Aug 15 2019

A Lesson from Knots

https://www.flickr.com/people/blondinrikard/

After two weeks of living out of suitcases, lugging around multiple other suitcases, teaching our dogs to travel, and living under the nervous cloud of expectation about whether our travel plans would work out, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed. But it wasn’t just me. We are all feeling it. None of us have our own space. We are grateful to friends and family who have housed us and offered unparalleled hospitality but we are tired. Patience waning, butts sore from hours spent in the car, and we really only have dirty clothes to measure our progress to date.

So, I started laundry. As I pulled the first load out of the washing machine, I found a pair of panties that were tied in a knot. True story. Not an analogous knot, an actual knot. I won’t wander down the rabbit trail of how and why. Instead, I’m going to jump straight to the obvious metaphor.

This random and remarkable discovery gave me pause. Literally, I had to pause the transfer of laundry into the dryer to untie the knot. In that brief act, I learned a valuable lesson. One that has taken me a few days to practice and truth-be-told, I’m still trying to master it.

Here it is…I’ll walk you through it.

When your panties end up in a knot,

try these three easy steps…

  1.   Take a deep breath. A seemingly obvious choice and hopefully most often subconscious but when the unexpected strikes, the conscious choice to breathe deeply provides a moment of space. A chance to set aside the why or how and refocus attention to the immediate issue at hand. 
  2. Patiently untie the knot. It has to be done. You are the one holding the knot, so carefully get the panties out of the twist. Set them free.
  3. Finally, move on. It happened. Yes, it was unforeseenand apparently unavoidable because panty knots can be an actual thing. Oh, and I have found it very helpful to take a moment to practice gratitude. Thank God the knot didn’t happen while wearing them.

As I mentioned, I’m still practicing the steps on more metaphorical panty knots. We still don’t have our visas. The deadline is noon today. It’s our deadline and a rather long story, a boring one. A story about expectations and “best-laid plans” and such. Long story short, I may spend today cancelling travel plans and transferring us further into limbo. But now I have three easy steps to help. And I commit to practicing today.

Any steps I missed? Feel free to share!


Jul 22 2019

The Best-Laid-Plans

Photo Credit: "Keep calm and carry on", © 2009 Derek Keats, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

The best-laid-plans…Ironically, this is a phrase coined by a Scottish poet in the 18th century. (Once again, truth refuses to age.) Robert Burns tells of a farmer who unearths a mouse’s nest while plowing a field. I think perhaps a more modern approach might be the phrase, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Both of these well used phrases could easily describe the day I’ve had. It’s a rather tedious story about the logistics of moving across the pond and the oodles of migration paperwork. (This could be an easy mark to go adrift into the political weeds of immigration in general but then we would miss the point.)

For the last few months, we have planned. It’s sort of like a target. The further away one is from the intended action, the more vague the planning. The basics are talked through. Should we sell our home or rent it? Can I find a job? What happens if I can’t? The general aspects are ironed out and we move to the next concentric circle. One step closer to the thing.

We are rather close to the center now. We leave our home in 9 days. I spent the morning filling out visa applications and realizing that our well-planned itinerary may come crashing down around us. What happens if the visas don’t get approved before we are scheduled to fly out and we have to change our tickets? What happens if I miss my training? How much is it going to cost to change the tickets for the dogs? (Yes, as if taking 4 people isn’t challenge enough.)

The spinning begins. The stress meter tops out and darkness and despair descend like a chaotic fog. Quickly the questions change from how to why. Why are we doing this again? A question I have been asked frequently and for good reason. A question I have had to revisit myself today as I watch the best-laid-plans get doused with gasoline.

Several years ago our daughters expressed an interest in studying abroad. David and I encouraged the idea then realized we would be sacrificing a whole year we could be spending with them. He came up with the brilliant idea that I teach math (maths if you are in the UK) somewhere abroad and we take them on this adventure. Bailey and Ryan were fairly persistent, encouraging this idea of moving to another country. The discussion of a few years ago brought us to this point of visas, and packing, and leaving in 9 days.

Each one of us has had breakdown moments in the past few months. Sudden realizations that our lives are about to drastically change. (Oh and did I mention Isaac is going to be a Marine? Can we add that to the mix?) I find myself having to lean into the advice I have given others. Remember. As the stress of the unknown looms overwhelmingly, breathe and remember. This is what I tell myself…”Remember the specific times you have overcome difficulty. Remember the hurdles you have already cleared getting to this point. Remember why you started this thing in the first place.” The landscape of the adventure may have changed drastically, but the heart you had when you took your first step has not.

We leave in 9 days. And truthfully, I’m not sure how it’s all going to work out. But I remember why. So, best-laid-plans be damned. We jump ship in 9 days (metaphorically, of course) and these best-laid-plans will turn into stories and moments to remember as we stand on the precipice of the next adventure. (Insert deep breath here.) Or as the Brits would say, “Keep calm and carry on.”


Jul 17 2019

Accidental Social Experiment #1

Perhaps some of the best experiments happen by accident. Case in point, Post-It Notes. “Accidentally” is used twice to describe this incredible can’t live without office tool.

An accidental discovery occurred at our house this past weekend. Yard sales are stressful to begin with. Add a thunderstorm the night before just as you’ve finished carefully laid rows of random items once thought to be of paramount importance. Thankfully the rain was intermittent, although I think secretly David (husband) and I were hoping for a well-placed lightening strike to save us from the actual chore of conducting the sale. Alas, all treasures survived and for the first three hours of said sale, we averaged one car every hour. Morale was sinking as the temperature was marching toward one hundred.

Around 3 pm, a critical decision was made. We were no longer interested in an exchange of worldly goods for money. It was time to give it all away. Here is where it gets interesting. Because people were not going to be required to pay for anything, they spent far more time browsing and picking things up. Great! That was the idea. But not one of them left without giving a donation. That was the surprise! It seemed that our unselfishness inspired them. They began shopping for others, saying things like, “so-and-so would like this. I’ll just pick this up for them…” Oh, and they would leave a donation for it of course.

Get this. We averaged just as much money per person when we started giving things away as we did when we were charging pennies on the dollar. It appears people are far more willing to be compulsory givers than bargain shoppers. We accidentally conducted an experiment of human generosity.

I wonder if it also had something to do with our mindset. No longer trying to squeeze pennies out of treasures, we were happy to see people take interest in things that once interested us. The fiscal outcome was virtually the same but what started out as a mundane attempt to detach ourselves from possessions, turned into a rather entertaining and competitive game of who could out give the other. Perhaps they gave us money out of guilt or not wanting to look cheap. Sorry, no Survey Monkey to tell us about their shopping experience. But in reality, their motives don’t change the outcome. So maybe there motives are irrelevant? Perhaps trying to understand the motives of those around us, isn’t nearly as important as trying to understand our own motives?

Our motives were strictly desperation and frustration because we are moving to London next month and as they say, “You can’t take it with you.” (Well, in this case you can but it costs a fortune.)

More on our upcoming adventure to follow as I’m fairly confident there will be more accidental social experiments as we dive into a different culture. So stay tuned!


Oct 6 2014

Resistance, meet my friend Possibility

Redding Air Show

 

Ever quit a diet, a course of yoga, a meditation practice? Have you ever bailed out on a call to embark on a spiritual practice, to dedicate yourself to a humanitarian calling, commit your life to the service of others?…Late at night have you experienced a vision of the person you might become, the work you could accomplish, the realized being you were meant to be? Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.”  -The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Two weekends ago, we accepted a gracious invitation to attend the Redding Air Show. A chance to have a weekend away with my husband and children. No sports. No sleepovers. And our first air show.

As my heart rattled in my chest and my ear drums nearly split open, I couldn’t help but think about the remarkable advancements and the even more remarkable people responsible for those advancements. Generations have been fighting Resistance, pushing the envelope, flying faster and farther.

Personally, I’m no stranger to Resistance-the gale force wind encountered when turning in a new direction. But, an afternoon spent craning my neck to the heavens reacquainted me with an old friend. Possibility announced it’s presence with the blast of a jet engine thundering across the tarmac.

Resistance, meet my friend Possibility.

The demonstration of sheer power through jet propulsion has been reverberating in my heart. The strongest weapon I have found against Resistance is the gravity defying hope of Possibility. Since covering my ears to the chest pounding cacophony of jet engines, I have dusted off my treadmill, laced up my running shoes and pressed the start button. I have sat down to write and overcome the nagging silence as I stare at a blank computer screen. And I have opened my eyes to the truth that I am not the only one fighting Resistance. A good friend of mine has launched a crowd-funding campaign to crush Resistance and pursue Possibility.

Resistance stands in the middle of the room and tells us all the ways we might fail, or all the times we have failed. But there’s another voice. A low rumbling, like a distant jet engine, that stands in the corner, holds out a jetpack and says, “Wanna try again?”

Resistance, meet my friend Possibility.

 “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up.

The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

-Thomas Edison


Sep 15 2014

A Colorful Epiphany

 

Hot air balloon races

Hot Air Balloon Races, Reno, NV

Garnered with large doses of coffee and hot chocolate, and an unnatural enthusiasm for being awake at such an hour, we left our sleepy little town at 3:30 a.m. for what I was told, is the largest hot air balloon launch in the country.

We joined the masses at pre-dawn on a large grassy field dotted with tarps and giant picnic baskets. Several high-powered gas burners ignited a few feet behind us, and although the heat was welcome in the cool air of a high desert morning, the sound momentarily stopped our hearts. Extreme heat and noise brought life to a field of colors and the magnitude of it all caused me to stand in awe.

Hot Air Balloon Races

Early morning ascension.

The heat and noise needed to launch these massive balloons and provide amazing views, looked and sounded a great deal like conflict. I realized, the greatest vantage points in my own life have come on the heels of the greatest heat and the loudest chaos.

Conflict is hot and loud, but like the balloons, it is full of potential. It provides the prospect of reaching heights we never thought possible. We learn more about ourselves and more about the amazing people we get to share life with. Without the fire, the balloons would lie lifeless on the damp grass never realizing their full potential. Without conflict, I propose our relationships too, would lie lifeless, never allowing the realizations of who we truly are, or the beauty of the deepest, most tender places in the hearts of those around us, to come to light.

I don’t suggest the creation of conflict. It is organic. It will inevitably show up and it will leave, but maybe it’s possible to recognize it for the auspicious potential it contains and not just the momentary pain it causes.

 


Jul 2 2014

A few steps to the left…

 

"Genial"

“Genial”

 

“The enemy is a very good teacher.”  -the Dalai Lama

The above short video has sat in my head for a couple of days now. It does what only art  seems to be able to do–a visual representation of the deep dark places. An angle of light. A splash of red. A key that somehow unlocks places unknown.

The first time I watched this pile of junk transform, I was struck by the technique. How often did the artist have to step back and gain perspective? How often had the artist walked around the pile, moving the guitar or the wheelbarrow a few centimeters at a time?

Sure, one could watch this and think it an odd stroke of luck, but as I mentioned above, this struck a chord. A familiar but seldom heard note resonated in my being as I followed the camera from used and discarded items into the face of what looks to be a Civil War soldier. A vastly different perspective.

A friend recently sent a book home with me, “The War of Art.” It has nothing to do with Nicholas Cage, for the record. Instead, it is an artist’s brilliant description of that thing that keeps us from taking those few steps to the left. In his book, Steven Pressfield gives the force a name, “Resistance.”

“Resistance is not a peripheral opponent. Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within.”

Resistance keeps you from changing your perspective. Resistance says a few steps to the left won’t change anything. Resistance says it’s just junk. Resistance is the enemy. But unwillingly, the enemy teaches us something.

In everyone’s life, there are moments when the heap of junk is all that is visible. In those places, there is tremendous pressure to surrender to the chaos. After all, it’s just worthless clutter. Resistance keeps you from changing your perspective. Resistance says a few steps to the left won’t change anything. Resistance says it’s just junk. Resistance is the enemy. But unwillingly, the enemy teaches us something.

It only takes a few steps to the left. Eyes don’t move away from the colossal load of litter. It demands attention. But in only three steps, the picture changes. The senseless moments, the random incidents no longer sit idle. They move and morph into profound meaning. The pile of junk takes shape.

The arbitrary uncovers the articulate, and all those seemingly erratic occurrences have done nothing less than define and give dimension to a work of art.

A few steps turns drivel into definition and Resistance loses.

I followed the camera and realized I am like that soldier. The haphazard has shaped me. What might start as a pile of rubbish becomes a portrait. And all it takes is a few steps to the left.

 


May 27 2014

The Violinist of Versailles, part 2. Words of a stranger.

The Violinist of Versailles and family

The Violinist of Versailles and family

I never met her. I didn’t even know her name; so, I dubbed her The Violinist of Versailles. Her small violin and her even smaller hands brilliantly played the notes that touched the deep places of my heart. She closed her eyes, and her little angelic face demonstrated how to play simply for the love of the music. Pure emotion. Pure intuition.

She taught me something that day. As a writer, it’s quite easy to get caught up in varied definitions of success–books sold, or contracts secured. This career path threatens daily to become a tally sheet of rejections. Since I saw her, the Violinist of Versailles, I have been reminded to close my eyes, shut out the audience and the critics, and let my fingers translate the images that play like a movie real inside my head. To write simply for the love of the craft as she played for the love of the music. 

I wrote about her, how she touched me that day and I thought it ended there. But, for reasons beyond my comprehension, the story has grown. After posting a blog about the Violinist of Versailles, and telling my story of that day, I received a remarkable email. It seems only fitting that the one who penned the email should be allowed to share his story in his own words. 

Here is the email I received.

My time never seems to be my own. With two daughters, Jordi now 6 and Ali now 8, I spend much of my free time focusing them on practicing their music. When we’re not practicing, I patiently bide my time at The Conservatory awaiting the conclusion to their lessons, practices and rehearsals.

Most of the time it is like corralling feral cats. Making things worse is that this is the pre-summer concert, examination and competition season. The busiest and most stressful musical season of the year.

Bored, I sat by myself in a giant concert hall this past Saturday. A thumbnail orchestra of miniature musicians was on stage, and I was working very hard to ignore them as they repeatedly practiced snippets of the great masters. Accompanied by the frenzied grunts and noises of the concert leader, Bach and Beethoven washed over me, and I was intentionally oblivious. 

As Ali was called to the piano to accompany Jordi on the violin to rehearse Paganini for their upcoming concert I was intentionally oblivious. 

My self-imposed ignorant bliss was disturbed when they yelled at each other, snipping about tempos, cues, and rhythm. While the Instructors got them back in line, for some reason glancing at me disapprovingly, I consciously tried to melt into my seat and disappear while I began an in-depth inspection of the contents of my cell phone. The sounds of their music retired to the background of my consciousness, and although the reason why I leave work early to bring them to music was plain as day and resounding in my ears, it somehow escaped my attention.

I was searching my phone for a particular picture, but in my distraction I searched the internet instead. Rather than viewing the photograph I was looking for on my phone, I found myself reading your blog on the Violinist of Versailles.

As I read your words, the beauty of my daughters’ music began to surface from where I had pushed it into the background. Somehow with all the rushing, coaching, teaching and practicing I had lost focus of the reason why. 

What you describe was familiar to me, and as I approached the end of your blog their music roared in my head like a storm, undeniable and insistent. Your words reminded me of their brilliance – a brilliance of which even they are unaware. Little girls who are made of music, to the point that they even sing in their sleep.

When I finished reading your blog I viewed the picture of the Violinist of Versailles. Then I looked at the stage, and there she stood in real life before me. Eyes closed, miniature violin under her chin creating the music of the angels. The Violinist of Versailles. 

I don’t mean this figuratively – I am being quite literal. Jordi is your Violinist of Versailles. And your words, words from a stranger whispered into the wind, found their way home and reminded me of the value of the hours, days, weeks expended by these two little girls in perfecting the art that is their music.

I will never forget our experience standing in line at Versailles. Jordi won’t travel anywhere without her violin, and that day was no different than any other in that respect. She was only five last summer, and although she was used to playing to large audiences at concerts, the huge crowd of people in line on the cobblestones was very intimidating. Standing in the sun with no shade, having pre-purchased tickets just to stand in that lineup, everyone seemed so upset and dejected, and Jordi just wanted to cheer them up. Although it sometimes recedes to the background of my recollection, I will always remember my pride at her concert at Versailles.

But, like writing, music sometimes feels solitary. With electronic media it is even less personal – broadly distributed, its worth sometimes feels diluted. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that your art touches an audience. It is difficult at times to comprehend the size of the audience, or foresee the effect it will have on that audience.

Thank you for sharing your feelings about how Jordi’s music touched you. You have returned the favour – I am your audience, and your words have now touched me.

As I read this email, tears fell down my cheeks. “Words from a stranger.” I’m afraid I cannot portray such a profound moment in the magnitude it deserves. Maybe if I could it would no longer be profound. I don’t know. But I do know this–we are all strangers and our words have the capability to soar and move above the ancient ground upon which we tread. Just like the notes Jordi played that day in Versailles. 

I still have never met her, but she has a place in my heart. Notes and words strung together like bits of yarn and twigs to build a sort of nest in my heart for memories to live.

I’m grateful for words from a stranger. Thank you, James, for your words likewise whispered into the wind. And thank you Jordi, for sharing the unforgettable that day. 


May 8 2014

Life is a Teacher

Life is a teacher.

Life is a teacher.

Life is a teacher.

I remember saying that just the other day. Chances are I was being sarcastic, but the profundity reverberated back and hit me square between the eyes. Indeed, life is a teacher. Not teacher as in fourth grade, double check you did your spelling homework, kind of teacher. More like, ancient college professor who doesn’t care or even seem to notice if you show up for the oft monotone lectures on the bonding of atoms, kind of teacher.

Life is always teaching, with or without our consent. The question is, “Are we paying attention?”

I think our tendency is to want to be the teacher. We dominate our to do lists. Strive for accomplishment. Paint a reality that leads us to believe we have any control over anything. We steal the pointer from the decrepit instructor and we point it around and tell the circumstances in the room who’s the boss.

Our children have been raising lambs for 4H. And long story short, we had to put one of them down last night. All of us have grown to love the gentlest lamb in the bunch.

This culture of winning and striving and controlling has provided a great deal, but it has left us barren in the face of death.

Death is also a teacher. Only this teacher doesn’t surrender her pointer stick or her podium. When she speaks, we are silent, and as her voice whispers a final breath, all our accomplishments and striving and control are rendered mute. The words we use in the classroom of life have no bearing in the silence. 

But if we can be silent for a few moments in death’s classroom, we witness a great paradox. In a few words, death teaches us about life. She points to our aimless strivings and our lust for control. She draws us back to reality. The reality that declares the only control we may have is over ourselves–our words, our actions. She teaches us how to live better. To live in honesty and vulnerability. To live in reality.

Death raises her pointer stick, points back to the classroom of life, and whispers, “Pay attention.”


Apr 10 2014

The Violinist of Versailles

The Palace of Versailles

The Palace of Versailles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a glorious day outside of Paris.

Serpentine lines of people zigzagged their way around a cobblestone courtyard under the watchful gaze of gilded fences. A sea of people and an hour more of waiting under the hot sun. Between heavy sighs and questions of how much longer, tentative notes from a violin floated through the air like a dream.

Having been in France for nearly a month, we had strolled villages and chateaus by the dozens. It was not uncommon for me to imagine music nearly everywhere we went. France has a kind of magic about it. But this was different. A quick glance at my family and their searching eyes told me what I had hoped. This music transcended my imagination. It was real.

And then it stopped. A mystery had been birthed. Murmurs in half a dozen different languages began. Hushed voices. Seeking eyes. The shrug of shoulders. We had all heard it. But where had it come from?

And then, a small person took a step out of line.

With one hand clutching a compact but perfect violin and bow, and the other grasping the hand of a man, a little girl took another step and froze. Not distracted by the grandeur around her, she stared at the cobblestones beneath her feet. She looked at no one and everyone looked at her.

The man with her, most likely her father, tried to pull them both further into the middle of the sea of people but she would not budge. A drama was unfolding, slight and unassuming against the magnificence of a French palace.

Again, the father nudged his daughter, bidding her to step forward and play. He leaned down and whispered in her ear. With eyes focused on the ground, she shook her head. He tried once more. A small pull on her hand met only refusal. In perhaps a final ditch effort, the man squatted down until he was able to coax her eyes up to his own. He pulled her small hand to his chest and the words he chose kept her attention and ours. We couldn’t hear his voice, but we pleaded along with him, in silent anticipation.

She stared again at the stones under her bright blue sneakers and slowly nodded her head.

The man stood, still holding tight to the little hand. She raised her face to look at him. That was his cue. For several feet, she matched him step for step, watching his face until he planted his feet and nodded decisively. She took a deep breath, dropped her hand from his, and brought the small wooden instrument under her chin.

When she looked ready, he gave her one last nod. She closed her eyes and began to move the miniature bow over the strings.

It only took one note and the sea of people stopped breathing. It was as if she needed the extra oxygen somehow and we gladly gave it to her. Our breath was the fare required. We paid it and she transported us to another place.

She couldn’t have been more than five. Maybe six. But as she played, a mystery unfolded before us. Cameras and video devices came out. This miniature maestro had captured our attention and our hearts.

Her father took a step back, but this time, she didn’t notice. She kept her eyes closed and played the undersized violin with all of her little body and soul.

The violinist of Versailles.

She drug her bow slowly across the strings for the final note. It is curious, that with only twelve notes, and having heard them all a thousand times in different ways and in different combinations, there are still notes that draw tears from my eyes.

Oceans and borders had been crossed by thousands of people in order to stand in the courtyard of Versailles. A place where masters of art and music have walked for centuries. Two small feet stood and spoke to us in the universal language of music. Transfixed, grateful, dumbfounded we responded and gave her what we had. Our sincere approval. Before she could bring her bow back to her side or even open her eyes, the sea of people erupted in applause.

Her eyes opened in surprise. She had not been playing for us. She had played in spite of us.

Frantically, she searched for her father. He quickly crouched next to her once more, pulled her to his chest, and wrapped his arms around her. She was a little girl again hiding in her father’s embrace. It was obvious that she does not yet see or understand her artistry or brilliance. But maybe that was also part of the gift.

Under the glimmer of the Palace of Versailles, the little violinist gave us a performance that we could never forget. In stark contrast to the grandeur and opulence, she performed not for the homage of man, but for the love of an instrument.

The violinist of Versailles

The Violinist of Versailles


Feb 14 2014

A Valentine Message

 

conversation hearts

Conversation hearts

Be mine.

I “heart” you.

XOXO

We literally ingest these messages. Like some weird ritual where we hope through osmosis, the feelings of security and safety that emanate from these short notes will pass the lining of our stomachs and make their way to our hearts.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a Valentine geek. My table has been decorated for six weeks. See?

valentine centerpiece

Happy Valentine’s Day

I “heart” the idea of a day set aside to gush over those I love. I made heart shaped pancakes with raspberry syrup for my family. I spent $20 on cheesy cards that will line our waste basket within days. There are heart napkins set out waiting for their debut at dinner tonight.

What I’m saying is I love the premise of Valentine’s Day. (Pun intended.)

Such Valentine enthusiasm has not always been the case. I remember days of longing to have a Valentine. Someone who would give me cheesy cards and buy me flowers and candy and take me to dinner. And I know many people who can relate. We long for someone to say they love us, to say they believe in us, to say we are special. To send us a message that we are loved, that we are lovable.

We ingest messages everyday. Some from those around us and some from inside of us.  Words are inscribed in our memory and like osmosis, so often they find their way to our heart, to the center of our being, to the place we hold a picture of who we are.

A Valentine Message.

I have a message for you, regardless of your relational status. May it pierce your heart, the very center of your being, the place you hold a picture of yourself.

Here’s my conversation heart to you in the form of a song.

Who says? Selena Gomez

Who says?

Who says?