Flashback Friday

It’s that time of year, again: school pictures are back! In the past couple of weeks I’ve seen (but, ahem, not been given) the lovely school shots of some of my favorite kids: Abby, Katie, and Dani Dennis and Abby and Eli Kohl. Their photos took me on a little trip down memory lane, so I thought I might share one of my grade school pictures. Some of you have heard me talk about how it might have been obvious to all that I was born to have a problem with my weight, since I often (in my head, only) identified my clothing by the food item it reminded me of. In this photo, I am wearing what I affectionately referred to as my “fruit cocktail” dress. Handmade by my talented mother, Shirley, by the way!

3 Beliefs, 3 Wishes

Hard to believe that another Thanksgiving has dawned! Another whole year has flown past at dizzying speed. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about today, and inspiration eluded me. To give you an idea where my head and heart were last night when I sat down to write, I began a post titled “Thanksgiving, Bah-Humbug” in which I intended to share 5 things I wasn’t thankful for about myself, and 5 I wasn’t thankful for about other people. At a certain point, I realized it wasn’t actually very funny – in fact, it was mostly snarky – so I gave up and went to bed.

Upon waking this morning, I had the thought that looking back at last year’s “Happy Anniversary” piece which I posted on Thanksgiving might help. I read the first paragraphs, then stopped just before the list of 12 things I had learned. I wanted to think about the past year and share what I feel are insights I’ve gained since that last Thanksgiving entry. Then I re-read the list of 12 insights. Its a good list, and I am happy to say I wouldn’t change the items on it – in fact, I should probably have read it a few times over the past months when I was feeling at low ebb.

My list this year is shorter. Three beliefs that I hope will hold as steady as the 12 thoughts I shared last year. Then, for good measure, three wishes for the coming year. After all, I have said more than once that voicing what you want is one of the most essential steps to making it a reality.

Three Beliefs

1.  I believe it is important to keep challenging myself to move forward. The key words here: challenge and forward. I’ve learned that without that challenge to myself, I won’t try new things, won’t step outside my comfort zone. And there’s no such thing as stasis. If I’m not moving forward, it isn’t that I am just treading water and staying in the same place. I start to move backward – in the fitness realm I lose muscle and tone, in the diet area I start to regain weight, in my spiritual life I stumble back into self-defeating beliefs. It is hard and time consuming work to change habits and behaviors, yet it is surprisingly easy and quick to undo that hard work.

2. If I continue to challenge myself, I believe that growth and forward momentum are occurring even when, to all outward appearances, nothing is changing. This one is tough, because outward appearances are such a nice, easy way of measuring things. We all want to be able to point to measurable outcomes – it’s supposed to be part of the reward for hard work. This year I’ve learned a lot about perseverance: “continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition”, (according to Webster’s). Learning to maintain the effort, to put in the work every day, despite the lack of desired results has been hard. I say desired results (i.e. significant weight loss) because there have been positive results of this perseverance. But they’re less tangible, less definable. For one, the fact that an inveterate quitter, like me, has not quit is pretty amazing.

3. I believe you cannot connect the dots going forward. This is something Steve Jobs said in his now famous and oft-quoted commencement address at Stanford. He said we can only connect the dots in our life path when we look backwards. So, that means that we have to take a step to whatever dot calls to us next – and we take that step with trust that in the big picture of our lives, that dot will lead to the right next dot. An example from my year is the whole RAGBRAI experience. The desire, almost the need, to successfully prepare for and complete that 75-mile ride came from out of the blue. It became a compulsion. Did it connect easily with what I had been doing? Or lead directly to someplace I was headed? Not really. Looking backwards, I can see some of the dots leading up to it, but I don’t know yet how/whether it connects to my future – still, I gave it most of my focus for the best part of this year. Commit to the next dot, and worry about how they all connect later. I looked for the definition of commitment, just as I did (above) for perseverance, and found this amazing, and fitting, piece from the Urban Dictionary:

Commitment is what 
Transforms the promise into reality. 
It is the words that speak 
Boldly of your intentions. 
And the actions which speak 
Louder than the words. 
It is making the time 
When there is none. 
Coming through time 
After time after time, 
Year after year after year. 
Commitment is the stuff 
Character is made of; 
The power to change 
The face of things. 
It is the daily triumph 
Of integrity over skepticism.

Once of the best definitions ever written, in my estimation! Challenge, perseverance, commitment – these are big words, and they tell the tale of a year which posed many difficulties for me, but which also forced me to stretch further than I knew I was capable of doing. Another great year to be alive.

And now, for my three wishes.

1. I wish for myself: wisdom. It is the same wish I have made since I first learned, in high school bible study, of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Wisdom to choose well, to love deeply, to act rightly. Wisdom to live from my heart and soul, not from capriciousness or whim. Wisdom to, as I said last week, live with abandon.

2. I wish for you: joy. Both the joy of experiencing fully the moment you are in, and the deep joy of living the life you are meant to live. Whatever form that takes. I will help in any way I can – you have a friend in me!

3. I wish for the world “An environmentally sustainable, socially just, and spiritually fulfilling human presence on the planet”. A really big wish – but the idealist in me feels its possible.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Flashback Friday

This is a candid photo of me with my nieces, Myka (the more serious one) and Rachel (the happy baby), taken in California the week of my sister Gwen’s wedding. Myka was never too sure about physical rough-housing: it wasn’t her thing, though she occasionally tried to participate. Rachel, on the other hand, clearly enjoyed it even at a young age. These two girls have grown into the most wonderful young women – very different from one another (Myka is thoughtful and introspective, Rachel outgoing and still very into physical comedy) but they share a wonderful openness to life and their hearts are loving and kind. Myka lives in Minneapolis now, while Rachel is in her freshman year at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. I absolutely love the adults they have become, but today I’m feeling a little sentimental about the children they once were.

Living With Abandon…Who? Me?!

“If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?”, she asked, as if that was a question to which I would have a ready answer. I stared at her, speechless. Then, to stall for time, I asked, “One thing?” Luckily, she let me off the hook, allowing me two or three things, if I found it too daunting to name just one.

This snippet was a tiny piece of a wide-ranging conversation between me and my new life coach. We met in a wonderful coffeeshop I had never frequented for our first session last Saturday. It is a little strange for me to say that I have a life coach, for a number of reasons:

1. I have a counseling degree, and have used it in my career – but I have never seen a counselor for my own life issues;

2. within the last year, I’ve toyed with the idea of becoming a certified life coach myself – though I had never actually seen one in action;

3. I have been reluctant most of my life to seek assistance (there’s an entire blog post to be written about why this is the case).

I have been a classic case of “physician heal thyself”. There’s a simple reason we’re not supposed to do that. It doesn’t work.

Which isn’t to say that I have been unable to make changes in my life through my own action and determination. Actual change only takes place because I do the work. I’ve learned this, interestingly, by working with my fitness trainer, the ever-supportive Kylie Helgens. The hard work and sore muscles, the determination to show up at the gym day after day, these all come from me. But Kylie offers the expertise to make the most of what I am putting into it, as well as the challenge and encouragement to keep me coming back. Some days, I am willing to let myself down by not showing up, but I don’t want to let Kylie down. Trusting someone else’s expertise, and allowing them to assist in my development, is a powerful experience – and one I am ready to broaden outside the fitness realm.

Which brings me back to the life coaching session. If I am completely honest, I will admit that it was fun to spend a full hour talking about myself with someone whose purpose in being there was specifically to let me. No glazed eyes, no need to be reciprocal as might occur when meeting a friend for coffee: free reign for my inner narcissist! However, that wasn’t the only reason the session was a positive experience. In answering her curious questions about me and my life choices, we both learned a lot. Doesn’t that sound funny, coming from someone who spends a fair amount of time in self-reflection? Apparently, I know more about what I want for my life than I’ve been admitting to myself.

In the past days, as I’ve let her questions revolve in my mind, the answers I gave have been germinating and proliferating. And the answer to her question about what one thing I would change has been revealing itself to me:

If I could change one thing about my life, I would live with abandon.

Doesn’t sound like a very concrete goal for change. But it feels like a good way to explain what the concrete changes would be about.

If you look up the word abandon, you will find a definition something like “careless disregard for consequences” and synonyms like recklessness, thoughtlessness or (heavens!) licentiousness. I will never be a person whose life is defined by those words, it just isn’t in my make-up. But abandon also means freedom, spontaneity, and uninhibitedness – words I’ve often wished could be associated with me. I can be, I think, someone who has brilliant – or creative or at least good – ideas and acts on them. Abandoning myself to that moment of action, rather than holding back out of fear or self-derision – THAT’S what I’m talking about. A-typical for me, but possible.

One session into my life-coaching experience is early to know what may result. However, I already suspect that seeds have been sown which may yield unexpected fruit. My first homework is an assignment to dream…and I am attempting to dream with abandon, in the hope that I will eventually learn to live that way as well.

Flashback Friday

I don’t remember when my Dad and I indulged in this bit of photo booth fun, but judging from my hair, it was the late 80s. Jackson, my dad, has a long history of hamming it up for the camera. In the hundreds of photos I’ve seen of his teens and early 20s, only a handful show his beautiful smile and handsome face uncontorted. We are both self-conscious in front of a camera, but tend to express that discomfort in opposite ways – Pop makes strange elastic faces, while I freeze woodenly. Which is one of the reasons I love this strip of photos: I’m just fully in the goofy moment with my Dad.

When Breaking News Breaks Your Heart

“Let the highest truths and values guide everything you do.”
–Quaker admonition

Working in higher education means that when national news revolves around campus scandal, we will be even more absorbed in the story than we might otherwise have been. No one talked too much about Herman Cain at work today. Everyone had something to say about Joe Paterno. It is considered a kind of professional courtesy not to jump into the public fray too quickly, pointing fingers at other institutions. When a student dies of alcohol poisoning, when a campus sexual assault turns out to have been mishandled, when a college is fined by the Department of Education for a policy that doesn’t quite meet the federal guideline, we can find ourselves thinking, “I could be that (insert campus title) standing in front of the camera.” And we refrain from public posturing. This story is something entirely different.

I’m guessing we’ve all been paying attention – if not, just google Paterno and you’ll begin to learn the horrifying details. A lot of words have been used to describe what took place between a coach and the vulnerable children he was supposedly mentoring. More have been used to discuss the criminal lack of judgment displayed by members of the Penn State administration. I don’t have any that wouldn’t seem cliche at this point. Instead, I want to talk about the ease with which we can stray from the very values that give our lives meaning.

These coaches were famous for their values. For teaching them, for speaking them, for living them. For mentoring young people to become adults of strong character. By all accounts, these were the hallmark of their careers. I can’t speak to the values of the university officials also involved in these events, but I have spent my life working with higher education administrators. The values of our shared roles and professions as educators can be expressed in a myriad of ways, but at the core are generally recognizable: lifelong learning, development of well-rounded citizens and whole persons, the common good, to name a few.

How, then, does anyone stray so far from their professed values that they could be complicit in creating the culture of cover-up and self-protection so evident as the facts of this case have become known? I suspect the usual culprits: fear, money, cowardice, hubris, and plain old poor judgement. I would also like to suggest that our unwillingness as a society to engage in self-reflection, to practice quiet, to ask ourselves the hard questions, played a role here as well. When everyone becomes caught up in our “brand” or our image, as opposed to who our actions say that we are, abuses of power happen. When fear causes us to lose the values at our center, we often find ourselves pushed into behaviors we wouldn’t normally condone. Finally, I sometimes wonder if we place anywhere near enough value on the idea of vocation – what am I called to do with my life as opposed to how will I make money?

I don’t know about you, but in my job I am faced almost daily with situations big and small about which I am asked to decide the right course of action. I can never be 100% certain that the decision I come to, the action I take, is the most ethical, most right. However, what I can do is ask questions, get input from others I trust, then take the time to consult my own inner voice. If I ask, it will tell me if cowardice or conviction is behind my choice. Most important, I can never allow myself to forget that I am charged with a sacred trust as an educator. Sacred isn’t a word used very often, I’m afraid, in cultures like the one that developed at Penn State.

What has happened has happened. Nothing any of us, or the pundits, or even the courts say or do can change that now. The choices were made, from the heartbreaking violation of trust between Sandusky and his young victims, to the heartbreakingly apathetic (or cynical or criminally negligent – take your pick) response from those who could have done something about it. The only thing I can do in the aftermath of this horrifying chain of events is look within. I can reaffirm that I need to do the right thing, not the easy thing. I can take the extra minutes to search my soul before choosing an irrevocable course. I can practice speaking the truth when doing so is less risky, so that I am ready to do it when it feels like my job or more might be on the line.

Finally, I can remind myself regularly that my work isn’t just about collecting a paycheck or having a positive reputation. It isn’t about politics or creating plausible deniability. It isn’t about protecting my company’s reputation or brand or revenue stream above the people whose lives are impacted by what I do. My work is a sacred vocation, and what I value should be crystal clear from how I behave within that work.

“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”
–Parker Palmer

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Even though I haven’t gotten to my final goal yet, I do want to brag a little about my excellent blood analysis results, received last night. My cholesterol, blood sugars, etc. are all exactly where they should be. I am pretty darn healthy – something I attribute to both diet and exercise. Weight is only one measure of overall wellness, after all. Rock on!

Nutrients vs Food

I’ve been watching food-related documentaries this month: King CornFresh, and Lunch Line. Each film takes a look at different aspects of food in the US: production, environmental impacts, public policy, and the costs of our current ways of relating to food. I have been learning so much the past two years about food – both how it impacts me and how it affects the world around me. This is another of the unintended consequences of the Hunger Challenge that began this blog and my current foray into learning what my best life/best self might look like.

In Lunch Line, several of those interviewed spoke about changing the school lunch guidelines from “nutrient based” menus to “food based” menus. In case you haven’t heard these terms, current USDA policies require certain nutrients in the lunches served, rather than numbers of servings of types of foods (like 2 vegetables and a fruit, for example). This is the kind of policy which led, during the Reagan administration, to the brouhaha surrounding the consideration of ketchup as a vegetable. One self-described lunch lady said, “When was the last time you saw a food label on a peach? Real food doesn’t need labels.” I don’t begin to consider myself an expert on these issues, but this idea makes intrinsic sense to me. As some of you may know, when I first began to lose weight several years ago, I joined Weight Watchers. I cannot say enough positive things about Weight Watchers and how their approach has helped so many people make changes in their lives – me included. However, I eventually stopped going, in part due to what I consider their pushing of “fake food” – highly processed foods with artificially enhanced nutritional content – rather than a reliance on whole foods, well-prepared.

As I have been reflecting on this concept, Nutrients vs Food, it has occurred to me that the idea may be generalizable to other consumables in our lives, not just comestibles. How often do we settle for something “good enough” to fit the bill, rather than something truly soul-satisfying? Think about how regularly we opt for ease and a quick fix rather than work a little harder for the real deal. We read pulp fiction, but not literature. We hit headline news, without seeking in-depth analysis of world events. We spend more Facebook time than face-time with our friends. I have one friend who puts hot sauce on everything he eats – an easy way to flavor the food on his plate, but everything ends up tasting the same. In our drive-through, a la carte lives, perhaps it might be better to take the time to season things, to enhance and deepen the flavors, rather than cover them up with a single-note sauce to make them palatable.

Some weeks, I feel like nothing more than a hamster on a wheel, and the race I’m stuck in is both a marathon and a sprint. The illusion I sell myself is that this is how life is, there is nothing to be done except keep running and gasping for air. The truth is, I make the choices that keep me on the wheel. The truth is, I don’t change that because change is hard. Really hard, sometimes. But I don’t want my diet to be a list of nutrients to be checked off. I want it to be a menu full of delicious and nourishing food. And that is what I want for my daily life, as well. Rich, full, well-seasoned with spices – and so real and whole it doesn’t require labels to recognize component parts.

To achieve this requires attention. It requires a willingness to go for the slightly more difficult option. Not every time, but often enough that I develop a taste for the more complex selections. Eventually, the headlines (and the chick-lit and the twitter) are seen for what they really are: appetizers – quick and tasty but hardly confused with a real meal. And the meal itself – deep conversation with people I care about, art and poetry, self-reflection and a well-rounded knowledge of the world I live in – becomes nourishing and satisfying in the truest sense of those words.

“When you recover or discover something that nourishes your soul and brings joy, 
care enough about yourself to make room for it in your life”
–Jean Shinoda Bolen 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

One time, a number of years ago, I was with three friends checking out the bar scene on Rush Street in Chicago (and by a number of years, I mean I was still in my 20s). None of us was particularly overweight, though I was – as usual – self-conscious about my appearance. As we walked toward a group of four young men, one of them said, “What’s up ladies? Besides your weight.”  I have never forgotten that. And each time I get on the scale and there is an uptick, I am sorry to say that those words come back to me. I have worked hard to develop a more robust self-esteem than I possessed all those years ago. In addition, I can’t really remember conversations I had yesterday. But my psyche has held on to that one cruel comment, and now I own it. Why is it so easy to grab ahold of bludgeons people use against us, and so difficult to let them fall away?