The Thing Itself

Rainbow over the Midtown Greenway
Rainbow over the Midtown Greenway

A while ago, in a moment of deep relaxation, I saw in my mind’s eye an image of clouds in a mirror next to the actual sky in which those clouds floated. Looking from one to the other, I became confused as to which was the real, and which the mirror, image. A voice in my head clearly said, “I want the thing itself, not its reflection.”

Sometimes, the voices in our heads are just chatter. Other times, we know they are telling us something important. However, interpreting those voices, and what they say, isn’t always easy. For one, while they are quick to tell us what to do, they are often silent on how to go about doing it. For two, the voices in our heads are capricious, sending us in one direction today and another tomorrow. For three, we don’t always want to do the hard work – or find it difficult to maintain the focus required – to align our lives with the true direction they’ve whispered to our hearts.

“I want the thing itself, not its reflection”. For me, distinguishing between the real and the “looks real” or the “almost real” can be quite difficult. I find that, when I am not making a conscious effort to stay grounded in the specifics of what I want myself and my life to be, I am easily distracted by things that feel good in the moment. This is not, in itself, a bad thing. Enjoying the moment, spending time just being, is wonderful. But we live in a world that constantly works to pull us in directions that lead away from both our heart’s desires – from meaningfulness – and from our life’s purpose. Like a mirage of water in the desert, we move toward the tantalizing sparkle in the distance, only to discover there’s nothing real there at all.

As I thought carefully about the clouds and mirror image I had envisioned, and about the thing itself versus its reflection, three questions came to mind. I think they may be helpful to anyone who, like me, too often finds they’ve lost track of their “thing itself” in favor of chasing after mirages.

What do I want? What is “the thing itself”?

Some people seem to have been born knowing exactly what they want in life. Others discover a passion and move with determination and unwavering focus toward mastery and refinement of that passionate vision. I am not one of those people. Instead, when asked what I want in life, I have a tendency to list airy visions: “I want to live authentically”; “I want to be happy”; “I want to make a difference in the lives around me”. While I do want these things, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting them, they tend to lack specificity.

For a while I worked with a personal coach named Charlynn. Much of our time together was spent drilling down from these airy statements, attempting to reach solid ground. To reach specific, concrete goals for my life. A huge take-away from my work with Charlynn was that I am someone who benefits from having a sounding board, a listening ear AND a direct questioner to pull me out of the clouds and into a more grounded place. If you need this, too, there’s no shame in asking for help.

I heard author Elizabeth Gilbert interviewed on public radio a few months ago. She said she hates when people are told to follow their passion. She said, “What if you aren’t one of the lucky ones who knows what your passion is?” Instead, she advocated that we follow our curiosity. Another author, Claire Cook, in her book Never too Late: Your Roadmap to Reinvention (without getting lost on the way), advocates for picking something and getting started. She believes that the clarification you need will happen as you move forward – but moving forward is the key to refining what it is you want.

In any case, the importance of the question, “What do I want?” isn’t so much in answering it once and for all. Instead, its importance lies in zeroing in on the person you want to be and the life you hope to manifest. If you are getting close to “the thing itself”, you’ll find that your answers don’t vacillate wildly from one thing to another. Instead, you’ll begin to see a steadiness in your responses, with adjustments of degree rather than of content.

What reflections am I settling for?

If you are at all like me, this question is vitally important. If I feel reasonably happy and free from fear, I am willing to coast along from day to day for…sometimes years.

This is only a problem if what you want is something other than being reasonably happy and free from fear. For me, accepting reasonably happy and free from fear has also, at times, meant: not addressing my morbid obesity; remaining too long in a job in which my commitment and hard work were taken for granted but not compensated or reciprocated; living in a community that did not offer the opportunities my heart longed for. It has also meant not facing a deeper fear than for my immediate well-being: the fear of risk.

It is so easy to let inertia take over. And it is sometimes so hard to make yourself do something other than settle for what you currently have. But once you’ve awakened to how different it feels to  have or go for “the thing itself”, as opposed to an approximation or reflection, you know it is worth the effort.

What needs to change or happen in order to get the real instead of the reflected?

This question is the “come to Jesus” moment. Nothing changes without a change in our own behavior. And I don’t have a lot of good advice, for myself or anyone else, on how to align behaviors with goals and create a roadmap for change.

What I do know is that I have to be honest with myself about whether I am really doing things that are moving me toward “the thing itself”. I have a tendency to fudge on that, to make excuses, or, when I finally do get real, to beat myself up for being a lazy bum and NOT taking concrete action. All of that is equally useless. Let it go.

Each day is a new opportunity to take action, to make corrections to your course, to redirect toward the real and away from the mirage. Getting lost in self-recrimination – or self-deceit – just uses valuable energy we could otherwise be directing toward necessary tasks.


Clearly, creating a life in which we achieve that “real” thing our hearts desire, in which we accomplish something meaningful rather than settle for a shiny approximation of meaning, can be a difficult and life-long process. But from the glimpses I’ve had, the moments in my life when I’ve touched “the thing itself”, I can wholeheartedly say it is worth holding myself accountable to get there. To keep reaching beyond the illusion or mirage to grasp something truly valuable. Each of us will define that “thing” differently, which is both the beauty and trickiness of it. It’s the reason no one can tell you exactly how to get there. My hope is that we can, at least, help each other ask the right questions.








Rejecting Cynicism

Show me somebody who is always smiling, always cheerful, always optimistic, and I will show you somebody who hasn’t the faintest idea what the heck is really going on.”    -Mike Royko

In case you missed it, dire things happen in this world.

Violence erupts. Racism and sexism have not been eradicated. Neither have the measles or Ebola. People, both famous and otherwise, meet untimely deaths. George Clooney gets married. The globe warms and species disappear.

Last week in the Twin Cities, a six year old died of apparent suicide.

We respond with tears. With protest. With disbelief. With #activism.

We move on.

We might stop seeking out the news. If we don’t know what is going on, it can’t bring us down, right?

Sometimes we become radicalized, hyper vigilant and active.

But more often we become desensitized, somnolent and apathetic.

More often, we resort to snark and sarcasm and the uber-cynicism of our times.

What did you think about when you were six?

I thought about putting on puppet shows for the neighborhood. About playing school with my siblings; about pixies, Peter Pan, and Play Doh. About marching in a kid’s parade on the 4th of July. About lilacs and May Day posies.

I thought about how soon my mom would let me go to the library to hang out in the children’s room. Or hanging out at Cathy Crown’s house with her spectacular farting dog.

I can promise you I never thought about hanging myself with a jumprope.

Cynical: believing that people are motivated by self-interest; distrustful of human sincerity or integrity.

We live in a cynical world, we’ve been told. People are selfish, self-centered, fake and self-interested.

Is this TRUE?

Cynical: concerned only with one’s own interests and typically disregarding accepted or appropriate standards in order to achieve them.

 Are you concerned only with your own interests? Are you without ethical or moral standards?

Is this YOU?

If you answered YES to both questions, I don’t know what to say to you, except I do actually pity you. If you answered no to the second question (regardless of your answer to the first), please join me in rejecting cynicism.

Because if you aren’t like that, why would you choose to believe everyone else is? Isn’t it possible that others, like you, are simply doing the best they can with what they’ve been given/have gotten in this life?

And if that is true, perhaps instead of devolving into a cynical world view, we’d all do better to develop into an idealistic and compassionate world view (or optimistic at the very least).

Look at the strangers around you wherever you go today – whether that’s the grocery store or a movie theater, or simply walking down the street or waiting for the bus.

If you see them through cynical eyes, they are all potentially dangerous, potentially sociopaths. You don’t want to make eye contact with them, much less speak or connect with them.

But if you see them through compassionate eyes, they are all potentially interesting, potentially kind, potently human. They are people you might smile at, be willing to chance connecting with.

I don’t know about you, but I am tired of living in a world in which six year olds can look around themselves and think, “I’ve had enough. It will never get better than this.”

I’d rather spend my time believing that this one world we live in is better than the cynics’ world. I’d rather create a different world: one that invites rather than repels; one that offers hope; one in which we don’t immediately look for the darkest meaning behind each sentence, hidden within each action. If (as I believe) perception IS reality, and my perceptions influence my responses to the world around me – and are deeply influenced by my world view – then I had better practice excellent mental hygiene. I had better pay close attention to the beliefs that wriggle their way into my thinking and begin to steer my choices.

In my thoughts AND in my actions, I’d rather be an idealist than a cynic. And if I’m wrong, and the cynics are right, I’ll still be happier in my delusion than they will be in their reality.

“All I ask of you is one thing: please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism — it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. ”  — Conan O’Brien








On Monday of this week, the nation celebrated the life, words, and activism of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. My social media feeds, and likely yours, overflowed with inspirational quotes taken from Dr. King’s speeches and written works. The number of people inspired by Dr. King’s life and words over the decades is incalculable.

Also this week, on Tuesday, the nation participated in the annual political ritual of the President’s State of the Union address. I tuned in, and listened with interest. Did I agree with everything President Obama said? No. Did I find much of what he said idealistic? Yes. Were there moments that I found inspiring? Absolutely.

I watched the address on PBS, and immediately afterwards a panel of pundits began their postmortems. Without exception, each one mentioned the idealism of the vision President Obama shared in the second half of his speech. For the most part, they poo-pooed it as being unrealistic, going so far as to suggest that he should have stuck to concrete policies rather than sharing his vision of what this country could be, perhaps is in its best moments.

I’m not writing today to argue the merits of the political positions or policies the President promulgated in his speech. What caught my attention was the suggestion that the leader of this nation ought not to share an idealistic vision as part of his outline for the coming year.

Don’t Ask Me Why…

This morning a friend shared an article to her Facebook page: “Reveal Your Life’s Purpose By Asking These 15 Questions”. I tried to read the article during my lunch break at work, but it wouldn’t open properly on my mobile device. I wasn’t too concerned and quickly moved on to other pursuits. After all, I had only been idly curious to see whether these particular 15 questions were really any more life-enhancing or -altering than any of the other (literally) hundreds of such lists I’ve read over the years.

When I got home from work, there was a letter from another friend in my mailbox. I took the letter with me as I walked to the coffeeshop, and opened it with anticipation. Several pages fluttered out of the envelope. The lead paragraph of the article declared “So what’s your real purpose in life? To get started on your path, it’s important to ask the right questions. Here are 10 to move you in the right direction.”

I’m a believer in meaningful coincidences. These two lists of questions in my “mail”, sent by friends, arriving on the same day? Seems like something I should pay attention to, right? But then, because I sometimes need to be hit over the head before paying attention, this also showed up on my Facebook newsfeed today. From “The question that reveals what you really want—and the two follow-up questions that can tell whether you’re lying to yourself“.

After leaving the coffee shop, I sat in my quiet apartment, pen and paper at the ready. I read the first fifteen questions. There were some good ones on the list (What kind of things do people always ask me about?), but I got sidetracked when I read, “What recurring dreams do I have?”.  Forty minutes later I realized that I had just wasted a chunk of time reliving my childhood nightmare about a giant who comes over the hill and lifts the roof off my childhood home.

I thought I might focus better on the questions in the article that came with my friend’s letter. Again, while there were some good questions on the list (Do I view life as abundant?), I found my brain was balking from the task at hand – it simply refused to zero in on discovering my life’s purpose this afternoon. The note paper I had gotten ready in preparation for the many insights I expected and would want to retain remained blank.

As I sat in my uninspired state, I wondered if perhaps this had been just a run-of-the-mill coincidence, rather than the Universe tapping me on the shoulder. Like the time I heard Ariana Grande was performing on something and I was like, “Whose that?”, and suddenly her name and face were everywhere. It is January, after all, and people are full of resolutions and a new year’s attempts to redirect their lives.

Then I remembered something. Last week, my nephew’s wife, Elsa, posted a conversation she had with her young daughter, my great-niece Ada. Elsa had decided to turn the tables on Ada by repeatedly asking the girl, “Why?” Eventually, the conversation took this turn:

Ada: Why did you say why?
Elsa: Because I was pretending to be you, and you say why a lot.
Ada: Why do I say why?
Elsa: That’s your developmental phase.
Ada: Yeah.

Ada’s pretty quick on the uptake for a girl who just turned four this week! But as I thought about this interaction, I realized that many of us, myself included, spend an inordinate amount of time asking, “Why?” A few of the “why” questions that ran through my head just yesterday included:

Why am I cursed to always get stuck behind the one driver obeying the speed limit?

Why can’t I find a pair of shoes that don’t hurt my feet?

Why does this always happen to me?

Why can’t I find the perfect _____________ (job, lover, cup of coffee, balance)?

What’s wrong with asking why? Nothing, if the question is a curious one about a topic we hope to explore. Too often, though, why is the question we ask when we think we’ve been short-changed or are feeling self-pity. It’s most common form is “Why me?” When we ask “Why?” about our life’s path, it keeps us locked in the past. The answer to “Why haven’t I/can’t I find my life’s purpose” merely leads to rehashing and rethinking the choices and actions that have led us to this moment. And it stops there – it doesn’t take us forward from the spot where we currently reside.

We keep asking this question, in part, because we feel we know the answer(s). We like that because we’re uncomfortable thinking about things we don’t know or can’t control. It’s not that we can’t answer the questions posed on these “discover your true purpose” lists. It’s that we don’t know how to translate the answers into lived actions. I can give a whole slew of answers to “What would I be doing if money were no object?”. But how do I take those answers and convert them into goals and a plan?

And how much work and change in my life would it take to make that happen? Just thinking about all that work and change both exhausts and terrifies me.

It is so much easier to stay in the “Why”, rather than to live with the more probing questions. But if I don’t want to remain at precocious little Ada’s developmental stage, I have to move on from why. And I have to stop allowing my brain to distract my attention with shiny baubles like my giant nightmare from childhood – I don’t have that dream anymore, and it is irrelevant to moving forward.

Pondering these thoughts and questions, I was reminded that I took the word “IGNITE” as my inspirational word for 2015. I began to wonder about the answers to questions like: “What would it look like if I truly ignited this year?” “How am I defining the word ignite?” “In what ways would my physical/emotional/spiritual self change if I did light up this year?” “How will I know or recognize if I am igniting in a particular area of my life?” Suddenly, my unused notebook paper started filling up with ideas. These questions have specificity for my life, begin where I am right now (as opposed to where I stood in the past), and are forward-looking. I can also see how to create goals and action steps from the answers. All that remains is to actually stay with the questions long enough to hear how my heart answers them.

As Vanessa Redgrave once said, “Ask the right questions if you’re going to find the right answers.” If I have a New Year’s resolution, it’s to stop asking the same old “Why/Why me?” question. I’m ready to move on from the past and I’ve got a good feeling about 2015…don’t ask me why.

Things I Plan to Say More Often in 2015

Words are my love language. Literally.

On New Year’s Day, I had friends over for brunch and as we whiled-away the afternoon, the subject of love languages came up (The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman). I’ve been familiar with the concept of love languages for a while, though I’d never really paid close attention to it. But the conversation piqued my interest so I checked out the website and took the on-line quiz. What my quiz score revealed will likely surprise no one: my love language is “Words of Affirmation” – meaning that I need people to use their words! I thrive on hearing kind and encouraging words that build me up. If you love me, sometimes I need to hear you say so (with as much specificity and detail as possible).

As I thought about how it makes me feel affirmed and supported, understood and cared for – just plain valued – when people say aloud the things we sometimes hold unspoken, I realized that I could do a much better job of verbalizing some things myself. Not just to make others feel valued, but also to express kindness, demonstrate generosity of spirit, soften the hard edges of bluntness. Some of the things I can do a better job of verbalizing don’t really have as much to do with “love languages” as they do with creating a more expansive life. Of course, I’ve come up with a list of things I’d like to say more often in 2015:

I’m going upstairs to take off my hat: In this season’s Downton Abbey opener, Lady Mary excuses herself from an awkward moment with this line and a slightly self-deprecating smile. Sometimes, what we want/need to say is just…less. This year, I want to practice removing myself from the temptation of adding to awkward or uncomfortable moments I’ve walked into by happenstance, rather than making them worse by barreling forward with too many uncomfortable observations. I’ll just mentally ask myself, “What would Lady Mary say/do?”

I’m proud of you: In the movie Pretty Woman, when Richard Gere’s character decides to work cooperatively with the man whose company he had been attempting to raid, the older gentleman tells him, “I want to say something that’s hard to say without sounding condescending, but I’m proud of you.” (or something along those lines). Sometimes, I feel self-conscious about telling people I’m proud of them because a small internal voice asks, “Who are you to be proud?” – as if being proud of others is reserved for parents and mentors.

That hurt me:

This is a particularly hard one for me. I absolutely hate revealing that I’ve been hurt. Pretending I’m impervious to hurt is a defense mechanism I developed early on and perfected through rigorous practice. The trouble is, intimacy between people doesn’t develop by sharing only the good stuff: happy thoughts, positive vibes, our superhero powers. Intimacy can only develop through a willingness to share the shadowy bits as well. It is not fun to expose your emotional injuries (nor is it a laugh riot to be on the receiving end), but it is an opportunity for greater intimacy and trust to develop. In other words, totally worth doing.

Would you like to….: Instead of sitting at home feeling like a wallflower, I’m going to find interesting things to do and invite others to join me. And if there are no takers, I’ll probably do it anyway!

My goal is…: When I’ve shared my goals, hopes and dreams with others, I’ve found lots of support, both emotional and material. There is accountability, and there is synchronicity as well. Achieving our goals, big and small, takes work. We all know this. But it is sometimes surprising how much we need the input and/or contributions of others to make it. Also, stating our intentions up front is a great way to cement our commitment.

Nailed it!: There has been a recent trend in which people attempt to recreate something they saw on Pinterest, fail miserably, yet post photos claiming to have “nailed it!” Aside from the laughter these posts have given me, they have also inspired me to cut myself a little slack. We so often think we need to achieve perfection to claim our accomplishments, but the reality is that we rarely manage perfect. More often, doing our very best falls somewhere between complete failure and gold-medal status. Why isn’t that worth celebrating? After all, we didn’t do nothing (which, face it, was an option). We did something: we tried. I definitely think that is worth claiming!

Thank you!: Good manners require thank yous. We know this. But we often forget to follow through – or worse, we forget that our accomplishments are rarely the result of our own efforts alone. We forget, in the blush of success, that others helped us along the way, offering every level of support and assistance. I think we should strive to become the Johnny Appleseeds of gratitude, tossing “thank you” in every direction and allowing it to take root in new places. Thank you for not hanging up on me when I called with my questions. Thank you for letting me pick your brain. Thank you for that cup of coffee three weeks ago when I was discouraged. Thank you for the funny text. Thank you for reconnecting when you felt that intuitive urge to reach out. Thank you for the cookie. Thank you for being kind. Thank you for wearing yellow today. Thank you for smiling. Thank you for showing up. Thank you for the nothing-special-just-hanging-out time. People like being appreciated. More to the point, though, we open our worlds and perspectives when we are grateful – it is as good for our health as taking deep breaths, drinking water, stretching.

In summary, while I don’t plan to bore the world to death by talking incessantly in 2015, I DO hope to say more of the kinds of things that strengthen relationships, resolve, and resilience. This year, I ‘m pledging to use my words for good – why not join me?


Afterward: In the midst of writing these thoughts, my sister synchronistically posted this Kid President video: 

. I had forgotten how much I liked it. Except for the corn dogs part – I’m not into them, and neither is my sister!



2015. Ready, Set, Ignite!

It’s late on New Year’s Day, 2015.

I have tried to reflect on 2014, but I keep falling asleep (yes, I’m sticking with my serious reduction of caffeine so sleep is still happening at an alarming rate). Wise words on a year so full of both incredible experiential highs and difficult emotional troughs will have to wait. Perhaps forever…who knows?

For someone who has always loved the Christmas season and been a huge fan of the transformative power of Christmas spirit, I was slow to realize my own impending “George Bailey” crisis. (Please, read this synopsis of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” if you don’t get that reference.) Like George, I entered the holiday season feeling weary, poor, and a failure. And like George, I discovered that the love of family, dear friends and yes, even the intervention of an unlooked-for guardian angel,  could transform my perspective.

In truth, what was broken in me was my vision, my perspective. I have been constantly comparing myself and my current life against my recent past and/or my hopes for the future. In these comparisons, I always find myself wanting. Ironic, isn’t it – coming from the person whose most popular post this year was aptly titled, “Stop Weighing Yourself!”

As I took in the warmth, generosity and love showered upon me at Christmas, I couldn’t help but see the shabbiness of my view toward myself. There are some pretty amazing people who love me, support me, believe in me. Who see me as a person with gifts to share. Who don’t weigh me against my past or my potential – who just hold me as I am right now. My self-absorbed wallowing in “this isn’t how I expected it to go” does each of them a disservice. First, because in my self-focus I don’t give back as good as I get from them. Second, because it is like telling them repeatedly that they’re wrong to care.

The angel Clarence writes to George, “No man is a failure who has friends”. So, to my amazing friends, I say a heartfelt thanks for pulling me through the darker days and helping me see the error of my viewpoint. As the new year moves toward the light of sunshine and longer days again, I plan to step into the light as well.

My word for 2015 is “Ignite”. I’m lighting a trashcan fire and burning the useless crap I’ve been carrying around in my heart. On the positive side, what has been potential must, finally, feel the lighted match of intent and catch fire. What is superficial must burn away to make room for what is more deeply real. And the love in my heart for each and every one of you must catch fire and be seen like a beacon from near and far. For 2015 (with apologies to Katniss Everdeen), I’m the girl on fire.

Those are big words. Big words, but not just talk. I know the reality will come to pass in small steps: goals set and met; course corrections when necessary; a thousand daily choices to be positive, to contribute, to connect. Finally, I feel ready to exercise my talents in service to something more than merely making it through another day.

It’s the first day of 2015. Ready or not…IGNITE!