Wednesday, March 19, 2014

'Until I Say Good-bye: My Year of Living with Joy': A Reminder of Appreciating the Simple Things in Life

I cried several times reading 'Until I Say Good-bye: My Year of Living with Joy' by Susan Spencer-Wendel.  Her memoir chronicles her battle with ALS and her resolution to live the last years of her life with joy, hope, love and beautiful moments with all the people she loves most.  At one point in the book she thinks about her funeral and says, "Till then, I will live in the Taoist way: peaceful, not strident about wants or beliefs.  I will live in the now.
As Lao Tzu wrote:
'Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.'"

When faced with the knowledge that you will no longer have the function of your body as ALS melts away your nerves and muscles but leaves your mind completely intact, how would you choose to use your days? Would you as Susan Spencer-Wendel decided to do, use your only functioning finger, your thumb, to tap out an entire book in four months? Would you choose to reconnect with your birth father's family and find your biological mother? Would you choose to take trips with each member of your family and your best friend knowing that the damage done to your body on these adventures would only make you weaker?  Would you choose to live with joy or wallow in the injustice of being struck with a terminal illness that has no cure when you are only 44 years old with three beautiful children, an amazing husband, and a career that you love?

Susan Spencer-Wendel chose joy again and again and wrote a life affirming book that made me want to tell my daughters and husband every minute how much they mean to me.  When I look in the mirror and see a healthy woman staring back at me, I feel lucky.  In yoga class, even in the most challenging moves, I am free because I can move my body.  My limbs are not dead weight.  I can still hug my husband, and take my dog for a walk unfettered.  I don't need someone to help me on a toilet, or push my wheelchair.  And yet I still frown on things I don't have or what I haven't accomplished or why my body isn't the way I want it to be.

Just like when I read and taught 'Tuesdays with Morrie' by Mitch Albom which recounts the lessons Mitch learns from his old professor who is dying from ALS to my students over the past 15 years, Susan's inspiring life lessons about living with joy snapped me into the now and reminded me to be present in the simple gifts of every day moments with my two daughters, my husband, my home, and my friends.  When I drink wine, eat great food and am able to carry a conversation at the same time, that is a gift.  When I get to brush my daughter's tangled hair in the morning, that is a gift.  When I get to carry my 4 year old to bed at night, that is a gift.  And when I get to type with both hands and write my truths, that is a gift.

What are the simple gifts in your life that you haven't paid attention to lately? The time is now.

I'd like to thank Susan for having the strength and courage to write this book even in her weakened state.  Reading her adventures with each of her children especially the trip to NYC with her daughter, made me cry.  She knows that she won't be there to see her daughter walk down the aisle, so she took her 14 year old to Kleinfeld's, the famed "Say Yes to the Dress" bridal shop, to see her daughter in a wedding dress.

With humor and reverence, Susan recounts the year she spent reconnecting with her family in Greece, spending time with her friend, Nancy in the Yukon, taking her son, Wesley, to swim with the dolphins, spending a romantic trip in Budapest with her husband, taking her son Aubrey to Captiva Island, and taking her sister on a cruise.

She chronicles these trips with grace, love and, of course,  joy for the simple gifts that each person she loves has given her.  While visiting her birth father's family, her friend, George played a video of Susan showing her young, vibrant and healthy.  Watching the video gave her one of those "bright-line moments, where [her] handicap whomps [her] over the head" and what does she do?  Fuss? Cry? Mourn?

No. Susan chooses instead to "dwell in what there remains to be grateful for." She says, "My hands are snarled, but I can still touch.  I cannot hold, but I can feel. I have my connection to the world, which ALS will never take away." If she can be this way in the face of so much loss and find the beauty in life, why can't I? Why can't you?

My profound thanks to Susan Spencer-Wendel for reminding me to be grateful for all the gifts, big and small, that I have every day.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

'Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking': Validation for the Less Vocal

Power is not a word usually associated with introversion.

I've lived most of my life as an extrovert even though I am an introvert, and although I feel powerful and confident, my introverted side often makes me feel less than powerful.  I surround myself with extroverts - my husband, my two daughters, and my two best friends.  And I don't think that most people, especially my past students, would ever think I was an introvert.  A few years ago, a student wrote me a letter at the end of the school year that said, "At first you annoyed me because you never stopped talking, but I realized somewhere along the way that you were an amazing and caring teacher and I really loved your class, so thank you."  It's not the first time I was told that I talk too much, which is ironic since throughout my life I've basically forced myself to not be so quiet in large groups.

I remember times in high school and college that I felt like I was choking to find words to share in class.  I worried about my face turning red, that my words didn't come as quickly as the people around me whose hands flew up as soon as the teacher posed a question. I once skipped a school day because I didn't want to give a speech. Not to mention the slew of other introverted traits I possess - I'm sensitive to my environment both emotionally and physically.  I prefer to hang out with one other person.  I am not a pack animal.  I prefer a quiet dinner over a loud party. I like to work alone. Being "on" all day as a teacher exhausted me. I am rejuvenated through yoga and reading and taking long walks by myself. I prefer to think before responding. Finally,  I don't like to be in the spotlight even though I have been in high school plays and musicals, been the leader in numerous activities and committees, been a camp counselor, a high school English teacher, the singer in a band, and a hostess with the mostess.

I prefer to be quiet because life feels loud to me often.  Even while I was living in London, my favorite days were spent in museums or taking walks by myself in new parts of the city.  I loved hopping on the train by myself and going to a new country to figure it out alone and spending the afternoons writing in a cafe.  The idea of traveling in a group made me more nervous than navigating a foreign city alone.

Susan Cain's book 'Quiet' helped me to validate my introverted power and make me think deeply about my core personality, but even better it helped me to appreciate the parts about me that most often I associate with some negative feelings. As Cain puts it in her introduction, "It makes sense that so many introverts hide even from themselves. We live in a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal - the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight." So many times in my life, I have apologized either to myself or to others about something that stemmed from my introversion.

Cain starts 'Quiet' with how extroversion became our cultural ideal and when our society started to value the doers and talkers with big personalities versus the Eastern ideal of the wise leaders who spoke little and meditated often.  Cain gathered research on the introverted leaders that our country needed to propel itself forward, and those that shaped the culture we live in - from Lincoln to Martin Luther King, Jr., from Rosa Parks to J.K. Rowling, from Einstein to Spielberg. As I read example after example and felt more and more validated about being an introvert, I thought that she missed the point that not all introverts are being overlooked in our society and in many professions the introverts are sought out - maybe not in the business world or in education, but in many places introverts shine even brighter than extroverts. She is sometimes harsh with her research and examples of the over impulsive, extroverted leaders who feed only their egos without really ever thinking about the financial ruin they will inevitably unleash on the country.

When I shared some of the parts of the book with my very extroverted husband like the Harvard Business School model which leans heavily on students working together and extroverts leading the way or the part about Tony Robbins and his leadership retreats, my husband said, "Did she say anything good about extroverts?" I thought about this as I read.  I came to this conclusion - it wasn't really that Cain made the point that introverts are better than extroverts, it was more that as a society we seem only to value the extrovert in leadership positions and in our education system and even in the way we parent.  We view introversion as something we need to fix; we feel the need to bring introverts out of their shells and open them up as if converting them into extroverts will make them normal.

Cain's research made me think about my own teaching style.  I am an introvert who ran a very extroverted classroom.  I did make it my goal to help the quiet kids speak, giving them opportunities to be heard drawing from my own experiences as the quiet one that had great ideas but didn't know how to share them effectively.  Why did I feel the need to fix them?

The stories Cain shared about brilliant Professor Brian Little who lectured and dedicated himself to his students in the most extroverted way possible, so much so that none of his students would ever guess that after giving speeches at conferences that Little, a very introverted man,  would hide in the bathroom stall to avoid more talking during lunch.  I've done this.  During my last year of teaching, one of my favorite times during the day was my 30 minute lunch break where I ate alone in my classroom.  I was able to recharge and reset myself to be extroverted for the rest of my students for the rest of my day. This is what Cain calls a "restorative niche" - the place you want to go to "return to your true self."

'Quiet' opened my eyes to how lopsided our culture is in terms of the "Extrovert Ideal." Cain doesn't try to make the point that we all need to be introverts, but she does produce compelling evidence (her depth and variety of research studies include adults, leadership, children and relationships) that our society often tries to encourage everyone to be extroverts and rather than changing our core personalities, introverts need to have a "quiet revolution" and revel in the gifts they possess.

I know that after reading the book and clicking together the pieces of my life, the tension spots in my marriage, the times I felt my most comfortable and most uncomfortable, that many of those pieces coincided with my introversion.  I may not be starting a quiet revolution, but I at least feel validated for the powerful person that I am because of my introverted core personality.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

'All Joy and No Fun': An Unflattering Mirror

Do you know how badly lit dressing rooms can make you feel horrible about yourself? You see the dark circles under your eyes, your skin takes on a sickly green pallor because of the fluorescent lighting, and your thighs are way bigger than you remembered? You know that the reflection belongs to you, but somehow you are your worst version of yourself in that dressing room and nothing fits or looks even remotely appealing enough to purchase.  That's what Jennifer Senior's book 'All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood' made me feel like; it focused on the worst reflection of parenthood.

Anyone who is a parent knows the difficulties that come with it.  In the baby stage sleep becomes a luxury.  In the toddler stage, patience isn't just a virtue, but something that you need to continually remind yourself about minute to minute as your 2 year old tests the limits of your sanity.  The elementary school years are an activity puzzle - how do I ever get myself to two or even three places at one time? Parents balance work, couple hood, wellness, meals, exercise, activities, school work, projects, homes, yards, pets . . . it's a never ending cycle of crazy, but the upside of all of this struggle is that we love our kids.  Really, really love them.  They are our gift, our legacy, our present, our future.  It's so worth any ounce of frustration or burden that we feel temporarily in the throws of modern day parenthood.

I didn't get that sense from Senior's highly touted book about the plight of the modern parent.  In the introduction she says, "There's the parenting life of our fantasies, and there's the parenting life of our banal, on-the-ground realities." She delves deep into the heart of the "banal reality" tension spots and pokes those spots until they hurt to figure out what is the effect of parenthood on adults.

I literally got depressed as I read the unflattering portraits of parents who deal with many of the same issues that I deal with:
1) How parenting affects my marriage
2) How parenting affects my "me time"
3) Why do I put my child in activities that cause stress in my nightly schedule and keep all of us in a constant game of GO?
4) How do I keep my temper at bay when I can't seem to accomplish anything because of constant interruptions to the flow of my day?
5) How will I change my parenting once my kids are teenagers?
6) Do my husband and I actually share parenting responsibilities or do most of the responsibilities fall to me?

Senior starts with the premise that parents are no happier than non-parents and in many cases parents are less happy than non-parents, and then she dissects why this is the case.  She studies the history of parenthood and the transformation that occurred somewhere in the 1950s when kids went from being useful to protected.  "Children went from being our employees to our bosses." As sociologist Viviana Zelizer put it, children became "economically worthless but emotionally priceless."

As Senior searches for answers about why parents are so unhappy she misses the key part of the equation until the very end of the book - JOY.  Ask any parent if they hate being a parent, and I can say with some certainty that they will answer with an emphatic, "no!"  Joy and fun do exist in the realm of modern day parents.  We love our kids deeply which is why we drive them to theater rehearsals and Envirothon meetings and swim lessons.  We want them to succeed and have opportunities that we had or excel beyond what we could have ever imagined.  We want them to have choices and to be emotionally prepared for life and for being humane to themselves and others.

Parenthood is about connection, creation, joy, fun, chaos, messy days, clean days, meals, conversations, relationships and so much more than can ever be captured in a book that pokes open the raw spots that every parent deals with but hopefully doesn't dwell on.  If we only thought of the bad parts of life, we'd all go a bit nutty.

Near the end of the book, Senior uses the metaphor of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" when one of the characters asks, "what are we digging for, and what have we found?"In parenthood, we aren't always digging for something.  Sometimes we just need to let it be without all the dissecting of whether or not we are happy in each moment and know that life ebbs and flows more than that.

Is parenting hard? Sure.  Is it worth it? Absolutely.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

'Carry On, Warrior - Thoughts on Life Unarmed': The best girlfriend you will ever have

Sometimes in life we find exactly what we need, exactly when we need it.  That's what happened to me when I found 'Carry On, Warrior: Thoughts on Life Unarmed' by Glennon Doyle Melton. I've never read Glennon's wildly popular blog  Instead, I first encountered Glennon's ideas while searching for TEDTalks about Mental Health and Mental Illness for's latest writing contest.  In Glennon's TEDTalk called "Lessons from the Mental Hospital" she shares her truth about how she learned to feel her feelings and then share those thoughts with others when she had a mental breakdown and spent time in a mental hospital.  She explained that she sees her feelings as the guides in our lives and said, "I honor my feelings as my own personal prophets . . . I've learned to be still and receive the gifts." Although her voice quivered while she spoke from nerves and emotional energy, her ideas worth spreading resonated with me.  Oddly, the day before I happened upon Glennon's TEDTalk, I just picked up her book from the library - I liked the title and the bright lettering on the cover (whatever, I know you pick books by the covers and titles, too).  Serendipitous perhaps? I'm not sure.

I do know that since I cracked open Glennon's book which is a collection of her most loved blog posts from and other material not previously printed, I have already recommended Glennon's book to three of my friends.  Before I get into what I took away from the book there are a few things about Glennon you need to know:
1) She had a pretty messed up life before she got pregnant with her first child.  Drugs, alcohol, bulimia, self-loathing, depression . . . she is very upfront about this fact, and explains how those low moments shaped her.
2) She talks a bunch about the role of religion in her life and the presence of God.  For some, this might be a complete turn off or make them squeamish. For others, it might make them like her even more, but just be aware that God talk is VERY present in this book.
3) Glennon makes no excuses for the person she used to be or the person she is now.  She is flawed (for example she doesn't know how to cook - she doesn't even own pans NOR does she clean.  Her vacuum seems like an alien to her, but she taught her daughter to use it as a baby carriage, so her daughter now vacuums the house).

Because I didn't know anything about Glennon other than watching her TEDTalk, I approached her book with an open mind, and it was the first time in awhile that I laughed out loud while reading a book about parenting (right now I'm reading 'All Joy and No Fun' by Jennifer Senior and it is depressing the heck out of me).  When Glennon talked about her trips to Target and the officer telling her girls that they were disturbing the peace, I felt validated for those not so great mom days in grocery stores or retail store check out lines.  We've all been there, but when we see other people going through it, we generally turn the other way or feign superiority.  Why do we do that?

I also wrote things down in my journal about her deep connection with her children.  She doesn't really give advice, but her stories of her own life are so open and honest, that it helps.  One of my favorite chapters was "Don't Carpe Diem" where she explains the two types of time.  Chronos time is regular time. "It's ten excruciating minutes in the Target line time, four screaming minutes in time-out time, two hours until Daddy gets home time.  Chronos is the hard, slow-passing time we parents often live in." The other type of time is Kairos time which is "those magical moments in which time stands still." Like when you really see your children for the beautiful human beings that they are.  You actually see the length of their eyelashes or the curve of their cheeks.  It's the Kairos moments that Glennon tries to hold onto throughout the Chronos days of parenting and living.  "Carpe a couple of Kairoses a day. Good enough for me." I've been calling my awareness to those Kairos moments when Raina and Story hug each other and say, "I love you, baby" just because they felt like it, or how beautiful Story is when she sleeps.

She also offered this tidbit which I wrote down on its own page in my journal: The most important job as a parent is "to teach my children how to deal with being human." I guess I never thought of it like that before, but I am glad that Glennon wrote it, and glad that I'll remember it.  Being human isn't easy, so teaching my children how to deal with life is an important job.

Mostly Glennon's book reminded me to offer myself grace and kindness.  To forgive myself and know that life and parenting are permanent do overs.  If you screw up one moment, the next is a do over.  And that is okay just like not liking vacuuming or having a really bad afternoon with your children is not the end of the world.  My biggest take away lesson is to "embrace being human rather than fight against it." "Carry on, Warrior: Thoughts on Life Unarmed" was exactly what I needed to read at the exact right moment in my life because Glennon's truthful thoughts on her life helped me find truth in my own life.  To me, that's Chronos time well spent - reading a book that validates being messy and being human.