8

Safety Nets Don’t Exist. So Create One.

by Lauren McCabe on April 30, 2013

Safety net I took this in Myanmar (Burma). Every evening, we netted for fish.

 

I saw a friend last week who recently returned from living in Sweden. When I asked her how it was, she looked at me straight in the face and said, “In Sweden it’s impossible to fall.”

Not fail, but fall – the thing you do when the safety net  vanishes, and you tumble down and down and down, no one and nothing there to catch you.

She told me how the government subsidizes many things in Sweden – housing, college, living expenses – so that it’s virtually impossible to get yourself into a situation that you can’t get out of. Debt, poverty.

“Think of the anxiety Americans have over basic living,” she said. “Shelter, healthcare, education.” She paused and looked away. “It is hard to explain how fundamentally different it is to live in a place where most of your energy is spent doing what you’re meant to do, and less time is spent worrying.”

This blew me away. I never thought that anxiety over these things was any different elsewhere in the world. That’s what growing up was, sacrificing and working and swallowing back the things that you always wanted to do for the sake of survival.

I’ve been turning this around in my head for days, wondering how we can live a life of the Swedes – with a bubble of safety around us so our choices are driven by our passions, strengths and desires, not anxiety.

How do we create our own safety nets so we can catch ourselves, so that the anxiety of everyday living doesn’t get in the way of becoming that person we want to become?

Here is what I think:

Create a village.

This is the most important thing you can do to mend your own safety net. In Sweden, the government catches you if you fall. In America, people will.

I am not talking about people that will give you money if you go broke, though if you have that it’s nice. I am talking about people who believe in you so much that they will help you before you go broke, or find opportunities for you when you’re just starting out or have none.

I call it a village – the oh-so-trendy business term right now – for a reason: in villages, everyone knows everyone else’s business because they have to. You are collectively accountable to each other for survival.

While this concept may have gotten lost in our culture of cubicles and thought-based jobs, it still, very truly exists: we need each other to do business.

Here’s the thing about your village: anyone can be in it. It’s not just friends, family or coworkers; it is also people you meet on airplanes, it’s friends from high school and your neighbor next store. You never, ever know how people will help you, or when they will dip into your life and become relevant again.

You need to actively build a sea of people around you who feel connected to you and are impressed by you. Being  nice is not enough to have a true safety net; people need to believe in your expertise, determination and acumen so they can support you when you need it.

I often get LinkedIn requests from people after they quit or lose a job. Do this before you need to, do this way before you anticipate a shift. You need time to build rapport with people and help them; you need time to build your village. This is the first thing that you need to do.

Have a side project, always.

There is no one-job that will satisfy every inch of your desire and aptitude. In fact, you often grow into your professional life, discovering skills and interests as you go.

Begin developing those skills now. Begin taking on projects while you have a job, while you have the money and resources to explore other passions.

This could be learning a new skill or growing your expertise in a niche. Writing a blog is mine.

A side gig gives you something to fall back on. It doesn’t have to support you, but sets the groundwork of something that you can ramp up or fall back on if something happens.

Money. Save it.

I am always, every single day of my life striving to cut back. This doesn’t mean not buying things but buying fewer things. Cutting expenses when they’re extraneous and focusing on the important things. I bring my lunch to work, but pay a little extra for parking close to my office building so I can slip in and out quickly and have more time with my loved ones at home.

When I was 23 and had nothing – the most expensive thing I owned was a surfboard – I went traveling for eight months. People always ask me how I did it, like it was some complicated and unfathomable feat that they, often with more money and net worth than I have even now, could ever do.

But it was simple. I worked my ass off, saved and then left.

If we make our lives complicated then simple things become complicated, too.

Stuff has a tendency to tether us to a specific life; fine until the day we realize we are someone different. Different desires, different goals, different in a way that requires us to reform ourselves, this will happen to you.

Then, suddenly, with our big house and big car tied to a big credit card bill, we have lost the ability to do a very important thing – change our lives as we change.

This doesn’t mean not committing to anything – a house, for example – but understanding how the purchase of a house will impact your ability to change your life, down the line.

This is about creating space in your life to be nimble and agile, and explore and create and become, year by year, the person you want to be.

We have so much here in America, so much that it takes my breath away, but we are chained to that wealth.

Begin unfettering yourself from the physicality of your wealth and instead, attach yourself to what living in the wealthiest nation can really afford you: freedom.

Every now and then, test your safety net.

You will work for at least forty years of your life. Think of this carefully, feel the weight of those decades in your mind, the wrinkles that will draw lines across your face and the gray that will tarnish your hair. Life melts off of you in seconds and days and years until it’s gone.

Is it so much to ask to take one year amidst those forty to not work? To travel? To try out your business idea? To join a band or sculpt figurines out of clay?

One single year out of forty is nothing. A year will not hold you back. It will not destroy your life. Two years won’t, either. Will three? Will four? How about ten?

A safety net is useless unless you actually use it. So do it. Check the boxes. Build your village, start you side gig, save your money, and then that one day when something inside you begins to rise and want more and more, perhaps you, too will be able to rise with it.

0

I commit to you New Orleans, the mess that made me

by Lauren McCabe on March 11, 2016

new orleans zydeco music love

I didn’t think I’d end up back here in New Orleans, this hot, soupy city where I was born and raised.

In college in New York City, whenever someone tried to guess where I was from, they would look me up and down and say with certainty, “California!”

I had long blonde highlights. I loved to surf, rock climb and run. People envisioned west coast sunshine when the encountered my off-the-wall energy, and for a moment, I thought perhaps the west coast was my destiny.

Through many twists and turns of life, I returned to New Orleans in my mid-twenties.

Things didn’t go as planned.

There were no waves to surf and no rocks to climb, just miles of humid swamp rapidly eroding into the sea. I had relinquished my party-girl lifestyle for an alcohol-free existence and there seemed to be nothing to do on weekends but booze and eat. Violence in my neighborhood had reached a terrifying crescendo and people were getting shot and dying and my heart was aching.

On weekends, I would sit in my 100-year old house with tall ceilings, marble mantels and history all around me and think, I hate this city.

Friends from college would email about passing through New Orleans, and I didn’t know what to do with them other than get drunk and eat, and I would think, I hate this city.

As I started to hate New Orleans, my home, something else happened, too.

I started to hate myself.

Then on one of those perfect New Orleans afternoons when the sun is warm and generous and a second line rumbled\s in the distance, I broke down in sobs.

Here I was, sitting on my porch drenched in sun and music and beauty and all I was capable of was hate.

What had I become?

I reached back, far back, for that moment I left New Orleans for New York City at eighteen, and how I missed my city, craved it.

One night, on a date at a swanky New York City jazz club, I was dancing in a sea of focused heads. My date looked at me perplexed and grumbled. “I don’t understand how you can dance to music like this.”

Every single year when carnival was near, I flew to New Orleans from New York and I invited anyone to come – open house, bring yourself and yo friends – only to encounter confused stares. “But we would have to miss a class.”

And then Katrina hit in the summer of 2005, and that night my city flooded and people died and everything changed forever, I sat in a bar in Manhattan listening to the table behind me toast New Orleans for higher gas prices.

And what had I wanted in New York City all those years?

All I wanted was to date a guy who could dance, not well, but just like himself with that reckless abandon that I was used to at home.

I wanted friends who would skip classes rarely, but without question if a trip to Mardi Gras was on the agenda.

And in the wake of Katrina, as my city began that long and tireless process of rebuilding, I ached to be alongside them in the September heat, cleaning out refrigerators, razing houses, standing for all that was beautiful and right and true.

These things that I had ached for when I was far away all those years ago were right there, at home.

And now, years later, here I was at home. With all of these things.

Funny how that works.

There in the spring sunshine I made a promise to my city, and it was this:

I’m here to stay, NOLA. I’m committed to you and the beautiful mess that made me, and to thank you I’m going to make you the best city yet, a safe city, a healthy city, a city where every life is valued.

And you know what? I’m going to love you, every inch of you, your swampy air and beautiful second lines and lack of surfable waves and violence too, I’m going to love that because the only way through hate is love, and I’m a love machine, that’s my promise to you.

I’m committed to everything that makes you great and everything that makes you horrible, and nestled in the center is a commitment of transformation, a commitment to making you flourish.

I sighed.

I was home.

0

When the buzzing won’t stop

by Lauren McCabe on January 24, 2017

jungleI walk into my kitchen and there are 1,000 insects swarming at the top of the ceiling. They are making a roaring, buzzing sound, the type you hear in the jungles on far away continents.

With translucent wings and soft bodies, they appear to be a cross between every swarming creature in Louisiana: a termite-mosquito-horsefly mixture that was just birthed into being in my kitchen.

I tell my husband not to worry. “We’ll turn off the lights and close the kitchen door. In the morning they will be gone.” Then I add, “I know this because I’m from the south.”

His eyes bulge.

“That is not how it works, bugs are not that smart. Hopefully, they will all die and we can sweep them up in the morning.”

I roll my eyes and go to bed with the confidence that in the morning they will have slipped through the cracks of our 125-year-old house and back into the swampy air from which they emerged.

At 5:45am I walk into my kitchen to the roar of insects above my head. One has perished and lays curled up on my kitchen counter. The other 999 remain hovering in a cloud, buzzing.

It is too early, I am too tired, I am not caffeinated, I have worked too many 14-hour days straight in a row, our kitchen is not clean, my hip flexors are too tight for 999 insects to not go where they belong.

What if they multiply? What if they all die at once and the big brown recluse spiders that come out at night invade our kitchen then and we have a poisonous spider problem? What if they’re terminates that are gnawing at our house, slowing ensuring it will crumble?

I stumble to my husband still in bed and say, “They are still there.”

He creaks open an eye. “I know.”

I peer at him petrified at the possibilities swarming in my head.

He shimmies up from under the covers and takes my hand and in his. “They’ll drop in a few days. We’ll sweep them up. And there’s nothing you can do.” He pauses. “Except be with them.”

I can hear the insects from the bedroom. Their roaring is loud and strong and clear, a cacophony that seems like it won’t ever end. But of course, it’s always like that. It always does end.

He’s right.

3

The year of almost-30

by Lauren McCabe on February 12, 2015

jazz fest new orleans

When I turn almost-30 it is a perfect day: jazz fest, blue skies, brass band, beer. I planned it to be just that, perfect, first by quitting my job and then by throwing myself into the finer pursuits of life: reading, yoga, art, teaching. I sway in a big brown field listening to brass band, beer in hand, breeze on back, thinking that this year, this one, is going to be unstoppable; that this song, this one will fuel it.

I notice the gray hair spiraling off my head like a slinky and call my best friend.

“I found one,” I say, half worried but half excited for this newfound puberty of old age.

“I found twenty-one,” she quips back.

We account this difference to her being more almost-30 than me.

As an almost-30-year-old, I look the same as I ever have: brown eyes with hazel specks, fair skin that burnishes gold in the summer, except everything is smoother, bigger, like a tomato so ripe it’s ready to burst.

One single brown age spot fades in and out of existence below my left eye, showing its outline after a weekend at the beach, disappearing after a week indoors.

I stop reading tech magazines that adore profiling successful entrepreneurs who have built billion dollar businesses by age 25. As an almost-30-year-old no where near that marker of success, I prefer to listen to Spotify playlists with songs that call out to me in rhythm and timbre.

One day, sautéing balsamic glazed red onions in the kitchen, I catch a lyric of one of the songs on the playlist.“Will you still love me when I’m old and no longer beautiful?” coos the sultry female voice. “I know you will, I know you will,” she answers herself.

At almost-30, I regret letting the plaster cast of my 12-year-old face decay in the corner of my backyard. One summer when I was young, my parents sent me to welding camp where a French metal artist directed me to make a self-portrait table. Welding the table together with scrap metal, we mounted a plaster cast of my face in the center, filling the tabletop with concrete and shards of mirror mosaic.

“In the future you will be able to see your face then and now,” said the French metal artist.

The plaster absorbed every single detail of my twelve-year-old self: puffy cheeks, bushy eyebrows, small zits, heart shaped lips.

The table sat in my parents’ attic for sixteen years, looking so real that each time I climbed the stairs to move a portion of my childhood possessions into my new house – books, clothes, pictures – I beheld the table in awe, astonished that I could grasp my past so vividly.

Then one day after there were no more books left to move, my parents dragged the table downstairs and set it by the backdoor. When I arrived to their house for family yoga, they told me to take it with me or else.

My husband loaded it into our VW bus, and the van sunk with the weight of metal and concrete. When we got home, he encouraged me to place it in the backyard. “It will ware well.” Overwhelmed with stuff, I waved my hand and said, “Fine.”

Now every day when I walk onto the porch to water the ferns, I watch chunks of my face fall off, washed away by thunderstorms and sun and hurricanes so that I come face to face with the slow decomposition of my face.

Two stray cats use the jagged face potholes as a rubbing post, and sometimes I catch them with specks of plaster on their heads and in their ears. A bird perches on my nose and pecks at my chin, taking two giant gulps.

I consider cleaning my crumbling face for our Mardi Gras Party so that what’s left of my 12-year-old self shines. The cast was originally spray-painted gold, and flakes still glitter under my eyes and across my jaw. Dirt has crusted in my eyebrows; my ears are filled with algae. “You look rustic,” my husband assures me. “It’s kind of cool.”

At the party, my face-table serves as a resting place for food, drinks and napkins. People get drunk. A guy teeters over the table peering down at my face pensively and I say, “That’s a self-portrait of me when I was 12.”

He looks up, confused.

“I can’t figure out which beer is mine.” He grabs a half-crushed can of Bud Light off the table. “Is this one yours?” he looks at me absently, swaying.

At that moment, I want to carry my face table inside. I can Windex the mirror mosaic and scrape off the rust. I can repaint my dented face gold and it will look like rustic art. I can put it in the corner of the guest bedroom that is shuttered and cool, and I can make sure it doesn’t see any sunlight ever again.

I exhale.

“That beer is totally mine.” I take it from his hand, and he gives me a palmy high-five.

“I knew it!” and grabs a different half-crushed can of Bud Light and guzzles it down.

In two months, I will turn 30.

I will be at Jazz Fest in a burnt field swaying under a hot sun listening to a brass band that I have danced to since I was sixteen. I will wear tie-dye and drink Blue Moon and wear SPF50 and go to that festival every single day because my husband gave me a brass pass for Christmas, an all-access entry ticket that also gets me into a tent with coffee, water and fruit.

And I will keep my face table outside.

1

The Rejection Dress

by Lauren McCabe on May 15, 2014

I once saw a woman wearing the most extraordinary dress on Mardi Gras day.

From a distance she looked like a flurry of color, of hot-whites and neon-greens and flamingo-pinks flapping in the breezy sun.

As I got closer, I saw that the dress was made of paper, hundreds of sheets affixed to a full-length ball gown cascading in ruffles around her, enveloping her.

Studying the papers I saw what they were: rejection letters, hundreds of them, each in their own unique and roundabout way refusing to publish her work. From beneath the ball gown she beamed, twirling and dipping in the second line parade, baring her face to the liquid sun.

I imagined her before she was the woman in an extraordinary dress, what she must have done as the days and months and years of rejection surmounted: collected each slip in a dresser drawer, the one just below her socks, just in case she needed to recall who had denied her.

One day, opening the drawer to a sea of vibrant paper, she imagined that the rejection letters were no longer rejection letters but folds of a strange and beautiful silk, variegated in hue and texture and luster.

She gathered the material in her arms, released it onto the floor and began sewing steadily, patiently, until each and every single inch of rejection was accounted for in a dress as large and full as a fairytale.

And so wearing her gown of color, she asks us, how do you wear your rejection?

Do you drape it over your head like a dark hood, awaiting the guillotine of failure?

Or do you take each inch of rejection in your bare hands and start working it into something else: a hot air balloon that carries you up and up, a boat that brings you forward and onward, a dress as large and fiery as the sun itself?

Gazing at yourself dressed up in your own rejection, do you see something greater and grander, the queen of Mardi Gras Day?