Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Amelia, Anne, and Alice

Somehow I’ve always had it in my mind that “the answer” would one day present itself like a Cheshire Cat setting me on the path for my life.  When I realized that somehow I still believed this impossible thing just the other day…recently…I decided to slay it. And I hadn’t even had breakfast yet.

“Perhaps I’ve believed ravens are like writing desks for far too long,” I lectured myself in my most logical way.  Then it was on to eggs and toast with a pot of tea.  

By lunchtime, I felt exhausted and (quite frankly) tortured by the machinations of a mind whirring away with no action to back it up.  So I set my mind aside and took the dogs for a walk to the top of a steep hill with the wind in my hair and the sun yawning and stretching and looking about for a pillow or blanket but only finding cotton balls.  My lungs expanded, my heart pumped and my muscles worked.

Then back to working my mind.

By dinner time, I couldn’t bear the thought of another moment inside my own head.  I needed an adventure, but the mosquitoes were swarming, a storm was brewing, and it was a school night.  So I picked up my prized copy of “Listen, the Wind” by Anne Morrow Lindbergh and joined her on her historic flight across the Atlantic.  

Lovely! Just absolutely lovely!  Navigating airflow and sea currents and diplomatic relations.  Translating languages, intentions and discoveries.  I fell asleep dreaming of being an explorer and awoke thinking of reincarnation.  

Sometimes I’m convinced I am Anne reincarnated, except she died only 14 years ago. I’m much more like her than Amelia Earhart. I’ve always felt so, but used to be disappointed thinking Amelia was the one to admire more.   So strong, so daring, so independent!  Now, as a mother, a writer and a would-be explorer, I see clearly that Anne’s approach would always make more sense to me, and Amelia would always be some reflection of who others thought I could be.  Perhaps I believed it too, but it doesn’t make sense to me now.

I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.  For instance, this new morning, I no longer believe an answer will ever present itself. And at this moment, I’m delighted with that knowledge. 

Another day, much like the other leads me back to Anne and the Wind.  But somewhere in the midle of the night, a dream wakes me up.  I sit up straight, heart pounding in my chest and rushing in my ears, but no image accompanies it.  I have no idea what woke me.

As I often do, I lay quietly waiting for sleep to return, until it’s evident it won’t.  So I think, and I write poetry in my mind, and I assemble a task list for the day, and I mentally clean out my closet.  Enough!  I turn on my book light and write my poem down:

I don’t want to drown
nor get buried alive.
No air to breathe.
No daylight. No sky.

But I don’t belong skating on this thin ice either.

No. Take me to the hot springs
and let me soak
till my mind unwinds
and my soulfires stoke.

It might take a day
or a couple of hours.
But don’t rush it.
Let the flourishes flower.

And for God’s sake, put away that clock!
I’m not a machine. I’m not a robot.

Then when I emerge,
I’ll be better prepared
for what lies ahead
but with curls in my hair.

As the words appear in ink I suddenly realize that my frustration isn’t with speed, or productivity, or technology. No, what frustrates me to the very core of my being is the lack of depth around me. Depth of relationships, of thought, of feeling, of compassion…even of self-awareness. 

There in the shadows of the wee hours, I know this is an answer I’ve been looking for that DOES point me on my path. 

Seek depth.  In work.  In relationships.  In compassion.  In feeling.

There it is—my map to joy and meaning and purpose.  And I haven’t even had breakfast yet! To think yesterday I didn’t believe in answers.  Perhaps I’m actually Alice reincarnated?

 It doesn’t matter, because “it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

Norman Clegg

I’m in love with Norman Clegg.

Chivalrous, wise and cowardly but with a big heart, he reminds me of the calico cat next door.  In the mornings, he steps outside looking his best, stretches and often finds harmless joy in chasing a cricket or moth about in a patch of sunshine. I say “harmless” because he never catches them, only swats with delayed attention and slow reflexes.

Then, around 6:22am, the calico turns into Compo stalking Nora Batty, slipping quietly through the fence, climbing my deck, and sitting by the back French doors of my sunroom.  He pretends to be ignorant, but watches slyly for my dogs to take notice.  When they don’t appear or don’t notice him, he knocks at the door until the dogs come running, barking, sure something is amiss.  

But just like Nora, for all their protestations, we know the dogs love it just as much as the cat.

I give Norman/Compo a sporting chance by flipping the lock and counting to 10 before letting the dogs out.  One…two…three…four…fivesixseveneightnineten!  They tear after the cat who has easily squeezed through the fence and sits safely and innocently on the other side, just out of reach—one leg stretched high in the air while he licks private parts with all the aplomb only a male or a cat can get away with, and pretends not to notice my dogs barking frenzy just feet away.

My dogs pace and paw, securing the border again and again with pee and vigilant patrol, just waiting for their chance to strike and get even.  But a whistle from my lips and the sound of the fridge door saves the neighborhood from the noise pollutionof their early morning rant, and renders the dogs obedient servants to left over lunch meat or quiche from the fridge.  

Truthfully, I think Cleggy would like that too! 

In the afternoon, the calico follows the sun like a ritual.  This patch for so long.  That patch for such a time.  And so on.  Forget the dogs and the moths, now it’s just routine and comfort.  Cleggy would dignify any interruption only with an eye roll and great suspicion…like when I decide to take an afternoon walk to the library without my dogs.

The he just can’t help but tag along, worried and fretting the whole way, sure it will end in no good, but drawn nonetheless by some undeniable henchman hunch. Of course, he will meow his disapproval the whole way, a litany of “I told you so”s before anything ever happens.  I pick up the Clegg-like calico and assure him it will all be fine! Then I kiss him on his head and set him back down.  He is, of course, terrified and insulted by the man-handling, and quickly runs home only to stare at me suspiciously from behind thick curtains the rest of the day.

He’ll do it all again tomorrow, because he just can’t help himself.  Unless it rains, then we’ll both sit and contemplate the word galoshes with our pots of tea and respective housemates—him, his humans; me, the dogs—only occasionally peering through the lace to see if the other is up to anything, sure that mischief is afoot, when it almost never is…at least until the sun comes back out.

Producing 

Two healthy habits have stuck with me since my recent vacation:  tea in the early quiet morning and reading.  Instead of escaping into movies or tv shows in the evening, I’ve been reading the books that line the walls in every room in my house.  Most of these books, surprisingly or not, are biographies, or histories, or philosophies—heavy on anthropology. 

Anthropology: (n)  the study of human races, origins, societies, and cultures.  The science of human beings; especially: the study of human beings and their ancestors through time and space, and in relation to physical character, environmental and social relations and culture. (source, Merriam-Webster)

Anthropology is my favorite study.

Google “anthropology”, though, and, according to the algorithms set by our society, it is a store that isn’t even spelled the same as the study of humanity that wins the popularity information contest.  But I don’t think it’s because our society is concerned with being snappy dressers.  No, my study of anthropology leads me to think it’s because we’re entirely obsessed with productivity.

Productivity: (n) the rate at which goods are produced or work is completed.  (source, Merriam-Webster) 

Of course, looking back in time, it’s easy to see how we got here.  Population booms, wars, advances not only in life expectancy, but human rights expectancy, innovation—TRUE innovation.  We created machines to help us, processes to control us, and at the end of the day, the people who made the most of anything made the most of everything.  

Henry Ford not only made cars, he made the assembly line.  Thomas Edison not only invented light bulbs, he invented mass production by extending the “work day” beyond natural limits and cycles of light and darkness.  J.P. Morgan proved efficiency was wealth by controlling a lot with a little, and ended up as the trademark for monopoly (literally and figuratively).

But let me stop here for a moment.  I admire these men.  Their biographies, along with other industrialists, make a proud showing in my library. But it’s the industrialists who first make me suspicious about productivity.

Andrew Carnegie once did a study on machines to determine the best way to get the most out of them.  He found that machines that ran at full capacity were LESS efficient, producing less than those running at 75 to 80 percent.  So too with men, he subsequently learned when he applied the same principles.  

Ironically, Carnegie was one of the first businesses to try the socialist movement of “8 hours work, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest” for his workers in 1878, according to author Kenneth J. Kobe, in his book, City of Steel.  I say ironically because he cancelled the policy when his team couldn’t show it was worth the return on his investment.  

Fast forward 36 years, and the Ford Motor Company was among the first U.S. Companies to cut the standard work day to eight hours, but also doubled worker’s pay.  Do you know what Ford’s team found?  Ford’s profit margins doubled within two years after implementing this change.

There are three things that stand out about this history to me:

1.  Fewer hours at work make people more productive. (It’s still true.  Check out this infographic.)

2.  Higher pay still led to doubled profit.  (Versus our stagnant pay increases in the USA since the “recession.”)

3.  People used to fight long and hard to protect workers rights, believing it unsafe for people to work long hours in conditions that were adverse to health. (Did you know May Day is celebrated around the world as a labor day because May 1, 1886 was when the United States instituted the 8-hour work day?  Why the delay Ford, et al.?)

Most of us no longer work in physically demanding roles on assembly lines or at production plants.  But yet these standards are still the foundation for how we view our responsibility to work.  I say “foundation” because with both the elevation to more thought-based work and technology that makes it easy to “connect” to work, most people work more than the 40-hours we say we do (which incidentally means your salary is lower than you think it is).

And what do we have to show for it?  Some may argue more wealth.  And perhaps they’re right. 

But I’m not concerned with wealth.  I’m concerned with well-th.  Certainly there’s a vast volume of health research coming out concerning the negative health effects of sitting so much, being on devices and computers so much, eating at our desks while we work, etc. so were arguably not healthier.

So I turn the page in my reading habits from history to philosophy to see what some of the greatest thinkers think about productivity.  Well, they don’t think much of it, honestly, and certainly they don’t equate it with well-th.  In fact, after reading and rereading many treatises, I find that the most common themes for well-th include  answers like spending time in nature, creative and free expression, relationships, meaning and purpose.  

Quantity of work is not on that list anywhere (although in a future blog, I may make a case concerning Objectivism, which could prove interesting counterweight to this last statement).

Being a bit of a scientist (though completely amateurish compared to my philosophical and anthropological leanings), I think about this in the context of my own life, realizing I am an “n” of one.  If I mark more things off my list in a day, do I feel like I’m living well?  My first answer is surprisingly “yes, sometimes.”  

When? I think some more, wading through items on my mental to-do list that make met feel like I’m living well.  Honestly, laundry is the first thing that comes to mind, followed by making quiche or focaccia or risotto, brushing the dogs, sweeping my hardwood floor (but not running the sweeper!), and watering my garden and house plants.  I also agree that when I complete a chapter in the fairy tale I’m writing, I feel like I’m living well. Sometimes I even feel well raking the leaves and mowing the lawn and shoveling snow. 

But what about work, do I never feel like I’m achieving well-th with work?

I think again.  Yes. Once again my answer is “yes.”  When? Today.  With computers and phones put away, I met with a group of people facing a problem and, through a two-hour conversation, we made sure we understood the issue, discussed it, conjectured, analyzed, questioned, and came up with a solution.  Later, after turning all my devices on airplane mode, I summarized the plan on paper.  I felt well-thy after that too. Then I realize, I have lots of examples like that in my history.

So what’s the common theme? 

The common theme is that none of those activities on either list is about speed or quantity.  I do not race to hang my laundry on the line or fold it, nor do I race to water the plants or sweep my floors.  Rather, those activities slow me down, pull me out of my mind and into the present moment.  I notice a butterfly flitting by or a new bud on my cactus or the way the early evening light makes my hardwood glow.  

Likewise, I don’t race through business meetings, nor do I multitask when summarizing strategic plans or writing articles.  I let the language of each ease like a river finding its way along the terrain to its best natural course.

So maybe this is productivity. Or is it just production?  In either case, I’m creating utility and value. I’m just not doing it with speed and quantity in mind…but then again, my mind and I aren’t on an assembly line.

Postscript—two posts in a row after a stretch of no posts?  Maybe it is productivity!  But here’s another truth, I’m traveling for work and sitting high above a major metropolis in a thunderstorm after working three more-than-12-hour days.  I’m caught up on my journal (handwritten) and waiting for a missing piece of inspiration to fall into place for the next development in my fairy tale.  With no daughter to taxi or talk with, no dogs to walk and no friends to share a drink with, I find myself longing to write a letter. Because writing is my way of finding, as Siddhartha would say via Hesse.  It’s my acknowledgement that I strive to be a writer, and thus must spend my time accordingly.  It’s also my peace, my joy and my way to meaning and purpose.

SIDEBAR:  a few of my favorite quotes about productivity.

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.” –Seneca 

“How we live our days is, of course, how we live our lives.  What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.” –Annie Dillard

Perhaps it’s that you’re searching far too much? That in all that searching, you don’t find the time for finding? …  ‘When someone is searching,’ said Siddhartha, ‘then it might easily happen that the only thing his eyes still see is that what he searches for, that he is unable to find anything, to let anything enter his mind,because he always thinks of nothing but the object of his search, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed by the goal. Searching means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal. You, oh venerable one, are perhaps indeed a searcher, because, striving for your goal, there are many things you don’t see, which are directly in front of your eyes.'” –Herman Hesse

“He who works much doesn’t work hard.”  –Thoreau

Fraud

Gentle Penguin, tonight I’m a fraud.  I had just hopped out of a hot bath after a long 13-hour day of work when a text came through from a number I didn’t recognize.

The person asked how work was going, and how I’d been, and where I’d been recently.  Not knowing who it was, I answered that work was good, I’d been very well, and gave a brief line or two on my recent travels.  Then I asked who they were.  A friend I’d met on travels a year ago or longer.

What followed was a 20-minute lively text exchange about travel and foreign cultures and (eventually) my favorite topic—Blue Zones and my quest to reverse engineer a blue zone in my everyday life. He ended by saying “it’s always great to catch up with people like you who are living more than just an everyday life!”

But I do live an everyday life.

Every morning, I wake up around the same time and eat roughly the same food and drink a pot of tea.  I walk the dogs, and take my daughter to school, then sit in front of a computer for between 7 and 13 hours depending on the weather, my workload, my clients’ moods, my dogs’ moods and my mood.  Then I sit in my car playing taxi and personal shopper to my daughters who always seem to need to be somewhere or need something.  Then I crash in my love seat with a glass or bottle of wine and read or watch a PBS show until finally I go to bed.

On weekends I also grocery shop, cook, clean and do laundry.

Honestly, it’s about as everyday as you get.

But I want to live extraordinarily.  To get to the end of life and, with a smile on my face, exclaim, “I’m finished!”  To have done something more important than answering lots and lots (and lots and lots and lots) of emails.  

And yet, my schedule tomorrow looks about the same as it did today.  Lots of sitting.  Lots of screen time.  Lots of emails.  Why? Because I have children to support, a house to pay for, promises to fulfill, and loads of more reasons—some of them good, some of them not.

That’s where the Blue Zones come in.  Living a life that is filled with health, meaning, purpose, connections and community and happiness isn’t a myth or a mystery.  It exists in remote parts of the world where people live naturally.  Define naturally?  

  • Without artificial movement. Example: putting in an hour at the gym then sitting the rest of the day (I want to be fit all day, not sit all day!)
  • Without artificial meaning.  Example: answering emails, attending status meetings, or completing performance evaluations (I want to actually DO something!)
  • Without artificial food.  Example: fast food, frozen food, or food filled with chemicals (I want eating to be one of the healthiest things I do in a day—and one of the most enjoyable!)
  • Without artificial connections.  Example: relationships that exist primarily or solely online, or are too busy to catch up, listen, understand and care (I don’t want to be that woman who died at home and no one noticed until her rotting corpse stank up the neighborhood!)
  • With wine.  (I think I’ve mastered this one, but I’m willing to keep practicing!)

Five Blue Zones have been identified.  Nine common principles have been “isolated.”  Many communities are pledging to prove that it can be reverse engineered in our American culture.  So am I.  At least in theory right at this particular moment (though as I mentioned, I’ve got the wine part down.)

I was able to create my own personal Blue Zone successfully while living in Europe a few weeks this summer.  Without phone and email access; with access to local, fresh homegrown food and wine; with no car, but a burning desire to explore; with no status meetings to prevent me from exploring; with new friends who were delighted that I was delighted to visit—I put into practice all nine principles of the Blue Zone life.  

I felt like I had strong meaning and purpose; which was to explore and connect with new people in a foreign language.  I felt like I belonged to something and didn’t feel lonely once.  I slept without worrying and woke up without an alarm clock.  I walked farther and longer in any given day there than I had in months added up here…and it didn’t seem like a hardship at all.  I drank without getting drunk.  I ate without feeling guilty.  And I lost weight without trying.

But I quickly lost all those things when I returned home.  Now, I’m back to feeling like every day lacks meaningful purpose, feeling like I’m alone, worrying, hitting the snooze button, driving everywhere, drinking more, eating more, feeling guilty about both and gaining back the weight I lost.  I guess I lack discipline or courage or intelligence.  But I’m not giving up!

So tomorrow, I’ll strive to learn something more—even if it’s one small thing—that makes life more like a Blue Zone.  And I’ll tell more people—even if it’s just one—about Blue Zones so the word can spread and interest will grow.  And I’ll try once again to live each of the Power 9.  Then, later this year, I’ll go learn first-hand in a Blue Zone so that maybe someday in the future I’ll have better progress to report about making everyday extraordinary. 

Moments in the Woods

You know that moment when you’re walking through the tall grass of a prairie in the afternoon sun and the smell of the hot grass, which reminds you of bread just starting to bake, is pushed aside by a breeze so cool and wet smelling you know the woods are near by?

Well, I had one of those moments today and it was glorious.  

Just like the moment, about half and hour later when a monarch butterfly popped out of a patch of purple flowers in the middle of the path and into the dappled sunshine flitting her and there as if performing a passionate tango under the mirrored-ball speckled light of the sunshine filtering through the dancing leaves of the trees around us.

All of which was topped off by the unbounding joy of a friend’s puppy when he spotted my dogs coming round the corner of the forest trail and cantered excitedly towards us—part rabbit hop, part horse trot—with his bubble-gum pink tongue flapping out the corner of his smiling chocolate brown face.

There IS magic in the moments in the woods…

Leaf-ing

My nephew found a golden leaf the other day while we were at my daughter’s soccer tournament.  It was beautiful! And unexpected.  Not in the least because it was early July, and all the other leaves everywhere we look are green.  

Well, or so I thought.  Later that afternoon while lying on a beach, the breeze blew a leaf across my big toe.  It was crimsom.  I looked around with my little eye to see if I could spy a red bush or a Japanese Maple.  But everywhere I looked, the foliage was green.  So I’ve been peering into every tree, bush and brush I see to see what I can find.  

And I’ve discovered that the leaves are very much like the people around me.

Some are thin.  Some are plump.  Some have freckles.  Some have stripes.  Some are damaged.  Some are still budding.  Some are dried up.  Some are wrinkled.  Some are smooth as butter.  Some are glossy.  Some are sunburnt.  Some are clinging tightly.  Some are hanging on by a thread.  Some are close to the trunk.  Some are out on the edge.  Some wave merrily.  Some have turned inward.  

But they’re all feeding the tree.

It reminds me of an analogy I recently heard (or read?  I can’t remember and I can’t find it now).  The analogy was of each person being like a toe or a finger of something greater. 

So let’s imagine that if you are an eye and I am a toe.  It may seem that the speck that gets to you has no impact on me at the far end of the leg, but in fact I’m more likely to be stubbed while that speck causes you to shut down.  And my running into obstacles may seem far removed from you there on the face, but my obstacle may also cause you to cry.

So too with society.

It sounds so esoterical, but I begin to believe it more realistically as I trace my recent reevaluation of long-term plans to a cancer scare for a woman I’ve never met on the other side of the globe weeks after her scare is resolved.  Or as I discover that my latest entrepreneurial idea has roots in a 150-year old plan that never came to fruition, which I wouldn’t have learned about if a hit-and-run accident hadn’t occurred on the far end of my street one Tuesday morning not long ago.  

There are more practical applications I could point out, but most of the ones that spring to mind quickly are examples of bad eggs leading to more rules for chickens, and I’d rather not waste my energy on those.  

So I’m leaf-ing the possibilities to your imagination, and hoping what buds next will help the tree grow healthier, more beautifully and stronger.  

New World Order

And so, refreshed from three weeks of vacation, I return to a new world order.

Even though my home hasn’t changed, my work hasn’t changed, my responsibilities haven’t changed…I have. And so they have too.  Being away from a computer and smart phone and TV will do that to your life.

We traveled about—my youngest and I—during three weeks free of email and Google. We answered our own questions and made our own stories.   We drifted to sleep or dropped like flies after hours and hours of walking, exploring, looking, learning.  Our heads might lay one night in a region rich in culture and the next night in a town of industry.  They may be filled one night with heroes and sport and another night with grapes and fairies.  We might have seen great castles, or walked amid cobblestones; bought ice cream or drank beer and lemonade; heard Rachmaninoff or Richard Clayderman; seen a stork or fields of solar panels.  And what mattered most was finding where we needed to be, eating, writing home letters and postcards, and curling up in a safe place to sleep.

Now back at home, there are obstacles, challenges, pressures, demands, illusions.  Funny how time away from them will change their shape.  Somehow, I see them for what they are and move deftly around them remembering that I have crossed oceans, mountains and borders, spoken languages that aren’t yet my own, and found myself still standing tall.

True, there was one moment when I bowed my head and cried, but that was just as much a teacher as the bleeding edits I received as a college student submitting my first true writings.  And I am better for having been through it.

While I searched for my family of yesteryear, I tasted homemade wine that made me homesick for my family in present day.  While I praised their tea culture, I also discovered their beer.  And somewhere in the midst of all that exploring I tasted the sweetest, clearest, coldest water so that I wanted to return again and again though it lay far out of our way.

This new world order builds on these foundations.  Exploring, walking, eating, finding my way, learning, drinking, listening.  I am better for it, there is no question.  And yet, somehow, I feel more military than usual.  Reading a map makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something important.  Holding still in the midst of panic all around or uncertainty gives me confidence and calm.  Finding a new solution or path or tea shop of book gives me a high.  

Tonight, after a full day of work far from home, I find that seeking a pub to watch the soccer match presents almost more delight than the soccer match itself.  And not just because my team lost.

I guess at some point in my life I would have been proud of that too.  But now it feels rigid and cold, hard and…well, lonely.

There he is—my enemy! Loneliness.

I feel my armor wrap around me and though he gives me a few blows to my heart and mind, I pull myself back together and head out into the night where an artificial lawn is covered with people wrapped in blankets listening to another person’s interpretation of popular country music songs in a fake American downtown. 

Loneliness doesn’t dare follow me there because this is where I remember what matters most to me…and it’s none of those things.  Rather a few minutes later in the comfort of Lewis, my Escapé, I flip on Rachmaninoff and open the sunroof to spot a full moon. I acquaint myself with the map and then take off, inviting…no, daring the wind to join me.  He does.  And I am free.  Free to discover more about life in this new world order.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,229 other followers