The Search for Simplicity

The sweet, satisfied sigh that ensues a Sudoku puzzle accomplished.

The chubby rolls of a baby’s leg.

The quickly abated tragedy put aside with ice cream and a game of catch.

The nightly news that speaks of a neighborhood robbery, not the salacious stealing of our souls.

Counting on the World Order.

Counting on World Leaders.

Counting our blessings.

These are the days I miss.

As I looked about the lush, green lawn on a self-imposed smartphone sabbatical amidst hundreds of fellow bathers today, I recognized how complicated our lives have become. Admittedly, everyone appears on the same level when they show up in bathing suits. Fat or thin, mal- or well-nourished, dark skinned or light skinned, freckled or frowning. Nothing smacks of grassroots democracy more than a day at the community pool.

My children are no longer small or even medium-sized kids. They are in their mid- and late-teens. The intricate web of complication called growing up has begun as they navigate this world under very different circumstances than I did at their age.

They have to battle the constant onslaught of (mis)information. Of competitive Instagram appearances. Of snap-chat that and oh, please this. We can never start a meal until someone has photographed it first to share with the universe.

Simply put: Life has gotten complicated.

So I recognized, even as I put away my phone last night with no excuse that I needed it on my nightstand to serve as an alarm clock, that I struggle with my habitual need to be needed. Or to be needy. Or to be — simply put — on.

On what? God knows. On much of social media, I’ve witnessed rampaging rants and rude thrusts of opinion; excusing misbehavior and playground bullying.

Only the world stage is not a playground. And it is hard with each passing day not to succumb to equally ruthless wickedness that has besieged us since November.

But the hopeful are the last to die. And I shall not perish without a good fight. It is time to find pockets of simplicity.

You can find it

  • in the dusty pages of that Sudoku puzzle book at the foot of your nightstand
  • in the gloriousness of homemade lemonade on a bright sunny summer morning
  • in the accomplishment you feel when you walk 10,000 daily steps (FitBit fans unite!)
  • in the sweet smell of your loved one’s neck that says “I am here for you. Because I am here.”
  • in re-watching that old movie from the late 1980s that reminds you of the times when you knew less and it didn’t matter
  • in the kindness you show every single day to those you know and to those you don’t simply because the world deserves your care
  • in the absence of malice when you could have chosen otherwise
  • in the words “I am thinking of you”.

The search for simplicity may never end as we combat the avalanche of our modern world. I vote for its pursuit anyway.

In my view it is a battle worth attempting. Yes, indeed. It’s that simple.

Uprooted, upended, upside down

Change. The thing you find lying randomly on the sidewalk. And that other thing that defines what being alive means.

My one and only daughter turned eighteen the other day. I experienced a mixture of sadness and elation. Sad that her childhood is slowly coming to a close. And elated that she is now responsible (at least legally) for the actions she takes.

“I can shop online now!” she said.

“You can do your own paperwork now.” I said.

“I can drive a car now.” she said.

“You can look into how much it will cost. And pay for (most of) it.” I said.

Image used with permission (c) 2013 Klaus Polkowski

Image used with permission (c) 2013 Klaus Polkowski

Her younger brother congratulated her and said in the same breath, “Now you are no longer under Mom’s thumb. You can do whatever you want!” he said.

“I’m still under her thumb,” she said. “You’ll see.”

Ah yes. That pesky financial dependence thingy.

This past week we looked at a one-year college prep program. It is as far away as she could possibly get and still be in a German-speaking country. I duly took note of it, but then realized how perfect it all seemed for her. She will attend for a year, then see if she might apply elsewhere.

And when her birthday — in the midst of our college tour — came around, I felt the swirl of her roots, the tangle and gentle sprouts, twirling in a new direction, branching out farther away than I felt comfortable with and yet so appropriate to gain the nourishment they need to sustain themselves away from the Mother Tree.

I felt upended and it wasn’t only the grueling 1,000 mile drive that did it. It was the sense that freedom comes with a cost. She may not know it yet. But she will. And, speaking from experience: living in a different country will indeed be the best thing for her to experience what being on her own is really like.

I may never get over it. Neither will she. And that is exactly what is supposed to happen. Even when the tree topples.

Upside down and all.

The Alignment of Heart and Head

Kindness has a broader reach than hatred, which trickles in the snow like blood, standing frozen, marring beauty, seeping into the deep, but going nowhere.

Kindness has a gentler bounce, a firmer foundation, a more profound penetration. It is like silk to hatred’s dirty rags. Kindness, once rendered, shows up again and again. Hatred leaves frayed edges. It jangles its chains, spewing fumes of funk and fantasy. It settles into exhausted minds, confuses, leads astray.

Sowing seeds of kindness or, as I like to put it, sprinkling fairy dust wherever we go, starts with a single ripple. It is a quieter motion than hatred’s tsunami wave. But it is more sustaining and sustainable. It rocks like a cradle, lulling us into a calming centeredness.

When my children were tiny tots, I would tell them the story of Mr. Heart and Mr. Head. Mr. Head was always wanting to have his way. He demanded chocolate for breakfast, never brushed his teeth and insisted that it was his way or the high way. Mr. Heart would gently ask Mr. Head if he thought it was a good idea to do those things. Mr. Head’s standard response was always the same:

“I want what I want when I want it!”

Then Mr. Head would get or do what he wanted and his remorse was nearly immediate. Mr. Heart would then hug him and say, “And the lesson learned? Don’t eat chocolate for breakfast (or fill in the blank)!”

The stories were meant to acknowledge my children’s rather irrational desires while teaching them that better choices were available to them. Emotion-driven decision making can lead to disaster (and cavities!). But more importantly, an alignment between the heart and the head is important to lead a great life.

What I have witnessed over the past few months is a tsunami of emotion, which can be helpful when balanced with rational thought. It is my plea that we choose kindness over hatred, principles over populism. It means taking a stand for what we believe in, maintaining our standards and using our anger to make the world more just. Pretending that we are not angry is not kind. Being “nice” for the sake of a harmony that is not justified is not kind. It is false. Applying those emotions to create a better space for everyone, based on decisions that have a lasting, positive impact, is the right thing to do.

I think Mr. Heart – and eventually Mr. Head – would agree.

Angry? Go Off(line)

The dream ended with a thought: one day even the Internet will be obsolete. One day everything will be.

The thought comforted me as I snapped on my phone in the middle of the night, unable to sleep as the turmoil of the past few weeks clouded my mind. It was most un-Slow of me to look to my phone for comfort instead of meditating or even doing one of those adult coloring books. But then, I thought, so what? In my recent efforts to be mindful, I have become too full of mind and less of the heart.

And so we return to the Source of All Things. That lovely energy that flows through us more strongly than any petulant, careless tweet from Orange Boy.

Love.

As I lay with my mind’s eye wide open, I tapped into that love flow. After a few deep breaths,  I caught the wave and harmonized with its intention.

We are here to make a positive difference. We are here to learn from one another. And to teach one another how we want to be treated.

Being a parent has helped me understand the value of being a role model in the world. How we behave truly matters. The Internet is not exactly the best place to be when trying to model good behavior on a bad day. It’s too tempting to engage in low-level anger. Flame wars and misinformation rage, especially in times of great distress. The term “information overload” has taken on a new meaning as we struggle to sort through the data and our own feelings about it.

Life offers us so many opportunities to show up greatly. We get to choose at any given moment how we wish to be. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it does not. But with every choice we make, we add a lesson to the overall curriculum of our lives.

And so when a friend, or someone you thought was a friend, turns his or her back on you, that person was meant to do so. Consider it sharpening the tools in your toolbox. You understand life is the greatest teacher. Perhaps that person was developing in a different way than you are. That’s okay. Let it go.

And when a client turns foul-mouthed, learn from it. His behavior speaks volumes. Walk away.

And when your family causes you great despair, know that it is a part of the great experiment called life. We cannot control other people’s actions or feelings, only our own.

Magic is everywhere if you have the eyes to see it. Believe it is so and it will be.

Why Should You Care?

The unyielding darkness has started to seep into the Northern Hemisphere. Abbreviated sunlight in November has always affected my mood, challenging my natural buoyancy by the stagger and sway of light deprivation. And this year we have an additional force to reckon with: a metaphorical shadowy veil that has been draped across our world.

Even in these pitch dark moments I see opportunity. We have a chance to stand brightly in the darkness and call out all for which we stand: peace, love, joy, beauty, grace, wisdom. The sanctity of life remains untouched for our willpower and minds remain free, even if we feel shackled by political, environmental, social, cultural and economic realities. We can make a difference. Show up for what you believe in in a non-violent, loving way. Others will notice and may be encouraged to do the same.

Self-care is especially vital when we feel this vulnerable. My hot water bottle has become my trusty companion, feeling its warmth on my lap as I type words and phrases and lines, sometimes blurred by distraction and an urge to check in on the world to see if it’s alright.

My sister graciously shared her strategy for comfort. A shower and a nap are the best remedies for sorrow. With gratitude she feels the spray of instant warm water that she knows so many in this world do not have. A mid-day respite, bowing to the altar of Slow, reenergizes the fuzziness and frayed edges. Jumpiness is replaced by a Zen-like calm and we return to that greater part of ourselves that knows this too shall pass.

It may be the end of the world as we know it, to quote REM, but it is not the end of the world. Apocalyptic thoughts leave no room for positive ones.

If you are struggling with how best to care for yourself, consider this:

  • Switch off the noise – both internal and external. Surrender to your need for rest when you require it.
  • Minimize your exposure to online vitriol. It won’t help you, but will only serve to fuel confusion, wrath and disconnection.
  • Eat vitamin-rich food. Especially now as the sun quickly genuflects to the horizon, Vitamin D is essential. Ensure you get natural sunlight. Compensate with supplements if you cannot.
  • Connect with others. Isolation feeds insanity. Gather your tribe.
  • Hug more often.
  • Watch a comedy. Laughter heals.
  • Express love and gratitude.
  • Respect our differences. Remember that you may appear as foreign to someone else.
  • Create a safe environment for dialogue with people you meet.

Why should you care? Because you can. Because you do. Because caring for self is the first step in caring for others. The opposite of love is indifference. Recent events have shown we are not indifferent, although we may feel powerless. Your power begins within you. Embrace the power of Slow. The result of its force is mightier than any politician on the planet.

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.

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.

 

 

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.

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.