Thursday, January 16, 2020

Word-of-the-year is a popular concept, and yes, it works.

Here is a place I often move to in my head.

I would love to be a person who wakes, flips the covers back, and says: 

“Hi, new day! I’ve been looking forward to seeing you since yesterday! And, look! The sun’s not even up and my novel is waiting, my essay is nearly done, and I’m doing arms and legs in my work out today! I love arms and legs days!”

Instead, I start writing before dawn, but often  interrupt myself to check news, and Facebook, and texts, and email before coming back to the (now relatively) less compelling page. 

If I’m really lazy, I’ll think about what I should be doing instead, until it’s too late to do the instead.

I fight this more often than I like to admit. Most of the time I win, but the point is, I struggle to muster the discipline so often, I wonder if my goals are realistic if I have to work that hard.

They are, and I know they are because I am never happier than when I’ve written something I like, and completed a respectable work-out and moved through my day so that at a decent hour, I’m preparing a great meal and reading while I wait for things in the oven. That’s it. That’s my daily satisfaction-map.

My sister-in-law, Christine Cook, is a personal health coach who runs a successful health and fitness website called Positive Energy  as well as an online self-improvement program on Facebook called Positive Energy Insiders. The members consist mostly of women over forty who are pausing at this midlife juncture to think hard about the things that make them happy, or could. With prompts from Christine, members are learning to execute routes to happier living.

And why must we rely on prompts if we know what makes us happy?

Because it's easier to remain behind the start line where it’s warm and comfortable, than it is to do the work of moving forward and then staying in motion. 

In a stressed out world it can be easy to confuse a low-conflict life with being happy. But real happiness can involve work. It may not be work to be grateful, or pleasant, or compassionate and creative or nice. But to the extent that happiness is about getting back what you put in, it can be work to be happy. For many of us, the idea of putting into each day what might feel just outside the reach of our will, can lead to putting semi-stimulating but less energy-producing things first.

Like news, or videos, or articles or who ate what, went on vacation, had a baby, got married or is celebrating a friend-versary on Facebook. 


If you’ve discovered the spirit and self-awareness to a) know you need something more, and b) have visualized what that is,  and c) have identified your own obstacles, there is a pretty good chance that in direct proportion to the effort you make, you’ll experience more happiness than you're used to. 

Heartfelt words of Christine's
Positive Insiders
Inspired by Melinda Gates, one of Christine’s prompts recently was to create a word that speaks to our general desire to accomplish or produce or realize goals and tasks that we know will relax our minds, energize our bodies, and open our hearts to humor, love and gratitude.  

I resist how-to’s in general if I think I can do things through sheer will.  But this prompt – a word that encapsulates drive, passion, and who you wish to be, well, sign me up. 

My word is Move, and it’s working.

Forget should-haves, or when will I’s, or why can’t I’s. All of those are things we tell ourselves about unmet goals, and if we’ve developed a plan to live more happily around a warm-up routine of regret and self-pummeling, it’s like trying to run in deep water.

So, if you are lucky enough to be able, body and mind-wise, to even work toward “happy,” let that word of yours pull on your sleeve, and make it your partner. Because, the right word may be all the power you need to push you over that start line, where it will feel too good to go backwards. 

Me? The sun isn't even up, I wrote this whole post, and now I am in motion.

Friday, January 10, 2020

The man in line behind me

This would be a good place to
 sit down and get a grip

Recently, after I was finished with appointments for the day I stopped at the grocery store for dinner ingredients and low-hold hair spray that wouldn’t make my hairstyle look like a helmet or smell like air freshener. 

My mood was neutral but vulnerable given the weather which was sleety, and the crowd inside the store which was thick and slow moving, like tired cows.

I got my things and headed for a register. This store has probably a dozen of them, but this day only three were open in addition to the express lane which has laws about how many items you can send through. Even if fatigued, rushed people at that hour of the day customize the limit to mean 14 large items, and therefore send their more than fourteen small items through, I obey the law and I had sixteen items.

So I rolled to another register, making sure it was next to a closed one because, you know how this goes; eventually a nervous manager will survey the look of three open registers serving a crowd that is worthy of seven or eight, and order someone to get a key and open up another one. Shoppers know to be in position to get the eye contact from that incoming cashier to “come over.”

I got into position behind two full carts next to a closed register. A man got in line behind me. “What’s going on?” he asked me, “Are they opening up over there?”

Did I look at him with a flat, how-would-I-know expression like people have given me?


My busy day was almost over, I had been successful in finding not only a pork roast that looked manageable, but a nice low-hold hair product, and I was feeling cheerful. 

So, I turned and said, “You know it’s anyone’s guess, isn’t it? I mean, look over there,” and I nodded toward the next register. “We see the signs, they’re lining up a bagger, right? And there’s someone with a tray so I would say we’re in good shape to be first in line.”

I smiled then, and he responded with a blank face as if there was nothing funny about registers that might or might not open.

Sure enough, the cashier opened up, looked over at the woman in line before me and gave her the “come on over” face. “Oh!” she exclaimed, and over she rolled.

The man behind me got upset.

“Hey, whoa. Hold on,” he said to me, “why did they pick her?”

I shrugged, and said "Maybe they saw her and not me."

“But I mean, you were right there!” He pointed at right there and said"That's ridiculous."

He was a big guy, on the heavy side. He was not badly dressed in khakis and a brown polo shirt topped by an okay jacket, also brown. Probably he worked in a place where you don’t have to wear a suit, but can’t wear jeans either, maybe a tire or paint store. He had sandy hair with bangs that fell over his forehead, a large face, glasses, a fair complexion, a too-large gut, a nice watch and jumpy eyes that probably never failed to observe something aggravating.

“You should have told them you were waiting!” he said, arms folded.

I turned then and said, “You know what? I just don’t feel like worrying about something like that right now.” I looked at his eyes when I said it, and for a second, a second, I wanted to share with this grouch a philosophy that I keep taped on my outlook:

Aggravation is optional most of the time.  

We all encounter unpleased, cranky people and we all feel that way ourselves from time to time. It’s my nature to allow for a person’s bad day, or maybe-bad news, or perhaps a tangle of irritations they couldn’t resolve that day.

But there are other people who are so easily irritated, so often, and so bent on expressing it they’ve begun to see the world as full of irritating people who leave them no choice. Meanwhile the rest of us know that irritable people leave us with no choice but to shut them out.

There are people who would take that man’s behavior personally, maybe a spouse, or an employee,  maybe his children. I have had stretches where I would have felt as inept as he wanted me to, back when I thought too many things were probably my fault.

The holidays are over, the credit card hangover has arrived. We’re heading into the crappiest weather of the year, and we have a president who models one form of hate or another toward others every day. There are a lot of people like that man in line behind us.  It isn’t only good mental health to steer clear of them, it leaves us with our grace and civility intact, and a new choice to put it where it will do some good.

It will be the perfect story to tell my little group of ten-year-olds who are observing, and learning not to personalize, the actions of others:

Aggravation is optional most of the time.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Here's to more gentle living and a better view of everything in 2020

This looks like a nice place to practice
  some gentle living, doesn't it?
Wouldn't it be such a waste of all we learn, all the time, from each day, from each other, from our mistakes, from our brilliant ideas if all we did was lament not knowing it sooner?

Yes, is the answer to that. It would be. 

"Forgive yourself for not having the foresight to know what now seems so obvious in  hindsight," is what a recent meme said about that.

With that, I've put together some favorite takeaways from the past year that I will refer to often while I travel as gently as possible through the next. I hope you like and can use them as well.

My favorite rules for a gentler life, brought to you by experience. 

Share things about other people that you hope will get back to them.

When something is beautiful and unexpected enough to make you choke up, that is your soul saying,  Hi, I thought you'd like this.

You were not ready to use that thing you know now, but wish you knew a decade ago. Back then, you knew other things you could have used when you were ten. Respect, don't regret this gift of age.  It doesn’t work any other way.

Don’t assume that caring about you is motive enough for a person to change their behavior. It may be a behavior they’ve been trying to get rid of for a long time for their own sake and can’t. Have your line in the sand, but if you must ask, make it “will you?” and not, “why can’t you?”

Where there have been issues in the past, there will be triggers in the future. Fix that shit before it jumps out of the alley and steals your hard-earned, well-deserved peace of mind.

Most of the time, there’s nothing wrong. You’re just tired. Go to bed.

It’s sometimes those people who are least likely to be one of your people, who teach you very important things about yourself.

You can get through anything as long as there is one person with whom you can fall apart and feel better for it, not worse.

Your most important job is to know who you are and what you want. Your heart is where those answers are. Even if you decide to defy it and do something else, your heart is not wrong.

It is perfectly okay to be with someone who is in distress and not have a single thing to say as long as you are holding their hand.

Use and love your skill set. But now and then, also say hello to your flaw set and give it some attention. It’s there to make sure you always have something to work on, and improve your opinion of imperfection.

And finally:

Compliment a stranger every now and then – their clothes, their dog, their baby. You will turn whole days around for some people doing that and probably like yourself a little more, too. 

That's it, that's the stuff that made me love my life and days more than I did the year before. It is the stuff that makes me look forward to all of the days, of every year. 

With love, and best wishes for more gentle living and a better view of everything in 2020,


Friday, December 20, 2019

It's December 20th. Pencils down.

A little arrow of joy sailed into my heart this morning to realize it is the twentieth of December. 

Because. When you are in the twenty-somethingth of December, you are not close, but really close to Christmas. And, in my blue exam book of what holidays should really mean, this means pencils down. 

This means it's time to do stuff that matters. If you're a list and task freak, all stressed out over what you haven't done yet, it's time to realize that if the only holiday plates and napkins left at The Paper Store have toys and snowmen on them, that's fine.

Ever since I was a wee me, there has been something magical about December 20. 

Back then, it meant the start of classroom parties and school vacation and the long awaited (and single showing) of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Frosty the Snowman. 

Afternoons started to turn dark before the bus finished dropping us off, and little homes with candles in the windows made every neighborhood look like villages in a snow globe.  

For me, December 20th starts a short stretch that is not about undone tasks on the real list, but stuff that you've been adding to the spirit list like this:

Thank someone for making a difference in your life. You know someone did.
Pick up a simple sugar cookie mix, make many of them, and only use green and red sprinkles.
Say something encouraging to a stranger who looks like they're making an effort.
Change the whole day of someone who is off, or down, or anxious with a heartfelt compliment.
If someone needs space, give it to them. If someone needs attention, give it to them. 

For me, in these last days, have-to's become hope-to's which eventually yield to want-to's as time, blessedly, runs out.

I was hoping to receive and wrap the balance of gifts I've ordered by now. I was hoping I'd find a new centerpiece for the Christmas Eve table. It would have been nice to replace some of the linen and towels before everyone arrives. I should buy new candles. 

But it is December 20th now and my "want to's" are here.

Handwritten cards - meaningful ones - will be composed  for best friends and others.

There will be a date with my husband in a quiet place where we will likely have a conversation about life; how it changes, how it doesn't, and how it should, and what memories that we'll embrace in the future have yet to be made.  

There will be a reunion with our other-coast daughter who just got married and is bringing her new husband into our mix of festivities and traditions for the first time.

There will be meaningful conversation with another daughter and her husband about career dreams and marriage and life goals and raising children and other stuff that matters.

There may be attempts on the part of both of our sons to teach me about football again with diagrams on post-its of tiny figures and directional arrows. I will not understand them a week from now, but will add them to the others that I keep in a box near my bookcase.

And as this day fades into tomorrow, marking exactly two years and one month since my father's death, I will focus on a memory I've gone back to a few times over the last four weeks.

It was Dad's last Christmas Eve with us, his nineteenth.  At the end of the night, he said the same thing he said every year. "This was the best one ever. I don't think you can top it, next year."

In a few days, when Christmas is finally here and we raise a glass, I will think about that and offer a special toast to Dad, the best one ever. 

Happiest of holidays to you. Make them the best ever, surrounded by people who know what they mean to you, because you've told them.  

Thursday, December 12, 2019

An airport, a three hour delay and the loveliest parenting I've seen in a while.

That looks like a lantern, but it's actually
 the picture of of a young teen's parent
Recently, I got stuck at the airport waiting for a plane which was being treated for mechanical failure, thank you very much. Hour by hour, the flight was delayed into the later part of the day.

I’m the only person I know who really doesn’t mind this kind of wrinkle. I use the time to watch how people talk to each other, and handle the unexpected. 

They say it is a test of character to be faced with tangled Christmas lights, an unexpected rainy day, or lost luggage.

I would add: knowing you may be boarding an aircraft that is currently undergoing plane surgery, three hours late, with a small child who badly needs the nap that was supposed to come with that plane and now has no choice but to fall apart.

Any parent who is still soft-spoken and patient with a child after all of that is a person who can probably handle anything.

One mother took out her ponytail and asked her very little boy to help her fix it. It took forever, and that mother is a genius.

It is the way of a young child’s world to expect a parent to be bigger and stronger when they are small and messy.  And here is where good parents understand their truest power – that responding with only the strength of their presence may not feel like enough, but usually is.

And while this stage may be exhausting, it doesn’t last forever. In no time, they're in the middle-school tunnel and our role is no longer about keeping them busy, but being the lantern hanging at the other end.  

Note to parents of toddlers: there actually is something harder than answering eight or nine questions a minute from your child when you’re tired, and it is silence when you’re worried. 

I run a small support group with young children who are often struggling to understand their family lives while they navigate their own. Despite what hardship might challenge them, what I hear all the time is “My mom said,” or “When I told my dad…” because bigger and stronger is in the eye of the smaller and messier. 

Bigger and stronger is about someone who respects their child's world, even if they also must expose that child to a more complicated one they don’t understand.

If there can be only one thing that we do every moment of a child’s life, it should be that - to think about their world as much as we expect them to think about ours. 

Later, when children are off the grid collecting themselves, will be when this matters most. Because, what helps keep kids upright is the known – not hoped or wished or longed for, but known – presence of a person to whom they know they can say anything, and around whom they can fall apart safely.  They may know all of this in silence but then, they'll say to someone like me,  "Well, my dad said that I should..."

Note to parents of teens who answer questions with facial expressions: it’s still easier to be you.

Putting aside the outliers for a moment – parents who are abusive, living through their kids,  narcissistic or addicted – it becomes truer with every too-mature child I meet, that the best parents can possess the least, and still give the most if they can do that – separate those worlds, and visit the smaller messier one, often.

Maybe with a ponytail to fix together.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

I'd rather be here now. Where is that again?

Here is a nice here.
Before we had memes, we had bumper stickers. A few years ago, while I was stuck in heavy traffic I saw one that said:  

I'd rather be here now.

While our car-herd crawled along, I continued to think about that. I was still thinking about it many years later. 

A few weeks ago, with the holidays looming, you couldn’t turn around without bumping into reminders about living mindfully, or, "here."

I'm a fan.

There is not a better lifelong habit than being in the moment, even if it takes many of us half a life to figure out what that means.  Lived-in moments are what will teach you about everything – you, your persons, things that are bigger than you, the truth of your life and the depth of your love. 

It is a mystifying and sometimes maddening thing about life that many opposing things can be true at once. You are where you are because you had or have reason to be, and you must honor that. But if you’ve started looking out the window a lot, you must honor that, too, because "here" evolves, as it should.

I am a believer in feeling answers, more than intellectualizing them; posing a question to ourselves and feeling what our gut says. But the noise of everyday - a thing that kills reflection - is hard to cancel. 

And so here is a suggestion that is worth considering if you are beginning to feel both the thrill and fear of new "here" questions but can't be still and quiet enough to feel your answers. 

It’s both simple and a bit painful, but it works and it is this: get up early. 

I mean it. 

Some of you should get up really early.

In the quiet, teach yourself to imagine the moment you're in one year from now, five years maybe, doing exactly what you are doing right now, more or less, or something else.  More of what? Less of what? What else?

In the quiet, picture a route you took to get to what you wanted. Imagine telling someone, "first, I..." and "then I..." First you did what? Then, you did what? Start thinking about first-and-then.

I did this right after I had newborns, when I felt like I was always trying to hop a moving bus. I liked my life so much but I was not living in the “here” as much as the “later on and after that.”

They were always up before sunrise, and so, I started getting up before before-sunrise. 

A day that hasn’t started yet is a gift. The pocket of time when not a soul even knows you’re awake is yours for the taking. You belong to nobody.  

Right now, some of you belong to way too many people, and not necessarily the ones who matter most, like you and your loved persons.

If only for a half hour, belong only to yourself, because first and foremost and until the end of time, you will. You will always share yourself, give of yourself, but you will always be the one who knows you best, and hopefully, believes in you most. 

If you are one of so many people who don't take the breaks they know they need, I have three things to tell you. 

First, getting up early may be the only space you’ll get in your day to do the “want to” thinking about your life vs. the “said I would” kind that makes it all about finishing things, not beginning them. 

Second, everybody wakes up with the choice to visualize and actualize the days, or just get through them. Because we are partners with our lives, not witnesses to it, our job is to manage the "here" of it, each one of those days at a time.  

And finally, if you are poised for change but are finding that answers won't come right away, know that mindfulness is what walks you to the door of resolve. Don't rush it. When the time comes, you will decide whether it's about changing or keeping the "here," but with new operating instructions. 

Until then, get up early. It hurts for a minute, but it's free. Then, let your mind wander until your awareness of "here" begins to show you that changes in
small things can change all things.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

It's Thanksgiving. Leave your politics in the driveway. They'll wait.

Note: Three years ago, after Trump was elected, and after I'd been reading about the political divides that were infecting friendships, family relationships, and marriages, I worried for the first time about immunity. 

Thanksgiving was coming, a day I have always cherished for its power to bring even far-flung, diverse family members together in a place of warmth, trust, love and gratitude, things that should always be more important than politics. 

I wrote the piece I've re-posted here,  the third most popular of all I've written. Now, with three years of back-story, it's more relevant than ever and so, here it is, on this newest, ever-cherished Thanksgiving day.  

Before we begin...

It's Thanksgiving. Leave your politics in the driveway. They'll wait.

Near my computer I keep a doodle page. I decorate it with swirly designs when I'm in thoughtful conversation with someone on the phone. Other times, I write down true, clear things that come from nowhere. 
The other day, I wrote:  
"You can't write with reason and balance about a thing until your passion has been captured by the next thing." 
Since the election, I've been reading stories about relationships – some lifelong – that have ended, or will, over the way people voted  two weeks ago.  
One couple moved their wedding to another country to make it financially out of reach for their family members. 
That sort of thing.   
Those stories of broken relationships captured and saddened me for days. To imagine how friends or family who have known and loved each other forever could estrange over the election was beyond my powers of empathy or imagination. 
Today, it is Thanksgiving. My children are home. It is the next thing, and I am captured again. 
These days are precious to me. We are apart geographically, now, and often too immersed in our own daily lives to catch up. 
And I have missed them.  I have been craving their company, their stories, their voices. I'll get those glimpses of how they've changed since we last gathered, I'll hear of other people they've encountered who changed them, maybe enlightened them. 
Our kids took serious interest in this election, and some of us were immensely disappointed over Hillary's loss. Reflexively, I tried to offer some explanation of why others might not have shared that choice. With one daughter's help,  I realized that everyone deserves to own their  disappointment, however sprawling and angry it gets, and for however long it takes for the next thing to capture them.
But we need Thanksgiving.  Had it been necessary, I would have extracted a promise from every individual to leave their politics in the driveway, because politics won't disappear or run away, while people will if they have to.
I hope others can find a way to do this today.  
Because rage will quell. The craving to lash out will pass. 
And mostly,  next things will continue to happen. 
Our lives will change, end, and begin.
Our elderly will leave us and our babies will arrive. 
We will fall in love, and we will be claimed by illness. 
We will fall into stretches of terrible luck and we will shine with good fortune.
We will drive into telephone poles, lose our homes, get fired, get arrested.
We will get fantastic job offers, become engaged, marry, divorce. 
We will be joyous over bigger wins, and disappointed over bigger losses. 
The longer we live and the more next things that happen to us, the more we will wish to be near the ones who have known and loved us from the start.  
Won't we? 
In my house, and in my world, the next thing is here. It's Thanksgiving today and my kids are home, where they will  forever be more important than anything – even politics – for a few precious days. 
Love to you all. 
I wish you glorious next things, and mostly, loved ones to share them with.