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 (, 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.

Gettin’ out of Dodge

At the end of my last post I shared with you the fact that I recently quit my job (or to be more specific – one of my three jobs). If you read one of my earlier ramblings (Freedom at Google Maps Street Level), you’d have already been introduced to Spike, my reptilian brain. Spike’s job, as any good reptilian brain will tell you, is survival, pure and simple. He’s not too much into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs or other such touchy-feely, new-agey stuff. This would be all well and good if I sat in a cave all day nursing the latest offspring and waiting for my man to drag home half a mammoth to throw on the fire. As my life has evolved, at least slightly from the above scenario (I no longer eat red meat ;-), I’ve had to develop my skills in reptilian brain management.

Take leaving my job – this wasn’t just a simple case of waking up one day and deciding I’d been there long enough. I did actually do that, but that was just the beginning of months of negotiating with Spike to actually be able to leave the building for the last time.

One of my favorite self-help gurus is Martha Beck (who has written half a dozen books and is a regular columnist in O Magazine). She’s not only very funny, she also comes up with self help advice that’s, well, helpful. I’ve learned a lot about change (and more specifically – growth), from Martha, including the steps involved in Making Things Happen. So armed with a nodding acquaintance of the Transtheoretical Model of Change, I knew I’d be spending some time in the areas of Contemplation, (the Pre-contemplation phase had already been completed) and Preparation before I actually got to the Action part.

Another thing I faced which wasn’t mentioned in the Change Model was the periodic/frequent/near-constant questioning of my own sanity. I was preparing to walk away from a job which offered me:
1. A steady (if somewhat anemic) paycheck,
2. Extremely good health insurance
3. 401K matching funds
4. Lots of Paid Time Off
5. The ability to listen to Norah Jones, Creed, and various operatic works as I sat at my desk, and (last but not least)
6. On-site chair massages

Yeah, I was pretty much thinking Spike may be right. Leaving this job was not such a good idea. “Find out about Health Insurance” sat pristine on my To Do list for weeks, unmarred by the thick black line of completion coursing through it’s words. I was overcome by the fear that if I actually inquired about health insurance, I’d find the premiums were thousands of dollars a month and I’d end up being a cubicle jockey for all of my remaining days.

When the day finally came that I picked up the phone and made the calls, I was surprised to find that the premiums, while not exactly chump change, were something we could work with and I was able to proceed toward resigning my position.

Since I’ve listed the undeniably good benefits of this job, you may be wondering why I was so anxious to leave. You may even be thinking that I should listen to Spike more often and just leave well enough alone. The simple, touchy-feely truth is that the job didn’t align with my higher purpose. (I saw that eye-roll, stay with me here for a minute – it gets a bit less new-agey).

I know there are certain things I’m pretty good at, and I am extremely fortunate in that my other two jobs utilize some of these skills. I really was getting tired and experiencing some health issues in trying to keep working 70 or more hours a week, driving an average of 70 miles a day and still trying to be a wife, mother and responsible pet owner (notice I didn’t even mention housework?) So, knowing that something had to give, I did a cost/benefit analysis of my three jobs, taking into account the intangibles as well as the on-site chair massages.

Job 1 (the “real” job I was looking to quit) benefits I already listed above. On the downside I had: Stressful environment, sedentary, indoors (I’m an outdoor person), health issues such as migraines and neck problems from sitting at the computer, and the fact that my energy and good-will plummeted when I drove into the parking lot.

Job 2 – I care for around 30 horses, training the youngsters and tending to their every need. Benefits: The pay was better, I set my own hours, outdoors, plenty of activity, beautiful environment and (most important): I’m doing what I love and it matches one of my strong skill sets. Costs: The farm is about 25 miles from my house and there are times when it’s cold and wet and miserable and I’d rather be in front of a fire reading a book.

Job 3 – Teaching riding lessons to about a dozen students at a wonderful horse rescue facility. Benefits: similar to job 2. Teaching riding is one of my strongest skills and something I dearly love. Costs: Distance from my home and sometimes I was unable to teach because of inclement weather.

In sizing everything up, I realized that the costs of Job 1 far outweighed the benefits for me, and that the benefits from that job (all material), could be replaced by spending some additional time at Job 2 and Job 3. One of the ways I considered Job 1 was that it was like taking our furniture – lots of mahogany, old clocks and family antiques, and putting them in a post-modern house, all hard angles and white paint and glass. Our grandfather clock would still chime and my mahogany desk would still hold my pens, the Blue Willow china would still hold the breakfasts and dinners, but the fit would be wrong. Neither the house nor the furniture would be at fault – they’d just both be better suited to a different situation. This job was just a bad fit.

For many people – my bad fit job is a dream job. Many of my former colleagues passionately connect with what they do on a daily basis. The job speaks to their soul and it’s the right thing for them to do. I’m happy for every single one of them, but even happier for me – out in the field checking the herd or out in the ring helping students learn about horses and riding. Hopefully, I’ll also help them learn a bit about honoring their true selves along the way.