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.

Everywhere.

 

 

What’s So Great About Getting Older?

A lot, actually. But of all the things I have learned in my lifetime, one stands out the most.

The years have taught me not to take things personally. Milk gets spilled. Clouds form. Missteps happen. People misbehave (or behave differently than we would have them to). Siblings squabble. Pets die. Rain falls.

You see where I’m going with this? Tons of things happen over the course of our lives. We can’t control anything other than ourselves and even then we sometimes have a hard time with self-control too.

The other day I met with a new friend who is about my age. We have a lot in common, including our names and our appearance. In fact, I met her because someone else mistook me for this woman. We discovered we had the same attitude about life and how we manage conflict.

“Why get upset over that which I can’t control?” she said to me as if she were reading my mind.

(c) 2007 Phillip West, used with permission. Yoda made of sandpaper and tissue.

(c) 2007 Phillip West, used with permission. Yoda made of sandpaper and tissue.

She admitted that twenty years ago she couldn’t possibly have the same perspective. Stuck in a traffic jam on a bus for eight hours the night before, she decided to surrender to the situation. She identified how quickly time seemed to flow now that she had reached a certain age. Why would she spend those units of time on something as unpleasant as rage?

That is not to say we can’t or shouldn’t feel rage when appropriate. I am a fan of letting it all hang out when you need to. But the sooner you do, the sooner you can regain your inner equilibrium.

My recipe for calm:

  • Acceptance. Certain things will never change. Understand your role in affecting change where you can.
  • Surrender. This ingredient differs from acceptance because you are literally giving in to the situation, releasing any thought or expectation about it.
  • Big Picture. When something happens, I zoom out to the larger landscape of things. How big of an issue is this really?
  • Golden Nugget. Silver Lining. Gift Wrapped in Barbed Wire. Whatever you call it, remember this thing needs to happen so the next, better thing can emerge.
  • Gratitude. We tend to focus on the negative (it has to do with our primordial programming). So what if two shitty things happened today? How many good things can you count that happened too? Focus on them instead.
  • Connection. Sometimes we need friends to pull us out of our funk. Talk to someone who cares about you. They may not tell you what you want to hear, but cherish their perspective for what it is – their perspective. Maybe it will lead you in the right direction, which is back to yourself where the upset began.

It is indeed marvelous to get older. Life has a way of sandpapering our rough edges for a smoother, more glorious ride into infinity.

The Many Pieces of Me

As I inch toward the fifth decade of my life, I have taken pause to reflect on all the places I have been. The list is long. The road has been too.

When people ask about my history, I tell them I left home at 16. My heart took flight to a European country. With no knowledge of the language or culture, I lived amongst the natives for an entire year. At the time it felt like an eternity as my inner self was molded into something new. I began to see the world with their eyes. Or perhaps more accurately, with a blended vision of my own and theirs. My world view was altered forever and I had no idea how enriching that would be. From that point on, I developed an acute ability to consider that all that I had known may not be the absolute truth and that every person on the planet carries their very own interpretation of what that might be. Coming home felt more foreign to me after a year away. In my heart of hearts, I could never return there because my shape had taken on a different form altogether.

I have moved 19 times in my life and with each place I have landed, a tiny piece of myself has been left behind. Whenever I return to those places, I greet that part of myself with a smile — or sometimes a tear. As I recently motored across the A99, I waved to the Allianz Arena, home to several Bavarian soccer teams. A long time ago, I even taught English to the guy responsible for the lighting there. Later I headed up a team of athletes for a show on national television. It was the only time I stood on the playing field, but I will never forget the exhilaration as we paraded onto the green.

Next week I will visit the Northeastern part of myself, first in Boston, then in Northampton for my twenty-fifth college reunion. Thereafter I will fly down to Florida to visit my dad and his wife. I’ll saddle on the Southern, twang with the best of them, and sweat in the steamy heat near Orlando. My children will be there who are indeed the greatest parts of me. And as they grow, leaving pieces of themselves wherever they go, they too will experience the revisiting and the wonder that is this life.

Gifts Wrapped in Barbed Wire

When the swirl of the world has you entangled in its grip, know that the tornado is yours. It ain’t easy to understand, but these moments are your life unfolding.

We make plans. We set goals. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it does not.

Those lovely blueprints we design are based on the assumption that we comprehend the landscape completely. But even though we may be great map-makers, the bumps are there, often unforeseen. Grumpy bosses, miscommunication, disagreements, silent clients, ailing pets, hormonal teenagers living under your roof – they are all a part of the Grander Scheme. They are the gifts wrapped in barbed wire. It sometimes hurts to hold them in our hands. We may cry or shout as we unravel the wire. But if we find the courage and stamina to do so, we will be rewarded with the brightest of beauty that life can bring.

(c) 2005 David Merrett, used with permission.

(c) 2005 David Merrett, used with permission.

Just when I think I’ve understood that lesson, something else happens to test my resolve. Not only do we create maps, we also create meaning along the way. Locked in our own mind’s tower, we hold on to that map and insist that this is the way without listening to the Universal Power that is telling us differently. It is only when we accept the Universe’s GPS signal that we can release our attachments and the wire loosens.

Retaliatory action is the least powerful avenue, celebration the most.

The other day a flash mob showed up on the Grand Place in Brussels. They decided to celebrate life, not cower in fear at the recent terrorist attacks on their city. Their encouraging and life-affirming act of joy shot tears to my eyes. Dancing in the square, they exuded all that is good in this life. We are not victims, their actions said. We are decision-makers. We choose to dance.

Every day we get to decide anew as to whether we hold on tight to that which we expect to happen or to accept what actually does. We are dancers. We are creators.

Yes, we are.

 

To See the Light Again

Some days just can’t be helped. No matter how hard we try, bad days come. The good news is they go again too.

Yesterday must have been the worst day I’ve had in a really long time. Sages say to live as if this day is your last. If yesterday had been mine, my life wouldn’t have ended well.

Nothing a good night’s sleep and perspective can’t help.

Every day we get to decide how we will see the world. When several ugly events collide, it’s like a snowball effect. Our mood goes downhill, then lands in the toilet. If you are a human being reading this (and I’m going to assume that you are), then you know we can’t always be — or have — sunshine. But we can do something about it.

Self-soothing is a fabulous way out of the mess we sometimes find ourselves in. Laughter can heal, especially if we can laugh at ourselves. Inner joy is always humming beneath the surface even when we forget to look there. The trick is to find our way back to that place.

You might be asking yourself, But how? How can I recapture that joy I once knew?

Everyone has their way of rediscovering that dwelling place of inner peace. Yours might be connecting with Nature, your pet or your friends. If you know yourself at all, you will find it. Sometimes all it takes is a little push from the outside. Or the inside. Depending on where you are standing.

My mother taught me early in life to be resilient. We all have the capability to develop that bounce mechanism, but it is a learned skill. On days when I forget that anger and upset are a part of the human experience, I tend to believe I will disappear. That somehow I will die if I show my true feelings.

Not so.

This morning I woke up. The sun rose (behind the clouds). A flea market is taking place in front of my house. My son is giggling in the other room.

Life goes on.

The Universe is a place with no beginnings and no endings. It is like a circle and somehow we have found our way here.

We evolve. We transform. We make mistakes. We get up again. We apologize. We make more mistakes. Above all, we live.

Those who stay with us through the bad days are meant to be here. Those who do not are not.

And for those who have departed too soon, we mourn that loss too.

I am counting my blessings today for the chance to see the light once again. And to share the joy and love with all my heart.