Home Improvement

In a counterintuitive move made primarily in defense of my dogs, a year ago I bought a lakefront property.  Okay, it’s not really a lake, it’s a river.  It’s a very small, muddy river.  As a writer, a little creative license is sometimes required to heighten the sense of the dramatic.

What I didn’t know when I bought the house a year ago that I’m only beginning to understand now is that owning a home changes you as much as owning a dog. 

Owning a dog will teach you about unconditional love and loyalty,  the importance of play and a good walk, and sniffing out excellent opportunities and suspicious individuals. 

Owning a home – especially one near water – will teach you to let go and let flow, to listen to the wisdom whispered amongst weeping willows, the importance of not putting your recycle items out on a windy day, and the unexpected benefits of loving your neighbors as yourself.

Born under a Taurus sun, my earthy nature ruled by Venus absolutely insists on beauty and comfort.   Maquoketa may not be the first place that comes to mind when I mention this, but I have found a little slice of paradise right here in river city, with my prayer flags flying high, signaling to the eagles and Canadian geese that this is a safe place to land.

It was not in my plans to buy a home in Iowa.  Not that I ever really had a plan, mind you, but whatever plans I did have, didn’t include home ownership.  In Iowa.

For many years I was a house sitter specializing in dog sitting, mainly in the Southwest. That meant I made my temporary home in the spectacular homes of others whose houses, pets, and plants I tended to while they were away on very important business or pleasure. My dog dossier consisted of such impressive clients as Yogi, Zipper, Turbo, Brownie, Pele, Peggy, Jackson, Charlie, and Froto, to name of few.  They all had distinctive personalities, particular preferences, and favorite treats and games.  It was my job to know every one of them.

Feeling confident that my dog whispering skills could actually transfer to students, I moved back to the Midwest and became a college administrator.  My gypsy days were officially over as I settled in to the task of advising students and coaching them into appropriate career paths given their distinctive personalities, particular preferences, and favorite treats and games.

Becoming a student whisperer/employee whisperer/faculty whisperer takes longer than one might imagine.  Four years into the three year plan I surrendered to the fact that it was, indeed, going to take awhile.  Consequently, it was time to get comfortable.

So, on the advice of a friend who told me about this sweet little house on the Maquoketa river, I jumped in (not the river but the home ownership thing).  Having never made a public commitment to anything but New Hampshire’s motto “Live Free or Die“, I threw caution to the wind and committed myself to a 30 year mortgage.

The initial round of home improvements that followed the move in required some financial recovery before embarking once again upon an ambitious series of small projects. Just as I’ve learned to not to post something I’ve stayed up until 2am writing until I’ve slept on it, some decisions about a house should not be made until sufficient time has been spent living in it. 

The most valuable player in the home improvement game is the person who  possesses and knows how to use power tools.  While you may be all about doing it yourself, I’m all about getting it myself but having someone else install it.  This is where the power tools come in.

This is also where it’s prudent to add neighbor whispering to your reportoire, because really, who’s more invested in making sure your property value goes up than your neighbors?  And who knows as much about your house as people whose homes were built by the same contractor?  Having been there and done that can save you lots of time and money.

In an unexpected twist that accompanied the new world order brought about by a relation shift and the urgency of turning a certain age, my home is now filled with friends on Friday nights, family at major holidays, and new fixtures or fabulous furnishings in almost every room. 

Who knew home improvement could be so much fun?  It even prompted a poem, like the one that earned me a poetry prize in 7th grade, not like the other poetry you’ll find on my new website that would be banned from the 7th grade. 

(Home improvement extends to my virtual homes as well…www.loveslaborslost.com  – raw poetry for rough times and www.pennyplautz.com – a place to catch up on my latest works and projects.)

Now, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I, too, am compelled to declare, “There’s no place like home.”

What improvements – home or otherwise – are you up to these days?  I’d love to hear about them!

Way Closes. Way Opens.

Like savvy authors who write trilogies these days, I am writing my third and final post on loss.  For now anyway.  Of course there is much more to be said on the subject, but sadly, no matter how serious the loss, no one really wants to hear about it more than three times.  And no one wants you to get over it and move on with your life more than you yourself.  So, here goes.

On Saturday nights the thunder of stock car races in my town severely assaults the senses to the point that most Saturdays I leave town.  But this Saturday I have chosen to stay.

The wisdom of this choice comes sharply into question as soon as the cacophony of calves weaned from their mamas and their mamas bellowing back in response gets added to the mix.  Next factor in the incessant outrage of thoughts that have kicked in now that I’m in  the anger stage of the stages of grief equation.  The volume of competing noises quickly escalate to the intolerable point.  Even my willows are weeping at the clash of these titans.  

The only thing I know to do is to drown out these sounds with the sound of music, put on my walking shoes, and hit the road.  So I sync up Battle Studies from John Meyer and let the games begin.  It may take several trips around the block to tame these beasts, since I vow to return with a restored sense of peace.

Like I mentioned in the last post, the way out is through.  If I can get through 90 seconds of full out emotional expression, I will reach exhaustion and have no choice but to give up the fight.

I arrive home in a considerably less agitated state than when I left and discover my neighbors sitting around the fire having a neighborly night out.   For years I was on the outside of almost every campfire because I was not around long enough to belong to anyone, anywhere. 

But buying a home makes people think I might stay awhile.  Working at the same job for five years makes people feel a little bit better about my emotional and financial stability.  Having the names of the neighborhood watch on speed dial makes those neighbors more likely to invite me into their ring of fire.

So I join the the circle of friends for awhile and my intolerable situation temporarily feels like a thing of the past. 
Way Closes. 

In his book, Let Your Life Speak, ParkerPalmer suggests, “There is as much guidance in what does not and cannot happen in my life as there is in what can and does-maybe more.”  For some time I had been trying to make something work that ultimately could not. 

What happens when you finally act on your truth is that a particular way closes.  There is no doubt this will be debilitating.  What you cannot fathom at the time but must believe is that another way will open. 

One person may leave your life.  Five faithful friends may show up with Blue Bell and a disco ball as a way of reminding you they never left. They may not know you as intimately as the one who left, but they may just know you (and love you) better.

One job may end without warning.  One that’s meant for your brand of magic may take its place.

Way Opens. 

If you’re lucky, it won’t happen overnight.  How can I suggest such a thing?  Apparently I haven’t experienced the anguish you are experiencing if I’m not advocating for its immediate removal, you say? 

Oh, grasshopper, that’s precisely why I am telling you to tough it out.  You need time to figure out who you are in light
of this loss and how you might want to reinvent yourself because of it.  You can’t skip the hard part of determining the role you played in the demise of the relationship, the career, or your health unless you are willing to repeat the lesson later.  As I mentioned in my last post, don’t just do something, sit there.  Until, of course, it’s time to act.

It’s easy to believe that you won’t sleep through the night, silence your mind, or get control over your fear, loneliness, or shaken sense of self.  Nonsense!  You will.  You encounter equally terrifying things every day at work, raising your children,  or defending your pets, property, or political point of view. 

Who says you don’t have superpowers?  You most certainly do.  Now is the time to activate them.

Maybe you’ll launch a website of raw poetry for rough times.  Maybe you’ll paint a self-portrait.  Maybe you’ll raise $5000 so people can have safe drinking water.  Maybe you’ll train for a marathon.  Maybe you’ll start a Firestarter Sessions group. 

Convert the energy you have been expending on this loss to get on with your life.  Not the life you had previously planned.  But the life you now know you are equal to living.

The thing about loss is that there is always, every day, without a doubt a moment when you temporarily forget that something is amiss, amuck, or otherwise out of whack.  In that moment, you might involuntarily smile, laugh, or be overcome with a sense of gratitude that you are indeed alive and capable of not only surviving but thriving.  Build on that moment. 

As my favorite poet David Whyte says in his poem, Sweet Darkness,

“You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes the darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.” 

Necessary Losses

I’ve been thinking a lot about loss lately. Not just the loss of items like I described in my last post, Seek and You Shall Find, but the paralyzing kind of loss that comes when a relationships ends, a job ceases to exist, a beloved pet passes, a child leaves home, we are exposed to a glimpse of ourself in a really revealing floor length mirror, or a friend gets diagnosed with cancer. Without an unwavering faith in our ability to handle what this loss leaves in its wake or in a creator who will not to dish out more than we can take, this can be a daunting, if not downright dismal, period.

Because these kinds of losses tend to crop up more at midlife and beyond, I wanted to share a few of the strategies I’ve found for coping them. Hopefully they can help you in your hour, moment, days, weeks, or months of grief or loss.

· #1 – Be grateful.  Always begin with gratitude.  Don’t expect to be grateful for the loss right now, but do be grateful for the love this person, this critter, this experience, this job, this adventure, this revelation, this belief in something bigger than yourself graced you with during its presence in your life. You wouldn’t be distraught about losing this person, place, or thing if you didn’t love it dearly or believe it in wholeheartedly at one time. Passion is something to be profoundly grateful for.       
· #2 – Don’t just do something, sit there. Contrary to popular belief, not everything requires immediate action or can be replaced with the click of a mouse. Even if online dating allows you to meet someone new and exciting within hours of ending a relationship, you may want to put yourself in time out and think about your behavior before foisting your broken heart or bruised and battered ego on someone else in order to avoid the sting of a facing a Saturday night alone. (I dare say alone is better than with the toothless wonder who claimed to be ten years younger, employed, and without a prison record.) You may want to wait a few weeks and figure out what kind of pet fits into your family before heading to the shelter to pick out a new one. You may want to make sure your offspring loves the school he’s attending half way across the country before telling him you’re turning his room into your art studio. You may want to give the gym a try before you schedule liposuction. And you may want to simply sit with a friend and listen to her fears instead of overwhelming her with ways that together you can conquer cancer.
· #3 – Feel your pain. According to Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist who had a stroke and was able to study her own brain, it takes our bodies ninety seconds to process hormonal reactions associated with fear, anger, and grief. If we can experience them without resistance or repeating our version of the infraction over and over, the emotions will disappear, making peace possible. When the emotions return again, they do so in ninety-second waves. Ninety seconds seems manageable to me. 
       Having said that, feeling your pain requires immense courage to sit in the sacred silence of deep space long enough for your soul to inform you what it really wants and needs now. If facing this emptiness seems unbearable, remember the ninety second rule. If you do not give yourself this gift, you run the risk of acting out of fear or scarcity and mistake the first person, job, opportunity, or answer that presents itself as the end to your suffering instead recognizing it as merely a different version of it.
· #4 – Take extremely good care of yourself.  Now might be a good time to get that mani/pedi or slip away to the beach house your friend offered up, or go to a matinee instead of a meeting,  or luxuriate in a hot bath. As long as the consequences don’t create further chaos, whatever indulges your senses and soothes your soul is just what the doctor ordered. Nap. Eat well. Listen to music. Swim, cycle, or go for a long walk. Read a book or a blog. Hug a tree. Send yourself some flowers. Let your cat cuddle up next to you on the couch. Pull those pesky weeds.  Shred some paper.  Now is not the time to deny yourself the pleasure or privilege of being alive. While some part of you undoubtedly feels dead, you are still here and the world needs your unique contribution.
· #5 – Connect. While you may think isolation is a good idea, unless you want friends and family descending upon your household with soup, sandwiches, Yahtzee, or other diversions, stay in touch with them. There are so many ways to let people know you are okay. Tweet, text, show up, phone home. Watch an inspiring video of other people overcoming similar situations. Read poetry. Help at an animal shelter or nursing home. Go where you are needed. Despite what has been lost, there is still more love, more kindness, more amazement to be found. Discover it. 
· #6 – Let your art heal your heart. I realize not everyone feels the same urge to express themselves as much or as often I as do, but however you are inclined to express yourself – through writing, drawing, staining the deck, sculpting, painting, singing, pantomiming, rapping, rearranging furniture, gardening, grilling, quilting,  mowing, organizing your music playlist or making mixed tapes – do so.
       The hidden gift of a significant loss is the energy, effort, and
creative output that results from getting through those grueling moments when you are jonesing for your lost love, job, pet, or perspective. The most prolific time for me is that very vulnerable time when I’ve lost something I once held dear. Writing is my medicine.  What’s yours?  Cura te ipsum. (I took one semester of Latin at McGill University.  Today is the day it pays off.)  Physician, heal thyself.
· #7 – Ask for grace and guidance. I have a Divine Assistance Team – my artillery of angels, guides, helpers, gods and goddesses – on psychic speed dial to help with anything from finding a parking space to finding my life purpose. I could not manage my life without the intervention of these invisible allies. They are so much funnier, wiser, savvy, sexy, and sensible than I am, left to my own devices. 
       I also have an incredible Earthly Assistance Team of healers, therapists, artists, poets, musicians, friends, family, canines, frenemies, fellow bloggers and blog followers, and neighbors that together act as my personal GPS. I don’t for a minute consider navigating my new reality without them. Gather your peeps and recruit them into service for the greater good. Theirs and yours.
· #8 – Dare to love, trust, believe again.The last time my heart was smashed to smithereens, I went into a love lockdown along the order of, “Nobody gets in to see the wizard. Not nobody. Not no way. Not no how.” My heart was definitely off limits. Then I fell in love. First it was with my dogs. Okay, every day it’s with my dogs. Then it was with a pair of shoes. Ditto for the shoes. Then I worked my way up to amber waves of grain, red velvet cupcakes, and waterproof iPods. Finally I fell for Mr. Right, until he recently left, leaving him Mr. Left, right? Custody of the dogs, shoes, and iPods remains with me.
       I was betrayed or otherwise thrown under the bus enough times at former workplaces (weren’t we all?) to motivate me to start my own business so as not to have to deal with institutional insanity. I quickly discovered crazy making is an inside job. I’ve been at my current job for 5 years now. They work around my insanity.

There is a great line in the movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The innkeeper is relentlessly positive in the face of any and all disasters and consoles his guests by saying, “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”  

The way I see it, life is fragile and we are incredibly tender and mystifying creatures. Hearts are broken and dreams are dashed every day.
Despite our culture’s obsession with winning, we aren’t all going to go home with the gold. Let’s face it, there will be far more excellent, impressive, awe-inspiring athletes leaving London without a gold medal than those who will.  

But for many of us, that isn’t really the point. It’s about participating. It’s about being here. It’s about accepting that this loss may be necessary to come back better, wiser, stronger, and maybe with more humility at another place and time.
No matter how many times we are faced with loss, the challenge is to open to it, breathe through it, keep the faith, love fearlessly, trust again, and show up despite our certainty that, if we are fully alive, are hearts will surely break again.

Seek and You Shall Find

These days it’s seems I am always looking for something.  It could be the keys, the license renewal form for the DMV, the tv remote, a reminder card for my next hair cut, the charger for any of my portable electronic devices, the dust pan, the dog treats, or the meaning of life.  In any case, it appears as though the Lost series lives on in a totally different but equally complex way in my daily life.

The fascinating thing about looking for love or anything of the above items in all the wrong places is discovering what is found in its place.  I’ve come to realize it’s all about intention and Divine Timing.  If something does not want to be found or I wouldn’t appreciate the discovery as much now as I might when I’m in full blown panic, it will probably remain in its clever hiding place.

Take the package I shipped from Alaska.  In order to lighten my load I decided to send a few of my heavier treasures home. I selected the medium priority box and paid a hefty handling fee for the gift shop to take the package across the street to the post office because it didn’t open until 8:30am and my bus left at 8am. 

Two weeks later, the package is still at large.  Since I couldn’t find my receipt, I had to resort to other measures. I Googled the hotel, got the phone number, and asked to talk to the last person known to have seen the package.   The woman at the gift shop in Tok readily confessed that the package did not leave the Westmark until sometime this week.  What part of this week remains a mystery.

As Wander Woman incarnate, my motto is, “Not all who wander are lost.”  Consequently I’d like to believe the same thing about my package.  It’s not really lost.  It’s just taking a little side trip like my luggage has been known to do.  (Once I was flying from Santa Barbara to Moline.  My luggage, however, decided to fly from Santa Barbara to Austin then on to Dallas then up to Chicago and eventually arrived in Moline a week later.)  Who says inanimate objects don’t have their own agenda?

One of the big lessons I’ve learned since my last birthday is how much I don’t know and how much is out of my control.  While this can have the debilating effect of depressing me beyond belief, most times it’s actually quite liberating.  It’s like a declaration of independence from being the knower of all things.

Not that anyone ever bequeathed that title upon me, but like Oprah, here’s what I know for sure.  Life is a grand adventure, an endurance event full of twists and turns, hidden obstacles, synchronistic meetings, and unexpected allies and noble friends (who turn out to be more like enemies) who force us to grow. 

The only way to find what we’re looking for is 1) to know what we’re looking for, 2) to know why we’re looking for it,  and  3) to let go of how it looks and when we actually discover it.

Sometimes our expectations are spot on and something will look or feel exactly as we imagined. Just like sometimes the keys will be hanging on the same hook in the morning that we hung them on the night before.  All the dreaming, scheming, imagining, visualizing, and affirming make the moment when we achieve the desired outcome or reach for the keys and find them exactly where we left them seem as natural as breathing. 

But more often than not, success sneaks in the back door and takes us by surprise.  Someone borrows the keys to run an errand and leaves them on the kitchen table next to a sunflower or a bill needing to be paid.  The initial frustration turns into gratitude as we discover the extra effort required to switch from autopilot into present moment yields an unexpected jolt of awareness or joy.

It’s like finding an old love letter tucked inside a box of bank statements or having your favorite pair of earrings fall out of the purse you pulled out of the closet to loan to a friend. Oh, happy day when our beloved items at last find their way back to us!  And somehow we value them more after having to live without them for a time.

Although I struggle with the amount of time I spend looking for things each day and try to rid myself of weapons of the mass distraction that contribute to the frequency of such losses, I do make a concerted effort to expand my capacity to be delighted and amazedin the search and rescue process.  This way, by seeking I find more than I had any idea I had lost.

What wonders have you found in your seeking today?

Oh, The Places You'll Go

I have returned from Alaska, a place so wild and wondrous that I am forever changed by its spirit.

It was not my choice to go there.  My parents wanted to celebrate their 75thbirthdays by taking our family on the adventure of a lifetime.  They chose Alaska.  How is it parents know best?

Given the itinerary of long days in planes, aboard trains, ships, and motor coaches with lots of other people, I almost opted out.   Being the solitary sort, I imagined my limits would be stretched in more ways than I could possibly manage, no matter how many hours of preventative meditation I engaged in.

But I quickly came to my senses and realized how fortunate I am to still have healthy, generous, adventurous parents who want to spend time with me and my siblings, despite our varying degrees of dysfunction.

I also recognized this as the ultimate spiritual adventure.  Surely I would have a chance to practice all those things I like to preach like being present, being compassionate, and being open to what life offers up.  Like any good grasshopper, seizing the challenge would make me stronger, wiser, or at the very least, quirkier.

With this in mind I surrendered to the idea and embraced the adventure.  I would live at the edge of my comfort zone and go with the flow.  I would pack my bags, get on the bus, and go wherever the ship sailed.

My sister suggested I might do better if I reviewed the itinerary.  “It’s all about managing expectations,” she warned.  The first day was brutal because I had not managed mine. 

Departures tend to be the most difficult because they involve an incredible amount of sustained effort to overcome the inertia of a body at rest.  Customs can be especially unnerving with all that declaring of concealed nuts, fruits, and pillow pets.

I agree that it’s the journey that counts, but on actual travel days, it’s all about the destination.  Bienvenue au Canada!  Welcome to Alaska! And back and forth we went.

While I was thrilled to be wherever I was, lugging around the equivalent of a Winnebago on my back reminded me of the cardinal rule of traveling:  Less is more. 

I could be the world’s worst packer.  I like to plan for every contingency regardless of the fact that I end up with a whole season’s worth of what not to wear.  I now know I was subliminally influenced by those who came before me in search of gold.  They were required to carry 2000 lbs (that’s one ton!) of supplies with them so they could survive for one year in the wilderness. My reason for taking the equivalent remains unclear.

It’s not your average bear who is called to these untamed lands.  We learned of the plight of those who came in search of gold, those who came to build the ALCAN highway, those who came to climb Mt. McKinley, and those who came to heed the call of the wild. 

It takes a certain type of individual to withstand extremes in temperatures, sunlight, solitude, mosquitoes, wildlife, and outhouses. These are hearty, adventurous, if not downright delusional characters who tend to dream in Technicolor.  Clearly, I had found my tribe.

In the land of the midnight sun, sleep can be a bit of a problem.  The locals seem to adjust, but I was up all night most nights just trying to settle down and soak it all in.  We celebrated the summer solstice by watching the sun set over the river in Dawson City at 12:50am. 

Sleep deprivation combined with a trip of this magnitude can do funny things to a person.  For some reason known only to travel agents and tour guides, we had a long way to go and a short time to get there.  Some people got sick.  Some got crabby.  Some got constipated, which probably explains the crabbiness.  Some went silent.  Some got loud.  Some simply wore out.

In any case, we metabolized the experience in a myriad of ways.  I attempted to keep my meltdowns to a minimum and my awe at a maximum.  The spectacular scenery and superb cast of characters supported this effort and continually cracked my heart wide open. 

I fell totally and completely in love every day with someone or something I had never seen before or experienced yet.  Unlike my usual days of routine tasks with familiar folks, I found myself mining the gold in every conversation or interaction with beautiful strangers who  had made their way to Alaska from all ends of the earth.

Whether it be the way the Indonesian chef made each pasta dish with precision, Ingrid the massage therapist from South Africa gave her fourteenth massage of the day with as much caring attention as her first, Gary the guitar man from Scotland  soulfully serenaded us, John from Edmonton let his dog Jackson walk beside me so I could pretend I was walking my dog, Chris from Skagway safely drove his motor coach with an eye for wildlife, Lulu from Dawson City shared  stories of her experience as a writer and film producer, Sean from New England shared the details of Denali National Park with as much respect for the land as if he’d lived there his whole life, Jenny from Utah joyfully mixed drinks for weary travelers on the train, or Aaron from Sioux City cracked the whip and kept us on task, I was aware of their gifts and my cup runneth over.

I’m no longer sure how to return to a life where if I yell,“Moose!” I will most likely be directed to the hair product or dessert aisle. My wilderness experiences are out of context here.

Re-entry is never as easy as it appears.  According to Newton, once a body is in motion it tends to stay in motion, unless the body is compelled to change its state. When the sun finally went down in the Midwest, I was compelled to close my eyes.   Even then, my body believed it was on the road again. 

When I think I am not equal to the task of traveling great distances for long periods of time, I will remember the reward for having a curious heart. This exquisite angst is uncomfortable, it’s unpredictable, and it will most likely incite a host of internal revolutions. 

But oh, the places the heart will go if you allow it.

Happy travels.

North to Alaska

In just a few hours I will leave on a 10-day trip to Alaska.

As part of a grand connection experiment, I am leaving Words to Live By cards at random spots throughout the country.

If you happen to find one and land on this spot, please leave me a message where you found it and what it means to you.

Let the adventure begin!

Celebrate Good Times

There are times that call for celebration, whether we are ready, willing, and able to acknowledge the occasion or not.  Graduations come to mind this time of year, but you may be celebrating an anniversary, so many years sober, Memorial Day, or a milestone birthday.

Since I just celebrated one of those milestone birthdays, I have thought a lot about the importance of different birthdays and how to acknowledge them.

Big birthdays like turning 16, 18, or 21 promise more freedom, more choices, more responsibility,  and more clout and general coolness in the eyes of our friends and family.  Suddenly we can drive, we can drink, (preferably not at the same time), we can vote, we can move out on our own, or join the Armed Forces and be all that we can be.  Life opens up.

But then the birthday pendulum starts to swing from jubilation to denial.  Turning 30, 40, or, God forbid, 50 is usually about as welcome as a root canal.  At 60 we get sassy and around age 75 the pendulum swings back  and we’re willing to admit our age again and take the whole family on a cruise to prove it.  By age 90 we’re so excited we have not been voted off the planet,  we want the whole world to acknowledge us as a true survivor.

I doubt any of us feel as old as our birth certificates claim we are – except perhaps on those Mondays after we take the Weekend Warrior approach to physical fitness to the extreme or we have to endure excessive amounts of hormone induced drama.  

If age is only a state of mind and we are as young as we feel, why do so many accept the unflattering beliefs about aging and begin to act accordingly? Clearly, the time for the Midlife MacGyver Movement has come!

Maybe it’s the boomer in me, but I refuse to bow out quietly.  This doesn’t mean I try to act so hip and happening that my younger nieces and nephew disown me.  It simply means I mobilize my resources and contribute to my community, my tribe, my family and friends in a meaningful way.  It also means I stop being so concerned about perfection, rejection, and acknowledgement that I don’t complete what I set out to do.

My Midlife Manifesto is a perfect example.  At this point in my life birthdays aren’t about what I can get but what I can give.  The way I really wanted to celebrate this particular birthday was to have a very low key celebration with friends but create a big virtual giveaway along the lines of OprahOkay, in my world that translates to giving away some words.  Maybe not quite as thrilling for the recipients as cars or houses, but something I have to give.

My goal was to have a video and ebook ready to roll out on the big day.  I would collect fifty sayings that have guided me through life thus far and presumably can guide me through the next fifty or so.   

I had no problem coming up with the sayings or the short essays to explain them.  Editing, as always, was the real challenge.  The next challenge was figuring out how to create a youtube video, legally add music, and design and upload an easily downloadable ebook on the web.

I underestimated the time it would take to figure all this out while holding down a full time job and possessing a penchant for procrastination.  When I realized it wasn’t going to happen in time for this birthday, I contemplated throwing the baby out with the baby water. 

Abandoning projects – especially ones that keep me up all hours of the night out of sheer excitement – only leaves me feeling devastated.  In order to give it up I have to convince myself it doesn’t matter and that no one really cares.  It always matters.  People do care. 

I have been a creative creature long enough to know anything worth doing is going to require a learning curve, trial and error, time, and faith. Several years ago when I lived in Santa Fe I woke up with what I consider Divine Inspiration directing me to create an audiotape called Stressed for Success. I’d never in my life made an audiotape (okay mixed tapes, but those don’t count).  However, I wrote a script, booked some time in a studio (where I was told voice lessons might be in order), and made a demo tape. 

I spent $500 I didn’t have to create something I had no idea what to do with.   Two months later my business partner and I sold 2500 tapes to one of our clients.  The biggest check I’d ever received arrived strategically at a time my parents happened to be visiting.

With this in mind, I started back in on the video and am providing you with a sneak peek below.

The goal this time  is less mysterious.  If I can connect with you and possibly inspire others in a way that’s fun, helps me learn some new skills, and allows us all to contribute to and learn from each other’s success, I’m all for it.  While it might be an ego boost to be a smarty pants in some areas, it’s way more fun to collaborate in cyberspace and create something with someone else that I couldn’t create on my own.

If any of you have expertise in areas that might kick this up a notch or two, please share your feedback with me.  Specifically if you’ve made videos and added photos or images, written and uploaded an ebook, or simply have an opinion about what you like or don’t like, I’d love to hear from you.  It’s only about 3 minutes and doesn’t include all the sayings (that made it 5 minutes too long), so if you’d like to view a work in progress, by all means click on the video below.

Then go celebrate your own special thing!

Cow-ncil of Elders

A few weeks ago I helped some friends move their cows from one pasture to another a couple of miles down the road. I figured if Hemmingway could run with the bulls, I could certainly walk with the cows and come away with an equally riveting read.

A few years ago I used to take my dogs, my brother’s dogs, basically any dog who wanted to follow and we’d traipse across the field to the most magical of places – the place where dairy cows dwelled.

I especially adored the little spotted calves. As soon as they’d spot us, they’d jockey for position against the fence so they could check out my canine companions. They each had a number tagged to their ear and I made sure to compliment them on it, just as I would any great bling.

I had a deep respect for these creatures. I called them my “cow”ncil of elders although none of them would ever be older than I. I’d sit down in the lotus positon, my dogs would circle around, and I’d just start talking to them, telling them of my troubles, hopes, and dreams. Their unanticipated antics would immediately let me know if they were for or against any idea I’d brought to the table, or in this case, the fence. I’d always leave the “cow”ncil with some nugget of wisdom that had eluded me prior to our meeting.

So it came as no surprise that the 27 cows and 33 calves I would be escorting to their summer pasture on this particular Sunday would have something to teach me. These cows had walked the path twice a year for a number of years. I, on the other hand, was making the journey for the first time, walking most of the way backwards and uphill.  Despite my lack of experience, I was convinced I could lead them to the Promised Land.

Number 44 emerged as an early leader.  Number 54 was second in command.  They had earned the respect of the group long before I arrived on the scene. Where they led, the rest would follow. My job was to earn their trust.

This is not as easy as one might suspect. A true cow whisperer respects the fact that despite a calm exterior, a wild animal lives within. (This applies to the whisperer as well.) When the cows felt the need to pick up the pace (usually on the downhill side of the rolling hills) and the group took on the energy of Pamplona, I was immediately reminded of the importance of daily treadmill training. You just never know when you might face a bovine fitness challenge.

Of course the calves were delighted with the chaos until they realized that an uphill climb usually followed the downhill free for all.  After a couple of hills I swear the precise translation of the bellowing was, “Are we there yet, Mom?”

Now I know I possess an infinitely quirky imagination, but when I did turn around to see where we might be heading, I had this image of me, 27 cows, and 33 calves walking down the road with our shades on, wind blowing through our mane, smoking hot shoes, leather pants (naturally), and whatever else is typically associated with the epitome of coolness as characters emerge in slow motion with their best badass image on display.

We were definitely a force to be reckoned with. Mainly because we took up the whole road.

In any case, it was with great reluctance that I let the cows continue their journey into their new territory without me. I had the privilege of walking with them a few miles and then the gig was up.
I had recently read a book by Martha Beck called Finding Your Way in a Wild New World. In the book she describes her many visits to the Londolozi game reserve where she learned how to track animals in order to learn from them. It is my goal to get to Africa to track lions and tigers and rhinos, but for now, my best and most practical option is to start in Iowa with cows.

My chance to practice the first two technologies of magic Martha promotes in her book – Wordless and Oneness – were present on the day I walked with the cows. When one can’t communicate with words there is no choice but to drop into Wordlessness, which makes the choice to drop into Oneness a little easier. Of course, anyone who has tried to meditate for more than 10 seconds will tell you “a little easier” is still difficult.

We live in a very chatty world. People tend to talk if silence stretches on for too long. Our minds rush to find something to say, no matter how ridiculous or irrelevant, as long as it stops the silence from stretching into something the least bit uncomfortable.

Since September I’ve been involved in a leadership training program that has provided me with a view into my profession that others rarely get to see. The last session ended on Friday so I had to say goodbye to people I’ve come to care deeply about and experiences I looked forward to having each month. While I’m sure the benefits of participating in the program will continue for years to come, the challenge now is for me to incorporate the training into my daily life.

The truth is leadership opportunities abound. “Cow”nils of elders are everywhere, if we only open to them. While we may strategically plot, plan, and pretend t
o pick our presidents and politicians, this does not necessarily make them leaders. Leaders often emerge effortlessly in a classroom, a herd of cows, among preschoolers on a playground, or kernels of corn in an air popper. They do not need to be told what to do. They just sense what the situation requires and offer it up.

Leaders need not be loud and in your face in order to lead effectively.  If you are the subtle sort, you might enjoy reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.  In her book, Susan Cain writes about the influence introverts have on society. Quiet contributions can start a revolution.
The way I see it, if you have an intense interest, are willing to expend some concerted effort, can assemble a “cow”ncil or community of elders*, and possess a never say never kind of conviction, you can lead your own revolution. Kind of like the one that started Midlife MacGyver. One follower can lead to 8 who can lead to 263 and then the skies the limit! (Optimism trumps experience.)
What about you? Who are your elders and what might they give you the courage to create, contribute, or instigate a revolution around?
Do tell!!
*”Elders” refers to anyone of any age who possesses timeless wisdom and grace.

Taxing Times

I do so hate to be a negative Nelly but every now and then too many things conspire to send me over the edge. Once I start to slide down the slippery slope of sarcasm into the abyss of apathy, I lose all authority over my little slice of nice.

I spend a great deal of my waking hours in the nice business.  People can make ridiculous demands, ask ludicrous questions, and insult me on every level and yet my job is to make them feel welcome, wise, and worthy.

So surely I expect the same courtesy from others when I have the occasional lapse into unconsciousness and behave like a buffoon or the uninformed citizen I sometimes am.  Imagine my outrage when I am treated with the disrespect and hostility I am never allowed to show in my line of work!

By this stage of the game, I know life is not fair.  Like Eleonor Roosevelt, I know “no one can make me feel inferior without my consent.”  It just surprises me that others can be so obtuse and not realize when they are violating a code of conduct that dictates basic human decency.

I’ve spent my whole life preparing for my current job.  Years of spiritual training wandering in the desert and soaking in the silence and solitude of sacred spaces has prepped me for handling the daily onslaught of demands, conundrums, and outright perplexities that present themselves in the form of other people.

But nothing ever quite prepares me for tax time.  Call it a numbers block.  Tell me what we resist, persists.  Encourage me to just do it.  Suggest to me that creative types can’t be expected to balance a budget.

I don’t know what it is about facing the spreadsheet that makes me so crazy.  Every year I ultimately do it.  I account for all my income and expenses and then write a check to the US Treasury, the State of Illinois, and the State of Iowa. I’m an equal opportunity tax payer.

It isn’t that I resent paying taxes.   (Unless I think of  former Illinois Governor Blagojevich, who violated taxpayers’ trust.) All I have to do is recall the many freedoms I enjoy or one person I know who is serving our country and imagine my money contributing to his or her salary and I’m okay to pay.  The problem for me lies in the preparation.

Like counting calories consumed, counting money spent is not nearly as pleasurable after the fact.  I tend to underestimate on both accounts. Even more humbling is sharing this information with someone who has no interest in the reasons, only the results. 

Just as a person trainer might suggest I eat less pasta and do more Pilates, tax preparers tend to suggest I spend less on shoes and earn more in royalties.  Admittedly, $33.84 per year is not a substantial second income.

But here is where I will circle back to my original rant about being treated with respect. When I expose my financial faux pas or coup d’états to a tax professional, I do not care to be bludgeoned by them.  As long as I can remember I’ve promised one preparer or another that I will make more and spend less, or on the odd year, make less and spend more, or do any number of things to improve my financial fitness according to the accountant.

I’m sure tax people can sum up a person by their financials as easily as I might sum up a student’s success rate by looking at their ACT or Compass scores.  It’s easier to process large numbers of people and paperwork by labeling or categorizing them.  But one thing I’ve learned from working with students is these scores only tell part of their story.  The only chance I have to hear the rest of it is to treat them respectfully enough to allow it to emerge.

What happened in the tax preparer’s office this week was not pretty.  I wanted to find someone local in hopes of forging an ongoing relationship with a trusted advisor.  What I didn’t expect was to be badgered, belittled, and bullied by this person. 
At a certain point I sensed the conversation – okay the lecture – was not going in the direction I had imagined.   I knew I had the option of asking for my paperwork back and finding someone else to prepare my taxes.  It was then that my good girl training kicked in and assured me that while it may have assuaged the insult to my ego, it wouldn’t get me any closer to filing my taxes.  Time was of the essence and I didn’t want my behavior to have any residual fallout on the friend who referred me.  
My best option seemed to be to bite the bullet and make a different choice next year. 

So I did what I always do when I need perspective.  I surrounded myself with my canine companions and asked them what might really be contributing to my tax time meltdown.  They suggested the following:

#1)  It’s not just the taxes.  It’s the trivial pursuit of dealing with every taxing thing on a daily basis.

#2)  You expect people to be as nice to you when they do their jobs as you are to them when you do yours.

#3)  #2 is an unrealistic expectation.  People, unlike dogs, do not love unconditionally or act rationally.

#4)  The pen is
mightier than the sword.  Blog about it.  Maybe other people feel the same way,  have similar issues, or can offer helpful suggestions?

#5)  Tell your story and then, by all means, let it go and take us for a walk.  Don’t forget the treats.

So, there you have it.  From the jaws of canines, the truth emerges. 

Actually my biggest take away from this taxing experience was a reminder of why I strive to offer excellent customer service, especially when it is difficult and I’m being a negative Nelly.  I never want a student to walk out of my office feeling the way I felt when I walked out of the accountant’s office. 

I can’t change the way he does business, but I can remember how I do business.

What about you?  What do you practice even when it’s absurdly difficult because it’s incredibly important?

What's Your Excuse?

We all have one.  Or several.  Most of us have two or three undeniably difficult life situations that  severely slow us down, trip us up, discourage even the most positive among us, or make reaching the goal appear next to impossible. 

It’s these excuses that we hang on to for dear life.  Because if we didn’t have something or someone to blame for holding us back, we’d just have all those dashed dreams, broken hearts, and unrealized goals staring us in the face. And that can be unbearable.

But what, pray tell, would happen if we willingly let go of even one of these excuses? 

Sometimes we have no choice.  The elderly parent we’ve devoted our life to taking care of suddenly passes away.  The relationship we’ve strung together on alternate weekends and bank holidays unravels to the point of no return.  The child we’ve loved and supported for two decades joins the Army and is deployed to an undisclosed location.  The job we’ve tolerated in order to provide our family with health insurance has laid us off.

At midlife more than any other time we are faced with what Judith Viorst calls “necessary losses”.  In her book by the same name, she describes the loves, illusions, dependencies, and impossible expectations we all have to give up in order to grow.   

In theory we know the drill.  None of us get out this gig alive.  But it never really seems to apply to us.  Until it does.  Somewhere around the middle of our lives we may find that we’re spending more time at wakes then we’re spending awake.

That’s when it hits us.  What must we do now that we really understand our clocks (and I’m not talking the biological kind) are ticking?  What are we capable of in spite of our limitations?  If mothers can lift automobiles off infants, what can we do if we are focused, fearless, and unapologetically fabulous?

The phrase I’ve found myself using more these days than, say, a decade ago is, “I don’t have that kind of time.”  What I really mean is that I no longer choose to spend it the way other people might or the way I used to.

If I want extraordinary results in my life, I have to put in extraordinary effort. I’m not implying this has to be extraordinarily difficult.  If it were, few would have the fortitude for it.  More than anything, it seems to be a matter of deep practice or putting in the time… 10,000 hours to be exact.

We have all achieved extraordinary results doing things we love for people we love.   This is why we continue to do them.  We may not experience these results daily, but often enough to keep putting in the time.

The time and effort I put into writing may only seem extraordinary to those who find writing difficult.  Because these people might never spend a Friday night blogging  about midlife’s mysteries, they probably assume I find this task equally daunting.

On the contrary, the best part of my day is when I can finally sit down and capture the relentless flow of words and ideas that demand my attention from moment I am conscious.  Because of this, every night before I go to sleep, I make sure I’ve written at least one good sentence, preferably a paragraph.

It wasn’t always like this.  I would squander time, talent, and opportunity through indecision, inaction, blank page paralysis, and other (absolutely legitimate) excuses (see first paragraph).

I get better at writing by writing.  I get better at writing by reading great writing.  I get better at writing because I love to write. 

You do the same with parenting, running a business, taking photographs, event planning, playing the cello, designing websites, preparing taxes, or planning a trip to Timbuktu.  You, too, have a deep practice that you easily devote 10,000 hours to that make you exceptional, whether the world, your family, or your colleagues recognize you for this or not.

While I may never fully realize the impact my words have on others, I do realize the impact a good accountant has on my business, a good travel agent has on my opinion of west Africa, an excellent party planner has on my niece’s 6th birthday, a good photographer or designer has on my book jacket cover, or a great cook has on my waistline.

Because the world needs your contributions, I encourage you to unabashedly give one of your  excuses the boot.  Maybe not your favorite one, but the one that seems a little lame even to you.

For example, I often convince myself I can’t possibly write a book when I work 60 hours a week.  The truth is I need the structure – and income – of a day job to support my creative efforts.  And I can cut back to 40 hours without robbing my employer of my services.

So, no excuses!  Go do that thing that you love.  You know, the one that you’re probably doing this weekend anyway, yes?

And, please, don’t be shy about telling me what it is.