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Seeing through the Smudges

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closed-mindYesterday, during a perfectly innocent trip to the mall, I learned a valuable lesson. That lesson? When we close our minds off to truths outside our own, we are really limiting our ability to be happy. I learned this lesson during an annoying interaction with a stranger. That stranger taught me that for some people being right is more important than being kind; that affirmation is sometimes more important than compromise; and that no matter how wrong they are, some people just can’t abandon a position once they’ve taken it. The most important lesson I learned, however, was that I don’t want to be that kind of person.

On my drive home from work I decided to quickly stop at a local department store for a new pop of spring color. I actually managed to get out of work on time (a rarity), traffic was light (almost unheard of), and the very first parking spot was open and waiting for me (when does THAT happen?). I parked the car and soon remembered that I had coupons in a bag tucked neatly behind the driver’s seat. Bonus!

When I got out of the car, I noticed a woman in the car parked next to me was still positioned behind the driver’s wheel. She had a cell phone in her hands and was texting someone. I could hear her radio but the car was turned off and I assumed she, too, was making an after-work stop for something new. Good for her! Good for us!

While I am always careful not to bump my open car door, I paid extra close attention to the car still occupied next to me. I opened the back door and swung it carefully open. Then I retrieved my bag and began my coupon hunting. Soon, the woman from the adjacent car was standing next to me. I assumed she, too, needed something out of her back seat.

“You bumped my car with your door,” she said. I turned and looked at my door and then at her. There were inches in between my space and hers.

“I don’t think I did,” I replied.

“You did,” she insisted. “Look, there’s a mark.”

There was, indeed, a mark on her car. It was a small white smudge, about the size of a sesame seed.

“But my car door doesn’t extend that far,” I told her. “And my car isn’t white.”

She continued to insist that I bumped her car. I licked my finger and rubbed the mark. It came off the car. “Look,” I said. “Whatever this is wipes off.”

“But you hit my car,” she insisted again.

I looked squarely at the woman and relaxed my body language. “I don’t think I did,” I told her. “I’m not the kind of person who would intentionally do something like that and if I believed I did, I would apologize,” I said. “I’m not that kind of person.”

“Oh,” she said sarcastically, “you must be the only person in the world who’s not ‘that kind of person’,” she said smirking.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” I replied. My voice was calm and low. “Please leave me alone.”

Obviously annoyed at my disinterest in arguing with her, the woman took five steps back and stood behind my car, arms crossed. Uh-oh. That’s not a good body language sign. I turned away from her to zip up my still open bag. From around the corner of my car, she continued, “Someone obviously had a bad day.”

Damn you, stranger lady. I was having a good day – even maybe a great one. “Actually,” I replied, “I was having a great day until you decided to be a bitch.”

Ok. Maybe that was my mistake. But everyone has their limits. And my response did the trick. She moved away from my car and stood on the sidewalk outside the store, now talking on her phone. Perhaps she was afraid I would now intentionally mark her car. Maybe she was planning on marking mine. I don’t know. But I did know that I no longer felt like shopping (plus I couldn’t find the coupons I knew I had).

As I put the key back into my ignition, I looked again at the woman. This was all so silly. Deciding that it wasn’t worth the bad feelings between us, I pulled up at the curb where she was standing. She didn’t hang up her phone, but I began talking. “Listen” I said, “I know you think I hit your car. And I honestly don’t believe I did. But it’s not worth arguing about. I’m sorry our interaction was so unpleasant.”

She snickered at me and replied, “Like I said, you’re obviously having a bad day. So, ok.”

I drove home, stewing about that woman the whole way. I am obviously still thinking about her. But it’s not about the cars or the smudge which is no longer there. It’s more about her inability to accept a truth outside of her own.  It’s about the way she judged me and about her insistence on being right. So much negative energy generated over a tiny little smudge. What other little smudges are blocking us from enjoying healthy relationships? How do we let the need to be right get in the way of being kind? And how might we simply wipe away those smudges with minds that are open and attitudes of respect?

 

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A Case for Self-Indulgence in Lent

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LentMeatToday is the first day of Lent and, as a Christian, I’ve had more than one friend ask me what I’m “giving up.” Right now as I sit and type this I am eating beef jerky (and all the Catholics gasp!). So, no, meat isn’t one of the things I’m sacrificing during this period. Chocolate will not be forbidden either; nor will wine. I know. I know. Many of you are thinking, “Heathen!”

But please hear me out. As I told one friend today, to avoid meat consumption would not be a true sacrifice. I would honestly pick a nice fillet of fish over a filet mignon on any day. A good crab cake sooner wins my heart than does a porterhouse. So to stop eating meat for 40 days (or even on Fridays) would be a pretty safe cop out as a sign of Lenten temperance. (I must confess that the chocolate or the wine would be a bit harder!)

If you can agree with me that the traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer for Easter, you may be able to follow my logic. Believers site Lent as a time characterized by prayer, penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement, and self-denial. Modern day observers tend to give up an action (eating meat, for example). Some replace that action with something this is considered able to bring them closer to God. And some go even further by giving the time or money spent on the abandoned vice to charitable purposes or organizations. But let’s go back to the premise: Lent is a time to prepare for Easter. It’s a time to get our figurative house in order so that we are ready to welcome the risen Christ and celebrate the jubilance of Easter.

And getting my house in order is exactly what I’m doing for Lent. Here’s how:

  1. I will stop criticizing the shutters when the foundation is being eaten by termites. So often, I pick little things about myself that I don’t like: my waist is too wide, there are new lines in my face, the gray hairs around my temples are too prominent. Instead of looking at the superficial aspects of who I am, I will spend the next several weeks reflecting on the foundation of myself. What makes me who I am? For what do I stand? Am I solid in my convictions or do I buckle under pressure?
  2. I will paint in a new color. Sometimes I get in a rut that allows me to be lazy. Sure, the old ways work. But do they push me to be my best? Do they allow me to consider other perspectives and foster my strengths? Sometimes a splash of color allows us to see a drab room (or life) in a whole new way.
  3. I will dig a spiritual garden. Some days I arrive thinking, “How did I get here?” I don’t remember the specific turns of the road or the landmarks along the way. It’s as if I’m on autopilot. When did I last schedule time for reflection? Do experiences just happen to me or am I engaged in defining the choices I make? When was the last time I acknowledged the dirt (and cleaned it up)? How can I plant a seed for personal growth?
  4. I will set a table. The true joy in life comes from sharing ourselves with others. Do others feel welcome at my table? Am I generous with my time and my talents? How do I nourish myself and those I love?
  5. I will remember that I don’t live alone. There are days when dog hair on the sofa and dishes in the sink make me wish I did live alone! But even if my four-legged house buddies and my husband all disappeared for the weekend, I’d still have the company of God. In times of stress and isolation, how can I better call upon my faith? Do I demonstrate gratitude for the blessings all around me? Is my faith evident to others through my intentions and actions?

You still may be saying, “Where’s the sacrifice in all of this?” or “I don’t see any self denial in this outline.” And you’re right. In fact, I would argue that we spend most of our lives denying ourselves the true opportunity to be the people we were born to be. We make excuses, we build walls, we get in routines. We forget that God gives us all a spirit bound only by the limitations we place on ourselves. Through those limitations, we sometimes miss out on loving ourselves, loving each other, and loving God in the most complete and meaningful ways. Avoiding the Burger King drive-thru would be a walk in the park compared to the challenges I’ve presented here. When Christ comes to me on Easter, I want to be able to look back and say, “I’ve been waiting for you. My house in in order, my table is set, and I am excited that you’re here.”

The Importance of Showing Up

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show up blocksWhen my sister walked into her own surprise party last week and 25 of her friends yelled, “Surprise!”, she cried. She wasn’t startled (ok, maybe she was a little startled by all of us standing there). She wasn’t sad. She was, as the greeting suggests, surprised. Mission accomplished. You’d think the story would be over. And I guess it could. But there’s more.

The party was on a Saturday night. And, like many nights this year, it was bitterly cold. In addition, we had some snow earlier in the day and the roads were sloppy to say the least. As I finished placing (really expensive) cupcakes in just the right order on their stand, I also waited anxiously for the cancellation texts to start chiming. I was sure that one after another would say, “Sorry, but I have to cancel. The roads are just too icy.” But as I revealed in my opening, that did not happen. Instead, every person who said they were coming did. And not one of them complained about the roads or left early. In fact, just the opposite happened. So when my sister opened the front door, we were all there…ready to celebrate her.

Later that evening when most people were gone, I asked my sister if she was really surprised. Indeed, she was. But her surprise did not lie solely in the celebration (she suspected that I would plan something on a smaller scale). For her, the amazement was that all these people actually showed up to celebrate HER; that she was the reason for them putting busy lives on hold. She was surprised to be special to them.

My sister’s reaction to her party made an impression on me. All week, I’ve been thinking about how I make the people I love feel important … or how I don’t. Sure, life gets busy and I don’t have the free time I’d like to enjoy. Little emergencies (and sometimes big ones) rear their head at the most inopportune times. I am stretched with work and family and obligations. I get all that. But at the end of the day, do the people I love know that they are important to me? Do they know for sure that I’d show up?

Woody Allen said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” I don’t think he meant just to celebrate birthdays. I think he meant all the time – when the roads are messy, when the temperatures are freezing, maybe even when you simply don’t feel like it. Just show up. And when you do, look around. You may just come to appreciate everyone else who’s there in a whole new light.

Today is “Just Right”

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cupcakeToday, I celebrate my 41st birthday. To some, I am old. To others, I am young. But to borrow from the Tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, today for me is “just right.” Therefore, today I borrow from that fairytale to celebrate my birthday and to reflect on some lessons I’ve learned.

“Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks. She went for a walk in the forest and pretty soon, she came upon a house. She knocked, and when no one answered, she walked right in.”

I didn’t always have the confidence to just “walk right in.” What I have always had, however, was a supportive and loving family who taught me the difference between working for what you want and just waiting for it to come to you. I’ve also been blessed with mentors – especially other women – who’ve shown me doors of opportunity and encouraged me to be the strongest woman I can be. Some of the doors in my life have opened easily. Others were secured with old, rusty locks that required a little WD-40 to get moving.  Many times, I was grateful for the openings, but I’ve also learned that some doors are better left unopened.  And the ability to close a door with grace and tact once it’s been opened is not something I was able to do as easily in my 20s.

“At the table in the kitchen, there were three bowls of porridge. Goldilocks was hungry.  She tasted the porridge from the first bowl. ‘This porridge is too hot!’ she exclaimed. So, she tasted the porridge from the second bowl. ‘This porridge is too cold,’ she said. So, she tasted the last bowl of porridge. ‘Ahhh, this porridge is just right,’ she said happily and she ate it all up.”

My life has been full of choices. I’ve learned that my choices may not always be the ones others would make. Sometimes, I’ve rushed too hungrily into something that left me burned and sorry. Sometimes, I’ve worked too hard at liking something that just didn’t inspire the heat and creativity I need. But I’ve also been blessed to enjoy a number of “just right” moments when the world couldn’t spin any more perfectly. The trick here, I think, is to be able to recognize those moments, those relationships, those opportunities and to be grateful for them. Nothing fosters joy better than gratitude.

“Goldilocks was very tired by this time, so she went upstairs to the bedroom.  She lay down in the first bed, but it was too hard.  Then she lay in the second bed, but it was too soft.  Then she lay down in the third bed and it was just right.  Goldilocks fell asleep.”

Navigating the world is exhausting. There’s an old saying: “You’ve made your bed; now, lie in it.” While most use this saying to imply that one must accept the suffering they’ll endure from something bad they’ve done, I think the saying could also take a more proactive approach. It’s not that I can’t be spontaneous and sometimes careless (my friends, I think, would tell you that I am). It’s just that as I’ve aged, I’ve learned to think more long-term about end results. And at night, I sleep like a baby.

“As she was sleeping, the three bears came home…They decided to look around some more and when they got upstairs to the bedroom…Goldilocks woke up and saw the three bears.  She screamed, ‘Help!’  And she jumped up and ran out of the room.  Goldilocks ran down the stairs, opened the door, and ran away into the forest.  And she never returned to the home of the three bears.”

Here’s where my walk in the forest differs from Goldilock’s adventures. Today, on my 41st birthday, I will not jump up and run out. Instead, I choose to embrace this birthday. In doing so, I celebrate the people in my life who have helped me open doors. I say thank you to those who have nurtured me in “just the right” ways. I’m grateful for the times when my choices have left me scarred or uncomfortable (as they’ve made me the person I am today). And I look forward to a new year. I sure hope there will be lots more walks in the forest.

Going to the Dogs

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LucyonDeskToday was “Bring Your Dog to Work” day in my office. Yes, you heard correctly: bring your DOG. When the opportunity to bring our four-legged friends to work was announced, there was a variety of responses. Some said, “How fun!” Some said, “That will be interesting.” Some said nothing, just grumbling under their breath (these are obviously not the dog owners). And others commented, “Guess there won’t be much work actually happening.”

As the mom of two pugs (Calvin and Lucy), I had no hesitation about bringing my pups to the office. Did it disrupt my day? Of course it did. Did I have to take more potty breaks than usual? Yes. Did I get any work done? Well, that depends on how you look at it.

You see, not one of us could honestly say that we got the normal amount of work done on a day when wagging tails and slobbery kisses dominated the workplace. We’d be lying if we claimed that the presence of dogs – of all shapes, sizes, and dispositions – didn’t change the dynamic in the office. But what I can say for sure is that the KIND of work that happened today probably did more for long-term productivity than anything we could have trained on or studied.

That last statement was a bold one. But here’s why I make it: If you came into my office today, what you would have observed were people engaged with each other around something they hold in common. As we guarded our pups, carefully watching to ensure that they “played nice with each other,” we, too, learned to engage with each other in new ways. We were all reduced to a common level (figuratively and literally) as we crouched down to pet, nurture, and play with dogs. We shared stories, we extended care, and we spoke in voices that are usually reserved for home. From the CEO and down through the ranks, our shared goal was to get a tail wagging. It was team building at its finest.

And if you watched the dogs, the lessons were obvious:

1. Be inquisitive. Poking your nose into a situation isn’t always the best idea, but give something a good sniff to see if you can somehow be useful. You might just learn something new.

2. Be brave. New situations or environments can be scary. But sometimes it takes just a little bit of courage to realize a new home away from home.

3. Know when to back down. You can continue to make your point until others consider you to be obnoxious. Sometimes, taking the less dominant position wins you greater reward.

4. Use positive reinforcement. Everyone likes a little praise. Be sure to give others a pat on the back every now and again.

5. Ask for what you want (or need). Sometimes, the best approach is a direct one. Others cannot read your mind or automatically know what you need to be successful or happy. Before you give up and just pee on the rug, be sure others know what you need.

6. Be enthusiastic about the simple things. Your energy will be contagious to others.

Of course I don’t think bringing a dog to work everyday is a good idea. I am honestly exhausted tonight. But I don’t think it’s because I had to manage two pugs in the workplace. I believe it is because I spent the day engaged with other people, getting to know about them and sharing something about myself. No matter where you work or in what industry, isn’t it always the relationship building that takes the most effort? Collaboration is hard. Who would have guessed that 15 dogs of different breeds and backgrounds could show us how it’s done? Maybe “going to the dogs” isn’t such a bad thing after all.

calvin

(My female pug, Lucy, is pictured above. She is obviously a go-getter in the office. Calvin takes a more casual attitude about work.)