How I Stopped Solving Problems and Started Living
"If you learn nothing else in college, learn how to communicate," said my dad. It was 1988 and we were standing on the campus of Syracuse University, my new college.
He was an advertising guy, a writer, a potter. Today he's a poet. I suppose he was trying to muster-up the most meaningful advice, the perfect communication bite, to deliver before returning to our family's pretty home in East Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was leaving a somewhat insecure, creative, highly sensitive teenager— to live among big buildings, beer, pot, crowded dorms and lots of boys. He was leaving me to tackle the world. And for some reason, his words stuck that day.
I enrolled in a design communications program directed by a seasoned businessman and communicator Ken Hines and two other adjunct teachers. They led our small class in an untraditional format, requiring us to ask questions, to identify problems and then to solve them through visual and written communication. We created our own projects, picked our own "clients"for which we designed brand identities, mission statements, package designs, brochures, and annual reports. We were required to compete, criticize and support one another as if we were running little businesses inside our medium-sized university. We didn't sleep much.
I survived on cigarettes, coffee, licorice (and often beer.) We presented our work each semester, where faculty scored portfolios, then cut students from the program who were not performing up to rigorous standards. The pressure was immense. I had an unhealthy lifestyle too complicated to articulate in this entry. But I survived. Only 13 of us graduated my year.
Once out of college, my career advanced through design of corporate and brand identities, then sales collateral, packaging, press kits and annual reports. I even co-chaired an inner city college design problem for a while. I lived in Chicago and San Francisco where I loosened up a bit, designing and writing for board games, greeting cards, books and trying my hand at illustration. I worked for companies like McDonalds, Bayer, Chrysler, Venerman Furniture, and eventually University Games, Klutz , Papyrus and Leap Frog. I loved work. I loved my career. But I was not taking care of myself.
My design education proved useful. It taught me to identify problems at work, but also my schooling instilled in me a (productive but somewhat unhealthy) problem-solving style of living. By remaining open to various solutions for every situation, I could live in any new city, try any new job, enter any new business, attempt most new sports with confidence. I could even have a fiancé ditch me before our wedding and somehow continue to truck along— to survive. I was a problem solver, after all. I only needed to move him out of my house, get a new job, travel to China, read a lot of self-help books, visit a therapist, and then move forward, read more books, run, bike, start a business or two, date new guys, meet the man of my dreams, get married, create solutions. Bam bam bam. On I went.
But something was missing.
It wasn't until my oldest child suffered for about 11 years (read my essays and you'll understand) that things truly fell apart. I was forced to gurgle the hot spicy truth— I can't solve every problem. Like you, ultimately, there's much in life over which I have little or NO control. All problems can't be solved by strategic, sweating, Type-A, high-performance (American) ideals. Some problems can only be solved with faith, love, patience, trust, and once again (like my dad said)— with (honest) communication.
Through days and weeks and years of suffering— through judgment, shame, fear and isolation— I stumbled upon a new way to communicate. First I learned to pray. Then I learned to write and paint and speak from the bottom— up. I learned to murmur or shout or sing or whisper from the nasty spot under the scab, under the mess, inside the pain. I learned to identify problems, sometimes, but also to identify passion. Where is the gift? Where is the heartbreak? Where is the miracle? Where is the treachery?
This is where I begin my blog now. I aim to connect and to communicate to you, reader. I want to share adventure, joy, heartbreak, wonder, familiarity, motherhood, parenting, relationships, injustice— and the reality of being powerless, of living.
I know I won't do this perfectly. I won't solve every problem. But I hope that I write, at least, so that you can truly hear me.
Thanks for reading!
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