Moments of Awe

I think it was happenstance that I found myself returning one year later to the Outer Banks of North Carolina on Thanksgiving Weekend. This time, it wasn’t my idea. Here it was a long weekend, the middle of a pandemic, my children not coming home, so why not socially distance at the beach with my sweetheart, Roy? Although I love the Outer Banks, on our trip in 2019, the weather was cold and dreary so my expectations weren’t set very high for 2020. Perhaps it was the low bar for expectations, but this year had many surprising, awe-inspiring moments that I won’t soon forget.

Afternoon sun on the beach at Ocracoke Island

My moments of awe:

Tundra Swan

On our way to the Outer Banks, we stopped once again at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. This place feels like it is about two hours from civilization; indeed the closest grocery store is probably in Swan Quarter where the ferry docks. There are miles and miles and miles of driving the backroads of the Inner Banks where the only thing to count is roadkill. When we arrived at the refuge, it was socked in with fog. Roy and I were not hopeful that there would be many migrating birds which is one of the main draws in going. 

We arrived at the viewing deck and to our surprise there were hundreds of Tundra Swans and Canadian Geese floating in the marsh. The awe-inspiring moment came as I was filming the birds who were surrounded by fog. I could hear hundreds of swans flapping their wings and honking in flight but could not see them initially, until the fog slowly lifted and the swans appeared magically to land in the marsh next to the swans, who had arrived earlier, cooing lowly on top of the water. It was a ballet with the bright white flashing wings of the flying swans in formation and the low moan of cello-like base notes floating below. Awesome.

Ocracoke

The last time I was at Ocracoke island was about fifteen years ago when my children were young and we were headed for a visit with my good friend, Susannah and her family, in Avon. Ocracoke is a barrier island which means that the only way to get there is by ferry. The ferry starts in one of three very remote places: Cedar Island, Swan Quarter or Hatteras. The shortest ferry ride is from Hatteras, so Roy and I headed out and arrived at the ferry station in Hatteras at noon. We waited an hour to get on the ferry and then spent another 75 minutes on the ferry taking an absolutely crazy, circuitous route; I was a little worried we were headed to Swan Quarter instead of Ocracoke. 

It was overcast, it rained and finally, our journey was over. Upon our arrival to the remote island, the sun came out, as if on cue. We drove several miles on the spit on land between the ferry station and the town of Ocracoke. Roy pulled off along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and I walked the boardwalk out to the beach. It was 2:30 PM in November and the place was desolate, high tide, and the sun was glinting on the water as waves crashed on the barren shores. We were alone on what felt like the end of the earth with nothing but 40 feet of sand between me and the North Atlantic. Nothing but crashing waves, a flying pelican and a shore bird meandering along poking the surf. There are these moments when you feel isolated yet part of something so much bigger. I could only stand there in awe and take it all in.

Sun

As Roy and I drove back from our return ferry in Hatteras, we were trying to time the sunset as we drove up what is the narrowest sliver of road called Highway 12. It is one of the rare highways where you can see the vast intercoastal waterway on one side the Atlantic Ocean on the other side. As we approached Rodanthe, we pulled off on the intercoastal waterway side of the road. There, surrounded by marsh and sand, we watched as the sun slipped below the surface and we faced the limitless water of the intercoastal waterway, knowing that there was the mainland out there somewhere but impossible to see.

The next morning, I woke up early to head out to the Kill Devil Hills beach to watch the sunrise. I was taken aback as I arrived at 6:30 AM only to find some twenty other hearty souls standing or sitting strewn along the beach waiting for the sunrise as well. We all faced the same altar – the East. Patient, quiet, communal, as we witnessed that instant where the red sliver creeps above the horizon to commence another day. Same sun, same barrier islands, same water and such continuity. Awe-some.

I need these moments as I have endured some nine months of isolation. Awe is available in isolation, it’s a matter of discovering it. It is seeking it out, letting it surface and accepting whatever shows up. What moments inspire awe in you?

Relationship Status with My Dog: It’s Complicated

My beloved Brittany Spaniel, Baci (named for the Perugina chocolate) is 13 years old. In human years, that makes her a grouchy old woman of 91. She gets around really well for a senior citizen. She still loves to hunt a squirrel or, even better, a bunny rabbit. We’ve been together for all of her thirteen years. This relationship. This companionship. This love story has had some rocky sections and tests of patience (mostly on my part) but we endure.

My dog Baci

The many ways our relationship is complicated:

Houdini

When my family first adopted Baci from a breeder outside of Charlotte, we found it impossible to contain her. We had a crate but once morning came, she wanted out and let us know she wanted out. We tried keeping her in a bathroom and she would scratch at the door and bark for hours until we relinquished. At one point, we tried gating her on our back deck only to find she had escaped some ten minutes later. Finally, we purchased an invisible fence and the first day we left her outside, we came home to find her cold and wet by the mailbox (outside her territory). 

We’ve had mishaps since when her collar wasn’t working but for the better part of 12 years, she’s had free reign of her lakeside home. Typically, this resulted in me yelling out the front door, the back door, the garage door, checking her dog house and then, as if by magic, she would come trotting from around a blind corner. I wouldn’t know where she had been, but she was back and ready to come in. Fast forward to 8 weeks ago, and now she is constrained by an apartment; no way to go outside except to be attached to me. She loves me. I know she does, but she wants her freedom. Roy and I were trying to fit two mountain bikes in my small storage closet when Baci slipped out the back door. Panic ensued. I yelled. I cussed. She ran to the sidewalk and started barking at one of my neighbors, as I stormed toward her to grab her collar. I dragged her back to the apartment. I’ve tried to give her daily walks and weekend trips hiking but the majority of the time she remains a prisoner of circumstance. Locked up once more, she copes with her imprisonment and I remain her guard.

Surfaces

Baci has always had an aversion for surface changes. We put in a polished slate floor in the entryway of the house and she would not cross that new surface to save her life. It reminds me of the childhood superstition: “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” When we hike on a trail, she will come up to a surface change like a bridge over a creek and she will head down the embankment to cross the water instead of over the metal bridge. She does not like swimming in a pool or a lake. She can swim but she will exit immediately much like a cat.

There is a hysterical video from ten or so years ago with Baci bounding in about six inches of snow; she was unsure if she was mad at the white stuff or entranced by it. Now ensconced in the apartment most days for 24 hours in a day, she anticipates my every move. It’s 5 AM, Mom is going to the living room to mediate, it’s 6:30 AM and Mom will feed me now, it’s 7 AM, Mom is going into the office to work, it’s 10 AM, Mom will take me out for a walk, 11 AM and Mom will head to the kitchen and so forth. I see her anticipating my every move. She’s my guardian staying one step ahead.

Obsession

Baci can track and hunt almost anything smaller than a bread box. She will: obsess over squirrels tip-toeing across branches far above her head, stand for hours tracking a lizard under her dog house, bark incessantly at a cat a block away and spend an afternoon chasing a house fly. Roy refers to this as a prey drive.When we hike on a trail, all the smells of the woods overwhelm her. She unconsciously passes dogs and fellow hikers, transfixed by the odors of the forest. Now bottled up in an apartment, she searches out prey from open windows and barks at anything and anyone that moves. As she stands guard at a window watching me load or unload my car, she barks constantly as if to announce that she’s on duty and ready to kick anyone’s butt. She’s single minded while living in captivity.

Routine

I can remember when my parents lived in the in-law unit of my house. My dad had the same routine everyday and Baci knew precisely what that routine was. She would be two steps ahead of my dad through each door and footfall. My dad would always marvel at how “smart” she was although she really had just learned his precise routine and went in lockstep. Baci and I, in the last few years in the lake house, had our routines. She knew what time to wake me up, she would shake her head at 4:30 PM precisely for dinner and she always took the same route in the yard to give it the all clear. The first few months in this apartment have been a struggle. Several accidents in the apartment, barking in the middle of a conference call and grunting at 3 AM to wake me up to go out. I think we are both exhausted. Actually, perhaps it’s just me. I’m struggling to find the symbiosis we had just three months ago. I want to be in lockstep with her. I want us to know each other’s routines again. It’s almost like a dance, where we both want to follow the choreography but we keep running into each other; not out of spite but out of confusion. The dust is slowly starting to settle, and the rhythm is falling into place.

Baci and I are starting to find our groove in our new place. Sometimes I wonder how this would all be different if there weren’t a pandemic and we didn’t spend almost every waking hour together. But this is it. This is now normal and while I have been frustrated, as my insightful daughter pointed out on the phone the other day, “Mommy, the house was Baci’s only home. She spent her whole life there.” Baci really has been pretty resilient for a 91-year-old girl and it’s ok if our relationship is a bit complicated.

Are You Suffering from Time Poverty?

The most difficult part of this pandemic is that my day has no chapters, no boundaries. There are no bookends to my day. Traveling to work or to school or the daily arrival of my children home from school used to make a delineation in the day. There are the blurry lines of “Am I at work right now?” or “Am I on a break?” or “I’ll answer this one email even though it’s 3 PM on Sunday.” My days are one big smoosh of what feels like aimless work and yet at the end of the day I say to myself, “How was I home ALL day and I got NOTHING done?” This has been my excuse for months as I have barely written any new blog posts. I have been suffering from time poverty. I have plenty of time – I just have no idea where it goes.

I read an article from by Ashley Whillians on Ideas.Ted.com in which she wrote, “Time poverty is a serious problem, with serious costs for individuals and society. The data that I and others have amassed show a correlation between time poverty and misery. People who are time poor are less happy, less productive and more stressed out. They exercise less, eat fattier food and have a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease. Time poverty forces us to compromise. Instead of preparing a nutritious dinner, we grab chips and guac and munch mindlessly while staring at our screens.” Hmmm. It’s not just me that is sucked into screen time and feeling miserably unproductive. 

Here are some of the reasons I suffer from time poverty:

Technology

Whillians posits, “Technology interruptions break our hours into confetti.” I love that metaphor. Confetti. Light little pieces of magical colors that have absolutely no functionality and are a mess to clean up. That would be my inbox on 3 different email accounts, 4 different messaging systems and 2 different phone numbers. That is my technological confetti and I’m cleaning it up all day, every day.

Shawn Stevenson wrote, “Just being near your phone impairs cognitive performance. If we’re going to be empowered… if we’re going to be able to reach our potential in an increasingly distracted world, we MUST do some practical things to maintain control of our attention. This recent study uncovered that THE MERE PRESENCE of your phone can cause significant cognitive impairment. The researchers conclude that, even if your phone is not “dinging” with notifications, even if it’s face down, even if it’s turned OFF, your brain still has to use significant mental energy not to pick it up (whether we realize it or not).” Hence, in order to write this post, I put my phone in another room and shut down all apps on my laptop. 

Money

Whillians wrote, “Money does not buy joy. A culture obsessed with making more money believes, wrongly, that the way to become more time affluent is to become financially wealthier. We think, “I’ll work hard and make more so that I can afford more leisure time later.” This is the wrong solution. Focusing on chasing wealth leads only to an increased focus on chasing wealth.” I think it’s also a focus on material versus experience. This is tough in the middle of a pandemic. Why not buy a big television to binge on Netflix for the weekend or a freezer to store all my backup to the backup meals in case I get quarantined for two months? Amazon can get you anything you want in a matter of days, if not hours. Just because you can buy it, doesn’t mean you should. Time well spent is the new affluence.

Busyness

I can panic if I see that my schedule is back-to-back for the day and panic even more when my schedule gets freed up with a cancellation. I value the busyness and take pride in getting it all done in one day, taking the dog out, making dinner and setting up that long overdue dentist appointment while working all my meetings in flawlessly. Whillians wrote, “With our self-identity so wrapped up in work and productivity, the social appearance of being busy makes us feel good about ourselves. In contrast, focusing our attention on something other than work can threaten our livelihood and status. We worry we won’t be valued, and, in part, we are right.” I am trying to stop sending emails and texts outside of “normal” business hours. I’m trying to stop being part of the problem and not encourage the cult of busyness.

Future

I always think I’ll have plenty of time later. I plan and load up my Saturday with chores and errands. And when Saturday arrives the day evaporates into unplanned phone calls and a change in the weather. Whillians posits, “Statistically, the best predictor of how busy we are going to be next week is how busy we are right now. Our minds frequently forget this important point and trick us into believing we’ll have more time later than we do now. This overoptimism means that we become cavalier with our yeses, even with the small stuff we don’t want to do. We also want to say yes; we see it as a way to overcome idleness and feel productive, connected, valued, respected and loved.” I think of my Thanksgiving plans and the six recipes I was planning to make. Yes. SIX! For just Roy and me to eat. When the holiday was here, I kept thinking, what was I thinking? I don’t have time for all this. I ended up making three dishes and ended up feeling guilty that I didn’t get it ALL done. Plans change, the future is here, let it go.

One of the greatest gifts that Roy has brought to my life is the ability to rest. I cannot remember ever taking a nap since I was about four years old until hooking up with Roy. It’s not a daily thing but when we’re tired, he’ll suggest a nap. What a wonderful thing! A nap. No technology, no busyness, no planning, no cost, just a nap. Sometimes I sleep, sometimes I daydream, sometimes I am just grateful for the present moment. One antidote to time poverty for me is a deliberate break. What about you?

6 Things That I Don’t Need

I’ve lived in a house for over 30 years. From Albuquerque, NM to Windsor, CA to Goldsboro, NC. I am no longer a home owner. I am unattached to a mortgage, homeowners’ insurance, exterminator bills and landscaping fees. I am unencumbered. I now live in a 3-bedroom apartment with no garage, no yard and no lake view. In the process of moving I have discovered that, while I thought I had many mandatory requirements in the place I lived, I really can live without. 

Here are the things I can live without:

Garage

Every garage I have ever had has always been full of stuff. Stuff that I don’t need any longer or, perhaps, ever needed. Things like extra brooms, fly swatters, buckets, boxes, tile, storm doors, screens, rakes, mops, dust pans, kayaks, weights, life jackets, plungers, shovels, hammers, rope, garbage bags, cleaning solutions, and insecticide. Some items sat in the garage in a box for their entire life cycle; either not being found when needed or just never being needed again. I have taken on the idea often posited by The Minimalists:

               Anything we get rid of that we truly need, we can replace for less than $20 in less than 20 minutes from our current location. Thus far, this hypothesis has become a theory that has held true 100% of the time. Although we’ve rarely had to replace a just-in-case item (fewer than five times for the two of us combined), we’ve never had to pay more than $20 or go more than 20 minutes out of our way to replace the item. This theory likely works 99% of the time for 99% of all items and 99% of all people—including you.

So far, so good. I don’t have a garden that requires insecticide or shovels. At this point, the only thing in my storage closet is my mountain bike and a bird feeder. I have donated or given away everything else.

Side-by-Side Refrigerator

When I finally started moving into my apartment, it had a classic refrigerator with a freezer on top and no ice maker. I immediately decided I would purchase a new refrigerator until I went to Lowe’s and realized that the cost would be close to $2,000. Why exactly did I want a new refrigerator? I wanted an ice maker and an indoor water dispenser. I started calculating the cost of a new refrigerator (for just little ole me) and how much ice and filter water I could purchase instead of buying a whole new refrigerator that I would have to lug with me for the foreseeable future. I remember my sweetheart Roy coming over to look at the apartment before I was completely moved and he grabbed a cup and took a taste of the water out of the faucet, saying: “Tastes just fine.” I took a taste – it was just fine. I just saved myself $2,000 and purchased ice cube trays which, to date, I have not used the ice from. I don’t need a new refrigerator with all the bells and whistles.

Washer and Dryer

Yes. I did draw the line at going to a laundromat to wash clothes. Mostly because of the time saved doing it at home rather than sitting in a laundromat for 3 hours. But in the same trip to Lowe’s looking for a refrigerator, I looked at washer and dryer sets. $1,200. Again, do I really want to lug a super-duper washer and dryer set for the next ten years? No. I found a guy on Facebook Marketplace that sold rehabbed washer and dryer sets and he was willing to provide a 3-month warranty and install them. It’s a pretty old set and there’s no cute sound when the stuff is done but I have clean clothes and they were a third of the price.

Gas Range

I am a great cook. I love a gas range. I’ve either purchased a gas range for every home I’ve lived in or it already had a gas range. I knew when I went apartment hunting that the odds of finding a place with a gas range was going to be slim pickings. The truth is, now that I have been living with an electric range for two months and it’s not that bad. I just needed to adjust to not have a visual on the flame. Heat is heat. Heat cooks. I can still cook on an electric range.

Counter space

I went from about 12 feet of counter space to 2 feet of counter space. This, above all other things, has been the most difficult to adjust to. Everything must be put away. I cannot leave anything on the counter like a coffee maker or a toaster oven. Even a cutting board must be moved to the sink and washed before moving on to the next step in the cooking process. It has forced me to conserve space and steps in the cooking process. My stove top doubles as a cooling rack and holding space. It’s helped me be more creative.

Yard

My apartment complex does not allow anything to be attached to the outside of the building. There is no way to let my beloved, almost 13-year-old dog Baci run free in the yard. It also means I cannot attach a bird feeder to the overhang of the roof. It means that if it’s forty degrees outside at 3 AM and Baci wants to go out, I must suit up in my jacket and shoes and stay attached to my dog as she hunts for squirrels and rabbits or does her business. I admit it’s a real drag for me but I think Baci has suffered more from the lack of freedom to roam. It has brought us even closer and even as I sit here now writing, she is two feet from me sleeping on the floor.

I think back to my college years, where moving every 6 to 12 months was the norm. I never owned anything more than what could fit in a car or perhaps 6 boxes. It’s been cathartic to let go of so many things that have weighed me down for decades like used books, unused clothes, memorabilia and artifacts from failed relationships. I am boiling down to my essence. The things that really matter and it has been freeing.

Escaping on the Creeper Trail

It has been a tumultuous year for me personally. Sure, there’s a pandemic, toilet paper shortages, a confusing array of government programs to navigate and the isolation of being thousands of miles from my immediate family. But during this year, I am finally financially free of my ex and from the burden of taking care of my beloved lakeside home. Once I was moved into my apartment just miles away from my prior home, I really wanted an escape and my sweetheart Roy had the perfect solution: the Virginia Creeper Trail in Damascus, Virginia.

Roy and I on the Creeper Trail

As a thru hiker veteran, Roy is very familiar with the Virginia Creeper Trail as the Appalachian Trail goes through the middle of the tiny trail town.  In fact, right in the middle of town there is an entire side of a building painted with the bold letters: TRAIL TOWN USA. Roy had experienced riding down the Creeper Trail some five years ago and he had been riding his bike downhill for seventeen miles. I have to say that being newly reacquainted with bike riding in the last three years, I was pretty skeptical of sitting on a bike for several hours, regardless of riding downhill most of the way. But I was so focused on escaping the drudgery of unpacking and my dog’s anxiety with my new space (she’s newly attached to me anytime we go outside, i.e. not chasing squirrels at her leisure), I was willing to be uncomfortable for a few hours and get saddle sores from a bike seat.

My reflections of escaping on the Creeper Trail:

Rent bikes from an outfitter

Roy and I both have our own mountain bikes and figured we would take them to both save a few bucks and to be on a familiar bike rather than a rental. Thank goodness we changed our minds and decided to rent bikes instead. Carrying the bikes on the back of the car, dragging them in and out of a hotel room and being vigilant about whether they are securely stored is a drag. It was worth the extra $20 a piece to rent bikes and not have to contend with keeping track of our bikes on our three-day weekend vacation. There are at least five outfitters in Damascus that will rent you a bike and then carry you to the top of the trail in a van with a bike rack behind. They will even carry your bike up to the top of the trail. We went to Sundog Outfitter in Damascus, which is super convenient, because the Creeper Trail goes right by Sundog as it enters the town after the seventeen mile ride. No need to try and navigate returning the bike. The other advantage of the rental bike was an extra-large seat (don’t forget that seat, you’re on it for a minimum of two hours!) and they provide repair kits for free, in case any issues come up on the trail. 

The Virginia Creeper

The Virginia Creeper is the name of the train that ran from Abingdon, Virginia to Todd, North Carolina. The tracks were built in the 1894, mostly for moving timber and people in isolated far western Virginia. It was dubbed “The Creeper” because of the speed at which the train trudged up the mountainous terrain amidst sharp curves and rickety trestles; it went about 5 miles an hour. Eventually, the timber industry faded and the passage travel was not profitable. The last train ran in 1977. In 1978, the U.S. Forest Service purchased the right of way to build a hiking/biking trail that exists today.

Gliding down the trail

Sundog Outfitter took us up to Whitetop station on a beautiful fall day and we arrived around 10:30 AM. It was cold at the top of the mountain, and Roy and I set off down the wide 8-foot-wide trail with about twenty or so hearty souls. The top of the trail near Whitetop is pretty steep and it didn’t take long to figure out that brakes were about all I needed to know on the bike.

Roy stayed behind me as I started flying down the hill and I realized that there were no shock absorbers on the rental bike. The shock absorbers were apparently my arms. It is a bumpy trail and at high speeds (greater than I initially realized…gulp) I was pretty terrified in the beginning. I was torn between focusing on avoiding any large rocks, holding onto the brakes for dear life, passing other folks and trying to take in the spectacular fall foliage. I must say that the first fifteen minutes were a blur and once I was acclimated to the trail, the bike and my brakes, I finally was able to take in the experience. 

I think I have been waiting for this since first taking the training wheels off my bike at age 7. Gliding down a hill free of cars and pavement and barely any pedaling for almost three hours; covered by golden trees, gliding parallel to a picturesque river, and the smell of fall in the air while easily gliding through the air was a dream come true. It was wonderful.

Roy did not tell me how fast I was going until the trip was over. I think I had it in my head that I had to glide as fast as possible before the next uphill…which never came. It was a magical trip, almost dreamlike in its simplicity and its beauty. I pronounced at the end that we needed to make this an annual pilgrimage. I hope we do.

I almost felt with each bump, each change of scene, my recent traumas flew or melted away. It was nice to feel refreshed!

5 Steps Towards Compassion

I can get caught up in my own “stuff”. My own little corner of the world with my own little myopic view. Why isn’t everyone vegan, sober or trying to avoid sugar? I become that three-year-old stomping my feet wanting to get my way. If it’s raining, I want it to be sunny or if it’s hot I want it to be cold. The antidote I have found is to be compassionate.

marco-albuquerque-EyItxWgbefc-unsplash

I recently read Zen Habits: Handbook for Life by Leo Babauta. The book has a terrific list of habits to take on to make life less complicated. Somewhat similar to my own “102 Itzy Bitzy Habits”, it’s a simple approach to take on one or two small changes that can make a significant difference in one’s daily life. Embracing compassion is a mindset to let go of that three-year-old in your head who is having a tantrum. As Babauta espoused, compassion can be learned, developed and cultivated.

The Commonalities Practice, as outlined in Leo’s book, attempts to get us to recognize what we have in common with others, instead of our differences.

Here are the five steps to Compassion:

  1. Support others in their happiness

I can get fixated on seeking my own happiness without regard for others. It goes along with the expression, “Every man for themselves” or “Whoever gets there first wins!” Everyone wants happiness. The waiter, the flight attendant, the construction worker, my child, my mother, my boss, my ex. It’s freeing to accept that we all want it and there is no limit to the amount of happiness available. My slice of the happiness pie doesn’t diminish the amount left for someone (read: Anyone) else.

  1. Everyone experiences suffering

Suffering is universal. We are all trying to avoid it. We have many ways to try to numb out or stuff it or ‘walk’ around it and ignore it. Acknowledging that there is pain in everyone’s experience is humbling. It is the core of compassion. Everyone suffers just like me. Someone is losing their job, their pet, their home or loved one right now. We all want to avoid it but it helps to be surrounded by understanding others.

  1. Complete unseen altruism

Everyone has known heartbreak, been embarrassed, been dumped or cheated on. We all walk around with wounds on the inside unseen by most. The Tibetan practice of Tonglen is to take and receive someone’s pain. To figuratively breath it in. I believe what is so special about this practice is that it is not seen. It is a spiritual practice of empathy and compassion that is carried by the practitioner in their heart. Complete unseen altruism.

  1. Wish-list of desires

Accept that everyone has needs. We all have needs that are more than simply material; perhaps it’s recognition, acknowledgement, acceptance, peace, rest, presence, time, knowledge, friendship, or love. We all have a Wish-list of Desires that contribute to our happiness and well-being.

  1. Life’s learning curve

We all make mistakes and are on different learning curves. Your ex may be on a different learning curve which may have even precipitated your split or at least at a different spot on their journey. The thing is that we all have to live and learn at our own pace. We are all on our own path. I don’t want to see anyone fail, especially those I love; but fail they must. It’s the only way we learn. And it’s incumbent on me to understand and support those I care about.

Remember, you can use these phrases as a prescription for compassion.

Silently repeat these 5 phrases to yourself:

  1.  Just like me, this person is seeking happiness in his/her life
  2.  Just like me, this person is trying to avoid suffering in his/her life.
  3.  Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness and despair.
  4.  Just like me, this person is seeking to fill his/her needs.
  5.  Just like me, this person is learning about life.

We have a lot in common. Sure, there are things that divide us but at the base of it all is the need for compassion as a way to love ourselves and others. So the next time you are angry and need to get centered, think of the words “just like me” and see if it opens your heart.

No One Outside of You Has Your Answer

This is a repost from 2017. Enjoy!

No one outside of you has your answer.

This was the prompt for Day 114 of the Project 137 by Patti Digh. This idea really sets me adrift, like someone put me in a rowboat without oars and cut the towline. Go figure it out, Cathy. I feel like I have measured myself my entire life by living up to other people’s expectations; other’s dreams and wants. This comes down to me and what I want. My expectations of myself. Gulp.

I run into folks who are either followers or are curious about this blog. This is my sanctuary to work things out. My colander to strain out the unnecessary to find the good parts. I gave my card to someone at a conference last week and she asked about the blog. I said, “It helps me work out my stuff.” The hope is that the byproduct of me working out my stuff is that someone else gains some wisdom or thought-provoking question that propels them forward. But really, at the heart of it all, is me working out my stuff.

So here are some insights of looking inward:

  • Shoes. No one else really walks in your shoes. And I don’t really walk in anyone else’s shoes. I can make assumptions about a loved one’s journey or what my colleague aspires to or if that mystery man is unattached. While I can identify with someone else, I really can’t live in their shoes and they really don’t know what it’s like in my shoes. They probably don’t even know my shoe size! So, the answer is taking care of your shoes and throwing out the ones that don’t serve you anymore. I recently decided to hike Machu Picchu this summer. I will need new boots and will have to break them in. That answer is in me.
  • Advice.  I have spent the last month grilling friends and family about the fate of a huge financial decision. I sought advice from almost every trusted resource I have. It’s fine to get advice. To be informed. To find a devil’s advocate. To weigh out all your options. I feel really good that I have heard all the pros and cons of my next move. I’m glad I have trusted friends and family to confide in. In the end though, it really comes down to me. I need to make the decision. The answer is in me.
  • Faith.  I realize now that serendipity is always conspiring to help me. The Universe is in my corner and some pieces have fallen into my lap to help me forward; actually leaps forward. As they say, “Let go and let God.” So while I was gnashing my teeth in worry and fear, I learned to embrace the idea that there is a greater plan and I am at the center of that plan. It is freeing to release the pain of fear and uncertainty and know that, if I have faith in myself, the Universe will conspire to help me. The answer is in me.
  • Willingness. As Benjamin Foley writes for Medium, “Wisdom, in my opinion, is the willingness to live the questions of life with an acceptance of no immediate answer. In a world of immediacy, this is a difficult accomplishment, but one that is enormously important if you are to create anything of value.” As my trusted friend Janine says, “You don’t need to make a decision until you need to make a decision.” This means I need to be willing to be patient. Not my strongest suit, but knowing that the decision will appear before me, when it is needed, is powerful. The answer is in me.

I have said over the past year that “you can’t push a rope.” What will be, will be. Trust your intuition, listen to your gut and find the answer in you.

My Beginner’s Guide to Hiking the Appalachian Trail

This is a repost from 2018 when I hiked a section of the Appalachian Trail:

This is actually the over fifty’s guide to backpacking on the AT. For me, it’s actually a guide to returning to the woods after forty plus years. I have hiked a multitude of places, from Mount Saint Helena in Napa, California, Tent Rocks in New Mexico and Machu Picchu in Peru. None of those hikes were with a twenty-pound backpack. They were all day hikes, rather like a scenery stroll. And they all ended where I was sleeping comfortably in a cushy bed with running water, a flush toilet, and a solid roof over my head. The last time I had a backpack on was when I was at Camp Merrowvista in Ossipee, New Hampshire and I was sixteen years old. Things have changed. More importantly, I have changed.

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My boyfriend Roy attempted hiking the entire Appalachian Trail in 2015. If you are unfamiliar, this is no small task. It can take upwards of five to seven months to complete the 2,190 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine. Roy made it 531 miles before a medical issue derailed his attempt. This lent me the desire to experience the allure of the trail.

Here are my findings:

Water

This is a whole different ball game when it comes to backpacking versus day hiking. Though towns are close to the trail, it isn’t the point to hike and drop back into civilization. There aren’t handy convenience stores, faucets, or water fountains out on the trail. Carrying five to ten days of water is not feasible. Roy bought me a Sawyer Mini Water filter about a month before we went backpacking. I threw it in my closet and figured I’d be carrying my water with me. Nope. Water is the heaviest item you are carrying, so you should try and keep enough for one day. Make sure you know where the springs or water sources are along the trail. It’s not like a road trip, where you can stop off at the next exit to refill on water and use the restrooms! We had several empty water bottles to help filter from our bladder bags when we refilled at a water source on the trail. We were fortunate that the water source was a cistern on the trail versus a spring along the trail. It would have been a process and a lot more time consuming to retrieve water from a natural source. Sawyer filtration systems are very easy to use and are highly recommended by practically every A.T. thru-hiker. Don’t leave home without a water system at the ready and located water sources.

Guide

I was fortunate to be guided by a seasoned hiker like Roy. He knew that we needed the most recent A.T. Guide Northbound 2018. Roy had ripped out the page we needed for our hike. It showed the elevation, the location of the shelters, and water sources along the route we were taking. If we didn’t have the guide, it would have been impossible to know where the next water source or shelter might have been. You wouldn’t go on a road trip without a GPS or paper map. Make sure you have one that is most up-to-date before you head out. On the A.T., the white blazes on the trees and rocks are your guide. However, there are blue blazes (indicating a trail to a water source or shelter) and double white blazes (indicating some type of change coming up, such as a fire road crossing) as well. These indicate when you are off the main trail or if there is a change coming up. You might wonder why you need the most updated guide for the trail, but there are changes each year as trails become rerouted due to damage or are remeasured by volunteers. In contrast, my previous day hikes were trails that were heavily marked with frequent mileage indicators. The A.T. has very few signs, so the guide is invaluable when heading out. I found it frustrating, in retrospect, that I didn’t know whether I had walked a half mile or not. Most day hikes have a lot more signage with progress indicated along the way. It would be very easy to get lost rather quickly if we didn’t stick to the white blazes.

Clothing

My daughter Natalie is an experienced backpacker, as is Roy. Both kept warning me about not having ANY cotton clothing on the trip. Cotton will absorb sweat like a sponge and will not properly insulate. Boy, am I glad I listened. I opted for everything to be nylon or polyester, except for my wool socks. I tried a few shirts on that were merino wool but that particular material irritated my skin. In my practice hikes, I tested out several sets of shirts and pants to make sure nothing rubbed against my backpack. I cut every tag off every piece of clothing that I took with me. I get aggravated by anything rubbing against my skin. I didn’t want to be looking for a pair of scissors two miles in. I had a total of three (yes, three) jackets. One rain jacket for rain and wind. I started off the hike wearing a jacket since it was 40 degrees and windy at the start. I also brought a fleece jacket, which I changed into once the wind died down, as it was still cold. Finally, I wrapped myself in a puffy down jacket at the actual campsite since I was no longer exerting myself as much and needed to retain my body heat. I had a base layer under my hiking pants, which I kept on the entire trip to stay warm. The only thing I didn’t wear that was stored in my pack was my extra underwear. So my entire list was three pairs of wool socks (one for each day hiking and one pair to sleep in), two pairs of underwear, one short sleeve shirt, one long sleeve shirt, rain paints, convertible hiking pants, base layer pants (long johns), sports bra, bandana, buff, wool hat, cap, fleece jacket, rain jacket and down jacket. My advice is to try them all out with your backpack in different temperatures and weather conditions. Being as comfortable as possible is key.

Food

I figured that I would be starving the whole time we were backpacking. I’m not sure if it was nerves or exhaustion, but I ended up not eating that much. We had some peanut butter crackers, trail mix, and oatmeal bars. I think it’s easy to overthink and over-carry on food. We probably brought back about half as much as we started with. But gratefully, nothing went wrong on the trip. If we had been stranded for some reason due to injury, we would have needed all the food. We cooked a rice package for our only dinner on the trail and didn’t even bother cooking the ramen we brought. Having a hot cup of tea at the end of a daylong hike in our campsite was restorative. Coffee, the next morning, when it was 38 degrees was important as well. There is something about a warm beverage that makes everything feel better. Before you head out, make sure you’ve tested your burner and cookware. I’m not sure I would have been able to figure it out on my own in the waning light of day. Warm food makes a huge difference out on the trail.

Light

I had a light attached to the end of a cap for my entire trip. I knew where that hat was whether it was in the tent, in my pack or on my head. We hiked at the end of October and the sun was setting around 6:30 PM. I did not want to be stuck hiking, eating, finding water, or unpacking my sleeping bag without a light. It was critical to be able to see at night, especially when trying to go to relieve yourself. There were warnings about black bears in the area and being aware of my surroundings was critical. Have a light and know where it is always.

There are more must-haves like a backpack, tent, sleeping bag, and air mattress. Trekking polls were invaluable as well. If you take anything away from this at all, test out everything you are planning to take with you in as many ways possible. You don’t want to find out five miles into your trip that your hiking shoes are uncomfortable, your backpack is too small, or that the tags on your clothes won’t stop rubbing your skin. When you head out backpacking, you have your entire life on your back. Thankfully, we only went out for a two-day hike, but getting the right combination of necessities can make the difference between a miserable and wonderful hike. Make sure you have the right basics for you.

“What other people think of me is none of my business.” – Wayne Dyer

Are you having trouble wrapping your head around that title quote? I did. I still do. I’m not sure if it’s my upbringing. The Wear clean underwear in case you’re in an accident and What will the neighbors think? kind of upbringing. My parents were always passing judgment on whether or not so-and-so is too thin or too fat, or if someone was spending their money unwisely. I know when I dress in the morning, I’m wondering what people will think. Is the skirt too short? Is the blouse too tight? I’m not paralyzed by this, but as I read that statement, I realize it’s a monologue that goes on in my head unconsciously.

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Actually, the source of this valuing other’s opinions above all else is Junior High School life at its finest. I was in 7th grade in the 70s. Bell bottoms and corduroy were the rage. I had purchased 10 pairs of corduroys in 10 different shades with all my hard-earned babysitting money. I cared a lot about blending in. God forbid I walk into the cafeteria and stand out by wearing a dress. My world centered on what others thought about me; if I gained weight or lost weight, had an opinion different than theirs, had a bad hair day…the list goes on and on. Heck, I do that today. Has anyone noticed I lost 5 pounds? Should I point it out? Am I expecting too much? Do people really notice me? I realize I spend a lot of time and energy wondering about others’ opinions.

Here are some ways to let go of the importance of others’ opinions:

  1. Realize that this is self-inflicted pain. Bryon Katie’s book, Love What Is, posits that the suffering is in your head. The first question of “The Work” is “Is it true?” When I work with clients, I hear all kinds of statements that are causing the client pain: “She doesn’t like me,” “He wants me off the project,” and “They think I’m incompetent.” How can you verify that it is true? Realize that believing it is true is in your own head. You are suffering from your own beliefs and thoughts.
  2. Beware of how you accept both criticism and compliments. These are two sides to the very same coin. Someone can be validating you and giving you feedback that sounds like or is actually a critique. Whether it’s positive or negative, it is an opinion that you could potentially benefit from and has no bearing on who you are. You are still you. If you are focused and enamored only with praise. When you are criticized, you will roll down the other side of the hill and be thrown off your game. I believe a simple “Thank you” for either is just fine. Temper your reactions and how you internalize feedback. Find a way to benefit from the critique of those whose opinions you trust.
  3. Let go of the battle. In Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart, he writes, “Let go of the battle. Breathe quietly and let it be. Let your body relax and your heart soften. Open to whatever you experience without fighting.” Fighting requires a lot of energy. It’s exhausting to spend your day worrying about what everyone else is thinking. Put down your armor and let go.
  4. Be skeptical. As written in Don Miguel Ruiz’ book, The Fifth Agreement: A Practical Guide to Self-Mastery, “Doubt takes us behind the words we hear to the intent behind them. By being skeptical, we don’t believe every message we hear; we don’t put our faith in lies, and when our faith is not in lies, we quickly move beyond emotional drama, victimization, and the limiting belief systems our ‘domestication’ has programmed us with.” When you find the truth for yourself, you are free to live without regret and fear.
  5. Let go of attachment. Kornfield has some wonderful meditations in his book. One of them is letting go of anger. He writes, “The strength of our anger reveals the strength of our attachment.” It’s amazing how many things I am attached to and how much suffering it causes. It’s my control freak inside who doesn’t want to let go. But this constant striving to control the thoughts of others is unobtainable. This is a huge insight for me. It’s futile. Don’t attach.
  6. Be careful of your own language. My daughter made me aware of this. I would say, “Have you lost weight?” She asked that I say, “You look healthy.” You might think that it’s a compliment but as she explained, it’s also a value judgment. It is essentially saying that you were or weren’t thin enough before.
  7. Give up the idea of perfection. I think about this when I meditate. I feel like when my thoughts wander (and they always do) that I am not being perfect at meditation. So what? It’s the same with your self-dialogue. When you are trying out #1-#6, let go of being perfect. So when you start worrying that your boss thinks you’re incompetent, acknowledge that you let that thought slip in and maybe you can avoid it the next time. Perfection is exhausting.

All of this can be difficult to try and implement. It’s a habit that you’ve likely been doing since you were a child. Changing your thoughts takes patience and trial and error. We are all just works in progress. How wonderful it is that we have others to help us!

Coping with Blamers

Your co-worker is constantly blaming his boss for his 80+ hour work weeks. You are blamed by the project chair for the missed deadline although they were responsible for the delay. Your partner blames you for the cold dinner, after arriving thirty minutes late. You end up embarrassed. Dumbfounded. Sometimes seething. These destructive feelings, when ongoing, cause irreparable damage to the relationship and your self-esteem.

Blamers are everywhere. I see blamers as those who have external locus of control. As defined by Psychology Today, “The belief that events in one’s life, whether good or bad, are caused by uncontrollable factors such as the environment, other people, or a higher power.” If you feel as though everything is out of your control and out of your realm of responsibility, you’re going to have lost that responsibility elsewhere. This is what blamers do. “A person with an internal locus of control believes that he or she can influence events and their outcomes.” Odds are that if you are suffering from the blamers around you, you have an internal locus of control and are feeling responsible for the blame that is heaped on you. Fear not! There are ways to cope with this.

Coping with Blamers:

  1. Own your piece. Everyone has at least 2% of the truth. This is a tenet of CRR Global. So does the blamer. If you get defensive and start arguing with the blamer, it is discounting the 2% of truth. Maybe you were late with one little piece of the project, maybe you didn’t answer the email by the deadline, maybe your ideas weren’t well fleshed out. I’m not suggesting you be a doormat, but acknowledge the 2% that is correct. It’s not “I completely blew this, I’m sorry” but “I can see that responding faster to that email would have impacted the outcome.” Everyone is right…partially.
  1. Find the brilliance. A lot of people rarely compliment the other folks in their lives. Whether at home or at work, we don’t try and catch people doing something right. But everyone does something right every day. Even if it’s brush their teeth or complete the monthly report on time. Look for the positive. Hunt for it. I was working with a narcissist once. She didn’t like any of my ideas for a project. She showed me one of her ideas which I sincerely thought was innovative. I said, “This is brilliant.” She did a 180 degree change on the project. Now she was onboard. If I had held my tongue, we would have remained at logger heads. Look for the brilliance. Then broadcast it.
  1. Listen with empathy. When someone is blaming either someone else or you, be sure to actively listen with empathy. This can be difficult. It can be painful to hear someone trash your best efforts. It will help to focus on your breath so that you can stay out of going to your lizard brain and activating your limbic system (the fight or flight response). It may even take returning to the topic later after you’ve had a chance to cool off. My son was upset with me a few days ago and asked that we talk about the topic on Wednesday morning. This was really effective. I had time to reflect and he had time to reflect. We were in a better space to listen and be empathetic. Make space to listen.
  1. Respond looking for solutions. Aja Frost wrote a great article called “7 Perfect Replies to (Politely) Shut Down Negative People.” My two favorite for coping with the chronic blamer is, “Is there anything I can do?” and “I’m sorry to hear that. Did anything good come out of the situation?” This can shut the blamer down because it is focused on forward positive motion. Blamers typically want to dwell on how bad everything is. I have asked clients who are focusing on blame, “What 2% are you responsible for?” This is a proactive approach. It focuses on what can be versus what was
  1. Come from a place of love. As Kelly Smith wrote for Tiny Buddha, “Remember, all actions are based in either fear or love. Base yours in love. Realize their actions are based in fear. Often, these fears are ones that no one can reach because they are too deep-seated for the person to acknowledge. Accept that, and continue to operate from your own base of love.” I personally have been meditating on loving kindness for months. My mantra has been to be the “Love and light” in my life. Having an open heart and compassion for others helps me see the good in all people regardless of the facade they may be exhibiting. We all want to be loved, happy and at peace.
  1. Let go. As Kelly Smith wrote, “It’s not worth your constant wondering and worrying. It isn’t good for you to hold onto it and over-analyze it. Let it go; visualize yourself blowing it all into a balloon, tying it off, and letting it drift away. Feel lighter because of it!” I love the balloon metaphor. Another practice is to clench your hand in a fist with your anger towards the blamer, and then release. Let the blame dissolve into the ether.

Sometimes your best efforts can’t change or pacify other people’s behavior. There may be a difficult decision in front of you. Chronic blamers can be toxic for an organization or family unit. If you’ve tried these coping mechanisms and you still feel like your self-esteem is being affected, you might need to move on.