Tag Archives: Better Living

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.


Live Like We’re Dying

26 Oct

Photo by DMT

I am a sliver lining kind of woman.

No matter how awful things seem at any given time, I always seem to be able to find the good side of any situation.

A few weeks ago, J. asked me how I maintain my fairly consistent positive outlook on life.  I had to think about it for a while because I had no clear cut answer for her.  Some days, I’m not really sure how I do it [many of my students might suggest it’s the result of watching the film Peaceful Warrior twenty-five times], and some days I’m not very successful at it.  I thought about her question for a few days, and took a close look at what things contribute to my ability to maintain an optimistic attitude, and I’ve come up with a few lists of things that help me.

For the next few posts, I’d like to offer up these lists and ask those of you who read, to contribute whatever it is that helps you maintain an optimistic outlook on life.

I’d like to say from the outset that these are the things that have worked for me – your mileage will vary – so take what you can use and set the rest aside.  Trust your instincts and do what feels right for you, but keep an open mind and remember that what doesn’t work today, might work tomorrow or next week or next year.

Optimism 101- Mary’s Reading List

1. Simple Abundance – Sarah ban Breathnatch — I’ve read this book of daily meditations for women for the past four years.  Some of what she writes is unrelated to anything in my life, but a lot of her short essays hit at the heart of something I’m struggling with, and I’m finding that with this latest reading, the essays are like old friends that I love, but haven’t seen in a while – familiar and comforting, but new again.  [Lest you think I’m a goody-two-shoes, on my earnest days, I jump in ready to believe, but on my cynical days, I roll my eyes and wonder who in the world could be this optimistic.  That usually makes me laugh at myself].

2. Choosing Happiness – Stephanie Dowrick — This book is made up of short readings about how to develop, cultivate and maintain happiness.  It is full of helpful offerings that are designed to give the reader a way to envision their life in a more positive way, and then to follow through to reflect that outlook.  I frequently turn to this book when I am experiencing a difficulty that causes me to revert back to unproductive [read: negative] behaviors.

3. A Girl Named Zippy – Haven Kimmell — Forget the fact that Kimmel is the author of my all-time favorite book, The Solace of Leaving Early, Zippy is quite possibly the single funniest memoir I’ve ever read.  Seriously, how could you not love Zippy’s mother? She tells Zippy that instead of being birthed at a hospital, she’d been acquired in a fair-ground trade with wandering gypsies in exchange for a special purse. As Zippy is taking in this information her mother throws in an “oh by the way” comment that Zippy had been born with a tail, which they’d had removed so she could wear pants.  When I need a laugh-out-loud read, I reach for this book.

4. Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand — This might seem like an odd choice for me since Rand’s book basically extols the virtues of unchecked capitalism, but I read this book with D. last summer and I loved it.  I read it less as a treatise on how to get rid of socialism, and more as a psychological drama about how individuals wrestle with making decisions about what they “should” do and what they want to do.  I loved Dagny Taggert because she was a strong woman who wanted to do what was right for herself, her company, and her dream – and none of her decisions were easy.  I liked the book even more after a new biography about Rand revealed that she violated the ideals she’d written about in Atlas in order to get the book published.  Breaking rules in pursuit of a dream makes me cheer!

5. Stone Butch Blues – Leslie Feinberg — If I could make this required reading for every individual in the world, I would.  A novel based on Feinberg’s real-life experiences being gay and transgender in Buffalo, New York during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, this book breaks down the ways in which homophobia is insidiously woven into the fabric of every aspect of our lives.  And yet, even in the most horrendous experiences, Feinberg manages to hold onto the thread of human dignity and the power of friendship and kindness.  If you can walk away from this book unaffected, then you need to find the Emerald City and ask the Wizard of Oz for a heart.

6. Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live – Martha Beck — This book took me a long time to read because it was frightening to have someone who has never met me, seem to know me so well.  Dr. Beck is a well know life coach who has written numerous books and also writes a monthly column for Oprah Magazine.  I love her writing because she is forthright, but understanding and kind.  This book helped me understand what it would take to actually live the life I love, and love the life I live.

7. Life Strategies: Doing What Works, Doing What Matters – Dr. Phil McGraw — I love this book because it is a no-nonsense, in-your-face, wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee kind of book.  When someone recommended this book to me, I rolled my eyes and sighed heavily, the person recommending it said “I know, I think he’s hokey too, but give this book a chance!”  I’m glad I did.  Dr. Phil’s ten Life Laws are probably the most helpful pieces of advice I’ve ever read, and I love his unsentimental approach.  He recognizes the difficulties we all face, but ultimately says “Man up, and do something about it.”

8. The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency – Alexander McCall Smith — Actually, I own the entire series of the Mma. Ramotswe mysteries, and I love every book in the series.  Mma Ramotswe is a wonderful, beautiful, and resourceful character who is absolutely human.  I love her acknowledgment of the ways in which all of the pieces fit together – of a mystery or a community.  She radiates love, and as a result, I love her, too.

9.  A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose – Eckhart Tolle – This book surprised me when I read it because I was expecting to cast it aside after a chapter or two.  I thought Tolle’s combination of philosophy and spirituality would be far too over the top for a pragmatic dreamer.  I was wrong.  What I found when I read this book was that I was fully engrossed in what Tolle was explaining, and I actually ended up reading the entire book in a weekend because I couldn’t put it down.  What resonated the most for me, at the time, was Tolle’s explanation of how the ego drives negative action through fear.  Critics argue that Tolle’s discussion is nothing new, but it was a new way for me to understand my own life, and I appreciated it.

10. The Women of Brewster Place – Gloria Naylor – This is one of the most beautifully written novels I’ve ever read.  Naylor captures the spirit of a community of women in a way that no other author ever has.  This book is uplifting and heartbreaking.  It underscores the courage and dogged determination of the women who live in Brewster Place, and the writing is absolutely breathtaking.

I know this seems like an odd mishmash of reading materials – it is.  It is in no way comprehensive [as if any list ever could be].  This list simply represents books that have been useful to me as I’ve searched for answers to my millions of questions.  And after reading these books, I find that not only do I not have any definitive answers, I have actually come up with more questions.

Read it Again Books, my local used bookstore, and Amazon.com love me.

One Year to Move Blog Music

Here I Go Again

21 Oct

Photo by DMT

Teacher, teach thyself.

I spend a great deal of time trying to teach students to “go with the flow” and accept that the only thing we can control are our own responses to situations.  But I also recognize that this is much easier said than done, since, for those of us who like to feel like we’re in control of our lives, change can be incredibly challenging.

Over the past few weeks I’ve had to let go and trust that the changes that are happening are going to make my life better, but I’ll tell you, it ain’t easy.

I spent this past weekend training to begin my second job, which involves selling computer technology. While it was exciting and invigorating, I kept asking myself whether or not this was going to not only interfere with my dream of moving to New York, but also if I was being asked to do something that goes against who I am and how I view the world.

One of the things I have always dreaded about shopping is walking into a store and feeling pressured by pushy salespeople to “buy, buy, buy!”  In fact, in my experience, the pushiness of sales people is precisely the thing that will cause me to turn and leave without buying anything – even if I need it.

I’m pretty stubborn.

I understand that, on a basic level, selling involves educating people in order give them the information they need to make a purchase, but I wasn’t sure if I was someone who could participate in pushing people to buy things. As a result, the intellectually idealistic part of me argued with the pragmatic realist part of me all weekend.

As a teacher, part of my job is to “sell knowledge,” and since I do this in a proprietary institution, the sales feature is a large part of what I do, but it’s never felt like the main purpose.  I’ve always viewed education as a free and open exchange of ideas, rather than the process of “selling a product.”  I don’t go into the classroom with the notion that I have to convert students to my way of thinking because, for me, that feels like an abuse of knowledge and power.  My goal has always been to give students the information they need in order to make decisions that will benefit them.  How they use that information is entirely up to them.

However, I’ve also come to recognize that part of my job is to show students the value of the education they’ve purchased.  If they can’t see the value and, as a result, decide not to continue to pay for access to the information my school offers, then I will be out of a job.  Coming to that realization made me feel uncomfortable, at first, because it made the relationship between education and economics uncomfortably clear.  It’s not an open and free exchange of ideas. In the end, it’s a service that people are paying for and my job involves selling that service to the best of my ability.

What I realized is that my primary concern was with what I view as the ethical responsibility of educating people.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t view myself as any more ethical than the next person, I just know what I believe and every day I do the best I can to adhere to the beliefs that my conscience can bear.  If I can look myself in the eye every day and honestly say that I’ve treated people in a way that recognizes and respects their human dignity, then I’m satisfied I’ve done the best I can.  If I don’t feel that I have done that, then I admit my mistakes, evaluate what needs to be changed, and improve the next time.

My Cultural Diversity class happened to provide me with one of these teachable moments this past week.

This class is an evening class that runs from 8:30-10:30 two nights a week, and has 40 students registered, and on this particular evening we’d engaged in a lively discussion about the challenges related to becoming culturally diverse.  The class engaged in an exciting conversation, and I’d had to remind people not to talk over one another a number of times.  At the tail end of the discussion, two young men [who’ve been in classes with me before, and are good students] had a side conversation going while I was trying to explain the directions for the quiz that was to be given during the next class period.  Without asking any questions, I turned and barked at them, “Stop talking!  NOW!”  And they did.

Later, I felt guilty about my reaction.  Not because I’d wanted them to be quite while I was giving directions, but because I felt like I’d failed to model the kind of professional behavior that I want students to adopt, and because I felt like I’d missed something important.  Over the next few days, I thought about why I’d reacted the way I had, and came to the conclusion that it was the result of a number of factors – one of which I could actually change.

I realized that one of the problems with the large group discussion was that while, in theory, it gave everyone a chance to talk and listen to what others had to say about a particular issue, it really didn’t get students involved in an active sense.  The sheer number of students in the class combined with the limited time we have, means that those who wanted to participate had to wait their turn to be called on, and with a discussion like this, there was a lot to say.  I could see that in a late-night classroom full of students who, for the most part, are experiential learners, this could be frustrating, thus the side conversations.

So, I came into the next class period and admitted my mistake.  The guys I’d barked at didn’t even remember what had happened, and that made me laugh.  Then I informed the class that as a result of my epiphany, we were going to change it up a bit and get everyone more involved in the discussion.  I assigned small groups a portion of the information we were covering that class period, and made them responsible for making sense of a few key points and then explaining these points to the rest of the class.  As I watched the groups discuss their topics, I was able to see that students who had been quiet during the large group discussion now felt more comfortable talking and students who wanted to talk were talking. As an added bonus, while they wrestled with the ideas I was able to move around the room and push them toward developing more nuanced explanations, which they later shared with their classmates.  Overall it was a successful change, but it also made it clear to me that I am in the business of “selling knowledge,” and I have to make it useful to my “consumers” in order for them to “make a purchase.”

What made me connect all of this?

I spend a lot of time thinking about things – obviously.  I am constantly looking for new ways to learn and teach, but it was the push I got from the weekend training for my new job that helped me make the concrete connection.  I realized this new job will be something that I’ve already been doing.  It will utilize my teaching skills since I’ll be working for a corporation whose belief is that they “enrich people’s lives” – and the extent to which they believe this means that they don’t have to try and sell anything.  At the end of the weekend training, I was shocked to learn that there are no numbers or quotas for the sales people to meet.  The job of sales people in this company is to provide people with the information they need in order to make decisions that will improve their lives.

That’s it.

At my new job they actually believe that “those who are crazy enough to believe they can change the world – are the ones who do” and as a result the profit this company makes is viewed as the logical by-product of treating people with kindness, dignity and respect.

My conscience can definitely live with that.

One Year to Move Soundtrack

Cool Change

30 Aug

Living Room – before. Photo by MAG

When I was fourteen, my mother decided she would be nice and surprise me by painting my bedroom a very cheerful shade of yellow, and rearranging my furniture to “freshen things up a bit.”  I loved the new color, but the rearranged furniture was beyond the pale.  Shedding tears of frustration, I stubbornly – and immediately – began to move everything back to exactly where it had been before the painting began – by my own big self. However, in the process of moving furniture around, I discovered a whole new way of arranging the room and wound up loving it.

Contrary to popular belief, control freaks don’t eschew change, we just want to be in charge of it.

Recently, a friend told me about a conversation he’d had while drinking in a dive bar in Harlem nearly a decade ago.  L. said that a man on the bar stool next to him, an Iraqi immigrant in his 50s, started a conversation by saying that he believed human beings needed to move every six months in order to avoid becoming complacent.  L. said that he listened as the man argued his case [in the way that people who are slightly inebriated tend to do] and was fascinated by the rationale. The man argued that most humans get too comfortable when they live in one spot for too long, and that in order to keep the mind and body fresh one needs to move frequently in order to experience new ways of looking at the world.  Where he came up with the six month time frame, L. had no idea, and while he understood the theory, L. couldn’t quite buy into the prospect of physically moving that often.

I, too, understand what the man was getting at, but since I am a person who breaks into a cold sweat at the thought of having to pack a suitcase for an occasional weekend in Chicago, having to pack up everything I own and physically move it to a new location every six months would, in all likelihood, require frequent – and hefty – doses of Xanex.

However, I do think that this man had the right idea.  For a lot of folks, “getting comfortable” is the point of what they do – it’s why they hold jobs and buy property – and it’s what makes them feel safe and secure.  However, stability and security frequently come at a price because while comforting, these things can also be deadening.  I think this is what the Iraqi gentleman was trying to explain; an attachment to “things,” in the name of security, is dangerous when it leads to complacency.  His answer?  Forward movement.

I think that, for me, the key to adapting to change is about both forward movement and backward glances.  I need the new experiences, but I also need the memories to remind me where I’ve been.  For as long as I can remember, I’ve been someone who has sought out change, and I can look back now and see that the reason for this is fairly simple — I cannot stand being bored, and the only antidote to boredom is the constant challenge presented by change.  This need, combined with my impulsive nature, has made for some rather interesting life experiences, but I can honestly say that I can count, on one hand, the number of times I’ve actually been bored in my life.  Fortunately, my lifelong, overwhelming need to write has also meant that each change in my life has been scrupulously recorded in one of my many journals.  Through the combination of my experiences and my writing, I can clearly see that change, more often than not, ends up being beneficial for me — even when I’m not in control of it — so I’ve tried to re-frame my attitude toward [and approach to] change, and for the most part, I’ve been successful.

The change I’m facing as I prepare to move to New York City both excites and unnerves me.

I’m excited by the prospect of actually living a dream – of living in “the city that never sleeps” and of finding new ways to satisfy my constant need to learn and grow.  I am in love with the notion that I could hop on the subway and, in a relatively short period of time, be somewhere new and exciting.  I love the fact that New York is a vibrant, ever-changing place where I could experience the vast array of cultures, cuisines, and architecture simply by walking in one direction or another.  I love that the city is a living, breathing historical artifact that embodies the drives and desires of the millions of people who have worked to create it.  And what excites me the most is thinking about how I could be a part of it all!

Photo by DMT

When I daydream about living in New York City, I picture myself striding down a crowded sidewalk, heading toward a museum, restaurant, or concert.  I envision myself meeting scores of new and interesting people everywhere from the subway to the corner bodega.  And I smile when I think about the fact that New York offers me a kind of paradise when it comes to my need for constant stimulation.

However, I also feel nervous about leaving the safety and security of my home in Michigan, and setting out to discover the unknown.  The truth is that without my familiar physical surroundings, I’m afraid I’ll forget what I’ve learned about how to live this life that I love so much.

I love my apartment in Michigan because it’s been the place in which I’ve undergone a metamorphosis.  When I moved in almost two years ago, I was excited about the prospect of living on my own and shaping my life into something that reflected who I was and who I wanted to be.  Bit by bit, I began discarding the artifacts left over from my former life, and replacing them with things that felt more like “me.”

It was cathartic and freeing to let go of the past and begin to discover what I liked, but it was also a little scary since I didn’t know what I liked and I was constantly worried that I’d make the “wrong” choice.  I started small – replacing my lunch bag and purchasing two new coffee mugs – and gradually worked my way up to redecorating my living room and workspace this past summer.  I found that when I stopped and really listened to my gut instincts, I rarely made mistakes, and the “mistakes” I did make were usually the result of one of two things: either doing what I thought I “should” do or rushing into a purchase when my instincts told me to wait and see.  I also began to realize that nothing had to be permanent.  If I didn’t like what I’d done, I could return what I’d bought and try again – decorating wasn’t a trap, instead it became a process of discovery.

In the beginning, it was a little frightening to let go of the things that had come to define me during the decade I’d spent with my ex-partner.  Actually, I was in turmoil, at times, because I had to stop and take a cold hard look at how much of myself I’d given up during the relationship – and sometimes the view wasn’t pretty.  My decorating epiphany came the day I finally replaced the rosebud covered bedspread and matching pink sheets [which I’d never really liked, but had agreed to simply to prevent an argument] with a simple two-toned taupe duvet cover and a set of sheets in an earthy yellow-green shade from IKEA.  I loved the simplicity of the design-free earth tones; uncluttered and calming.  The bedroom emboldened me, and soon I replaced the Martha Stewart yellow-with-blue-flowers shower curtain with a taupe/tan/off-white curtain in a simple geometric design and towels in muted earth tones.

Redecorating, a task that had previously felt overwhelming, became a pleasurable pursuit as I sought out things that made me feel at home in my home.  I could choose whatever suited me!  I didn’t have to negotiate or justify what I liked and wanted! And I didn’t feel pressured to spend a lot of money on my purchases, in fact, a lot of times I found that I took greater satisfaction in unearthing deals in the most unlikely places [I found my bathroom rug, which perfectly matches my zen color scheme, at Meijer for under $10.00].

Photo by MAG

On a trip to Chicago, J. and I browsed the fabric selection at The Needle Shop, and found the perfect fabric with which I could make a headboard for my bed.  I bought plywood and a staple gun at Home Depot, batting and foam at JoAnne Fabrics, brought it all home, and proceeded to make a headboard that perfectly matches my bedroom decor.  In a true act of serendipity, D. forwarded a photo he’d taken long before I’d envisioned the headboard, and one of the buildings in the photo happened to match the colors in the fabric and my sheets, so I framed it and hung it over my bed.

This past June, I felt like I finally had the confidence to tackle my living room and work space.  I prepared by scouring interior design books and magazines for ideas, and asking for advice from J. and my interior design students.  I also began collecting art that fit my decorating scheme, and meant something to me.  A typography print one of my Art History students made for her final project, one of L.’s paintings, and a number of D’s photographs all grace my walls, and make this apartment feel like home.

One of the nicest parts of redecorating was being able to do it “my own big self.”  My ex-partner was a stickler for details and wouldn’t let me put together furniture or hang pictures because I don’t tend to do things the “right way” [and I will openly admit that when it comes to reading directions, I fail – epically].  Decorating my apartment has given my friends some good laughs as I’ve learned how to use a power drill [FYI: The attachment on the power drill is for screws, not for drilling holes in the walls], and put together my furniture.  Did it take me several long afternoons-turned-into-evenings to assemble my bedroom chair and my living room sofa?  Yes.  Are my curtain rods hung on nails because I can’t figure out how to drill holes for screws in the walls above my sliding glass doors?  Yes.  Are all of my pictures hung at slightly odd angles because I didn’t use a level to line up the nails?  You bet.  Do I care?  Not in the least.

Living Room – after. Photo by MA

So, how can I move away from this wonderful haven where I’ve learned how to live freely and dream openly, again?  Honestly, I don’t know.  Packing up and leaving will be difficult and, most likely, painful, but I will do it because, as D. has reminded me time and again, “You can’t lose your memories, Mary.  They are yours to keep — forever.”

And I have faith that I will.

My Way

18 Aug


Photo by DMT


Frank Sinatra on Crack saved me.

Last week I made a big, bold – and impulsive – declaration about living a dream.  When I made it, I believed it.  I was feeling excited about the possibilities and confident in my ability to make things happen.  I was ready to elope!  Over the weekend the realities began to set in.

As anyone who has ever planned for a move knows, there are a million things that need to be done before the actual move can happen, and when you start talking about moving to a whole new state, the tasks begin to exponentially multiply.  This weekend I dove into the dream by pulling out all of my financial records for the past year in order to pull together a budget.  Oh please, don’t look at me like that.  Most Americans don’t have a budget spreadsheet that calculates everything down to the penny.  Or maybe that’s just me.

The point is that once I pulled out all of the paperwork and had it spread out on my desk, I started to feel overwhelmed.  I started thinking about all of the other tasks I’d need to complete – culling my possessions so that I can downsize from 750 sq. ft. of living space to 450 sq. ft., packing my remaining possessions, finding someone to load them up, move them, and unload them 1000 miles away – and it made me want to scrap the budget and head out to the pool.  My stubbornness won out, and I stayed in and worked on the budget.  A few hours later, as I saved my Excel spreadsheet, I realized that I’d only input two months worth of data. Again, the pool beckoned, and this time I gave in.

The truth is – I’m scared.

I’m scared because I want to make this dream a reality so badly that I can taste it, but I also know that I don’t have control over what will or will not happen.  I’m scared because I’ve put this dream out there in the blog universe and shared it with everyone I know.  I’m scared because I want to do this “right” even though I know that there is no right way to do anything.

I also know that people who love and care about me are a little concerned about this latest development.  I tend to be a wide-eyed optimist who views the world in a positive light. It baffles those who aren’t able to understand how I maintain sunny outlook, and it worries those who have watched me leap – and fall. My friends and family worry about me because they think my optimism is someday going to get me killed, and New York’s reputation isn’t helping matters.

Some of it is an issue of physical safety.  I’m the kind of person who truly believes that you get back what you put out there, so if I’m just polite and respectful to the drug dealers on the corner, they’ll reciprocate.  If there were a contest, I’d probably be voted “Person Most Likely to Be Killed While Introducing Herself in a Dangerous Neighborhood.” The realist in me understands that I’m not going to stop a bullet just by being nice to it, but the idealist believes that in order for the bullet not to fly in the first place someone has to start somewhere.  This does not allay the fears of the people who love me.

When I told D. that I had found a beautiful Hamilton Heights apartment that was also totally affordable, he responded “Mary, there’s a reason it’s nice AND affordable. It’s in Harlem, looks like it’s near Columbia University, which is not a nice area.”  And I replied, “But can’t we all just get along?  I mean, if I’m in my optimistic, chirpy bubble what can go wrong?” His lack of response let me know that the irresistible force had met the immovable object.

Since stereotypes about New Yorkers and their rude attitudes abound, other people worry that my Pollyanna-style approach to life will cause me to be eaten alive in the big city.

Recently I was talking about this move with a very dear and trusted friend.  T. looked at me and said, “I was telling my daughter about you.  I told her how you always see everything so positively and that you always look for the good in every person.  You’re the kind of person who would ask a bank robber if they’d done it because they needed money for food! You need to protect yourself a little more otherwise you’re going to get used and hurt. New York isn’t going to be safe for you!”

I smiled as I replied, “I know, but here’s what I understand about myself.  I look at the world in a positive light because I’ve tried operating from the self-protection side, and you know what?  It didn’t make me happy.  I want to see things in a positive light because that’s what I believe is possible, and I’m happiest when I’m living in a way that leaves the world around me a little brighter.” I understood exactly what she meant, though, and I took it as a compliment because I know we love and respect each other.  I really do believe that, in the end, only kindness matters.

I’m still scared, though. I don’t want to let people down, but more than that, I don’t want to let me down.

And that’s where Frank enters the story.

When I get ready to teach my routine includes tuning into a radio station that I laughingly call “Crack Radio” [it’s actually Doug 93.1 FM].  The station’s tag line is “We play everything,” and  do they ever.  The result is a wacky mix that never fails to strike a chord in me.  When I tuned in yesterday the Boss was belting out “No Surrender,” which was followed by “Only the Good Die Young,” and “I Won’t Back Down.” I laughed out loud and shook my head as I returned to getting ready – and thinking about my dream-related fears.  I had just settled in to the beginnings of a “flash flood” (when my brain opens up and unleashes the full fury of my thoughts in a torrential downpour) when I heard the quiet opening notes.

Sinatra’s strong, clear voice floated out of the little speaker, “And now, the end is near/So I face the final curtain.”   His tone was calm, but resigned to the knowledge that this was the end. “Regrets, I’ve had a few;/But then again, too few to mention/I did what I had to do/And saw it through without exemption.”  Both the music and Frank’s voice rose as he exclaimed “I’m sure there were times you knew/When I bit off more than I could chew.”  I stood still, listening to him confidently declare “I faced it all and I stood tall/And did it my way!”  Tears welled up in my eyes, as the Chairman lowered his voice and sang “I’ve loved, I’ve laughed, and cried/I’ve had my fill; my share of losing.” Frank understood me, and as the music swelled for the final verse, my tears flowed freely.  I lifted my chin, straightened my shoulders, and faced myself in the mirror as Frank belted out the final verse, “For what is a man, what has he got?/If not himself, then he has naught./To say the things he truly feels;/And not the words of one who kneels./The record shows I took the blows -/And did it my way!”

At that moment, I knew that no matter how scared I might feel as I work toward New York City, I’m not going to quit.  I can’t control what’s going to happen at the end of this journey, but I can say with absolute certainty – I’m going to do it my way.

And I know that Old Blue Eyes has my back.

People Get Ready

14 Aug


Photo by DMT


During the past several years, I’ve often wondered what’s taken me so long to make the decision and begin to work toward moving to New York City. The answer to this question is one that simultaneously makes me ashamed and proud.

My initial trip to New York, while opening my eyes to a whole new world, also left me feeling insecure and out of place. As J. and I walked the streets of New York, I felt like a country bumpkin.  New Yorkers, even the scruffiest of them, are stylish people, and as I looked around and observed the crowds, I felt old, fat and out of place.  Returning to Michigan only served to exacerbate the feeling.  I’m loathe to admit it, but two years ago I didn’t think I was “good enough” for New York City.

I was overweight, out of shape, and lacking style and pizazz in my wardrobe, makeup and hair. I was Eliza Dolittle before Henry Higgins.  Cinderella before her Fairy Godmother showed up and waved her wand. The proverbial Ugly Duckling before that whole swan thing.  Okay, maybe I’m being a little dramatic.  Don’t get me wrong, I had a lot of other things going for me – I am a kind, intelligent person who is an excellent teacher and is funny as hell – I just didn’t have the outward appearance that reflected these qualities in a way that would fit into a New York City lifestyle.

Once I’d broken up with my ex-partner, I started to make some big changes. I moved into an apartment complex that offered a gym membership as part of my lease, and started working out regularly.  I quit eating fast food, at first, because I could no longer afford the expense, but as I watched my body begin to change, I realized that eliminating it from my diet had also meant I’d eliminated the calories.  I switched over to more healthy foods, and even began cooking, which “shocked and awed” many people who know me.  Slowly, the pounds came off and I began to feel more energetic and attractive.  When I hit a plateau in the spring of 2009, I hired a personal trainer to advise me about how to get better results from my workouts and counsel me about my nutrition issues, and with his help I lost another 60 pounds.

The weight loss meant that I also needed to replace my clothing, for this I turned to the Fashion Design students at the college where I teach general education classes.  My students were more than happy to advise me, and recommended that I wear shorter skirts and higher heels.  At first, this felt ridiculous.  A 43-year old teacher wearing above-the-knee skirts and 3″ heels?  Unacceptable!  Impossible!  Outrageous!  Well…maybe just one short skirt.  And those high heels are kind of cute.

My students were unflaggingly kind and enthusiastic despite my resistance.  They encouraged and applauded every small change I made, and continued to make suggestions and offer advice.  Every couple of months, J. would travel to Michigan from Chicago to shop with me and slowly but surely I acquired a wardrobe that reflected the more fashionable woman I wanted to be.  As I lost more weight, it became easier to find stylish bargains, and I was excited as I moved from the world of Plus Size Xs to the world of S/M/L.  The moment of triumph came last spring when J. (who is a size 6, and can wear anything) and I were perusing the sale racks at the Gap, and I wondered out loud if a t-shirt would fit me.  J. encouraged me to try it on, and lo and behold, I found that I could fit into shirts from the Gap!

A year before my Gap shopping experience, D. did me a favor for which I will never truly be able to thank him.  For years I’d been a bottle blond, I don’t remember when or why I’d started dying my hair blond, but it had become a habit and I wasn’t sure I liked it anymore.  I mentioned this to D. during a conversation, and he said that he’d always had a personal preference for brunettes, but that was just him.  Since I respect him as a friend and an artist, his casual comment caused me to start wondering if perhaps brunettes were the ones who have more fun, and as usual, I read too much into what he’d said, and heard him daring me to take a chance and try something different (and as usual, his response was “What the hell are you talking about?”).

By the next day I was at the store buying hair dye and making the switch.  It was unsettling, but once I’d gotten used the dramatic change, I began to feel like I’d come home to myself.  As a blond, I had worn more dramatic makeup, but as a brunette, I didn’t need as much since my hair color complimented my skin tone instead of detracting from it.  I ditched my red lipstick and dramatic eye makeup, trading it in for more natural shades of eyeshadow and lip gloss.  The results were dramatic, and the response was overwhelmingly positive.  I felt more confident and….did I dare to admit it?  I began to feel sexy enough to flirt with New York.

As the months rolled on, I learned new tricks for improving my hair and makeup, and I bought more skirts and heels.  I was amassing a New York-worthy wardrobe, and I finally felt like I had style.

These days, I wear a combination of clothes from Vive La Femme, the Avenue, Lane Bryant, the Gap, and Ralph Lauren, and my shoes are mostly from Nine West.  No matter whether I am at work or play, I feel fashionable and that makes me feel confident.

It’s been a long, challenging road, and I’m nowhere near the end, but now I feel like I’ve got enough confidence and style to say “Yes!” to a date with New York City.

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