12 March 2010

Lesson #28: I will be learning for the rest of my life.

We've made it through twenty-seven lessons, which means now... here's one to grow on.

This isn't the lesson I thought I would end this project with, when I started.  I really thought I was going to end with forgiveness, or one of the lessons that's been a part of my more recent struggles.  But something changed as I was writing all of these entries -- which I guess was the purpose of this blog, a sort of therapy.  Blogapy.  Whatever.

I realized, as I was writing, that I wasn't summarizing everything I've learned over the last twenty-seven years.  I was writing about things I needed to write about.  I was reminding myself of things I needed to remember.

And I realized that, at one time, I used to know a lot of this.   Or I thought I did.

I've read that life is a series of lessons.  Each problem is really a lesson, an opportunity to learn something.  If we get it, we can move on.  And if we don't, the lesson will reappear.  Sometimes it will get harder.  This concept has really hit home for me in the last few days, as I'm going back and reading books I'd read ten or twelve years ago, or thinking over concepts I'd considered in the past.  When I was younger... fifteen, sixteen, eighteenish... I thought I'd had life figured out.  There was a way you acted, and that was it.  There was a standard of behavior.  Life was this way, and that was all.  I truly didn't understand what was so hard.

Well, I do now.

Because I thought I had a good handle on things, I thought I knew a lot.  And, to follow some old wisdom, a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.  It made me feel pretty confident, cocky, assured that I wouldn't make the same mistakes as the average person.  I felt like I'd just pick the right path, and things would happen.  But I hadn't really learned anything, because when challenges arose later, sometimes I failed.  The lessons hadn't stuck, but I thought they had, so I kept going until I got stuck in a place I didn't want to be.  There was the illusion of knowledge.

I know I've made a lot of references in this blog to mistakes or bad decisions, and I've made my part.  But now, I know that because I made them, now I have a better idea of what was lacking before, of why I made them.  I've learned the lessons I've needed to learn, I'm still learning them.  I'm glad, in a way, to have had that experience, because I truly wasn't aware of the problems before.  And I feel lucky that I have so much in my life to be thankful for, and to appreciate.

And I think the learning will continue.  I'll be tested again, on the same problems, and new ones.  I may forget every one of the lessons I've written out here, and more, but I can remember them again when I need them.  I hope the learning continues, because that's how I know I'm alive.  I'm not just breathing in and out, sitting on a rock as it rotates around a star.  I'm actively living, changing, growing every day -- hopefully into a better person, or into the person I want to become; hopefully creating some happiness in the world; and hopefully leaving things a little better than they were before I got there.

Cheers to learning.  Even after I finally get out of grad school.

11 March 2010

Lesson #27: Nothing is Unforgivable.

I need to start this post by saying this is a lesson I have learned, and am still learning, through the example of others.  There are special, amazing people in my life who are teaching me how to let go of past hurt or anger, practice forgiveness, and move on into a more fulfilling life.

I have yet to get there.  But I know it's reachable.

There's the idea of forgiveness, which is not the same as forgetting.  I'd agree with that.  It's important to remember what's happened in the past, to the extent required to learn from it.  But I haven't always done that.  Under the guise of 'not forgetting', I've carried around past grudges, which have then come out in other areas of my life - damaging the relationship I have with my oldest brother, for example.

I didn't realize how bad it was until I realized I had some things I had to forgive myself for, and I didn't know how to do it.  Myself.  That one should have been easier, because who else knows me better?  Hm.

I got a book.

And I can't say it hasn't helped.  I've learned how to focus on the positive that's come out of the negative.  I think I have about fifty-one more chapters to go, but I decided midway through this post that I don't really want to even talk about that.

Insert draft edit fail here.

I want to go back to the idea that nothing is unforgivable.  I've learned this from seeing the ability of others - people I know, and people I don't - to forgive.  I also feel like this is something I know, deep down.  That kind of Knowing that just is, like gravity or Six's TARDIS+Delorean shirt.

And I just want to say that I'm learning that forgiveness is an action, deliberate, and real, just like drinking a glass of water or saying I love you.  It involves feeling, sure, but when we can't forgive, we're hanging on to negative feelings or thoughts that belong in the past.  Letting them go should make it easier.  When I let go of those thoughts or feelings, I can perform forgiveness as an action, something which is well within my ability to give, because I dictate my actions.  I choose to forgive, which means that the bounds of forgiveness can be infinite.

Forgiveness is also a way to free us from the burdens of the past.  No one should have to carry around the weight that is anger, or injury, or resentment.  It turns people old, stretches them into thin shadows of the people they could be.  And no wonder - they're living days upon days of their lives over and over again.  If I'm pissed at Susie-Q for stealing my Hostess Cupcake, and I think on that every day for a year, I've spent a whole year living the same day over again, in addition to my actual movement through time and space (another debate).  If I let go of the Cupcake incident, I can focus on living just one life, one that is entirely mine.

Forgiveness keeps us whole.  It unites all the little pieces that break when someone hurts us.  It's like duct-tape, which is pretty cool in and of itself.  And because forgiveness makes us whole again, we can become better people for those we love.  We can do good in the world, and spread joy.

That's what I've figured out about forgiveness.  It's not an instant process.  There's no switch.  But it will happen, because I want it to and I'm willing to work at it.

Maybe I won't even need to read the rest of that book.

Lesson #26: Morality might be relative. Ethics are not.

Most people have their own set of beliefs that dictate some behaviors are good, some are bad, etc.  This might be influenced by religion, family, friends, or personal preferences.  But moral relativity is not what occupies my mind when I think about how I want to live my life.

Ethics is.

Are they so different?  Let's consult Wikipedia:
  • Morality -- a system of conduct and ethics that is virtuous
  • Ethics -- Ethics (also known as moral philosophy) is a branch of philosophy which seeks to address questions about morality; that is, about concepts like good and bad, right and wrong, justice, virtue, etc.

Interestingly, the Wiki entry for Morality goes on to describe three 'meanings' for morality - one that's synonymous with ethics, one that's 'descriptive' in that it delineates right and wrong in the context of human society, and 'normative', which focuses on absolute right and wrong, no matter what people think.  This three part definition is enough of a reason to stay away from a word like 'Morality'.  Based on the definitions, 'ethics' seems to be the most active - it doesn't rely on absolutes, or on the majority rule.  It also isn't quite as loaded with religious connotation.

And that might be the biggest difference for me.  It might have been the intense Catholic school education (which has served me well, don't get me wrong), but I seem to tie morals to religion in my head.  A set of rules I follow because that's the way it is.  Whereas ethics, to me, seem like a code to which you adhere because it's your choice.  It's how you have to live in order to live with yourself and others.  

These sound like the same thing, but what about when someone loses their religion?  Or their faith?  Do their morals change then?  As my religious and political views have changed, as my awareness of the world has increased, moral stances I took in my teens have changed also.  So I think about ethics, when I think about how I need to live my life.  

The rules that I try to call my 'ethics' focus more on how I treat and interact with other people.  This, I think, should not be relative.  So maybe Ethics are the constant that lies between many relative sets of morals... you know, the basic truth(s) that keep people sane and happy and not killing each other in most parts of the world.  I think some of this is instinctive, and some of it is not.  It could be what separates us from 'animals' -- an interesting conversation I had a while back that I'm not really coherent enough to repeat here.  (Long day).

Here are the ones I've been thinking of most recently.  It's a short list, and I can't even say I've always lived up to them.  But I do know that every one is there because I found myself breaking it, and realized what it was doing to me, and that I couldn't continue that way.  So... here we go.  

1.  Create happiness.
"I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out." --Roger Ebert
 I love this quote, from the article linked above.  I like the idea of creating happiness where I go - whether it's giving someone a reason to smile or laugh, listening when they need it, or doing something that needs to be done.  And this works for me, based on my experience.

2.  Do no harm.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a doctor.  The real, medical kind, not the Sciency Kind I'm trying to be now.  And I remember learning about the Hippocratic Oath.  While this phrase isn't actually part of the oath, I did read about it, and it struck a chord with me.  I still like it, because it seems to run counter to the conventional wisdom of 'there's a pill for that.'
It's important to me, to avoid doing harm to others - directly or indirectly.  There have been times when I've ignored this, and acted selfishly in a way that didn't account for others' feelings.  And I've really felt that violation of ethics acutely, enough to know I can't live my life that way.  I also know that there are plenty of opportunities for this statement to fall into contention... issues of self-defense, or war, for example.  Maybe a better way to state it is 'Protect others'.

3.  Be mindful.

Honesty with myself, awareness of my surroundings, the ability to see the actions of others, staying in the present, letting go of burdens I don't need to carry... all of these things will help enhance my life.  They'll also help me become a better person, better at interacting with others and helping those that need it.

4.  Act out of love.

This was a line from The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, by Dan Millman.  The author was talking about freedom from illusion, stepping into consciousness and awareness, and how at that point, it was only possible to act out of love.  And from love comes respect, mercy, empathy, compassion, understanding... a whole host of things that are so important to offer other people, and ourselves.
Or, as Anne Lamott says a little more directly... "Don't be an asshole."

What are the critical ethics or morals on which you base your actions?

10 March 2010

Lesson #25: Let go once in a while. Laugh. Be silly.

This past weekend, I saw a great PostSecret. The secret was written in blue ink on a plain white postcard: "Laughing is the most important part of sex."

Don't worry, this post isn't about sex.  Not really.  That's my other blog.

I love this secret.

I love it because it reminds me the importance of humor, and joy, and that we can't take ourselves too seriously. If you think about something like sex... (I'll wait)  ...it's a very personal, very intimate act.  Some people struggle with sex, be it process, identity, etc., their whole lives.  So this secret makes me wonder... does the writer laugh during sex because sometimes it requires a sense of humor?  From pleasure?  From sheer joy?

This question doesn't really require an answer.

Some people hide their feelings well.  I don't think I do.  When I'm thinking about something that makes me happy, I smile.  I know, because people call me out on it.  When something's on my mind, I think it shows, that it weighs me down.  But sometimes, when some nice stranger has told me to smile because I look down.. and I am... I smile, and then I feel just a little bit better.  It's as if, by acting the way I want to feel, I get closer to being that way.

If I look for a little bit of beauty in the world, I can find that sense of joy and wonder that gives life more meaning than hours in a lab, or a commute, or a racing/training goal I haven't achieved.  If I look for the ridiculous, in others, or more often in myself, I can find a reason to laugh.  I'd much rather laugh than be pissed off.

One of my favorite things to do, when it's been a hard day, has been to come home and cook.  I like to make soup, if the weather's right.  There's something about the repetitive chopping that does it, helps me quiet my mind and calm down.  But whatever I'm making, I like to crank up the radio.  I dance around the kitchen, tossing ingredients around, flailing about with whatever's in my hands... wooden spoon... measuring cups... Henckle knife... whatever.  I dance.  I even sing.  It relaxes me.

I don't worry about how I look, or how I sound.  I don't stress if I'm off beat.  I just try to find joy, and I guess distraction, in the music, and the process.  I "be silly".

Life should be about playing.  It's too short to stress through, whether I make mistakes or do everything right. It should be about running and chasing, about tickling, about funny faces and 'poke-I-Win' games that have lasted for years.  It should be about Monkey Bites and stupid jokes and shoe wedgies and laughing so hard that my face hurts.  So every once in a while, I've learned to let go.  Laugh.  And be silly.

Lesson #24: Handwrite letters once in a while.

We've hit some heavy topics recently: communication, love and trust, secrets... so now, we're going to talk about penmanship.  Yeah.  Handwriting.  I'm not even sure they teach it any more.  Remember the fat pencils and the hugely wide lines?  Remember tracing letters, then repeating them for rows and rows?  Soooo many Gs.  And damn that cursive Q.  Handwriting was annoying.

And it obviously didn't stick, if you've ever seen me write a note.


There's always a however.

I say this, typing across my laptop, into the intertubes: hand-writing is very important.  Specifically, handwriting a note or letter.  Yes.  A legible one.  And I mean, more than signing my name above a hallmark logo.

Why do this, you ask, when email might suffice?  Or a phone call?  An IM?  A gChat?  Simple, dear Watson.  I resort to this 'lost art' because...

...it takes time to handwrite a note.  For me, much more time than it does to type out the same.  It requires me to organize my thoughts ahead of time, since there's no hand cut/paste/delete function.  I have to think about spelling, because no squiggly red lines will appear to tell me when I've messed up.  Though, now that I think about it, the absence of auto-correct for a handwritten note is nice (stupid Word), but I digress.

Handwriting a note or letter takes time.  And planning.  And, while I write that note, I'm thinking, the whole time, of the person to which I'm writing, and what I want to say to them.  This is pretty powerful.  How often do we give that much attention to what we're doing?  It's a very mindful process.

So every so often, when I'm putting together a gift or trying to let someone know how much they mean to me, I write it out.  I use nice crisp stationary.  I usually do two drafts, the first to get out what I want to say, the second to make sure it's legible.  And then I fold it, oh so neatly, put their name on the front, and hand it over.  Hopefully, it's just one more way I can show the recipient how special he or she is.

09 March 2010

Lesson #23: Know when to talk, and when to listen.

...AKA.... the fine art of asking for help.  Although that's a narrow focus.  Let's go with communication in general.

Knock knock.  Who's there?  Interrupting cow.  Interr-- MOO!

Get it?

Yeah, that's me.  The interrupting [NOT a cow].  Thoughts come out, and jump right over the barrier and into conversation, often when it's not my turn.  Which is just rude.  And not ok, because then I miss things, either because the conversation changes, or I'm not able to listen.  So I'm working on that one.  

That's just one aspect of communication that's hard for me.  It takes me a while, to organize my thoughts and ideas.  That's why I prefer writing, though this blog, made up of first-drafts, is probably not the best example.  If I know I need to talk to someone about something, particularly if it's difficult, I go over what I want to say a few times before I say it.  Spur of the moment things?  Sometimes.  But not too often.  And let's not even get started on talking about feelings, or admitting I'm angry or unhappy.

Somewhere along the way, I picked up the idea that rocking the boat wasn't good.  This isn't a conscious thought.  I wasn't even aware of this habit until the last few months.  It's sneaky.  I realize the problem.  I decide to confront it.  I get into the ring... and then I take a pass.  Decide it's a by week.  Decide to deal with it later, because it's hard or I don't want to deal with it.

This is a problem of not knowing when to talk.  That first feeling that things aren't right should be a red flag.  More will probably come. And when they do, I've learned I need to say something, because silence isn't going to make it better -- the situation won't change, or I won't remove myself from the situation.  It's a vicious cycle to get stuck in.  When I do talk, it's fine to talk to friends, vent, use that time to sort my thoughts out... but then, in the end, I need to make sure I'm also talking to the people involved in the problem, too.

However, once I talk, there's another trap.  I have to listen.  Really listen, not just hear the words coming out of someone else's mouth.  If I ask for help, I need to be receptive to the answer.  If I ask for advice, I should be prepared to consider it.  If I bring up a problem, listening will help me figure out if the situation will be saved, compromised, or scrapped.  But without the listening part, I'm just making noise.

Communication.  I can has it.

08 March 2010

Lesson #22: The only person you can trust in a relationship is yourself.

I know this sounds paranoid and somewhat sociopathic, but hear this one out. It follows a similar vein as the thread on Follow Through, love as an action, and the idea that I can dictate who I am and how I look at the world.

Two people choose to enter a relationship - romantic, platonic, it doesn't really matter - which involves a certain degree of intimacy.  At any level, there's an exchange.  An investment.  People become connected.  Expectations are set up.  Trust is established.

And I believe trust is one of the most important foundations of a relationship.

But, as we've already explored, people are human.  They might fail.  So how can you base a relationship on trust, when it may be broken?

To some degree, it takes belief, or faith.

But really, the only person you should be trusting in the relationship is yourself.  This trust focuses on two things:
  1. trust in your own integrity to make the right decisions for your relationship; and
  2. trust in your ability to choose and surround yourself with people of the same integrity.

So the idea of trusting only yourself takes on a new, non-paranoid meaning.  They focus on things that you can control

I can't control the decisions, actions, or feelings of another person, no matter how close I am to them, no matter how much I love them or want them to love me.  People have free will.  And a good chunk of the time, people are going to do what they're going to do.  I can only control myself, by exercising that free will to make decisions that maintain my integrity and personal ethics (post coming up).  I can only control my circumstances in so far as my actions reflect those same values.  With me?  Let's go deeper.

Not long ago, a friend pointed out to me that the one thing a person can't afford to surrender in a relationship is their integrity.  This was extremely profound, though it's taken me a while to really learn it.  But now, what it means to me, is that I need to recognize that I have a responsibility to adhere to my moral code, the way I want to live my life, and the things I say I'm going to do.  Put another way, I must be able to trust myself.  I cannot betray myself with actions that go against the values I hold close

And he was right.  Losing trust in myself was probably one of the worst things I've done in my life, because it changed everything.  I questioned every direction, and everything I thought I knew.  I felt lost.  I made bad decisions thinking they were good, because I didn't know which instincts or rules to obey.  It was very lonely. Now, I truly don't believe that integrity is a thing that, once lost, will never return.  But I see myself differently, and consider my actions differently, because I don't want to be in that place again.  It's like pulling a baking sheet out of the oven with my bare hands: I'll probably continue to bake (once the burns have healed up and the skin grafts are done) but I'm going to look for the oven mitt every time.

So I need to trust myself, and prove it, to keep my peace of mind.  But what about the relationship?

Well, if I trust myself, and my integrity, I will be able to trust my ability to seek out people of the same trustworthiness and integrity.  I'll be less likely write off or rationalize behavior that clearly runs counter to what I believe.I'll minimize influences that could sway me at points of hardship or decision, where I don't have a fancy pink blog that pretends I have all of the answers (or at least 28 of them).

I'll know that they will also be making decisions that are healthy and right for themselves and for our relationship, based on ethics and integrity.

If I can trust in myself, and in my ability to see other people clearly, then I won't have to worry about the actions of others (which I cannot control).  I can focus on my own.  And on our relationship, and on enjoying the time I have and the things I share with that friend.  And my friend will know that she or he can trust me to do the same.

Makes everything seem simple, huh?

This is one I'm still working on, every day, and I'm sure I didn't hash it out as well as I could if I worked on this post for a week or two.  So if you have thoughts, leave 'em.  Otherwise, see you at #23.

Lesson #21: I am the sum of many parts.

This is true for every person I know, though I probably don't appreciate it for everyone.  We can be more than the sum of our parts.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting around thinking... a potentially dangerous activity, but necessary... and I let my mind wander.  I started thinking about legos, blocks, and tinkertoys, and all the fun things I used to play with as a kid.  I thought about how all of these parts could be assembled to make different things, depending on if I felt like following a set of directions.  Sometimes the experiments worked, sometimes they didn't.  And then there were the times a piece of the set got lost or broken.  I couldn't build what I wanted.  I had to adapt another piece, or just change my plans entirely.

I feel this way.  As a person.  As a being.

It's tempting to go down a different road, and focus on the idea that we are 'more than' the sum of our parts.  And this is true, but not in the way I at least used to think.  I used to be more concerned with the nature of that 'more than'... a soul?  A conscience?  A consciousness?  I don't really feel like going further down that road, and it's not truly how I feel. 

I feel like I am made up of many parts.  And when they work together, like they're supposed to, I can become something more.

This came out, in the following thought-dump:
"We are made up of many parts/experiences. Those pieces can be broken, misaligned, misplaced, or forgotten. But what's important is to realize when this happens, and arrange them back in a way that's better, so we become whole, more than the sum of those parts alone. It's scary to redefine yourself and start again. But getting there, or even starting to get there, feels good."

...yes, I just quoted myself.  On blogger, and possibly with air-quotes.  You'll never really know, will you?

But on to the point.  Think of it this way.  Every aspect of my personality has the potential to be positive or negative. Those aspects sit on a balance.  Based on the thoughts I create, my intentions, the choices I make, my actions and reactions, those aspects will move either toward the positive, or to the negative.  Experiences go the same way.  There will be good things, and bad things. 

Good will not eliminate bad.  Positive will not erase negative.  But they can balance each other.

The night I wrote that thought dump, I was feeling like a stack of blocks.  I had been assembled, not in a perfect wall, but in a recognizable one. Then the wall was knocked down.  Blocks went everywhere.  Some were probably lost under the couch, along with the tinkertoys, the legos, the single sock that goes missing in the dryer.  I didn't know how to put it back together.  

But then I realized that the parts were still there.  I could control them - maybe not their presence, as it's impossible to 'undo' something, but I could control if I learned from the negative/bad, create something positive or good that would help balance the things I didn't like.  I felt, then, that it wasn't impossible.  I could rebuild the wall.  It might not be the same; blocks would be in different places, and I might have to improvise the design.  But if I was careful, and mindful, and determined, I could create something from the mess that was complete, maybe even better than what was before. 

In fact, this process was long overdue.

I like this way of defining myself.  It acknowledges all of the parts of my life, the ones of which I am proud, and otherwise.  It emphasizes balance.  It allows room to grow.  It keeps me from forgetting (ie, throwing away) the bad experiences or choices, which would keep me from learning.  And it makes the process of redefining myself, starting over, much less scary.  And creating a new self is frightening.  It's so easy to slip into bad or destructive habits, just because they're comfortable, the known, the status quo.  Changing myself means changing who I am, how I relate to the world, how I relate to others.  That's a big fat unknown.

But I already know the parts.  They're familiar.  They're me.  And as I figure out what to do with them, how to put them in the right arrangement, they'll start to come together, work with me instead of against me.  And I know things are going to work out. 

07 March 2010

Lesson #20: Don't keep secrets.

Oh... secrets.


I had some fodder for this post, but I promised not to tell, soooooo.....


Alright.  Secrets.  There are some we could probably keep.  For example, the people around me do not need to know precisely what I'm thinking, every second.  If someone confides in me, in need of a sounding board, or some advice, I should keep my promise not to spill.  There are also secrets I should not keep - if someone tells me something that suggests they're going to harm themselves, or someone else, for example.  I don't mean to address these types of secrets.  I want to talk about another kind.

The kind you keep when you take the last cookie meant for the hard-working orphan children, or when you break a favorite coffee cup, or when you screw up and do something to really hurt someone's feelings or violate their trust in you.  That kind of secret.

It's not always easy to 'fess up.  It can mean facing The Wrath.  It can mean damaging relationships, or a loss of respect from someone you care about.  In a lot of ways, taking responsibility for an action can make it more real.  You have to face the music.  You have to deal with consequences, which are not always fully weighed or considered before actions happen. Unfortunately.

Sometimes, you can brush a secret like that under the rug.  The orphan children may never find out you ate their cookie. But you, my friend... you will know. (chocolate chip peanut butter! How could you?!)  And that's where things get dangerous.

Keeping a secret is like sitting, literally, on top of a pressure cooker.  You can clamp down that lid, but the pressure is going to build, and build, and build, until finally the pressure release thing busts open and steam comes shooting out and... well... just go with the image.  Another, perhaps more popular image, is of something rotting inside, that starts to affect everything else.

But it's just a cookie, you say?  Even if you promised the orphan children that you would keep those cookies just for them... how could it matter that much?  It's not like someone's going to tell them that YOU ate the cookie.  Besides, someone else will send them better, tastier cookies.

This rationalization is where it gets really bad.

So not only have you violated your own personal ethic (because, presumably, you're feeling guilty about the Cookie Incident, which is why it's now a secret) and wronged someone else... you're now also wronging yourself, ignoring the Voice (Lesson 10) - conscience, guilt, responsibility, etc - and breaking your word (Lesson 17 - isn't it amazing how they're all coming together?!).  Which means you're lying to yourself (Oh! Oh! Lesson coming up!).  In denial?  Hmm.  Maybe this is like keeping a secret from yourself. (Stay with me)

There will also be others - friends, well-meaning or not, or perhaps one of the pre-schizophrenic voices - who will try to make you feel better.  They might tell you that it's fine to eat the cookie, as long as you don't do it again, or make the orphan children tastier, better cookies.  With walnuts.  

This might make some people feel better.  Me?  Not so much.  Because some kids don't like walnuts.  And because in the end, I would know I was wrong.  These people mean well, but there's the potential there to enable the behavior or incident or whatever that was wrong to begin with.

So the moral of the Cookie Incident is... don't keep secrets.  There are other things tied into this.  Don't lie.  Don't steal cookies from starving orphan children.  Don't rationalize your unhealthy/wrong behavior, or let others rationalize your behavior for you.  But the most important thing is not to keep secrets, from yourselves or the ones you love.  When someone trusts you to send them cookies, don't eat them.  If you eat them, admit it and do what you can to make it right.  You might be terribly afraid of what the orphan children will say, but you might be wrong.  They might forgive you and take the new batch made with walnuts.  And if they do hate you forever? At least you gave them a choice, to rebuild the cookie-donation-relationship, or to move on to a more reliable cookie donor. Hopefully you stayed true to what you believed, learned the lesson about stealing cookies, and avoided a steam burn where the sun doesn't shine.

Chocolate chip peanut butter... how could you?

Lesson #19: I will fail.

This lesson isn't meant to be a downer, believe it or not.  I'm not writing off hard choices down the road, or giving up before I even begin.  No, Lesson #19 is actually something I had to figure out in the last ten or twelve years, even though it makes perfect sense.

Sometimes, I'm going to fail.

I'm not sure why I've had to learn this lesson, because there are certainly things I've tried to do that haven't worked.  However, there's a difference between a setback with a hobby that I'm 'meh' about, and a setback in an area I've used to define myself - being a good student, for example, or forgetting the rules by which I mean to live my life.  Let me provide an example.

I remember my first C.  I got it in high school, freshman year, the very first paper due in honors english.  The assignment had something to do with trees.  I have no idea now what it was, I just remember it as 'the tree paper'.  I got excellent grades in elementary and middle school.  I was a good student.  I sat down, wrote that paper, and handed it in, expected to be at the top of the stack again.  And... I got a C.  To me... this was a huge deal.

I was so pissed off.  I remember I barely listened to the teacher's remarks.  Eventually, I got over it.  I figured out how to write a paper the way she wanted, and it must have been the right way, because that's one of the skills that was the strongest when I left high school.  But I still remember being angry, and disappointed in myself.  My identity as a 'good student' had been changed.

Fast forward about nine years, to grad school.  Three grad classes, three finals, squashed into a limited period of time.  I remember sitting in the library, notebooks and books and cards all around me, walking the fine line between melt down and sanity.  It was a lot of information.  There was not a lot of time.  This was the first time I realized this lesson: I might fail.

I could have fixated on this fact.  I could have sat there, freaked out, and only thought about how I was going to be kicked out of the classroom before they even collected my paper.  But I didn't.  I sat down, and I looked at my situation.  I looked at which class had the strongest grades, which class I was doing least well in... and I studied accordingly.  I turned in that biochem final early in the testing period... and failed.  It was horrible.  Failing, especially when you know you're going to fail, sucks.  But the As in the course kept me afloat with B+.  And the extra studying in the other classes got me an A- and an A+.  So I survived, because I accepted the simple fact that sometimes, I'm going to fall short of what I think I should be.

I think that's part of being human.  Even when we don't like it.

This lesson draws from a bunch of others, some I haven't written about yet... forgiveness, perspective, planning... but all I'm going to say is, that if I can accept that sometimes I will screw up.. sometimes, I will fail, or fall short, or not measure up... then I'm better prepared to learn from the experience and move on.  Life is too short to get caught up in the failures of the past.  Hopefully I can learn from them, and change, so I won't repeat the same failures in the future.

06 March 2010

Lesson #18: Don't spend too much on jeans.

The posts are coming up in no particular order, other than what I feel like writing at the given time, which is now, from a list of 30+ topics I generated at the start of the project.  However, I like this lesson for number 18, because a very important thing happens (sometimes) when a kid turns 18.  No, not the porn.  Not the cigarettes.  I'm not even talking about the voting, although that was cool.

Let's talk credit cards.

For me, there was a lag in the understanding of credit cards, and the need they served, until I became an adult.  When I was a kid, I didn't really get it.  I figured if you needed something, you bought it.  And if you didn't have the money, you just waited until you did - from allowance, birthday money, gift lists, whatever.  Of course, I was living at home and supported by my parents, but still... I had a job, I spent my own money, so this view made sense.

What I didn't understand is that as you get older, the expenses get bigger.

There are the givens: rent, insurance, utilities (yay running water!), tuition, groceries.  There are the luxuries: beer/wine, movies or dinner out, new clothes, vacations.  Then there are the hobbies: sports gear, motorcycles, sailing, fishing.

Yeah.  As kids get older, hobbies get more expensive.

A huge percentage of Americans carry 'revolving debt' - a credit card balance that never goes away.  And this sucks.  They spend a huge chunk of change each year on interest.  They sometimes live beyond their means.  I'd look up statistics, but this blog is about me, and not social commentary, so... just look at your own life experience/that of your friends', and you'll probably at least in part agree with me.

So really, Lesson #18 is about fiscal responsibility. (wake up! Not an Econ lecture.)

I'm working on it.

I've gotten much better, on this side of my 20s, asking myself if I really need to be spending money on ____.  I knew someone in college who would take whatever she wanted to buy, say a sweater, and calculate the number of hours she needed to work to pay for that.  She would then consider if that item was worth the time she was going to spend to earn it.  I think this is a great way to go about things, because it cuts down on the likelihood of an impulse buy.  So that's what I try to do.  I've also gotten much better at saying 'no, I can't afford to do this' when I know I don't have the money budgeted.  I have a financial calendar that plans each account.  I shop sales and outlets, and keep in my head a dollar amount I'm willing to spend for a given item.

Occasionally, this gets blown out of the water.  I consolation-shop, or find a deal I don't want to pass up.  I fit into a pair of size 6 jeans for the first time in 12 years, and in a fit of triumph shell out three times what I'd normally spend.  Every once in a while... maybe... maybe, this is ok.  But not too often.

So the lesson is, be responsible.  Minimize debt, or better, eliminate it entirely. Have a plan.  And don't spend too much on jeans... unless they make your butt look awesome.

Lesson #17: Do what you say you're going to do.

Hmm.  In light of my missed post the other day, this is a particularly timely lesson, and another one of those 'in progress' things.  Kids, today's topic is "Do what you say you're going to do."

I've struggled with this one.  I have been that person who is chronically late... who says that she will call or email and then never does... who makes plans, and then flakes out on them.  Who commits to something (say, a blog post a day), and then sometimes falls short.  I am happy to say, however, that it's getting better.

I think a large part of that is because I started thinking of:

  • what this habit said about me
  • how this habit affected other people
  • how this habit affected me, and
  • why I was behaving this way.
Let's take timeliness, for example.  I started thinking of this in a different way when I was having a conversation with a training partner about integrity.  He was talking about other peoples' - say, the integrity of a potential boyfriend - and made the following point: say you're meeting someone, and they tell you that they'll be there at 6:30.  You're ready at 6:30.  And they don't show.  They might come ten minutes late, they might come an hour late.  But they didn't come when they said they would.  So how can you tell if they're reliable in other ways?  Well... you can't.  If someone goes around breaking their word in one area, they might easily break their word in another.


I think, for a long time, my lack of follow through stemmed from the fact that I only looked inward.  I only thought about my timetable, and what I had to do.  That's not to say that there aren't times when circumstances - a commitment at work, for example - throw the schedule out of whack, and keep me in the lab far later than I otherwise think I'll be.  Traffic happens.  The usual suspects.  But those should be 'once in a while' things, or else I need to budget more time for that.

So I'm making the following changes:
  • I think about my time commitments and keep a detailed calendar.  I check it frequently, usually the first thing of the day.  
  • If I'm not sure I can do something, I don't commit with a 'yes'.  
  • I try to build in travel time.
  • Do I need to send a email? Call someone? Do something?  I write it down, or better, put it on the calendar, because I'm much more likely to get it done that way.
  • I ask myself: "Who is going to be waiting for me if I don't follow through?  What affect will this have on them?"
  • I ask: "What affect will this delay/change have on my own work?  What can I not get done, because I'm failing to do ____?"
  • If I do encounter an Unforseeable Circumstance.... I call, asap.
  • Checklists/ To Do lists are now my friends.

I'm finding that follow-through is extremely important.  My job is extremely self-driven, and requires me to set goals, but also to make them.  This is something I'm trying to improve every day.  In my job, and in my personal life, I understand that people make their own decisions based off of information that might include something I said I was going to do.  I don't want to screw over the people I work with, or the people I care about, so I need to hold up my end of the bargain.  Finally, I know I get annoyed when people tell me they'll do one thing, and then don't, or do another.  If I expect those around me to follow through on their word, I obviously need to do the same.  This is also a great way that I can, through my actions, be a person of honesty and integrity.

Have you ever had a problem with follow-through?  Is there a particular area where you procrastinate, or are extremely motivated?  What things do you do to keep yourself on track?  

04 March 2010

Lesson #16: Live Music is Super.

There's something special about live music.  And I don't mean the last Britney concert (sorry Brit-fans).

I have a great memory from a vacation to New Orleans in 2005.  We were wandering around the city, and decided to go down an alley, following a sign advertising an art show.  The art show was there, in the courtyard outside a tiny store I'd never have noticed otherwise.  There was also a zydeco band, performing, and selling their CD.

It was the first time I'd heard zydeco, but there are elements that aren't really my thing.  I grew up cringing at bluegrass, the twang of banjo, songs where I couldn't understand the words, let alone the lyrics.  Had I heard the music on the radio, I'm fairly sure I would have switched channels to something more familiar.

But I liked it.

I've found this with most music.  Bluegrass, country, rock, classical piano, symphony... I could probably even do polka.  There's just something different about having a musician/band (alright, a good musician/band) live.  It doesn't matter what style, I'm going to have a good time.

I think this is because music... or maybe the act of just creating the art, the passion and dedication it takes to really become proficient.  That's hours and hours and hours of someone's life that I witness, when they're up there playing.  And they're sharing that experience with me.  That's special.

If you need another example, think about the last time someone played a song you knew -- Dave on the guitar, for example.  Did you feel differently than the last time you caught it on the radio?  It's way better than the lame hold-the-boom-box-over-the-head-and-play-a-love-song trick... though... I guess it's the thought that counts.  But anyway, there's an intention, and an intimacy, in making music, and many other art forms.  It's great when that can be shared, with one special person, or a couple hundred.

03 March 2010

Lesson #15: I decide who gets out of bed in the AM.

So I blogged the other day about Good Works, and I mentioned that sometimes nice has a barometer.  Sometimes, we get bogged down in life -- our choices, our perceptions, our relationships, our own circumstances, the conflict between what we want and what we have.  All of these things create tension, and it can weigh on a person.  All of these things, and/or their root causes, need to be addressed in order to have a balanced life.

But I did realize that saying... 'well, I'm having a bad day, so I can only be this nice/decent' is kind of a cop-out.  At the time, I was trying to focus on how it's the little things we do that can become big.  I think I fell into a trap, with the suggestion that our circumstances are an excuse to justify our actions or omissions.

Mark, another triathlete, said a really interesting thing to me a few months ago.  We were talking about finding the motivation to get to and complete early am workouts.  Because face it, sometimes it's hard.  He explained that he was in control of who got out of bed in the morning.  Sometimes it was the fat guy.  Sometimes it was the athlete.  But in the moment when he rolled into wakefulness, it was his choice to commit to the things that were important to him, the things that he used to define himself as a person.  That choice renewed his commitment to that aspect of his life that he values.

I can't even begin to talk about how this thought has carried me through recent times, when I was sad, or depressed, or in pain, and I knew I could get out of bed that person, be that person throughout the day... or I could choose to be someone else, something closer to the person I wanted to become.  I was in control of who I was, which in turn dictated how I acted.  Because the Me that got out of bed determined to have a good day would not react the same to people as the Me who got out of bed under a cloud.  This has kept me out of some dark places - depression, self-pity, etc.

But the last month or so, I've forgotten this lesson.  Or at least, given up asserting it.  I've broken my steady pattern.  I've surrendered to all the mental noise, thoughts and feelings, whatever's popped into my head in the morning, instead of finding a center, deciding what I wanted, and proceeding through the day.  I've let circumstances and attachments control me, more than I wanted to admit.

I'm ready to go back, which is why this is Lesson #15.  I have the power to commit, every day, to the people and the things that are important to me, that are part of how I define myself.  I control my outlook, and my response to the day.  This lesson is now written and kept next to my bed, so I can keep remembering it.  I can get up for workouts.  I can decide that I am going to wake up to a positive day, and focus on now, and the life I choose to live.

And then, every once in a while, if the Athlete in me tells me to roll over and go back to sleep... I'll know when I should listen to her.

02 March 2010

Lesson #14: Love is not a feeling. Love is a choice.

This post seems kind of appropriate in the wake of the Bachelor finale, which made me just feel cynical (and I wasn't even watching).  But those sorts of programs perpetuate a myth that's really damaging, as a whole.  That love is magical, two people are meant to be, that being in love is this incredible thing that words cannot describe, where birds fly around and daisies spring out of your poop.

Don't even get me started on the concept of Soulmates.

Love is amazing, but not in that way.

There are lots of feelings that can come into play when two people become close.  A lot of them are physical, like attraction, lust, infatuation, or that euphoria.  There's also a boost of confidence, a better sense of well-being, happiness.  At least, these are things I've felt - I'm sure it's different for everyone.  But the feelings that people most often associate with love, the emotions, are not the solid foundation of a good, healthy, adult relationship.  Love is built on trust, and on the choice to be with and honor that person, every day, in the choices you make and the actions you commit.

Doesn't sound quite so romantic, does it?

But this is important.  Feelings change.  I truly, truly believe that people can and should carry them, in some form, through a life-long relationship.  Someone should still lust after their spouse twenty years post-marriage.  Hearts should beat a little faster.  There should be euphoria.  But it changes.  It doesn't lesson, or become worse - it's just different.

If anything, I think it becomes better.  Because while it might be fun to be in that whirl-wind, bachelor/bachelorette romance, there's a deep satisfaction, a sense of fulfillment, that goes with knowing you share your life with someone who loves you, and makes the choice to love you.  The people in that relationship can trust, wholly, and grow together, because both are working toward the same thing.  And both know that the other is making choices in a way that will help the two of them.  They've become sometime better, together.  Not in a co-dependent way, but in a conscious, active way.  I'd take that any day over the bushels of roses, the flowy dress, and the fifteen carat diamond.  

And that's the amazing part.  The commitment to each other.  The trust, which is really, really hard sometimes.  The patience, which is even harder.

So this lesson has been about how my view of relationships has changed since I was a teenager.  I'm pretty happy about that.

Lesson #13: Self sufficiency is beautiful.

Remember waaaaay back to olden times?  How people just made what they needed, lived off the land, and got by with what they couldn't get?  Alright, you might have to remember back to before you were born.  Or watch some Bear Grills (Grillz?). 

I've learned that it's important to be self-sufficient.

I don't mean to contradict the bit of wisdom that says No Man Is An Island.  And I don't mean this in a basement-bunker-chock-full-of-tinned-food-and-adult-mags way.  Shady survivalist is a whole 'nother post.  What I mean is, there's something cool about doing for yourself, and doing it without relying on someone else's help.

A few years ago I received a pretty fun gift, a kit to make mozzarella cheese at home.  Now... fresh mozz is pretty accessible these days.  You can go get the plastic wrapped kind and it works fine, or the little ones in water or oil.  I have ready access to a super italian market just up the street that makes it in-house.  Cheap.  But now I had a kit, and I was going to make mozzarella.  I bought my gallon of whole milk.  I got cookin'.  I burned my hands a bit.  There was probably some swearing.  But in the end, I had gorgeous shiny tasty cheesy yum.

Realizing how much whole milk went into those balls of cheese, though, made me look at mozz in a whole new light.  But that's not the point.

It was fun, making something I'd always just run out and picked up before.  It was heady.  It was euphoric.  I wanted to start making more things - why stop at Mozz?  Why not do cheddar?  Sew my own clothes? (I did start to knit)  Matt was already making his own beer.... we could exist, an island of a house, subsisting on home-made cheese and beer.  Which would be the Worst Idea Evar, but that's not the point.

I realized how much I depend on other people for daily things, and it was nice to do something myself.  Make something.

It's healthy to depend on others, and to ask for help when you need it - more on that later.  But there was a point in my life where it became automatic to ask someone else to help me.  I didn't know how to do something?  Whine about it and ask for help.  I didn't want to do something?  Ask for help.  Something seemed hard?  Ask for help.  I was skipping the 'try to figure this out on my own' step entirely and relying on people I knew would step up.

That's not ok.

In fact, that's just plain annoying after a while.

Since then, I've made a conscious effort to take control of my life, and really try to work things out on my own.  I catch myself sometimes... my project, for example, is very frustrating.  I shut down, when I hit the wall too many times.  But then I pull myself together, sit back, and try to reason it out.  That's what I liked about science anyway... and it's helping.  I'm doing something.  And when I truly get stuck, I can tell those who'll help me what I've tried, and get more out of their time. 

And I think I'm going to bust out the last of the cheese kit.  Yum!

01 March 2010

Lesson #12: There is magic in the world.

This is the first post I've actually had trouble writing.  Not because I don't know what I want to say, like in Lesson 2.  Not because it kind of sucks to admit, like Lesson 7.  I think it's just where I am tonight.  Or maybe I'm getting cynical in my old age! Noooooo! 

..alright, I was somewhat cynical before.

Still, I believe in magic.  Not the card game.  Not the Harry Potter kind.  Forget Tolkien.

I'm talking about something that transforms a person, an experience that changes them, even if it's just for a little while, or just during the course of one day.  Sometimes it can be the little things (Lesson 9), or something that touches us, or the way a loved one looks at us, or smiles at us. These are special things.  They have their own magic.

There have been times when running has been this for me.  Either the act itself, or the time I get to myself when I end up running alone.  It's thinking time, purifying, finishing.  It makes me pay attention to my body.  I feel different, usually better, when I'm done.

I also get this through writing, and reading.

There's a DH Lawrence quote that I love:
"After all, the world is not a stage -- not to me: nor a theatre: nor a show-house of any sort. And art, especially novels, are not little theatres where the reader sits aloft and watches... and sighs, commiserates, condones and smiles. That's what you want a book to be: because it leaves you so safe and superior, with your two-dollar ticket to the show. And that's what my books are not and never will be. Whoever reads me will be in the thick of the scrimmage, and if he doesn't like it -- if he wants a safe seat in the audience -- let him read someone else."

I love the idea of a book drawing you into the middle of its world, because thats what great books do - regardless of whether they're called classics or not, and regardless of drama.  They create something, and it's new and different for each reader.  My vision of the world and the characters might be entirely different from yours.  The author may be guiding me, but I'm also coming to the story with my own experiences, my own perceptions.  And, using those, I can lose myself in an entirely different universe for a little while, until I surface, time has passed, and I feel (maybe) like I'm coming back into reality.

The magical part is that there's such a strong experience, one that's unique but also on some level universal, squashed between two covers.

That's cool.

Lesson #11: There needs to be A Plan.

The following event (or some similar variation) has happened to me several times in the recent past.

I need to get from Point A to Point B.  I have never been to Point B, or perhaps have never traveled to Point B from the Point A at which I currently reside.  I print out directions.  Or write them on a post-it.  I get in my car.  I drive.  [insert road closure/missed turn/google-maps error here]  I get lost.

I phone a friend.  They talk me down.  They get on their iphone/computer/map (psh!) and help me out, since I have yet to actually put a map in my car. (this is secondary because, in each of the places where I have gotten lost, I will never pull over and bust out a map.  Nope.  Better to keep driving like I know where I am)  They give me directions.  I get to Point B, where I can hopefully pound back a beer.

For all the time and energy I've spent lost, I could really use a GPS. (birthday what?)  But, bid for free technology aside, the time and energy could have been saved had I simply made sure I had a clear idea of where I was going.

Sometimes there are going to be snags, on the way to Point B. It happens.  I either need to be adaptable (good direction sense/focus on Point B), prepared (map/phone), or lucky.  Otherwise, I'm not going to make it.  But even if I'm adaptable, there's another consequence: no one can follow me.  Think of the last time you tried to follow someone who had no idea where they were going: the sharp, sudden turns, the swerves, the circles... it's unfair, to ask someone to follow me when I can't show them a clear path.

So, most importantly, I need to have a Point B, and I need a clear way to get there.  When it needs to change, I change it, to another clear path back to Point B (or C... D...)  Otherwise I'm driving around, wandering through neighborhoods I don't want to be in anyway, just burning fuel.  Life is too short for that.

And yeah.  I'll go get a map.

Lesson #10: Listen to the Spidey-Sense.

There's another Richard Bach quote that I like, though I'm sure other people have said the same thing.  He says, "Your conscience is the measure of the honesty of your selfishness.  Listen to it carefully.

When I think back to the times in my life when I was at critical moments or decision points, I see that at least part of that struggle was internal: there was a small voice in my head going 'well, you need to do ____', whereas the rest of me was hell-bent on doing something else.  Some people might call that small voice a conscience.  It might be 'intuition'.  Others might call it guilt, or the early stages of schizophrenia.  Either way, one thing I'm starting to figure out is that I need to stop ignoring it.

For the sake of this discussion, and hopefully not in terms that will constitute major copy-right infringement, let's just call it what it really is: Spidey-Sense.

I do believe that our bodies, and our subconscious, do know what's good for us.  Or at least, we know at the physical and subconscious level when we're putting ourselves in harm's way.  It's like the hair might raise on a dog, or a cat, when they're upset or afraid.  There's a sinking feeling, or a tension, in the pit of the stomach.  There's a sense that things aren't right.  Hours are spent staring up at the ceiling, or emotions tangle into a wreck, or there's an immediate jump toward defensiveness or irritability.  This often occurs in cases of Want versus Need (see Lesson 7 ), or situations where we've reasoned our way around a violation of our ethics, or even real, physical danger.

It's important to listen. 

I need to ask myself why my Spidey-Sense has activated.  Does it reflect some bias or prejudice I didn't know I was carrying?  Is it an honest assessment of the situation?  Is it pointing out something I don't want to see?  Does it reflect insecurity?

I need to ask myself why I'm not following it.  Because it's easier to just do what I want?  Am I being dishonest with myself?  Am I, through my actions or choices, about to violate my own values or integrity?

Life isn't always clearcut.  There aren't always bad guys wreaking havoc on the city or threatening Mary Jane.  I certainly can't shoot webbing out of my hands or climb buildings.  I know.  This makes me sad.

Sometimes intuition, conscience, spidey-sense, whatever it is, will make an appearance.  It might come in different forms: the little voice in my head/the Jiminy Cricket on my shoulder; a train of thought that goes somewhere I didn't intend; the passing remark from someone who's come into my life.  I won't always listen.  That's the nature of free will (or will in general): it allows us to be stubborn, and make mistakes.  But if I pay attention to it, and am honest in why I choose to follow or ignore it, I can at least minimize the 'Man, I should  have known!' feeling that often follows bad decisions.  And I can know that a good decision really was just that.

28 February 2010

Lesson #9: Remember to look up (around) once in a while.

I've heard this in a couple of incarnations.  Let's reflect....

All different ways of getting at the same thing: stop... appreciate the small things.

A few weeks ago, I was late for work.  I was stuck in traffic.  It was gray and rainy.  I wanted coffee, not to be staring at someone's bumper for thirty minutes.  By chance, I looked up at the sky, maybe waiting for the low-flying bird with a digestive tract questionable enough to complete the morning, when I saw something pretty cool.

No, not a bird.

The clouds sort of pulled apart in the wind, kind of like a cotton ball does when you tug at either end.  The sun shone through the little rip in the clouds, and made a rainbow.  A good one - with distinct colors and everything.

Because I glanced up, I got to see it.  (Because traffic was stopped, I didn't violate Lesson #5.  Besides, this was in Red Car.)  I love seeing rainbows.  I'm not sure why, but they make me smile.  And I remember, that moment just changed the rest of the day.  I realized I could be angry about the traffic... but that it gave me a moment to see something I would otherwise have missed.

I'm trying to use little things, like touchstones, to bring me back when I get too caught up in life.  I might be sliding down the road in slush and snow, but when I finally get where I'm going, at least the snow is pretty to look at on the trees.  Every morning I can see the Hanover Street bridge from the ramp onto MLK, and every morning it looks a little different.. from the light, the weather, the water, any number of things.  It's pretty.  

So, since lesson #9, I try to pay attention to the world around me, because, all in all, it's pretty freaking cool.  

Lesson #8: Your family will always love you.

Or, as a wise lady once said to me... "Your friends are still going to be your friends."

A favorite author of mine, Richard Bach, has two quotes I really do love.  They're from Illusions, a book I read in high school, and have bought more than half a dozen times.  Why?  Because it affected me so much that I have given it as a gift, several times, to important people in my life, people who may have needed to read it then, too.

Here they are:
"The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other's life. Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof."
"Your friends will know you better in the first minute you meet than your acquaintances will know you in a thousand years."

Why these quotes?  No, I'm not using blogger to bash my family.  I am, however, saying that family often includes people who aren't related to you at all.  These people will stand by you, and love you, and be your friends/family, even when you mess up.  And I don't mean in an avoidance/enabler sort of way... I mean they still love you because they know who you are, and because they care about you.

If you screw up, will they tell you?  You betchya

They might even say 'Told you so.'  But most of them won't.

I remember when I was a really young kid, I was playing around with the dishes in the sink. (Maybe I was rinsing them.  Probably I was just messing around)  I started playing with a can that had been opened and emptied.  I distinctly remember my mom saying "don't play with that, it's sharp."  I distinctly remember thinking "hah, whatever. No it's not."  Then I split my finger open on the edge of the lid.  Totally had that one coming.

There are a lot of stories like that, actually, where I didn't listen to Mom's advice and ended up getting hurt.  Hm.

Anyway, over the last ten years, I've come to realize that family is very important to me.  It's played a role in my closest relationships.  I am extremely grateful for the wonderful, special people in my life, some of which are related to me, some of which are not.  I'm glad to share interests with them, spend time with them, and know them.  I'm also glad that they tell me when I'm being an idiot, since sometimes I can't see it.  There's nothing like the honest perspective of a friend... or Mom... when life throws a curveball or two and I forget to duck.

Lesson #7: What I want is not always what I need.

I hate this one.  It's such a bubble-burster.

Alright.  So we all have fantasies.  They could be as mundane as having Chik-Fil-A when I most crave it - Gah! Sunday again! - to wanting to be an astronaut. A novelist.  The president.  The President of Astronaut Novelists.  With zombies.  You know what I mean.  There are stranger fantasies -- if you need proof, pay attention to the gift exchange at next years 'Dirty Santa' Holiday party.

However, I am beginning to realize that most fantasies are good because that's all they are.  Fantasies.  They're attractive because they don't exist.  They give our mind the chance to ask the question 'What if?', and I think, deep down, most human minds really like that question.

I realize there are exceptions.  I also realize that there is a difference between a fantasy and a goal.  So let me borrow some wisdom and put it a different way:
"There" is no better than "here". When your "there" has become a "here," you will simply obtain another "there" that will again look better than "here." -- Cherie Carter-Scott, from Life is a game, these are the rules. 
 In other words, the grass is always greener on the other side.

So what has that meant for me?  I mean, this is a pretty basic lesson.  There's a song about it in The Little Mermaid. But despite this font of crustaceany wisdom, I've found that I've still had a few moments of awakening (aka clarity, or something like it) where I've had to realize the thing on my own.

For this lesson, I've learned that I need to look at my motives, look at what I want, and ask myself why I want it.  Will this thing/event/decision/etc... help me along my path?  Will this make me happy?  Will this create happiness for the people around me or the people involved?  Am I pursuing this because of ego?  love?  denial?  dependence?  challenge?   What will happen if I choose not to pursue it?  Do I need it?

This is a lot of thinking for the Hershey bar that's sitting in my fridge, but hopefully you get what I mean.

I heard an interesting statement today, that said people in our lives appear because of who we are, at the time.  I think the point she was making was that we draw people to us based on our circumstances, what we want out of life.  However, I think we also draw people to us because of what we need.  People come into our lives for a reason, usually to teach us something.  Sometimes we learn.  Sometimes we don't, and we have to repeat the lesson.  But I think that by paying closer attention to the people that are in my life, and by treating my motivations honestly, I will get a much better idea of what I need out of the present moment than by simply listening to the urge that says: "Want!"

I totally heard Cookie Monster in the voice-over for that word, by the way.

Finally, I want to consider one more variation on this lesson, and talk about Commitment.  Let's go back to Cherie Carter-Scott (this was, by and large, a pretty good book).
"Commitment means devoting yourself to something or someone and staying with it -- no matter what. . . . If you have this lesson in your life path, it will show up as an inability to make choices or to stick to choices already made."
 I have a lesson coming up that discusses follow-through, but I want to mention commitment in terms of want versus need.  I have not always been able to make choices in my life, at times from fear of closing off too many options, at others because the choice was difficult, or too broad.  Part of this stems from not identifying what I need out of life, versus what I want.  When looking at choices, I can't get too caught up in the 'what if'?   Risk/reward analysis plays a role in the decision making process, yes.  But when it's difficult to make a decision, or any decision, or when I ignore the decision I need to make because it's at odds with what I want... that's a problem.  Now (and this is in-progress) I'm trying to identify what I need, and stay with that, fully embracing those roles or aspects of my life until their complete.  Hopefully, with a more honest view of what I need, I'll be able to accurately assess the 'wants' and bring them more closely in line with the needs.

27 February 2010

Lesson #6: Pay attention to food.

Food is important.  I already mentioned how it supports my body in Lesson #1. But food is important, at least to me, for a whole lot of other reasons.

  • Food is seasonal -- though we've kind of stretched this, as a culture supported by Agribusiness, types of produce, different recipes, etc are in some way seasonal.  Nothing puts me in a mindset for summer like a fresh tomato, that really tastes like a tomato.  The smell of pumpkin pie or roasted squash screams fall.  It's an adventure, to go to the farmer's market only sort of knowing what I'll be able to find. 
  • Community in meals -- sharing food is very natural to me.  I get together regularly with some of my best friends for pot-luck style dinners.  Often, when I want to bake, I bring the extra in to work.  I was lucky enough to grow up in a household where we had regular family dinners, fairly often.
  • It's fun to cook -- I love the experience of trying new flavors.  I love to cook.  I love to turn up the radio, sing, dance around the kitchen, and cook.  On a bad day, it's soup.  This is a pretty good release.
  • I can express myself -- The things I choose to cook, and how I cook them, say something about who I am.  It's a chance to be creative.  And then there's the actual act of changing something, making something that wasn't there before.  That's pretty cool.
  • There is intimacy in sharing food with someone --  Not necessarily THAT way. There must be a reason why going out to dinner is such a popular date event/celebration.  Of all the close relationships I've had, whether they ended well or poorly, I remember certain meals we shared.  It was nice cooking for that special person, making something I thought they'd like. 
  • Food is engaging -- it involves every sense - sight, sound, taste, touch, and of course, smell.
  • Food is a touchstone -- I have family or personal traditions that involve certain foods or drinks.  I love when the holidays come around, and I see those favorites on the table.  It just adds to the feeling that the time is special.
I think many people would agree with one or more items on the list.  But I think, as a culture, we tend to treat food as a requirement, or a commodity, a band-aid, or even an enemy.  We eat meals out of paper sacks, or meals that contain, in one sitting, all the calories we need for the day.  We focus on diets that can be extreme, from calorie restriction to those suspect 'cleanse' drinks in the vitamin aisle that make me angry.  We villify food, and link it to body image, which results in tons of problems in terms of eating disorders.  We shovel away potato chips, or worse, munch on conventionally-grown apples without thinking about where they came from or how they were grown.

Don't get me wrong.  I love chips.  I eat junk, because I'm 27, going on 28, and I know I still can.  I don't always buy organic, because frankly, it can be expensive.  But I try to think about it.  I try to buy healthier items when I can, buy local, seasonal, etc.  Going to the Farmer's Market is cool, even if I still have to go to the grocery store to get the things I need.  Last time I was there, the dude at one tent introduced me to some new greens I'd never tried, let me taste them, and told me how to cook them.  I enjoyed talking to the farmer.  And I found out where my bag of greens came from.

So, as I've made lifestyle changes to help my body do the activities I want to do, I've thought more about my food.  I try to cook more at home, because I enjoy it, and because I can control what goes into the meal.  I pay attention to how much I'm eating, and when I'm full.  I try to balance my occasional foray into Five Guys Burger And Fries with a healthier meal at lunch, and plenty of water.  I read about cooking and new ingredients, and challenge myself to try new things.  And eating has become, most nights, a mindful experience, something I can enjoy.  I haven't quite gotten to the point where I turn the TV off when I'm eating... but.. well.. let's not get too crazy.  At least it's usually set to the Food Network.

How do you share food with the people in your life?  Does it play a role in your traditions?  Do you ever try to buy local, or organic -- and do you think it makes a difference?

Lesson #5: There will always be the jerk in the yellow car. Sometimes it will be me.

When my Fit was being fixed post-Christmas-Accident/Trauma, I got a rental car.  It was still getting fixed, so I got another one.  It went in and out of the shop while the shop fixed all the things they missed or didn't fix right the first time, so I kept trading it for new cars.  Then the dude at the rental shop told me that really, his predecessor should have just honestly assessed the car and totaled it.  Sigh.

But one 'fun' thing about the experience was that I got to drive a bunch of different vehicles.  One was a snazzy, two-door sports car, in bright, retina-melting yellow.  If I pretended (and ignored that it was the wrong make/model), it was like driving Bumblebee.  This was also fun, because I typically drive very practical cars, and a two-door sedan is (based on my daily needs) not so much.

Plus, I've always been a little leery of flashy cars.  Often the people behind the wheel of flashy cars are driving much faster than I am.  They're weaving in front of or behind my car, darting across three lanes of traffic, into the shoulder, then back again.  They're deciding at the last possible second that they really do need to take exit 21B, and everyone needs to get out of their way.  In the two-wheel version, these are the people that dart between cars at traffic lights, and obey red lights when it's convenient for them.  I hit my brakes and shake my fist at them.  They probably fuel their vehicles with a 93-octane blend of gasoline and ground-up puppies.

So I had my highly-visible sports car, and I had an objective: get from downtown Baltimore to northern Baltimore county, on a route I've never driven, at 6:00pm.  With a time limit, because the seminar started at 7.  And whoops, I got stuck at the lab, and ended up leaving at 6:25. Grrr.

Go, Bumblebee, go!

I've learned to be a safe(r) driver over the years, believe it or not.  I did fine driving in NYC, and in Boston, and usually I'm OK in the city.  But there are still some things that I prefer to avoid.  Driving new routes, where the streets are not always clearly marked (thanks Baltimore) at night, is one of them.  Places where lanes change - in that, some hours they're turn only, or inbound, and some hours they're not - are another thing that irritate me, mostly because I learned to drive in the suburbs, where streets stay exactly as they're meant to be and the signage is consistent. And I really don't like driving down MLK Blvd in the dark, at what's still rush hour.

Yes, I am aware I sound like an old woman.  Moving on.

There I am.  The lane that was through has suddenly become turn only, according to the light-up sign.  I really don't want to turn, it'll put me way out of my way.  So I look, see a space just big enough for Bumblebee, and scootch out.  Quickly.  There was no danger.

Of course, there was still a few horns.  Because it was rush hour.  And people were already angry.

And all of a sudden I felt self-conscious.  I was aware that I was driving like a jerk, and that people had seen it.  And because I was in this bright yellow car, I was easy to spot, and they could point, and say 'what a jerk', only with different words.  I know, because I've been the one doing the pointing and the saying.

I was not just an annoying rush hour driver.  I had become the jerk in the yellow car.

So really, this lesson was about perspective.  Despite any belief that people are good, sometimes people are jerks.  That's their choice.  Sometimes I'll be a jerk, because of something I say or how I act, maybe even without realizing it.  So I need to be patient, and hope that other people are patient with me when the time comes.  At the very least, I should pay attention to what I'm doing, to minimize the chances for jerk-ness.

And then scootch forward.  Go Bumblebee, go!

Lesson #4: Before you knew me, you were someone else.

We are who we are, usually for a reason.  We're shaped by our experiences, by the people who've touched us, the role-models we choose, the traumas and celebrations that make up our personal timeline.  Maybe this is part genetics.  It's definitely part family and friends, past intimate relationships, and past successes and failures.  These defining moments, big or small, contribute to our responses to life's challenges and successes today.

At times, I have forgotten this.  Especially when someone is close to me.

Think about the last time you had a disagreement with someone, got angry with them.  Or maybe they made a decision that you didn't understand, or one that hurt you, or came as a blindside.  Maybe the relationship fell apart, or they acted in a harmful way.  At one point, you may have asked the question: "What were they thinking?"  or "How could they do that?"  Or you could be focused on a problem, with the very realistic thought of "Well, I want ____, don't you?"

And even if you ask them, you might not get the proper answer.  They might not know.  They might say they know, and not even realize they're ignoring their little voice (see Lesson #10).

I'm not saying that I should rationalize the behavior of other people.  In fact, depending on how this blog goes, I may have a lesson about NOT doing that.  But I should understand that the people in my life, whether they are there for a few minutes or for years and years, come with a depth and breadth of experience that, most likely, I will not fully understand.  So when I think about our relationship, and try to make sense of what is going on, I've learned that I need to stop.

Take a step back.

Understand that the issue may be far more than a 1:1 deal.  Get that they're making their decisions with a whole lot of reasons in mind, their own set of priorities and goals.

And then proceed.

This might not solve the problem.  Every altercation has two sides, and the only one I can really deal with is my own.  But understanding that relationships involve, in some way, everyone in the other person's history, might prevent a knee-jerk reaction, the natural instinct to make the issue all about me.  It might even change the questions I ask.  And certainly, it will remind me that the same is true on my end - my reasons for reaction to someone or something are a direct result of my own experience, or the things I still carry around.  It teaches me the importance of letting go what needs to be let go, and keeping close the things that are good to remember.  And it keeps me from focusing too much on myself, which has happened more often than I like to admit.