Cyndie Spiegel, MICROJOYS: Finding Hope (Especially) When Life Is Not Okay

Cyndie Spiegel, MICROJOYS: Finding Hope (Especially) When Life Is Not Okay

Zibby interviews author and inspirational speaker Cyndie Spiegel about Microjoys: Finding Hope (Especially) When Life Is Not Okay, a bighearted and intimate book of essays and prompts that shows us how to recognize the joys that are right in front of our eyes, even in moments of profound pain. Cyndie talks about the devastating tragedies that brought her to a dark place and the microjoys that kept her afloat (like seeing a beautiful picture of her late nephew). She also talks about growing up in poverty and how her life has transformed since then. Lastly, she shares a quick and easy tip for how to ground ourselves, be present, and identify the ordinary delights in our surroundings.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Cyndie. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Microjoys: Finding Hope (Especially) When Life Is Not Okay.

Cyndie Spiegel: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: I know I was just raving. This book is so special. It’s so meaningful. You share all of your own experiences with loss and your own illness. There’s just so much with your family and all the things you’ve gone through. Yet you’ve decided to take all that, find the joy in all these everyday moments, and then write about it so the rest of us don’t miss the joy, basically. It’s so awesome. When did you decide to make this a book? I’m so sorry for all the stuff you’ve been through. I’m so impressed that you decided to give this gift of a book to everybody else.

Cyndie: Thank you for saying that. The first thing I will acknowledge is that this is just life stuff. No need to be sorry. It just is what it is. We each have cards that we’re dealt, but I appreciate that. After my nephew was killed, which was May of 2020 — it’s so recent, and I forget these dates. Actually, I’m going to back up a little bit, Zibby. I’ve written a book called A Year of Positive Thinking. When my nephew was murdered, I was just in a hole. That’s the kind of thing that doesn’t happen to you. It happens to everybody else, according to true crime, but it doesn’t happen to you. When it hits home, for me, I didn’t know what to do. What I did know for sure was that I could not rely on the tools that I had been teaching for a very long time, the book that I had written. These pithy ways and quotes were no longer going to serve me when the shit hit the fan. Then shortly thereafter, my mom passed away four months after my nephew died. I just remember feeling like I didn’t recognize myself anymore. I’d always been an optimist from as far back as I could remember. I couldn’t find anything to feel good about.

Slowly after, somewhere in between where my nephew passed and my mom died, I started talking about microjoys on Instagram. Microjoys aren’t about small joy. They’re about things that are accessible to us in the everyday without us having to reach for them. I would start talking about maybe a flower that I’d seen while walking, or I was going through a photo album and my nephew was there in the photo album, and how that brought me joy and all of these moments that were right in front of me. Again, this was in the height of the pandemic, and so folks really caught onto that and started sharing, DMing me their own microjoys, which I thought was incredible and really so healing in the midst of everything else going on. It certainly wasn’t a plan to write a book, but a publisher reached out probably a year afterwards and asked if I’d be interested in writing a book. I thought, huh, sure. I’m a firm believer that if an opportunity presents itself, we show up for it. It was certainly never the plan, but the book happened. Here we are.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. The one thing that I was unclear about in the book — maybe I missed it somehow. You talk about your nephew being murdered a lot, but you don’t go into what happened.

Cyndie: That’s on purpose. Part of it is because it’s not my story to tell. I don’t think it matters. He was violently murdered. It was a complete random act of violence. There’s still ongoing legal proceedings that will be ongoing for a while.

Zibby: How old?

Cyndie: He was thirty-two.

Zibby: Your nephew was thirty-two?

Cyndie: Yeah, he was thirty-two. I’m very mindful, I hope, in the book of not telling anyone else’s story. My brother, his mom, his brothers, I feel like those are details that if they want to share it, they can, but I’m not going to.

Zibby: Sorry. I should’ve known there was a reason you didn’t include it.

Cyndie: That’s okay. That’s all right. It’s important you ask because I think people will ask that. I should just get used to people asking. No, it’s totally fine that you asked. Absolutely.

Zibby: You said this is just life. This is what happens. I know that life does happen. We all get dealt the bad cards that we do and the illnesses and the people we love and all of that.

Cyndie: And the good ones.

Zibby: And the good ones. I just think the time compression of all this for you — I’m so happy you found, essentially, this coping mechanism for getting through. It was quite a lot. Your mom was the one who had told you about your nephew. Then she died. Then you got breast cancer. Your other brother had a stroke. It was just one thing after another. Yet you handled it all with such grace. In the book, you have chapters on things like doing nothing or everything from the big to the small, going into a Brooklyn store and just being present. I feel like the book is about being present and seeing all the little things that are so easy to miss, like the bright sunshine through a clear window and just all the moments. How is it so helpful to keep it all at the same time, to have the pain and also the beauty? How can everybody benefit from this juxtaposition the way you have?

Cyndie: The first thing I would say is that I did not move through this with grace. It may seem like that on the other side of it. Literally, puffy face, pajamas all day. It wasn’t graceful being in it. This is with hindsight that I’m able to share these experiences. For me, I think what made microjoys so profound was that they did not require that I find a silver lining out of the garbage that was my current life. They were profound because there was this juxtaposition. I think that is often the challenge with toxic positivity. It’s sort of why I felt guilty when, having written a book about positive thinking, I couldn’t get into it. I think part of it is because we feel shame when we can’t. Microjoys is saying, no, both things are true. Life is the full spectrum. It’s not good or bad. We need to save that space for both things to happen. To me, microjoys almost became an honoring of what was also true. My mom existed in this lifetime. My nephew existed in this lifetime. I was a different person in this lifetime.

Being so present — I love that you picked up on that right away because the entire book is about hope and presence. To me, when we are in the present moment, it allows everything else to fall away. When I talk about microjoys being hand in hand, like grief in one hand and joy in the other, microjoys work almost as a respite from the difficult thing because they’re already there. This mindset of microjoys is about recognizing what’s in front of you, recognizing and finding ways to become present so that you have this reserve when difficult things happen because they will happen. God willing, not everyone’s story will look like mine, but compound grief is not uncommon. I only came to learn that later. There’s an actual word for it, compound grief, when one thing happens after the other. Zibby, I know it sounds trite when I say, “This is life, and it happens,” but I remember digging — everything for me is about, where can I find research and data when I’m in the midst of trauma? I remember reading about folks who had lost their entire family in a car accident and they were the one survivor and just these horrific stories that helped me to ground in what was and to say, Cyndie, you’re not special in any of this. Of course, I’m special. I have great hair. I’m adorable. I’m all those things.

Zibby: You do have great hair.

Cyndie: I’m not special when it comes to difficult things happening. Of course, it sucked that it all happened at once. This can happen. It happens all the time. Part of me really wants to normalize that for folks that are going through it. Even though the book hasn’t come out, just with interviews and things I’ve done, I’ve had people DM me and say, I lost all these people within this amount of time. It’s not uncommon. I think we’re just privileged if we haven’t experienced it.

Zibby: I had a year of compound grief, I guess we’ll call it now, in 2001 with my best friend on 9/11 and my two grandfathers and my stepbrother and my best friend from high school, from all different traumatic things. I would’ve loved to have your book then. It would’ve been such a balm. I don’t think I was looking around for books to make me happy.

Cyndie: Most of us aren’t in the midst of it.

Zibby: At one point, I bought a couple books on grief just to give to my family and to be like, look, it’s okay. Everybody wanted me to get over it. I was just like, I cannot get over this right now. I feel like I should talk a little bit about the structure of the book because that’s also unique. It could’ve been a memoir. This could’ve just been memoir. It could be just an advice book. This is sort of a hybrid in that each chapter is about an experience or some thought that brings you joy. Then at the end, you have these little things that encourage the reader to do their own — I want to go through and do — I don’t have time to do this. If I had more time or maybe on a vacation, I want to go and do all of your challenges because they’re not hard. They would be so good to do, so helpful. It’s like, go into a store and look around. Okay. I should be able to do that. I wrote this whole essay over the holidays. I actually went shopping in a mall to get holidays gifts. I went with all my kids. We had the best time. Well, three of my kids and my husband. I was like, wow, I could’ve done this online. Some years, I do it online. Oh, my gosh, look what I was giving up, the experience and the memories. I think that’s sort of what you’re saying. The moments, you can snatch them.

I’m jumping all around here because there’s so much in here. I loved your chapter, also, when you said that you had put on some weight, but you said it in such a nice way. You said, it’s as if my body knew I needed a little extra because I would be hugged more. Wait, maybe I can find it. Oh, here. It’s called The Polka-Dot Glass. Oh, my gosh, when you found the glass. “As if it knew that I needed to be held and comforted during a time of great loss, my body became softer and more full. I was now two sizes larger than I’d ever been before. My clothes no longer fit.” Then you say, “I also didn’t fit into this new world in the same way that I’d once confidently sauntered through the old one.” Then you said after months of feeling uncomfortable, you basically purged your closets. You said, “After finishing up,” going through your closet, “I tearfully looked at the overflowing bags with both relief and delight. So many unnecessary clothes and so much weight unburdened, lifted from my closet, but also from my shoulders. I could breathe easier. I was no longer holding myself to a standard that didn’t fit the woman I am today, and in this instance, fitting had nothing at all to do with size, but everything to do with how I felt.” So great. I love that. I feel like during times of transformation, is it such a shock that we have to sort of recover ourselves?

Cyndie: And also reassess who we are. I remember that time. It’s so visceral. I am grateful for the stories in this book because they’ll always keep it top of mind for me. In time, we lose things. I remember when I was writing that essay, Zibby, thinking with such detail about how I felt. It didn’t occur to me to just say, I packed on all this weight because of the pandemic and grief. It was really about the detail and how it felt to release things and to allow myself to transition and to recognize that I was going to be okay. I just think that is so representative of transitions that we go through all the time in our lives, but we don’t always stop long enough to recognize them and to honor them.

Zibby: And to find a reason behind them instead of beating yourself up, finding the grace in that. It’s so nice. I also believe in signs. With your mom, oh, my gosh, tell that story.

Cyndie: Which one? I told a lot of stories about my mom.

Zibby: With the pork chops on the grill. You were like, Mom, I need a sign.

Cyndie: Do you want me to tell a quick version of the story?

Zibby: Yeah, tell a quick version of the story.

Cyndie: A quick version of the story was — I don’t remember exactly what I was doing, Zibby. I think I was packing for a trip. I just remember pulling out pictures of my mom and my nephew. I had made this collage. I’d pulled out pictures. I’d just been missing my mom in that moment. It might have been the first trip I took since all of this happened. I just outwardly said, “Mom, let me know if you’re still here.” That was it. I kept doing everything that I was doing. I got a call from my brother about fifteen minutes later. He’s like, “You’re never going to believe what happened.” He said, “I was cooking pork chops on the grill. Then so-and-so came to the door. I started talking to them.” I went, “Oh, shit. Was there a fire?” He said, “No, that’s the weird thing. I expected there to be a fire.” He went back. Fifteen minutes on a windless day. This was a beautiful day. There was no wind blowing. He had all of the burgers on the grill. He said, “I went to the backyard to get dinner, and all of the burgers were off. Nobody else was around to turn them off.” He’s like, “I don’t mean that the flames blew out. The burgers were off. The pork chops were perfectly cooked. I just don’t know how that happened.” I said to him, “How long ago was this?” He said, “If I had to guess, I’d say fifteen minutes ago.” That was almost exactly the time that I asked my mom out loud to show me a sign that she was still there.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I love stuff like that. That’s amazing.

Cyndie: You have to pay attention. We have to be mindful. I don’t think that that’s a foreign thing to happen. I think most of the time, we just miss them.

Zibby: On the anniversary of 9/11 this year, I was in this hotel room in Toronto because my husband had a movie in the Toronto Film Festival. I was watching the stuff on TV. I was writing about it. I was like, okay, I just need a little sign. Just give me a sign. Her sign is ladybugs.

Cyndie: This is your best friend?

Zibby: This is my best friend. We were in the hotel. Then we stopped watching the coverage. My husband started flipping through the channels right after I said this. I just need a sign. The next thing was Ladybug Girl on TV. I know it could’ve just been on, but I feel like there’s meaning in all those little things. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking. Anyway, I’m with you. I loved seeing that part too. You write about growing up with a childhood where you were in poverty. Then you contrast it to sitting by a beautiful pool in Italy and how you’re like, this/and. The two can live together. Tell me more about that.

Cyndie: I talk about growing up. To me, so much of who I am today is because of growing up with a lived experience of poverty. I talk in the book about being on food stamps and eating sugary foods and sugary drinks. For the most part, I had a great childhood. I think there’s this idea that if you don’t have, that you’re miserable or you’re abused in some way. My mom loved me. My brothers loved me. I was the youngest. I was the only girl. Maybe we weren’t going on vacations. I talk in the book about these — we had a Foodtown not far from us. There were these plastic milk crates because it was the late seventies, early eighties. My brothers would help — they were young at the time. They would help people take their groceries to their car. Somehow, we ended up getting the gray plastic containers from the milk crates. Gutter water backs up, which I know sounds gross, but it was just rainwater. Because I was so little, they would put me in the milk — what the hell are they called?

Zibby: Milk crates.

Cyndie: Milk crates. Thank you. Perimenopause brain. I would get in the milk crates. They would just push me down the backed-up rainwater. It was great. I felt like I was on vacation. It was pouring rain outside. It’s me and my brothers. It was fantastic. As I grew up and went to school and got my master’s degree and traveled around the world and worked in the fashion industry, I obviously experienced a very different life, one where I fly around the world in business class and first class. I meet with these beautiful artisans. I’m drinking the best wines. I’ve been all over the world. I know the difference between the two. Even given that, I still don’t think one is better than the other. I just think they’re different. It was important that I share that because I think it’s quite easy for people to make assumptions about me by looking at me, by listening to me speak, by looking at me, by looking at my résumé and assume that I’ve always been this way, but I haven’t. Part of it is also wanting people to not be so quick to judge or assume that they know things about a person by who they are in this moment. We talked earlier about transformation. To me, my life is about transformation, but that’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with the way that it was either. It’s just different.

Zibby: Wow, I love that so much. It’s all so good. What is your life like now? You have the book out. What are you doing on a day-to-day basis? Are you still in this small town that you moved to?

Cyndie: Yes, Montclair. It’s not that small.

Zibby: Oh, okay. I was picturing some remote quaint village somewhere. I don’t know.

Cyndie: That sounds cute. That sounds cute, but no. I’m twenty miles outside of Manhattan. I’m still here. Much of it is still the same, except I don’t have as much free time to sit around and do nothing, as I highly recommend in the book. Partially, I wouldn’t have been able to write Microjoys if I was still living in the city, and I think because I wasn’t quiet enough. It’s very hard to be that quiet in New York City with the constant — you know this. There’s a constant energy and a buzz. Being here, it allowed me the quietude to really sit in the day-to-day. In the day-to-day, I’m still doing what I’ve always done. I’m giving talks. I’m working. I’m living my life. It still and I think will always be much quieter than my life was just in the sense that I’m not — in New York City, I feel like there’s seventeen things a day to do. You can meet up with this person for lunch and then quickly meet up with somebody after that. It’s just quieter here. I don’t know that we’ll stay here forever. The book comes out in a month, and so I’m quite busy in the meantime. There’s always a lot that’s happening. It’s beautiful. I feel very much like I’m ready for this because the last few years, I’ve had to be quiet in a way that I never ever have before. It has been balm for my soul.

Zibby: I want you to write an essay for Zibby Mag if you have any interest. We’re doing one essay a week from authors. I just love how you write and how you think about things. It’s all about different holidays or times of year to commemorate or talk about. If you have any interest.

Cyndie: Excellent. Why not? Yeah.

Zibby: What advice do you have on the writing side? It felt like very much, and even as you describe, that these were moments that you had and recorded. You were so granular in the detail, which makes it so powerful to read. What is your advice? Should we stop in a busy day and write a little snippet of something that made us happy? Should we wait? What’s your take on it?

Cyndie: The one thing I’ll say about microjoys — this was really important. Even in the language — you know that end section? I promise I’m going to come back for it. It says Consider This. Initially, that section was Try This. I remember reaching back out to my editor. I said, “I don’t want to say Try This because I don’t have the recipe for someone else’s joy.” I can only offer you things from my own lived experience. I was very specific about even the language used. The reason I bring that up is because I can’t give anyone else a prescription for this. I think there are many ways that you try it. What I would suggest is that if you want to build this mindset of microjoys, you allow yourself the opportunity to be present. One of the ways that I do that is by documenting everything. I have 27,000 pictures in my phone. They are not of sexy things. They are not selfies of me looking nice. They are of random things, like coffee, like the ceiling in a restaurant.

The reason I do that is because I know that my brain will flit to the next thought in a second. When I need a moment to ground, I will just scroll through my phone and relive those moments, those everyday, ordinary moments. I would say if somebody else is a writer, then by all means, journal. If it’s easier for you to snap a quick picture, snap a quick picture. At the core of all of it, it’s about presence. The easiest way for me to access that is I will set the timer on my phone for five minutes and go sit in a chair in a corner and not allow myself to do anything, not read a book, not look at my phone. I can look out the window. I can look at what’s around me. What it does — the idea of five minutes of uninterrupted time, it’s so rare. It forces me to notice the details of things, like the light that’s shining through my window right now or the way a leaf might look extra green because of the sunshine. It forces us to see our space differently. Five minutes. Set a timer. Don’t allow yourself to do anything. See what happens.

Zibby: That sounds nice.

Cyndie: I gift that to you, Zibby.

Zibby: Thank you. By the way, I love Wendy Sherman. She’s awesome.

Cyndie: She’s pretty great. I saw her for dinner two nights ago.

Zibby: You did? Oh, my gosh, I love her. Great agent.

Cyndie: She’s a good egg.

Zibby: Cyndie, thank you. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help. I’m really so excited about your book. Congrats. Thanks.

Cyndie: Thank you, truly, Zibby. It means a lot. I take any and all help now — I learned that over the past few years — in spreading the word about Microjoys. Truly, thank you. Thank you for reading the book. Taking time out of your life to read my words, that means a lot. I thank you for that. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: That made my life better, really. It’s like a big reset. It’s why I love reading. It’s just such a gift.

Cyndie: It is. It is, isn’t it?

Zibby: I get to live your life for as long as I read the book. It’s so cool.

Cyndie: You should listen to the audiobook. I’m listening to it now. I’m like, oh, gosh, this is nice. I might just listen to my own stories read back by me.

Zibby: That’s a good idea. I love it.

Cyndie: Thank you, Zibby. I thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Thanks for coming. Buh-bye.

Cyndie Spiegel, MICROJOYS: Finding Hope (Especially) When Life Is Not Okay

MICROJOYS: Finding Hope (Especially) When Life Is Not Okay by Cyndie Spiegel

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