When we can meet life with an open heart, receiving becomes indistinguishable from giving and we become conduits of grace.
—Mark Nepo, Seven Thousand Ways to Listen
Late last year, fresh off my yoga teacher training and full of good intentions, I decided to declare 2012 The Year of Giving. I would give something away every day for a year—and blog about it.
The universe rewarded my hubris promptly: I got laid off, right before Christmas. Oops! How could I commit to 366 days of giving when I didn’t know where my next mortgage payment was coming from? But it was too late; I’d already made up my mind to do it, and backing out seemed too convenient, not to mention cowardly.
So I stayed the course, more or less–giving more, blogging less. Now, on the eve of another new year, I look back at one of the most challenging, rewarding, and yes, happiest years of my life.
But it sure didn’t start out that way. Usually I love winter here in our little lakeside cottage. And with nothing to do all day but look for work, I figured I’d have a front row seat on Nature’s subtlest season. I’d watch the Great Pond freeze, the snow fall, and the cardinals and blue jays compete for the berries in my backyard. Mother Nature would console me while I got creative with this whole giving thing.
The (warm) winter of my discontent
Last winter was one of the warmest winters on record in New England. For the first time since my son Mikey and I moved into the house eight years ago, the lake never froze. The snowfall never fell. The birds hid in the trees, out of the dreary fog and depressing cold rain. It was like living in Seattle, without the Starbucks.
But I couldn’t let a little bad-luck weather stop me. I plodded along, applying for hundreds of jobs and giving whatever I could think of away. I purged my closets, donating every third item in my wardrobe—a small mountain of shirts and sweaters and skirts and trousers. I gave away my beloved stash of Oprah magazines and my heavy punching bag and almost all of the hats I’d been collecting for more than twenty years.
I gave editorial advice and manuscript critiques and pep talks; I taught free yoga classes and did free tarot card readings and hosted free writing seminars. I baked cookies and fried chicken and treated friends and strangers alike to a free lunch. And I blogged about it.
And then my dog died.
At the end of the winter that wasn’t, Shakespeare—the best dog who ever lived—was diagnosed with cancer. By March he was gone, the quick-growing tumor the vet said would kill him no matter what we did having reached his brain. Shakespeare was a big old shaggy mutt, how old we weren’t even sure, having rescued him from a Las Vegas shelter nearly fifteen years before. But knowing he’d lived a good long life—longer than even he’d probably expected—didn’t really help.
I stopped giving, and started crying. I cried for Shakespeare and so much more. I cried for everything I’d lost in just a matter of months: my dog, my livelihood, my sense of self.
And then, because I said I would, I blogged about it. I told the truth: I was a 55-year-old woman with a dead dog and dead career. I had nothing left to give but my books and my shoes, the two cherished collections I’d heretofore spared in The Year of Giving.
What the f—k.
The Flip Side of Giving
Within 24 hours of posting that blog I had a new job. More than a new job, I had a new career, a new optimism, and a new respect for the flip side of giving—receiving. My dear friend and agent Gina Panettieri read my sorrowful, self-pitying tale and asked me to join her Talcott Notch Literary agency. I emailed her a head shot and a bio, and the next thing I knew, I was in business. I was thrilled and terrified at the same time—the emotional response the very best gifts always evoke.
But Gina was just the beginning. An outpouring of comfort, condolence, and compassion flooded my life—from friends, family, and colleagues, as well as people I’d never even met. My mom and the Colonel gave me the gift they’ve been giving me all my days: an unshakable faith in my ability to survive and thrive no matter where I found myself. My son Greg gave me the gift of laughter, recalling my lost sense of humor. My teenage son Mikey gave me the gift of poignancy, reminding me that the bitter is always accompanied by the sweet. My daughter Alexis gave me the gift of time, sending me a ticket to visit her and my granddaughters for Mother’s Day. And Michael gave me the shoulder I needed to cry on—happy tears as well as sad.
My fellow agents welcomed me with open arms—Katherine Sands, Linda Conner, Janet Reid, John Willig, Rachael Dugas, and Sara D’Emic foremost among them—and recommended me for conferences and seminars. After years of attending BEA as an editor, I went to my first as an agent, and editors like Amanda Bergeron of William Morrow, Phoebe Yeh of HarperCollins, Peter Joseph and Toni Plummer of Thomas Dunne Books, Andrea Spooner of Hachette, Allison Wortche of Little Brown, Michelle Richter of St. Martin’s Press, Michael Braff of Random House, Christina Parisi of Amacom, and Joan Powers of Candlewick Press gave me my first meetings—and eventually some of my first deals for my first clients. Jill Santopolo, a wonderful writer and executive editor at Philomel, reminded me not to forget I was a writer, too.
My first clients gave me the gift of confidence, especially those who signed with me in the earliest days—Shannon Stoker, Lynn Coulter, Susan Reynolds, Richard Thomas, Dr. Lillian Glass, Vaughn Hardacker, Rich Krevolin and John Drdek, Greg Bergman, Phil Slott, the fab Saulnier sisters, Emily Coughlin, John Partridge, Omar Garcia, Rachelle Christensen, Jess Anastasi, and Rob MacGregor.
One good turn led to another and another and another. Chuck Sambuchino of Writers Digest told the world I was an agent—and I received more than 1000 query letters in a week. Queries—the gift that keeps on giving!
Publisher Phil Sexton gave me my popular Writers Digest Boot Camp gigs, and Michael Neff of the Algonkian Pitch Conference asked me to lead workshops in New York City. Emma Spencer at Dragonfly Yoga Studio invited me to lead my first 5-Minute Mindfulness and Chakra Power seminars. Thanks to these lovely mentors, I learned that I loved teaching—and was pretty good at it. And Brian Kelly of Randstad landed me contract work as a content strategist, proving that you can teach an old writer new tricks.
Giving away the Write Stuff
The kindest words often came from my fellow writers, who reminded me that I am a writer first, and no matter what happened to me this year, it would make a good story. Hallie Ephron, Hank Phillippi Ryan, and Margaret McLean promised me I wouldn’t fall flat on my face; Jane Cleland and Jennifer Basye Sander told me to give myself a year to get acclimated. My Scribe Tribe preached persistence and praised pages, and the Monday Murder Club rewarded my frequent absences with patience and affection.
And all my friends at MWA, Sisters in Crime, the League of Vermont Writers, the Harvard Medical Publishing Course, Killer Nashville, Writers Digest, the Algonkian Pitch Conference, and the New England Crime Bake chimed in with encouragement whenever I seemed to need it most.
With their support, I kept on writing. And agenting, and editing, and teaching, and content strategizing.
And giving. Yes, I bit the bullet and even gave away more than 50 pairs of shoes and 350 books. But who’s counting.
‘Tis better to give than…maybe not
While the blessings rained down on me every day of my so-called Year of Giving, I was reminded that gifts come in all shapes and sizes and colors, and that, ultimately, giving is just another form of receiving. It’s an endless loop of love that feeds both giver and receiver.
It’s New Year’s Eve, and given all I gained from The Year of Giving, I’m tempted to name 2013 The of Year of, uh, Something Big. But I haven’t come up with anything yet.
If you’ve got any good ideas to give me, I’ll take ‘em.