Tenacity: Lessons from Kayaking Lake Titicaca

This is a repost from 2018.

I have been called tenacious as long as I can remember. I can remember driving in a blinding snow storm to get back to Ithaca, New York after Thanksgiving break. I was alone in my Honda Civic and regardless of the twists and turns down route 79, I was bound and determined to make it back to school. I did. When it came time to reopen my restaurant in Santa Rosa, California after the health department decided I needed a new tile floor at the cost of $20,000 that was not in the budget, I did. When my children wanted to go to Medellín, Colombia for Christmas and my home was ravaged by Hurricane Matthew, I still made it happen. If life throws down a gauntlet, I will pick it up and run with it.

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Vicki and I kayaking on Lake Titicaca.

A few months back, my resolve and tenacity were tested. My friend Vicki and I sat in a two-person kayak a thousand miles from shore (well, that’s what it felt and looked like) on Lake Titicaca! The wind was pushing waves higher, the water was 40 degrees and there was no one in sight. At the time I wondered if I had bit off more than I could chew; that maybe this wouldn’t be a happy ending. Obviously, I am able to write about this now, but it was an experience I won’t soon forget.

This is what I learned about tenacity on Lake Titicaca:

Discern. As we headed to the launch site on a peninsula on Lake Titicaca, we were on a large, comfortable boat. I was observing the water. In retrospect, I was actually assessing the landscape. Vicki and I had initially decided we would be in single kayaks for the 3.5 mile paddle. As I watched the water out the window and saw the waves starting to rise, I asked Vicki if she would be OK in a two-person kayak. I felt like a larger boat would be more stable on the waves. It was a decision I did not regret. Only one brave soul in our group, Debra, did a single kayak and she was sorely tested. When handed a big task, make sure you use your discernment before jumping it.

Gear. As we suited up in our rain jackets, life preservers and paddles, I thought back to kayaking on the Newport River about a month earlier with my boyfriend, Roy. I had gotten blisters from the 45-minute paddle. I quickly got the attention of one of the guides and asked for a pair of gloves in Spanish. Luckily, we were the last group to depart from the beach, and he made it back in time with two right handed gloves. I made due with putting the extra right-handed glove on my left hand. The water was cold and I knew that it would be a lot more than 45 minutes for the 3.5 mile trek. Tenacity is important but making sure you’ve got the right gear is important as well.

Learn. This was not my first time in a kayak. It was the first time I’d ever been in a two-person kayak. It was also the first time I would be steering the kayak with a rudder and pedals to direct the boat. We watched as two kayaks departed and how the rudder was deployed. Our rudder was not deploying via a pulley as expected. Once in the boat, I checked the pedals to make sure they were operational and asked one of the guys on shore to make sure he physically put the rudder into place. I also made sure my kayak spray skirt was tight so that water (did I mention the water was cold?) did not spray into the boat. I watched as others who had just deployed went in circles in the small bay from our departure point. As you gather information, make sure you use it to your advantage. I had used a kayak spray skirt some three days earlier and knew it would be important to be snug. I knew that operating the pedals for the rudder would be important. When you have a big project, make sure you learn as much as possible with the time allotted to gather it, and more importantly, use the information.

Team. The biggest advantage of a two-person kayak over a one-person is teamwork. Vicki and I paddled two strokes on the right side and then two on the left. We started off by saying right, right, left, left. Then we started counting 1 right, 1 right, 1 left, 1 left. This morphed into to 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 2, etc. We would decide initially on 10 strokes, then 15, then 20, then 25 and took brief rests in between each set. We took turns calling out the numbers and then finally decided to just count the first set and the rest were in our heads. We had the ability to adapt. If 25 strokes were too much, we cut it back to 20. If calling it out loud was too taxing (it was), then we would count to ourselves. If I started to get off course from the waves, Vicki would point it out. I’m not sure I would have made it across without Vicki. As Vicki said, “I really am glad that we did the 2-person kayak. It was only my third time in a kayak ever and my first in a 2-person kayak. I would have been miserable by myself and not sure if I physically would have been able to make it.It was a tough paddle that took about two hours. When you want to achieve something, use teamwork and devise a system, if possible.

Strategy. When we initially set off to go to Taquile Island on Lake Titicaca, we had no idea where on the island we were headed. We were in front of all the other kayaks and I just focused on the far-right end of the island, hoping that someone would point the way later. Eventually, a motor boat came along and pointed to the opposite end (the far left-hand side) of the island. I then changed strategies and steered toward the left-hand side. I was open to change in strategy and Vicki confirmed our focal point. A multitude of waves kept taking us off course. A second motor boat came up dragging another two-person kayak behind it. The man on board was shouting to me in Spanish: “Wait. There are dangerous rocks.” I hesitated. I told Vicki what I understood. We seemed to be about halfway to our destination and the lake seemed way too deep for rocks. We decided to muster on. We made the decision to move on but I was cautiously scanning the water for rocks. Once you decide on a strategy, be open to more information and adapt.

Calm. I was pretty nervous for most of the trip to Taquile Island. The waves were even higher than I anticipated. When one wave came across the kayak between Vicki (in front) and myself (in back), I was really nervous. What happens if we tip over? I don’t see a rescue boat close by. I don’t think I can swim that far. I had a thousand concerns running through my head. I shut up the voice of doubt. On a rest break, I looked up at the blue sky, I counted two beats longer and just appreciated the fact that I was on the highest navigable lake in the world (at 12,500 feet) and just tried to take it all in. I kept my worried thoughts to myself and tried to remain as positive as possible. Panicking Vicki or any other kayakers was not going to help anyone. Keep calm and carry on.

We made it. A total of 4 kayakers were towed to Taquile Island. Three kayaks made it in one piece, although it was a lot more arduous than we expected. The current was against us rather than with us. It ended up being life affirming and I am proud that we made the journey. I believe that tenacity won out in the end and it made all the difference.

Tonglen: To Let Go and To Accept

I’ve been listening to the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. Pema is an American Tibetan Buddhist and has written and taught extensively. She speaks of Tonglen, a foreign concept to me as I listened to the book. I decided to investigate further. As defined by Dhaval Patel for Zenful spirit, “Tonglen is a Tibetan word that is contrived of two terms tong, which means to let go and len, which means to accept. So Tonglen means To Let Go and To Accept.

As Pema writes in Lion’s Roar magazine, “Pema Chödrön teaches us sending and taking an ancient Buddhist practice to awaken compassion. With each in-breath, we take in others’ pain. With each out-breath, we send them relief.” I practice meditation every day and have used the Loving Kindness meditation frequently, but this awakening of compassion was a new concept to me and I found it very intriguing. It is one thing to wish others love and kindness; it is quite another to take on their suffering and send relief. It’s so easy to steer clear of pain and suffering to keep ourselves safe.

Here is what I learned about Tonglen:

Be imperfect

I was talking about meditation with my daughter a few weeks ago and she stated that she wasn’t any good at it because she kept thinking. I’ve been meditating for over seven years and I still continue to have thoughts. It’s easy to think: “Whelp…I had a thought so I guess this isn’t working.” My current mediation from the Art of Living is about of series of breathing techniques. While I think about my breath, I still have thoughts. I am not perfect. You won’t be perfect. Being perfect is not the point. My first attempts at Tonglen were imperfect. That’s OK. Embrace imperfection.

Be open and still

The first step to Tonglen is to be still and open. I envision coming out of my head and the whirlwind of thoughts going out and back into my body. Take a few deep breaths. Relax your shoulders and focus on your big toe or on opening your heart.

Close your eyes

Bring someone into mind who is suffering. Many suggest focusing on someone close who you know is suffering. If your dog is lame, or your daughter is being bullied, or your parent is hospitalized, these are assessable. I think of this as low hanging fruit and easier to identify with. In other words, don’t bring to mind a large event like an earthquake, war, or refugees during your first few attempts. In addition, don’t focus on your arch enemy or ex-girlfriend on your first few attempts either. Bring to mind someone you can identify with and want the best for. As Dhaval wrote, “Imagine someone that you want to help. Perhaps it is a friend or a loved one. Focus intently on this person and on their struggle.”

Breathe in

As Pema writes, “Work with texture. Breathe in feelings of heat, darkness, and heaviness—a sense of claustrophobia.” I imagine colors of red and black. Pema says, “Breathe in completely, taking in negative energy through all the pores of your body.” This visually is very powerful for me. Taking the energy through the pores of your entire body illustrates complete openness and compassion for me. As Dhaval writes, “As you do focus on the heaviness of their negative energy and of the things that ail them, imagine yourself breathing in their condition or suffering. As you do this, picture that you are breathing in their pain so you remove it from their bodies, giving them room for comfort, healing and positivity.” I imagine it as taking someone’s burden so that they can be free. I visualized a friend who recently gave up alcohol. I imagined taking in the anxiety and burden of finding that next drink. I swallowed the poison so that she could be free. It’s a powerful experience to embrace the suffering instead of ignoring it or hoping it will go away.

Breathe out

As Dhaval writes, “As you breathe out, breathe happiness and peace out into the world. Think about what you believe would bring them comfort or joy. Focus on that and breathe it out into the world. Imagine that breath traveling to those you want to help and having it fill that empty space with what they need.” I find that the colors of blue and purple work best for me. I imagine filling up the hearts and minds of those suffering with a fog of blue and purple. I also imagine them being lifted up. Perhaps even held up with renewed strength and love. Pema espouses, “Breathe out feelings of coolness, brightness, and light—a sense of freshness.” Breathe out sunshine and unicorns. Breathe out hope and happiness. With my newly sober friend, I imagine freedom, lightness, and courage. This is the letting go.

Repeat and expand

I meditate for 20 minutes. That is lot of suffering and happiness. Dhaval wrote, “Continue this practice of breathing in pain and breathing out peace over and over again until your session is over. Remember, this doesn’t just apply to others either. If you are in pain, you can breathe in and out your own suffering.” When I focus on my own pain or suffering, I can incorporate others in similar pain. I have had some knee pain recently and I breathe in for others suffering physical pain. As Pema says, “Make it bigger than just that one person. You can do Tonglen for people you consider to be your enemies—those who hurt you or hurt others.” Start small and close and then expand out as you practice.

Pema wrote, “Tonglen can extend infinitely. As you do the practice, your compassion naturally expands over time, and so does your realization that things are not as solid as you thought, which is a glimpse of emptiness.” In practicing this over the last week, I feel a sense of oneness and belonging. I don’t have to tell someone that I took on their suffering last Friday morning. I just know that I feel like I relieved someone else’s suffering and gifted them happiness back. It feels powerfully unselfish and loving. Whose suffering could you let go and accept?

6 Benefits of Awe

I have always had wanderlust. I love an unexplored trail, waterfall, canyon or beach. It was not until I heard Jonah Paquette, author of Awestruck, on a recent webinar that I realized that what I have been seeking in this wandering was awe. Nature is where I usually seek awe, but Paquette pointed out that it can be found in other places and experiences as well. So, you do not need to fly to Arizona and stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon once a week to find a dose of awe.

Iguazu Falls on the border between Brazil and Argentina

An awe experience, as Paquette defines it, involves two primary components: encountering “vastness” and experiencing transcendence. Vastness happens when we come across a view (like a spectacular sunset) or concept (such as the existence of black holes) that is too incredible to fit into our current worldview, forcing us to expand our understanding of what is possible. Transcendence happens when we take in this new, awe-striking idea or image in front of us and try to make sense of it. By using this definition, you can find awe when an ant picks up something like a crumb up to 50 times it’s body weight and marches off with it; or when a hummingbird finds your recently hung feeder in the middle of an apartment complex in North Carolina while on a sojourn from South America. Yes, standing on the edge of the Iguazu Falls in Brazil is awe-inspiring, but so is that ant and that hummingbird. 

Here are 6 benefits of awe:

  1. Decreases Inflammation. Yep. You do not need to take an aspirin; you can just take a dose of awe. As written by Sarah DiGuilio, “Stellar’s and Gordon’s team found that people who reported experiencing more awe also appeared to have better immune health. In a group of 94 students, those who reported more regularly feeling more positive emotions than negative emotions had lower levels of chronic pro-inflammatory cytokines. Pro-inflammatory cytokines can be helpful in certain scenarios, if the body is injured or sick, but chronically elevated levels of these molecules has been associated with several chronic conditions, like diabetes, heart disease, and depression. Awe was the single positive emotion most likely to be linked to these lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines on a chronic basis.” Awe is good for your health.
  2. Decreases Stress. No need for a glass of wine or pint of beer. Experiences or even just reflecting on awe-inspiring moments from your life can reduce your stress and improve your mood. DiGuilio wrote, “According to a different survey the researchers conducted, undergraduate students reported greater life satisfaction and well-being on days when they spent time in nature, which was attributable to the higher level of awe they felt on those days. This suggests that awe just might be a crucial ingredient in nature’s restorative powers.” Awe is good for your mood.
  3. Decreases materialism. No need for add to your Hummel figurine collection, finding the newest mountain bike accessory or buying that new shade of lipstick from Chanel. As posited by DiGuilio, “A few studies suggest that experiencing awe may dampen feelings of materialism. The experiment with an Eiffel Tower story also found that, when given a hypothetical choice between a material good (such as a $50 backpack) or an experiential product (such as a $50 iTunes gift card), people who read the awe-inspiring story chose the experiential product more often than people in the other group did.” I have to say that one of the most awe-inspiring moments in the last year was standing on a desolate beach on Ocracoke Island and I immediately wanted an Ocracoke t-shirt to commemorate the experience. I did not want to forget standing on the empty beach with nothing but the Atlantic Ocean as far as the eye could see. Awe will inspire experience over things.
  4. Increases humility. I’ve been reading The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. A key feature of awe, psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt have argued, is that it quiets self-interest and makes individuals feel part of the larger whole. Haidt wrote, “The experience awed him, shut down his ‘I,’ and merged him into a giant ‘we.'” My boyfriend Roy and I went to Niagara Falls last year and as you stand next to all that water roaring over what feels like three football fields, you have to be humbled and yet part of something so great and wondrous. Awe inspires humility.
  5. Expanded time. That new iWatch won’t increase time but experiencing awe can. DiGuilio wrote, “Awe may also expand our perception of time. One study found that people induced to feel awe felt less impatience and agreed more strongly with statements suggesting that time is plentiful and expansive than people induced to feel happiness. The researchers speculate that by immersing us in the moment, awe may allow us to savor the here and now.” I always admired by father’s patience. Perhaps it was his ability to savor awe. Awe can expand time.
  6. Increases altruism.  If you accept numbers 3 and 4, it seems to make sense that experiencing awe would increase generosity. If you do not focus on your personal wants of collecting and feel humbled, would not generosity not naturally occur? As DiGuilio posits, “In fact, multiple studies have found that experiencing awe may make people more kind and generous. For example, one study found that people with a greater tendency for awe were more generous in laboratory tasks like distributing raffle tickets between themselves and an unknown participant. And people who stood among awe-inspiring eucalyptus trees picked up more pens for an experimenter who had ‘accidentally’ dropped them than people who stared up at a not-so-inspiring large building.” Awe increases altruism.

Ever since the webinar by Paquette, I have searched for ways to increase the amount of awe in my life and I do feel more relaxed, patient, and humble. It is amazing that feeling small and insignificant can have such a profound impact on one’s life. Where do you find awe?

Being Present

This is a repost from three years ago. Enjoy!

It’s easy to run through your day just skimming the surface. I’d bet you were on auto pilot on your last drive to work or home. You don’t remember that annoying person driving too slow in front of you or that family riding their bikes. It’s easy to blame technology and its incessant dopamine hits calling your attention back to social media and email notifications, so you can acknowledge that jerk at work or that annoying comment from a coworker on your Instagram post. We get wrapped up in our heads instead of actually being present.

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Kayaking on Lake Puiray

There is the novelty of travel and trying to get to the next spot to take the iconic picture. To check another item off the bucket list. To rush and hurry and strive and push onto the next thing. As you even read this, I wonder if you’re simply skimming this sentence (as I tend to do) and rush onto the bullets to see what you might glean (quickly) from this post.

Here are the benefits of being present:

Unexpected. One of the most beautiful moments I had on my trip to Peru a few months back was on Lake Piuray. I knew the plan was to kayak somewhere but besides that, I didn’t know much else. Well, it ended up being a highlight of the trip. We launched from a beach on a spectacular lake near Chinchero, Peru. Outside of a few farms and glacial mountains surrounding the lake, it was mostly uninhabited. The cranes, ibises, and ducks flew by and a clear blue sky bathed us in sunshine. We paddled peacefully near the reeds by the bank. I remember thinking to take it all in for just two beats longer. This is what life is all about; this hour or so of beauty, peace and tranquility. It may have been unexpected, but it was a gift I wouldn’t soon forget.

Ordinary. I have taken a short one mile walk in my neighborhood probably a thousand times. I usually have a set of earbuds in and am listening to music, an audiobook, or a podcast. I rarely “pay attention” to my surroundings. When I first did this walk (and almost every subsequent one) with my boyfriend Roy, he would stop dead in his tracks to watch the Purple Martins flying. I had never noticed them. Or their nest. Or the Ospreys. Or the Swifts. Now I do. I try not to skim through my day but rather observe the ordinary that I was oblivious to before. Be present to the ordinary.

Stop. I typically rush through my day. I try and check off all that I want to accomplish. Outside of meditating every morning, the rest of my day can seem like a long list of duties and appointments that I am checking off. A few weeks ago, I was hiking a trail next to the Eno River with Roy. He, of course, stopped next to the river for a few moments. He called me over. I stopped and looked as he pointed out the small crappies swimming in the river below the surface, only visible with polarized sunglasses. My typical behavior would be to move on forward down the trail and not stop. It’s in those moments of stopping that magic is revealed. The tiny fish were swimming as Roy threw in a piece of bark that they immediately swam for. Stop and enjoy the moment.

The feels. This has been a revelation over my past year of sobriety. When I stopped numbing out with food and alcohol, I actually felt things. I know that sounds crazy. It wasn’t like I didn’t have feelings before I quit numbing out, but when I was actually present for the feelings, I actually experienced them. I believe that there is an all or nothing view of feelings. Either we are raging with anger or stoically passing through drama unaffected (typically with a little help of some vice of choice). So, cry when you need to; it’s good for you anyway. Feel deceit, anger, regret, or resentment. Feel the feels. It makes you really present in your experience.

Meditation. I’m not sure how long I have been meditating (I’m guessing ten years) but it’s been over a year since I started practicing Sudarshan Kriya from the Art of Living. I will not pretend that I don’t have thoughts or extraneous worries as I meditate for twenty minutes in the morning. Stuff crops up. But it’s OK. This is not about turning off your thoughts. It’s about focusing on the breath and letting thoughts go as they crop up. It’s not about perfection. It makes me present, out of my head, and back into my body.

Whether today is a run of the mill day with a long list of to-dos, or you are on your dream vacation, don’t rush through: take a breath and feel the moment. Be here now. In this moment, regardless…Be Here Now. Each moment has its magic. Are you ready to be present?

6 Surprising Benefits of Being Alcohol Free

On July 8th, 2021, I will be sober for 4 years. I never imagined what an important change it was to quit drinking and all the benefits I now enjoy from that important decision. I’ve read several books on the topic and the one that resonated the most is Holly Whitaker’s Quit Like a Woman. Whitaker takes on our drinking culture, how advertisers’ market to women and she gives a raw narrative on how she healed herself. This book is a great reference guide as to why I gave up alcohol even though I read it after over three years of sobriety. It doesn’t hurt to keep the rationale behind my sobriety real or, as my boyfriend Roy would say: “green.”

When I look back over the last four years, I really am so much better now that my Chardonnay habit is in the rear-view mirror. I had no idea when I made the fateful decision to give up ethanol that my life would be transformed by the decision. Instead of me telling you why ethanol, a poison, the main ingredient in antiseptic wipes is so bad for you, I am going to tell you why it’s so terrific to give it up.

6 surprising benefits of being alcohol free:

  1. Sleep.  I have never slept better in my life. This seems completely counter intuitive to my Chardonnay evenings of crawling into bed and falling asleep immediately. As written on Sleep and Headache Solutions, “Alcohol might make you drowsy at first, but it actually decreases your sleep quality. Alcohol dehydrates the body and also blocks REM sleep. While it might help you fall asleep, you will be far less rested overall.” I wake up completely restored and ready to go. I can remember when I was teaching at night that I would have a glass of wine “to take the edge off” before going to bed. Now, even after working in the evening, I can easily transition to sleep and wake fully rested and restored. I had no idea that giving up alcohol would make me feel so much better and restored in the morning.
  2. Savings.  I have never saved this much money in my life. Granted, I’ve never been earning this much money in my life, but wow, have I saved a bunch of money without alcohol on my weekly grocery bill, and, even better, restaurant bills. I know being vegan is inexpensive as well, but I can remember paying $20 for a glass of Pinot Noir. Now I can focus my money on things that enhance my life, like hiking and travel.
  3. Time. My time is my own. I don’t need to earmark my day with where my first glass of wine will be. My schedule is wide open without parameters. I don’t need to know if it’s 5 o’clock or if the restaurant serves alcohol. I’m not dragging out of bed unrested and with a hangover. Every day is a clean slate. I can spend my time on a puzzle, or writing, or walking my dog, or finding a new trail to hike. I own my day without alcohol.
  4. Feel the feels. I gave up alcohol at a pivotal time in my life when my ex walked out on our flooded home. I had to confront my feelings once I stopped numbing out with alcohol. Initially, it was uncomfortable and painful at times but now four years later, I am so grateful that I was able to feel the feels. As Robert Frost wrote, “The best way out is always through.” I was unable to go through until I was sober and it’s made all the difference.
  5. Thinking. My mind is never altered. Ever. Being alcohol free has increased my brain matter. As written on Workit Health, “Your brain will get bigger. Oh yes, we’re talking about literal brain growth here. Chronic heavy drinking can cause a reduction in your brain matter. Bad news, right? But no, wait! The brain can recover in as little as two weeks once you stop drinking. Think you’ve done some permanent damage? Your brain begs to differ.” I have found a dramatic difference in my ability to synthesize information and reflect.
  6. Health. I am dramatically increasing my odds of fighting the seven major cancers affected by alcohol: breast, throat, mouth, stomach, liver, colon, and rectum. Alcohol is a carcinogen. In my health screenings since giving up alcohol (but also meat), I have lower cholesterol, better liver enzymes — across the board I am healthier. As Whitaker writes, “Alcohol leads to loss of collagen and elasticity. And it depletes us of minerals, nutrients, and antioxidants vital counter free radical damage.” As I mentioned in #1, I have never felt so refreshed in the morning.

I have to say that the biggest struggle with giving up alcohol is navigating a culture that is so obsessed with it. Once you give it up, you see how pervasive the alcohol industry is. Being on the outside looking in, it can get uncomfortable at the first event you attend like a baby shower where everyone is drinking Bloody Marys and mimosas. I have chosen to block all the alcohol-related ads on Facebook and Instagram. No, I don’t need a wine glass the size of my head, or membership to a wine club. If I knew four years ago how much better I would feel and how my life would change, I would have given it up years ago.

Still Missing Daddy

This is a repost from last year at the beginning of the pandemic:

My father passed away on July 12, 2019. Our family was going to gather on what would have been his 95th birthday on June 19, 2020. Due to a global pandemic and my mother still being under quarantine in her senior living center, all that is off. We won’t be able to celebrate his life as a family. I realized I can celebrate him with my words.

Grief is a fickle thing. I won’t lie and tell you that I think about him every day. I certainly did in the months following his death. In the last few months, it’s been sporadic. It might be a commercial about a father teaching his teenage daughter to drive or a mini-series about Ulysses S. Grant, and suddenly I evaporate into tears. I miss my father even though I am so grateful he died last year. It gave us the chance to visit him (pre-COVID) as he slowly succumbed to congestive heart failure.

Here are the things I miss about Daddy:

Unflappable

I challenge anyone to tell me a time when my dad lost his temper. He rarely raised his voice and only did so to tell his opinion in a heated debate. When my two brothers and I were kids there was a lot of rough housing, teasing and taunting that took place; my father was loathe to intervene. He headed up field trips to Gettysburg and Washington, D.C. as a history teacher and always managed to return rebellious and raucous teenagers home with rarely an incident.

My boyfriend Roy and I have been watching the miniseries called Grant about Ulysses S. Grant. There are many references as to how calm and cool Grant would be in the middle of a battle and to be able to keep his wits about him. I think of all the challenges my father dealt with as a sailor on a schooner during a hurricane. As a Merchant Marine traveling from the Pacific to the Atlantic in an oil tanker with a sheared-off bow during World War II. He was never a man who was easily roused. 

I think of him when a co-worker loses their cool. I think of him when I lose my cool. I miss seeing my father and being able to watch him be unflappable.

Wanderlust

The biggest road trip of my life was with my family. We traveled from the East Coast to the West Coast of the United States and then from the Western provinces of Canada to the Eastern ones when I was eight years old. My father loved a view. He really loved the view of a mountain in particular. Whether it was the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada or the Canadian Rockies, my father (who drove our old Ford station wagon and 24-foot trail for all but 10 miles of the trip) would always pull off to an overlook…to have a look. 

I remember rolling my eyes as an impatient eight-year-old as my father would marvel at the view. At the time, I didn’t appreciate the marvelous opportunity my parents were giving me to see so much of the U.S. and Canada. After retirement, my parents traveled the world from Russia to China to Australia. He was always intrigued by foreign cultures, politics and natural beauty. He had wanderlust. I think of him when I see a tall mountain peak or hike to the summit of a trail. I miss and am grateful for my father’s wanderlust as he instilled it in me.

Patience

I have never been as patient as my father and have always been envious of it. He was the best grandfather. He traveled to my children’s marching band competitions, wrestling meets and football games. He never cared how far it was or how long we might sit in the cold or hot humid stands. He was just happy to be there. My son’s football team might be losing by 40 points but he’d be sitting there on the cold hard bleachers until the bitter end.

My father was the man who would patiently walk around the neighborhood with my then 2-year-old daughter reading license plates. At the ripened age of two, she was able to read all the letters and numbers on a license plate, all because her grandfather encouraged her to read. It reminds me of the times when I was in grade school and putting on plays in the basement. He was always willing to pay a quarter for admission and would sit through some haphazard, ill-conceived play for the love of his daughter. I think of him often during this pandemic and how easily he would have dealt with this big pause. I miss his patience and try to summon it often to cope with plans that are scrapped or delayed.

Wisdom

Anyone who lives to 94 is wise. They have survived catastrophes, wars and circumvented fatal errors. My father studied at eight different colleges and universities. He actually went to the University of Pennsylvania and attended West Chester College at the same time without one knowing about the other. My parents scrimped and saved their entire married life in order to send all three of us to the university of our choice. My father was a revered mentor to several young men that he taught in school or who he met as a counselor at a boy’s camp called Camp DeWitt. He was sought after for his advice and counsel for decades after their first meeting. My father’s opinion was one that I always valued. I remember the difficult decision to leave my first husband when I had very young children and countless responsibilities. I valued his opinion above everyone else’s. I never wanted to disappoint him. I miss his advice and counsel. He was the wisest man I’ve ever known.

I remember being with him on his 94th birthday. He was hunched over with an oxygen tube but was still able to read the book “Benson Noice Junior the Great” written by his namesake grandson as a grade school project a decade or more earlier. We all sat in his room as he told stories about his life. I was surprised that he talked about seeing both of my children being born and how miraculous it was. I will always remember kissing him goodbye for the last time in person and him telling me, “I love your blogs.” I find my father in all kinds of places now. In the wind, on a sailboat, at the top of trail or a scenic overlook. I may be missing him but he is there if I just pay attention.

My Lessons from Memento Mori

I was introduced to the concept of Memento Mori by the author Ryan Holiday. He has written several books on Stoicism with both Amor Fati (love of one’s fate) and Memento Mori (remember you must die) as center pieces. I am writing this in June of 2021 and the pandemic that has defined everyone’s life for the last 15 months seems to be waning ever so slowly. The new normal is left in its wake and the awkward feeling of going unmasked into Target and hoping everyone believes that you have been vaccinated. I am taking tentative steps out of quarantine hibernation and taking steps back into life.

We are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it. – Seneca

I do not have a terminal illness or a very risky job. I do not jump out airplanes or ride fast motorcycles. I live a relatively risk-free life, but I must remember that I must die. Regardless of how careful I am in the way I live, that day is coming for me, for you, for my family, for my dog, my boyfriend, my best friends. Memento Mori.

My lessons from Memento Mori:

Be here now. I can get completely consumed by busyness. I can get lost in regret or planning for tomorrow or next year or rumination over conversations and disputes lost. All of this takes me out of the current moment. My dog is trying to get my attention. The coffee tastes great. The perfume of the Magnolia tree. The hummingbird that FINALLY found my feeder. The leaves on the tree that seem to be waving to me. As written by Sam Guzman, “Time is a precious resource. A moment, once possessed, can never be recaptured. Moreover, what we do with our time will last for eternity.” I try to not skim through life but to use my senses to appreciate what is available right now. To feel my big toe, to let go of the tension in my shoulders, to pay attention to what is in the room and outside my window. Do not rush it. Feel it. Be here now.

Lean into fear. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Do the thing we fear, and death of fear is certain.” I recently did something I have been very afraid to do and walked across the Mile High Swinging Bridge in North Carolina. I have traveled overseas by myself. I have spoken to an audience of 200 people. I have escaped flood waters. I have terminated an employee I was terrified of. I have written about giving up alcohol. Each experience adds to my self-reliance, my confidence and it helps me face the next obstacle. I have, especially when I was a child, tried to avoid fear;  to cower and pray for it to pass. Now I see it as an opportunity to try something new on; to try and be curious and open. To take it as it comes. And to, sometimes, seek it out. When I am reminded that I must die, I lean into fear.

Make an impact. It took me some forty years to finally figure out my passion. I love when through coaching or facilitation or teaching, I can create insight. The light bulb moment when someone stops to think, eyes looking up towards the ceiling and suddenly they have attained realization. “I need to sign up for a marathon.” “I’m going to write a book.” “I’m going to ask her to marry me.” “I need a new career.” “I’m going to start walking every morning.” I have no idea how it will work out. Most clients or students I will know for months, maybe a year or two. Some are just one meeting. There is no telling if their path is changed by their insight from a coaching session in 2016. I took a StengthsFinder coaching course about three years ago and coached several of my classmates. I connected with many of them on Facebook. I received a message from a Japanese classmate two years after the class thanking me for my coaching and what an impact it had on her life. I teach the SHRM certification class at Duke University. I am so gratified when one of my students passes the certification class and they write in a group class email “THANK YOU, CATHY!” I have had an impact on someone’s life. Someone’s path is better because of me. 

I lost a dear friend to cancer at the beginning of the year. She worked on a Monday. She died on Wednesday. I wonder if she knew. Would she have done it any other way? I cannot walk her path, but I can walk mine. I must remember that I must die. Memento Mori.

4 Reasons to Connect

I first became aware of the fundamental human need to connect from Emily and Amelia Nagoski and their book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. The book was written pre-pandemic, but it highlights the need for connection. As I read the book, I realized why so many people were suffering from isolation. I remember writing about the first time, my boyfriend Roy and I went for a hike in a local state park after it reopened. How glorious it was to get outside; to be back on the trail. How glorious so many folks on the trail were so outgoing and friendly. What a gigantic relief to be able to connect again after being isolated at home for so many months.

One of the main premises in the book is that we need to close our stress cycles. There are many ways to accomplish that: From simple movement, getting out in nature, breathing, laughter, crying, and, of course, connection. If anything has been impaired by COVID-19; it is connection. Not all connection has or had stopped, but it was drastically curtailed; from the amount and quality of connection for many, if not most, people.

Here are the 4 reasons we need to connect:

Nourishment.  As written by the Nagoskis, “Social connection is a form of nourishment, like food. Just as our early experiences shape our present-day relationship with food, so our early experiences of connection shape our present-day relationships with other people. Our specific nutritional needs change over the course of our lifespan, but the fundamental need for food does not; similarly, our need for connection changes across our life-spans, but our fundamental need for connection does not. And the culture we live in constrains the food choices available to us. Same goes for connection.” I think of my work colleagues who live alone in an apartment, perhaps writing computer code all day long without access to connection. It is no wonder they were suffering in isolation. No nourishment. 

Health.  We live longer when we have social connection. As reported by the Nagoskis, “We literally sicken and die without connection. A 2015 meta-analysis, encompassing seventy different studies and over three million research participants from around the globe, found that social isolation and loneliness increased a person’s odds of an early death by 25 to 30 percent.” I think of how fortunate I am that I have my dog, Baci. Once I moved into my apartment during the pandemic, we have grown very close… even codependent on each other. I realize in retrospect that I needed the connection with her. My health, her health, our health was benefiting from our time spent together.  Connection builds health.

Synchrony. I find this to be fascinating. We actually synchronize when we spend time together. As written in Burnout, “When people watch a movie together, their brains’ emotional responses synchronize, even if they’re strangers. Simply sharing physical space with someone—mere co-presence—can be enough to synchronize heartbeats. We automatically mirror the facial expression of the person we’re talking to and experience the emotion that goes with those expressions, and we involuntarily match body movements and vocal pitch. We are all walking around co-regulating one another all the time, synchronizing without trying, without even necessarily being aware that it’s happening.” I reflect on when Roy and I go to bed and he likes for me to lay curled next to his chest so he can “hear me breathe.” We are synchronizing. We aren’t typically together during the work week and now I understand why I can feel disconnected. I am missing the synchronizing while we are together. Connecting is synchronizing.

Energy. Connection is sharing energy. The Nagoskis posit, “Connection moves us at the level of our atoms. Each particle we are made of influences and is influenced by the particle next to it in an unending chain that exists on the smallest and largest scales you can imagine, and every scale in between. Swing a pendulum near another pendulum that’s the same size, and they will gradually entrain, often swinging in the same direction at the same time. We’re made of energy. The nature of energy is to be shared, to spread, to connect one thing to another. Sharing space with other people means that our energy influences theirs, and theirs influences ours.” As I listen to managers bemoan the fall out from working from home, now I realize they are missing the energy provided by connection. Can the energy be reproduced over Zoom? I do not know. Connection and its impact on energy is amazing.

I have gone into my office periodically over the last year and but it was a marked change when I went into the office after being fully vaccinated. I ran into a good friend who said, “Hey, I’m vaccinated, we can hug!” What a relief! An embrace with someone you care about is the sweetest connection and I’m so thankful it’s possible now. Reconnecting has immeasurable impact.

4 Keys to Amor fati

This is a repost from last year:

Definition of amor fati : love of fate : the welcoming of all life’s experiences as good

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche describes Amor fati: “That one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backwards, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it…. but love it.” Appalachian Trail thru-hikers (an epic, several-month-long trek over 2,000 miles) would express this as “Embrace the Suck.” Bryon Katie wrote a whole book on the topic called Loving What Is. I’ve spent decades trying to recreate history and control the path of my future, my kid’s future and my family’s future. I imagine I have a giant eraser to take back a failed marriage and wallow in regret, or project forward that my father will miraculously cheat death as he slowly succumbs to congestive heart failure. I have learned over the last few years that I am powerless to rewrite history and to meaningfully alter the future. Amor fati.

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Here are the 4 keys to Amor fati:

Quit Complaining

As Will Bowen says, “Complaining is like bad breath – you notice it when it comes out of someone else’s mouth, but not when it comes out of your own.” Bowen is the creator of A Complaint Free World and challenges folks to go complaint free for 21 days. I remember taking this challenge some 7 years ago and I have to say, it’s pretty tough. I mean there is the weather, the traffic, my son still hasn’t responded to my text, the soup is cold, the package is late, my assistant hasn’t responded…but I digress into complaining. It’s so easy to deny what is. It’s like the negativity bias that saved your ancestors from saber-toothed tigers. It is constantly scanning the environment to track everything that is wrong. Try it for today. Just today. Be focused on what’s right with the world. With your world. I have a roof, a loving dog, a warm house and potable water. Welcome the rain, the red light, the screaming infant. Amor fati.

Jump Forward

When I was going through my Brain Based Coaching training some eight years ago, I remember a tool we used called 10:10:10. This is a concept developed by Suzy Welch for decision making. “Here’s how it works. Every time I find myself in a situation where there appears to be no solution that will make everyone happy, I ask myself three questions: What are the consequences of my decision in 10 minutes? In 10 months? And in 10 years?” So, if staying late to complete a project for your boss means missing your child’s play at school using the 10:10:10 process there may be a happy boss and perhaps a more resilient child. As Ryan Holiday wrote, “The loss of a loved one, a breakup, some public embarrassment… In five years, are you still going to be mortified, or are you still going to be wracked with grief? Probably not. That’s not saying that you won’t feel bad, but you’re not going to feel as terrible as you do now. So, why are you punishing yourself?” I’ve been thinking about selling my house for the last year or so. I remember selling my house some 18 years ago in California. I thought, at the time, I will never live like this again. It was true, not because my current situation is worse, it’s just different and I never would have imagined how terrific things are right now. Maybe the future is so much better than you think. Amor fati.

Embrace the Challenge

When my ex-husband left me hanging after my home was flooded by Hurricane Matthew, I was devastated. And then? I decided that this was a challenge. I was going to get the home repaired, fix my devastated finances and create a space of tranquility and comfort. I had an endless punch list and day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, I took it on and conquered it all. I would not succumb regardless of my lack of knowledge of plumbing, HVAC or foreclosure. In retrospect, the challenge of overcoming all the obstacles was the best part. I didn’t want to go through it, but now that I have, I am so glad I did. As Holiday wrote, “It’s like in a game, right? Let’s say I throw you into a football game. If you stop and spend all your time arguing over the rules, you’re never going play. Maybe it doesn’t make sense that the overtime rules are this way or that quarterbacks get special protection, or this or that, right? There are all these different rules that make no sense that are arbitrarily how the game has developed since its inception. The Stoics are asking you in some ways to accept the arbitrary rules. Then they’re saying you play the game with everything you’ve got.” Play the game and embrace the challenge. Amor fati.

Grateful

Amor means love. It’s not just about accepting the suffering or fate; it’s about loving it. I think about this a lot as I sort through the aftermath of my divorce. I am grateful for the process, for each and every decision, good or bad, for the pain and the release, for the deception and the triumph. I would not be where I am now without the journey, without the emotional bruises, without the struggle. I am so grateful to be the woman I have become. Sober, independent, present and courageous. I do a loving kindness meditation every morning. I wish happiness, peace, health and living with ease to everyone in my family, my boyfriend, my sick cousin, my enemies and, lastly, my ex-husband. I imagine embracing each one. I love them all for what they have brought to my life and love the hand I have been dealt. I am most grateful for my ex-husband leaving me to live my life to the fullest. Amor fati.

It’s all about reframing the journey. Instead of dreading the court date, looking forward to and loving what fate has in store for me. I think a lot about, “Hmm, I wonder what exciting twist will occur?” or “What does the universe have planned for me now?” I’m not sure where I will be in 5 or 10 years but I know the journey will be exciting. Amor fati.

5 Ways to Fight Zoom Fatigue

When the pandemic started, Zoom felt like a miraculous solution to stay connected with customers, coworkers and vendors. There I was, propelled into everyone’s kitchen, home office or bedroom. As I think about it now, that is completely crazy. When have you ever walked into a colleague’s bedroom to discuss an urgent project or contract negotiation? I am assuming never. I wrote a post on the benefits of making your bed every day, it is even more apropos now if you are officing from your bedroom. It has become incredibly intimate. Sometimes it feels voyeuristic as I try and make out the titles on someone’s bookcase, or make note of whether their range is gas or electric. Frequently, it is way too much information on people I barely know, yet this is the new normal. 

All this Zooming, Teaming or Webex-ing is exhausting. I have several clients that are physically spent after endless back-to-back calls. As written in the Harvard Business Review by Fosslien and Duffy, “Zoom fatigue stems from how we process information over video. On a video call the only way to show we’re paying attention is to look at the camera. But, in real life, how often do you stand within three feet of a colleague and stare at their face? Probably never. This is because having to engage in a ‘constant gaze’ makes us uncomfortable — and tired. In person, we are able to use our peripheral vision to glance out the window or look at others in the room.” Now I realize why I position my laptop screen with a view outside over the top of the screen. I am trying to catch a quick break while trying to look engaged. 

Here are 5 ways to fight Zoom fatigue:

  1. Uni-task. Focus on the call. Close out browsers, tabs and apps and focus on the meeting in front of you. Put your phone on a desk five feet away. Task switching is not only obvious to others on the call but it is stressing you out.  As tempting as it is to clean out your emails or respond to your Slack channel, the end result will be depleting. As written in HBR, “It’s easy to think that you can use the opportunity to do more in less time, but research shows that trying to do multiple things at once cuts into performance. Because you have to turn certain parts of your brain off and on for different types of work, switching between tasks can cost you as much as 40 percent of your productive time.” Stop multitasking.
  2. Move.  Figure out how to incorporate movement into your day. It might be a treadmill desk or stationary bike during inclement weather or perhaps it’s taking a call by phone (sans video) while you take a walk around the block. I’ve had several clients commit to figuring out how to take at least one meeting a day while walking outside. Movement releases tension and increases your mood. If it’s impossible to incorporate movement into your workday, at least get outside at the end of your day, or on the weekend. This closes your stress loop which helps eliminate burnout. Move; preferably outside.
  3. Breaks. This can be done just visually for a few moments or turn off your video feed while you aren’t speaking. As I mentioned, I position my screen so that I can look out a window right above it to take a visual break. As written in HBR, “We’re all more used to being on video now (and to the stressors that come with nonstop facetime). Your colleagues probably understand more than you think — it is possible to listen without staring at the screen for a full thirty minutes. This is not an invitation to start doing something else, but to let your eyes rest for a moment.” Incorporate five-to-fifteen-minute breaks between meetings or suggesting a break at the midpoint of a multi-hour meeting. Take a break.
  4. Work Clothes.  I have kept a schedule of taking a shower and preparing for work as usual; as if I’m going into the office. I put on earrings and my Zoom top. From the waist down it’s yoga pants and socks but it’s all business, waist up. As Vanessa Van Edwards writes for The Science of People, “Studies show that clothes change both the way people feel and how they are perceived. It’ll also help you de-stress once you put on your ‘home’ outfit. Over time, your subconscious will associate your work clothes and home clothes differently, switching your brain into ‘go’ mode when you put on your work clothes and switching it to ‘off’ mode when you change the outfit.” Switching clothes helps punctuate the day the way your commute did last year. Put on work clothes.
  5. Phone. Just because you can Zoom a colleague any time of the day or night, doesn’t mean you should. I try to send a quick message asking if a colleague has time to Zoom but don’t just go barging in with Zoom if a phone call could be quicker or less intrusive. As written in HBR, “Check your calendar for the next few days to see if there are any conversations you could have over Slack or email instead. If 4PM rolls around and you’re Zoomed-out but have an upcoming one-on-one, ask the person to switch to a phone call or suggest picking up the conversation later so you can both recharge. Try something like, “I’d love a break from video calls. Do you mind if we do this over the phone?” Most likely the other person will be relieved by the switch, too.” It feels so old school to chat by phone but from my coaching practice, I have found that some folks open up more when it feels more anonymous, perhaps like a confessional. Rethink defaulting to video.

I never thought that I would still be working remotely in May of 2021, yet here I am pulling up to a standing meeting at 7:30 AM with my coffee cup in hand and my Zoom top on. I certainly feel more connected to those I see every day regardless of location. The secret is to incorporate ways to stay energized. What ways do you fight Zoom fatigue?