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Let it All Go

13 Sep
Street Knowledge photo by Lisa Kolanowski

Street Knowledge photo by Lisa Kolanowski

 

I didn’t know David Foster Wallace. Aside from his insightful commencement speech, This is Water, I didn’t know much about his career, his writing, or his lifelong struggle with depression. Yet, on the seventh anniversary of his death, I found myself mourning him in a way that seemed inexplicably personal given the fact that we were complete strangers.

I chalked it up to having picked up my reserved copy of The David Foster Wallace Reader from the library and started, not at the beginning, but three-quarters of the way through the massive tome with his teaching syllabi. This left me feeling nostalgic because, as a composition instructor who has witnessed the trans-formative power of writing, I knew exactly what had gone into crafting those deeply personal pieces of administrative ephemera.

I nodded as I read his description of English 170R and the various course requirements and grading standards. The best teachers strive to create syllabi that not only provide substantial structure, but also give students the ability to exercise freewill and make mistakes. It’s a tough job because, as a teacher, you also have to anticipate the loopholes and be one step ahead of those students who might try to outwit the system. I burst out laughing when I read Wallace’s footnote warning about what constitutes college-level writing, which states, “Written work with excessive typos, misspellings, or basic errors in usage/grammar will not be accepted for credit. At the very least, you’ll have to redo the work and incur a penalty. If you believe this is just the usual start-of-the-term-saber-rattling, be advised that some of the students in this course have had me as an instructor before—ask them whether I’m serious” (611).

When in doubt, leverage your past history to ensure compliance—especially if you have witnesses.

There’s a tenderness in Wallace’s syllabi; a kind of vulnerability that all of the best teachers offer their students (even when they’re desperately trying to be hard asses). It stems from the fact that all the most creative teachers have a healthy respect for rules and, yet, also take great joy in casting them aside once learned.  These teachers walk the wire and invite students to stroll along with them; safety net at the ready.

As I moved on in the anthology and read more of his work, I was struck by how deeply affected Wallace was by everything around him, and how much researching, learning and thinking he must have done to process all of the information he took in before he turned it into cogent, yet seemingly conflicted analyses of tennis, state fairs, and lobsters. Wallace doesn’t openly label things as good or bad, right or wrong, rather he gently leads the reader toward his thesis until they are uncomfortably unable to look away from the reality of what’s been pulled apart and laid before them (the best example of this is his essay “Consider the Lobster”).

I began considering that maybe a teacher’s love for their students isn’t that different from a writer’s love for their readers–and maybe simply for humanity, in general. I recalled a Wallace quote I’d read (while browsing Maria Popova’s brilliant Brain Pickings website) in which he discussed the desperate need for vulnerability in art:

The reader walks away from real art heavier than she came to it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers. What’s poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out. Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you look banal or melodramatic or naive or unhip or sappy, and to ask the reader really to feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I’m scared about how sappy this’ll look in print, saying this. And the effort actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don’t seem to have yet. … Maybe it’s as simple as trying to make the writing more generous and less ego-driven.”

And suddenly it became clear as to why I was mourning the death of a man I’d never met.

We are currently living in a time in which fear (and loathing) drives a great deal of expression, and those who are truly willing to take risks and make themselves vulnerable—in any arena—are often attacked, ridiculed and written off as naive and/or unrealistic. Yet despite attempts to suppress these voices, those who are intent on finding ways to remind us that we are all deeply connected, refuse to be silenced.

I mourn the death of David Foster Wallace because, as I struggle to create a world that reflects more kindness, understanding, and human connections, his silence is deafening.

 

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Dream Again

28 Aug
Guts Over Fear - Photo by Lisa Kolanowski

Guts Over Fear – Photo by Lisa Kolanowski

A few days ago, my mother confirmed my status as a life-long optimist when she told me that, as a toddler, my standard response to the question “How are you, Mary Alice?” was always an enthusiastic, “I’m too too happy!”

For those who know me, this probably does not come as any big surprise.  I firmly believe that joy comes out of sorrow and that this perspective is a choice. Yet I think that, at times, my optimism has the tendency to be interpreted as naivete or downright Pollyanna-ish.

And I understand why.

In a world where so much pain, suffering, injustice, violence, and hatred occurs on a daily basis, it is incredibly difficult to maintain any kind of optimism or hope that anything can change.  My optimism doesn’t deny or ignore all of this, instead every day, I make the choice to actively seek out and acknowledge the many reasons to feel hopeful about the possibility of change.

This week I read Jorie Ella’s piece “Let’s Keep it Real: The ALS Bucket Challenge is an Embarrassment” and then I read Amy Phillips’ “I Don’t Care if You Think it’s a Gimmick: Please, Please Keep Dumping Ice on Your Heads” — and I felt hopeful.

Whether the challenge is deemed useless or useful is a matter of perspective, but the one thing that has become clear is that the Ice Bucket Challenge is inspiring strong reactions and pushing people to engage in discussions that extend far beyond ALS.

People like my beautiful friend, Courtney, whose strong, brilliant father has been stolen from her by this horrible disease, have said, “It makes me feel like the world is behind me!”

And maybe that’s enough to make it worthwhile.

Other people have opposed the challenge because they view it as a shameful waste of water, ALS as a disease that disproportionally affects middle-aged white males, and the social media frenzy surrounding the challenge as a colossal waste of time and is distracting people from the real issues like the war in Gaza, the outbreak of Ebola in Africa, racial and socio-economic injustice in Ferguson, the militarization of police forces in the US, the failure of the US educational system, and countless other issues that deserve attention.  People are being criticized for dumping buckets of water on themselves before donating to ALS research, but those who oppose this waste of water have extended the discussion to include the global need for clean drinking water and conservation efforts, whlie others have found creative ways to participate in the challenge without wasting water.

But here’s the thing…

Everywhere I look, people are engaging in conversations!  Conversations that include links to alternate perspectives, and questioning of ideologies.  Conversations that involve voices from around the globe.  Conversations that often become heated, but attempt to maintain (for the most part) a certain level of respect.

It’s not that I think people should avoid disagreements or that they shouldn’t express their outrage over the ongoing violence and injustice; it’s just that I don’t see how problems are ever going to be solved unless people feel like they’re being heard.  And my experience in classrooms has taught me that once people feel like they matter – like their voice is being heard – anything is possible.

It’s this possibility, and the small, every-day miracles, that propel me forward and keep my optimism alive.

And if my optimism is what makes a difference to even one person, then “I’m too too happy” to be one of the millions who continue to strive to be a small part of the change they want to see in the world.

 

 

Break Free

20 Aug
Reflection/Perception - Photo by Lisa Kolanowski

Reflection/Perception – Photo by Lisa Kolanowski

I had to laugh a little when, this past week, my friend Rachel and I were discussing an exchange I’d had with a guy in St. Louis who was angry with the protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, and how I’d approached the situation from the standpoint of asking questions and listening to the response rather than jumping to conclusions – and down the guy’s throat.

Rachel commented, “I think you’re able to see things that many others don’t take the time to see …You take the time and you dissect the situation…you don’t jump to any conclusions.”

I laughed, and replied, “Oh, I always jump to conclusions!  It’s just that I’m learning to keep quiet until I know what’s going on!”

Sometimes.

Two week ago, I was ready to call the police on a neighbor who’d left his windows open and allowed his dog to bark non-stop for five hours.

I was absolutely furious that someone would be so rude and insensitive, and as I called the rental company to report the dog for the third time in a week, I wanted to go down and give the guy a piece of my mind.

To their credit, the rental company responded immediately and addressed the issue, but it didn’t stop the problem; it simply cut the barking time from five hours to three.  I grew increasingly more irritated as, in our u-shaped complex, the barking bounced off the brick walls and felt like it was coming from inside my apartment.

Three days ago, I went out for my afternoon walk and as I was exiting the front gate, I was lovingly accosted by a very friendly five-month old Labradoodle named Vanessa.

As I stopped to pet her, I exchanged small talk with her owner; asking how old she was and where he got her.  He confessed that his uncle had pushed him to take her after his dog had had a huge litter of pups, and that she was causing him all kinds of problems with her barking.

Suddenly it dawned on me that this was the barking dog that was driving the neighborhood crazy.

As we talked, her owner told me about how he was afraid of being evicted, but that he didn’t know what to do to stop her. I told him I was one of the people who’d called management — because I was concerned that something was wrong since she’d barked for five hours straight (sometimes a spoon full of sugar helps the message go down).  He apologized, and told me what had been going on.

He said he’d never raised a puppy before, and had been trying to figure out what she was doing by sitting outside the apartment and waiting for her to bark, and then going in and scolding her, but that he was frustrated because it wasn’t helping.

Having spent almost a decade partnered with a veterinary technician who brought home every orphaned animal on the planet, I immediately understood his problem.

As we talked, I slipped suggestions about toys he could buy that would keep her occupied and techniques he could use to stop her barking into the conversation, and warned him that if he didn’t nip the bad behavior in the bud now, he was going to wind up with a very bad adult dog.

He laughed and said she did, indeed, have him wrapped around her paw, but that he didn’t know where to begin to break the bad habits.

I told him that the first thing he had to do was to make sure that he only reinforced the good behavior.  No more going out, waiting for her to bark, and the going back in because it only rewarded her by giving her what she wanted – his presence.

I told him that he needed to ignore her (unless she was doing something that was dangerous) until she behaved the way he wanted her to.  A confused look crossed his face, but as I got up to go on my walk Vanessa, who had been laid out dozing on the walk next to her owner, gave me the perfect “teachable moment.”

She jumped up and put her huge puppy paws on my stomach as she begged for attention.  I took both of her paws in my hands, put them on the ground, and said, “Vanessa, SIT!” as I held up my index finger in the universal sign for sit.  She looked at her owner, and then jumped up on me again.

Again, I put her paws on the ground, but this time her owner held up his finger and firmly said, “Vanessa, sit!”  She looked at him for a moment, and then sat nicely, and I swooped in to kiss her soft fuzzy face as I praised her lavishly for her good behavior.

The third time she jumped up, I pushed her off, folded my arms across my chest and looked away as her owner said, “Vanessa, sit!”

Vanessa immediately sat, and looked up wagging her tail as I bent down and gave her all the attention she wanted.

Her owner looked at me in amazement as I said, “It’s as easy as that!  But it’s the constant reinforcement that’s going to be hard because she’s so adorable!”  He laughed and waved goodbye as I headed out for my walk.

As I walked, I thought about how the conversation had completely changed my perspective on the situation.  My neighbor was no longer “the rude guy with the annoying barking dog;” now he was “Vanessa’s owner” who was trying to figure out how to train her to be quiet.  We had listened to one another and helped each other find solutions to the problem rather than escalate the situation to the point that I became an enraged tenant, and he got evicted.

I’m not saying that all problems can be fixed as simply as this, but I do believe that, for me, half the battle was deciding that being the change is more important than being right, and then changing my behavior to reflect that belief.

In many ways, I do think that Rachel was right when she said, “Really it just comes down to you listening.”

And as I sit here typing – and listening – I am happy to report that I haven’t heard a single bark all week.

The next time I see Vanessa, I’m going to give her a big reward!

 

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.

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.

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.

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

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

17 Jan

For the past few months, I’ve been scared to write on my own blog.

There, I said it.

I’ve been paralyzed by the fact that I have so much to say, and yet I wasn’t sure of how to say it, so I froze.

Instead, I shifted the focus away from myself and my thoughts, and turned them toward people I know who are actively engaged in pursuing their dreams, and I’m not sorry I did. Dan, Laura, Colin, and Kate inspired me, gave me hope and did a mighty fine job of covering for me while I frantically searched for my writer’s courage.

Oh, I didn’t stop writing. For me, that would be akin to not breathing.

I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. And wrote. But I couldn’t craft a blog entry that I felt I could publish, so I let it go and took a break from blogging.

I taught, I worked a second sales job (in retail) over the holidays, and I read books. Lots and lots and lots of books. But still I didn’t feel like I had anything worthwhile to say.

Last Sunday afternoon, frustrated by my inability to blog, and hungry for information related to a decision I am in the process of making, I traveled to my local library and found Mika Brzezinski’s book Knowing your Value: Women, Money, and Getting What You’re Worth during my ritual “wandering of the stacks.” I checked it, and several other books, out and drove home to make dinner.

That night I began reading and kept reading until I my eyelids were too heavy to stay up. The next morning I was up at five, with a steaming cup of coffee, and by nine I was turning the last page as I sipped the ice cold dregs.

As soon as I finished, I emailed J. to tell her what an amazing book it was, and, of course, had to summarize a few parts for her. I told her she had to read it!

When she emailed back a little while later, she laughingly said she’d add it to her list of books and thanked me for the Cliff Notes.

In my excitement, I misunderstood her gratitude as a request and proceeded to type out a synopsis of each chapter. Later we laughed about my overly enthusiastic response to her appreciation, but I was glad that I’d typed up my thoughts while they were still fresh. Rereading them, I realized why I had been having so much trouble finding my blogging voice.

I couldn’t find value in what I had to say.

I was embarrassed about all of the ideas I had. I thought everything I had to say was silly or trivial – and I was ashamed of what I thought.

Knowing Your Value was the key that unlocked – and opened – the door, and showed me that I wasn’t alone.

Brzezinski’s book chronicles her professional missteps as she got back into the television news business a year after she lost her anchor position on CBS Evening News. In it, she explores the ways in which professional women are often overlooked and under compensated, and more importantly, how they themselves contribute to the system that devalues their performance and contributions. Not only did she examine her own missteps, she also asked powerful professional women about theirs – and then reported their candid responses.

Women like Senior Presidential Advisor,Valerie Jarrett, former CEO of Yahoo.com Carol Bartz, former Chairperson of the FDIC Sheila Bair and Publisher Tina Brown all expressed the same kinds of experiences – feeling torn between being professional (read: being a “good girl”) and vocally valuing their contributions (read: being a “self-promoter”).

The example that absolutely shocked, and then reassured, me was from Elizabeth Warren. Yes, the Elizabeth Warren. The Harvard Law Professor. The longtime consumer advocate who locked horns with Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner. The Elizabeth Warren who has been on Time magazine’s list of the World’s Most Influential People for two years running, and who is now running for the Massachusetts Senate. That Elizabeth Warren.

Warren says that she’s always been the “good girl,” the one who said, “Someone needs to do this. Someone needs to mop the floor. Okay, hand me the mop.” What she hadn’t realized was how deep the need to “belong” ran, until the Wall Street Journal called her “self-promoting.” She said that she was transported back to her childhood in Oklahoma, suddenly feeling like the odd girl out, and remembers thinking, “Oh my god, I do so much less press than I’m asked to do, and when I do it, I always try to do it in the service of trying to teach something, trying to advance an idea’…it really stung. You know when someone says, ‘Oh, she’s just plain stupid,’ it doesn’t cut to the quick. It doesn’t undermine me in the same way. It doesn’t even throw me off. But the notion that I’m self-promoting somehow makes me gasp…I think more than once I’ve wondered, ‘Would you say that if I were a man?'” (Brzezinski 106).

I was stunned. If even Elizabeth Warren worries about being seen as a self-promoting know-it-all, then what hope do I have of figuring out how to say what I think?

As women, we are socialized in a way that leads us to doubt ourselves, and allows the opinions of others to silence our own. And because we’re scared of being labeled judgmental, uptight or holier-than-thou, we censor what we really think and feel in order to make others feel more comfortable or less insecure. It’s a horrible cycle that leads many women to give up trying to get their ideas heard, and I shudder to think how many possibilities have been lost as a result.

The problem, Ariana Huffington says, is that, “Too often in our culture, strong women get stereotyped as ball-busters, which is as insulting as it is ludicrous. In my experience, the strongest, most fearless women I know are also the most creative and productive-and the ones who most want to support other women. And honestly, wouldn’t any healthy man really prefer to be involved with a woman-either personally or professionally-who is driven by her true thoughts, feelings, beliefs and desires instead of her fears?” (93).

While reading these words, it hit me. All of the women in the book expressed doubt and fear about speaking up and asserting their worth, but they all put on a good game face, developed thicker skin, made mistakes, and kept speaking up.

They didn’t give in to the voice that threatened to silence them.

Even when the voice was their own.

I have a lot to blog about these days. Big changes are on the way, and I’m scared and excited by the prospect of possibly changing careers at this stage in my life (for those of you who have followed my blog, I will tell you for certain that I am not on my way to becoming a rock star – and that I’m sorry if you’re disappointed.).

I don’t know what’s going to happen or how it’s going to happen, all I know is that I have a lot to say about what’s going to happen, and I’m not going to allow my fears to silence me.

Well, not for long, anyway.

Dreamer Profile: Kate Pricer

20 Dec

Kate Pricer

[Editor’s Note: When I asked Kate to do a Dreamer Profile, I assumed that she’d write about her career as a graphic designer, her desire to do creative writing, or her oddly interesting obsession with Batman.  I did not anticipate the way in which she would creatively interpret the questions, but I’m so glad she did because it changed the way I think about dreaming – yet again!]

Kate Pricer

C.pricer@hotmail.com

What is the dream you are pursuing?

When I think about what dream I am pursuing, I honestly draw a blank. After three cups of coffee and 13 million ideas, I have come up with this:

The dream I am pursuing is to learn and be all that I can be. Basically not to lose sight of the big picture, to do what would have made my father proud.

What inspired you dream about doing this project? 

My father was a great man. He taught my brother and me that we can do anything, that we will be able to anything and that we will – no matter what – do anything. Thus, a little red bracelet I wear around my wrist that reads, “I am, I can, I will.” This is the project of life. I tell myself every day these words – and I have my dream job, my dream life and endless possibility in front of me.

What challenges have you faced in order to pursue on this dream?

It’s life and I am not saying that my life is a fuzzy, pink cloud, but I can say that even in the most fearful and hopeless situations, I can learn and grow and only come out on the other side of any storm more powerful and free than when I started.

What has surprised you the most about pursuing this dream?

I never thought I would make it to 25. I have my share of trouble. There were times I knew I was unsure if I would make it out alive, but here I am, 25, and I am honestly living the dream!

What have been the most rewarding aspects of pursuing this dream?

Every day I wake up and I am excited to see what the day brings: what projects at work I will start, what bit of technology I will learn. I get to learn and teach every day. That has been the most rewarding factor in this project I know as life.

Kate Pricer

Is there anything you wish you would have known or done differently?

There are a few regrets I hold on to today. I wish I would have learned more in school and in life so far. Having my father around to continue to mentor me in life would have been nice as well.

Where do you hope this dream leads?

I can’t even imagine where my life will go from here. All the relationships and material situations I have now have been nothing but a surprise and have far exceeded my expectations. I want to keep learning, and finding the situations and adventures that lead me to believe in myself, and to teach the people around me.

Who inspires you to dream?

My inspiration for my dream is my father. He taught me to never give up. When you fall, pick yourself up, walk it off and try again. These inspirations I find are also found through people I meet in everyday life, from the security guard who waves good morning at work to my extremely spoiled mutt. The fear of never trying and regretting inspires me to move forward. Most days go by and I can’t help but to think just how lucky I am to be where I am today.

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