January Books & Poetry

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What a difference consistency makes! I added reading to my morning routine back in mid-December and I’m finding it so much easier and pleasurable to read these days. I usually just tried to fit it into the little nooks and crannies of a busy day and while that worked okay, I never got that relaxed feeling of really dropping into the pleasure of reading. Now with a guaranteed 15 to 30 minute block each morning, I’m loving the experience so much more and really get more out of what I’m reading.

Here is what I finished in January and some of my poetry favorites too.

Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker J. Palmer

This is a repeat read for me. I read it at the beginning of last year as I was preparing to quit the company I had worked at for over a decade. This is a slim little book that is full of deep thinking and insights. It’s only a little over a hundred pages, but it took me about a month to read as I could really only process about five to ten pages per sitting. I reread it this year because the true gift of this book is in the questions it poses to the reader. These are questions that make you take stock of what you are doing and why you are doing it. These were important questions for me last year and I had a feeling they would continue to be important to me this year, so I gave it another read and will most likely read it again next year. I definitely want to check out more of Parker J. Palmer’s work.

  • Biggest Takeaway: How acts of reflection and honest curiosity about your life can be some of the best tools in helping you make a path forward.
  • Favorite Quote: Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to life up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.
  • Recommend This Book?: Absolutely!

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Critic Battles by Steven Pressfield

This is another repeat for me. I read it sometime in 2017 and loved it. I decided to read it again because I’ve been working on getting more of a disciplined writing practice in my life and I knew this book could help me shake loose some of the hold that fear and procrastination had on me. It’s another short read, but it goes much faster than Palmer’s book since there are lots of short chapters and Pressfield’s writing style is less dense and more playful. It’s a great book for anyone that is struggling to start and continue doing something they really love doing. This may be in the arena of creative work or it could be in other areas. Pressfield shines a light on the biggest block…resistance.

  • Biggest Takeaway: The greater the fear and resistance of creating and doing the work, the more important it is to find a way over, under and through that fear and resistance. Art matters; creativity matters; creating matters.
  • Favorite Quote: Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.
  • Recommend This Book?: Yep!

Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear

I’ll start by saying that I loved this book and I’ll be adding it to my yearly reread rotation. I’ve been a reader of James Clear’s blog for a while, so when I heard about his new book and what it was about, I was excited to read it. I got even more excited when one of my Bright Line Eating (BLE) mastermind groups decided to read it as a group and discuss on our weekly calls. This is a great book to read with others that are invested in trying out some of his ideas because you can discuss how things are going and help each other be accountable to what you are committing to trying.

Clear shares a lot of great ideas for being better equipped to start and continue habits. Some of these strategies I’ve gotten to know through my personal experience with starting and continuing my BLE program or from other books, but the real gift of this book is having it all together in one place and having the concepts put into mathematical type formulas that make it easy to remember, implement and follow.

While the strategies are great, I got the greatest value from the chapter discussing how habits shape your identity and how identity in turn shapes your habits. This inside-out approach to habits has been truly transformative for me. I know “transformative” sounds like a pretty hyperbolic word to use, but I’m being quite earnest here. When it comes to things like my weight and health, writing and physical fitness, I’ve spent a great deal of my life working from the results/goals inward to the habits and never even considered what role my identity around these goals could have on how successful (or not) I am with the goals.

It turns out, that considering identity first can really help create a stable platform for building habits that support that identity. Because of this book, I’m now embracing new and more empowering and supportive identities for the habits and goals I want to build and accomplish. Some of these newly crafted identities are:

  • I am a food addict in strong recovery.
  • I am a writer.
  • I am an athlete.

Each one of these identities helps me stay strong and committed to new habits and helps decrease and eliminate habits that no longer fit with my identity.

  • Biggest Takeaway: Effective habits, like most things in life, are, at least in part, an inside job. Knowing yourself better and taking the time to notice when things are or are not working plays a big part in starting and keeping habits you want in your life.
  • Favorite Quote: The habits you follow without thinking often determine the choices you make when you are thinking.
  • Recommend This Book?: Yes, and twice on Sundays!

POETRY

I decided that this year I was going to quit wishing I read more poetry and actually start reading more poetry. I did this through a technique called habit stacking that James Clear shares in Atomic Habits. Habit stacking is when you identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behavior on top. I took my daily habit of writing and committing my food plan for the next day (thank you BLE for that habit) and added the new habit of “Read a Poem.” I supported this new habit by pulling out some poetry anthologies I had brought with me to Manila and downloading the Poetry Foundation’s POETRY app on my phone. The app made it possible for me to access poetry even when I wasn’t at home with my books. James Clear would label this as “decreasing friction” for a habit you want to encourage. 

In January alone, I read twenty-six poems. This is about twice the number of poems I read in all of 2018. Of the twenty-six that I read, the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Mary Oliver was the most memorable for me. But of all the individual poems I read, Mary Oliver’s Morning Poem caught me the most and I returned to it a couple of times over the course of the month. I love the lush imagery of the world becoming itself each day and doing so with brave indifference to how you or I are feeling.

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
lavishly,
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

There is such magic in a world that knows there is darkness and illness beating in its breast and yet creates anew, without interruption, the beauty of a fresh morning. I think that is also the magic of poetry. It creates something new, something magical and surprising out of all that is visible and invisible, all that is radiant and mundane and all that we embrace embrace and hide our faces from.

Until next month, I’ll keep turning those pages…

The Gift of Clarity, Reflection & Planning

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

It will be a year ago tomorrow that I changed my life forever. You’ll notice that I didn’t select the passive construction of that sentence by saying “my life changed forever.” What happened on December 10, 2017 didn’t happen to me. In a moment of calm in a domestic storm, I stepped back from the fray and posed a clarifying question.

Let me backup a bit and paint the picture of what was happening on that Sunday morning last December. My husband and I were doing what we did best back then. We were having a squabble about something unimportant that was allowing us to not have a real discussion about what was really important. The really important thing was how disconnected we were from each other as a couple and as a family unit of three (my husband, my then seven-year old son and myself). So we were squabbling about schedules and pickup times and grocery shopping when I just got too tired to keep going in that direction. I was tired of living our lives in a way that was not getting us what we wanted, but I wasn’t clear about what I wanted.

Then I did what I usually do when faced with a problem. I took out a pen and notebook and started to formulate what I hoped would be helpful questions. The first one that popped out was “What do we want our lives to look like one year from today?” That got both of our attentions. We sat down and under the headings of Carol & Miki Relationship, Parenting, Carol (as an individual), and Miki (as an individual), we allowed ourselves to dream a little about what we wanted for ourselves and the people we loved the most. Disconnecting the how we would achieve these goals from the what we wanted to achieve was challenging, but we managed to get our unedited thoughts down in black and white.

After we were done getting everything into the pages of the notebook, I asked, “What needs to change right now for us to be able to start moving in the direction of that possible reality?” In the realm of things I controlled, the answer came quickly and with such force that it actually took my breath for a moment.

I needed to quit my job and give myself and my family more attention and priority.

And that is what I did. I sat down that afternoon and wrote out my resignation letter and went in the next day and resigned. I had worked for this company for 10+ years and held a leadership role, and I kept thinking, “This should be harder than it is right? I should have more doubts?” But that is the beauty of clarity. When you really know what you want, paths that seemed impossible suddenly open up and have neon signs pointing to them.

My husband and I recently had an opportunity to look at our lists from last year and were surprised by just how many things on our lists were done or in progress. It was also interesting to see how many things no longer applied given some of the big changes our lives took this year.

I’m writing about this now because the end of the year is always a time of reflection, dreaming and planning for me. For several years now, I’ve taken a page out of the corporate playbook and spent time and energy on my personal annual plan. It’s a gift I give myself every year and I never regret it. I don’t always succeed at achieving everything I plan for, but I know that the planning makes success possible and much more probable.

In this season of gift giving, think about giving yourself the gift of reflection and dreaming and a little planning to bring those dreams into reality. The future you sitting in December 2019 will thank you.

Delegating Emotional Work

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Me & My Dad – May 2005

My dad was 94 when he died and by that time, most would agree that he had lived a long and full life and his body was reaching its natural point of surrender. At the time of his death, my dad and most of my siblings still lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico where I had been born and raised. I on the other hand, was living over three thousand miles away in Honolulu, Hawaii. Talks with my sisters often centered around how dad was doing and how things were looking for him. The month preceding his death, the discussions with my sisters were getting more and more specific around how much time he had left.

The conversations in my head were a series of ongoing debates about when I should go home. Was now the right time? Would my husband and son be okay with me gone for a while? What projects at work were in progress or looming that I’d needed to deal with? Should I plan on doing work while I was back home? What would it cost for the airplane tickets? I’m ashamed to even write that last question, but that was all going into my mental calculus at the time.

In a way, I felt so grown up, thinking so clearly about this difficult topic. It wasn’t playing out the way my mom’s death had played out ten years earlier. I was a wreck. At work, crying over the phone while talking to my mom’s hospice nurse. Desperately asking her to tell me what I should do. I didn’t want to own the responsibility of making a choice about something so big as missing an opportunity to see my mom alive one last time. But I was older now and knew how to handle this kind of thing. I’d have a plan and when the time came, I’d execute my plan.

Then the call came from one of my sisters that it wasn’t looking good and I should come home as soon as I could to see my dad. I calmly got off the phone with her and called my boss to let him know that I was going to need to take some time off to head home. He immediately dropped out of work mode as my boss and dropped into being a human being. He was understanding, compassionate and empathetic, but I was still in my head. I was thinking about what to pack, setting my out-of-office email, what information I needed to give my husband about my son’s school schedule, and what my team needed from me for the project we were working on right now. Thinking, thinking…planning, planning.

Then my boss asked me the question that undid me, “How are you doing?” And I lost it. Big aching, hurt-filled sobs came rolling out. The kind that actually make your body shudder and quake in a way that you simply can’t anticipate or even really comprehend where the energy comes from to create that kind of motion. I slumped against my bedroom door and let out a tearful and jagged, “I’m okay.”

Then I said something that has always stuck with me and has become part of my own playbook for life. I said, “I think I made a mistake. I gave my head a job to do that belonged to my heart.”

All along I thought I could think myself through grief…think myself through painful memories…think myself through loss and fear and hurt. I knew how to think. I was a good thinker, a critical thinker. One step to the right of thinking was planning and I was a hell of a good planner too. I could think and plan my way out of it. Done! I had solved grief!

Well, not exactly.

While I was a great thinker, I was, however, not a great feeler. Is there even such a thing as a great feeler or critical feeler? I guess that would be Deanna Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation. She was good at handling her own emotions and excelled at sensing the emotions of others. I was definitely no Deanna Troi, I was more like Spock or if I’m sticking with the same franchise, Data the android.

Once I realized that there was no amount of thinking that I could do that would save me from the hurt and ache of losing my dad, my heart could then begin to do the work that it was uniquely designed to do.

Unlike thinking and head work, heart work is messy, evolving, and completely contradictory. It has this way of simultaneously emptying you out and filling you up. It’s like fully and completely emptying your lungs until you just can’t push any more air out. You simply can’t keep emptying them forever, and so you take a big breath in and when you do, you get that fullness and that freedom of easy breathing back.

This work is also super inefficient and in many ways unmanageable. You can’t always see the way forward or how it will resolve. You can’t set a timeline for it. You can’t expect certain feelings to show up when you want them to and let you know when they are done so you can carry on with other plans. Heart work is hard, challenging, necessary and so worth it.

Now, when things seem stuck or like they are going in circles, I check to make sure that I haven’t delegated the work to the wrong part of myself. I ask myself, “Did I give my head a job that my heart needs to do?”

It’s amazing how much better it all is when I’ve delegated the work appropriately and not just given it to the part I’m most comfortable using. I don’t think I’ve reached “critical feeler” status, but I’m making progress one project at a time, just the way my head likes it.

Bag of Tricks

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Ms. Maridel giving Cameron some freestyle lessons.

If you’ve read some of my recent posts, you’ll know that for the first time in my 45 years, the concept of athleticism has started to inch its way into my identity.

I’ve taken up tennis with the encouragement and expertise of my husband and I’ve been learning to swim with the teaching and support of Ms. Maridel, a fabulous athlete and instructor that lives in our condo complex.

Before Ms. Maridel, I was comfortable in water. I could float around and do made up arm strokes with some kicking, but I had no clue how to do a proper stroke, a proper kick or how to get the breathing into the mix. It seems crazy to me now that I lived in Hawaii for over 25 years and didn’t get around to learning proper swimming techniques! That may explain why I loved beach walks more than ocean swims.

Well, I’m almost done with my first ten lessons with Ms. Maridel and I’ve learned so much! While mastery is a ways off, I have learned to do a pretty good freestyle stroke, breaststroke and backstroke as well as the rhythmic breathing for each. I’m improving my lung capacity and building stronger arms, legs and core muscles with each session at the pool.

When I first signed up for the lessons, I didn’t think much about the tools and strategies my teacher would deploy to help me learn and improve. I thought it would be me and the pool, but now I know all about fins, hand paddles, float boards, pull buoys and snorkel breathing tubes. Each of them has helped me isolate and focus on a specific part of a stroke so I can either get faster or improve my form.

Good teachers are so important at every stage of our lives and I love how they each come with their own bag of tricks. Ms. Maridel has a black mesh bag that’s sitting on the side of the pool, always handy for the next stage in her student’s swimming progress. Along with that black mesh bag, she also packs along a big smile, encouraging words, a practiced focus that hones in to give pointers for improvement and a competitive spirit that helps push her students to do more.

It’s also interesting to see what good teachers don’t pack in that bag. They don’t pack their frustrations from the traffic they just sat through or their irritation at the weather not being ideal. They leave those things somewhere else when they teach and in doing so, they create a safe and comfortable environment for learning.

Learning new skills can be hard, but having a good teacher that knows what to pack, when to take something new out of the bag and what to leave behind can make it so much easier and enjoyable.

It’s a goal, not a god!

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Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

“It’s a guide, not a god!”

I first heard that catchy nugget of advice in a Weight Watchers leader training video over a decade ago. It was a highlight reel provided by the Weight Watchers corporate office of some of their most engaging and successful meeting leaders and I was watching it as part of my leader training. This particular leader was from New York and had a very pronounced accent, so it sounded more like, “It’s a guide, not a gawd!”

Both the truth of it and the sound of her voice has made it stick in my head for years now. It’s a reminder to not be too rigid, to be willing to flex a bit this way and that way as part of the process of growing and learning.

This phrase flashed into my mind this past weekend, but instead of “Its a guide, not a god,” it popped in as “It’s a goal, not a god.”

I love setting goals. They motivate me and help me get energized to move forward. They also have a way of sparking my imagination and creativity. A couple of weeks ago, I decided to set a goal to help me get serious about writing every day. I would publish a blog post every day in October! It was a textbook SMART goal…specific, measurable,  attainable, realistic and time-based.  I felt good as a I charged ahead with it and I was trucking right along… writing each morning, taking notes when ideas occurred to me and being willing to hit the publish button even when it didn’t always feel like it was just right.

The goal setting was doing its job. I was writing every day. I was writing more than I had the previous three months. I was also getting a good jolt of energy and creativity for a work project. Win/Win all the way!

Then comes the weekend. The tricky routine disruptor that we all need and want and yet…the flow stops, the routine gets hijacked by an exciting excursion and much-needed time outdoors to take in new sights and sounds. Ahhh…loveliness!

And yet, there’s this goal. This goal that is important to me. When I missed one day of publishing, I sensed the “What the hell” effect starting to swirl around in my head. You haven’t heard of this? It’s a legit psychological cycle where you indulge in something and instead of getting right back to what you need and want to do, you continue indulging because, well, what the hell? You already blew it anyway right? Might as well just keep going. The real kicker is that your brain is in on the game and does its level best to rationalize your behavior.

After getting home too late last night to get a post out, I was really starting to think about restarting my publishing-a-post-a-day-for-a-whole-month goal next month. November would be better anyway. I could do a whole month on things I’m thankful for and I could start planning it now and really be ready. I could make a post-it note wall calendar and have three or four blog posts written and waiting in the pipeline so weekends wouldn’t be a problem. See that tricky brain of mine rationalizing it all away?

That’s when I started to think about how weird and kind of horrible my life would be if I allowed the “What the hell” effect to push me around…

  • I forget to floss my teeth one night, so I’ll just never floss them again?
  • I drop an egg on the floor while making breakfast, so I’ll just break the rest of the eggs on the floor too?
  • My baby boy fell down on his first attempt to walk, so I guess he’ll be a crawler the rest of his life?
  • I ate off my food plan, so I’ll just completely blow off my goal of achieving a healthy weight and instead plow my way through nutrient void processed food for the rest of my meals until I die?

All of those sound absurd and they are, so why turn my writing goal into a god? Nope, I won’t do it. No need to wait for November to keep writing. I’m back at it today.

Weekends come around every week. Spouses surprise you with fun adventures when you least expect it. Fatigue can overtake the most energetic of us. I may not have a perfect thirty-one day publishing streak, but the goal is writing not streaking. And today I’m writing.

Good Advice from an Eight Year Old

When enjoying a new experience as a family, both my husband and I will often snap pictures on our phones to capture these special moments.

This morning was no exception. We were trying a new breakfast place and were able to snag the one table that had swings for chairs. My eight year old was thrilled to be eating his eggs and rice while teetering back and forth. I was less enamored as I tried to sip my hot coffee. And all the while, my husband snapped pictures.

In an exasperated tone my son gave us both some very sound advice, “Don’t enjoy things far away. Enjoy them now.”

And with those wise words, we both tucked our phones away and tucked into breakfast.

It Can Take Time to Appreciate

A friend of mine was recently on a vacation with her husband and was recounting some of their outings. She talked about how her husband enjoyed getting out and exploring new areas and said she really loved and appreciated his “spirit of adventure.” What a lovely thing to not only see, but value in your partner.

I’ve been married almost 14 years and my husband and I definitely have a bit of a yin and yang dynamic in our partnership. I’m a planner and a list maker. He’s a “let’s do it now” action man.

We’ve had our share of conflict when those two approaches went head to head in a situation, but more and more we’ve grown to appreciate these parts of each other.

There is a lot of good advice out there for making your relationships last and most of it has some version of “Act like it just started.” Definitely, keep it fresh, but don’t underestimate what time and experience can do to help you appreciate each other and learn to see that what you thought were bugs turn into some of your favorite features.