Moving Beyond Disappointment

Feet dangling at the ledge. Looking up. Looking down. Looking left, then right. Looking straight ahead.

We all face choices in life. Should we stay where we are? Should we take a new direction? Should we? Could we? Would we?

Choices don’t contain inherent risks, although we might think they do. Choices are merely decisions we make based on the knowledge we have at any given moment. Sometimes we make choices that bring us more joy. Sometimes we make choices that bring us a great deal of pain. No matter the decision, it brings us further, granting us wisdom about things we didn’t know before. Every action we take widens our pool of understanding.

top-thing-to-do-today_-13Broadening our horizons is a limitless activity. What a marvelous thing it is to know that wisdom is an endless journey. How boring life would be if we had “everything figured out”. Imagine the predictability. Imagine never, ever experiencing disappointment again.

That used to sound like a great idea to me. As a young adult, I used to avoid disappointment like the plague. It was a hard emotion for me to manage. In some ways, it still is. But what I have learned over the years is simple: disappointment comes from thwarted expectations. We expect people to act in a way to which we are accustomed. We expect things to turn out “as they always have”. But just as we never quite wake up the same person who went to bed the night before (our cells are renewed, our energy is restored, our skin sheds, grows, breathes – you get the picture), each day is never quite the same as the one before it. Or the one after it for that matter.

We hold such great expectations about simply everything, from the way our soufflé should turn out to the results in the next Presidential race (okay – exception here: Please dear God. Listen to me on this one. No fluff-haired, baboon-faced man can or ever should be elected. We need someone who can run a country, not just his mouth.) And then things happen as they happen. We are sometimes left with our mouths agape (did she really just say that? Did he really just do that?). In that moment of surprise, we again are faced with a choice. We can either choose to be disappointed or find the humor in it. Or perhaps relief. Better to find out now about the true essence of a person than later when things could be much worse.

And then there’s the thing about growth and change and seeing things with different eyes. What I used to value as a teenager has little meaning to me now. I’d venture to guess you feel the same way. The point is we are constantly in motion. Why not move beyond disappointment from the realm of what might have been to the realm of what might be? Possibility is not expectation. It is merely the chance to try again. Or to decide again. And again. And again.


Shadows in the Light

Where there is much light, there will be much darkness. Ah yes, those ubiquitous shadows that dance in the sun’s rays. My intention in life has always been to spread love and light wherever I can. I really mean that. It may sound naive, and perhaps it is. But I am always shocked when I meet people who don’t live with that level of integrity. When they feel more drawn to the darker side of things because, well, it’s cooler and no one can see what they’re up to. If no one witnesses your lying as you lurk in the shadows, have you really lied at all?

Dancing with the Freiburg sun

I recently watched a fascinating documentary called Dishonesty: The Truth About Lies. It turns out we all lie, yet most of us still think we are good people. We are hopelessly optimistic that somehow we are above average. We cheat mostly when our social surroundings support that behavior with the promise of a more favorable outcome with a very low to zero chance of getting caught. So it’s not the honesty we care about, but about whether we can pursue our advantage by whichever means available to us while still being liked or loved.

Shocking. And somehow so true.

Have you ever been in the check-out line at the grocery store and you forget to place one of the items in your cloth bag onto the conveyor belt. You noticed it when you get home. You literally stole it without knowing it. Do you make your way back to the store to return or at least pay for the item? Chances are if the cost in terms of time and energy is above a certain threshold, you won’t. You’ll live with yourself and your justifications about how it doesn’t really matter. Most likely, you will believe what you are telling yourself. And even if you tell your friends, they most likely will too.

Have you ever received too much change after a purchase transaction without giving it back? Have you ever run a red light? Walked across a crosswalk while the pedestrian sign says ‘Don’t walk’?

We look for shortcuts to get things done faster. In the name of economy, we lie our asses off. And sometimes when we get caught, we feel a sense of shame. But usually only the first time. The more we lie, the more it feels normal. Dishonesty tells a few sobering tales about some liars who ended up getting jail time.

So what about those shadows and that light? What makes us choose to step into the light instead of hiding out in the darkness with our reasons and fear? It turns out even being reminded that there is such a thing as a code of ethics can vastly impact a person’s willingness toward honesty. Study after study showed that when participants first read a line about the moral standards set out at the university at which the research was being conducted, people shaped up and gave honest answers. That’s encouraging. So we can learn to be upstanding with a little nudge from the ethics’ committee.

André Gide says: “The color of truth is grey.” A little light. A little shadow. A blend of the two makes up what we believe to be right. Even if we’re sometimes wrong. Or naive. Or both.


Summer’s Farewell

The sun raskyys pierce through the open sky. The smell of decaying leaves fills the air. Summer gasps its last breath as we say fare-thee-well for another year.

I have never been at such peace to bid the hot months goodbye as I have been this year. Something has awakened within me to appreciate the very moment instead of mourning the passing of summer. I have somehow grown wiser, or more accepting, of the Earth’s need to pause.

A predictable deceleration takes hold as the days grow slightly shorter. The pressure to “go do something” eases as we tap into our inner chipmunks that seek dark places to hide in the warm shelter of our homes. Pumpkin soup suddenly seems appealing. Cooking is a treat once again. The rhythm of life slows as we match the pace of the weather patterns lulling us into hibernation.

It is okay to take it down a notch. To retreat to the depths of our caves. To reflect on a most spectacular season. To be alright with the nothingness that more restful times bring. It is no longer necessary to keep searching. Everything we have ever needed sits quietly in our laps.

I am so very grateful for this life. For the pain. For the joy. For the ever-present moment of now. Every bit of it. Spring. Summer. Fall. Winter. Each season plays a most significant role in our own becoming. The change of seasons grants us license to make our own radical changes where necessary. Such transformation, the Earth tells us, is the natural course of things. I find reassurance in its implicitness.

What used to feel like death to me is now merely a place in the cycle of life. It is so very beautiful to be a part of it all.

Would you agree?


Who Gives a Shift?

Change. It’s the only thing we can count on. And it’s gonna happen, whether we like it or not. Although we may try to prepare ourselves for life’s transitions, it isn’t really possible to consider all eventualities.

Back in the day when I was scraping by as a glorified secretary at a Boston investment firm, I provided administrative support to several people, including one working mom who would call me from her car phone (yes, we still had them back then) so I could fill her in on all the office politics. She worked remotely most of the time so she could spend more time with her kids. And she would constantly say at the beginning of each call, “I need to know everything so I’m not blindsided.” I would roll my eyes and pretend to be nice, filling her in on this and that. Back then I wasn’t a working mom. I had no idea how important my function was to her until much later when I became one myself.

Being blindsided comes from the world of sports. It’s that blind spot your opponent hopes to fill so you can’t see him or her coming. Taking inventory from the last nine months of this year, I would say my blind spot has been filled a time or two too many. Shift happens. Whether we like it or not.

Hindsight is indeed a helpful thing. It is the platform for gaining wisdom when things happen unexpectedly. If you have a tendency toward feelings of regret, hindsight can mock you. It can stand there with its hands on its hips like a bossy older sister, telling you “I told you so!” Or you can allow it to gently nudge you toward an alternate course in your direction like a noble mentor who truly wants what’s best for you.

I tend not to regret most things, but I do question why I chose to do what I have done in my life sometimes. Why did I chose to spend time with certain people who clearly have their own interest at heart? Or how could I trust others not worthy of it?

Those who give a shift roll with the times. They don’t resist it or at least accept some parts of it, taking responsibility for what they have created in their lives. They bounce. They rock. They roll.

Resilience is a survival skill I learned early on in my life. Researchers say resilience may add to your longevity. It makes us happier people who tend to make healthier choices. Resilience makes sense as a key ingredient to a fabulous life.

So as life tosses more dodge balls at my head, I’ll live on with change as my constant companion, smiling all the while with anticipation of what will come next. Maybe next time I won’t be blindsided. I have heard that wisdom offers a pretty good shield against such things. Nothing is guaranteed in life except the change we experience. I’m opting to enjoy the ride and dance to the very end of it all.

Won’t you join me?


Music, Marley and Me

(c) 2016 Klaus Polkowski

Julian Marley and me, African Music Festival (c) 2016 Klaus Polkowski

The greatest adventure of this summer was blogging for the Zelt-Musik-Festival (ZMF). Writing 27 consecutive Blogstage posts through the month of July, I attempted for the first time to blog in German. I didn’t really think anyone would read it. Much to my surprise, they did!

Hanging around the backstage area became a natural part of my routine as I searched for stories behind the scenes of Freiburg’s most popular music festival. A security guard’s story followed that of a popular music artist. It didn’t matter who the subject was. The goal was to highlight the very important part every participant plays in making the long-running festival the most amazing part of Freiburg’s summer landscape. In partnership with my love Klaus Polkowski, we danced in the magic of music, culture and encounters. He with his camera. Me with my pen.

The spirit swept us into August where the African Music Festival audibly took us to far away places. It was there that I asked Julian Marley, son of the great Reggae artist Bob Marley, what color his music would be if it had a hue at all.

“It would be transparent. Or rather, every color in the rainbow,” he said. It includes everything. Because music is everything. One world. One color. One love.

At ZMF the world-famous clarinetist Giora Feidman said the color of his music depends on the time of day. A rose reflects a different hue in the morning than in the late afternoon. So it is with his music.

And Mischa Maisky, a most benevolent Albert Einstein-looking world-class cellist, told me his color would be blue. Because he likes the color and it can be both sad like the blues or happy like the sky. It too depends on the mood and the melody.

What I learned this summer is how truly connected we are. No matter our passport or our taste in music, we all feel love and sadness the exact same way. Our world is much smaller than we realize. Each individual carries a thread to the next one and while we might sometimes feel abandoned and alone on this great planet, we are never, ever truly alone because we carry that connection with us no matter where we are. The ever-gyrating pulse of our being strings each of us together.

We are one. Yes, we are.

Capturing those Fifty Bits

The slant of morning light tells me fall will be awakening soon. The dusting of leaves on the city sidewalks layer over the summer’s heat. A gust of wind sweeps them skyward as a crow calls over the sun-scorched meadow.

It has been a fun-filled summer and although it is not over yet, I can feel the urge to brace myself for the darkness that will come.

It always does.

Perhaps it is the wisdom of my years that has settled in, but I have started taking things for granted less and appreciating the moment more. A soft afternoon with my life partner’s aging mother. Laughter in the kitchen with my teenaged children. Drawing boundaries. Saying no here. Saying yes there. Capturing the essence of life in the here and now so that when darkness descends, I will have the rich memories of days filled with light and delight.

Living off the racetrack makes paying attention easier. As a result, I have experienced the most marvelous things. Throughout my wanderings this summer, I stumbled upon a delightful book whose American author, Bob Nease, happens to live on a vineyard in Italy. With my commitment to Slow, I would have preferred a week-long interview at said vineyard, to which he invited me. Given other commitments, we opted for an email exchange instead.

He kindly sent me — upon my request — his latest book, The Power of Fifty Bits: The New Science of Turning Good Intentions into Positive Results. It is based on a simple premise: the human brain processes millions of bits of information at every moment, but only fifty of those bits seep into our awareness. In fact, he claims, our brains are wired for inattention and inertia. With our limited ability to pay attention, we may harbor good intentions but because we are most often on autopilot, we don’t act upon them.

Anyone who signs up for a year-long gym membership come January 1 knows what I’m talking about. We want to live better lives. Then we do what we always do with little effort to really change things. That is, unless you have a pain point so strong, you simply have to take action. Or the other option seems more appealing.

Trained as a medical professional with a large dose of engineering who worked for years at Express Scripts, Bob has designed ways to out trick our wiring to make the better option the more convenient one – or at least the more obvious choice based on our ever-slacking attention span. He offers all kinds of engineery-type arguments, most of which are extremely amusing. I found myself trying really hard to pay attention to his logical thinking. Sometimes I failed because although his writing is clear and very well thought out, I was more aware of not being aware than of comprehending what he was saying. I may have to gather my fifty bits and give the book another read because I do think what he has to say is extremely important. I have managed to make it palatable to a handful of friends. The book itself came up in conversation so much that I found myself quoting from it nearly every day.

Therein lies the lesson. We cannot cruise through life without mindfulness. It’s a richer one when we pay attention -or at least try to. And even if we don’t always understand what is happening, what others are saying or what we ourselves are doing, there are ways to improve our thinking and actions. And to cherish the moment. Right here. Right now. With every bit available to us.

The Beautiful Bounce of Boundaries

Brené Brown is one smart chick. She has the unique ability to articulate things in a way I can truly understand.

Today I stumbled upon a YouTube video of her describing the importance of boundaries. She claims we can’t show true compassion or generosity without setting boundaries first.

“Boundaries aren’t walls,” she says. They are the framework within which we can be our most loving selves. Without letting people know what’s okay and what’s not okay for us, we become a ball of resentment and anger. And no one who is seething with gritted teeth can offer up any level of generosity at all. Creating boundaries is an act of self-love, removing resentment from the equation. And it enables us to love others too.

Recently, I have had to set boundaries in ways that make me uncomfortable. I admit that, in the past, I have avoided it whenever possible to maintain a harmonious surface. But without fail, when I would fail to set those limits, I would experience intense inner turmoil. Setting boundaries hasn’t been easy, but the alternative is actually worse.

Boundaries help us bounce. There is beauty in them as they act like pillars to help let others know where we stand. I used to believe if I took a stand, I would offend other people in some intolerable and unforgivable way. Life has taught me the opposite happens. People will walk all over your inner courtyard if you let them. Usually it is not out of malice, but often out of sheer ignorance because, quite frankly, I have yet to meet a person who can read my mind. It is our job to speak our minds to remove the guesswork.

I may be less nice as a result of my boundary-setting practice now. But I am, as Brené admits herself, much more loving too.

Breaking the drama cycle

Are you as tired of the apocalyptic news reports as I am? I am not advocating placing our heads in the sand, but I will say this: the 24/7 access to negative news has left an imprint on our souls. The more negative news we hear, the more depressed we become. The more depressed we become, the less productive, joyful and hopeful we are. The less productive, joyful and hopeful we are, the more we become like the people the news stations report about.

We can break the cycle of drama by hitting the “off” button and turning ourselves on to the life we are meant to lead.

Taking a hiatus from the news — and yes, even Facebook has been infected with tirades about All That Which Is Wrong With the World — will help considerably. Watching a funny movie, reading a humorous book and — above all else — having a good laugh at ourselves will help right the wrongs we seem to think are dictating the world we live in.

Oh, the healing power of laughter! If we can still laugh at ourselves, then there is hope. Losing our sense of humor in times like these would qualify as the greatest loss of all.

I keep a journal that I ignore a lot. Every once in a while, I’ll get in the mood to write something in it. Typically, I will journal at times in my life when I need to release some negative emotions so, as you can image, it’s not a very uplifting read. Last night I scanned some of the entries and recognized that I’ve written about the same things over and over again. Only the cast of characters has changed. The common denominator is always me and the feelings I have. It made me laugh out loud at myself because there it was — clear as day and in black and white.

Life has little to do with what happens and everything to do with how we take it. 

The only way to affect change is to shift our perspective, which then informs our actions. After only a few entries, I grew tired of my own complaints. It was a wonderful mirror and reminder that we can indeed change how we see the world. But first we need to recognize that we tend to see it a certain way. And if that way isn’t working for us, well then! I guess it’s time to look at it from a different angle.

Like turning off the incessant news feeds that feed nothing but our fear. Or flipping through a journal that plainly shows a remarkable trend in attitude.

We can make this world a better place and break the drama cycle. It begins here. And now. With you. And me.


Unlocking the Mysteries of Time

It has taken 47 years, but I have finally unlocked the mystery of time. Well, that might be an exaggeration, actually. Our first personal experience with time is the moment we enter this world. The time of our birth marks our beginning. The time of our death marks our ending. And what we do between these two demarcations says everything about how we live our lives.

Our first brush with time comes with the time of birth. It is an important number and astrologists use it to determine all kinds of things past, present and future. It signals the countdown of units in our personal bank account of time.

The mystery of my first encounter with time was just solved. For years I would ask my parents the time I was born. They both struggled to remember. It wasn’t recorded anywhere. Not on my birth certificate. Not in my baby book. Not on a card or a letter or any other documentation. The only place I thought might have that information was the hospital itself. But I got the name wrong and found that the hospital I was searching for had closed.

Then my dad corrected me, citing the correct name of the medical center that still stands today. I called around and got a lovely woman named Natalie on the phone who seemed up to the challenge of entering the basement of the building to search the records on microfiche.

At first she sounded discouraged.

“1969? Oh dear. We only keep our records up here for ten years. But I’ll see what I can do.”

A day later she called and left a voicemail. I still didn’t know if she had had any luck in finding out the information.

But just now, on a rainy Thursday at the beginning of June 2016, I learned that 12:59 a.m. was my lucky number.

“One minute before 1 am, Christine! That’s when you were born.”

Nothing like sliding in at the last minute, eh?

I thanked her profusely for divulging what had haunted me since I can remember.

Now I know what time I began. Lucky for me, I don’t know how it will end. And that’s a good thing because I have a lot planned for the units I have left.

The moment is now to begin. One minute at a time.

There’s No Place Like Home

Sitting at my dad’s breakfast table, I shared with him what I had learned since we had last seen each other in 2014.

“If you find your center, you are always at home no matter where you are in this world.”

His eyes widened as he nodded affectionately.

It was an astounding realization for me. For years I had thought I lived “away from home” or somewhere other than where I should be. It nagged at me, this feeling of displacement and fragmentation. As a long-term expat living abroad, I considered myself a cultural mutt who didn’t quite fit in anywhere. This sense of disenfranchisement unsettled me, as if I were running away from something or running toward a slightly elusive place of belonging and connectedness.

The road map to that place was in my peripheral vision and I just knew if I looked the right way, I would find what I had been looking for. But every time I thought I had captured a sense of place, my vision would skew, as if peering through a prism. The images were muddied by refracted light and I would once again find myself empty-handed.

Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist speaks of a young man’s journey to unlock the mysteries of life. As the book unfolds, he finally returns from his journey after many years and experiences, only to find the very thing he was looking for beneath his feet where he had begun. Sound familiar?

It is an allegory of our lives. We move forward, searching for answers to questions we cannot quite articulate. The key to unlocking those mysteries comes from the still voice within us, but we may not have the ears to hear those whispers until much, much later.

Having visited so many pieces of me over the past two weeks, I see now that my center is my home. The love I feel for all the people in my life is the nectar that feeds me. The time I spend with them is the cloak that warms me.

It does not matter where I go for home truly is where the heart is. It resides within. Beneath my feet. In the eyes of my father.