Dots… and Everything Else

Life is a process of connecting the dots. When we are young, our lives are full of dots that have little connection. We live life one day at a time with few plans. We play with this friend, that toy, and we work to discover our talents. As children, we live moment to moment, figuring things out as we go.

When we grow, we take all the things we have experimented with in our “play” and in our growing up, and we examine them, figure out which things we want to keep, and which things we really don’t enjoy or prefer not to pursue.

Now, here’s where the tricky part comes. In order to connect the dots and begin to fashion a life that has meaning and purpose, we have to determine how our “dots” fit into the bigger context of the world around us. We have to figure out what we bring to the world, and how that talent or  interest meets a need that the world has. That is where meaning, purpose, and passion come together.

One of the things I do in the real world is ask college freshmen to begin connecting their dots. What did you LOVE to do when you were nine or ten? What is something from your childhood you wish you hadn’t given up when you transitioned to adulthood? What are you doing when you are most likely to lose track of time? If you were asked to work alone in isolation every day, would you be able to do it, or do you need to be with people?

That was the dot that got me back when I was graduating from college. I had planned a desk job for my life, working in a cubicle in an office building. But a teaching internship slammed on the brakes, showing me I was on the wrong path. I had forgotten to consider the dot that needed dynamic, face-to-face interaction with people. [Now, of course, here I am in Corona Isolation, craving dynamic, face-to-face interaction, but this is a temporary story.]

If you haven’t yet taken the time to examine your dots and figure out how they connect, now is a perfect time to start thinking about that. Are you doing what you love? Are you fulfilling a need in the world? Are you happy? And more than that, do you experience regular moments of joy?

Not only is now a great time to begin to connect any dots you haven’t yet connected, it is also a good time to begin to examine Everything Else. What is it that makes you fully you? Are you in the best job for you? Do you have enough time for family? Is there something else you need to be doing? How can you put steps in place to get where you belong?

Here in this down time, take a moment or two to examine the Everything Else that makes up your life; if you are not on the right track, create a plan to get back on track.

This time—this quiet time when we have opportunity for greater reflection and focus, when we can look deeply inside ourselves and see who we really are and what we really want for our lives—this is a gift.  Don’t let it slip away without at least taking some time to think. Your dots deserve to be connected, and you are the only one who can do that.

{Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash}

The View from Here

The view from here is very different than it was a couple weeks ago. We have now been in social distance mode for just under two weeks—far less time than most of the world. We knew it was coming—we watched it sweep slowly across the globe on its way.

That doesn’t make the view from here any brighter. We are broken people in a society that is also severely broken. In our attempts to deal with this global pandemic, we need to come together—work together and protect one another. But we can’t.

Because the view from here looks out over a broad chasm that has been growing and deepening and pushing us farther apart. We have forgotten that we are one humanity in a global environment, and we are stronger when we band together and create a united front. We will always be stronger together.

We have forgotten that life is not about all the things we want in this life and how we will get them, no matter the cost. We have forgotten that most of the “things” we possess don’t matter, especially when weighed against human health and life itself. Even in our isolation, we continue to buy and buy and buy to the point of hoarding because “enough” is a concept our society ignores as it pushes spending and materialism and greed as a way to promote a “healthy” economy.

We have filled our lives with material things. We have been so conditioned to look outward for happiness and acceptance and validation that we have lost sight of the most important element—what we are feeling on the inside. Who we are. The very traits that make us special and unique and individual—these have been cast aside for too long. They have been stomped down and buried deep inside ourselves as we live a life that is filled to the brim with a busy-ness dictated by society. Most of us—we aren’t even truly happy anymore.

The view from here is not in touch with the things that matter. It is weighed down by all the lies society has been telling us for decades. The expectations we are supposed to live up to. We are tired and weary. The burden weighs on us, and we are struggling to break free.

But the view from here—it is quiet and lonely. We are in a period of grieving all that we have lost or perceive we have lost. We are grieving what we may lose. And we are grieving all the changes our society will face—changes that we just can’t fathom from this particular vantage point. But if we take the time to really look and examine our lives, the view from here may be (dare I say) just a little peaceful.

While we may be feeling overwhelmingly burdened by our current situation, the view from here may shift, giving us a glimpse of elements of peace, simplicity, and kindness. It is quite possible that with a bit of time and a new perspective, the view from here might just be the soil in which we begin to change and blossom.

Intimidating Stuff

Some things in life are intimidating, but the more you do them, the less intimidating they become.

Recently, a group of my student leaders was invited to have dinner with the University president. But the day before the dinner, we were notified that only a couple of the students had responded to the invitation, and the chef needed a head count. When we nudged the students to respond, some of them admitted they were intimidated by the thought of having dinner with the president.

And yet, the situations we encounter are often well matched to our development and to pushing that development just a bit beyond our optimal zone of comfort. Having dinner with a university president (who is well versed in dealing with young adults) is an appropriate situation for a student leader. Having dinner with the CEO of the corporation for which one works would be an appropriate situation for someone who had worked at the company for a while.

Life, you see, is about doing intimidating stuff. Because the intimidating stuff pushes us to grow and become better individuals.

But here’s the funny part. When you start doing intimidating stuff—making inquiry phone calls, engaging in debates with people whose opinions differ from yours, meeting with people in power, having dinner with your boss or the CEO of your organization, having difficult conversations—it stops being intimidating. It becomes the stuff you need to do.  You become more comfortable, and the difficult stuff…? It gets easier. Along the way, others start to recognize you as someone who faces situations head-on, they begin to look up to you, and you are given more responsibility. And more respect.

As you make your way through life, you need to take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to you. Sometimes, they are only presented once, and if you don’t jump, you may miss your chance. Take advantage of opportunities so you will be seen. No one is going to come looking for you to work on their project or create their videos or run their department… if they haven’t already met you or heard about you or seen you.

You will be amazed at the opportunities that open up all because you started doing intimidating stuff, and you didn’t let your fear hold you back.

Step out of your comfort zone. The more often you do so, the more comfortable—and the more ready—you will be when it matters most.

{Photo by Sammie Vasquez on Unsplash}

Giving presence

My most important lesson from 2019: be present.

In recent weeks, I have spent a great deal of time observing life around me and considering the manner in which many people function in their day to day lives. I have bumped into people who were not watching where they were going (or rather… they bumped into me). I have had to engage in evasive maneuvers to avoid people who were texting: texting and driving, texting and walking, texting and pushing a grocery cart, texting and living.

Texting and living. Is that what we want? Sorry, I didn’t hear you. [I was distracted by my phone]. No matter where we go—the grocery store, a restaurant, the movie theater—people are on their phones. It used to be we went out to dinner at a restaurant so we could socialize and talk to our friends—those at the table with us. Now, the people at the table are busy texting the people who aren’t at the table. Hey, where are you? Look at this great meal you are missing.

I missed seeing you score your goal, kiddo. [I was texting my friend]. If you are going to take the time to attend your child’s game or go to dinner with friends or venture out hiking or go anywhere, really, do those things fully. Be in the moment. Take in all that your surroundings have to offer—enjoy the sights and sounds, experience the joys, and make the memories. By paying attention to each of the five senses, you can lock in amazing memories that will remain with you forever. Believe it or not, your neighbor’s post on social media will still be there when you return to Facebook/Instagram/Twitter in an hour or two. As will your friend’s text.

Sorry… I just have to respond to this [text, email, FB post…]. Because somehow, it won’t be there later. The message here is that the person standing right in front of you is not as important as what’s happening on your phone—the people who are elsewhere in your life, but texting you. As someone who grew up in the era of landlines without call waiting or voicemail, I can tell you with one hundred percent certainty that if someone wants to talk to you, they will wait for your response. Or they will text/call you again eventually. Why jump on each text, phone call, or post immediately? Our current world and technology have taught us that we can expect an immediate response. But why are we buying in to that?

Texting and living is not what I want for my life. My goal for 2020 is to take a lesson from the last weeks of 2019 and really work to be present in life. There is no better gift you can give to yourself and to those around you than to pay attention, listen, and be present for them.

{Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash}

Present

At this time of year, I find myself actively avoiding shopping. The crowds, the lines, the traffic, the people… really, these things are exhausting. But every now and then, I put on my big girl pants, wrap up in my thickest skin, and head out into the wild. On a recent shopping experience, I stumbled into a disaster of a store. All of the salespeople were manning the cash registers to keep up with the lines, and I noticed the store shelves looked like they had been ransacked. Clothes were carelessly strewn on piles of others that had been pawed through, held up, and discarded. There was no order and no rhyme or reason. There was just a disastrous mess.

Did I mention that the salespeople were frantically running the cash registers, and every register in the place was open and cashing out customers as efficiently as possible? They were doing a great job of moving the customers and keeping the lines from growing too long.

So honestly, people, do y’all have maids at home who follow you around and pick up after you? How long does it take to refold the items you look at so you might place them neatly back on the shelf? How much care would it take to not throw all of the packages of underwear on the floor while you look for the one package in the size and style you need?

Any direction I looked in this store on this day (this past Sunday), I saw signs of people moving through life without being present. These people are shopping and buying, searching for a present (not the right present, but any present) so they can cross one more thing off their lists. They are moving through the season like robots, checking in on their phones and posting their finds on social media. They are not paying attention to their surroundings; they don’t care about the people who work in the stores; and they have no regard for the other shoppers who will come to this same shelf and look for a gift in these same piles.

Is this what Christmas has come to? We have so lost touch with the reasons for giving that we destroy everything in our paths like mini tornadoes in order to get things done and get through the holiday. Then we can cross the holiday season off our list and move on into the new year.

We can do better, people. I know we can.

On this day in this store, I looked over my shoulder at all the salespeople working hard to accommodate the shoppers. I pocketed my car keys, and I set about folding and organizing the sweaters on one side of one display. It wasn’t much. And when I turned from my work, I could see so many other messes that I knew I barely made a dent in the clean up of this store. But my gesture might have given an atom of peace to one salesperson. Or my work might have been destroyed by the very next customer who couldn’t find the exact right sweater in the exact right size. Either way, I knew I had taken a few minutes out of my day to attempt to make things better for someone.

As we move through life in the coming days, perhaps we might all take a little time to think about what it means to be truly present in life—especially in this season of love and light and peace. What would your life look like if you paid attention to the things around you? Perhaps we might commit to taking one small step toward being more present—both for ourselves and for those around us. The world needs each and every one of us. But we can only be useful to the world if we are willing to be fully present.

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}

The Stranger

I recently had an intriguing interchange with a stranger.

First let me say, I love talking to strangers. I talk to them in the grocery store while I am picking out my produce. I talk to them while I am waiting on the interminably long deli line each week. And I will start conversations with them when I am out walking. I don’t apologize for my boldness. I am cohabiting this earth with others, and I would like to get to know them. Besides, strangers are only strangers until you get to know them.

So the other day at work, I was minding my own business. It was Friday afternoon around 3:00, and I was trying to finish up some tasks so I could actually leave for home at a reasonable time. My phone buzzed, and I received a text message from a number I didn’t recognize. “All done. When I get to better service, I’ll send a pic……” The number was from my mother’s area code—the area code in which I grew up and still have a friend or two.

Maybe it’s someone I know, I reasoned. I decided to wait and see if the person texted me again. I put my phone back on my desk, and I promptly forgot about it.

Nearly two hours later, my phone buzzed again. This time, my screen displayed a picture of a white horse, his nose in a feedbag. “This is how he was waiting for me,” the message read. The picture made it very clear that the texter was not someone I knew. Though I felt pulled to hear the story of the horse.

“Cute picture,” I texted back. “But I think you might be texting the wrong person,” I informed the stranger.

“Oops. Thanks for resending… glad I made you smile.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. There is a part of me that wanted to keep texting. To probe deeper. To find out about this random stranger who texted me at quitting time on a Friday afternoon. To tell her about the coincidence of the area code. To find out about the horse. And to make her smile, too. There is a part of me that longed to make that connection.

Because a stranger is only a stranger until you get to know her.

Then she is a friend.

{Photo by Nikki Jeffrey on Unsplash}