Guest Post

  • HerStories Voices: Gifts From Grandma

    Today, I’m excited to share a beautiful essay from Justine Uhlenbrock. I’d like to thank everyone for their patience as I’ve gotten my “sea legs” here at The HerStories Project. I’ve read so many beautiful essays in the last few weeks, and I’m in awe of the talents of my fellow writers. The good news is that I’m almost (although not quite) caught up. We have some wonderful essays to share with you over the next couple months. Today’s essay is about Justine’s grandmother, and the many gifts she’s received from her. It’s a story that will resonate with many, as it’s about the difficulty of letting go of those we love.  —Allie

    HerStories (4)

    Gifts From Grandma

    When I was a little girl, my grandmother frequently gave me gifts. These trinkets usually had at least one previous owner, but I didn’t care. On Sundays after Mass, my cousins and I would squeeze in the backseat of her hot Oldsmobile as she drove slowly around the neighborhood, hunting for garage sale bargains. Sometimes the gift was brand new, a souvenir from one of the many trips she and my grandfather took abroad: nesting dolls from the Ukraine, perhaps, or an oversized beaded t-shirt scrawled in cursive script reading, “Welcome to Bali!”

    Even though I am grown, she is still giving me things. Today’s gift is a real treasure, she says. I am to choose my favorite teapot from her collection in the china cabinet, a massive ornate antique that is as ill suited to her sunny Florida bungalow as the large Persian rug under my bare feet. In a way, the mismatch suits my grandparents. They’ve never been the type to value fitting in over going their own way. A prime example of her bucking the system was her decision, after attending Mass for more than half a century, to leave the Catholic Church in favor of my grandfather’s synagogue.

    I open the hutch door and a pleasant odor wafts out, a faint mix of cedar and silk napkins. I recall that she used to keep apricots—my favorite childhood snack—in its drawers for me, and I am struck with the sudden urge to climb inside the cabinet and breathe in its sturdy scent. Instead, I look over the variety of teapots, picking them up to feel their heft and imagine the stories they contain.

    I select a delicate white porcelain pot with an intricate blue pattern and five matching teacups, which seem more like small bowls, as they have no handles. I have a hunch the set is from China. Turning the small lid over, I notice the telltale calligraphic lettering. I return to my seat at the dining table with my prize. The sliding glass patio doors are wide open in front of us, letting in a warm ocean breeze. A large grandfather clock chimes away the quarter-hours. Its familiar sound carries yin, the tranquil nostalgia of youth; and yang, the persistent march of time forward. But just for a moment, time slows to a stop while we talk.

    Grandma smiles in approval of my selection and tells me its story. As I suspected, a former Chinese student gave her the set. She pauses as she tries to remember whether the sixth cup went missing or was broken, then she turns to me with a question.

    Did I know she was born in the Chinese Year of the Rabbit?

    “Did I ever tell you” is how she starts most of her stories lately. Memories that gripped her like a comfortable scarf are coming unraveled. Each bears some familiarity of feel and weight, but without the instructions on how they knitted together, her thoughts are a pool of colorful yarn, attractive but unconstructed.

    “I learned from the Chinese calendar that I’m a Rabbit, born in 1927,” she begins. “And what is the Rabbit? It’s the happy, lucky sign, and I couldn’t agree more. It might sound corny, but that’s how I feel about my life.”

    I know this story, but my smile beckons her to continue. Grandma’s stories are like nursery rhymes I can recite by heart, yet they are full of meaning to process with my adult mind. She knows about the Chinese calendar from her years in Beijing in the early 1990’s, the great adventure of her life. The student who gave her the teapot—in gratitude for teaching her English and as a token of respect—was one of many hotel employees to whom Grandma taught on her volunteer assignment.

    A diminutive four-feet-eleven, what my grandmother lacks in stature she makes up for in a vibrant personality. She’s her own yin and yang blend of pride and self-deprecation, grace and humor. By the time she departed China after two years, no fewer than twenty students knew her as “Mom,” and she referred to them as her Chinese sons and daughters, the most cherished of whom she gave the meaningful Christian name of “Grace.” Over two decades later, she still speaks with Grace on the phone almost daily.

    “I’m giving you this teapot because I’m not getting any younger,” she tells me, “and I want to experience the joy of seeing my treasures find new homes!”

    It’s a bittersweet gift, and I struggle to put words to my sorrow. As she advances into her last years, osteoporosis causes Grandma’s fragile bones to snap all too easily. I hear of her pain and am mired in suffering on her behalf. The danger of our close relationship is it leads me to suspect I know her troubles without asking. Blinded by grief, I grope for solutions, clinging to advice that lets me decide what she needs to do to keep safe—that she must sell the home she loves and submit to my fearful rule.

    I try starting the conversation again about her moving closer to her family so we can care for her. She leans over to retrieve a book, The Prophet by Khalil Gibran, from her shelf. Because of her glaucoma, she can no longer read, so she asks me to turn to the chapter about joy and sorrow, and I read:

    When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

    “You can keep the book too,” she says with a smile.

    *******

    We go for a stroll on the beach. I offer her my arm to steady her gait. Since her diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, she walks in a disorderly zigzag. To have Parkinson’s is to be trapped inside a body that no long follows the brain’s orders. But in the midst of challenging symptoms, she manages to find the comedy. In her Parkinson’s exercise class, she says everyone sways in their chairs as if to the beat of music no one else can hear. She describes it as a self-directed Hokey Pokey, chuckling, “You put your right arm up, and you shake it all about…”

    From a distance, I watch pelicans swarm a fisherman as he guts the day’s catch. One of the birds has a wounded wing. Probably from a speedboat, I frown. Marco Island is full of many permanent residents—at the post office a sign in the parking lot reads, “Look Before Backing”—but younger snowbirds land here on vacation now too. They zip by on skidoos and bring with them stores overflowing with mawkish souvenirs and flavored rums. I might be the only person on this beach—apart from my grandparents—who longs for the time before you could buy a hermit crab for a buck or a coconut that’s been carved in the shape of a monkey. I’ve never been fond of change.

    When we arrive home from our walk, my mind is still on her dwindling physical ability. I ask how her latest doctor’s appointment went. “Great!” she says. “I told a joke he wants to use. What’s the difference between a doctor and God?” She pauses, a grin creeping onto her face. “God doesn’t think he’s a doctor.”

    “Yeah, but what’d he say?” I ask, probing for more useful information.

    She shrugs, “That I have Parkinson’s.” Then she smiles. “Did you hear what George Burns’ doctor told him? He said, ‘George, you’ve got to stop it with the booze and the women. It could lead to all kinds of problems, even death.’ And you know what George said?”

    This time I get to tell the punch line. “‘If she dies, she dies!’”

    Her smile fades as she confides, “My doctor knew I had Parkinson’s because I didn’t swing my arms when I walked.” She perks up, shoulders proud. “But I do swing them now. I want to look normal.” I am grateful for this glimpse at her basic human desire to belong.
    ******

    The next morning, I finish The Prophet by the pool, peering over the text to watch my grandfather tend his tomatoes in the sandy soil, the unyielding sun and the burrowing tortoise undermining his hard work. He pauses to tell me of a conversation Grandma had with me in her living room a few months ago. Only I wasn’t actually there. Even her glaucoma can’t explain away this mistake.

    Picturing her in animated discussion with an empty armchair, I laugh at his anecdote. Is inappropriate laughter one of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief? I laugh not just because I’m amused, but because I accept that humor is how they frame their life narrative. I laugh because if I ever start talking to imaginary people, I hope the ones I love will pretend it is funny. “Well, I certainly hope I said something interesting” is all I can think to say.

    Grandma calls to me from inside the house. “Jeanne?” I hope calling me by my aunt’s name is slurred speech and not dementia talking, but I recognize it could be a generous distinction. I find her in her bedroom searching her jewelry box for another trinket to give me—something to be remembered by, she says. I place my hand on hers, squeezing it to steady the tremble as she fumbles with a silver clasp. “I got this necklace in Mexico the year you were born. A beauty for a beauty,” she squeezes back.

    She motions for me to sit with her. “My doctor says I’m dying,” she says, “but I have lived a good life. I can’t say I’m not afraid of what’s going to happen, though even if I don’t have much time left, I know I am right where I want to be.” Her candor is, I realize, a final gift to me, and her words bring me back to the truth: I suffer because I lack control.

    But control was an illusion. To confront the illusion, I begin the difficult task of letting her face the end of life in her own exquisite manner. I choose to see a glimmer of beauty in their delicate balance, the joy within their sorrow. I decide I will offer Grandma love and dignity—and maybe a little soup—but not control, not fear. Sitting with her on her bed, I begin to acknowledge and express my anticipatory grief to her without shame and judgment, as she teaches me is the Chinese way. She says I must let go not of her but of my emotions.

    Like after a dream, the subtle outline of meaning diminishes as I return to the rush of everyday life. My grandmother’s wisdom eludes me, easier praised than done. I am tortured by the thought of losing her. I am even more tortured by the thought that Parkinson’s might steal her dignity before the end comes. But I am determined to let her go. As a mother, I am well acquainted with the task of letting go. I surrender authority of my kids on a daily basis to let them make their own decisions. I quiet my fear so they—and I—can learn from their life experiences.

    I am transcribing my recordings of Grandma’s memories into an anthology, a gift for future generations. In retelling stories of the past to my daughters, I hope we will understand better the path we travel now. Perhaps someday my girls will recount these stories to their children in admiration of the mothers who came before them.

     

    Profile pic 2013Justine Uhlenbrock is a writer, doula, and self-care evangelist. Her essays about motherhood and heritage have appeared on Mamalode and Literary Mama, where she is an editorial assistant. She lives with her family in Decatur, Georgia and can be found on Twitter (@lonehomeranger) and her website, justineuhlenbrock.com.

     

     

    **We will be sharing two more fantastic essays in the next month, and then we will take a break for the holidays. Voices will resume in January 2016 after this break. We are currently accepting submissions for original essays, but do know that if your piece is accepted, it will not run until January or later. Submissions guidelines can be found here, and emailed to our assistant editor Allie at herstoriesvoices@gmail.com

  • When to Unfriend on Facebook

    When do you unfriend someone on Facebook? If you’ve done it, did you have any regrets? We’re still in new territory when it comes to friendship boundaries online and all opinions are welcome here. Let us know what you would do in the same situation.

     

    when to unfriend on Facebook

    Do you have a question for Nina? Use our anonymous form. You can read Nina’s answers to past questions here.

    Dear Nina,

    Five years ago my best friend of thirteen years and I had a falling out. It took me five years to get over the tragic loss of this relationship and especially the lack of civility in our parting. I sent her a sappy email several times over the years. I even left a note at her house once, but she never acknowledged receiving it. That was the turning point when I forced myself to stop trying. I realized that she didn’t care, which helped me move on even though I missed the friendship.

    Then out of nowhere, she called. She left me a voicemail and all at once I felt validated. “She does care,” I thought. “She doesn’t hate me. She misses me!”

    Quickly though, I felt fear. After all, I had just gotten to a point where I really didn’t care if we ever talked again and it felt freeing and healthy. That said, I didn’t want to give up the opportunity to have a conversation that could lead to some closure. If calling her back meant that I would have resolution and that maybe we could be the kind of friends who send a Christmas card or just say “Hi,” every few years or so, then that would feel like a better way to honor the good years we had together. I didn’t want things to be so black and white.

    I got up the nerve to call her back. I was so nervous, but I threw caution to the wind and left my shaky, awkward voicemail and then waited. She didn’t call me back. I felt as raw as when it had first happened five years earlier. How could she come back into my life and then disappear again?

    Three months later I was coming off a huge project, I was on my way out of the country for a big trip, and I was on a great high from life. She texted me: “I think about you a lot and I hope that you and your family are doing great.” I almost texted right back in all my happy elation from the events and the text.

    But then I stopped myself. How would I feel if she didn’t text back? I was back in economics 101, opportunity cost, weighing and measuring my reward to investment in a human relationship. So I didn’t text. I decided to see how I felt after my trip.

    When I got back in town, I saw that she sent me a friend request on Facebook. I thought, “This is it! She’s serious about being in communication.” However, something didn’t feel right about a person who wasn’t there for me having full access to the history of my past five years and day-to-day life. On the other hand, I didn’t want to make a decision out of fear so I accepted the request and I wrote her back.

    It was more of the same, “I hope you’re well.” I asked how she was and tried to start more of a conversation and her answers were one-word responses. I asked her more and she didn’t respond at all.

    Communication to me is not a one liner. I am really happy to know that she thinks about me and that the freeze has melted, but her not returning my voicemail really hurt as did the way our friendship ended five years ago.

    However, trying to come to a resolution with her sounds daunting, and I can see that she will never want to talk about what happened five years ago. I feel uncomfortable with her as a Facebook friend, but I fear that if I unfriend her, I will be sending a juvenile, “I’m still mad at you” message.

    What do you think I should do?

    Thanks,

    Hovering Over the Unfriend Option

     

    Dear Hovering Over the Unfriend Option,

    Before we delve into your Facebook options, it’s worth mentioning that while your hurt feelings about the end of a thirteen-year friendship are completely understandable, you might have a false sense of how at peace you’d be if you only knew why your friend severed ties.

    Having been dumped by a friend many years ago in much the same way you described, I know that it takes years to get over the loss. One of the main issues to contend with is the lack of control you had over the fate of the friendship as well as a total absence of closure.

    I remember pouring my heart out to my former friend years later when we reconnected for a short time (in pre-Facebook years) and she generally said, “Oh that? I can’t remember.” It was wholly unsatisfying and her nonchalant attitude created a new sense of confusion over the good parts of the friendship, too.

    The end of a friendship is tricky no matter how the details play out. If your friend had provided a list of reasons five years ago, I doubt you would have felt better about her unilateral decision. You might have felt more hurt and rejected.

    Now let’s discuss the part of your predicament that affects many relationships on Facebook.

    In “real life,” we don’t let every person we know into the inner circle, so how does the same decision-making function online? Who should get to see the status updates and pictures we share?

    What does Facebook mean for you?

    The answer to that question depends on how you view the role of Facebook. The discussion that follows pertains to Facebook friendships in general, not just your situation with this one particular friend. I also want to be clear that there is not one right answer for how one shares and receives information on Facebook.

    My local (and Facebook!) friend, Dana, said, “I try to be selective on my social network and ask myself if I ran into this person would I be really excited to see them and maybe get a coffee. If not then they shouldn’t have so much access to my life on the Internet.”

    For someone like me, a blogger for almost five years and a personal essay writer with work online, I have a looser set of boundaries for my virtual connections. I organize my Facebook friends in a way that lets me share photos of my kids with my “friends” category whereas my links to online essays I’ve written or enjoyed fall in the “public” or “friends” plus “acquaintances” categories. You have to keep your Facebook connections organized for the privacy functions to work this way. More on that later.

    Nina’s policy: when to unfriend someone on Facebook

    As for my personal policy on unfriending: I have never unfriended anybody because there are other options that are less extreme. Yes, I think unfriending can be an extreme choice, especially in the realm of close friends and family members. (Note that the friend at the center of your letter does not fit into either of those categories.)

    If I felt that family members were criticizing my posts, I’d restrict their access. I’ve never felt the need to hide anyone else’s posts, but if a friend’s updates really bothered me, I would choose the hide or unfollow route before I unfriended. The unfriend and especially the block option seems more appropriate for when someone is harassing you with obnoxious comments or in any other capacity.

    More reasons for hesitation about unfriending

    When you choose to unfriend on Facebook, you’re saying, “I want to cut off all online access to that person as well as cut off that person’s access to me.” Let’s say you vehemently disagree with a friend’s politics, yet you still want to push “like” on a picture of her kids once in a while to stay connected. That is still possible with the hide, unfollow, and restrict options, but once you hit “unfriend,” any relationship on Facebook is over.

    And I’d argue it damages the relationship off Facebook, too. It can be surprisingly hurtful to be on the receiving end of that kind of instant “I don’t want anything to do with you” message in a situation that really called for a more gentle approach.

    All that said, in the case of your non-communicating former friend, I think that “unfriend” might still be the best choice. But for readers with different Facebook issues, let’s explore the other options in more detail.

    Unfollow

    When you go to a friend’s Facebook page, you will see a box under “friends” that says “following,” which is the default setting. “Following” means that this person’s posts can appear in the newsfeed. (The “newsfeed” are the posts you scroll through when you’re “reading” Facebook.) A friend will not know if you’ve chosen to unfollow her. If you open the drop down menu in the “following” box, you will see an option to “unfollow.”

    By clicking unfollow, you’re telling Facebook to keep this person’s posts out of your feed. You will have the option to visit this person’s page any time you want because you’re still “friends,” but you won’t be confronted with her information in the feed. You can choose to follow this friend again at any time, such as after the election season, a year after her book release, or whenever you’re ready to see her posts in the newsfeed again.

    Hide

    Next to each Facebook post there’s an arrow with a drop down menu. The first option in the menu is “hide post.” If you want to only see a friend’s posts occasionally, then Facebook will get the idea and stop showing you her posts so often if you hide her posts now and then. Again, nobody gets notified when you hide a post.

    Restrict

    The restrict option requires knowing how to make friend lists and how to choose the audience for each post. Facebook has good tutorials for both. (This one is for lists. This is one for audience selection.) People do not know when they’ve been added or removed from your lists.

    Here is what Facebook says about the “restricted” list: “Putting someone on the Restricted list means that you’re still friends, but that you only share your posts with them when you choose Public as the audience, or when you tag them in the post. For example, if you’re friends with your boss and you put them on your Restricted list, then post a photo and choose Friends as the audience, you aren’t sharing that photo with your boss, or anyone else on your Restricted list. However, if you tag your boss in the photo, or chose Public as the audience, they’ll be able to see the photo.”

     Sometimes unfriending is best 

     The restrict and unfollow combo might do the trick in this situation, and it’s certainly the easier path to take, but another wise friend of mine in town had this to say about your question. I think her view is worth considering.

    “From what I’ve read, it sounds like the friend who disappeared five years ago hasn’t reconnected on Facebook at all except for making the friend request. She hasn’t replied to the Facebook message, she hasn’t commented on pictures. Does she ever push like on a post or a picture? If not, there are not really any virtual ties except for the fact they are ‘friends on Facebook.’

    Maybe the friend accidentally requested her to be a friend. Maybe the friend has hidden the letter writer from her newsfeed and doesn’t ever attempt to have access to her life. It sounds like having the former friend as a ‘friend’ on Facebook is causing too much distress and better to unfriend and move on. If the letter writer just unfollows or restricts the former close friend, the temptation to revisit the past is harder to ignore.

    I agree that unfriending is harsh, but in this case, unfriending seems appropriate as the letter writer initially accepted the request hoping that they could reconnect, which didn’t happen. There may be reasons that have nothing to do with the letter writer specifically, but since she’s not getting any response, it seems it’s time to end the virtual (non) relationship.”

    When someone gets unfriended, she does not receive a notification, but she will see that you’re not friends if she were ever to visit your page. You will also no longer have access to her page unless she posts some updates as “public.” To my wise friend’s point, restricting your access to her information might be an important step in moving on from this past relationship.

     The main problem, the bigger problem than the Facebook one, is that you are still mad at your old friend.

    You have a right to feel rejected, however, you already know that your intense focus on that hurt has not helped you. The old friendship, the way it ended, and the small ways that this friend has weakly reached out then scurried back into oblivion have already required too much emotional energy. So yes, I agree that some Facebook boundaries are in order with this friend. I just can’t say definitively which route to take.

     Perhaps some of the HerStories readers have a stronger opinion. Comment away, readers!

    Editor’s note: The topic of unfriending on Facebook has become even more complicated because of last year’s election. We did a survey of the effects of the election on friendships. You might be surprised to learn how many of our readers have been unfriended (or have unfriended themselves) because of politics! (Here’s the post.)

     

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  • HerTake: Struggling With Writer Envy

    This month’s HerTake friendship question is all about envy. Can you relate to feeling jealous of a close friend’s success? Can you help our letter writer with your experience and advice?

    Do you have a question for Nina? Use our anonymous form. You can read Nina’s answers to past questions here.

    Dear Nina, 

    I’ve been blogging for three years. About 18 months ago I started submitting to larger websites and have been somewhat successful. My close friend started a blog recently, and while I want to help her, I’m jealous of the success she’s already achieved in a short time.

    In high school we were inseparable. We were on the same sports team and competed in the same events. She was social and well-liked. I was (and still am) shy and difficult to get to know. She was a year behind me and ended up attending the same small liberal arts college. She introduced me to my husband because she had a major crush on him. (I only pursued the relationship with her blessing.)  

    Throughout our friendship, she has been one of the few people who I can really be myself with. She is loyal and supportive and makes me laugh. We can talk for hours and it feels like minutes. We live far apart and I miss her.

    About a year ago, she began blogging when her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her mother’s illness was swift and brutal. After my friend’s first blog posted to her Facebook page, she texted me to say she’d had 500 page views. That’s more than I ever had on a single post in the three years since I’d been blogging. Her mother was dying of brain cancer and I was getting jealous of page views. I felt like a horrible friend.

    My friend has now begun submitting to many of the same sites I submit to. She asked if I could share my “secrets” to getting published. I am reluctant and again feeling horrible about it.

    I am reluctant because I’ve gotten where I am through hard work. There is no secret. It’s countless hours of researching sites and other writers and writing and revising and writing and revising and researching some more. It’s making yourself completely vulnerable and getting rejected. It’s about getting accepted but still not feeling very accomplished.

    I am reluctant because I am jealous and petty and scared. I’m afraid she’ll be more successful. I’m afraid I’ll be watching her live out my dream. I’m jealous that she gets more likes and comments on her posts than I ever do. I don’t feel this way about other writers I don’t know. So why can’t I support my best friend?

    I am working on my jealousy. (It’s the unflattering emotion I wrestle with far too often.) I’ve been reading a lot about Buddhism and looking inward. I feel better every time I let go and give more than I get. I know what the right thing to do is. I know there is enough for both of us, and for us all.

    I guess what I want to know is, can you understand my reluctance? Or am I really just being a complete jerk about this? And why am I more threatened by her success than by complete strangers’ successes?

    I’m feeling like the worst friend in the world.

    Signed,

    Struggling With Envy

    Dear Struggling With Envy,

    Your letter was admirably honest and probably more relatable than you suspect. One time when I was feeling especially envious about another writer, a wise relative told me that envy is like a wrecking ball destroying everything in its path. She helped me imagine the strength of envy ruining everything it touches then swinging back around to ruin the person who released it first. Your letter shows that you’re still on the safe side of the wrecking ball because you have mostly held back its potential to ruin your friendship. However, I do suspect that your friend has felt your hesitation to help so it’s time to decide how you’re going to handle her future requests.

    In April I received a letter that reminded me of yours, but the issue was flipped. It was from a writer who felt supported and applauded by the bloggers she’d connected with online, but she felt discouraged and dismissed by a close friend of hers in town who is also a writer.

    Many commenters told the April letter writer (let’s call her “April”) that her friend was flat-out jealous. I agreed, but I told April to forget about what was keeping her friend from applauding her work. Instead, April needed to focus solely on her own goals and her own writing because obsessing about her friend’s jealousy was getting in the way of her writing. Similarly, I believe that your focus on your friend’s success is getting in the way of your writing.

    WHERE ENVY CAN BE USEFUL

    In A Writer’s Guide To Persistence: How to Create a Lasting and Productive Writing Practice, author Jordan Rosenfeld dedicates an entire chapter to envy. She says, “Focusing on what others have is a form of procrastination and distraction from your own writing.” She suggests that when you’re feeling jealous of someone it helps to write down five steps it would take to get in a similar position to that person. We’re usually more jealous of the achievement than the person. I especially like her advice to reframe the envy into something useful. She writes, “Envy is a signpost pointing you toward what you really want.”

    BUT WHAT DO YOU REALLY WANT?

    It sounds like your friend’s writing motivation, for now, comes from her desire to share the tragic experience of losing her mother. Perhaps the writing process is helping her work through her grief. Perhaps she wants to help others who are experiencing the mourning process. Either way, I suspect that your friend’s success comes from the passion in her message as opposed to a clamoring for more likes and shares. I suspect that readers share her work because her story feels authentic and because her story helps others.

    You said, “I’m afraid [my friend will be] living out my dream.” But then you mention that she gets more likes and comments than you do. I wonder if rather than envy about the likes and shares, you’re jealous of your friend’s underlying passion and clear motivation. Maybe it’s time to go back to the roots of your writing dreams. Were those roots based on likes, shares, and comments? I bet the dream did not start there. What do you enjoy and crave about writing as opposed to the publishing side of it all? If you can spend some time answering that question, you might point yourself in the right direction.

    WHAT YOU ALREADY KNOW

    Some of the advice I want to give you has already been covered by YOU in your letter. As you know, your friend’s success has nothing to do with you. She did not become a blogger to spite you, and her success has no bearing on your abilities or career trajectory. I know that you know this already as evidenced by your astute and self-aware analysis of the irrational worries that come into play with envy. As you said, there is enough for everyone. As you said, if you would help a stranger then you ought to help your best friend. And as you said, in life, the more you give, the more you get. (Usually.) 

    You know what you should do, but something is still holding you back.  

    DON’T BE ASHAMED

    Before we delve further, I’d like to alleviate whatever shame you’re feeling about the jealousy. I will answer some of your direction questions, all of which seem to come with a layer of shame.  

    Can you understand my reluctance [to provide contact information for editors, etc.]? Yes, I can. You worked hard to get your writing published and on some level you feel that your friend should “climb the ladder” at the same pace or that she should not benefit so easily just because she knows you and can piggy back on your contacts. And by the way, you can feel reluctant, but do the right thing anyway. Both can be true at the same time.

    Or am I really just being a complete jerk about this? No, not yet, but you’re tempted and that’s what I hope to help you avoid.

    And why am I more threatened by her success than by complete strangers’ successes? That is something I would need more information to answer, and I do think it’s worth you exploring that question with someone who can help. My goal here is to influence how you treat your best friend more than how you personally feel about her success.

    SHOULD WRITERS HELP OTHER WRITERS?

    I think you should help your very close friend and even acquaintances. I agree with you that there are no major secrets to getting published and it’s mostly hard work. However, many of us do find help along the way so why not fall into the camp of someone who is helpful?

    Rosenfeld similarly warns writers not to hoard information. She points out that most information is available when writers look hard enough or ask around enough. Your friends and acquaintances will either get it from you or from someone else, but they will certainly remember that you were unwilling to share what you know.

    Rosenfeld asks readers to consider this: Can you honestly say that you didn’t learn some helpful tidbits from other writers here and there? Can you say that hearing about another writer’s experience didn’t somehow inform the way you pitched pieces? Were you never given the email address of an editor in the position to publish your work? Were you never pointed towards sites where writers like Erika Dreifus and Susan Maccarelli share tons of resources? (I have a section like that on my site.) Rosenfeld suggests that making a page like that on your site is a worthwhile exercise in generosity. Even if you don’t always feel like “we’re all in this together,” acting that way may eventually change your perception. Which brings me to . . .

    BEHAVIOR OVER FEELINGS

    So “Struggling with Envy,” while I might not be able to help you alleviate the envy you’re feeling, I hope that I’ve kept you from doing any damage to your friendship. It is so natural to feel jealous when success seems to come easily to the next person. (And I’m willing to bet that your friend’s success was not really “easy” considering the tragic nature of her writing material. You also noted that truth in your letter.)

    Be gentle with yourself for feeling envious, but be vigilant about keeping yourself from acting on it. Nobody, including your friend, can blame you for feeling jealous. It’s what you do with the envy that matters.

    Wishing you much success in your writing journey and many more years of a close relationship with your friend,

    Nina

  • HerTake: Your Friend, Not Your Free Editor

    Today’s question comes from a writer who feels that friends and acquaintances who ask for “quick” editing help for their writing projects or their teens’ college essays, for example, are taking advantage of her friendship. We bet that readers from many professions can relate.

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    Dear Nina,

    I am a writer with print and online credits and a blog. However, I think my question applies to lawyers, doctors, nutritionists, physical trainers, or really anyone with a business that relies on expertise.

    Let me start by saying that I consider myself a generous and attentive friend, but I am struggling to know where the line is between allowing myself to be taken advantage of and helping my friends.

    Here’s the situation: Friends and acquaintances often ask me to “take a look at” (in other words, help with) their writing or their kids’ writing. I’m talking about college admission essays, special occasion speeches, blog posts, articles, or even basic emails. I also have acquaintances who want to get into the publishing business, perhaps as a blogger, who send me their essays to read, ask for detailed feedback and sometimes for the names of the magazine and site editors I’ve worked with in the past. Sometimes it truly is a just quick read and I’m happy to help. Other times, the editing or publishing advice requires much more of my time and energy than I am comfortable giving, but I have a hard time saying no.

    I don’t want to resent my friends, but I don’t feel comfortable asking for some kind of payment, especially since I’ve never set up an official editing business. Do you think it’s okay to charge my friends/acquaintances for this type of help even though I do not run an editing business and do not necessarily want to run an editing business? I’m not sure how I can explain to a friend that at some point as I’m helping her kid with a college admissions essay, for example, that I’d want to be compensated for my time.

    As an aside, I have a few “go-to” writers who edit my work every now and then, but it is almost always reciprocated eventually. I look over their work, they look over mine. It’s an unspoken, equal arrangement. I am referring to something different with these other requests. My main question is this: What is the best way to let a friend know that she (or he) has crossed a line from asking for a quick favor to taking advantage of me?

    Thanks for any advice,

    Your Friend, Not Your Free Editor

    Dear Your Friend, Not Your Free Editor,

    Thank you for this question! I have the same problem, but receiving your question really pushed me to think more about how I want to handle these writing/editing favors in the future. People ask me for the same sort of help you’ve described: “the quick looks” that include emails back and forth for days even when I think I’ve said all there is to say; the college admissions essays that I don’t feel quite right about helping with anyway; the publishing and blogging advice; and in my case, advice about Twitter and other detailed social media questions. I don’t mind giving a quick read and an overall opinion or a quick look at a site or a Twitter feed, but when it starts getting to the paragraph-by-paragraph questions or more involved strategy questions (for social media or blogging), then I feel like I’m spending time that could and should be billable, or spent on my own work, or not spent on my computer.

    To tell you the truth, I had a hard time even writing the previous paragraph because, like you, I consider myself a generous and helpful friend. Also like you, I’m not particularly interested in starting a business nor am I all that good at saying no. Alas, you and I have the same questions. How do we charge our friends and acquaintances if we weren’t intending to run a business? But, how do we not charge them if we want to help without resenting the time we’re spending?

    Since I’ve had little success solving this issue before now, I asked a version of your question on Facebook. Several writers chimed in to say they have the same problem. It’s no surprise that the most solution-oriented answer came from a friend who is not a writer!

    My friend Steven said: As a lawyer I am somewhat familiar with the situation of being asked for advice. One thing that I think helps is knowing what you and/or your time is worth (and having it written down). That way, when someone asks you for help, rather than saying, I’ll think about it,” you can say, “I’d be happy to help, I typically charge $50 per hour or $100 for a project, so let me know what you think would be in your budget.” Even if you end up charging a lot less, or nothing, it sends a powerful message that you are doing more than a favor.

    Steven also suggested the following as another possible response to a request for help: “My hourly rate, is over $150 per hour. For a friend I’m always happy to give you the first hour or two of my time, but after that I really need to charge.” Again, this creates a much better dynamic between the professional and the potential client. Another thing often done in billing is to charge the full amount, but then give discounts. This again reflects the true value of the service you’re providing.

    A professional writer and editor I know, Hila Ratzabi, also said something that felt right and showed how taking ourselves seriously and valuing our expertise and time is the first step. Hila said, “Friends who respect my work insist on paying.” I suspect that Hila respected herself and her time before she expected anyone else to do the same. I think Hila’s and Steven’s responses go hand-in-hand.

    A related story: one writer friend (who is also a lawyer) is the only one who has ever insisted on paying me for my editing time. We set up a structure for her to pre-pay for a few hours, which made her feel more comfortable emailing with revisions and questions and cover letters. My level of help to her was significantly better and more helpful than my free “quick looks” that I did as favors. She encouraged me to make a page on my site to advertise my services, but I was nervous that I’d end up doing more editing than writing. Your question, however, reminded me that having that information organized and written down is important, even if I just take on a few clients a year.

    Your Friend, Not Your Free Editor, I’m giving us both an assignment.

    1. Recognize the monetary value of our time and experience. We must recognize that the years we have spent writing, editing, blogging, and getting our work published is worth something. To echo Steven, it is more than a little favor when a friend asks for that expertise for free.
    1. Pricing! While it might be hard to put a number on our experience and time, we can certainly research what is standard in the freelance editing and social media consulting world and charge accordingly. (I’ve seen anything from $50-200/hour.) I liked Steven’s idea of giving discounts or giving away the first hour, but making it clear what our time is worth.
    1. Write it all down! We need to create a one-page document that lists our services and our rates (on mine, I would also include the social media piece). That document can exist on our sites or simply on our desktops to forward to anyone who inquires. I don’t think that creating this document or sharing it means we are now editors by trade instead of writers. It’s simply a logical solution to a problem. Also, the extra cash would be nice!
    1. Learn to say no! If we absolutely do not feel like we can charge our friends, then we both need to get better at saying no to the request in the first place. Easier said than done, I know.

    Good luck to you! And to me!

    I know there are readers out there who can commiserate or can tell us how they solved this problem. Please let us know in the comments.

    Until next time,

    Nina

  • HerTake: Dropped From a Group of Friends

    Today’s question comes from a college student who feels that all of her friendships are falling apart at once and she’d like to go into the next school year feeling better about herself and her social life.

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    Dear Nina,

    I just finished my second year of college and I’ve been noticing that a lot of my friendships are falling apart–a number that seems way larger than normal. Some of these friends are people that I saw regularly in class or on campus because we had the same schedule. And some are people I know as part of a group.

    The group of friends still spends time together, but they seem to avoid me. This has occurred with at least six friends from the group who I was very close with. It’s been making me think that I’m a bad friend or a bad person. I have always tended to be someone who is worried about taking time from people or disturbing them. I understand that people change and that at points in life friends are busy and don’t have time for everyone. But after a while, even though I make time for them, they just seem to be ignoring me.

    Signed,

    Time to Make New Friends? (Or am I over-thinking it?)

     

    Dear Time to Make New Friends,

    If you’ve read a few of my answers to friendship questions, then you might expect me to say that you’re reading into your friends’ distance. While I stand behind my tendency to err towards encouraging the benefit of the doubt, not assuming everything is about “us,” and taking more time to assess a situation before jumping to relationship-changing decisions, I find your case requires a different take. My sense is that yes, it is time to make new friends. I’m referring more to the group of friends, but I’ll get back to them in a moment.

    As far as the friends from class go, I would not read too much into that situation. It’s common in college (and forever after those years) to have friends that start out of convenience and end soon after the circumstances of convenience change. If you meet a friend from class and the two of you truly click on a deep level, then it’s more likely that the friendship will exist beyond that semester’s study sessions and walks to and from class. I think it’s great when that happens, but there’s also no shame in enjoying friendships that stay in a boundary. It’s wonderful to have a buddy in a class (or at work) who makes those hours more enjoyable with no expectations from either party about what that friendship will look like outside of the circumstance that brought you together. My advice for next semester’s classes is to make a real effort with one or two people that seem like good outside-of-class friend potential, but do not assume that every friendly face and study partner will remain in your life after the semester.

    Now back to the friends from the group. As I said, yes, you need to make new friends. Why such a rash answer? My feeling is that even if your friends have a good reason in their minds for giving you the cold shoulder, I would hope at least one of them would have mustered the courage and decency to tell you why. Also, I believe that our gut feelings about relationships are important and I find it hard to imagine that your sense of being left out of the group activities is completely off base. I don’t have to know you to say with certitude that you do not need that kind of drama in your life. The ganging-up-on-one-friend behavior is best left behind in junior high. Steer clear of this crew.

    I know it’s painful that a group of women is not accepting you for reasons you’re not clear about, but that does not make you a bad friend or a bad person. You have not found the friends that are right for you, and the search for them next semester may not (and perhaps should not) involve a whole group. Take it one friend at a time. And remember, one or two close friends might be more than enough.

    One final bit of advice, I do not want you to waste your time worrying about why this particular group wants their distance. I see too many people overanalyzing why certain friendships do not work. You still have more years of college ahead of you and this time in your life is rich with potential for new friends. You’ve asked yourself if you’re a good friend and just asking yourself that question means you’re thinking about what matters in friendship. Beyond the basics of making sure you’re doing as much (if not more) listening as talking, being trustworthy, and acting with kindness at the core of each interaction, I think it’s safe to assume you’re not doing anything wrong. The rest may be up to chemistry, which takes trial and error.

    Good luck and go out there next semester with an open mind and some excitement about a fresh start.

    Nina

  • Only When Her Real Friends Are Busy

    Today’s question comes from a woman who feels that a friend only seeks her out when her “real” friends are busy. But Nina wonders if our letter writer’s assumptions are getting in the way of her enjoying the friendship as it is now.

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    Dear Nina,

    I had a friend who I used to consider one of my closer friends in town. A few years ago for her birthday she invited a group of friends for a girls’ weekend away, and when I was not included, I realized that I viewed our relationship differently than she did. Though it hurt, I made my peace with it and we continued to be friends.

    However, I feel like she only seeks me out when her “real” friends are unavailable. In some ways I’m fine with that. I realize not everyone needs to be a best friend, and I certainly have other friends with whom I’m much closer and socialize with more often. But in other ways, it still feels a bit insulting and hurtful.

    Is it ridiculous to keep up this charade where I know she only seeks me out as a last choice, but we both pretend that’s not the case? Do I call her out on it and let her know that I realize what she’s doing (even if perhaps she’s doing it unconsciously)? Or do I continue as is, knowing our “deal” and taking whatever friendship we have at face value?

     

    Thank you,

    Tired of Being Picked Last

     

    Dear Tired of Being Picked Last,

    First, we need to discuss how gracefully you handled that group trip. I think one of the hardest aspects of friendship at any age is knowing that our friends are spending time together without us.

    However, as I discussed back in January in “The More The Merrier Vs. Quality Time,” if we want to connect with a few friends without inviting eight more along every time, we have to accept that we will also not get invited to every outing. It sounds like you don’t need to read my answer to that dilemma, but I wanted to mention it here because others could likely use the advice.

    You also gracefully handled a second issue that comes up in this column often: changing the status of a friendship. Once a friendship has gone from close to casual (a “how-to” question all on its own), how do you deal with the fact that you’re no longer in the inner circle? Do you keep the friendship to enjoy the connection in its new form, or does the comparison to the past relationship make a less intense friendship impossible?

    It sounds like you and Trip Planner found a way to recalibrate the friendship for a while (instigated by Trip Planner’s birthday getaway), but now you’re plagued by the nagging feeling that she does not appreciate what you bring to the table even in this new version of the friendship.

    I think it’s important to note that you don’t know whether Trip Planner is only seeking you out when everyone else is unavailable. You may sense it, but you cannot possibly be privy to all of her communications with other friends. It’s your assumption that she’s generally picking you last.

    I also wonder how often you reach out to Trip Planner. Is she doing all the plan making because you still feel slighted a bit from the trip? Perhaps if you’re not ever the one reaching out, she’s getting the signal from you that you’re not very interested in staying friends.

    Now, here’s my two cents on your direct questions.

    “Do I call her out on it and let her know that I realize what she’s doing (even if perhaps she’s doing it unconsciously)?” No, do not call her out on this. I think this is a case of “actions speak louder than words,” and what your actions should be depends on what you want.

    If your goal is to be closer friends again or to at least maintain the new version of the friendship, then you can reach out more (if you’re not already). You have to do your part to drive the relationship. However, if your goal is simply to “stick it” to Trip Planner somehow, then that tells me you really don’t want to be friends, even casual friends. In that case, not only should you not reach out to her, but you should not feel the pressure to say yes every time she asks if you’re available.

    “Or do I continue as is, knowing our “deal” and taking whatever friendship we have at face value?” That depends on a formula that is central to every relationship. Do the pluses outweigh the minuses? If the answer is yes, then keep her in your life. If you enjoy the time you spend together, if she’s insightful, fun, a great exercise partner, kind in ways not represented in this question, or in some way brings more to your life than she takes away from it, then I say enjoy the relationship for what it is. If you feel bad around her more than you feel good, then that’s another story. But before you decide that’s the case, make sure it’s not your assumptions about who she called first that are making you pick the “minuses” over the “pluses.”

    Good luck, Tired of Being Picked Last!

    Readers: Any advice you would add?

     

    FULL RES - Badzin-03 copy-1Nina is a contributing writer for Tcjewfolk.com, Kveller.com, and Great New Books. Her essays have appeared regularly at Brain, Child Magazine, The Huffington Post, The Jewish Daily Forward, and have been syndicated in The Times of Israel as well as Jewish newspapers across the country. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and four children. Contact her on Twitter @ninabadzin and on her blog.