One Country A Year

I’ll never forget reading Julie Morgenstern’s book, “Organizing from the Inside Out,” where she spoke about working with a client who was obsessed with books on different countries. He had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with books on different countries and cultures and stacks of books that covered his desk, “shared” (obviously he wasn’t sharing very much!) space, and even on the dining room table. It begs the question, “Where does passion become pathology?” Julie tried to reason with him to streamline the sheer mass of his love affair with learning but he recoiled, saying he couldn’t give them up.
“Why not commit to one country per year?” was her response, which I thought made total sense and somehow calmed the demons of diffuse learning that were making his life unmanageable. She went on to say that each year he could take on one country, devour as many books as he wanted (and store the rest since Lord knows he wasn’t willing to give them away), and the next year he could either renew his lust of learning about country or move to another one. He immediately calmed down, agreed, and started packing the others away.
I related to this story because I am, and always will be, a life long learner, curious about almost everything. (Last month on the subway, I found myself in an overly zealous conversation with a typographer on the history of the font Helvetica, to which the other riders looked on at us like we were nuts!) I’m actually grateful when there’s something I’m not interested in learning about, and yet when I hear that I can take a year or any self-appointed segment of time, to just commit to a specific body of knowledge, an area of interest, or a pet hobby, I feel a wave of relief and enthusiasm.
That’s where coaching comes in so handy. Most of my clients come to me feeling like they need a whole life makeover. Yet what they really need is to focus on where they want to go and to get some support, guidance and accountability about making some choices a priority, while taking incremental yet consistent actions, both internal and external. After a few weeks or months, “Bam!” Things start shifting for them.
So during your ’tis the season to be….(merry, stressed out, frantic, chasing after your life, etc.), may I suggest you find your own version of “One country a year,” and know that whether you like it or not, the rest of the countries, continents and hemispheres will definitely be there when you’re done focusing on what you need to accomplish right now and right in this moment.
With merriment and mirth!
Lois

The “Getting Your Ducks in A Row” Myth: Lessons from Life on the Road

One of my greatest joys in life is being up at my rural house upstate, and going for between 4-10 mile strolls over the weekend. I call these walks my “Country Curriculum” because nature, one of the great teachers, always seems to offer up a lesson to me. This week it was my neighbors up the road, the local ducks (did I say rural or what!) that bestowed my greatest learning.

There’s this broken down farm with a whole slew of antique bathtubs that the cows drink from. Dotted throughout the pasture are a large group of quacking ducks. I stop to watch for a few minutes and out of nowhere they start lining up and walking in a row to taunt the cows and try to steal their water. After they accomplish their mission and have adequately irritated the cows, they disperse into their own merriment and anarchy.
Later that day we are driving down the “main road” in town (one store, an inn, a post office, two churches and a defunct gas station) and out of nowhere a different groups of ducks decide it’s time to walk across the road. They do so with such a “diva-tude” as they waddle and quack, sauntering across the road, taking their time, and just assuming all five cars (that’s called rush hour around us) will have to wait. Of course we do.
I laugh because it reminds me that if we wait for our ducks to be in a row before we move forward, we’ll really never get anything done. Ducks get in a row when they damn feel like it and not a moment before, and as soon as they get to their destination trying to get them back in a row is a lot like herding cats: impossible and very annoying for them. So while I’m a huge proponent of structure, tying up loose ends, and keeping focused on one’s goals, one must not fall prey into thinking it is anyway a linear process thus entertaining the myth of waiting for the illusory “perfect timing” to make that first or next right step (something I fall prey to on a regular basis). Whether or not your ducks are in a row, we must move forward ’cause I can guarantee you a minute later they’ll fall into their own crazy self-selected rhythm but you’ll be that much further towards your destination!

They Don’t Call It A Good Cry For Nothing

“Tears are the water that loosen the soil of the weeds from our past.” – Lois Barth (me!)
I’m always amazed at the power of a good cry. I’m equally amazed, even though I know it and have experienced it first hand, at what a good cry opens up in my life. This weekend was a great example.
Friday night, I’m cranky and moderately stressed as I prepare for my great 11/11/11 soiree with my sweetheart Charlie. He’s stuck in traffic and now our joint venture of him on salad duty and last-minute straightening up, will most likely fall on my shoulders adding to my task of cooking an entire meal for 10 people. My body tightens, my grey matter mutters with complaints of, “It was his idea, and I’m doing all the work, grumble grumble…”. You know the story! I put on my favorite CD, Jana Stanfield (Queen of Heavy Mental)‘s “What would you do this year, if you had no fear,” started cutting veggies and cried as I hear her songs, “Bring it on,” “I’m living in Yes,” and I realize that the tears I’m crying are that of recognition, of an old self leaving, and newer more informed self paving the way for my future. It is the tears of recognition; recognizing my true essential self, how I’ve stopped myself and how I’m ready to take the next step into my life. While chopping, dicing and slicing (my Cuisinart was upstate, a perfect place to get out some of my aggression), I am swept up in the moment.
The door opens and it’s Charlie. My upset with him has been washed away by the tears and I’m just filled with gratitude for my recognition of my true self; something that often gets swept away under a cloud of tasks, responsibilities and things to do. I am reminded how much I love our soirees, the people in my life and that we both have been doing thought groups for years even before we met each other. I’m reminded how much more like-minded we are then I realize. I have a fabulous time at the soiree and once again fall in love with my friends and my life.
Saturday, I am rushed and for the first time have to pay a $6 penalty for a $9 train ticket to go up to Westchester for a private screening amongst family and friends, for my friend and mentor, Elizabeth Browning’s film, “The Face,” a dream she’s had since I know her. The film is an extraordinary heartfelt journey on aging, self-love and seeing the beauty within. I cry the entire time. These are tears of celebration, of her going for her dream, of the beauty of art when it really changes lives, and seeing 150 people show up to celebrate not only her achievement, but as a celebration of who she has been for people throughout the years.
I go through a small package of Kleenex and then go through the crowd engaged in heartfelt conversation with men and women about how the movie affected them, how aging has had an impact on how they see themselves, self-image, etc. I find out that the line between gender in that area is much thinner than we thought. A good-looking man in his middle years shares stories about how he refuses to be photographed since he looks unrecognizable from his younger days, even though I am looking at a man who is dashing and has the body of a 30-year-old. I cry at the recognition of how universal our struggles really are.
I, like everyone else, face Monday with a “Wow, lots to address this week.” Instead the a low-grade overwhelm that I have largely conquered but not quite mastered (it still creeps up more often than I’d like) is now replaced with a peace, an ease, and a trust that it will all work out. I can give a whole bunch of reasons why that may be like a couple of night’s with really good rest, lots of friend time, chipping away some important goals, all contributing factors, but mostly in my heart, I recognize, yet again, that it’s really the power of a really good cry.

Is What We Share TMI (Touching Moving and Inspiring) or TMI (Too Much Information)?

I get cranky. I admit it. When I peruse what I call LCD (lowest common denominator) reality shows, I can’t help thinking, Andy Warhol, who once said, “Everyone will be famous for 15 minutes in their life,” is probably rolling over in his grave. The level of sensational trauma sharing, where the squeaky wheel gets the oil field as in Snooki of Jersey Shore getting paid 32k to speak, (2K more than a Nobel Peace Prize Winner) at a respected university, I have to pause.

I have to ask myself, as I often do, what criteria do we have for appropriate heartfelt, vulnerability that creates a common thread amongst humanity. Where have we confused, distorted and decimated “transparency” into a tribal plummeting of bad behavior an airing one’s dirty laundry couched as “being real?”  Yuck!

Having written four one-woman autobiographical shows in my career, I always asked myself the same question. What belongs in my journal? What belongs in therapy? What belongs on stage? Simple questions. Not easy answers.

Since we’re living in our own version of the Truman Show these days, it’s an important question to ask. So much private information stays in the “cloud” causing a lot of cloudy days from here to eternity. I ask myself that over and over.

True intimacy heals yet self-disclosure from a place of acting out, doesn’t. My favorite authors have always been those that are brutally self-disclosing in an extraordinary eloquent manner that allows me to embrace my own humanity, i.e. Geneen Roth, Martha Beck, Anne Lamott, and Ruth Reichl to name a few.

Then I stumble upon the beautiful difference through mainstream network TV watching Dr. Oz while on the treadmill, one of my favorite pastimes. In that moment, as I experienced last Tuesday, I see the gift of true vulnerability and transparency.

Dr. Oz in his inimitable accessible “Feces are fascinating, and nothing is too taboo to talk about” kind of way, brings Paula Deen, a culinary expert who is not at all interested in cooking healthy but “living large,” as she says on the show. He’s challenging her to replicate her recipes with half the fat and sugar while keeping all the taste. There is a charming banter between them before the “challenge” begins. I soon see why both of them are such stars. There’s an ease and an open heartedness to them both.

Whether planned or spontaneous, Dr. Oz casually asks her about her worst habit to which she responds in her delicious Southern Drawl, “Cigarettes and Potatoes,” to which I’m thinking, hopefully consumed separately.

At that moment after much prodding, where you can see her palpable discomfort mixed with a deep desire to out herself, she reveals her shame about a habit that she’s had for 50 years, tears legitimately come to her eyes that she knows the impact it has on her life and family.

She shares her struggles with having quit and her utter “shame” over this secret, and the fact that her husband has quit for 6 months, and she knows what a difference it would make for him as well if she quit. Dr. Oz repeatedly holds her hand in the most genuine way saying, “This is not about shame, this is about letting Paula love Paula as much as we do,” and he means it.

There’s not an ounce of sentimentality or syrupy indulgence. He maintains eye contact and physical touch, while he in deep earnestness lets her know the chance her husband has of remaining an ex-smoker if she continues. He openly says, he’ll write her a prescription for meds and offer his round the clock care during what will be the most difficult part of the detox process, the first 3 weeks. He goes on to share that he never does heart surgery on smokers because he cares too much about them. If he fixes their heart, they’ll have no reason to quit.

In that moment, I fall in love with them both. I’d never seen Paula Deen before but now I want to e-mail her and send her a suggestion for Allan Carr’s work which allowed my honorary stepson to give up a 13-year, 2 pack a day habit in a weekend and never go back. I want to reach through the TV and hug them both for being vulnerable in a way that opens my own heart and says, “Yes, I have my own version of habits that no longer serve me, but I’m still resistant to give up.” I feel connected with the humanity of them both and am so riveted by their honesty that I walk an extra 20 minutes on the treadmill without realizing it.

I am reminded that is the seed, the essence that great art, music and friendships have in common: a transparency and vulnerability that is not easily delivered. It is fraught with complexities and ambivalence but most of all humanity. Paula’s personal journey becomes our universal one. While I always “appreciated” Dr. Oz’s smarts and mission, now I fall in love with the human being he is underneath.

So once again, a luscious life lesson presents itself during what could be a mundane activity.  Going to the gym now becomes a magical one. When I really check in about which TMI is more compelling bonding and uniting, there’s no question. While I can switch into Virgo coach mode and list the different criteria for both in a somewhat analytical manner (which I will do in a further posting) I’d say ultimately it’s all about intention.

Paula’s intention was rooted in honesty, courage, and healing, whereas most TMI (too much information, specifically the sensationalized version) is often rooted in ego, drama and re-wounding, not to mention the perks of ratings and attention (although I do believe one can do good and do well).

So the next time I feel the urge to share I will take a moment and ask myself which TMI camp I am in. I’ll stop, breathe and ask, “What’s my intention for saying what I’m about to say?” In fact, I did just that before writing this blog.