Habitually Bad at Habits

My brother’s best friend during childhood ate dinner every night at 5:00pm. Every night. Weekdays and weekends. School days and summer break. Every single night. In contrast, my family lived by a kind of vagabond flexibility. True, some days the five of us gathered together around the table at 6:00pm but others we were fending for ourselves and eating at the picnic table at 8:00pm. We were as likely to go out for a linner (late lunch / early dinner) with the senior crowd at 3:00pm as we were to eat brunch at 11:00am and then gorge on snacks watching Love Boat.

As a child I remember being incredulous of his family’s consistency; as an adult, I am in awe.

I suck at building habits. My life is a cautionary tale of one failed attempt after another to build routine and standardization into my life. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the power of positive habits, so much so that I’ve invested in more than a few models and techniques for building them. Here’s just a short list of things I’ve tried to build habits around that have been massive failures:

  • Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day
  • Doing 15 minutes of daily planning
  • Exercising 3-4 days per week
  • Reading every evening before bed
  • Taking maintenance medication
  • Blogging 2x per week
  • Creating an evening facial routine
  • Prepping meals for the following week
  • Writing regular correspondence
  • Keeping a journal

You get the idea. The failures range from work to personal and from things that will benefit me to things that benefit others. It doesn’t matter which aspect of my life it falls into, even when I want to build the consistency of structure, sooner or later it falls under its own weight because I just can’t hold it up.

Lately, I reassessed my Strengths Finder results and found that I was fairly consistent from the last time I took it about six years ago. My five dominant strengths are Strategic, Achiever, Input, Learner and Communicator. I’m willing to bet that Discipline — the strength of routine and structure — is non-existent in my pattern. And I can tell you this, it is truly annoying to know the power of positive habits (Strategic, Input, Learner), to be singly focused on leveraging those benefits (Achiever) and to still be unable to get it done.

Today, I listened to a TED Radio Hour podcast called A Better You that included a segment by Matt Cutts around the power of changing habits in 30 days. He argued that doing one thing every day for 30 days is long enough to build a new habit. After listening I was excited about the possibility of real change — imagine building TWELVE new habits in a year. My brain quickly identified not one but a handful of things I needed to conquer and (in typical Mel fashion) I decided I would do them all in the first month. If one is good than five is better, right? Right?

[Cue Mel’s inner voice: “Wrong you idiot, it’s one thing for a reason. One thing. One.”]

By the time I had walked from my car to my desk I had backed myself off fixing everything that is wrong with me and I had picked one thing. I won’t tell you what the thing is, but I will tell you that today I did it and I marked a big black X on my calendar to show that I had done it. Tomorrow I’ll do it. And Thursday. And Friday. And if I can do it for 26 days after that I’ll pat myself on the back and go onto the next thing and do THAT for 30 days.

So, how long do you suppose it takes to build a habit for building habits?

A Home Rooted in Stories

Last weekend my brother and his wife moved into their new home. Well, new to them. The house itself is more than 70 years old, lovingly built and renovated by the same couple throughout their marriage. You can see their uniqueness throughout the character of the rooms: a great room off the entry perfect for entertaining; a large, private master suite with only a sliding glass door for escaping to the backyard; a central galley kitchen designed for efficiency; small private spaces for hobbies including a dark room, library, office and wine closet. It is the kind of house that leads to questions and wonder in every oddly shaped room, layer of plaster and bricked up window. It is a house begging to share its stories.

I know many of them — the owners were my grandparents.

My grandfather returned from World War II ready to marry his sweetheart and start his life. He told me once that there weren’t enough homes available for the returning GI’s — he just wasn’t able to find a home to purchase. So, being the resourceful person he was, my grandfather moved his new wife and infant son into his parents’ house, bought land from his father and proceeded to build his young family a home. Years later, he could articulate the thinking behind each of the design decisions and the practical evolution as his family grew and their savings made enhancement possible.

When I was growing up we visited their house every Sunday. It was a family ritual that needed no explanation and brooked no argument; few things overruled our 5:00pm trip down familiar roads to my father’s childhood home. I learned the little bit of patience I have from those visits, over the 2,500 hours of amusing myself and my brothers while the grown ups chatted. To be honest, I learned about life without even knowing it. Once during a job interview I was asked what interested me about the automotive industry. I answered, without embellishment, that listening to my father and grandfather “talk shop” had taught me about business before I even knew I cared about business. Family, loyalty, conflict resolution, straight talk — I learned all of that and more as a child at their feet. 

I remember that sometimes grandpa would fall asleep and we would all wait patiently for him to wake up knowing he would smile and assert that he was just reading his eyelids. I remember my grandmother disappearing into the kitchen to come out with plate after plate of snacks (cut fruit, cheese, chips, cheese balls) that we would eagerly devour. I remember getting old enough to be given permission to go off on my own into their bedroom (the only room with a tv) to sit on the bed and watch 21 Jump Street and Star Trek the Next Generation. I remember summers throwing lawn jarts, climbing trees and playing hide and seek under the massive willow tree — the one that was later struck by lightening. I remember one glorious summer afternoon (and only one) when we churned ice cream by hand — it was filled with chunks of Oreo and delicious.

As an adult I created new memories. I got dressed there for my wedding, journeying across the driveway to walk down ‘the aisle’ — a cobblestone path through the grass to my parents’ back deck. We brought our children as infants and toddlers, setting them on the carpet and pulling out familiar toys while grandma brought fresh baked cookies. I remember the warm feeling when my kids first asked if they could go over to “Old Papa’s” house, watching from the kitchen window as they ran across the driveway on their own. They would open the door and head straight to the back bedroom without any warning; grandma and grandpa didn’t mind, their door was always open.

My grandfather only admitted to one time when he and my grandmother had truly disagreed. It was when his business had been taking off and his peers in industry had suggested that he needed to move to an affluent town to ensure financial success. Achievement was important to grandpa and he thought they needed to do it. My grandmother was adamantly against it — she argued that they had to remember where they came from and stay true to their roots. More than 20 years into my own marriage I have a hard time seeing that argument in my mind’s eye. It must have gotten pretty heated, but my grandma was a strong woman and she loved her family more than anything. She won and they didn’t move.

I have a hard time imaging my life if she had lost.

There was a time in my life when I was convinced that my past, present and future would be lived within a few miles of that house. I thought I might be the one to live in their home. My parents were living in my great-grandparents house across the driveway and I had moved home to raise my own young children just a few miles away. I envisioned the changes I would make, how I would be true to the history while building a bright future for my own family. And then I moved away, pulling up roots four generations in the making to start over in a place where we had no history at all.

I would be inclined to be maudlin if not for my brother and his wife. I’ve watched as they have embraced the old while creating a new space totally their own. Walking into the front door brings a feeling of comfortable recognition tied to their own character. The house includes furniture that was my grandparents, pieces that were once mine and things all their own. They’re creating new stories, stories that the next generation will share. I can’t help but think that perhaps it has worked out the way it was meant to — that the house was always destined to come to them. I like that.

Grandma would have liked it, too.

Stuff That Matters

Like most kids growing up along the coast of Lake Erie, I spent a lot of time at Cedar Point. Before I could drive there were family outings and school trips; after I carpooled with packs of friends or on double dates. I remember the excitement of being tall enough to ride the coasters and the disappointment of being too tall to follow my brothers into kiddie land. But my strongest memory was my inability to win a life-sized stuffed animal.

Believe me, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Cedar Point has a huge section of carnival games and I had a talent for weaseling money out of my father. Getting him to hand over bills for the promise of glory was easy, but winning a game designed to favor the house was hard. A couple of years I ended up with a charity prize, but most years I ended up with nothing.

Until one summer during college when I went with my mother.

Brimming with the positivity of a sunny day and great company I smooth-talked mom to the front of the park. We walked along the booths and after carefully assessing the options I decided on the game: shoot an oversized, lightweight ball at three plastic cups stacked in a pyramid, knock all three cups out of the red circle and you win. Sure, I’d lost a boatload of money playing that same game over the years. Sure, it was a sucker’s game with a $2 buy-in and no prize for second place. I didn’t care, I looked up at the huge prizes hanging there and decided — like every sucker since the dawn of time — that this time was going to be different. I paid my money and fired.

And watched, stunned, as all the cups fell.

Over the years I have enjoyed my fair share of accomplishment and every single one has come after more effort, time and sacrifice. But the crazy thing is that none of them has brought me the palpable excitement that I felt when a young man handed me an oversized Buster Bunny for knocking over a bunch of plastic cups. Carrying that huge stuffed animal around — a bright blue three-foot tall sign that I had done something so few others had done — was thrilling. I didn’t even mind leaving earlier than usual when we realized we couldn’t ride anything with Buster in tow.

I felt a little of that last weekend when I discovered Buster buried under the junk of four generations.

Stuff is complicated. Our society whipsaws us with inconsistent messages. Everywhere we look there are signals that we need to buy more, upgrade more and have more. We measure our success by the size of our homes, the make of our car and the brand of our clothes. But, keep your eyes open long enough and you’ll also see evidence that we should abandon our stuff. Buy a tiny house, donate your old books, and purge your junk drawer.

My stuff is complicated. From my vantage point at my writing desk I can see the pottery my kids made in art class and a child’s rocking chair that my grandmother bought for us kids but managed to sit in as an octogenarian. There’s the box of my grandfather’s marine pins, the custom coaster I made for one of our pinball tournaments and a chalk drawing a friend made of my daughter as a toddler. It’s all so random and yet each and every thing I can see has a story, each item a square in the patchwork of my life.

Over the years these bits and pieces of me have moved from drawer to box, from one room to another. Each time I move them I wonder if I am doing the right thing. Is now the time to let go? I ask myself is this flotsam and jetsam good stuff or bad stuff? Is it sentimentality or scrap? Am I caring or crazy? Will it matter some day when I’m gone and my kids and grandkids try to make sense of it?

Damn if I know.

All I know is that I’m writing this blog on an iPad Pro within inches of a 1949 Royal typewriter. It is one of two my grandmother used in bygone years and I rescued it from the barn the same day I found Buster. We put it in the back of the truck and drove home, more useless stuff that we didn’t need. After cleaning it up and buying a new ribbon I sat down in front of it and my heart swelled thinking of my grandmother. My fingers took on a life of their own, words appearing in ink through the physical force of my love. When it was done I looked down at the bright yellow paper and, eyes blurring with unshed tears, I made a decision.

I’m going to keep it; I’m going to keep all of it.

 A Driving Love Story

When I started driving I realized something — I was too small to be comfortable in most cars. People would comment that they thought they saw me driving down the street, but they weren’t sure; my head wasn’t visible over the seat back. I would have to adjust the seat to its farthest front position just to reach the pedals, and after air bags were invented I wondered what would happen if one deployed. But, I adapted and moved on. Years later I came home from work and told my husband about a car that had been mocked up to show a six foot tall man the experience of a short woman. I shared how funny it had been been that my male colleagues had been shocked to be unable to see the front of the car, a daily experience for me.

“Wait,” he said, “You can’t see the front of the car?”

Maybe that’s why I fell in love with the first Mazda MX-5 Miata when it was released. Sixteen years old and desperate for the freedom that comes with a set of car keys, the two door roadster immediately caused my heart to go pitter patter. I started telling my parents that it was the only car designed to fit me and ribbing my dad that if he truly loved me he would buy me one. It became a repeating gimmick — me making demands that were so outrageous that I knew they would never be met and my parents handing me keys to their practical sedans and hand-me-downs.

 By the time I returned from a study abroad experience in Australia and saracastically asked my then boyfriend (now husband) if my dad had finally gotten around to buying me a Miata it was a well-practiced schtick. He laughed. “Why do you keep saying that? Who would possibility do that?”

Turns out, my parents.

It’s been nearly 24 years but I still remember the feeling of pulling into the driveway. I had been traveling for 36 hours straight and all thoughts of exhaustion were sucked away by the sight of that shiny red convertible with its top down on a sunny June day. The pictures show me bedraggled with a 1,000 watt smile, my bemused husband looking on stunned. My parents hadn’t told him of my plan — somehow they knew enough about the two of us that they thought I might ask and they knew he wouldn’t be able to keep the secret.

And guess what, I loved being behind the wheel of that car every bit as much as I thought I would.

I drove that car the day I got engaged, getting a horrible sunburn on every spot not covered by clothes or the seat belt. I drove it throughout my senior year in college, including a trip down the highway with an 8′ rug rolled up and sticking out the open top. I drove it with a 3′ tall stuffed Buster Bunny that I won at Cedar Point strapped into the passenger seat. That silly car could only fit one pathetic milk crate in the trunk, but I didn’t care — I was in love and everything else was just details.

We carried on that way, blissfully in love, until I ran into a freak snowstorm in upstate New York hit on my drive back to college over Thanksgiving break. I drove white-knuckled for the better part of seven hours and then spun out on a off ramp. With my headlights pointed toward oncoming traffic I got turned around by sliding back and forth into guardrails. I finally made it back to my dorm, parked illegally and collapsed on my bed. I don’t know whether I was more distraught by the accident or the fact that I realized that my car wasn’t perfect. All I know is that I started to wonder whether a 20-something who lived in the midwest could really own a Miata. Maybe our relationship couldn’t survive winter. Maybe the honeymoon was over. I agonized and then finally confessed to my parents.

Always pragmatic, they offered a solution. Mom had a practical, front-wheeled drive hatchback. We could swap cars and titles; I could have her car and she could take over the Miata. She didn’t have to drive when the weather was bad, and if she did, she could borrow any one of a number of other cars available to her. I felt the sadness of a break-up, but squared my shoulders and went to the Secretary of State office to process the paperwork. I had given up my perfect car for practicality, choosing dependable and reliable over fun. And for fifteen years I played the dutiful adult driving that car and then a series of sedans and sport utility vehicles, one right after another.

And then, I got a call. My mom had kept the Miata all those years eventually buying a second winter car. Now they had decided to upgrade and they wondered if I wanted to buy my car. I hemmed and hawed. By this time I had been married for fifteen years; I had two children and my driving life was designed for carpools and car seats, not convertibles. And yet my parents knew me, knew what I had given up those many years ago in a necessary moment of adulthood. They listened to my many practical reasons to say no and then paused a moment. “Ok, well what if we just gave it to you?”

Thankfully, I said yes.

No, it is not practical to own a 23-year old car. No, it is not practical to take up garage space for a car that only comes out six months a year. No, it is not practical to invest in a new top or tires or speakers. No, it is not practical to drive a car without modern safety features at 70 miles per hour down the freeway singing like a freak to 80’s rock and modern dance hits. But, I haven’t faced a moment yet that is so hard or so demoralizing that it can’t be made better by dropping the top, climbing behind the wheel and driving my little red convertible for 30 minutes. When I drive my Miata I feel like the sexiest woman in the world even though I passed into middle-aged frumpy years ago. No, it’s not practical, but I’ll tell you what — I plan to hold onto that steering wheel so hard that someone will have to pull it out of my cold dead fingers.

It may be impractical, but that’s love.

My Tank Is Empty

After a relaxing and enjoyable weekend I came into a challenging Monday. I left several meetings with disappointments or backslides, some small and some serious. On Tuesday I found myself texting as my car dropped me at the airport and giving quick updates via phone after I cleared security. I’ve been in “fight or flight” mode for what feels like months due to the sheer amount of stuff that needs to get done and the higher-than-normal number of obstacles that keep popping up.  In a moment of transparency I texted a colleague, “Help me stay positive. I’m feeling a bit beaten down.” Her response was classic:

“That is scary. You’re the most positive person I know.”

Minutes later I shared that anecdote with my husband and we just sat there with a moment of silence between us on the phone. And then instead of lecturing me about taking on too much (we both know that is true) or reminding me that I don’t have the world on my shoulders (we both agree that I don’t) he simply told me that I’m a rock star and that he wishes he could do more to help. And then we talked about the time when I leave industry and throw out my shingle as a motivational life coach — you know, some day when the kids are grown and on their own. I smiled knowing even without seeing him that he was smiling back and that we would be ok.

It’s a pattern we’ve repeated many times over the years.

But, I’ll be honest, it hasn’t always been this easy. There was a time when I was younger and our relationship was still finding its way when we weren’t as understanding of each other. I remember moments where my admissions of being overwhelmed by my work turned into anxious questions like, “Are you going to get fired?” or “If it’s so hard why do you keep doing it?” There was a period of time when I tried to keep my stress to myself because it just wasn’t worth the further stress of having a conversation. It felt easier to pretend to be the Mel who was always happy, always under control, always ok. 

But it didn’t feel good

It won’t come as a surprise to readers of Too Much Mel that I’m a sharer. I share victories and defeats, I share ups and downs, and there is no one that I share more with than my husband. If you’ve been on the receiving side of a conversation with me, you know it can be exhausting. So, now imagine that you live with me. Imagine the chatter while getting ready in the morning, while packing up my laptop bag, while watching a movie, while driving to the store, while shopping and while sitting at dinner. Imagine the nearly never-ending podcast references, work anecdotes, self-reflection and story-telling. And now imagine me not sharing at the times when I just didn’t feel like I had enough *oomph* to persevere. Not sharing when my Mel tank was empty and what I desperately needed was a fill up.

Not only did it feel bad, it was bad.

I don’t remember when it changed. There wasn’t some eureka moment where all of a sudden I came to understand that it was inherent in his nature to try to protect me from any and all harm or when he came to understand that it was inherent in my nature to push harder and do more. I read an article recently about marriage longevity and it said that the key is to understand and appreciate the other person’s crazy — because we are all crazy. It’s crazy how much he worries. It’s crazy how hard I work and how much I take on myself. We’re crazy, but we’re crazy together. So, now we can acknowledge quickly when my Mel tank is empty and we know exactly how this particular chapter of our story is going to end: I’ll be exhausted and laying on the bottom of a pit and he’ll pick up the pieces. And thankfully at this point he won’t even tell me I told you so.

Even though we both know he could.

What Theatre Taught Me about Leadership

There were three moments during our wooing phase when I seriously wondered whether my husband and I were compatible. The first happened during a vocal and agitated debate about the role of violence in movies (plot device or merely gratuitious?) after we saw Demolition Man. The second time occurred as I was falling and fuming after he abandoned me on our first (and last) cross-country skiing outing. But the most serious time was in the audience of a production while I was taking a master’s lighting design class my junior year. After a lengthy description of the complexity of lighting design — equipment, hang position, intensity, timing, gels and gobos — and the important role of the stage manager to call the cues he looked at me perplexed. “What? Don’t they just hang a few bulbs from the ceiling and flip a switch?”

Only the strength of my love kept me from walking away after that.

Sure, I’m a boring corporate suit now, but during my first two years in college, theatre was my life. As a new first year student I went to the theatre orientation and quickly volunteered to be the assistant stage manager on the big fall production. After that I went from one show to another taking on any back stage role that needed to be done. I did stage management, lighting design, flies, set builds, props — literally anything. I took every design class except costumes and I would have gotten a theatre minor if only I had gotten the nerve to take acting. I was working a full-time job for which I got no pay, until the fates shined on me and I got hired as a lighting technician. I loved the feel of an adjustable wrench in my hand as much as I loved sitting in the booth and calling the perfect show.

Recently, a fellow thespian asked me for a favor. She IM’d me and asked, “Could Too Much Mel talk about comfort with ambiguity? You are a management guru and I would love to hear how you talk about this with people.” And it struck me that, ironically enough, I learned more about dealing with the unexpected and unpredictable challenges of leadership during my time in theatre than anywhere else.

In theatre, you learn that you cannot anticipate every crazy circumstance that might happen so you either get very comfortable responding to it or you leave. It’s a common occurrence for a director to change an actor’s mark during the final dress rehearsal or for a prop or set piece to break during a production. It sucks and it can be really hard to deal with, but it doesn’t matter. Everyone on stage and backstage knows that their only real responsibility is to give the audience a great experience. I still remember the night when our lead actor was picked up on a bench warrant driving to the show. Every person who could furiously scribbled script cues on scraps of paper. We taped them to various props and the director went on stage and winged it without batting an eyelash. 

After all, the show must go on.

In business, I see people struggle with ambiguity. When faced with a new situation or an unclear assignment, some people look for an easy answer to make it go away or an excuse for why it is unfair or inappropriate. My job description doesn’t list it. My manager doesn’t have a clear vision. My company ownership is uncertain. My predecessor didn’t keep good documentation. My position is different than it used to be. Yes, those are all real circumstances that can make it difficult to feel grounded and to deliver your best work. Fortunately for me, my time in theatre gave me three ways to deal with it.

Start with a Shared Goal

In theatre, there is crystal clarity on the goal: a great performance. And everyone, from the person organizing the prop table to the lead actor, to the director, to the person responsible for operating the sound board, gets it. If you are lucky enough to have theatre friends, ask them. They will have story after story of drama, intrigues, characters and close shaves, but I’m willing to bet that they will share that everyone understood the importance of what happened between curtain rise and final applause. When you have that, everything that pops up that will harm that goal has to be deal with, quickly and without complaint. Sometimes you get a chance to get a team together and plan your action, but most times you don’t. 

In business, not all teams achieve clarity in goals. We let the details overwhelm the overall direction and once that happens ambiguity is devastating. When I took over my latest team I came up with a simple, repeatable vision statement. I say it a lot. A whole lot. So much so that I was talking to someone outside of my team about it and mentioned how glad I was that my team was getting comfortable with it, knew why it was important and could state it he smiled, “Mel, I bet I can say it.” That may seem like overkill, but when faced with a new situation, the odds are my team will have a structure under which to act.

Talk about What’s Not Working

After every rehearsal and performance the cast and crew get and give notes. Notes are all about tightening the performance or responding to things that didn’t work great. In the real world someone might call that criticism, but in the world of theatre — where everything is focused on a great performance — notes are how you get better. It could be simple (someone missed their mark) or complicated (the lighting effect in that scene still isn’t right) but each one needs to be listened to and dealt with. Sometimes notes result in a lot of dialogue or give and take, sometimes they are quickly acknowledged and responded to. And sometimes notes have to be given multiple times. But through it all, everyone knows that theatre is hard and it’s never perfect. That’s ok, you just give a note and ask for what you need.

In business, there can be a reluctance to talk about where we’re not perfect and that is too bad. No one is perfect, especially not in times of great change. In my job right now we’re introducing a complex new technology platform that we’ve never done before — and at the same time we’ve had some personnel changes on the team. I have stepped down into some working meetings and I can tell the group is uncertain. Should they be open about the challenges they are facing: what they don’t know and where they are stuck? If they knew my background I think they would be more confident in being honest in giving notes to me and to each other and we could all help each other find a path to success.

Celebrate with Vigor

My friends in theatre know how to celebrate a successful show. After we’ve struck the stage (i.e. taken the set down, cleared the lighting and made a blank canvas for the next production) the cast and crew will head off to a party. Depending on the group, it can be a low key event at someone’s house or a blow out in a bar, but the amenities are not the point. What is important is that no matter what the challenges, there is a recognition that the group came together to provide a great experience for the audience. Sometimes you have packed houses and everything works exactly as planned, sometimes you have crickets and it feels like everything that can go wrong does. But, there’s an amazing amount of comfort in coming together after you’ve survived together; that you’ve taken words on a page and turned them into a human experience not once but many times. That feeling of success has given me the strength to step into new ambiguious situations, not without fear but without paralysis.

In business we don’t always have those seminal moments when something is done. And sometimes, especially when the moments are painful, we don’t feel like celebration is appropriate. But, there is something in the human condition that needs to feel rewarded and capable after getting through a challenging situation. Taking a moment to celebrate in a way that is authentic to the person and the team can build up the experiences to make someone more capable in the next moment. It will only help the person and your team if you take a moment and say, “I know that was an unclear task outside of your normal responsibilities and I really appreciate the fact that you did it. Next time you’ll do it even better.”

I haven’t been a part of the theatre community for a long time; my last real show was in my early 20’s as a lighting designer for a high school production in which my brother acted. In fact very few people in my professional circles even know that it is part of my experience, much less what it meant to me. But, they benefit from the lessons it taught me in very real ways every time I focus on a shared goal, openly give and take notes, or celebrate our wins. I am thankful that I learned that the show must go on, no matter what crazy stuff happens.

A Space of Her Own

I didn’t always love books. (I’m going to pause a moment while the people who know me in real life stand back up after falling over. Ok, everyone good?)

No one who knows me well will know what to do with the fact that as a child I thought that reading was horribly boring and that I used to do just about anything to get out of it. I didn’t like any of the books that everyone said were good and I wanted to be out playing with my friends or climbing trees or riding my bike. Literally anything was better than being stuck in a stuffy room sitting still and reading. And so it is a great irony to me that I spent a big portion of yesterday putting bookcases together and organizing the shelves of my very own library and loving it.

One of the books that I put away, lovingly, was a tattered copy of The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. It is the Newbery Medal winning fantasy novel that tells the story of a socially awkward princess whose largest offense was that she was born a girl and not a boy. She tries desperately to be good enough, the whole time acutely aware that she is an embarrassment as she prefers adventure to more ladylike pursuits and she ultimately does the unthinkable, saving her kingdom from disaster. I loved Aerin immediately; in my mundane suburban experience I wondered if I could ever be as powerful as her. I loved that book so much that it started my passion for reading; I loved it so much that I actually didn’t give it back.

(Sorry, Mrs. Aubrey, I promise I’ve taken really good care of it.)

After that my love of reading was unstoppable. I bought books with any spare cash I had and became a frequent flier at the school and public libraries. Do you know that there is a limit on the number of books you can check out at any one time? I did, and it annoyed me. I found ways to sneak a flashlight into my room so that I could read under the blankets, I tucked books inside text books and would read during class. My seventh grade pre-Algebra teacher actually called me out for not paying attention many times and told me to put them away; I complied until I couldn’t help myself and then would do it again.

By the time I graduated from high school I had collected a library of over 200 books, most bought with money earned babysitting that most other kids would have spent on clothes or going out. As I headed off to college to study English at a top ranked liberal arts college, I donated most of them to our local library, carrying in bags and bags of books hoping that other kids would love them as much as I had. I thought that I was beyond the juvenile experiences of that little girl. When my own daughter hit middle school I wished briefly that I hadn’t been so short-sighted, but I relished the fact that I put aside a few of the series that I thought were ‘adult enough’ to keep. I can see them, the foundation of my library commingled with books collected in college and even newer ones from my last decade.

Sitting in my library, still incomplete and with much work yet to do, I am content and I am thankful. I am building a room of my own where my passion has a place of prominence, where I can be surrounded by my love of words without apology. Looking over at the bookcases I am reminded of that young girl who awoke to a love of reading and never gave it up. Not through middle or high school. Not through college. Not through graduate school. Not through working or marriage or the rigors of day-to-day life. Not even when my books were boxed up in the back of closet or double or triple deep on a single bookcase. That young girl had patience and she waited to have a room of her own.

And this room is hers as much as it is mine.