Monday, January 28, 2013

Happy Birthday to the Most

Nine years ago I got the surprise of a lifetime. I became a mom. It wasn't something I'd planned on and quite frankly, it wasn't really ideal timing. I wasn't married. I'd only just started my first writing gig at an ad agency. I wasn't sure I was ready for this.

Yet my decision to keep him was immediate and visceral. If you had asked me what I would decide to do if I got pregnant, I would not have been certain. It's a scary thing to contemplate being a single parent. But as soon as I knew he was there, inside me, he was mine. It just clicked and I was instantly protective.

That's not to say I didn't have my doubts. I was worried about my ability to support him. I was worried about my ability to be a good mother. I was worried about what other people would think. All of those thoughts and many more swirled through my head.

I kept thinking that this just might be the kind of thing that would require hindsight. I realized that I did not have perfect wisdom at 32 years old. I figured this pregnancy could very well be something I would look back on realize was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.

I remember thinking that and wondering if this was what faith was like. Though not a religious faith, in my case. I had faith in my unborn child. I had faith in my decision to keep him. I had faith in myself to be a good mother. After so many years of therapy, it seemed I was finally realizing the ability to believe in me.

Nine years later and I can tell you that my faith was true. I cannot exactly express the mixture of joy, surprise and pride that I have in discovering this inner strength. What I've realized by being a mother is that it is an incredibly healing experience. All of the love you give to your child, you get in return. When you soothe your child in the dark of night, that dark part of you is also healed. At least that's how it worked out for me. And for my beautiful Max. His name is Maximus which means "The Most." And he is the most to me.

Happy birthday, to my sweet precious boy.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Smiling at Strangers.

I read some time ago that people feel more optimistic about life when strangers make eye contact with them. Scientists have found that people who live in large cities where there is little to no eye contact tend to feel more isolated. A small gesture, such as making eye contact or smiling quickly, can make a huge impact.

It reminded me of a story I read years ago in The Art of Happiness. Dr. Howard Cutler was exploring the mind of the Dalai Lama in order to find how the rest of us could be happier. As Cutler describes him, the Dalai Lama is always smiling, laughing or talking to people. Cutler noticed that when people were around the Dalai Lama, they too ended up smiling and laughing.

One incident in particular has stayed with me. Cutler describes the Dalai Lama waiting for an elevator in his hotel. The Dalai Lama turned to a housekeeper who was standing there and started talking to her. At first she appeared someone startled, but then as he asked her where she was from and spoke with her about her life, she clearly brightened up.

The next day the housekeeper was there waiting for him with another housekeeper. He greeted both of them warmly and spoke with them. The next day after that there were more housekeepers, and more and more each day until the end of the week there was a long line of housekeepers waiting to greet the Dalai Lama with smiles on their faces.

I found that absolutely profound. The Dalai Lama does not ignore the person standing next to him, even if it's a stranger. Now I know you and I are not the Dalai Lama and perhaps we won't get the same reception that he would get. But for many people, the Dalai Lama may be an odd-looking figure. What with his flowing robes and his foreign accent, some people might be put off by him. I'm not going to accept that as an excuse for me not to behave as he does.

You see, I think we all want to be seen. We want to be recognized as a fellow human being. We crave understanding. I know all of that may not be contained in the briefest of smiles or a quick flash of eye contact. But perhaps the essence of it is? Maybe that's what scientists discovered in the people who lived in places where not even the least hint of humanity is recognized and shared as a matter of course.

I know it might seem dramatic, but I do believe the little things count. Hell, I even believe I can make a difference in the world. Ridiculous, I know. But I've been making eye contact with people for the past six months. I even give them a quick smile. I mean, I don't flash my teeth or anything. I don't want them to think I'm a freak and let's not forget I'm an introvert by nature. This is a real stretch for me. But I find it makes me feel better about the world.

Even the act of smiling, however brief, seems to lighten my psychic load. I'm not much of a smiler. I'm more of an accidental scowler if you must know. But when I make eye contact with people and I force myself to give them a quick smile, it changes my mood. Just a touch. And sometimes, I'd say about 50 percent of the time here in Metro Detroit, people smile back.

And when that happens? I'll be damned. I do feel an extra spring in my step.

Who knew? Sometimes it's good to push yourself out of your comfort zone and try something new. Now let's hope I don't get mugged.

Just kidding!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Opening the Case.

I had a little heart to heart with my husband about the book I'm writing.

I'm finding it harder than hell to write at night. I work a full day — I write all day — and then I haul ass to pick up the kids on time, bring them home, feed them, play with them, do homework with them, bathe them, read to them, sing songs to them, stroke their hair until their eyes slowly start to droop, sneak out of their bedrooms and then softly close the door.

After that, I'm supposed to go downstairs and sit in front of a computer screen and pour my soul out onto the page and write the most brilliant prose you have ever laid eyes on. Suffice it to say, I'm finding this difficult to do. What I really want to do after all of that, is to sit slack-jawed and glazey-eyed at the pretty moving picture box in my living room until it is time to go to bed.

I've considered getting up an hour early to write but that hasn't worked out so well either. Getting up early is my imaginary time to work out. So the imaginary writing I might do conflicts with the imaginary spinning class I might take at some time in the near future around 6:30 a.m. Or the imaginary Cross Fit class I'll join at 6:15.

I could write during lunch at work. I know an hour a day doesn't really sound like much, but if you think about it, an hour a day is 30 hours a month, which is 360 hours a year. So if you consider the fact that I wrote for two hours Sunday night and produced ten pages, that  would mean I could write an 1,800-page book in one year. You know, my very own War and Peace.

My point is, by writing an hour a day, I could certainly accomplish finishing my little book in a year. I'm already 100+ pages in so it's not like it's out of reach. So why the hell am I not writing an hour a day? What's my deal?

My therapist and husband have both wondered if I fear failure too much to complete a book. I mean, what if I finished the damn thing and I couldn't even get it published? Could I deal with that disappointment? I think I could. But I have a history of being a bit of a self-punishing perfectionist, so they may have a point. Or maybe I fear success? Maybe it would mess with the carefully crafted low self esteem I've been working on all these years.

Whatever the case, I'm not doing it and I need help. I keep cramming and jamming all my writing in on the weekends and it's ruining all my fun activities like doing laundry, taking the kids to the gym and watching Breaking Bad on Netflix.

My husband pointed out that he felt the same way about practicing the trombone. He was a gifted player and practiced a bazillion hours as a child and in college where he majored in music at Northwestern University. I mean, this is no slacker counseling me, if you get my drift.

I was shocked to hear he struggled with practicing. I mean, he could practice for hours. Even now, he just recently took up the guitar and he can play for hours. He's always picking it up and playing it in the kitchen. He plays it in the bathroom while our daughter takes a bath. He plays it in bed. This guy has no motivation problem, so far as I can see.

It's me who's the slacker. But he assured me that it was a struggle for him too.

"I just have to open the case," he said. "Once you open the case, you're in. You get lost in the music and hours go by."

I knew he was right. That very same thing happened with me once I opened the laptop.

"All you have to do is open the case."

I just have to open the laptop and write the first sentence. And then I'm there. Two hours later and ten pages down and all it took was just opening the damn case.

I'm going to remind myself of that each day this week. What case is waiting for you?

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Happiness: Do Something New.

I watched a documentary about happiness over my winter break. One of the things that really stood out was the fact that human brains get bored with the same routine each and every day of our lives. It's not good for us to do the same things, the same ways, day after day. Which is exactly how my life is.

The brain needs new things. The brain craves change even if we sometimes resist it. I was surprised to find out that even small changes can help stimulate the brain. Drive to work a different way. Eat at a new restaurant. Do something you've never done before. Make something new for dinner. Stop by someone's desk you normally don't chat with. You get the picture.

It's so easy to get stuck in the same routines. Sure it seems comfortable and easy, but it turns out, it's not good for your mental health. I recently tried a new workout with my friend Jill and I absolutely loved it. It involves a lot more cardio, and a lot of lifting, and a group setting. I loved it. I left the exercise class soaking wet with sweat. I've been going to the class for a few weeks now, and I notice that even when I work out on my own now, I'm running faster and lifting more than I ever had before. I've actually exceeded what I thought were my limits. I'm reinvigorated and energized. I changed my routine. And my pants are looser. Crazy.

My husband and I go out every Saturday night. It's date night. It's a chance to reconnect and to have a sustained conversation with each other without getting interrupted 20 times by little people with short attention spans. Date night is great but what I hadn't realized is that date night has become a routine.

We go to the same restaurants. Do the same things. Stay in the same town. It's nice to chat with each other but we do the same thing, week after week. I think we need to start going to different restaurants. Start trying new things. I'd read somewhere that a friend's husband had gotten her a year of new experiences for her birthday. Once a month, he takes her somewhere they've never been before, or takes her to do something they've never done before. What a great idea and it fed right into what I'd learned in the Happy documentary.

I'm thinking my husband and I could apply this to date night. There's lots to do in this city of ours. Things neither of us have ever done. We could go see a Roller Derby. Try out a new blues bar. See a new show. Go throw some bocce balls or go feather bowling. See the symphony or an opera. Sure some of those things we've done before, but not as a matter of course. Time to shakes things up. Volunteer together. Plant trees together. Sit on a board together. Go to temple together. Okay, we've done all of those last few things, but it's been a while. The baby has sort of taken over our lives these past few years.

In the past when we've mixed things up, it's benefited us both. Now that I think about it, it would probably benefit our kids too. Their lives are pretty routine. I need to get them out of their comfort zones too.

What would you do, if you did something new? Why haven't you done it before? According to studies, varying your routine will increase your happiness. It seems like it's worth a try. What do you think?