Trust

Sometimes we need to trust ourselves. Sometimes we need to shut out what everyone else tells us and follow our own hearts. But other times, we have to accept that maybe our perception is dead wrong.

This is pretty terrifying really.

It’s hard to buck the system and decide no matter what anyone else says, you’re going to do the thing that makes you happy. For example, why do people who supposedly love us tell us not to follow our passion? I think it’s because they’re scared. Scared as much for themselves as for us.

Here’s an analogy: during my first marriage, my ex and I hadn’t been romantically involved for several months. I saw a romantic movie and when the couple started kissing passionately, I burst into tears. It was the pain of being reminded of what I was missing that made me cry. Having it thrown in my face broke the dam I’d built to keep all of that pain in check. Sometimes we’d rather believe something isn’t possible than to see someone else doing what we’ve dreamt of.

On the flip side, sometimes our perceptions are just wrong. Let’s take a wedding where we stress over details that no one else will notice or care about. Leading up to a wedding, many a bride (sorry to be sexist, but I have yet to meet a groom who felt similar stress about his wedding) will freak out about any one of a million minute details that no guest will ever notice.

The importance of details like how party favors are presented on the tables, the font of the invitation, or the subtle shade of blue that doesn’t quite match between the cake frosting and the napkins grow vastly out of proportion.

Yet, if you’re getting married, no one–NO ONE–cares if the blues are slightly different shades. What does matter is that you’re happy you’re getting married. That’s really the only detail you need to worry about: are you happy you’re getting married?

When we get into a state where things like matching shades of blue seem like life and death situations, we need to let go and trust in someone else’s judgment. But how do we tell the difference between when our own compass has been dropped vs when someone else’s advice is coming from their own fears?

Sometimes this is relatively easy. If we take a few deep breaths, there’s a place in most of our stomachs that will tell us that our best friend is right that the shades of blue are fine. Other times, it’s tough. Sometimes it takes a lot of soul searching to distinguish between whether what we believe is right or whether maybe, just maybe, we should accept someone else’s opinion.

Sometimes the opinions we hold with the most certainty are exactly where we need to listen to someone else. If only there were a simple test to determine when we’re off base.

Mesmerized


I was given an exercise: describe your life 10 years from now how you want it to be. It’s not the first time I’ve done this exercise. However, it has a slightly different twist this time.

I was asked to write less about what I would be doing and more about how I would be feeling.

I am not going to share my attempt at this exercise in this blog because it’s a bit more personal than I’m willing to share publicly. However, an interesting theme emerged. It was the theme of being “present,” “mindful,” “aware,” or whatever word means the most to you. That state where your brain isn’t off thinking a million miles an hour about a thousand different things but is right where you are physically, mesmerized with the present moment.

Mesmerized. Such a great word–feeling like you can’t look away, hypnotized. Being mesmerized by the present moment means no thoughts of yesterday or tomorrow distract us from what’s unfolding now.

Remember the feeling of getting so caught up in doing something that all else is forgotten? And I am not referring to computer games here. Rather, the feeling of being lost in creating something and suddenly something interrupting you and realizing hours have passed. Or perhaps the feeling of no time having passed at all but realizing you just hiked 7 miles. Or even just enjoying visiting with friends so much that you lose yourself in the conversation and suddenly discover 2 hours have gone by.

Interestingly, my relationship with time seems to have suffered greatly since starting my leave of absence from my day job. I lose track of it continually. Yet, it’s not quite the kind of loss of track of time I was shooting for. There’s the “I’m so engaged in what I’m doing I can’t keep track of time” kind of loss of time and then there’s the “I’m so distracted and disconnected from what’s going on around me I can’t keep track of time” kind of loss of time. I seem to lose more time to the latter case than the former.

Photography gives me hope. It’s the good kind of loss of time for me. It’s when I set aside whatever else is going on in my head and pay attention to reality.

Let’s think about this for a moment: I like photography because it’s one of the few times when I stop imagining things and live in reality. As crazy as this sounds, I’ve decided I’m not crazy at all. In fact, every time I talk to someone about a racing brain that jumps all over the place, this is among the most common of experiences. It’s the moments of quiet that seem to be more unusual.

Do we all walk around with a head full of voices about the past and the future distracting us from the present? The peaceful joy that comes with being fully present truly is mesmerizing, yet so hard to maintain.

Being Golden


Growing up, I was taught to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It seems simple enough. However, this rule can quickly turn an attempt at thoughtfulness into an act of egocentric selfishness.

For example, my aunt was compulsively punctual. Because she was also exceptionally nervous, continually worried about abandonment, and a complete freak to deal with when she was upset, my family went to great lengths never to be late picking her up under any circumstances.

In my aunt’s mind, making us wait even a second would be inconsiderate. At the same time, if she waited more than a few minutes, she would begin to think she was confused about what time we were picking her up and chaos would ensue. “On time” to my aunt meant about 10 minutes early. There was a 4-minute window in which you could safely arrive and retrieve my aunt without panic, chaos, guilt, or retribution: arriving 5-9 minutes early meant you had not waited on her and you were early enough to avoid triggering her panic. This resulted in many dangerous acts of driving.

All in the name of thoughtfulness.

From her I learned to watch myself. To watch when “doing unto others” takes that dangerous turn into “assuming others want what I want.” The hardest acts of thoughtfulness are when what feels thoughtful to someone else is completely different than what we would want. Removing ourselves from the equation and truly making it about the other person is actually quite a challenge.

I think of my grandfather who never wanted gifts and my mother’s desire to give a gift he would like. Every Christmas, she would give him something more and more practical trying to align her gift giving with what she thought he would enjoy. Every year she was disappointed by his reaction. In reality, what he wanted was no gifts but my mother couldn’t give up on her belief that the perfect gift would result in him expressing genuine gratitude.

As selfless and thoughtful as my mother was, here she wasn’t really being thoughtful–it was her own need for her father’s approval that drove her compulsion to find him the perfect gift rather than any need of his.

And this, in a nutshell, is the problem with the Golden Rule. If we apply it from the perspective of our own neurotic need for approval, appreciation, or even just confirmation of what we believe about ourselves (we’re giving, thoughtful people), we usually don’t really apply it at all.

In the end, we don’t want people to do unto us exactly the way they would want us to do unto them. Rather, we want people to know us, see us, understand us, and, as a way of acknowledging that they accept us as we are, do unto us as we would have them do unto us. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” really should come with many footnotes.

Babies and Bath Water

Many years ago, when more and more corporations were putting PCs on people’s desks, opening up access to email, the internet, and (egads!) even instant messaging, multi-tasking became a hot topic in large corporations.

A group of managers in my then-organization were sent to a training class. The class proved to them that no one is more efficient multi-tasking than performing tasks in a single-threaded fashion. This has been demonstrated over and over again in many studies since.

Yet multitasking is only increasing. We wonder aloud how we got to a place where multitasking on a smartphone has now become part of our basic social interactions. Remember when it was considered the epitome of rudeness to have a cell phone in a restaurant?

For me, multi-tasking socialization started in the work place where I often carried on multiple instant message conversations, worked on an email response, and “listened” to a conference call all at the same time.

But the behavior has carried over to my personal life in rather frightening ways. A laptop, iPhone, or iPad is always handy and my face is often pointed at one of them–my attention hopping from messages, emails, posts and often forgetting completely why I picked up a “device” in the first place.

One of the things I have said I love about photography is that it is a form of meditation. I set aside my distracting devices and focus my attention as well as my lens. When I look through the viewfinder, even more distractions are removed, limiting the view of the world to just the portion I include in my frame. The mind quiets, the chatter stops, texts go unanswered. For those moments, there is only me observing something fascinating and working to capture it.

But how to carry this focused attention over to personal relationships?

I tried an accidental experiment this weekend. I put my phone on the sleep setting, meaning it would not notify me with events from the virtual world. Then, I spent some time with my spouse. Friday night, we even went to dinner without our phones. It was a scary moment, but we managed to entertain ourselves by talking to each other.

What was interesting was how awkward it felt to know we were going to have a conversation with no access to Google. No photos to look at. No funny posts on Facebook to share. Just us talking off the tops of our heads like the internet didn’t exist. But at the end of the evening, we felt like we’d actually spent time together vs spent time in the same room.

That said, I am not about to get rid of the technology in my life. But it begs the question: if technology has contributed to new detrimental behaviors negatively impacting my relationships, productivity, and enjoyment of life, how does one extract the baby from the bathwater? It is possible to use the power of technology only for good?

Mirror, Mirror

Sometimes an abrupt shift in how you see yourself occurs. Things you believed about yourself turn out to be unfounded. As my statistics professor repeated enough times that I cannot forget even 25 years later: “correlation is not causation.”

Just because we behave a certain way on a regular basis doesn’t mean this behavior is driven by our personality, character, core values, or anything that is uniquely “us”. Rather, our behavior may be driven by the particular set of variables in play at a given time that make it easy or rewarding to behave the way we behave.

This is a hopeful message for anyone who thinks people can’t change. It’s actually quite easy to change behavior. The most direct example of this I have is from working with sales people–I always knew when their compensation plan changed because they instantly behaved differently.

We are, it turns out, so easily and frequently influenced in what we do, what we believe, and even how we feel that it’s impossible to tease apart what is our “true self” and what is one of humanity’s most basic survival skills: fitting in.

Realistically, we cannot know what is part of our “core” self vs social influence until the moment we are tested–the moment we are called upon to make a choice.

These moments usually go completely unnoticed. There is no sound track with dramatic music telling us this is a pivotal moment in our lives. Often, there is not so much as an intake of breath before we go forward and do or don’t do without deciding.

Defaulting gives social influence amazing power. It’s also incredibly efficient–imagine if we consciously examined every choice we could possibly make each day and pondered all the possibilities? It would be hard to get beyond brushing our teeth in a 24 hour period.

But every once in a while, many variables in our lives shift. In this shift, a void appears. This void is either not knowing what is expected of us or suddenly having cause to reject what we feel is expected of us (such as when a loved one dies and we find ourselves wondering if what we have been doing with our lives is worth it).

These are the moments when social convention comes in handy. It gives us a framework to either fit within or to rebel against. The trick is figuring out what the rules are. And when there is no one to influence you, to find that influence.

This is, perhaps, the most surprising thing of all for me. I have seen myself as an independent thinker. A creative spirit. Someone “different.” The mirror my life is holding up right now forces me to realize that my independence, creativity, and different-ness are merely a rouse.

Without the boundaries of social expectations, there are too many choices. The greatest irony? These expectations were the product of my own imagination–this should be an easy problem to solve.

Is it Sunday?

I am suffering from an interesting phenomenon. I don’t know if it has a name. It’s the inability to keep track of the days of the week. This has led to a second phenomenon: posting my Sunday blog posts late.

Seeking to get myself back on a slightly more planned schedule, I spent some time contemplating why keeping track of the days seems so difficult. Let’s review . . .

Until 3 months ago, I was working long weeks for a large corporation. Monday-Friday, my alarm went off, I picked up my iPhone and checked my email and calendar. I answered any urgent emails from parts of the world that would be leaving work soon and then checked my calendar again to see 1) what time I needed to be ready for my first conference call, and 2) if I had any open time during the day to get anything done or if there were any conference calls I could skip to make time. Then I got ready to start my day.

Saturday and Sunday were days I didn’t set my alarm, didn’t have any conference calls (usually), and could catch up a bit on work I didn’t have time to do during the week as well as fit in some fun time.

That has a pretty definitive rhythm. It forces you to know what day of the week it is because you’re always working against deadlines and constantly looking at your calendar trying to find time to work and/or meet with people.

In comparison, I have not been setting my alarm most days unless I really think I’m going to oversleep. Generally, I wake up an hour earlier than I would set my alarm for anyway, so it hasn’t been an issue.

I have started trying to use my calendar because I do have appointments from time to time–or at least social engagements. But rather than actually looking at my calendar and figuring out what my day looks like, I am ignoring my calendar until a notification pops up reminding me that I have to do something. This does not require knowing what day it is.

There is little motivation to actually know what day it is. First, the only time it’s inconvenient is if you, for example, go to a store on a Sunday that isn’t open on Sundays. This hasn’t happened to me yet. Second, it’s depressing to realize x more days have gone by and you still haven’t gotten the things done you meant to get done, so why remind yourself by constantly knowing what day of the week it is? Finally, knowing what day of the week it is would mean having no excuse for the appointments I have missed when I didn’t get them added to my calendar.

Not knowing what day it is has not deterred my photography any, either. In fact, it may contribute to me shooting more because I am more apt to lose track of time altogether.

Getting Out

With my husband out of town for the week, I was left to my own devices.  I took the opportunity to get out and shoot a bit further from home than usual.

First there was a road trip to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, tucked in the Cherokee National Forest. To get there, I had to first see to the completion of the repair of our second car, which was in the shop after not having been driven for over a year.

I quickly realized how spoiled I am–my husband normally attends to car maintenance and repair. First I had to arrange with the shop for them to pick me up when the car was “done.” Then I had to take the car to another shop to get the battery replaced, which undid all the settings, including the computer that controls the idle speed, which resulted in the car revving the engine every time I stopped. I’m surprised no one attempted to race me off the starting line at traffic lights!

Then there was the little complication that the fan wasn’t running and I was advised not to go less than 35 mph to avoid overheating. I had visions of driving on sidewalks to avoid red lights. That took a second trip to the shop when the part arrived so I could drive to the mountains without having to take the sidewalks.

By the time I got out of the shop Saturday afternoon and drove to Joyce Kilmer, which turned out to be a 3 hour drive, I had only a half an hour to battle the mosquitos and grab a few shots before Tisen and I had to get back on the road to head home.

On Monday I pulled out my bicycle and stopped at Amnicola Marsh to discover what might have been a Great Egret. Of course, I did not have my camera with me, so back I went the next morning, when, of course, the bird did not appear.

Since the car’s idle speed didn’t reset over the weekend, I returned to the mechanic on Monday. Fortunately, they were able to greatly improve things.

Next I made the drive to the Blythe Ferry Osprey nest with a couple from the photography club who allowed me to drive, in spite of Tisen crowding the lucky passenger who got to sit in back with him. But on the way home, the coolant light came on and we discovered I was losing coolant. Fortunately, we made it home without a problem, but that put an end to my driving career (at least for a few days).

I stuck to my bicycle and made one more trip to Amnicola and Curtain Pole Road Marshes. No Great Egret, but I did meet another photographer and stayed far longer than I intended shooting at Curtain Pole–it’s amazing how much more you see when there are two of you looking.

All in all, I’d say I’m pretty good at entertaining myself.

Attitude

I have been thinking a lot about attitude lately. Merriam-Webster defines attitude as:

          1: the way you think and feel about someone or something
2: a feeling or way of thinking that affects a person’s behavior

3: a way of thinking and behaving that people regard as unfriendly, rude, etc.

I don’t think the first and second definitions should be separate. The way we think and feel about someone or something necessarily affects the way we behave.

For example, if we are having a really bad day and are at our absolute worst and then run into an acquaintance at the grocery store, if we have not established trust with that person, we are likely to behave politely and pleasantly in spite of how we feel. Conversely, when we get home, because we trust those whom we love to forgive us, we may unleash a torrent of unpleasantness on them.

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes. It was told by Maya Angelou as something her grandmother once said to her: “If you have only one smile in you, give it to the people you love. Don’t be surly at home, then go out in the street and start grinning ‘Good morning’ at total strangers.”

It begs the question: Why do we save our best behavior for people we don’t know?

Showing the worst of ourselves requires vulnerability. Being willing to be vulnerable comes from trust and intimacy. When we are intimate with someone, we show all of ourselves to them, for better or worse. We trust them to take us as we are. Or, to put it less positively: we believe we can get away with it.

But perhaps the damage we inflict on them and our relationship really isn’t worth the relief of not having to hold in all our anger and frustration?

When I was a child, my mother brought home a book called “TA for Tots”–a popular book in the 70’s. It talks about things like “warm fuzzies” and “cold pricklies” as a way of helping children and parents identify feelings and behaviors and make better choices. Essentially, giving us a way to choose our attitude.

As a teenager, my mother’s touchy-feely parenting became regarded as “uncool.” Later, as a woman in a male-dominated industry, I believed the worst thing anyone could say about me was that I was “emotional.” To talk about feelings became taboo.

Yet, the heart of our attitude, our behaviors, and, ultimately, all of our relationships and all that we accomplish comes down to our feelings.

If instead of snapping at my husband I could simply say, “Hi. I’m glad you’re here. I’ve had a really crappy day and need a hug,” wouldn’t that go a lot further a lot faster to restoring me to my better self? And wouldn’t it make my husband feel wonderful that he could be there to give me what I need? Once again, I should have listened to my mother.

Returning Home

Trips to Columbus, Ohio are always confusing to me. I never know which direction should be referred to as “going home.” I once wrote that home is where your bed is. By that criteria, I guess Chattanooga is our home destination. However, having spent nearly 40 years living in Columbus, the paltry 3 we’ve lived in Chattanooga have not been enough to erase the feeling of returning home when we head North on 75.

This last trip North ended the longest stretch I’ve gone to date between trips to Columbus. It’s been long enough that I can’t actually remember when my last trip up was, but I know it wasn’t in this calendar year. With my remaining family all living elsewhere these days and many of my friends having moved away as well, it sometimes catches me off guard how much Columbus still feels like home. When I think about what makes it feel homey, here’s what I’ve come up with:

  1. I know how to get to every place I want to go without using GPS. If one route has traffic, I know another route, also without GPS.
  2. I can come up with restaurants I want to eat at based on style of food, quality of adult beverages, particular favorite dishes, or outdoor ambience. (I confess, I did have to check with several restaurants on whether they allow dogs on their patio or not–Tisen came along on this trip.)
  3. I know where the “bad” parts of town are.
  4. I know where the best camera shops in town are and which ones carry Canon gear.
  5. I have a doctor and a dentist there.
  6. I know where to go for a safe pedicure without an appointment.
  7. Graeter’s Ice Cream is available just about everywhere–even Costco.
  8. The biggest problem is trying to fit everyone we want to see into a few days and realizing we’re not going to be able to get to see many of the people we’d love to catch up with.
  9. We have a place to stay where there is a room just for us and our dog is welcome (and offers from several other friends to stay with them)–I guess we do have a bed in Columbus.

This trip was timed around the Columbus Guitar Show. It was my first time working a show (although I’ve attended a couple before). Manning the booth and giving away T-shirts to people who participated in my marketing campaign turned out to be both fun and exhausting.

One of the best things about our timing was that we were in Chattanooga for the beginning and end of the Riverbend Festival, but missed the middle of the 9-day event. This means we didn’t get tired of the extra people and traffic in the downtown area. And, we were home in time for the fireworks–out of all the fireworks in Chattanooga, the Riverbend fireworks are by far the best and longest display.

Taking Stock

It’s officially been 2 months since my leave of absence began. I thought it would be a good time to enumerate both the new lessons I’ve learned and the old lessons that have  resurfaced as particularly relevant to this major shift in my life.

  1. Your time will fill. No matter how much you have to do or how long you think you have to do it, time will pass more quickly than you expected and you will get less done than you planned.
  2. It doesn’t matter how much of an out-of-the-box thinker you are; if there is no box, you can’t think outside of it.
  3. When you have a mile-long list of things to do and believe you have only a fraction of the time you need to get them done, you manage your time far more judiciously than when you have a short list of things to do and believe you have all day. (See #1.)
  4. There is always more opportunity than capacity.
  5. When one thing has been your biggest time investment for a long time, when you pull it out of your schedule, everything that surrounded it collapses on top of each other and you have to scratch and claw your way through the crap to shove in something new and get all the little stuff safely held at bay.
  6. Staying busy is not the hard part. It’s staying busy doing the important things instead of the distracting things that’s hard. (See #1.)
  7. Just because something must be done urgently doesn’t mean it should be done at all.
  8. I really mind a dirty house less than I mind cleaning it.
  9. We treat people we have an intimate personal relationship with like someone we have an intimate personal relationship with even when the topics are professional–it takes effort not to hear “I don’t love you” when you disagree.
  10. Working with your spouse is an opportunity to better your overall relationship. Creating artificial lines between your personal and professional relationship is only lying to yourself. The two roles are inseparable and must feed one another, driving both a closer, more intimate relationship and more creative energy from the feeling of being on the same team working towards the same goals.
  11. Sleep helps. This is theoretical. I used reverse logic: lack of sleep makes everything harder. Therefore, I believe that if I someday get enough sleep, it will make everything easier.
  12. Every day we have the opportunity to be more focused, more productive, more playful, more creative, more effective, more attuned to our health, and to get more sleep. We probably won’t do all of these things in the same day, however.
  13. At the end of the day, it’s you. There is only you and what you did and didn’t get done, whether what you did made a difference, and whether that difference is the difference you intended. Ultimately, there is not, and really never has been, anyone else to blame.