What We Seek

January 29, 2014

“After a certain point, it is necessary to let go of all outside help and focus in on our own strength and resourcefulness. What we seek, seeks us.”

Being present

Prudy Was Here

January 24, 2014

The Christmas tree was just the beginning. Let me share a few more of Prudy’s recent exploits. There are only a few surfaces left that are safe from her depridations—and that will probably change as she gets older: the top of refrigerator (where we have to keep Scout’s food when she’s not actually eating it), the top of the armoire in my office (where I put fresh flowers if I have them) and so far, our dresser in the bedroom. (I’m pretty sure she could jump up on it—she just hasn’t seen any need to do so yet.)  Everywhere she goes, havoc! She loves to lie on my desk while I’m working, and her favorite way to get there is to run into the office, jump onto my rocking chair and spring onto the desk. With the following results:

She also decides it’s time to play around 11 p.m. and frequently has to be locked into the office for the night. She doesn’t seem to mind this—I hear her rolling her ball around in there, and she doesn’t start crying to get out until morning. However, she takes that time to explore the shelves and knock things over. I’ve found many of the little odds and ends I keep on my desk on the floor in front of it when I let her out in the morning. I use a docking station with my laptop so I have a better keyboard and monitor, and Prudy likes to jump on the shelf below my desk that holds my laptop, shutting the lid and turning it off, usually when I’m right in the middle of typing a sentence.

So far she’s not an especially naughty girl (knock on wood) and I know it’s only a matter of time before she’s a full-grown cat whose main activity is sleeping. I’m enjoying her loving nature, playfulness and curiosity while trying to stay one step ahead of her possible destructiveness (the silk flower arrangement from the dining room table now lives on top of the china cabinet, for example). For once, I’m not wishing away this stage, but appreciating it, pausing many times a day to play with her or pet her. (And I save my documents frequently!)

Often we (I) look forward too much, neglecting the present for the future, believing that it will somehow be better than right now. I look back at my life and see how fast it’s going, and how much time I wasted wishing I would grow up, wishing I had a husband and family, wishing my child would grow up…you see the pattern. I’m learning that appreciating the right now not only improves my experience of the present, but builds a store of warm memories, and hopefully, a happy future.

How do you appreciate the present?

Mo H. Saidi

Snow, Falling

January 22, 2014

Photo courtesy Alfred Borchard

Here’s a lovely poem about snow falling on San Antonio by Mo H. Saidi, an obstetrician and writer who, in addition to his medical training, has a Master’s degree in English and Literature from Harvard. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]

The Night of the Snowfall

Snow falls gently in the Hill Country
covering the meadows and the valleys.
The sluggish streaks of smoke climb quietly
from the roofs but fail to reach the lazy clouds.

On Alamo Plaza in the heart of the night
and under the flood of lights, the flakes float
like frozen moths and glow like fireflies.
They drop on the blades of dormant grass.

They alight on the cobblestones and live awhile
in silence, they dissolve before dawn.
The wet limestone walls of the mission
glow proudly after the night of snowfall.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Mo H. Saidi from his most recent book of poems, The Color of Faith, Pecan Grove Press, 2010. Poem reprinted by permission of Mo H. Saidi and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2014 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.


Shut Up, Inner Critic

January 20, 2014

Lately I’ve been living with someone who has nothing good to say about me, who takes every opportunity to put me down and tell me I’m not good enough. In fact, she’s kind of a witch.

She’s my inner critic.

When I put pen to paper, she’s right there with “helpful” comments about how boring and bland my words are, and her most cutting criticism is that I have nothing to say. This criticism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and suddenly I don’t have anything to say. No words come. I sit staring at my blank page, bereft of ideas, frustrated that my writing time is slipping away with nothing to show for itself.

My inner critic has nothing constructive to say. She (my inner critic is a she) only tries to shut me down. Nothing I do is ever good enough, and I am not even close to being “good enough.” If she has good intentions, she’s going about it all wrong.

You don’t have to be a writer, artist or “creative” person to suffer from an inner critic. You may have one who trashes your appearance, athletic ability, intelligence, childrearing, housekeeping, or level of hospitality. When an area of life is important to you, you may find you have a small—or large—inner voice criticizing you. Your inner critic may try to keep you from doing what you want, or it may lash out when you’ve been human and made an error.

Frankly, I’m tired of my inner critic’s B.S. I don’t need any inner voices tearing me down. If she has nothing helpful to say, she can just shut up. I don’t let real people talk to me like that—why do I let her get away with it? Here are four things I’m doing to shut up my inner critic:

  1. Notice what she’s saying. Is there any truth at all or is it just generalized, unconstructive criticism? Occasionally, there may be a kernel of truth in what she says, but more often she makes big, sweeping statements that simply aren’t accurate. (I’m really not the most boring person in the world, for example.)
  2. Pretend I’ve overheard her criticizing someone else. Do I believe her, or would I argue with her, defending the other person?
  3. Talk back to her. Question her. Say, “Who cares what you think!” Tell her to shut up. Someone who speaks to me the way she does deserves little or no consideration for her feelings. One article I read suggested naming her, then telling her to shut up by name.
  4. Draw or paint a picture of her, then tape her mouth shut. I got this idea from Laure Ferlita—read her post “What Does Your Inner Critic Look Like?!” here
My inner critic doesn't like how I've drawn her...

I hope you don’t have such a vicious voice living inside your head, but if you do, try one or more of the above techniques to silence her. You don’t have to put up with that!

Do you have an inner critic? How do you silence him or her?


More Than "Happiology"

January 17, 2014

As you might expect, I have an interest in positive psychology, the relatively new branch of psychology that focuses not on treating mental illness, but on building mental health and increasing happiness.  Positive psychology is not just “happiology”—about feeling good all the time. It strives to understand the elements of a truly satisfying life.

In Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, Martin  Seligman, a psychologist and one of the pioneers in the field of positive psychology, builds on (and explains the weaknesses of) his work on “authentic happiness theory,” refining it into what he calls well-being theory. Seligman writes, “I used to think that the topic of positive psychology was happiness, that the gold standard for measuring happiness was life satisfaction, and that the goal of positive psychology was to increase life satisfaction. I now think that the topic of positive psychology is well-being, that the gold standard for measuring well-being is flourishing, and that the goal of positive psychology is to increase flourishing.” 

In Flourish, Seligman adds two more elements (Relationships and Achievement) to the three elements already named in authentic happiness theory (remember them by using the mnemonic PERMA):

  • Positive emotion (of which happiness and life satisfaction are all aspects)
  • Engagement (flow)
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Achievement 
Each of these elements contributes to well-being without defining it.  Some are measured subjectively and others are measured objectively. Seligman added these additional dimensions because he feels that “life satisfaction holds too privileged a place in the measure of happiness” because “how much life satisfaction people report is itself determined by how good we feel at the very moment we are asked the question.” Many people who lack a natural cheerfulness may have more engagement and meaning in their lives than those who are more outwardly “happy.”

Flourish is an interesting book, and though it’s more theory than practical application, it does contain some interactive exercises (I mentioned one of them here). The book also contains a bit of history of positive psychology and Seligman’s career, as well as a defense of positive psychology against critics.

What I took from the book was the idea that well-being was a broader, richer concept than simple “happiness,” and that you can have well-being without constantly feeling cheerful or “happy.” I don’t believe it’s possible—or even desirable—to feel happy all the time. I do, however, feel that pursing the elements of PERMA will help you build a more deeply satisfying—and, yes, happier—life.

Leonie Dawson

The Real World

January 15, 2014

“What you think ‘the real world’ is is composed directly of the stuff you see and read. If you choose to read awful things, you’re going to think you live in an awful world.”
—Leonie Dawson


Some of My Best Teachers Have Four Legs

January 13, 2014

“Everything natural—every flower, tree, and animal—has important lessons to teach us if we would only stop, look, and listen.”—Eckhart Tolle

I’ve had various pets nearly all my life. Aside from their cuteness and cuddleability, pets can be expert teachers of life lessons (and if you doubt me, check out the delightful book Guardians of Being). Currently, I have one elderly dog, a “teenage” kitten, and a middle-aged horse. They’ve taught me many, many things (including don’t wear any clothes to the barn you’re not prepared to ruin, and no, the kitchen counter is not tall enough to keep food away from either the kitten OR the dog…). 

Here are a few of my favorite life lessons from my pets:

From Prudy:

There is a time for play and a time for cuddling. Know your priorities and stick to them.

The world is to be explored.

Like everyone until they prove unlikable.

Assume everyone likes you until proven otherwise.

From Scout:

Do everything joyfully: get up in the morning, go to bed at night, eat, announce your presence to the world.

Sleep when you’re tired, even if something interesting is going on elsewhere.

Don’t put up with bull$&@, but only do as much as you have to to get it to stop—don’t overreact.

From Tank:

You can make huge progress by taking many small steps.

Relationship is more important—and ultimately more satisfying—than tricks or blind obedience.

Hold out for your favorite treats. Spit out the ones you don’t like. Don’t waste time (or calories) on them.

Don’t let the turkeys get you down. 

Animals live in the moment. They don’t worry about what might happen tomorrow, or what the dog next door has, or what the horses in the next paddock might be saying behind their backs. Seems like some pretty valuable wisdom to me.

Have you learned any life lessons from an unusual source?

Bok Tower Gardens

Field Trip Friday: Bok Tower Gardens and Pinewood Estate

January 10, 2014

Welcome back to Field Trip Friday! This installment takes us to one of my new favorite central Florida locations: Bok Tower Gardens and Pinewood Estate in Lake Wales. My partner in adventure, Laure Ferlita, and I drove out there just before New Year’s to see the estate decorated for the holidays and wander through the beautiful gardens. I’ve been to Bok Tower before, but not since my son was a baby, and I’d never been to Pinewood Estate. We wandered slowly through the gardens and the home, sketched outside while drinking hot chai tea, ate lunch at the cafĂ© and browsed the gift shop. We completely lost track of time and stayed for more than six hours! Though many things were blooming even in December, I want to go back in the spring for peak bloom season. 

Bok Tower Gardens
Most visitors to central Florida have heard of Busch Gardens, Sea World and Disney World—but probably not Bok Tower Gardens. Bok Tower is a totally different experience, a haven of beauty and peace in contrast to the craziness of the theme parks. The gardens were the project of Edward W. Bok, a successful publisher and Pulizer Prize-winning author. The 50-acre gardens were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. “to be a contemplative and informal woodland setting.” Crews laid irrigation pipes and brought in rich soil to create the conditions for a subtropical garden. After that, bushes and trees were planted, not only for their beauty, but to provide food for migrating birds. These plantings now provide shade for visitors as well as food and shelter for squirrels and other small creatures, and 126 bird species. The gardens house ferns, palms, oaks, pines, azaleas, magnolias, more than 150 types of camellias and many other blooming plants.

As lovely as the gardens are, the most striking and unusual feature of Bok Tower Gardens is the 205-foot marble and coquina “Singing Tower” that houses a 60-bell carillon. Carillon music is still played daily. To learn more about the carillon, click here. To actually hear it being played, click here. Mr. Bok is actually buried at the base of the tower.

Bok, who immigrated with his family from the Netherlands when he was six years old, presented the gardens to the American people in 1929 in gratitude for the opportunities he had been given. He did his best to live up to the advice given to him by his grandmother: “Make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it.” I’m now curious about Mr. Bok, and would like to read his autobiography

You can read more about Bok Tower Gardens by clicking here, or reading Bok Tower Gardens: America’s Taj Mahal

Pinewood Estate
Pinewood Estate was built in the early 1930s for Charles Austin Buck, a Bethlehem Steel vice president. The 20-room Mediterranean-style mansion has a barrel-tile roof, beautifully carved doors and woodwork, and is situated to provide a natural flow from house to garden. (Buck was an amateur horticulturist and had the gardens laid out first, and the home positioned later.) I don’t know if it was just the holiday decorations, but I thought the home had a warm and friendly feeling, in contrast to the mansions in Newport, RI

Each room was decorated for the holidays by volunteers and sponsored designers, and you could vote for your favorite room at the end of the self-guided tour. Volunteers and a historian were available to answer questions. My favorite room:

In 1970, Edward Bok’s daughter-in-law, Nellie Lee Holt Bok, led an effort to acquire Pinewood Estate (then called “El Retiro”) for Bok Tower Gardens, and the mansion was restored and opened to the public.

The back of house
The last thing we did before heading home was visit the “Window By the Pond,” a small wooden building with a large window overlooking a Florida bog setting. We sat quietly watching birds feasting on the seed left for them, an anhinga drying its wings, and one intrepid squirrel who jumped over the water to where the seed was placed.

Every time we take a field trip, we wonder why we don’t do it more often. Yes, it takes a bit more effort to find someplace of interest and get ourselves there than it does to meet at Panera for lunch, but it’s always worth the effort to fill the well. (And if you’re wondering about the sketches, as usual, mine is unfinished—and lucky to even be started. I forgot to bring paint, and had to borrow from Laure! But I did take a reference photo and plan to finish soon. Really!)

Have you taken any field trips lately? How do you “fill the well”?

Back to the Classics

Reading from the Mountain, Playing Mystery Bingo and Back to the Classics

January 08, 2014

It’s reading challenge time again. In 2014, I’m signing up for two challenges, ones I’ve done before, and using a third challenge as inspiration: the Back to the Classics Challenge.  Reading is practically my favorite thing, and I’ve decided to use that to gently step outside my usual comfort zone.

I’m returning to Bev’s (My Reader’s Block) Mount TBR Challenge in 2014, but stepping it up to the Mt. Vancouver level (36 books) because Something Must Be Done about the state of my bookshelves. This will truly be a challenge because I barely squeaked by with my 24 from last year, even after I got off to a good start. I’ll need to average three books a month from my own shelves to reach my goal. Fortunately, I’m well-equipped for this, and I’ll use books from my stash for my other two challenges. Now if only I can keep from being too distracted by the intriguing books I’ll hear about this year….

2014 Vintage Mystery BINGO Sign-UpVintage mysteries are my favorite, possibly because I grew up reading Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Erle Stanley Gardner, and this will be my third vintage mystery challenge. This year, I’m playing Vintage Mystery Bingo, also hosted by Bev. I’m doing the Golden level, and might consider the Silver level as well if I find myself reading enough books from that era without putting strain on the other two challenges. I’ve already finished Georgette Heyer’s A Blunt Instrument and have started Sheila Pim’s Creeping Venom. This will be by far my easiest challenge—these books are the equivalent of eating cookies: delicious and comforting. 

And finally, I’m using the Back to the Classics Challenge, hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate, as inspiration for reading more classics. (I’m not officially signing up because I’m not planning to write a blog post about each classic that I read—I’m just going to use the categories as guidelines.) I’ve wanted to read more classic literature but haven’t been able to discipline myself to do so, even though “classic” doesn’t have to mean difficult, long or boring. (Pride and Prejudice is a classic and one of my all-time favorite books, for example). This challenge seems within my reach, with six required books, and four more optional choices. Of course, I have a number of unread classics on my TBR shelves to choose from. (Thank you to Danielle at A Work in Progress for linking to Karen’s challenge.) 

It’s likely I’m biting off more than I can chew—but it’s a new year and everything seems possible! Even putting a dent in my (almost literal) mountain of unread books. (See the sidebar left for a link to my 2014 reading challenge log.)

Will you join any reading challenges in 2014?

#100HappyDays challenge

Three Ways to Focus on Happy Moments

January 06, 2014

Sometimes an idea just keeps presenting itself to me until I have to pay attention. In this case, the idea is noticing and recording things that make me happy.

First, I read about something called the “What-Went-Well Exercise” (also called “Three Blessings”), in Martin Seligman’s book, Flourish. He writes, “Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well. You may use a journal or your computer to write about the events, but it is important that you have a physical record of what you wrote. The three things need not be earthshaking in importance…but they can be important.” (Seligman also encourages recording why the event happened, but I find that more problematic—many of my happy events, like “I rode Tank today” or even “I finished everything on my to-do list today,” don’t seem to have a “why” beyond “I just did it.” Maybe I’m missing something?) 

Next, I heard about the 100 Happy Days Challenge. Every day submit a picture of what made you happy to a social media site such as Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, with the public hashtag #100HappyDays. If you don’t want to do this publicly, you can come up with your own hashtag that you share only with those you want to see your photos, or you can send your photos to myhappyday(at)100happydays.com. (Of course, you don’t need to share your photos with anyone, but it helps keep you on track and “honest” if you do.)

According to the challenge organizers, “People successfully completing the challenge claimed to:
  • Start noticing what makes them happy every day;
  • Be in a better mood every day;
  • Start receiving more compliments from other people;
  • Realize how lucky they are to have the life they have;
  • Become more optimistic;
  • Fall in love during the challenge.”

Doesn’t that sound great? For more information, or to sign up for the challenge, click here

My third exposure to this idea came from Dani Dipirro at Positively Present: The Jar of Happy Things. During all of 2013, she wrote down favorite moments on bright scraps of paper, storing them in a jar (she had so many she had to buy a second jar!). I love the visual of the jar filling up with happy moments, and the idea of being able to read through a year’s worth of them all at once. Her post, titled “Five Benefits of Noting Happy Moments,” is worth a read. 

Why do any of these things? My reasons include, first, awareness in the present moment of all that is good and happy in my life. I have the habit of allowing myself to worry about what is not going right—or what bad things might happen in the future—instead of appreciating the good things (and there are plenty of them) right now.

Second, actually recording happy moments should help me remember them in the future if and when bad things happen.

Third, what you focus on expands. My hope is that by focusing on the happy moments, I will have more of them!

I’ve been doing the “What Went Right” exercise most nights since I first read about it, and I’m quite tempted to join the #100HappyDays Challenge—I love the idea of a photographic record of happiness! What about you? How do you keep track of the happy moments in your life?

First lines

A Year in First Lines

January 03, 2014

Welcome back! I hope the holiday season was all you wanted it to be, and that you’re ready and rarin’ to start a new year—I know I am. But first, a look back at the year that was. I saw this fun meme on Belle’s blog (you can see other versions here and here). By looking at the first line of each month’s first post, I can see what themes and experiences carried through my blogging year. By clicking on the month, you can go to the original post. Here goes:

January: “Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness.”—James Thurber 

February: Some weeks, just getting to Friday feels like an accomplishment. (Still true. This post marked the first installment of Field Trip Friday.)

March: Habits—good ones—can be our best friends. 

April: Putting bed pillows onto the grass to freshen, it’s a pretty humble subject for a poem, but look how Kentucky poet, Frank Steele, deftly uses a sun-warmed pillow to bring back the comfort and security of childhood. (This was Ted Kooser’s introduction to the poem “Part of a Legacy.”) 

May: Nearly all of us spend too much of our lives thinking about what has happened, or worrying about what's coming next. (Another Kooser poem introduction, this time for “The Peace of Wild Things.”)  

June: Whew. (I sometimes subscribe to the less-is-more school of writing! This was the first sentence of a piece about my son’s high school graduation.) 

July: Some time ago, I was reading one of those magazines that try to help you simplify your life, and I came across an article touting the benefits of exercising during “downtimes.” 

August: With days growing longer—and hotter—and the kids about to be out of school, I find myself remembering sweet summers of my childhood, when I ran wild and free at my grandma’s house in Cottonwood, California. 

September: Well, it’s Labor Day today in the U.S., and that marks the unofficial end to summer.  

October: “The heart is not a machine.” (The first sentence of a quote from Christina Rosalie’s A Field Guide to Now.) 

November: Perhaps this happens to you? (I wrote about the energizing effect travel has on me.) 

December: You’ve heard of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday—how about Giving Tuesday? 

I was kind of all over the place last year, wasn’t I? (As the blog, so the life, perhaps?) My blog is a place for me to play and experiment, to connect with other like-minded souls, and to practice a more personal style of writing than I have been used to in my previous career. I love writing it and try to make it interesting and helpful, not just a place for me to let off steam, and I hope you enjoy reading it. Here’s to a new year of simple pleasures and everyday adventures.

If you’re a blogger, look back at your blog posts from 2013. What do they tell you about your blogging year? You could also do this if you keep a journal: what is the first sentence of the first entry from each month? Would it be possible to sum up each month in a single sentence?