What Would You Create???

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I can’t contain it any longer! I HAVE to tell you:

I’m taking the step I’ve been dreaming of for more than a decade and I’m creating something new! And the best part? The thing I am creating will support you in your creating, too!!!

For the past ten years, I have been the primary support person for a full-time, professional artist. That experience taught me a lot: especially about how showing up every day for your creative work—which is really about showing up for yourself and your purpose in the world—can help you accomplish more than you can imagine. I met many artists and witnessed that everyone, no matter how accomplished and experienced, has self-doubts and fears, and that LIFE HAPPENS to all of us, no matter who we are. We can’t control all the variables, such as when a family member or cherished pet will get sick, a tree will fall on our house, an ice storm will take out our electricity for a week, or a traffic jam will cause us to miss that appointment that was so difficult to arrange in the first place. But we can manage our responses to those things, remember what’s important to us, and surf the waves! Those ten years also taught me that I’m pretty good at helping someone watch for hazards and keep the surfboard under her while she paddles into new waters.

Last week I posted on Facebook a one-question survey asking, “What keeps you from being your creative best?” and I got some GREAT responses. Thank you for that! What your answers helped me confirm is that our internal struggles—fear, our inner critic, perfectionism, procrastination, self-doubt, and even the sheer number of ideas and interests we have—far outweigh the external factors that we so readily blame for keeping us from doing the things we long to do.

Everything you have ever wanted, is sitting on the other side of fear

I have struggled with all of these things myself. In fact, I still struggle with them because the reality is, they never really go away, you just get better at managing your response to them.

And that’s the thing: I want to help you get better at managing your response to the things that try to stop you. I want to help you turn that “I-would-love-to-someday” idea into a TODAY! IDEA. I want you to BE AN UNSTOPPABLE CREATIVE SOURCE!

So, think about it. If you could get past the fears and all the things that look like obstacles (Hint: they’re not really obstacles!), WHAT WOULD YOU CREATE?

Did I lose you there? Did your Inner Critic say, “But I’m not creative!” The truth is, we are ALL creative. Often without even realizing it, you solve problems and bring new ideas, processes, and objects into the world all the time. You don’t have to be a “visual artist,” “writer,” “musician,” “dancer,” “app designer,” or “architect” to create something, and you definitely don’t need to be any of those things to be passionate about a change you would like to see in the world or in your own life.

So, let me ask again:

If you could get past the fears and all the things that look like obstacles, WHAT WOULD YOU CREATE?

Take your time answering. Maybe even force yourself to make a list of 10 things. The more things on your list, the more likely it is that one of them is the thing you are truly passionate about creating—and not just a project your tricky subconscious is telling you to choose because you think “that one is doable” or “that one is safer” or “that’s the only one any one I know would support.”

It could be something as awesome as getting a new, world-class aquatic center built (you know who you are!), or as amazing as building a regular 15-minute yoga routine into your schedule when you’re so busy you sometimes forget to brush your teeth and are lucky to have time for more than coffee for breakfast.

Whatever it is, I want to help you get there. And not “some day,” but TODAY! (Okay, maybe TODAY is really September 8, 2015, but definitely sooner rather than later and in THIS year!)

I don’t want to give you all the details of what I’m proposing just yet—I’m still having brainstorms that are making me giddy. BUT, I will post all the details next Tuesday, August 25 and invite you to check it out.

The problem is, I’m having a really hard time keeping all of this to myself! So, let me just say that I want to help you, between Labor Day and Thanksgiving of 2015, get a SOLID START or even COMPLETION on a project that is dear to you and that the rest of the world NEEDS you to create for us!

Some of the ways I propose to do this include:

  • one-on-one coaching with an initial strategy session and regular check-ins on your progress;
  • weekly email support;
  • weekly “office hours” when you can ask for whatever help you need;
  • weekly resources for managing life’s “obstacles,” time, your inner critic, “writer’s block,” and procrastination—and winning the Mind Game;
  • 24/7 support from a small, private Facebook group of people, who—just like you—want to stop putting their dreams off.
  • AND some SURPRISES! (Good surprises, I promise!)

So, if you have stayed with me this long, please leave me a comment and tell me WHAT WOULD YOU CREATE? Or let me know what your biggest obstacle to being your creative best is. And questions are always welcome!

Have a great rest of the week and I’ll be back next Tuesday with the FULL Reveal!

Wishing you wonder!

Kristine

SUP, Everyone?

Stand Up Paddleboard Silhouette (Version 2) by Chris Goldberg

Version 2: Stand Up Paddleboard Silhouette – Monmouth, Maine by Chris Goldberg; Flickr Creative Commons

I didn’t join my first standup paddleboard yoga class to get closer to nature; I joined because I wasn’t paying close enough attention. One of my friends posted a link to the class on Facebook—the place where you are conditioned to Like and Share other people’s posts without too much thought—and asked, “Standup paddleboard yoga, anyone?”

Without reading the details, I simply said, “Yeah! Sounds fun!” (I now have reservations to float down the Amazon River in Peru with two people I’ve never met because of a similar abundance of enthusiasm paired with a similar lack of attention to detail. You’d think I’d learn my lesson.)

So there I was, standing with a group of 26 other women, the instructor, and her assistant on the shore of Jordan Lake at 6:00 p.m. on a Thursday night. I was still stressed from a long day of work, hungry, and not looking forward to getting into that lake which was a choppy grey under an equally grey sky. Despite the warm, July air, the waves made the water look cold and the clouds threatened rain. Still, I dutifully took off my shoes, hobbled over the rocky beach with my sand bag anchor and a long, plastic paddle in my left hand and an aqua blue, rented standup paddleboard hiked under my right arm, and waddled into the water up to my knees. The lake bottom was composed of that squishy, clay-like substance that sucks onto your feet and makes it difficult to walk, so getting my anchor attached to the zip-tie at the back of my board and getting out of that water was a priority. I situated myself on all fours on the board, then managed to sit up on just my knees and use my paddle to move, in a small zig-zag pattern as I paddled first on one side and then the other, out toward the buoys that led into deeper water.

As we headed out into the lake, a bald eagle—the first I’d seen in my twelve years in North Carolina—took off from the treetops on our left and flew over our heads toward the center of the large lake. A chorus of “oooh!”s rose from us as we appreciated this welcoming omen at the start of our adventure.

If I had been happy to stay on my knees a little longer, the rest of my adventure might have been more successful. But, instead, I decided I needed to move into a standing position almost immediately, whether to prove to myself I could or to prove it to everyone else, I’m not quite sure. As a result, I was one of the first women to stand on her board, and the first one to fall off. Unfortunately, I was still in very shallow water and landed on my knees and hands on the bottom, jarring my spine in a truly unpleasant way.

I got back onto the board, remaining on my now scraped-up knees, and paddled hard, trying to make up for the time I’d lost, only to find I was getting nowhere. The other women paddled farther and farther away, toward the cove where we would begin the yoga practice, while I stayed virtually stationary. Maria, the instructor, came up from behind and realized I was dragging my sand bag anchor and fished it out of the water for me with her paddle, then escorted me the rest of the way out to the cove where the others waited.

After we all dropped our anchors, the practice started gently with each of us lying on our back on our board, looking up at the clouds. I needed this time to catch my breath and try to let go of the initial frustrations of this endeavor. I let my hands dangle, palms facing the sky, in the lapping water, closed my eyes, and tried, as Maria instructed, to let everything else fall away and be fully present on this board, on this lake, in this moment.

After a few moments of stillness, we sat up, found our way to all fours again, and began a sequence of Cat-Cow, alternately arching our backs while looking back through our legs and flattening our backs and lifting our heads to look straight ahead, moving with our breath. After that, the practice became something of a blur. There was Plank, Downward Facing Dog, Upward Facing Dog, Warrior I, Tree, Bridge and Wheel. All I know is that I didn’t stand again on the board, but instead spent a great deal of time on my knees or in Plank or in one form of hip-opener or another, all of my muscles taut, focusing intensely on not tipping over, while Maria’s voice called across the water, in my mind speaking specifically to me, “All variations on this pose are welcome.”

Despite my focus on remaining on the board, I eventually stretched beyond my limits and pitched head-first into the water. I surfaced quickly, found my board, clinging to it as though I had never swam before in my life, and realized no one had taught me how to get back on. Maria’s assistant, Jennifer, quickly paddled over and held my board steady while I hauled my body out of the water and landed, at an odd angle, across it. She waited while I dragged my legs out of the water, too, and was able to resume my trusty all-fours position. At some point during the class, I did manage to find my way into Side Plank, balancing on one hand and one knee with the other hand raised toward the sky, and was elated the next day to learn that there was photographic evidence of this feat! Before we could finish the practice and enjoy another rest in Shivasana on our backs, it began to rain and Maria called for us to head back to shore.

Whatever contortions I had invented or positions I had managed in the last hour had caused a build-up of heat in my body, so the rain was refreshing. In fact, paddling back toward shore in a large pack of women while rain drops zinged against my skin might have been my favorite part of the evening. I still refused to stand on the board and my knees were screaming in pain, but there was an excitement in the air as we raced the quick onset of darkness and the threat of lightning. There was something else, too. Something that made me feel that this experience, of being on the water with others, on boards with paddles, was somehow a primitive, ancient experience. That other people, in far away places and other times, had experienced something similar, and I was getting just a glimpse of what their lives might have been like.

By the time we hauled the boards out of the water, took a group photo, and I drove an hour to my house, I arrived home still damp, sandy, and smelling of lake water—and exhausted and sore from head to toe. The next morning, I found I could not turn my head, but as I looked at the photos from our class that had been posted on Facebook, there was something still calling me back to the water.

Yoga Paddle Sur Le Lac by Benoit Mouren; Flickr Creative Commons

Yoga Paddle Sur Le Lac by Benoit Mouren; Flickr Creative Commons

Apparently it was calling my friends back, too, and so it was that we found ourselves again, one month later, standing on the same shore on another Thursday evening preparing for our second SUP Yoga experience. This time, we were a smaller contingent of only nine participants, again all women, along with Maria and her assistant, Jennifer. The late August sun was still high in the sky with no threatening clouds to be found, the water was flat, and we were in great spirits as we set out from the shore.

This time, I paddled all the way out to the buoys before attempting to stand up. A tip from Jennifer to widen my stance on the board took me from a very shaky start to a much more confident standup paddle all the way to the cove. This evening, as we all found our way to our feet and headed out into the deeper water, a blue heron greeted us, taking off from the shore and flying nearly the same path the eagle had taken the month before.

The combination of the smaller class and the fact that this was our second time on the boards made for a completely different experience. We began our yoga practice in the cove the same way we had before, resting on our backs on our boards to center ourselves, and then moving through the same sequence of poses, but this time, at least for me, with more playfulness and more confidence. I was amazed to find that I could keep up with the poses this time, thinking about where to place my hands and feet for best success in balancing the board, and going so far as to get my hands off the board and to my front knee during Warrior I—a forward lunge pose—and even attempting to lift one foot off the board in Tree. It was during my Tree attempt that I found myself again taking a dive into the lake. The water was a golden brown as I kicked toward the surface, found my board, and pulled my body out of the water onto it without assistance.

Something in me had released since my first session. I was less tense, less concerned about outcomes, less scared of ending up in the lake, and so, more present, more capable, and, most importantly, more joyful.

Before I knew it, we had progressed through the series of poses and were on our backs enjoying Shivasana. Or, at least attempting to enjoy Shivasana, as it was difficult to decide whether to swat the black fly that was biting first my ankle, then my elbow, or preserve the stillness and let the black fly continue its feast. And then it was time to paddle back to the bank from which we’d come. We paddled slowly, enjoying the evening and the sunset, wishing we didn’t have to leave the water. The sun had officially sunk behind the trees by the time I neared the shore and the water, still flat, was a pale pink as I sank to my knees inside the bouys and paddled the remaining few feet to the beach.

This was the feeling I had come in search of. This peace. This sense of accomplishment, this sense of community, this sense of strength. This experience of being absolutely present. I was hooked. Yoga on the floor was simply not going to do it for me any more. This practice on the water brought me into my body, brought me into balance, brought me back to myself. It brought me back into connection with nature—water, birds, insects, the pines that rimmed the lake, clouds, sky, color. It taught me, again, how to pay attention…though, I will not promise that my sense of adventure will not outstrip my better judgment at various points in my future.

Rando BBQ au NCY SUP by Benoit Mouren

Rando BBQ au NCY SUP by Benoit Mouren; Flickr Creative Commons

Keeping Your Eyes on the Still Point

 

Giant Wheel, WindSeeker and Troika at Cedar Point

Cedar Point: Giant Wheel, WindSeeker, and Troika by Andrew Borgen, Flickr Creative Commons

It was an August day to rival the best of memories from my midwestern childhood: high clouds floating through an azure sky, bright sun, and a light breeze off Lake Erie that made standing outdoors in long lines of people at an amusement park a pleasant, rather than miserable, experience. That morning, Tad, a friend so important to me that I think of him not as a friend but as my chosen family, and I had driven four hours from his home in Grand Rapids, Michigan to Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. We had just boarded the WindSeeker, a giant swing mere steps from a sandy beach, and our first ride of the day. We were seated in a bright red, two-person chair suspended from a floor-less carousel ringed with identical seats. The ride started out slowly, lifting us off the ground and smoothly moving us straight up, our legs dangling in the air. Then as we reached our final height, a mere 301 feet above the ground, the carousel began to spin. We were arcing through the air in a wide, counter-clockwise circle that alternately swung us in the direction of the rest of the park and the shimmering water of one of the world’s largest lakes. I began to get dizzy. A memory of a particularly scary event years earlier involving the Mad Tea Party ride at Disney World with my four-year-old nephew who continuously commanded that I spin our tea cup faster flashed through my mind. I grabbed Tad’s hand where it rested on the restraining bar and demanded, “Where do I put my eyes?”

I survived that ride two years ago with no major vertigo, and Tad and I rode happily until the park closed at midnight.

A few weeks ago, I found myself experiencing a different kind of panic, a different kind of vertigo. As I was driving in my car thinking of who might be able to help me get my bearings, I heard myself implore the version of Tad that lives in my head for an answer to that exact same question: Where do I put my eyes?

Living in this world has been even more difficult than usual lately. I hardly need to enumerate the reasons: a renewed war in the Middle East; humanitarian crises in Syria, Iraq, the Central African Republic, and Sudan; Ebola outbreaks in Africa; tensions between Ukraine and Russia; beheadings of journalists; and here in the U.S., a Congress that has done less than any other Congress in history; a record number of children risking their lives to arrive at our borders in hopes of seeking refuge from the violence in their own countries that is fueled, at least in part, by American demand for illegal drugs; and, clashes between the police and public after the shooting of a young black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. In my own state of North Carolina, the legislature lifted the moratorium on fracking, and, after promising that we would have the most stringent air and water safety standards in the country, our Mining and Energy Commission now offers us some of the weakest. This, when scientists are finding disparate evidence that climate change is happening at a pace much faster than anticipated – suggesting we need to implement alternatives to fossil fuels quickly and leave fossil fuels in the ground – and the U.S. is dealing with record droughts and an unending season of fires on the West Coast.

On top of all of that, Robin Williams, a man who lived to make the rest of us laugh hysterically and feel deeply, took his own life.

It was as if someone had written a new ending to The Dead Poets’ Society, one in which the world-wise teacher – Oh Captain, My Captain! – comes to see, too, the futility of striving to live a creative, self-directed, happy life in this world and follows his student’s example in committing suicide. What am I supposed to do with that?

Suicides scare most people, I’m sure. But, as someone who has lived with depression on-and-off at least since my teen years, I think it scares those of us who may have contemplated suicide in the past in a special way. Even if you’re currently feeling fine, some little voice way back in the depths says, “see, even brilliant, talented, well-loved people eventually come to see suicide as  the best – the only – solution….” You can almost hear the devilish laugh as some dark shape clicks a person-counter and celebrates another win for its “side.” And some tiny, or maybe not so tiny?, part of you begins to wonder about your own future and maybe even about whether you made the right decision in the past.

I last sought therapy for depression two years ago, having had my first session just days before the trip to Cedar Point. In fact, I was so desperate, in the beginning I saw two therapists in the hopes that at least one of them would be able to help me. Not only did I want to break free from the current tangle of overwhelm and sadness that ensnared me, but I wanted to learn the skills I needed to reduce the likelihood of the symptoms returning in the future. I was incredibly fortunate to have health insurance that gave me access to wonderful mental health professionals and that reduced the cost of treatment, as well as friends and family who understand the importance of taking depression seriously. While I got some relief almost immediately and was no longer depressed within a matter of weeks, I continued my sessions until June of this year, when my therapist left private practice, in an effort to bolster my “depression immunity” by building a healthy thought and habit foundation.

During that time, I also discovered the through-line that enables me to communicate how all of my myriad interests – especially writing, creativity, and nature – fit together. It is encapsulated in this tagline: Reconnecting People to the Planet Through Wonder. So, given that, how does a person who wants to be part of the solution, who wants to help find creative ways forward through some of the most challenging situations our species has ever encountered, and who wants to live in and inspire wonder stay positive in the face of all that is happening in the world? Surely, Mr. Williams asked himself a similar question, probably on many occasions: how does a person whose purpose in life is to make others laugh continue to find humor in the face of all of this turmoil? It would appear he couldn’t find an answer to that question the last time he asked. Contemplating all of this that day in my car, I could feel the darkness creep in around the edges. Vertigo. The beginnings of panic.

If I still had a therapist, I would have scheduled an emergency meeting. Instead, I began to run through the list of friends I could call. Immediately, I landed on Tad. Poor Tad, who has already been on the receiving end of too many sad, teary, or panicky conversations. And as soon as I heard myself ask, “where do I put my eyes?” I realized he had already given me an answer, albeit a somewhat oblique one.

He wrote it in this song, “Still Point,” which he debuted as part of his cantata Lightfall.

And he wrote it to me in an email:

“Remember your still point, dearest.  There is an essential good in you that does not depend on the state of your work, your body, or your relationships.  Enumerate those states if you must to establish a sense of balance in your temporal world, but that is not where your true existence or your true worth is based, and it is not from whence your true happiness derives.”

Right. Deep breath.

My instinct has always been to first look outside myself for reassurance that I’m okay, all the while ignoring the internal messages that my higher self might be sending me. And here was my “virtual Tad,” nudging me back to myself–and not myself. For while I am one with all who are suffering in the world and one with all who are causing the suffering, I am also something separate. I do carry a still place somewhere inside me that is not rocked by all the stories I tell myself or all of the stories being lived around me. I am of this time and of this place, and yet I am also something that is eternal and at home everywhere in the Universe. When I stop to breathe, to come back to my body, to fill myself up with love and light, I can almost see that being. Almost.

The craziness and injustice and cruelty and division in the world show no signs that they are going to disappear any time soon. I am choosing to be resilient. I am choosing to stay. I am choosing to bear witness. And I am choosing to continue to do all I can to immunize myself against the depression that whispers in dark corners.

As human beings who can easily be pulled into the swirl of chaos, we need to remember that, when we are searching for goodness and hope in the world and wondering where to look for encouragement, we need to find that still point–however we each define that and wherever we carry it–and remember that we are alive and that each of us, as with all life, is a miracle.

 

Surrender

Two weeks ago today, Beth’s heart stopped beating. I didn’t learn of it until the following morning, and when I did, my world changed instantly.

Beth was the younger sister of my best friend from high school. I didn’t know her well until we became Facebook friends and then, despite her being in Michigan and me being in North Carolina, I could finally see just how beautiful the light she carried was and how expansive was her love. She was a visual artist, a poet, a jeweler, a caregiver, a logophile who loved to play Scrabble and create puns, and no doubt countless other things of which I have no knowledge. In the last few months, we had been discussing her options for publishing her poems in a book, the guy she loved who didn’t love her the same way, and our mutual attempts to live a healthier lifestyle.

On some level, I was aware that Beth had begun to have medical issues and was on continuous oxygen. But because our relationship was a virtual one and the pictures she posted of herself were always from a Lake Michigan beach and showed her smiling, oxygen tube-free, into the camera, I was able to delude myself that her condition was not as serious as it was. So her death was a sudden shock.

The pathway to this particular shining light was abruptly lost; a door slammed shut at the end of a hallway that will never again open. It seemed incomprehensible that I would never see the little green dot next to her name in the right-hand column of Facebook, letting me know she was online. That I couldn’t just message her and expect a quick and cheerful response. After all, her Facebook page, with the photos of her on those Lake Michigan beaches and her artwork and all of her posts about how amazing it is to be alive, was still there, so how could she be gone? Friends who had heard the news before me had already begun to post their good-bye messages to her. I was alone at work and all I could do was scroll through her page and cry.

MichiganSunsetClouds

I have lost family members before, but never a friend and cohort. Losing someone so young screws with your head in a whole new way. Not only must you attempt to reconcile yourself to the fact that you will never see this person you loved alive again, but you are confronted with your own mortality in a much more immediate way. Death is now something that can happen to anyone at any time, not just something that will happen to you eventually in some far-off, foggy future. Of course, I knew this on a cognitive level, but until I was faced with the blow of Beth’s death, I didn’t know it on such a visceral level.

I am not a religious person and my body remained seated on the crazy, balance ball chair my boss bought me to help improve my posture, but in my mind, I was suddenly on my knees, arms raised over my head, all the energy drained from my body. I was in surrender.

I had lost all my strength to fight. There was nothing left with which to argue about politics, to have expectations, to hold onto disappointments, to strive to be anything other than I was in that moment. I was filled with a full-body ache that longed for nothing but gentleness. There was no space for anything except sadness and love. No anger; no worry; not even guilt – even though those emotions are usually strong enough to muscle their way into even the smallest cracks. My only wish, my only prayer, was that everyone in the world would treat all beings they encountered with kindness.

Of course, this is always my prayer, and it was probably Beth’s prayer, too. But usually that prayer is swimming in a sea of other wishes and desires and obligations and fears and hopes. It is quite an experience to have everything else stripped away and to be left with only that one hope, that one wish, that one desire, that one need.

I have spent the intervening days in uncharted territory, feeling too raw and vulnerable to be able to face much of the news of the world. Unfortunately, despite my wish to make love and kindness my primary mode of being in the world, my brittleness has caused me to slip over into the dark side on occasion and explode in anger at my husband – the only person at whom I can safely explode. My therapist says that she believes that you experience all the stages of loss at the same time, not sequentially as was once suggested, and that these angry outbursts are to be expected. Poor Hans.

And recently, in the last few days, I have forgotten how to breathe.

I have asthma, so perhaps this should not surprise me. But it does. It shows up most often when I’m driving on the freeway. Not a full blown panic attack – I’ve had those, so I know – but an inability to get a full breath. It’s as though I truly have forgotten how to breathe the correct way, deep into my belly and then into my lungs. Suddenly, I’m breathing only shallowly, unable to fill my lungs completely, unable to get air into my belly. Breathing – something that is so automatic – suddenly requires concentration. As a result, I have found myself returning to the breathing exercises I have learned from Andrew Weil, playing with relaxing breaths and balancing breaths until I find whatever works best in whatever situation I find myself. It feels a little ridiculous and I can’t quite explain why it’s happening. Apparently, it’s going to be with me awhile though, and I just have to keep smiling and concentrating and relearning how to breathe until the episodes pass.

Maybe this is just my inner wisdom or some higher power reminding me that I am alive and doing what is necessary to make sure I am fully immersed in the now of any given moment. I’m still struggling with my ability to be okay with who I am today while still having goals for who I want to become, still trying to accept that I am enough just as I am, still trying to figure out what are reasonable expectations for the use of my time and my energy in any given day. And I’m still on my knees in surrender, letting go of all that I can let go of and opening myself to whatever subtle, or not so subtle, messages the Universe has for me.

The Problem Is the Solution

Here’s a small sample of some of the observations I made in April:

The first tiny tip of one of my calla lilies broke through the surface of the mulch by the mailbox today. (Yay!) (So maybe the landscapers didn’t pile the mulch too deep on top of them, as I’d feared.)

Three of the 5 mums I planted last year seem to have survived the winter.

The tiny lilac bush I planted last summer and the clematis I planted several summers ago seem to be thriving.

The basil plant in my kitchen window, however, is not thriving. It wants desperately to live – it has put out two white blossoms and has one stalk that is racing toward the ceiling – but it is spindly and pale and needs better care than I have been giving it.

I have been doing so much “thinking” in my job in recent weeks that by Wednesday afternoon I am nearly brain dead.

The added stress that accompanies all this thinking and doing at work has pushed me back toward old, unhealthy coping strategies.

Writing a blog post (or two or three) per week eats up a substantial amount of the time I have available for writing and has, apparently, been one of the things that has kept me from achieving my word count goals for my novel in April.

Creativity begets creativity. The more I allow myself to write, the more ideas I have that I want to write about.

Having more ideas has made me both happy and stressed. The stress comes from the tension I feel in trying to find the time and energy to devote to each of my ideas and from trying to make some ideas wait (when they want to be attended to right this very moment!) while I move forward with others.

Lately I’ve been contemplating the maxim “the problem is the solution.” On the surface, this sounds as though it could be saying that a problem is a good thing to have. And in some cases, it might be because the fact that there is a perceived problem probably means that the problem is one of perception. Shift your perception of the situation and the problem goes away. Maybe, what was once considered a problem could actually be considered an asset.

What happens if I apply this to my last comment that having more ideas causes me stress? It doesn’t mean that more stress is good for me. Instead, I think it means that this stress is pointing to a different problem: that if I perceived of having an abundance of ideas in a different light, I might have less stress. Or, if I perceived differently of the amount of time and energy available with which to address these bountiful ideas, the stress might diminish.

I have a friend from high school who has now known me for 30 years, and he will attest to the fact that I have been looking for the ideal schedule since he met me. I have this incredibly persistent and attractive idea that if I just scheduled my time better, I could do everything I want to do in a day. (Do you by chance share this idea?) Perhaps this would be true if I didn’t have a distracted brain or if I had a more realistic sense of how long various tasks take and how much energy they require – and could therefore adjust my expectations accordingly. But, it appears, I do not have a realistic idea of either of these things.

I have some experience with the notion that if I remind myself that I have plenty of time in which to create the things I want to and that I do not have to do them all at once, stress recedes. This is a difficult state of mind for me to maintain, however, since it seems to run counter to my every day experience of an overly long to-do list of often equally important and equally appealing (or unappealing!) tasks and not enough energy or hours with which to complete them.

Time in Paris covered walkway

Time is tricky for me. I have an unfortunate tendency to live too often in the past or, worse, in the future. I have a sense that time is speeding by too quickly and that I have too few accomplishments to show for it. I have this, often vague, impression of what I want to put into the the world and an accompanying need to get it out there now before it’s too late. Some people might find this a motivating situation; I find it paralyzing. With too many ideas and projects pulling at me, I don’t give adequate attention to any of them and everything suffers, including my health.

If I’m lucky, though, in the middle of my paralysis, something will remind me to breathe and I will get a flash of a different perspective. I will remember that a large part of the personal permaculture project I’m engaging in this year is to learn to live within my boundaries – including my energetic ones. If I want to create anything, I have to create a space in which to focus on it. That means I must exclude everything else from my field of vision, at least for the duration of time I’m working on that one creation. The trick in doing this successfully is in remembering that this exclusion is a positive thing in the grand scheme of things. It means that at the very least this one thing will be done to the best of my ability and then there will be space, energy, and time in which to work on the next creation.

I don’t know how long it will take for this healthier perception of time and my ability to create to really take root in my everyday interactions with Life, so I have to find ways to remind myself as often as I remember.

Maybe I wrote this post to help you remember, too.

Who Are You Really?

“People sense that there’s something wrong, but they’re still struggling to go back and find out what the real roots of the problem are, and I think what we need to come to is a realization that it’s not just fixing an economic or political system, but is a basic worldview, a basic understanding of who we are that’s at stake.”–David Loy 

I came across this quote by David Loy in Isaac Yuen’s review of the short movie Overview on Isaac’s website, Ekostories.com. I couldn’t agree more. Industrialization has caused us to forget who we are as a species and, if we don’t remember soon, things could get really ugly for us and for all the other life forms with whom we currently share this beautiful, complex, and fragile planet.

I’m not going to write a doom and gloom Earth Day post to remind you how many species we are losing every day or show images of retreating arctic ice or even photos of cute animals. I’m not going to exhort you to plant a tree or check the air in your tires to reduce your gasoline consumption or buy local, organic produce or take your own bags to the grocery store.

All I’m going to do is ask you to take a few moments to remember who you truly are.

You are a spirit that uses a physical body as a tool to experience and interact with this world. This is pretty friggin’ fantastic because it is that body, and all the sense organs that it provides, that enables you to enjoy the fragrance of a blooming lilac tree or the taste of a fresh strawberry dipped in velvety chocolate; the sound of your son’s laugh or the sight of your daughter’s smiling eyes; the feel of cool grass or hot sand under bare feet.

You belong to the human species, which, along with every other species that has existed on this planet, has a set of fairly narrowly defined parameters within which it can thrive. Your body is made up of a mixture of the same chemical and mineral components as all other life on this planet. It regularly exchanges electrons with the environment so your body contains particles that were once a part of your couch, your mother’s favorite lambswool sweater, or your dad’s Ford. You drink the same water the dinosaurs drank and breathe oxygen that was exhaled by a baobab tree in Madagascar or a Siberian Larch or the Tree of Life in the desert of Bahrain.

This body of yours belongs to this planet.

This spirit of yours is a unique expression of the divine, endowed with gifts and a purpose that are yours alone. The other living beings on this planet need you to remember who you are, to recognize your place in the web, and to bring your inherent beauty – your love – forth in the world. The greatest challenge you might face in life is to learn to allow yourself to be fully present in every moment, to participate in the wonder that surrounds you even when your circumstances seem bleak and the world feels like a scary place. You are endowed with a powerful imagination and you can use that imagination to see the world at its enchanted best, to shape your experience, and therefore your reality.

So, on this Earth Day, celebrate by remembering that you are a miracle in the grander miracle of Life. Breathe this knowledge deep into your being so you won’t forget. We are counting on you.

And if you need a little more help visualizing your connection to the Earth, take a moment to watch this gorgeous short film, Overview.

OVERVIEW from Planetary Collective on Vimeo.

Observation, Observation, Observation

Last Monday, I asked you to do a week of observation on one aspect of your life. How did that go? Do you feel more observation would be helpful or did you exhaust your topic? Did the experiment lead you to want to do more observation in other areas of your life? Did it help you ask questions you hadn’t asked yet?

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In permaculture, before a designer creates a plan for a piece of land, she will ideally study that piece of land for a full year so she can observe it in every season. She will track how much water, in the form of rain or creeks, flows through the land; where the arc of the sun is in each season; where the predominant winds (that could bring pests or fire) come from and move across the land; how the outside world interacts with the land; how often each segment of the land is used by humans in the regular course of their day; what species inhabit each segment and what are their resource needs and what roles do they perform in the ecosystem. She will analyze the soils in different locations along with the water quality. She will become as familiar as she can with the land and the humans and animals that use it in the hopes that she can ultimately make the land richer and healthier for all concerned.

Similarly, it may take a full year to effectively implement the “Observe and Interact” principle in areas of your personal or professional life that involve thought or behavior change. As humans, our routines vary throughout the seasons due to changes in the weather and available sunlight, holidays, school schedules, sports schedules, even television and movie release schedules. Electricity that gives us light and helps us heat and cool our homes for year-round comfort and the globalization of our food production that makes it possible for an American to eat a fresh strawberry or tomato any day of the year have made our ties to the seasons less visible, but when you look, they are still there.

As we’ve already discussed, the observation phase is one that is easily ignored in the design process due to our impatience to fix, re-invent, or simply change for change’s sake any area of our life that is not as fulfilling as we expect it should be. We want to be always moving forward and don’t like to sit with discomfort or uncertainty, but deep observation and the ability to withhold judgment and refrain from making quick decisions are exactly what we need to insure that the solutions we ultimately devise will have the greatest likelihood of success in creating enriching, long-term, healthy, life-sustaining solutions.

Shiny, Happy Person

jar of glassOn Monday, I posted about the first permaculture principle, Observe & Interact, and asked if you’d like to choose an area of your life to observe over the coming week. How’s that going? Are you having difficulty refraining from labeling what you observe as good or bad? Do you want to explain immediately why the thing you have observed happens? Do you have the urge to jump forward to a “solution” rather than just staying with the process of observation?

I consider myself to be a fairly self-aware person, but I know that if I am not clear with myself that I am only observing, I will be judging myself left and right and planning little changes (or, more likely, dramatic ones) at every opportunity.

Which is why it is helpful for me to have someone partnering with me in my observations, as well as in the behavioral experiments that will follow. At various times in my life, these partners have consisted of friends or my husband, but since August, my observation partner has been my therapist. And because depression was the main reason I had sought help, it only made sense that my first project be that of observing my depression – in the hopes of eventually diminishing it. It is true that once you start observing a phenomenon, the phenomenon shifts. The mere act of finding a therapist, taking an hour each week to focus on my well being, and being able to talk to someone about why I felt so sad and overwhelmed helped the depression begin to lift.

I knew from experience (observation!) that focusing on the behaviors I wanted to change was not the most effective way for me to make change. A strategy that seemed more useful to me would be to focus on filling my life up with the things that make me happy rather than trying to rid my life of the things that made me unhappy. The hope was that the happy things would slowly squeeze out the unhappy, depressing things and the balance would tip.

So then began the process of observing which things, people, activities, and ideas in my life already brought me some happiness. It turned out that despite my longstanding night-owl nature, getting a full night’s sleep actually made my life easier and happier. It also turned out that eating a vegan diet with recipes from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine 21-Day Vegan Challenge brought me both pleasure and satisfaction. The recipes were quick and easy and always, to my surprise, really flavorful. I already knew that yoga made me happy, so I began doing it three nights a week with my husband in our living room and found the practice even more rewarding. It was one more thing I could share with my husband and the gentle moves and deep breathing helped me release stress at the end of my work day. Similarly, I knew that exercise, writing, spending time with my family, being outdoors, and cuddling with my dog all made me happy.

So next came the process of implementing these things in my life in small doses to determine how much of each thing is enough to make me happy, how much lands me in overwhelm, and what is the right balance of all of these things so that I feel I’m hitting all the right notes and recharging my energy instead of draining it.

This is where I still am and probably will be for many months. Things are definitely moving in the right direction, but there is still much experimentation and skills-building to be done.

Of course, the easy, and maybe even advisable, strategy would have been to begin taking an antidepressant immediately. I went so far as to obtain a prescription from my doctor, but I couldn’t bring myself to begin this course of treatment. Research has shown that 30 minutes of exercise is as effective at reducing depression as medication, and since I needed the exercise anyway, it made the most sense to me to try to figure out a mechanism that would help me get to the gym on a regular basis. So, I hired a personal trainer and have worked with her for the past six weeks. She has helped me get stronger and stay focused on improving my physical health. There have definitely been days when I would have stayed in bed if I didn’t have her waiting to meet me at 6:30 a.m. One day I hope to have such a strong exercise habit that her assistance is no longer needed, but for now, I’m still building the systems I need to help me self-regulate and I am happy to pay her for her service.

Even though I have moved on to the “interact” portion of this permaculture principle, it only works if I also continue to observe my feelings and thoughts throughout the process. It’s fun to think of my life as a series of little experiments and it reduces my anxiety level because if something doesn’t cause the desired effect, it is not the end of the world; I can just try something else.

Shiny, Happy PersonOne last tip I would like to offer, if you are observing something in your own life and want to experiment with behavior change, is to make sure that even the ways in which you are tracking your observations and data make you happy. I found that creating a check list of every activity and behavior I wanted to participate in caused me anxiety and focused my thoughts on all the things that I didn’t accomplish on any given day. Counting calories and fat and carbs was too complicated to keep up with and made me feel deprived. So instead I found a tall, pretty juice bottle and a bunch of glass beads in various colors that I had bought for an art project that I never started, and began using them to track the behaviors that made me happy. For example, if I ate a vegan meal, I dropped a blue bead in the jar. If I went to the gym, I dropped in a green one. The small pink beads were for writing sessions and the large clear ones were for tackling an activity that scared me. This is fairly simple to keep up with (I played around with much more elaborate schemes, like trying to use the beads to make an image but knew, again from experience, that they would end in failure) and it’s shiny and colorful and makes me happy when I see it. Plus, dropping one of the glass beads into the jar makes a satisfying “plink” that is reminiscent of how good it felt to put a quarter in my piggy bank when I was a child.

I hope your observation experiment is going well, and I would love to hear about your process! Please leave me a note below, and I’ll be back on Monday – provided I survive tomorrow’s Camp NaNoWriMo novel-writing marathon! (Wish me luck!)

Observe and Interact

First Lilac BudsTake a deep breath. Really, take a moment to take a deep breath and slowly let it out. As you do, pay attention to what happens in your body. On the in-breath, what part of your body rose? On the out-breath, did the air escape from your nose or your mouth? What was the breath’s rhythm: did you breathe in and out for equal lengths of time or was one half of the breath longer than the other? Were you aware of your heart beating or any sensations in your body? How would you describe the sounds of your breath, on both the in and the out? If your eyes were open the first time, try the breath again with your eyes closed. Do you notice anything different with your eyes closed?

Simple, right? Just breathing and observing; two of the most fundamental aspects of being alive and being human. In our every day life, most of us are healthy enough that we can forget about our breathing. Thankfully, it is an automatic process. To a large extent, much of the observation that is critical to our survival is also automatic. We are continually monitoring our environment, making observations, and rapidly making judgments and altering our behavior without even being aware we are doing it.

Yet, both breathing and observing are also highly complex actions. How many processes go into keeping a body breathing? And how many philosophers have argued over the question of who is doing the observing and what is the relationship between the observer and the observed? Practitioners of yoga and meditation spend hours and years and lifetimes “following the breath.” Farmers, artists, designers, and scientists spend years “learning to see” and honing their ability to make and accurately record observations.

Observation must precede action if one wants her actions in the world to be meaningful. Therefore, observation is at the heart of permaculture, the art of using principles observed in the rest of nature to design the human world. In fact, “Observe and Interact” is the first permaculture principle. However, we are a society of fixers and doers, and observation does not look like fixing or doing. In actuality, observation is a skill that takes both effort and focus, but from the outside it could be confused with laziness, inaction, indecision, or procrastination. So we skip ahead and often try to solve problems without first really observing what the root causes are. Have you ever tried to adopt someone else’s solution to a problem – whether it’s a weight-loss strategy or a wealth-building strategy or a household organization system – only to find that their strategy does not adapt well to the ways in which you and your family live? In the end, you probably felt even more discouraged about the problem, as well as disappointed in yourself for wasting all the mental, physical, and even financial resources that went into implementing the strategy.

First Lilac Buds 2

As time-crunched adults with shrinking attention spans and long to-do lists, we have to actually make a conscious choice to observe a specific thought process, behavior, or relationship in our life before we attempt to label it as “good” or “bad,” “healthy” or “toxic,” “adaptive” or “disruptive” – and especially before we attempt to make any efforts to improve, fix, or alter it. As simple as it sounds, making this commitment to observation might not be all that simple.

Want to try it? What is one area of your life that might benefit from a little observation? Why not choose one thing and give it a little extra attention this week? You can be as rigorous and scientific or as casual about the process as you’d like. You can write your observations down or just keep track of them mentally. Feel free to share some of them in the comments section!

Also, you might find it helpful to post your commitment to this observation somewhere in your home, office, or car, because, if you are anything like me, you have a short attention span and might forget you want to participate in this little experiment🙂

I’d love to hear how the experiment goes for you and what challenges and discoveries come up!

I’ll be back later this week with a post about how I am using Observation to help me understand how depression manifests in my life and to test strategies for building a foundation that will help me be more resilient and depression-proof in the future.

Perma-wha???

When I decided to write a novel about a character who disappears down the permaculture rabbit hole, I had only a vague sense what permaculture was. When I arrived in Los Altos, California last month for my permaculture design certification course, I still had only a vague sense of what that word might mean. In fact, several days into the course I had no concrete definition, only a strong feeling that it somehow encompassed much of what interests me.

So, now that I have a bonafide permaculture certification do I know what permaculture is? I would say, yes. Mostly.

For me, permaculture is a lens through which a person might view the world and her place in it. My own definition is that permaculture applies principles observed in nature to the design of the human world with the goal of creating a regenerative environment and healthy, sustainable culture. In short, permaculture is a way for humans to work with the rest of nature to support a good quality of life for all Life on this planet.

Bradford Pear Blossoms, Easter 2013

That’s a pretty tall order, but I think as more people adopt this lens of viewing their own lives in relation to the lives of other living beings and systems, we will more closely approximate the harmony permaculture aims to deliver.

One of the biggest take-away lessons I got from my permaculture training is that “sustainable” is no longer a good enough goal. We must instead adopt the goal of regeneration. We have to repair the damage that has already been done and look for ways that our new structures and systems can enrich the environment in which they exist, rather than continue to deplete it. Think about it: what if the buildings we live and work in cleaned the air and the water (just as plants do) and produced more energy than they consumed? How amazing would that world be?

If all the world’s people consumed resources at the same rate as we currently do in America, we would need 5 Earths to provide that standard of living. The rest of the world is not likely to stop trying to catch up to us, so those of us in highly “developed” countries must lead the way in reducing consumption and pioneering ways to live happily within the Earth’s means. The Earth is, after all, a single ecosystem, a single living organism. We have to consider the health of every system within it if we hope to maintain that ecosystem and continue the evolution of Life on this planet.

I understand how truly monumental that task is. How can we ask an amorphous group of individuals and corporations called “society” to willfully change its habits and learn to live within its means when it is difficult to do these things on even the personal and family level?

So that’s where I’m starting from with this blog. In the coming year I will look at the twelve permaculture principles that permaculture co-originator David Holmgren defines in his book Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability and I will try to implement these principles in my own life–in my interior, mental life; in my personal habits; and in my home. I will also share ways people around the world are implementing these principles on the community level. This really will be an exploration for me, as I don’t yet have a well-defined set of goals for what my life might look like at the end of this first year of implementation. I do know that I need to learn to live within a financial budget, an energetic budget (think learning to say “no” when necessary and giving up my perfectionist tendencies), and a caloric budget. And I know that there are certain foundational behaviors I need to develop to make me more resilient, more prone to happiness than depression, and more able to focus on the positive rather than the negative. So I will start there.

What about you? Have you been toying with the idea of respecting a new, self-imposed boundary or two? Or maybe you already lead a well-disciplined life and could offer advice on how to motivate oneself to live within one’s means and resist temptations? Wherever you find yourself, I hope you’ll check back in and share your experiences and comments! Next week, we’ll start with the first principle, Observe and Interact. See you then!

And if you can’t wait and want to know what’s coming, check out this fun song by David Griswold.
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