The things you don’t read about on the internet.

The things you don't read about on the internet.

There are many things I would dearly love to write about on this blog, for the sake of the writing process, the feedback, the crowdsourcing potential for knotty problems. I can think of a half dozen subjects I could pour my heart and soul into: they’d make for good reading and good conversation.

But those subjects won’t appear on this blog, and probably won’t appear anywhere in print, at least not anytime in the next ten years.

You’ve probably heard bloggers say this before: they have topics they’d like to write about, but they can’t. Or they won’t. As to why not, the usual explanation goes something like this: it’s not my story to tell. (What usually follows is a rousing discussion of Anne Lamott’s quip: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”)

I disagree with Lamott on this one. Some stories aren’t mine to tell: they belong to someone else. (More and more, that “someone” is one of my kids. I ask permission to blog about them these days.)

But I’m realizing that when I decide what to write—and not write—about, it’s not just about whose story it is to tell. That question has an equally important corollary: whose story is it to hear?

four levels of relationship

When my therapist explained the four levels of relationship to me last year, it changed the way I thought about my interactions with others. (I’d encourage you to go read that post before reading on.)

The four levels of relationship in a nutshell

There are four possible levels of relationship, ranging from shallow (our acquaintances) to deep (our intimates). Every relationship we have can be plotted on that sliding scale. The status itself is emotionally neutral. We run into trouble when our behavior and our relationship status don’t align.

This happens all the time.

It explains why it feels horrible to find out about your best friend’s engagement on facebook, and why it feels horribly awkward when a new acquaintance overshares and bares her soul to you. The behavior should match the relationship status: we expect our best friend to treat us like an intimate; our new acquaintance shouldn’t treat us as a confidant.

The things you don't read about on the internet

The four levels of relationship on the internet

When my therapist and I talked about the four levels, we were talking about in-person, three-dimensional relationships: the people you see at work, or yoga class, or Thanksgiving dinner. She wasn’t talking about blogging or social media.

But lately I’ve been thinking about the four levels and the online world, and it’s been eye-opening: the internet is a place where our behavior and our relationship status diverge all the time.

One example: I often find myself cringing when someone airs their dirty laundry publicly—whether it’s a facebook friend or a celebrity on E! Online. But not just because of the lurid details: it’s because, lurid or not, I have no business hearing them. I am not intimate friends with the teller. It is not my story to hear.

On the other hand, when a close friend tells me a sordid personal story, it’s likely I’ll cringe at that—not necessarily because she shouldn’t have told me, but because it was just that kind of story. (She’s probably cringing right along with me.) An intimate relationship can handle the heavy stuff. It’s a subtle distinction, but it’s important.

Once I recognized the significance of this, I started seeing it everywhere. (Vaguebooking is annoying, but Facebook oversharing is downright uncomfortable, and this is why.)

This isn’t to say one shouldn’t talk about personal stuff online, not at all. Many bloggers treat their blogs like online journals, and I love memoir as a genre. Those formats work (when they work) because they are highly edited. The writers are careful about what they share, and especially about how they share it. (The best ones do this so delicately you don’t even notice how careful they’re being.) If they weren’t, reading them would feel horribly awkward.

Moving forward

My family is starting to work through a murky problem-of-sorts right now. (We’ll be fine, nothing major, and whatever you’re thinking it might be, it’s definitely not that.) I would dearly love to hit you with it here on the blog: I want to know who else has experienced something similar, directly or peripherally. I want to crowdsource your ideas. I want to be able to talk about it, here.

But I’ve thought about the four levels, and I’m convinced that—at least for now—this isn’t the right place. (Even though I’m thankful to get to call many of you friends, some of you close ones.) Instead, I’ve been reaching out to friends over coffee, to far-flung friends by phone and email, looking for advice, support, and a sounding board.

It’s not the same as writing about it here; it’s not the same as sharing it with you. But it’s good.

I welcome your thoughts and observations in comments. I’m very curious to hear what your personal experiences surrounding this topic have been like. 

When your perspective changes in an instant.

When your perspective changes in an instant.

A few weeks ago, my friend told me a story over coffee in my kitchen.

Her parents have lived in their childhood home for forty years; so have the next door neighbors. Twenty years ago they stopped speaking to each other, the lingering result of some silly feud about a privacy fence.

My friend told me in exasperation that her mom hadn’t had a good word to say about her neighbor for twenty years; she had refused to speak to him in the neighborhood or even acknowledge his presence.

But then he died—she had heard he hadn’t been well, but it was still unexpected—and my friend’s mom transformed from the holder of a serious grudge to a sad and solicitous neighbor. She relayed the details of everything—the visitation, the funeral, the updates on the family—to my friend in minute detail.

My friend tried to be sympathetic, but she was annoyed. I don’t understand how people can act like that, she said. She spent twenty years hating his guts, and now she’s bringing casseroles.

I don’t understand it either, I said.

I really didn’t. Not then.    

When your perspective changes in an instant.

*****     *****     *****

Our chocolate lab is 11 years old. Our vet warned us that labs act like puppies (read: all trouble, all the time) for the first eight years of their lives, and then they slow down, fast. Harriet proved him right: she didn’t mellow much over the years—until she hit her tenth birthday, when her walking range suddenly plummeted. All of a sudden, she was old.

Harriet has never been “my” dog, and both of us know it. My husband has always wanted “a dog he could wrestle with,” and when our child’s occupational therapist said that we should either get a dog or have another baby for our kid’s sake, he was thrilled. Harriet entered the family shortly thereafter. (The next weekend I found out I was pregnant, but that’s another story.)

Harriet follows Will—and even the kids—around the house, putting her paw on their knee, pleading, whenever she needs something: food, water, a potty break. She never “asks” me for anything; she doesn’t expect it from me. This isn’t all bad: she stopped sleeping through the night this winter (plunging us back into something that eerily resembled the baby stage), and we tried everything to get her to stop. We found a solution when Will went out of town: she knew I wouldn’t get up in the middle of the night to entertain her, and she didn’t bother trying. I’m only a person of interest when I’m holding her leash because she loves to walk.

But last week when Harriet woke up, she couldn’t walk. Will carried her outside so she could go to the bathroom. When I looked out the window and saw her stumble, then fall, I surprised myself by bursting into tears.

I called the vet right away and embarrassed myself by crying on the phone; I could barely choke out what was wrong. (The tech reassured me: it happens all the time, she said.) I was terrified that the vet would say it was time to put her down, immediately.

Will and I have talked before about what we’ll do when she dies( she is getting old for a lab). How will the kids take it, and will we get another puppy? These haven’t been emotional conversations for me. Even a few weeks ago, I would have told you I like our dog but I’m not deeply attached to her.

I know better now.

When your perspective changes in an instant.

*****     *****     *****

As much as you hear things like life is short and live in the present, it’s very hard to actually live that way day in and day out. It’s not because we’re all stupid and shallow: it’s because as humans we have an inherent future bias. Our default mental setting is to focus on what’s to come, not on what’s happening now. For most of us, it takes something dramatic—a diagnosis, a near-miss, a death—to jolt us back into the present.

This is why you encounter so many absurdly grateful, unflaggingly happy cancer survivors—and even cancer patients. Everyone who weathers something like that emerges as a different person. You think they’re off their rocker when they say it, but they still say it, or some version of it: I wouldn’t trade this god-awful experience for the world. Such an experience transforms their perspective, permanently.

*****     *****     *****

Where does that leave us? I would tell you to go forgive someone, to patch up an old misunderstanding, to let go of a grudge. But it probably wouldn’t do any good; that’s not how our minds work.

Instead, consider this: if everything changed in a moment, are there situations in your life that you would suddenly feel very differently about than you think you do now? It’s not easy; our brains don’t like to work that way. But I would encourage you to try—and to summon the discipline, the courage, the grace, the whatever-it-takes, to do something about it, now.

P.S. When we were in the fire, and the waiting room.

Four years.

What I've learned from 4 years of blogging | Modern Mrs Darcy

fruit and flowers for four years

This blog quietly turned four on February 8. I might have marked the day here on the blog … if I had remembered.

If WordPress didn’t tell me otherwise, I would solemnly swear that this blog began in the spring, and that it’s impossible that four whole years have gone by since the first post.

It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long, not even close.

I’m fuzzy on the public beginning, but I remember the private origins clearly. It was right around New Year’s, the kids were in bed, and Will and I were doing the wine and cheese thing at the kitchen table, talking hopes and dreams for the upcoming year.

We talked about the blog he’d started the year before—a new thing for him, an experiment. Then he interrupted himself to say You know who should start a blog? YOU.

Nope, I say, you’re crazy.   

Five minutes later, I was convinced it was the best idea ever.

blog brainstorming

That was the beginning, even if the first post didn’t go up for another 40 days or so.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The whole thing has been nothing like I expected, from start-to-finish.

I started MMD because I wanted to write, and improve my writing: the blog gave me the reason, and the accountability. Those reasons aren’t unique: Seth Godin says he would pay good money to have a blog because the daily practice is invaluable.

I get it. I’m a much better writer than I was when I started this blog. (If I ever need to be reminded of that, I can just look back at the early posts. Cringe.) You’re reading Post #1078: that much practice will make anybody better at anything.

Back in 2011, I didn’t know about the blogging community. I didn’t expect to find wonderful people online through my blog and those of my fellow bloggers. I was amazed when that started to happen.

The best thing about blogging has been that community: the friends I’ve made and the relationships I’ve built. I don’t mean in a networking sense (although I’ve made those connections, too, and they’ve been invaluable). I mean that after four years, I’ve met a substantial number of actual friends online—some of them right here in the comments section.

I’m so grateful for this community; it’s the best part of the blog. The wonderful conversations that happen in the comments section—and often continue offline—will never stop surprising me. As of this morning there were 34,272 comments here. That’s a lot of conversation.

four year anniversary: thoughts on four years of blogging

A few stats on 4 years.

After 4 years, 1078 posts, 2.6 million visitors, and 8 million pageviews …

The top 5 most viewed posts, meaning the ones with the most pageviews.

  1. 39 stocking stuffers that will actually feel appreciated, don’t feel like a waste of money, and won’t be broken/forgotten/destroyed by New Years. The Washington Post linked to this back in the fall, which singlehandedly catapulted this Christmas post to the top of the list.
  2. Books worth binge-reading. For reasons I can’t explain, this one went bananas on Pinterest.
  3. A dissenting opinion on the IKEA Ektorp sofa. Google search continues to drive heaps of traffic to this post daily. Apparently people love their Ektorps, and anything IKEA.
  4. Un-put-down-able. Another Pinterest winner.
  5. Laundry 101: clean towels. This was one of the very first posts, and isn’t the kind of thing I would even write today. Several years after I posted it, BuzzFeed linked to it, and drove so much traffic the first few days I was afraid my blog would crash. (It didn’t.)

The most commented posts. It’s hard to quantify your favorite posts, but easy to see which ones garnered the most comments.

  1. The 2015 reading challenge. I’m thrilled y’all are so excited about reading.
  2. Literary matchmaking. Personal shopping for books. Whatever you want to call it, here goes. This is the first literary matchmaking post. Yes, I’m still working my way through this list s-l-o-w-l-y, although at this point so much time has gone by I’m emailing readers to see if they’re still interested. Watch your inbox…
  3. Let’s make Autumn Reading a thing. Summer reading gets all the love. We made up for it by sharing our favorite fall reads here.
  4. The book isn’t better than the movie. Occasionally, a movie will be better than its book. Very occasionally. I ask for your examples, and you blow me away with your suggestions.
  5. There are 7 ways to hate a book.

My favorite posts. I’m allergic to picking favorites, but these represent the kind of posts I like most: the ones that compel you to consider things from a different perspective (and with writing that doesn’t make me flinch on a re-read).

  1. When we were in the fire.
  2. When the planes hit the towers on 9/11, I was over the Atlantic Ocean, in a plane bound for New York City.
  3. “Crazy” Mary Todd, and other historical myths.
  4. In the waiting room.
  5. What keeps women from showing up?

Moving forward

Some people say blogging years are like dog years: a year on the internet is worth 7 off-screen. If that’s the case, MMD just turned 28.

I like the sound of that. Many people feel like they don’t come into their own until they hit 30 or so. I hope that means Modern Mrs Darcy is about to hit her stride. :)

Thank you for making this a great four years. I’m looking forward to more to come.

P.S. To celebrate four years, How She Does It is on sale all week for $2.99. (Details here.)

On burnout.

After years of honing, these are my essential practices to avoid burnout in an age of busyness.

I’ve had burnout on the brain lately, because the topic is everywhere: in my inbox, in the books I’m reading, in conversations with friends.

A few days ago, I recorded a podcast with Elizabeth Foss for her Restore Workshop, which begins today. When I say I want to be Elizabeth when I grow up, I’m only kind of kidding—even though our lives are decidedly different. She’s Catholic; I am not. She’s devoted to homeschooling; I’m ambivalent; She has ten kids (and a grandchild!); I only have four. But she is so wise, and I hope to grow into that kind of wisdom one day.

The Restore Workshop focuses on burnout, or more precisely, recovering from it. Elizabeth began by asking about a time where I felt burnt out, depleted, and overwhelmed. She said she assumed I’d had a time like that. Of course I have—haven’t we all?

I’ve experienced circumstantial burnout: I’ve gone to bed a weepy mess because I didn’t want to face another impossible day at work. I’ve had whole seasons when the intense mothering was just too much. There have been whole years when I felt pushed to the very edge—when I consistently lacked the rest I needed.

And there have been times I brought burnout on myself: when I pushed too hard, took on too much; when I literally made myself sick with my own unrelenting drive.

Just a few weeks ago, I was flirting with burnout of my own making: I pushed myself a little too hard, and I felt myself teetering on the edge between normal tired and I-need-to-read-for-5-days-straight-to-get-over-this tired. I recognized this in time (that wasn’t always the case) and pulled back, and fast.

I don’t love using the word balance in the work/life conversation because it implies that things should be equal, like on a see-saw, or a scale. That’s not the kind of balance most people seek. But I do need to stay balanced in another sense: I need to stay on my feet, metaphorically speaking. Burning out is like falling down, and it’s a lot easier to just stay upright than it is to get back up after you wipe out.

For me, wiping out looks like overwhelmed in every possible way. I’m hurried, frantic, snappish. Things that usually don’t bother me (like cluttered kitchen counters, or the sound of a kid raking through the LEGO bucket) make me crazy. I have no grace for myself or anyone else.

When I fall down, I can’t just bounce back up. It takes days to recover.

I’ve finally internalized the obvious lesson: the easiest way to deal with burnout is to avoid it in the first place.

JoyPhoto source

I just finished reading The Fringe Hours, which was just released yesterday. I know Jessica from her blog and a little bit from real life, and I enjoyed getting her perspective in book-length form. The book’s subtitle is making time for you: its focus is how and why to create “me time” in your life. The “fringe” hours are those limited pieces of time that appear on the margins of a day, but that’s not all. Fringe is also used to make a garment more beautiful, and fringe hour pursuits do the same for life.

I imagine two types of people will read this book: the kind to whom the hows and whys of “me time” are a revelation, and the kind who don’t need any convincing because they’re already making plenty of time for themselves.

Many of Jessica’s tips and insights are second nature to me now, but that wasn’t always the case. It took me a long time—and a lot of falling down—to finally absorb the important lesson that I am not last. My hope is that The Fringe Hours will smooth the path for other women. This isn’t a lesson anyone wants to learn the hard way!

I don’t flirt with burnout much anymore. I’ve learned how to keep clear of the edge, even if my biggest challenge remains actually doing those things.

After years of honing, these are my essential practices to avoid burnout in an age of busyness.

When Elizabeth and I talked, she asked for my go-to practices that bring a sense of calm and rest to days—or a season—that might leave me prone to burnout and depletion. After years of honing, these are my essential practices to avoid burnout in an age of busyness:

Embrace routine. I’ve built regular rhythms of work and rest into my days, weeks, seasons. I stop to read every day at 2:00 (which, admittedly, is often work-related—but it doesn’t feel like it) and at bedtime. I walk the dog to the park. Will and I drink tea or wine and debrief the day after bedtime.

• Take the long view. Because my schedules for work and play vary so much from day to day, I need to plan in weeks, not hours.

• Get out of my head. I often feel overwhelmed … until I get my to-do list out of my head and down on paper. It’s much more manageable when it’s written down.

• Work hard, rest well. I work when I’m supposed to be working, and I rest when I’m supposed to be resting.

• Screen-free rest. It took me a long time to come to this personal rule. Because so much of my work takes place behind a screen, I need a clean break when it’s time to rest. When I’m behind the computer, it’s too easy for me to pop open my email to do one more thing. My eyes need the break, too.

• Plan to relax. I have a standing monthly massage appointment. It’s already paid for; I just need to show up. This felt really indulgent when I first signed up last year, but since I have an old sports injury and I type too much, it makes a huge difference to how I feel.

• Simplify. If I have a tough week, or a busy month, we eat really simple foods. We schedule extra nights at home. We might even skip a few kids’ activities.

• Real food matters. I’m a grouch when I don’t eat protein, and sugar is always bad news for me.

• Consider opportunity cost. When I’m thinking about staying up late to finish a project, or writing when I’m supposed to be resting, I ask myself what it’s going to cost me. Then I may go ahead and stay up late anyway—but I usually don’t.

• Get help. If we have a busy season, we book our regular sitter for more hours (and have her do the grocery shopping), or get someone to clean the house. Sometimes I need a different kind of “help,” like making the time to catch up with an old friend even though I feel like I don’t have the time.

Am I the only one who has a history of flirting with burnout, or just plain falling down? What are your strategies for avoiding it? How do you step back from the edge?