Posts tagged: life lessons
February 15, 2013

When Senses Slide Wide Open

Let me first set the mood: the sky is gray and the air is cold. Not bitterly so, but you’d be wise to plunge your hands into your pocket as you walk the cobblestone streets in search of a coffee shop. Even before noon, restaurants and cafes, no matter their caliber, have candles burning in the windows.

Be careful when you cross the street. There is a wide bike line between cars and pedestrians on almost every street. It is filled with stylish women wearing versions of a similar outfit: flat black ankle boots, slim trousers, a shapeless, voluminous, vaguely arty coat, and a huge, nubby knit scarf looped and framing a wide, pink-cheeked, barely made-up face. Her hair is in a messy-cool top-knot. She might be toting a yoga mat or a child. I kept thinking I saw Michelle Williams.

You hustle across the street and settle into a coffee shop just slightly below street-level. On each table are small candles sitting next to little pots of herbs or a few fresh flowers. The music is good, and you drink a cappuccino and eat thick, rich yogurt out of a Duralex glass topped with oats and chopped apple. Aside from the sense in the back of your mind of a train that will carry you out of town to a castle or a cathedral or a viking ship, you feel you have all time in the world.

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January 14, 2013

Wisdom Anywhere

When the list of bite-sized wisdom below reached my email inbox last week, the authors age had been inaccurately advanced from 50 to 90. Advice from a 90-year-old would be more quaint and compelling in a way, but alas, it just isn’t so. Nothing’s lost. A 50-year-old can be as wise as the sages (as no doubt many of you already know):

Regina Brett’s 45 life lessons and 5 to grow on

To celebrate growing older, I once wrote the 45 lessons life taught me.

It is the most-requested column I’ve ever written. My odometer rolls over to 50 this week, so here’s an update:

1. Life isn’t fair, but it’s still good.

2. When in doubt, just take the next small step.

3. Life is too short to waste time hating anyone.

4. Don’t take yourself so seriously. No one else does.

5. Pay off your credit cards every month.

6. You don’t have to win every argument. Agree to disagree.

7. Cry with someone. It’s more healing than crying alone.

8. It’s OK to get angry with God. He can take it.

9. Save for retirement starting with your first paycheck.

10. When it comes to chocolate, resistance is futile.

11. Make peace with your past so it won’t screw up the present.

12. It’s OK to let your children see you cry.

13. Don’t compare your life to others’. You have no idea what their journey is all about.

14. If a relationship has to be a secret, you shouldn’t be in it.

15. Everything can change in the blink of an eye. But don’t worry; God never blinks.

16. Life is too short for long pity parties. Get busy living, or get busy dying.

17. You can get through anything if you stay put in today.

18. A writer writes. If you want to be a writer, write.

19. It’s never too late to have a happy childhood. But the second one is up to you and no one else.

20. When it comes to going after what you love in life, don’t take no for an answer.

21. Burn the candles, use the nice sheets, wear the fancy lingerie. Don’t save it for a special occasion. Today is special.

22. Overprepare, then go with the flow.

23. Be eccentric now. Don’t wait for old age to wear purple.

24. The most important sex organ is the brain.

25. No one is in charge of your happiness except you.

26. Frame every so-called disaster with these words: “In five years, will this matter?”

27. Always choose life.

28. Forgive everyone everything.

29. What other people think of you is none of your business.

30. Time heals almost everything. Give time time.

31. However good or bad a situation is, it will change.

32. Your job won’t take care of you when you are sick. Your friends will. Stay in touch.

33. Believe in miracles.

34. God loves you because of who God is, not because of anything you did or didn’t do.

35. Whatever doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger.

36. Growing old beats the alternative – dying young.

37. Your children get only one childhood. Make it memorable.

38. Read the Psalms. They cover every human emotion.

39. Get outside every day. Miracles are waiting everywhere.

40. If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back.

41. Don’t audit life. Show up and make the most of it now.

42. Get rid of anything that isn’t useful, beautiful or joyful.

43. All that truly matters in the end is that you loved.

44. Envy is a waste of time. You already have all you need.

45. The best is yet to come.

46. No matter how you feel, get up, dress up and show up.

47. Take a deep breath. It calms the mind.

48. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

49. Yield.

50. Life isn’t tied with a bow, but it’s still a gift.

Originally published in The Plain Dealer on Sunday, May 28, 2006

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December 22, 2012

Fight Back with Normal Life

I awake each morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. ––E. B. White

My friend’s father, who is one part Santa Claus, one part Ron Swanson, has a saying for difficult times: fight back with normal life. When heartbreak hits or unconscionable violence and loss leave us breathless, we can find our way by embracing the small, tick-tock routines of a clockwork life. We jog by the river. We load the dishwasher. We tuck in hospitable corners. We may not feel like getting out of bed, but we do. We put one foot in front of the other down the hallway, the stairs, and all the way out the front door and through our day.

The only way through, I heard a meditation teacher say, in what may or may not have been a paraphrase of Robert Frost, is through.

In difficult times, our routines can anchor us so that instead of getting swept up in worry or tears or frets about the future, we can stay right here in the familiar––maybe even comforting––actions of the day at hand. We clear the table, we mail an insurance claim, we call our moms. We fight back with normal life.

I’ve been thinking of this saying since last Friday. And I’ve also been wanting to tell you about a new ritual I have with a coworker, inspired by something we heard on a Tara Brach podcast. Every day for the past two or three weeks, we’ve sent each other three specific things we are grateful for. Working by a bright window, today’s rain, a scone for breakfast. It served as a welcome relief when the day got stressful, but after a week or so, when novelty wore off and our enthusiasm waned, we nearly lost our new ritual to the forces of old habits. We forgot. And then one night, walking home down Sixth Avenue, I had to text to tell her: about the night air, so drizzly and unexpectedly mild, the hot bath I planned to have at home, the lights on our tree. She texted back right away about her anticipation of building a fire, a new handbag fit for a PanAm stewardess, and the winking pink flowers on a midday walk. We were back on track.

It turns out, as powerful as it is to be heard, hearing her daily bright spots was even better than sharing my own. It reminded me of my first job after college where I loved reliving with each customer who pushed through the door my favorite moment of the day: that first cup of coffee. And so it was with my friend. With each little detail she counted, my day got a little sweeter, and I could feel my eyes open wider: oh yes, that.

As the weather has turned colder in New York, I see more people sleeping in subway stations and wrapped in blankets on the street begging. I hate the feeling of walking by, in too much of a hurry to stop and help, but also not certain what the right thing to do is. Where is the balance between helping everyone and turning a blind eye? What do you do? I asked a friend. You can sit with people and talk, she suggested, or share food you might have. Her simplest idea struck me as the most powerful: just try to really see them.

There is a lot of bullshit in this world, just as there are horrors so unexpected and unexplainable they can make even the leader of our nation cry. Both can make us lose sight of what matters and of hope. But we can fight back with normal life. We can open our eyes and be sensitive to the experience of those around us. We can help. And we can have one moment of sweet, honest exchange about things that, no matter how mundane or seemingly trivial, imbue this briefest flash of life with meaning and beauty, with love and connection.

And I am grateful for that.

November 22, 2012

This Too

Monday I peeled sweet potatoes for dinner. It is, for the record, my second most loathed kitchen task, right after peeling butternut squash. But the other night at the grocery store I scooped them up from a cardboard box wondering whether the squat, rounded ones or the long, slim ones would be less bothersome. I bought both, carrying two pounds of tubers home in the dark after work. I scrubbed them in the sink under cold water, and stood over the trash can, my foot pressed on the pedal that raises the lid and scraped the skins off. I especially hate that part. But the dark brown gave way to the briefest flash of a pale color, and beneath that, orange. Just between skin and flesh, there was that little sliver of something light.

It caught my eye because of Tara Brach, who I’ve been listening to a lot of these days. If you don’t know her and have any curiosity about moving through life with more peace, she’s a gem. In her steady, calming voice, she talks about forgiveness. She talks about presence. She talks about kindness and love, and she talks about it it all so beautifully, that lately, whether I am on my way to work or crossing the street or pretending to climb a mountain while I’m really on the treadmill, I find my eyes wide open with a kind of wonder over something at once so simple, yet so deeply taken for granted, I can hardly believe it’s been hanging around me, right in my midst, all along. And then, embarrassingly, tears usually spring to my eyes, wherever I am. And she tells amazing jokes. So basically, that weepy woman with the headphones laughing to herself? That’s me.

So recently, she talked about trigger and response and the hair’s breadth of a moment we have between the two. And that is why the potatoes so struck me. They were the perfect illustration of such an idea: a pause.

And I needed the reminder. Because before the potatoes, I had been sitting at my desk, hours longer than usual, feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. There were 47 things to do but, as usual, I could only do one at a time. One foot slowly in front of the other. But there wasn’t enough time! It was maddening! And this is one of the reasons the time of year that should ostensibly be the most joyful causes meltdowns. We have the same work to accomplish in less time, plus invitations we feel can’t be refused, a host of expectations about what the holidays should be like and look like and feel like and taste like and the need to create all of that perfectly, as if happiness could really be found in a succulent turkey and rich, golden gravy. I love a turkey dinner as much as the next person, but come on.

I think that is why I wanted to peel potatoes on Monday, and why I found myself really wondering about that little unnoticeable pale bit. When my body is one place, my head is usually somewhere else. I am making a grocery list, I am checking my email, I am googling The Watcher in the Woods. I’m never just here. I’m either trying to outrun what I don’t like or busy hoping the next moment brings another one just like the one before. Since Monday, as each unpleasantness has popped up, as they inevitably do––the internet that crashes, the to do list as long as my arm, the unbearably steep incline on the treadmill––I have just tried to stay here. There’s a moment just long enough, barely, to say, “this too.”

Who wouldn’t want to escape unpleasantness and cling to sweetness? That’s natural. But as the stress, joy, and busyness of the holidays roar to life, my practice is to try to be present in what’s here instead of always on to the next thing. This long, slow department store line, this hanging around until the turkey’s done, this mountain of work, this traffic jam, this quiet moment under a dark sky, this cup of coffee, this cold walk. This too, this too, this too.

Would you believe that once the peeling was done, I shredded those potatoes on the little silver box grater set on our wooden cutting board? I knew the food processor would be faster, and kept thinking of hauling it onto the counter so it could tear through those potatoes in a flash. But there was a kind of enjoyment in the slow, rhythmic tedium of that task. One potato, two potato, three potato, four. What had felt like a sliver stretched into an expanse, right here.

Wishing you all an indulgently delicious, cozy, meaningful Thanksgiving filled with gratitude and grace.

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