Comfort Zone

It has been cold here in New England recently. Earlier this week, it was bone-chilling, teeth-crackling cold. So cold, in fact, that even the thought of going for a walk made me shiver. But after a week in quarantine, working from home, and barely going out, I was stir-crazy, and I forced myself to go for a walk.

I bundled up and stepped out the door and into the cold. The air was still and no one else was out as I walked down the path past the pond. The bare trees of mid-winter reveal the landscape in new ways, and I could see the stream through the twigs and branches that line the path. In warmer months, these twigs would be dense underbrush. I could see where the stream split in two then rejoined as one before emptying into the pond. Far above me, the trees whined and groaned in the slight breeze.

The normal acoustics of the outside world seemed muffled by the cold, the snow on the ground, and my hat on my ears. An airplane flew low overhead preparing to land, and the sound was much quieter than at other times of year when the volume can be deafening.

When you are willing to step outside and brave the elements, you are often rewarded with peace and fresh air and sights not seen indoors. As I walked up the hill, I spotted a sundog gracing the clouds up ahead—a wink from my dad, the spotter of rainbows and shooting stars, letting me know he’s here even though I cannot see him. And at the end of my walk, as I approached home, the wispy strokes of an angel-like cloud danced in the sky, beckoning me forward.

Here’s what I know. When you are willing to step out of the warm comfort of your home and pay attention to the world around you, it feeds your soul. When I stepped outside, I opened myself up to the sights and sounds that awaited me. The smell of snow, the clouds against the blue sky, the shape of a snow heart set off by the dark pavement.

But here’s what I want to know. If these are the possibilities with a simple walk outside, what are the possibilities if you step out of your comfort zone? What kind of growth is possible if you take the step you’ve been putting off? How will you change if you take the risks that you know you want to take, but you can’t quite muster the courage?

True growth happens when we make ourselves vulnerable. When we do the thing we have been putting off. It might be to leave a comfortable job for a new opportunity. It might be to reach across the void of years to reconnect with an old friend. Or to leave a relationship that isn’t healthy. It might be venturing out on your own to create the life you desire and deserve.

Yes, it may be scary. Yes, you will be able to come up with a million and one excuses for not doing the thing. But what do you have to lose if you take the risk? More importantly, what regrets will you have if you don’t take the risk and do whatever it is that is calling your heart?

No doubt, the first few steps will be cold and uncomfortable. No doubt the journey will be bumpy and at times unsettling or even downright discouraging. But when you find your footing, when you take a look around, you will notice the beauty. You will realize your strength. And you will begin to find your confidence.

Take the step, whatever that may be for you. Venture beyond your comfort zone and discover the joy and wonder that lie just beyond your current reach. You just might be surprised by what life has in store for you!

Waiting

2020 Lesson Number One: Waiting is an important part of life.

Over the years, our culture has evolved into a society that rejects waiting as undesirable and something to be avoided.  We have found ways to remove the need to wait from our lives. We are able to find out the gender of an unborn child so we don’t have to wait nine long months and wonder about the child we will meet. When we have an idea we want to explore or research we want to do, we have a wealth of information at our fingertips—no more waiting for the library to open and then waiting to obtain a physical copy of a book or magazine that might have to come from another town or state. Nope… information is now available (from the comfort of your couch) at any time of the day or night. Need something that you don’t have in your house? Place an order, and if you are willing to pay a little extra, you can have the item by tomorrow. Not feeling well? No need to wait to see the doctor. Just take to the internet and diagnose yourself! That way, you can decide if you really need to bother the doctor, and when you finally get an appointment, you can tell the doctor what is wrong with you. (Note: I do not support self-diagnosis via the internet and nether do most doctors).

When all is said and done, we don’t get used to waiting anymore. We expect instant gratification. We have forgotten that there are things we cannot control, regardless of the time that passes. We have lost the benefits of waiting—of delaying gratification and anticipating what will come… in time. And most importantly, we have forgotten the art of using waiting time to benefit our lives and ourselves.

This year, we had to wait, and we had to figure out how to deal with long stretches of time spent waiting. On March 13, when so many of us were told to go home and stay there for two weeks, we thought it would be just that—two weeks. But two weeks stretched to a month, then two, and before we knew it, we had been at home for four months. Or six months. Or more.

People took up new hobbies. They worked on developing cooking and baking skills. They learned to knit. They took up yoga and meditation. They made home improvements and became master gardeners. People began taking walks in nature, playing outside with their children, and connecting with family members. People connected with each other as they reflected on what was to come and how our society—and their lives—might be different on the other side of COVID.

Waiting is not a waste of time, as society has programmed us to believe. Waiting is one of those in-between-spaces where we think nothing is happening. And yet, waiting is a valid and valued part of life. Waiting is where the pieces of life come together. Waiting—and working through problems and ideas in our heads and lives—is where meaning is found.

This year, we learned to wait, and hopefully this new skill will help us to create a more meaningful life when we finally settle into our new normal.

Blooming – 2020 style

My Christmas cactus is having a difficult time this year. It has always been a late bloomer, but this year, it is really struggling. It has been pushing out teeny little buds that show great promise. Like many things this past year, these buds give me a brief hint of excitement and hope. But after a few days, they wither up and fall off. This cactus… it’s not even close to blooming, and I am wondering if it will bloom at all this year.

Truth be told, I have been having trouble blooming this year, as well. This year has been tough, and some days I feel like I just don’t have it in me to be my best. Some days I lack the patience necessary to think about tomorrow. The days blend together, and Monday becomes Tuesday and blends with WednesdayThursdayFriday until the weekend, and then the week starts over again. On and on and on it goes.

It’s been a tough year, but it has also been an important year. In its break from reality, its focus on silence, its fear of crowded spaces, this year has given us some much-needed room for reflection. I tried hard to take advantage of what this year offered, so I might be in a better space going forward. I refrained from railing against authority and complaining about not living life as “normal.” I embarked on a lengthy journey to reconnect with my self—the essential core of who I really am.

I’m not going to lie. This year was filled with tough lessons that weren’t fun but were very much necessary. It took a great deal of patience and tenacity to sit through these long months, especially when we began to see hints of how far we have strayed from where we need to be. Our goals and our focus have drifted away from being good people to amassing as many possessions and as much power as we can, no matter the cost. We have grown to focus not on who we are as people, but on what and how much we have. I have to believe this is not why we are here.

So I took this year as a correction. I am taking its lessons, and I am coming back to center. I am re-grounding and rediscovering myself and my mission for my life. The lessons I learned emerged—as many do—from loss, boredom, anxiety, and resolve. They came in the form of traits such as patience, resilience, tenacity, discipline, and a habit of self-reflection. They involve listening to myself in order to continuously rediscover and recreate who I am. And they involve looking carefully and paying attention to the little things so I will know better how to fill the spaces where need is great.

Stay with me for a few days. I’m going to take you on a journey through this past year and share with you some of the lessons that I have learned—lessons that I will take with me as I venture into 2021.

Spinning

On a recent afternoon, I was working with one of my regular students. She is a first-year student, with whom I have developed a relationship comfortable enough that we joke around a fair amount. In reality, I joke around with most of my students because it helps them to relax and work better with me when I am … redirecting … their writing. And their academic focus.

This particular student has been working with me weekly—or semi-weekly—all semester. During our appointments, we laugh. A lot. And every now and then, we cry because that’s just the way life is.

On this afternoon, however, I was tired—silly tired—and she was working hard on developing a couple of her points before she moved on to her conclusion. As she took the time to think and compose, I started to spin in my desk chair.

“You keep working,” I advised her. “I’m just going to sit here and spin.” And with that, I spun the chair in one direction and then the other. (My office is just small enough that I couldn’t quite spin all the way around without hitting her backpack on the floor or my desk against the wall).

With that announcement, her face lit up with a smile. “You should!” she exclaimed. “Adults don’t take enough time to have fun!”

And you know, based on my experience as an adult, I have to say she’s right. Being a single mom put lots of responsibility squarely on my shoulders, and even though my children are now grown and fully capable of taking care of themselves, I haven’t quite figured out how to shake the weight of my parental duties. I still have a tendency (as we all do) to get busy with the mundane tasks and duties of adulthood, and I don’t take the time to be present, enjoy the moment, and have fun.

So I’m making this my goal into the first few months of 2020. I am going to be intentional about taking time to have fun. I will spin at my desk, regardless of who is watching. I will find opportunities to get away for an hour, a day, or a weekend. I will dance in the rain and play in the snow. I will decorate my house, go to the movies, find some new friends, look for rainbows, and wish on falling stars.

And hopefully, you will too!

{Photo by Scott Higdon on Unsplash}

Silence

I have been sitting with the silence that many creative types (artists, writers, inventors) face at some point. This is the silence in which ideas don’t come. Silence can be frightening. Or silence can be an opportunity.

I will admit that I have likely played a role in this silence as I fill my days with a job that is demanding and draws on much of my energy—both physical and emotional. I have been implementing new programs, rethinking the way things are done, and pouring energy into helping students adjust to college.

So lately, ideas come and flit in my mind like a butterfly that lights ever so briefly on a flower or plant. But by the time I turn my attention fully to capture the idea, it is gone. And if it lingers, when I focus to put it on paper, it slowly fades until I can no longer see it, and it disappears.

But silence is a powerful teacher. By sitting with the silence, I am learning more about myself. About who I am, and about what truly moves me and drives me on. Something within me is beginning to emerge, playing with the edges of my conscious brain, but staying just within the boundaries of my subconscious.

As I sit in the silence, the ideas are starting to work their way into the space that I am holding for them. Today, two ideas came to me and stayed long enough to be held, turned, examined, and fleshed out—at least vaguely.

As I sit in the silence, I am hopeful for the future. I have reevaluated where I am and where I want to be. This particular period of silence has been deafeningly loud and longer than I would have liked. But now, I am ready for the ideas to come. I am ready to take the lessons of silence and turn them into something beautiful. I am ready for the sweet music of the muse.

You are HERE

You are HERE.

Most people think of HERE as a physical locale, and temporarily, it may be. But HERE (in the big picture) is your physical body and your emotional and spiritual wellbeing. In fact, HERE is less a physical locale than a mental state of being. HERE is a permanent but fluid state. Because no matter where you are, you still have to deal with the stuff that you can’t shake off—your health and your state of mind.  The good thing is, if you don’t like being HERE, you can change it.

When you say, “I’ll be happy when I can move to a warmer climate,” or “If only I made more money…,” you are stating that you are not happy right now. Right HERE. And if that is the case, moving to a new place or making more money won’t resolve the unhappy in the HERE.

No matter how much you try, you cannot run from HERE. Who you are, what haunts you, what keeps you up at night, and what pushes you on… these things will stay with you. They will follow you. HERE will always be a part of you.

If you face the HERE, you can do the work you need to do. Figure out who you are and what makes you tick. Learn to love yourself and be content with your situation. You have all the necessary tools and resources available to you. Discover them, grow them, and practice using them so you can become your own Master Craftsman. You will always be able to go back and draw on those resources when you need to.

Because no matter how much work you do and how much change you undergo, no matter how far you travel, you will always be HERE. There will always be work to be done.

You are HERE. Welcome!

{Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash}

From the Stillness

When was the last time you sat in stillness, uninterrupted by a phone, the television, or any other device, paying attention only to your own thoughts, feelings, and ideas? What comes into your head when the outside distractions of our high-tech world are removed?

There is a peace in the stillness that surrounds us, and that peace can be deeply compelling, if only we sit with it and pay attention.

But it’s scary to be quiet, to listen to the ideas that emerge when we are not frenzied by a need for constant busyness. There are ideas in our heads that tell us we are not who we should be. That we are not involved in activities or work we are passionate about. That we are not living our life to the fullness of our potential.

In the stillness, there are ideas that scare us. They scare us with their bigness. They scare us with their risk. They scare us with their potential that could lead us closer to our potential.

So too often, we choose to turn away from the stillness. Turn away from the possibilities. Turn away from the risks. Too often, it’s easier to stay lost in our busy lives rather than face the unknown.

Lately, I have been working on re-centering myself, removing distraction, and rediscovering who I am and what drives me. I have allowed myself to think about what I enjoy, how I express myself, and how to make the best choices for me in the life I live at this time.

I have taken a job that challenges me to move in new directions and to apply my creative ideas on a daily basis. And every day, I try to sit in the quiet for fifteen minutes. Each day. I try to do more.

In the quiet is where I am finding myself. Where I am rediscovering who I am. Sitting in stillness helps me to re-connect with my soul. And even though being still can be scary, time spent without distractions is definitely worth it.

There is a peace in the stillness that surrounds us. And peace is something we all could use in our lives.

Buddy Bench

Last weekend, I took part in an annual “Day of Service” with the students in my freshman class. On this day, all of our first-year students disperse to various organizations in order to perform community service work—from working with children or the elderly, to spring clean-up, both indoors and out. My class was split up between an indoor site and an outdoor site, and I put myself with the student group doing outdoor work preparing a summer camp for the upcoming camp season.

Our first task of the day involved raking leaves in the main area of the camp around the office—the area where visitors first arrive. It was raining in the morning—as it had been through the night—and the leaves were sticking together, heavy and wet. As we raked, the leaves rolled up toward us, making it easy to move them onto a tarp in large clumps. Once the tarp was full enough, we dragged it into the woods, and rolled the leaves out of it. We dragged the tarp back to our raking area and started again.

When we finished the main area, the Camp Director took us to a hill by the lake. On the hill, there were several benches placed in a half-circle overlooking the water. Our final task of the day was to clean the leaves and pine needles from under and around the benches. When we were done, the Camp Director told us that the benches were “Buddy Benches.” If campers were feeling lonely and didn’t have someone to play with, they would sit on these benches. Other children knew that those who sat here needed a friend. What a great idea!

This got me thinking… shouldn’t there be “Buddy Benches” for adults, too? How many times over the years could I have used a friend? Why couldn’t it be as easy as simply sitting on a bench and waiting for someone to come and sit next to you and talk. Or listen. Or just be a support system?

If you sit on the Buddy Bench when you are overwhelmed, someone will come and talk you through it.

Stop by when you are lonely or you’ve had a bad day. Have a seat when certain pieces of your life (work, finances, family, spiritual) just don’t seem to fit right.

Come by when you have received bad news, or you’re scared about something, or your health is declining.

Come to the Buddy Bench when your spouse leaves you for “greener pastures,” and you have to figure out how to raise a gaggle of children on your own.

Have a seat on the Buddy Bench when you have lost a loved one, and you don’t think you can go on.

So many people have been through these same things. They won’t make your pain go away, but they can gently guide you through and help you to keep going: step by step, minute by minute, day by day until you can see the light through your troubles.

A Buddy Bench would help you to recognize how many people can understand what you are going through because they have been through something similar. It can show you how many people care and are willing to help.

Because a Buddy Bench will help you to find the people who can best support you. It will give you a place to rest and find comfort and support. And … it will remind you that you are not alone.

We are all in this together. Come. Sit on the Buddy Bench and rest awhile.

{Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash}

Beyond My Control

I am a worrier. I always have been. In fact, there is a story that my dad used to like to tell about my propensity for worry. Because the truth is, it’s been part of me since birth. Or maybe even before.  

When I was little—maybe around five or six…—we would sometimes go on Sunday drives into the woods on very narrow dirt roads. To my child-mind, the roads were too narrow for Dad’s jeep, let alone two cars passing in different directions. We would drive and drive and drive, and I would become more and more and more worried. Finally, I would pipe up from the backseat, “Where are we going to turn around, Dad?” as if it was my job to be concerned about all eventualities. But my propensity for worry prevented me from enjoying the drive, as everyone else in the car seemed to be doing. 

Last week, as I was going through my morning “pre-work” routine, I caught myself trying to figure out way too many pieces and bits of things that are attached to events and situations happening weeks in the future. It is as if somehow it is up to me to predict the future and troubleshoot every possible outcome—both good and bad—before the event even happens. And I do mean EVERY. POSSIBILE. OUTCOME. 

On the flip side, I have spent much parenting life convincing my daughter that there is very little in life that is worth the worry she tends to expend. I see her getting caught up in her thoughts and anticipation of situations in the future, and she is unable to experience the present moment to its fullest extent. Perhaps because I can relate, I work with her to stay in the moment and not worry so much. 

So last week, when I realized I was overwhelming myself, I stopped and took a breath. No, I thought. You are worrying about things that you don’t need to worry about. Most of these things are beyond your control.  

Beyond my control. True. And how much of my life have I devoted to worrying about things that are beyond my control? Too much. I am getting better, but I need to focus on taking things moment by moment. When I feel myself drifting to the future, I will work to pull myself back to the present and enjoy the journey. And I will take my daughter by the hand and lead her on this journey with me. The stress that is inextricable from worry is just not worth it.   

When we are able to step away from the worry and the unnecessary focus on the future, the view—right here, right now—is often pretty fantastic!  

{Photo by Simon Matzinger on Unsplash}

Step Away

We were talking about writing, my daughter and I, about writing to an assignment when you’re not really sure of what to write. How do you not only answer the question, but write a three-page paper?

Without even thinking, I started tossing ideas at her. What is the story? Who’s involved? What is happening? Have you Googled the story and read through the summary/analysis online as a way to spark some ideas? Starting points… all things she had thought of, but approaches that weren’t helping her.

For me, talking about writing is nothing new—in fact, it is a daily conversation. This is what I do. I write. I talk about writing. I work with writers. It’s important that I include the phrase, “I write,” because if you don’t actually sit down and do the tough work of writing, it is difficult to talk to young writers about writing. And to speak authoritatively about the process of writing.

Our banter was getting us nowhere except frustrated. Sleep on it, I finally told her. The assignment wasn’t due for a couple days, so she had the advantage of time on her side. She agreed that was a good idea, and put the paper away for the night. However, she came back and texted me a bit later. “I took a shower on it, and I think I figured it out!” she told me.

That was it. She just needed to step away. In order to connect with the subject, she had to disconnect from it. Sometimes, that’s all it takes. Not just in writing, but in the process of daily life.

If you step away, your thoughts can become clearer. Let your brain rest and move on to other tasks. Because sometimes, when you’re not putting demands on your brain, it will continue to process on its own terms. In fact, it is often when we are not thinking about something that it works itself out. When we are not focused on a problem, more varied solutions—those that are lurking on the periphery—become evident.

We all have situations we need to step away from. If you step away, often the things you are wrestling with—the problems, the situations, the frustrations—they all become easier to figure out, and your brain will come up with a solution you hadn’t even considered!

Step away, and have confidence the answer might come to you. If not, at least you will return refreshed and ready to dig in.

{Photo credit – my amazing daughter}