Sunday, September 24, 2017

14 Days of Helping

A little more than two weeks ago, I accepted a challenge on my new favorite Facebook page: Life, Experimentally.

"The challenge is to help one person a day with something that you normally wouldn’t help with. For example, if you already routinely help your co-worker with something, that doesn’t count. It must be a different person each day, and a different thing that you do to help. This experiment lasts for 14 days. So by the end of the experiment you and I will have helped at least 14 different people in 14 different ways. 
So why is this a good idea?
• Helping others makes us happy ourselves
• It helps to give us a sense of purpose and satisfaction
• It helps to encourage altruism in others
• It promotes positive behavior in young people
• It helps build new or stronger friendships

These are but a few of the countless reasons why this could be a good idea.

The real question is: What type of an impact it will have in your life? To find out, join us in this 14 day experiment, and share your experiences."

I've been in this mode of trying to challenge myself--push myself out of my comfort zone a little--with the goal of reenergizing myself, gaining some insight, expanding my horizons, etc.

I'm not one to dive headfirst into huge changes...I'm a baby steps kind of a gal. So, the Life, Experimentally approach is really working for me. Do a little experiment...see what happens...others will be doing it with's not scary...go for it...why not?!

So, here's what has happened on my 14-day helping journey:

Nothing earth-shattering has happened! But it has been gratifying and nice. Not sure I'm too far out of my comfort zone with this one. Probably because of how I have approached it. I didn't try to seek out big helping activities each day. Rather, I stayed mindful of what I was trying to do, and it was amazing how little opportunities presented themselves to me. Sometimes things that I might have absolutely done anyway, but I realized that all too often, I have been missing opportunities to help others, primarily because I'm not paying attention.

Also, I said "yes," a lot. Again, I wasn't great about seeking out big, mind blowing opportunities to help that might make the evening news or something. But I was really good about paying attention, taking opportunities that presented themselves to me, and saying yes when people specifically asked for help or opened the door.

I've decided to continue on this helping journey for at least 30 days, as I don't feel like it's time to stop. I think there is more for me to learn. I also think that there are some aspects of this experiment that I will be able to incorporate into my every day life. Just to be more mindful that there are opportunities everywhere, and that most of them don't require a huge amount of time or immense effort, though some things do require a significant commitment to do what you said you would do.

Looking back, most of what I did were small things like bringing food to my office on our first day back after Hurricane Irma, donating money to a couple of worthy causes, holding doors and helping strangers carry heavy objects. I also did and am continuing to do a lot of writing and book-related things (shows what I'm really mindful of!), like nominating a wonderful teacher for a very deserved award, helping a colleague by providing a letter of reference, writing a guest blog and providing other writing/editing assistance for a friend, and helping to promote a new author's first book by posting reviews and sharing my recommendation in a variety of locations. The other theme was sort of church-related, like supporting my favorite pastor who did a mini on-line service for anyone who wanted to tune in during Hurricane Irma, making dinner for an elderly gentleman from church who needs some help right now, and visiting a sick friend who's been in the hospital.

So, this reinforced what I already knew.  Little things are the big things.  And when you give, it's you who gain the most. 

The day that I brought soup to my elderly church friend, I was so tired. I had gotten up at 4:30am to take my husband to the hospital for out-patient shoulder surgery, then returned home to get my kids out the door to school, then back to the hospital to wait around until I could bring Mark home, then home to do the nurse thing at some acceptable level. I wondered a couple of times if maybe I should have signed up for dinner making and delivery on a different day, but I was committed. 

And here's the thing.  Because I had committed to doing it, I had a plan.  I had the fixings for my favorite comfort food, potato soup, and I spent the afternoon making it once we returned home from the hospital and I had Mark settled in.  It was actually comforting to go through the familiar process of cutting up the vegetables and adding the broth and mixing in the other ingredients.  My house smelled lovely, and I made plenty so that I could feed and comfort own family as well as my sweet church friend.

Then I made the delivery, and it turned out to be a nice opportunity to be alone with my thoughts as I drove. And the recipient of the soup is truly one of the kindest people you could ever meet. Seeing his smile and spending some time talking to him absolutely lifted me up. I cried on the drive home. Happy tears. Because that is what loving and connecting with people does for you. And that is what helping is all about.

So, the helping experiment is not over.  Not by a long shot.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Pottery...Wheel Throwing...WAY Harder than It Looks...And It Looks Pretty Hard!

My six-week pottery challenge began today!  A week late, thanks to Hurricane Irma.  The first thing I learned...we call it "wheel throwing" not pottery.  Duly noted. 

One of the most fun parts about learning new things (at least to my inner linguist) is learning the new language that goes along with it.  The least fun thing (to my inner-outer-everywhere introvert) is walking in the door and getting started.

I was fortunate today, in that I had a ton of encouragement to embark upon this new challenge.  First, I told all of you I was going to do it, and I've received so much encouragement. Second, my sweet son, Ben, has a drawing class that he is doing in the same place at the same time. Ben is definitely the artist in our family, and he was so sweet driving over:

"Are you nervous, Mom?"

"Yes, honey, I am a little nervous."

"Don't worry, Mom, everyone's a little nervous at first, but you'll be fine! What are your nervous about?"

"I think I won't be very good at this. But mostly, I'm just nervous because it's something new, and I don't know anyone.  I'm really glad you're going with me."

Finally, a very patient friend of mine has been there behind the scenes to receive my ridiculous texts and reassure me...

"OMG! I just spent the last 10 minutes frantically searching my house for the pants that I have officially designated my pottery pants. Who loses pants?! Finally found them hanging in the closet where they belong. What is wrong with me?! Thank God you can only go to your first pottery class once.  Basket Case, signing off."

"Go! You will do fine!"

So, off I went. And all I can say...Oh. My. God. So. Hard. But also...Amazing!

First, you are presented with a rather hefty square of clay. It smells funny but is quite lovely. Then, you must use this weird cheese cutter thingy to slice manageable bits of clay from the giant chunk.

Then, the most fun part (well, for me on Day 1, anyway). You knead the clay (yes, kind of like bread dough, but there is no yeast involved, so less pressure), and then you do this cool thing called wedging. Basically, you are preparing your clay for the wheel. You want to disperse the water in the clay more uniformly throughout and make sure you don't have any air bubbles. You wind up with a nice, smooth, round ball of clay, which you then get to throw down onto the center of your wheel.

Then the really hard part begins...

Centering your clay...I am pretty sure this is impossible...I mean, in theory, sure. The clay is stuck nicely to the center of your wheel, and it doesn't make you seasick to look at when you press down on the foot pedal that makes your wheel spin. Probably the best advice I got today..."Don't look at it!  I mean, look at it, but don't look at it!" This is because it's completely mesmerizing, and alternatively, infuriating. Just when you are becoming one with your beautiful clay and all goes wonky, and your head starts spinning.  Also (and this is my own advice, nothing I heard today), don't drink and wheel throw. Trust me on this. There are enough things spinning in a wheel throwing class without adding your head into the mix.

After you center your clay (or in my case, after your awesome instructor, Cheyenne, centers your clay for you), you try to dome your clay, which is basically just forming it up into kind of a dome thingy. This doesn't sound hard, but trust me, it is.  The irony is that once you get it up into that dome, you gently and elegantly smush it back down into what's called a puck (I think, or possibly, a pug). Then you make your puck into a doughnut. Sadly, this doughnut is made out of clay not actual doughnut material, and ours didn't even have a hole that went all the way through. Rather, we were trying to use our thumb to kind of flatten out the bottom of our clay thingy and get the bottom of it to be even and at a mostly 90 degree angle from the wheel.

Once you sort of do that, you use your fingers--left finger inside, right finger outside--hold them together and start to form the clay up into a column. This is very hard to do. And I learned some great new wheel throwing terminology...

"You're chasing the wheel!"  (You're not supposed to do that.  You're supposed to keep your hands/fingers in basically the same place and kind of anchored to your body for stability. Let the clay come to you...don't chase it...)

"Looks like that clay is working're supposed to be working the clay!"

And so it went. The others in the class had all had some wheel throwing experience prior to this class. I was the only brand newbie. But everyone was so nice and so encouraging. And, although I really sucked at making anything remotely attractive or worth keeping, I thoroughly enjoyed getting my hands (and clothes, and face, and hair) dirty, and it was a true pleasure to start to get the feel for the clay and the wheel. I'm starting to sense what my hands and feet need to do to make this thing happen. You'll notice, I said nothing about my brain. I need my brain to get out of my way. This is about touch and sensation and intuition. And I have faith that I'm going to get there.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Blues

I went to bed last night feeling a little melancholy...a little blue...and I woke up this morning with a song in my head...

Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do?"

I'm pretty sure it's impossible not to know this song. Berlin wrote it in 1923, and it was first performed in 1924.  Since then, virtually everyone, from Judy Garland to Bob Dylan, has done a version of it.

It's a song that is deceptively simple. A few words and the repetition of a lovely melody. But turns's everything. Everyone you've ever loved. Every time you've ever lost. Everything you've ever longed for. In one little song.

And here's the thing about the blues. You're going to get 'em sometimes. It's an inevitable part of the human condition.

The question is...what are you going to do with them?

I love this song because it poses the question, but never actually provides an answer. You get to hear the words, let the melody wash over you, feel the sadness, and take it from there.

At the same time, you can't help but are not alone. Everyone has sung this song exactly because everyone has felt this way.

And so, while you may need to allow yourself to be blue for a some point, you've also got to ask yourself...what are you going to do?

When I get the blues, I listen to some sad songs...and then I start singing along...I take a little time to comfort myself...then I get up and get going again.

The temptation for me is to retreat to my comfort zone and never leave. But I've realized that is not the answer. Even if it's just baby steps, you've got to keep taking risks, trying new things, pushing yourself beyond the safe and the familiar.

(Please know that none of the above is intended to address the psychological condition of depression...that is far beyond my capacity...and I hope that nothing I have written in any way minimizes those who are struggling. I'm just talking about the blues, and if what you are dealing with is more than that, please reach out, know that you are loved, and there is help for you.)

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Hurricane Irma a/k/a NOT the Push Out of My Comfort Zone I was Looking For...

Since I started thinking about venturing beyond the comfort zone, my focus has been on taking intentional steps--deciding what and when, where and for how long--baby steps, experiments, dipping my toes in the water or possibly wading just a little bit.  This approach has been my chosen approach exactly because it is by nature comfortable. This? I can do this! It's temporary. If I hate it, I can quickly retreat. No problem.

Then Hurricane Irma came along to remind me...sometimes, we get thrust rudely out of our comfort zones and are reminded that we are powerless in so many ways. Not a great feeling, I must say.

I've alternated between feeling really calm and being on the verge of panic (inability to breathe and all that entails).

The preparation you go through in anticipation of a hurricane is partially practical, but mostly just to make yourself feel better. Surround yourself with enough food, water, flashlights, batteries, candles, etc., and you can almost convince yourself that you're "ready."

But, here's the thing. Mother Nature is more powerful than all the banana bread in the world. Which, while awesome in the truest sense of the word, is hardly comforting. No wonder I've been doing so much baking. I will comfort myself and my family. Mother Nature be damned.

I'm not sure what all of this is teaching me. Nothing I really wanted to know, that's certain.

But a few positives:

1) Objectively, we are in a reasonably safe location and are reasonably well-prepared. We may lose power, we may have some flooding, but in all likelihood, we will survive, relatively unscathed. (All of this has turned out to be true. It is sobering, however, to walk and drive around and see all the damage. So many have lost so much.)

2) We have loving family and friends. So many people have checked on us, offered to help, held us in their thoughts and prayers, and just showed us so much love and encouragement.

3) We have each other, and there is so much joy and comfort in that. I love my family and my home.

4) I am learning more about my comfort zone, my power and control (and lack thereof). I am being challenged, and so far, I'm up for it.

5) I'm essentially an introvert. So, being stuck at home in my PJs with my favorite people in the world, my books, some comfort food, candles, and wine is just fine with me.

Thanks for all of the support, and here's to those out there on the front lines! I'm so grateful!

Monday, September 4, 2017

When All Else Fails...Make Banana Bread

So, getting out of your comfort zone is uncomfortable. And I think it's unreasonable to think that you can just stay in the uncomfortable zone constantly. If you don't give yourself a break occasionally, you might just give up, snuggle up in your favorite chair with a good book, and not try anything new for years!

For those moments when you feel the need to comfort yourself and re-energize for your next excursion beyond your comfort zone, I suggest banana bread. I mean, who doesn't have a couple of overly ripe bananas laying around most days?  Just throw them in a bowl and squish them up.

Then, add melted butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla, baking soda, salt, and flour. Mix gently. Also mix together some sugar and cinnamon.  Put part of the batter in the bread pan, sprinkle some of the oh-so-comforting cinnamon and sugar mix on top, then add the rest of the batter, and then the last of the cinnamon and sugar on top. Throw it in the oven for 45 minutes or so...


Eat while it's still warm from the oven. Mmmmm...

There. Don't you feel better? Now get up, get out there, and do something new! Report back here for input and encouragement!

(Here's the recipe if you want's a good one...throw in some chocolate chips if you're feeling the need for extra comfort!)

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Adventures Beyond My Comfort Zone...

For several years, I had foolishly convinced myself that always sticking with the known, the familiar, the comfortable--my beloved routines--was a function of my somewhat introverted nature and my seemingly innate desire to live a simple life. 

And while there is nothing wrong with routines or with living simply, these things should not be confused with living fully. To do that, you've got to get out of your comfort zone. Trying new things allows you to discover different aspects of yourself, and having this curiosity and courage is vital.

I had so filled my live with everything that was familiar and routine, I forgot to leave space for the unexpected, growth, challenging and thinking deeply about my beliefs, hope, possibility, wonder.  And ultimately, developing and strengthening my faith.

I was placidly living my life, thinking I had it all figured out.

Amazing how something comes along to rock your world every time.

Most recently for me was my dismay over the number of people who voted for our current president, who is a malignant narcissist and represents the opposite of every value I possess.

As I emerge from my depression, I am recognizing that having your world view challenged is actually a good thing. I've been asking myself some difficult questions and realizing that, if my faith is so easily shattered, I have some work to do. But it's not meant to be easy, right?

Some of what I've been doing is connecting with different people and reconnecting with familiar people in new ways. I'm becoming a bit more outspoken about my views and more willing to share my fundamental beliefs, as well as emerging ones that are still developing.

For the foreseeable future, I'm resurrecting my blog to share and reflect upon my journey out of my comfort zone, and I hope you will tag along. Maybe share some of your own ideas and experiences (I'm always open to guest bloggers!). I also received some recent feedback that my previous blogs were a little dark, so I'm also hoping to lighten things up a bit!

So far, my first steps have been small ones...participating in a protest march...going out to dinner alone...planning my own birthday celebration...setting up some friends on a blind date...becoming a member of our local art museum...sipping a little moonshine...

I could go on, but becoming a member at the Appleton is where I'm focused currently. The extent of my artistic ability includes writing and singing. That's it. I love art, I appreciate art, but I have no ability when it comes to drawing, painting, etc.

My youngest son, however, is a budding artist. He went to several art camps this summer, and when I was looking at the offerings for the fall, I noticed my new favorite museum also has opportunities for adults. So, on a whim, I signed myself up for a pottery class, which meets at the same time that Ben will be taking his drawing/painting class.

I'm pretty terrified that, given my lack of artistic ability and general klutziness, it is going to go something like this...

Nonetheless, I shall persevere...stay tuned!

Connections and Kindness

I recently saw a post on Facebook of a friend visiting her parents' grave. She's from WV and knew my family when we lived there, and it crossed my mind to ask her if she would send me a photo of my mom's grave.

I pretty much immediately banished the thought from my mind. Quickly realizing that I shouldn't ask her to substitute my grief for her own. At least not at that moment in time, when she was clearly focused on honoring her own parents. I can be self-centered, and I'm on a quest to recognize, interrupt, and become more in tune to the needs of others. So, I put the thought aside and made a mental note to maybe ask her about it at a later, more appropriate time.

The next day, she sent me this photo. To say I was overwhelmed is to say the least. Apparently, she has never had the same struggle with selfishness that I have battled. Without my ever saying a word, she thought of me and knew that I would probably appreciate a photo. And I did. And still do.

I've only ever visited my mother's grave twice. 

The first time shortly after her death. A teenage girl desperate with grief and no idea what to do with my overwhelming emotions. I lay on her grave, wept, and prayed for the ground she was buried in to swallow me up as well.

Then again years later when I took my husband to see her gravesite. A young adult embarking on marriage and motherhood. Overwhelmed by everything she and my children would never have. She would have loved being a grandmother. And they would have loved her.

Today, I have lived more than 30 years without her. I am older now than she was when she died. The scar on my face is a daily reminder of the tragic accident that took her life and changed mine forever.

The only wisdom I have are the same old clich├ęs. Life is joy and pain. Fear, failure, regret. Courage, triumph, hope. Realizing that the little things are the big things. Appreciating the daily routines that seem unchanging but will not last forever. Not being afraid to try new things and take some chances. Don't stop until you have to. Life is short. Make the most of it...