Little Deaths

Friday, October 24, 2014 - 5:21 am

Little Deaths

It’s fall, which means things are dying. I’ve been working on shedding some of my least productive practices and mindsets.
I’m working on a book and realizing that, for the first time, I am not writing defensively. I am not writing in hopes that smart people will think I’m smart. I am not writing to prove that I’m a “real journalist.” I am really trying to make something that comes from a deeper place, something that is intellectually courageous but also soulful, immersive, irresistible. Sometimes you let an old way of working die, and no one but you can perceive the difference. And yet, it’s huge. It can change everything.
I am shedding the automatic yes, as I’ve written about in previous columns. In fact, I’m starting to really notice when I say no gracefully and firmly, and celebrate myself for it. I’m even turning down paid work, which is really counterintuitive for me. I have been in disbelief for so long that I actually earn a living doing what I love that it’s made it hard to trust that it won’t disappear if I have the gumption to say no.
I’m letting friendships die. This one is hard. God, this one is so hard, but I’m learning. I’ve never really understood how anyone you have truly loved could ever leave your life. I remember after a soul-crushing break-up in my 20s I would look at a t-shirt and think, “How could I have ever predicted that I would have this stupid t-shirt longer than him?” Losing people for one reason or another who are still walking around in the world seems so emotionally violent to me. But I also understand why clinging is a kind of violence. It’s not only painful, but denies the basic law of nature — sometimes birth is followed only by a fertile death.
Speaking of which, I had big aspirations to be a gardener when I moved to Oakland. I was going to study under my neighbor Louise and really learn how to tend to the earth and, well, I’ve grown nothing. Which I guess means that I’m not really letting anything die but my own fantasy of myself with dirt under my fingernails. The same thing happened with my fantasy to play the blues harmonica. And the one where I make beautiful, crusty bread at home. Maybe these aren’t dead forever, but for now I won’t keep adding them to my to-do list or beat myself up when they don’t transpire.
I’m shedding that little part of me that desperately craves completion. Sometimes Maya turns the last page of a book before I finish reading the words and I just let it happen. Sometimes she needs me when I am half of the way through an email and I just shut the computer. This is way harder for me than it should be. I guess parenting is an awesome lesson in letting go, even with the tiny stuff.
What little deaths are you welcoming this fall?

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

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