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.

Being With

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Photo by Ariel W under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

In one of my coaching trainings a few months ago, we were charged with the task of writing down a list of things we couldn’t “be with.”  The goal of the exercise was to become more aware of our blind spots so we could more effectively manage ourselves as coaches.  I started thinking of things that really boiled my blood and couldn’t deal with…bigotry, cruelty, lack of respect of boundaries, etc.  You get the picture.  But the one that kept popping into my head that I didn’t want to see or hear was this: my daughter’s whining. Really? Is that really one of the other bedfellows of things I can’t “be with” along the lines of cruelty and bigotry? Ouch.

I’m ashamed to admit that, but it’s the truth for me these days.  At 3, my daughter’s personality has blossomed and I am honored to witness this.  I love the conversations we now have – amusing, often silly, sometimes deeply profound.  I love watching her master new skills and make new connections.  And…then there’s the whining.  It’s a bit reminiscent of a 3 year old version of Louis C.K.’s daughter.  It’s loud. It’s very regular. It fills the house. And for some reason, it can produce in me the kind of nerve pain I experience at the dentist.

But after my reflective coaching training on “being with”, I decided I needed to get curious about this rather than being ashamed of it.  I needed to “be with” my daughter’s whining.  So for the next week I did just that.  Whenever I felt that nerve pain stimulated by the whining, I took a breath.  I let her whine. If I was nearby enough, I might say after a minute of non-stop whining: “You sound frustrated.  Can I help you with something?” And I noticed two things: First, that Pavlovian response of whine –> pain for me didn’t go away, but it lessened as I let her be.  And second, when I let her continue whining, I noticed how it (usually) died down after she figured out how to put a puzzle together she was struggling with or get the cap off a pen.  And through that experiment, I saw that her whining was often just part of her learning.  Yes, it was still annoying, but it was just a symptom of her struggle to figure something out or master a new skill.  And through noticing that, something shifted for me and something tender emerged.  I stopped hearing the whining only through my ears.

The other connection I made by “being with” the whining, was that my own version of whining is fidgeting.  It’s very hard for me to sit still (blame it on my genes – ask my mom).  In fact, during the writing of this blog post, I’ve gotten up several times to make tea, fold laundry, get the mail, empty the dishwasher, reorganize my desk, etc.  I’ve stopped writing to check email and random web pages.  Fidgeting is my whining.  So I’m trying to take some of my own medicine and “be with” my own struggle – the struggle to flesh out an idea, to create a website, to build a business.  All things I’m struggling with, and trying to at the same time, be with.  And I’m reminding myself that the fidgeting means that I’m doing something I care about. I’m creating something. I’m learning something.  And the fidgeting, like the whining, is just part of that messy, beautiful journey.

What’s the thing you can’t be with?  And what can you learn about yourself by being with that thing?

 

 

Year End

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Photo by alicepopkorn under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

I wanted to squeeze in one final post in these last hours of 2014.  I started this blog a little over a year ago, and for anyone who knows me or follows this blog, you know I err on the reflective.  On this blustery winter day, warmed by a toasty fire and recent memories of our now annual tradition of my-dad-as-Santa celebrating each grandkid’s milestones from the year, I’m reflecting on what I’ve learned (or been reminded of) this year:

Get your dreams dirty.  Don’t keep them locked up in a cabinet like your great aunt’s china. Use your dreams, try them on, wear them out.  Yes, there’s a risk in putting your dreams out in the world and a risk that they won’t look like what you pictured in your head.  Ann Patchett describes the experience of translating the stories that are in her head into words as “pinning a butterfly to the page”. It can be struggle, a letdown, even, when the words on the page pale in comparison to the vision in your head.  But the bigger risk is to not attempt to pin down the butterfly.  Don’t keep the dreams in your head forever.

Vulnerability can build powerful connections.  Sharing myself and my heart on these pages has created engagement with friends and strangers in a way I hadn’t anticipated, but am so grateful for.

Cookies are delicious, but cookie dough is tasty in its own right. I’ll admit I’m kind of a planner, so starting things when I don’t think I’m ready or don’t know where they’ll go can be uncomfortable. But this year has reminded of delight that comes with unexpectedness, of seeing where and how things develop in a way you can’t predict or plan.  And I’ve been enjoying the process, tasting the cooking dough.

Living well is a delicate balance between being and doing, between forward movement and stillness.

I’m constantly challenged by and in awe of the ever-evolving role of parenthood.  It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had but the most rewarding. Despite the frustrations and the relentlessness, there is overwhelming joy and honor in witnessing the blossoming of these little souls.  The learning never stops and it’s a magical mix of both the lofty and the everyday, from learning patience and unconditional love to throwing a football (which I’ve been learning this trip!)

And while I don’t have any resolutions nailed down right now, here’s what I’ll be trying to create more of in 2015:

  • more sharing (resources, time, food)
  • more celebrating
  • more whole & wholesome foods that nourish the body and soul
  • more quality time with friends and family
  • more dance parties
  • more laughter

Thank you for reading and being part of this journey with me this year.  I wish you more of whatever you’d like to welcome into your life in 2015!

Pinkie Toomer Day

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Nine years (+1 day) ago, Nice Tall Guy and I were officially married at a courthouse in Atlanta, Georgia by Judge Pinkie Toomer.  We were planning a wedding with friends and family the following summer, but for practical reasons (i.e. so Nice Tall Guy could take advantage of in-state tuition for the graduate program he was attending), we decided to make it official before the next semester started.

So, we have a wedding anniversary and this other day we’ve taken to calling, Pinkie Toomer Day.

I remember when we discussed whether or not to do the courthouse marriage, we were concerned it would take something away from our actual wedding day.  We wanted to downplay it so much that we didn’t tell our parents until several days afterwards, when we were out visiting for Christmas (“By the way, we went to the Courthouse last week and got married.” To which Nice Tall Guy’s Mom pragmatically replied, “I can’t believe you waited that long to do it!”)

But the funny thing was, despite our best efforts to not make our courthouse marriage a big deal, it was (and still is) a really special day.  A few thoughtful friends surprised us by attending the courthouse “ceremony”, and adorning me with a wedding veil and a bouquet of flowers.  And though I can’t remember the specifics, Judge Pinkie Toomer delivered a beautiful speech about love and commitment. Afterwards, we went to the newly-opened aquarium and then had a decadent dinner. It was lovely and special and silly and different, and just ours.

And over the years, I’ve realized that Pinkie Toomer Day’s power is in its unexpectedness. Sometimes when you’re not expecting to find meaning, joy and beauty, those moments carry the most magic.

Happy Pinkie Toomer Day to all, today and everyday.

Giving Thanks to Poetry

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Photo by Katherine Emery

I feel lucky to live in the digital age, where unlimited information lies at my fingertips. For a research junkie like myself, it’s heaven.  But often, I feel overwhelmed by the enveloping tsunami of information. Reading often feels reduced to skimming, to wolfing down bytes of data.

To counteract, I’m trying to bring poetry back into my life.  After all, you can’t skim poetry.  I’m fighting the cult of busy through trying to underschedule our family life on the weekends, to simplify when possible, and to create space for poetry.

Poetry asks something from us.  It demands our focus and presence.  Our mind, soul and heart.  And in exchange, poetry gives us so much: joy, insight, beauty, understanding, connection, fulfillment.

Reading poetry is active.  In fact, the origin of the word poetry is “to make or compose”. It’s making meaning, finding beauty and grace in the messy chaos of life.

I have dreams of living a more artistic life, of picking up an instrument, taking some dance classes, even writing a book.  But I realize that right now my music is singing with my kids. It’s lullabies at bedtime. Spontaneous dance parties after dinner.  My poetry is bedtime stories. It’s watching them grow, and the unexpected moments of grace and wonder that can sometimes take my breath away.  And of course the occasional favorite poem.

What’s the poetry in your life?

In the overflowing busyness of life, of work, laundry, making dinners and lunches, of the drop-offs and pick-ups, I’m committing to holding space for poetry. And in the spirit of the season, I’m thankful for poetry, for savoring life and finding meaning in small moments.

In closing, I’d like to share a poem from Ann Betz, a new poet I recently discovered (and one of my coaching instructors):

A Pause

what I want for you?
a pause
the thing you are too busy for
is – forgive me – what I think
you just might need
 
I only sense this
because there have been
so many times
I’ve kept going myself
despite deep weariness
despite a broken heart
despite the tiny voice inside
crying, ‘this is not my life’
 
what I want for you?
the courageous pause
that changes
everything.

 

Yes Please to Playing Big

You know those products you always rave about to friends, family and complete strangers, and you feel like you should be a salesperson for them?  That’s how I feel about Tara Mohr’s brilliant new book, Playing Big.

While I was about halfway through the book, I left my copy in a restaurant (and had to buy another copy).  I’m hoping that the universe arranged it so the right person found it.

I’ve followed Tara Mohr’s work supporting women’s leadership for awhile, so when I learned her book was coming out, I pre-ordered it.  Based on years of coaching women individually and then through her workshop, Playing Big in Tara Mohr’s own words, “is about bridging the gap between what we see in you and what you know about yourself.  It’s a practical guide for moving past self-doubt and creating what you most want to create – whether in your career, in your community, or in a passion you pursue outside of work. It’s not about the old-school notion of playing big – more money, more prestigious title, a bigger empire, or fame. It’s about living a life with a sense of greater freedom to express your voice and pursue your aspiration. It’s about playing big according to what playing big truly means to you.”

From helping you identify and “manage” your inner critic, to connecting with your inner mentor, to presenting a lovely and powerful way to reframe the concept of fear, Playing Big carries so much truth. It spoke to my head and my heart. I only wish I would have had it 15+ years ago when I was graduating from college and starting my career.  Mohr has a chapter focused on the “good student” habits that serve women well in school, but that we have to replace with a different set of skills when we enter the working world.

Even though I’ve found a great deal of wisdom in many of the books I’ve read over the years on this topic, the bulk of them have often left me feeling deflated, like I’m not trying hard enough, I’m not tenacious enough, I’m not…enough.  Perhaps this book hit me at the right moment in my life.  Whatever it is, Playing Big left me feeling inspired and energized.

And I *love* that it’s about playing.

A few days later, I received the only other book I pre-ordered this year: Amy Poehler’s Yes Please.  I liked her on SNL and then fell in love with her as Leslie Knope on Parks & Recreation.  I was struck by the overlap between these two books. Poehler talks about her inner critic (and it is hilarious) and her inner mentor.  She’s smart and funny and vulnerable.  Here’s woman who is seriously Playing Big:

“So here we go, you and me. Because what else are we going to do? Say no? Say no to an opportunity that may be slightly out of our comfort zone? Quiet our voice because we are worried it is not perfect? I believe great people do things before they are ready. This is America and I’m allowed to have a healthy self-esteem.”

I would love to have dinner and drinks with these two brilliant women.  Or if that never happens, I hope someday Tara Mohr and Amy Poehler have dinner and drinks together.  That would make me happy.

Yes Please.

An Ode to the Sweet Potato

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Photo by Charleston’s TheDigitel under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Oh, darling sweet potato,
Sweet apple of the earth,
How I love thee.
 
You astound me with your flexibility:
I can bake you, boil you, mash you or broil you,
And always, you are delicious.
 
Where are the love songs for the sweet potato?
I sprinkle you on salads,
nestle you next to salmon or chicken,
or even eat you plain for breakfast. 
 
And you demand nothing of me.
 
You are cheap, hardy, and tenacious.
I can ignore you for weeks in the bottom drawer of my fridge
And you still appear fresh,
(unlike the greens and delicate herbs and berries you often you bunk with that are spoiled after mere days.)
 
You tolerate abuse.
I can leave you a little too long in the oven,
and you somehow become even more delicious.
My kid chucked you on the floor the other day, and though your tail chipped off,
you were largely unharmed and unchanged, and always, uncomplaining.
 
You don’t need a lot – maybe a splash of olive oil,
a sprinkle of salt.
Your sweet deliciousness blossoms through cooking.
 
You are the sweet ground apple of my eye.

♥♥♥

My favorite ways to eat sweet potatoes these days:

I found this carmelized sweet potatoes with quinoa and greens recipe while trying to use up some kale, and it’s become a favorite.  I’ll admit my kids aren’t the biggest fans, but Nice Tall Guy approves. Keeps in the fridge for several days and makes for great leftovers-for-lunch.

My younger sister made mashed sweet potatoes with chipotle chili powder for Thanksgiving one year, and I’ve been hooked ever since. So much more interesting than regular mashed potatoes, in my opinion.

Most of the time, though, I just bake a bunch of sweet potatoes at the beginning of the week and use them on salads for lunch or dinner for the next day or two. Delicious!

Sweet Potato, Goat Cheese & Toasted Pine Nut Salad

I’m anything but a precise cook, so amounts are very approximate.

  • 2-3 sweet potatoes peeled and cut in chunks
  • goat cheese (a few ounces, depending on how cheesy you want it)
  • several handfuls of toasted pine nuts
  • salad greens (I like arugula, but whatever you have on hand…spinach, etc, will work)
  • olive oil
  • salt

Toss sweet potatoes with olive oil and salt on a baking sheet. Bake sweet potatoes in 400 degree oven until soft and beginning to brown (20ish minutes.)  Flip potatoes half-way through for best results.

Once potatoes have cooled, toss with greens, crumble goat cheese and throw in toasted pine nuts.  I usually make a dressing with olive oil, white wine vinegar, a dab of dijon mustard, a dash of salt and pepper.  Yum!

Kindergarten Wisdom

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Kindergarten art, painted by my son.

We’re only a few weeks into the school year, but I already realize we won the lottery with our son’s teacher this year.   There are so many lovely anecdotes my son has brought home that illustrate what a gem she is.  But there’s one in particular that I noticed from the first day I dropped him off at school that speak to the heart of her brilliance.

Every morning, all the kids from my son’s class wait in line to enter the classroom, and there is his teacher, perched on a kid-sized chair or crouching at their levels. She greets each of her students, and connects with them and really listens to each of them.  She sees them.

One evening, prompted by one of the “bedtime banter” questions she emails parents to encourage conversation, I asked my son,  “Show me how you listen?” He demonstrated, sitting cross-legged on the floor, hands folded, eyes wide, looking attentive.  He explained to me that that’s how you listen.  You listen with your ears, your brain, your body, your eyes, and your heart.

Yep, he said heart.

I know, it sounds like something from the All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten poem, except that I think most of us didn’t really learn this in kindergarten (myself included) or ever, to be honest.

We’re constantly instructed to “listen” as kids, but we’re not necessarily told how to listen.  And  often, we’re not really even listened to, as kids.  We may not know what it feels like to be listened to. Conversely, my son’s teacher is teaching her class how to listen and role modeling it for them.

If I had to condense the learning from all the parenting books I’ve read, that’s one of the key learnings: we all want to be seen and heard. In fact, that could be extended to much of what I know of humanity.

We all hopefully know the feeling and the power of being completely and thoroughly listened to, but how often do we really listen?  Not just listen to what someone is saying, but connect with the person who’s talking, without an agenda, without judging or thinking about how we’re going to respond, or how it relates to our own lives.  Just pure and complete, open-hearted listening.

I’ve been thinking a lot about listening as I’m going through a training to become a leadership coach. Deep listening can be hard. It requires focus and energy, and forces us to quiet the chatter in our own heads.  It’s forcing me to ask if/how I’m listening in my life: to my kids, family and friends, and to myself.

Can you imagine what the world would look like if we all listened with our bodies, minds and our hearts?  In every classroom and boardroom and waiting room and kitchen, we all really listened to each other?  What would the world look like if everyone felt seen and heard?

Tomorrow morning, when I drop my son off at school,  I’ll marvel at how his lovely teacher checks-in with each student as she or he enters the classroom to start the day.  And I’ll imagine that classroom multiplied.  And I’ll imagine all those kindergarteners going out into the world and sharing their listening skills. An army of kindergarteners, changing the world through listening with their minds, bodies and hearts.

Potty Talk: Lessons from Toilet Training

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“Bathroom Reading” by thejbird under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

The other day, an acquaintance asked me how I was doing.  I found myself unloading (no pun intended) about the trials and tribulations of potty training for several minutes.  I could hear myself rattle on and on about potty training…like I was floating above myself watching this unfold but couldn’t. manage. to. stop.

This poor woman.

The backstory: My daughter recently started a new preschool that requires that kids be potty trained. When I signed her up for the school earlier this year, September seemed like an eternity away — of course she’ll be trained by then, I rationalized.  Of course, as life would have it, the more Nice Tall Guy and I “encouraged” our daughter to use the toilet, the more she clung to her diapered ways.

But why oh why is this potty training stuff taking up so much headspace?  Sure, work is a corner of my life these days and not a cornerstone, and you could argue I was busy caring for a newborn and returning to work while my son was potty training, so I had bigger fish to fry. But I realize this potty training experience with my daughter is about more than actually getting her to keep her Hello Kitty undies dry.  There’s deeper learning buried in this struggle and I’ve been ruminating on it these past few weeks (and inadvertently subjecting innocent friends, family and strangers through my explorations). In the process of cleaning up puddles of pee and nuggets of poop, I’ve discovered some nuggets of wisdom to apply to parenting that can perhaps be extended to life, particularly to my own current career development:

  • There’s a lot we can’t control.  Sure, there are things we can influence in life through preparation and planning, but there’s a limit.  (As someone very wise once told me, potty training is one of the very few things kids can control at this age.  So they will!  Just wanted to stick that in there in case any readers were expecting to find actual potty training tips.)
  • Transitions take time. They are a process. Be patient.
  • At the same time, transitions spur amazing moments of growth.  (As any parent or teacher knows, development in kids doesn’t happen incrementally.  It happens in steps, or sometimes even leaps.  And perhaps that doesn’t change as we grow up.)
  • Never underestimate the power of a new environment to stimulate learning and change.   (For those who are curious, about a day or two after my daughter started her new preschool, she was potty trained – minus a few accidents, most still at home!)  It’s true, right?  When we feel stuck or uninspired, there’s a lot that changing our view can do to stimulate our brains or change our perspectives.

So whatever version of a potty training challenge you may be facing in your life, I raise my glass to you in solidarity and understanding.

And I hope yours doesn’t involve cleaning up actual human poop. But if it does, I would advise you to fill your glass up with wine. And take a deep breath.

 

 

Traveling Light

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Photo by Gideon under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

We’ve been traveling the last few weeks – spending time with family, exploring lakes and trails, barbecuing fish and corn, playing tag at sunset, roasting marshmallows.  Enjoying the beauty of summer and the embrace of family. It’s been absolutely lovely.

All except for all the packing and unpacking of our STUFF.

And yes. I realize this is one of many ridiculous first-world problems that I’m incredibly lucky to have.

I never used to mind this process when it was just me – in fact, the planner in me kind of enjoyed it. But traveling with two small kids, things have changed.  Even though we try to keep it simple, the schlepping of clothes, diapers, toiletries, books, toys, camping gear and endless sundry items (i.e. a musical training potty) feels like a chore these days.   Moving houses with kids in the past year has no doubt compounded my allergy to stuff.

But I’m trying to remake my relationship with packing and to take more joy in the stuff of our lives.

A few weeks before my sister and brother-in-law were married years ago, my sister broke her arm in a bike accident.  Although she was cast/sling-free by her wedding day, the backpacking honeymoon in the Sierra Mountains they had planned didn’t seem possible.  Undeterred, my resourceful brother-in-law researched the ins and outs of ultralight backpacking. After much reading and several trips to outdoor equipment places, he outfitted them with ultralight packs and equipment.  They took only the bare essentials. No tent. Super light, nutritious food.  Everything had an essential purpose or provided multiple uses.

The end result: what could have been a cancelled trip turned into a memorable adventure. In fact, learnings from that trip carried into other parts of their live. I think they even continued to voluntarily eat those super-nutritious lightweight breakfast grains for quite awhile after their sojourn.

There’s often discovery in the process of paring down and editing.

I’m trying to instill that sense of resourcefulness and discovery not only in our family travels, but in life.  I had an epiphany with a recent work-related situation along these lines.  I realized I was unconsciously carrying around some anxiety and judgement about a situation that wasn’t really serving me (or, the work project/relationship, for that matter).  Once I “took inventory” of what I was carrying around, I did my best to unload those feelings.  And it felt really good to lighten my load.

So, here are my new, guiding questions for life and travel:

What do I REALLY need?

What do I love? What brings happiness and joy?

What can I chuck off my wagon to lighten my load?

The other day, my son told me if he had Puppy (his raggedy, loved-to-pieces, on-the-verge-of-rotting lovey), he was set to travel the whole world.  That’s all he needed.  My grandma used to say it was her toothbrush.

For me, it’s my family.  Plus running shoes and an ipod.  And a really good book or two. (This vacation I devoured Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.

Happy travels.

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