Do I examine my life enough?

Paper Art: Elsa Mora

Do I Examine My Life Enough?
Remember when you were little and you felt like you might explode because you had so many questions? (Why is the sky blue? Why are zebras striped? How come I can't have another Popsicle?) And remember how good that felt—to find the world so fascinating that you had to learn, this second and in great detail, exactly how it worked? How did we lose touch with that desire to ask, ask, ask? Was it when we became busy, distracted, overwhelmed grown-ups, feigning expertise, acting like we know everything all the time?

Know everything? Were we even listening in Intro to Philosophy? Did we miss the part where Socrates, who supposedly said, "I know that I know nothing," developed an entire method of figuring out stuff based entirely on inquiry? And that all knowledge exists precisely because people have, persistently and for centuries, asked tons and tons of questions?

Have we established that questions are marvelous, momentous things? If so, can we agree that asking ourselves the right ones can have life-altering effects? Because have you ever noticed how questions prevent us from settling for less than we deserve? That asking ourselves "Could it be better?" is a great way to make things, well, a whole lot better? That a bunch of our breakthroughs, triumphs and joys occurred when we asked a few big, bold, paradigm-shifting questions? Don't we owe it to ourselves—don't we deserve—to live an examined life? Can it be said that asking questions is what keeps us honest, drives us to aim higher—and is the very thing that makes us human?

In a word? Yes. No question about it.
Katie Arnold-Ratliff
Do I care too much about what people think?

Illustration: Dustin Klare

Well, what's too much? Here's why I hesitate. If I answer, "No, I don't care what people think," I risk seeming arrogant. But if I answer, "Yes, I care too much about what people think," I risk seeming spineless. Such a statement suggests that I've given away my power without even bruising my knuckles.

Never mind that we all, to some degree, worry about what people think, because we're, you know, human. I don't care whether you're a shock jock or the president of the tacky Christmas sweater club: There's always going to be someone whose love, attention and respect you're courting.

So I'll just give you the honest answer: Yes, I have often cared too much.

I grew up in a preppy enclave of Delaware, where I was the short, wisecracking girl who was neither popular nor unpopular; who pretended to be dumber and richer than she was; who did not speak up when her friends made racist and sexist jokes; who believed that one day, if she kept adopting the customs and attire of the lock-jawed tribe she lived among, she would be seen as normal and everyone would like her. (And then she'd marry David Bowie and ride unicorns bareback in a cloud palace.)

I wish I could say that caring too much about others' opinions vanished as soon as I grew up, but long after I'd left the deb balls and lacrosse fields of my youth, those anxieties still gnawed at me. Instead of writing about what I knew, I spent my 20s imitating others (drunks, junkies, French philosophers) and shying away from what obsessed me, which was the inner lives of women. I thought writing about those things would brand me as either a frivolous lightweight or one more hysterical female.

Then I turned 30. I had a baby girl, and my father, after a 16-year battle with cancer, died at 56. He was someone who lived big, and the last time I saw him, when I told him that I was anxious about this motherhood business, anxious that no one would ever want to publish my work, he replied, "You just have to get out of your own way." I had to write what I had to write. I had to stop worrying about what kind of mother I would be. I had to stop wasting time. Life is brief, but if you're brave, it's deep. That mask I'd been wearing—I had to take it off. I didn't want my daughter to see it in my closet and think it was a part of every woman's wardrobe.

By investing others with the power to dictate who you are, you rob yourself of an opportunity to truly grow. You shortchange yourself by devaluing the experiences and knowledge you've banked, all those things that have been making you, you. And in the end, who cares about being anything else?

Elissa Schappell, the author of the story collection Blueprints for Building Better Girls (Simon & Schuster).
Am I with the right person?

Illustration: Dustin Klare

In Yiddish, there's a word for it: bashert. The meaning is something like "intended": the person who was meant for you. We're not talking about a soul mate, though modern usage often spins it that way; the original meaning is more complicated. Your basherter won't always make you happy, and your life together won't always be easy. But there's a sense of rightness, of having landed where you're supposed to be.

For most of us, though, that certainty is hard to come by. Life is messy and multivalent. Circumstances conspire to challenge our core relationships. Yet for that we can be grateful: Sometimes a challenge can make it clear to us that we're meant to leave a partnership. Other times our problems bring us closer.

How, then, do we know? What makes us certain? For my sister, the clue was a sense of quiet. She used to spend hours talking to her friends about guys—analyzing, deciphering, strategizing—but when she started seeing the man who became her husband, all of that stopped. She felt calm and confident enough just to let things play out. Similarly, a married friend says his dating years always felt like a struggle; that his instincts often turned out to be wrong. But with the woman he ended up marrying, he suddenly knew all the right things to say. His marriage involves work, of course, but now the work feels like swimming with the current instead of struggling upstream.

That friend also says you can tell a lot from the most ordinary moments: On an unexceptional night, when you've ordered pizza and you're watching movies, when you're wearing moth-holed sweaters and each other's socks and you both have miserable colds, are you happy? Are you exactly where you want to be?

Another friend—one who told me, in an awed tone, three weeks after she met her future husband, "I'm going to marry that man"—says it's all about how you fight. In the midst of your worst arguments, the ones where you threaten and accuse and generalize and ungenerously compare, bringing up events buried years ago and slitting your eyes in disgust—at those moments, can you step back and perceive your ridiculousness? Can you remember why you like each other, even when you disagree? That principle inspired the best wedding present my husband and I received: a set of Groucho Marx glasses/noses/moustaches to be donned in moments of marital discord.

It's been 20 years since I met my husband and 14 since we were married. In that time we've navigated uneven success, unforeseen disappointments, moments of shameful pride. We've lost a mother and a father between us; we've lived in six cities, worked countless jobs, survived autoimmune disease and smoking cessation. We've lost six pregnancies and given birth to a son. And in times of both euphoria and despair, there's no one I would rather have at my side than my husband. Not only because he knows how to celebrate and to comfort, but also because, without him, no joy or sorrow would have meaning.

In our marriage, we feel the sense of calm my sister describes; we feel, too, the relief of swimming with the current, the joys of small things. We watch movies in holey sweaters and old socks, and when we fight, we don our Groucho glasses and get through it. But it's that last something—that sense of deep partnership in the best and worst times—that makes me know I'm with the right person; that makes me sure this marriage is, in every sense of the word, bashert.
Julie Orringer, author, most recently, of the novel The Invisible Bridge (Knopf).
What's your deal breaker?

Illustration: Dustin Klare

In matters of love, you have to know where you draw the line. Six O readers reveal what they can't abide:

"Petty: long fingernails and ponytails. Important: no sense of humor."
Shirley Edwards

"He was tall, handsome, a pilot...and he talked through every movie we went to. I just couldn't do it anymore."
Lisa Hachey

"If they are married to someone else."
Lisa Dalby

"If I had known that my husband snored (badly), there would have definitely been a moment of reflection."
Shonte Sanders

"A man who can't manage his money."
Amelia Badan

"Bad grammar! The worst."
Gina Fiscus
What do I really want to do all day?

Paper Art: Elsa Mora

What Do I Really Want to Do All Day?
Silicon Valley career coach Maureen Taylor, who works with top leaders in the tech industry (Sheryl Sandberg name-checks her in Lean In) believes that you've known the answer to that question since elementary school.

O: How do you choose the right career?

Taylor: Think back to who you were in second grade. Some psychologists believe it's around that age—the first period of time many of us can remember—when we become individuals, when we fully grasp the meaning of right and wrong. It's also when we tended to gravitate toward what made us happy. In second grade, were you an athlete, a bookworm, an artist? You're still the same person. If you loved to solve puzzles, maybe you'd like being a project manager, putting together pieces to form a whole. If you were the outgoing girl on the playground, maybe you'd like sales or marketing.

O: And how do you know if you're in the wrong career?

Taylor: You're not only stressed out—which is normal—you're drained. I've seen this again and again. When people are in the wrong position, they're tired all the time.

O: But we can't all make a living painting watercolors.

Taylor: Sometimes you just need a modification. I have a client who had an important position in a large organization, but she was exhausted. When I took her back to second grade, she remembered that she loved helping people. She's now transferring to the nonprofit arm of her company.

O: What if your job isn't flexible?

Taylor: There are probably ways to bring your essential self into your current situation. My grandmother was a janitor at the Empire State Building, but she wanted to be a manager. In second grade, she was the bossy kid on the playground. So at work she did the best she could, took initiative, showed leadership and rose to become head custodian of the whole building for 22 years. Even when options are not abounding, just knowing what you like can help start your journey.
Meredith Bryan
How do I want to be remembered?

Paper Art: Elsa Mora

How Do I Want to Be Remembered?
When her mother, Katie Lynch, née Eames, died in New York City in the late winter of 1919, my mother was only 3 months old. Her two older sisters continued to live with their widowed father, but since my mother was still an infant, she was taken in by an aunt. Nearly 40 years later, that aunt returned to her native Ireland for a visit. That's when the people in her village told the story they had heard about her younger sister's fate: Katie Eames, they said, went to America and danced herself to death.

Among those in the village who had known Katie Eames as a girl, there was a sense of inevitability about the rumor. Apparently, Katie Eames was a bit of a partyer before she left for America at 19. A dancer. A late nighter. My mother knew already that Katie had been a pretty young woman, with a round Irish face and a large hat—there was one photo—and now she knew that as a girl her mother had laid the foundation for the story that served as her epitaph.

They had it wrong, of course. Wrong because the girl they remembered was not the woman Katie had become in America: devoted wife, doting mother, one of the city's hardworking poor. The truth of the matter was that Katie Eames, perhaps weakened by childbirth, caught the flu in the winter of 1919 and died at age 31.

The lesson, I suppose, is that none of us have much control over how we will be remembered. Every life is an amalgam, and it is impossible to know what moments, what foibles, what charms will come to define us once we're gone. All we can do is live our lives fully, be authentically ourselves and trust that the right things about us, the best and most fitting things, will echo in the memories of us that endure.

I have in my possession another photograph, of my own mother as a teenager. In it, she is stretched out on a couch, her shoes thrown off, her head thrown back, a white camellia, like a burst of starlight, in her dark hair. Someone has written on the back: "Mildred, dancing till dawn."

And I have in my memory all those nights when I, as a teenager, came rolling home at 3 or 4 A.M., after too much dancing and too much drinking and altogether too much fun, and saw—just over my stern and furious father's shoulder—my mother wink. Or heard her whispered question as I crawled into bed: "Did you have a good time?"

Something of the rumor and the lie, it seems, finds proof in the blood.

We are at the mercy of time, and for all the ways we are remembered, a sea of things will be lost. But how much is contained in what lingers! My grandmother's Irish epitaph finesses tragedy and dispenses with grief and does a lovely two-step over the hard facts of a short life. What remains is that Katie once was a girl who laughed, and danced, and had some fun. And it's the best, truest thing I know about her.

Alice McDermott, author, most recently, of the novel Someone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
Do I say yes enough?

Illustration: Dustin Klare

Last year a friend and I went to Hawaii to celebrate my 50th birthday. All week long we talked excitedly about an eight-hour hike along the Na Pali Coast, rife with mountain peaks, Fantasy Island waterfalls and ancient taro fields. Then I made the mistake of doing some research, which is how I found out about the trail's flash floods and ankle-high mud. I began to dread the hike, which we'd penciled in for the end of the week. What if we got lost? People often did.

In the end, I nixed the hike. And back home in California, I regretted it. Fifty was both a celebration and a reckoning: "You'll never pass this way again" would now be true more often than not. When you're 50, I realized, you ought to be leaping into the future with a resounding huzzah! In fact, shouldn't every birthday vault you forward with resounding huzzahs?

I vowed that from then on, when asked to try things outside my comfort zone, I'd go for it. So when my book club suggested we try the challenging classic Heart of Darkness, I said sure. When Tony Horton, the fitness trainer on my P90X DVD, asked me to do diamond push-ups, I didn't fast-forward, I said fine. When my doctor said, "It's time to schedule a colonoscopy," I said, "Do I have to?" Then I said yes.

When my husband suggested we go camping, I wavered. The bugs! The sleeping on the ground! No showers for days! Was I really capable of changing? You bet I was. I bought a can of Off! and called it a day.

There's something about saying yes right away, without overthinking, that makes me not want to change my mind. Yes propels you forward, cannonballs you into life. And life, with its flash floods, push-ups and bugs, is exactly what I don't want to miss.
Melanie Gideon, author, most recently, of the novel Wife 22 (Ballantine)
Do I know how to say no?

Illustration: Dustin Klare

"Here is the crux of the matter, the distilled essence, the only thing you need to remember: When considering whether to say yes or no, you must choose the response that feels like freedom. Period."
Martha Beck
Am I helpless?

Paper Art: Elsa Mora

Am I Helpless?
I can milk a cow, castrate a pig, stack hay in a barn and shovel manure into the back of a truck all afternoon. I can change a tire in the rain, brew elderberry wine and create chocolate candies using my granny's old recipes and black walnuts I've picked up along the road. Early in life, I decided to be a person who could do anything, and when I wanted to travel and had no money, I hitchhiked across the continent. Once, I bicycled over the highest pass in the Swiss Alps, carrying my sleeping bag, luggage, bike tools and food.

At age 40, in order to be able to defend myself, I took up martial arts and earned a second-degree black belt in Kobudo, an Okinawan weapons art. Nowadays I also run several times a week, to stay in shape, for sure, but also so I'll be able to outrun an attacker or chase down a runaway child before she wanders into the road. I've taught my nieces how to pee in the woods (instead of trying to balance with your panties down, lean your back against a tree as though sitting in a chair). You might say I've made it my business not to be helpless, whether that means learning how to patch the roof, snake out the drain, or install ceramic tile to save money and the trouble of hiring someone. Refusing to be helpless has made me a better wife and companion to my husband of 26 years. He knows he can rely on me to do my share and shoulder whatever burdens our lives present.

My spirit of self-sufficiency has come largely from my mother, Susanna, who raised five children alone and learned to butcher her own animals in order to feed us, despite having an arm that was damaged at birth, leaving her partially disabled. She has always loved men, but she never wanted to depend on one.

Now that my mother is aging, I see her needing more help, and it frightens me. She's just had her second spinal surgery and is recovering in a determined way, but she's very restricted in her movements. Every day she makes a list of the tasks that are beyond her; a recent list included "clean up the cat's vomit" and "take the lid off the cranberry juice." This is the woman who canned 200 quarts of tomatoes every autumn and saddle-broke wild horses in her spare time. She didn't tolerate slacking in her kids, and was maybe even more demanding of my sister and me than of my three brothers, since she knew the pitfalls that await women who can't take care of themselves. We heard about the dangers of alcohol, men and pregnancy years before we needed to.

Though Susanna has had her share of difficult and sorrowful circumstances, she has rarely asked for sympathy. Yet she has always been quick to offer it. When she had money beyond what the bills required, she often loaned it out with little hope of repayment. She allowed other kids to move into our house to avoid abusive or difficult homes, and after her own kids left home, she rented the rooms cheaply to folks in need. In other words, all the while she was being tough, my mother was cultivating a life rich with friends and family who are now eager to help her when she can't do everything herself. Her new challenge is learning how to let them.
Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of the novel Once Upon a River (W.W. Norton)
Am I helpful?

Illustration: Dustin Klare

A few years ago, after visiting Ghana for a conference on sex trafficking, I traveled to Zambia to stay with some friends who live on the Zambezi River. It's a rural place, full of big-game preserves and small villages where daily life is a struggle. When I arrived, villagers were mourning two women who had gone into Lusaka to prostitute themselves and support their families—and disappeared.

On a big tarpaulin laid out in a barren field, I sat with 30 or so village women in a circle. Talking circles are powerful things—they've given birth to countless activist movements, even revolutions. On this occasion, though, I thought our lives would be too different for us to connect. And at first, shyness did prevail. The language barrier made things difficult. But then the women sang a song, and my inability to carry a tune made them laugh. One of the English-speaking friends I was staying with sang "This Little Light of Mine," and others translated its lyrics. And then a woman from the village told a story. With tears in her eyes, she said she was a widow who only now felt safe enough to reveal that her husband had beaten her.

As is often the case, that one truth teller broke the spell. Other women began to talk about their lives. Many of their husbands worked in lodges where tourists came to see wildlife, but the lodges didn't hire women. These families couldn't meet the cost of living or cover what was to the women the most important expense: their children's school fees. Many wives contributed by farming, but as soon as their vegetable crops were near harvesting, elephants would eat them to the ground. And so with no other option available to them, some women sold their bodies.

The situation seemed hopeless. But when I asked what would help, the answer was surprising: an electrified fence to keep out the elephants. Back in New York, a few friends helped me raise the money to build one. I received updates from the villagers: Here was a photo of the area the women had cleared, by hand, of rocks and stumps and weeds; here was a photo of the finished product, fresh shoots of maize starting to take shape behind it.

When I went back the next year, the women had harvested a bumper crop of maize. They had food for a year, plus extra to sell to pay their children's school fees. Before I spoke to them, if you'd asked me how to stop sex trafficking in this village, never would I have said, "Find a way to keep elephants out of their gardens."

I call this story the parable of the fence, and these are its lessons: Helping begins with listening. Context is everything. People who experience a problem know best how to solve it. Big problems often have small solutions. And, finally, do whatever you can.

I've done what I thought were big things, like testifying before Congress, that had no impact at all. And I've done little things I don't even remember doing, like introducing two people, that I would later discover had made an impact lasting decades. That night on the tarp beside the Zambezi, I had no idea what remarkable things would come of our talk. The art of being helpful is behaving as if everything we do matters—because we never know which things might.
Gloria Steinem, journalist, author, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and member of the steering committee of the women's activist fundraising platform
Donor Direct Action
What am I afraid of?

Illustration: Dustin Klare

It's pitch-dark on this western edge of Costa Rica, and I'm in a car with my husband and our 2½-year-old daughter, creeping along an unpaved road with steep angles and blind curves, our tires grinding against an axle-snapping mixture of rock and dirt. I can sense the drop-off only inches to my right. And I'm afraid. It's suddenly clear to me that this was all a mistake, and we should never have come here on vacation: This is the wrong country, the wrong car, and what seems to be the wrong road, because we can't find our rental house. Any minute we are going to flip over and plunge down the side of this mountain.

And then, as we reach a particularly steep spot, I see a sign for a bar.

When my husband was still drinking, he barely made it home most nights. During those hours I called his cell compulsively, or waited by my phone, terrified it wouldn't ring, terrified it would. Some of what I dreaded came true—a policeman would answer the cell phone, or my caller ID would show the name of a hospital. That was a long time ago, and what calms me now in the face of my most profound fears is not reassurance that nothing bad will happen, but that some of it has, and here we still are. You do not self-destruct when your fears come to pass. Things are replenishable that you thought were not: your savings, your opportunities, your pride. Your life can be stripped very close to the bone, and you can begin again.

My husband has been sober for nearly a decade, and while I count us lucky, I know bad things can still happen—like a missed hairpin turn in the darkest part of the night. Surviving fear does not make one immune to fear. Even on my best days there are times when I think, When you're as happy as this is when you lose it all. Who doesn't look at her husband's neck or her daughter's curls and wonder at how the human body—these bodies, the ones you love the most—can ever be kept safe? They can't. Things befall us, worse things than have yet befallen me, things we can't imagine. But we survive. We awaken from the bad dream of crisis, rise and keep moving. We learn to live not with a loss, as if we accept or welcome it, but alongside it.

I believe in preventing what I can, in life insurance and seat belts. But I also believe there's life to be found on the other side of fear. I believe in continuing up the mountain, petrifying though it is, until you see the lights of the rental house. I believe in getting some sleep once you arrive, so that in the morning you can see the view you could not see in the dark: the coconut trees that blanket the mountainside, the coves beyond the cliff, the mist above the shining green agate of the ocean. The peaceful place you didn't know was waiting.
Michelle Wildgen, author, most recently, of the novel Bread & Butter (Doubleday).
Am I paying enough attention to the incredible things around me?

Illustration: Dustin Klare

On an April morning, my corner of the earth fairly thrums with music: Robins sing from treetops, peepers call from the pond and the maple sap plinks as it drops into buckets. I remember how when my daughters were small, they would wrap their little arms around the trees and catch the sap on their tongues. I believe that in the same way, we all must fully embrace the wonder of the earth, a planet that provides us with everything we need. Sometimes I'm nearly overwhelmed by the deluge of gifts earth bestows on us, entirely unearned: water, air, food, the ground beneath our feet. The very things that keep us alive. So what should be our response to the generosity of the world? Paying attention to it. Drinking it in. Letting its energy flow into us. Celebrating all the experiences we have here—the physical and spiritual things, the tranquil and exhilarating things, prayer and poetry and pancakes alike. And then repaying earth with our gratitude. That robin sings her thanks at sunrise every morning. Ask yourself, "What do I do to say thanks?" Ask yourself, "Am I living in a way that the earth can be grateful for me?" We can share our human gifts—of art, of science, of action, of fierce defense for the good green world. And most of all, we can share our awe.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, PhD, professor of environmental and forest biology at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (Milkweed)
Have I accepted my body?

Paper Art: Elsa Mora

Have I Accepted My Body?
"Female beauty is not a zero-sum game, a scarce commodity or something only some of us are allowed to have. We have to think ourselves beautiful—not prettier than or less pretty. We have to believe that female beauty is limitless, and love our bodies for their own sake."
Maya Rupert, writer, activist and policy director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights
Am I strong enough?

Illustration: Dustin Klare

Before the birth of my son six years ago, I would have defined strength as a gruff grinning and bearing, the opposite of uncertainty. When he was born with severe brain damage and later diagnosed with cerebral palsy, I felt anything but strong. I was devastated. But I promised myself that I would find a way to handle whatever happened. My baby boy deserved and needed nothing less.

I came to see that what constitutes strength is not just muscle or will. It can also include the most desperate vulnerability, the saddest heartache, the lightest, sweetest laughter. Being strong for my son meant learning to love not just him but his endless crying, too. It meant letting my lovely flesh-and-blood child take the place of my abstract fears. It meant accepting those fears as the flip side of my love, my weakness as part of my resolve.

He couldn't latch on or breastfeed; he wasn't holding up his head; he wailed mightily and furiously for no reason we knew. He did not smile or laugh. He might never see, walk, or talk. Yet he was also this marvelous red-haired, chubby-cheeked, green-blue-gold-eyed baby who could, I absolutely knew, feel my love and return it. My child was both the light of my life and the nexus of my deepest worry, and I had to be strong enough to accept this paradox.

One day, at long last, I saw him smile back, recognizing me and feeling—I swear he sighed with pleasure—safe and happy in my arms. I knew for certain that he was aware of how loved and adored and wanted he was, and that steeled me for the years of caretaking to follow. Through years of surgeries, therapies and medications, no one has smiled like this boy. I try to remember how brave he is, because this bright-eyed, vibrant child is a source, not just a recipient, of love.

People are always complimenting parents of children with special needs—for being so amazingly strong. But it doesn't take strength to love your child. It's the other way around: Love gives you resilience. When I tend to my disabled child's medical needs, I'm simply being a mom, caring for my son. Strength means honoring your entire range of emotion, even your despair and heartbreak. Especially your despair and heartbreak. It means acknowledging each of those feelings, your questions and ideas and faith and terror, and meeting what comes with the full force of your heart.
Brenda Shaughnessy, author, most recently, of the poetry collection Our Andromeda (Copper Canyon)
Have I forgiven my parents?

Illustration: Dustin Klare

I thought I'd forgiven my mom a long time ago for the volatility of my childhood, which I attributed to her own troubled early years and her bad marriage to my father. I'd grown to accept that my mother was like a cat: affectionate sometimes, at others aloof.

I told myself I was no longer clinging to resentments, and that the great conversations she and I had proved it—even as the two of us cycled through unnervingly fierce arguments about how to cook chicken or whether to wake my baby from a nap. But when I tried to talk about our fights (deploying that bastion of talk therapy, the "I statement"), she only withdrew or became angry, believing I was finding fault with her for no reason. We brought out the worst in each other, and each fight returned me to the loneliness I'd felt as a child.

So I started faking it, plain and simple. I was cheerful, helpful and lighthearted in her presence, and when we disagreed, I backed off. As disingenuous as this felt at first, it helped me see how much responsibility I myself bore for our arguments. (It takes two to tussle, after all.) I also realized how selfish I'd been—mired in a state of semidepressive longing, still focused on what I wasn't getting from her, even though I wasn't offering her much myself. I'd wanted my mother to accept and understand me, flaws and all, but I'd refused to do the same for her.

Forgiveness isn't what I thought it was. Forgiving your parents in your head is not enough. You have to forgive them with your heart, too. You have to see them as the fallible people they are. You have to empathize with their needs. Hell, you have to remember they have needs. By letting go of the fantasy that I could get everything I needed from my mother, I've woken up to how much she's already given me. Her generosity and sense of humor saw my siblings and me through many bad times when we were kids, and they're qualities I try to offer my own daughters.

Our parents will never be perfect. But at some point, you have to be pragmatic. You have to ask yourself what kind of relationship you want with them in the time you have left. My mother is 72 years old. Instead of finding fault with her for another decade, I want to celebrate her for the resilient, strong-minded woman she's always been.
Heather Havrilesky, author of a memoir, Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead)
Do I want children?

Paper Art: Elsa Mora

Do I Want Children?
"Start trying for a baby now," a friend said, moments after I told her I'd met the One. "It can take forever." Then, last summer, a month after my wedding, a stranger at a cocktail party casually whispered, "Can I give you some advice? Freeze your eggs. Make sure they're ready when you want them."

If you're a childless woman of childbearing age, people like to remind you that you're not getting any younger. That you don't want regrets. That they'd like to be grandparents before they're 103. Implicit in these comments is an assumption: You are a woman, so you must want children.

I know a handful of women who have been sure all their lives that they never wanted to be mothers. I find their certainty curious, just as I am baffled by those who return from their honeymoons and immediately start decorating the nursery. For me, all of life's big changes are marked by some degree of ambivalence. I want children someday. Eventually. But I like knowing I could fly to Europe tomorrow if I chose to. I like writing at home, where the only distraction is my dog's occasional request for a walk. I need that solitude to do what I do. Sometimes I think of our imperfect world and wonder if I want to expose a child to the realities of poverty and misogyny and middle school.

My closest friends are up all night and pumping breast milk at the office the next morning. It's exhausting, but they tell me that they wouldn't trade it. Last winter, when a friend's husband had to leave on business a few weeks after their second baby was born, I flew to Wisconsin to help out. We were snowed in for a week. My heart practically exploded every time the baby's head lay in the crook of my arm; every time his 3-year-old sister and I made up a song about her stuffed animals; when I followed her command to let her clean her own teeth and watched as she unspooled five feet of dental floss. But lovely as it was, until you are really doing it, it's all just theoretical. I want children, but I hear a voice that says, "Not now, not yet," and I listen.

Delaying is no small thing. There is a window, and one day it will close. But there is comfort in knowing that one does not need to be a mother to know great love, and further solace in the contented lives of many who remain childless. Whatever any of us decide, the important thing is to ask the question "Is this what I want?"—rather than do what we feel we are supposed to. No one else is going to rock your wailing infant to sleep. So nobody else gets a say in the when—or the if.
J. Courtney Sullivan, author, most recently, of the novel The Engagements (Knopf)
Does what I wear reflect who i am?

Paper Art: Elsa Mora

Does What I Wear Reflect Who I Am?
"When you look back at your old photos, you want to see yourself happy and radiant. So whatever clothes you wear should make you feel beautiful, individual and comfortable in your skin. If that's how you feel, that's how you'll look."
Adam Glassman, O creative director
What am I missing out on?

Illustration: Dustin Klare

An entertainment diet is like any other diet: Your tried-and-true favorites may be comforting, but you'll get more nourishment if you mix things up. Here, a few culture experts* offer some off-the-menu suggestions.


If you want to push yourself a little... try Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith.
Even fiction devotees will be caught up in this essay collection. Smith trains her gimlet eye on the real world with eloquent musings on everything from literature to hollywood. "She's a brilliant novelist, but also a great cultural critic," says Danticat.

If you want to push yourself a little, and are interested in poetry... try The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris.
You'll find something that speaks to you in this greatest-hits collection recommended by Danticat, which includes some of the finest work of the 20th century, from the masterpieces of Pablo Neruda to lesser-known gems by Léopold Sédar Senghor

If you want to push yourself a lot... try City of Bohane by Kevin Barry.
This gangland noir, set in an imaginary Irish city in 2053, is a challenging novel, but well worth the effort. "It's an epic tale, thick with mind-boggling language," says Obreht. "Every sentence produces a mild sense of euphoria."


If you want to explore fantasy (but would like to keep it uplifting)... try Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Filmed in post-Katrina Louisiana, this 2012 Sundance darling somehow makes an impending apocalypse seem magical. "It's a staggering survival story with incredibly raw performances," says Bell. "cinematically, it's masterful."

If you want to explore fantasy (and don't mind dark and moody themes)... try Children of Men.
If you want something brooding, Bell recommends this dystopian flick, which imagines a world after two decades of human infertility. "It's a haunting, high-concept thriller," she says. "Even if you're not a science fiction fan, it raises profound questions about our priorities."

If you want to stick to reality... try Top of the Lake.
On the surface, this seven-part miniseries is a suspenseful whodunit. But in the hands of director Jane Campion, it's also an exploration of matriarchy and metaphysics, says Brownstein. "It will resonate with you for a long time."


If you want to get wild and crazy... try Kanye West.
Keep an open mind: "Bombast and bloviating aside, his records are next-level," says Brownstein. "He's mastered a distinctive use of sound, and the result is galvanic, guttural music." And trust us: his beats are infectious.

If you don't want to get too crazy... try Dr. Dog.
This philly-based rock band impressed Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon with their catchy 1960s-inspired folk sound. "Listen to their album Be the Void," says case. "It's full of footloose, intelligent joy."

If you don't need lyrics... try Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
Since you're open to instrumental, Case suggests cave and Ellis's ethereal, sweeping sounds, which set the mood for gritty films like West of Memphis and Lawless. "They create a backdrop of beautiful, open landscapes," she says. "I work to their music a lot."

*The Experts:
Do I let myself fail enough?

Illustration: Dustin Klare

It's not only okay to fail, it's often necessary in order to achieve greatness, says Sarah Lewis, a critic at Yale University School of Art and former member of President Obama's Arts Policy Committee. In her new book, The Rise, Lewis reveals why setbacks and mistakes can be the very things that push us toward mastery.

O: How has our culture misunderstood the term failure?

Lewis: It was never meant to describe human beings—according to one historian, the usage of failure shifted in 19th-century America from denoting bankruptcy to describing people. It's been a forced fit from the start: We think of failure as a dead end, a point of no return, but the human spirit is dynamic, not static.

O: What should we call failure—and how should we feel about it—instead?

Lewis: You can call it a learning experience, a step on your path. Consider the way an athlete replays the tape of her last game, gleaning ways to improve, or how scientists get great use out of lessons from failed hypotheses. Mastery is an ever-onward proposition. William Faulkner wrote an appendix to The Sound and the Fury 16 years after it was published; less than 10 percent of Cézanne's paintings bear his signature, and some art historians theorize that this was because he was never fully satisfied with them.

O: And missteps are valuable, too, right?

Lewis: They can be, absolutely. Mistakes keep you striving. In fact, expertise can actually hinder innovation. There's a company called InnoCentive that crowdsources answers to problems other companies can't fix, perhaps because they're too ingrained in their expertise to see solutions. Who provides many of those solutions? Amateurs. Because amateurs are often more willing than experts to be wrong, and being wrong is often how you figure out what's right.

O: So when you're faced with a setback, you should accept it—but then what?

Lewis: Make friends with it, then get some distance. When you have a bit more fortitude, look at it objectively, as though you're observing the actions of another person. Pick it apart to find what was positive. Give yourself a safe haven to try out new techniques. Remember all those who felt this way before you. Find camaraderie with every artist, every person, who discovered their greatest advantages in the very things most of us don't want to discuss: mistakes. And know that you're in excellent company.
Katie Arnold-Ratliff
Why are we here?

Paper Art: Elsa Mora

Why Are We Here?
The facts are incontestable: We are born, we reproduce, we die. The question is why. Many decades ago, around the time when I was first becoming aware of other pressing issues, such as skincare and boys, I began to ask that very question.

When most people inquire as to how and why this planet and life of ours came to pass, as most people do, they are offered a one-syllable answer: God. Which is to say, the world is the invention of an invisible, all-powerful being, spinner of galaxies and sculptor of continents. As for what God wants and why he is doing all of this—well, that is a "mystery" far beyond the pay grade of our puny human intelligence. End of story.

As for myself, I never received the God answer. My parents were proud atheists. In the family legend, one of my great-grandmothers, disgusted by what she saw as the church's greed and indifference to blue-collar people like herself, refused last rites, ripped the crucifix off her chest and threw it across the room. We were rationalists who had no dealings with invisible beings, nonbelievers even in the face of death.

The day I gathered my courage and hit my mother with the big why, she seemed insulted, as if I were questioning the value of her existence—the scrubbing and sewing and cooking. So I resolved to be stealthier about my questions. You can't tell people, "I'm on a mission to discover the purpose of life." Not if you're hoping to prolong the conversation.

I had no notion of what form the answer to my question might take or where it might be found. Would it be in a book I read or in a place I visited? Coded or in plain sight? Would it take years of patient study to comprehend, or would it come in a rush of revelation? And if it was available, why didn't anyone ever find it and mention it? As an adult, I sampled a wide slice of accumulated human knowledge, from physics to theology, looking for clues. I continue to look.

Plenty of times over the years I have been ready to admit defeat, deciding that my mind, for all the expansion it's endured, is simply too small for the task. I try to get used to the idea of dying before I ever find out what I or any of us is doing here. But then there will be a glimmer. A pattern will emerge. The afternoon sun will seem to slant at a fresh angle, revealing familiar objects in a new light. A phrase from a medieval mystic will stir my soul. And each time this happens, I return to the old question: "What does it all mean?"

I still don't know, but I can tell you this: A few years ago, a 5-year-old swiveled around to me in her car seat and, totally out of the blue, said, "Grandma, why are we alive?" Ah, I told her, to love and help other people, of course, and—I continued, although I could see that her attention was already drifting—one of the reasons we're alive may in fact be to ponder that question. Because it had just occurred to me that the work of answering the question "Why are we here?" may itself be part of the answer. Asking after the purpose of life gives our lives purpose.

Barbara Ehrenreich, author, most recently, of the memoir Living with a Wild God (Twelve)