Category Archives: Autobiography

A semicolon is a purposeful pause

Semicolons

The idea probably started with the sort of hypothetical discussion that populated my college years: If you were to get a tattoo, what would it be? My answer was tongue in cheek: A semicolon, because it’s my favorite punctuation mark.

That’s true, by the way. The semicolon is a thing of beauty when used correctly. It links two related ideas that could otherwise stand independently. But it’s often misused, and as an editor such abuse makes me mad. I once quit reading a book by an author I liked because he abused my dear semicolon over and over again. Years later, when the book was reissued (and re-edited) as “Through Painted Deserts,” I avoided it for fear that rogue semicolons would still run rampant. (I eventually picked it up and was relieved to see an editor pulled Donald Miller’s punctuation into line. It became my favorite of his books.)

My sister created a triptych of semicolons for me to embody this obsession. That was a fair alternative to inking punctuation on my skin.

But the idea didn’t fade. One morning I awoke from a stress dream; I’d gone to a tattoo parlor but couldn’t decide where I wanted to be marked. Shortly thereafter, I moved in with a roommate who had a white tattoo on her inner wrist.

Inspiration!

The semicolon took on additional meaning with time. I gave up living alone and relocated with that roommate. My work life had changed in the months prior, and 60-hour weeks became common. I’d retreat to my apartment, exhausted and feeling sorry for myself. My many friend groups would (reasonably) assume I was with someone else. I adore alone time, but you can have too much of a good thing. I needed a roommate.

And a reminder: Slow down. Breathe. Pause.

If I were to move forward with this tattoo, it must be in a spot visible to me, a signpost to trigger self care.

For years, the idea remained just that, locked away in my mind (and released for occasional conversation). But it never faded. As Project Semicolon gained traction, friends were quick to share it with me. I was momentarily disappointed that the tattoo I daydreamed about had become a trend. But then, it’s to benefit an issue I feel strongly about: suicide awareness and prevention. Although I don’t lean toward suicidal ideation, I’ve long dealt with depression. I have a number of friends who have been directly affected by suicide. And while talking about it isn’t a miracle cure, it’s a big step. That’s why I’m quick to discuss depression and treatment. So yes, this was a mark I could proudly bear.

If I could just deal with my needle phobia.

Last year for Christmas my sister sent me a T-shirt and sweatpants from To Write Love On Her Arms. The shirt read “music is a safe place,” and the pants hit even closer to home: “love is the movement.” I told her they made me long for a semicolon tattoo.

Six months later, I realized I was out of reasons not to go through with it. I declared getting inked a 35th birthday present to myself. If I didn’t go through with it, I would drop the idea forever.

I proceeded through the necessary steps: Select an artist. Interrogate him about ink colors. (We settled on pink instead of white for a variety of reasons.) Book his next available appointment, nearly two months out. Exhale with relief: I would have six weeks to decide if I would go through with it.

The next day he emailed. He had a cancellation the following afternoon. Did I want it?

I said yes, but I wasn’t sure I meant it. Anxiety seemed to course through my veins that day, tempered only slightly when I popped a Xanax about an hour before my appointment.

Should I do something so permanent when I feel like I’m in such transition, I texted my friend Melissa, who would accompany me. Recent years had been filled with change, including the end of a significant relationship, many changes at work and my decision to look for a job elsewhere. Melissa may have been the perfect companion for this errand; in addition to being my yoga teacher, she is a therapist by training.

I think it’s perfect, she replied. You’re living in a semicolon.

I took a deep breath and extended my arm. I got inked.

The next part of my sentence is about to begin. Today I leave a state I’ve called home for the past 14 years. It’s the state where I was born, and where I’ve spent most of my adult life. It’s the state where I’ve chased dreams and built my career.

The next part of my sentence begins in Colorado.

I’ll relocate my career, my books and my two orange cats to Glenwood Springs. There, the cats will adapt to gazing at snow and aspens instead of drought and pine trees. I’ll pursue my own adventures, as the outdoors and entertainment editor of the paper and as a 35-year-old Southerner making her way in a different land.

As I do, I’ll carry on my body a quiet reminder: Slow down. Breathe. Take care of yourself and others. 2016 reminded me, even when it’s uncomfortable, there’s beauty in a semicolon.

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2016 in concerts

  1. Dixie Chicks, Barclayard Arena, Birmingham, England, April 29, 2016
  2. St. Lucia, Saturn, June 9, 2016
  3. Sloss Fest: Ryan Adams, White Denim, Anderson East, Sylvan Esso, Burning Peppermints, Sloss Furnace, July 2016
  4. Dixie Chicks, Atlanta, August 2016
  5. Beyonce, Nissan Stadium, Nashville, Oct. 2, 2016
  6. Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Suite, Mendelssohn Symphony No. 1, Alabama Symphony Orchestra, Alys Stephens Center, Nov. 19, 2016
  7. Jeffrey Butzer & T.T.Mahony perform Vince Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Saturn, Dec. 11, 2016
  8. Vivaldi’s Gloria, Alabama Symphony Orchestra, Alys Stephens Center, Dec. 16, 2016

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Learning lessons through Sweet Home History


I love a good story, and as a result I’m a sucker for history. But that’s a love I didn’t discover until my mid-20s. I’ve spent the decade since alternately lamenting that we’re taught history before many of us care about it and catching up on all I have to relearn.

But Alabama history was never part of my formal education. Because I grew up in Florida, I studied that state in fourth grade. I left that state at age 21. Now, my bookshelves are filled with books about Birmingham and Alabama. My family has been in this area for two centuries, and I’m eager to understand it.

That’s why my friend Rachel Callahan asked me to help with her daughter Ali’s Alabama history curriculum. We brainstormed reading material over coffee, but soon another idea developed: What if I joined them as they traveled to historic sites from the state’s past?

Last month we launched Sweet Home History, a part of AL.com’s Southern Girls Project. I’ve gathered snippets from the articles published so far in the StoryMap above. Join us as Ali, Rachel, 5-year-old Noah and I learn about the state we call home.

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FAQs: Cat yoga in Birmingham, Alabama at the Greater Birmingham Humane Society

Roll onto your right side, coming into a comfortable fetal position for a final moment of rest and relaxation.

Roll onto your side, coming into a comfortable fetal position for a final moment of rest and relaxation.

Cat yoga? What’s that?

It’s as simple as it sounds: People doing yoga in a room that contains cats.

So the cats don’t do yoga?

Nope. The cats do whatever they want. They’re cats. (But in my opinion, they’re awfully yogic creatures. They don’t need my help. I need theirs. Speaking of …)

Why cats?

A few reasons. First, I’m a cat lady, and I’m not shy about it. Remember actress Cara Hartmann’s fake eHarmony profile video from a few years back? (If not, watch it here.) Yeah, OK. I’m not quite as intense as her character, but I really love cats. They make life better. They’re zen little creatures, seriously. One of my cats likes to sit in my lap and purr when I meditate, and she helps keep me centered.

But no, they’re not the best at the physical aspect of yoga. You’ll catch them in a pose now and then (especially savasana), but my cats usually like to play, rub my ankles and bat at my hair during my home practice.

It makes me laugh, and I want to share that experience with others. So, cat yoga it is!

Why yoga?

I could write a book about that. (I kind of have.) But in short: Yoga helps me slow my mind, calm my breath and take each moment one at a time.

What happens to the money?

I’ve built the Greater Birmingham Humane Society’s cat yoga program in such a way that the teacher gets paid a stipend and the organization keeps the rest.I want teachers to have the option of being paid because we’re often asked to work for free.

You can learn about the programs your money would fund at gbhs.org.

So long as I teach this program, I will decline payment. That means GBHS receives 100 percent of the money from the public classes I teach in its facility.

OK, I’m convinced. How much is it?

Classes are $15 each.

When? Where?

Join us the third Sunday of each month from noon to 1 p.m. (ish) at the Greater Birmingham Humane Society. That’s 300 Snow Drive, Birmingham, AL 35209.

How do I sign up?

Visit the GBHS website. If the date isn’t posted, registration hasn’t opened. We expect most classes to sell out, so register in advance. Space is limited.

How do I know when registration is open?

I’ll notify people on my mailing list as soon as I’m aware it’s up. Sign up here.

What should I wear?

Comfortable clothes you can move in. They don’t have to be “yoga clothes.” The most important thing is you’re comfortable and your shirt won’t flip up and show everything when you move into downward facing cat.

What will take place?

Join me and the felines in the GBHS conference room. The number of cats will vary class to class; GBHS selects them from one of its colonies, and the staff takes into consideration the cats’ moods that day. Eight cats joined my birthday party. Six visited the first public class.

I’ll start by explaining the rules of cat yoga. No. 1: Let the cats come to you. No. 2: If you’d rather play with cats than move through the poses, cool! Play with the cats. (You’ll catch me doing the same.)

The class itself lasts one hour. We’ll start slowly, with breath work and gentle stretches, and move into a more active practice. The style I teach is called core strength vinyasa, and it emphasizes softening before moving into a pose. That helps us experience our full range of movement. I don’t get as much into the details as I would in a typical class–you can join me for those some other time. But I remain true to this teaching. It’s a physically challenging practice, but I offer lots of stopping points along the way.

Challenging? Does that mean I shouldn’t come if I’ve never done yoga?

Nope! I’ll coach you in making smart choices for your body on this day. I always say, if you’d like to spend the entire class in child’s pose, I think that’s a great option. That’s especially true in cat yoga, when you might have a feline friend to cuddle.

What’s in it for the cats?

Important question! GBHS uses this program as a way to help socialize the cats. They get to spend time with people in a free environment. It also introduces people to adoptable pets. At least one cat found her furrever home at our October class, and others found advocates who intended to lobby friends to adopt them.

Cat yoga? In Alabama? It’s a thing – and you can join me

OK crazy cat lady, I want to know more about you–and your cats.

I’ve been owned by cats all but maybe six months of my life. The first cat I remember, Rugrat, was so gentle he let my sister and I use him as a pillow. Our next family cat, Tuffy, was a pale ginger tabby. We adopted him when I was about 5, and he lived until I was in college.

I’m currently loved on and bossed around by a pair of ginger kitties, McCartney Jane and Harrison Vann. Mac is the best Christmas gift I’ve ever received, thanks to a former roommate. I was three days catless after my previous cat, Emma, died suddenly. I’d spent those days crying myself to sleep and insisting that no one should give me a kitten. Fortunately, Abi didn’t listen.

On Christmas Eve, 2009, an aunt mentioned that she knew someone with a male orange kitten up for adoption. I thought, “Hmm. Maybe if that cat’s still available when I’m ready, I could adopt him. What would I call such a cat? How about McCartney? Ooh, but what about a female ginger cat named McCartney?!”

I arrived home that afternoon, and Abi was at the end of the hall holding an orange kitten. “I got her for you, but if you’re not ready, she can be the house cat,” she said.

“She?”

Abi confirmed.

“Well, hello, McCartney.”

Although she’d been at Abi’s parents’ house for a couple of days, Mac knew we belonged together as soon as we met.

I thought I was a one-cat girl because Emma demanded all my attention and was unsure of other people. (She was a tortoiseshell. It’s the normal tortitude.) But years after Abi and her pets, another roommate moved out and took her cat with her. Mac was lonely. She begged for attention every time my new roommate and I came home. I tried to entertain her with toys and puzzles, but it wasn’t enough. That’s where Harry came in.

A new friend requested that I like the Facebook page of a rescue for which she volunteered. When she sent me the link to Have a Heart Animal Rescue and Adoption, Harry’s was the cover photo. I was done.

Mac didn’t like him at first (what cat likes a stranger cat at first meeting?), but they both slept in my bed that night. Now I often catch them cuddling and bathing each other. He’s a momma’s boy and she’s a momma’s girl (totally different things). He irritates her sometimes; at least once a day, Harry tries to wrestle and Mac hisses to remind him that it’s never, ever a good idea in her estimation. He’s a typical baby brother and a love muffin.

I want more Mac and Harry!

Of course you do. They’re the best. You can follow them on Instagram @beatlecats (although I don’t update that often). Look to the right for links to all of my social media; they make regular appearances.

Why don’t you adopt more cats?

I live in a small house, about 750 square feet, with a roommate. Until I have space for another litter box, two cats is my limit.

And how did this get started, again?

I asked for birthday party ideas and my friend June suggested cat yoga. You can find the complete story here.

Got more cat yoga questions? Post ’em in the comments.

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Do as I say, and as I do: Why I’ve assigned myself a semester of homework

Yes, I still prefer to write by hand. I wrote this week's homework in my journal before typing it for this post.

Yes, I still prefer to write by hand. I wrote this week’s homework in my journal before typing it for this post.

Even teachers have plenty to learn. Last week I began my seventh semester as a college instructor, and my third semester teaching advanced news writing and reporting.

A pattern has emerged over the years: The first time I teach a course, it’s a little bumpy. I’m excited but adapting to new curriculum and expectations. That semester is always special because I’m learning how to teach the course as the students learn from taking it.

The second time around, my confidence grows. I have a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t. The course is a bit stronger than the first time out, and there’s some magic that comes from that alchemy, too.

But there’s a danger in returning to the same material. When life and my “real job” demand more of my time, I’m tempted to coast in the classroom.

That’s a double-edged sword, at least in my opinion. A stronger command of the material means I’m better prepared to pass the knowledge onto my students. But I can’t check out of the process. Every job has its ups and downs, of course, but I want to be all in with my students every semester.

They teach me, too.

Students motivated me to join the Society of Professional Journalists, a move that paid for itself with the first event I attended. Now I serve as my chapter’s president. Thanks, students. That move bettered my life and career.

This semester’s class will add another layer to my learning. I spent the end of the summer revisiting past lesson plans and evaluating how I could improve the course. (My spring students sparked this process with helpful suggestions in the end-of-semester evaluation. We really do read those things.) I read the textbook, Roy Peter Clark’s “Writing Tools,” and selected exercises for homework and in-class assignments.

As soon as I finished my reading, I began again with page one. I’m going to spend the next three months completing homework assignments alongside my class.

I’m prone to climbing on my soapbox, especially when it comes to writing and reporting. To me, journalism is like breathing, a sentiment I shared in the first class period. And so I’ve also lectured the students about the value of this book, and why I hope they’ll hold onto it long after semester’s end. I purchased my copy a decade ago, although I’m sorry to say I’m only now beginning to take advantage.

We read this week about beginning sentences with subjects and verbs; ordering words for emphasis; and using active verbs. We’ll discuss those tools at some length in tonight’s class, but I asked the students to complete a private assignment for tool 40, “draft a mission statement for your work.”

They emailed those mission statements to me, and I’ll use them as a reference point throughout the term. I’m copying my own statement below. It’s imperfect–everything is–and basic. I intend to return to it and refine it throughout the semester and my career. But I hope it’ll serve as a touchstone as I navigate my job, and some sort of accountability as these 16 students and I grow together.

Features are sometimes seen as puff pieces, strictly positive and shallow depictions of topics meant to entertain, not inform. There’s value in pure entertainment, but I want more. My goal is to report on stories that help readers understand their communities. That may mean a deep dive into an arts organization’s value, or a news feature that adds context to a breaking story.

I am to do this using the medium best suited for the story. That may be a traditional news article–my specialty–but could also take forms such as audio, video, slideshows, lists or social media. I want to maximize the available tools.

Because my beat is broad, it can be difficult to home in on specific assignments. Therefore, I’ll set aside time at the end of each month (perhaps two to four hours) to examine opportunities in the month ahead.

I also hope to rely heavily on a narrative approach and refine my use of writing tools, such as those outlined in Roy Peter Clark’s book by the same name.

I intend to write about class throughout the semester, both to create transparency for my interested students and to hold myself accountable as I seek my own growth. My goal is to continue growing as a reporter even as I encourage others on their paths.

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Who’s never left home? Who’s never struck out? An ode to the Dixie Chicks

“Who doesn’t know what I’m talking about?
Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out
To find a dream and a life of their own,
A place in the clouds, a foundation of stone?”
–Dixie Chicks, “Wide Open Spaces”

Sometimes a song can serve as an anthem or a guiding light. The Dixie Chicks were (are) that way for me.

In reality, the band’s four albums were released over the course of eight years. But I think of them now as a soundtrack to my college experience, as though they stacked upon each other to represent each class of the traditional four-year education.

The Dixie Chicks always take me back to the decisions and risks of early adulthood. Moving from my parents’ house in Jacksonville, Florida, to Dorman Hall, 177 miles away in Tallahassee, wasn’t a risk by most measures. I had a full scholarship, so I knew how my bills would be paid. Mom and Dad pledged another $300 a month for food and gas. I was on their cell phone plan.

But I didn’t know who I would meet when I arrived, besides the girl I’d soon call my roommate, a girl with whom I’d discussed matching comforters, a microwave and a shared disinterest in a television. I didn’t know who I would become.

I’m not certain now whether it’s reality or my memory rewriting history to fit a narrative, but I believe the Dixie Chicks must have been my companions on that two-and-a-half hour drive. I assume “Wide Open Spaces” was a declaration for many 18-year-old women who set their sights on new faces in the late ’90s. It was our anthem of independence.

The Dixie Chicks remained with us throughout college. My best friend and I belted out “There’s Your Trouble” with men in mind. The band’s second album, “Fly,” was released weeks into freshman year, and “Cowboy Take Me Away” became the anthem for love we hoped to find. We choreographed a line dance to “Some Days You Gotta Dance,” unaware that we’d be the only karaoke contest entrants to sing country instead of rap. It didn’t matter; the truth is, some days you do have to dance. The crowd loved us, even if the judges didn’t.

Coming to you live from atop a double decker bus: American tourists! 🙌🏻 #londonbaby

A photo posted by Carla Jean Whitley (@inkstainedlife) on

“‘Cause when the world doesn’t make no sense
And you’re feeling just a little too tense
Gotta loosen up those chains and dance”
–Dixie Chicks, “Some Days You Gotta Dance”

I gave away Dixie Chicks tickets my sophomore year. I don’t remember how I came into them, but it was a street team-esque set up. If you volunteered before the show, your admission was free.

Passing on those tickets remains one of my great regrets.

But I had regrets yet to come. That’s surely typical of decisions made at 19 and 20. At that age, I was convinced I should leave college and set out for the great unknown as soon as possible.

But I couldn’t do it without the Dixie Chicks to send me on my way.

The band’s third release, “Home,” was the only Chicks album that didn’t immediately grab me. There were tracks that did; “Long Time Gone” and “Truth No. 2” had instant appeal.

And as I prepared to leave my college town, just three years after enrolling, another song grabbed me. I know it first as a Dixie Chicks song–my lack of back catalog knowledge is embarrassing–but whether it’s the Chicks or Stevie Nicks singing, “Landslide” brings me back to the transition between college’s adulthood incubator and the rest of my life.

“Well I’m afraid of changing ’cause I built my world around you
But time makes you bolder, children get older
I’m getting older, too”
–Fleetwood Mac, “Landslide”

Through jobs and moves, cross-country road trips and existential crises, the Dixie Chicks’ music has carried me. Each album feels as fresh now as it did on release. I’d argue some songs even improve as I age.

But I still hadn’t seen the band live. The comments that sent them into a tailspin before the United States declared war in 2003 significantly reduced future opportunities. The band toured in favor support of its fourth, and, to date, final, album, but they didn’t come my way. I thought my dance had ended.

But 15 years after I gave up my chance to see the Dixie Chicks, they announced a European tour–and I decided to go.

I had never visited Europe. That, too, was one of my great regrets; if I had a college do-over, I would’ve stuck around for a fourth year and studied abroad. When I bought a pair of tickets for the band’s Birmingham, England, show, I still wasn’t sure I’d see the other side of the pond. But I could always sell the tickets if I had to. How do you put a price on a dream, anyway?

Somehow the pieces fell into place. Thanks to a friend’s Sky Miles and careful AirBNB selections, I traveled overseas with my college roommates for less than $700 each. For them, the trip was about more than a concert. And OK, it was for me, too. But the show was at the heart of my trip.

From Birmingham, Alabama, to Birmingham, UK #dixiechicksbham #londonbaby #theotherbham

A photo posted by Carla Jean Whitley (@inkstainedlife) on

The Dixie Chicks are still as high-energy and spirited as they ever were. It’s as though a decade, births, divorces and public outcry never occurred. Well, as far as their stage presences is concerned, anyway; were it not for the backlash to Natalie’s George Bush comments, some of their best material wouldn’t exist.

It was funny to see them in the country where the incident occurred. I looked around the 15,000-seat arena and wondered how the scene compared to that 2003 performance int he more intimate Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Was the crowd as reserved then as the people gathered in Birmingham? Or did the room ripple with energy?

The quiet Birmingham crowd didn’t stop us from singing every word. When “Ready to Run” was accompanied by a video mocking the U.S. presidential candidates, we joked to the Brits seated beside us that we were on our “Ready to Run” research trip. Later, when we finally rose from our seats for “Wide Open Spaces” and danced to “Sin Wagon,” one of those seemingly reserved Brits leapt to her feet as well.

I’ll see the band again this weekend, and if the North American tour had been announced sooner, I may never have made it to Europe. The trip unwound my two greatest regrets. It was a dream 15 years in the making, even if I took a round-about route.

“Well, I never seem to do it like anybody else
Maybe someday, someday I’m gonna settle down
If you ever want to find me I can still be found
Taking the long way
Taking the long way around”
–Dixie Chicks, “The Long Way Around”

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Filed under Autobiography, music, Travel

Yoga + cats = CJ, or, my epic 35th birthday party


There are two ways I could tell this story: by pontificating about stress relief and low blood pressure, or by telling you the truth.

OK, there’s some truth to both approaches. But let’s be real:

Birthdays merit celebration, and that’s a mission I take seriously. My expectations are especially high for milestone birthdays. I spent my 30th at a lake house with close friends and my parents, and my 18th at Walt Disney World. (By contrast, I still mourn my 21st, when I was lonely at a summer camp, and my 25th, which is the only birthday on which I worked.) And so the self-imposed pressure was on for 35. I wanted to celebrate with something I would remember.

I posted a challenge on Facebook, crowdsourcing party ideas as any social-media savvy person would. The ideas were all over the place: pajama-and-black-tie party. A 35-mile hike. (If I wasn’t born in July, I could get into that.) A death-match tournament in a bouncy boxing ring, with fighters costumed as superheroes.

But when my friend June chimed in, the answer was obvious:

June “won” herself an invitation to my birthday party.

I’d heard of cat yoga in other cities, usually at shelters. But as much as I love my city, Birmingham isn’t typically on the forefront of these trends. I thought it unlikely that I would find a place that would agree. I soon learned I had underestimated the Greater Birmingham Humane Society.

GBHS staff was thrilled by the idea; it turns out, they’d considered cat yoga already. I brought them a focus group (16 of my closest friends) and they provided eight cats.

It was everything I dreamed of.

I grinned as I walked through the room, guiding my friends through a toned-down version of my regular core strength vinyasa classes. Arm balances were out. Cat-snuggle breaks were in. The atmosphere was jubilant, and I was among some of my favorite people, my favorite animal and my favorite physical activity. (At one point, I announced, “You know you’re in a room full of people you feel safe with when you start prancing.” And prance I did.)

There’s no eloquent take-away here. But I have a hard time letting go of not-so-great memories and unmet expectations. These near-perfect moments, however, are something to cling to. I don’t believe perfect exists, but when life comes close, it’s a reminder of how much joy exists.

The prancing begins around the 36-minute mark, if you’re interested.

Join me every Friday at 4 p.m. for core strength vinyasa at The Yoga Circle in Birmingham. Find my complete yoga calendar at carlajeanwhitley.com/calendar.

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We all have stories, and I believe yours matters

“Morris liked to share the books with others. Sometimes it was a favorite that everyone loved, and other times he found a lonely little volume whose tale was seldom told. ‘Everyone’s story matters,’ said Morris. And all the books agreed.”

I read “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” to my Avondale Elementary students during my final visit of the year. Once a week since October, I’ve visited them to encourage a love of reading. After the week’s book, I would distribute prizes–books!–earned by reading and completing a report on a book from their Better Basics-provided classroom library.

Two days after that classroom visit, I was to speak to a group of creatives about story at Birmingham Creative Roundtable. A light bulb went off: I should begin my talk with William Joyce’s book.

I’m passionate about story. That may be an obvious statement from a writer, but let me elaborate. I believe storytelling goes beyond the written word, beyond an oral tale. It shows up in nearly every aspect of life. Whether they were in photography, web design, branding, coffee or some other area, I told these creatives, storytelling is part of their work.

You can watch that talk in the video above, and work through your own story with guidance from this handout.

The event also motivated me to retell my own story. I focus more of my energy on telling those of others, and the about page of this site had become woefully out of date. I chose a career in writing as a child, and my motivations have been shaped by experience. (You can read more about that here.) Life as a storyteller is a step-by-step journey, and I hope my walk doesn’t end until I reach my grave.

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Feminism and the things I’ve done for the first time, or, six months in review

My friend Amy turned to me, a double IPA in one hand and a tiara at the ready. We were two women at a bar on a Monday night, something she marveled at when I sat down. When she was 18, she explained, people didn’t believe she’d be anything other than a wife. She was smart, sure, and capable. But “wife” was the job title she seemed best suited for–merely because she’s a woman.

Amy’s 57th birthday was the next day. We are more alike than different, but decidedly not of the same generation.

When I left home at 18, my mom sat me down to deliver important instruction: You can always come home, she said. No matter what happens in life, you have a place here. That sort of support is the undercurrent of my life. Mom and Dad always believed I could accomplish whatever I dreamed of, including becoming a writer. I would be defined by who I am, not whose last name I carried.

It’s been six months since I parted ways with a man who I thought I would marry. For almost three years, being half of that particular couple was a significant part of my identity. I didn’t define myself solely as his girlfriend, but I was loved and loved well. It shaped me.

In the months since, though, I’ve tried many things for the first time.

It’s not that he held me back. He supported and encouraged me at every turn, celebrating my successes and striving to understand things he didn’t. After the first yoga class I taught, for example, he offered detailed feedback that I employed the next week. I believe he is as much a feminist as I am. But it’s easy to become comfortable in relationship, and sometimes I would opt for our regular routine over something different. If anything, I tried fewer things because I was comfortable.

At 34, I have a well-defined sense of self, but I also recognize that I’ve got plenty of life to live and learn. So when my regular routine vanished, I tried new things–and held onto several things I gained from that relationship. (Yes, I still watch the UFC.) I’m fortunate to be reminded by the women and men in my life that my individuality matters, that I am capable and that being a woman is a wonderful thing.

New things I tried this year (mostly post-breakup):

  1. Visited rural Texas. On purpose.
  2. Tinder
  3. Discussed Tinder with Pat Conroy (yes, really, and no, he isn’t on it. He’s married, silly.)
  4. Played on the company kickball team
  5. Joined a gym
  6. Started hiking kind of often. Ish.
  7. Danced in the dark
  8. Mixing first-person storytelling with reporting
  9. Switched to cruelty-free beauty products
  10. Bought my own symphony tickets
  11. Bought tickets overseas
  12. Traveled across the country on almost no notice
  13. Experimented with weekly podcasting
  14. Began teaching a weekly yoga class
  15. Filmed a yoga video

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The sound of solitude

Beginning at age 4, my nightly tradition became reading a book while listening to music. I may have set a sleep timer on my 1980s clock radio, or perhaps I let the Top 40 sing me straight through till morning. I don’t recall now. But as far back as memory will carry me, music was the background to my life.

That changed several years ago. I found myself switching to public radio or silence for my post-work commute; I’d had enough stimulation throughout the day. When I got home, I left the radio, iPod and iTunes idle.

Quiet took music’s place.

My evenings are instead filled with the sounds of my cats’ meows, a train rolling down the tracks miles away or the clatter of my fingertips across the keyboard. Podcasts provide occasional company and information, particularly when I’m in the middle of a hated task like folding the laundry.

I thought this was the result of years of music writing. I dabbled in the genre starting my freshman year of college, and after years of reviewing I needed a break. It’s fun to be the first among your friends to acquire an album and declare a band the Next Big Thing, but it becomes exhausting. (And I know people who are much better at than I am!) Frequently, I longed to listen to The Beatles instead of whoever was coming through town next. Silence seemed an apt response as I moved away from the music beat.

There may be truth to that. But tonight, as one of my best friends and I decided to take a break from social media, for the first time I realized that may be as much a factor.

I’m addicted to information. I surely check my email a hundred times a day. Typing in “fa” for Facebook or “tw” for Twitter before letting my browser complete the rest is almost a tic. During a recent magazine subscription purge, I narrowed the list to 10 must-have mags (and that was as deep as I felt I could cut). Social media, however, can serve as a bullhorn rather than a means of discussion. And I’m tired.

So I’m taking a break. It’s something I’ve never done before; I’ve been on Facebook since 2004, Twitter since 2008. I believe in their value. (Just last week, Facebook alerted a couple of Pennsylvania friends that I was in New York City when they would be, as well. I’m glad for the impetus to get together.)

I’ll be back, I’m sure. The aforementioned friend and I are taking a step back during the Advent season, intentionally drawing boundaries with social media in hopes of creating more space in our lives. Many posit that it takes 21 days to form a habit. Accurate or not, we’ll see where we are at the end of these 22.

“The capacity to be alone is the capacity to know enough about yourself and who you are, and be comfortable enough with that. That way, when you are with another person, you’re not trying to make that person into somebody you need them to be in order to buttress a fragile sense of your own self. You can actually turn to a person and see them as another person, and have a real relationship with them.” —Sherry Turkle in “Relearning How to Talk in the Age of Smartphone Addiction.” Our discussion of this article is what led Heather and I to take this break.

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Filed under Autobiography, Reasons why