Youth last in line for jobs

“If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.”
– Booker T. Washington

It’s easy to be woe is me. Until you meet someone like Yesenia Romero, who puts your problems into perspective.

Read more about Yesenia’s story here: Honoring Our Youth

The story focuses on Steepletown Neighborhood Services’ Honoring Our Youth program. Visiting last week for a freelance writing assignment reminded me why I decided to pursue a degree in nonprofit work – and why I miss being a reporter.

Situated a few blocks off Seward among the steeples of Basilica of Saint Adalbert, Steepletown is a faith-based nonprofit formed as an outreach of three neighboring Catholic churches. The agency provides a variety of programs aimed at youth development and employment, family well-being, and community engagement, but its GED program is one of the most popular.

Steepletown operates in the spirit of neighbor helping neighbor, working alongside several nonprofits offering services out of Steepletown Center on Grand Rapids’ west side. Like its Facebook page. Volunteer as a tutor. There are plenty of ways to help. For more information, visit the website: Steepletown Center

The neighborhoods historically have been home to Polish, Irish and German immigrants and blue-collar, factory working folks. Today, the urban center serves Hispanic immigrants, Native Americans and a diverse population of disenfranchised youth seeking to get back on track, turn their lives around and renew their belief in themselves and the pursuit of the American dream.

Perhaps it is because the building formerly served as a convent, but Steepletown Center has a laid-back vibe upon entering. The learning lab is in the basement. Steepletown’s administrative offices are on the second floor. People are in and out and roam about, yet they tend to mind their own business. Participants address the female staffers as Miss and everyone seems kind, genuine and eager to help.

While there, Founding Director Dick Bulkowski handed me a report on the state of young people in this country. It’s not pretty. They are dropping out of high school at alarming rates. They feel disconnected. They stand last in line for jobs.

So why should you care?

There are plenty of headlines in the local news about low-performing schools, low test scores, and high dropout rates. The issue of disconnected youth, those who are either out of work or out of school, is a much larger problem plaguing the country. Youth employment is at its lowest level since World War II. Only about half of young people age 16-24 held jobs in 2011, according to a Kids Count Policy Report by The Annie E. Casey Foundation.

This waste of talent and lack of opportunity to gain early work experience has profound implications for youth today, as well as the workforce, the economy and the nation. Data from the report shows that the populations struggling the most to enter the workforce and stay in school are youth who are less educated, come from low-income families and belong to a racial or ethnic minority.

One study estimates that for each 16-year-old out of school and out of work, the future lifetime taxpayer burden is $258,040. The same study calculates that the total taxpayer burden for all out-of-school and out-of-work youth ages 16 to 24 is $1.56 trillion.

Many of these young people also find themselves taking on the role of parent, leading them to need additional public services and perpetuating the intergenerational cycle of poverty in many communities.

Instead of being woe is me, if you are out of work and have time to spare, get involved at one of the many nonprofit organizations trying to give these youth a helping hand and a second chance. Or put down your cell phones and shut off Facebook and help your own kids so they don’t become a statistic.

For more information on The Annie E. Casey Foundation report, visit: Kids Count and search for Youth and Work: Restoring Teen and Young Adult Connections to Opportunity.

To get the best available data about children and families where you live, visit the site’s other resources: Data Center

Stay tuned for my own job hunting plight, and why I have had it with people who think it’s so easy to just go out and get a job.

Facebook: Friend or foe

First, if you don’t have the attention span to read 1,500 words, you’re not my target audience.

Agghhhh, Facebook. It has become both a necessary evil and an ugly beast. My life before I ever signed on back in 2009 seemed so simple. Few high school friends knew what I was up to. Only select people in West Michigan knew details about my life.

Not that I have to explain, but I’ve taken some flak from people who wonder why I made a second Facebook account. Trust me, I never really wanted to. I’m not even sold on this social media thing as a way to grow your business, especially after I learn Facebook has started delaying posts, or making them disappear and show up later, and making you pay to promote status updates. Due to past FB drama, I just have less than 200 friends on my “personal” one, and most live out of state. I didn’t figure I could get many of them to like a business Facebook page. My attempts at getting my name out there would be limited to friends, family and some former coworkers and school mates. They really aren’t my target audience, though I’m still not sure who is, even though I sometimes share the same information.

I also know how people like to nib-nose and figured I’d be more apt to get friend requests on a new account rather than try to get people to like a page. I didn’t really want to go on a “promote my Facebook page” campaign, but that may be on the horizon. In addition, I wanted to get in the loop with other organizations by liking their pages, but without it clogging up my personal news feed. I also like to rant on occasion and don’t care to share it with certain people. One more thing: I don’t want people who don’t know me to see photos from my personal life. It’s not their business.

Bad boundaries and boredom
The truth: Facebook fuels the fire for bad boundaries. And envy. And paranoia. And loathing. And we’re all just staring at a computer screen. It’s actually kind of pathetic when you think about it. While it does connect you with a large group of people, it’s all rather superficial. What happened to the days of meeting face-to-face, picking up the phone or writing handwritten letters?

Maybe we are all so bored with our own lives we have nothing better to do but log in and see what others are doing, then talk about them, then start to secretly dislike them.

Maybe there are just so many huge, complex social issues to tackle it gets to be too much and we want a mindless time suck. Or the state of the economy really blows that bad, it’s simply easier to log onto Facebook as an escape. A trip yesterday to a Grand Rapids nonprofit trying to help youths who have dropped out of high school reminded me of the very serious social issues plaguing our local, regional and national landscape.

I’m just as guilty as anyone else for turning to it as a time waster, usually out of boredom. Because it definitely doesn’t make me feel “good.” And aren’t we all supposed to be so busy, especially nonprofit executive directors? I cannot imagine being active on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Tumblr.

Unspoken competition
The people I figured would be a certain way on my new account, in fact, are, and people on my old account could probably say that about me – guilty of over posting, bragging and otherwise being annoying. It’s easy to spot the hater and competitive types. All you have to do is look at the news feed and see who likes a status or posts something right after you. What they post or share also says a lot. Sometimes this is totally unintentional, but I’ve been on there enough to know the news feed reveals more than people will ever admit.

Airport taggers
I still cannot figure out why people tag themselves at the airport – one of my least favorite places to be – or while they are on vacation. It’s okay to post an occasional photo to let people know that you are having fun but does everyone really need a play-by-play of where you are eating and the places you are visiting? Isn’t the whole point to escape from your life, chill and forget your worries? Of course, I was a little guilty of this when I studied abroad in London. My rationale at the time: I also was gone for six weeks, did not Skype and did not take a phone with me. Yes, I posted photos, probably way too many. Luckily, I’ve learned a few things in the last two years. The good old days of vacation meant you only told a few close people, took off with little fanfare, hopefully had a relaxing time and then shared your tales and showed them photos – in person – once you got home and printed them out.

Tick, tick, tick
Don’t even get me started on the Ticker. Talk about a way to be devious and calculating if you wanted to be – liking a person’s status so non-friends, but mutual acquaintances (think people from high school or coworkers) of that person can see it anyway if they happen to be on Facebook at the same time. Plus, now when you like something, it comes up in the news feed. Which I do not get? I also don’t get why your profile photo has to show up really big every time you change it. Or an old post reappears if you make another comment on it. Geez Facebook programmers, can you just stop making changes. Do we really need to know when someone read our message, or give a gift via Facebook on someone’s birthday, or have access to non-friends status updates?

Chat – the root of many evils
I also don’t use chat. I never really have. I think this annoys many long-term friends, that I am stuck up or something. I’ve never really used instant messenger on e-mail or other sites, either. I guess it’s my own Facebook boundary I have set. I figure someone can send me a private message, and give me time to think about my reply. Maybe I don’t know “chat” courtesy but it seems rude to me to turn it on and ignore people. When I did occasionally use it, I would notice people would turn it on and then off really quickly, which I didn’t get. What if you simply don’t want to be bothered by someone? Or how do you reply to five people at once? It also seems like an instant format to spread drama and gossip and talk about other people. No thanks. Not to mention, I’ve known countless affairs that have started on Facebook. Who can really feel good about their spouse or partner chatting all day with people of the opposite sex they do not know? It’s why I finally posted a picture with my boyfriend. I didn’t realize Facebook had become an informal dating site, with lots of creepers. Are you really too cheap to buy a subscription to match.com?

Your online identity
Or maybe it’s hypersensitivity from my mom sending me CareerBuilder articles from my hometown newspaper in the mail. One focused on your online identity: “No social media site associated with your professional persona should be used to share personal pictures or feelings, nor is it appropriate to rant or be negative. Treat each post like a potential interview answer – how would a hiring manager receive it? Remember the importance of boundaries and preserve your professional identity online to ensure that you’re giving potential employers a great first impression.”

The nonconformist part of me thinks it sucks. Who are these hiring managers anyway? They are so great because they have a job and are in a position of authority? Seriously? But it matters, especially if you are job hunting. I suppose if you work for yourself, it’s a little less of an issue. Any way you slice it, image does matter. Sure, you can set your privacy to friends only, and I have noticed there are now groups for close friends and acquaintances. Once again, this is why I hesitated and debated about blogging and what to blog about.

It’s a fact that people judge you based on posts, especially if they have anything to do with politics, religion or other controversial topics. Like God forbid, Obamacare, abortion or the multilayers behind poverty or the mentality “just go out and get a job.”

On that note: It’s time to shift the focus away from “I, I, I” blog posts and turn it to topics that really matter. Like a 25-year-old girl I met yesterday on a freelance writing assignment who wants to get her GED, but couldn’t because she didn’t have a state ID. Her parents brought her to America when she was age 4. Was that her fault? Through the help of this nonprofit, doors are being opened for her – doors to education, opportunity, possibility.

Build character, love yourself first – Part 2

“You cannot simultaneously set a boundary and take care of the other person’s feelings.”
– Melody Beattie

While I love her quotes, Marilyn Monroe is another beautiful, brilliant, misunderstood soul who often presented a tough exterior to the world. I give her credit for her renegade attitude and living life on her terms. But one has to wonder. Did the media scrutiny, rumors about her personal life, and pressure of being in the public eye push her over the edge? She died far too young – at age 36 – and the circumstances of her death remain unclear. Was it an accidental overdose, suicide or homicide?

In today’s social media society, it’s even easier to spout off mean Tweets or try to smear someone through Facebook status updates. People seem obsessed with gossip and clueless as to the impact of their actions. It makes me think of the recent rape scandal in Ohio and teenagers showing a total lack of empathy. We also have witnessed it with the NCAA tournament. Several former colleagues and sports writers I know seemed appalled at the harsh and critical nature of comments about Indiana University players after their loss. They are all just kids playing a game, trying to win and represent their university well.

The truth is – we are all just human beings, or rather, souls having a human experience – and I believe we are all connected (another thing confirmed in the StrengthsFinder Signature Themes report). If we are all part of a bigger life force, then we must not harm others because we will be harming ourselves. We must not exploit or try to oppress others, because ultimately it means we are exploiting and oppressing ourselves. What you put out comes back. And we can only take so much. Some of us cope better than others, but every person has a breaking point.

And so we get to the heart of the matter. Are these bullies and mean-spirited people consciously aware of the emotional pain they create for others? Do they care? Yes, maybe they did suffer their own form of abuse or abandonment, or maybe they have a personality disorder. But what good can really come from tearing others down, invading boundaries and trying to sabotage other’s success? What causes someone to lie and backstab, and how do you refute someone who has tried to ruin your reputation? It’s hard to wrap my mind around it.

From my experience, if you confront a bully, it simply escalates the situation. They blow smoke, deflect, manipulate, get defensive and do whatever they can in their power to convince you that you are the problem. It’s your fault and you are the bad person, even when you are the one trying to do the right thing, compromise and apologize, forgive and forget, or stand firm in your convictions. They will take advantage of your kindness, naivety, and sensitivity and seek to destroy your self-esteem, your character, and your sense of sanity. Indeed, crazy people make you feel crazy.

In an effort not to single people out in my blogs, let’s just say I once dated a guy who liked to stare down, flirt with and hang on other women in front of me – among other things. When I told him I thought it was disrespectful and it hurt my feelings, he told me I was the one with the problem. I was jealous and insecure. While I am definitely not perfect, and sometimes struggle with insecurities, his behavior was over the top. I could never really catch him doing something wrong, but I always had this uneasy gut feeling that he was untrustworthy. Not to mention, he yelled at me and told me I needed to dress more provocative, grow out my hair and that I better not get bigger than a size 8. He broke up with me once, then came back and said he would change, and then broke up with me again. A case of a classic narcissist.

I know many of you are probably thinking: “Why didn’t you kick that jerk to the curb and never look back?” At the time, I was devastated. I do believe he loved me in his own weird way and thought he was being “helpful,” but he chipped away at my already shaky self-esteem until I really started to believe there was something wrong with me. My hair, my clothes, my weight – nothing was good enough. To this day, I cannot say he is an entirely bad guy, just someone you shouldn’t date. He came on strong and charming. He was so good at manipulation and turning it around on me, I internalized everything. I couldn’t think straight. I read books in hopes of helping myself and changing him. I lost myself, my dignity and my identity. It was like I became addicted to the drama and tried desperately to cling to a relationship that was never meant to be. For some reason, I thought having this person in my life – and his approval – was more important than loving and respecting me. I spent four years after our breakup being single, and it’s when I set my standards and stuck to this mantra: “Better single than sorry.” And as life would have it, when I made the decision to finish my master’s degree and move, I finally met a great guy who accepts me for who I am.

I wish I had some profound answer on how to interact and rationalize with bullies, narcissists, liars, frenemies and other saboteurs. My neighbor got so fed up he works from home, has semi-retired in his mid-40s and intends to be hiking in Colorado in two years and generally drop out of society. My plans don’t include anything that extreme. I’m too social to ever hibernate permanently, though I did enjoy my two years “checked out” as a full-time grad student. It seems I did pretty well at hiding out. Many people thought I had left town. It’s why starting a second Facebook account (in an attempt to keep my personal and private life separate) gave me so much anxiety. I like being low-key and under the radar.

Maybe it’s not the healthiest, but my tactic is avoidance. No, you cannot avoid every uncomfortable situation or mean person, especially in a small town, but I have gotten pretty good at avoiding people I do not want to see. If you live with a mean person, like a parent, sibling, spouse or romantic partner, I am truly sorry. My advice is to invest in some good therapy, set healthy boundaries and practice regular self-care and detachment. Move a state or two away, or across the country, if necessary. I’m a fan of fresh starts and believe they can be good for the soul. If you work with mean people, well, I am truly sorry. But at least there is hope! Beyond good therapy, figure out an exit strategy as soon as you can. One thing I know for sure: You should not have to expose yourself to mental anguish or people who think it is fun to lie, shoot down your ideas, undermine your skills, and try to make you look bad on a daily basis just to earn a paycheck. You shouldn’t have to pop antidepressants or antianxiety pills, either. That is just masking a problem that will lead to some form of addiction or illness.

And rest assured, Dr. Phil, being a psychologist, would say there is no shame in seeking a well-educated, well-trained, unbiased third-party professional to run things by or solicit advice. They don’t know your family or friends, they are emotionally detached from your dramas, and they know baloney when they hear it. They will tell you if you are being bamboozled or if you are way off base. If nothing else, they allow you to vent about whatever you want and cannot tell anyone else as long as you aren’t threatening to hurt yourself or others. Go for a couple of months, a couple of years, indefinitely if necessary. A few good books that have also gotten me through some dark days and given me the confidence to stand up for myself, or at least renegotiate some personal relationships and rid my life of bad people not worthy of my time: “Help, I’m in Love with a Narcissist (seriously),” “Codependent No More,” “Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life (even the most well-meaning parents can leave scars),” and a daily book of meditations by codependent author and guru Melody Beattie, “The Language of Letting Go.”

No relationship is perfect, whether it’s between family members, friends, colleagues or romantic partners. They constantly have to be negotiated, as Dr. Phil would say. Relationships are managed, not cured. Each of us has a bottom line for how much addiction, arguments, pain, betrayal, drama, disrespect and toxicity we will tolerate. We all have non-negotiables and deal breakers. We all have feelings and normally those feelings will guide you if you stop and take the time to listen and feel them. Many of us have been stuffing our feelings for so long – with food, booze, working too much, and other avoidance tactics – we are too scared to get still and listen to our intuition. If you feel you invest more into a relationship, then it may need rebalanced rather than ended. If you think it’s unhealthy, it probably is. If people yell and deflect responsibility when confronted, it may be time to disengage and stop letting them yank your chain. If you have friends who roll their eyes and make snarky comments, but overall are decent people, maybe a civilized discussion is all that is necessary. We can determine what feels good and what hurts, and we can choose whether it’s in our best interest to try to maintain a relationship or cut our losses and go on.

Not to end with another Dr. Phil-ism, but “peace at any price is no peace at all.” Once you find healthy self-esteem, your life will change. Healthy self-esteem does not mean you are narcissistic, selfish or in-to-yourself. It means you love and respect yourself enough to make YOU the priority. You will stop being a doormat. You will stop dating jerks, hanging around fake friends, and interacting with people who make you feel bad. It doesn’t mean you still won’t attract bad people, but you definitely learn to spot them more quickly. There is something liberating in liking your own company and learning to roll solo.

Things to consider before starting a business

Someone recently called it the economy of the entrepreneur. We all know it’s not because the economy is booming. For many of us, forces have converged to prompt us to take our livelihood into our own hands.

Nothing spurs you into starting your own business like job loss, a frustrating, futile job hunt, or a general feeling of dread every morning when you wake up and head off to work. Micromanaging bosses, toxic coworkers, office politics, diminishing wages and benefits, a long commute, a desire for better work-life balance all can be motivators to take the plunge into entrepreneurship.

Or maybe you long to feel passion, purpose, and like you are making a difference? Sometimes, discontent, or a deep stirring of the soul, leads you to follow your bliss and take charge of your own destiny.

Perhaps you are at the contemplation stage, deciding if business ownership is for you, and if so, what should you pursue? Sure, the goal is to make money. But it takes the average business owner two to three years to break even and start turning a profit.

Some soul searching may be in store first: Would you do it for free? Does it involve a skill that comes easy or makes you happy? Are you willing to put in long hours without seeing immediate rewards? Do you have capital or investors for product development, inventory and overhead costs? Can you handle failure? Can you handle success?

For your business to have a fighting chance, it needs a solid foundation – grounded in reality and rooted in who you are. Consider your values, skills, passions, and your available resources.

EXPERTISE: Is there something you have always been good at, such as building or fixing things? Maybe you have extensive work experience in a particular profession or academic credentials behind you. Many people found themselves downsized during the Great Recession. Do you have highly skilled or specialized operational, technical, ethical, and leadership competencies? Can you take those skills and apply them to a new industry or do it on a freelance, contract or consulting basis? Computer programming, web and graphic design, financial and insurance services, social media management, marketing, event planning, carpentry, and many artistic professions lend themselves to this crossover. It may be a better bet than spending the time or money retraining for a new career or earning another degree, then finding yourself overqualified due to your education or underqualified because you lack experience. Many former journalists have made their way as freelance writers due to the rise of internet writing and blogging. Fewer companies want to pay for a full-time staffer, but they still need professional writers. You can do it from anywhere, with a computer and Internet, and virtually no overhead costs. Many photojournalists are doing the same by applying their visual storytelling skills and candid shooting style to wedding photography.

EXPERIENCE: It matters. It will make your life easier when you get into the day-to-day operations of running the show or seek out new clients. People want to hire someone they trust and feel confident can do the job. For example, you might have a passion for cooking and think it would be fun to open a restaurant, but maybe your background is in factory work. There is so much more to running a restaurant than knowing how to cook – from ordering food to hiring and supervising employees to managing food costs and paying bills. It takes a lot of less-than-glamorous grunt work, like doing dishes, taking out the trash, and dealing with unhappy customers. A better bet would be to get a job as a cook and actually work in a commercial kitchen, or start small by selling your baked goods or sweet treats at farmers’ markets or through other established businesses before sinking yourself in debt and signing a lease. Talk to others who are doing what you want to do and not only surviving, but thriving.

PASSION: It may sound cliché, but think about the things you have always enjoyed doing. Self-motivation and self-discipline go without saying when you are self-employed. There is no boss counting on you or write-up system when you break the rules or fail to deliver. What comes easy? What did you want to be when you were young, like as a 10-year-old? What would be your “dream job” if you weren’t worried about cost, practicality, what others will say or think? Is there a way to turn a hobby into a profitable business? Do you like working on cars, tinkering with wood, being outdoors or around dogs? Can you play an instrument – or fix them – act, sing, dance or model? Do you enjoy sharing your expertise or motivating others? Teaching, tutoring or coaching might be options. Anything from dog walking to house cleaning to exercising can be turned into a way to make money. Consider getting certified to teach yoga or serve as a personal trainer, or liability insurance to protect against possible lawsuits. Next, ponder this: “What would you attempt to do if you knew you would not fail?” Ask friends what they think you are good at. Make a list of ideas. Journal. Meditate. Consult with your spouse or parents, financial and spiritual adviser, all the people who know you well. Find what you love – what doesn’t feel like work – and explore how to create a cost-effective company. Then go for it.

PERSONALITY: What makes you unique? Are you a people person or do you prefer to work behind the scenes? Creative or technical? Type A or go with the flow? Do you prefer variety and flexibility or routines and a strict schedule? Don’t underestimate your quirky personality traits and work habits. These are unlikely to change even when you work for yourself. If you enjoy autonomy and freedom, consider a business that allows your free-spirited nature to flourish. For example, some people think it would be fun to open a high-end clothing boutique, flower shop, art gallery or antique store without considering they have to rent space, constantly buy and move inventory, and work in the shop if they cannot afford to hire help. Would sitting there for hours without customers drive you crazy with boredom? If you like a fast-paced environment where you can be out and about, being tied to a shop during regular business hours will probably leave you less than fulfilled. Those with no clue as to their work preferences and personality type might be wise to spend the time and money on interest inventories and career assessments. Many universities offer these free to alumni. Some of the more reputable ones include Myers-Brigg Type Indicator, Strong Interest Inventory and Clifton StrengthsFinder Assessment.

FEASIBILITY: For any venture that requires a loan or lots of startup costs, conduct a thorough financial analysis and develop a realistic business plan. Do your due diligence with market research. If 20 restaurants have failed in your small town but you want to start one, or you want to build pools in a climate with cool, short summers, the viability of such an idea really needs to be well-researched and driven by data. Visit your local chamber of commerce, small business administration or other economic development organizations to see if it’s worth joining or how they might help you. Can you apply for a small business loan or startup grant? Will they work with you to develop a business plan or provide consulting and support services? A small business owner must have skills related to strategy and marketing, managing employees and building relationships with clients, record keeping including how to bid jobs, develop binding contracts, bill and collect, budgeting and financial planning, and time-management and perseverance, just for starters. Do you have a support network? Do you have cash flow? Can you get financing through a bank? Are you willing to risk your financial future – or file bankruptcy in the worst case scenario – if it fails? How much money will it take to get the business open? How long are you willing to wait for the business to generate a profit?

Viable business opportunities often come down to identifying problems many people share and finding a way to solve them – or turning your talent into a service you can sell. There is no harm in dreaming big or taking risks. The beauty of business ownership is the possibility. There is no magic formula for success. Be prepared to hustle. Be prepared to be flexible. Be prepared to put in long hours. Be prepared to fake it until you make it and believe in what you are doing even when no one else does.

Build character, ignore mean people – Part 1

“You teach people how to treat you.”
– Dr. Phil

Since Dr. Phil devoted Tuesday’s show to the topic of toxic people who bully and try to bring you down, I took it as a sign to blog about it. This piece has been brewing for a while – long before I had an outlet to share it. One thing he said on the show that I wrote down: “Winners deal with the truth.” Another noteworthy statement: “If he is criticizing you, there is something wrong with him.”

Mean people have been on my mind lately. Well, maybe I should expand that to bullies, liars, frenemies, fakers, naysayers and generally disingenuous, jealous, envious types who make covert and overt digs in an attempt to make them feel better and you feel bad. Dr. Phil has devoted his latest book “Life Code: The New Rules for Winning in the Real World” to dealing with the users, abusers and exploiters in the world. I haven’t read it, but I’m sure it’s an insightful read and hope to soon.

According to Dr. Phil, these are the types of people who will suck your energy and life dry:

The Evil 8:
1. See the world through a lens of entitlement.
2. Lack of empathy.
3. Incapable of feeling remorse or guilt.
4. Self-destructive behavior.
5. Feed off drama and crises.
6. Try to brag and outsmart you.
7. Have short-lived relationships.
8. Have delusions.

These are ways to spot them:

The Nefarious 15:
1. They infiltrate your life with promises and flattery.
2. Define you as a conspiratorial confidant.
3. Are focused on getting your approval.
4. They gather data to build a file on you.
5. Misdirect and maintain a mystery about who they really are.
6. Constantly blame others when confronted.
7. They will lie to the point of destruction.
8. Tendency to cheat and steal.
9. Isolate their victims to foster dependency.
10. Abuse positions of power.
11. Know your hot buttons to gain leverage.
12. Selective memory.
13. Two-faced: Spread lies and gossip.
14. Paranoid.
15. Passive aggressive.

I know I shouldn’t give the above types any thought or attention. They obviously have serious issues or live miserable lives. But it seems for most of my life I have been a magnet for these energy vampires and toxic people who either want to push me around, put me down, or manipulate me to do what they want. I have dealt with them since age 9 or 10, starting with a relentless grade school bully who turned other girls I thought were my friends against me to further isolate and humiliate me. It happened just a couple of years ago on my study abroad trip to London, when I had to hang out with people 15 years younger. They thought it was fun to leave me places, spread rumors, and generally mock me behind my back. That made for fun group dynamics. So I just went off on my own.

Attempts at oppression and control have come on the familial, friend, romantic and workplace fronts, too. Honestly, other than in elementary school, I’ve never had such a hard time trying to make friends and not feeling like I fit in as I have the last eight years in West Michigan. It’s sad to say there are only a handful of people I would ever care to see again if I left. It’s also sad, but not surprising that people loved to call me and ask for a favor when I worked at the paper, but now that I need one, besides a few nice folks, they are nowhere to be found. But such is life.

Dr. Phil would probably tell me to buck up, toughen up and face life with a fierce determination to succeed, regardless of what other people say or think.

Still, the reflective, introspective side of me wonders what that says about me – why I attract users, abusers and narcissistic types and tolerate their bad behavior for far too long.

A former coworker, a person I consider a great friend, dearly admire and miss, and sat beside for more than three years at my last newspaper in Indiana, recently called me a “cool, heart-oriented soul.” Another lady I asked to be my mentor said: “You stand out in a crowd, Marla. I believe God gave you that gift for a reason. God/Universal Mother/Father God, also gave you the talent for writing along with a compassionate heart for others.”

Her encouragement has helped me feel brave enough to write from the heart and stand in my truth. I knew she was a kindred spirit when she sent me a career affirmation that has become my new mantra: “Just put it out there in the Universe and make it your intention to find the best place to work for your highest good, where you will love the people, money and environment and most importantly – love what you are doing! I believe we all have the ability to live our abundant life and accomplish so much more than we even know.”

Their kind words make me feel a little better, but it still sucks standing up to the meanies in the world. Maybe I too easily absorb other people’s energy and let their opinions knock me off center. I’ve been told I wear my heart on my sleeve, but I’m starting to wonder if that translates into wearing “come screw me over” on my forehead.

They say bullies target people they perceive as weak. I’m definitely not weak and, since turning 30 and learning to set better boundaries, I’m proud to say I have removed a long line of toxic men, friends and acquaintances from my life in the last seven years. I don’t have the energy to be phony, play the head games or dish it back. I have learned to cut ties and go on. Sensitive, emotional and intuitively oriented, a person who strives for harmony and wants to be liked, I try to live by the Golden Rule and treat others how I want to be treated. I’ve failed at times in my life, but in general, I try to think about other people and their feelings and don’t set out to deliberately hurt them. The fact a recent report determined my top strength to be empathy – the ability to sense the feelings of other people by imagining themselves in others’ lives or others’ situations – further confirms I tend to think about others and their feelings, often at the expense of my own.

So let’s get to the real point of this post. As I embark on this journey to forge a freelance writing career, it’s stirred up a lot of feelings of fear and failure. I’m pretty sure they stem from childhood, magnified by the many jerks (male and female) I have had to deal with in my life. In hopes of finding comfort in the uncertain life of starving artists and free spirits, I dug out and actually read a book that somehow landed on my desk a dozen years ago and survived the move to Michigan. In a weird side note, I recently wrote the above mentioned coworker to tell him, and he said he had been looking for the very same book!

There is sage and quirky advice in this tiny little book, an easy and uplifting read filled with heartfelt honesty. Some of the opening chapters are a little heavy and depressing as the author, Susan Brackney, covers a long line of creative geniuses who have struggled with depression, procrastination and suicidal tendencies – including her. She is brave enough to admit that without antidepressants, she would have very likely joined the ranks of the intelligent, artistic misfits who gave up and chose to end their lives in some tragic way.

Later on in the book, she tackles “living in the world of meanies.” The night I read these pages I had been stewing and fretting about things beyond my control, concocting conspiracy theories in my head (or ones I will never be able to prove) and simply wasting energy on people who don’t deserve it. Her wisdom made the light bulb go on: “No matter what, remember this: you can only have enemies if you allow yourself to have them. If someone tries to engage you in some miserable, bilious conflict, don’t give such nonsense your time or energy. I realized that my life is too short to waste on my former coworker. You only have so long to offer your wonderful gifts to the people who deserve them, so don’t waste your time on bad people.”

She continues: “That sounds simple enough, but it’s very difficult to ignore those who want to hurt you. Still, you must. Here’s why: They need your attention in order to thrive. Don’t give it to them. Ignoring the meanies of the world gets easier with practice. It’s difficult but not impossible. And it builds character like nothing else I know.”

Profound words from someone who has contemplated suicide, but having walked in similar shoes, it’s easy to understand why. She rationalizes that they must be really miserable inside. My take is they must hate something about themselves that they want to project onto another.

Plain and simple: There are some really mean-spirited, vindictive people in the world. People who long to see you fail, may even attempt to sabotage you then call you paranoid and crazy, and will take great pleasure in any misgivings or misfortune that come your way. It’s a waste of energy to try and figure out why. Maybe they were abused or grew up in a competitive home. Maybe they are indeed jealous of your accomplishments. Maybe they really are just that miserable and want you to be, too.

Being in-between

“Spring passes and one remembers one’s innocence.
Summer passes and one remembers one’s exuberance.
Autumn passes and one remembers one’s reverence.
Winter passes and one remembers one’s perseverance.”

― Yoko Ono

One of the few things I knew as I started designing my website is that I wanted pictures of nature and the four seasons to reflect my belief in the healing power of nature. The scenic beauty is what sold me on moving to West Michigan. Whenever I feel sad, lonely, depressed or disconnected from myself, I try to head for a hike or escape to the beach. I always feel better, more centered, and grateful for the many blessings in my life. If the birds and animals survive, so will I.

With that being said, this time of year always makes me antsy. It also makes my dog antsy. She woke me up last Thursday morning jumping on and off the bed and running between the bedroom and living room because she saw the sun and wanted to go out and bark at squirrels and birds. It seems the sun has an energizing effect on more than just people.

The sun did lift my spirit and put a smile on my face. It was nice to hear the birds chirping and see the ground, albeit brown and barren, when I opened the door to let out the dog. But it’s also been very deceiving – still cold when you step outside and a reminder that spring hasn’t arrived yet. That is why this in-between season makes me antsy. Agitated. Restless. Impatient.

I’m a quote person and some favorite ones do come from the Bible: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Ecclesiastes 3:1

It’s that time of year when we have persevered and survived the worst of winter and know better days are ahead. Yet the temperature and precipitation is in constant flux. The calendar may say Wednesday is the first day of spring, but Mother Earth can be fickle and fierce. Not to mention, the TV meteorologists keep forecasting cold, snow and wind. So we patiently wait – for the snow to go away for good, for warm air, for the trees to bud and flowers to bloom. We wait for that first glorious day we can roll down the car windows, walk the dog with no coat, and wear flip flops, skirts and shorts. That is when we remember Mother Earth also radiates love and life.

This photo, posted by a friend on Facebook, gave me a chuckle and drove this idea home: “Every flower must grow through dirt.” Isn’t that the truth! It reminds me of the flower bed of annuals I put in when I first moved to my current residence. For me, downsizing to a small house accompanied job loss because I knew I could not afford the nice downtown apartment I had rented since first moving to West Michigan. In many ways, I also looked forward to this change. Moving to a house finally meant a yard – even if I had to mow it! That first spring, I committed to planting a garden and putting in a flower bed of annuals.

Four years later, that flower bed is still there. It definitely needs some attention. The plants, currently covered with snow, look dead, but I know that with just the right conditions of water, sun and temperature those plants will bloom and flower once again.

I cannot help but view it as a metaphor for life, especially the state of my life at the moment. Sometimes we are simply covered in dirt and waiting to sprout. A space best described as in-between – scary, yet filled with possibility. We can be in-between jobs, homes, relationships, behaviors, feelings and goals. This state of being can spur all sorts of back-and-forth, push-pull dynamics and create a lot of internal conflict: Fear, anxiety, depression, second guessing and worry over what the future holds. But those are all self-defeating, time-wasting, energy-draining habits. Negative energy sabotages, destroys and empowers the problem, whereas positive energy heals, transforms and expands all that is good.

Just like winter is necessary to prepare the ground for a new planting season, being in-between is necessary to get from where we are to where we want to go. Sometimes, where we are is right where we need to be. We must trust we are making progress even if it may not seem like it, just as we look at the calendar and trust summer is in reach. We must trust people want to help and have our best interest at heart. We must trust there is a plan and a purpose.

The flowers will bloom again. So will you. So will I. If any of us need a reminder, the Universe provides plenty of resources to connect us to the rhythm and beauty of life: Water, a walk in the woods, a sunset, a pet to love, a hand to hold, a friend to confide in, and time to just sit and think in solitude.

We must remember there is reason for every season. We must embrace the fluidity of life, accept the uncertainty of today and find comfort in the rebirth that is coming.

Welcome to my blog

Welcome to my blog, where it’s hard to say what you will find. I am excited to have a forum for self-expression and envision it will evolve as I get more comfortable having an online identity. Sometimes, it feels like I am standing at a fork in the road personally and professionally. Do I put all my efforts into freelance writing or still pursue that “dream job” with a positive, progressive nonprofit organization or corporation?

As hard as it is sometimes, we can only take life one day at a time. The present moment is all we really have. So while we can dream and plan for the future, our energy and power truly reside in the here and now. I am choosing to invest that energy in forging a freelance writing career while we all wait for the economy and job market to rebound. It never hurts to have a backup plan, and maybe it will prove to be my destiny.

There has been no shame in my two year, post-layoff grand master plan – it turned out better than expected. Being a full-time graduate student, traveling abroad to London and achieving a lifelong goal of earning a master’s degree gave me a great sense of passion, purpose and accomplishment. When passion meets purpose anything is possible. Add in hard work, perseverance and ingenuity, and dreams do become reality. My three- to five-year plan has hit a few speed bumps, but I have always been strong-willed and determined to overcome adversity. Let’s hope I am standing on the cusp of a great entrepreneurial venture as a blogger, print and online journalist, creative writer capturing personal milestones and memories, and nonprofit grant writer and consultant.

I feel like I am baring my soul with this website. I want to thank designer Jim Johnson of Social West Michigan for his work on the site and patience with me. I also want to thank family members and friends for their support, encouragement and suggestions as I make this transition.

That leads me back to this introductory post, which I have edited, toned down, lost sleep over and virtually rewritten for fear of what people might think. People who know me well know I can be opinionated and have a straight-shooting style. But I also think they would say I am an inquisitive, imaginative “idea” person – genuine, authentic, and empathetic, with a big heart (that I tend to wear on my sleeve) and a real desire to help make the world a better place. The aim of this blog then: To entertain, educate, enlighten, and advocate.

For the sake of getting this website live, stay tuned for more details as I work them out. One thing I know for sure: We all have a message. We’re all on a journey, which gives each of us a unique story to share. May this be an inspiration to get real, be real and appreciate the beauty of self-reflection, self-expression and self-acceptance.

It’s tricky trying to balance writing from the heart and living an authentic life with being worried about what goes out on the internet for all to see, as well as my long-term, “professional” image. But I am going to try.

Welcome to My Words, My Way.

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