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First Morning

My first morning in rural Italy started with walking the goats. My job today was to photograph the 500-1000 different plants for documentation. The food fresh and amazing. A book to edit. Art in every room. Is this supposed to be Ellyn Ruhlmann’s internship?!

Exit Strategies

The other evening my son and I wandered into what we thought was an antique shop, but turned out to be a portal into someone else’s mind. It was an art installation called Swampgas and Gossamer (best name ever) and it was like entering a Ray Bradbury novel. TIme was suspended for both of us, portals to the imagination were opened.  It was virtual reality and pure fantasy by someone not constricted by society’s rules about how to live and dream. It was genius. 

When I was a child I was hooked on reading from the first word I deciphered which was into. Words were ciphers and into was appropriate for me as it was my portal into a world of reading and my fiction of choice was fantasy. I read everything I could get my hands on–walking to the library to carry home a fresh supply weekly. Books were my exit strategy from real life. Not that I didn’t have a great childhood, but books took me to a different place. 

After watching this video/podcast https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pb_yvBNLjNk&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR2g9tp6sIQcaGpEW9DEHog104PlZpC9YBCJHzfSEtJSc4PD0jlHTnMivGE I  realize these books all had one thing in common–portals–or exit strategies. I believed in them as a child and lost them as an adult. As an adult I would look for “windows of opportunities” to make changes, move or take a new job, but these opportunities were always driven by the children’s needs–and rightfully so. There was no longer a door in the back of the wardrobe.

We discuss exit strategies at work, we know how to exit a plane or building in an emergency, but we seldom exit our safe lives or dream of something different.

Two years ago I realized that the stories we are told as adults really only plan for two portals–retirement and death. Other than that we are to live a safe and boring life with a healthy retirement account–and hopefully good health and travel a bit. I realized I wanted a different reality and soon the portals began opening.

I sit here now watching the cottonwood drift, the lake ripple from fish jumping and the snow-capped mountain peaks. When I walk past a flowering tree I can actually hear the hum of hundreds of bees for the first time in my life. I sit and watch the last five minutes of the sun setting behind the mountains to acknowledge the end of another day. I’ve traveled, I’ve moved and I have a home base–which is different than a home. I have new friends and new work. I have some plans, but more importantly, I have portals and exit strategies to explore. I’m in OZ, and it’s magical.

Beholden

Last week I turned 60 years old surrounded by family and friends. As I anticipated their visit in addition to the color-coded schedule I had to create to manage all the comings and goings and ensure they saw the best parts of my new landscape, I also tried to find one word that would sum up all the changes since I was last with them all. The unbidden word was beholden.

Beholden was assigned to me by my landlady/roommate/and dear friend Kathy last Thanksgiving. It was my first Thanksgiving away from home, but also my first Thanksgiving with my sons who have lived here the last three years. Kathy not only invited me to join her family, but she also invited my sons, as well as several others. All of us strangers, some new to the holiday–a community giving thanks for one short day.

Kathy assigned everyone a synonym of “thanks” through a place card and after the meal asked us each to tell our word and what it meant to us. Each person who went before me was overcome with emotion when describing what they were grateful for. I was becoming anxious as it gets closer to my turn as my assigned word was beholden.

At first, I looked at the word as having a negative connotation. I didn’t want to admit I was beholden to anyone or anything. Then I had a flash of inspiration, of truth, of light. Beholden is a positive concept. That my past year of travel and upheaval was only possible because I was beholden to so many who spoke truths to me, who supported me, who encouraged me to “leap and build my wings on the way down”

My mind was filled with all the memories, faces and experiences of the past year–and then brought back to the present moment realizing I was beholden to Kathy, for opening her home to me, her life and family to me–even her friends to me.

Now it was my birthday and she asked each person to share one word they thought of in relation to me, requiring me to listen, not deflect. As each person spoke and shared I was overwhelmed with love and joy. I also realized that each word they used was also true of them–that word was what bound us together in love and friendship.

Kathy’s word was generous. This from someone who moved out of her house to accommodate my guests, someone whose generosity is renowned by her friends and family.

Now beholden is the word I use to stay in gratitude, no man is an island and I am the person I am today because of every person whose life has touched mine.

My loved ones are generous, thrifty, fun, exuberant, inspirational, ebullient, creative, inflow, adventurous, connectors, passionate, badasses, spontaneous, incredible, live in the moment, love family, support each other and are driven. I am beholden to all of you for your gifts–your words, your love, and support.

It’s the Journey–Not the Destinations

Today marks the one year anniversary of my sabbatical or the first birthday of my new life! I had spent years dreaming about travel and adventure and years suppressing dreams as my days and purpose were shaped by the needs of my children–and rightfully so! I am blessed to have five amazing children who have supported me on this journey.

While I did travel to Italy, Eastern Europe, Iceland, Wisconsin, and Colorado–I learned that it was not about the travel as much as it was about leaving. Leaving the nest I had first created for family, but also created for myself. The nest was full of comfort, love, and community. It was safe and cozy. It’s so hard to leave the life you have built for an unknown destination.

What I learned that it was not about the destination, it was about the journey.

I learned that the journey was to myself. To rediscover who I was without the titles of daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother, friend or employee. The first five months were about decompressing, gathering experiences, making new friends, learning to travel alone and with others. The last seven months were about processing the journey of my whole life as well as what it can be moving forward.

I was once told by a “prophet” that I should go home and pack up and sell my house and travel and that a gift was waiting for me. I dreamt about it, talked about it, but never actually took the steps toward it. So the universe did it for me. Allowing my work to end at the same time my home was sold, freeing me to activate the dream.

Last night, while watching the sunset over the mountains reflected by the lake, I realized that arriving here and spending this quiet time was the gift. I feel more certain of my purpose, and I’m building a framework to support it. It is about leadership and inspiring others facing change–at work or in their personal lives.

Facebook and Instagram make my past year look magical, but the reality is change is hard. My future feels uncertain and my journey has just begun. My life is now practice, while practice makes perfect, practice is not perfect. It’s about learning, acquiring skills and it is hard work. My goal is to practice walking on the path until I’m solid.

“Cultivate solidity. You are somebody; you are something. You are a positive factor for your family, for society, for the world. You have to recover yourself, to be yourself. You have to become solid again. You can practice solidity in everyday life. Every step, every breath you take should help you become more solid. When you have solidity, freedom is there too.”

Thích Nhất Hạnh, You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment

 

The Game of Life is Jacks

When I was a child I was forbidden to play Jacks.

It may seem harsh, but you see I had “fed” one to my baby brother Jimmy who did not realize we were playing house, not really eating breakfast. It got stuck in his throat, my father sprang to action, turning him upside down and shaking him until it fell out. And promptly forbade me from ever playing Jacks again. In fact, he was pretty clear that no single “jack” would ever be found in our house again.

But it is the rubber ball from the Jacks set that I think about as my metaphor for resiliency and my life. The only way we know if the ball will bounce and how high is to throw it at the ground, over and over again. 

When I reflect back on my life and my growing resiliency I see it is because of the times I was thrown to the ground and not always sure I could bounce back up.

The years that brought me to my knees.

When I was 31 years old and a divorced mother with three children under the age of 10 and no full-time job. Divorcing with the asset of debt and living with my parents.

When I was 40 years old, with two more children and my eldest son was in a car accident that created a media storm that could be heard around the world–thank goodness social media was not yet a thing or our lives would have been unbearable. But that was not all. My 40-year-old brother-in-law dropped dead one night of a massive heart attack leaving behind my sister and her three devasted young girls and three weeks after that another loved one attempted suicide and was on life support for weeks.

That was preparation for the year I was 54 and my granddaughter was born two months early, rushed into her first major surgery, living in the NICU facing further surgery and was ultimately diagnosed with the life-shortening disease of Cystic Fibrosis. My second marriage was failing and another loved one was in the fight of his life in the court system. Every time the phone rang it was a life and death situation.

All this while I held down a 40 hour a week job and taught at night at a major university. I honestly believed that tension is what held my body together. That stress was my true skeletal system. Which of course is not true, stress is what leads to illness. My body kept breaking down with small problems like anemia and thyroid disease, and ultimately fibromyalgia.

Each of those years–and the ones in between that led to those crises–forged me into a stronger person. But they also led me to realize how short and precious life really is. It led me to an exploration of how I could take care of both my mind and body and begin to live a more authentic life. Of course, that took another five years of stress that included divorce, working 60-hour weeks at a job that was soul-crushing and other challenges along the way.

The in-between years were busy but beautiful. I was part of a team creating award-winning programs that changed the community we served. I was raising my five amazing children. I was establishing life long friendships. I learned to play again.

But when I was happy those around me were experiencing their years of devastation–cancer, suicide, and death from heart attack.  Pain is part of life. Sometimes it is physical, sometimes it is spiritual–it is our hell on earth.

Not to be flippant here, but this is perfectly captured by Wesley in the Princess Bride.

“Life is pain Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

It is what we do as the immediate pain fades that forges us into stronger beings. How many Jacks can we pick up before we are thrown to the ground again? That’s how we win the game of life. One I was forbidden to play but got really good at anyway.

 

Fear vs. Danger

I was a very fearful and shy child. Painfully so. I know many won’t believe that, but my mother will back it up. I was introverted and books were my companions. They helped shape my understanding of the world and helped feed the fires of fear with information.

As a child, I was terrified of sharks, quicksand, undertows, rattlesnakes, and Communists. The former fear was fed by Sister Urban in second grade who convinced me the Communists were coming to lock up all the priests and nuns, causing me to run home every day and lock the doors, just in case.

Books saved me, and access to the Internet would have done me in! My mother made sure we were at the library on a regular basis and luckily as I aged out of the children’s department in fourth grade we moved to a community with a very liberal policy of letting me check out adult novels! And I could walk there by myself if my book supply was running low!

As I grew older fears and dangers shifted shapes, and shyness was beginning to be burned out of my by wonderful teachers that included Sr. Nancy Murray in high school and Mr. Marinello in college, and by becoming a teacher myself.

As a parent fears changed again, focused on the children. But I also had to face my fears of being a single parent, twice. After 37 years of parenting, my fears to turned to my own life. What was my purpose? Where was I going? Can I afford my dreams? Can I afford not to pursue my dreams?

I know how to escape an undertow, a shark attack and what to do about a rattlesnake bite–I no longer have to suck out the venom and spit it out, THANK GOD. I have a coat with a radio signal in case of an avalanche–for real–and now monitor avalanche warnings before skiing or snowshoeing in the mountains.

Different phases of life, different fears, different dangers. Learning the difference between fear and danger helps. Information helps. Friends help. Family supports.

I know that as I age the fears and dangers will be related to health and finances. Will I fall and get hurt? What if I get sick? Will my finances hold out for a long life?

I’ve faced a lot of fears over the past year, and some danger, and it’s far from over. Fears expand in relation to growth. Now I fear not trusting my instincts. Not pursuing dreams. Not dreaming. I fear I will retreat to safety. I fear I will not make the most of my “wild and precious life.”

 

Come to Life

Three years ago I was working in downtown Chicago, one of the greatest cities in the world, and I was tired and life felt flat.

When I first started the position the idea of commuting to the city and running a museum felt like a pinnacle to climb–and it was. I started the position in October and at first, the commute via train was exciting and walking in the city was invigorating. But soon I noticed that no one on the train or the city talked to each other, or even made eye contact. Everyone wore gray or black. No one seemed excited about going to work and as the winter roared in, neither was I.

Winter in midwest is long and gloomy, but the city with its wind tunnels and lack of light due to tall buildings can make winter twice as hard, and twice as long.

As I began to realize that I had joined the army of workers pouring from the train each morning, set upon my grim journey to work, I knew something had to change. The next day when I got off the train I saw the most beautiful photo of a canyon bathed in sunlight, several hundred feet later a photo of a mountain meadow. I stopped, dead in my tracks, to enjoy the beauty and saw a simple tagline–Colorado, Come to Life.

I began to see these ads everywhere. When I drove into work, just as I was making the turn off the expressway after a two-hour commute, I saw a waterfall encompassing the entire side of a building.

Each ad had a different message.

  • Horizons are not boundaries.
  • This is a world worth exploring.
  • Some things happen exactly once.
  • Hold on to your willingness to be awed.
  • We no longer need to seek permission.
  • We are meant to wander in wonder.

See what I mean. These were messages not from Colorado Tourism, but from the universe. They took my breath away and made me feel hopeful.

The message was bigger than visit Colorado, it was telling me I needed to make big decisions that would make me feel alive and vibrant. Although it took another year before I started making big decisions which led to my past year of wandering, traveling and gathering experiences while shedding stuff.

To my surprise, I ended up in Colorado, where you never see this ad, because you don’t need to. The natural beauty surrounds you and is so accessible. The winters mild–you visit in winter in the mountains. Art and culture are important and no one dresses in the gray uniform of the midwestern winter. And now the pinnacles I climb are actual, not metaphorical.

I have come to life and am training myself to live in the present moment. To say yes to experiences and no to gathering things. I’ve let go and found abundance surrounds me.

To those who developed this campaign, @KarshHagan, who chose where to place the ads, I thank you. I’ve come to my life.

https://vimeo.com/263002335

Photo by Mike Scheid on Unsplash

Just Keep Swimming

They say that a goldfish will grow in relation to the body of water he lives in. This I cannot verify as our family never seemed to keep a goldfish alive long enough to grow. But I once worked for an organization that had released goldfish into a pond for children to scoop up. Years later the ones that got away that day still lived in that pond and it roiled with very, very large, uncomfortable goldfish.

It has almost been one full year that I’ve been seeking the next body of water to grow in. Throughout my life, I’ve been given multiple opportunities for growth and change. Sometimes I used those opportunities to grow, sometimes to avoid growth. At 22, 31, 52 and now at almost 60 years old, I am the fish that outgrew it’s space and moved to a new body of water–

Each time was scary, difficult, uncomfortable and exhilarating. Each time I stayed too long in what seemed to be a comfortable space. In reality, it was time to leave and grow again.

Some view this as brave and exciting, others judge it as foolhardy. It is both. Starting over is difficult whether you choose to do it, or life’s circumstances dictate you must. I’ve had the good fortune to have made choices based on opportunity for growth instead of circumstances forcing change. Many of my family and friends have been marked by tragedy and have proved to be so resilient. I learned by watching them that life is short and we can control some outcomes by forcing change, rather than being forced. That life is brief and beautiful and as Dory tells us “just keep swimming.”

I’m a little fish in a big pond again, I just have to remember that I love to swim.

 

I’m a little fish in a big pond again, but I do love to swim.

Go Outside and Play

If I had to pick the one phrase that my mother used most often it was “go outside and play.” When I was a child in the 60s this did not include toys, it literally meant go outside and create your own experience. Be curious. Be mindful. Learn. There were no timetables, no dinner bells. It was freedom. We were lucky to have a small wooded lot that felt like a giant forest. Behind it was a large open field. The backyard froze naturally in the winter creating an ice skating rink full of bumps that allowed for endless hours of fresh air and exercise.

Later on, being outside all day during the summer meant jumping in the (unheated) pool at 8 a.m. for swim team practice, coming out for 10 minutes every hour for adult swim and leaving the pool when darkness descended. I became one with the water and loved to swim.

During my teenage years, the Glencoe Beach and Lake Michigan became my touchstone. Summer, fall, winter, and spring we always seemed to find our way there. I had to walk about a mile and half to get there and a friend just reminded me that we always walked barefoot, in Levi 501 jeans–no matter how hot it was. I learned to read the water, anticipate storms and appreciate the power of the lake leading to a lifelong appreciation of open water.

As an adult, I stopped playing and stopped being outside. I was busy raising a family, growing career and taking care of the business of running a family. My children played outside but also had much more structured activities and my outside time seemed to be watching them play formal games of baseball, tennis, soccer, basketball, softball, football and lacrosse.

That was until about 10 years ago when I joined a triathlon group that I began to remember the joy of playing outside. To be honest, I was a horrible triathlete, but I enjoyed being outside and relearned how to swim, this time open water swimming with groups of amazing women. Sometimes 10 of us, sometimes just two of us. Sometimes structured and sometimes we just swam to the middle and floated around solving life’s mysteries.

There was one day in particular that I realized I was enjoying playing outside again. I was sitting a the beach with my dear friends Michelle and Ellen after a long swim in the lake, wearing the uniform of my childhood. A wet tanksuit, a sweatshirt and a beach towel around my waist. We were just sitting in the sand. No timetables. Being mindful. Tired but happy.

I moved to Colorado, in part, because playing outside is a big part of life here. From hiking to skiing and snowshoeing, I’m back outside. I’m relearning some things like skiing–just as I relearned to swim. I’m deconstructing what is important to me. I’m learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Mountain lions and avalanches are more real to me now, just as dangerous as the woods as a child, and the lake as a teen. I’m outside playing. I’m curious. I’m mindful and most of all I’m much happier! Last week, with help, I did a headstand in the snow at 11,000 feet altitude wearing snowshoes–laughing all the while.

If nothing else, no matter where you are, remember to play. Inside or out, it is essential to our wellbeing and happiness. Mom was right.

Kaleidoscope of Life

When I was a child the highest tech toy I had was a kaleidoscope. I must have been around five years old and I remember spending hours with it. Just laying there and making adjustments that allowed me to see new patterns and designs-shifting perspectives. If you pointed it towards a light there was a feeling of stained glass and the sense that light streaming through a window at church brings. What stands out depends on how the light comes in.

Lately, I’ve been revisiting a book that has had a profound impact on my life, A New Earth–Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle. They’ve been breaking the book down chapter by chapter on Super Soul Sunday with Ophrah. Apparently, I’m not the only one whose life has been changed by this book.

Chapter four deals with the ego which brings me to the kaleidoscope. You see I had this profoundly humbling realization about my ego. My ego is the operator of the kaleidoscope and normally it reflects the image and memories I want it to that support my truths. I can change it based on my different ego identities as daughter, wife, mother, sister, employee and now a grandmother.

But this week I realized if I let someone else change the kaleidoscope to reflect their memories of me the whole design changes. Those memories are fractals of the design of our lives and two people can be in the same place at the same time and come away with different memories or perceptions of the experience. It was humbling initially when I realized that all those other people’s memories might be what I would consider negative–but it also humbling to realize that they might also be positive.

I cannot change their memories to match my own, maybe I can add to theirs, but primarily I can accept their memories as their truth. But the very essence of memories is that they are the past. The real goal of living a meaningful life is to be indifferent or unattached to those memories–both mine and theirs. To understand that we all did our personal best at the time, or hopefully we did. Until your truths are based in indifference or lack of attachment you will always be judging and letting the past own your present.

Life is a kaleidoscope of memories, a stained glass window into a life lived. The important thing to remember is that it is both beautiful and fleeting.

 

Grace Before a Fall

My youngest granddaughter’s name is Grace. She has two older brothers so she’s both tough and feminine and usually keeps up pretty well. Recently we set on a hike in South Dakota that involved crossing the same mountain stream over and over again. This was hard for Grace as she’s only five and often the rocks were spaced far apart or the logs were narrow. To be honest it was hard for me. But our first concern as adults was getting her across safely and staying dry.

It didn’t take long to learn that staying dry was useless and more importantly compromised safety. It doesn’t pay to try to avoid getting wet. Mountain streams are cold and the rocks are slippery. Not only are you safer just getting wet and walking through it it is also more fun and refreshing. But it wasn’t Grace who fell, it was me.

On about our fourth pass, with Grace safely on the other side I watched my My daughter take a graceful jump across from rock to shore. I took the same leap and did one of those slow falls where you feet slip up and you land flat on your back. On solid rock. Being resilient and flexible from years of yoga I managed to keep from hitting my head. This is one of those falls that could have ended in a being airlifted out. But the rock was smooth and flat and the most damage done was a bruised tailbone and ego with a valuable lesson learned. So what if you get wet?

So often in life we make careful calculated decisions during transitions only to fall down anyway. Why not forge the streams and get wet? The water is cold and refreshing and it’s a lot more fun. In the long run it’s much better for your soul. Trying to stay dry is stressful, you are always worried about where to step next, will you maintain your balance and what if you make a mistake? Moving quickly and trusting your instincts, the process and your training works much better and is a lot more satisfying.

I jumped up, took four ibuprofen and kept going. I was not going to hold the family back. When we got to our destination devils bathtub I just sat in the cold water, in my clothes to the delight of my grandchildren it looked like I had wet my pants and we all laughed together. On the way the back I walked straight through the water and had no more stress about which step was the best one. As long as I’m healthy it doesn’t really matter.

Other lesson learned–adults also need to bring back up shoes and clothes when hiking!