Monday, March 18, 2019

A Letter a Day

Pixel2013 via Pixabay
While I'm never surprised when life gives me writing ideas, I'm still sometimes surprised when writing gives me ideas for life. A couple of weeks ago, I was brainstorming ideas for Lenten resolutions for an article I was writing, playing with the number 40 (for the number of days in Lent). One of the ideas I came up with was writing 40 letters in 40 days.

And it stuck.

I'd already come up with a couple of Lenten resolution -- bad habits to give up, mostly -- but this new idea resonated with me. I'm a transplanted Jersey girl whose college friends are scattered across the country. I've worked in several different school districts, making friends with colleagues in each of them. While I maintain contact with many friends on social media, I'm old enough to remember a time when letters were a primary way to communicate with faraway friends and family. In addition, I actually have fond memories of sitting down to write those letters. Lent seemed like the perfect time to reclaim an old habit and reach out to people who matter to me.

I'd like to say I'm keeping up, but that's not the case. I started off well, buying some cute cards with space for me to write a note and making a short list of people I wanted to write to. I sent a couple of newsy emails to friends who are happy to communicate that way but wrote exactly one card.

And immediately realized that my handwriting was another casualty of rampant technology.

I haven't given up, though. I have my cards and my list tucked neatly into a folder bright enough to capture my attention and I'm still optimistic that I will sit down and write those notes. I just need to make time to do it. In addition, I've decided that the 40 notes part is more important than the 40 days part. Writing letters after Easter won't make them any less important.

An interesting side effect emerged from this desire to reach out. Last week, as I walked past a buildings and grounds worker repairing a crack in the sidewalk on campus, I felt compelled to stop and thank him. Today, as I ran into the store to pick up some face wash, I felt the need to wish the man trimming the shrubbery a good day.

Alexas Fotos via Pixabay
None of this is terribly far out of my comfort zone; I am, after all, one of those people who starts up conversations with complete strangers. But in both cases, I felt a need to speak -- to reach out and, I hope, brighten someone else's day.

Habits are funny things. We get used to doing things a certain way -- sometimes before we even know it -- and that becomes our norm. Sometimes, the new way replaces an old way that was perfectly serviceable -- like email and social media instead of letters and phone calls -- even when that wasn't our intention.

I'm actually sort of happy that I've fallen behind in my letter-writing. Now, instead of a daily to-do list item, perhaps they'll be even more heartfelt than I first intended. Perhaps my new old habit will even supplement the thing I've gotten used to, giving both technology and handwritten correspondence their due.

And, who knows? Maybe my handwriting will even improve.

But I'm not holding my breath on that one.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Friday Feature: Barbie's Birthday

Last weekend, Barbie celebrated her 60th birthday. When I wrote about Barbie and Ken in Wednesday's post, I knew I was going to go in search of news about the celebration for today's post.

As it turns out, there were quite a few Barbie celebrations, but my favorite article was a photo spread in BuzzFeed. Lumen, a 50+ dating app, honored both Barbie and Ken (whose birthday was Wednesday) with a photo shoot featuring them in vintage Barbie settings. The twist?

Barbie and Ken are more than all grown up. They're 60.

Buzzfeed
It's at once amusing and inspiring. Barbie looks amazing (of course) while Ken has not aged as well (in my opinion), hair color notwithstanding.

But Lumen's concept was about more than just nostalgia. The app wanted to draw attention not only to Barbie, but to ageism in toys.

Barbie has been many things in the past sixty years. Could Grandma Barbie be next?



Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Celebrating Barbie and Ken

Alexas Fotos via Pixabay
Last Saturday, Barbie turned 60.

Sixty. Six-oh.

Wow.

Over the past six decades, Barbie has had a multitude of identities and has had numerous accusations leveled against her but, I must confess, I have only warm memories of Barbie and I don't recall ever actually aspiring to look like her.

When I was young, my aunt had a Midge doll whose only outfit was a black, sparkly (form-fitting, of course) evening gown. Midge had a sprinkling of freckles across her nose and legs that didn't bend and, although she and Barbie could share clothes, Midge's plastic body made it much easier to slide the evening gown on, meaning she didn't often share that gown with Barbie. I remember how excited I was when I was finally allowed to play with Midge. I don't know whether I actually achieved an age where I could be trusted, or simply wore my mother and grandmother down.

I had my own collection of Barbies when I was growing up, but few were as memorable as the forbidden Midge and her sparkly evening gown. I also had a Francie doll and, although Francie had a pretty, filmy negligee in her own clothing collection, Barbie's clothes didn't fit what I now understand was her less sexy body. All I knew was that it was harder to dress Francie than any of my other dolls.

My favorite Barbie accessory was the Barbie camper, which folded up tidily into itself and could be rolled into my closet. For several years when I was in elementary school, Barbie-themed toys and clothes were a staple on my Christmas list and under the Christmas tree.

By the time my daughter came along, the Barbie phase both started and ended sooner. In Leah's preschool and early elementary years, we took Barbie on many adventures across the playroom floor but, by the middle of my daughter's elementary school years, those adventures and Barbie herself were no longer "cool."

To this day, we have a fairly substantial collection of Barbie stuff, though I think many of the dolls themselves have gone on to new homes. From a feminist perspective, Barbie is flawed, but she nevertheless inspired many characters and story lines, all drawn from first my, then my daughter's imagination. Barbie and friends, their wardrobe and their three story house with its various furnishings provided plenty of fuel for playing out the intricacies of relationships, careers and lifestyles.

Today is Ken Day -- the day Barbie's longtime significant other came on the scene. Maybe Barbie will take him somewhere nice to celebrate.

She certainly has the wardrobe for it.


Monday, March 11, 2019

Monday Musing


geralt via Pixabay
Seven years ago, I was trying, for the second time in my adult life, to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up (besides brave enough to get back on an airplane). I'd just retired -- ahead of schedule -- from the job that had been my career for the previous twenty-seven years. Too young to retire for real, but not young enough to start over, I had arrived at a crossroads, and I had no map.

At first, I did what I knew -- I wrote and I taught. The writing was mostly articles, trying to find a few editors who would consistently buy my work. The teaching was community education classes, almost all of which centered on writing.

With time on my hands, I dug into this blog, posting consistently and within an overall framework, as opposed to sporadically as I'd done before I retired. As it turned out, the timing was great, coinciding as it did with the debut of Casting the First Stone in 2014.

Three years -- and many posts about organizing -- later, I launched my Organizing by STYLE blog and this June, Know Thyself: The Imperfectionist's Guide to Sorting Your Stuff, will make its appearance.

In between, I got a job teaching psychology at a local college -- a job that has grown from one class each semester to three, with the precise combination of classes changing often enough to keep things interesting. I discovered a love of learning that rivaled my love of writing -- or maybe I'd always had it  -- which only increased my enthusiasm for my work in the classroom.

So, here I am, seven years later. Still writing. Still teaching. I no longer embrace the role of counselor in quite the same way -- though, like my Jersey roots, my counselor roots run deep -- and, these days, my students are about a decade older than those I spent most of my career with. I've adjusted to that, too, and genuinely enjoy working with young adults.

I guess you could say it turns out that I knew what I wanted all along and yet, I'm still working to find  balance. Last week, we had winter break and I immersed myself in writing and writing-related projects, setting school work aside completely. On Saturday, I forced myself to tackle the grading that had remained untouched as I traded one role -- temporarily -- for another. And today, still smarting from the loss of an hour (that's another post entirely), I'm trying to find my way back to embracing both roles within the same day without shortchanging either one.

It's a challenge. But, having had a whole week to devote to my writing, I feel less of a sense of desperation to make some headway than I usually do. I checked some writing projects off my list last week and made some progress on some smaller ones (yes, Marita, Charli and Angel are in that second category).

Putting in that retirement letter seven years ago was a leap of faith. I had dreams, but no definite plans and while the road out of one thing was clearly marked, the road into something else was shrouded in fog. I marvel at where I am now, not always fully certain of how I got here, but certain that I can't take all the credit.

Teaching is hard and so is writing, but both are also profoundly rewarding. Some days, I find it funny that I ended up back where I started, in a sense. Other days, it seems incredibly obvious.

I guess when the road ahead is a dream, it makes sense that it's shrouded in fog, that we can only see a few steps ahead. We can map out a plan, but we do so knowing the terrain may change at any time and we might have to take detours, or perhaps end up at a different destination altogether. I suppose that's all part of the adventure. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I know it's an adventure I'm glad I set out on.

Oh, and that airplane thing? Turns out the trick to mustering up my courage is having a child who's studying abroad. Next month, I put that bravery to the test when my husband and I fly to Ireland to see her.

For now, it's back to writing. And grading.

And dreaming.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Friday Feature: Grateful

Several summers ago, I was out on my patio, going through a new textbook for the general psychology course I'd be teaching for the first time. A line in one chapter about Martin Seligman and the field of positive psychology captured my attention and drew me into a whole new (to me) segment of a field I've been studying and/or working in since I was seventeen.

I was captivated. Looking up the information in that one sentence lead to my earning a certificate in positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center. I used that material to fuel my freshman seminars and to create a positive psychology course that I taught last spring.

Positive psychology is often misunderstood, mistaken for a false positive view of life where everyone is always happy and the realities of life are ignored and/or swept under the rug. The concept of gratitude, in particular, is often a target as people associate being grateful with being disingenuous.

In his article, Five Myths About Gratitude, researcher and professor of psychology Robert Emmons addresses many of the misconceptions surrounding gratitude, refuting the idea that it's merely a feel-good tactic that subordinates us to others. Gratitude is, in fact, a way of coping with stress, loss, and even tragedy, as borne out by studies conducted with survivors of the attacks on the World Trade Center and soldiers on active duty. When I taught my positive psychology class, the gratitude exercises were the ones my students not only enjoyed, but embraced, continuing to do them on their own even after the class had ended.

One of the things that continues to amaze me about psychology is the power of the human mind. Positive psychology explores our ability to change our own minds and, in so doing, choose emotional health. For some, it is by no means that simple but, for most of us, a little gratitude is a cheap, easy way to maintain a positive outlook merely by changing our focus from what's wrong to what's right.

One of the most often used gratitude activities is simply ending your day with three things (or one thing, if you wish to start more slowly) that you're grateful for. Studies have shown that people who do this sleep better.

What are you grateful for?

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Pinging Pinballs

pruzi via Pixabay
This week, I'm on vacation from my teaching job, and so I'm sinking my teeth into my writing job. I've made it a point not to overbook myself -- something that doesn't come easily to me -- so that I can focus on all of the things I never seem to have enough time for.

Yesterday, the only things on my agenda were lunch with my dad, a phone conversation with my publisher to discuss promotion ideas, and writing time. Seemed simple enough.

And it was -- until I hung up the phone, my brain overflowing with new ideas. It was as though someone had uncorked the brainstorming bottle and all the little pinballs inside were now pinging all over the room.

All. Day. Long.

I tried to corral them by sitting down and typing up notes from our phone call. That helped in that I felt as though I'd brought the first chapter of the day to a close so I could step away and have a nice lunch with my dad.

Turned out that was a good thing because, when I got home and sat down to pick up where I left off, the sense of pinging into walls at 90 MPH and bouncing off of them again resumed.

While exhausting, this isn't entirely a bad thing. It is, in fact, an exhilarating, if overwhelming, part of the creative process. One idea begets another and another and another and the only bad thing about the whole process is the time constraints that keep me from pursuing all of them.

And so it goes for those of us who fill our "down time" with creative pursuits. We set aside time, hoping that the brainstorming bottle full of pinballs will show up at the appointed hour and, some days, it does. Other days, we stare at blank computer screens, willing something resembling coherent thoughts to appear and take us out of our self-imposed misery.

It would be so lovely if we could find a middle ground -- a day where the time we've set aside is just enough for the number of pinballs in the bottle -- but that isn't how it usually works. Still, since the pinging pinballs are a necessary part of the creative life, I'm grateful for them, no matter how many there are and no matter how much they make my head spin.

And so I'll pull out my notebooks and my planner and try to commit as many of them to paper as I can, hoping my notes are specific enough that I'll remember what I meant when I pull them out again later and open the misbehaving bottle of pinballs.


Gadini via Pixabay

Monday, March 4, 2019

Setting Aside the Cloak

Mom and me at my NJ launch party for
Casting the First Stone.
Some days, I miss my mom. Other days, her absence is a gaping hole, an irreparable tear in the fabric of my world, that would resist any attempt at repair, were I even motivated enough to find a needle and thread and begin stitching.

If you've lost a loved one, you know what I mean. While no two losses are the same, no two experiences of loss identical, the pain is universal. Inescapable.

Grief is sneaky. It arrives without warning and, at first, we are numb, anesthestized by loss. Over time, the ground beneath us shifts as grief slips underground. Sometimes, the path over it is smooth, paved by routine and a slow adjustment to a new normal. Other times, it's rocky, making us aware of each step we take, perhaps intensifying the loneliness of the journey, the awareness that grief is still there, with us in each step.

Then there are the times when grief emerges, triggered by a sight, a smell, a sound, an anniversary or an event. We can fight the heaviness that surrounds us like a cloak but, often, the best response is to simply acknowledge it. To name it and, if we can, to figure out why in the midst of a sunny, spring day, the cloak of grief has decided to wrap itself around us.

I've been running away from the cloak for a couple of days now, staving it off with sleep and activities I enjoy, thinking I just needed a break after too many busy weeks. Then yesterday, in church, a bit of Scripture hit too close to home and suddenly, I understood what I was running from.

We lost my mom close to two years ago, bit by bit as cancer took first her stamina, then her dignity and finally, her life. We had time to prepare, to say all the important things.

To say goodbye.

I've had time to find a new normal and, most days, it works. I can keep the cloak at bay for minutes, days, even weeks at a time. Then something happens -- bad news, good news, something funny -- and I want to tell my mom. I know she can still hear me.

But I can't hear her.

Over the past few weeks, I've been moving closer to the release of a new book, one that has been over a decade in the making. I'm excited and caught up in all of busyness of getting things ready. There's something funny, good or bad to share every day.

And she's not here.

For the first time, I'm releasing a book without my mom. She didn't read it before I sent it to the publisher. She won't see the final product, read the endorsements, celebrate with me. I can't hug her and hear her tell me that she's proud of me.

And it hurts.

I'm a big girl, and I can do this on my own, due in large part to my mom's influence. But yesterday, I had to mourn the fact that doing it without her is the only choice I have.

It was a sad, teary day. I felt sorry for myself a lot and, for a while, I let the grief win. I wrapped myself up in the cloak and let its heaviness take over. I was crabby and snippy and nothing suited me.

But after a while, that was that. My mom wouldn't want me to wrap myself in the cloak for days on end, and she'd be horrified if she thought she played any role in tinging any part of this adventure with the slightest bit of sadness.

And so I put away the cloak, folding it up and storing it out of sight, in the dark recesses, driving the grief back underground. The heaviness lifted almost as suddenly as it had arrived, settling itself into a familiar weight on my heart, one I carry daily without even thinking about it.

Most of the time.

I very nearly didn't post this. It's darker than my usual posts, and though it was cathartic for me to write, it will be hard for some to read.

In the end, I posted it because I know I'm not alone. Friends and family walked through my mind as I typed this -- friends who'd lost parents. Children. Spouses. And I wanted them -- and everyone who is grieving -- to know that a time will come when it's possible to fold up the cloak and put it away at will. It's difficult, because the cloak is heavy and it will always be there, just beyond our fingertips, but we don't need to wear it every day. Instead, we need to put on the best of those we've loved, and carry those attributes with us throughout the day, every day, sharing them with the world they've left behind.

Because that is how they live on. And that's the only way to shrug off the cloak.

One of my favorite photos of my parents.