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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?!

She Plays to Win

My six-year-old granddaughter Grace is a card shark. She can play over 15 card games and any board game and she plays to win. She is six years old and she beats me every, single, time.

We recently spent 10 days together in the North Woods of Wisconsin, or as the locals say, Up North or Up Nort. There is no Internet connection, phones are useless for anything but taking photos and a deck of cards is often our best entertainment. I only remember three card games, War, Gin Rummy and Go Fish so Grace has to patiently teach me each game. It seems each game has a different wild card, sometimes aces are high–sometimes low. 

While I am focused on understanding the rules, she goes beyond the rules and uses strategy to win. I’m fairly certain I did not understand strategy at six years old. I’m not sure I understood strategy until I was 30 years old. And I was well over 50 years old before I thought about applying strategy to my personal life. I spent most of my life trying to live by the rules. 

Simon Sinek addresses this strategic approach in his new book The Infinite Game https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tye525dkfi8 Grace is always, instinctively, playing the Infinite Game. In the finite game, you follow the rules, set short term goals that move the ball, or perhaps win the game–but the infinite game looks at the whole season, and beyond. It is about strategy. Of course, Sinek’s concepts apply to organizations and leadership–but I believe that this strategy is about instincts as I have observed by watching sweet Grace.

Observing and learning from our grandchildren is in itself a leveling up, from management to leadership. As parents, we tend towards the management of all the details regarding the child’s care and development. It ranges from getting breakfast on the table and tucking them in at night, to laundry and cleaning and carpooling. All things which involve doing and not being–about business and not mindfulness.

Becoming a grandparent allows you to spend time in observation and time spent being with the child. Not only learning who they are but lessons you can integrate into who you are. Things you did not have time to learn before.

It is about leading your grandchild to learn, and wisely knowing how and when to insert yourself in family dynamics–which is usually never unless asked. There is still a lot to learn at this stage in life and the grandchildren are the teachers and the grandparents the leaders.

 

A Pilgrimage in Vail

This weekend I participated in an “Extreme HIke” sponsored by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation/Rocky Mountain Chapter in Vail, Colorado. It is laughingly referred to as the “luxury hike” due to the location, but not because it was easy. In terms of a physical challenge, it ranks right up there with natural childbirth.

I’m not sure if other non-profits funding research and support of diseases have similar events, but these hikes are really inspirational and life-changing. You can hike Vail, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, part of the Appalachian Trail and others around the country to raise money and awareness for Cystic Fibrosis.

The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s Xtreme Hike event takes hikers through some of the most scenic trails in the nation — across dozens of locations — to raise funds and awareness for cystic fibrosis. Xtreme Hike is about reaching new heights – physically and philanthropically. It’s a journey of passion, determination, and personal triumph, as much as it’s an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people with CF.” 

This was my second extreme hike. The first was 30 miles in Wisconsin five years ago, which was challenging. This weekend I hiked 18 miles, five of which were straight up the mountain for 2.5 hours. In total, we walked over 30,000 steps, climbed the equivalent of 200 stories over 10 hours.

In reality, these extreme hikes are pilgrimages for our loved ones–be it family or friend. I had always thought of a pilgrimage as associated with religion or prayer, but it also a spiritual journey. I’m not sure the foundation realized what they were creating when these “hikes” were developed–and I’m not sure people would have participated if they were labeled as a pilgrimage, but as I have participated in two of them, five years apart and across the county, I can verify that is what it is.

The group comes together for dinner the night before and shares their stories and there are many tears and nodding of heads from those who have experienced similar situations. Some loved ones are benefitting from the current treatments, others suffering and some have died. Two young women who were hiking have Cystic Fibrosis–one had a double lung transplant (yes they both finished). 

As we walk we hear more stories, compare notes, and connect with those who were strangers a few hours before. We shared canned oxygen, water, food, and compassion. Most complete the full hike, some can’t and there is no judgment. We limp in for dinner and share the stories of the hike, but it is breakfast the next morning where we truly honor the transformation into a community. We leave hugging, crying and promising to stay in touch–and some vowing to see each other on a different hike or next year.

I signed up to participate on behalf of my granddaughter, my son and his wife to show them I understand how difficult this disease is. I “hike” because I can do hard things to set an example, to raise money for research and development for a cure and because it is an extreme way to show my love for all of them.

Each time I’ve done one of these hikes I realize it actually is a walking prayer. It is symbolic of the CF patient’s journey, the struggle to breathe, the feeling that your body cannot endure more and yet it does. 

Then you look up at the aspens glowing the sunshine, or the vista from the top of the mountain and you know the pain is only part of the journey. Immediately you must look down again so that you don’t trip over tree roots or rocks waiting to take you down to your knees. 

The hike is a metaphor, a prayer, a gesture of love and communion. Yet it only lasts for hours–and the recovery is swift, unlike the disease. The CF community is a family we do not choose, but who holds us in love and support and walks with us on this journey. I am forever grateful to all those who work for, support and are part of this community–we couldn’t move mountains, or hike them, without you.

 

She Goes Through

Right now “she goes through” applies to so many women and girls that I know and love all around the world. They are dealing with chronic life-threatening diseases, abusive marriages and everything in between. Nevertheless, they go through.

They go through sometimes minute to minute, sometimes hour by hour, it could be getting through the day or enduring a lifetime. May you never see an eight-year-old child weakly grasp her morphine button to endure the next few minutes.

That being said, western medicine is amazing and overwhelming. Doctors are wise and nurses get to the heart of the matter.  But it is the parents and the spouses that get the medals in my book. Watching someone you love suffer and being able to walk the line between empathy and tough love is a true test of character. 

Last week I was on the backup support team for my granddaughter’s surgery. She needed what amounts to a partial liver bypass with a much more complicated name. She turned eight years old just three days before the surgery. Three days from celebration of life to lifesaving surgery. 

But it was the recovery process where I watched the most profound changes. The longer she stayed in bed dependant on the pain relief of morphine the more dangerous it was for her lungs as she has Cystic Fibrosis–which is also the cause of the liver damage. 

The day came to get up and walk. A morning that is burned into my memory. She was screaming in fear of the upcoming pain of movement. She begged for us to leave her alone. It went on for over an hour. But when the surgeons and pulmonary team left and it was down to one nurse the work started. I noticed the nurse spoke quietly into her ear explaining step by step how she was going to be moved. It was painful to watch and more painful to endure–but she did it.

Next, it was time to walk, or should I say shuffle to the chair. It happened and now she only whimpered with anxiety. Once in the chair, she had to move back–this time she was in control. Once settled she gave us a wan smile and said: “tell my dad.”

I realized what I witnessed was a metaphor for so many things in life that we avoid due to fear of the consequences. In one hour she had accomplished what took me 10 years. To move from a static state of fear, push through the pain and come out feeling pride in her accomplishments and ready to try more. Within 15 minutes we were playing and laughing–of course, we were all emotionally drained–especially her dear mother, Kristal, who is so strong in her own right. 

Adele is on the road to recovery, from this surgery, but faces a lifetime of these challenges. Hopefully, she now has more insight into what she can handle and achieve. She goes through and she goes home.

Modern Family

My tribe is a modern family united by love, blood and deep affection. As children of divorce they have endured the hard parts and embraced the extended family that is forged by remarriages and new siblings. In this photo are (technically)full siblings and half siblings and siblings of some and not others. But that isn’t how they choose to define it. They define it as family. Plain and simple. And I’m so blessed to be one of the matriarchs of this clan of lovely, funny and gracious people who like to dance.

There are blue, brown, green, and hazel eyes. There are brunettes, blondes and redheads. The bald guy is by choice. They have mesquito bites, scars and tattoos. They are genetically modified to require fans when they sleep—all year round.

We are only missing the gypsy child.

Two patient spouses with hearts of gold who accept this motley crew. Five of the most beautiful, and kind grandchildren—with one trash talker, and many dogs. There are more grandparents than a retirement home.

Last night at 9:47 pm we all held hands around the kitchen island and belted out our anthem in honor of my granddaughter turning precisely 8 years old. We go through. United by love and blood, hardships and blessings. Mostly blessings, we go through as family.

We Go Through

Our family has an anthem that we all dance–and cry to, every time we hear it together.  Our anthem is I Go Through performed by O.A.R. You see resilience is forged, not found. It is forged in going through, not avoiding pain and suffering. And we are forging resilience as a family because we are a team. My five children are my squad.

We show up for each other in joy and in pain. We can be silly and serious. We are not perfect, but when there is a crisis we hold hands–physically and virtually. 

“..You break my legs, then make me walk
You seal my lips, and demand I talk
You blind my eyes, then ask me if I like what you drew
Yeah, you do
You go ’round and around it
You go over and under
I go through
I go ’round and around it
I go over and under
She goes through

We go ’round and around it
We go over and under
We go through

What does it feel like to be broken? It feels like you are made of glass and someone has taken a hammer to you and you’ve shattered into a million pieces. That it hurts to take a deep breath as the broken glass is inside you. You have to be careful about every move you make and everything you say because the glass is all around you and if you make a misstep you will be deeply wounded.

But if you are resilient and you work hard, you can put the glass back together, but never with all the pieces. The reality is there is no perfect life and I will be broken by life again and again and vigilance is required through mindfulness and honoring my intuition. Each crack will remind me to be grateful for the light coming in–better said by the singer-songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen in his Anthem.

…Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in
Ring the bells that still can ring (ring the bells that still can ring)

Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in

Does your family have an anthem? If not yours will find you when you need it most, because no one gets through life without suffering. According to the Dalai Lama happiness is the absence of suffering and according to Victor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, it gives meaning by the attitude we take towards it. 

In a few weeks, our family will have yet another chance to become resilient as my grandgirl faces surgery. Our anthem and our love and support will help us go through.

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.”