Thursday, December 1, 2011

Too Good To Be True

Something or someone comes along and you think, “This is just too good to be true!  I can’t believe this is happening!”  You get swept away in amazement about how the universe has aligned perfectly for you.  Even in the excitement, there is still a part of you that doesn’t really believe it could be real – it’s too good to be true, after all.  As time goes by, you start to believe that it might, in fact, be real.  At some point you start counting on it being true – you begin to let that reality exist in your mind, and you get comfortable with it.  The bewilderment becomes the expectation. 

Then there is the moment when the dream proves itself to be too good to be true after all.  And it doesn’t happen in a gentle way.  That’s when, all within a 24 hour period, the phone will crash and lose all of your contact information and calendar, the project on which you’ve just spent hours will be lost, you will have no hot water, your lawyer or business partner will call you with bad news, those you love most will let you down and hurt you, and everything else that you built up in your mind – all that you originally couldn’t believe would actually happen – will crumble in front of you.  Nothing is in alignment; nothing is easy.  And it crushes you.

The universe has a wicked way of teaching us that the things onto which we hold too tightly aren’t real – the dreams, hopes and expectations exist only in our minds.  That’s why they can be wiped away so swiftly.  The only thing that is real is this moment – what is happening right in front of us, right now.  And there is no good or bad in this moment – it just is.  If we realized this, we wouldn’t be so hurt or disappointed by what should have happened or what this or that person should have done.

Intellectually, I understand this concept.  But it isn’t until I crumble from the weight of disappointment that the lesson is truly learned (again).  At some point I remember:  My current suffering is caused by me – not by any other person or the universe – and it can be lifted when I choose to let go of what I have built up in my mind.  My suffering will cease when I live in the present instead of the reality I wish would exist.

As that realization seeps in, I stop feeling overwhelmed and sorry myself, and I start moving.  I reignite the pilot light on the water heater, start re-entering all of my contacts, pick the project back up, make amends with my loved ones, and generally readjust my expectations.  I accept that today is just one of those shitty days where things are going to be harder than I’d like, but that’s just the way it is.  Bitching and moaning won’t change anything.

In time, I will forget the lesson and have to re-learn it, but until then I remind myself that the present moment is the only reality.  Everything else is too good to be true because it’s not real, so don’t waste too much energy grasping at that which exists only in my mind and may or may not actually happen.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Wet Boogers

My ex-husband had (well, he probably still has) a great sense of humor and a gift for using very colorful language.  Most of it would be considered R rated (if the rating people were feeling generous), but one of his milder coinages was the term “Wet Boogers” – you know, the people who cling on to you – mentally and physically – and you just can’t seem to shake.  To get the full effect of the term, you must explain this while simultaneously shaking your hand as if you are in fact trying to shake a wet booger off of your finger.

We all know people like this.  Some are simply looking for someone to whom they can vent or complain, or a shoulder on which to cry.  Others just need some company or affirmation that they are not in fact ugly, fat, stupid, unlovable, etc.  There are the more nefarious ones who try to get out of paying their fair share of a bill at dinner or want you to “contribute” to projects they’ve cooked up but in reality want to hand it off to someone else to do the actual work.  Most of us may occasionally fall into this general category – that’s pretty normal.  What I’m talking about are the people who do this incessantly. 
Wet Boogers ( “WB’s” for short) are the people who do it to the extreme – you rarely hear anything but complaints or they constantly put themselves or others down; they never buy a round at the bar (or even their own drinks) or they want to borrow money without having any intention or means of paying it back; they never volunteer to help you on a project or, if they do, they don’t actually follow through or show up.  These people are parasites.  I don’t mean that in a judgmental or preachy way (well, maybe a little) – it’s just that they suck our emotional energy, our precious time, and our hard-earned money without regard for our needs, and we get nothing in return.

A dear friend of mine is a Wet Booger Magnet – he attracts these dependents in a way that is simply astonishing.  Seems like almost every day he gets a phone call, text or email from someone wanting something from him.  And he’s such a sweetheart that he doesn’t have the heart to push back when he feels taken advantage of, when his boundaries are encroached.  He likes to feel needed but he really wants to feel appreciated.
I can’t figure out why he is their preferred target.  Maybe the easy answer is that some of us simply don’t worry about pushing back or perhaps we can see/feel a WB coming from a mile away and can run faster than he does.  Is it because he’s a giver to a fault?  Is it because we are hangers-on too and the WB’s simply aren’t attracted to their own kind? 

I try very hard not to be so much of a taker and to do unto others like I would want them to do unto me.  That requires vigilance, especially when I’m in a foul or depressed mood.  I certainly don’t want to hear people complain all the time (once in a while is fine) or tell me how fat, ugly or stupid they are, so I don’t do that to them. 
That’s not to say that I pretend as though everything is fine all the time.  That would be disingenuous.  But it is possible to find an opportunity or the silver lining in almost any situation, even if it sometimes feels like a stretch.  I don’t want to become toxic, so if I’m going to spend my energy (and someone else’s) wallowing in a misfortune, I owe it to both of us to factor a little humor or compassion into the equation. 

But that still doesn’t explain the WB’s attraction to my friend.  I feel for him because it frustrates and angers him that people aren’t willing to give back some of what they take; that they view his energy as cheap or something that is valuable only when spent on them.  The give and take of a healthy relationship is out of balance.  It gets to the point where he’s had enough with a certain WB and will either snap at them because he can’t take it anymore or ends up exorcising them from his life by avoiding their calls, not returning voicemails, emails and texts.  In either case, they are left confused and hurt over why their “friend” would yell at or abandon them.  Everyone involved feels bad.
Maybe these people are attracted to him because he suffers from “Martyr Man” syndrome – he doesn’t feel like he deserves the right to expect or demand that the people he gives to should respect his feelings, his time, his energy, and his money – and he gives until there is nothing left.  He hasn’t received anything to fill him back up again.  My hope for him is that he is able to fill his life with more givers and not so many takers.  Maybe that will make him less attractive to the WB’s.  Or maybe he could just change his soap? 

But the WB’s are still humans who want to be loved like the rest of us, people with feelings and with needs.  I’m not saying we should spurn them or avoid them entirely, if that’s even possible.  Our energy is valuable, and when given freely, it’s truly a gift – and we ought to treat it that way.  Most of us were taught to accept gifts with grace and gratitude.  When we act like spoiled toddlers and greedily snatch gifts, grabbing them as if we are entitled to them, and toss them aside when they no longer suit our purposes, it’s an ugly scene.  Maybe all we can do is make sure that we’re not the Wet Booger and give whatever gifts we can to the takers out there while still saving enough of our energy to enjoy the givers in our lives.  We could make sure that whatever gifts we receive are given freely and we give back at least as much as we take.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Toast

I recently attended a wedding and had a sneaking suspicion that I would be asked to give a toast.  Given that I have an almost debilitating fear of public speaking, it was difficult, to say the least, to sleep the night before the ceremony.  Just before dawn, I gave up any further attempt to sleep and decided to start my day. 
This was a destination wedding so I had the wonderful fortune of sitting by the ocean to watch the sun come up.  Drinking coffee and painting my toenails, the panic continued to well up.  I started to think about how to get out of yet another public humiliation then remembered my latest motto:  If you’re afraid of or don’t want to do something, that means you definitely need to do it. 
I watched and listened to the waves coming in, going out, over and over, focusing on the sound rather than the fear.  After a few minutes, I found a scrap of paper and started to write down my thoughts, believing that if I really wanted to, I could chicken out.  Without the pressure of having to produce something “perfect,” the words flowed easily:
May you love each other with intention and purpose;
May you give with abandon and take only what you need;
May you delight in each other’s successes and remind each other that failures are merely opportunities;
There are bound to be times of stress and strife, and in those moments, may you remember that it’s better to find forgiveness and be happy than it is to be right;
May you always have peace in your hearts, gentleness in your words, tenderness in your touch and love in your eyes.
These things are not intuitive or easy in the heat of the moment, so more than anything, I wish you boundless strength, courage and faith to take every opportunity to grow together and strengthen your bond.
The request was made by the Bride only moments before the ceremony started, hardly giving me a chance to re-write my thoughts on an actual, clean piece of paper.  As a member of the wedding party, I wasn’t able to focus on anything but whatever needed to be taken care of from moment to moment.  Then came the toasts.
They gave me a narrow window from which to escape the duty – I could have gotten out of it – but I chose to lean in to the fear.  I made my way to the front of the crowd and started reading.  I soon became very emotional – not at all the robot-like, shaky and mumbly-voiced behavior that is my usual delivery style. 
What closed my throat and brought my tears was the realization that my wishes weren’t just for the newlyweds.  They were for me and for all of the people at the wedding.  They were for all of us.  If I took my own advice, I could live a happier life with far less anger, fear, regret, angst. 
When I looked up from my scrap of paper, it was clear I wasn’t the only one unable to hold back the emotion.  It was a heartening moment for me – not so much from the confirmation that I had touched people with a toast, but that my decision to take the leap and put myself out there was the right one.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

To Avoid Getting Burned, Simply Let Go

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.  -- Buddha

Our world is full of aggravations and perceived insults.  Someone says something sharp or mean.  Someone cuts us off in traffic.  Someone has an opinion we believe to be patently false or even dangerous. 
The world has plenty of assholes, far too many.  So why, in the face of these irritants, do we allow ourselves to become an asshole and simply add to the growing pile?  Is it our eye-for-an-eye mentality?  Can we justify our reactions as deserved by those who provoke our anger?  Is it because we feel righteous in our position?  Are we seeking vengeance for acts committed against us?  Has someone called us out on a misstep we’ve committed and we don’t like their tone?  Or is it that we are all insecure to some degree, feel the sting of a particular comment, and naturally lash out in self-defense?
The fact is that we have a choice when we feel anger boil up.  We can respond in anger and add to the fire, or we can respond with compassion and cool things off.  Most of the time what we perceive as a personal attack or insult is actually something entirely outside of us; we are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and happen to be in the direct path of someone’s ire.  The person is having a bad day or they aren’t well physically and/or emotionally.  There are other times when their wrath is specifically directed at us – perhaps they don’t like us because of some slight or insult they believe we’ve inflicted upon them.  Maybe it doesn’t really matter. 
If I so choose, I can try to stand in their shoes without judgment – without the belief that one of us has to be wrong in order for the other to be right.  If I can find compassion for both us, maybe it is possible to understand where they are coming from, or at a minimum find where the misunderstanding lies.
Do I react and repeat the injurious cycle or do I resolve to quell it?  It’s not an easy task.  Most of us have learned to jump immediately into anger, defensiveness and righteous indignation.  Unlearning that behavior is not only possible but also a basic prerequisite to alleviate the suffering we all experience. 
I believe that each and every person, even the irritating guy right in front of me, is doing the best they can to make their way through the world, to find their own happiness and comfort.  And that includes me – I’m also doing the best I can with the tools I have.  Anger is one tool.  Patience and understanding are tools as well.  If the act can be separated from the actor, perhaps I can respond to the act rather than the actor, with the understanding that we are both doing the best we can in that moment.  My anger, my pain, my angst is neither greater nor more justified than his – we both want to be heard, feel understood and, most of all, be loved.
Possibly what is most irritating to me is the fact that what I see in him is what I do not like about myself.  If I accept the challenge to fearlessly and honestly seek out that reality, finding compassion and forgiveness becomes much easier.  It’s even feasible that my cool reaction fuels his patience.  That may be too much to expect of some people, but I will never know unless I try – and keep trying.  That’s all I can do.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Momentum of a New Day

I feel overwhelmed.  I feel weak.  I feel alone.  I feel sad.  I feel small.  I feel scared.  I feel sick.  I feel . . . nothing.

When I sit and allow myself to get lost in the past or in the enormity of what lays ahead for me, these thoughts and feelings creep in.  The longer I allow myself to sit and chew on them, the more power I give them and the depression seeps in.  It takes energy to turn these thoughts around – to toss them out and replace them with the truth – that I’m not alone, that I’m strong, that I can be well, that I can handle whatever comes up.
Last night as I went to bed, I tried to muster whatever energy I could find to fight back the sense of increasing gloom.  At first, I could only come up with what I didn’t want:  I don’t want to be sad; I don’t want to spend another day in bed or on the couch; I don’t want to waste another day feeling like this; I don’t want to numb out . . .   I guess it’s a start – to know what I don’t want – but I’ve found it doesn’t get me very far.  Without knowing what I DO want, I don’t have any idea where to direct whatever energy I manage to find.  That energy, in the form of courage, can’t find any momentum.  It just swirls around and gets lost again in the sea of the negative.
The only positive I could come up with was: Tomorrow is a new day.   Tomorrow I will get out of bed and do the best I can.  And it was good enough.  I did get out of bed this morning.  I made a big pot of coffee and I wrote this.  Then I moved on to the next thing. 
I refuse to dwell too long on yesterday – only long enough to appreciate the fact that I have found some amount of momentum, however small, to do the next right thing.  I am grateful that I can take another step forward, however little, to climb this mountain.  And I as take step-after-step, this momentum of energy allows the truth to take over again and then I realize this mountain isn’t so big after all. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What my conventional life looked like and how I jumped out

Livingston Manor, NY – As I sit here writing, sitting outside and listening to the leaves rustle and the birds chirp, the sun on my face, 800 miles away from home, it occurs to me that trying to tell you how I got to this place (literally and figuratively) in a short blog post is simply too great a task.  But since my new life requires that I do what I think cannot be done, I’m going to try.  For those of you who make the time to read on, thank you!

Growing up and into early adulthood, I can’t really remember being passionate about much of anything.  I played sports but that was really more about keeping my parents happy than some kind of internal drive I had to compete and win.  I tried several instruments but I found frustration rather than inspiration – not terribly uncommon for lots of kids. A thing or two did pique my interest – an elective photography class offered at school, for example.  It was an especially difficult time for my family – financially and emotionally – and as was my nature, I didn’t want to rock the boat.  It would be an extra expense for my cash-strapped family so I kept quiet.  I had learned to walk on eggshells and didn’t know I had a voice, that I could speak up and make something happen.  That took another 25 years to figure out.
Things that found me later in life - college, my job as a paralegal, marriage, law school and the subsequent practice of law – gave me no special joy.  They were simply things that were expected of me or suggested to me as obvious choices.  They weren’t mine – they were someone else’s.  I tried to make them mine as well, but it just felt disingenuous.

The more I sensed that falseness, the more acutely I begin to see how hollow my life had become.  As I tried to figure out what could be truly mine and what could truly feed my soul, I felt trapped.  Most of my choices had configured my life in a way that held me down and kept me locked in the life of others’ choosing – my job, my house, my cars, other toys and possessions, etc. 
Over the years, I went from apathetic, sad and disappointed to panicked, angry and eventually despondent.  I’m not sure when the sadness really started, perhaps as early as 2005.  My (now ex) husband and I had spent an amazing 10 day vacation in the Galapagos Islands – sailing around the different islands, seeing things that very few people ever get to experience.  The photos I had taken were extraordinary – I hadn’t realized I was capable of such things.  But the proof was right in front of me – I had a good eye; I could see things and capture them in a way that touched people.  It gave me such a high, such inspiration, that I was determined to recreate that feeling by moving there.  Maybe starting up my own travel company which could bring others to see that magnificence I found.  Maybe being able to spend enough time there to put together a coffee table book of my photos.

The problem was that my plan didn’t involve my husband (maybe an early warning sign I missed?).  I didn’t see him there with me.  It didn’t occur to me that we would split up if my plan actually worked – he would stay in the states, continue to work in his stable job, and I would just come home several times a year.  I did a bunch of research, planning and dreaming but eventually lost any nerve I had to pursue it when I realized (1) it was a really ambitious plan and I wasn’t capable of such ambition, and (2) I had no emotional or financial support.  My husband (understandably) wasn’t on board with the idea.  But I kept daydreaming – concocting scheme after scheme, churning them over and over in my head, working out all the details and objections and responses. 
Hour after hour, I would sit by myself quietly or while I was sitting in traffic to and from work (I had 2-3 hours of that every day), chewing on all these ideas.  But, deep down, I knew they were all pipe dreams.  I knew that none of them would ever come to fruition – that I was destined to always dream but never really do.  This went on for years as I trudged through my day to day life, working hour after hour at a job that placed more and more demands on me and trying to keep my husband happy, who also expected more than I became willing to give.

By 2007, I was divorced and had fully realized the pointlessness of my job.  It was more about helping someone get their second Rolls-Royce, second (or third) vacation home, or their 7 figure payout, than it was about moving things forward in the world.  I worked at a large law firm (600+ attorneys) in commercial finance and secured lending, primarily in the context of mergers and acquisitions.  I never had any illusions that I would be doing anything even remotely noble, but I had believed that I could do some good, help improve the lives of those who needed it in some small way.
At first, I was attracted to that particular field for several reasons.  First, and foremost, the money was fantastic and I would never have to worry about how to pay the next bill or where I was going to live.    I also knew that I was good at it – I had spent the previous five years working as a paralegal at a big firm and it was those with whom I worked that had encouraged me to go to law school (along with my husband, who also loved the idea of the big money that would come in).  I also enjoyed the intellectual challenge of being given a set of facts and circumstances presented by a particular transaction and being charged with finding creative solutions to find an outcome that best suited all the parties involved.  I saw it as a win-win situation – someone wants to sell or buy a company, someone wants to borrow or lend money and I helped facilitate that – both parties got what they wanted/needed and nobody lost or got hurt.  As opposed to litigation, which is by definition a zero sum game – a win-lose proposition wherein I cannot win unless you lose and vice versa and it becomes all about the winning and defeating of another. 

What I’ve found is that my perceived win-win view of that work, particularly in the context of M&A, private equity investment and the financing around those transactions, is illusory - it turns out the only people who won were the guys who already had plenty of money (the equity holders, bankers, lawyers, accountants, etc.).  The employees and customers of those companies – the pawns – rarely benefited from the transactions.  It was all about making our clients and partners boat loads of money rather than building stronger, more vibrant and viable operating companies.  It was the short-term view of buy low and sell high and it really wasn’t anyone’s concern about who got hurt in the process. 
In the end, it was not that different from any other zero sum game – if money came into my pocket, it had to come from some other player’s account.  It wasn’t about all the parties finding the best solution for everyone involved but about the highest paid lawyers winning the most for their clients, the one who could play chicken the longest winning the battle and those that could game the system best getting the most.

But by this point in my career, the golden handcuffs were firmly attached.  I had tried to find a balance between working and pursuing the passions I had found along the way – traveling, photography, art, etc.  But the nature of the job essentially demanded that I be at the beck-and-call of clients, partners and whatever “emergency” (usually manufactured for purposes of inflating the already-bloated egos of those involved) came up.  I could not consistently carve out any time or make any concrete plans related to my creative side.  The more I struggled to create that balance, the more despair I felt.  The stress of the job and the growing angst over not being able to create a “healthy” balance sucked my energy and creativity so dry that any free time was spent trying to decompress or simply numb myself from the terrible realization that there was no way out. 
Earlier this year it finally became untenable.  I realized that there was no happy medium; no way to force a balance between that which could feed, house and clothe me in the manner in which I had become accustomed and that which could feed my soul.  And that realization crushed me – in a thousand little and big ways.  I began having daily, debilitating headaches in mid-February.  Then came severe stomach problems, weight loss, and sleep issues.  You name it – my body was falling apart and my mind quickly followed. 

I had been going from doctor to doctor to figure out why I was having these terrible headaches.  I went to my GP, my dentist, found a chiropractor, physical therapist, neurologist, hematologist, psychiatrist.  One doctor prescribed Wellbutrin under the assumption that a little anti-depressant could help with the stress and growing depression, and I had been wanting to quit smoking so the drug would help with that as an added bonus.  I had resisted taking psych meds in the past but finally relented in desperation.  I needed relief and at that point was ready to do anything to find it.  Rather than give me the intended boost, the Wellbutrin pushed me over the edge.  I had a “hypo manic response to an anti-depressant”.  (More on that later . . . .)  Between the stress of feeling trapped and the terrible adverse reaction to the Wellbutrin, I could no longer function at work or in the world.  I went on medical leave in April to piece my body and mind back together. 
The time away from the day-to-day grind gave me the renewed energy and courage to put my life back together by any means necessary.  I chose to view the time off as a gift I was giving myself to heal, not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well.  So (almost) everyday, I was grateful for that gift and pulled myself out of bed, shuttling from doctor appointment to doctor appointment, reconnecting with friends and communities I had let go by the way-side over the years, learning how to stop numbing myself out and start feeling again (for better and worse).  By the time my leave ended in August, I was ready to jump out of my old, dead life.  I was ready to reclaim my ability to choose and to hurtle myself forward into the unknown of what a better life might look like.

So here I am now, following my curiosity and exploring what “happy” could be for me.  I’m lightening up my life and jettisoning those things that have held me down – my job, my house, the vast majority of my possessions and all the long-held negative thoughts that I couldn’t do something radical to change my life.  I have chosen to fear no more – where that takes me is completely unknown and that’s what really excites me.  I might fall.  I may take flight.  I suspect (and even hope) that there will be some of both.  But whatever happens, it will be mine and it will be right.  I invite you to come along with me as I make my way along this new path.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Opting Out

We live every moment of every day with a choice.  We have a choice to get out of bed or stay there.  We have a choice to get out there and go to work (or find work) or to stay under the covers.  We have a choice whether we stay scared, angry or stuck, or change our perspective to make every moment an opportunity to grow and find happiness.  But most of us don’t believe we have choices.    We think, “I have to get out of bed and go to work or my family will not be able to eat or afford to live in our home.”  It’s an either/or proposition – work and be miserable and stressed or starve and be homeless.  There are very few things in this world are that black and white.  But we are not encouraged or even allowed to think outside of this bleak paradigm.  Knowing that we have the ability to choose differently can empower us to think outside of the box in which we have allowed conventional thinking to trap us.  This blog is an inside view into my choices and my path into the frightening and exciting decision to opt out of the conventional wisdom that having a stable and well-paying job, seeking that next promotion, owning a home, settling down and having children, hoarding money for an uncertain future and pursuing mainstream ideals will lead to the American Dream.  I have come to the realization that following what others define as success does not, cannot not, will not, lead to my contentment, joy or happiness – in fact it has been the opposite.  It was time for me to make the radical decision to search out my own personal definition of what a happy and productive life means to me.