There is a Light that Never Goes Out

26 Mar
Chicago Winter. Photo by MAG

Chicago Winter. Photo by MAG

The first time I’d seen him, he was bundled in a camel overcoat, fast asleep.

I thought I was extremely lucky when I hopped on the almost empty El car at the Chicago stop and grabbed a seat during rush hour, but once the doors closed, I quickly realized why the car was deserted.  The stench coming from the corner made my eyes water and I followed the lead of the man next to me and pulled my scarf up over my nose and mouth to filter the air enough to be able to make it to the Clark/Division stop where I quickly changed cars.

I didn’t really think much about it after that.  Over the past year, I’ve become acclimated to riding public transport and have learned to adjust to the inevitable clash of cultures, and this brutal Chicago winter has made me even more aware of the challenges faced by the city’s poor and homeless residents.   The CTA became a refuge from the subzero temperatures, and to their credit, the CTA employees who run the trains did their best to shepherd the all-day riders onto one car in order to keep an eye on people and make sure no one froze to death.

Last week, I saw him again.

I recognized the tattered camel overcoat, and the smell.  As he walked the platform the crowd of people parted and gave him a wide berth.  When he found a bench to settle down on, the man sitting there got up and moved ten feet away.  Everyone on the platform turned their backs and looked away as if not looking would make the man – and the smell – disappear.  I wanted to look away, too, but I’d just written my last blog entry about how I was going to smile at strangers and help when I could, so I looked.

The man sat on the bench fiddling with a pair of ripped gloves that barely covered his fingers, a tattered black plastic bag at his feet.  He stared at the ground as he tugged his coat, pulling it more tightly around his body, as I debated about what I should do.  And then in an instant, I knew.

I walked over and leaned down close enough to say, “Good morning, sir.”  Startled, the man looked up and then looked away quickly.

Taking a deep breath, I continued, “Have you had breakfast?”

He looked back up, confused for a moment, and asked, “What?”

I repeated, “Have you had breakfast yet?”

He ducked his head and gestured toward the black bag, “Not yet, but I’m going to have a bite soon.”

I reached into my messenger bag and pulled out the PBJ sandwich that I’d packed before I left the apartment that morning and offered it to him, saying, “It’s just PBJ, but you’re more than welcome to it.”

He smiled a little and replied, “Oh no, ma’am, I’m fine.  I’ve got breakfast in this here bag. But thank you.”

My first impulse was to press further and make him take the sandwich, but I quickly understood what he was saying and backed off, tucking the sandwich back into my bag.

Sometimes preserving one’s dignity trumps hunger.

I smiled at him, and asked a question that I would spend the next few days kicking myself for asking, “Do you need anything else, sir?”

What kind of idiot question was that?  Of course he needing something else.  He needed a lot of things, but since he’d refused the sandwich I didn’t know what else to offer and I didn’t want to insult him by assuming I did.

He smiled back at me, and replied, “Oh no, I’m fine, ma’am.  Thank you.”

As I looked at him and nodded, he lifted his head and looked right into my eyes as he smiled in a way that could only be described as serene and said, “And God bless you, ma’am.  God bless you.”

I returned his smile and his blessing, and then stepped on the train leaving him sitting on the bench.

As the car sped down the tracks I felt sad for a moment because I hadn’t been able to do anything for the man.  I hadn’t been able to give him anything or help in any measurable way.

And then I thought about the way he’d looked me in the eye, raising his head and smiling as he blessed me.

Maybe the greatest gift we can offer another person is the dignity of being seen.

Pompeii

21 Mar
Chicago Night. Photo by MAG

Chicago Night. Photo by MAG

I can’t stop thinking about L’Wren Scott.

I didn’t exactly run in her social circle. I never met her, wore her fashion designs or even followed her career, other than to take note of her name in fashion magazines.  I didn’t even know that she was Mick Jagger’s partner.

What haunts me is that at 49, for reasons unclear to those closest to her, she chose to end her life, and, according to news reports, she did it in a way that reflected her well-mannered reputation – by asking her assistant to drop by in the morning rather than “bothering” or “inconveniencing” anyone.

By all accounts, Ms. Scott had a happy relationship with Mr. Jagger, and her business, though going through the normal ups and downs of all burgeoning businesses, seemed to be heading for success with the signing of a $250,000 contract to collaborate with Banana Republic.  This week her friend, reporter Cathryn Horyn, wrote in a New York Times tribute entitled “Memories of a Friend, a Teacher, and a Fighter” that Scott was under a great deal of pressure to make her clothing line successful, and that in a tense conversation Horyn told Scott she needed to “give herself a time limit to resolve matters or get out. Putting her health in jeopardy because of stress was not worth it…” Scott did not like – or heed – the advice, and continued to strive for success.

It’s this – and more – that makes me grieve for a woman I don’t know.

There’s no way of knowing what was going through her mind at the moment she decided to end her life, but I understand why she might have felt like it was the only solution, and that deeply disturbs me.

It’s scary to be a strong, intelligent, ambitious, aging woman in this society.  So many people depend on you, and if you are successful, it’s usually because your over-achieving perfectionist tendencies have pushed you past your fears to the point where you jump in and make it work – at all costs.  Whether it’s being successful in your education, your career, your health, your marriage, your child rearing, your athletic achievements, or your hobbies and interests, the drive toward excellence can leave even the strongest of women questioning their abilities.

Age makes it even more difficult because at a certain point you start to question all of your choices – past and present.

I say this because at 47, I find myself very far away from what I was educated to do and facing a number of health issues that never even crossed my mind at 27 or even 37.  My salary is far below the level of what I should be making, given my education level (and student loan debt) and abilities, and I’m paying off debts that I accrued for living expenses and health insurance in my past life.  I’ve managed to put my massive student loans in forbearance as I have tried to land jobs with pay that would allow me to afford to pay the $958.00 a month that the loan company is asking for, but those days are soon coming to an end – even if I haven’t landed a job with an adequate salary.  These new health challenges add a whole new level of stress to the money mix, but there’s no way to avoid them because right now they’re not terribly serious but if I ignore them, they’ll cost me much more in the long run, both financially and physically.

And it all reminds me that I’m not getting any younger

Only my family and a few close friends know what’s weighing on me – until now.

I say this, not because I am looking for sympathy or a handout or an excuse, I say this because even though her life is none of my business, I think I understand what might have been going through L’Wren Scott’s mind that night, and I have to wonder if maybe we should be making these thoughts other people’s business.

I understand how wonderful and scary it feels to be someone who other people look to for support and stability.  It’s a lot of responsibility.  I understand the weight of trying to be a cheerful role model and avoid showing how scared and alone you feel because other people are relying on you to be the strong one.  I understand how humiliating and shameful it feels to wonder how your finances, health, [or fill in the blank] have gotten so out of your control, and to be afraid to ask for help because then everyone will definitely know what a failure you really are.  They’ll know you’re a fraud and that everything you’ve accomplished has been nothing but accidental luck.  And I know many, many other women feel like this, as well.

But here’s where Ms. Scott and I differ.

I hear this message, but I don’t buy into it because I’m fortunate that I have people in my life who I can let down my guard with and show all the ugly unlovable parts of myself to.  I’m fortunate that they love me and offer help even when I’m at my absolute most stubborn (because I’m positive that I am a total failure, that everyone else is doing it “right,” and that if I would stop being so damn lazy and just work a little harder I could overcome all the obstacles and manage everything my own big self),  and I’m so very, very fortunate that they step forward and offer it despite my incredibly high walls and fierce defenses.

It makes me deeply sad and unbelievably angry that the world lost yet another generous, loving, kind, intelligent, creative woman this week because in that one brief moment, she didn’t believe she could ask for help, and because no one was able to reach out and offer in time.

In their recent Top 40 pop hit, Pompeii, the British group Bastille asks, “How am I gonna be an optimist about this?”

Here’s how…

I’m going to use this as an opportunity to reach out to others and let them know I’m available.  I’m going to pay attention to the people close to me, and I’m going to let them know how much they mean to me on a more regular basis.  I’m going to smile at strangers and offer to help when I can.  In other words, I’m going to try harder to be the change I want to see in the world.

And maybe by helping others, I’ll remind myself that I’m worthy of being helped, too.

Go Your Own Way

23 Aug
Chicago living 2013 - photo by MAG

Chicago living 2013 – photo by MAG

 

The older I get, the less I see the world in absolutes.

What I’ve come to realize over the past few years is that everything comes down to perception.

My whole life I’ve struggled with trying to do the “right thing” – to be moral, upstanding, understanding, kind, and sympathetic to all different views and experiences.  I haven’t always been successful, and in fact, many times I’ve failed miserably.  The problem has been in that in my attempts to accommodate others, I’ve often ignored my own needs and ended up doing things that weren’t good for me in order to ensure that other peoples’ perceptions of me weren’t negative.

I’m not alone.  I know many people who’ve done the same thing and ended up in situations that they didn’t want to be in simply because they were trying to do the right thing.

It can be agonizing to allow your conscience to dictate actions that run counter to what your heart tells you is right.  And it’s even worse when those actions leave you feeling empty and alone.

About five years ago, I took the first step towards learning how to say no to things that I didn’t want to do when I said no to finishing a Ph.D. dissertation.  For a number of reasons, I had stepped away from the project and when my mentor came back and told me that the program in which I’d done my course work would be closing at the end of the next school year, I knew I had to make a last ditch effort to finish what I’d started.

I laid out a plan for finishing the project, and set to work revising a book length dissertation that I’d been away from for several years.  I knew I was in trouble about two weeks into the process when I began having to schedule an hour before I started writing in order to cry.  I didn’t want to finish the project.  I’d moved on in my life, and the Ph.D. was no longer important to me, but everyone around me encouraged me to “just finish it!” And because I could see their point – and respected their perspectives – I continued to try.

The days became more and more dreadful as I continued to work on the project until one day I found myself wishing that something terrible would happen to me just so I could stop writing and not be viewed as a quitter.

The next day, before I began writing, I asked myself, if no one else were involved what would I want?  What would make me happy?

And then I asked myself the really difficult question – why?  Why was I finishing this project?

When I began to answer my own questions with painful honesty, I saw a pattern emerge.  I was working to finish the dissertation because I didn’t want to disappoint anyone.  I didn’t want anyone to think I was a quitter.  I didn’t want others to think less of me because I didn’t have the title “Dr.” in front of my name.

When I realized that everything I was doing was about trying to alter the perceptions of others, I made a choice to stop.  It was one of the most agonizing decisions I’ve ever made because I felt like I was letting everyone down.  There were many who thought I was absolutely foolish for stopping and some who were profoundly sad and disappointed that I didn’t finish.

However, there were a few people who got it.  Dr. Michael Largey was the first one.  He’d been my teacher, my mentor, and my friend for most of my graduate career.  He was the one who first told me that when other people are critical of a choice I’ve made, it’s often because they’re trying to reinforce the choices they’ve made.

When I called to tell him I wasn’t going to finish, he expressed his sadness, and then said, “This doesn’t negate one bit of the work you’ve already done and contributed to the field, Mary.  It just means you’ve chosen a different path.”  In that moment, it became clear that I was making the right choice for myself, no matter how irrational it seemed to others.  Other people weren’t going to live my life, and making choices as if they were was a mistake – for me.

This doesn’t mean I don’t have moments when I regret making that choice.  I do.

In fact, as I find myself working in the luxury retail business, I find myself questioning my choice on a daily basis.  I miss academia.  I miss teaching.  I miss being in an environment where education is the priority. I regret not earning the degree – and the prestige and paycheck that accompany it. If I look at it from a negative perspective, I’m living in a less-than-great part of Chicago in a small studio apartment while I work a dead-end retail job.

But if flip it and look at things from a positive perspective, I’m living in a culturally diverse neighborhood in a beautiful apartment that has given me the opportunity to streamline my life, and I have a job in which I earn a regular paycheck and that gives me the freedom to spend my free time writing and exploring things that interest me.

I made a conscious choice to stop doing something that was making me miserable, and I changed my life.  I moved to Chicago.  I’ve met and worked with some amazing people, and I’ve learned more than I ever dreamed I could have.

My perception has made all the difference.

Girl on Fire

7 Aug
Chicago Arrival April 2013 - photo by MAG

Chicago Arrival April 2013 – photo by MAG

I love walking through fire.

My entire life has been about pushing myself toward the heat. I’m not one to cautiously put my hand out and gauge the temperature, instead, I’m the one who throws my shoes in the corner believing that I can walk on burning coals.

There have been a thousand times that I’ve made it part way across a bed of burning embers only to look down and realize I am walking on a surface that is literally hot enough to leave blisters. But at that point, I know I’ve gone too far to turn back and that my only choice is to stand still or keep moving.

I always keep moving.

In the past year, I’ve walked many barefooted miles on a surface as hot as July asphalt, and I’ve wondered just how hot it has to get before I’ll stop and grab my shoes.

In October, I left my teaching position to take a full-time job with a luxury retail department store. Many people thought I was crazy to leave teaching, but I knew, at the time, it was the right choice for me, and although I miss my students every day, I am not sorry I made the change.

In February, I applied for a sales job in Chicago and spent most of March driving back and forth for interviews.  At the beginning of April, I was offered the job, accepted it, sold my furniture, shed a good deal of my past, boxed what was left and moved – in two weeks.

For the past four months, I’ve been living with J. in her beautiful Chicago digs while I’ve worked on getting settled in this amazing city.  I’ve found an apartment and will be moving in on August 15.  I sold my car and now enjoy all of the benefits (and challenges) of relying on the CTA, and I love it.  I’ve interviewed for a promotion, realized it wasn’t the right position for me at the time, and was relieved that it went to someone else (and thrilled about the person who was offered the position – truly the best candidate!).  I’ve been on a few dates, and made some new friends.

In other words, in one year, I’ve managed to change my entire life – again.

I realize I’m incredibly fortunate in the sense that I’m at a point in my life when, as a single woman with no dependents, I am completely and totally free to make choices about my life, my career and my living arrangements – income notwithstanding.  It’s not that my life is all sunshine and lollipops, there are plenty of challenges and frustrations, but I’ve come to realize that most of those are my own choice and that if I really don’t like what’s going on, I am free to make different choices.

Scary, but true.

For example, I made a conscious choice to rent a studio apartment rather than pay more for a one-bedroom.  My reasoning was not only that it would keep costs to a minimum, but also that I don’t actually want to acquire and maintain the furniture needed to fill a one bedroom apartment.  It feels odd to say that since I’ve lived my entire adult life in apartments that had “appropriate” furnishings, but once I’d asked what I actually want, I realized that I’d be happy with a convertible couch in a small space.

I’d rather spend the money on experiences rather than things – this time around.

In the coming months, I’m going to be setting foot on the coals again as I explore employment options. I know there is something out there that is a better fit than what I’m doing right now, but I know that in order to find it I have to exercise patience and persistence, and I have to be willing to take the chance that I might get burned in the process.

But I’ve found that anything worth having is worth the risk.

I haven’t given up on living in New York City.  Oh no.  In fact, this move to Chicago has made me even more determined to find a way to get to NYC.

But I’ve got some business to take care of, and a plan of action that I need to create.

Through patience and persistence

And with calloused feet.

I will arrive – eventually.

Christmas in New York (2012)

13 Nov

Saks Fifth Avenue, NYC – photo by NYC Insider Guide

I won’t be in NYC for Christmas this year, but professional changes are afoot and I’m closer to NYC than I’ve been since I started writing this blog – next year may just be the year!

Meanwhile, it’s time to pull together the yearly list of NYC Christmas happenings!

1. Rockefeller Christmas Tree Lighting - Wednesday, November 28, 2012

It’s the 80th tree to be lit in Rockefeller Square, and this year the tree will be lit with more than 300,000 energy efficient LED lights making the celebration both traditional and forward thinking!

2. Radio City Christmas Spectacular

The Rockettes kick off the Christmas season is high style!!

3. Department Store Holiday Window Displays 

Bergdorf Goodman holiday window – photo by Ricky Zehavi for Bergdorf Goodman

Bloomingdale’s and Lord & Taylor  unveiled their windows on Tuesday, November 13.  Barney’s showed off their “Electric Holiday” video and talked with Sean James, Christie’s Vice President of Managed Services, about how they made the magic happen.  Macy’s and Henri Bendel revealed their windows on Thursday, November 15.  The grand prize goes to Bergdorf Goodman’s beautiful holiday windows inspired by the Great Gatsby and the “roaring 20s” era.

4. Holiday Markets, Shops and Fairs

As usual, there are a large number of wonderful places to buy unique holiday gifts in New York City!  Most of the markets and shops open up around November 14, and stay open until the end of December.

5. New York Botanical Gardens Holiday Train Show

Within the enchanting setting of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, model trains zip over bridges and past replicas of New York landmarks made of plant parts such as nuts, bark, and leaves. Show favorites include the original Yankee Stadium, Statue of Liberty, and Brooklyn Bridge.

This year visitors will get an insider’s look at how the replicas are constructed. Models in different stages of completion will show how a structure destined for the Holiday Train Show is framed and begins taking shape through the addition of plant material. Photos, interpretive panels, tools, and supplies help tell the story of how the magic comes together.

6. Winter’s Eve at Lincoln Square

On Monday, November 26, 2012 the Lincoln Square Business Improvement District and presenting sponsor Time Warner will host the Thirteenth Annual Winter’s Eve at Lincoln Square – New York City’s largest holiday festival! Winter’s Eve kicks off with a neighborhood tree lighting ceremony with world renowned singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega, cast members of Avenue Q, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, WABC-TV’s Sade Baderinwa, and special guest Laurie Berkner from 5:00pm – 6:00pm. Winter’s Eve continues through the evening and features free entertainmentfood tastingsin-store activities and shopping around and about this colorful and vibrant neighborhood.

7. Macy’s 86th Annual Thanksgiving Day Parade

The parade that needs no explanation!

8. New Year’s Eve Times Square Ball Drop Gala

Towering 22 and 23 stories above the million or so partiers on 7th Avenue and Broadway below, the Sentry Center offers a commanding view of the incredible festivities in Times Square and the famous Times Square Waterford Crystal ball itself. You can watch the crowds as they gather in the streets outside while you enjoy an open bar, hors d’oeuvres and desserts, DJ dance music and of course, the view to end all views! At midnight the ball drop,fireworks and confetti will create the perfect backdrop scenery for welcoming in the New Year in Times Square.

I won’t be able to join in the festivities this year, but I remain optimistic that 2013 will be the year I celebrate Christmas in New York!

Happy Holidays to all!

It’s in the Way That You Use It

1 Sep

Bayonne Bridge – photo by MAG

Last week, some co-workers at my sales job stopped me and asked, “What drugs are you taking?”  I laughed and asked why they were asking.

In unison, all three replied, “Because we want some!”

I laughed harder and asked if they wanted to know the truth or if they wanted the easy answer.  They wanted said they wanted the truth, so I gave it to them.

Every day I make an active choice to be a happy person.

I know this is hard for people to believe, but it really is that simple.

I make the choice to assume positive intent, to see the good in people and situations, and to be a person who builds rather than destroys.  This is not to say that it’s always easy to do; it’s not.

I often feel frustrated when other people refuse to respond in the ways that I hope they will respond, but I’ve learned  that being positive is a lot like being fit – it’s a matter of simply conditioning oneself. So, I have learned to quickly reframe my thinking and try a new approach.

Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but I always learn something new from the experience.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t see all of the ugliness and injustice in the world because I definitely do.  It simply means that I’ve made the conscious choice not to add to it by being equally ugly or unjust because as Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”

In order to be a positive person, I constantly ask myself what kind of world I want to live in and how I want others to remember me.

Do I want to be a person that people are glad to see arriving or one who people are relieved to see leaving?

If you’re looking for a way to be happy, ask yourself this question – and then be the change.

Make Life

19 Aug

Gehry Building in the early morning – Photo by DMT

This past week my students informed me that I should write a book. When I asked what it should be about, they replied, “About you!” When pressed to narrow the topic (since “being me” is a pretty big one), they suggested that I should write about how I do what I do.

While that may seem confusing and ill-defined to most people, I knew exactly what they meant.

I’m an incredibly positive person (some might say I’m annoyingly positive). My outlook on life is optimistic because I tend to see the bright side of things, and as a result that’s what I most often see. This can be incredibly frustrating for folks who are cynical and/or defensive because it chips away at the protective fortresses they’ve built and challenges their beliefs about the world – and I understand why they tend to shake their heads and tell me I’m too nice to people.

They’re afraid.

They’re scared of what would happen if they allowed themselves to become as vulnerable as they think I’ve allowed myself to become. They’re scared of being taken advantage of and looking foolish as a result. But most of all, they’re afraid of being hurt.

I know because I used to be afraid, too.

What’s interesting is that as I’ve changed my way of thinking and become more optimistic, I’ve found that I actually get hurt less. I have lots of theories about why this is, but I think it comes down to basic laws of physics and physiology – you’re less likely to get hurt when you roll into a fall rather than resisting it.

I think the same is true of an approach to living, and when I open my arms (and heart) and embrace everything, I find that the bad stuff becomes a less troublesome because there’s so much more good stuff to embrace. And in the process, I find that I’m much better protected from the bad stuff because I’m attracting so much more good stuff!

You’re probably sitting there scratching your head and thinking, “Yes, but how do you do this?”

Mary’s Positivity Training List

1. Assume positive intent.

I learned this two years ago when I went to work for a major computer company, and it changed my entire perspective on people. Assume that other people are not out to get you. Assume that their issues have nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. Stop operating defensively and start trying to find solutions for the problem. Assume that you have the power to help someone else find a solution, and stay calm as you work toward it. It’s not about YOU!

2. Treat others better than you’d like to be treated.

Most of us have learned the Golden Rule (“Do unto others…”), this is the Platinum Rule. This means that you treat every person with courtesy, kindness and generosity – the way you would if you were hosting someone you admire and respect in your home (think the President or someone famous). This does not mean that you allow people to be rude or disrespectful to you, it simply means that you treat people the way they want to be treated (and this often means asking people how they would like to be treated).

3. Be the change you want to see in the world.

If you want people to be kinder and more courteous, then you need to be kinder and more courteous. If you want people to be more patient, then you need to be more patient. If you want a better world, then shape your actions to reflect the kind of world you want to live in – and understand that change takes time! If you are in a position of leadership, whether on the job or at home, understand that the people you are leading take their cues from you and their behavior reflects the example you set (and if you don’t believe me, take a look at the feedback for companies on Glassdoor or Linkedin, and then take a look at those who are CEOs of those companies).

4. Look for the good in every person and situation.

Focus on what’s right with the world and you’ll find the strength to fix what’s wrong. Every experience we have is an opportunity for learning and growth, and every person has a story. Ask questions and then pay attention to the answers. Offer constructive feedback in a way that tells the person what they’re doing right, what needs to be improved, and two possible ways to go about improving. Then listen. If you listen carefully, people will often tell you exactly what’s going on, even when they aren’t telling you directly. Sometimes what someone isn’t telling you is far more important than the words they are speaking.

5. Take responsibility for your actions.

Stop blaming other people for making you angry or frustrated. Understand that if you are angry and/or frustrated, you’ve made choices that have led you to this point, and you need to take responsibility for those choices. It doesn’t mean that other people haven’t made mistakes, it simply means you can’t control the actions of others, only your own, The most straightforward way to deal with a mistake is to acknowledge it, accept responsibility for it, apologize if necessary, and then move on. You will earn a lot more respect from people if they feel they can trust you to consistently take responsibility for your actions.

These are the basic principles I try and live by, and I try to feed my positive outlook with books, music, movies, and quotes from people who do things that inspire me. It doesn’t mean I ignore the ugly realities of life, it simply means I don’t spend a lot of time focusing on the negative side of them. Instead, I ask why something bad has happened, and then I try and identify ways in which the situation could be changed in the future.

And I’ll warn you that this list is not a magic bullet. You will not suddenly wake up tomorrow morning feeling happier or more optimistic simply because you’ve read it. It’s taken me a very long time to develop the habit of optimism, and it’s still not perfect – nor will it ever be. I still get frustrated, make mistakes, and lose my cool on occasion, but I forgive myself because I’m human, and because I’ve learned to view my mistakes in a positive light.

Becoming a positive person takes dedication, commitment, hard work, and patience, but when you are able to sustain positivity, you’ll feel like anything is possible.

And it is.

I promise.

Beautiful

21 May
20120520-042659.jpg

Me and the Saginaw soccer girls; Photo by John and/or Robert

A few weeks ago, I had the great fortune of meeting a group of young women who reminded me that it’s never to early – or too late – jump in and live life to the fullest.  These young soccer players had traveled south from Saginaw to play in a tournament over Mother’s Day weekend, and on the Friday night before the games began, they showed up at my department store cosmetics counter enthusiastically asking to be made over.

From the moment they arrived, I was fascinated by their energy and bright spirits.  Their words tumbled out of their mouths and over each others sentences as they begged me to give them smokey eyes and glossy lips, and before I could respond, aided by the tag on my apron, they were calling me by my first name.  “Mary, please?” “Mary, can you make me look glamourous?”  “What do you think of this color, Mary?”

How could I resist?

The first question I asked was whether their mothers would allow them to wear makeup.  I learned this one the hard way, when, one afternoon, a group of pre-teen girls showed up and begged to try the new mascara our line had just launched.  Since I have no children of my own, it never occurred to me that some mothers might not want their daughters to wear makeup at home, let alone test it out in a department store.  So, I meticulously applied a layer of lengthening mascara to the lashes of a young woman who, it turned out, was not even supposed to be wearing lip gloss. 

When her mother showed up, all hell broke loose at the counter.  I apologized profusely, soaked a cotton ball with makeup remover, handed it to the girl, and swore to myself that I’d never again forget to ask, yet knowing full well that the answer I’d get would most likely be questionable.

Hey, I was twelve once, too.

The girls all assured me that their mothers would not mind a bit, and because they had such open and honest little faces, I decided to trust them.

I’m so glad I did.

Since being hired at this counter, I’ve made peace with the giant cosmetics industry by deciding that I would never sell a product based on what a woman was lacking, but rather as a means of enhancing the beauty she already possessed. It’s the only way I can look at myself in the mirror as I apply my own makeup every morning.

The Saginaw girls were already gorgeous – to me – and as I listened to them, I was reminded of the excitement I felt when, at twelve, I pulled out the shoe box (hidden under my bed) that contained a compact, a lipstick (Bonnie Bell Lip Smackers in Watermelon), and a pallet of very blue eye shadow that I’d dug out of the discount bin at Walgreens, and applied them all – libreally.

Not wanting to repeat the debacle that defines my seventh grade picture (read: orange hair courtesy of Sun-In and blue eye shadow up to my eyebrows), I gave them each the option of a “natural on the go glow” or a “Saturday night party girl” look.  As I worked, I listened to them talk about everything – music, soccer, boys, school, and each other.  They were hilariously honest and asked a million questions, which they quickly answered themselves as I concentrated on applying colors that complemented their skin tones.

I answered their questions, and only interjected when they began to talk about how someone was worried about what boys thought of her fat thighs.  I was shocked because not one of them was remotely close to being overweight, and because they were expressing the exact same fears that I had at twelve – and, if I’m honest, still have at forty-five.

Ugh.

I told them that all of the cool guys I know do not judge a women based on the size of her thighs, stomach or any other part of her body, to which they smartly shot back, “Her boobs!  Boys look a a girl’s boobs and judge her!”  I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing as I replied, “Yes, they do.  And they will for the rest of your lives, but as long as they are not rude about it, just pretend not to notice because they simply can’t help it.”  This caused them to laugh loudly and talk about the boys in their favorite band (which they told me the name of, numerous times, and I still can’t remember).

When I was done with each girl, I held up a mirror and asked them what they thought.  I watched as a look of awe spread across their faces giving way to excitement, and I knew I was watching each one of them see themselves as beautiful and grown-up. The funny thing is that I hadn’t applied a lot of makeup – a little blush, a little light eyeshadow, a coat of mascara and some lip gloss – so they were simply looking at slightly enhanced versions of their own natural beauty.

When they were done, one of the mothers came to pick them up and take them back to the hotel.  She approved of the job I’d done as she gathered up her little ducklings so they could hit the pool before bed. Both the mother and I were openly envious of the fact that they still had energy to burn.

The next night, my soccer friends returned with three new teammates, and we went through the routine again, except this time they talked with me like I was an old friend. Again, asking questions, telling me about school, soccer, boys, and all of the wonderful things that twelve-year old girls will talk about when an adult treats them like they’re grown up.  When I was done, they handed me a stack of notes they’d written on the back of sheets we use to outline the products we’ve used during a makeover.

Later, after they’d left, I unfolded the notes and found that they’d written “Mary, from your favorite person you’ll ever meet.  Mary, your the best person I ever met. Love, M.” and “A.A. is soooo cool and loves Mary” and “M.C. is the most amazing person ever and she LOVES Mary!”

As I read the notes, I teared up, and thought, “We should all be so lucky have a group of adoring twelve-year olds in our lives.”

What will stick with me forever, though, is the moment when, on the second night, one of the girls began talking about not being pretty enough, I cut in and said, “You’re beautiful.  With or without makeup, you are absolutely stunning and gorgeous because you are *you*!”  All at once, five girls began singing the lyrics to “Beautiful” – loud and proud, ignoring all of the looks that other shoppers and cosmetics sales people shot at them. They sang, in unison, through the chorus, and all I could do was stand back and smile as I watched them.

I hope I never forget how empowering it felt to watch a group of young women be that bold and beautiful.

Fortunately, I know that if I ever do, I’ll have a team of intelligent, hilarious, and fiercely strong young friends around to remind me.

Digging in the Dirt

2 Mar

Trinity Cemetery - photo by DMT

Truffle pigs can be persistent little suckers.

A few weeks ago, while I was struggling with yet another set of issues that have plagued me for a long time, J. wrote a response that identified this tendency as “truffle pigs digging.”  I love the analogy because the phrase is not only humorous (say it ten times fast and you’ll see what I mean), but it also accurately describes the way in which the brain latches on to something and refuses to let go.

What’s been interesting about this is that once I had a name for what was going on, I found it much easier to identify what was happening – and then let it go.

How have I been able to let go of so many of the worries and fears?  The answer lies in being willing to confront the problems and utilize my resources.

I’ve asked for advice from friends and family, but I’ve also integrated a variety of outside resources and used those as a basis for identifying solutions to the problems.  Once I opened my mind and realized that everything is related to everything else, I could see that every bit of information I take in can be used to help me make better, more informed decisions – and that these decisions were the key to stopping the truffle pig rampages in their tracks.

One of the best investments I’ve ever made was in hiring a life coach.  I found my life coach, Mary Rives and her Thrive and Shine practice, through the Life Coaching TrainingAlliance website.  In our first phone session, she walked me through the process of coaching and asked guided questions designed to help me identify the issues I wanted to work through.  I was immediately hooked by her calm, gentle manner of dealing with my truffle pig issues, and signed up for a package of three additional sessions.

Those three sessions changed my life.

Life coaching is not therapy (though I’ve used psychotherapy as well, and highly recommend it).  You don’t dig into the psychological depths of where the problems came from in order to understand where the problem began.  Instead, you identify the problems you’re struggling with, and then work with the coach to develop healthy ways of actively dealing with them.

In the first session, we identified the issues I felt needed the most attention (self-criticism and perfectionist tendencies), and then spent time talking about how to actively confront the unproductive habits I’d developed.  Mary listened carefully to what I was saying, restated what she heard, and then asked questions that allowed me to identify possible solutions to the problem.

In our first session, I identified my long-standing problem associated with my “inner critic” and talked about how “she” constantly worked against me; tearing me down and undermining my confidence.  As we talked, Mary offered some insight into how and why this critic comes into being.  It was an eye opening moment when I heard her say that the inner-critic develops as a defense mechanism and its specific purpose is to push us to get out of situations that are physically or psychologically dangerous.

However, as a person becomes more confident and secure in themselves, the inner-critic loses its job and, as a result, becomes destructive rather than productive.  As the inner-critic loses its purpose, it seeks out new ways to “protect and serve,” and in doing so, it begins to attack the positive traits we seek to cultivate – strength, confidence, self-worth.  Every new attack causes us to question ourselves and doubt our abilities, leaving us to wonder if anything we do is right.

At the end of our first session, I suddenly piped up and said, “Mary!  I know what I need to do with my inner-critic!”  Mary asked me what that was, and I excitedly blurted out, “She’s worked so hard to protect me for so long, and instead of being grateful, I’m trying to squash her!  Maybe I need to change my tactics.  I think what I need to do is to love her out of existence!”

My outpouring was met with dead silence on the other end of the phone.

Immediately my inner-critic kicked in and I began to backtrack and rethink what I’d said.  I was wrong.  My thinking was wrong, obviously.  The solution was silly, wasn’t it?

Mary broke in and said, “I’ve coached a lot of people in my life, but I’ve not had someone come up with such a clear, concise solution in one 45-minute session.I’m quiet because I’m stunned by the simplicity and brilliance of your idea.  It’s perfect!”

It took me a few minutes to process – and accept – that my idea was a good one, not a ridiculously silly approach to the problem. And then I began questioning how to I was supposed to do this.

Mary and I came up with the idea that I should sit down and write out a physical description of my inner-critic, so that I could clearly identify and see her.  Defining what she looked like would give me the advantage of being able to address someone I could see, rather than trying to deal with a disembodied critical entity.  I was skeptical, but I agreed to try.

After we ended our session, I sat down with my journal and pen, and began to write.

And write.

And write.

As I poured a description onto the pages of my journal, I discovered that my inner-critic was a small, thin young woman who had been backed into a corner; her body tense, fists balled at her sides, prepared to attack anything that threatened her – or me. She looked exhausted, and it dawned on me that that this exhaustion was the result of the years she’d spent fiercely protecting me. The effort had completely depleted her reserves of strength.

As I spilled my observations onto the page, I was overcome with a feeling of sadness, compassion, and absolute love for this tenatious waif.

And I began to cry.

I found myself shifting the focus of my writing, and instead of writing about her, I began writing to her.  I thanked her for all of the years she’d endeavored to keep me safe, and expressed a deep gratitude for how well she’d done her job.

And then I wrote, “We’re safe now.  You can rest.  I’ve got us covered.”

However, identifying the issue and defining it was a long way from actually breaking the habit.  So, over the next few weeks, every time my inner-critic rose up in my defense, I looked over at her in the tight little corner, smiled, and said, “We’re safe now.  You can rest.  I’ve got us covered.”  Each time I did this, I could feel her breathe a small sigh of relief and relax a little bit more.

She could trust me, and more importantly, I could trust myself.

I know this probably sounds odd, and more than a little “woo woo.” Believe me, as someone who constantly looks for evidence to prove what I think and feel, it sounds odd to me, even though it’s my experience.

And honestly, I’ll admit that writing this account of the experience made my inner-critic rise up, again.  However, this time I recognize that she’s trying to protect and defend me; to keep me from looking foolish or exposing me to ridicule. And while I appreciate her attempt to keep me safe, I also recognize that a large part of her power rests in my willingness to keep secrets (about my vulnerabilities and my “mistakes”) and in my being complicit in a system that keeps me from expressing what I really think or feel.

I’ve come to believe that, in the end, it’s the silence that kills us.

My sessions with Mary helped me understand that letting go of the negative habits and beliefs isn’t an easy task, but I’ve found that when I can ask the questions that allow me to face the issues and deal with them in a constructive way, I can preserve and protect the precious resources I’ve worked so hard to nurture and grow.

The truffle pigs can dig, but I don’t have to let them destroy.

Empire State Building

22 Jan

March 2007 - photo by JMW

This picture used to make me shudder, and if I’m honest, it still does, a little bit.

For a long time, I buried this photo in an attempt to try and forget what the image represented – a woman who was pretty miserable because she was certain she was a failure. At the time this picture was taken, I had stopped working on my Ph.D. (an endeavor that had occupied nearly fifteen years of my life), was working as a low-wage receptionist at a veterinary clinic, and was in a relationship that was well on its way to failing.

I was depressed, demoralized, and disconnected from both family and friends, and I couldn’t see how I was ever going to turn things around and find joy in life again.

I thought there was something terribly wrong with me, and that if I just “tried harder” I could make it all work. After all, “other people” didn’t seem to be having the problems I was having. “Other people” coped with challenges and overcame obstacles so much better than I did. If I was unhappy, then it must be my fault because “other people” were making it work.

The problem was that I didn’t have any concrete evidence of who these “other people” were or exactly what they were doing. All I could see was what was on the outside, and since I couldn’t see inside “other people’s” situations (and I didn’t dare ask questions since that would have exposed my weaknesses), I couldn’t figure out how “they” were doing it so much better than I was.

That winter, J. suggested that perhaps we should travel to New York in celebration of my 40th birthday. I was enthusiastic about the trip, but a part of me didn’t want to go because I felt so ashamed of who I was – of who I’d become.

I knew I’d gained a lot of weight over the years, and I didn’t want to embarrass J. (who is one of the most fashionable women I know) by showing up in New York City looking like a frumpy (and decidedly un-cosmopolitan) tourist. J. calmly reassured me that she didn’t care what I looked like, the trip was about her and I spending time together in a place that offered us the chance to explore and discover new things.

I don’t know if she knew it then, but she threw me the lifeline that pulled me back from the edge of the abyss.

The four days we spent in New York City rekindled my spirit, and reignited my desire to live a life of purpose; to learn; to grow; to change! I came back from the trip inspired by all that we’d done and seen, and I immediately began to make changes. Not all of the changes were well received, nor were they done the “right” way, but the point was that I could now see that there was more to life than what I’d been living – and I wanted something more.

This did not bode well for my relationship, and a year and a half later, I called it quits and moved out. It was scary to be on my own after ten years of living with my ex-partner, and a part of me wondered if I’d be able to actually make it on my own.

October 2008 - photo by JMW

The support of family and friends pulled me through the roughest patches, and I soon found myself loving life in a way that I hadn’t for a very long time.

I’d begun losing weight during the breakup, but I soon found myself plateauing and unable to get past the first 35 pounds. Frustrated by my lack of progress, I retreated into some bad habits that I’d developed as a means of trying to control situations that felt completely out of my control (going long periods of time without eating anything), and was frustrated as I backslid.

It was at that point that D., ever the pragmatic realist, served up a whopping dose of honesty and sparked a change in my direction. As I complained about my inability to make myself eat on a regular basis and spun out theory after theory about why I simply couldn’t do this, he matter-of-factly said, “I don’t get it. It’s simple. Put food in your mouth. Chew. Swallow. Problem solved.”

At first I was pissed at his unemotional response to what felt like a deeply emotional issue. How could he possibly understand the difficulty of eating on a regular basis? I stubbornly refused to believe that the solution was that simple, so D. let it go and left me to my theorizing.

It wasn’t until the personal trainer I hired (to help me organize workouts and re-evaluate my diet) went through my food diaries and commented that I was undoing all of the work I’d done by denying my body the proper nutrition it needed to run efficiently, that I began to understand that there was merit in what D. had said months before. However, I stubbornly resisted the trainer’s advice until he finally said, “Look, either you get on board with the program or you quit. But I’ll tell you this, if you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you can expect the exact same results you’ve been getting – nothing.”

I got the message – and changed my approach.

Once I did, I found that implementing his suggestions was a matter of doing what D. had suggested months before: Put food in mouth. Chew. Swallow. Problem solved.

And I lost another 85 pounds over the next year.

What this experience taught me was invaluable as I worked to change other aspects of my life, and realized that in order to change I was going to have to employ the knowledge of those who had experience in the areas I wanted to improve.

January 2010 - photo by MAG

Over the past five years I’ve worked with medical professionals, a life coach, and countless individuals who have skills that I’d like to develop. I’ve listened to them, employed their advice, and adjusted it when the fit wasn’t quite right.

I’ve started asking questions, talking about things openly and honestly, and stopped thinking that “other people” somehow have it all figured out.

They don’t.

It was when I started listening to that inner voice that lets me know when something is working (and when it isn’t) that I realized my life is simply that – my life.

And while I can look at the choices others are making and the results they’re getting, there’s no way for me to know all of the factors that have gone into their decisions. The outcome of their choices is uniquely their own, and measuring myself against “other people” doesn’t do me – or them – any favors.

Five years after my first trip to New York City, I am a decidedly happier and healthier version of myself. I feel more confident, more secure in my decisions, and more self-assured about the direction my life is taking. I don’t know where the next five years will lead, but if the last five are any indication, I’m going to wind up someplace absolutely amazing.

And I’m looking forward to the adventure!

August 2011 - photo by MAG

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