I’m Improbable? No, You’re Improbable!

My current life is highly improbable. Maybe that’s why I find it so beautiful. It’s a bit of a mystery to me how I got here. But, yet, here I am.

From the time I was 8 years old, adults constantly nudged and prodded me toward leadership roles. But I was having none of that. I had no intention of leading anyone anywhere. Because, not only did I not think I was capable, I also didn’t want to be seen. Other kids, they were smarter, more popular, more stylish, more together… I just wanted to settle into being (relatively) smart, blending into the background. Leadership takes confidence. And all I was confident of was that I was the world’s biggest dork.

Even in college, I chose the path of least resistance–for my studies at least. I opted to major in literature, with the idea that I’d teach high school English. Not because I really wanted to teach. I just couldn’t think of anything else I might be good at. Which is about the world’s worst reason to be a teacher. But it seemed accessible and didn’t require much vision on my part. (It would’ve been a disaster, by the way. Teaching really is a calling. And I did not have it. They would’ve eaten me alive).

But somehow a few of my undergraduate professors convinced me that grad school was a good idea (my parents seemed less sure. They though perhaps I should just go on and get a job). Grad school was both a good idea and all kinds of humbling. And, concurrently, I was navigating my path toward addiction at breakneck speed. It took me 6 years in total to get my Masters degree. It’s supposed to take 2. It took me a hella long time to pull my shit together enough to write that thesis. But I did it.

And then I quit. Without perusing my doctorate. Not because I didn’t want it. I still want the damn thing. But because I knew I’d have to contend with folks smarter than me in my classes and later compete with said smart people for a job.

Path of least resistance.

I took various communication jobs I hated. They paid the bills. I was okay at them. I didn’t really want to do any of them.

Then I taught writing at the University of South Florida. I was pretty good at it. But more importantly to me, I loved it. I loved the students. Loved my colleagues. Loved mentoring and working on the textbook. I felt totally alive.

But, when the director encouraged me to get my PhD so I could move beyond adjuncting (which is a ton of work for an itty bitty amount of pay, and virtually zero professional recognition), I said no. Because I didn’t think I was worth the investment. It would’ve cost too much (even though I was spending thousands and thousands of dollars a year to drink myself into oblivion). I didn’t want to move where the tenure track job might take me. But really, I just didn’t believe I deserved more than I had.

After I got sober, after I gave birth to our daughter, when I was ready to remake myself (career wise), I knew I wanted to write. Not teach people how to write. But actually write words on a page, which ideally folks would pay me for.

The problem?

I hadn’t worked in the field in a decade.

So, I took a contract job writing about hangers. Luxury hangers, to be exact. No, not airplane hangers. You’re thinking too exotic there. Hangers to hang one’s clothes upon.

I was writing SEO content, so I had to carefully consider words to describe and refer to hangers–but I couldn’t use the same word too often or the search engines would flag the content. It was like a game: a thousand ways to describe a hanger.

No one said it was an exciting game.

For these efforts, I earned approximately $2 an hour.

But, I’m nothing if not stubborn. So I kept at these weird contract gigs, earning about $50 a week until I had some writing samples collected. Which was a crucial part of the plan. Because, when a friend called with a potential gig with a multinational client, I had writing samples to send her–even if they were about those godforsaken hangers.

I got the gig.

To be clear, the only reason I got this gig, which in turn led to another friend offering me a gig with her agency–thus kicking off my writing career–is because my friend took a chance on me.

Every writing job I got after that fell into my lap. Someone would refer a friend or a client to me. Or hand me a lead to pitch. I brought approximately zero percent of my business in on my own.

Let’s be real clear here: this is not a humble brag. This is me telling you that even when I was doing something I was good at, I did not have the confidence to market myself or my craft. At all.

After 3 years or so, I’d collected enough steady clients providing me with ongoing work and leads for new work that I finally started making some decent money writing.

Just in time for me to decide I didn’t want to do it anymore.

Which sounds bananas, right?

But, even though I was good at writing and I generally enjoyed doing it, I just couldn’t see this being my long-term path. It just didn’t resonate and bring me joy the way I’d thought it would. I suppose, ultimately, I didn’t feel fulfilled. Which turned out just fine, because then I got this wild bookstore idea.

Let’s review real quickly, so we’re all on the same page: I’m the same kid that refused any sort of stab at leadership (informal or otherwise) because I believed I was too dorky to be effective. If I was going to put myself out there at all, I relegated myself to runner-up position, not the spotlight. I quit grad school without pursuing a PhD, not because I wasn’t interested but because I might fail if I had to compete. I’d carved out a niche for myself as a writer, but could’t ever find the confidence to market myself.

Obviously, I’ve got some real risk aversion going on here.

And yet. I knew.

When I told my partner, Simon, that I wanted to open a used bookstore in EAV, and he responded with enthusiasm instead of taking my temperature and tucking me in for a long nap, I knew. I knew this, this was the right thing.

I had no zero clue how I’d get from the inception of the idea to an actual brick and mortar store. I didn’t have any business or retail experience to speak of.

And still.

I’d finish one step in the process, look around, and ascertain the next right thing. And then I’d do that.

All the toxic things I’d always believed about myself, all the reasons I’d fabricated about why I couldn’t do whatever… I just kind of said fuck it and did exactly what I wanted to do. Exactly what felt right.

It was like a switch flipped.

I definitely got pushback from some grown-folk I respected who I thought would support me. They did not. In fact, they actively discouraged me. I did it anyway.

Not because I am strong. But because I was tired of limiting myself. Tired of being afraid of failure. I was tired of a half-ass stab at life.

And so.

I opened myself to all the encouragement I received–from people I knew and people I didn’t (yet). I let myself believe that my little contribution to our southeast Atlanta community would be met with goodness and support (it has been). And I finally tuned out the inner voice that tells me I am not enough–and listened to the Universe as things fell into place one at a time and I received confirmation after confirmation that YES. This is right. This is what you are called to do. Now go the hell forth and do the damn thing.

And so, with the help of so many good souls who sent money, and good vibes, and donated books and helped in huge and small ways, I now have this bookstore–that is so much bigger than me. That brings joy–and books!–to other people. That is the calling I’ve been looking for my whole life.

Because I got out of my own way and opened myself up to the possiblities.

It’s improbable that this risk-adverse human would own her own bookstore. But the improbable has turned out to be just what I needed.

Which is to say, if I can do this thing, anyone can do anything.

Note: I saw Glennon Doyle’s post (linked above) come across Facebook last night, and it made me laugh–but it also made me think about the ways in which my story is a bit improbable, too. Maybe we’re all improbable–and that’s the magic of it all.

Gosh Darn It, I’m Capable

I feel all kinds of capable right now. And DAMN, it feels good.

I know, I know. I’m a grown ass woman. I should feel capable, right?? But for so long, I didn’t. Not because of imposter syndrome. Nope. That requires actual achievements first.

I didn’t feel capable because I wasn’t. Full stop.

We could have a little chat about how I got to the point of believing I wasn’t capable and, therefore, becoming a stellar self-fulfilling prophesy. But it’s really not that interesting–besides, my therapist might get jealous if I started chatting you up about that.

What I do know, 100%, is that booze kept me in that place, that I am only capable of mediocrity place, for a long time. And I wanted it to. Not achieving much of anything felt pretty blasted safe. Trying… now that is scary. It involves risk. And failure. And, oh my GOD, so much vulnerability.

Getting sober didn’t make me feel capable. It made me a lot of other things: clear-headed, introspective, thoughtful, less scared of hard work. I was functional, sure. But capable is a whole new level.

Bringing my daughter, Jane, into the world gave me a giant shove toward living that Capable and In Charge Life. I mean, keeping another human alive is not nothin’.

Sweet Baby Jane.

Once she was in the world, and with me 24/7, I started thinking about how I wanted my daughter to see me (that was easier then than thinking of how I wanted to see myself. I wasn’t quite there yet). What did I want to teach her about being a woman? How did I want her to see me navigate the world?

With that in mind, I embarked on several trial and error adventures. My first job back from 3 years as a stay-at-home mom was as the Children’s Director at a small church. Let’s just say that job didn’t play to my particular strengths. And I had such a need to be validated that I suffered through some things I’d never countenance now.

And then… Simon & I took a trip to Paris. Something about that trip changed me. Maybe it was being away from Jane for 10 days–and having to reckon with my perception of myself as something other than her mother. Maybe it was having a real, honest to God, Parisian croissant for the first time in my life. Or maybe it was that O Magazine I got a hold of on the flight home (Lord have mercy, do I love Oprah). But I came back from that trip with a full, guttural understanding that if I didn’t pursue my calling (what I was meant to do, my big dream) that it would tug at the back of my mind, linger in all my what ifs until I gave it a shot. Dreams can’t be ignored forever. And we pay a very real price for trying to stifle them. So I quit my job as a Children’s Ministry Director (it was time, y’all)…

And I started writing. For literally cents per page. About things like luxury hangers (like, clothing hangers). I shit you not. Then one of my freelance pieces got published. And then I started contracting with businesses as a writer/consultant (quick shout out to women helping other women: all 3 of my initial gigs were because other women (friends of mine) took a chance on my inexperienced writer self). Something funny–yet probably totally predictable–happened. The more I wrote, the more capable I felt. I didn’t shy away from the big clients (even an international corporation!). I dove in. I tried. Full on hard-core tried. And s-l-o-w-l-y I came to believe that I could do it. Really do it. And do it well.

It took a few years before I was wiling to self-identify as a writer. It just felt so impossible that this thing I’d wanted to be since I was 8 years old… that I’d become that very thing. Because capable. And because I finally got out of my own damn way.

I’m not world famous. I don’t have a blog following of tens of thousands. In fact, I don’t even have a byline for most of what I’ve written. But, still, writing changed everything for me. It changed the way I see myself. The way I interact with the world around me. And as I get ready to open a used bookstore this Fall, I realize that I am in this place–this big, scary, exciting, risk-taking place–because I chose to admit I might be capable after all.


Under Pressure

At 16 years old, I found myself behind a cash register, with the beep beep beep of the scanner droning on. It was my very first job–at Target–and I was god-awful at it. 

Here’s the thing: I cannot be rushed. It’s like I have a biological something that creates an inverse relationship between urgency & the speed at which I move. 

At 16 years old, I found myself behind a cash register, with the beep beep beep of the scanner droning on. It was my very first job–at Target–and I was god-awful at it.

Here’s the thing: I cannot be rushed. It’s like I have a biological something that creates an inverse relationship between urgency & the speed at which I move.

If you are, say, a cashier, this is quite the liability. I’d see customers lining up, looking more impatient by the second, and things would start to unravel. I wouldn’t be able to get the UPC code to scan. I’d feel my face getting hot. I’d try to scan it again–I mean, we’re talking a flat item here–like a cereal box. Nothing. Then, out of nowhere, it would scan properly. But by then, I was breaking out in a cold sweat. Then, invariably, I’d need to call for a price check. This was 1991. Not everyone had a walkie talkie. Price checks took nigh on forever. So, there I’d stand, light flashing, face bright red, waiting… and waiting… and waiting.

Unsurprisingly, about 2 months into this gig, my hours started to dwindle. I started out with at least 15 hours a week. Soon I was down to three. I finally mustered up the courage to go talk with the front lane supervisor. It took a lot of mustering. She was old (at LEAST 30). She was mean (like she actually wanted us to do our jobs well). And, well, she kinda scared the shit out of me. But I figured I was going to get fired anyway–or the Target version of fired where they just decrease your hours until it cost more in gas money to drive to work than you earn–so in I went.

I asked her why I only had 3 hours on the schedule. I will never forget the look on her face–somewhere between bewilderment and clandestine amusement. “You are AWFUL at this,” she said, without malice. But STILL.

“I know,” I said quickly. I hadn’t rehearsed this part. In fact, I’d only practiced the part where I worked up the courage to walk up to her. I was totally winging it. What was that look on her face? Was she really about to laugh at me? “I know,” I carried on quickly before she could kick me out. “I like sort of suck under pressure. But maybe I could, like,  move to softlines? I think I could, like, you know, be pretty good at that.”

She rolled her eyes. And I thought, maybe, I saw a smile. But it could’ve just been a break in her scowl. Either way. “You have two weeks. That’s it. Two weeks. If you aren’t amazing over there, you’re out.”

“Yes. Yes! That’s great! You won’t regret it.” I started to walk back toward my register.

“No. No. No. No more register. Please. Just go back to softlines. I’ll radio back and tell them you’re coming.”

That was the rather inauspicious start of a job that would last the next 4 years and that would save me from myself–and my growing agoraphobia–in high school. But that’s another story all together…

 

 

Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash