A Teachable Moment

A Teachable Moment

Very few magazines cross my threshold. I’m at a time and place in my life where I’m trying to pare down the “stuff” and just get the essence or experience. That being said, I do still receive Dressage Today. It’s a great way for me to learn every month from the world’s top trainers and instructors. In the October issue, which I received a few days ago, I learned more than I thought I would, and it all started with one little sentence.

In his article “Teachable Moments”, Dr. Cesar Parra – trainer and rider extraordinaire, discusses canter work through the levels of dressage. Being a great fan of Dr. Parra, I flipped the magazine open to the first page of his article and one line popped out at me: “Don’t ride to avoid mistakes”. I stopped in my tracks when I read this line (I was walking in from the mailbox at the time, so it’s probably just as well I stopped, it saved me from tripping over something as I read). I went over that line several times, layering on deeper levels of understanding each time.

I’ve never been a particularly bold rider, as a matter of fact, I fondly refer to myself as a chicken-shit rider, and I’m OK with that. I know I probably won’t event any more, and I’ve jumped 4 feet before, I don’t need to do it again – as a matter of fact, I don’t want to do it again. Somewhere along the line though, (perhaps the first or second time I got on a horse), my naturally cautious nature stepped in and started doing what Dr. Parra was now warning me against: riding to avoid mistakes.

During my drive to the barn after my Aha Moment, I considered my riding habits since I’d adopted my current horse a nearly two years ago. I had planned on showing him and advancing through the levels, but somehow the plans weren’t coming to fruition. Time, money and ……. an odd reticence to get down to it and do the necessary riding and schooling. On examining this insight a bit further, I realized that I was viewing my horse, Atlas, as a great gift I somehow didn’t deserve, and I was afraid I’d screw him up and forever carry the scarlet F on my forehead (for Failure, but there is another, more pithy term you can stick in there instead). I determined then and there to try to change this behavior. I’d been even more cautious since falling off Atlas a few weeks ago (he’s 18.2 hands, which is huge for a horse, and it’s a long way down. As it was him tripping and going onto his knees which prompted the fall, at least I didn’t have to drop the whole distance). So we started with walk and trot warm up and then moved onto some lateral work and then canters. We’ve had a bit of a challenge with the right lead, but instead of avoiding cantering to the right (which I would have done in the very recent past), I asked for the right lead. First attempt – not successful. I re-evaluated my position and balance, rode some straightening exercises to help counteract Atlas’ tendency to bulge through his left shoulder and asked for the transition again…. and got left lead canter. Previously, I would have given up and waited till my next lesson and hoped my trainer could “fix” me. Not anymore – no more riding to avoid mistakes – we were going to work on this and figure it out. I ran through my aids again, and decided I may have been using too much inside leg, so I backed off the aid a bit and, Voila! Success!! We cooled out and finished up for the day.

The change in my behavior and its attendant results led me to think even more about the that line of Dr. Parra’s, and I had another Aha Moment (usually I’m so busy working that I don’t have many Aha Moments – they fly by in the ether, unnoticed and I muddle along. To have two in one week is pretty amazing). My latest revelation? The sentence could also read “Don’t live to avoid mistakes” and it would also apply to me.I don’t know if I was always a play-it-safe kind of person, although the fact that I didn’t start riding roller coasters till I was 40 should probably have laid thatquestion to rest… I do remember, rather vividly, a discussion I had several years ago with my best friend about risk taking. He was a walk-on-the-edge kind of guy and I just hadn’t developed much of a taste for taking risks. This included things like obsessing about school work so I didn’t “risk” anything less than an A- and not following up on certain opportunities because they involved the risk of failure. It wasn’t something I thought about too much, but it was pretty easy to see a pattern since I’d been hit upside the head with it. Now, with the (slightly edited) advice from Dr. Parra, I had a new growth opportunity. I’m not going to charge around looking for risks just to say I did, but I’m sure going to be living life for the experience, the learning and the growing… and we all know that none of those are possible without a few mistakes.

Morality, Religion and 1 True Christian.

I lost a good friend recently. He was one of the most brilliant human beings I’ve ever had the honor of working with or calling a friend. I knew of his database/computer prowess – the reports he created to keep our teams at work up to date and allow annual reviews to happen (and have context). I didn’t find out until after Robert’s death that he was also a rather brilliant physicist. All of these amazing skills aside, the part of Robert that made the greatest impression on me was the genuine caring man who happened to be brilliant. The wonderful, helpful, patient person who would write you an email expressing sheer delight that you had contacted him just to say hi. The husband and father who adored his family and lived for the truth. The very private man who joined Linked In because when I joined Linked In, I inadvertently didn’t uncheck the box saying that Linked in could invite my entire address book to join Linked In…. ooops. I remained blisfully unaware of this faux pas until I received the following email from Robert, subject line: LOCKED IN

It has finally happened – my first foray into the world of social networking.
By invitation. Up until a few minutes ago, I had steadfastly refused to become one of the millions of people whose online identities blur the waking hours, but I still know something of virtual etiquette: to refuse such an invitation is tantamount to ignoring the sender – in this case, a lady I respect and admire far too much to risk the virtual slight. And I say the first foray, since I realize that it is now only a matter of time before the network does what it is designed to do: track down my myriad email addresses and point them back to the real me.

so you think you hear voices?
I tell you.. it’s true.

but what you should know
is that they can hear you

please rule out any negative undertones – I am always very pleased to hear from you, and life is far, far too short to defer to my level of paranoia

it was good to hear from you – I have thought of you several times of late – trust that you are well and at peace


This email from Bob was the first indication I had that I had invited half of the civilized world (and also parts of Lynchburg) to join Linked In… and it was called out so graciously.

Bob and his wife Ronell assist people who are in tough circumstances – homeless individuals who need someone to stand up for them. When Robert was asked about religions which seem to compete amongst themselves regarding how many souls they could save in a weekend and how he approached his work with the homeless, he said he’d continue to help and help the person in need. If the person asked why Robert was helping, then Robert would share his belief in Christ. This to me is the important part of the story. Robert would do the Christlike work of caring for those who needed care, never expecting anything in return – giving to fill a need. If the recipient asked why – then, and only then, would religion be mentioned.

Living in Lynchburg (the so called gold buckle on the Bible Belt), I have come to view Christians in a less favorable light than I may have in the past. I see a great deal of hypocrisy where praise is sung on Sundays and neighbors ignored on Mondays. Wednesday morning brings a 10 AM service and Wednesday evening brings a discussion of Arabs, Mexicans, or others “not like us”. It reminds me of a quote by Mahatma Gandhi: “Your Christ I like, Your Christians I do not like- they are so unlike your Christ.”

I once read a bumper sticker which said: “Religion is doing what you’re told, no matter what’s right. Morality is doing what’s right, no matter what you’re told”. Christ (or Gandhi, or Buddha for that matter) would be helping the homeless because they need to be helped. The preaching would come after the helping was done. In the past several days, I’ve heard many people describe Robert as a strong Christian… and I pulled back from that description, because to me, a strong christian is always “working the crowd” – it’s about the being Christian instead of the Christian being… Looking back now over the years I knew Robert – I think the time I spent with him, I was sitting with and conversing with the one most true Christian walking this earth. He did not boast or push his religion. He lived his love of his God through love and serving his fellow man. In his humility I found the true meaning of Christianity. May his blessings continue to enrich all of our lives.

Peeking through a keyhole….

Peeking through a keyhole….

A peek through a keyhole can unlock doors to whole new worlds. As a child, I was enamored of a recording my Dad had of Scheherazade. The violin passages in this lovely piece still bring up goosebumps on my arms and I’ll try to be sure to be near the radio if it’s played on WVTF, my local Public Radio station. Another musical treat was watching the Young People’s Concerts with Leonard Bernstein. I liked to imagine Bernstein as my secret Uncle Drosselmeyer – but instead of a magical nutcracker, he brought magical music.

These two early exposures to classical music have shaped my lifelong love of the genre – and I sometimes wonder; if my Dad hadn’t had that Rimsky-Korsakov vinyl – would I now be able to recognize the voices of Andrea Bocelli, Luciano Pavarotti, Bryn Terfel, Renee Fleming and Cecelia Bartoli? That first peek into the world of classical music simply whetted my appetite and made me hungry for more.

I don’t remember the first experience that sent me down the road of devoted animal lover, but my Mom tells me that any time we visited friends or relatives when I was very young – the household dog always took a liking to me, even if they weren’t known to be particularly good with children. I’m sure the first experience was a positive one – and whether it was the warm, fuzzy tactile experience or the warm, fuzzy spiritual experience – I’ve been an animal lover ever since.

Books have been a part of my life since pre-memory. Whatever board or cloth book took my fancy as a baby launched me into a world where I now joke that if we (my husband, our daughter and myself) acquire any more books, we’re going to have to live in the barn with the horses because there won’t be room in the house…. One of the main joys of books? They provide yet more keyholes through which to peek into new worlds. New experiences into which we can dip our toes to see if the water is just right before taking any actual plunge.

This past weekend, James and I attended the Carlisle Import and Kit Nationals in Pennsylvania. As a lover of all things British (including James ;-), I have a particular fondness for British cars. This love is not only shared by James, it’s amplified (to an amazing degree). Our first British sports car was an MG Midget we owned in the UK in the early 80’s. This gave us a taste of these cute and quirky little autos that would be set aside for a few decades after we moved back to the US, only to be rekindled

(with a flame thrower), over the last few years. We now own several British cars including MGB’s, (that’s my MGB, named Cyril, in the photo), Jaguars, a Land Rover and a Range Rover. Most have been purchased needing work (sometimes LOTS of work), many found on eBay, and all inexpensive. It’s become a fun hobby for James and I to share – and it all stemmed from Oscar – our first little Midget owned 30 years ago….

With the advance of electronic communication, you can spend half an hour searching the web and find dozens of activities you never new existed (and I’m only referring to the legal and socially acceptable ones). Maybe an interview or news article mentioned something, which led you to Google something, which led to something else and now you’re deeply involved in the world of whatever….. all because of a casual reference.

My point to all this? Be curious – let a random remark lead you to a door, and peek through the keyhole to see what wonderful world is on the other side. Your curiosity is the only key you need – and, to quote Dr. Seuss – “Oh, the Places You’ll Go”. Travel well, my friend.

Turning a blind eye

Turning a blind eye

I used to think it was because I didn’t care enough – now I think it may be because I care too much.

Having a desire/need to make things better can be rewarding – I try to be helpful to people and animals I encounter on a daily basis. I know the world will never be dramatically changed due to my presence; but I’m happy to make lots of tiny impacts – a smile, kind word or pat on the head (the last usually reserved for quadrupeds). In my “Messiah Complex” driven mind (my daughter’s words, not mine – I think I’m just trying to do the right thing ;-), I sometimes become overwhelmed at the volume of what needs to be done. This is noticeable on both a “local” and global scale.

On the local front – it’s things like dog hair in the corner, the trim on the house needing paint, another weed in the garden, a recipe untried, a paper unfiled – (OK, let’s get real – boxes of papers unfiled…..) I will approach these cries for attention in two separate ways – the full-frontal-attack mode and the peck-peck-peck method. Both have their advantages and drawbacks. In full frontal attack mode – I throw all available resources (meaning me) at the problem, without distraction, until it’s complete or I just can’t stand the idea of spending another minute on it. Sadly, the latter happens at least as often as the former….

In the peck, peck, peck strategy (firmly espoused by Flylady) I’ll spend 15 to 20 minutes a day on the specified task. This often works better for me because I don’t burn out as much; however, I tend to get so overwhelmed by the sheer number of things at which I need to peck that I sabotage myself by laying out forty-seven 15 minutes segments to do every day….. and I’m right back where I started. By the way – for those of you unfamiliar with Flylady – check out her site – her wonderful program does work -it requires a bit of self-discipline and you must check your tendencies toward self-flagellation at the door – but she’s helped thousands overcome the clutter which encroaches on all of our lives.

Both of my approaches to improving my environment used to leave me feeling dissatisfied. I was certain that if I Really Cared, I’d have the dog hair swept up/trim painted/garden weeded/recipe perfectly cooked and presented. If I just cared a bit more…. truly I must be a lazy, slothful and unworthy person.

This “stinkin’ thinkin'” led to the blind eye defense. In order to be able to get through a day in which dog hair, weeds and tantalizing recipes were present, I simply didn’t notice them. I’d carry on with determination (grim or otherwise) while my world quietly decomposed around me. This defense costs dearly though, you miss so much by not being present – suddenly you look up and it’s a Tuesday – in May – in 2011! What the hell happened to July 2009?

So in my recent efforts to be present and aware, the blind-eye defense had to go – and I’ve had to learn to live with a little dog hair and some trim that could use a coat of paint. It’s there and I accept that. I also accept the fact that I’m not going to get to it right now, and that’s OK – really. This doesn’t mean that I’ve become a total sloth, lounging with the proverbial bon-bons while the dog hair threatens to take over the house. I still run the broom and vacuum, but I also accept the fact that with 5 dogs (one of them a Corgi seemingly on a perma-shed cycle), unless I spent all of my waking hours with vacuum in hand, dog hair will happen. I do what I can with my household cries for attention, sleep well knowing I’m doing my best and go on with the rest of my life.

On a more global scale – all of the recent disasters in the news bring about the same tendencies in me – quick – save everyone. I have wanted to go to Haiti to rebuild schools, head to Japan to hand out bottled water, drive to Alabama to help families rebuild their lives after the devastating tornado outbreak and now am wishing there was more I could do to help the flood victims in the South. I also realize that I can’t drive/fly/take a train to the nearest disaster site and throw myself completely into saving every victim.

I often want to turn a blind eye to the disasters – they’re so overwhelming, the scale of devastation so huge. No one person can do it all, but I can’t ignore the suffering and I realize that my small input coupled with that of millions of others can make a real difference in peoples’ lives. So I have a few favorite charities (Heifer.org, The Salvation Army and The ASPCA), I contribute what I can and know that I’m doing my best. I encourage others to do what they can and understand that only together can we truly help.

On September 11, 2001, my daughter and I were working at a blood bank (scheduled weeks before) sponsored by the local State Police Explorers. I was scheduled to work for an hour – but being so close to the tragedies unfolding in New York City (we were still living in CT and many of our neighbors worked in Manhattan), I headed over to the Community Center early to see what I could do to help. Literally hundreds of people had the same idea. The Red Cross had to send personnel back to their headquarters twice for supplies and we finally had to close the doors 3 hours after the scheduled ending time when we ran out of bags and needles. Not one of the hundreds of people who volunteered their time and blood that day could do much on their own – it took a group effort. But by everyone accepting that they could be a small piece of a big solution, we collected tremendous amounts of blood.

So the next time you’re confronted with too many demands on your time/energy/money or other resources – don’t get overwhelmed and don’t turn a blind eye. Take one thing at a time, be fully present in what you’re offering and know that you’ve done your best to save the world – or at least your own little corner.

I wasn’t born here, but I came just as soon as I could!

I first saw this saying proudly displayed on a little sign in Shirley Mickelson’s office at Bank of the James in Forest. Being a “recent” transplant to Virginia (we’d been here for about 3 years at that point), the saying resonated with me and gave me a strange sense of comfort.

I’ve never really felt like an outsider here in Amherst County, even though my former home was well north of the Mason-Dixon line. The friendliness of the local population, the breathtaking scenery and laid-back atmosphere had captured my soul during our first house-hunting visit in 2004. I remember being struck by the fact that folks would wave as you passed on the road – an unheard of occurrence in Connecticut unless the other person knew you well. We were regularly assured by prospective neighbors and local business owners that we’d love living here, and they were right.

The northwest hills of Connecticut are beautiful. There are lovely villages and the autumn leaves draw tourists from near and far. I had spent nearly all of my life in Connecticut, but when we decided to sell our horse farm and flee the harsh winters and inhospitable economic climate, we turned our eyes to Virginia – our hearts soon followed.

We’d found a lovely old house to renovate which fit our criteria perfectly – we made an offer, signed a contract and drove back to Connecticut to complete the sale of our farm and get ready for the big move.

The process wasn’t without some nail-biting moments. The first sign that things wouldn’t go as smoothly as hoped came when the appraiser we’d contacted mailed our check back and said they wouldn’t attempt to appraise the property. We guessed that a somewhat ramshackle, rambling 19 room house with a 6 room guest house on 10 acres wasn’t standard fare. Slightly discomforting, but there were other appraisers in the phone book. After we received a similar answer from the 2nd appraiser and a figure 30% below the asking price from the 3rd, we started to worry.

We came up with a few ideas for creative financing; however, the owners (several cousins who had inherited the property) weren’t too interested in our proposals. This was a problem. We’d already signed a contract to sell our farm and shipped our horses to a boarding facility in Virginia. Looking for an alternate house was something we were prepared to tackle; however, we had 3 dogs, 5 cats and a rabbit. We needed somewhere to live while we began a new search or worked out the financing with the owners of our dream house. You can’t just drive up to the local hotel with a bunch of animals and ask for a room for 6 weeks or so….

I spent hours on the internet scouring rental and sale listings and my Realtor was probably tired of seeing my number pop up on her caller ID. I decided to take a few days and run down to Virginia to see if I could get more done in person. I showed up at her door and while we were going through the dream house again – she suddenly had an idea for a possible rental. One phone call later, we had an appointment to meet with the owner at the real estate office in an hour. I looked at the house, signed the papers, crossed my fingers that my husband would approve and turned the car back north.

We left Connecticut on a frigid January day, rental truck, pickup and horse trailer packed to the gills. A supply of ginger snaps for the Rottweiler (who had a tendency to be car sick), cats and rabbit tucked into traveling crates.

We ended up spending about 4 months in the quickly rented house and then it was sold. In the meantime, the house of our dreams was taken off the market and we had been searching for a replacement in earnest. Our landlord had other rental properties, so we new we’d have a roof over our many heads, but we wanted to settle into our own place (and not have to move again)! The weekend we needed to be out of the rental, our landlord purchased a nice, older house in Monroe at auction. We moved into it that weekend, purchased it a few months later. We’ve been happily ensconced ever since.

Part of what eased our transition and acceptance into this life is the fact that we were country people in Connecticut and we’ve put down our roots in another rural area here in Virginia. We’ve never been “city folks”, or had the attitude that we could live in any area in the country as long as it had a great mall.

We’ll never be natives, and some people will always consider us Yankees; but we’ve found our home here and can’t imagine a better place to live. As Mrs. Mickelson’s sign says: We weren’t born here, but we came just as soon as we could.

Life after Dodge…. all yoga and massages? Not quite…..

On my last day of work at one of my 3 jobs just over a month ago, I envisioned my life opening up. As in the monthly “Breathing Space” feature in O Magazine – the vista of a serene existence rested softly in my brain….. I’d finally have time to get to those Rodney Yee yoga DVD’s sitting in the den – I could go out on Friday nights (not that I ever did before working 2nd shift, but that wasn’t the point – at least now I could!), and my aching, tired body would have time to rejuvenate with an occasional massage. Let’s just sit with that lovely sensation for a moment….. I “sat” with it for about 3 days, then my over-achiever kicked in.

Wow, I’d also have time to get through the pile of “non-essential” laundry lurking in the corner of the laundry room, paint the barn roof panels, put in a few more perennial gardens, ride 3 or 4 horses a day, keep my car washed and waxed and my pocket book cleaned out…..

Brandon, the incredibly patient guy who’s doing my website, would get to finish my site because I’d actually send him the text and info I wanted to include. Netflix would discover (upon receiving Inception and The Proposal back from me after lo, these many months)that I hadn’t gone on a round the world cruise or a voyage to Mars. My books would be written and article pitches would fly off to magazines daily.

Now, the important thing to remember here is that I was only working for 32 hours a week at this job….. so needless to say I was in for a bit of an adjustment of expectations.

For the first week or so, I emulated a pinball machine on crack – racing back and forth between yoga and yard work, relaxing with massages and waging war on dust bunnies. I saw some progress on many fronts, but after about 10 days, my “breathing space” feeling began to feel more like “can’t catch my breath”. I was doing things I loved, but being pulled in too many directions to get much satisfaction. The pendulum had swung – right past bliss and back into the far reaches of crazed.

Yoga? Can’t possibly – no time, have to sweep up dog hair/organize my winter clothes/wash the cat nose prints off the window. Get more time in in the garden? No can do – need to drive down to the barn so I can get all the young horses completely trained today. Work on my website? Sorry, the recycling has been piling up and I need to get the winter comforter cleaned and make a run to the grocery store and Tractor Supply and the bank and the gas station and…….

As a wave of PMS like crankiness/exhaustion/depression hit – I took stock and had a few realizations. I’d left my job largely because I was feeling crazed, cranky and crushingly tired. The point of leaving was to make some positive changes to improve those issues, but somehow I’d managed to get sidetracked and think that the secondary and tertiary issues (such as housework) now needed to vie for top spot on my to do list – this obviously wasn’t working out as I had hoped.

To get back toward the blissful state I’d envisioned when driving out of the parking lot on my last day at work, I had to set myself some limits and realistic expectations. Am I going to spend hours a day practicing yoga? Nope, sorry, it’s just not going to happen. Can I do a 20 minute routine a couple of days a week? Why yes, I can – thank you for asking. Is the house going to become immaculate overnight? Well, seeing as I’ve never inhabited an immaculate house (at least not one for which I was responsible), that was a bit of silliness. Could I spend 15 minutes a day reducing clutter and starting to notice when things were untidy sooner rather than later? Definitely in the realm of the do-able. Train half a dozen or so 7 year old green-broke horses to perfection this week? Not! Bring 4 of them up into a closer paddock and work them through a systematic program of groundwork and riding before moving on to the next group? Hey, that might just work!

Things are getting back on track. Instead of feeling that I’ve lowered my expectations, I prefer to view it as having created realistic goals and plans. My mind still wants to jump ahead (and side to side) with other projects/chores/actionable items. I’ve found two things very helpful in managing my pinball-on-crack tendencies. The first is to write stuff down. Sounds overly simple, but by typing notes into my phone as I think of them, I’m not trying to remember and juggle all of the ideas which pop up during a stream of consciousness trip down some rabbit hole. I go through the notes later and either discard them as “seemed like a good idea at the time” or integrate them into the appropriate list (to-do, writing projects, etc.).

The second, and most profoundly affecting, tool in my kit is saying: “right now I’m (fill in the blank)”. I simply bring myself back to the task at hand when my brain takes off to run it’s crazy laps. By focusing (really focusing – as in using all, or at least most, of my senses) on the project at hand, I feel the tension work out of my body. I become present. Zen masters have been suggesting this to us for how many thousands of years? OK, so sometimes I’m a bit of slow study – but I like to see things work for myself, and this does. I’ll be doing something which doesn’t require much engagement (like cleaning a stall) and find that I’m there in body, but the mind is off doing several other things. To bring myself back into being (rather literally), I take a deep breath, exhale and simply say “right now, I’m cleaning this stall”. I then become aware of the feel of the handle of the pitchfork, the dust motes sailing on the sunshine, the rumbling chatter of the river and the constant conversation of the birds. The green smell of the grass and the warm feel of the muscles in my body completing this task. The mundane becomes elevated and I become whole. Cleaning a stall or sweeping the stairs or standing in line can become a spiritual experience, provided we’re really there to notice it.

What are you doing right now? Take a deep breath, exhale and then feel all the aspects of the activity. During the day, begin to cultivate this awareness of experience. Mundane moments disappear, peace enters and life becomes a continual prayer of gratitude.

Live well, my friend.