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A Fork in The Road

I’m at a strange time in my life. For the first time since age 14, I’m not working or looking for work. I’m not sending out resumes or taking classes. I’m taking a break from work to be a wife, to be a mother, just to be. And it feels incredible. After much planning, saving money, and weighing pros and cons, I quit my full-time corporate job. I needed a sabbatical from the rat race, or as I like to call it, the crazy train. You know, that endless cycle of busyness and achievement and coffee and late nights and early mornings and trying to be a good parent and a good employee and a good wife and a good mother and a responsible pet owner and on and on and on.

My full-time corporate job met my needs when my needs were more immediate: I needed a paycheck. I needed coworkers I could learn from. I needed to build my confidence. And my job helped me achieve those things for a few years.

But then I started to need more from my job. I wanted to connect with the work. I wanted to use talents I wasn’t using. Jim Carrey brilliantly said, “sometimes we choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality.” And my practicality and responsible nature were working against me. They had become my enemy. I was no longer feeding my soul. I was as stagnant as the plants in the cubes all around me. A plant could stay alive in a cubicle, I noticed. It would live, but it wouldn’t thrive. It never had enough sun. And I think it is that way with people too, or at least it was for me. I could stay alive in a cubicle, but I couldn’t grow past a certain point. The environment had too many limitations.

And so for months I pondered and prepared: mentally, financially, emotionally. I examined my life from every angle. When I knew I was ready, I moved on.

I have only one life, and I don’t want to waste it. So I left the safe harbor and sailed off for the new world. I still don’t know what I’ll find there, but for the first time in a long time, I’m excited for the journey.

Love Lives On: In Memory of Cybil and Steff

I’ve shed a lot of tears for two young mothers who died this year. This blog post is to honor them both. You know how a person can touch your soul, even if you haven’t talked very much or for a long time? That’s what these women did: They touched my soul. Our spirits are connected.

Cybil, a beautiful soul.

Cybil, a beautiful soul.

I’ve known Cybil since 2000, when we were twentysomethings living in Chicago. I’ve seen her a few times over the years as we’re connected by a lovely circle of friends. She was a yoga teacher and a school teacher. She was a teller of truth and a seeker of wisdom, a person who connected to life in a holistic way. I loved all that about her. I followed her journey when she was diagnosed with breast cancer 3 years ago. I knew she had a lot of fight in her and a million reasons to live. But this was a particularly aggressive cancer, and when she died on April 29, 2015 at age 39, she left behind 3 young children and a young husband.

I couldn’t sleep for days after Cybil’s death.  I couldn’t stop thinking about her family and how heartbroken they must be. I knew Cybil must have been devastated to lose her life so young, but more than anything, to die without seeing her kids grow up.

To become a mother is to undertake some of the riskiest business out there. It’s allowing your heart to go walking around outside of your body for the rest of your life. And when they put that baby in your arms, you don’t even realize until later that you’ll forever look at the world through the eyes of a mother. You’ll feel responsible for all the children of the world, as well as your own. You’ll pray every day to God and the universe and anyone else who’s listening: Please God, don’t let anything happen to my child. Please God, don’t let anything happen to me until my child grows up. 

I must have thought about Cybil and her family a thousand times since April. She was the first person I thought of when I heard about an accident involving Steff, a friend from my hometown who lost her life at age 37 on September 12, 2015, also leaving behind a husband and two children. 

Steff, who had a smile for everyone.

Steff, who had a smile for everyone.

Even though I hadn’t seen Steff but one time in years, our lives were connected. Growing up in a small town will do that to you. In high school she and I were scene partners and we got along fabulously. Years later Steff was best friends with my parent’s neighbor, Callie Benton, so I would sometimes hear what she was up to. When I started my blog, Steff was one of the first people to “like” it and give me positive comments. It meant so much to me that I send her a message to thank her only a few days before she died. Read more

5 Things I’ve Learned About Life, Or The Rules of the Ride

Dearest reader:

Before we begin, let me explain that this is not meant to be a list of totally original thoughts. Some you will have heard before. Others are not glitzy or glamorous, but they are practical and humble. We’re thinking minivan here, not limousine. So fasten your seat belt, for here come the rules of the ride. They seem to make most things okay most of the time.

  1. Be Kind. Hold doors for others. Don’t honk unless your life is at risk. Smile at random people when you walk down the street.
  2. Do Your Best Every Day, But Remember That Your Best Is Not the Same From Day to Day. Some days you have a ton of energy and everything goes your way and you are runneth over with wonderfulness. On other days you are tired or sick. Your best may not be much. Be gentle with yourself.
  3. Tell People You Love and Care About Them Before It’s Too Late. It’s easier than you think to say, “I love you.” Just do it. Then do it again. We don’t know how long our ride will last on this crazy roller coaster.
  4. Give, But Not Too Much. Give your time, energy, and money to your family and career and interests and to those whom you love, but also give to yourself. And set limits on how much you’ll give. Endless giving leads to fatigue and resentment.
  5. Do Everything in Moderation. This is among the best advice about life that I know of, but you really have to apply it. Think about what it means to eat, drink, work, and play in moderation. Seek the middle in everything you do. It’s the secret to balance.  

Love Versus Fear

Most decisions are made out of love or fear.

I’ve given this a lot of thought and decided it’s one of the most accurate things I’ve ever been told. Fear seems to be the pervading emotion in this culture. The 24-hour news cycle is a well-oiled fear factory, skillfully manufacturing ideas to keep us all on edge. I see a pattern of paranoia in people I know (and maybe this is because of legal pot in Colorado). And paranoia is another form of fear.

I think it’s helpful to ask ourselves, before we make major decisions, am I acting out of love or fear? And to take it a step farther, what is my intention? Intention can be a powerful tool. All too often we blindly stumble from day to day, in some cases from year to year, never asking ourselves why we make the choices we make, what’s behind our actions. When I snap at my kids, is my intention to be mean? Of course not. Almost always, I lose my temper because I’m trying to get my needs met, not because I intentionally wish to be mean or hurtful.

This simple question can help you learn about yourself and others. I’ve found it has helped me take things less personally. Take any situation and simply observe it. Ask yourself if love or fear is at work. You’ll be amazed how easy it is to know the answer.

Finding My Voice

When I was a child, I wanted to be a mystery writer like Agatha Christie. I loved to read and would sometimes read 10 hours a day, all the while munching nacho cheese Doritos and chugging cans of Coke. (My parents were not health nuts.) Then came adolescence. I held down a job at age 14, and I never stopped working. My parents had serious marital problems. I had an eating disorder and was exploring the party scene. I went to college and majored in journalism. I wanted to major in English, but journalism was more practical. Looking back, I wish I had the self-confidence and courage to go to medical school. I love medicine, and I love helping people. I could have had the academic chops, but I lacked the financial and emotional support. Plus I had a deep fear of calculus.

Along the way I met a boy. He told me I wasn’t creative. I let those words sink into my heart and held them there for 16 years. “I am so not creative,” I would tell people. I’d get uncomfortable trying to get in touch with my creativity long enough to pick out an outfit. My childhood dreams lay dormant. I couldn’t be a real writer. I wasn’t creative enough.

The years went by. My sister died. I got married and became a mother. Before long I was a real adult, with an array of adult-sized problems. I went to therapy and read loads of self-help books. A psychic told me my voice chakra was blocked. (I’m not making that up.) I had no idea what she meant.

Over the course of therapy, I started to examine my belief systems. Did I still believe what my ex-boyfriend had said in 1997? No, I did not. When I finally purged my head of some of the junk I’d been storing, I unearthed something I had known when I was very young. A memory of such importance that it would alleviate a despair I felt but couldn’t explain.

I am creative. I am a writer.

I have come to believe that the idea of creativity is very misunderstood. We all know someone really creative: that neighbor who is crafty, that friend who decorates their house fabulously without so much as an inkling of effort, that gay guy at work who dresses so sharply. But creativity is not black and white. Nothing in life is. It’s not like you have it or you don’t. Creativity lives in all of us, in one form or fashion. And if you think there is something creative inside you that needs to come out, I urge you to get quiet and listen to that voice. For me it means I might need to create something really good for dinner, rearrange a room, add a quote to my blog, or sit down and color with crayons.

I no longer believe that creativity is reserved for a few blessed individuals. I know that creativity is something to believe in, something to listen to, something to cultivate. I believe that I am creative. I believe we all are.

Into the Woods

Last weekend we went backpacking…with our kids. While most people think of camping as some variation of sleeping outdoors in a tent or camper, with civilization close if needed but charmingly far away, my husband, aka Mountain Man, views camping as decidedly more rustic. And because what I hate about camping is the amount of stuff that one must pack and unpack, backpacking is our preferred method. Backpacking is beautiful because you can only take what you can carry. It automatically eliminates the supersize camping that can easily occur when you get carried away loading the comforts of home into your vehicle.

We were feeling a wee bit overconfident, as we had successfully taken our kids on a one-night backpacking trip last summer. We hiked in one mile and pitched our tent, then pumped water from a stream, cooked dehydrated meals, and gazed at the stars and wildflowers without ever encountering another human being. The next morning we hiked out and went home. So this year, Mountain Man (to be called M.M. henceforth) upped the ante. He decided on a 6-mile round trip backpacking excursion, which would mean we would hike in 3 miles, camp for the night, then hike out 3 miles. It seemed daring, romantic even, the idea of leaving civilization behind and hiking into the woods with our children. We were real-life rebels, part Bonnie and Clyde, part Johnny and June, confidently bucking the constraints of society.

It was when we stood outside our car, loading our backpacks in a wet drizzle, that I felt less like a rebel and more like a fool. We studied the sky, which was covered with storm clouds. “It’s got to break,” said M.M., but he looked worried. “It was only supposed to be a 20% chance of rain.” By the time we locked the car and hit the trail, it wasn’t just drizzling, it was raining. We walked at an agonizingly slow pace as we adjusted to the 9000 foot altitude and to the heaviness of roughly ⅓ of our body weight on our backs. Each of our backpacks contained a change of clothes, a sleeping mat, a sleeping bag, and water. I also carried food and medicine. My son carried the camp stove. My husband carried the tent and cooking pots.

We trudged on in the rain. Soon the complaining began. “I’m never going backpacking ever again,” my son shouted as we wound up and down endless switchbacks.  At one point he tripped and fell face forward on the trail, a wet mess of hot tears. My daughter stared at the ground, her tiny body unbalanced with the weight of her pack. “I think they must have measured this in linear feet, not walking distance,” M.M. said, an edge of desperation in his voice. We were wet and the temperature was dropping. I had to watch the ground because there were so many rocks. If I took my eyes off the trail, I’d risk a fall or a twisted ankle. An injury could send our problems from bad to worse. Every few minutes, I’d look at the sky, desperate for a glimpse of sun. It was gray in all directions.

What exactly were we doing out here? It was miserable and borderline dangerous. We stopped for a moment and thought about turning back, but all of us decided to push on. Despite being uncomfortable and afraid, I felt it was crucially important that I take my children into the woods, away from the dangers of technology and the flatness of a life without trees and stars. When I think back on my childhood, many of my best memories took place outside. I loved Girl Scout camp. It was a thrill to explore the woods by my childhood home.

After hours of hiking, the lake we were supposed to find was nowhere in sight. We came across a flat spot and I threw my stuff down. “We’re stopping right here,” I insisted. We had hiked for 2 hours and 47 minutes. M.M. dropped his backpack and did a quick scan of the area to determine if it was safe. There are massive amounts of dead trees all over Colorado killed by an epidemic of pine beetles, and he was concerned that a windstorm could kick up and knock one over. “I feel bad for dad,” said my son. He could see the weight of responsibility on his father’s shoulders. Even the kids can sense I’m mostly a liability during camping. We knew it was up to M.M. to get us out of there alive.

We set up our tent right away. The temperature had dropped to nearly 40 degrees, and everything was damp. But the rain had stopped. M.M. was able to get a fire started, and we spent the next two hours heating up our dehydrated meals and drying out damp clothes and sleeping bags by the fire. The kids were in the tent playing games they had invented. We heated water and used our 4 precious tea bags to make mugs of hot tea. It was damp and chilly, but we were safe in the woods. “Thanks for bringing us out here, mom and dad,” my son said unexpectedly.

We crawled into the tent and the kids went to sleep. I lay there and shivered for what seemed like hours. I couldn’t get warm. M.M. lay beside me, not sleeping either. We were both dreading the hike back out. It had been a much longer, more advanced hike than we had expected. The weather hadn’t helped. And we had to do it again the next day.

Our campsite in the woods.  Can you see the dead trees all around?

Our campsite in the woods. Notice the dead trees everywhere.

Finally, the sun came up. I couldn’t say if I slept. Still, everything seemed brighter, more hopeful. Leaving our stuff at our campsite, we found the elusive mountain lake that M.M. had been determined to locate. We skimmed rocks for a while, but it was hard to ignore that the sky was turning gray. We had just packed up camp when it began to drizzle again. The first mile hiking out seemed so much better than the day before. Both M.M. and I had aching hips from our packs, but we were able to (mostly) focus on the path. The kids perked up. The thought of a warm bed and a hot meal put everything in perspective.

The hike out took us 2 hours and 5 minutes. We had survived. And what I felt was a mix of foolishness, pride, and awe. It amazes me that humans did and do survive in the most uncomfortable of conditions.

“Now you’ll have something to talk about at school when they ask you what you did over the summer,” I said to my kids. We loaded everything into the car and headed back to civilization.

The elusive hidden mountain lake. We finally found it.

The elusive hidden mountain lake. We finally found it.

It Would Seem We Forgot to Look Upstream

I have lots of new content that is in rough draft status, but given that it’s summer and we’re busy with swimming and baseball and all manner of fun things, I haven’t had much time to write. So today I want to share one of the pieces of writing that I love the absolute most. And that is saying something because there is a lot of writing I love. This piece is by Don Ardell. I think it’s a metaphor for a lot of things in modern life. Here it is:

A Contemporary Fable: Upstream/Downstream 

It was many years ago that villagers in Downstream recall spotting the first body in the river. Some old timers remember how spartan were the facilities and procedures for managing that short of thing. Sometimes, they say, it would take hours to pull 10 people from the river, and even then only a few would survive.

Though the number of victims in the river has increased greatly in recent years, the good folks of Downstream have responded admirably to the challenge. Their rescue system is clearly second to none: most people discovered in the swirling waters are reached within 20 minutes, many in less than 10. Only a small number drown each day before help arrives — a big improvement from the way it used to be.

Talk to the people of Downstream and they’ll speak with pride about the new hospital by the edge of the waters, the rescue boats ready for service at a moment’s notice, the comprehensive health plans for coordinating all the manpower involved, and the large number of highly trained and dedicated swimmers always ready to risk their lives to save victims from the raging currents. Sure it costs a lot, say the Downstreamers, but what else can decent people do except to provide whatever is necessary when human lives are at stake?

Oh, a few people in Downstream have raised the question now and again, but most folks show little interest in what’s happening Upstream. It seems there’s so much to do to help those in the river that nobody’s got time to check how all those bodies are getting there in the first place. That’s the way things are, sometimes.

Finally, A Definition of Spirituality That Means Something to Me

Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives.

–Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

A Tool For the Techno-Jungle

I am going to tell you everything I know about meditation in 16 words, paraphrased from a teacher in the class I took last summer.

There is no right way to do this practice. And you cannot do this practice wrong.

That’s it. That’s all I know.

Of course it’s wonderful if you can sit in the lotus position for hours in a quiet room with a gentle breeze. But you probably don’t have a quiet room. I don’t. Most of the rooms in my house are so cluttered that I start to have palpitations when I walk in. And if you’re anything like me, meditation is the first thing to get crossed off your to-do list, right before “clean carpet spots” and “call cell phone company about bogus charges on bill.”

So here’s what I do. I try, a few times a week, to sit for 5 or 10 minutes. I sit in the room where I’ll be most likely to be at peace, or least likely to be disturbed. Sometimes I sit on my meditation cushion (a gift I requested for years before I received it). Sometimes I lie on my bed or the floor. Sometimes I use the mindfulness app on my phone, which begins and ends each meditation with the sound of bells.

Here is what happens when I sit (or lie) in meditation. I focus on my breathing, and when my mind starts to wander, which happens constantly because that’s what the mind does, I slowly and gently bring it back. I don’t analyze where I’ve wandered off to, and I don’t get angry with myself. I bring my mind back to the breath again, and again, and again. That’s the process. Some days I can focus on the breath fairly easily. Other days my mind is scattered the whole time. But every time I meditate, I’m glad that I did. Meditation calms me down. It opens a window.

Meditation has also given me fresh awareness of my thinking patterns. My therapist once told me that thoughts are on a conveyor belt: They come in, and they go out. When you meditate, you can detach from your thoughts a little and witness this pattern. You become more of an observer of your thoughts, and less of a participant.

I’ve heard people say things like, “I tried to meditate, but I can’t,” or “I don’t know how.” Patience is key, because meditation is a practice. No one thinks they can do it when they begin. And because the goal of meditation is non-doing, it’s counterintuitive to anything we’re taught in this culture. We know how to go. To do. To achieve. We have no idea how to sit quietly and do nothing.

Do I think that meditation is the answer to all problems? No. I wish it were that simple. Do I think there is value and empowerment and something to be learned from meditation? Absolutely. We live in a fast-paced, techno-jungle in which success is measured by speed. We need an arsenal of tools to survive. Meditation one such tool, and it is particularly useful because it is healthy, safe, and free. There is nothing to lose by its practice, and for some, there is much to gain.

 

From Mountain Scenes to Beach Dreams

I recently went on A Vacation From Responsibility; a long weekend trip to Florida with 11 friends from college. We rented a beach house, and every morning unfolded, over coffee, along the lines of, “What do we need to do today? Oh right, sit on the beach, read magazines, and drink Corona Light.” Okay, if I must.  

Here is a look at our "beach campsite."

Chillin’ at our beachy campsite.

During the course of this 4-day trip, no one turned on the TV. We read books and stayed up half the night talking. We would break off into small groups here and there. Some of the girls would wake up early and go for a jog. Others would take a walk to the beach. If I wanted to take a nap at 2 pm (and I did), I went to the bedroom and rested.

As with any good vacation, I went out of my comfort zone. I Ubered my first ride. I drank beer for breakfast. I paddleboarded in the ocean for the first time. I ate fresh-caught grouper, conquering my Midwestern fear of fish for a night. And it tasted spectacular. A tip: Do not order steak in Florida, especially if you are from the Midwest. It’s a little like eating fish in Kansas. Generally speaking, a bad idea.

And because I am always trying to grow, I spent a lot of time reflecting. Here I want to share some of the best, most important things I learned:

1) Home is not a place. Home is people. Technically, I can’t go home anymore, since my parents sold my childhood home and my family is fractured beyond repair. (A story for another time.) On this trip I felt like I went home, although ironically, I was in a new place. The people made it feel like home.

2) Uber drivers are really excited to be Uber drivers. It’s not every day you encounter people so enthusiastic about work. I wish a researcher would study this and apply it to the rest of us.

3) Grief is a part of adulthood. Every one of us had grieved or was grieving the loss of a loved one. If we weren’t grieving a person, we were grieving the loss of identity or the loss of attachment to the way things ought to be. Grief wasn’t the exception, it was the rule.

4) You can take the girl out of Kansas, but you can’t take the Kansas out of the girl. Being from Kansas means you actually want to discuss farming, small towns, and the real-life impact of experimental tax cuts in the state. It was good to be with people who could relate.

5) Everyone is using coconut oil but me. Fear not. I jumped on the bandwagon fast. You beautify your skin with it! Your hair! You cook with it! You clean with it! It’s natural and inexpensive! Now you won’t be the last to know. You’re welcome.

Someone asked me what the best part of the trip was, and I said that I loved it all. I loved waking up every day and being able to think only of what I wanted to do. I loved walking along the beach and listening to crashing waves instead of the silent buzz of electronics. And most of all, I loved being with my friends. I loved the support and camaraderie of other women. As reliable as the tide, our life stories ebbed and flowed with waves of joy and waves of suffering. Things were far from perfect, but they were good enough. We had each other. We were all in this together.