Thanksgiving Eve

Time moves in one direction, memory in another. – William Gibson

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My oldest son came home last night. I waited for him all day, the thought of his impending arrival a warm and tingly little feeling in my chest.

He drove seven hours in bumper to bumper traffic to get home. The sight of his car pulling into the driveway filled my heart with joy. Home, and safe!

We had a quick, short dinner together, and then he left to meet his friends – to be with his tribe, whom I know he misses terribly since he moved to Virginia six months ago to start his new job.

I took the dogs out in the backyard, and promptly broke into tears. Big, huge, gulping sobs. Crying like it was the end of the world. The kind of crying where you can’t get any breath and your nose is completely blocked with snot. The dogs paced around me, confused and concerned, marking a small little circle of safety for my grief.

What the hell? Why was I crying? He was home safe, appeared healthy, and was happy to be with his friends again. All good and normal and right.

But for me, last night, his leaving felt like the end of the world; the loss of our past, our most precious times together as mother and son; the dissolution of our family. Absolutely ridiculous, but intensely real to me. I felt alone, bereft, left behind, and oh my god it hurt. I cried for his childhood – and for my motherhood, both so precious and exquisite, and both now gone. I cried for the times when we were the most important humans to him and his brother. For the times when were were a foursome, always together at the holidays.

I walked back inside, and my husband asked me what was wrong. I told him, haltingly, that I felt like our beautiful past together as a family was gone, that we were being left behind, and we would never have it back. He laughed (while watching the basketball game) and said that was just plain stupid. Our boys were strong and successful and doing exactly what they should be doing.

He was right, of course. But nevertheless, I can still feel the intensity of watching that beautiful past roll by, and not being able to grab it and make it stay.

The holidays can be so full of joy for many, but they can also present a veritable minefield of unspoken and unseen emotions. I stepped on a big one last night.

The poet David Whyte says that joy is the “raw engagement with the passing seasonality of existence, the fleeting presence of those we love understood as gift, going in and out of our lives, faces, voices, memory, aromas of the the first spring day or a wood fire in winter, the last breath of a dying parent as they create a rare, raw, beautiful frontier between loving presence and a new and blossoming absence.”

This morning, on Thanksgiving Day, I can still taste those tears and feel that terrible sense of loss for all that is gone. But I know too, that it has all been a most marvelous gift. A gift, however fleeting, that I was privileged to receive and to give. And there will be more.

Step careful, my friends, and be very gentle with yourself during the holidays.

Be grateful for those joys that have been, and those that will come.

This morning, his car is in the driveway again. Home safe to us, one more time. And I am thankful.

Amalfi – A Love Affair

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And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end. – Pico Iyer

One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

What if you lived in a villa overlooking the sea?

And what if this sea was not just any old sea, but the Tyrrhenian Sea. The sea that the mythic Greek hero Odysseus sailed through on his way home from the Trojan War. The sea that housed the ancient island home of the Sirens. The sea bounded by tall and craggy cliffs where the divine Aeolus, Keeper of the Four Winds, lived.

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And what if this little villa was in a small sleepy town, perched high on those famous cliffs, and only reachable by 66 steep stone steps? A villa in a home owned by three generations of fishermen. A villa overlooking the local parish church, built in the 15th century.

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And what if this villa had an expansive terrace, quiet and private, but open to the sun and the breezes? And this terrace led to your own lemon grove, where giant Italian lemons hung swaying in the sweet breeze? And next to that lemon grove was a little pen with chickens, who produced fresh piccola eggs each morning?

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And what if every night you could sit on this terrace, watch the sun set behind the cliffs, and hear the local children playing in the piazza below?

What if you didn’t need a watch in this town, because the church bells outside your terrace rang out the time every 15 minutes? No alarm would be needed, because the sun streams in from the open floor to ceiling windows each morning, accompanied by the church bells and the sounds of Italian children entering the parish church school below.

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And what if you had to walk down many, many steps to the local market, with the smell of honeysuckle surrounding you, and always, ALWAYS a view of the sea – and then tote back your precious purchases, all uphill this time? But it’s perfectly fine to stop and catch your breath, and take in the local art and mini shrines to Mother Mary, while resting your legs. There’s really no hurrying here.

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What if you finished every night with a glass of homemade limoncello, crafted by the 87-year old patriarch of the villa? And drank it nice and SLOW, savoring all the flavors, while you watched the lights of houses on the cliffs twinkle in the darkness?

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What if every morning you got up early to sit on the terrace and listen to the little town slowly come to life around you, the rooster crowing and the sound of the fishing boats leaving from the harbor? And each of those mornings, you were greeted (in Italian) by the patriarch of the villa, who came to tend to his chickens and his vegetable garden?

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And what if just a few miles down the road, you could walk among Greek and Roman ruins, with the shadow of the mighty Mt. Vesuvius always looking over your shoulder?

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I could go on and on. The Amalfi coast of Italy was a dream. A shining, glittering, utterly fantastic dream. And I didn’t even mention Capri, probably one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, just a short boat ride away.

I know we visited at the perfect time – late May. So yes, we hit it just right. I hear it gets cold and wet there in the winter, and really hot in the summer months of July and August. And those ubiquitous steps could get to be a real bitch, if you had to trek them every day for twelve months of the year. But that is the life here. No wonder these people are all healthy and mobile, even the 87-year old patriarchs. You adapt to the terrain and to the pace. There is no other choice.

We actually did get used to the steps, but that was only because we had that terrace to come home to each night. That terrace was to die for. These people live OUTSIDE, whenever possible. But who wouldn’t want to, with that view?

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Our host Annamaria, the daughter of the patriarch, Antonio, has lived here all her life. She was born in Sorrento, because there is no hospital in Praiano. The villa is called Casa Bianca, after her mother. Her daughter is named Bianca as well. She and her family, as well as her father Antonio, live in the apartment below ‘our’ villa. Every piece of furniture and every beautiful thing in that villa (and there were many) had to be carted up those 66 steps – there is NO road that goes to this house. You walk or you don’t get there. Just think about that for a moment.

We recycled our own trash – every evening sorting through it to separate paper, aluminum and plastic and glass to put in a separate bin. Each day there is a different pick up, down near the piazza, by a tiny little garbage truck that just fits on those very narrow roads. We didn’t even mind. It was just what you did.

We only bought enough groceries for a day or two – fresh and sold by the local market proprietor. Who wants to carry more bags than are necessary up those daunting steps? Some of our most memorable interactions were in those local markets. Markets where even two people could not stand side by side, but overflowing with fresh fruit and produce, fresh buffalo mozzarella brought in each day, and meat cut to order, if you were willing to wait. We usually made a significant dent in their wine selection – they smiled when they saw us coming.

We washed our clothes and hung them out to dry on racks on the terrace because there was no dryer. In their opinion, that is what the sun is for.

The villa had air conditioning but we never used it. The high ceilings and floor to ceiling windows did the job just fine. And who would want to shut the windows when there was that view and those sounds from the piazza?

In the week that we were there, we saw the Piazza San Luca host the nightly old mens’ checker game, a children’s birthday party, and a funeral. Everyone in the town came out for the funeral procession, slowly walking behind the priest and the coffin bearers, the little altar boy bearing the swinging incense container.

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It was a slice of a VERY different life. A life that is intimately connected to the land and to the sea, to family, church and community. A life that is modern (no lack of internet and texting), but a life that is still slow and physical. A life filled with movement, breath, and frequent pauses for history, beauty or reverence. All in a day’s work.

I don’t know if the Italians in this small town take all this for granted or not. Maybe their awareness is dimmed by familiarity. But, somehow I don’t think so. Each day fresh flowers just appeared in the little niche shrines to Mother Mary. And each morning Antonio slowly and lovingly swept our terrace.

The author Anna Quidlen said, “The life you have led doesn’t need to be the only life you have.”

THIS is why I travel – to be transformed, to return to a state of rare mindfulness and receptivity. To be undimmed by familiarity. To live a new and strange life for just a bit, and to fall in love all over again with the world. To be reminded that life can – and should be – a love affair that never, ever ends.

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A Walk With U.S. History

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National Mall, looking toward the U.S. Capitol

To live under the American Constitution is the greatest political privilege that was ever accorded to the human race. – Calvin Coolidge

America is a nation with many flaws, but hopes so vast that only the cowardly would refuse to acknowledge them. ~James Michener

I promise this will not be a political post.

I try to keep politics off of my blog, as those topics are generally not in line with the the spirit of Running River.

But just a tiny little bit might seep in, as I want to write about my visit this past week to our nation’s capital. Washington, and particularly Georgetown, were my preferred stomping grounds when I was in high school. Only an hour and 20 minutes from Winchester, it was where we went to shop for prom dresses, or to toast the town once we turned eighteen. It was where my father used to take us to see his beloved broadway musicals. I have wonderful memories of going to the Kennedy Center and the National Theatre with him.

My husband and I left the DC metropolitan area twenty years ago, when the boys were young, to move to the slower, friendlier South, and with only one or two exceptions, have never been back.

I went this weekend to see my youngest son Ben participate in the ABA’s National Appellate Advocacy Competition, a moot court competition where law students participate in a hypothetical appeal to the United States Supreme Court.

I entered DC from the south, rolling by the Pentagon and across the 14th St. bridge. The Jefferson Memorial is visible on the left, soon overtaken by the Washington monument, which can be seen for miles. Driving up 14th street, you pass the new Museum of African American History and Culture, the Department of Commerce, US Customs and Border Protection, and then the Department of Treasury, which closely hugs the White House.

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The Washington Monument, as seen from the Mall

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The Museum of African American History and Culture

Washington is a rather young city, by European standards, but these buildings are massive and substantial – they take up whole city blocks. The business of the American government, in six-story granite, slowly roll by my window. The entrances to each are guarded by police and secret service, but tourists roam freely along the sidewalks.

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The Department of Treasury

I spent a good amount of time in the Federal Courthouse at 333 Constitution Ave, where the moot court completion was held. On Thursday, my brother and I walked the 40 minutes from our hotel to the courthouse, down Pennsylvania Ave., which in itself is a national historic site. We passed by the National Archives, the museums of Natural and American History, the Justice Department, the FBI Headquarters, the National Gallery of Art, the Newseum, and yes, the new Trump International Hotel, housed in the old post office. The US Capitol loomed ahead of us at every step.

At each turn, I was struck by the contrasts and paradoxes, given the current political environment. The Newseum, which documents the history and celebrates the values of the free press, stands only a few blocks from the Trump International Hotel. The Newseum exists to “promote, explain and defend free expression and the five freedoms of the First Amendment: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.”

Two statues outside the US Customs and Border Protection building, just a few blocks from the White House, caught my eye. The two statues are a memorial to Oscar Straus, a prominent US statesman, and represent what Straus cherished most about this country; our high esteem for enterprise, on the one hand, and our commitment to freedom of religion on the other. At the base of the monument to religious freedom, the inscription reads: “Our Liberty of Worship is not a Concession nor a Privilege but an Inherent Right.”

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The inscription over entrance #1 to the US Department of Commerce building holds a quote from George Washington; “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.”

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On Friday, I took a walk down to the Mall. It was a brutally cold day, with winds gusting 30-40 miles an hour and snow spitting from the clouds. Just across the street from the Washington monument, two homeless men lay in sleeping bags by a blowing grate. One had a cast on his foot, and two walkers stood nearby.

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I passed by the massive statue honoring General William Tecumseh Sherman, which stands right behind the Treasury Building. Sherman was the Civil War Union General who was known for the harshness of his “scorched earth” tactics against the confederate states.

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Equestrian Statue of General William Tecumseh Sherman

Souvenir trucks lined the road by the Ellipse, manned by friendly Vietnamese proprietors; they sold both Obama and Trump paraphernalia. Red or blue, they didn’t care. I was so cold I considered buying a stars and stripes head band for my ears.

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Street Vendor Near the Ellipse

I passed the Environmental Protection Agency building, its flag still flying high, but taking a strong beating in the stiff winter breeze. In the halls of the US Capitol there is a quote from Theodore Roosevelt, who established the US Forest Service and created the first five national parks. “The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value.”

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The Environmental Protection Agency

In the moot courtroom, the case before the mock Supreme Court was a Title IX sex discrimination complaint. We stood while Ben played the bailiff, saying the words, “The Honorable, the Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court.”

The case was complicated, but the critical questions before the court were:

  • Under Title IX, what obligations do colleges have to oversee and investigate student-on-student sexual assault which occurs in off-campus locations?
  • How much lee-way do federal agencies, in this case, the Department of Education and Office for Civil Rights, have to interpret their own policies in official communications that are issued without public commentary processes?

Considering that Ben was Vice President of his fraternity at Appalachian State, and had primary responsibility for overseeing off-campus, unsanctioned parties, I had to chuckle at the irony of him defending the plaintiff in her argument that the college had responsibility to investigate the claim, regardless of the location. But he did it brilliantly.

The process of the court is tedious, and insists on deep knowledge of the law, on previous case record, and oral advocacy. Appellate advocacy is not a trial, it is intense investigation and questioning of the intent and implications of the laws as they have been applied to-date. Judges can interrupt at any time, to ask questions and challenge the presenter. At all times, extreme deference and respect are given to the role and position of the judges. It is VERY formal, is it civil, it is serious, it is in-depth. And it is a very far cry from a 140-character tweet.

Since the November election, I have been disturbed, rather mightily, about the future of this country. When I took my camera out on Friday, I really didn’t even want to photograph the White House. I still have trouble accepting that Donald Trump is the current occupant.

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The White House

But nevertheless, I left Washington DC with a renewed sense of confidence and comfort. It is hard to explain, given the contradictions and painful paradoxes I noted above. But a walk down Pennsylvania Avenue and the National Mall, as well as time immersed in the rules and structure of the law, left me feeling somewhat uplifted.

Ben took a tour of the Capitol on Friday. In the Cox Corridors, there is a quote from William Jennings Bryan. “Our government conceived in freedom and purchased with blood can be preserved only by constant vigilance.”

Yes, vigilance is called for, now more than ever.

But I think, I hope, we will be okay.

Our roots are strong. Very strong. If you doubt it, go visit Washington DC. I hear it’s beautiful in the spring.

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Lafayette Park, Near The White House

All The Time You Need

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What is time? The shadow on the dial, the striking of the clock,
 the running of the sand, day and night, summer and winter, months,
 years, centuries – these are but arbitrary and outward signs,
 the measure of Time, not Time itself.
Time is the Life of the Soul.  – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In2015, I was a pretty stressed-out person. I was in a job I did not like, one that had me working long hours, in rather challenging circumstances. But one that I felt I could not leave, given how much time I had already put in to the effort. Pretty much par for the course for a fifty-something white collar mid-level executive in the financial services industry.

Some people thrived on it, and I envied them. I truly did. But I was beginning to flag. My body and my soul were losing the daily battle. I could feel it, but I stubbornly ignored it.

Add to that, a parent who was in the last throes of the ravaging disease that is Parkinson’s, and you have a recipe for a very nice late mid-life crisis.

I was swimming in a sea of self-made misery and needed a life preserver, a rescue buoy, from whatever corner it might come.

Personal change happens slowly, in fits and starts. But if you are seeking, something amazing just might land in your path.

In March 2015 I went to Shift Charlotte, and heard Kristen Oliver speak. I knew instantly that I wanted to work with her.

Kristen introduced me to Dr. Joe Dispenza’s work on how people can use the latest findings from the fields of neuroscience and quantum physics to re-wire their brains and re-condition their bodies to make lasting changes.

Kristen starts with helping you understand your own personal “story” loop, and the “triggers” that generate emotions, which then lead to actions. Through discussion and analysis of your triggers, as well as amazing meditation sessions, she helps you change old patterns and beliefs into new ones.

Kristen taught me so much, but the one thing that sticks with me, to this day, is a very simple mantra.

“I have all the time I need….”

At first this little mantra was completely ridiculous to me. The rational mind took over and called total BULLSHIT on this concept.

Of course there is not enough time! There is never enough time! There are deadlines looming, meetings to prepare for, emails to respond to, presentations to develop, bills to pay, errands to run. You can NEVER get it all done, unless you are Super Woman – which of course was what I strived for back then, each and every day.

But I began, somewhat tentatively, to try out this very radical thought, rather surreptitiously looking over my shoulder to see if anyone might be watching to call me out.

When I thought I might be late for a meeting or appointment, I said the mantra under my breath. When I had too much on my To-Do list and started to freak out, I said it again. When I ran through a speaking presentation in my head, preparing my words, it was there, hanging over my thoughts. When I drove to work, cussing at the traffic, I said it again. And again.

I couldn’t get this little mantra out of my mind. And strangely, it comforted me tremendously.

This was a life-changing way of thinking, for someone who had always been in a hurry, juggling multiple balls of self-created urgency.

What is a mantra and why should we have one?

According to the Chopra Center, a mantra, at its core, ..”is the basis of all religious traditions, scriptures, and prayers. When carefully chosen and used silently, mantras are said to have the ability to help alter your subconscious impulses, habits, and afflictions. Mantras, when spoken or chanted, direct the healing power of Prana (life force energy) and, in traditional Vedic practices, can be used to energize and access spiritual states of consciousness. Mantra as a spiritual practice should be done on a regular basis for several months for its desired effects to take place.”

I have thought a lot about this mantra – this unique view of time – over the last few days, as I learned that someone very close to me had a major relapse in her recovery from brain cancer. After enduring surgery, radiation, and then doing tremendously well on experimental immunotherapy treatment for the last six months, the tumor has returned with a vengeance.

I don’t know how much time she has; new treatment protocols have been put in place, but her life has changed again, in a rather dramatic way.

Who among us really knows how much time they have left? How can my mantra be reasonable or comforting to me now, when time is so precious to me and to the ones I love?

It is a paradox, but I think my mantra may be even more critical now, when my fear is high, and when my faith and beliefs are tested.

I have all the time I need….

If you think you have all the time you need, you do not hurry.

If you think you have all the time you need, you make much better decisions.

If you think you have all the time you need, you are kinder to yourself, and to those who are in distress.

If you think you have all the time you need, you are more present and joyous with those you love.

The ancient Greeks had two words for time – chronos and kairos. Chronos referred to the typical chronological or sequential time, but kairos signified “a period or season, a moment of indeterminate time in which an event of significance happens.” Chronos is quantitative, but kairos is qualitative and much more permanent.

The root of the word kairos comes from the Greek traditions of archery and weaving; kairos defines the moment in which an arrow may be fired with just the right force to penetrate a target, or that moment when the shuttle could be cleanly passed through threads on the loom.

In Christian theology, kairos refers to God’s time, sacred time. The time when God moves in mysterious ways. The time when we peek around the corner at eternity.

Kairos time measures moments, not seconds on a clock. It denotes the right moment, the opportune moment, the perfect moment. The window of opportunity. Kairos can’t be planned, and it can not be forced. It is that moment of perfection, that one perfect moment when you stop noticing the passage of time.

Louis Armstrong’s wonderful song, We Have All the Time in the World, offers these thoughts about time.

We have all the time in the world
Time enough for life to unfold
All the precious things love has in store
We have all the love in the world
If that’s all we have
You will find we need nothing more
Every step of the way will find us
With the cares of the world far behind us
We have all the time in the world
Just for love, nothing more, nothing less, only love

I don’t view my little mantra as a free pass to waste or squander time; on the contrary, it’s a centering practice that draws me back to what is truly important. It draws me back to a way of being, in kairos time, that is peaceful, loving, and most thoroughly present.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, “time is the life of the soul.” I think that the root of the soul is possibly love. Nothing more, nothing less, only love. And love surely lives in kairos time.

So, the next time you find yourself hurrying, or getting caught up in fear and anxiety, or feeling short and angry with someone who has mucked up your precious plan, take a deep breath and say the words.

I have all the time I need….

Who knows, you might just step into kairos time, which is the best time there is.

You’ve Come A Long Way Baby – Anatomy of a Corporate De-Tox, Part IV

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Nothing is, unless our thinking makes it so. – Shakespeare

Enthusiasm is everything. It must be taut and vibrating like a guitar string. – Pele

Last weekend I ran into a friend of mine, one I had not seen for a year. We usually meet at least annually, at the artist Catherine Anderson’s Open Studio. If you’ve not been to Catherine’s Charlotte studio, I highly recommend it. It’s a wonderful, magical and safe place where dreams, desires and creativity meet up to do wonderful things. When I saw my friend last year, I was very unhappy – unhappy in my job, miserable in my unfulfilling, unhealthy workaholic lifestyle, and feeling frustrated and trapped with nowhere to go until retirement.

I was hanging on by a thin thread, but damn well determined to hang on, as long as it took.

Three days after that conversation, on Dec 9th, I was told my position had been eliminated.

It was literally the first day of the rest of my life.

Friday was the one-year anniversary of my release.

A lot has happened in that one year, things both tangible and intangible. Things that are easy to describe and put a date and time to, and others that were more gradual and internal, but of seismic proportions, nevertheless.

When I saw my friend this weekend, she asked how I was doing. I told her I was doing “OK”. In a rather matter-of-fact way, I shared the positive changes that had occurred – taking four months off, finding a new job that I loved, working only 40-45 hours a week with a great client, the ability to work from home when not traveling, the sale of my parents’ house, etc.

She nodded her head, looking a little curious. Then she said, “Wow, it sounds fantastic! But why are you describing it as only ‘OK’? Your words sound awesome, but your energy is making me wait for the bad news.”

I said, “You know, you’re right, it really is FREAKING FANTASTIC right now! So fantastic I’m almost embarrassed! I have no idea why I have a hard time saying that to you.”

Her words made me think about why I am so hesitant to recognize and share – both in words and with my energy – how truly great life is right now.

From the depths of misery, to balance, joy and healing in one year. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

So why am I not shouting it from the rooftops? Why – and what – am I holding back?

I think the root of the problem is in my blood. I was raised to not be a show-off. Showing off is just bad manners, Pride cometh before the fall and all that. My parents did not come from money and had to work hard for their security. The unspoken message was that bad things could happen if you let down your guard and took things for granted. They both worked with the same employer for over 25 years. You always had to do the smart thing, the safe thing, the rational thing. Risk-taking was not encouraged, except in sports.

My mother was also superstitious. To this day, when I spill salt, I still pick it up and throw it over my left shoulder. You do NOT want to anger the Gods by being too full of pride, too joyous, too smug. That’s a recipe for disaster.

My Dad was a strong introvert and a man of few words. His passions ran deep under the skin, and you almost never saw them. Out-of-control excitement, for him, signaled that something was out of whack in your personality. He distrusted extreme emotion in almost all its forms.

The etymology of the word “enthusiastic” comes from the Greek “en” and “theos”. ‘God within’, or put another way, “to be inspired or possessed by a God”. In today’s language, it is good to be “enthused” and “inspired”, but bad to be “possessed.” But they come from the same root.

How much enthusiasm is enough, and how much is too much? And does it matter?

In our conversation, my friend encouraged me to think about the energy I am projecting out into the world, and pointed me toward the body of work on the Law of Attraction.

The Law of Attraction is an old theory, dating back to the 1900’s, but was made famous by the movie The Secret. Its basic premise is that “thoughts create things, and positive emotional attitudes are helpful and necessary to manifest desires.” We, and our thoughts, are energy. And like energy attracts like energy – essentially you draw to your life what you put out.

There are some who think the Law of Attraction is a lot of new-age crap, but there is actually some scientific evidence that supports it. Underlying the science of the Law of Attraction is the notion of connection, at an atomic level- we are connected within and without. What we think and feel affects how we will act and how others will act as well. The depth of our feelings and actions is a critical variable in “attracting” what we want to our lives.

After the first few months, which were pretty rocky (I won’t deny it) – this year was good. No, make that GREAT. I am a different person than I was on Dec 9th a year ago, and all for the better.

But here’s the thought I’m noodling on….how much greater could it have been if I had not been afraid to send that energy more strongly out into the world? What else could have happened or been brought forth?

When I started my corporate de-tox journey one year ago, I knew it would take a while, and that it would have many stages.

First there was SHOCK, then there was FEAR.

After FEAR came a little bit of DEPRESSION, with some more FEAR thrown in just for good measure.

Oh and let’s not forget the ANGER, there was definitely a lot of that.

Then came SURPRISE, and its first cousin, HOPE.

And, after a good long while (about eight months, to be exact) came FORGIVENESS.

And now, twelve months in, comes JOY.

Another friend told me a few months ago that a year is probably NOT long enough to shed all the remnants of a thirty-three year corporate life and identity. It is only just the beginning.

Metamorphosis is a process, and it can not be rushed. The caterpillar turns into a butterfly at its own pace. If you try to rush it, you will kill it.

What a difference a year can make. I had to pass through all those stages to get to where I am now. I’m not going to spend one more minute thinking about what could have been, had I been faster to progress through the stages, or more enthusiastic and less fearful during the process.

A new year cometh. A new year, with new opportunities to put forth positive energy into the world and see what it draws.

The butterfly has emerged from its cocoon. And it’s a great feeling. Let the next stage begin!

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Original photo by Sarah Mattingly, November 2016

The Power of Memory

…no matter how much time passes, no matter what takes place in the interim, there are some things we can never assign to oblivion, memories we can never rub away. They remain with us forever, like a touchstone.”  – Haruki Murakami

It’s the emptiest and yet the fullest of all human messages: ‘Good-bye’. – Kurt Vonnegut

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I didn’t grow up in the big ranch-style house on Launchris Drive.

My parents bought it in 1994, when they were heading into their golden years. My brother and I grew up in a small house in a working class neighborhood in Winchester VA. It was our parents’ first house, the one they built right before I was born, and they lived in it for over 30 years.

When I say that their first house was small, I am not kidding. Two bedrooms and 1 1/2 baths on the first floor, with an eat-in kitchen and a little carport. My brother and I shared a room when we were little, until my father was able to finish the basement.

You could pretty much put the entire first floor of our childhood home into the game room of the house on Launchris Drive – 3200 square feet, 1 acre lot surrounded by trees, huge rooms, a big garage, and a beautiful in-ground pool. My brother almost cried when he saw it for the first time, thinking about the parties he could have had in this house when he was in high school. The house is located close to town, but just a little bit out in the country. On the road in, you pass by rolling fields where cows peacefully graze. The old Civil War hospital sits up on the hill, surrounded by several new McMansions owned by doctors who want to be five minutes away from the regional medical center.

My parents were not wealthy. They were born during the great depression and lived through World War II. They worked hard at the same jobs for over thirty years and were big savers. They bought the house on Launchris Drive for cash.

It was their dream house. My father was a bit of a hermit, and liked nothing better than to putter in his big workshop or sit by the pool in the quiet and read.

My boys and my nieces loved to come to Grandma’s house. This was the house where I brought my boys when I had to go on extended business trips. It was the one place where I could leave my young children and never worry for a minute.

There was pool time and popsicles and visits to see the puppies next door. There were trips in Grandma’s big Lincoln to the golf course for lessons and lunch. And there was Grandma’s rocking chair and her lap to sit in at night.

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The five Jack grandchildren in the pool at Launchris Drive

My mother died in April 2010. My father left six months later to live near my brother in North Carolina, because his Parkinson’s disease was progressing and he could not care for himself in the big house alone. We never broached the prospect of selling it while he was alive, because he always hoped he would go back there. We both knew that would never happen – and he probably did too – but we rarely discussed it with him. It was just too painful.

My father died last year, and we put the house on the market in June. We got a contract for the sale in September, and last week, made the final trip to clean it out and sign the papers for the sale.

After we signed the papers, we left to make the long drive home. My route to Charlotte takes me all the way down the beautiful Shenandoah Valley on Interstate 81.

I had a lump in my throat all the way to Roanoke.

My parents haven’t lived in that house for almost six years, and Winchester and the Shenandoah valley haven’t been my home for over 40 years. So why was it so damn hard to leave it?

While I do have great memories of our life in the little house where we grew up, it was a long, long time ago. I left that house when I was eighteen, over 40 years ago, and never looked back. I was off to make my life.

But when I enter the house on Launchris Drive, my memories of my parents in their best years, and then in their last years, are fresh. So very fresh.

For a long time after her death, when I entered my mother’s bedroom, I could smell her perfume. When I sat at her dressing table, I saw her face looking back at me through the make-up mirror.

When I walked through the garage, I saw my father at the workbench amongst his tools – every drawer and wall switch neatly labeled, in his distinctive hand-written script. His Eddie Bower work jacket, size 2XL, still hung on the hook next to the door to go upstairs.

When I sat on the patio, I saw a lazy summer afternoon and my father playing with my boys in the pool. I saw my mother coming back from a round of golf, flushed and sun-burned, ready for her 5 o’clock cocktail.

Those are the good memories. The really great memories.

But I when I enter that house, I also see them in their last years, when their health was failing.

When I go into my mother’s bathroom, I see her sprawled on the floor after a fall. I see my son Jake and I trying to get her up and back into her jazzy chair, but failing at the task. We had to call the rescue squad that day to assist.

I see the marks on the walls from the jazzy chair, where she ran into the walls. I see the lengths of oxygen tube leading down the hall. I see the travel wheel chair and rolling oxygen tank in the trunk of her Lincoln in the garage.

I see the table in the kitchen where we sat and tried, in vain, to encourage them to move into an assisted-living community before it was too late.

I see the chair in the den where my father sat on a quiet April afternoon, the day my brother and I walked in to tell him his wife of 54 years had passed away.

Closure is a funny thing. It doesn’t have a timetable.

We started cleaning that house out over nine months ago; you’d think I’d be over the nostalgia and pain by now. In fact, by Sunday of last weekend, we were tossing stuff with abandon into the trash bin. The last things we wanted to keep were loaded into a U-Haul. We were tired, sweaty, and seriously DONE with the tedious task of sifting through the accumulation of 80 years of stuff.

But here’s the thing. While we owned that house in my home town, my parents were still somewhat alive to me. Everything we did to maintain it in these last years was done with the specific intent and spirit of what my father would have wanted.

Their spirits permeated that place, and selling it was the final goodbye.

Now, nothing tangible of my personal history is left there, except for their graves, and the graves of my ancestors, in Mt. Hebron cemetery.

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Mt. Hebron Cemetery, Winchester VA. Resting place of my parents as well as my maternal grandparents and great-grandparents.

But that’s not really true. That valley and that town will always feel like home to me.

Once I fought through the lump in my throat, I was filled with tremendous gratitude while driving down the valley. Gratitude for both the good and the painful memories. Gratitude for the legacy of love and strength left to me by my parents and my extended family.

I have a history, and it is there, in that small town in the Shenandoah Valley.

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Macedonia United Methodist Church, White Post VA. Resting place of a good portion of the Ritter clan.

The poet David Whyte, in his gem of a little book, Consolations, says that a memory is not just a then that you recall in the now, it is a powerful living pulse that in many ways informs and creates your now. Memories are an “invitation to the source of our life”, and they can create and influence what is about to happen.

We actually inhabit memory as a living threshold, as a place of choice and volition and imagination, a cross-roads where our future diverges according to how we interpret, or perhaps more accurately, how we live the story we have inherited.

I love the idea of Memory as a pulsing life force, winding its way through our past, present and future; an inheritance of connection with a continuous outward radiating effect. Our future path can depend on “how we live the story we have inherited.”

On Sunday, the couple who were buying the house came by for a visit. He works at the hospital, and she is a social worker providing therapeutic treatment services for youths in need in the school system. They brought their little girl, Ruby, along – a bouncy blond two-year old, wearing a saucy pink bow in her hair, who can’t wait to swim in the pool. They have two dogs – one, an older New Foundland who needs a big back yard in which to roam.

My mother spent over 30 years dedicated to the Winchester school system as a visiting teacher helping families and children in need. She taught swimming lessons for the local parks and recreation system for many years when we were young. One of her life-long best friends was named Ruby. And she loved dogs almost as much as she loved us.

Who knows if the treasure trove of happy memories, generated in that house during my parents’ golden years, somehow wound their way into the consciousness of this young couple and influenced their decision to purchase it?

I don’t know, but I like to think so. Regardless, I think it’s my job now to continue to live the marvelous story that I inherited.

Saying goodbye for the final time is hard.

But I couldn’t have scripted a more fitting ending to this chapter of my life.

I’m pretty sure my mother would have been pleased as well.

Altars in the World

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Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.
― Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith

Wonder takes our breath away, and makes room for new breath. That’s why they call it breathtaking.
― Anne Lamott, Help Thanks Wow: Three Essential Prayers

When the boys were young, we took them hiking and camping in the mountains of North Carolina. We walked the rhododendron-covered trails of the Pisgah National Forest; we climbed the rocky trails to the summit of Grandfather Mountain; we camped by the Raven Fork River in Cherokee.

I won’t say they loved all of it – in fact, they bitched A LOT about how much we walked in the (boring) woods. Sometimes it was more like a forced march. But for the most part, those trips are some of my most treasured memories.

Hiking challenging mountain trails brings out the best – and the worst – in personalities. Jake, our oldest son, was almost always cheerful on the trails, as he is with most of life. He seemed to be very at home in the woods. In fact, he went on to become an Eagle Scout. He’s done more wilderness camping than all of us put together, and is truly the man you want to have with you on the trail or in the campground. His quiet leadership makes everyone just feel safer, whether he’s on a construction site in his engineer’s hard hat, or out in the woods, miles away from civilization.

Our younger son Ben was not that fond of our wilderness adventures. He whined and bitched and dragged his feet a good deal. You will always know how Ben feels about a situation; he gets that from me and his grandmother. He dropped out of scouting pretty early on, to focus on baseball. If truth be told, I think the real reason he dropped out was that he did not like spiders – and there were a good number of spiders in the Charlotte Mecklenburg BSA’s old platform tents.

I remember so many of those hikes with the boys, but one grueling trek stands out in particular – Grandfather Mountain summit trail, where a mountain goat would have had a damn tough time. It began to rain halfway up the mountain. The boys were scaling the slippery rocks and ladders with minimal difficulty, but Mom was struggling – seriously struggling, and slowly, very slowly, bringing up the rear. Young Ben was the reason I made it to the top that day; constantly encouraging me, lending me his iPod to listen to motivating music, and constantly looking over his shoulder to call, “Mommy, you can make it, I know you can!”

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That day, the trail brought out the best in him. When you’re down and dragging and think you can’t go on, Ben is the fierce and feisty one to have in your corner. If you’re his friend or his blood kin, he’ll stand by you, through thick and thin and never let you down.

We just returned today from a week in the mountains of North Carolina. We hiked almost every day, discovering trails in the high country we had never walked before. We took our new puppy Zoey with us. Each morning, I rose at 7am to walk her up the mountain, as there was no fenced yard at the house we rented. We saw the mist laying heavily in the valley below, Grandfather Mountain in the distance. There was no sound except for the rushing creeks, the tinkling of Zoey’s collar, and my huffing and puffing as we climbed the winding road. In my normal life, I would have complained very strongly at this inconvenience, as I am NOT a morning person. But this ritual became one I looked forward to each morning; it was the perfect start to the day.

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On our hikes, I was in my heaven – my light-weight, Sony a6000 mirrorless camera in hand, breathing deep, feeling my legs move and my lungs pump. So many times I stopped to take in the view, to say, WOW. Just WOW. Hopping across the stones of multiple creeks, sometimes deliberately stepping into the water to frame a great shot, laughing each time we entered a meadow, to see Zoey chase the butterflies and grasshoppers, constantly repeating the exercise, regardless of the fact that she never won the battle – it was my own form of church, where gratitude and presence were all there was.

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We had visitors for the first three days of our stay – a loved one and her husband, taking a break from a six-week cancer treatment stint at Duke. I watched her come slowly out of the fog of sickness-focus, buoyed by the presence of family and held up by the gift of the mountains. On Sunday she managed (brilliantly) a 3-mile hike down to the Hebron Rock Falls Colony, the flush of life returning to her skin. I like to think it brought the best of her to the surface again, after being somewhat hidden for the last few months in the darkness and fear of battling cancer.

One of my favorite books, one that I go back to again and again, is Barbara Brown Taylor’s Altar in the World, a Geography of Faith. Brown-Taylor is an Episcopal priest, who teaches spirituality at Columbia Theological Seminary. Two of her main premises are that “every spiritual practice begins with the body”, and “…the whole world is the House of God.” If we learn to pay attention with our body, we will find multiple altars to the creator in the physical world.

To lie with my back flat on the fragrant ground is to receive a transfusion of the same power that makes the green blade rise. To remember that I am dirt and to dirt I shall return is to be given my life back again, if only for one present moment at a time. Where other people see acreage, timber, soil, and river frontage, I see God’s body, or at least as much of it as I am able to see. In the only wisdom I have at my disposal, the Creator does not live apart from creation but spans and suffuses it. When I take a breath, God’s Holy Spirit enters me. When a cricket speaks to me, I talk back. Like everything else on earth, I am an embodied soul, who leaps to life when I recognize my kin. If this makes me a pagan, then I am a grateful one.

I have been thinking a lot lately about where and with whom I am at my best. The older I get, the less time there is to not be at my best.

Where do I feel closest to God? Where does my soul feel most connected, most “embodied”? Where do I “leap to life”? Where do I bow in reverence to something greater than myself?

I need cool air and height and vista; history, books, and ancient buildings; my camera, my dog and my loved ones. These are my ordinary/extra-ordinary places, where I meet up with the divine.

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When I left for the mountains, I thought I would spend a lot of my time sitting on the deck and writing. In fact, I wrote nothing, except a few entries in my journal. Instead, I met up daily with the Creator, in my body, out in his/her most beautiful world, and worshipped at more altars than I can count.

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Now THAT is a good vacation.

Life Lessons from the Tail-Wagging Crowd

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Why does watching a dog be a dog fill one with such happiness? – Jonathan Safran Foer

Once you have had a wonderful dog, a life without one, is a life diminished. – Dean Koontz

Today is National Dog Day. I had no idea there was such a holiday, but there you have it.

Since reflecting on the special magic of dogs is a much better option than reading the current political news, I’m going to indulge myself here on a Friday afternoon, on National Dog Day, with a celebration of my favorite dogs and the life lessons they have taught me.

Rowdy, Bear and Zoey. All three rescued mutts with no pedigrees but very big hearts.

Rowdy – a dalmatian-pointer mix, who was found starving and running loose in rural South Carolina thirteen years ago. She passed away last year, and we still grieve for her loss.

Bear – a black and tan hound mix from the Boone Humane Society. He’s prone to barking and whining, and is not opposed to a little doggie Xanax now and then. He’s officially my son’s dog, but I like to think I have partial custody. He calls me Mimi.

And Zoey – our newest, a peppy and somewhat clingy five-month-old pitt/rottweiler/cattle dog/pointer mix rescued from the Charlotte pound.

Zoey chases butterflies and fireflies. She’ll never fly, but she thinks she can.

Zoey persists in trying to catch the chipmunk that lives under the fountain on the patio. That chipmunk has survived the likes of Rowdy and Bear, so there’s a very high likelihood that little Zoey is no match. But how awesome is it that she does not stop trying even when the Great have failed before her?

After a long walk in the hot sun, Zoey just flops down on the cold tile floor, all four legs spread wide. She’s not worried about how she looks or that it’s an unflattering position. She also snores, which is not very ladylike, but I don’t think she cares about that either.

Zoey takes a nap when she is tired. Enough said. What a damn good idea.

Zoey gets so excited with the birds and the squirrels when let outside, she often forgets to pee. As a woman on the other side of fifty, I, unfortunately, rarely forget to do that, even when I am giddy with joy.

Rowdy used to hunker in the bathroom whenever there was a fight going on in the household. She had no use for conflict and mean, angry voices.

Rowdy happily went for a walk every day, even when she had a tumor the size of a cantaloupe in her chest. She never gave up, she just walked a little slower.

Bear has adapted to four homes in less than two years. Have dog bowl, will travel.

Eating anything that presents itself is not a good idea. Just ask Bear how he felt after eating a magic marker, a six inch piece of rubber, or that corncob.

For Bear, Rowdy and Zoey, any time it’s sunny it’s always a good time to go roll in the grass.

When someone you love is sad, it’s ok to let them rub your ear and snuggle, even if it goes on for hours. Rowdy’s ears were my particular favorite.

No matter how big or old you get, there is almost always room for one more on the bed. A love fest with your favorite people makes any day a little better.

Believe you can fly (at least metaphorically speaking..).

Never give up.

Think before you eat.

Take a nap and a walk every day, even if you feel bad.

Love with abandon every chance you get.

Go and pet a dog today. Trust me, you’ll feel better.

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On Dogs and Life

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Mimi and Bear, 2016

Life was meant to be lived, and curiosity must be kept alive. One must never, for whatever reason, turn his back on life. – Eleanor Roosevelt

There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face. – Ben Williams

Everybody told my son Ben that he should NOT get a dog. He was a senior in college, going off to law school in the fall. He had no money, and lived in a dump up on a mountain near Boone NC, appropriately named “The Shack”. It was January and the only form of heat in the Shack was a space heater. My brother, a successful attorney, said that dogs – and girlfriends – were verboten for law students; they would just distract him from his one mission – to graduate from law school and pass the bar.

But he didn’t listen to all the wise adults in his life.

If you know Ben, this is not surprising.

He did what his heart told him to do, and damn the torpedoes. Bear, his dog, is a handful (like his father), but now part of the family, and Ben’s most trusted companion. Bear hangs in there while Ben studies his law books, and they take walks at 1am. Not an ideal dog’s life, but they’ve made it work – most of the time.

Over the past six months, since I left my job with the one company I had been with for over 33 years, I have worked hard to simplify and de-tox my life. I’ve cleaned out my closets, crafted a kick-ass financial plan, learned to cook healthy food, and drastically reduced both my daily stress and my formal work hours.

Things should have been great. Blow out, freaking GREAT! But I was stuck trying to decide what to do with all this extra time – and peace – in my life. Plan for a big trip? That was something I had loved to do in the past. I perused several travel books, but strangely could not commit. France, Italy, or Scotland beckoned. What was holding me back?

Buy a second home at the beach with my brother? Get a dog? I seriously missed having a dog in my life. Trade in the Volvo for an SUV to travel America with the dog? All ideas floating across my mind. So many possibilities, but I could not decide. I was holding back, but did not know why.

My life now was almost too perfect – too clean, too simplified. And when things are too perfect, I’m programmed to look for the rain. It’s bound to come, sooner or later, so you better prepare. One should NEVER get too comfortable or too confident. That’s been my motto and it’s served me well in the past.

One month ago someone very close to us was diagnosed with brain cancer. In her late sixties, she had previously been in wonderful health. Her husband had recently scaled back his work dramatically, and they were looking forward to an extended international trip in August. She’s beautiful, well-traveled, creative, vibrant. Now she faces radiation and chemotherapy for at least the next year. This diagnosis dropped like a bomb into their life and into the lives of those who love them.

Frankly, it scared the hell out of me. I’ve thought about it literally every day since I learned of her diagnosis.

What was the good of planning, if shit like this could happen?

I went into bunker-like, preservation mode thinking.

Could something like this happen to us? (Yes, of course it could.) Should we save our money for the preverbial rainy day to come? (Probably.) What if my next consulting assignment did not materialize? What if one of us got sick – really sick?

Analysis paralysis, with a huge dose of fear and pessimism thrown in.

Strangely, spending time last weekend with our loved one after her brain surgery, solidified the way out of the morass for me.

Yes, bad shit may happen. Or it may not. The pessimist/realist in me leans 70/30 toward the bad. But there is absolutely nothing to be gained by watching for the black cloud on the horizon. And a good amount to be lost.

Waiting for the other shoe to drop is no way to live. Life is not life, if there are no dreams, no aspirations, no enjoyment, no hope. Whether you have brain cancer or are just middle-aged, you still must dream. You still must HOPE. You still must LIVE.

Ben was only twenty-one when he decided to adopt Bear on the eve of going to law school. When we are young, life is all possibility, and we can not envision the roadblocks to come. In our youth, bad shit happens to someone else, but not to us. We don’t see risk when we are young in the same way that we see it on the other side of fifty.

But dreams and aspirations require risk, no matter what the age. Life at its best requires that we take the risk of listening to our heart, whether we are twenty-one or fifty-six.

So, yesterday I listened to my heart and adopted a puppy from the Charlotte Humane Society.

I named her Zoey, which means “LIFE” in Greek.

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The Gift of Perception

May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.  – Nelson Mandela

The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.   – Robertson Davies

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Ponte Vecchio, Florence Italy

Back in January while I was spending my days as a woman of somewhat forced leisure, dancing alternately with both the fear monkey and his wayward sister, the dreamer monkey, I did a crazy thing.

I booked an apartment in Florence, Italy for the entire month of April. The apartment was located in the artisan Oltrarno district of Florence, a ten minute walk across the Ponte Vecchio from the historic city center. In addition to the apartment, I registered for a three – week intensive conversational Italian class, at the Scuola Leonardo da Vinci. The school is located just around the corner from the magnificent Florence Duomo.

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Il Duomo di Firenze

Learning to speak Italian has been on my bucket list for a long time, and it seemed the perfect time to do it. I was ready to run away, to escape to my beloved Italy, and live like a local for four glorious weeks. I had money and I had time; so why not go?

The little apartment was a dream – on a quiet street, with two bedrooms (one for visitors), and a balcony overlooking a courtyard. My morning walk to school would take me past the Palazzo Pitti, through the Boboli Gardens, and across the famous Ponte Vecchio, through the Palazzo Vecchio and past the magnificent Duomo to the school. After four hours of school in the morning (I have always loved school), the afternoons would be mine to spend strolling the famous city.

I was to arrive in Italy on April 1.

The irony of that arrival date – April Fools Day – is not lost on me.

I DID feel like a fool back then – bouncing recklessly from idea, to fear, to dream, and back again. I didn’t know what I wanted to do or be in the next half of my life.

As Spring and my departure date approached, I began to waiver.

The Italian 1 class I was taking locally at the Jewish Community Center was hard. Memorizing vocabulary and conjugating verbs is fine, but trust me, fluent conversation is hard. Damn hard.

The work on my parents’ house in Virginia was stalled by bad weather and contractor delays. The sheer amount of STUFF left by my parents, in the house of their dreams, was staggering. The amount of work to clean it up was not going to get done in a couple of weekend trips.

I had packed my leisure time with tons of projects – including renovating the bathrooms in our Charlotte house and painting the entire first floor. Of course, those contractors were delayed as well.

My need for security, sobered by several meetings with a financial planner, got to me, and I started job hunting, albeit rather reluctantly. I thought it would take several months.

So on March 1, after several days of anxiety and indecision, I sent the Italian landlord a note to let him know I was cancelling my trip. Technically, I said ‘postponed.’

After I got past the hard decision to cancel, I didn’t give too much more thought to it. I was very busy with work efforts on two houses while actively job hunting.

I received two job offers in a little over two months, way faster than I imagined. I’ve now been in my new job for a month, and am traveling a good bit. So I decided to re-read Dan Brown’s Inferno, because fast-moving novels make airplane flights go faster, and I’m a sucker for fiction that is woven with historical details.

The first chapters of Inferno are set in Florence, in the very same Oltrarno. Robert Langdon and his partner in crime, Sienna Brooks, who are being chased by potential assassins, run through the 13th century Porta Romana, into the Boboli Gardens, through the Palazzo Pitti, and across the Arno River, via the famous secret Vasari passage over the Ponte Vecchio, to land at the Palazzo Vecchio, the ancient power seat of the Medici.

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Palazzo Vecchio

I almost cried while reading those chapters. That was going to be MY neighborhood! I was going to sit with my journal on those benches in the Boboli Gardens! I was going to explore the Palazzo Pitti! I was going to stroll across the Ponte Vecchio each day to school!

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Medici Lion

What had I done?

Who was the fool now?

I became a bit melancholy and not a little disappointed in myself. Damn it, I had not taken the road less traveled, as Mr. Frost says. My rational mind had told me it just wasn’t practical to go to Italy for an entire month.

I thought more about my choice back then, and what drove me to make it. We all make choices every day. Big choices and small choices. What motivates us to make the choices we do?

How much do we really see of the true landscape of our choices? How aware are we of what drives us to make the choices we do?

In my case, I came up with a particularly pointed question.

Was invoking ‘practicality’ just another word for fear?

Last year, before the December big event that ended my 33 year career with Bank of America, I felt trapped. I felt good and truly stuck, with no good options – chained by golden handcuffs to a job I had outgrown and in which I was miserable. I felt I just had to stick it out for another five to six years until I could retire. Our retirement nest egg needed further building, and my younger son was in law school.

Arthur Rimbaud said, ’I believe I am in Hell, and therefore I am.” That was me in 2015.

I couldn’t see any options in front of me, other than putting one foot in front of another for a few more years. The landscape in my mind’s eye was pretty barren. There was just one road, one path, leading through the desert to the oasis, a long way ahead.

Perception is everything, people.

Back then, I couldn’t see that I really DID have choices.

A LOT of choices. In fact, as it turns out, a lot of very good choices.

I had a decent 401K, and money and real estate bequeathed to my by my father. I had an entire year of severance. I had my health, my family and my talents, which are not inconsiderable.

Frankly, the world was my oyster, but I just couldn’t see it.

Why not?

Fear, most likely.

I probably made that Italy choice driven by fear, instead of hope, as Nelson Mandela advocates.

Could I have done both? Gone to Italy for a month, and then found my great new job later in the year? Probably. But it’s water under the proverbial Ponte Vecchio at this point.

But in reflecting on that choice, and my path over the last six months, I have learned the true value of the gift I was given on December 9th.

The difference between what I was able to see last year, and what I can see now, is like night and day. Literally.

There is always another way to look at the landscape in front of us. In every moment, we do have a choice. They may not always be great choices, but there are always choices.

I did not go to Italy, and maybe that decision was based in part by fear. But I can SEE that now.

I can see a lot of things more clearly now, six months out from my departure.

I chose to take this new job. I thought long and hard about it. No one or no thing forced me to do it. I know why I am doing it, and how it aligns with my goals. And I can change it, if it doesn’t work out.

That shift in perspective is a big deal for me.

I have a sticker on my computer, given to my by the author Patti Digh, as a parting gift from my transformational January writing retreat. It’s a simple question, but a powerful reminder of how we might all think about our choices.

What’s the BEST that can happen?

In my case, here’s the best that could happen:

  • I found a financial advisor that I trust, who understands my goals and will partner with me to make them happen.
  • I found a new job with a great company that values talent, experience and true work-life balance.
  • My current client is a joy to work with – professional, capable, personable and compassionate.
  • I am able to work from home – on my patio amongst my flowers – when not traveling.
  • If I choose, I can take time off to travel in between engagements.

Before my exit, in typical project manager fashion, I always went first to “What’s the WORST that can happen?” Over the years, I had been programmed to look for the worst, to make contingency plans and to NEVER expect the best.

That’s a toxic way of looking at the world. It took me six months of soul searching to clear my vision and to learn to see in another way.

Yesterday, I sent a note to my Italian landlord to rent that little Oltrarno apartment for a week in September. It’s not a month, but it will do just fine for now. I wasn’t kidding when I said “postponed’.

Change your perception and you can change your world.

The BEST thing that could have happened to me, happened on December 9. And I will never look at the world in the same way again.