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Career Enlightenment

When people ask me how I’m doing, I usually respond “my business is doing very well,” with a smile.  My business is doing very well, and by that I mean I’m staying very busy, plus I frequently get to do some interesting work.  But, sometimes, it’s still work.

I don’t mind work, in fact, I like working as a general rule, but I often wonder whether I shouldn’t pursue some “dream job.”  What? I don’t know.

Meanwhile, my dad retired this morning.  He spent his career as a draftsman engineer designing propellers for fans and other “air-moving devices.”  For 43 years.  All, but one year, at the same company.  I doubt anyone of my generation will be able to say that.  And I can’t help wondering why.  Is it that companies aren’t loyal to their employees anymore?  Is it that employees aren’t loyal to their companies anymore?  Or is it both?

I ask my dad—who is, of course, the wisest man I know—if he thinks people in my generation, or even my daughter’s generation will ever be able to retire from a long career at one company.  He agrees that it’s not likely.  But why?

“Because your generation thinks you have to love what you do every day.  That your worth is measured by what you do and how far you go.  My generation knew that the meaning of my work wasn’t in the work itself.  It was in knowing what you worked for…and I’m not talking about a mission statement or your strengths profile.  I’m talking about the reason you work in the first place.  Mine was to provide for my family.  And every day at 5 o’clock, I could come home and enjoy my reward—a good dinner with my family in our nice home which we owned, a garden in the back to grow some food, and sharing it all with the people I cared about most.

“Your generation has been told to work for fame or fortune or both, and you care too much about how you measure up to everyone else in this race.  That’s not a reward you really ever enjoy.  If you want a good career, then ask yourself, ‘what do you work for?’  If you know the answer, then focus on that.  If you don’t, figure it out.”

What do I work for?

I sat very still for a very long time thinking about this last night.  And when I seemed to be going nowhere, I pulled out the dictionary.

Gentle Penguin, did you know “career” comes from the old Latin carrus which means chariot?  From there, the word went on to mean a course for racing and then later to the course of a working life.  Somehow this idea of a career being a vessel for movement through life or a track within life comforts me.  It’s not life—a condition of being–or even a legacy—to be sent on a mission.

But I still don’t know what I work for.  What I do know is that I can safely and confidently say that if I change the world, it won’t have been through anything I got hired to do.  But in being hired, I will most definitely find the means.

Does that mean I’m giving up on the dream?  Or am I growing up and, perhaps, maybe, finding my way a little closer to enligthenment?

Shaping up.

For months and months I’ve been shaping up and working out and struggling to do anything to return to my former athletic glory.  Yes, it’s true, I used to be an athlete when I was younger.  But somewhere along the way of running my own business, I fell out of shape.  (I can’t even blame being a single mom, because I used to be athletic then too!).

Actually, I’ve decided that “falling out of shape” is not the proper term.  It makes no sense.  People may fall out of love, or fall out of bed, but it’s not likely that you fall out of shape.  It’s more like people sit out of shape.

For instance, my shape went from a nice hour-glass to round.  It didn’t happen because of a fall.  It happened because of a couch, quite frankly.  True, it happened over a winter or two (with a spring, summer and autumn in between), but it was really the couch that caused it.  A snuggly, comforting, warm couch that enfolded me when I was tired, cold, lonely and depressed.  And I sat there.  For a year.  Or maybe more.

Then around Thanksgiving, I was talked into taking a ballet workout with a friend and that convinced me that the couch wasn’t nearly as comforting as I thought.  Not compared to working my muscles to the exhaustion.  And the four hour endorphin high that came with it.

So I threw myself into finding my shape.  Unfortunately, every inch I fought off became a battle I waged against myself–body, mind and even soul.  It sounds so violent!  But if you could read my thoughts while I’m working out, you’d know I do feel rather angry about it—angry for sitting so much, for eating so much, for not caring so much.  Angry at how much harder it is to lose weight now that I’m getting older.  Angry at how my life is NOT set up to be healthy.

It’s all my own fault, I know.  No one forced me to sit so much, or eat what and how much I’ve eaten, or set my life up this way.  It was a choice.  My choice.

Then, last week, I was lecturing my youngest about something, and she said “aren’t you the one always saying that ‘it’s the thousand choices you make every day that determine what your life is going to be?'”  Yes, I say things like that to my daughter.  And I do believe that’s true.  I just don’t like it when it’s used against me.

So I pouted and then thought about it, then started looking at every one of the choices I make in a normal day from the time I choose to get up to the time I choose to go to sleep.  Of course, what followed was a good half day of arguing with myself about what belongs in each day and what doesn’t.  I have a sneaking suspicion that there’s a lot of crap in between those hours that doesn’t belong there, but I defended all of it to myself because…well, I don’t really know why.

Exhausted from my mental arguments, I went to my Pure Barre workout and judged myself in the mirror until I was so shaky, sweaty and exhausted that I began to bargain with myself instead.  “You know, you could be running instead,” I heard one thought say and my body responded by toughening up and holding on to the butt shaping exercise more desperately.  I hate running.

“You could join Cross Fit with some of your friends,” another thought said, and somewhere deep inside me something shrieked in horror.  I know others love it, but I’ve tried it, and it’s NOT for me.

“You could go back to karate,” said another thought, and I pondered how ballet training and karate are actually very similar.

In the next 40 minutes, a hundred other options crossed my mind from creating my own circuit training to giving up.

When I climbed back into my car enjoying the post-workout bliss, I was debating whether I could give up life as I know it and become a wandering hermit who just walked.  Probably a little dramatic for the situation, I decided.  That’s when the Blue Zones crossed my path.  I’d read about them a year or so before, but somewhere in the comfort of my couch, I’d forgotten the lessons.

  • Move Naturally–build a life that nudges you to move, especially movement you enjoy and walk
  • Know your purpose and ascribe to a greater purpose
  • Eat wisely–mostly plant-based diet, only to 80% feeling full and a little wine every day (whew!)
  • Connections matter most–family first, then a tribe that supports you

Most of these lessons fit my idea of living well–meaning well as in healthy and well as in great.  I don’t intend to be a supermodel, or starve or kill myself for fashion, or to meet some societal judgement, or anything else that’s not natural.  I merely intend to live naturally and well.

So I look over the Blue Zones list and zero in on “especially movement you enjoy,”  mostly because it’s at the top and probably the most revolutionary idea on the list.  “You mean I don’t have to run?!  Or join Cross Fit?!” I think excitedly.  But what do I love to do?

Before I can answer, the answer presents itself.  My playlist changed, and once again I stopped all thought and just imagined dancing to the lilting tune.

I love to imagine myself dancing.  I do it almost all the time that I hear music playing.  I think about what kind of dances would work with the tune, which steps would be best at differing points in the tune, who I’d like to dance with, and sometimes even what kind of dress I’d wear.

“Why don’t you go back to dancing?!” my mind asked me excitedly.  “Because the only time I get to dance I have to pay—and pay A LOT—to have someone to dance with.  It’s just not natural!” I argued.  I laugh.  My grandparents would have tsked-tsked me for saying that.  Dancing was something they did all the time.  It was a common social practice, and everyone knew how to do it.  There was no need to pay anyone to dance with you, and I’m not talking about bump and grind, but dances like the waltz and tango and swing dance.  Oh, how I long to East Coast Swing!!!!

Isn’t dance why I’m in the Pure Barre class and own a dozen ballet workout DVDs to begin with?  Wasn’t ballroom dance always the best workout I ever had…mainly because it never felt like a workout?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to dance again?  YES!  YES!  YES!

A song from Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance comes on my play list and I smile thinking of myself gracefully floating across the stage then stamping out a complimentary rhythm.  Maybe I should take up Irish Dancing!  I mention it to my youngest later, and she laughs.  (And laughs.  And laughs.)  But then again, she laughed at my doing ballet.  And ballet has been great for my shape.  But to fly around the floor in someone’s arms and climb inside of music—well, that’s my idea of a great time!

That night, in the darkness of our very first thunderstorm of the year, I go back to dreaming about dancing and thinking about making choices.  I can choose to continue arguing with myself, judging myself and feeling angry about sitting out of shape.  Or I can choose to make better daily choices.  If dancing is the way I want to shape up, then by-gosh-by-gum, then who am I really to argue with myself.  Now, I just need to find a partner.

Heart versus Soul

“What did you do, break her heart?” Asked a character in a fairy tale. “No. Worse,” answered the pirate.

That got me thinking and kept me distracted for almost a week while I pondered what was worse than breaking a  heart in a living person (meaning, the answer wasn’t death).  Just when I resolved that I would have to wait for the answer, it appeared in an impromptu piano recital at a local pub with a friend who suggested we play a duet. Heart and Soul.

Ahhhh, yes, crushing a person’s soul would be worse than breaking their heart.  But then I began to wonder, how do you crush a person’s soul?

The answer: She was a singer, and he stole her voice.

Yup, that would do it! I decided instantaneously that I would always choose heartbreak over soul crushing.

I know, you probably think I’m silly that I would let a story distract and absorb me so fully.  But this simple truth has somehow helped me find my focus.

Gentle Penguin, the truth is that I once gave up that which makes my soul sing and it nearly killed me–literally!  Why, you ask, would I do such a dumb thing on purpose?  Well, I was so caught up in a quest to find love.  And I was a foolish, naive girl who thought love was all that was worth living for.  Turns out, that’s not true.

When I finally returned to that which made my soul sing, I swore an oath to not ever let it go—not even in the cause of love, again.

I consider myself lucky to have that first-hand knowledge, though it was awfully painful to acquire.  I also consider myself blessed to know what that which makes my soul sing is.  What about you? Do you know? What’s the one thing that makes your soul sing, that you treasure so deeply that life without it would make you not you?

When you know, cherish it. It’s not a treasure to be buried away, but a light that creates the best kind of magic–that of making life meaningful. I don’t think even love has that kind of magic.

Imagination

There are so many times when life seem just an eyelash breadth’s away from excitement that my imagination can’t help but cross the line.

So today, while facing a long day of work, I couldn’t help but notice my Theo dog was jumping extra high for his tennis ball pass during our morning walk in the woods.  Ollie, meanwhile, only wanted one of the three tennis balls I was throwing—the same ball every time without rhyme or reason.  Theo, overachiever extraordinaire.  Ollie, focused and sure.  So I promoted Theo to Chief Intelligence Officer of d’Anconia Square.  And Ollie accepted the title of Director of the Faerie Hunts.

After our walk, I quickly showered and prepped for back-to-back-to-back-to-back meetings.

Switching from rheumatory arthritis to automotive to wine to hidden talents, I felt I had a superpower so rare and difficult to come by that I must smile and cheer.  So I did.

And I was rewarded with a new song in my lap that reminded me how much I love my own interests and talents.

Anyone want to cut an East Coast Swing?

Soundtrack

Dear Gentle Penguin,

I know I should have been a philosopher when my thoughts once again veer strongly toward wondering what life is all about. Why are we here? What’s the point? Day in and day out, nothing really seems to change, so are we merely guinea pigs running on a wheel but going nowhere?

But then I turn on the highway to head home after another ballet class on a typical morning during a typical week, and I see the first vulture of the spring. Circling. Then the second…third…fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth… They must not migrate back the way they migrate out. Or I missed it while I was pondering the meaning of guinea pigs on a wheel.

Today is already not like yesterday. Perhaps I was wrong.

Around the next bend, the sun peeks up over the horizon and spreads deep colors instead of pale pastels, not to mention light that makes you want to roll up your sleeves and bask. How can life be dull and repetitive with so much sunshine?

I open the sunroof and turn on my driving playlist. The meditative ministration makes me believe that indeed the Fates have something in store for me today. Or perhaps they’re tired of my attempts at philosophy.

When, around the next turn, the song changes to Bollywood pop, I know change must surely await me today. I resolve to not event bothering with my horoscope. Luck, be my soundtrack!

But by close of business, I head off to take my dogs on their evening walk and nothing has changed. Same routine of workout, work, work, be a parent and work some more. Maybe I was seduced by the soundtrack into thinking I was in a comedy, a romance or an action-adventure, when in fact it was just an illusion.

I wonder if music holds such power over me. I turn on the tunes again. A 1990s song reminds me of a time when I was as carefree and sure of the adventure of everyday life as I’ve ever been. My dogs race after a precocious red-wing blackbird who dares to play chicken with them, or maybe it’s an enchanted creature under a curse. And the sun sets casting a golden glow transforming the straw hiding the grass seed into strands of pure gold.

Perhaps, life is a cycle, a wheel, a cyclone that spins at many speeds regardless of time or circumstance bringing everything around and around and around again until we figure out that all we needed to recapture that carefree confidence and adventure was to lift our eyes … and maybe change our soundtrack once in awhile.

Post Scripts

Dear Gentle Penguin,

I love writing letters and sometimes even enjoy writing e-mail messages.  One of my favorite things about both are the post scripts.

Postscripts (alt. post scriptum, which means “written after” in Latin) are described as a sentence, a paragraph, or occasionally many paragraphs added to, often hastily and incidentally, after the signature of a letter.

My favorite are the kind not really relating to anything in the letter or e-mail, but rather intended to inspire a smile, instigate thought, make a reply easier or more pressing, or forge a stronger connection.

For instance, in writing an e-mail response to a dermatologist with whom I’ve been helping ghostwrite an article and maneuver it through a long and convoluted journal publishing project I couldn’t help ending thus:

PS, you’ll be happy to know that my dog Theo (who is often admired for his skin and coat health) has approved your manuscript. He read it quite intently and diligently while propping up on the corner of my desk this afternoon, presumably to enjoy the heat being put out by my laptop battery. But I know he’s very interested in your work.

Perhaps it was a bit excessive to tell on my dog, but it made the next few conversations a bit less tense as he teasingly wondered “well, what would Theo think?”

On the Monday after Valentine’s Day, someone in an agency I’m subcontracting with to create a huge event at an international conference randomly sent this postscript to a rather wearisome and lengthy string of logistics e-mails:

PS, if anyone asks, I did it for the money…it was most definitely the money.

Was he admitting a crime? Had he proposed to the girl he met last week on Match.com? Or was he giving commentary on the project?

I don’t know, but I was in giggles as several responses quickly followed specifically addressing his postscript. And I must admit, Gentle Penguin, I’ve found him much more fun to work with since.

But I write tonight because I hadn’t really appreciated the power of the postscript until yesterday when, in a different, but trudgery-ish e-mail exchange about branding controls within a large metropolitan physicians group, I tagged on the following:

PS, you’ll be happy to know the pocketknife was unnecessary for the people I met back in those hills were the kindest, nicest I’ve ever met! And the moonshine wasn’t bad either ;)

You see, I had committed a modern-age postscript faux pas. One of the two readers had no context for my comment. And he was/is a rather formal chap at a fairly high level in the organization.

Oops!

Except, not oops. He immediately replied back about how random, but interesting (and possibly odd) the postscript was. When I explained (formally and briefly) that I had spent the weekend researching legal moonshine distillers in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains for an article I’m writing, he confessed his love of bourbon, which led to a conversation about drinking glasses, which led to a funny story about glass blowing, which led to a chat about photographs of 80-foot-high volcanic lava bubbles bursting, which led to …

Hopefully, you catch my drift.

What is it about the postscript that makes it so powerful of a connector? I don’t know if there’s any research on it, but my guess is it makes you more human to the reader.

In a medium where 93 percent of the message is missing, it provides, perhaps, a glimpse into your personality, state of being, etc., while also conveying—no, daring the reader to engage and respond.

That isn’t to say that we should all go around post-scripting everything. But I truly think that, sometimes, a well-place postscript might just be the thing to make us less alien.

PS, if a postscript doesn’t help, there’s always moonshine–now legal in most states…provided the government gets its cut of the profit.

PPS, (post postscript, or postquam post scriptum) a secondary postscript is correctly labeled PPS, not PSS as is commonly seen today. PSS is the noise my teenage daughter made at me today in jest, but which my dog Theo (the one with great skin and coat) interpreted as an unacceptable form of disrespect and made sure she knew not to do it again.

PPPS, talking about moonshine and aliens reminded me of a cool fact that, of course, I must tell you! One of the cities I visited was named New Straitsville, and though it’s only about two hours from my home, I’d never heard of it despite its apparently worldwide fame as both a moonshine town and as the location of the longest burning fire in the world. Seems the miners set fire to their mine in a labor dispute back in the late 1800s and it’s not gone out yet. (Side note to my postscript:: So I learned about this mine fire on Friday then tonight, while watching the Genealogy Roadshow, one of the families from Boston, living in Philadelphia was descended from one of the five miners involved in setting the fire. Random!!! I know! I love it when things like that happen…)

Valentine

My dearest Gentle Penguin,
Someone—I shan’t mention any names (but it’s Canada’s other famous crooner; the one who isn’t named Bieber)—just told me that I am, and we all are, nobody until somebody loves me/us.

So I’m writing on this Valentine’s Day weekend to assure you that I love you. In fact, I wrote you a love poem yesterday while I sat waiting for my first attempt at egg soufflés to cool:

Skies of gray and skies of blue
Lest we forget roses can be yellow too
And violets can be white you see
Don’t let them fool you with their trickery.

The prince that wins the maiden fair
Is one type of love, but rare
Cause, really, how many princes are there?
Around about fifty, give or take a few.

Then there’s the feisty passionate kind
In which both parties finally intertwine
But will it last the test of time?
Darcy and Bennett seem to have a shot
But they’re characters in a story who’s romantic beginning is all we’ve got.

Juliet and Romeo?
Well, that’s a dangerous way to go.
Then again, in doing a little research, make no mistake
I find most of “the greatest love stories” end in death or heartbreak.

Perhaps we have it all wrong.
Perhaps we have all along.

Love is patient, love is kind
It does not envy, it does not boast
It is not proud, nor does it dishonor others.
It is not selfish, it’s not easily angered
It keeps no record of rights or wrongs
Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects.
Trusts.
Hopes.
Perseveres.

Love is a mother trying to understand her teenage daughter.
A father working hard to provide for his family.
A brother standing up in a fight that isn’t his with the bully.
A friend listening without cellphone or judging over coffee.
A dog greeting you when you return from the grocery.

Love is a child’s first attempt to make breakfast for you.
A neighbor shoveling your snowy sidewalk one time
A stranger’s understanding when you hold up a line.
A colleague’s remembering your birthday with wine.
Forgiveness for when you had been unkind.

Love is what allows us to live together
To survive the sun and stormy weather
To make this world forever better.
For if you don’t have it–which is the warning of this tome
You will find your life is really lived quite alone.

For you aren’t nobody because somebody loves you.
You aren’t nobody, cause somebody cares
You may be a prince, you may possess the world and it’s gold
But gold won’t bring you happiness when you’re growing old
The world’s still the same, but you can change it
As sure as the stars shine above
Cause you’re not nobody since somebody loves you
Now go find yourself some more people to love.

My soufflés are cool and ready to share with my Valentine’s. But I have a few extra if you want to stop by!

With our love,
-Monica, Theo and Ollie

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