I moved to Washington DC in the pre-smartphone era. In my first weeks and months in a brand new city without a single familiar soul, I spent most evenings and weekends exploring. If I heard or read about an interesting exhibit or restaurant or activity, I would hop on the metro, get off in the designated area, and rely on some combination of blind luck and the kindness of strangers to arrive at my destination. I looked up movies in the newspaper, researched churches in the phone book, and invested days getting lost - and found - in different neighborhoods in the city just to get the feel of them.
I was too low on the totem pole to be busy with work in the evenings and on weekends, and I didn't know enough people to have anything resembling a social schedule, so I thought nothing of leaving my flip phone in my apartment and being utterly out of touch for hours - even days. Whether riding the metro, sitting in a park, or losing an afternoon with a book in the cozy corner of a coffee shop, I looked...and listened...and engaged with the world around me.
Eventually, I gained more responsibility at work, created a community of friends, and became involved in activities and organizations. Alongside these natural transitions, technology advanced, and it became possible to be constantly connected to these people and things. At first it was curious and fun to be able to send a message to anyone at any time - and then it became an expectation. I took pride in being quick to respond to emails from colleagues, family, and friends. I found affirmation in being first to contribute a fact or opinion in a virtual work exchange. I became addicted to the thrill of seeing an empty inbox and adept at the rapid response that made it possible. It all came about so organically, I never stopped to think about the cost of being constantly connected.
While waiting for my dining companions at a restaurant recently, I found myself scrolling mindlessly through emails I needed to answer, confirming appointments for the week ahead, and skimming headlines. As I looked up from my phone to scan the room for a sign of my friends, my eyes stopped to rest on tables full of people similarly focused on their technology. Some were sitting alone; others were with friends, colleagues, or family; but not one of us was remotely engaged with our surroundings or fellow human beings.
My own email responses weren't time-sensitive, there was no immediacy to confirming appointments, and there was nothing remotely urgent in the so-called "breaking news" updates. I asked myself when I started reaching reflexively for my phone the moment I was not actively engaged in a conversation or activity. When did I decide scrolling through Facebook was a better use of time than perusing the room for a familiar or interesting face?
I decided in that moment to embrace being out of touch. I am giving myself permission not to respond immediately to every email. I am choosing to leave my phone in my purse - or at home - when walking from place to place. I am working to reclaim and re-purpose the margin in my life. Rather than packing empty spaces with "productivity," I am filling them with presence.
As you look ahead to a new year, can you find opportunities to be out of touch and focus instead on simply "being"?
A popular commercial in the 1980's warned Americans, "You'll never get a second chance to make a first impression." Arriving at an impressionable point in my own life, that pithy, albeit superficial, tagline became a mantra, and I spent years "perfecting" the act of first impressions.
I knew the best impressions seemed effortless, but I understood even more clearly that projecting ease was anything but. I was never one of the girls in college who wore pearls to the gym, but I made it a point never to leave the dorm in sweats. When I moved to Washington, I took the same amount of care preparing to read in a quiet corner at the coffee shop as I did for a night out on the town. Each time I moved to a new apartment, I made it a point to greet neighbors with a bottle of wine or baked goods shortly after arriving lest our first interaction take place when I returned, red faced and disheveled, from a run.
The desire to make a good impression extended beyond appearance. When a school year turned, introducing new instructors and professors, I sought to distinguish myself by taking fastidious notes and eagerly accepting extra projects. Upon entering each new workplace I volunteered to take on tasks my colleagues found tedious to help ease their load and be seen as a "team player." When hosting new friends for dinner, I would undertake a comprehensive review of their likes and dislikes, crafting a menu that featured their personal preferences and perhaps a special touch from their hometown or favorite travel destination. In most cases the extra effort made a wonderful impression. But at a certain point I realized I was working so hard to project, then maintain, that image that it ceased to reflect who I actually was.
So I opened myself up to the possibility of making a bad impression. I am slowly, but surely, learning to say "No thank you," and just plain "No." And I am embarking on the journey of rediscovering what brings me joy. In many cases I recognize I still derive the greatest joy from putting the needs and desires of others first. In others, I am choosing to follow my inner compass irrespective of what friends and loved ones might think. I am still learning to navigate the careful balance of being true to myself without being selfish, but the journey becomes easier - and more rewarding - with time.
Can you give yourself permission to make a bad impression? What steps can you take to ensure you are true to the person you are rather than who others want you to be?
Last weekend we headed out of town to meet up with some dear friends in Richmond Virginia. Because of travel schedules and work commitments, we weren't able to leave as early in the day as we would have liked, but we set out full of excitement to reconnect with friends, escape the city, and expose our daughter to new surroundings.
Shortly after leaving the District, however, my spirit flagged as traffic stopped. Literally. When we moved (which was infrequently) we traveled at top speeds of 15 miles per hour and never for more than one full mile. Compounding my frustration was the unchanging view through the windshield: miles and miles of cars. Sitting still. With no relief in sight. Every time we crept to the top of a hill or crawled around a corner, I strained my eyes, hoping desperately to see movement, or a few feet of open road, but each glimpse produced a disheartening, seemingly endless stream of taillights.
Rather than passing the time by conversing with my husband, diving into a book, or simply closing my eyes, my mind began agitating: What idiot PLANS to leave DC on a Friday at 1? Why didn't we choose another weekend when we could have left at a more reasonable hour? What am I going to do when the carseat phobic babe wakes up? What if we are still here at dinnertime? What if we run out of gas? What was I thinking?
We did, of course, finally reach our destination, and none of the worst-case scenarios came to pass. And as I reflected on my agitation, I began to recognize an unhelpful pattern in my thinking. Whether faced with a traffic jam, physical challenge, or contentious discussion, I have allowed my imagination to trump reason, manufacturing scenarios far beyond worst case realities.
I recalled running my first marathon and nearly giving up - not because of fatigue or discomfort in the moment, but the certainty that one of the other would escalate beyond what I could endure. I remembered being in labor with my daughter, nearly paralyzed by fear - not because of the pain I was experiencing, but the expectation that it would continue to get worse. I thought about the months I agonized over leaving my job to spend more time with my daughter and pursue a different path - not because I didn't know in my heart what I needed to do, but because I feared failing as a mother and a businesswoman. In each of those scenarios, I had someone to encourage me to press on and the end result redeemed the struggle, but what if I were able to provide the necessary encouragement myself? Would it look like for me to stop the cycle before it spiraled out of control?
Is it possible for me to sit still, experiencing life's discomforts and frustrations without projecting a dire outcome? Can I let go of outcomes and circumstances I cannot control? Am I capable of following the instruction I so often give to my students to turn off the "monkey mind" and be present with whatever arises? Can I, simply put, think less?
Let the experiment begin...
When I began my teacher training journey almost eight years ago, I had grand visions of mastering all manner of challenging poses in the hope of being able to demonstrate and share them with my students. High on my list was pincha mayurasana (forearm stand). I was strong, flexible, and determined, and before the semester concluded, I could find my way into the pose with ease. There was just one catch: I needed to use a block between my hands.
While I am quick to offer a prop or recommend modifications to my students - and often demonstrate their use - I faced resistance every time I considered showing students my forearm stand "crutch." So I set a goal of achieving the pose unassisted and went to work. I worked, and worked, and worked some more. I sequenced nearly every home practice using pincha as my "peak pose." And one day, it happened. The block was no longer necessary.
Years later, I discovered with great delight that I was pregnant! As I neared the end of my pregnancy, practicing arm balances and inversions took a backseat to a more grounded (literally) focus. When my daughter was born and I felt ready to resume a more challenging physical practice, I headed straight to my old friend forearm stand. Much to my frustration, the consistency I worked so hard to achieve had become elusive. I toppled over or struggled to hold myself up at least as often as I achieved the pose. Disappointed with myself, I took it out of my teaching rotation.
After the passing of legendary yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar last month, many teachers talked about his legacy - specifically pioneering the use of props to make yoga and its benefits accessible to everyone. Inspired by the reminder, I grabbed a block, and there it was: confidence and comfort in a pose I love. It occurred to me that my stubborn pride was robbing students of the opportunity to experience the benefits of the pose and gain confidence in their own practice. The following week, I demonstrated my crutch in all its glory, and after class multiple students remarked the block gave them the confidence to approach a pose they previously considered out of reach.
How often do we allow our stubborn unwillingness to use the tools available to prevent us from growing or healing? Could you improve your peace of mind benefit by talking to a therapist? Do you need to see a doctor for that persistent pain in your back? Would you be better able to care for your children if you accepted a friend's invitation to babysit while you take some time for yourself? What crutch can you use this month - and how might it help?
Earlier this month I had the opportunity to escape from the city and spend several days in the mountains with dear friends. The vistas were breathtaking, the massive gourmet kitchen was ideal for four adults who love to cook, and the screened in porch was the perfect place to unwind. It was wonderful and relaxing and refreshing. But it was also messy. Very messy.
Toddlers (plural) are exponentially messier than their number would suggest. While I have mastered (almost) the art of real-time tidying for a single babe in a small home, I was no match for the crumbs and clutter generated by three kiddos under the age of four who managed to find every closet, fireplace, and other innovative repository for food, toys, and dirt. Broken crayons snuck into couch cushions and cupboard corners, stickers adhered to every flat surface in the home, and wooden blocks became a gauntlet to be faced every time we walked through the living room.
And then there was the kitchen. As four cooking enthusiasts with the luxury of time and space, preparations for the next meal or snack commenced almost immediately after finishing the last. Dishes were in constant need of washing, counters were desperate for a good wipe down, and the table begged to be freed from the chubby fingerprints of budding gourmands.
At first I tried to grab every crumb as it fell, wash every dish as it was used, and put away every toy as it was tossed aside, but I quickly recognized the futility of my efforts and decided instead to embrace the mess. I chose to take a vacation from my compulsion for order and organization, and in doing so I found relief. We learned how to circumnavigate the block fortresses, left the dishes for later in the day, and put our feet up. Much to my amazement, we not only survived, we had fun!
I know better than to think the easy rhythm of vacation will survive the routines and demands of real life, but I am emboldened by discovering that it is possible to relax in the absence of complete order. I am committed to sitting down for dinner even if all the pots and pans haven't been washed and dried. I will prioritize connecting with my husband over a glass of wine at the end of a long day rather than rushing around to clear the room of toys. I will embrace (some) mess and enjoy the fleeting moments of ease while I can.
Can you let go of your need for order and control and allow yourself to get messy? What might a little mess add to your life?
I parted ways with a long time client this week. The news did not come as a surprise: changes in life and work had caused him to cancel our weekly sessions more often than not in recent months, and I had been anticipating the conversation. What I hadn’t expected was how it would feel to receive the news.
As teachers we become invested in our students, and this was no exception. Over the years, I had watched his practice grow on the mat and off - I saw him gain flexibility and strength, and more importantly, learn how to better manage the stress of a high-powered job and the many demands of a growing family. But instead of feeling disappointed when we parted ways, I found myself relieved...
A free block on my schedule EVERY WEEK?! How luxurious! But then my mind started racing... An hour every week is 52 hours of productivity a year! I can pick up a new client or class! I can finally sign up for that weekly volunteer shift I have been trying to find time for! I can finish the baby book collecting dust on the shelf! And just like that, "free time" disappeared, taking with it my relief and leaving me wondering how I ended up back where I started.
When I began this venture, I vowed to be more intentional with my time. I consolidated my teaching and writing into dedicated “work” days, outside of which I could focus on the babe - investing time and energy in tea parties and story time and playground visits. But before long, I found myself scheduling clients on my “off” days and then scrambling to find child care. Or accepting just one more writing or editing assignment and rushing to put the babe down for a nap so I could squeeze in an hour of work. Weekends and evenings slowly filled with opportunities to teach workshops or lead trainings, eclipsing family time and foiling my best laid plans.
I recognized the treadmill of my life was moving at a speed I could not sustain when I started looking for excuses to cancel plans with friends, or trying to find a sub for classes I was scheduled to teach. It wasn't that I didn't want to see friends (I did!) or didn't enjoy teaching (I do!); rather, I was desperate for an hour alone without plans or expectations, and that time didn't exist anywhere in my schedule. I knew I needed to make a change.
So I made the decision to be lazy. To sit still when I can. To say no when an opportunity – however appealing – consumes more energy than it generates. I gave myself permission to be unproductive. I started protecting my family time (and my down time) as fiercely as my work time. And that weekly free block? I am keeping it empty – to read, or rest, or bake, or have a tea party with the love(s) of my life.
Can you give yourself permission to unproductive? What would it look like to be lazy?
My baby girl is a chatterbox. She talks ALL. THE. TIME. And I love it! She chatters constantly whether she is "reading" books, building block towers, rifling through cupboards and drawers, or eating. She is excited to share words she is learning and happily invents others to fill in the gaps. Her nonsensical babbles bring such joy to my heart.
As a child, I was also a talker. I was the first to raise my hand to answer a question in a classroom or blurt out a trivia response. I could - and did - hold court for hours with family and friends - and the occasional complete stranger. I was consistently admonished by teachers, "Annie, you need to let someone else answer a question for a change..."
But somewhere along the line, this changed. A growing appreciation of appropriate social behavior likely played a role, but so too did insecurity. Run of the mill teenage angst transformed a Chatty Cathy into someone who wanted to be sure of how something would be received before sending it out into the world. I began to allow fear of saying the "wrong" thing to prevent me from saying anything at all.
Being reserved has its merits. When I entered the professional world, I quickly learned the value of listening before speaking. Pausing long enough to gather and process information before speaking enabled me to provide reasoned guidance and a measured response in high pressure situations. And more often than not, I gained valuable insight by listening to the more seasoned souls around me.
Regrettably, reticence also has downsides. I have lost opportunities to comfort a friend in need by over-thinking the perfect consolation. I have failed to voice my opinion at critical times while internally debating the most diplomatic way to deliver a conflicting point of view. I have missed chances to transform an acquaintance into a friend by hesitating to move beyond exchanging pleasantries.
As I look ahead to the next month in my year of imperfection, I am setting a goal of saying the wrong thing. Offering an imperfect, but sincere, consolation to a friend who recently experienced a significant loss. Delivering a valid, but unnuanced, opinion in a board meeting. Starting a conversation with an incompletely formed suggestion and inviting someone to help me shape and improve it.
What might you gain by letting yourself say the wrong thing?
I don't like to ask for help. Whether it comes from pride (I couldn't dare let anyone know I am not capable of something!), arrogance (no one could possibly fill the dishwasher as well as me!), or not wanting to bother others (I'm sure you have enough problems of your own!), or some combination thereof, I would really prefer to handle things myself. Yet I found myself standing in the middle of a parking lot earlier this month, yelling out to a group of complete strangers to please help me NOW!
On a beautiful blue-sky, sun-shining kind of day, my daughter and I joined some friends for a perfectly lovely play date. After strolling through a park and stopping at a little bakery, we headed back to the car, where I strapped the babe in her carseat, tossed my purse in the passenger seat, loaded the stroller in the back, and walked around to the driver's side door. But it didn't open - not the first time I pulled the handle, or the next, or the time after that. I reached for my keys only to realize they were in the car, along with my phone, which meant no way to reach the friend we just left or 911. A powerful sensation of utter helplessness washed over me as I scanned the parking lot - full of cars, but void of people. As I contemplated the dilemma of not being able to find help without leaving the car but not wanting to leave the babe alone in the locked car to seek help, four men entered the lot.
I called out, interrupting their midday stroll, and as they sensed the urgency of the situation they sprang into action. Within minutes, they evaluated the situation thoroughly, ruled out the possibility of entering the car without damage, and agreed the only expedient solution was to break a window. Using a baseball bat left over from his son's little league practice, one man broke a window and unlocked the door, allowing me to retrieve the babe.
I will, of course, never again close a car door without keys in my hand, but the larger lesson of the day was the ease of asking for help. When circumstances are dire, the plea comes readily, but we shouldn't need an emergency to reach out. How many times have you made a problem worse by stalling as you tried to devise a solution that someone else could have offered more quickly? How many disasters could you have averted - or at least mitigated - by allowing someone else to assist? Is there some conflict or challenge in your life you could resolve by asking for help today?
For as long as I can remember, I have been diligent about storing all my files, photos, and records electronically. Spreadsheets and syllabi related to my yoga studio work, playlists and class sequences from eight years of teaching, my decade-long speechwriting portfolio, photos dating back to the beginning of my husband's and my courtship, and journals and writing projects from as far back as college were locked safely into a thumbdrive I carried with me almost constantly.
Over the years my husband, among others, urged me to back up the drive on a cloud or other device just in case... It wasn't that I didn't know it was a good idea or an obvious safeguard, I just never got around to it. And then one sunny afternoon as I typed away on the laptop resting on my knees, the inevitable happened: as I reached for my water, the computer slid from my lap onto the floor, landing squarely on the drive and snapping it in half.
In those few seconds, the faces of every person who had urged me to save my work elsewhere paraded through my mind, and the mental catalogue of the documents I had lost caused my stomach to drop. I unplugged the now unreadable drive, put it back in my purse, and refused to acknowledge to myself - let alone admit to others - what happened.
Days later, when the shock subsided, I began to consider my options. Living in DC, there are, of course, professionals who specialize in data recovery, and I did my due diligence. But as much as the loss weighed down my heart, I couldn't justify the four figure investment required to bring the material back to life. Instead, I started over.
One by one, I have begun recreating the spreadsheets by combing through email exchanges and calendar notes. I have begged the forgiveness of friends and colleagues as I asked them to repeat the answers to scheduling questions or send previous versions of documents on which we collaborated.
While some things can be reconstructed, many are gone forever, and I have no choice but to let go. In yoga we talk about aparigraha - or non-attachment, but the concept has never felt so real. On the positive side, starting over is causing me to be more creative - I can't default to a class sequence I mapped out last year or cut and paste from a template on a writing project. I must instead create everything from a fresh perspective. While the process requires more work to accomplish each item on my to-do list, it is forcing me to live out of imagination rather than memory, and with every document I recreate or accept as lost and gone forever, I feel a renewed sense of peace.
Where can you admit defeat and let go? What can be made even better by starting over?
March has been a big month in the New Beginnings household. In addition to celebrating my daughter's first year, I celebrated a milestone birthday of my own. And as we edged toward these notable occasions, I began to notice yet another similarity between the two of us: a fear of falling.
Despite being just past her first birthday, my daughter is already proving to be strong, focused, and determined. Pulling herself up on furniture and "cruising" from one end of the room to another came early and easily, much to our amusement and the unfortunate demise of the contents of some yet-to-be-childproofed shelves. But when it came to walking - actually putting one foot in front of another to travel to a specific destination - she had no interest. There were perfectly good alternative modes of transportation that did not involve the threat of tumbling headlong onto a wooden floor thankyouverymuch! Any attempts to persuade her otherwise were met with immediate resistance and the defiant thump of a well-padded bottom onto the floor.
The experience got me thinking: where had my own fear of falling - or failing - held me back? In my yoga practice the answer is easy: handstand. Sure, with a wall or an assist, I am happy to put my hands on the floor and throw my feet in the air, but I have never, ever, attempted the pose without an aid. Despite coaching many a student into the pose successfully as an instructor, I have allowed my fear to keep me from exploring it for myself. There are perfectly lovely inversions I can weave into my practice that do not involve a bruised ego or tailbone thankyouverymuch!
Almost as soon as I recognized the parallel, the babe traversed the room from her father to me - and back again - and again. Her efforts have been full of wobbles, stutter-steps, and falls, but we have made a game of the failures, and she pushes on enthusiastically. If a one-year-old can face her fears, so can I: Handstand, we have a date...
As is so often the case, our yoga practice is simply a metaphor for the rest of our lives. We all face challenges on the mat and off that frighten us or take us out of our comfort zones. If we could simply give ourselves permission to fall, we would realize we are stronger and more steady than we think. If you let go of the fear of falling/failing, what might you discover?
Thank you for visiting the Starting Over blog. Stop by anytime for a dose of inspiration, tools to help you achieve your goals, and a community of fellow travelers. I hope to see you often!