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Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters

5 Nov
Fall in Indiana photo by MAG

Fall in Indiana photo by MAG

imageTwo weeks ago, J. and I went down to Indiana to help my 81-year-old aunt (who is in better shape than most people half her age) get her lawn/garden ready for winter. We arrived on Saturday and spent the weekend raking, mowing, eating great food, drinking wine, and solving the world’s problems (as we usually do). It was a wonderfully relaxing fall weekend at my favorite pastoral retreat.

J. and I returned to Chicago on Tuesday afternoon to find that the apartment above mine had been destroyed by fire that morning and that my apartment (and the one below me) had been rendered uninhabitable because of the water damage. By the time I arrived, the fire department had deemed the building safe enough to enter and allowed us to go in and assess the damage. My place didn’t look as bad as I’d feared it would, but I had no idea how much damage the water had actually done or how much I would have to replace. My main concern was my computer, which had been sitting on my desk and been plugged into a surge protector on the floor near the front windows where a good deal of water had flowed through.image

I called my insurance agent who told me that if I filed a claim it would result in a “bad mark” on my insurance history and would most likely result in them canceling my policy. I was advised to see if my neighbor had insurance (she didn’t) and file a claim through her company. At that point I started feeling panicked as I didn’t know was salvageable or where I would live.

And then good things started happening.

J. offered her second bedroom for as long as I needed it and we quickly stuffed my bedding in bags to be washed and dried. Since I’d been traveling that weekend, I’d packed most of what I needed on a daily basis, so it was easy to transport it over to J.’s for the week.

Thanks to a quick thinking police officer, who went in behind the fire fighters, my computer had been unplugged from the surge protector and didn’t appear to have sustained any water damage. That night, the owner of the building called to offer any and all assistance I needed (which included getting me a new apartment in the complex, waiving November’s rent, and offering to have the maintenance guys move my belongings to the new place). The Red Cross called and offered assistance in finding housing, replacing furniture, and anything else I might need to help deal with coping and resettling. They also gave me a helpful checklist of the people I needed to contact as I prepared to move, an explanation of the emotions I might feel as I dealt with the crisis (and reassurance that it was all normal), and a small amount of cash to help with the moving expenses. And later that week, when I took my coats to my neighborhood dry cleaners, the owner didn’t charge me for the additional chemical process needed to remove the smoke smell from fabrics and offered to have the coats delivered to my new place when I was ready.

For a week, I traveled from J.’s back to my place to clean and pack. I was still anxious about the move. I don’t like it when things are out of my control (but then, who does?) and I was worried that I would hate the new apartment. I posted an update about the situation to Facebook, and felt uplifted by the kind words and support that so many people offered. And I tried to push the fear of the unknown back by reminding myself of all the ways in which I was incredibly fortunate: I hadn’t lost much, and what I had lost, could be replaced. I would get to stay in the neighborhood I love. And I now had an opportunity to consolidate, clean and reorganize my things.

I was getting a fresh start.

Last Friday I moved into my new place (an apartment in the building behind my old apartment) and quickly unpacked and settled in. From the moment I began unpacking, I knew that this place was different from the last one; it’s better than the old space. It’s cozier, one flight up rather than two, has more storage space, and the floors are all wood rather than half wood half linoleum. Its warmth inspired me to pull out photographs and artwork that I’d kept in storage since I moved to Chicago and hang them on the walls. When J. saw it for the first time, she commented, “Your old apartment looked like an office, this one feels like a home.” image

On Sunday, after I’d unpacked the last box, I sat down at my computer and pulled up a link to a song that a friend from high school had sent me after I’d posted on Facebook. As I listened to the Indigo Girls cover Elton John’s classic, “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” I looked around at my new digs and felt incredibly “[thankful] for the people I have found.”

And I was, once again, reminded of just what a beautiful life I have and how truly fortunate I am to live it.



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.

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