Friday, February 17, 2017

A Few Words about Posture

One of my first memories of self-improvement occurred in the basement of my elementary school. It was the hub of technology of its time: it housed the film projector science and social studies lessons were dispensed. We littles would descend the stairway into a big empty room with maroon and grey checkered linoleum. Our teachers would help us form rows where we would sit knee-to-knee next to our classmates, hoping we hit the jackpot in the sit-next-to-or-near-a-friend lottery.

That linoleum was hard. Especially for my bony little bottom. And those filmstrips flickered across the screen went on forever. I noticed that the longer the film played the more my back would ache. I was a ballet dancer, and I knew a few things about posture. Sitting on this floor, I exhibited the worse posture. To get my mind off the discomfort and the long-winded science film, I challenged myself to sit up straight for as long as possible. It took practice, but my back grew stronger and the film viewing became more comfortable.

Surprisingly, this habit stuck. I've maintained good posture. This school basement scenario rushed back to me as I sat in my office churning out end-of-year acknowledgment letters. It's a daunting assignment. Hundreds of gifts arrive in the final weeks of the year and my job is to prepare the letters in a timely manner. In his memoir, What I Talk about When I Talk about Running, Haruki Murakami writes about the similar stamina required to train for a long-distance race and to sit at a desk and write long passages.

This insight resonates for me. Each year as the letter deluge approaches, I strategize how I'm going to improve the process, so I am not frazzled by the end. 

In the past I'd noted that as my energy waned and fatigue set in, I would assume a deep slouch. On those days, my energy wouldn't rebound. This year, I employed good posture and would you believe, I never experienced the level of fatigue I had in previous years. Sure, I was tired at the end of the day, but I was able to produce a good number of letters every day.

One day for a brain break, I googled “health benefits of good posture.” At this blog site, I found an answer to my query and an explanation for why I was getting through this season's high volume better than in the past, “Sitting upright makes you more alert, concentrated, and productive. The reason is that when you slouch, your body takes in as much as 30% less oxygen than you’d take in with good posture. This means that when you slouch, it is much harder to keep your energy up.” As the weeks worn on and I cranked out more work, I corrected every time I felt myself starting to slouch.

Having a strong back requires having a strong core. As I sat at my desk, I could feel my core muscles engaged in ways I recognize when I'm practicing yoga on my mat. Strong core muscles are integral to a healthy, straight spine. As I wrote my “Dear Donor” letters, I felt a metaphor for life bouncing around in my mind.

My straight posture and strong core were demonstrating the positive effects of what my mind needs to weather the stresses of daily life. Hard things come our way all the time: difficulties and misunderstandings in relationships; longing to see friends who live long distance; idle time spent in slow-moving commuter traffic; a stone thrown through the screen of your kitchen window (this really happened this week, and the subject of a future blog post.)

What my body is teaching my mind is that approaching these difficulties with a strong mental posture prevents fatigue from setting in—even when I'm tired and I think I can't take any more. Yesterday, I finished the back log of letters. The final tally was 779. By the end of February I may hit 800 letters. While I am weary from the volume, I am not gutted with exhaustion. I have found a strategy that works—for my writing and my life.

I'm forging ahead poised with a straight back.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Where Will I be in Two Years? A Post of Rambling Thoughts

I've written about it before. God whispers to me through the books I read and guides me to my next epiphany. I will have passed over a book on my to-read list for ages and then one day, I look at its title and know it's time to check it out at the library. Between the covers of these books I will find EXACTLY WHAT I NEEDED TO READ IN THIS MOMENT.  What's remarkable is knowing--and trusting--that I would not have had the same experience had I read the book at an earlier point. That's what makes being led by the Divine Librarian such a rich, beneficial experience.

I woke early and devoured the last forty pages of the latest book in my reading treasure hunt. I have long been a fan of Martha Beck's work. My journals are peppered with her words. Her words have been a steadying force in my pursuit of a life of peace and joy and service.

I am in that in-between place. Avid readers know it: the book is finished; the story is over, but you can't resume regular life. Nothing seems worthy of your time--not unloading the dishwasher or starting a new title. Her book, Leaving the Saints - How I Lost the Mormons and Found my Faith is a riveting story. I was gobsmacked by her ability to tell such a difficult story especially knowing the pressure she was under to keep things under wraps. She mentored for me how to tell hard things, how to trust yourself and your story, how to have hard conversations. Our stories are vastly different, but we share the same human quest for God and meaning. She gifted me with another role model for bravery and courageous living. I will refer back to her words for a long time.

Her writing gives me the courage to stay on the path I have launched for myself and to know that whatever happens, I will be a-okay.

This has been quite a week. I had an unexpected exchange with someone that left me shaky at first. But with a few minutes reflection, I knew I had written the words I wanted to convey and that the earth had not shattered. Not long after, I passed a colleague in the hallway and she told me to keep owning whatever I was owning. I was gobsmacked. She has NO IDEA all the inner work I am up to these days, and her comment confirmed that the work is showing.

Then yesterday the FaceBook memory vault reminded me that two years ago I had written this. I re-read it when it popped up, and I was stunned. I remember writing those words, but I feel so distanced from that woman who trembled as she thought those thoughts and wrote those words. Dan and I reflected on that essay this morning. "You'd barely scratched the surface of what you had to write. Well, not even scratched the surface," he said.

"Right. In that moment, I was blowing the dust off the surface."

When I "girded up my loins" (my favorite expression for bracing myself and moving forward) and strung those words together, I could not imagine the peace I would feel in two years. I was wracked with worry and anxiety because I could not fathom what shape my new life would take.  I couldn't foresee the hard terrain that would unfold ahead of me. I traversed that rocky path. I persevered. I got a grip on my fears and discarded them as I walked forward. And hey, here I am! Thriving and writing my way through. I am so grateful for this blog and the chronicle of my journey it has become. I am grateful every time I had the sense to write where I was--no matter how unsure or vulnerable I felt.

I have always bristled at the career development or interview question, Where do you see yourself in five years? I've never been good at answering the question. I would blame the limits of my imagination, but now I understand it's because I rely so heavily on serendipity to guide my next steps. There is so little of life that can be planned. I certainly couldn't have imagined that I'd be a divorced writer-mama. And yet, here I am. I feel more "who I really am" than at any other point in my life. And the way that feels will guide me for the rest of my life.

I have no idea where I will be in another two years, but I am thrilled by the prospects and the adventure of the unknown. It's the reason I am writing this post. Another entry into the record of time. Another mark on the measuring stick of how far I have come.  What I do know is that yoga, writing, and traveling (or dreaming about the next trip) will be part of the mix.

Writing really is the solution for all my troubles. When I started this post, I didn't know what to do with myself. I wasn't sure how to move forward with my day in the happy glow of a great reading experience. "Go to your blog" was the whisper I heard. I followed my gut, cranked up the John Mayer playlist on Spotify and started typing. And again, here I am! Happy, grounded, and ready to do to what I love best--read a great book.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Collage as art, souvenir, and meditation

When I'm not telling stories in words, I tell them with images through collage. I have always found comfort and creativity in the cutting and pasting of images that catch my eye. I'm not an artist in the traditional sense, but I am able to create something unique and beautiful through my collages.

I have created collages for most of my travels abroad. These souvenirs are my answer to scrapbooking. The benefit of the collage for me is that when I hang the framed collection of memories on the wall, I can relive my trip every day rather than having to pull a photo album off the shelf, which I likely wouldn't do.

Like succinct writing, collage requires an economy of images to tell the overall story. There isn't room to include every photo from the trip, so I choose the ones that help tell the story best.

This past Christmas I used my collaging skills to create a gift for Cadence. I had a Coldplay calendar that had been a prized gift from a friend in the UK from a few years back. I decided to dismantle the calendar and to choose images to create a memento to remember our summer Coldplay concert experience. I chose a calendar page for each of us and then created notecards from other images. I enjoyed giving the calendar a new life through the collages and notecards. It seemed a better way to honor my friend's gift than to let it collect dust on a shelf somewhere.

This is the collage I made for my daughter. It includes a LOVE pin they handed out at the doors, confetti that fell from the ceiling, and her ticket stub.

I wasn't prepared for her reaction. “This is one of my favorite gifts! I love it. Thank you so much, Mommy! Can I take it with me to college?”

Her reaction restored my faith in the idea that handmade gifts carry a lot of weight and meaning. And that the best gifts don't have to cost a lot of money.

She's commented about her collage repeatedly since Christmas. When I asked her why she loved it so much, she told me, “Because it's a good memory from an awesome concert.”

That's exactly what I wanted it to be for her. That night in July was pretty amazing. I hope when she looks at the collage she remembers that our seats were close enough to the floor that she walked away from me to get a closer look at the lead singer, Chris Martin, as he walked through the audience. I hope she remembers the excitement she felt when she returned to her seat and yelled, “I touched Chris Martin's arm!”

No matter how big a fan I am, I would never have had the gumption to reach out to my favorite singer. Never. Not in my forties, and definitely not when I was nine. Her moxie in that moment made me admire her even more than I already did.

This weekend I felt a little restless, so I worked on my collage to complete the Coldplay collection. With scissors, rubber cement, glue gun, and quiet creativity at the ready, I put the elements of my collage together. The process was like meditation. I quieted the noisy chatter in my mind with each snip of paper and swipe of glue. It is true: art heals and soothes and makes the world better.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Labyrinth Walk with a Friend

My last walk through the labyrinth was last October. How time flies! I had mentioned to my friend, Renee, that I'd like to take her for a walk through the labyrinth if she was interested. She gave me an enthusiastic yes, so we set a date and marked our calendars.

The morning was crisp and the sunshine bright. We talked for a few minutes in the car before walking to the path. We paused to read the sign to introduce Renee to the history of the labyrinth. Before we started the walk, we agreed that we would walk at our own pace, and meet in the middle. Renee had the great idea to sit on the ground in the middle of the labyrinth with our backs touching. This way we could have our own space, but still feel connected to one another.

In the car Renee shared that her daughter was traveling abroad and having a profound, life-changing experience, so that was what we were focusing on as we took our walk. I was there to guide her through the experience for the first time and to hold space for her as she thought about her daughter's experience a continent away.

Walking the labyrinth with others always reminds me that my default walking speed is fast. I have to be really mindful about slowing down, breathing, and allowing space between us. I was restless as I walked. My thoughts were bouncing around everywhere. I couldn't seem to get my breathing, thoughts, and walking to sync up. I worked on not judging this and kept walking.

Sitting back-to-back, I directed my focus to the giant tree ahead of me. In this space, leaning against my dear friend is where I achieved a sense of peace and calm. I took in the deep blue of the sky and marveled at the way the autumnal sun makes the world glimmer.

I thought about Renee. I prayed that she was having a positive experience. I prayed for her daughter. I thought about how we come from different religious faiths, and how grateful I was that she was open to this spiritual practice of mine.

After a time, I was ready to begin winding my way out of the labyrinth.  Since I was walking ahead this time, I felt less pressure that I would be walking too fast. The restlessness I felt was gone. Peace and calm had washed over me.

Renee and I met at the bench afterwards. We sat in silence for awhile and then we began sharing our experiences. I needed the girl talk and especially from a sister-friend who is further along in years and experience. She helped me untangle some of the questions weighing on me about motherhood and life in general.

I am so grateful for the labyrinth in my life. I love how each visit is so unique and teaches me new things or reflects back to me the things I'm working through at the time. 

There are a few other labyrinths in the city I have not yet visited, and Renee said she would go with me. I look forward to adding those trips to my spring calendar.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Bloom Where You're Planted

“If you tell me to call that eight hundred number in Ohio, I swear I'll jump over this counter and wring your neck,” said the blonde soccer mom.

This level of anger and type of personal interaction was de rigeur every day at the mobile phone company I worked for a year out of college. Being a front line customer service representative was awful and so draining. I didn't have a vision yet for what I should be doing (writing), so I stumbled along for months. I wore out the managers-on-duty with my requests for them to break the news to customers: your phone is out of warranty.

Finally, one day one of them said, “You've got to do this on your own.”

Some time later, I found this watch, which reads “Bloom Where You Are Planted.” I bought it and wore it to work. It became my mantra. I was determined to grow in this position.

Without calling it this at the time, I used my words to improve my circumstances. I devised scripts that could help me deliver bad news to customers. I learned how to reframe their situations, to tell them what I could do, what their options were, while also setting the boundaries of the company's policies.

As luck would have it, the scripts worked. Once I'd tested them and refined them, I shared what worked with my colleagues. It gave me a surge of pride when I heard one of my meeker co-workers using my words.

This high-stress, low-pay job is where I began finding my voice and learning to navigate how to operate without freezing in conflict.

One day toward the end of my tenure in this position I called the next number and a man approached my terminal. “I have been fighting my bill over the phone for hours without any success. I'm just warning you, I'm not leaving until this gets fixed.”

He thought he was threatening me, but he hadn't met the soccer mom.

“Well, you haven't worked with me yet, pull up a chair and let's get to work.”

The company had put an erroneous $300 charge on his bill. Call center folks had told him to pay the bill and he'd be credited later. Stellar customer retention plan. Wisely, the customer wasn't agreeing to that conflict resolution strategy.

Together we poured over months' worth of bills. I called my colleagues in the call center and began advocating for this man.

“I'm authorized to give a credit of $25,” said one person after I'd explained the situation.

“Well, clearly that's not going to work, the error is $300,” I said. “I need to speak to your manager.”

I explained the scenario to the next person. When I received more push back about crediting the high amount, I said, “Look, we made the error, not the customer. If we don't correct the error, he's going to close his account and tell everyone he knows about his dissatisfaction with our company. That will cost us a lot more than the $300 we rightfully should be crediting his account. The error is OURS.”

There was a pause.

The manager returned to the line. “If you'll refresh your screen, you'll see the $300 dollars has been removed from the account.”

“Thank you so much. This was the right thing to do.”

The customer left satisfied and still a customer. I left my shift feeling proud of my day's work. I had come a long, long way.

I have the opportunity to talk to high school students about my career path—my achievements, failures, and my experiences, in a few weeks. I'm excited to share a less familiar career success story: how seemingly aimless jobs can be the building blocks of a solid professional life. Those miserable face-to-face interactions with cell phone customers honed skills that I have used at every job since.

Not long after that two-hour customer interaction, I left the company, exhausted, and returned to nanny for the family I cared for the year before. Again, not a pleasant experience, but fertile ground for more learning opportunities. I'll gather up some of those stories and share them soon.

I'm sifting through my personal items and the stories attached to them. I'm deciding what I want to keep and what I can let go of.  The lessons of tenacity, perseverance, as well as knowing when enough is enough are firmly planted in my head and heart. Not only did I bloom where I was planted, I grew out of the space. I've replanted myself in places with bigger space for dreaming and becoming more of myself. I don't need this watch anymore. The watch served me well.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Time as Healer

FaceBook memories reminded me that a year ago yesterday I had written this piece. I reread it and was astonished by how different I feel one year later. I barely remember the heaviness that prompted writing that piece, and I am ever so grateful that I did. The adage Time heals all wounds might be a stretch, but my life is proof that time indeed does have a healing quality. For the purposes of continuing to mark time, I decided that this morning's writing would be devoted to commenting on last year's list with how I feel one year later and what I've learned in the past year from each of these honest statements that caused me angst a year ago.

Last year's statements are in bold. This morning's reflections are in italics.

I am coming to terms with how I can be deeply content and profoundly sad at the same time.

The deep contentment persists. I remain absolutely certain that the decision to divorce was the right one for our particular circumstances, and that difficult decision is made easier to bear because my daughter is thriving and I have a solid co-parenting arrangement with her father.
The profound sadness has lifted. I simply do not feel that way a year later. It's remarkable because at the time, I couldn't fathom how I could feel different. I imagine my 42 year-old self patting the hand of last year's Julie. “Trust me, it really is going to get better.”

I am lonely for something or someone I cannot quite put my finger on.

The intense loneliness I felt has also lifted. What I contemplated last year was the idea of being my own companion. This was a shift that required not discounting my own company. There were sometimes on lonely nights as I was falling asleep that I would hold my own hand and that act was strangly comforting. It eased the ache of solitude that plagued me a lot last year. Over time, I simply feel content with my own company. This has been an area of vast improvement for my well-being.

I am weepy, and when those moments come I wonder if I can ever grow strong in my broken places.

Not so weepy these days. I embrace my broken places remembering this: “In Japan, broken objects are often repaired with gold. The flaw is seen as a unique piece of the object's history, which adds to its beauty. Consider this when you feel broken.”
I do still struggle with the ability to cry alone. I've never been able to do it successfully, so I welcome the tears when they crop up in conversation with a friend or coworker. I also find that tears flow much easier when I'm at church. 
I'm not eating enough.

This issue crops up from time to time, and I suppose it will since I am stress non-eater. I eat much better when my daughter is at home with me because I'm responsible for feeding my child. I have room to grow in remembering that I'm responsible for feeding myself, but it's just not as enjoyable—especially without a sense of smell—to eat alone. All of this came bubbling to the surface when I met Writer-Dude. It would have been easy to shut down the conversation or never speak to this man again after his comment about my weight, but instead I paused. What could this moment teach me? What could I gain from exploring his concern and truth be told, my own concern?

This strange experience with my first post-divorce date led me back to counseling where I've begun to peel away deeper layers of my emotional pain. The man is no longer in my life, but I am benefiting from his ill-timed concern.

My daughter is joining the Girls on the Run team at school and I plan to run with her. This will require that I do a better job of fueling my body. 
I miss my daughter when we are apart.

This will never change, but I don't feel bereft when we're apart. I know she has a great time with her dad and that she's in good hands. The time apart offers me an opportunity to recharge my energy and pursue my interests without interruption. It also makes our Wednesday reunions even sweeter.

I'm tired of thinking about the debt I have to pay down.

I've accepted that this is where I am for now and take comfort that I won't always be in debt. I have removed the shame I felt that I had a credit card balance. I remembered that life happens. Cars break down. I didn't amass debt because I shopped too much at The Limited. 
I have made adjustments to my money management, which helps me feel more in control, and I am pursuing a freelance writing gig. Sometimes I fantasize about a big chunk of money appearing out of nowhere, but honestly, I really want to conquer this on my own. It will be another story I tell myself of my ability to care for myself and my family. I stopped wringing my hands, accepted where I am, and made a plan for how to move forward. I like that narrative much better.

I'm scared that I may never be a published writer.

I'm not worried about this anymore. I love writing at my blog. I honor the writing I do here, and appreciate the fact that I have generous readers who encourage me and seem to benefit from the stories I tell. This writing is enough. It fuels me. It heals me. It makes me feel good. If other opportunities come my way, I will welcome them, but I will not consider myself “less than” if a book deal does not come my way.

I'm scared that the story I'm writing will never be as good outside my head as it is inside.

Again, not something I worry about anymore. I know how important writing Astrid's story has been to my life. That's what's important. I've got bigger fish to fry than to worry about something like this.

I get anxious when I can't plan for the future or even have the remotest idea what might come my way.

This is the biggest area of improvement. I simply am not worried about what does or does not come my way. It's a measure of how far I've come in practicing living in the present. What happens eight months from now is not my business today. I'll get there when I get there. Time and time again over the past year things and people have crossed my path that I could not have imagined. These moments were glorious, difficult, and instructive, and made all the better because of the element of surprise. I am so much better at taking life as it comes—it's really the only way to live life. 
Settling into the idea of being alone seems to have made the biggest difference in no longer worrying about what's to come. I identified that a lot of my anxiety was coming from a place that was informed by what society says I should do or be: 
Society: Find someone, partner up, that's how you'll be happy in life. 
Me: Well, that didn't work for me the first time. I'd like to consider other options. Like enjoying my own company.

Society: That might work for a bit, but it won't last.

Me: We'll see about that.

I would love to find a partner. But it's no longer a goal. If it happens, it happens. That's such a better place to be.

These winter days have me feeling like I'm a character in Groundhog Day.

Admittedly, I do not weather the dark winter months as well as I used to. On nights without Cadence, I often am unproductive and put myself to bed early. I can't seem to muster much energy with all this darkness, and yet, I no longer think of that as a problem. In fact, I believe we're meant to hunker down, rest, reflect, and recharge before the days get longer and there's more for us to do.

I am an overthinker, and am wondering how to turn off the chatter in my head.

Still an overthinker, but I have found ways to quiet the chatter: walking and writing, chiefly. I accept myself for who I am so much more than I did at any other time in life. I am gentler with myself. I don't berate myself for what I think are flaws. I observe them. I see where they might cause me trouble and work to ease that and otherwise I let it go.

The other thing that occurs to me as I reflect: I am much more comfortable with being vulnerable. I am not afraid of sharing where I feel weak or where I need help. In doing that, I know I have grown stronger. And in my new-found strengths, I feel more capable of helping others. Owning my home as a single woman has exposed my vulnerabilities and is a great metaphor for this time in my life. I don't know everything I need to know to maintain this house, but I'm not shy about asking for help. In doing that, I learn, grow in confidence, and appreciate my house more. 
I keep thinking about how far I have come in one, two, three years. I am amazed at how much better I feel. How confident and sure of myself I am. I trust my gut implicitly, and let her drive my decision-making. I keep wondering, Where will another year take me? I am certain that wherever it is, it'll be good.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Power of a Sign - Women's March Post Script

We let the first wave of the March crowd pass us hoping that delaying our trip back down Market Street and onto the train at Union Station would relieve the press of humanity on the trains.

We were wrong. 

I unloaded my backpack of the orange slices and saltines we had packed for a little refreshment and told the girls to get to snackin'. My back was sore from walking and being on my feet for hours and I wanted to lighten the load. The girls used our signs as barriers from the damp pavement and gobbled up the juicy oranges.

After three trains full of people came and went, my friends decided to hire a Uber driver to transport us back to our cars. Our driver was friendly and chatty. We had an opportunity to remind him that what had just transpired downtown, in DC, and across the globe were not protests, but marches—peaceful gatherings to make our voices heard.

Our day's busyness wasn't over. Before I'd planned to attend the March, Cadence and I had decided to attend our local library's Hamilton Lip-Sync Battle in the afternoon. We had an hour of downtime before we needed to leave for that, so I told her I was going upstairs to relax for a bit.

“Mommy, don't come downstairs. I'm working on something and I need you to stay up there, okay?”

I love these moments with my daughter because I never know what's to come but she has a solid track record. It's going to be good.

Actually, I can't really remember what explanation she gave for why I must stay upstairs, and the rustling about made me curious, so I peeked outside my door and glimpsed her hard at work at the bottom of the stairs. I'm glad I didn't get caught because she would have been crushed.

A few minutes later, I heard, “Okay, Mommy, you can come down.”

And this is what I found:


She'd used the leftover poster board to make me a sign and taped it to the bottom of the staircase. Acrostics are her favorite form of poetry these days.

M – Magic

O – Oh so pretty

M – My word she's cool

M – Not exactly sure...something about Home

Y – Yes she's the best


I sat down on the step in front of her and gushed at her creation. “Is it a keeper?” Cadence asked. This is the question she asks when she's proud of what she's created and wants to know if her minimalist mama is going to keep it or move it along. I assured her it was a keeper.

I am so pleased that this historic moment also was a tender moment for she and me. When I took her to England at age five, I was hopeful that she would be old enough to remember the trip. Four years later, she continues to remind me of the good times we had and in astonishing detail. That experience helps me trust that Saturday's event has also been imprinted on her heart, mind, and memory.

I love her use of hashtags, and can only imagine what the next event will be that causes her to use #bestdaywithyou. I'll be ready.