Thursday, December 18, 2008

Humbled by a "Hunter"

Last night I had the privilege to see an incredible documentary about the extraordinary life of Simon Wiesenthal. Mr. Wiesenthal survived the Holocaust and imprisonment in several European concentration camps, and went on to become an infamous "Nazi Hunter," who helped track down and capture Nazi war criminals responsible for the deaths of millions of Jews and non-Jews alike. His lifelong search for information not only brought many perpetrators of atrocities to justice; but it also kept the reality of the Holocaust in the public eye at times when it was in danger of being swept under the rug.

If you watch the documentary, which I hope you will, you'll get a sense for how Wiesenthal did what he did, and all the struggles he experienced along the way. You'll also get some painful reminders of a shameful and horrendous part of human history, which I think we all need from time to time.

What struck me the most was the unswerving dedication to justice that was an integral part of Wiesenthal's life from the time of his "liberation" in 1945 until his death in 2005. Even though it kept him from having a normal life of his own, and subjected his family to long hours, unpopularity in their home country of Austria, and even direct attempts on his life, he persevered in seeking the justice he felt was his obligation as a survivor. His sense of justice and commitment to those who had perished around him became his life's mission. And he followed that mission exclusively until his death at 96.

Watching the movie clips from the concentration camps reminded me of standing on the soil at Auschwitz/Birknau in 1998 - and I once again felt the visceral impact that experience had on me, even 10 years later. I won't attempt to capture here what I felt in that place. But it's sort of like choking on grief and outrage and helplessness all at once.

After the film, I felt an overwhelming sense of being very, very small. The concerns that I felt before the movie -- what to pack for our holiday trip, whether to try to sell the condo, how to decorate the nursery -- seem not only trite, but they highlight how lucky and blessed we are to have what we have. G-d willing, I will never have to witness the brutal death of someone I love, I will never have to explain to my child why he or she has no living relatives, and my Jewish children will never live in fear because of who they are.

But perhaps most importantly, I hope I will never lose sight of my obligations to the rest of humanity. I have a responsibility to speak up against atrocities - like the ones currently happening in Darfur and the Congo -- by voicing my concerns to my representatives, supporting organizations that advocate for human rights, and even just mentioning these issues in my blog, so that maybe one or two of my readers might do the same.

I also think, that as privileged people (yes, we are -- even during hard times!) in a free country, one of our greatest responsibilities is to remember the horrors of the past and the plight of those in other parts of the world; to teach our kids the lessons of hatred and genocide; and to do our own small part to ensure that history does not repeat itself.

So join me, if you can, in taking a break from all the holiday madness this year -- the festivities, the fun, the fabulous gluttony -- and take up Mr. Wiesenthal's torch. We can help him keep his promise to the victims of the Holocaust (and victims of atrocities everywhere) that they will not be forgotten.

Visit the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

When Afraid to Drown, Dive in

Why would someone who has a near-paralyzing fear of drowning (and hates being in a swimsuit) voluntarily choose to get in a pool every week?

I ask myself this question often as I flip-flop my way through the locker room at Georgia State in my 5+ year-old basic black swimsuit, slowing slightly for a glance in the mirror, then quickly speeding up again... as though my speed will somehow prevent my flaws from showing. I head for the shower, which is either ice cold or scalding, and then out to the pool room, which is invariably freezing cold.

I size up the available lanes, grab a kickboard and some water weights, and plunge myself into the cold water to start my weekly round of poorly-executed laps. I've never been an excellent swimmer -- proper form and technique escape me entirely -- and when I do the backstroke, I somehow manage to weave all over the lane. Looking up, I can see the windows leading to the workout room on the next floor... there are almost always skinny college girls the size of paper clips in tiny shorts on the treadmills above me. I imagine that if they were to look down and see me bumping erratically against either side of the lane, I would look like a drunk otter trying to make it home from a long night up the river.

In addition to the basic embarrassment factor; there's also the discomfort I so often feel in the water. I have a visceral fear of drowning (it stems from a childhood incident); so whenever I happen to get water up my nose or accidentally submerge in deeper-than-expected water, my heart flutters in a little mini-panic. It isn't as bad while I'm swimming laps in the pool as, say, snorkeling or rafting (my poor friends who have dared vacation with me!!); but it can still be distressing nonetheless.

So it's cold, it's tiring, it's mildly humiliating, and at some moments it's downright scary. And I'm terrible at it. So why do I do this to myself, week after week, year after year? Why not just stick to the safety of the treadmill or the trail?

There are several reasons.

First, swimming is great exercise (as most people know), and now that my pregnancy status has ruled out the running I was doing before, any no-impact exercise I can use to add variety to my life is a huge bonus.

Second, swimming is like many other things in life... the worse you are at it, the better it is for you. I love that. In most other sports, the better you are at something, the more you get out of it - and the less likely you are to get hurt. In weight training, for example, inexperience can mean wrenching your back or tearing a bicep. In team sports, the better you are, the longer you can play (and the longer your teammates will tolerate your presence). But with swimming, any schmuck can flail in a pool for 30 minutes and get a great workout; and it is really, really hard to hurt yourself swimming (believe me, I've tried!).

Those are both great reasons to swim. And while I may not look fabulous in my bathing suit, I know my body has benefited from years of huffing and puffing from one end of a pool to the other.

But the most important reason I swim is this: I refuse to let fear run my life. I am aware of that fearful voice whenever I get in the pool, though sometimes it is louder than others. It reminds me that water can be a powerful force and that I am just a frail human being who has relatively little control over her own life.

I'm also aware of the other swimmers, the lifeguards, and the treadmill girls above me -- most of them 10 years or more younger than I am and in better shape than I've ever been. I can hear another voice in my head, pushing me to compare myself to them, urging me to notice the differences between their bodies and my own.... and to feel ashamed.

But I won't. I won't skip my swim because of cellulite or flabby arms; and I won't let my fears from 2 decades ago determine how I spend my time today. Each time I get in the pool and begin my slow, labored progress to the other side, I free myself just a little bit -- from the world around me and from the voices inside. The water surrounds me in weightless equilibrium, and I can release the day's cares to the calm, rhythmic process of moving myself through the water. I don't concern myself with how I look or who may be watching me; and I don't think of my anxieties -- about drowning or anything else.

For me, swimming means 30 minutes of unadulterated freedom a week. In that sense, it not only makes sense; in fact, it would be worth almost any price.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Season of Gratitude

Thanksgiving was four days ago, and I finally feel like I might be ready to eat again! We had a wonderful holiday with family and food, a nice wrap-up to a busy but fulfilling few weeks (so busy and fulfilling, in fact, that I haven't blogged in a month!).

Since this is the season of gratitude, I thought I would take a few minutes to express how grateful I am for so many things that make my life rich. I'll admit that this blog is more for my benefit than the reader's, but perhaps you'll bear with me as you contemplate your own feelings of gratitude.

First and foremost, I am grateful for the love of friends, family, and of course, MDH. Without the love and support of the many people I am lucky to have in my life, I would be incredibly lost. There have been many occasions lately on which I've been surrounded by love and laughter -- and those times refresh my spirit in a way that nothing else can.

I am grateful for all the opportunities and challenges this year has presented me. Many times I have been frustrated and exhausted this year, and sometimes I have failed outright. But in every failure and frustration there has been an opportunity to learn something: patience, inner strength, generosity, humor and even a new skill here and there. I'm also grateful for the challenges that are still ahead of me; I know that next year will present me with innumerable opportunities to learn and grow.

During these difficult economic times, I'm more aware than ever how blessed I am to have a warm, safe place to sleep each night; basic good health; consistent food in my belly; and any number of options for how I choose to spend my time. I know that many others don't have these simple things - gifts that I take for granted each day.

It's nice to have a special time of year that reminds us to be grateful; and I hope I can carry some of this gratitude forward to each new day. Just thinking about all for which I am grateful makes me feel calmer, more centered and in many ways... at peace.

So, here's to a peaceful December filled with cold weather, warm friends and grateful hearts!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

I love Halloween - it's a day of fun and fantasy, when anyone can be anything, and everyone from the littlest kid to the most mature grownup can try on an alternate identity... just for fun (and candy). Somehow when we put on a costume or a mask, it gives us permission to cast aside that other, invisible mask we wear every day. We get to cut loose and let out some hidden side of ourselves - from the playful pirate to the slutty nurse.

This is the first year in a while that I haven't dressed up for Halloween (too much going on, sadly), but I'm looking forward to resuming the fun next year! In the meantime, have a safe, happy and SPOOKY one!

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Tough Homework Assignment

In my Advanced Counseling Theories class, our homework assignment for this week was to answer this question: "Has the movement of your life so far been consistent with your values as you understand them?"

Whew. It would be way easier to answer a question about Freud or Adler... something I could look up in a book, cite references, and move on with my merry little life. Even something mildly introspective that would ask me about my opinions or feelings, here and now, would be pretty easy to crank out in a couple of hours.

But this question is extra hard, not just because it implies that I need to be able to articulate my values in some way, but because it asks me about my behavior up to this point. The temptation, of course, is just to say "yes," and move on. Sure, I've been basically a good person (mostly) -- and I'm not lying awake at night, racked with guilt over my countless transgressions. So that must mean that my life basically aligns with some internal set of values, right?

Maybe. But maybe not. How often in my life have I stopped to ask myself whether my behavior, desires, and reactions fit in with my values? For that matter, how often have I stopped to consider what my values really are?

I think we often tend to qualify our values in terms of social norms, particularly within a certain group. We identify with our home culture or religion in an assumptive way, and probably only notice our values when they come into conflict with those around us. In fact, it's easiest to talk about values in the negative - as in, the things we don't agree with or wouldn't do.

You hear a lot of this during election season, when advocates of all positions are quick to point out the evils of the other side. We love to talk about what is wrong during election season - whether it's big corporations or big government, war or abortion, campaign procedures or the lifestyle of the candidates. But we so seldom talk about what is right. And even less often do we focus on how each of us, individually, can do right in the world.

It seems that it's much harder to talk about our values in the positive -- what we actually believe and do each day. I would say that one of my core values is loving-kindness toward others, and that sounds lovely, but how am I living that out? I'm generally nice to people, particularly those I like, and I'm lucky enough to work in a field that allows me to show kindness and compassion as a daily part of my profession. Okay, good.

But what else am I doing? Do I hold back and bite my tongue when I have a juicy piece of gossip about someone? Heck, no! Am I giving my time to help those in need as often as I could? Not so much. And I have some great rationalizations -- irresistible temptation, my crazy schedule, hectic life, my own challenges...

Of course, there's no way to live out any one value or conviction perfectly, but how do I know if I am even coming close? And if I never stop to list my values "as I understand them," how can I even check myself against it? Is it just a gut feeling? Do I assume that I am consistent with values unless that sinking feeling of conscience tells me otherwise? Or am I required to be more proactive with the way I live my life?

It seems as though my main answer to the homework question has only been more questions. Can't I just write about Freud instead???

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A Time to Heal

In the Jewish tradition, we are currently in the middle of the Days of Awe, the ten days between Rosh Hashanah (the new year) and Yom Kippur (the day of atonement). By Wednesday night, we'll be fasting, afflicting our bodies and souls to allow space for reflection and repentance.

Yom Kippur has always been one of my favorite holidays. Not because it's fun to go hungry and thirsty for 24 hours or to sway with dizziness while standing in synagogue near the end of the holiday... but because I love the idea of taking time out of our busy lives to try to right some of the wrongs we've caused throughout the previous year. It's a time not just to acknowledge our imperfections, but to really own them, and do our best to make amends for those who've been hurt by our stumblings and missteps.

Yom Kippur is a day of taking stock within ourselves, and taking time to make amends when possible. We have to fight off our impulse to view ourselves in the best possible light, to sweep errors and flaws under the rug. Instead, we have to get in touch with our humanity at its most broken and imperfect, and through this process allow ourselves the opportunity for redemption.

So, I apologize.

For all the hurt and inconvenience that my vanity, self-centeredness, scatter-brained behavior, crazy schedule, need to control, gossip and all my other flaws have caused, I am truly sorry.

To those that I hurt either knowingly or by accident, in big ways and small - I apologize. Sometimes my intentions have been good and my errors careless, and other times I have operated from vanity, laziness, jealousy and pettiness. I am sorry.

I am responsible for my impact on those that I love and those I do not know; and while I can never perfectly control that impact, I must always try to be aware of it and improve.

I invite those I have hurt or slighted in the past year to please let me know how I can make amends now or in the future. If I owe you an apology, a hug or a change in our relationship, please speak up and help me take responsibility.

To be honest, it's scary to open myself up and look at all the unpleasantness inside. But learning from mistakes and healing old wounds are the best ways to grow.

Besides, it's only once a year, right?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Run, Fat Girl, Run!

As many of you know, I've been embarking on a journey since last December to SLOWLY improve my running ability. This has been an interesting and daunting task; and I've been blessed with many companions who've been my supporters, fellow runners and cheerleaders along the way.

As I was panting my way around the GSU track last week, getting constantly lapped by tiny college girls in even tinier running shorts, I had a thought. If I ever get "finished" writing about all my other pet topics, maybe someday I would write about what it's like for a plus-sized woman to strap on the running shoes and go pavement-to-pavement with all the skinny-minnies on the running trail.

Well, one little blog entry will have to suffice for now.

Even though I consider myself an active person, and I've had spurts of what some (mostly blood relatives of mine) would call "athleticism" off and on throughout my life.... running was never a training regimen I could wrap my head around. It was too hard, too boring, too painful to consider. Once in a while I would attempt it, getting discouraged after a few days of huffing and puffing and painful shin splints.

To excuse myself from running, I'd latch on to anything I heard 'on the street' about women and running. It's bad for your knees. It's hard on your kidneys. You can dislocate your uterus?!?!?!? [No kidding, this lady at a park told me that once as she watched me attempting to run some intervals].

So I'd opt for other stuff like yoga, swimming, brisk walking, and the occasional battle with an elliptical machine at the gym. These are all healthy and beneficial activities, of course, but I still felt jealous when I'd hear runners talk about the peacefulness and the endorphin high of their morning run.

Well, this time around I've been running more or less 2-3 times a week since January, and here's a little of what I have learned so far:

- To avoid injury, it turns out you have to stretch for much longer at 32 than you did at 23.
- You really do have to be kind to your knees: work slowly, run on a springy surface, and pay attention to your body. It's also good to build your leg muscles in other ways whenever possible.
- A really good pair of running shoes is critical to preserve your knees and feet. A super-reinforced, steel-girder type sports bra is also your friend. (Those of us with D cups or larger know just how painful it can be to have 'the girls' jumping all over the place.)
- A running buddy helps A LOT, especially in the beginning. If there's not one handy, an audiobook or upbeat music is helpful.
- Don't compare yourself to everyone around you. You are trying to become the best YOU, not the best THEM....
- But, sometimes you can't help comparing yourself to those skinny, tanned little things in tiny shorts and sports bras... In this case, I strongly recommend visualizing them tripping over a rock and falling face first into the pavement/gravel. It's surprisingly invigorating.
- It's totally okay to have an off day or even an off week... don't get down on yourself, just get back out there when you can.
- Intervals are a good way to build up running stamina. You can find a fabulous "Couch to 5K" regimen here. My personal strategy, however, is a little simpler: Run until you feel like throwing up or passing out, then walk until you feel like running again.
- Some days you just have to walk. That's okay. It's better than not doing anything!

When I originally started on this journey, I thought I would be able to run a whole 5K in just a couple of months. I also imagined that all my hard work would result in unparalleled weight loss. It hasn't turned out that way for me... I am still running about 2 miles of the 3 each time, and I've only lost about 5 pounds. But I'm okay with that, because I've stuck to it, and I improve with every race I run. And somehow it's not really about my weight anymore...

I've come to that elusive point where I actually look forward (most days) to my runs. It is a time of peace in a crazy life, a chance to regroup for an hour or so, away from all the demands on my time... for at least as long as it takes me to get around the loop trail. For that short period, there are no computers, no books, no phone calls... no insistent voice in my head telling me I need to be doing something else with my time. It's kind of a sanctuary -- just me, the river, a gravel trail, and the beautiful world around me.

Now I think I understand what all those annoying runners were saying before... that the joy of the run has nothing to do with how fast or how far, or even the results you might see (or not) in the mirror. It's about finding peace in a hectic life, and honoring myself with three or four hours a week by lacing up my shoes and saying, "I'm worth it."

Friday, September 12, 2008

More Internet Musings

Two blogs ago, I made casual mention of the idea that the Internet has become a communal extension of my brain. I also toyed with the idea that maybe parts of my brain are beginning to atrophy -- or perhaps to be reallocated to another purpose because of disuse. All thanks to the convenience of the knowledge bank that Google puts at my fingertips.

In response, my friend Ross - who is a bona fide member of the technorati and way smarter than I - sent me a link to this fascinating 2003 article, in which author William Gibson expresses some of these same ideas (in a far more interesting way than I did, of course). You can read it yourself, but something I found really cool about it was that someone called Vannevar Bush envisioned something very like the Internet (in structure and purpose), way back in 1945.

For me, this reaffirms a couple of things that have been percolating on the outer edges of my intuition...

One, that the Internet and other modern technologies are in many ways an extension of the way we naturally think and act. Hyperlinks on web pages function much the same way that the human mind functions when processing thoughts and emotions: creating idea-related pathways that spider out in a multitude of directions, rather than a linear path that we simply scroll from top to bottom. Part of my job as a therapist is to try to follow that path, and figure out which "pages" are important, and which are just pass-throughs and distractions on the way to the important stuff.

Secondly, reading about Mr. Bush and his early, limited conceptions of an Internet-like machine, I can't help but wonder who will envision the next major human advance. Maybe it will be one of Bill Gates' or Steve Jobbs' followers, going to work each day on a vast technology campus. Or a part of the military machine, in an eternal race for dominance. Or maybe it will be a science-fiction writer, avid game player, or amateur poet. Someone whose creative energy surpasses the boundaries and limitations of the conceivable, and begins to explore instead the possible.

It seems that Vannevar Bush was a little of all of these things, in his way. It's hard to know if his primitive conceptualization of the Internet was born of professional practicality, free-ranging fantasy, or a little of both. In either case, I like this idea, because it at least hints at the possibility that any of us might create the seed of the the next revolutionary idea -- regardless of the capacity in which we are currently serving mankind.

It may mean that those random daydreams and seemingly silly thoughts we all have sometimes might actually be a window - not just to ourselves but to the future. I don't know about you, but the possibility of future greatness gives me a sort of permission to give in to those thoughts once in a while. Maybe I'll take a few extra moments to stare out the window next time before hurrying back to work.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

It's Pat on the Back Day!

And this time I don't mean self-flagellation!

I have to be honest, it's been a rough few weeks for me motivation-wise. My energy has been spread in a lot of directions lately, both personally and professionally, and some days it has been all I can do just to keep up. I felt I was struggling just to make it through each day without being overwhelmed by my to-do list, and yet actual progress on any of my goals seemed elusive and far off. It's that old hamster on the wheel feeling....

This isn't unfamiliar territory for me. I'm totally the type of person who loves getting into 1,000 things at once; and I have the attention span of a fruit fly. I love throwing myself into something, especially when it's new and novel, and being passionately committed to it.... until things start to stall out. It gets boring or hard or doesn't pay off quickly enough and I become full of self-doubt and frustration.

In the past, those feelings would've sent me scurrying on to the next venture or distracting myself with something more immediately gratifying (and, believe me, it's still tempting)! But I've been trying to turn over a new leaf in this arena, at least partially; and while I'm trying not to lose my energy for life's variety (I certainly still have that going on), I am also working hard at sticking to things longer, even when they begin to feel a little like drudgery.

For someone like me, this is no easy task. But I've been working hard at it in the past couple of years. So during the last weeks' struggles, I tried to channel my frustrations into productivity; and it has really paid off in a couple of different ways.

First, even though I am not even close to being a runner, I've been pushing myself to stick with my running and walking routine, even when it got boring, my fitness buddies weren't available for support, and I have been TOTALLY frustrated that my hard work isn't showing big results on the scales (yet). But this Saturday I finished a 5K almost 4 minutes faster than my time a couple of months ago. Sure, it was mostly downhill, so I had a lot of help from gravity; but I ran way more than I ever have before, and I was proud of myself nonetheless! My sore muscles this weekend have been a badge of honor.

I also finished a big work project this weekend (my new e-book, woo-hoo!). It was the first such undertaking I've ever actually completed by myself, for myself -- with no editor or boss imposing artificial structure for me. I worked on it with just about every spare hour I've had in the last several weeks, and it has been really challenging. I wrote during many times when normally I would've been watching TV, hiking, shopping, hanging out with friends, sleeping in, or just relaxing.

And even though I made sure to keep doing those things sometimes to stay balanced, there were several moments where it felt like an uphill battle just to force myself to the computer and sit down to write. Self-doubt is also a major player in the writing process for me -- on the one hand, it pushes me to look closely at how I can improve each sentence; but on the other it can overwhelm me with feelings of utter incompetence. Who do I think I am, anyway, writing a book? What makes me think I can do this? Sometimes I just wanted to abandon ship... let someone smarter or braver write the book, I'm going to watch "Psych!"

But this morning the struggle paid off - at least for my own personal edification. I got to send an e-mail out to my networks, telling everyone that the book is done and ready for sale online. I got so many supportive and congratulatory responses from friends and family, that I felt all warm, fuzzy and proud. And whether anyone actually buys the book or not, I get to enjoy the satisfaction that I actually finished it!

So now I'm trying to relax and allow myself to enjoy this tiny moment of personal achievement, before moving on to the next challenge. The momentum is carrying me forward, but I'm trying to stop and celebrate (the way I always tell my clients they should celebrate) even these small milestones for what they are......

Now, what can I get into next??

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Internet is Taking Over My Brain

Ever wonder what you would do without the internet?

I know people ask this rhetorically, and conversationally, all the time... but lately I've been observing my own ever-increasing reliance on the world wide web as a source of information and connection... and the psychology nerd in me is wondering, "What impact is this having on my brain?"

Not so much the mindlessness of what I'm doing online (although, there are certainly moments when I'm lost in guilty pleasures that are probably no better than vegging out to the television)... but the way my mind seems to get less and less of a particular kind of exercise the more I rely on my online resources.

These days, I'm forever going to my computer when I need any kind of question answered: How do I get from my house to the party in East Cobb? What's traffic like on 285? What's the name of that actor I keep seeing? Who would win a competition between Josh Duhamel and Post-It Notes? Which song do I keep murmuring the partial lyrics to in the shower? (That one turned out to be "Like a Rolling Stone" by Bob Dylan). What are the mating habits of the duck-billed platypus?

There was a time when, to figure out the answers to these questions and others, I would have to track down a book (using a card catalog, no less - remember those?). Or, I'd have to ask my friends until I found someone who knew the answer. Or worse still, I'd have to be satisfied with not knowing, or just waiting for days and hoping it came to me.

But these days, gratification is instant and thorough. Before I have even finished formulating the question in my head, I'm at my computer, and in seconds I'm directed to the top ten people who are most likely to be able to answer my question, or more accurately - who answered my question months ago in some online rant or fan tribute or fit of utter boredom. I can do this at 2 a.m. or 10 p.m. or anytime in between. It's amazingly efficient, and one of the many blessings of our modern world.

But I wonder what's happening as our brains evolve (which, of course, they are). What's happening to those cranial "muscles" that I was previously using to track down or mull over factual questions and answers? As the little neurons and synapses do their speedy little firings, there's some stopping point in my brain ("The Internet Cortex?") where unanswered questions stop streaking around my brain, and are instead directed to the computer.

It's almost like the internet has become an extension of my brain (which isn't too far off, actually, since search engines and hyperlinks were all originally designed to mimic the functioning of the human brain). In some very fundamental ways, all those research skills I learned from third grade to high school are now being outsourced. And that means that my internal ability to retain information, or the critical paths for getting to information, must be decreasing.

Of course it is. Our brains pare away skills and information we don't need as we stop using them... why take up valuable brain space and attention with things you don't need to have top of mind? Why hold on to something when the digital collective is holding it for you? I've noticed that my ability to recall and retain information has shrunk over the last few years - partly because I'm creeping ever-closer to middle age, and partly because there's no need for me to retain much of the information I'm confronted with each day. I can always Google it later if I need it, right?

I don't know if there's any validity to my theory that parts of our brain are becoming atrophied because of our new easy access to information (or perhaps, being reallocated for another, far more interesting use down the line). And if there is, I don't know whether it's good, bad or just interesting -- at least to me. What I do know is that, for me, the process of going from "I'm not sure about that," to "I'll check the internet," has been reduced to a matter of nanoseconds.

I literally have no idea how I would function right now without this tremendous, spidery, instantaneous resource at my fingertips. And, for the moment, I'm hard-pressed to say whether I think I'm better off intellectually or not. Regardless, it's a phenomenon that will not be slowing any time in the near future. It will be fascinating to see how our mental faculties, educational systems, and intellectual cultures respond over time.

For now, I'll have to be satisfied with trying to stay somewhere near the middle of the technological curve -- which gets harder every year -- and content with the idea that while I may be losing my skill for answers, I can still ask some pretty good questions.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Crest of the Wave

You know, I almost didn't want to do a blog this week, partly because - as always seems the case when I sit down to write - I worry that I have nothing whatsoever to say. The more positive reason, however, is that last week's entry elicited so many fabulous responses from everyone. I didn't want to disrupt the flow.

Well, life and blog-life move on, so keep the haikus and rhyming tributes to your jobs coming, and in the meantime, we'll keep on truckin'...

So yesterday afternoon, I was running some errands, thinking it was time for a blog entry, and wondering what the heck I would talk about this week. There's nothing really going on. Well, actually, there's a whole crapload going on, it's just that none of it is all that interesting to the casual reader. It's just the daily ins and outs of my pleasantly-hectic life, and while I love living it, even I get bored talking about it.

As I'm sitting in my car, listening to an audiobook on my ipod, I noticed that I had been completely and utterly sucked in by it. The engine was off, the aforementioned errand 100 yards away just begging to be run, and Little Miss "Waste No Time" (that's me - see efficiency blog) is sitting in a parking lot staring at the wheel, totally engrossed by Mark Helprin's A Soldier of the Great War. Even after I forced myself to get out of the car and run my errand, I took the long way home just to get a little more of the story, and at home I put in the earphones and did a little uncharacteristic Tuesday housecleaning as an excuse to keep listening.

Fortunately for all of us, most especially Mark Helprin, this is not a review of his book. The book is pretty good, but that's not the point. This is part of my pattern with all books, audiobooks especially. It starts out with a slow build -- I usually listen only while I'm working out or driving a long distance alone. So I'll hear an hour or two a week; and if I miss a week or two because I run with a friend or opt for music instead, I don't give it a second thought.

Sometimes I tune out for long descriptions and have to back up because I realize I've missed something important. It's sort of a casual flirtation at that point, and it can continue like that for several weeks or even months at a time.

But there's some point in every book -- at least, every book worth reading -- where that all changes. The author has slowly, intentionally (we hope) drawn you into the story and the characters almost without your notice. Then there's a turn in the plot, a change in character, some key moment -- and you realize that you are standing on a precipice with a tremendous momentum pushing you forward.

You have become part of the story, for better or worse, and it is a part of you. And even if 100 pages or 3 audio hours ago, you may have considered setting the book aside entirely, it's now too late. The momentum of the story has you in its grip and it becomes all-consuming. You find yourself staying up all night to finish it, reading half-paragraphs at traffic lights against your better judgment, finding excuses for downtime during the day so you can follow the story a little further. You develop a mini-obsession, and when you are finished, you might feel a little sad for a few days that you no longer have the anticipation, the compulsion, the passion. Until the next title catches your eye, and the slow build begins again.

It's a lot like falling in love, actually. You look around and suddenly, there you are, your best laid plans and intentions cast aside and your total focus is only on moving forward, riding the wave to whatever end it will take you.

I love, love, LOVE that part of a book. And just generally, I love those moments in life.

All my life, I have wanted to be a part of that process. I have wanted to lead myself and others to that point where momentum takes over, and the only possible result is inspiration, passion, and beautifully strange, totally compelling energy. Of course, if you look at my history, and especially my resume, you can see that I've ridden many such passionate waves to shore, some with better results than others. Sometimes it's glorious and thrilling, and other times, well, you get sand in your suit.

My goal is to incorporate that momentum and passion into everything I do, and to be aware of it even during those "slow build" moments where it's tempting to give up. The longer I work at it, the more I learn from my mistakes, and the closer I get.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Plastic Scissor Award #1

Welcome to the inaugural presentation of the Plastic Scissor Awards: an occasional (sporadic) tribute to those who fly in the face of convention, reason, and general good sense in order to follow their passions. To those who insist on learning every lesson the hard way, who shamelessly come back for more after getting their hearts broken, and who rely on the courage of their convictions to guide their creative hands -- even when that means decorating the living room with permanent marker or taking apart your parents' radio to see how it works.

Or, perhaps, getting a master's degree to make less money than before doing something you love...

{I originally thought of calling these the "Golden Scissor Awards" but I was a little concerned that people would confuse me with these folks. Besides, I want to stay true to the spiritual origins of the blog and honor those colorful little safety scissors that so many of us used to give Barbie a permanent punk-rock makeover.}

The first award, appropriately, goes to a fellow counselor and Atlanta native: Samuel T. Gladding. Dr. Gladding is one of the most prolific, knowledgeable and well-respected academics in our field. He writes and teaches from Wake Forest University, where I have no doubt there are long virtual lines on registration day to get into his classes.

That's the stuff for which he gets mainstream recognition....

Yesterday, I was referencing my old group therapy textbook, which Dr. Gladding authored, and I noticed something that didn't hit me the first time I read it last year. You know how some books have a title page before each chapter with a picture, inspiring quote, etc.? Well, apparently Dr. Gladding decided to forego the standard natural imagery and inspiring quotes from Emerson or Thoreau, or even Freud or Jung.

No. Beneath the black and white picture that begins each chapter of the book, Dr. Gladding includes a selection of poetry. His own poetry. About the group process in therapy. No kidding. Here are some snippets:

We sit like strangers in hard-backed chairs

at right angles from each other -

On the corners our sentences meet

reflecting our thoughts and our lives

Slowly, messages in our minds

make a move, a personal process
whose destination is undetermined


A fan of Garfield, Snoopy, Calvin and Hobbes

He names his erasers after one he called "Bob"

And further stimulates the group's sensations

By using his growing imagination.

Now, I can't think of a better way to encapsulate the idea of the plastic scissor award than this. To have the courage, in the high-brow world of academia, to chuck tradition and put yourself out there by sharing poetry that is -- let's face it -- pretty terrible from an artistic perspective, but which expresses your creative passion for your work.

Is Dr. Gladding going to win a Nobel Prize in Literature or a Bridport Award? Probably not. I'm not exactly a likely candidate either [and believe me, I've written far worse poetry than this in my day]. But you have to admire the joy he seems get from the process of writing and sharing, and from the work that inspires him to do so.

I mean, when was the last time you felt passionate enough about your vocation that you thought about writing a poem? Maybe we should all be so fortunate. Doesn't a rockstar software implementation deserve a killer song to go with it? Or perhaps an interpretive dance about beating this month's sales quota. I successfully finished a project, I think I'll write a haiku!

I'm only being a little bit fecetious. So many people I know get so caught up in surviving their jobs and their lives that they don't give themselves time to rejoice in the journey and celebrate the victories.

So in honor of (and with sincerest apologies to) Dr. Samuel T. Gladding, and the first-ever Plastic Scissor Award, I'd like to invite readers to comment with a poem, song, or pure exclamation of joy about some part of your job. It can be a haiku, limerick, freestyle or simple A-B rhyming couplets. It can be about the job you have, the job you want, or the really nice breakroom where you work.

If you need some additional inspiration, try this very bad poetry site. Good luck!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Quick Addendum and Advice from the Barista

I guess all that writing about almond lattes yesterday got to me - I was running an early errand this morning and decided to stop in for one. That's when I found out Starbucks no longer has almond flavoring! First they're closing 600 stores and now this??? What is the world coming to??

[By the way, for those who don't know me very well yet, that is totally fake outrage. I actually strongly prefer independent coffee shops to the Seattle Giant, although I'm not so righteous about it (obviously) that I don't use the Starbucks drivethru occasionally for convenience].

Nonetheless, I expressed my surprise to the chick in the green apron as she handed me a cinnamon dolce latte instead.

I said, "I can't believe you don't have almond anymore."
And she said, "Yeah, it's actually been gone for a while now."
And I said, "Really? I guess haven't ordered one in a while. I'm surprised."

And she said "Well, life changes. Things get discontinued. You have to move on."

Amen to that, Starbucks Barista. You have to move on.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Sacred Cows and Lemon-Lime Gatorade

"If you're going to _____, you might as well ______."

There are many ways to finish that simple verbal formula. For example, "If you're going to shoot yourself out of a cannon to impress your friends on YouTube, you might as well buy a good life insurance policy." Or, "If you're going down with the ship, you might as well keep playing the cello with your friends on the top deck."

But however it's completed, for me that sentence is the flagship phrase for efficient behavior. I remember hearing my Dad say that all the time when I was younger, especially during my teenage years. Some simple examples: "If you're going to drive all the way to the mall, you might as well stop at the grocery store on your way home." Fine. Makes sense.

"If you're going to play softball, you might as well practice daily and play it well." Absolutely. As they say, Anything worth doing....

But here's one of my favorites, and maybe where the philosophy goes from being good, common sense to a little bit intense (sorry, Pops): "If you're going to insist on occasionally drinking Gatorade instead of water, we might as well buy the enormous tin of powdered lemon-lime Gatorade from the warehouse club and make it in huge, 2-gallon batches." Ugh!

First of all, if you ever tried the powdered version of lemon-lime Gatorade in the 80's, especially after it had been clumping together in the humid pantry for a couple of months (it was an enormous tin and lasted forever), then you know just how disgusting a prospect that is. What's worse, we had to drink it every time we wanted anything other than water or milk. Can we buy a 2-liter of soda? No, we have that Gatorade at home. Double ugh!

Secondly, it turns out that I didn't want Gatorade for its own sake. I'm not sure I could've articulated this to my dad at the time, and it sounds silly now, but I wanted the Gatorade to be a little more like the other girls on my softball team. At 13 or 14, I was an odd kid already - brainy, overweight, and pale with an awkward sense of humor - and I struggled to fit in with other girls my age.

They always turned up at the games with cute little ribbons in their hair, clear tan skin, and little bottles of Gatorade that their parents had picked up for them at the convenience store on the way to the ballpark. On some level, I thought that if I could just take one tiny step to being more like those girls -- one 16 oz bottle of common ground -- they might come closer to accepting and appreciating the other things about me, too. The huge plastic cooler of homemade yellow-green stuff didn't accomplish it. Of course, as an adult I can look back and see that my attempts to fit in by buying something everyone else had were way misguided. And I've come to love both my Dad's quirky practicality and my own awkward (but hilarious!) sense of humor.

In my professional blog today, I wrote about Sacred Cows (Stealthy Sacred Ninja Cows, actually) -- those value systems that are unspoken but still held high above the others. In our house, that was a special brand of efficiency, not one that saved time (quite the opposite, actually), but one that aspired to never wasting money or effort, especially through poor planning. This is largely due to the fact that my Dad, apart from sometimes being too smart for his own good, also grew up on a working farm where money and effort had to produce efficiently in order for the family to survive.

Aside from the powdered Gatorade, this meant it sometimes took hours to leave for a day trip to the mountains, because we'd have to pack for every contingency: What if it rains? What if we get hungry? What if we have a flat tire? What if we get invited by another family to a formal event tonight, and while we're there, Martial Law is declared and we have to escape and suvive with only our wits and what is in our car already?

Okay, that last one is a slight exaggeration, but you get the idea. And as an adult, I find myself falling into those same thought patterns, as frustrated as they sometimes make me. It's completely second nature for me to attempt to plan out every contigency, to follow every possibility and guard myself against any and all negative consequences, no matter how unlikely or minor they might be.

I also find that efficiency of effort has become my personal, inherited Sacred Cow. For example, I work from home a couple of days a week, and I find that during those days it's impossible for me to leave to run a quick errand or dash out for coffee. Let's say I'm working one morning on a new chapter in my book, and I have a craving for an almond latte. There's a Starbucks less than 5 minutes from my house with a drive-thru window and a really nice staff. Easy-peasey.

But here's where I trip over my own feet. There's a voice in my head that says, "Well, if you're going to Starbucks, there are some other errands you should run while you're out - dropping off the film, picking up that book you've wanted, going to the bank...." And the voice is right, combining errands IS more efficient (especially with gas at $4 a gallon).

I'm usually still in my "semi-pajamas" (sweatshorts and dirty t-shirt), which is fine for writing at home and the Starbucks drive-thru; but it's not how I want to walk into the bank or the bookstore. Which means I need to shower. And dry my hair. And don't I have a bookstore coupon somewhere? Where did I put the film? Wasn't I thinking that I wanted a new frame, too? Since I'll be at the camera store, I should find that picture from Ireland and take it with me.... So now my 15-minute trip to get coffee has turned into a 3-hour event. And my ambitions of writing at home all day have been wiped out by a simple craving for caffeine.

In this case (and hundreds more like it), I would be much better off by resigning myself to inefficiency. Just like all forms or perfectionism, it holds me back by turning in on itself until it becomes totally overwhelming. And if it can turn a trip to the coffee shop into a whole morning affair, imagine what it can do to a bigger task - like writing a book. Sometimes I am so blown away by the enormity of doing everything efficiently that I end up spending more time planning and organizing my attack than in actually working. And when that fails, I typically cave to the pressure by procrastinating or ditching an idea entirely. Now, that's not even a little bit efficient!

Of course I know it's counterproductive. Of course I know that I simply need to learn to say: "I'm going to go to Starbucks and waste a trip out, waste $1.50 in gas. I just am." All I want is an almond latte - everything else will have to wait, despite the lure of convenience and my Sacred Cow of Efficiency.

It sounds sensible and easy, and just writing this out makes me sort of baffled that I find it so difficult to manage my time this way. But that's where my sneaky brain and all those deeply carved neural pathways come into play. Just like a Sacred Cow in a family system, my internal thought patterns are really hard to break. They've served me well in many situations and become a part of who I am, for better or worse. I continue to struggle against it, or at least try to channel it in ways that work for me rather than against me. But the truth is - for individuals and families - it's hard to teach an old Sacred Cow new tricks.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Just to Brighten up Your Day

Don't worry, this blog is not about to become another myspace page, where I just cut and paste things that I find amusing. It's not the point of this, despite the fact that most of 'youtube' is WAY more interesting than I am.

That said, I found this on my friend Cindy's blog and I thought I would share it again myself. I remember vaguely when this guy was doing this, but I'd never actually seen the finish product.

It's really, well, it's kinda great, isn't it? Sometimes you just gotta dance.

If you want the back story, here it is. Now, go do that thing you do!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

These Dreams...

Maybe it's the hot weather or caffeine or something.

I'm not usually one who has vivid dreams, especially involving cohesive plots, specific people or recognizable places. But I've been having some crazy ones lately. Like the one a few weeks ago where I helped a friend decorate her new house with the monsters and fixtures from "Monster Plantation." Then there was a pretty steamy one the other night involving me with Seth Rogen. Can't say I was expecting that one...

But last night's episode of "Unconscious Theater 3000" was actually sort of intriguing. I had a dream that I was on trial -- maybe it was the end of my life? A midpoint report card? I'm not sure. But I was standing in front of some sort of dark tribunal - two men and a woman - and they were obviously making a big decision about my life and how I've lived it so far.

It didn't feel strange, for whatever reason, to be judged in this way. In my dream I felt comfortable and even confident. What's funny is how they were judging me. There was a large screen in front of me on which images from my life seemed to be passing at random. And I think I expected to be judged on the things that are most important to me. The major things that have impacted me most - both good and bad.

To my surprise, the dream judges didn't choose these things to address. Instead, they went through my life and pulled up what - to me - seemed like very random incidents. Things I haven't thought about in years or barely remember, even now.

The one I remember most vividly was this: an image appeared of a woman who I would consider sort of a distant friend, a part of my "outer circle." I've known her for a long time; she was a friend of another good friend of mine starting in middle school, and there was a period back in high school when we spent time together socially.

But over the years we drifted apart, as so many people do. I've seen her two or three times since college, and I know that she's gone through some rough times -- the death of a parent, marital difficulties, and more. Every once in a while I see a mutual friend of ours, and I'll hear a little about what she's up to or how she's doing. But with all the hustle and bustle of my everyday life, she's not someone who enters my thoughts very often (much less my dreams).

So imagine my surprise when it was her image around which the questioning centered. The judges asked me about my relationship with her, and how well I thought I had handled it. There was no critical tone in their interrogation, just simple questions. And I can't tell you what their conclusions were because the sound of my alarm clock intruded on the proceedings before they were over. Like I said, crazy dream.

But, even in my waking morning routine, it left me wondering about those 'outer circle' interactions and minor decisions in our lives. What if those were as important on some level as the stuff that feels major to us? What if the way I treat a distant old classmate or the checkout guy at the grocery store says as much about me as how I treat my husband or my best friend? It's a little mind-boggling.

Of course I can't be everything to everyone - and trying to do that would be ridiculous and impossible. And let's face it, there's a reason we focus so much on the things and people that are really important to us. They're, you know, important.

But I wonder if there would be a benefit to spreading around some of the emotion I currently put on the "Big Ten" things -- those that are always on my mind and my to-do list? By moving a little effort to the outer circle each day, would that somehow push me to be less intensely focused, less self-centered? If I direct a little of my energy to the small interactions in my life, could I lower the stakes and the pressure on the "Big Ten?" Maybe...

And if not, maybe I should just keep an eye on the caffeine before bedtime.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Or it could be Asiago, I'm not sure

I went to dinner with some friends last night, and a friend of mine - who is in Atlanta for the weekend from out of town - made me feel very special when he explained that he reads this blog regularly as one way of keeping in touch with me from afar. Awww.... how sweet.

Then, of course, he went right into giving me some constructive criticism. "You know," he said, "you don't have to write about something so serious every time. It's okay to just write your random thoughts." Or something to that effect. So it really is true - everyone's a critic!

What's funny (or, perhaps totally un-funny) is that these ARE my random thoughts. This is, no kidding, totally the way my mind works. So does that mean the hamster running on the wheel in my brain -- who I always imagine looks a little like Ernest Borgnine in a velour sweatsuit, and has an affinity for strong cheeses -- is actually a frequent guest columnist for Psychology Today? I don't know, but it would definitely explain why I get a huge Gorgonzola sculpture of Carl Jung in the mail every Christmas.

Anyway, in honor of those who love me enough to point out my flaws, today's blog is short and sweet:

For me, hanging out with my friends is one of life's greatest pleasures; in part because they help me remember to not take myself -- or my blog -- too seriously. I am blessed to have so many great people in my life: new friends, very old friends, beer buddies, teammates, co-workers and even one or two old flames.

In my experience, the ones who will make fun of your experimental cooking [btw, deviled eggs with curry - NOT a good idea], point out publicly that you have something in your teeth, and who painfully remind you of every stupid thing you've ever done (which for me isn't so much a list as a mutli-volume treatise), those are the same people who will go to the mat for you when you need them. Every time.

Whether I remember to say so or not, I am grateful for them every single day. Laughing and crying with my friends refreshes my spirit and heals my pain. I know that sounds cheesey, but hey - it's what the hamster wants.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Lesson #17: Money Talks, But Sometimes I Need a Translator

Like most people, I've had money on the brain lately. Recession, gas prices, economic stimulus, housing market, job market... if I weren't already meticulously evaluating my financial situation on my own (including, as the last blog indicates, calculating what I pay for the square footage in my storage unit), then the news outlets would still be pushing me toward financial obsession. It seems that every third news story relates to the state of our economy and how it's impacting the average family.

During hard financial times, we all seem to pay more attention to money and its role in our lives. Well, duh, right? Some people are comfortable with money and enjoy the pursuit of it -- getting a little thrill when a stock goes up, or the savings account reaches a particular goal. Some people are more reticent about money, viewing it as a necessary evil and even feeling embarrassed or resentful that they need it to survive. At both ends of the spectrum, and everywhere in between, one thing that seems broadly true about money is that it quickly taps into some pretty deep-seated emotions.

I like to think of money as more neutral, almost like a language. It can be used to express strong ideas and values, good and bad, but it isn't good or bad in itself. Money communicates issues that might otherwise have no voice. And in times where money is more scarce, we hear the messages more loudly.

Money expresses our values and personalities. We purchase things that express who we are as people - clothing, cars, furniture, vacations, even our choice of the home in which we live says something about who we are. I have friends who wouldn't trade their enormous televisions (complete with surround-sound home theater system) for the world; and others who can't phathom needing more than a 27" screen, but can spend thousands on backpacking gear or a nice camera.

A friend once told me that "money is a way in which we honor one another's creativity," and I love that idea. When you download a song or purchase a piece of artwork, you're not only bringing something you enjoy closer to you, you're also casting your vote that the artist or musician should thrive and continue creating.

But money means more to us than just the acquisition and consumption of "stuff." It can reflect our feelings of security or fear; prosperity or scarcity; generosity or greed. I've known people who have very little and still give generously of themselves each day -- whether it's contributing their time and money to charity, or just picking up the tab at dinner with friends. I've also known those who have an abundance, but live in constant worry that they will lose everything, that it will never be enough. It seems to me that when it comes down to it, very little of that is about the actual numbers; but can often be attributed to something a little deeper.

Could our attitudes towards money reflect our basic view of the world, even our faith in ourselves? Could paying attention to how we handle financial issues help us create insight about work, relationships, our sense of purpose? Is it possible that when we tell ourselves "I will never have enough," what we mean is, "I will never be enough"?

In the therapy and coaching world, we pay attention to those underlying messages conveyed by currency. Even in the therapeutic relationship itself, money is one of many indicators about how urgent a particular issue is, or how commited a client is to change. When a client decides to save money by cutting back on how often they come in, for example, that is often a sign of something. One possibility is that the process has been successful: things are improving, life has stablized, and the client can now focus on other, more pressing things.

Another possibility is the opposite scenario - the client is not seeing improvements and may be feeling discouraged; or no longer finds the therapy or coaching as valuable as it originally was. Sometimes it feels 'easier' to cut back on therapy for financial reasons than to confront a coach or therapist about not feeling fully satisfied with the results. By picking up on this, and talking to the client about it, a therapist can begin understanding the client's view and possibly take the opportunity to change directions and make the process more impactful.

Any therapist, travel agent, or spa worker can tell you this about money: It is a way of quantifying our priorities. When things are tight, we typically cut the things from our budget that are perceived as expendable. This might mean switching from $4 lattes to home-brewed coffee; waiting an extra week or two for a haircut; or opting for a DVD rental instead of a night at the movies. I've noticed that for many busy people, these cutbacks all too often include lowering our level of self-care -- sacrificing opportunities for recreation, relaxation, exercise, quality time with family or other healthy activities.

So, how do we keep our balance during hard times? Well, I'm still struggling with this one myself. My guess is that part of it is in knowing what is really most important, and putting a priority on keeping our deepest commitments to ourselves and those we love. We can do our best to plan for the long term based on those priorities and spend or save accordingly. And for me, it helps to keep in mind that sometimes, money speaks louder on my behalf than I realize.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Can I Rent a Storage Unit for Emotional Baggage?

So one of our tasks for the upcoming holiday weekend is that MDH and I are planning to clean out some stuff we've had in storage since early in the year. We boxed up some clutter while our condo was on the market, and now it needs to come home so that we can save the $80/month we're currently paying to keep it somewhere else. A simple enough task, but I am dreading it as though it's a colonoscopy.

I'm not alone. Storage units are popping up everywhere, and more Americans than ever have so much stuff that we can't even manage to cram it inside our own houses. I'm all for capitalism, but how much stuff do you have to have that you can't even fit it in your house? That means that rather than selling, donating, or tossing our stuff when it is no longer useful (not to mention the horrifying option of buying less of it in the first place), we are renting spaces to store our stuff away from ourselves. And for the extra space, we're paying a premium (we're currently paying $8/month per square foot for storage -- that's 10 times what our mortgage & condo fees cost per square foot!)

As I write that, I'm almost embarrassed. I find myself gawking at my own inability to keep better organized, trim the fat, and lose the stuff. But I also know, deep down, that part of the problem isn't material or financial. It's emotional. I am renting a luxury space for my emotional baggage.

Every time I go to the storage unit, muttering about the ridiculousness of the whole scenario and wildly determined to turn over a new, simplified leaf -- I turn around and leave defeated. I walk out to my car with my tail between my legs and a tiny box of something in my hand that I'm committed to sorting through. Next week.

That's because when I look around my 10-foot-square penthouse, I see so many things I'm just not ready to handle. There are things I bought that are really unnecessary in life; and I'm too stubborn or embarrassed to admit that maybe I didn't need a glass cake dome after all (I never bake, but I love the idea of it). Or that my first softball glove - now rotting from the inside out so that it is almost crispy in texture - is finally destined to work its way to the bottom of a landfill and slowly rot back into the earth.

There are boxes of mementos my mother kept, most of them truly useless now and meaningful only to her. I have no place in my home to put these boxes, and for as long as I've had them, I've only opened them once. And yet, even though she died over six years ago, I find it hard to throw away something that Mom cared enough about to keep, box, and label. It feels almost like a betrayal to veto her decision - she thought this was important, she wanted my brother and me to have it, see it, understand it... and who am I to decide it should now go to the dumpster outside Public Storage? Maybe I'll start somewhere easier.

There's some play therapy stuff I got from another therapist, who was kind enough (and wise enough) to give it away when she no longer needed it. As a student, I gratefully snatched the opportunity to have some really great tools for free; knowing that one day I would have the space and opportunity to make use of them. Even though the possibility is somewhat slim that I'll make tremendous use of them in the next year, I worry that if I give them away myself (a) I'll regret it when the chance does come around to use them, (b) I'll feel guilty that I accepted a donation that could've gone to someone else and now am really acknowledging that I'm not using it, and (c) that if I try to pass them on, the original owner will hear about it and I'll be embarrassed. Hmm... that's complicated, too. There has to be something simple in here!

There's a doll bed made by my great-grandfather. It's sturdy and useful, and both my mother and I played with it when we were little girls. If I'm fortunate enough to have children of my own, I'd like to pass it on to them. But before I can really find a good spot for it at home, it desperately needs to be re-covered in fabric. It was stored in a relative's attic for years, where it developed stains I have no wish to identify. Another item on the "Great Intentions" list that I'm planning to get to.... someday.

So, moving on - a huge box of unsorted photographs. That's a 3-weekend project, easy. Double that if you include all the time I'll spend reminiscing as I try to sort through them and remember names, dates & places.... High school yearbooks, my letter jacket, notes from old friends and boyfriends; gifts and cards from people I loved but who, because of death or distance, are no longer around to hear me say it. How do you say goodbye to such things? How do you acknowledge that the space in your life is getting smaller for those memories, for those people -- and does that also mean that the space in your heart for them is shrinking as well? What will be left to speak for those years of my life - which I already have trouble remembering?

As I stand in the tiny spot in the middle of all this and look around, I feel overwhelmed, sad, and a little dumbfounded. Where do I start? I glance around quickly and opt for the cake dome - I think if I work hard and use a stepladder, I can squeeze it on the top shelf of the linen closet, right next to Mom's huge old punch bowl (which I've used a grand total of ONCE). So one box is taken care of, and the decisions on everything else delayed to another day.

I have to say, driving away, the $80 a month is starting to sound like a bargain.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Chisel, Stone and Frequent Flyer Miles

… And we’re back. The blog has been on a hiatus for a month or so, partly because of my graduation and all the festivities surrounding it, and then because we took a trip to Ireland for nine days. It was my first time crossing the Atlantic since I backpacked through Europe 10 years ago with a friend from college. [How old does that make me feel???]

Back then, I spent 6 months visiting 20 countries and traveling became a way of life. I got accustomed to needing only what I could carry on my back and to exploring new places and people almost daily. This time we spent just 8 days, and confined ourselves to the Emerald Isle and one night in London. Still, the experiences felt pretty similar and by the third or fourth day, I found myself back in the traveling groove, hoisting my pack onto busses with authority and counting a good map and guide book among my most prized possessions.

We walked (or biked) several miles each day, sometimes with our 30-lb packs in tow. We put our lives on the line and into the hands of the Bus Eireann drivers – who appear to have somewhere to be and nothing to lose on the way. We sat in pubs and talked politics and football with the locals. We sang passionately along with the ‘rare auld songs’ as though we’d been hearing them our whole lives. We allowed ourselves to be surrounded by the warm welcome of the Irish people, who showed us enormous kindness at nearly every turn. It was one of those trips that demands of your time, energy and love; and from which you come home totally exhausted and fully renewed at the same time.

It’s funny how trips like that – whether they’re to another country or just a few miles from home – help us to discover who we are. By engaging with experiences and culture that are not our own, we learn something about who we are – maybe something that changes even at the moment we’re learning it.

In our performance-oriented culture, we often define ourselves by what we have and what we do. People we meet ask us about ourselves, and we tell them first where we work. We pride ourselves on having the nicest home, the most exciting job, the most volunteer commitments, sophisticated tastes, interesting parties. All these active, deliberate things have a place in who we are and how we express ourselves to the world. They are things that make up our identities, our self-concept.

But another, often-overlooked part of ourselves is not in what we choose to do, but in how we respond to the world around us. Travel is a great example of both active and passive interaction with the world. It all starts with active choices: choosing to travel, selecting a destination, buying a guidebook, picking activities, and putting yourself out there for the experience. After that, it’s all about responding.

The long room in the library at Trinity College in Dublin is the world’s largest single-room library. For centuries it has housed two stories of shelved books (organized, oddly enough, according to their dimensions) in its long arched room, and it will continue to do so for many more years, long after its current students and this writer are gone. In its quiet way, it is epic and lasting. But its impact on me is not just through the stories I tell, the pictures I take or the postcards I bring back with me. There's a more subtle impact in my internal reaction, the moment I ascend the stairs and take it all in.

The awe I feel entering the hall with its polished wooden walls and the incredible arched ceilings. The first breath as the unmistakable scent of old books fills me with memories and possibilities – my summer at Oxford, childhood trips to the library with my mother, pecking out my first story on my grandmother’s old typewriter… It all comes back instantly and disappears just as quickly, with every step I take across that hallowed floor.

Walking down the hall, my reaction to this place is visceral, unique, and difficult to describe. And even though I can never fully share it with others, it’s part of what makes me who I am, as fundamental in that moment as anything else about me.

Of course, you don’t have to travel to Trinity College or anywhere else to respond to the world in this way. Every day, we react in small, often-imperceptible ways to sensations and situations, and each reaction is a tiny pixel in a total self-portrait. Jazz music. Fresh coffee. The sound of a baby crying. Poetry. A friend’s laughter. A stranger in need. The annoying guy in the next office. These things have little intrinsic meaning until we react to them. But by eliciting our reactions and pushing us to engage with the world around us, they help chisel out the sculpture of who we are.

Often, I think, we get so busy focusing on our life’s active choices – going to work, scheduling our social lives, keeping up with an endless to-do list – that we stop paying attention to our little reactions to the world around us. We lose touch with what (largely) makes us who we are.

For me, traveling is a great opportunity to reconnect with that reactive part of myself, the part that connects directly with the world, taking it in without judgment and allowing the reaction to flow wordlessly through me. Getting out of my routine allows me to sit back and just enjoy being a part of the world, appreciating the artful expressions and emotions of those around me (and those who lived long before me).

I am not a singer, but when everyone in the pub is belting out “Wild Rover,” I can add my voice joyfully, without thought of what others will think. I am not a theologian (or even a Christian), but the echoes of children singing within the old stone walls of St. Patrick’s can still fill me with spiritual reverence and comforting grace. I am not a historian, but I can place my hand on a carving created thousands of years ago and feel connected to my infinitesimal place in human history.

Back on my home soil and into my own routine again, I feel challenged to keep awareness of these responses and reactions with me, to allow them to impact me fully. It is our gift as human beings to be able to participate each day in our own creation. We are made, not by chisel and stone, blood and bone, but by moments and experiences.

What will I do with what the Sculptor gives me today?

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

#54: Learn to sit, play, and trust...

One thing I really love about gmail, aside from its other endlessly useful features, is the little rotating headline thingy -- I'm sure the folks at google have an actual, technical name for it -- above the inbox, which changes every time I check my mail. At first, I barely noticed its existence. And even now, most of the time I don't give a second thought to what is up there -- entertainment news, sports stories, movie reviews, and the occasional odd news story. I'm busy ploughing through my e-mails and trying to get on with my day.

But once in a while, the headline or topic catches my eye and I follow it, where I get a good laugh or learn something new. Found treasure. It's kind of like my inbox is a beach, and I'm strolling along, glancing down periodically to see what the gmail ocean has washed in.

What washed up on the beach today was this great article about a Hungarian study of dogs (family pets of all breeds), which found that dogs whose owners play with them regularly are more apt to play with others openly, and demonstrate fewer behaviors that reflect fearfulness and/or protectiveness. The dogs who played often didn't seem to care who they played with, as long as the game was similar and there was fun to be had. Dogs who played less demonstrated more aggressive, protective, and fearful behaviors around unfamiliar people.

Now, I realize that as a therapist, I have a higher-than-average interest in behaviorism (both animal and human). But hang with me for a minute... Like dogs and most other animals, human children need to play when we're young to help us master life skills and to hit developmental milestones. In fact, the whole concept of play therapy with children is based on the foundation that play is one of our very first languages, more primary and intuitive to us than the words we later master.

Play benefits us as adults, too. Playfulness helps us release stress, improve intimate relationships, become better parents, and increase our creativity. When we can be playful in our approach to life and love, we're generally happier and healthier.

What if -- like dogs -- we humans are more inclined to play vigorously (and to relish new people and experiences) when we get loads of playtime with people we trust? That would mean something significant about the role our parents have early on, impacting how engaged and involved we are with the world around us. It might also mean that those of us who are playful in our intimate relationships are better able to have healthy and creative lives outside the relationship.

Since I frequently work with anxiety disorders, I particularly tuned in to how our anxious human behaviors seem to mirror those behaviors exhibited by the dogs who didn't get frequent playtime with their owners. People who are highly anxious and fearful seem to approach the world with the same mannerisms as the non-playful dogs.

If I meet someone new, I worry constantly that I will say the wrong thing and get embarrassed.
[Cower] I've been hurt by relationships before, so I find myself being demanding and harsh with people I date. [Snarl] If one thing goes wrong with something I'm trying to do, I might as well give up because it's only going to get worse. [Whimper].

Perhaps there's also a link for humans between how much we engage in play with our caretakers early on, and whether we are generally exploratory and playful as adults. Maybe those of us who don't play as much as kids, or don't have particularly playful parents, are more likely to be anxious as adults (fearful, wary, self-protective).

Of course I have no research to support my hypothesis, but there's a thread of common sense in there: If we learn that the world is a scary, serious, and unpredictable place, we're probably going to treat each interaction and experience as though someone is trying to steal our last rawhide bone. But if we consistently practice play - as children or adults - maybe we can learn to be more trusting, playful, and open to those new experiences when they come along.

Wouldn't it be great if, the same way we push ourselves to exercise and eat right, we also pushed ourselves to incorporate playfulness and spontaneity into our daily routines? Then we could teach our children to greet life's various characters and opportunities, not with a suspicious snarl or a shrinking whimper, but an enthusiastic play-bow and a gleefully wagging tail.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Lesson #12: Dare to Dream....

...but don't forget to set the alarm.

Okay, it's a little trite. I'll admit it.

You read, "Dare to Dream," in the title, and immediately you get some psuedo-inspiring, extra-annoying WhitneyBetteMariah song creeping into your awareness, complete with violins and some vague, drippy chorus. You see the poster image of the hang-glider or the astronaut that was on the wall of your 7th grade classroom, right next to the poor kitty who was having a little trouble staying on that darn tree branch.... Hang in There, Kitty!

We've heard people telling us all our lives to "Dare to dream," "Reach for the stars," and "Be all you can be." [Though I have to say honestly, I think the folks who gave us that last one actually wanted us to be something fairly specific.] All through our school years, we were told we could be and do anything. Anything at all! Use your imagination! Just as soon as you finish mastering trigonometry and diagram that sentence...

During our formitive years, when we got the most messages from adults that life was full of possibilities, we were also severely restricted in our ability to explore those possibilities by the structure of the adult world and/or the education system. It seems that the message was really more about the dreaming, and not so much with the daring.

I mean, when did you ever have a teacher say to you, "You know, Elvis, you're right. Calculus is not likely to be very useful to you in your music career.* Why don't you go outside and strum your guitar until AP English?" Or, "Sure, take a year off and travel -- work on your novel. School will be here when you get back!"

Now, I'm not getting into a debate about the usefulness of the country's educational curriculum (that's another blog for another day); but for now let's just assume we can agree that there wasn't a whole heck of a lot of time or encouragement in our schooling to get out and try new things, to go our own way. The same people who told us "Dare to Dream," were also the ones who told us "Sit Down and Be Quiet," "Finish Your Homework," and "I'm Pretty Sure These Stories You've Written Could Indicate a Severe Mental Illness."

So we sat down. We were quiet. We learned trig and history and economics and Shakespeare and bided our time for the day when we would be set free to pursue our dreams... and then, something happened. We went to college and tried to pick a relevant major (for many of us either based on, or rebelling against, what our parents thought would be lucrative for us financially); or we went straight out and got a job somewhere. Sooner or later, we entered the workforce, and the world of student loans, credit card debt, mortgage calculators, and 20-page cell phone bills that require your AP Calculus skills to decipher.

And we set about our jobs -- some of us starting with the most convenient opening and working our way contendedly up from there; others of us (like myself) bouncing from pursuit to pursuit, accumulating experiences, classroom hours, and mounting loan debt along the way. But in the middle of this, how many of us are really giving thought to our dreams?

I am amazed, when I'm working with clients on career issues, or just chatting with friends over a beer, how many of us haven't the slightest inkling what we would do if we could do anything at all. If money were not an issue, how would you spend your time? What would be your avocation? It's become such a hypothetical question for most of us, having been beat down by life's realities so much that we automatically dismiss our dreams as impractical, useless fantasies.

I'll concede that some of our childhood career fantasies are hard to translate to the real world... I have a friend whose son wants to be a fire truck. Not a firefighter, a fire truck. For a few months as a kid I wanted to be both the fairy queen of the unicorns and a journalist. Ha! Can you imagine? Everyone knows you can't make a living as a journalist!

So, sometimes we need to adjust what we want to fit reality, and most of us have become pretty good at that. But maybe we're too good at it?

What I mean is, there's some value in those crazy fantasies we had - and still have - about our lives and our identities. Wanting to be the fairy journalist of the unicorns says something about who I am, and if I dismiss that fantasy entirely and become a paralegal or an accountant,** how am I honoring myself?

So many of us get into our careers and our lives and start living on limitations rather than dreams. Instead of asking, "What do I want to do?" or, "Who am I, really?" we ask, "How secure is this job?" and "Will they pay for my health insurance?" Practical? Yes. Dreamy? Not really.

Now, there's nothing wrong with pursuing a nice, safe job to keep yourself and your family afloat financially. Or trying out a job because it's available and practical and then throwing yourself into it. Some of the jobs I've enjoyed the most in my long and varied career are those I never would've pictured myself in -- or even known existed until the wind blew me in the door.

In fact, most of the job titles out there are not those we dream up as kids. Go ask a 7- or 10-year-old what they want to be when they grow up, and I doubt you'll get "Chief Information Officer," or "Assistant Brand Manager." But the point is not so much what we do, or what our job title is, but how we do it. And how we live our lives around it.

What I've found with many of my clients (and a few of my friends) is that when I challenge them to explore their fantasy jobs, fantasy lives, they come up with amazing lists of possibilities... many of which can be incorporated into their lives -- sometimes even right away. It might mean opening up new possibilities for career moves they hadn't thought of before, or even just taking on new tasks or new approaches in their current careers. All based on a fantasy that seemed so out of reach, it wasn't even worth discussing.

Maybe I can't be the fairy journalist of the unicorns, but I can incorporate writing into my career and my life. And maybe in my smallish way, I can inspire others - almost magically, even - to bring more happiness into their own lives. Maybe I can benefit from incorporating more of that imaginative spirit into my life and work, the way I did when play was my primary occupation.

Whether we know it or not, even our craziest dreams and desires can have tremendous value if we take the daring step of letting them into our awareness. Sit with them a while. Make notes. Take small steps and make little changes.

And when you're hang-gliding over the ocean or preparing for launch at NASA, send me a postcard!!

*Disclaimer: Before my teacher friends jump all over me, please note that this is a fictional example only. I know how incredibly and practically related calculus and music really are. I can't tell you how many times I've caught a band doing some derivations of parametric equations between sets! It's a total trip, man!

**Second disclaimer: There's nothing, nothing wrong with being a paralegal or an accountant. Both are necessary, important functions, without which our world would not run very smoothly. Many paralegals and accountants also wear very nice suits, which I admire.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Love, Life & Loss

It would be impossible to write genuinely this week without first mentioning Sean. So I won't even try.

Sean Costello, a close family friend of ours and an unparalleled blues guitarist, died suddenly last week, to the dismay of all of us who knew him, and many who did not. This amazing young man, who I have known since he was 10 years old picking out complex guitar riffs with my brother in our basement, was just shy of his 29th birthday when he died. As many at his funeral and in the news articles have pointed out, he seemed to have a bright future ahead of him, both musically and personally. I know that his death leaves many -- not just those of us who knew him -- shaking our heads in sadness for the loss of such a wonderful spirit, and all that would've been created through him.

With his loss, we are also appreciating all that he did create: the tortured strains of his prodigious blues guitar seem to sound sadder and sweeter today than they ever have. If you knew Sean or loved his music, then please know that I'm sharing deeply today in your loss and grief. If you've never had the pleasure, do yourself a favor and visit his website or his myspace page, because Sean's music says it better than my words ever could.

It seems that death -- and sudden or unjust death in particular -- always seems to make us stop and re-evaluate where we are in our own lives. Many of us become reconnected with our spirituality and take a second look at our priorities. I've also read that whenever you lose someone important to you, you grieve not just that person's death, but every loss you've experienced before that as well. So in that sense, grief can be thought of as cumulative. Each loss has a more powerful impact on us because of all the losses before it.

For the average person reading this blog, that means increasing levels of sorrow that build slowly over a lifetime (hopefully one that is also filled with tremendous amounts of joy). For people who experience overwhelming losses -- the death of a child, the loss of an entire family, the horrors of genocide -- I can only imagine what a tremendous burden the grief is to bear.

Like many people, my own experiences with death have been wide-ranging -- from losses of close family members and friends to those with whom I shared a less intimate connection. Each experience has impacted me differently, bringing forth a different combination of shock, sadness, occasional relief, and on some level, joy.

I believe that in every death, there is an opportunity to find a new sense of joy and fulfillment in our lives. (I suspect this is true for all losses: whether it's a loved one, relationship, job, or even an idea we once held about ourselves or the world.)

When someone is taken from us, or chooses to walk away, we lose the closeness and intimacy we once had with them. But we also gain a perspective - painful though it is - on just how much that person impacted our lives. We have an opportunity then to honor them by relishing what was good in them, telling stories, singing, laughing, remembering, and learning as much as we can from the experience.

And if grief is cumulative, why not joy? Why shouldn't every moment we live be buoyed up and enhanced by the joy from our past, as much as it is grounded and made real by our losses?

My Rabbi, a wise and compassionate woman, once told me that we keep people alive by telling stories about them - passing on their legacy to future generations. She wanted me to know that even though my future children will never get to know my mother in person (she died when I was 25), they will know her through the stories I tell about her, the pictures I show them, and the way I honor and attempt to embody her spirit in myself.

It occurs to me that in many ways, I am made up of the people I have known and loved. Those who are still a part of my life continue to influence and enrich me every day. At times like this, I notice and appreciate them more. I try to hold them a little dearer. But the mark left on my soul by those who have moved on is more poignant: carved into relief by the sharpness of finality. I carry it all with me, I carry them with me, in everything I do.

From my maternal grandfather I carry the solace of long afternoon walks, a love of old things, the ability to laugh at myself, and a fanatical loyalty to the Atlanta Braves. His wife, my grandmother, taught me that personal strength can flourish well below the surface, and that a good laugh and a positive attitude can make almost any situation bearable. From my paternal grandfather I got a sense of history, strong work ethic, and the knowledge that a person doesn't need to talk much to command respect. And my paternal grandmother taught me to fish, to love the outdoors, and that a good story is worth far more than money -- even if you occasionally have to exaggerate the details for effect.

From my dear friend Laura, courage: to embrace life fully every single day, despite all its imperfections and hardships, to sing karaoke even when you're terrible at it, and to do the right thing no matter what anyone might say or think about you. And from my mother, I bring a thousand things. Among them, a love of music (even though, sadly, I didn't inherit her talent for it), a warm and easy laughter, and a generous spirit that reminds me no matter how bad my life or situation might seem, there is always a neighbor or friend who needs my help.

And as for Sean, even though it had been many years since we'd been in frequent contact, I will take with me his broad, shy smile (always my favorite among the facial expressions for which he was so well known), his music, and the way he proved every day that with passion and courage, any of us can defy, exceed, and redefine the expectations that seem to govern our lives. Wherever Sean is, wherever all those congregate who have been lost to this world, I believe with my whole heart that the message is the same for him as it is all of us....

Play on.