Begin with the end in mind

I have always found transition times to be challenging. That includes good and bad transitions. It is hard to believe that I ever had the courage to go on sabbatical this past year or to take many of the leaps of faith I have taken throughout my life. So many people think I am this free spirited adventurer. I laugh at that a lot. What no one sees is what is going on in my head.

As I finished sabbatical, I have been blessed with no only a year of amazing adventures, but from many things that have happened to me in the last month alone. I have to admit, I am a little overwhelmed. I have a new grandson who I got to hold before he was even an hour old. My lovely and talented daughter is getting married and I got to see her try on the dress that she will get married in. I have a beautiful new home, a new office and a great new job. I love my students. So why am I overwhelmed?

It is a transition time, and for me, my life has been filled with a lot of negative changes. I can handle those. I expect those. It is almost harder to handle the positive ones, to step in and feel deserving of the wonderful life I have now. I have been in a funk, almost paralyzed to get anything done. Today, I am attempting to change my paralysis and get back to my routine and taking care of myself. In order to do that, I realized, I have to start somewhere, so I am going to start at the beginning.

Over a year ago, I filled 8 boxes with my treasures. Those boxes, my gear, a few clothes, and a rock where the only things I had left. I had given up all my other possessions: house, furniture, dishes, all of it. I stored them in my office and now they are in my garage. Today, right now, it is time to unpack those boxes and face my life. It is time to get unstuck.

Lesson Five: Be who you want to be

One of the best things about writing this blog has been all the responses I have received from people around the world. Some said “thank you for sharing so openly, it has helped me realize I am not alone”.  Some have told me their stories. Others have asked for advice, questions such as “I am over my head in debt, how do I pay it off” to “I am not happy in my life but I don’t know how to change it, can you help”. I am not qualified to give anyone advice.  I can only tell you how I dealt with similar problems.

10294969_698382016907659_7457378898519029271_oOne of my greatest take-aways from sabbatical is that I don’t just have to be who I think I am.  I can be who I want to be. All my life, I have wanted to be this adventure girl. I wanted to be joyfully spontaneous and just willing to try things on a whim.  I wanted to be athletic and participate in adventure sports such as mountain biking, kayaking, skiing off-piste, paragliding, climbing… you get the idea. I also wanted to be the sophisticated urban dweller and world traveler. I put those dreams aside when I had children and raised my family.  I was responsible, a great high school teacher, a good university professor, a decent mother and wife. I took care of everyone. When I got divorced an moved to Seattle, I was a frumpy, middle class, 44 year old housewife from a small town in North Carolina, and I thought those kind of adventures were behind me.  If you have read this blog, you realize that moving to Seattle was when I met Matt Tony, Ken, Rachel, Shaun, Deloa, Melinda, Rachelle, Keri and so many more great friends.. the list goes on and on here as well as all my friends from the Lounge and my own children, Patrick and Jessica who have cheered me and encouraged me every step of the way.

10569073_10101954846563833_1474996086184191579_nMy friends opened my world and my mind to all the things that were possible, regardless of my age, weight, marital status, debt, … none of that matters.  Those were all excuses to keep me paralyzed to whatever dysfunctional fear I happened to be harboring at the time.  The one single thing I needed to learn was that all I had to do was try.  I didn’t have to be perfect or even successful the first time, or the 27th time, I just had to keep trying.  It didn’t matter if I was laughed at, judged, or taunted. I have learned that those kinds of limiting comments from other people aren’t about me, they are about the shallowness and fears of the person who is uttering them.  I don’t take those kind of comments personally anymore.  I am a different person.  I am the person I have always wanted to be.

I set out on a journey to carve out a new identity.  I thought that meant discovering who I am. It didn’t. I realized that it meant creating who I am.  It is funny, as I have been reflecting on sabbatical and all the years since I moved to Seattle, my train of thought started with “I didn’t”, and “I am not” until about a month ago when trying to write this blog post and I asked myself, “so what HAVE you done?”. It was a perspective altering question.

418994_10101134467475103_715478501_n1397721_10101421659884213_539633773_oI have rolled a kayak, climbed mountains, and jumped off those mountains in both a harness and with a wing on my back.  I have skied through powder, down fall lines, under chairlifts and on glaciers. I have ridden bikes on several continents, in varied conditions with incredible people.  I have ordered great wine and decadent food in restaurants all over the world.  I have met new people everywhere I have gone and listened to their stories, learned about their lives, and shared the fires of the passions that light up their souls.  I gave away all the trappings of my former life, my furniture, clothing, and emotional baggage. I have lived without a home or safety net to return to.  I have fed endangered vultures from my hand both on the ground and while gliding in the air looking out over the Himalayas.  I have traveled alone, with no plan and no itinerary, going where I wanted, seeing what interested me, meeting new people.  I have faced loneliness, fear, isolation, sickness, different cultures, ostracization, and just about every human condition you can imagine.

385537_10100701118874173_1615401034_nWhen I read that list, what is clear to me is that I am not the person that I was anymore.  I am strong, courageous, adventurous, athletic, urban, classy, loving, compassionate, giving, open… in other words, I am the person I have always wanted to be. How did I, a non-athletic, frumpy, boring, small-town, middle-class housewife do it? How did I learn to roll a boat, ski off-piste, order great wine, solo travel, talk to strangers, and give up all my possessions? The answer is simple, I tried.  I set out on a course that was hard and just kept going.  Overcoming obstacles, wanting to quit (many, many times), I learned and grew.  I refused to stay in the dysfunction I was in and did the work necessary to have the life I wanted. Even though that sounds simple, it was the hardest, yet most rewarding thing I have ever done. I have no regrets.

10338864_10203972469536322_8787165062454257996_nBefore I left on sabbatical, I had a chance to change course and stay in Seattle to be able to get the perfect house.  I wanted that house so badly, I almost didn’t go on my journey because of it. The house was just an excuse to hide my fear however. Instead, I listened to my advisors and went on sabbatical anyway knowing that there would be another perfect house when I returned. I have thought of that house many times while I lived my homeless, nomadic life. In the last couple of weeks I started house hunting again.  Guess what?  THE house, the same one, was available and now it is mine.  So for all my worry, I took the chance anyway and walked away from the safe choice. Now I have a house again or at least I will on Sept 15 and not just any house but the house I dreamed of. Until September 15, I am hanging out with my beautiful granddaughters waiting for their brother to come into the world any day now. So at the end of this incredible year, not only am I a new person but I will have a new home, a new job, and a new grandson.

It makes me happy to know that I am setting a great example for my grandchildren that life isn’t about limits, it is about challenging what limits us. Our biggest limitation is believing that we can’t change who we think we are.

Lesson Four: Order is Important

Everyone is different.  Some people may thrive on chaos and lack of scheduling.  Those people aren’t me. Maybe it is the mathematician in me, but I like order, I like planning, and I thrive on having a schedule.  That doesn’t mean I am not adventurous or spontaneous, because I am certainly both of those things.  There is lots of room in my life for flexibility and changing plans.  But I enjoy the planning also.

One of the things I have been most influenced by on this year of self-discovery, is coming to understand that I like things orderly in my life.  I like to get up at the same time every day, even on the weekends, I meditate, make my bed, exercise, and then make coffee.  Every day.  If I don’t, I am kind of floundering all day long, and nothing seems to get accomplished. It is like I didn’t shut yesterday off and I am still in it.  I have to have a way to start my day with a routine, no matter where in the world I am. It works for me. It is kind of like resetting my life to a new day.  The mistakes of yesterday are past, today I am starting anew.  I reset my compass and then embrace the new day.

I also have realized that, although I am not a neat freak, I like order in my environment.  As I start owning more possessions again, it makes me anxious.  I am looking forward to having a house of my own again, at the same time, I am terrified of having to purchase furniture and decorate it.  Clutter makes me crazy.  There is peace in order.  There is peace in having a small amount of possessions so that I know what I have and where everything is when I am looking for it. At least that is true for me.

One of the major lessons I have learned this year is that I want my life to be about simplicity  That goes for the amount of possessions I own as well as where I end up deciding to live.  When I lived in a high rise condo, it made my life difficult for the things I love to do.  Just getting my bikes out was a huge chore.  They were either in the storage unit or in the middle of my living room on the 7th floor and we weren’t allowed to take them in the elevator.  Thus every time I rode, which was every day, it was this ordeal.  It took a huge commitment on my part. Same with skiing, kayaking, etc.  I want my life to be simple.  I want a garage where I can work on my own gear, a small townhouse where I don’t have to do yard work but with outdoor space where I can have a container garden.  Someplace that is easy to access the roads l love to ride, the water I love to paddle, and the mountain I love to ski on.  I haven’t found it yet, but I am closer.

This year I learned that I want to spend less time and resources of my life taking care of “stuff” and have more to devote to taking care of myself and the people I love.  Every day I want to practice mindfulness, letting go of attachment, reducing suffering (my own and others) and increasing happiness. I want my life to be about kindness and compassion.  For me, I can’t do any of those things from a cluttered environment filled with a bunch of unnecessary stuff, and that includes both physical things as well as intellectual and emotional ones.

So I have this cleared out life.  I cleared out my physical possessions, challenged the places where I was emotionally stuck, and got a new job to challenge myself intellectually.  Now, how do I put the pieces back together again in a way that is conducive to how I want to live the last 1/3 of my life?  That is the question.

Lesson Three: Take Bigger Steps

P1060845In Madrid, struggling to figure out who I was and what to hell I was doing in Madrid, I texted Matt and said I was taking two steps forward and three backwards. Matt’s answer, “take bigger steps”. At the time it made me laugh and I thought he was just being funny. I had no idea how profound those words really were until much later.

My plan after leaving Madrid was to travel around Spain and I was just stuck as to where to go and what to see. I hadn’t left the US as a tourist but as a traveler and there is a huge difference. People kept giving me advice as tourists. (go here, see that, do this) but traveling with no definitive itinerary and no plan isn’t the same thing as being a tourist. So I was floundering. Matt’s next words to me were “come to Nepal” P1070237which is where he and his lovely girlfriend Amanda happened to be at the time. Lonely and ready to see someone familiar, I threw my stuff together, left Madrid and flew to Katmandu. What I didn’t realize at the time was, I just took a much bigger step. It was a step which, eventually, would propel me forward out of floundering in a major way. My time in Nepal was magic. It was a catalyst for healing my soul, developing my identity, fueling my passion for life, and getting in touch with my spirituality in a profound way.

himalayasI didn’t realize how much Nepal had changed me until I got back to Seattle months later. Coming down from the mountaintop experience where I had clarity about my life and all I was seeking, I had to then return to my actual life with its challenges and opportunities. Trying to integrate the new growth with the old life was probably the most difficult period of all of my sabbatical. From January to April, I struggled more than I can ever remember. I would use the word depression but I wasn’t sad, just stymied. I couldn’t figure out where the girl I had left on top of Sarangkot, the girl who did yoga and mediated every day and then climbed mountains for fun, I couldn’t seem to find that girl again. And that is the girl I wanted to be. Instead, with no structure to my days, I was on the couch in my pajamas at 7:30 pm after never even getting dressed all day. I was again moving two steps forward and three back.

DCIM100GOPROIt was mid April and I realized I had to take bigger steps. Movement is life and I had to start moving, physically, mentally and emotionally. The next day, I was up at 4 am for meditation, to greet the day, and was at the gym at 5 am. I have started my day the same way on the majority of mornings since. And guess what? That girl that I left on top of Sarangkot? She’s back.

When you are stuck and you feel like you are doing the right things to be on the path you want to walk but you don’t seem to be moving anywhere, take bigger steps. It is funny how that is actually true in so many things. Physically, I had plateaued in my fitness. I added Tabata training to my regular working and that propelled my fitness level upward. Intellectually, I needed a challenge so I changed jobs and jumped into a visualization project that is totally stumping me and, even though it is frustrating, I can’t put it down. It is a huge intellectual challenge for me and I am loving it. Emotionally, pushing myself to go back to therapy after I swore I would never trust another mental health care professional again, was a giant step forward. All these things have helped me get to a place where I am stronger in all those areas than I have ever been in my whole life. It is a great place to be. I feel integrated and whole, that my internal view of who I am meets the external life that I display. It is a pretty awesome place to be.

You don’t have to jump off mountains or get up at 5 am. But you do have to keep moving, physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Whatever your challenge is in your life, wherever you feel stuck and can’t figure out what to do, take bigger steps. Do something that will defibrillate that area. Challenge yourself physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. Movement is life. Live it.

Lesson two: Sometimes a woman has to let her garden get out of control to see what sticks

P1100291Once, when I working on my yard and garden, I apologized for it being a little out of control with new plants springing up everywhere. I am used to gardens being orderly rows, not a chaos of wildflowers growing up everywhere. My friend Deb said “sometimes a woman has to let her garden get out of control to see what likes growing there, to see what sticks.”. And that is sabbatical lesson number two.

My friend Matt has never given me a tangible gift in the 7 years that we have been friends. He has paid for dinner a few times, he tried to pay for a paragliding lesson once but I paid him back, but he has never given me something that I can touch for a present. Simultaneously, he has given me the best gift I have ever received in my life.

1930132_577478386628_7110_nFor most of my life, I strove for perfection. I had goals and expectations for my behavior that were ridiculously high and I met them. There was no space for spontaneity, no time for emotion, no allowance being out of control. People would have described me as dependable, stalwart, and driven. Then my life got divided by zero and life as I knew it fell apart. Throughout the next year as I tried to Band-aid it back together with marriage therapy, I grew more spontaneous, but slowly, in a planned controlled way. I didn’t really understand truly letting go, to not be constrained by standards of polite society. And then, I met Matt.

One of the first times I ever allowed myself to loosen the grip on perfection around Matt was after a Sunday morning kayaking pool session. Matt wanted to go to brunch but I didn’t have any hair ties to contain my wild “Albert Einstein mad-scientist” hair. He said don’t worry about it, just come to brunch. Since it was a new friendship, I was torn between wanting to spend time with my friend but worried about him rejecting me or making fun of me. I decided to trust him and see where it all fell out. So we are sitting at a nice restaurant, outside in the sun, with all the other well-dressed Sunday brunch goers. I am dressed in a t-shirt and shorts and have wet hair. As my hair dried, it got crazier and crazier and I got more and more self-conscious until one moment Matt looks over and says, “you’re hair is so wild, it is awesome”. Gotta love that kid. Hundreds of times in our friendship, that same type of scenario played out. He watched and encouraged me to engage in some of the most outrageous behaviors. And I was always rewarded with his unconditional acceptance.

One way I am outrageous is with all my “woo-woo” theories that I am always coming up with. My friends just roll their eyes when I get started on a new one. For example: I believe in using all of my senses as I walk through life, one of which (often overlooked) is the sense of smell. My theory is that perfume and cologne can kill a relationship. When we get to know someone, one of the things we filter them is through their scent, for example I loved the way my ex smelled. I believe that the problem with perfume and cologne is that they mask our natural scent.  But when you get to know someone and like how they smell with fragrance on, what happens when they aren’t wearing any? Will that change the way you feel in a subtle way?

398075_10100938615998033_716093949_nThe cologne is an example of something we use to mask who we really are. Whether with cologne or outrageous behavior, this is the lesson. I only want people in my life who want to be with the authentic me. I don’t want to have to keep putting on airs or living a farce to be included as someone’s friend. What I have learned is to be myself, to be wild, crazy, and unrestrained. Those who want to be in my life will gravitate toward me, whether I am “perfect” or perfectly crazy. They have to want the whole package. If they don’t, then I move them to the outer periphery. There are only be a few people in my life who can handle my “crazy” and my crazy gives them the freedom to let their vulnerability show in return. Those are the few people I want to find and keep. The rest need to be let go.

Your “crazy” is a filter, it filters out those who want to truly be part of your life from those who only superficially want to be there. We need both kinds of people, but we give our hearts to the people who accept us as we are, authentically in all our crazy glory. I believe there are many people who never allow anyone to be that close to them in their whole lives. They never can give up the control and worry over what society will think of them if they allow their true selves to show. They are too hung up on being criticized and rejected.

One of the great aspects of this lesson is that I have learned not to take rejection personally anymore. When a relationship ends, I can hear Matt’s voice say, “it just wasn’t the right fit, try again”. I realize that not everyone is going to gravitate toward me and that is okay. Let them go be free to find the people they can be authentic with. My self-esteem will still be intact.

201836_965318866313_7885418_oThe gift Matt gave me is in allowing me to see what life looks like when we do let someone in that close. Life changes when we live with that kind of authenticity and whole-heartedness. It is richer, fuller, just more vibrant in every way. I now have a small core group of friends who truly know me and who I can be absolutely outrageous around. I wouldn’t trade them for 1000 superficial friends. I trust my friends love me and care about me always.

So let your garden get out of control and see what sticks. The joy and beauty of your life will open up in ways you never imagined.

Lesson One: The ride doesn’t start until you are ready for it to be over

As I start on the transition back from sabbatical, I want to reflect a little on the lessons I have learned through this year and then I will finish this blog in September

The kick-off event for sabbatical last year was a 24 hour bike ride to raise money for cancer research and patient support.  This morning, one year and one lifetime later, I find myself again in Indianapolis riding with my friends from Team Collin.  I am a different person.  Sabbatical has change me profoundly.

P1100139I went for a bike ride the other day. I had planned to ride about 40 miles, but it was a beautiful sunny day so I struck out down an unfamiliar route and ended up going about 50 miles and then decided I was tired and would take the bus the rest of the way home. So I was sitting on the bus bench, eating the last snack that I had brought with me when I realized I didn’t have my wallet so I had no money or my bus pass. I was 25 miles from home. I probably could have talked the bus driver into letting me get on the bus but instead, I put my helmet back on and got back on the bike because one of the first lessons I learned on sabbatical is that the real ride doesn’t start until that moment when I am ready for it to be over.

I first learned this lesson emotionally when I gave up all my possessions last year and left Seattle. I was almost paralyzed by fear and wishing I had never decided to go on this crazy adventure. Facing the fear of traveling alone, meeting people who I didn’t know in countries where I didn’t speak the language, travelling with no plans and no reservations, no safety net when something happened, having to make decisions on the fly not knowing if the outcome would be positive or not, I just wanted the ride to end. I wanted to stay home in the safety of the apartment I had lived for the last 3 years. The reality was, I was in a holding pattern, stagnating personally and professionally and needed to make a huge change. That change truly began when I let myself face the challenges, pushed myself physically, intellectually and emotionally further than I ever thought I could go in my life. In the words of the great TerryB, “It is easier to stay in the dysfunction you are in than it is to do the work needed to have the life you want.”   Changes won’t come by just doing the same thing you have been doing over and over and expecting a different result. They happen when you move into the discomfort.

P1100060Physically, intellectually, and emotionally, growth and learning happen when people are pushed out of their comfort zone. There is new research that says that physically, if you do the same exercise at the same intensity without varying it that at some point, your body stops responding. You won’t lose ground on your fitness but you won’t gain it either. As I teacher, I have always known from my own learning and by watching my students struggle that intellectual learning is hard work. Think back to your biggest life lessons, did you learn them because you did something perfectly or because you had to struggle through difficulty? Our greatest challenges give us our biggest lessons. Learning isn’t for the faint of heart. And emotional growth may be the hardest of all. We only grow emotionally when we are pushed beyond the limits of what we thought we could endure.

Seven years ago, I was pushed out of my emotional comfort zone when the man I married and loved with all my heart walked out on me without warning. I was pushed out of my comfort zone again when my father and sister died. And then my when my therapist, who was helping me through all of that, entered into an inappropriate relationship with me. Those situations pushed me to the brink of emotional collapse. However, those events also were the catalysts of the most profound transformation of my life. I wouldn’t wish for them to happen again, but I will not regret where they have brought me.

They call events like that life-altering. The reason for that name is because they actually alter your life (yeah I know that conclusion wasn’t rocket science). The event where you do the same thing every day for 25 years or respond the same way every time you have a conflict isn’t “life-altering”. There are so many people who I listen to who tell me they want to make a change in their lives, they aren’t happy with their circumstances….they aren’t happy in their marriage, with their job, the direction their life is going, etc. The way to change that is simple and yet, at the same time, extraordinarily difficult. If you want to make a change in your life, the only way to do it is to create your life-altering moment. There is no other way. It is at that point of change, that point of discomfort that you are ready for whatever is bothering you in your life to be over, that moment when you are ready for the ride to be over…. that is the moment where the real ride and the hard work begins.

My sabbatical lesson and take-away is that I have learned to appreciate that emotional discomfort that comes in difficult and challenging situations because I know it precipitates learning and growth. That doesn’t mean I like it, but I understand what is about to happen, change is going to occur, life is being divided by zero. I might whine about it still, but the whining is just noise, it isn’t life-stalling paralysis. All of life is embraced, every moment is cherished. The places where I am struggling the most are where the real work needs to happen.

A great analogy to this: You don’t keep repaving a smoothly paved road, you fix the road with the potholes on it. It is the same with your life, you fix the parts that are broken, you don’t just stay on the same smooth path. Life gets interesting on those side roads. And if you never take them, sooner or later life will throw up a detour and you will have no choice but to be forced down the side road. You need to fix the pot holes on those side roads before they become big enough to swallow your vehicle and keep your life stuck in one place.

team collinSo this weekend, I get to hang out with my friends, ride some bikes, raise a little money to kick cancer’s ass. I am a different woman than I was when I was here a year ago. On the road of my life and the development of a new identity, I have fewer pot holes, more miles of paved smooth road, I am stronger physically, mentally, and emotionally than I have been in a very long time.

No regrets, just lessons learned…

10492024_10101840691471553_77287530788230741_nSabbatical is almost over.  I packed up my office yesterday, part of the final transition to a new office and a new job. It was bittersweet as it brought back all the memories of the hope I had when I took my current job 7 years ago. I  decided it was time to start reflecting on this year and the lessons I have learned.  I have to say, it has been a great year and I am a different person then when I started. The year was the most challenging yet rewarding time I have ever experienced.  I truly have no regrets when I look at where I am right now.

I have had a rough few years transitioning to being single, having an empty nest, paying off a huge debt, moving across the country, learning the culture of a new job and an urban environment, trying to learn how to live for the first time from a place of abundance and making my own choices for my life when I no longer have to care for children/husband/family. For all the times we all say we wish we had no responsibilities, it really isn’t as easy as it sounds. But that is what I had done, freed myself from obligations, and then was adrift trying to figure out how to live my life after a lifetime of taking care of other people.  I struggled to learn how to take care of myself.

When I started on sabbatical, I felt like I was stuck in an endless loop of latent emotion in reaction to situations that I saw as personal and professional failures.  No matter how hard I tried to move on within the framework of everyday life, reminders of those perceived failures kept cropping up seemingly everywhere I turned.  Whether in a photograph, opening a chest and finding my wedding dress, common friends, going through old files, bumping into former students… it just seemed like I was being haunted by a life that was over, a life that had been divided by zero and was undefined.

Given all that, the questions of sabbatical became, how does one get over several traumas happening in a very short time period that shake the entire foundation of your life? How does one start over again from a life undefined?  How do you figure out who you want to be and what kind of life you want to live?  My friend Matt once said, “Robin, you have to rewrite your hard drive“, so sabbatical became a chance to just wipe it all clean, a whole system reboot.  It is a chance that many people long for in their lives but few are privileged to have: a second life.

I got rid of my house, all my stuff that had any emotional attachment to my former life, one by one let go of dependencies I had for emotional support, and just learned to stand on my own.  I have no regrets, but lots of lessons learned. Over the next few weeks, I hope to be able to share those lessons and a glimpse of the strong, confident, whole person I have become.

For today, on this beautiful day that is the beginning of summer, I have mountains to climb and bikes to ride so I will leave you with the words and the music that has become the theme song of my year.

Wake Me Up (Avicii)

Feeling my way through the darkness
Guided by a beating heart
I can’t tell where the journey will end
But I know where to start

They tell me I’m too young to understand
They say I’m caught up in a dream
Well life will pass me by if I don’t open up my eyes
Well that’s fine by me

 So wake me up when it’s all over
When I’m wiser and I’m older
All this time I was finding myself
And I didn’t know I was lost

I tried carrying the weight of the world
But I only have two hands
Hope I get the chance to travel the world
But I don’t have any plans

Wish that I could stay forever this young
Not afraid to close my eyes
Life’s a game made for everyone
And love is the prize