. I wasn’t even buying what I was shoveling. What I really needed to do to get through this time was just wallow in The Muck.

It’s like this post I wrote last year. Before you can see the silver lining, YOU HAVE TO ACKNOWLEDGE THE CLOUD. You have to admit that where you’re at sucks. You have to say you’re pissed, you’re lonely, you’re hurting, that it’s not fair, that you don’t understand, that you hate everyone, that you hate your job, your boss, your parents, your house, your life, – shit, say you hate yourself. Say whatever it is that’s weighing on your heart and your mind. That’s The Muck. And it’s ugly. And it’s awful. And it makes you feel stuck and hopeless and powerless because that’s what it’s supposed to do. The more you fight it and try to Pollyanna your way out of it, the more it will hold you in its grasp.

And the more it holds you, the deeper you’ll be sucked into it, until you’re fighting and thrashing and being eaten alive. You can try to convince yourself that you’re NOT in The Muck. “Take that, Muck! You have no power over me! I can see the bright side of everything! I’m in control of my life and I WILL get through this and I WILL make it all better and I will NOT succumb to your flesh-eating ways!”

But The Muck will laugh at you and pull you in further. It will prove to you that you ARE in it, that it DOES have power over you. And it won’t release you until you give into it.

Believe me, I hate it too. I hate it because I was raised in a family where showing sadness and vulnerability was a sign of weakness. “We don’t cry” and “I don’t like people who cry,” my mother would say. It was all about Happiness & Joy at my house – happy, happy, we must be happy all the time! But The Muck was always beckoning just outside our Threshold of Puppies, Rainbows, and Laughter. Yet all the way through my twenties, I shushed The Muck away. I was a smiling ray of sunshine: “Yes, I can do that for you!” “Sure, I can help with that!” “Of course, I’m happy to take that on – hey, that’s part of my job/what friends are for/just what I do!”

Then I went through what happens at some point to all of us, especially those of us who keep turning a blind eye to The Muck: I suffered one of life’s most horrific heartbreaks – in my case, divorce – and fell face first into the biggest pool of muck to ever inhabit the earth. And it was awful. And disgusting. It tasted like shit, it felt like shit, it WAS shit.

But it was also a force greater than me and so I wallowed in it. Finally. And while I was there, I learned to own every feeling I had. And I learned it was OK to have all those feelings. Even when they contradicted each other (oh, did I mention I don’t deal with contradiction well either? Yeah.) I could be enraged, sad, confused, relieved, and overjoyed all at the same time. And that was OK. I could have no answers for what I was feeling at all. And that was OK. I could cry and cry and cry. And that was OK. And it didn’t mean I was weak. It meant I cared. It meant I was human. It meant I was feeling a full range of appropriate and completely valid human emotions. It meant I was WHOLE.

Suddenly I was no longer scared of The Muck. It had cracked me open and made me real. And even though being open and vulnerable was scary and I thought for sure a million people would reject me when they saw this side of me – this side that’s moody and frightened and not at all funny or full of life – no one ran away. In fact, my relationships grew deeper. Stronger. You could almost see my friends sigh in relief, “There’s a REAL person in there!!”

And right then – at least for a while – The Muck set me free.

As for Jodi and her family, by the grace of God (and many, MANY prayers), they’re home now – safe, sound, alive and well. Two weeks after the accident, Jodi finally brought herself to look at the photos of her demolished vehicle. She sent one to me, which set off a fresh torrent of tears. And she admitted she was struggling in The Muck.

“These pictures stir up a mix of emotion,” she wrote. “Awe, wonder, anger, gratitude, belief and disbelief, deepened love for my children and all the wonderful people in my life, relief, sorrow. It’s a difficult set to process – to be thankful and angry at the same time.” She told me part of her wanted the whole saga to be over and part of her wanted to wallow in it.

I told her to feel everything. To just let herself be in The Muck and not apologize for it or try to rationalize it. To not only acknowledge the cloud, but sit right smack in the middle of it, and let every feeling flow through her.

“Make like Feist and ‘Feel It All,'” I wrote. “Acknowledge the cloud. Soon you’ll pass through it and see the sun again.”

“Acknowledge the cloud,” Jodi echoed in her reply. “That, my dear, is probably the best advice I’ve ever heard. I promise myself to feel. To be mad. To yell. To be sad. To wallow a bit. Thank you for giving me permission.”

And in that moment, I knew she’d be OK, that she’d find her way out by going through the Muck. And once she’d done so, right then – at least for a while – The Muck would set her free.

Love lessons

The heart has its reasons which reason does not know. – Blaise Pascal

From the moment I set foot in my first corporate job – in 1995 – I knew I wanted to work for myself. I couldn’t exactly articulate why – I just knew. Of course, it took 10 years, a lot of detours, and a fuckload of courage to do it. Though I’ve told anyone who’ll listen that the reason I finally made the leap  wasn’t so much about courage as it was that I’d lost everything else in life and was truly not in my right mind when I did it. I’d also just watched three friends – all under 35 – become widows. Three friends deliver stillborn babies. I was reeling from my divorce, my father-in-law’s passing, my own father’s three brushes with death, and my mother’s battle with cancer. My life was by no means tragic, but I’d become painfully aware that it was horrifically short. Even if all of the struggles weren’t mine, it was foolish to not heed the lessons each imparted. There’s something about surviving – or witnessing – the upending of life that makes you realize how very little is permanent or predictable, and suddenly you don’t want to waste time. You become very much about “Why not?” – or as we improvisers call it, “Yes, and.” You stop questioning and start nodding. Stop analyzing and start moving. Stop fearing and start living.

For me, the greatest lesson was divorce, which is as much – if not more – about shattered expectations and the loss of a dream as it is about the loss of a person, a relationship. You feel completely disillusioned: “What? I thought this was supposed to be forever.” Here was someone you swore – in front of God and everybody – you’d stick with ’til death, for better or worse. And suddenly, the worst has happened and you haven’t kept your promise. And you feel like shit and a liar and completely naive for believing there was a guarantee.

But there are no guarantees. EVER. Because, even in marriage, despite the ceremony and the vows and the marriage certificate, it’s all a choice. Relationships are a choice. EVERY DAY. You have to actively wake up each and every morning and choose this person. Someone once explained to me why she hadn’t married the father of her children, with whom she’d been in a relationship for over a decade. Until that point, I’d always thought people like that were really weird and commitment-phobic and fucked up. But her point resonated with me:

“I think people get lazy when they’re married. Like once everything is signed and sealed and tied up with a bow, they stop working at the relationship. They stop choosing each other. It’s very easy for me or my partner to walk away because we’re not married. Every day, we HAVE to choose to be here and work on it.”

Upon hearing this, I realized I hadn’t continued to make that choice in my marriage. And although I’m not sure perpetual cohabitation is an option for me, I now understand the importance of choosing to be with someone, whether you have a ring on your finger or not.

And who should that person be? How do you determine the qualities of a suitable partner? Years ago, I spent a good deal of therapy sessions talking about what I wanted in a partner, making note of my “must-haves” (intelligence, ambition, work they’re passionate about, integrity, dark hair) and “dealbreakers” (mental illness, substance abuse, no life or friends or interests of their own). Then one afternoon, my friend Jill looked me square in the eyes and said:

“Nicole. All that matters is how someone makes you feel.”

Oh. RIGHT. How do you feel with someone? Do you feel happy? Do you look forward to seeing them? Do you think of them often – and fondly? Do you feel – dare I say it – safe? Jill told me that her boyfriend “feels like home” to her. None of these descriptors are particularly sexy, but really – this is all that matters. When a friend of mine was clinging to a woman he wasn’t really into – going through his checklist of what was good and not-so-good about her, I finally said to him, “How does she make you feel? Do you like her? Do you like being with her? Stop overanalyzing and check in with your heart.”

One of my dearest friends is twice-divorced and has been with her current partner for six years. I once asked her – after having been married to two very different men – what she believes is the #1 ingredient in a relationship. Her response?

Passion.

Not necessarily “tearing-your-underwear-off-with-my-teeth” passion (although, really, who can complain about that), but passion for the other person. Strong feelings of respect, admiration, love, and desire – desire to be with them, near them. She said, “Without that, it becomes very difficult to work through tough times.”

Relationships aren’t a careful calculation of qualities and traits and hobbies and likes and dislikes – as the fucked-up smorgasbord “perfect person is just a click away” world of online dating would like us to believe. Every site out there tries to convince us they have the ideal formula for helping you find your soulmate, when the real challenge is to just trust your feelings – and then make a choice. It’s not anything that can be measured or explained. It’s how someone moves you – rocks you to the core. It’s knowing the difference between intuition and fear, which is another little inside voice that sounds a lot like intuition, but isn’t. It’s False Evidence Appearing Real. So how do you make the distinction, especially when it comes to love? There’s lots of kumbaya shit out there about how to “go inside yourself” and “get quiet within” in order to distinguish between the two. If you’re like me, you’re too hyper and impatient to crunch on that granola. So here’s a simpler solution, in the wise words of my friend Janya’s father near the end of his life:

“Don’t choose someone you can live with. Choose someone you can’t live without.”