There Can Always Be Curiosity

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Pink Dogwood, processed with PhotoToaster and Tangled FX

You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have. –  Maya Angelou

And since creativity is still the most effective way for me to access wonder, I choose it.” – Elizabeth Gilbert

I don’t go out into the back yard much, now that our Spring break visit with grand-puppy Bear is over. We used to get up early in the morning for Bear to do his business. I would be barely awake, hair all askew, with a shawl wrapped around me, while Bear sniffed his way across the yard and flower beds for that perfect place to make his deposit.

It was a wonderful way to start the morning. The dew was still fresh on the grass. The birds flitted peacefully around the feeder, accepting of my presence, as long as Bear was far away, barreling through the back bushes that line the fence.

I even saw the sun rise a few times.

I’ve been in a bit of a creative funk since Bear left, missing him and our daily ‘non-working’ life together – our early morning sun salutations, our daily walks on the Greenway, the sound of his collar tinkling as he followed me around the house, his warm presence at the foot of my bed each night. Since he left, I haven’t written much, nor picked up my camera to take a view on the new spring world in full blown action outside my porch.

I’ve been kind of bored and slow and sluggish. And completely uncreative. A most incongruous feeling, as spring takes flight in the Carolinas.

This morning, Easter morning, I stepped outside with my camera, after two weeks away from our backyard oasis. No furry companion this time, but, nevertheless, a long overdue visit.

The verbena Bear and I planted one sunny afternoon was going strong.

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The mint was ramping up for its invasive summer takeover mission.

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Our new pink dogwood tree, which Andrew had carefully nurtured throughout the hot late summer, was finally blooming.

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The peonies were on their last hurrah, but the irises were close to showing their faces.

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The rose buds were coming out, and the Japanese maple leaves were presenting their colors.

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Elizabeth Gilbert says that even when there is no passion, when boredom reigns, there can always be curiosity. Curiosity is the low bar, always something you can grab, even when passion seems to have left you. It’s the “tiny tap on the shoulder”, versus passion’s big tower of flame. Curiosity doesn’t take a lot of effort – just a slight turn of the head and a small response to what has caught your attention.

Like the action of grabbing the camera and walking outside your back door. So simple, but so important.

A simple, single step to come back in to wonder and creativity.

If you can take the slightest effort to respond to curiosity, it will eventually lead you back to passion. And that might just be the end of boredom.

From Doing to Being: Anatomy of a Corporate De-Tox, Part III:

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Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most. – Buddha

The soul does not grow by addition but by subtraction. – Meister Eckhart

Some time ago, a friend of mine who had recently received a severance package said the following to me:

“The worst part is trying to figure out what to do with all the time in your day.”

This, my friends, has NOT been my cross to bear over the last two months. In fact, it’s been exactly the opposite.

Here’s a sampling of what was on my list of THINGS TO DO while enjoying my early retirement hiatus:

  • Clean out and ready my parents’ house for sale by April 1. It’s useful to note here that this property is SIX hours away from me, and has the accumulated crap of my parents’ 80+ years lifetime stuffed in it. My father left it over five years ago, when his Parkinson’s disease worsened, to be cared for by my brother in North Carolina. While we’ve done the minimal required maintenance over that time, the house has not had much tender loving care since around 2007.
  • Clean every closet and drawer in my Charlotte house; paint all rooms and remodel bathrooms.
  • Go to Italy for a month; take an Italian language intensive class. In February, I put a deposit down on an awesome apartment in Florence, for the entire month of April. I registered for three weeks of an Italian intensive language class at the Leonardo da Vinci Scuola in Florence.
  • Get healthy; lose weight and discover self-care.
  • Job hunt for an executive-level position.
  • Re-vamp my blog’s website and write. Write a lot.
  • Finally really learn Lightroom and Photoshop. Take a lot of pictures. Dip my toe into offering photography services for hire.
  • Adopt a dog. It’s damn lonely around here without grand-puppy Bear.
  • Execute a thorough financial/retirement planning analysis and plan.
  • Make deeper connections with friends and colleagues. Is it frivolous ‘lunching’ if you are are also ‘networking’?
  • Volunteer again – find a meaningful cause that could use my time and leadership gifts.
  • Do a lot of yoga and learn to meditate. Quiet the fear monkey and release some lingering deep-seated anger at persons we shall not name here.

In January, I saw absolutely no problem with this list. In fact, it was just the list for the first three months of 2016.

After 33 years of pushing daily to get “important” stuff done, it was all I knew from my professional life as a Program Manager. I and my team marched to 3,000-line work-breakdown schedules, detailing all critical activities and reporting on % of accomplishment weekly.

“Busy people get stuff done.” That was my motto. If you’re not busy, you’re just lazy. And probably on the B/C talent list. If there is no list of accomplishments – no checkmarks – on that status report, you don’t look good. No check-marks mean no acknowledgement, no progress, no advancement. And after a few weeks of no check-marks, you’re probably due for a talk with somebody above you.

So, in January and February, I felt guilty for those very few days when I got nothing accomplished, where there were no check-marks; for a few days where I just sat on my butt, and God forbid, even took a nap. I kept a running list of everything I had done since Dec 9 (a personal WBS, if you will), just to prove to myself that I wasn’t a slacker. It ran to three pages, so why did I still feel like one?

In February, my massive project plan to make my GAP year GREAT began to unravel. I logged a lot of ISSUES and RISKS.

  • After twenty-five inches of snow in the Shenandoah Valley, the contractor for my parents’ house reasonably sat on HIS butt. (I think he went to Florida – smart guy.) Italy by April 1 was looking less and less likely.
  • It took three weeks to get painting and bathroom remodeling contractors to give us estimates on the Charlotte house, and now at least three more weeks to schedule the work. Home improvement is definitely NOT for sissies.
  • I started seeing a sustainable nutrition coach, who is really awesome. She says you have to have a ‘relationship’ with the food you eat. But do you have any idea how much TIME it takes to shop for and cook real food?
  • A decent executive job search requires at least 25 hours a week, per the recruiting experts.
  • Learning to calm the fear monkey and achieving forgiveness and release is not something you do in a few weeks on the yoga mat.

Feeling frustrated and thwarted, I signed up for a short 10-day on-line course on Making Your Leap, offered by Patti Digh. (ANOTHER task/activity! My God, I am such a masochist.)

When I described my situation, and why I was taking the course, here’s what she wrote:

After a career of “doing”, a life of “being” feels different, for sure. If you made a list of how you have “been” since December 9th, what might that look like? Have you been present, engaged in self-care, building relationships, lonely, alive, happy?

A epiphany of the highest order occurred, right there and then.

The quality of my daily ‘being-ness’ needed some work.

I was ‘doing’ a lot, just for the sake of ‘doing’. Why?

Was I trying to prove to someone that I could really made my gap year great? Who the hell was going to read my personal project scorecard except me?

LIFE does not necessarily get better if you manage it like a project plan.

I was doing what I had always done; falling into my well-worn, habitual patterns of how to respond to uncertainty and change. Working on my personal status report, to achieve gold stars and multiple check marks to impress whoever, for who knows what reason.

In Buddhism, going around and around, recycling the same unhealthy patterns, is called samsara. And samsara equals pain. Pena Chodron, in her book, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, says that the instructions for breaking this cycle are simple and clear:

Be fully present.
Feel your heart.
And engage the next moment without an agenda.

So, I stopped and thought about Being vs. Doing. I thought about what’s truly important now. I thought about WHY I was engaged in a such a frenzy of doing. And I thought a lot about the true quality of my days.

Despite what the corporate business culture demands on multi-tasking, science says that most people can only do two to three big things at a time without losing focus.

I had too much on the plate. My formidable attention and capabilities were scattered across too many seriously big things. And I was not always listening to my heart.

So, I did something rather radical for me. I decided to chuck the year-long transformational project plan methodology, and just focus on a plan for the next day, the next week, the next month. No more.

I looked at the list and highlighted what was important right now – now, and in the next 30 days. I took some things off the list.

Each day I ask myself these questions:

  • What’s important right now?
  • What does my heart tell me to do?
  • WHY I am doing what I am doing? Am I really present while I am doing it?
  • How do I make this a really good day?

And that’s enough for right now.

What is the quality of your ‘being’ each day? What have you subtracted from your soul list lately?

Never Let Them See You With Your Skirt Down

The difficult thing is that vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you. In you, it’s courage and daring. In me, it’s weakness. – Brene Brown

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“No Pants, No Worries” – River Sals, Rennes Les Bains, Languedoc France

I lost my skirt on the elementary school playground in 1969, and I don’t think I’ve ever been the same since.

It was recess – on the blacktop at Quarrels Elementary in Winchester, Virginia. I was a little league cheerleader, just like a lot of my friends. We were practicing a football cheer. You’ve probably heard it. “Johnny Johnny, Johnny he’s our man, if he can’t do it, Tommy can!” Repeat, with lots of enthusiasm, down the row with a new player name. Jump up for a Radio City Music Hall can-can kick when it’s your turn to shout out the next new name.

Easy-Peasy.

Except that when it was my turn to jump up, the heel of my shoe caught in the hem of my little corduroy pleated skirt. The skirt stayed down while I went up. I don’t recall if I was wearing a slip or not. I probably was, as we were all good and proper Southern girls in 1969. But what I do remember is standing there, semi-naked, mortified, shaking, while everyone laughed. The period of time until I pulled my skirt up was probably less than 10 seconds, but in my memory the laughter went on and on and on, for a very long time.

That is the first time I can recall feeling vulnerable. And I hated it.

In fact, my nine-year-old self had a mini little breakdown. The principal had to call my mother to come and get me. My mother was a teacher, and this sorely inconvenienced her. She was not happy about it, and could not, for the life of her, understand what all the fuss was about.

I survived the experience, without therapy I might add, and managed to make it through elementary school, middle school and high school. I graduated top in my class, Valedictorian no less, right along with most of those kids who were there on the playground that day. I’m sure none of them remember the incident. So why do I?

I have been thinking a lot about vulnerability over the past few weeks. Mostly about my passionate aversion to it.

I’ve thought about it in my writing. How much should I say on my blog about my recent exit from my 33-year corporate role? Just how much detail should I share about what it’s been like to wrestle with the ‘fear monkeys’ romping around in my head these days? How much is ‘prudent’? How much is just enough to make a good story, but still maintain a ‘safe’ social media profile? How much to offer, to be authentic and share the lessons, while still maintaining strength and distance?

I’ve also thought about vulnerability in the workplace. As a professional woman, I learned very early that the first, cardinal rule of corporate life, is to NEVER, EVER let them see you cry. Anger is permissible (within reason), but showing weakness, being too honest, or showing too much of oneself is definitely NOT OK. Yet, paradoxically, some of the best, and most successful women leaders I know have broken that rule. And what they got in return was more loyalty, more trust, more productivity and more commitment from their peers and subordinates.

So is vulnerability really all that bad?

We all have a personal ‘story’ that is created from our first waking memories. Stuff happened, whether it was good or bad for us. Those experiences, and most importantly, the FEELINGS that went with them, create deep-seated BELIEFS around which we make our lives. Those beliefs drive our ACTIONS and our choices.

Whenever we get a trigger that generates those old feelings, we go straight into our story. We put up walls – put on our armor – and act in ways that reinforce and protect those beliefs. It’s unconscious, a deep-seated pattern seared into our very essence. A mind-body circle that runs in the background and is very hard to break.

Often, we just live in that circular story forever, unless something BIG happens to help us break the cycle.

My story, framed from the time that I was 9 years old, was this:

Strength and a full suit of clothes (read, armor) are good. Vulnerability, exposure and weakness are bad. Very bad.

I became very vulnerable in December, maybe for the first real time since I stood on that playground in 1969 with my skirt around my ankles. I still hate the feelings it generates, but since it’s here with me now, I’m giving it some considered study.

Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, spent years studying the social science of shame and vulnerability. Her TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability, is one of the most viewed TED videos out there, with over 23 million views.

In thousands of case studies, Brown found that those people who were the most courageous, who were living the fullest lives, demonstrated what she called “whole-heartedness”. These people had the courage to tell the story of who they were with their whole heart; they had the courage to be imperfect. They had the compassion to be kind to themselves, and to others. And they were rewarded with connection, as a result of that authenticity. They fully embraced vulnerability. They didn’t like the feeling of being vulnerable, but they described it as absolutely NECESSARY. Necessary for living life at its fullest.

“Vulnerability is the cradle of the emotions and experiences that we crave. We want deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives. Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper or more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

I sat on the porch today and looked out into the back yard. The birds flitted around the bird feeder. They are vulnerable to almost everything in winter. Our big oak tree was still standing, despite losing most of its leaves last season to those nasty cankerworms. It’s now armored with a band of sticky stuff around its trunk, to try to protect its buds come spring. But it’s a slim and narrow band for such a big tree.

Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.”

Whoa, that is a pretty broad definition. If that is what vulnerability is, then who or what is not vulnerable at almost any point in their day?

Everyone, and everything is vulnerable. Probably most of the time. We just don’t like to talk about it.

I went to a Writing Retreat in January. I didn’t produce a lot of finished writing, but the experience was truly phenomenal. I laid down my armor for that week, and let them see my slip, and my pale, bony nine-year old shins.

Two weeks out from it, I can see that my willingness – and theirs – to be vulnerable created a powerful connection that might just be the catalyst for finally changing my ancient and worn-out playground story.

Vulnerability is our collective Achilles heel and yet, possibly the biggest gift to the human state. It’s not a death sentence to run from like the plague. In fact, having the courage to stand in our proverbial slip and be seen by others is the path to real connection and whole-heartedness.

So I’m getting a little more ok with being vulnerable, with taking off my armor now and then. I still wouldn’t recommend trying it on a blacktop with 300 other souls watching. But in a safe place, there may be something to it.

Now, if I can just get the image of that little corduroy skirt out of my mind.

Five After Fifty

Nature gives you the face you have at twenty. Life shapes the face you have at thirty. But at fifty you get the face you deserve. – Coco Chanel

Five years ago when I started this blog, at the age of 50, I was a mess.

My mother had just died, my father’s Parkinson’s was getting worse, Jake was away at college, and my baby Ben was about to leave the nest as well.

The future looked like a wasteland to me, and my own mortality was looming large. I was stuck in a psychological funk of epic proportions.

I was 50, and I was a mess, but I looked a hell of a lot better than I do today.

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Dropping Ben off for freshman year of college, 2011

What does five years do to a person?

Let me clarify. What does five years AFTER FIFTY do to a woman?

While working through that funk, I didn’t treat myself that well.

I didn’t take great care of my body.

I worked too hard.

I stressed too much about my job. I had no boundaries. I allowed certain people to punch my hot buttons on a regular basis.

I worried too much about the boys, making all their twenty-something failures and mistakes my problems to solve.

I pondered the future of my marriage, critically examined its state, and wondered how we would ever make a life together after the boys.

While watching my parents waste away, I thought about death and dying a lot, and how much time was left to make a difference.

Those lines of worry and stress and turmoil – those 5 years of personal internal struggle – are all right there when I look in the mirror today.

And it kind of bums me out.

Surely there must have been a simpler and gentler way to make it to 55?

I don’t know. I’m pretty sure there was, but I didn’t take it.

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Mimi and grandpuppy Bear, 2015

While at the beach this past July, my son Ben grabbed the camera and snapped this picture of me and my beloved grand puppy Bear.

I generally hate looking at photographs of myself. I am much more comfortable behind the camera. But I like this picture.

Five years have passed. I am older now. There is no getting around that.

There are more wrinkles around my eyes and my mouth; there is more gray in my hair. I am heavier, and stuff has settled, a lot of the elasticity of youth is gone.

But there is also more wisdom in the eyes. And there’s a fresh joy in my countenance now.

Frankly, I worked damn hard for that joy.

Photography, writing, yoga, travel. My version of therapy.

It was a not a simple or painless journey, but I found the artist inside me.

I am not the woman I was 5 years ago. Wrinkles and gray hair aside, I think that is a good thing.

So much has changed even in the short span of six months since this photo was taken. My father passed away, my sons are now in graduate school, and I left my corporate job of 33 years. I have no idea yet what I’m going to do next.

Annie Dillard, in her book The Writing Life, says, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

I wonder, who will look back in the mirror at me when I am 60? Will I like that face? What will she have to tell me? I don’t really know.

But here’s something I do know at FIVE AFTER FIFTY.

The days of your life draw their inexorable map on your face and body. So let’s make them really good ones.

At Low Tide: Writing into Healing and Discernment

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The lowest ebb is the turn of the tide. – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

What is healing but a shift in perspective? – Mark Doty

I had lots of really big plans for this writing retreat.

I was going to write several blog posts, maybe draft an outline for a book, and for certain, document THE PLAN for what I was going to do with the rest of my life. And once I had that plan polished off, like a good project manager, I was going to start executing, toute suite.

I have written here on Tybee Island, for sure. Lots of notes, ideas, and responses to prompts now fill my journal. But I did absolutely none of the lofty things I had planned from the list above.

My plan took a detour on the very first night. I met fifteen wonderful women who would be my tribe for the next week. We shared our stories, why we were here, and what we hoped to gain from the experience.

Those stories broke my heart wide open.

These are talented, successful women. Writers, artists, healers, entrepreneurs, professionals – many much more accomplished at their craft than me. But most had a story of loss and healing that has shaped them profoundly.

Divorce, serious illness, death of a spouse or parent, personal or professional betrayal, job loss.

All the stuff that happens in the course of life.

The stuff that makes us human.

The stuff that is both the source of great pain, as well as the fuel for great writing and great art.

I had come to this retreat to 1) Write, and 2) to Discern my future path.  So typical for me, I had completely dismissed the important, messy Healing part in the middle.

But within this community and with this process, I began to identify and heal wounds I didn’t even know I had.

  • Making peace with my father’s harsh and ugly death
  • Anger and resentment for the actions, methods and betrayals of former work colleagues
  • Forgiving myself for the choices I made while climbing the corporate ladder – choices that did damage to myself, my health and my family

Big healing requires a seismic shift in one’s perspective. Accomplishing such a shift takes time, love, community, and the willingness to be vulnerable.

Through skilled facilitation, honest dialogue, writing prompts and tools like the Four-Fold Way and the Quaker Clearness Committee, momentous shifts in perspective have occurred not only for me, but I think for others as well.

We had each afternoon free, primarily to be used for focused writing. Some of the tribe wrote and wrote and wrote during their time. Others, like me, needed something else in addition to writing to affect the healing process.

I returned with my camera, again and again, during the retreat’s afternoon hours, to the southernmost beach point where the Atlantic Ocean meets Tybee Creek and Inlet.

At low tide in the afternoon, the expanse and width of the beach is incredible. You can walk far out into the inlet’s floor, the low winter sun shining in your eyes. Little Tybee Island, an uninhabited nature preserve, looks almost close enough to walk to across the shallow water.

The ocean’s foundation is exposed to the world at low tide. Its floor is uncovered; it’s wet and delicate and very vulnerable, just wide open for all to see its secrets.  Seagulls meander across it, while they hunt and peck for food; beachcombers look for treasures to put in their pockets and take back home.

The ocean, called by the moon, has taken its energy and pulled back for a pause. The floor has lost its partner for a time. It stands there all alone and defenseless to the scavengers.

Low tide is a pause, a gap, a loss.

A point in time where even Mother Nature is vulnerable and naked.

But it can also be one of her most beautiful times.

This is what I have learned from the wonderful women who are with me on this writing retreat.

A period of healing and discernment is like low tide. The creative life energy force may have left us for a while. A turn or shift is in progress, and our hearts must be brought bare to their floor before the shift can occur.

We all have a low tide in our lives.

We all have stories that no longer serve us.

We have all been wounded in some way and want to heal.

We all want to discover our next steps and make new stories.

True healing and discernment require vulnerability. We heal best when we are vulnerable enough to share our story, take the pause to be present with our wounds, and allow others to support us as we work our way through.

Yes, the ocean at lowest ebb is all emptiness and vulnerability. But its beauty, possibility and capability of future shift cannot be denied.

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Riding the Wave with Drunken Monkeys: Anatomy of a Corporate De-Tox Part II

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Mind monkey or monkey mind, from Chinese xinyuan and Sino-Japanese shin’en [lit. “heart-/mind-monkey”], is a Buddhist term meaning “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable”.

Tomorrow is the six-week anniversary of my ‘release’ from my 33-year corporate identity. I wrote about my first three weeks in my last blog post, All Things Are Possible; Anatomy of a Corporate De-Tox.

During the holidays, it was relatively easy to manage the change. Most everyone was on vacation from ‘work’, so life didn’t feel too different. It was easy to be distracted by the holiday bustle. But it’s the middle of January now, and everyone else is back to normal. I, on the other hand, have absolutely no idea what constitutes normal these days.

It’s just been me and my monkey mind for the last three weeks, and it’s taken me for a pretty freaky ride.

The Buddha described the human mind as being filled with drunken monkeys, jumping around, screeching, chattering, and carrying on endlessly. Fear is an especially bossy and dangerous monkey, the one with the loudest voice, who constantly points out all the things that will most likely go wrong.

These drunken simians have been having a party in my head, 24-7, since the new year started. For sure, the Fear Monkey plays a strong leading role, but his counter-part, or foil, is one I call the Dreamer Monkey. She and the Fear Monkey have a big tug-of-war going.

It goes something like this:

Jeri and her Dreamer Monkey get an idea – say, travel to Italy for a language intensive school, or go for broke and enroll in a professional photography program. Or maybe take six months off from deciding anything, and just explore whatever comes to mind. The Dreamer Monkey and Jeri research the idea, start formulating a plan, and begin to feel the excitement in their gut. Then the Fear Monkey runs across the stage, literally takes us out at the knees, and steals the show.

The result is wild swings of action and in-action, following multiple paths while listening to two contrary monkeys. The Fear Monkey drives me to update my profile on LinkedIn and Monster, to urgently avail myself of the free career counseling services offered through my package, when I’m probably not even ready to start the process.

Today I went to the studio of a photographer friend, and had head-shots taken. I brought both classic corporate attire (black suit, diamond studs and pearls) as well as more casual clothes that might signal wide-open entrepreneurial possibilities.

Those damn monkeys are making me truly schizophrenic. I have multiple identities vying for stage time, and the director is more than occasionally incapacitated.

To use another analogy, I think it’s kind of like shooting buckshot, instead of defining the target and then aiming for a single, clear, well-aimed shot to the heart. I’m buckshot all the way right now.

The Fear Monkey plays dirty. Very, very dirty. He often comes at night, and wakes me up at 4am. For a while my strategy was to watch a movie, or escape into a novel to quiet that voice and the very unpleasant physical sensations it produced.

The Fear Monkey even kept me from writing for a few weeks. When I finally took myself and my journal to a coffee shop last week, I wrote and wrote and wrote. I examined why I had not been writing, and determined that the damn Fear Monkey had been in charge. The Fear Monkey KNEW that when I picked up my pen I would see his methods for what they were. Blockers, just coarse, but nevertheless, very effective blockers. I wrote in my journal, in something like 40-point font, STOP! JUST STOP! WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH THIS OPPORTUNITY?? DO NOT GIVE IN TO FEAR.

Last night, when the Fear Monkey arrived at o’dark thirty, instead of a movie or a novel, I opened Michael Singer’s book, The Surrender Experiment, and was transfixed for several hours.

Singer, in his books The Untethered Soul and The Surrender Experiment, calls the monkey mind “The Voice.” He likens it to the experience of “sitting next to someone in a movie theatre who never, ever stops talking.” His just wants to shut it up and find peace. In The Surrender Experiment, he shares his lessons in learning to disassociate himself from it. He discovers, primarily through meditation, how to WATCH the voice, but keep his perspective as a distinct Being separate from that voice, one who can always choose whether to listen to it – or not.

I hate that Fear Monkey, but it is a constant companion. And whenever he comes, my mind and body convince me that he, and only he, is the voice of reason.

But I am getting just a little bit better at being the “Watcher”. I am not at the point yet where I can just say hello and watch him pass on by, but I can recognize his grip and just allow myself to ride the wave until he decides to let go and takes a rest.

The Buddha knew that you can not ‘fight’ with the drunken monkeys. “That which you resist, persists.”

Once Michael Singer learned to really separate and just watch The Voice, he started doing the very thing that The Voice told him NOT to do. Not fighting or resisting, but seeing it, recognizing it, and then doing what he felt the Universe was calling him to do anyway. And when he did that, marvelous things started occurring in his life. More marvelous things than he could ever have imagined.

On Sunday I leave for a Writing Retreat on Tybee Island with the author Patti Digh. My plan is to just think, dream and write, think, dream and write, while going head to head with the Fear Monkey. At this point, I don’t know who will win, but we are going to get to know each other a whole lot better.

Elizabeth Gilbert, in her latest book, Big Magic, has a whole chapter devoted to dealing with Fear. She says that Fear will always show up, particularly when you enter into realms of uncertain outcome. The Fear Monkey absolutely HATES uncertain outcomes. Fear is like “a mall cop who thinks he’s a Navy SEAL. He hasn’t slept in days, he’s all hopped up on Red Bull, and he’s liable to shoot at his own shadow in an absurd effort to keep everyone “safe”.” Gilbert makes her peace with Fear by recognizing that is part of the family, allowing it to come along in the car for the ride, and to have a voice if it must. But it absolutely, positively does NOT get a vote as to the direction they are going. Fear is NOT allowed to drive. “You must learn to travel comfortably along with your fear, or you’ll never go anywhere interesting or do anything interesting.”

I’m not comfortable with the Fear Monkey in the passenger seat just yet. He still grabs the map and rocks my world in the middle of the night, but I’m getting used to him.

I think it’s all just part of the process.

Uncertainty and Possibility, Fear and Dreaming, they go together, whatever wave you are riding.

All Things Are Possible: Anatomy of a Corporate De-Tox

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All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another. – Anatole France

So, it happened. On December 9, after 33 years in the corporate world, all of it with one company, I got the call that my position as a Program Management Executive was being eliminated.

So many times in my career, I have had to be the one to communicate these decisions. It’s an awful experience. You follow the HR-provided script, and try to be compassionate, but you must be firm. It’s a one-way call, not a discussion. Nevertheless, you still feel terrible afterwards.

Some people cry, some are really pissed off, and some remain very stoic. The call usually takes about 10 minutes, end to end. And then you, as the manager, go about the reassignment of work, and move on.

This stuff happens all the time in corporate life. Every time you get wind that it’s coming, no matter how good you are, you have to wonder if you are on the list. No one, literally NO ONE, is indispensable.

I was not surprised, and I did not cry – at least not on the phone. In fact, just the opposite. I said, “Thank you. Thank you for giving me the kick in the ass that I needed. It’s time for me to leave. It’s been a really great ride, but I’m ready to go. How can I help you make this easier on our team?”

My manager was kind enough to call me at home, and afterwards I drove to work for the last time. I drove in silence, no NPR radio on for this drive. My emotions alternated between – holy shit, I can’t believe this happened, to HOLY SHIT, YES, it’s finally happened!

I walked through the security turnstiles, used my badge, and thought, “this is the last time I’ll do this.” I strode down the hall to my office and thought, “this is the last time I’ll take this walk.”

Adrenaline is a wonderful thing. It can help you power through a difficult situation. Adrenaline kicked in for me, and within three hours I had communicated to my team, called my closest colleagues to tell them the news, sent my Bon Voyage email, and packed up my office.

Then I drove home to start my new life.

For 33 years, that job was my life. Ten to twelve hours a day, and often on weekends, for as long as I can remember, I have worked. I was dedicated, intense, committed. That job was my primary identity. I defined myself by the work that I did. It paid me very well, and provided for my family. It sent my kids to college. It allowed me to travel all across America, and even across the pond on business. It provided me with rich opportunities to learn, to lead, and to develop marketable skills.

But for the past 12-18 months, something was missing. My needs and desires had changed. I thought a lot about leaving, but was too scared to make the move. Money and financial security were important factors, but separating from that 33-year identity was just as daunting.

On Dec 9, I and my corporate identity parted company, in cold-turkey fashion.

There’s no de-tox guide included with the severance package, but from talking with others who have been through this experience, it is definitely a process that has both mental and physical impacts.

Since writing is cathartic for me, I’m going to document my de-tox experience. I know it will help me, and who knows, maybe it will help others who find themselves in similar circumstances.

Week 1 – Claim Your Gift

Coming down from the adrenaline rush is hard. Be ready for it. I was on fire with purpose for twelve to fifteen hours after the news. After leaving my office, I went home, cleaned and packed my computer and blackberry, responded to final goodbye emails, unloaded the boxes from my car, and talked to friends who called to commiserate/congratulate me on the news. Around midnight, I crashed. I told my son and husband, who were literally hovering, to go to bed. I needed to be alone to start this processing. And then I cried. I had no idea what I was crying about, but I cried anyway.

Expect a panic attack. I woke up at 4:30am convinced that I wasn’t going to get my severance package. There was absolutely no logical reason for this, but nevertheless I was totally freaked. I drank vodka and paced the house most of the morning until my package arrived.

Find a mantra that works for you. Breathe deep and say it, over and over when the inevitable anxiety comes. For the first few nights, I would wake up in the night and just panic. The hot flashes and night sweats I thought I had kicked were back in force. I took deep breaths, listened only to my breath, going in and out, and said, over and over, “It will be OK. I will be OK.”

Claim the gift – and look for others. The universe will be sending them to you if you just pay attention. Within 24 hours of the news, I had an email from a consulting firm asking for an interview. I have no idea if I want a job with them, but it was a great confidence boast regardless. Within 48 hours I got a call from a gifted facilitator who invited me to join a small group of professional women interested in working on release and visioning. On Friday, I paid the remaining balance for the January writing retreat I had previously signed up for on a whim. I went to yoga and had a conversation with the instructor that lifted my soul.

I labeled these gifts (#1, #2, #3, etc) and wrote them down in my journal. I’m keeping a running daily list. Big or small, keep looking for gifts from the universe, because they will be coming to you if you are open to receive them.

Be kind – very, very kind to yourself. I am generally not a kind person. I’m a hard ass, both on myself and others. Just ask my sons and my husband. But right now I am viewing myself as fragile, oh so very fragile. Sort of like a newborn with a gap in the cranium, or a butterfly in the process of coming out of the cocoon, wings all wet and sticky and tearable. I am giving myself a break from the rigorous and demanding self-talk about what should be done everyday.

It took me four or five days to face the boxes from my office. They sat on the dining room table, cluttering up the place (I hate clutter), until I could face going through them. I threw out more old stuff (don’t think I’ll ever need my performance reviews from 2005- 2010), and packed up my most important awards for storage. I just couldn’t bring myself to the point of throwing all that crystal away just yet. If I had it to do all over again, I’d clean out my office more regularly. This was painful, a forced walk-through of my corporate life, one that I wish I could have avoided. Maybe I should have just had a bonfire.

I had lunch with a fellow ‘retired’ friend the day after. I went to yoga two days in a row. I walked the dog a lot. I watched old favorite movies. I read. I cooked (what the hell, I never cook!). I made cookies for the boys and some of my favorite comfort dishes. I looked at the list of “Things I Should Do Now That I Have Time” and haven’t done any of them yet. My damn closets can wait a few more weeks. I went to the post office to mail my computer and blackberry back, and dropped my severance agreement into the mail slot. That was a little hard. (Breathe and mantra, breathe and mantra…)

Be kind to yourself – change is hard, even if it’s good change.

Last lesson for Week One – Control Your Mind. The mind is a funny thing. And frankly, it’s the only thing that matters. It can send you into a spiraling depression, or it can fire you up and provide the power to fuel your dreams. Your choice. When I sense that my thoughts are taking a negative turn, I try to recognize it and stop it before it takes hold of me and drags me down. Do whatever you have to, to control your mind and your thoughts. Breath, mantra, activity, connection with others, whatever. STOP IT before it takes you over.

Week 2 – Glimmers of a New Life

Since this was the week before Christmas (yeah, I know, getting laid off two weeks before Christmas is such a cliche…), I made a scheduled trip to visit my brother and his family.

Biggest ah-ha of this week was how different the experience of taking down time with family was, when there was no work to think about or return to after the trip. I was really and truly present with my family for what was probably the first time in many, many years. I was THERE, in both mind and body. I spent time with my brother, who is going through some tough challenges of his own at the moment. I held my new grand-niece, and played peek-a-boo with my grand-nephew Jack. I brought Christmas presents for all, and reveled in the enjoyment of their opening more than I ever had before. My brother said I was the most relaxed he’d seen me in years. No one has ever used the term “relaxed” to describe me!

I met with a lawyer and a financial planner. I set up an LLC to support future potential contract work, as well as the option to provide photography services. I had the lawyer redraft our wills and Power of Attorneys. I had a frank conversation with the boys about estate planning and who to name as executor and POA. I dumped my entire 401K, pension and investment print-outs into the hands of the financial planner and discussed my risk profile and early plans for the future. My brother and I also made big strides in the work to settle my father’s estate.

I felt like Rocky at the top of the Philadelphia steps. Man, did I get some big stuff DONE! All of it had been on my to-do list for a while, but I had never had the time or the energy to make it happen. It felt GREAT to finally put it all in motion.

One of the weirdest things to get used to was the loss of my Blackberry. For years, I had lived by that Blackberry. Slept with it beside my bed, woke up to its alarm, read and responded to emails night and day, and managed my work and personal calendar with it. I could type an entire memo on it in five minutes or less. I looked at that Blackberry pretty much every hour when I wasn’t in front of my work computer, and now it was gone.

It was like losing an appendage. I felt like my whole life was in total disarray. I didn’t have much on my calendar now, but I was still petrified I would forget an appointment. My Blackberry, work computer and to-do list were all synced like a well-oiled machine. I had a process of life organization that was now all blown up. I had to find a calendar app for my iPhone, and I’m not very proficient at using it yet. I actually went to Office Depot and bought a paper daily planner! I’m still trying to figure out a routine and a new process for managing my life. Damn, I miss that blackberry.

Moments of panic still came to me at night, or at slow times during the day. Frankly, I think they are going to be with me for a very long while. All those lessons that presented themselves in Week One still apply. Expect the panic attacks, be kind to yourself, look for and claim the gifts that come, control your mind, and when all else fails, BREATHE and recite your mantra.

Week 3 – Reality – and Possibility – Are Sinking In

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day was filled with more travel. We went to Williamsburg to visit my husband’s family for the holidays. It was the first time in probably twenty years that we have traveled over Christmas.

My husband has a BIG extended family, so there were a lot of people who wanted to hear my news. Having to say you were laid off, over and over again, even with all the positives attached to it, was kind of humbling.

I hid behind my camera, assuming the role of family photographer. This is a multi-generational group who loves to have fun, and it’s magical, but barely controlled chaos when we’re together. I captured some of my best candid people photos ever, and made a video to share. Creating something seemed to help me swallow my pride and manage the emotions that came with the telling of my story.

I also got sick this week, a lousy head and chest cold. Finally, the stress of the experience was working itself out in my body. When we returned home, I slept for twelve hours, then took several naps over the next two days. I felt bad that I was being so lazy – my messy closets awaited! – but it’s what my body needed.

I read a lot this week, and started dreaming of travel. I had to restrain myself from grabbing my passport and booking a solo trip to France, Italy or Spain. I think my husband would have been pissed. Travel will come, but not just yet.

A New Year Awaits

Today is New Year’s Eve, and tomorrow a new year, my year of severance, will start. I think I’m glad that my release happened with the timing it did. Thanks to this gift, I can start the new year with a pretty darn clean slate. Not many can say that.

I’m already beginning to see a change in my thinking. Before, if you had asked me if I could start a photography business, or write a book, or travel a whole lot more than before, I’d have demurred and said, nice to dream, but probably not. There wouldn’t be time, or money in it, and besides, I’m not good enough.

But now, who knows?

This de-tox will continue, and I expect there will be some very deep troughs to go with the highs along the way.

But here’s what’s different. Before, I was petrified by the vision of a clean slate. Now I’m ready to pick up the pen and write on it.

All things are possible. And I just might be good enough to make it happen.

Now that’s a great mantra to take into 2016.

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Stepping Up

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The vision must be followed by the venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps – we must step up the stairs. – Vance Havner

Today I did something that scares me. It was a simple, tiny little thing. It only took about two minutes, but I’ve been thinking about it all day.

I signed up for a five-day Writer’s Retreat in January, with the author Patti Digh.

So what’s the big deal? Why does that scare me?

I have loved writing – and its close companion, reading – all my life.

At my high school graduation in 1978, I received the Creative Writing Medal. For the life of me, I can’t remember what I wrote that was considered good enough to receive that medal.

But I would never, EVER say that I am a “writer.”

Writing and photography are just hobbies for me. They are a way to escape, to wind down and decompress from my rather intense professional life.

I love photography, it brings me joy and teaches me something new about the world each time I go out with my camera. I have much to learn, but I don’t find it that hard or difficult. A basic understanding of the mechanics, a decent camera and lens, coupled with a big SD card will yield some pretty good results.

But writing is different. Writing is hard, people, damn hard.

Sometimes the words flow, but sometimes they don’t. Perhaps it’s because I can see the words as I craft them, versus a photo where I only see the results after it’s taken.

When I write, I struggle. I judge the work in progress constantly, never finding it good enough. And once I post it, I worry incessantly about what people will think of it.

But sometimes I just HAVE to write. A concept or a feeling comes over me, and I am driven to sit down and get it out. It takes on a life of its own.

Through all the soul searching I have been doing over the last five years, writing has been my personal home base. But it’s been mostly private, done only for me or for close friends and family.

This weekend I was messing around with the format of my blog’s WordPress home page. By accident, I added a widget for followers, and was surprised to see that I had 393 followers of my blog.

393 people?? I don’t think I know 393 people! That’s a very small number by most blog standards, but it surprised the hell out of me. I don’t have much time to spend on my blog and I don’t do any pushing, ‘boosting’ or marketing. I have absolutely no idea how to even go about that. Maybe most of those 393 followers are just WordPress trollers, but perhaps more people than I thought might be interested in what I have to share.

But let’s get back to that scary feeling. I know what drives it.

I don’t think I’m good enough.

Not Good enough to claim the title of ‘Writer’. Or ‘Photographer’. Or maybe anything else.

Classic imposter syndrome. I have paid some amount in therapy over the past year to identify this theme. It’s permeated my life since I was a little girl. Driven, high-achieving, hard on myself and others. Couple that with a strong sense of duty and responsibility to always carry the biggest load – again to prove myself – and you have the mess that is me.

A few months ago, a friend who is a wonderful artist, photographer and published author sent me a note. She suggested that I submit some of my writing to the On Being website. I practically laughed out loud. But inside, I was truly flattered. I didn’t do anything to pursue it, but it still made my day.

Imposter syndrome is insidious. If not tackled, it can limit exploration and the courage to delve into new experiences. And I’ve got some exploration I want to do.

Photography and writing figure prominently in my private dreams for my future. I don’t have much specificity to those dreams yet, only a vague outline. I have no idea of timing and am literally too afraid of failure to put them out there in black and white at this time.

But I know what lights my fire and makes me feel alive.

So, I listened to my heart today and signed up for that retreat.

What if I can’t write “on demand”?
What if I have to actually share my shitty first drafts?
What if I’m overwhelmed with people whose writing is so much better than mine?
What if I’m right and I truly suck at this craft?

I have a beautiful photo card of the Vance Havner quote, created by my friend Catherine Anderson, propped on my desk at work. I see it every day, in that big high rise building in downtown Charlotte.

The vision must be followed by the venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps – we must step up the stairs. – Vance Havner

Every day I wonder when I am going to stop taking baby steps and start really striding up those stairs.

I don’t know how this Writer’s Retreat is going to go. I give it 60-40 that I really am an imposter.

But what the hell. I’m going to step up some stairs in January.

We do not write because we want to; we write because we have to. – Somerset Maugham

Life By Design

 

The choices we make by accident are just as important as the choices we make by design. – Shad Helmstetter

The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure. – Joseph Campbell

My husband and I, along with many of our friends, are nearing the age of optional retirement. In fact, just last week, two of my colleagues, both still relatively young, retired from Bank of America. One is going to ‘nothing’ for a while, while the other is heading off to a job with another financial provider.

When I talk to friends our age, some know exactly what they want to do and how they want to live in the future. Others, not so much. They’re just beginning to dream about it, or seem to be putting off the decisions until something in the future forces their hand.

Choosing a life for the future in your fifties is very different than choosing one at twenty-two. I don’t even remember “choosing” a definitive life when I was twenty-two. I needed to get a job. That job took me to a town (Richmond, VA), and a bank (First and Merchants National Bank) and the rest is pretty much history. After seven years of marriage, we did actually deliberately ‘choose’ to have children, but after that life just took over. We moved where the jobs were, and we filled our life with our children’s activities. Raising them was our life outside of work.

But now, we get to really choose what’s next for us. It’s exciting, but it’s also damn intimidating.

Just the decision to “retire” is ridiculously hard. Do we have enough money? How much is enough money? (Does anyone ever think they have enough money?) How long should we wait? Do we even agree on what we want to do after we retire?

I am fascinated by people who decide to make the really BIG changes; like quitting their job and starting a new business; or selling their house and touring in a motor home; or maybe moving cross-country, away from children and friends; or renting out their house and spending a year in Europe. How did they KNOW when the time was right to make the big move?

Too much choice often paralyzes. Recent studies on choice and human behavior show that when given too much choice, humans often make NO choice. When offered twenty-four flavors of jams in a grocery store, consumers bought LESS jam than when there were only five or six options on the shelf.

Too many choices can be debilitating, causing us to procrastinate, be overwhelmed, seek more and more information, and often not make any choice at all – while the clock runs out.

Before I go any further, I need to stop and note that I recognize that is a great blessing to have some choices now. For some people, options at this age may be limited – by income, by health, or by family circumstances. Others are given a gentle shove by life through the threshold into another choice, before they were ready.

But if you are one of those lucky enough to have some choices, and are standing on the threshold looking at the options, how do you make them?

In my typical planner fashion, I wrote out a list of questions for Andrew to answer. It was sort of like an eyeglass exam – which view is better, this, or that?

Here’s a sampling of my questions:

On a Scale of 1 – 5:

How important is it to you to have a nice home, that we own? (versus rent, or live somewhat itinerantly in places we want to see)
How important is it to you to help our kids with graduate school costs?
How important is it to you to live near our children – and grandchildren – in the future?
How important is travel to you?
How important is service to others to you?
What do you really want to do, that you haven’t done yet? What are the top 5 things on your bucket list?
In the pie chart of life, where would you put your money and your time?

It was an interesting conversation. I learned some things about my husband I didn’t know. We agreed on some things, and not so much on others.

A nice home and a yard for him to putter around in were more important to him than to me (except for my dream of a writing and photography studio).

He would take care of grandchildren if needed, that’s a real non-starter for me (unless it’s just for a visit).

Travel was absolutely critical for both of us. We both want to traverse western Europe to soak up all the history, art and culture we can, until we literally can’t go anymore.

Non-profit service was on the list for both of us, but subservient to travel at this point.

He could work part-time in a wine shop and be very happy; I have dreams of going to photography school or writing a book.

More choices give you more freedom. But does it really, if we spend so much time trying to make choices that we never choose?

Sometimes you just have to choose. You have to say YES to something, which means NO to something else.

For now, we’re saying YES to improving our Charlotte home, with a major kitchen remodel. Score one for Andrew.

We’re going to keep working for a while (score one for Jeri, who is big on financial security), but make time – and budget – available to travel together to places that call us both. (Score one for both of us.)

Saying YES to something now means saying NO to something else. And given that we’re not twenty-two anymore, time will do its thing and remove some choices for us in the future.

Frankly, that part scares me; it’s a strong probability that there won’t be so many jams on the shelf to choose from in the future.

But, regardless, it helps to know that we are choosing by design right now, versus by accident or not at all. I think it’s probably a good idea to do this exercise every six months or so, from now on until we can’t choose anymore.

Do you know what your next adventure is? How did you recognize it? And, maybe more importantly, how did you make the choice to say a ‘hearty yes’ to it?

Re-Entry Glow

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I am not the same, having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world. – Mary Anne Radmacher

Not too many people enjoy coming back from vacation. Unpacking and doing laundry is nowhere near as exciting as the preparation and anticipation for a big trip. And then, of course, there is the fact that you actually have to go back to work, and to your ordinary, everyday life.

I returned yesterday from a 15-day trip to Italy and France. I’ve got about 36 more hours before I have to make a ‘re-entry’ into my normal life.

This was my third vacation to Europe. As I’ve said before, I have to go all the way across the pond to really de-compress. It works for me; at the turn of the second week away is when I really begin to feel relaxed.

But I’ve found that there is another hidden benefit to my trips. I call it the Re-Entry Glow.

For some time after I return, I have a different mindset. I walk around with what could only be called a very nice emotional buzz. The things that normally irritate me lose their sting. A messy house, a pile of bills, or a stressed-out boss roll off my back like water. A difficult work problem doesn’t phase me. I savor even my ordinary actions – driving my car again, making my bed, even a shower in my own bathroom. They all take on a strikingly different and very pleasant tenor.

To me, this is the hidden and extremely valuable gift of extended travel.

Change your life, change your scenery, change your perspective, and you change your mind.

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The writer Bill Bryson said, “The greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.”

For two weeks I saw and experienced life differently.

I sat down to eat breakfast, instead of drinking a protein shake while on a conference call. I drank a cappuccino, savored croissants, jam and fresh-squeezed orange juice. I walked miles each day, as a pieton (pedestrian) instead of spending nine hours chained to my desk. I took a two-hour lunch, with wine, watching the world go by at outdoor cafes. I filled my head with 2,000 years of history and was mesmerized by the artistry and sheer determination of mankind. I listened to the melody of foreign languages, used new words for ordinary things.

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I strolled through beautiful parks or sat in an Italian piazza or a French place and watched the locals live their everyday life.

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Boys playing soccer in the square beside a 12th century church; young children riding their scooters; artists sitting cross legged with their charcoal and paints; an elderly couple resting in companionable silence on a park bench; lovers kissing on a street corner.

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Travel allows me to see differently. And seeing differently makes me think and feel in a new way.

Mark Twain had a lot to say about the value – and pitfalls – of travel. For Twain, extended travel could bring a more expansive, kinder view of the world and the people and things in it.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime. – Innocents Abroad

When I return from these trips, I seem to be blessed – at least for a while – with Twain’s more ‘’wholesome and charitable view ‘ of myself, my world and the people in it.

I love this post-travel, rose-colored glasses period. It’s worth every dollar I spent to make the trip.

I just wish it could last longer.

Here’s the rub: In the past, I have not been able to sustain this charitable and rose-colored bubble for very long. Within a week or two, the old world view comes crashing back to me. Before I know it, I am rushing headlong through each day, snapping at myself and others, getting caught up in the ridiculous trials and tribulations of daily life. I too quickly forget what it is like to savor the simple things, the beauty and wonder of life’s ordinary and extra-ordinary moments.

Last year the re-entry afterglow lasted about 7-10 glorious days. This year I’d like to figure out how to make it last much longer.

It’s a powerful but elusive feeling, this way of seeing and feeling the world, but I think it is the truly important stuff of life. It’s the secret sauce of happiness, and I don’t want to let it go.

If I can’t figure out how to make it last, I guess I just have to travel to Europe more than once a year.

We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us. – Anonymous

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