The Middle

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Reflections inspired by a recent milestone birthday.

“The middle is messy but it’s also where the magic happens.” -Brené Brown

My belly is soft, but my heart is full.
My mind is scattered, sometimes forgetful, but focused.
I care less about what people think.
In fact, I care less about a lot of things.
And a lot more about a few.
There’s more weight. But there’s more lightness. More joy.
It often feels like a paradox.
This living in the middle.

There’s both struggle and ease.
A foot in both places.
I’m becoming older ( and wiser?) while experiencing the wonders of childhood again.
It feel like I’m growing both older and younger at the same time.
I’m growing more into myself.
Life seems bigger and smaller.

This lovely space in the middle, where I can see behind me and in front of me.

I feel tougher, stronger, but also more open and exposed.
Little moment catch me off-guard.
Tears come more easily. But so do smiles and laughter.
Life feels precious.
The magic of the middle.

What’s your weather report?

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Photo by Erwin Soo under Creative Commons attribution 2.0

Right after I finished college, armed with a degree in Cultural Anthropology and a lingering travel bug, I got a job teaching English in Singapore.  It was a great opportunity to try out teaching and a fabulous launching pad from which to explore Southeast Asia (not to mention four national religions translates to a lot of holidays!)  And hands down, it was the best place to eat.

The one thing I didn’t love, though, was the humidity.  When I arrived, I naively thought it would feel cooler/less humid in the evenings, and I could run then. Hah!  That lasted for about a month until this West Coast girl realized she wasn’t built to live on the equator and reluctantly joined a gym.

Squeezed in the middle of bustling, cement high rises of Singapore, LA Fitness represented everything I wasn’t seeking — blaring music, blasting air conditioning, clingy spandex, a well-used elevator (yes, at the gym!) — yet I was grateful for a cool place to exercise. And it was there that I met a yoga teacher who taught me a lesson I’m still learning.

I don’t even remember his name now, but I distinctly remember his presence. He was calm, centered, soft spoken. In this sea of tank tops and lycra, he stood out in loose, cotton pants and a long beard. He moved and spoke slowly, with intention. He created a sense of quiet, calm and peace in his class, despite the blaring music and muffled voices that emanated from outside the yoga room walls.

“At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”

– Maya Angelou

One of my last images of him is slowly peddling off on his bike after class, between the tall buildings, car horns and throngs of people, he went at his own pace.  He brought his own weather with him.

Living in Silicon Valley (and  with energetic, noisy little ones), where life often feels too busy and loud for me, I often think of that yoga teacher and how he brought peace and calmness wherever he went. So I’ve been thinking about the weather I bring.  How can I create more calm and peace not just for myself, but for those around me? 

What weather do you bring?

 

Air Time: What I Learned on the Trapeze

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Photo by Martin Thomas under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Happy 2016!  

It has been awhile since I’ve blogged.  It’s been too long.  But I’ve been working and living and yes, playing.

In fact, I’ve been thinking about one of those times when I was playing.  A few months ago, I accompanied my niece to her trapeze classes. It’s probably better that I didn’t think too much about it before saying yes.

So that’s how I found myself climbing up a narrow ladder, legs shaking, to a very high platform. I’ve never thought of myself as paralyzed by heights, but I certainly wasn’t feeling comfortable and was in fact rethinking my relationship to acrophobia at that moment.

But with the calm guidance of the teacher standing next to me on the platform, I grabbed the bar with my chalked-up, sweaty palms and jumped (or maybe the teacher nudged me off…I’m not sure.) Swinging through the air, I felt a rush of excitement and giddiness.  This was, dare I say it, FUN!

Listening for the commands of the teacher, I learned different moves — hooking my knees on the bars and letting my hands go, hanging upside down.  And then, I heard the command to let go, to drop.  But for some reason, I couldn’t.  It wasn’t fear of letting go.  It was something else.

I think I was trying to time my drop to land squarely on the mattress perched on the net below? I’m not certain. All I know is I couldn’t let go. (You can see this moment in all its awkward glory here.)

On second thought, maybe it was fear. Fear of a loss of control. Fear of surrender. Surrendering to not being the brain, to being in control.

Obviously, I did eventually let go of that bar. And I landed safely on the net below. Talking about this experience afterwards to my sister and partner-in-crime in this adventure, she wisely offered: “Our job is to be the muscle, not the brain.”

Yes.

I’ve been thinking about that profound statement a lot in the weeks since my time on the flying trapeze.  Most of us are used to being the brain, in work and at home.  We’re trained and rewarded for being the brain, for planning, organizing, executing, making decisions. And there are obviously plenty of times in life where we need to be the brain. But what happens when we we’re always the brain and we forget about the muscle? What do we lose (besides muscle atrophy)?

I’m still living this question, but in my little experiment thus far, being the muscle has created more space.  More space for my coaching clients to explore meaning in their lives.  More space for conversations to open up with my husband and my kids.  

So here’s to 2016 and to more space.  And to being the muscle.  Now, off for a run.

Lessons from the Playa

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Photo by Jessica “The Hun” Reeder under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Burning Man, the intentional community event that happens each year in the Nevada desert, just concluded this past weekend.  As I’ve seen photos from this year’s event crop up in my social media feeds, I’m reflecting on what I learned from my adventures there ~15 years ago (yes, we’re talking Y2K!)  And no, it doesn’t have to do with nudity, illicit substances or lots of dust (though there’s plenty of that).  The lessons I took away from my time on the playa these many, many moons ago as a carefree, single 20-something are ones I find myself calling on now and adapting, as an almost 40-something parent in the next chapter of career and life:

The importance of play. I’ve been reminded of this as a parent more recently, but being in an atmosphere where throngs of adults were playing and creating for the sake of play and creativity felt new and nothing less than magical.  I remember wandering into a group of people launching watermelons with a trebuchet and pitching in….because…why not?

And very much linked to this idea:

The necessity of creating open, unstructured time. Spontaneity, adventure, reflecting, being — all of these need space and freedom to occur.  As a parent living in a busy, scheduled world, I feel I often have to defend creating this open space and time for my family and for me.  We had one of the best family days the other weekend when we did just that.

The role of community.  Community is crucial when you’re in the middle of the Black Rock Desert and someone gives you water after yours runs out. It’s also just more fun, like when someone invites you to jump on the giant trampoline they lugged out and set up.  

Destruction is part of creation.  The final night at Burning Man involves burning the enormous art installation that required endless time and energy to create. Sometimes you gotta Let it Go in order to move forward. This isn’t easy.  Watching my son struggle with destroying a Lego creation to build another one feels a little reminiscent of my own struggles to let go of a professional identity I carried with me for a long time.

Finally, on a lighter, yet no less important note, once you get playa dust in your tent zipper, that tent will never be the same. Similarly, once your kids’ cracker-infested car seats have lived in your car, your car will never be the same, no matter how much cleaning you do.

I’ve been struggling these past few months, and it has taken me awhile to figure out why.  There’s not an obvious culprit; my family is healthy, our kids are generally happy and thriving, things are going well career-wise.  I shouldn’t feel like I’m struggling.  But, after sitting with this for awhile, I’ve gradually realized that I’ve been going through my own (relatively unacknowledged) transformation.  Over the past 2+ years, I’ve gone from working full-time to a brief stint of not working, and gradually have been transitioning back to working almost full-time. I think I’m pretty good at noticing the developments and stages my kids go through, but I often forget that I’m still growing and going through my own transitions.

Meanwhile during this time, our kids have grown from babies/toddlers to little kids.  And in light of all these changes, my husband and I are figuring out how to organize our lives to respond to our changing lives and selves.  That’s translated to figuring out what to farm out and how to cut corners on (i.e. quick dinners, dinner delivery, online grocery shopping, being ok with giant piles of laundry cluttering the house, etc).  For him, that’s meant leaning in more to family and childcare responsibilities, and for me, it’s meant some Letting Go (Thanks again, Queen Elsa). It’s not always easy and graceful, and there have been plenty of bumps in the road (i.e. rushed mornings, grouchy evenings, forgotten class projects, etc.) But being clear about what’s important and top priority to us as individuals and as a family makes the process easier and helps me live with (embrace?) the chaos and fullness of our lives and well…enjoy life and parenting more.

So, this post-Burning Man season (which for me these days is really back-to-school season), I’m trying to remember that like my kids, I’m ever-changing, too, and that change is hard. And we’re all changing together, as a family, constantly.  Change requires patience, persistence and self-kindness.  As Ann Betz and Karen Kimsey-House write in their lovely new book, Integration: The Power of Being Co-active in Work and Life: “Change is uncomfortable and often uncertain and yet, nothing evolves – not a person, a relationship, an organization or the entire human race – without the development of new patterns, new neural pathways.”

And I’m dusting off these lessons gathered from Burning Man, most important, making time to play (again, echoed in Brigid Schulze’s meticulously-researched, brilliant book Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time). So, if I’m not blogging as regularly in the months to come, that might mean I’m working more, or maybe I’m off playing with my kids, or just playing by myself, or perhaps, helping a bunch of people launch a watermelon.

Let’s go play.

#momsbirthdaywish

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Photo by The Shifted Librarian under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

For my mom’s upcoming 70th birthday next month, in lieu of gifts or a party*, she’s asked her extended family to do a good deed and share it with her.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how best to honor my mom’s birthday wish.

Service and volunteering used to be a big part of my life.  I launched my career in the nonprofit sector, working with volunteers, building service-oriented programs and volunteering myself.  Then I left the nonprofit sector, but continued to volunteer and serve on boards of community organizations. And then I had babies and any time I had to volunteer seemed to vanish.  But as my babies have grown into young kids, I’ve been thinking of (struggling with?) how to build service into our lives.  And I realize I’ve been somewhat limited in how I’m thinking about service, restricting it to something organized or to a grand gesture.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about my mom and her acts of kindness.

My mom is the champion of the care package.  Whether it’s making food for an ill neighbor or friend, mailing a relevant newspaper clipping she thought you might like or sending a care package to one of her daughters filled with homemade cookies or quarters for laundry for her college-age kids, to gifts for her grandkids, including handmade quilts, valentines, a toy or some article of clothing she knows they need. (In one storied care package, I received a hubcap at work after my mom visited me and saw my beat-up car was missing one.  My co-workers fell in love with my mom over that one.)

Whatever the contents of the care package, the message was that she was thinking about you. That she cared about you.  It conveyed a quiet kindness, a steady thoughtfulness.

Inspired by this, I’m going to champion the small (but mighty) act of kindness for my mom’s birthday wish and build it into my/our family’s life.  I’ll commit to doing and sharing a kind act each day and sharing it. Instead of the semi-regular “roses and thorns” ritual we do at dinner, where each person goes around the table and shares the highlight and lowlight of their respective days, I’m going to turn that into sharing our “kind act of the day”.

Today, I renewed my annual donation to our local NPR station. Yesterday, I helped a new mom at the store, who was juggling groceries, a stroller and her baby.

Nothing heroic.  Pretty simple.  And kind.

What happens if I do this everyday and my kids start doing it and we all start doing this?

Please join me! Leading up to my mom’s birthday on September 7th, share your kind acts and tag them on social media with #momsbirthdaywish.  I hope to be able to show my mom how many good deeds she’s inspired by her birthday!

Help me honor my mom.

Honor your mom.

And help cultivate a culture of kindness.

P.S. – You’re not getting out of a party that easily, Mom!  We’re still planning one.

What I Learned in Kindergarten the Second Time Around

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I haven’t posted in awhile.  Our family was plagued with multiple illnesses over the last 6 weeks, and with both parents juggling careers, our household has gone through some moments of chaos, exhaustion and well…ugliness (But as my son would readily remind me, we’ve had lots of opportunities to use the “life skill of flexibility”).  Finally, after various bouts of strep throat, stomach bugs and bad colds, we seem to all be healthy. And I am thankful for it and feeling particularly grateful for my kids’ general good health.  Throughout this period, I’ve been reminded of the wisdom of Glennon Melton’s concept of carpe kairos (appreciating moments, rather than days) when raising young kids.

During one round of stomach bug, while I sat on the bathroom floor with my daughter, not sure which end the “illness” was going to come pouring out of next, I learned a lesson about the power of stories.  She was so distraught and upset.  Nothing would comfort her…not even the iPad.  Yes folks, she was TOO SICK TO PLAY THE IPAD.  The only thing she wanted was to sit on my lap and have me read her books.  So there we were, surrounded by towels, a big metal bowl and a stack of books. I think a lot about the power of stories in a professional context, but this experience was a sweet (if not sweet-smelling) and necessary reminder of the comfort and connection that stories provide.

And in the midst of all this, my son graduated from kindergarten!  He is going to be a “grader”, as he so reverently calls it. This is wonderful and exciting but I am feeling some sadness and nostalgia.  No doubt it’s about my first born growing up. Perhaps it’s because I’m a little misty-eyed after watching (again) the beautiful DVD his teacher, Mrs. D, created: a sweet photo montage of his class over the school year.  And I’m thinking of Mrs. D and how very, very lucky my son was to have her this year, and how lucky we are as parents to have her in our lives, too.

If you regularly read this blog, you may recall that I was quite enamored with his teacher from the first day of school and recognized she is something quite special.  But throughout the year, I’ve had the chance to observe what she does, through volunteering in the classroom periodically and through all the stories and tidbits my son shares with me.

As a parent, I have so much appreciation and admiration for all Mrs. D has taught my son and his classmates, and how those teachings will continue to shape them as they grow.  And as a leadership coach and someone interested in organizational culture, I’m fascinated by how she’s building an environment to nurture growth and learning.

What I’ve finally put my finger on is that Mrs. D’s genius comes from a beautiful combination of both bringing the world into her classroom and creating a world within the class.  Through studying art, music, science, the natural world history and current events, she creates a vibrant classroom and community, reflected by the cheery artwork and creative student projects that line the walls.  But the real magic to me is the world that Mrs. D creates with them — one where empathy comes first, where all students are really seen, where she meets them where they are and holds them up to the best versions of themselves.

Maybe this is one of those parenting moments, this deeper learning and appreciation of watching your kids grow up, this hint of nostalgia, this deeper perspective of childhood you don’t get when you’re going through it. I wish there was a word for it. It’s a mix of gratitude, reverence, and maybe some wisdom.  And I’m realizing that as my kids grow, I’m growing as a parent.

So, as the years march on and my son grows up (and I continue to grow alongside him as a parent) and some of his memories of kindergarten inevitably fade along with the stack of lovely artwork he brought home, here’s my wish for him: that he continues to embrace the world that Mrs. D created in their classroom. I wish he listens with both his head and his heart, that he always holds himself and others up to their best versions and that he remembers kindness first.

A Big Thank You to Those Who Care for Tiny People

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Photo by Steve Baty under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

In this season of appreciating our mothers, teachers and fathers, I’ve been feeling particularly thankful for all the amazing people who have cared for my kids in their early years.  I looked it up and it turns out that tomorrow (May 8) is National Provider Appreciation Day.

As my daughter prepares to head into her last year of preschool and we gradually round the bend toward the end of those years  between birth and kindergarten, I’m increasingly grateful (and maybe a little nostalgic?) for the support, kindness, patience, consistency, joy, creativity and love of all who have cared for both of my kids.  And though they may not remember these incredible figures in their lives, my husband and I will. And we are all forever changed by them.

I know their impact will be felt far beyond these early years.

Not only have they played a big part in raising our kids, but they’ve helped us become better parents. They’ve helped us become better people.  They’ve reminded us of what really matters.

So to all those who have loved our kids, fed and bathed them, changed endless diapers, cleaned up poop, held a plastic bucket and rubbed their backs while they barfed, wiped their snot, endured tantrums, illness, teething, grumpiness; to those who have enjoyed them, comforted them, celebrated them, challenged them, encouraged them, and helped them grow into the kind, loving, strong, fiery, funny, independent souls they are today, THANK YOU.

Thank you to Rosa, Geelid, Linnea, Nick, Danny, Maya, Marisol, Eric, Kim, Kelly, June, Vanessa, and Minh.

On behalf of my kids, thank you from the bottom of our hearts. You are unsung heroes. You impact our kids’ lives and our lives and by extension, our schools, communities and workplaces, more than you’ll ever know.

Finding Jewels in a Sandbox

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Photo by Louisa Hennessy under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Every other week or so, my daughter, LC, comes homes from preschool clutching an envelope containing a handful of colorful sequins and plastic rhinestones.  This means the “Jewel Fairy” has recently visited her preschool, sprinkling jewels in their sandbox area.  Often on these special days when I come to pick her up, I’ll find a gaggle of kids scouring the sandbox for little plastic jems.  LC revels over her jewels on the way home, admiring each one, often showing them off to the adoring teachers at my son’s afterschool program.  When we get home, LC carefully tucks them away in her jewelry box (usually after arranging the entire collection elaborately on the floor first.)

It was on one of those days at preschool where the Jewel Fairy had recently visited that I had just come from a career coaching session with a graduate student who likened her job search to “finding a needle in a haystack”.  And now here I was at LC’s preschool watching 3 and 4-year-olds crouching down and intently searching for plastic jewels in a giant sandbox. It was a game, yes, but something they were all taking quite seriously.

Finding jewels in a sandbox.

I’m not saying a group of preschoolers hunting for baubles in a pile of sand and searching for a job is the same thing.  LC and her preschool friends (luckily) aren’t shouldered with bills to pay, visa issues, health insurance, families to support, etc. And still, there is something valuable about the element of play here, the pursuit and dedication to it. And there’s a lovely message, too, that I want to share with that graduate student (and all of us): yes, searching for a job can be like a needle in a haystack if you choose to view it that way.  But does that help you? And how true is that? (And more obviously, ugh, that makes it sound like a drag.)  What if searching for a job was more like searching for jewels in a sandbox: there is more than one out there for you, if you don’t find what you want right now, the Jewel Fairy will be back soon, and maybe, just maybe, you can even have some fun searching for it.

The Art of Roast Duck

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The other day, my son wrote this story (it’s either a tragedy or slapstick comedy, not sure which.)  It felt like some sort of milestone — the first “voluntary” story he wrote, completely initiated and executed by him.  He worked so hard on it, asking his dad and me how to spell various words over the course of an evening and working very carefully on forming his letters. And he was so proud, asking us to read it over and over to him and revelling over the finished product.  The next morning, he rolled it up into a neat little scroll and presented it to his teacher. (Or at least that was his intent.  It’s not clear if the scroll ever made it out of the bottom of his backpack!)

I’m not sure if this project felt momentous to me because I have a special affinity for words and stories.  Maybe it was because my son hasn’t historically logged tons of time drawing/writing/painting.  Perhaps I felt a connection with my recent project launching a career and leadership coaching practice.  Whatever it was, I felt like I witnessed something special, intimate and human: that creative process of taking a vision in our heads and  shaping and anchoring it in the world, to see and to share.

How about you?  When did you last make roast duck?

The Valentine’s Ninja

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Early training for Valentine’s ninja-ing, circa 1978

I have a conflicted relationship with Valentine’s Day. Growing up, I always associated valentines and chocolate hearts with my birthday, which is two days after Valentine’s Day. (I suppose it was harder to get excited about President’s Day.) On the other hand, I have an allergy to overpriced flowers and dinners and a day that makes a lot of people feel excluded or downright miserable.  And since having kids in daycare/preschool,  I’ve felt a little put upon with having been “assigned” to procure and sign a bunch of valentines on behalf of my kids. (Yes, I have a grinchy streak I’m not particularly proud of.)

But this year, I vowed, I was going to take Valentine’s Day back and make it something meaningful for myself.

I found inspiration in my son’s kindergarten Valentine’s Day school assignment.  Instead of mass producing a batch of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles valentines, my son was charged with creating “valengrams” for his class.  On individual scraps of paper, he had to write why each class member was special.  It was a great (albeit time consuming) exercise in penmanship and time management, but more important, he had to think about something he valued in each of his classmates (i.e. you let people join your games, you help clean up messes that aren’t yours, you are kind and friendly, etc.) What an amazing skill to be developing as a kid. And the joy and pride my son felt through reading the valengrams he received was the cherry on top.

For my Valentine’s Day project, I scavenged some leftover, paper hearts tucked away in a drawer. I wrote messages on each one, like the ones below, and folded them up with “open me” written on the outside.

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Then, the real fun began.  Over the past week, I left about two dozen valentines wherever I went.  In lunchroom and cafe tables at the university where I work a few days a week.  Wedged inbetween apples at the produce section of the grocery store. At the library. The drug store. My dentist’s office.  The hearts became a trail of where I had been. And it became a game to find places to leave them where they would be discovered, but where I wouldn’t be caught leaving them.  It brought a sense of sneaky levity to my day. I even got my son in on the fun.  Running or errands or going to get lunch became a chance to leave a heart somewhere.  I felt like some sort of Valentine’s Day ninja, secretly spreading love far and wide.

I have no idea whether the hearts will be discovered. My hope is the right people will find their messages. But the act of planting anonymous valentines gave me something.  And in the process of becoming the Valentine’s Ninja, I think I reclaimed Valentine’s Day for myself.

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