Thursday, January 30, 2014

Advice to a Younger Self

Oh, for the love of time machines! The breaking of the New Year always puts me in a reflective mood, looking over my life for insight and answers. Occasionally, they come. Most times, the questions still remain. About six months ago, however, I was introduced to the concept of writing a letter from your older self to your younger self. Hmm . . . Could this finally be a purpose for those annoying inner voices taking up rental space in my head? Perhaps this could finally put those chatty ones to work. What would my older (current) self tell my younger self? Let's listen in  . . .



  • Listen to the advice of trusted elders. Really listen.
  • Understand that a few adults are full of crap, and you shouldn't listen to anything they say (I'll give you a list to help.)
  • When you are truly in love, it doesn't hurt.
  • When you find your passion, don't give up so easily at the first bump in the road. Those bumps are your training ground, and they will make you better.
  • When you are 17, you will be walking around Berlin at 2 a.m. with friends. Don't leave your camera at the hotel!
  • Make the phone calls that are hard to make. Write the letters that are hard to write. Knock on the doors that are hard to approach. It will be worth it.
  • Hug more.
  • You are already enough. Believe that.
  • When Gary from Northern Telecom asks you to the movies, say yes.
  • Not everyone is meant to stay in your life forever. Some only stay for a short time, to teach you something, and then move along. This is because they have fulfilled their purpose in your life, not because of anything you did. 
  • When you don't like something, speak up. This will save a lot of trouble in the long run.
  • It's going to work out alright. Seriously.
  • Skip the mullet.
Are there words you wish you had known when you were younger? What would you tell your younger self? 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Not Everything is as It Seems

Looking at the surface of anything rarely reveals its truth. Take a pineapple, for instance, with its horrifically scaled surface surely useful as weaponry if in a pinch, and imagine who, of the first to lay eyes on one, would have guessed the interior contained such sweet heavenly goodness. I envision the first one who hurled it like a rock at a tropical invader would have discovered its truth when it hit the ground with a *splat* and burst forth its fruity interior. But let's hope we don't all have to be violently cracked open for our below-the-surface to be seen.

The practice of seeking, this seeking what lies below the skin, only came to me a few years ago, in Las Vegas of all places, though in one of its morally redeemable spots, the Bellagio Art Gallery. The opulent Bellagio Hotel in the heart of the the Las Vegas Strip houses an impressive collection of works by masters of  visual art -- Mary Cassatt, Claude Monet, Ansel Adams, and Georgia O'Keeffe. Admittedly, upon my visit to the gallery in 2008, my description of O'Keeffe was, and this is a quote, "That chick who painted skulls." I did not hold a very high appreciation for Ms. O'Keeffe's work, only viewing it from the surface as I did.

While on a momentary escape from the pulsating lights and low-grade cacophony that is Vegas in all it's sensory-overload magnificence, I happened upon an art gallery in the middle of a casino, paid my admittance, and entered its serene enclosure. I was soon greeted by the works of beauty and thought, which transported me to a level above the clouds where silence gave way to the faintest sound of angel's wings. I truly love art galleries, wandering through the visions of artists, dreaming of having the ability to walk into some of the more captivating pieces and live within them. To me, the artists were creating perfect scenes - or perfect collections of shape and light - not only for themselves, but for all to enjoy, wishing to merge with the vision on the canvas for just a moment in the collective effort to find our own perfect world.

My lofty expectations of art were quashed when I turned the corner to see a painting of a cow skull. O'Keeffe's famous painting hung on the wall in front of me, and I walked toward it with a face, I am sure, that looked like I had just sucked a bag of lemons. I never understood this painting and would quickly turn the page anytime I saw it in a book. Why would I want to look at bones? And of a cow, no less? I stepped closer, almost asking the painting why it dared to muss up this nice exhibit with it's bony self and how it dared to think it could ever be on par with a Monet. My mental conversation with the skull was interrupted by the small placard on the wall to the right. The placard, speaking for the painting, explained how O'Keeffe had discovered the skull on one of her walks in the high deserts of New Mexico. The state of the skull, stripped of its skin and bleached by the sun, resonated with O'Keeffe and how she felt after discovering her husband's affair. She, too, felt stripped bare with her emotion and heart left to lay, unprotected, in the harsh light of day.

Now, I get it.

Having traversed the choppy waters of a difficult marriage, I understood O'Keeffe's emotion. Moreover, I understood the skull. I, too, had felt ripped clean of any protective layering I once enjoyed, and knew the experience of standing alone without any feeling of shelter. I stared at the painting for several minutes, transfixed by its honesty. I knew that skull. I knew that feeling. And now, the skull was beautiful.

Who knew having a conversation with a cow skull in the middle of Las Vegas would bring such insight? Surely Ms. O'Keeffe was keenly aware of her artistic impact on the world, but I would hazard a guess even she could not see this one coming. Since then, my patience to seek what sits below the surface has developed, often revealing its truth in unexpected ways. This, of course, generates either interesting anecdotes or deep awareness, both of which are worth the time, and I encourage looking beyond the immediate, opting not to take things at face value. More could be there; more will almost always be there.

Since then, life continually shows me its surprises laying just below the surface, many of which add depth to the world around me. Some are inspiring like reconnecting with an old high school friend and hearing of his years-long struggle with addiction, while I look at him and see all the resilient strength of a survivor. His ability to describe his battle, with soaring triumphs and aching pitfalls, is a testament to the bravery of his spirit and the surety that he will be victorious. A part of me could not help but wish I could travel back in time, find him in the halls of our high school, and try to somehow protect him from what life had in store.

Yet other discoveries are amusing, like recently discovering Batman is a cowboy. Oh, yes, the actor Michael Keaton (who was the first movie Batman in 1989 and, in my opinion, the best Batman) is indeed a cowboy, owning a ranch in Montana where he rides and does other horseman-ly things. When not on the big screen, where we all watch him create his memorable characters and we are sure we know the comedic/dramatic man he portrays, he actually finds rest in the saddle, a character he has never played on screen. Didn't see that one coming. Holy buckets, Batman. Giddy up!

Whether anecdote or awareness, we all have something just beneath the surface. Many of us hold it tightly, hoping to never be discovered, while others hold our truth just as tightly, but secretly await the one person who takes the time to ask. How much we could learn of each other if we just took the time to ask, to listen, to contemplate, or to imagine the layers upon layers of truth which, when peeled back, can reveal an understanding so pure that a dried bone of a person can be transformed into a work of art in our eyes.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

I See Her Every Day

I see her every day
in the eyes of a mother gazing on her newborn child
as she realizes the power of love.
I see her every day
in the hands of a daughter, comforting her mother
as she slips her earthly bonds.
I see her every day
in the strength of a wife
caring for her mate in the battle of life and death.
I see her every day
in the courage of a mother
who makes a meager meal of soup become
a grand feast for her children.
I see her every day
in the gentleness toward a stranger
when her heart is in despair.
I see her every day
in the bravery to stand
when so many have knocked her flat.
I see her every day
in the faith to trust again
after her innocence was stolen.
I see her every day
in the drive to be better
than she was yesterday.
I see her every day
in the dignity to age with grace,
but never fade.
I see her every day
in the quiet vulnerability
when her true beauty shines.
I see her every day
in the city, in the field,
in the home, in the street,
in the family, in the lone.
She is strength and courage,
bravery and beauty,
tears and laughter,
dignity and grace.
She is lovely and flawed,
perfect and pained.
She is radiant and shy,
bruised and brilliant.
She is fiery and fierce,
undaunted and unchained.
She is sunlight
She is shadow
She is fantasy
She is life
She is all.
She is you
She is me
She is everything.
She is SHE.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Open to Expression

Have you ever wondered what kind of impact you have had on the world? Likely, it is more than you think, especially when you imagine the millions of small moments with people we have over our lifetimes, and many times we never know the result of those interactions, leaving them lost to the winds of time. Quite possibly, many of the seemingly innocuous moments, as we view them, bear more meaning than we may ever know. What is a simple forgettable act on one's part may indeed be a life changing moment for the other.

I am reminded of the potential in small moments each year about this time.

In the mid-1990s, many things changed in my life. I was newly married; I had moved to a new town and started a new job. Within a year, all three of those changes had taken a turn for the worst. My marriage was falling apart. I hated my job, and I had trouble acclimating to my new town. I had shut myself off from friends and family because I did not want them to know the truth about the marriage, leaving me with no support system on which to lean. Each day, I felt like I was walking a tightrope, carefully stepping through the hours and wondering when I would fall.

Somewhere in here, I received a telephone call from an acquaintance, asking me to interview for a new business that was opening in town. I met with him as well as with the founder of this new business, a man with a gentle charisma and undeniable presence. Let's just call him Peter, for the sake of privacy and storytelling.

I had never met Peter before, nor even heard of him, though he was well-known in the community by others, and apparently well-respected. We met for a standard job interview, or so I thought, though he never asked me any questions. He and the other gentleman (the acquaintance I spoke of earlier) talked to each other while I sat at the end of the table, waiting for a question to come my way. Peter began wrapping up the meeting and asked me to call him with my salary requirements.

"Don't you want to ask me any questions?" I inquired, puzzled.

"No, we already know everything about you," he replied. That was it. I was out the door and walked back into my miserable existence.

That weekend, my thoughts were fraught with indecision. I had wanted to quit my current job, true, but I also wanted to go back to college. I was scared of taking a job at this start-up company because of the risk -- what if it failed? I wanted to leave my marriage, but where would I go? Trying to discuss the job-or-college decision with my husband that weekend only proved to be kindling for more fiery arguments. By Monday morning, I was exhausted, undecided, alone, and lost. I did not know what was going to happen to my life, but I feared it was not going to be good.

It's still a blur to me, how I walked into my manager's office that morning and resigned. I don't remember driving to the college to register for classes (which began the next day), but there I stood with a class schedule and books in my arms. I had decided to go to college and forego the job offer from Peter. I called him to say 'thanks, but no thanks.'

"Rita, we support your educational pursuits," he said. "If you want to work for us part time, please do. We want you on our team." My jaw dropped. I could not believe the words this stranger was saying to me. At a time when I felt most distraught, this stranger said six life-changing words to me, "We want you on our team." For the first time in over a year of pure emotional hell, he gave me this singular treasured gift -- hope.

Six words changed my life.

As it turned out, about six weeks later, I did start working part time for the new business, being welcomed into the fold of new co-workers like a long-lost friend. The work environment was energetic and supportive. The weight of heavy emotion in my life was lifting, and I embraced that feeling of hope. Sixteen years later, I still work for this company, still looking at the positive changes in my life since that moment in utter and thankful awe.

And yet, I never told Peter how his words affected me. Likely, those words were not important to him, but were normal comments in his day-to-day life and nothing out of the ordinary. He may not even remember saying them. I was reminded of the importance of small moments like this when my friend, Jennifer, posted a video from Drew Dudley this week, where he says, "Maybe the biggest impact you have had on someone's life is a moment you don't remember." Dudley's six-minute video is a great description of how our lives can impact others, even when we don't realize it.

The story I've told here is one my friends and colleagues have heard before, as I often retell it as an example of our company philosophy to 'take care of each other.' My recitation of the tale is peppered with humorous anecdotes of the years working with this larger-than-life character, Peter. The part of the story that I don't tell, and even my friends do not know until this moment, is how close I was to the edge. That day, I had decided to give college a try for a few weeks, but if I couldn't see even a dim light at the end of this hellish tunnel known as my life, I was planning to disappear. I had stashed cash and important papers under the carpet in the trunk of my car, along with a notebook detailing what I would need to pack in a hurry. My plan was sketchy, but if my life did not turn around soon, I was driving to wherever the car carried me and starting a new life, completely severing myself from this one.

But six words changed everything.
A good day: My boss flying over the lake he loved.

And now we are here again, in mid-January, when this story of Peter always revisits me. Nine years ago, Peter was flying his twin-engine plane home after work, trying to beat a thunderstorm because he wanted to get home to take his wife out for her birthday. During his descent, the clouds opened up with a sudden downpour which made the grass landing strip very slick. Unable to stop the plane, he slid into the trees beyond the end of the runway and drifted out of our lives forever.

There are millions of stories like this out there, and I'll bet those reading this will have a similarly meaningful story of how one moment made all the difference. The flow of energy goes both ways, though. Just as others have affected us and not known it, we have affected others. Our words and actions, however small they may seem to us in the moment, have the potential to move mountains. For me, I have learned to tell people when they have made a difference in my life. I owe it to them to let them know that they mattered. And isn't that what we all want? To know that we mattered?

With the adoption of the word 'Open' for my 2014, I want to include being open to expressing thanks, gratitude, and appreciation for those small moments that made a difference. I want to let these people know that they mattered, even if they don't remember why.

For W.K.G., 1954 - 2005

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Treehouses

When did we, as adults, lose sight of the magic of the tree house? As children, it held all the world to us, where nothing could harm us and our imaginations took flight. When did we reach the age when we were "too cool" to climb into a tree house and wile away the hours of a Saturday afternoon? Maybe it's just me.

Though I did not have a tree house as a child (we're using that term as a collective for all magical childhood places), I did have a sandbox. My father built it for me in the corner of our backyard where it sat beneath two large maples. The trees reached their big limbs over the sand, providing ample shade from the Tennessee sun and protection from the outside world. Their gnarled trunks gave perfect footings for climbing while the sand lay beneath, waiting to cushion my landing whenever I decided to jump. My whole world was in that corner of the backyard.

So why did I leave? Age, mostly, but then we moved to Arkansas. Those were the reasons I physically left, but why did I leave spiritually? Emotionally? Psychologically? If I was happy in that state, peacefully playing beneath the trees, why did I leave that state of bliss? A question of the ages, I am sure, and one not easily answered in a few paragraphs here.

Why do we stop building tree houses for ourselves? Places of sanguine reflection and protected comfort are rare in this chaotic world and yet we fail to see the restorative power of the simple tree house. Oh, to be there, lying among the strength of her branches, listening to the song of her leaves, suspended in her embrace, as the stalwart mother-tree wraps herself around us and welcomes us home. Pure peace.

Sure, many might say that our homes take the place of our childhood tree house, but I disagree. Others come into our house and pierce the protective barrier. Neighbors come for a visit, family drops by to borrow the punch bowl, the mailman brings bills, and the banker makes his presence known when he/she invisibly collects the monthly payment. But, only certain people -- ones who have passed our in-depth admissions test -- are granted entry to the super-secret invitation-only tree house. It doesn't have a mortgage or a mailbox.

I have spent too much time away from my childhood sandbox, but the symbolic rebuilding is going well. A room in my house (yes, the house, I know what I just said about that) is closed off to all others, except the furry children, of course, and has been off-limits to all others for several months. I'm still rebuilding. Sure would have been a lot easier if I hadn't left it in the first place. The walls are decorated with pictures that stir my soul, and artwork that inspires me. A large illuminated woven heart hangs in the corner, reminding me of the potential in small things and simple moments. Pens and notebooks lay on the desk in anticipation of merging their purposes into worthy reflection. A dog bed by the door awaits George and/or Stella to infuse the room at will with unfettered happiness. It's a good start.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Lighthouse

Overlooking Lake Superior stands a lighthouse on Devil's Island, one of 22 islands trailing off the northern coast of Wisconsin as it reaches into the mystic grand lake known by the Ojibwe Tribe as Gichigami. It is not the only lighthouse standing sentry in these islands and, by far, not the only one guarding the shores of largest freshwater lake in the world. In operation since 1891, one can only imagine the number of ships and sailors who have used the lighthouse as a guide by either signaling rocky shores or lighting the way home. The lighthouse has always stood at its post, aware of its task, and sure of its purpose.

Though fierce storms may brew, kicking and turning those upon the waters in frightening turmoil, the lighthouse stands calmly in its designated place. When a ship is in peril, rescue teams are dispatched to save the crew. Only certain people can be on the rescue team, ones who are inherently skilled to work best in a crisis. When successful, they receive applause for their efforts and accolades for the lives saved. There is a great need for rescuers, but not everyone is equipped to be one. It might be easier to be a lighthouse.

Or is it?
Devil's Island Light Tower
near Bayfield, Wisconsin, USA

A lighthouse stands watching all the drama unfold, unable to move because that would betray its purpose. Its purpose is to be the unwavering tower above the turmoil, the beacon in the darkness, the safe place to return. It fulfills it purpose without fail, never receiving recognition or applause, yet always ready to do the job again and again.

Some people in our lives are like lighthouses; some are like rescuers. Still others are perpetually in peril. Each is dependent on the other to make this world spin. I have known a couple lighthouses in my life. My father was one, always the strong center of our world. The other lighthouse I know has been fulfilling his duty quietly for over 20 years, being the unassuming tower who always points us to where we need to be. If you're lucky, you find yourself sipping coffee on Sunday morning with him while watching fishing shows, talking about nothing upon nothingness. I never watch fishing shows (well, hardly ever) -- I don't even fish -- but on these Sundays, on these visits, I would not miss it. There is an inherent comfort in these small moments.

Always look for the lighthouses. They know the way home.