Carpe Diem

On Friday it snowed 6 inches in Maquoketa, squelching any fantasy I may have had that this winter would be a mild one.  It was a perfect day to snuggle up in bed with a good book and my two dogs to keep me company.  But since the buck stops with me at our satellite campus and I live five minutes away, snow days are seldom an excuse for me to miss work.

If I had to, I could walk to school, even though no student in their right mind would venture out to meet me there.  On rare occasions I do get the 5am call from the main campus to say we’re closing, but our college is not as quick to close as other institutions.  We want to make sure students get their money’s worth even though the typical student reaction to school closing remains the same from kindergarten to college.  It goes something along the lines of, “Yessss!!”  This is especially true if a paper is due or an exam scheduled.

One of the skills I’ve come to appreciate immensely at midlife is learning to surrender to the present moment.  If life (not to be confused with DQ) sends you a blizzard, gather the coworkers who made it to work and order in pizza.  Savor the break in routine and the chance to slow down and reconnect.

Surrendering is a skill that takes a lifetime to master and I lay no claim to being close to mastery. However, I am convinced every obstacle, every irritant, every time I don’t get my way, I get to practice this skill. 

Because of the nature of my work, January and August are full of opportunities for me to practice.  At the end of the day though, when the snow settles and my younger snow dog Abbey and I take an aerobically challenging walk by the river where the snow has yet to be plowed, I remind myself in this moment, life is good. There is much to celebrate.

I’m not a big fan of snow, but this snow is beautiful.  I’m not a big fan of cold, but the crisp air does seem to snap me out of whatever funk I had been experiencing from spending too much time in my head and not enough in my body.  I’m also acutely aware that by morning, the untouched snow that is sparkling so spectacularly under the street lights will turn to a dirty grey slush that will make driving more manageable but walking less so.  Consequently, carpe diem is my motto as we walk in this winter wonderland.

In order to seize the day you have to be fully present for it.   Have you ever driven somewhere and wondered how you got there?  Have you ever left your house and wondered if you left the iron on, the bird cage open even though you’re cat sitting for your sister, or your cell phone in the charger? 

Sometimes we go unconscious doing routine things.  Other times we go unconscious when we’re out of our comfort zone and a little frazzled by current events.   I can lose my boarding pass at least five times from the ticket counter to the gate.  And I consider myself a frequent flyer.

The key for me seems to be to catch myself going unconscious and bring myself back into the moment.  In the midst of frantically searching for my boarding pass, I can acknowledge that I am a little nervous and calmly talk myself down from the ledge of lunacy.  I can remind myself my boarding pass is most likely in the  trip wallet I bought specifically for it because I tend to lose track of it when I get anxious.

About a month ago I had an advising appointment with a student at 4pm.  At approximately 3:50 we suspected a gas leak outside our building.  When I told the student I’d need to address this issue first he handed me his cell phone with the gas company’s emergency number on speed dial.  He had recently been involved in a similar situation at his job and knew exactly what to do.  Within moments we had the building evacuated and a technician from the gas company on his way. 

We have procedures in place for emergencies.  But in that moment, this student expedited the process by offering up exactly what was needed.   If I had not realized this student had as much to offer me as I had to offer him, I would have complicated matters and delayed the process.

We think we have to have all the answers.  As advisors, elders, parents, caregivers, coaches, politicians, neighbors, and friends, we are often expected or paid to.  Yet we can only know what’s best if we know what’s really being asked.  And to know that we have to be present to what is being asked of us now, not autoresponding to what we believe we’ve heard a hundred times before.

I’m reading a marvelous book by Martha Beck called Finding Your Way in a Wild New World. In order to help us navigate the wild new world we find ourselves in, she suggests four practices, the first of which is dropping into wordlessness.  That’s not an easy thing for a wordsmith or anyone with an inner Chatty Cathy to do.  But I do believe that’s where the present offers up its gifts. 

Like 6 inches of snow.

Despite what might be currently causing you grief, what gifts is the present offering you that you might want to seize this very day?

Name It and Claim It in the New Year

If  ever there is a time when we collectively rally to put our best foot forward, it’s at the New Year.  We make resolutions, reflect on the past year, tally up our losses and give thanks for our gains –unless, of course, it’s weight which we then resolve to lose.

It may be the only time with the exception of a landmark birthday that we ask ourselves the question poet Mary Oliver poses.  “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  

The answer to this may be too ambiguous to guide your life unless you break it down into yearly, monthly , weekly , daily, even momentary decisions and actions.   For example, if I know my passion is to write stories that touch lives or help me better understand my own, then it’s important that I pay attention, have pen and paper in hand or laptop nearby and actually write every chance I get.  A delay can become an opportunity to rework my blog post.  An unexpected turn of events can provide the comic relief or surprise ending I need for a fact laden feature article.
For years now I’ve used the end of the year to think about my behavior as well as my hopes for the future.  I’ve challenged myself to come up with a name for the new year that captures my imagination as well as my intentions.  It also has to be tenacious enough to take whatever the next twelve months might have in store.

Like choosing a name for a new addition to your family, sometimes it takes time for the name of the new year to reveal itself.  The year will bring with it its own agenda independent of your hopes and dreams.  This has the potential to surprise and delight you as well as disappoint you and break your heart.

If 2011 was a particularly challenging year, you may believe 2012 is bound to be better.  If 2011 was a breakthrough year for achieving career, relationship, or health goals, the challenge for 2012 may be to sustain or surpass these achievements. 

The expression “name it and claim it” suggests if you can dream it, you can do it. If you can articulate it, you can achieve it. If you can clearly visualize what you want and are willing to take the action to get from here to there, by all means click your heels three times, wiggle your nose, and “Poof!” you are most assuredly on your way.

According to Dave Kohl, professor emeritus at Virginia Tech, people who regularly write down their goals earn nine times as much over their lifetimes as the people who don’t.  Yet a whopping 80% of Americans say they don’t have goals.

I love reading Henriette Anne Klauser’s book, Write It Down, Make It Happen The act of writing down your dreams and intentions helps define and clarify them.  Paul Scheele of Learning Strategies has a program called Clear Mind Bright Future that breaks down the clarification process into different areas of your life.  Knowing what you want helps tremendously in the daily delegation of your time, energy, and attention.

Since I’ve done this Naming of the New Year thing for several years I will offer four simple suggestions for those of you willing to give it a try.

#1 – Make it meaningful to you.  You are under no obligation to make it meaningful to anyone else.  You are on your own trajectory complete with tricky timing and impatient inklings that refuse to be ignored.  This is your year.  Now is the time.  Inspire by example.   

#2 – Make it fun and achievable.  This is your GPS for the year.  Would you follow a course that feels like drudgery month after month?  I think not.  What excites you as opposed to obligates you?  What nudges you out of your comfort zone enough to make you feel like you’ve been challenged but not overwhelmed to the point of giving up?  Sometimes it isn’t the extra mile but the extra quarter mile that makes you feel sufficiently challenged. 

#3 – Make it memorable.  Like an elevator speech, you should be able to recall your New Year Name at a moment’s notice. I like to use words that roll off the tongue.  For example, Happy Shoe Year was great for the year I got a pair of Fatbaby boots, Birkenstocks, and ballroom dancing shoes at the beginning of the year.  It symbolized the adventures I intended to have in said shoes.  Happy Vue Year was going to be about getting a new set of wheels and oh, the places I would go until Saturn went out of business and I decided that might not be the direction my future should follow.  (Adjustments to the name are allowed as circumstances warrant.)  Happy Do Year was the year I planned to stop agonizing over every decision and do more by taking unapologetic action.

#4 – Make room in your life to receive what you desire.  This is major.  How often do you plead, pray, and petition for what you want and when the person, place, thing, or experience shows up, you are too busy (or more likely frightened) to receive it or allow a place for it in your life?  Granted, it may not look exactly how you envisioned it.  The universe does have a keen sense of humor.  But I’m guessing you’ll come to see the perfection of it.  Living by design, on purpose, authentically, or however you like to describe it will change your life.  In 2011 I allowed three major events to reshape my life.  Doing this gracefully meant remembering that I asked for it.

With all the hype surrounding 2012, it might be an interesting time to ask yourself, what would absolutely light your fire this year?  How might you go about getting and staying stoked? Then if all the end of days talk turns out to be a hoax, urban legend, or mass hysteria along the lines of a worldwide midnight meltdown at the turn of the new millennium , you’ll be way ahead on next year’s resolutions!

I’d love nothing more than for you to share your New Year Name announcement here. 
May 2012 be all you claim it to be!