How I Keep Guilt From Haunting Me

Max knows how to keep Guilt away!

Max knows how to keep Guilt away!

I’ve just written a post for my blog next week. I’m caught up with the revisions I’m doing on my memoir. There are only two more chapters to talk to my editor about and then the work will begin to have my book become a reality in the fall of 2016. I’m excited.

But I’m feeling restless. The studio needs a good dusting and vacuuming. My computer desktop needs attention and I should start rereading the booklet of things I need to know about She Writes Press, the hybrid publisher I plan to go with. I promised myself weeks ago that I’d come up with an elevator pitch for my book and haven’t thought about it since then. There are over a hundred emails that need my attention and possible filing. They’re mostly about writing, publishing, and building an author platform, a true necessity if one is to sell the book she is getting ready to publish.

There is too much to do. It’s already late afternoon and I need to walk the dogs in about an hour and then there is dinner to prepare. But all I want to do is put my feet up and not be pushed to get more work done.

I opt to relax, write in my journal, and do some reading. But as I sit down in my favorite chair with a tall glass of iced tea to begin my friend, Guilt, arrives and begins haranguing me.

“What do you think you’re doing? How can you be writing in your journal and reading when you’re getting ready to publish a book? You need to go back over to the studio and get to work on your platform. You are not doing enough to pull in readers. You’re lazy and a wimp. Look what your friend J. is doing to promote her book. GET TO WORK!“

Despite Guilt’s unending criticism I pick up my purple pen and start a new page in my journal. I begin by making excuses.

“I haven’t put pen to paper here in almost a week and I need to remember all of the brilliant ideas I’ve already forgotten because I haven’t put in time writing here. There is just too much to do and  sometimes I just need to kick back and enjoy life without being pushed.”

Gathering steam I address Guilt: “You want me to be a writer? Then let me read. Everybody knows that reading other writer’s words is the way to learn. Now go away and leave me alone.”

I end up writing well over four pages about how important reading and writing in this journal is for me. I notice Sam and Max sitting at my feet and staring at me. They have an inner clock and they know it’s close to “walky” time and then dinner. I have twenty minutes left to do some reading before it’s officially their time and I’m going to take it.  I tell them to go lie down.  But do  listen to me? No.

I delve back into the book that has taken me over a month to get to the middle of. I haven’t read a novel in ages, my preference usually being non-fiction.  But The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt is a page turner and I need to use every extra minute I can manage to to read it.

When my twenty minutes are done, I get the dogs leashed up and drag Guilt along on our walk, stopping at every fire hydrant and blade of grass that dogs have peed on. She’s not happy when I start complaining her about her persistant nagging. She keeps trying to get a word in edgewise using her favorite words, “Yes, but.” However, I’m way ahead of her and leave her in the dust just after Max pees on her shoe.

I have to laugh. She never gives up and she’ll probably be waiting for me around the next corner ready to start her never ending pitch on how to keep working non-stop so that my book will be on the New York Times best seller list. I may have to use physical force to keep her in the ditch.  But that’s okay, I think I have the upper hand and she’ll leave me alone as long as my guard dog, Max is with me.

Does Guilt or some other critic hassle with you during your busy days? Do you have a sure-fire remedy for keeping them away?  If you do, I’d love to hear about it.

Slow Cooking A Life



At age seventy-two, I’ve suddenly realized that having a happy life and living authentically, is like slow-cooking. It’s about allowing myself to gather the ingredients for a recipe and letting it simmer on the back of the stove on the lowest flame possible. When my mother taught me to make her heavenly, cure-all chicken soup, she said, “Put all the ingredients in the stock pot, bring it to a raging boil, then turn the heat down until it’s just smiling.” What she meant was that it needed to cook very slowly. There would be no bubbling; only a slight shimmer on the surface of the liquid, and then you let it sit like that all day, while you went about your business.

In 2008, I finally accepted the fact that I was struggling with PTSD. It made sense because of my history of being abused as a child, and spending most of my adult years suffering from depression and extreme anxiety. Not wanting to spend the rest of my life being unhappy, I decided to seek help and quit blaming my pain on everyone else around me. Taking full responsibility for who I am and what I put out into the world was/is my goal. After three years of therapy with a psychologist whose specialty was dealing with trauma, I was well on my way to becoming whole and finding ways to deal with life on my own terms. This is how I did it:

I imagined my life as huge layer cake with too many dense layers to count. The layers themselves never had distinctive flavors. They were simply made up of different parts of my life, including what I do on a daily basis; the getting up, going to work, and then to bed kind of things, that go on day after day, like paying the bills, shopping for groceries, doing the laundry, and putting up with the dog across the street that barks all night.

In between each layer I hid the nitty-gritty stuff; my raw emotions, unhappiness, anger, losses, my victimhood, shame, boredom, laziness, fear, depression, and lack of hope. But mixed in with all that bitterness were tiny bits of something rather pleasing that I couldn’t identify. It was like a distant voice telling me to wake up and smell the roses. On occasion it sang to me and presented me with visions of huge bouquets of freshly picked tulips and daffodils.

Tired of that same old, same old, wanting to hear more music, and be given magnificent bouquets of flowers, I set out to bake a new cake for myself. I wanted the layers to be lighter and flavorful. Almond, dark chocolate, honey, or vanilla were just a few possibilities. I imagined it’s butter cream frosting sprinkled with red and pink rose pedals, and dusted with finely shredded coconut. In between the layers I envisioned things like fresh strawberries, chocolate ganache, marzipan, pineapple, and a host of other delicacies that would make life sweeter and a happier place to be.

The first thing I did was sit down outside in the sun and allow myself to stare into space. I tried to envision where I could find some of the necessary ingredients for this new cake. Instead, I found my eyes closing as I listened to a light breeze whispering through the pines. A mockingbird called out, trying out its own version of meowing as it flitted through the yard, teasing Lilli, the cat. I dozed off and woke feeling deliciously peaceful.

After several days of returning to the same spot, hoping to discover the place where I could find those seemingly unattainable ingredients, I realized I had found the most important one. By allowing myself to relax, empty my mind, and feel the warmth of the sun all over my body, I felt calmer, and happier. Over time, I found I could repeat the experience, even stuck inside on cold, rainy, or snowy days. The burdens I’d been carrying grew lighter.

Instead of feeling constantly rushed by what I thought I needed to be doing, I took to saying, “NO,” when asked to do things that overwhelmed me. I refused to be rushed into making snap decisions, or driving like a maniac to get to the theatre, movies, or appointments on time. It was hard. Everyone around me was on speed. Used to taking care of everyone else’s wishes but my own, I often slipped backwards into old patterns, feeling further abused. I blamed my slip ups on everyone else, while kicking myself in the butt for being stupid. But with practice, it got better.

I instead of filling my journal with rants about life and a litany of mundane things I’d done each day, I began adding notes about things I was grateful for, including those wonderful “light bulb moments,” that suddenly began appearing on a regular basis. From there I started several blogs where I published poems I’d written, and longer pieces about the natural world.

When the idea of writing a book came to me, this current blog, was my starting point. I posted family stories here and as the idea of writing a memoir became real, it’s where I continuesharing my stories and exploring my journey as I continue to heal.

Through writing about one small part of my life in, Me, Myself, and Mom, I see my life and those within it through new eyes. It’s all been sitting in the stock pot on the back burner of the stove, taking its sweet old time. And after a very long bake, is the best cake I’ve ever baked. It too has taken time. There is no instant gratification doing it my way, but I’m happier than I’ve ever been before. And life is sweet enough that I’ve given up sugar and gluten as another way to stay healthy.

Is your life boiling away into thin air, or is it on the back burner, smiling as it slowly cooks?

On Burning My Journals

IMG_0605Have you ever considered burning your journals?

I’m over at the Writer House blog with a new post. Check it out at

Beautifully Blue

Beautifully Blue © Joan Z. Rough, 2002

Beautifully Blue © Joan Z. Rough, 2002

“This is the way I feel inside. Turmoil in twisted knots. Beautifully blue. And Black. And Purple. A bruise. But one that will heal to be more like the smaller, green outer pages,  Still somewhat chaotic but fresh and very much alive. Still breathing. “

I made this collage in my journal and wrote those words on July 18, 2002.  I was a year into taking care of my mother as her health declined. I invited her to come to live in my house. I thought I could help her through her final years. Bill thought it was a good idea, too.

On a day when Bill was leaving for a week in New York, Mom fell and broke her wrist. I was left alone with her to deal with her pain, her depression, and her growing neediness. It was not a life threatening situation. But it was an inconvenience. I felt overwhelmed and abandoned. I wasn’t ready to be a caretaker. I had no idea what I was doing. I had panic attacks, slept only a few hours each night, worrying about my mother.  I was angry about the disturbance in my life, about Bill being gone. I wanted Mom to go away. I didn’t think about what she was feeling.

It was the beginning of a steep learning curve that brought me to my knees on many occasions. I was constantly confused and wanted out. But at the same time I wanted to take care of her. There were moments when I knew I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. And times when taking care of her meant the world to me.

In the car one day as I was driving Mom to see her doctor, she sighed and said, “If those old trees could talk it would be interesting.”  I was deeply moved by what she said. She never talked about her emotional state during her last few years. I wasn’t ever sure that she was processing what was happening to her. But when she spoke those words, I knew that she was thinking about life and death and the passage of time. Later that evening I took her words and wrote the following poem.

 She Said

“If those old trees could talk it would be interesting.”
And so we sat and listened.
She began to tell her own story
And when she was finished
The trees bowed to her in the wind.
The river never slowed its pace.

Looking back and rereading what I’ve written in my journals, I often feel guilt and heartbreak. But also very grateful. There is beauty in pain as well as healing.