Calm wonder

A few weeks back, I received an eloquent holiday letter from a friend who has faced some hard times in recent years but has steadily been moving forward into a vibrant and fulfilling new life. Along with recounting the year’s highlights—foreign travel, news of her kids—she spoke of her theme for the year ahead: Durable calm.

Over the next few days, I found my mind returning to these words—and mulling over how I’d describe the spirit in which I’d like to move through my own 2012.

“Calm” felt right. It’s not a quality that comes naturally to me—I tend towards the frantic and anxious—but it’s one that I’ve come to value more with each passing year.  I tried it out this week and noticed that even repeating the word in my mind seems to help ground me.

“Wonder” is another word that captured my imagination.  The idea of greeting the world with curiosity rather than with judgment. Of being interested in things as they are and less wrapped up in my ideas of how I think they ought to be. This certainly isn’t to say that opinions don’t have their place, just that I think that my life would richer if I carried them a bit more lightly.

In recent days, I’ve tried invoking the words—calm wonder–when I’m feeling uncertain or lost, and I’ve been struck by their capacity to remind me of what I care about most. Real meaning won’t be found in robotically checking off the next item on my to-do list but rather in taking time to experience life in all its confusion and beauty.

Calm wonder isn’t a goal in itself—a sort of New Year’s resolution. Rather it’s a container, the spirit with which I’d like to infuse everything I do. It’s also a sort of touchstone: When I’m stressed out and on the move, invoking the words orients me. It invites me to return.

I’m starting 2012 in a very different place from where I started 2011, and for that I am mostly grateful. I love my friends and the place I live. I love writing this blog. For the first time in more than two years, I’m reeling in more paying work than I can easily handle.

Which is all the more reason to be clear on my intention to cultivate calm wonder: to focus not so much on getting things done but on the doing of them.

Plan B Nation on NPR! (plus a few thoughts on faith)

NPR Sign

Plan B Nation is ending the year on a high note, having been featured in a terrific report by Karen Brown on New England NPR. You can listen, here. (My writer friend Naomi Shulman, also featured in the segment, tells me the story begins at the 7:25 mark. If you’re not sure what that means—I I wasn’t—try starting about halfway through.)

[12/3/12 update: there is now a separate audio link for this report.]

As I listened to WFCR this morning, I marveled once again at how quickly things can change. I launched this blog just last month—November 13, to be exact. Since then, I’ve published more than 20 posts and connected with dozens of amazing readers from all over the country.  I’ve also picked up a bunch of freelance work, started drawing up a business plan, and—for the first time in quite a while—been feeling pretty optimistic.

If you’d described this state of affairs to me two months ago, I wouldn’t have believed you.  In fact, as I’ve written before, I almost didn’t start this blog.  I was at the point where it was hard to believe that anything I tried would pan out.  To put it diplomatically, I was feeling sluggish. Psychologists call this “learned helplessness,” this much I knew. But while I was clear on the diagnosis, I was clueless as to the cure.

I’ve written a good bit about transitions lately—about why they (always) suck and also about key points to keep in mind while wrestling with change—but I failed to mention that they rarely proceed at a steady pace.  We work and work for what seems like forever with no apparent result.  And then one day, for no apparent reason, everything seems to shift.

I’ve seen this in my own life again and again. And I was reminded of it the other day when I spoke with a lovely friend who had been waging a lengthy and devastating struggle with Lyme disease. She’d followed doctor’s instructions for months, to no obvious effect. Then she woke up one morning to find that the pain had disappeared overnight.

In the same vein, in my own (and still ongoing) transition, I’d been doggedly plugging ahead for more than two years, without sensing much progress. I’d given up keeping count of the number of jobs I’d applied for. And while I got the occasional freelance project, they were few and far between. Then, out of the blue, things started to click.

In this way, change often feels more like a quantum leap than like a steady climb, as if we’ve traveled from point X to point Y without passing through the points in between. We may wonder why things took so long if all we had to do was this.  (The answer: Because that’s just how transitions seem to work.)

For me, this is where faith comes in. And by that, I don’t mean some abstract metaphysical belief—I’m not someone who believes that Things Work Out For The Best or Everything Happens For A Reason. (In fact, I’m the sort of person who responds to such claims by instantly invoking the Holocaust or genocide in Rwanda.)  But I do believe in cause and effect—the power of our actions. I have faith that if we keep taking small steps, our lives are going to change.

Woody Guthrie’s 33 New Year’s resolutions (summed up in just 2 words)

Earlier this week, I wrote about how I’m not really a New Year’s resolution kinda gal, but if I were, I’d draw inspiration from a tattered handwritten document penned in 1942.

Drawn up by legendary singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, the 33-item list is a quirky and sweet reminder of how the quality of our lives depends not so much on huge accomplishments but on the countless small actions and habits that constitute our days.

For the record, here is what the 30-year-old Guthrie sought to do in the year ahead:

1. Work more and better
2. Work by a schedule
3. Wash teeth if any
4. Shave
5. Take bath
6. Eat good — fruit — vegetables — milk
7. Drink very scant if any
8. Write a song a day
9. Wear clean clothes — look good
10. Shine shoes
11. Change socks
12. Change bed cloths often
13. Read lots good books
14. Listen to radio a lot
15. Learn people better
16. Keep rancho clean
17. Dont get lonesome
18. Stay glad
19. Keep hoping machine running
20. Dream good
21. Bank all extra money
22. Save dough
23. Have company but dont waste time
24. Send Mary and kids money
25. Play and sing good
26. Dance better
27. Help win war — beat fascism
28. Love mama
29. Love papa
30. Love Pete
31. Love everybody
32. Make up your mind
33. Wake up and fight

As I read over this list one more time, it struck me that the whole rambling lovely mass could be summed up in just two words: Be kind.

Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Be kind to your community and the planet we all inhabit. While concrete goals are great—and certainly have their place—it’s the spirit in which they’re undertaken that lies at the heart of it all.

Note: Big thanks to my friend and law school classmate Ted Mills, who shared the Guthrie list with me on Facebook in response to my previous post. Here’s the link he posted.

Stuck on New Year’s resolutions? Try this instead

Up Above!

I’ve always loved the idea of New Year’s resolutions—the clean slate, the fresh start, the optimistic resolve—but for all my ever-so-good intentions, I never quite seem to keep them.

So this year, I’m trying something new. Instead of establishing a list of goals and struggling (and failing) to reach them, I’ve decided to think in terms of possibilities.

Inspired by an essay in Wise Bread, I took 20 minutes out of Christmas morning to scribble down 100 things that I want to do—things that, at some level, seem to be calling to me. Nothing was too big. Nothing was too small. As more thoughts came to mind later in the day, I added them to the list.

By the time I was finished, I had some 85 items ranging from going to Thailand to taking a photography class to buying a KitchenAid mixer.  To someone else, this compilation might appear a weirdly random assortment. To me, it makes total sense. Reading it makes me happy.

Let me be clear, this is not a to-do list—it would take me years, if not decades, to accomplish everything I wrote down, and besides, that isn’t the point. What I was after was something more intangible, a framework for thinking about what matters to me and how I spend my time.

Looking over my list, I was instantly struck by how the things that call me come in clusters. Travel is a big one—no surprise—but so is organization, or rather the idea of creating a more ordered home and with it a more ordered life. Creative work, time in nature, and cooking with friends are other recurrent themes.

I was heartened to see that my big changes of recent years—most notably my move to western Massachusetts from the Boston area—have made it far easier for me to spend time in ways that feel meaningful. It was good to feel that I’ve been heading in the right direction.

And as interesting as what I wrote down was what I left out. Many (though not all) of the things on my list are inexpensive or free. Big-city glamor is in notably short supply. Making waffles, playing mini-golf, cross-country skiing. Stringing white lights around my living room windows. Re-learning how to knit. Corralling kids to make a gingerbread house and holiday cookies next year.

Thinking in terms of possibilities seems especially appropriate for Plan B Nation, where we need to be open-minded and strategic if we’re to move forward.

Rather than choosing a single concrete goal—say, getting a job at X organization–we’re well advised to think more broadly. What is the essence of what we want? (Meaningful work, an income adequate to support us in other life goals, interesting colleagues.)  What are some alternate paths to these same ends?

I imagine consulting this list many times in the year ahead, especially whenever I’m feeling at a loss or stuck. Twelve months from now, I’ll definitely be curious to see how many of the items from the list made it into my life. But again, that isn’t really the point. These aren’t goals so much as potential paths: They are stepping stones, not the destination.

Plan B Nation life hack #1 (a holiday survival tip)

Snowman Bokeh  (Explored) 10,000 visits to this photo. Thank you.

I love the idea of life hacks: practical shortcuts designed to ease lives burdened by overload and over-stimulation.

The life hack concept (like so much else) emerged from a digital subculture looking for ways to deal more efficiently with an incessant barrage of information. The goal: increased productivity and happier, more satisfying lives.

As described by British tech guru Danny O’Brien, who coined the term in 2004, life hacks are all about putting aside a larger problem to focus on a small fix that will get you through the task at hand.

In recent days, I’ve found myself reflecting on how this concept might be extended from the world of email and terabytes to the challenges of daily life.

In life (and especially in Plan B Nation) it’s easy to obsess about big questions with no clear answers. What am I doing with my life? Why do I keep having the same argument with my spouse, my child, my friends, my [fill in the blank]? What is wrong with me? What is wrong with them?

Such questions are likely to be especially freighted during the holidays. Hard as we may try not to, it’s easy to approach the season with out-sized expectations, both of ourselves and others. Moreover, we’re likely to be more exhausted than usual, closer to our snapping point. Those notorious holiday arguments, hurt feelings, and frayed nerves? This is where they come from.

Here’s one life hack that might help.

The larger problem: The holidays create a perfect storm of exaggerated hopes and expectations and (for many of us) depleted emotional reserves. This is particularly true for those of us residing in Plan B Nation, where anxieties about work and money can easily leave us feeling alienated amidst the festivities.

The hack: When you feel an urge to say something sharp or critical, stop and stay silent. Do this three times every day. Make this a practice.

I learned this strategy from a meditation teacher, who said that one of her students credits it for saving her marriage. One thing I love about the approach is its specificity. The practice isn’t to hold back forever and always. You only have to do it three times. That’s it. Then you’re done for the day.

One reason that I think the strategy works so well is that it shifts our focus. Instead of fixating on that infuriating thing someone did or said, we’re focusing on our goal—checking off one of the three things. This feels both empowering and satisfying.  In my experience, it can really help to diffuse a creeping sense of victimhood.

Twelve-steppers often joke that alcoholism is a three-part disease: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.  And the fact is the holidays do carry with them a new set of challenges. At the same time, we’re not powerless. There are resources we can call on. The trick is finding strategies that work for us—and remembering to use them.

If you try out this life hack, I’d love to hear your experience. In the meantime, best wishes to everyone for a healthy and happy season.

Why transitions (always) suck—and what you can do about it

an unwitting victim...bwahahhahahaa

Scanning over my recent post about transitions, it struck me that I glossed over one key fact: Transitions always suck.

That lost, confused, hopeless feeling that seems like it will never end?  No, it’s not just you. It’s the nature of the beast.

How do I know this?  Well for one thing, I’ve been through a lot of transitions, and it was ever thus. For another, I’ve read a ton about transitions, and everyone seems to agree.

Those who study and write about transitions even have their own names for this uniquely unsettling phase:  Change guru William Bridges describes it as “the Neutral Zone.” Life coach Martha Beck calls it “Death and Rebirth.” Novelist and journalist Sara Davidson refers to it as “the Narrows.”

But while the names may be different, the core feelings are the same: Disorientation, anxiety, fear. Panic and desperation.

Fun, isn’t it?

So, you may be thinking, it’s all well and good to know that I’m on track, but that only goes so far. How do I keep moving forward when I don’t want to get out of bed?

In his groundbreaking book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, William Bridges offers the following 10 suggestions for navigating these challenging times.

1. Take your time

As I noted in my previous post, transitions often take a long time—far longer than we’d expected and far longer than we’d hoped. Think years not days or weeks.

2. Arrange temporary structures

Do what you need to do to bridge this period of dislocation. It may be taking a temporary job, adjusting your commitments at home or at work, connecting with a spiritual community, or joining a support group. Ask yourself what practical adjustments you can make that are likely to ease your passage.

3. Don’t act for the sake of action

As Buddhist teachers sometimes quip: “Don’t just do something, sit there.”  Recognize that sitting with uncertainty is often the best option—and in itself, a real accomplishment.

4. Recognize why you are uncomfortable

You are uncomfortable not because you’re doing something wrong but because you are in transition. Remind yourself of this again and again (and again).

5. Take care of yourself in little ways

In particular, Bridges suggests small pleasures that bring a sense of continuity. Think watching a favorite TV show or eating a favorite meal.

6. Explore the other side of change.

This is an interesting one.  As Bridges sees it, both positive changes (such as having a baby) and negative changes (such as losing your job) both have upsides and downsides.

If you’re facing a change that you didn’t choose, Bridges suggests spending some time reflecting on its possible benefits. On the other hand, if your change was a welcome one and yet you’re feeling inexplicably uneasy, he suggests giving some thought to what the change may have cost you as well as to its gifts.

 7. Get someone to talk to

Having at least one reliable and empathic listener is critically important when your life is in flux. If no one in your network can serve that role right now, consider finding a professional counselor or joining a support group.

8. Find out what is waiting in the wings of your life

Bridges notes that transitions open up space in our lives for us to grow in new ways. Ask yourself: What is waiting to happen in my life now? (Try setting aside a bit of time to put this down on paper. You may be surprised at what comes up.)

 9. Use this transition as the impetus to a new kind of learning

What do you need to learn right now, and how can you start to learn it?

10. Recognize that transition has a characteristic shape.

As I wrote earlier this week, every transition follows a similar structure. This period where everything sucks is normal and necessary. The good news? This phase will come to an end.  (It just may take a while.)

Do you have a strategy that’s helped you to navigate a major life transition? If so, please share it in the comment section.

3 things you should know about transitions

Come Together

Two years and eight months ago, I found myself abruptly launched into a prolonged transition that continues to this day. The job I’d held for the past five years suddenly disappeared when my boss was tapped to join the fledgling Obama administration as solicitor general. (You may have heard of her: She’s now U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.)

As is so often the case with major change, there was much ambivalence. While I was anxious about the plunge into unemployment, I was also ready to move on.  On the one hand, the news came as a welcome push. On the other, I was freaking out.

But whatever my reaction on a given day, there was one thing I never imagined from the vantage point of April 2009: That this transition would go on and on in precisely the way it has.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been so surprised. After all, my layoff came at the peak of the Great Recession. Still, I had great references, great skills, and a great education. I somehow assumed they’d ease my way. In large part, I was wrong.

Which is different from saying I have regrets. The more I learn about transitions, the more I realize that what I’ve experienced is completely normal. Just because something is painful and hard doesn’t mean it can’t yield fruit.

Years ago, I took a course with psychologist Robert Kegan at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and one thing he said stuck with me. (Well, actually, many things he said stuck with me, but this one is relevant here.)  He said, and I paraphrase from memory: “Growth comes from stretch-not-break challenges.”

In other words, hard times—if they are too hard—can crush us. When they’re just right, they may be uncomfortable, but they also move us forward.

One of the things most helpful to me in navigating this transition has been getting a better handle on what to expect. Over the past two-plus years, I’ve spent a lot of hours delving into the subject, and for the record, here are three of my most useful takeaways.

1. Transitions take a long time.

Three years, five years, seven years—these are the time frames that popped up again and again in my reading.  In New Passages, bestselling author Gail Sheehy ballparks two years as the minimum time needed to stabilize following a layoff or other “life accident.”

2. Transitions have a predictable structure.

Transitions guru William Bridges—author of the groundbreaking Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes—has identified a three-part structure reflected in every major life transition:  An ending, followed by a period of confusion and distress, followed, in turn, by a new beginning.

In Finding Your Own North Star—a book that I count among my personal favorites—life coach Martha Beck describes a four-part “change cycle”: A shocking “catalytic event” is followed by “death and rebirth,” “dreaming and scheming,” “the hero’s saga” (a trial-and-error implementation stage), and finally “the promised land,” or equilibrium regained.

3. Transitions aren’t linear.  

It’s tempting to think that transitions can be neat and orderly, that we can figure out a game plan and simply execute it. In fact, transitions are almost always messy, punctuated with false starts and regroupings.

In Working Identity, an extensive study of successful mid-career career changers, business professor Herminia Ibarra concluded that the “plan and execute model” is not realistic. Rather, successful transitions tend to adopt a “test and learn” approach, following a “first-act-and-then-think” sequence.

Well into the third year of my transition, I’m finally starting to feel that I’m turning a corner. I can’t say for sure that the feeling will last but I’m enjoying it in the meantime.

Looking back, it’s fascinating to see how little I could have predicted where my various steps were leading.  For better or worse, our transitions seem to shape us at least as much as we shape them.

Why Newt Gingrich is my new role model

Newt Gingrich  For President 2012

While I’d never in a zillion years vote for Newt Gingrich, I’m awestruck—and more than a little inspired—by his seemingly limitless capacity to bounce back from defeat.

I mean, think about it: This is a guy who not-so-long-ago was dubbed the most hated man in America, the only house speaker ever to be sanctioned by its members.  As recently as last month, his presidential campaign was floundering, polling in the single digits following his campaign staff’s mass exodus the previous June. Pundits pronounced game over.

And yet today, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, he is widely viewed as a frontrunner, playing hare to Mitt Romney’s tortoise as they vie for the lead in the Republican field.

Mulling over the latest Gingrich comeback, I couldn’t help comparing his Wile E. Coyote-esque resurgence to my own tendency to give up—sometimes even before I start.

One recent case in point: I almost didn’t start this blog. For one thing, I was convinced I’d start, and wouldn’t find any readers. This would be depressing and a little embarrassing.  I recalled the words of a college classmate now a famously successful (if curmudgeonly) writer: “You know the average number of readers of a blog? One!”  Who was I to think that I could add to the conversation?

This is not, to put it mildly, how Newt Gingrich thinks. Newt Gingrich is convinced that he has something to offer the world. And if you don’t agree with him, it’s your problem not his.

In fairness, this sort of against-the-odds confidence is far easier to come by if you’re a narcissist or a sociopath or trend towards bipolar mania. There’s a brilliant scene in Gary Trudeau’s presidential campaign mockumentary Tanner ’88 where a seasoned political reporter educates a younger colleague on this point. “We’re talking about someone who wants to be the most powerful person on the planet,” he says. “We’re not talking well balanced.”  (I’m paraphrasing from memory here, but you get the idea.)

That being said, those of us living in Plan B Nation have a special need for the sort of chutzpah demonstrated by Gingrich and his ilk. We live in an era where positive reinforcements are in increasingly short supply.  Perhaps for the first time ever, we’re facing repeated rejections and setbacks in our professional lives. We have to find ways to keep going when it feels more sensible to give up.

A primary goal of this blog is to identify concrete strategies that help us do just that. For me, a supportive community has been a big piece of this. I’ve also found it helps to make an effort to keep an open mind, to remind myself that I really don’t know where the events in my life are leading.

And now I have another strategy to add to my arsenal. The next time, I’m feeling like a failure, struggling to move on, I’m going to sit down and ask myself: “What would Newt Gingrich do?”

Why you should stop telling me what to do

five

Let me be clear: By “you,” I do not mean you, lovely reader of this blog, but the “yous” who’ve felt obliged to tell me elsewhere that I’m screwing up my life.  And by “me” I do not mean me alone but all of us sharing our tender, uncertain, sometimes-painful stories in the larger blogosphere.

In particular, I’m thinking back to comments sparked by the guest post I wrote for the Wall Street Journal’s “Laid Off and Looking” blog in my early days of unemployment.

In this post—which ran just a few hundred words—I talked about the possible upside of losing my job. Mind you, I acknowledged the anxiety and risk but I also admitted to a certain excitement about embarking on what I described as The Next Big Challenge.

Here are two typical responses:

“Get real folks and stop dreaming. I stopped dreaming a long time ago, and it’s better now because I don’t get let down each and every day.”

“If you’re laid back and irresponsible, then the bills don’t mean a thing to you. Well we’re not blessed with being the laid-back type who don’t give a damn about doing what’s right.”

In fairness, there were many positive comments. Still, I found myself intrigued by the vitriol heaped on this little post by those for whom it hit a nerve.

As I pondered the dynamic, I found myself thinking about risk tolerance—a topic all-too-often left out of the job search conversation.

We frequently seem to assume a one-size-fits-all answer to questions such as: “Should I do everything in my power to keep the job I have, or should I read the writing on the wall and accept the offered package?”

In fact, risk tolerance varies with the individual. Without knowing where a questioner falls on the spectrum, it’s impossible to offer sound advice.

If you have a mortgage, kids, and are a few paychecks away from financial crisis, your risk tolerance—and thus your “right” answers—will differ from those of someone without those obligations who has a financial cushion.

If you’re comfortable with uncertainty, your answers will be different from those of someone who freaks out if they can’t predict what they’ll be doing a year from Monday.

This isn’t because one person is right and the other is wrong: It’s because people have different obligations, different temperaments, different levels of risk tolerance.  Our risk tolerance is ours alone.  It’s not a moral virtue, a settled fact—it’s simply our situation.

And for the record, I’m happy to say that I’m doing fine now. The decisions I made two-plus years ago were—for me—the right ones.  My search for work is now paying off, in part thanks to this blog.  I’ve also had a chance to grow in ways that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I’d be lying if I said that this was the path I would have chosen. But while these aren’t the experiences I would have picked, I can’t say that I regret them.

Take stock of how you rocked 2011

 

 

 

 

It’s that time of year again, but before moving on to New Year’s Resolutions, be sure to give yourself credit for 2011.

Now, this may (at first glance) seem like a pointless exercise. Thinking back on the past year, it can be easy to focus on all that you hoped to do that’s still undone: The jobs you applied for and failed to get, the book you didn’t write, the exercise program that you planned to make a regular part of your life. (If you’re anything like me, you didn’t.)

That was certainly the direction my mind went when I first contemplated this task—which was why I was so happily surprised to see it was misleading me.  (This was hardly the first time: I’ve long recognized that just because I think something doesn’t mean it’s true.) Here’s a sampling of what I accomplished over the past year:

  • Started writing personal essays and publishing them in Huffington Post, Salon, and our local paper.
  • Launched this blog
  • Cleared out the packed storage unit that I’d been meaning to get rid of for a decade (and wrote an essay about it)
  • Completed a graduate class in a social work (and no, I doubt that I’ll continue with the program, but I’d been thinking about it for a long time and am glad I tried it out.)
  • Fulfilled a longstanding dream of working with foster kids, including planning a writing workshop to be sponsored by Friends of Children this spring
  • Got some really interesting freelance writing gigs that are likely to lead to more
  • Made lots of great friends in my great new community of Northampton Massachusetts, the first place I’ve lived in a long time that really feels like home.

There’s lots more, but you get the idea.

This was an especially interesting exercise for me given my initial assessment that this had been a long hard year primarily defined by failure. I felt like I’d spent most of the year trying, failing, getting up, then trying again. Along with the successes listed above, I’d applied for (and been rejected for) a whole bunch of different jobs. I wrote and circulated a book proposal that failed to elicit any interest from the agents who perused it. The list goes on.

Happily, I had this year’s daily log to contradict these thoughts.  As I recently wrote in Huffington Post, I started keeping daily logs more than a decade ago after trading my structured life as a law firm associate for the free-form existence of an aspiring novelist. At the time, I was reaching the end of the week in a mild state of panic, thinking “I’m not getting anything done! What is wrong with me?”

In an effort to take charge of my schedule, I started using a blank bound book — a so-called lawyer’s diary for which I had no further use — to track my activities day by day. And lo and behold, I wasn’t such a slacker after all! It just felt that way. (Lest there be any doubt, I did indeed write and ultimately publish two novels.)

Tracking accomplishments can be especially important in Plan B Nation, where many of us are dealing with more failures than we have in the past. (That’s certainly the case for me.)  The fact is, these are challenging times, and it’s not our fault. Making a concerted effort to recognize our successes can help us to remember that we do indeed have significant strengths.

So go ahead and make those New Year’s Resolutions—and do your best to stick to them. But before cracking the whip for 2012, celebrate 2011.