making a life from pieces

empty Barefoot wine bottle against brick wall, NW Portland

Changes loom around corners ahead, those of my own making and others I can't possibly predict or prepare for, since that's how life works. At the suggestion of a friend, I've been reading a classic self-help book, Barbara Sher's I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was. I've long known what I want. It's making it happen, the how, that's the tough part. Sher's book is more practical and supportive than most change-your-life texts, filled with exercises and insight. Written by a famed therapist specializing in career counseling and motivational speaking, it's cheap therapy, especially when you can easily find a used copy of this mid-1990's bestseller in most any thrift store for just a few bucks.

Park Here: homeless person sleeping on cardboard, NW Portland

painted CHAP art truck, NW Portland

Sher's main points are logical but not always obvious. She says it's much easier to put the time in to master a skill you're interested in and have an aptitude for. Just because you're good at something doesn't mean you should be doing it for a living. For example, I have an artist friend who used to sew and design clothes professionally but hates sewing, so she shouldn't sew for a living. Why make yourself miserable when you don't have to? And Sher's point is that nobody should make themselves miserable, though we can't, she admits, have everything we want at the same time or forever. Work, she also says, is only meaningful if it's personally meaningful. I've held my share of societally meaningful jobs I resented because of being underpaid, undervalued, or simply bored out of my mind. Sher says taking action is the best way to make new things happen, even before you think you're ready, because this gives serendipity something to work with. And, she says, the easiest way to start is to "follow your nose" and turn towards your interests, even in the smallest of gestures, like a plant to light. Plus, since everything is part of the journey of self-development, any job can be a skill-building opportunity and method for personal growth. Sher says to trust yourself to leave a situation when things don't feel right. And a supportive team cheering you on, she claims, makes all the difference.

Sher's "Regrouping" chapter asks you to list what you liked to do over five-year increments of your life, what you like to do right now, and what you absolutely hate doing. (I'll spare you my list of hates.) Sher says in our efforts to survive, pay bills, and fulfill obligations we tend to forget we can make up a life out of all the things we love. I made such lists years ago in therapy but hadn't put them into a timeline before, but the timeline seems to prove we are who we are. Themes persist. The past is ever present, one long stretched line of continuity, of self, the one imperfect person we're stuck with up to the tunnel-closing end.

wall stripes, NW Portland

tree shadows on gray wall, NW Portland

When I was five, I liked singing, bubble baths, playing dress up, going camping, and being read to. When I was 10 or so, I was reading alone in my room for hours a day with the door closed, riding my bike around the yard (because we weren't allowed into the street), playing badminton in P.E., foraging raspberries and peas and sour apples from my grandmother's garden, playing in a neighbor's juniper treehouse, and making and illustrating books. When I was 15, I was reading things none of my peers had ever heard of, singing in jazz choir, sunbathing on the lawn over summer vacation, and visiting the Oregon coast whenever I could, staring off at the horizon.

old brick wall with trees turned parking lot facade, NW Portland

When I was 20-ish, I was traveling abroad, reading for college classes, writing essays and bad poetry, having dinner parties with friends, and attending foreign films on campus for free. When I was 25, I had stopped the traveling but was reading again after taking a year or two off books and journaling a lot, though I can't remember what else I did for fun (it was a complicated transitional period), maybe dancing in public to loud music? By the time I hit 30, I was reading again and watching a lot of films, grocery shopping and cooking, sending off existential e-mails to friends, playing housewife. When I was 35, I liked taking long daily walks around the neighborhood while dreaming of owning a house, doing yoga, going to the farmer's market, cooking at home, and watching films while knitting. (My ex said the knitting reminded him of "the end of our days.") The things I like doing now should be fairly obvious from the blog.

vintage turquoise Peugeot Montreal Express street bike, NW Portland

red rose, Portland, Oregon, May 2014

What I learned from my divorce—which wasn't my choice but something I've since been grateful for—was how much of myself I had lost during those years of trying to merge my life with someone else's, someone with vastly different tastes and interests, bowing to his whims and constraints, trying to make him happy and never succeeding. (And if I'm honest, he probably felt the same.) The marriage was a mistake and a hard lesson. I am thankful each day to have myself back, all the little enduring pieces that make up me. It's time to start fitting those pieces again into a new configuration, still the same but different, bigger, better, more myself, like a snake shedding its too-tight skin.

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