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.

 

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.

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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Your Invitation to Join My New Project!

Recently, life has had an air of expansiveness. Have you felt it? The feeling that anything is possible; that there is enough time and enough energy to do the things that bring real joy and not just the satisfaction of crossing something off the almighty To-Do List. The feeling that ample resources have already been gathered and now there is an opening to actually begin doing the real work, not just preparing for it. Seriously, have you felt it? I hope you have! It is an exciting and delicious way to experience the world, and such a welcome relief from the worries and stresses and not-ready’s and overwhelming not-enoughs that can dominate life when we let it.

After several years of starting and stopping various projects of importance to me and surfing waves of manageable depression that rolled in along with feelings of inadequacy and “stuckness,” last July I was rear-ended in my car while I was stopped on the freeway trying to exit during evening, rush-hour traffic in Raleigh. It was the second time I had been rear-ended while stopped during my commute and it was the second car that was totaled as a result. It also turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Suddenly I found myself in the kind of depression that was so deep I couldn’t stop crying and I lived my days in dread of having to face even the most mundane of my life’s responsibilities. I got news from my doctor that I was heading rapidly toward diabetes and news from my husband that I had become nearly impossible to live with. I am fortunate enough to have health insurance, thanks to my hard-working (and patient and loving) husband, and in August, I began seeing a therapist who helped me begin to put things in perspective.

By mid-September, I was feeling much better, was taking better care of my health, and had become a pleasant person again. Almost as a reward, I received the Message from the Universe that I had been expecting to receive during the cross-country bike trip I did in 1998 and had despaired of ever receiving. It was an understated-though-profound message and it quietly and suddenly shifted my entire perception of life. It enabled me to rewrite the last chapter of my memoir, Your Mileage May Vary, so the book ends on what I feel is the authentic note on which I always felt it should end. (I posted the new, last chapter on the book’s website and you can read it here if you are interested.)

In October, Hans and I spent an exhilarating and exhausting ten days in Paris. It was our first trip outside of North America and it fired up our desire for more international travel. Despite the months of planning, neither of us was convinced the trip would actually happen. We spent many moments pinching ourselves and saying, “We’re in Paris!” It was a true perspective-shifting experience and it heightened my new feelings that anything was possible.

In November, I signed up for NaNoWriMo and got serious about writing the novel I had spent much of the year outlining. The main character in my novel is going to be someone who becomes deeply involved in Permaculture, which is the application of principles observed in nature to design in the human world. So, in December, when the Regenerative  Leadership Institute in California opened registration for its next Permaculture Certification course, I signed up, justifying the expense and the time away as necessary to the completion of the novel.

And that brings me almost up to the present. On my birthday last month, I was on a plane flying to San Jose, California for a nine-day certification course and just last Friday I received my Regenerative Leadership and Urban Permaculture Design certificate in the mail! Image

Considering that I did not truly know what I was getting myself into when I signed up for the course and had given myself permission to not finish and/or not get my certificate if it proved to be too much to handle, I was thrilled to receive the piece of paper in the mail. The permaculture course was an exciting experience, and one I’ll elaborate on in other posts, but I’m going to skip ahead now and tell you about the project I’m excited to be launching!

Starting today, I will be using this blog to write about my Personal Permaculture Experiment. I can see your eyes glazing over from here! I know that “permaculture” is not a familiar or obvious term, but I promise you it is an exciting one. So for my first permaculture project, I will be applying the permaculture principles to my own life and showing examples of how you might apply them in your life on a personal or community-level basis. I will also be blogging about my novel’s progress and, hopefully, also making more regular posts about the other things going on in my life.

I will be back here on Wednesday with a list of 20 Things I Remembered while I was on my permaculture retreat in California and again on Friday with a list of 10 Things to Remember to Live Your Most Awesome Life. Then, every Monday, I’ll be here discussing the exciting art of Permaculture!

Are you ready to take another road less traveled? If so, I’ll see you Wednesday!

Twelfth Night

It is the fifth of January and, in my neighborhood, almost all of the holiday decorations have been taken down. Those light strands and inflatable snowmen that remain have gone unlit and uninflated for several days now. For my neighbors, Christmas clearly was over when all the boxes and trash were hauled to the curb on the 26th. Then it was on to New Year’s, out with the old and in with the new, and firm intentions for Change.

What most people don’t realize is that tonight is Twelfth Night, the night when everything is reversed, when kings are ruled by peasants, and the world is turned upside down. Traditionally, it marks the end of the twelve days of Christmas and is a night for merrymaking, wassail, pastries, and gift giving. It blows my mind that Americans would ignore another excuse for parties, drinks, gifts, and great food, but on the whole we have forgotten all about the twelve days of Christmas. By this point, we’re supposed to be five days into our 2012 diet and fitness program and focused on the projects and goals we have set for the coming year, not still reveling in a holiday that began last year.

When I sat down to write this post, I typed this sentence: It is only the 5th of January, and already I am running out of time! As I sit here, trying to figure out what this post is about, I am realizing that I am exhausted. This season, I didn’t take off nearly enough time from my job to rest and prepare myself for all the hard work that is to come, so already I am feeling stressed, looking at what lies ahead of me, and feeling completely overwhelmed and clueless as to how I will find the time to get it all done.

In my personal life, I’ve been mulling which word to choose for 2012 and, while trying NOT to make unrealistic resolutions I will never keep, trying to figure out exactly what vision I would like to hold for the year. Last night I sat in this same chair with a notepad trying to figure out how many hours are left in the week after a full-time job and commuting eat up about 55 of them and how to divide that remainder so I get enough exercise and sleep to lose weight and improve my health while still having enough time to read and write and explore the ideas that make life worth living and, oh yeah, spending time with my husband and the poor dog whose life is already lonely and mind-numbingly boring enough. So, if I spend five hours a week at the gym and want to write/read/research/experiment/do art sixteen hours a week and take the time to prepare all of my meals at home, I can have 7 hours of sleep per night. Or, I can cut back the writing et al. to 12 hours per week and get eight hours of sleep, but then how do I want to slice up those 12 hours between writing, reading, photography, blogging…. And who am I kidding? There is no way I am going to write from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. and then put the computer away and go to sleep by 9:15 so I can get up at 4:45 to be at the gym by 5:30. If the wheels are turning and the words are flowing, I’m going to be up ’til midnight trying to get a draft finished. Then, I’ll get four hours of sleep and maybe go to the gym but probably not and then I’ll start the next day already behind and feeling guilty. Ugh.

In the living room, my Christmas tree is still lit. Outside, the blue icicles and the white LED Christmas lights still illuminate the front of my house. Tonight Hans made it home before I did and plugged all the lights and the tree in for me so I would see them and get happy as soon as I turned onto our street. And I did get happy. The lights were a hug from him before I even turned off my car’s engine. I promised myself I’d stop plugging in the exterior lights after tonight – my way of dealing with the neighborhood peer pressure to pack them away – and take them and the Christmas tree down this weekend. But, if this is truly my last year to live, then that means this is the last night I will arrive home to my family in a house lit by Christmas lights. I will take down the Christmas tree and spend the rest of the winter in a dark living room, waiting for the light to return. And this makes me very sad. If this is my last Christmas, then I am not ready for it to be packed back into boxes.

And, as it is January, if I have less than six months remaining, how do I want to spend my time? Can I really begin the new projects of 2012 when there are still things from 2011 I want and need to do – like writing personal letters to Tad, Carri, Chris, and Patrick thanking them for helping to make 2011 wonderful and writing that recommendation for Martha that I’ve been writing in my head for months and finally writing to Scott to tell him to own his genius, no matter what labels the rest of the world tries to apply to him?

I think this New Year needs a gentler start. I am not setting anything in stone, not spending hours writing out specific goals for every month of the year, not creating charts to track daily actions designed to help me modify my behavior so that I more closely approximate perfection. I’m going to spend as much time as I need looking at my messy life, deciding what is truly worth my time, and exploring what makes me happy. I am going to spend evenings photographing the sunset off my deck, playing with paint with my nieces and nephew, and cuddling with the sweetest dog on the planet. I am going to hold my husband’s hand on the couch and in movie theaters and whenever he’s moving slowly enough that I can catch him. I’m going to call friends. I’m going to finish reading a novel! Then, maybe, I’ll make some plans.

The word Imbolc came to me in a dream a few nights ago. I did not know at the time that it was the name of a Sabbat that takes place at the beginning of February. Sounds like the perfect occasion to take down a Christmas tree.

*Your Mileage May Vary

Thirteen years ago this week I was Rider #1514 in the 1998 GTE Big Ride Across America to benefit the American Lung Association. It was a 48-day, 3,254-mile journey by bicycle from the Space Needle in Seattle, Washington to the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. to raise awareness of lung disease. Thirteen years ago today, Day 8 of the ride, we were traveling between Kooskia and Powell, Idaho, but I was not on my bike. I had been taken to a hospital the night before with three other injured or ill riders and crew where I had been ordered off my bike until we cleared the mountains and had crossed into Montana. I was having an asthma attack that had begun two days earlier and would not break.

Before the ride began, I had never participated in any organized rides. I didn’t even have a bike when I signed up for the adventure nine months earlier. So on the first full day of summer, June 22, 1998, I was an overweight, asthmatic, novice cyclist who was already well acquainted with the SAG (Support and Gear) bus as we climbed along the Lewis and Clark trail through Clearwater National Forest toward a small, gravelly, clear-cut lumber camp at the top of a mountain that would serve as our home for the evening. Many of the riders who had a goal of finishing each one of the summer’s miles astride their bikes would no doubt have deemed my first week a failure. Or, perhaps more accurately, they would have deemed me the failure. I, however, had come to terms with my physical limitations early on and decided that the summer’s adventure happened regardless of my mode of travel. I could be as present, as profoundly alive and awake, on a bus as I could on a bike. I was going to make the most of every moment. For me, Day 8 passed in a sunny, joyful moving meditation spent among friends and ended with a rainbow arcing through the twilight as our camp was bathed in deep, orange light.

Today, I am engaged in the process of pushing Your Mileage May Varya memoir about the Big Ride, out into the world. I had a finished draft of the manuscript by the summer of 2001, but while I received several letters of interest from agents, no one snapped it up prior to my move to North Carolina in 2003. The manuscript got put away as the more immediate demands of finding a job and a place to live took precedence, but it resurfaced periodically for revisions, refusing to let me abandon it altogether. My husband and my friends have lived with me and this manuscript for so long they are thoroughly sick of us both; yet, they keep urging me onward as I complete each step that will eventually launch it.

I need to get this manuscript out into the world because that is how I will finally finish the trip. Publication Day will be my true Closing Ceremony. I did not ride every one of the miles of the Big Ride, but when I publish this manuscript, I will have demonstrated, if only to myself, a different kind of courage and a different kind of perseverance. I will be making good on a promise I made to myself – a promise I, apparently, can’t bear to break.

The problems arise when I forget one of the best lessons I learned on the Big Ride: comparisons don’t matter. I loved my Big Ride experience and finished feeling proud of what I’d accomplished. But, at regular intervals since the ride’s conclusion, I have jumped perspective and started to judge my experiences, my “performance,” and my choices through someone else’s eyes. I’m never sure exactly who that someone else is, but I feel certain that someone somewhere–potentially many someones–will judge me harshly when the book is released. Since “death before SAG” was a mantra for several Big Riders that summer, it is not a stretch to imagine some of the harshest criticism coming from any of the 729 other cyclists who participated in the event.

The fear of these judgments has been crippling at various stages of the writing and editing process. It has only been made worse by agents and editors asking me to “justify” my manuscript’s validity in the marketplace. How can anyone really say that her memoir fills a gap that no other manuscript has filled or argue for why his memoir is better than all of its competition?

To get through this, I have finally realized that I have to take off one hat before I put on the next one. The Writer has to stop being the Rider if she is going to make the most of the material she is given. She can’t spend all of her time feeling guilty for getting on a SAG bus or regretting a thought that went through her head during an exchange with another rider if she is going to get on with the business of writing. The Editor has to stop being the sensitive, protective Writer if she is to shape the words for their best effect. And, the Marketing Manager has to stop being the embarrassed Rider, the shy Writer, and the constantly tinkering Editor if she is to put the book out in a manner that will garner the largest possible audience. Knowing this and accomplishing this, however, are two very different things.

I am at the Marketing Manager stage and yet I am battling the Rider, Writer, and Editor daily. The Rider wants me to publish the book without telling anyone – especially other Big Riders; she thinks (erroneously) that readers will simply stumble upon the book and happily shell out money to read a memoir from an unknown writer. The Writer wants me to wait to publish the book until she is happily ensconced in the middle of her next project and “won’t care as much” if the book gets ridiculed, or more likely, completely ignored. The Editor is the easiest to manage – all I have to do is keep her from opening the manuscript, because if she reads anything, she will want to change it.

The thought that keeps me going is that I have, at each of the previous stages, done the best I could. The Rider was completely overwhelmed and underprepared for the journey she undertook and yet she stuck it out, in her own way, and found meaning, joy, and long-lasting friendships everywhere she went. The Writer did everything she could to tell the story accurately and honestly, to preserve everyone’s secrets but her own, and to shape the actual events into a narrative someone might actually enjoy reading. The Editor hired someone to help her, researched grammar rules constantly, and did the best she could to preserve the language and perspective of the 29-year-old cyclist, despite the fact that she was getting constantly older and more removed from the events of 1998. And, now, I as the Marketing Manager owe it to the Rider, Writer, and Editor, to bring the project home. The book deserves the best cover I can design, the best copy I can write, a fun and appealing website, and someone standing behind it who believes in it. Someone who isn’t afraid to tell people about the book’s existence, regardless of the outcome.

Yes, as a purely literary endeavor, Your Mileage May Vary may still fail. There’s a chance that my experiences really are not worthy of a book. There’s a chance that I wrote a bad book. There’s a chance that the book still needs substantial editing to be worthy of publication. And there’s a chance that, even if I wrote a good book about a worthwhile journey, there is not a large enough audience for my memoir to make it “viable,” or, worse, that I do not know how to find the right audience for my book even if it does exist.

All that matters at this point, though, is that I continue moving the project forward. The contract I have is with myself alone. I have struggled too long to give up now. So for the foreseeable future, I will be keeping my eyes on my own work and reminding myself that in publishing, as in cycling, your mileage may vary – and that’s okay.