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.

 

 

 

Farewell, My Prince

Words. They frame meaning. They help us get through things. They give us ways to express thoughts and feelings.

Today I woke up in a foul mood for no particular reason. Then I discovered my beloved Prince had died at the age of 57 (thanks, Facebook. You really are good at sharing these things).

prince symbolPrince gave me words at a time when I didn’t have any. Growing up as a teenager in the South, I would listen to his music with my best friend as we got ready for parties or whilst cruising the strip. His lead title Purple Rain flowed through me, giving me solace and a place to go in my head when I was confused or felt alone. That song still reminds me of the smell of fried chicken and Coke-sweetened Jack. I can sense the upholstered car seat of the guy whose class ring I liked and the slight odor of mildew streaming from the air conditioning vents.

When my daughter was born in 1999, I cheered because I felt — in some small way — I had given tribute to Prince. His song 1999 always made me smile. It felt like a particularly fine accomplishment to have spent that year on such a special occasion as the birth of my first child.

Prince was an icon, a masterful musician and a symbol for me as an awkward adolescent that it’s okay to express yourself in strange ways. He influenced my writing, granting me the courage to be different and to live my art as he did his. For a short time, he even changed his name to a symbol during an argument with his record label Warner Brothers. He did what he wanted. He lived his life through music. He was music.

His personal bank account of time ran out yesterday at 10:07 am Minneapolis time on April 21, 2016. There are more than just doves crying today.

Farewell, my Prince. May you party with the angels like it’s 1999. I will miss you until the end of my days.

 

Fakebook and the Confrontation with Reality

Facebook. Love it. Hate it. It’s here to stay.

Facebook has over 1.59 billion active monthly users, which translate to roughly 22% of the world’s population. If so many people are using it, there must be something good about it. Or addictive.

I think it’s a little of both.

I joined Facebook in 2007 during which time it was still required that you be invited by someone else (and identify which college you had attended). I giggled at the emoticon-like “gifts” you could give to your friends. I had about two friends. Then four. Before I knew it, I was friends with over 1,000 people.

statistic_id272014_global-social-networks-ranked-by-number-of-users-2016As a public relations professional, I know a lot of people. But I wouldn’t call every person I email, call or Skype with a “friend”. Facebook has termed connections friends because that’s what they were originally intended to be. And I don’t doubt that having friends or being friendly is a good thing. But are we truly friends with all the people we “like” there?

Aside from the inauthentic terminology, Facebook provides us ample opportunity to showcase our opinions and interests in other arenas. We can write tirades about reckless politicians, offer solidarity to the victims of terrorist attacks, post cute cat videos or moving snippets from talent shows in which 11-year-olds belt out operatic-like crescendos. For a moment in our day, Facebook makes us feel a part of a greater world. We can show empathy, sadness, anger or gratitude. We can even find love there (I did!).

Anything goes (well, almost anything) in the world Mark Zuckerberg created for us.

Pretty early on in my Facebook existence, I decided to be one of those users who doesn’t post many private things. I’d use it more to stay in touch with true friends and family, market my books and clients and stay low to the ground on anything too personal. I admit to painting a rosy picture sometimes when things weren’t going too well. But I refused to use the online platform as a stomping ground for all that was going wrong in my life. It seemed too public, too impersonal, too real. So I, like many others, turned Facebook into Fakebook, putting my best foot forward whenever possible.

There’s nothing wrong with maintaining privacy in a world that monitors everything. So-called cookies (why are they called that? They aren’t delicious, but rather leave a trail of our online activity) keep track of our likes and dislikes. Facebook has been known to do the same. It’s only natural to be slightly guarded online. And to think before you post. It’s something I hammered into my kids’ brains. Thankfully, they listened.

But not being totally real is comparable to exaggerating your work experience on your resume. It’s obvious to the people who truly know you, but most people won’t call you on it or even care.

Facebook does. Why else would it have the memory function?

Occasionally, you will see pictures from years gone by that Facebook suggests you repost. Those pictures, especially the ones a few years ago, confront me with my own reality. While I put on a good face, I wasn’t being real.

Facebook is like an elephant. In fact, the entire Internet is. It remembers. It reminds us of our inauthenticity. It marks how we spend our days and throws it back in our faces when we least expect it. It can be incredibly confrontational or just sad to be caught in a lie we told ourselves for so many years.

On the other hand, Facebook is an archive of who we thought we wanted to be. Sometimes we get it right. Sometimes we get it wrong.

Luckily, we have true friends — online and off — to catch us when we fall. Fakebook and all.

Slow Childhood

“Seven hours of consecutive sleep.” That was my birthday wish after having Kid #2. My mother laughed and promised me this phase would be over before I knew it. At the time, that fact didn’t penetrate my sleep-deprived brain. I didn’t believe her.

Now I do.

One minute they are drooling and observing wakeful hours whilst everyone else is asleep; the next minute they are interviewing for summer jobs and wowing the pants off you.

Children. They grow up too fast. I advocated a Slow Childhood for my kids, trying to stave off the electronic invasion into their innocent young lives. Step by step they got cell phones (“only for emergencies”), then an Xbox (“only for rainy days”), a laptop (“only for schoolwork”) and ultimately an iPad (“only to listen to their grandfather’s stories”).

Only these things serve multiple purposes and before you know it, you have lost the battle of Slow in their increasingly fast lives.

So I introduced “gadget-free zones”, which they pretty much observe (or feel incredibly guilty about when they do not). And family meals, which is mandatory in my house almost every day. And when it comes to major family gatherings, they will go whether they like it or not. Luckily, they like it a lot.

Although I have spent my entire post-child career working from home and have had ample opportunity to bear witness to their daily lives, I am still amazed that, despite my very best efforts, their childhood is nearly over. I find myself hanging out in my daughter’s room, using the excuse that “the light is better here” to apply my make-up. But what I really want is to spend yet another precious minute with her. To be in her space. To take in her aroma. To feel connected just a little longer.

Or I’ll create a reason to ask my son something as he flips through YouTube videos. Through his closed door I listen closely to his laughter and to the clock ticking away another minute of our togetherness.

In my own personal assessment, I am far from a hovercraft mother. I have allowed my kids to fly transatlantically on their own with layovers in foreign countries at the age of 12 and 14. I have sent them to camps and school trips and to friends’ houses for overnights. In their eyes, I am Mama Bear, who growls the instant her young are in danger. “Or perceived danger, Mom. Sheesh!” Somewhere, deep down, I believe they love that protective side of me. But they never fail to complain — or laugh — about it.

We may not be able to hold back time, but we can enjoy the precious moments we have. As I watch my kids grow into young adults, I am made fully aware that each day represents another unit in our personal bank account of time on the road to the end of our days.

It is my greatest hope that they embrace the Power of Slow along that journey. Then I will know I have taught them well.

 

Wishing, Wanting, What?

The best laid plans often go astray. There have been countless occasions in my life in which I have drawn strength from that saying. Imagine if we could control everything that happens in our world. We would know exactly, to the minute, what would happen next. Mystery would die on the vine. Synchronicity would fade. Spontaneity would disappear completely. That which makes life so incredibly magical would no longer exist.

Yikes.

Everything happens for a reason. It isn’t random Universal cruelty, although we may feel that way sometimes. And sure, it’s easy to say that things are meant to be when those things are going our way. The true litmus test is when they don’t.

In those moments, my trust in the Universe is required. Sometimes unwillingly, I force myself to call it forth and listen closely.

My innate sense of optimism is as much a part of me as the air I breathe. Whenever I experience a misstep in my life, I have to ask myself where the golden nugget in all of it is. Because it is always there. If you don’t believe me, remember what you thought you wanted as a teenager. Then you attend your 20th high school reunion and thank the gods above that you didn’t get what you wished for.

I’m not talking about positive thinking, although that is a byproduct of optimism. It is more about understanding the broader vision. What is the sense of it all really? Gifts are frequently wrapped in barbed wire. The unwrapping part hurts, but to get to the gift, we sometimes have to put on those gloves and uncoil it.

We may bleed. We may cry. We may stomp our feet in a blind fury. Until we start to see the sparkle underneath the rusty metal.

It’s not easy taking that step toward unraveling the truth. But if life has taught me anything at all, it is that love can heal those wounds.

It starts with loving ourselves. To others the act of self-love may not be understood. It’s not important that others agree with you. It is far more important that we are in agreement with ourselves. Oh yes! It takes a truck load of courage to step out and be who we are. Having the confidence to stand up for ourselves in the face of immense opposition can be scary. But so is public speaking. Both are well worth it, if you are willing to take risks toward a brighter future. For yourself. For those you love. For your truest purpose in this world.

So if you find yourself wishing for something to happen and it doesn’t, try a touch of gratitude. Believing in the omnipresent goodness that the Universe supplies will turn those thorns into roses.

Life can be beautiful. And it is. If you are willing to consider what’s humming beneath it all.

 

The Basement Blues

Truth time: There is something about my basement that makes me incredibly sad. I am an unwilling partner in storage of the things housed there. At first glance, the items on the shelves and leaning against the walls are innocuous. My convertible’s hard top during the balmy months of spring and summer, a few ill-fitting helmets that roll around the floor every time I shift stuff from one point to another in the 5 square meter space, a pair of skis, holiday decor in a musty suitcase, empty boxes for kitchen gadgets I’ll never, ever resell in their original packaging, and a handful of boxed memories from years gone by.

Perhaps the cause for my sadness is the archived remembrance of a time in my life that didn’t work well. It is confronting to see my careless handwriting on the sides of those boxes, calling up emotions of despair and fragility. Or, further, it is perhaps the knowledge that over two decades of one’s life can be stored in a space so small.

I am not a materialistic person. In fact, when I moved into my beloved apartment after rebooting my life in a new city, I claimed that nothing — and no one — would enter my home whom I did not love. I would no longer hamster away hand-me-downs and unwanted gifts from well-meaning people. In an act of liberation, I would free myself of any material detritus whatsoever. I would live without compromise. I would look to what was working and stake my claim that everyone, including myself, would get what they needed. Well-being would be the center of my children’s and my own world.

At times I am extremely successful in that endeavor. Then something swoops through my universe to unsettle or rattle me to the core. I falter for a moment, stumbling forward in a blind fury toward that thing I promised myself when I got here. The dust settles then and the light returns just as sure as night follows day. I am alive. I am well. I am whole.

Memories are a part of my history and they inform who I am today. But I am not the memories themselves. They are like the boxes that get dusted off every now and again to give me perspective and occasion to reflect on what is good in my life.

My basement is indeed a sorrowful place. But it is just as much a part of me as the world I created above it. Maybe it’s good to have a place you can go to remember why you do what you do today.

Besides, today is truly the only day you can ever call your own.