Monthly Archives: May 2016


Clutter — it’s what messes up our lives.  Not just the physical clutter, but the emotional clutter, the social clutter, the fear clutter, the expectation clutter.  You may have other clutters on your list.

I’m reminded of a time when I decided to take an 8,000-mile road trip by myself. As soon as I mentioned it to my friends, the advice started.  Even though no one had ever done what I was about to do, they told me what they thought. Because the trip was several months in the planning there was plenty of opportunity for advice-giving. Some people were fearful, because they couldn’t imagine themselves doing such a thing. I heard horror stories of women traveling alone and of other road trips gone bad. Pregnant women and adoptive parents often experience the same phenomenon: everyone feels free to share every experience they’ve ever heard of that is remotely related to their situation. Talk easily becomes overwhelming.

Listening to all the “stuff” offered by others can mess with a life.  We begin to think, “Am I crazy? What was I thinking? Do I really want to do this?” We may start to second guess ourselves.  The “what ifs . . .” begin to circle in our minds until they have grown exponentially to consume our self-confidence. What started out as a great idea, a journey unique to me or my family, becomes overshadowed with the fears and expectations of others.

If I’m not careful, the “stuff” just clutters my life. If I allow it, the “stuff” muddies my course with extraneous issues. Doubts creep in around the edges. The comments distract me from the plan that I’m laying out in front of me. Not that the plan is complete, but I’ve worked it out as far as I can see.

In times like this I need to implement Brian Gardner’s advice:

Remove the noise that gets in the way.

The unwanted comments, the unrelated advice, and the self-appointed experts are all noise.  NOISE!!

Sometimes I mistake the noise for my personal truth. I’ve learned from experience that the two are not the same.

So what to do?

  • Step aside; get away from the noise
  • Remember what you’re about
  • Reclaim focus for your journey

There will always be noise. But you can choose to push it aside.  Call it what it is: noise. You don’t have to pick it up like extra baggage that you are obligated to carry.

Create your own practice of extrication to free yourself from entanglements and difficulties.  Travel lightly. Take only what you need for your journey. Kick the rest to the curb.

Until next Tuesday . . .


Quote of the Day

In his book, The Art of Possibility, author Ben Zander quotes his father:

“There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.”

That’s enough to make me pause. Read it again. Then ponder the meaning. Perhaps we could fill in the blanks ourselves, using the same logic.

There’s no such thing as ____________, only inappropriate ______________.

There’s no such thing as a bad day, only inappropriate reactions.

There’s no such thing as failure, only inappropriate responses.

There’s no such thing as stress, only inappropriate expectations.

There’s no such thing as too much to do, only inappropriate priorities.

There’s no such thing as writer’s block, only inappropriate excuses.

As I explore the bad weather/inappropriate clothing quote, as I fill in the blanks with my own words, I discover that many of life’s negatives are directly related to things I can control:  my attitude, my response, my preparedness, my reality, and my expectations.  Of course you can push this exercise too far. It doesn’t hold true for all situations.

But we can dig a little deeper.  We can ask the question, “What if . . .”

What if . . . when my day is going wrong, I stop and check my situations — and my reaction to them.  What set me off?  What started the tail spin?  Is it only one thing or is it everything?  Did anything go right?  Chances are, upon pondering, I will discover something didn’t turn out as I expected or someone didn’t do what they should have done. I’ve been inconvenienced. I’ve been detoured from my day’s plan.The truth is I can’t fix what went wrong.  I can only regroup and change my response. Reschedule. Rearrange. Try again. Move on.

What if . . . when I’m feeling stressed, I step aside and re-evaluate the situation.  My stress generally comes from setting unreasonable expectations.  I want to perform perfectly (not possible). I want to accomplish everything on my long list today (again, not possible). I want everyone in the family to behave like I think they should (not going to happen). I want to accomplish more and faster (a lovely thought, but my speed is my speed). My inner drive pushes me beyond reasonable, and often causes me to expect too much from others. I need to chill, and find some breathing space in my desire to accomplish. And let others be who they are.

What if . . . when I make a mistake I do as Ben Zander suggests:

“I actively train my students that when they make a mistake, they are to lift their arms in the air, smile, and say, ‘How fascinating!’ I recommend that everyone try this.”

It’s only in our mistakes that we learn what to focus on. Albert Einstein said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” We can learn to embrace our mistakes, to see them as a sign post directing us to do particular work.

Is the weather really the problem, or is it your lack of raincoat or umbrella? Is stress the real problem, or is it your stratospheric expectations?

Perspective is everything.  Check yours often.

Until next Tuesday . . .



In her poem Sometimes, Mary Oliver gives some instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

I’ve written frequently about being attentive — being present — in our lives and days and moments.  It’s a habit worth practicing and cultivating.

Today I want to consider her second point: be astonished. Webster says astonish means to strike with sudden and usually great wonder or surprise. My thesaurus lists words like amaze, astound, dumbfound, flabbergast, miraculous, spectacular, stupendous.

As my friends and family will tell you, I’m not often given to great emotion or gushing — about much of anything.  I’m missing Webster’s sudden striking. I take note, I appreciate, I ponder but there are no obvious signs that something big has happened for me.  My response often comes slowly and with delay, rather than whiz-bang-light-up-the-sky fireworks. My astonishments are some of my best kept secrets. But Mary Oliver urges us to tell about it.  So here goes . . .

I’m astonished that

  • I have ongoing friendships that have lasted over forty years
  • two of us took a risk last year and, as a result, we discovered we are very compatible traveling companions and are similar in more ways than we ever could have imagined
  • what was a giant cliff last year (my piano recital) was just another step on the journey when I played a recital this year
  • I can now play the piano without the nervousness that has plagued me since childhood
  • a robin sits on my windowsill every day, pecking at the glass

This is my short list — the list for this week.  Next week my list will probably be different.

My question to you, my readers, is what astonishes you? What knocks your socks off?  What catches you by surprise? What makes your eyes sparkle with wonder?  What stills your voice? What comes to you after your ponderings?

Then do as Mary Oliver suggests:  tell about your astonishments.  I’d love to read about them in the comment section of this blog.

Until next Tuesday . . .


The Yellow Books

I recently noticed that I read three books in a row that all had yellow covers. Is that coincidence?  Or do books of a certain genre tend to have the same colors? Does yellow have some meaning I’m not aware of? Did I subconsciously choose them because I like yellow? It’s certainly a ponderable situation, which I’m going to ignore for the moment, to discuss the subject matter instead.

cropped-DSC00407.jpgIf you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I’m always looking for ways to work better, work smarter, work more efficiently, and to push myself beyond the boundary where I say, “I can’t. I don’t know how. I’ve never done it before. It’s too hard.” So it should be no surprise that the three yellow books are:

  • The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander
  • Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport
  • Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway and Katie Yezzi

Here are a few things of note from the yellow books.

The Art of Possibility. The Zanders set out to cause a total shift of posture, perceptions, beliefs, and thought process that can transform your life. Rather than offering a set of rules or behaviors, they get outside the proverbial box and find ways of creatively seeing and working. In the opening chapter they write, “All of life comes to us in narrative form; it’s a story we tell.” And it’s all invented.  We make up the stories we tell ourselves — which means we can change the stories, change our perspective, and see our situation differently. Two of my long-held assumptions (which I’m in the process of changing) are (1) music is too difficult,and (2) the publishing industry is not easily accessible to people like me. I can change that thinking to (1) with practice I can learn any music I choose, and (2) there are lots of literary agents and therefore lots of opportunities. They talk about getting off the success/failure ladder to the possibility ladder which allows us to become who we are. Then start from what is rather than what should be. And there’s so much more . . .

Deep Work. Newport begins with his definition of deep work: professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration. Yet our lives are nearly constant distraction, so much so that he writes, “Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.” It’s a situation he says that is not easily reversed. Deep work (distraction-free concentration) optimizes our performance and our learning. Such focus is a challenge for most of us, but we can train ourselves to focus and rid ourselves of our distraction addictions. He provides strategies and evidence that support the importance of regular deep work.  Deep work is a choice and we can learn to do it. And there’s so much more . . .

Practice Perfect. Dan Heath writes in the foreword, “To practice isn’t to declare, I’m bad. To practice is to declare, I can be better.” We can always improve — with practice — but how we practice makes all the difference. We generally say, “Practice makes perfect.” The more accurate statement is, “Practice makes permanent.” So we have to practice getting it right. The book is filled with athletic and educational examples, but the principles of practice can be applied to other endeavors as well. I appreciate the reminder for my own piano practice that “it’s better to do it slow and right than fast and not quite right.” And there’s so much more . . .

There’s wisdom and practical advice in these yellow books.  Perhaps you will explore some of it yourself.  And make a few changes.

Until next Tuesday . . .


Wharton Words

Edith Wharton wrote  “In a Backward Glance”:

In spite of Illness, even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.

My interpretation is that in spite of what gets dumped on us we can be engaged in life if — and the if is a big one — IF

  • we embrace and welcome change
  • we are intellectually curious
  • we are interested in big things
  • we are happy in small ways

I’m thinking that we can use Wharton’s words to assess the quality of our life. Our usual standards and tools — gender, age, economic status, religion, politics, place of origin — are irrelevant in her view. None of these matter when we consider her suggestions for remaining alive.

How do you respond to change?

Do you accept change as a regular part of life or are you always wishing to go back to the way things were before? Is your adjustment to change accompanied by much complaining and kicking or screaming?  How long do you resist change before you can embrace it and move on to a new time? How adaptable are you?

How curious are you?

Is your primary focus on making sure others (friends, family, Facebook) know what you think and feel and believe? Or are you the one asking questions, because you want to know what others think and believe? Do you want to know what makes people and organizations tick or are you happy not knowing? Are you continually learning new things — because you can — or are you content with your level of knowledge? Are you on a quest to know more than you knew yesterday or last week or last year? What’s your excuse for not learning?

What big things interest you?

What engages you beyond yourself and your tiny corner of the world? Global warming? The environment? The homeless? Poverty? Conditions in third world countries? Human rights? Justice? Children? Abuse victims? What “beyond you” issues touch your heart and stir your passion? For what will you speak out?  Where and how will you choose to engage?

What small things make you happy?

What little things cause you to stop and smile? What, right this second, is a glimpse of joy? What moments do you savor? Are you in the habit of noticing small happinesses? How do you share small joy moments?

There are many ways to assess a life.  I thought Wharton’s suggestions were worth considering today.

Until next Tuesday . . .