Diving Off a Cliff

April 15th, 2014

cliff

Today I started writing a book.

This morning when I woke up I had no idea how it started. It’s a book about a well-known CEO (alas, can’t reveal the name just now) whose story I’ve been struggling to figure out exactly how to tell. Today in the shower a thought came to me and I wrote it down:

“In English grammar, they have what they call first person and second person. First person is when I talk about me. Second person is when I talk about you. I think grammar may have it backwards. Anyone who has had any measure of genuine success knows that focusing on myself comes second. Focusing on you comes first.

“So here’s the thing. I’m going to tell you my story. But the point is not to tell you my story—it’s to offer whatever experiences and perspectives I can in hopes it may help you work out what your story is, and muster the courage to live it.”

Right now I have no idea if these hundred words are good, or so-so, or awful. That’s not false modesty. I truly don’t know. I have no idea if they will end up being the way the book starts, or even whether or not they will appear in the book at all. But that’s not important. What’s important is taking that first step — that one that takes you off the cliff and into freefall.

That’s what writing is like: flinging yourself off a cliff every day, without knowing if there’s a net there or not.

Living is like that, too.

They’re similar in a lot of ways, writing a book and living a life. Each book starts with a blank page. So does each day. And no matter how long you’ve been doing this (writing, living) you really have no guarantees that this time, you know what you’re doing, and no sure-fire formula for how to do it.

You have tens of thousands of examples before you — books that others have written, lives that others have lived. That’s helpful, but not as much as you’d hope. None of those books is the one you’re writing now, none of those lives the one you’re living now. So you’re still faced with that blank page and the challenge that you’re going to put something down on it that may turn out to be mediocre or worse.

Here is what George Orwell commented while writing 1984, widely regarded as one of the greatest novels in the English language:

“The rough draft is always a ghastly mess bearing little relation to the finished result, but all the same it is the main part of the job.”

Ernest Hemingway (no surprise here) put it a little more simply:

“The first draft of anything is crap.”

I look back at my twenties and thirties as my life’s first draft. There were some good ideas in there, but also an awful lot of missteps and minor disasters, even some major ones. There were moments and episodes that still make me cringe. As far as I can see, Hemingway was right on.

Still, there’s no getting around it. You have to start, or it won’t get done.

I’m deliriously happy with my life today. But I couldn’t have this life with having dove off the cliff and taken a stab at that first draft.

This, I think, is what stops so many people from writing: the fear of putting down something that’s no good. But that’s essential. In fact I think it is the unwillingness to suppress that reflex for in-the-moment self-critical judgment, self-editing, second-guessing, and revising-as-you-go, that smothers most good writing (and perhaps a good deal of living) in the crib. It’s probably the biggest thing that separates those who aspire to write from those who actually do.

In a word: courage.

It takes courage to write a book. It takes courage to live a life. It takes courage to let yourself be vulnerable. To let yourself look foolish. To let yourself fall. To let yourself feel.

Joan Didion wrote, “I write to find out what I think.” I think we live to find out who we are.

There’s no safe way to do either one, but in both cases the result is real — and worth it.

Finding Time

April 8th, 2014

finding-time

My father was a university professor, music scholar, and choral conductor, and very active in all three careers. He had an office at home where he worked on manuscripts and corrected papers. He loved his work, and had a lot of it. But as a child, every time I went to knock on his door, whether it was because I needed something or just wanted to tell him the latest juicy bit of five-year-old’s news, he never once said, “I’m busy!” or “Can this wait?” or even “Just a minute.”

He would drop whatever he was doing and give me his full attention.

It still amazes me how he was able to do this. He always seemed to have time. But where did he find it?

For years I have struggled with the feeling of not having enough time. What some might call a “poverty mentality,” not in relation to having enough money but to having enough time. I think I’m starting to understand how my father did it.

There’s even some fascinating science behind it.

A few years ago, some researchers approached a few dozen complete strangers on the street with envelopes containing a little cash, either $5 or $20. The subjects were instructed to spend their little windfall by the end of the day. There was a catch, though: half were told they had to spend the cash on themselves; the other half were instructed to spend it on someone else.

Interviewing the people after all the money was spent, the researchers found that one group derived far more happiness from their little spending spree than the other. Can you guess which one? Of course you can.

The people who got more joy from their money were those who spent it on others.

So what does this have to do with time? Bear with me.

In another study, researchers had one group of subjects spend a certain amount of time on others, while two other groups spent the same amount of time either on themselves or just wasting it doing nothing much. The results? The first group, those who spent their time on others, came away with an increase in what the researchers called their sense of “time affluence.” (The study is titled, “Giving time gives you time.”)

Don’t you love that? Time affluence.

That’s what my father had. Even though he was always very busy, he was time-wealthy. He always had time to spare.

It’s taken me years to figure this out, but I eventually realized that it is when I feel the most pressed, most under the gun, most up against what feels like an impossible deadline, that I most need to take a big breath and stop thinking like a time pauper.

When I’m feeling pressed, instead of struggling to cram three hours of work into the next twenty minutes, I’ll put my work down, go find Ana, and take those twenty minutes to see if there’s something I can do to make her day just a little easier.

By giving a little time away, I’m making myself more time affluent. When I then go back to my work, I’m in a much better place to use what time I have far more effectively. Net result: by giving time, I get more time.

As an Indian proverb says, “They who give have all things; they who withhold have nothing.”

Have you ever felt impatient and found yourself muttering, “Hurry up — I haven’t got all the time in the world.”

But what if you do?

Fiat Lux

April 1st, 2014

baby-smile

You know how a baby’s smile lights up a room? It’s as if there’s some vast light source hidden behind a screen, and that little round face is a tiny window letting a smidgeon of the billions of gigawatts out there spill into the room we’re occupying.

You don’t have to be an infant to let that light spill out. Adults do it too — at least to the extent they retain enough of their baby selves intact.

This weekend Ana’s mother, Sylvia, slipped out of the room forever and escaped back out to that illuminated space behind the screen.

She left a great deal of light behind.

During her stay at the nearby nursing home over the past four years, Sylvia was eventually promoted to a room at the front of the building with a large bedside window with full sunlight access. (The nursing-home equivalent of the top executive’s coveted corner office.) Every day when we would go to visit her, we would walk by that window on the way into the building and peek in. Most days we would be rewarded with her beaming face and an enthusiastic wave of the hand. There was as much sunlight streaming out of that window as there was going in.

Sylvia’s roommate’s husband used to visit every day. After his wife died, he kept right on visiting. How could he not? Sylvia was a beacon that prevented many a ship from foundering upon the rocks of loneliness. One nurse’s aide had a visit not long ago from her out-of-state daughter. In the twenty-four hours they had together, what did she do? She brought her daughter in to visit Sylvia.

And this was on her day off.

My job over the past few years was to bring Sylvia fresh hot coffee in a thermos (“Ah, the good stuff”), sit and visit, spill the news about my latest book project, and tell her how much I loved her daughter. Easiest job I ever had.

The day she died, a torrential rain came gushing out of the sky. When the man from the funeral home gently covered her body and rolled it out the side door on a gurney, Ana burst out the door to hug her mom for the last time. When she turned back, she saw nine or ten nurses and staff lined up by the door weeping.

But the weeping was for ourselves and our loss — not for her. She’s busy lighting up her new digs.

Sylvia-smiling-199x300When someone dies people say “Rest in peace.”

I’m not so sure that’s how it works.

I have the feeling Sylvia is kicking up her heels right now in that light-world beyond the curtain, doing a whole lot less resting and a whole lot more radiating.

Meanwhile, for you and me she has left this lesson behind:

Let your light shine.

Let it spill out into the room. It’s the reason you’re here.

Being There

March 25th, 2014

Dancing feet3

It’s Tuesday evening. I’m at home. Ana is over at the nursing home, being with Sylvia, her mom, who is in her last days.

If you’ve followed this blog for a while you might remember Sylvia. I wrote about an experience she shared with me once here, and again when she first went into the hospital, more than four years ago, here.

Over the past four years we have had hours of conversation, shared dozens and dozens of books (Sylvia is a ravenous reader), and she and Ana have unpacked entire luggage stores’ worth of suitcases stuffed to overflowing with memories and reminiscences. But the time for reading books has turned its last page, and the energy for conversation has dimmed.

What Sylvia needs right now is not someone to sit and talk to her, but someone simply to sit by her bed, hold her hand, and be fully present.

In her twenties Ana was a professional dancer who performed internationally with a dance company. Dancing came easy to her, but counting did not. According to her, she had a really tough time keeping the math running on those beats. Fortunately for her, she was able to compensate for what could have been a fatal handicap: while she may have been weak at counting the steps as she danced, she was strong at being present to the rhythm of the music—and in dance, the movement is only as powerful as its relationship to the music.

It’s not about count, but about flow.

It’s about being present with the movement of the dance.

This is what she’s doing right now. Being present with the movement of the dance.

Being present is such a valuable thing. Not just in dance, and not only when sitting with someone at the cusp of laying this life down and opening the first chapter of a new one. It’s useful every day.

“Life is available only in the present moment,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh in Taming the Tiger Within. Or to put it another way: if you’re busy counting the beats, you might miss it altogether.

I don’t know if you’ve ever spent time with someone who is very close to the end of their life, but if you have, you may have noticed that things seem to become extremely simple. There’s not a lot of fussing about the past or fretting about the future, because there simply isn’t room. The present moment is so freighted with the enormity of the fact that we’re here at last, at the point where the string meets the knot.

The truth is, though, that it was always that simple, and is always that simple. Taking a small sip of water, giving a slight pressure to the hand holding yours, saying “I love you” once again (either in words or simply a smile of the eyes), is an enormity of the moment.

I’ll try to remember that, every day, and think of it as a gift from Sylvia: being present with the movement of the dance.

A Choice of Perspective

March 18th, 2014

conductor-hands-sized

Positive perspective is less an inborn trait than it is a skill. Like any skill, it can be learned, practiced, and mastered. And it’s not something that requires you to go up on a mountaintop or into a deep retreat and struggle with it for weeks or months before you emerge a transformed person.

It’s something you develop in small bites, every day. Something you build, like a muscle, by exercising it moderately and consistently.

How? By the choices you make in how you see the everyday events around you.

“People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them. It’s not what happens to you but how you react to it that matters.”

So said the Greek philosopher Epictetus. So, what views do you take? What reactions to you have? That’s what positive perspective is: a choice.

Or more accurately: a long series of little tiny choices.

Late in life my father traveled to Omaha to attend a music conference, where he not only gave lectures on Bach’s Passion According to St. Matthew but also conducted a performance of this magnificent masterwork.

At the time, this was a rare thing for him. He had been an active conductor for many decades in his earlier years. Now in his seventies, he worked almost exclusively as a scholar and teacher, and he seldom performed.

It was a glorious trip, and he returned home flush with triumph from his week of being revered as the grand old master of Bach. He was, however, soon returned to earth, when my mother, her trademark wry wit tweaked by some trivial household task or other that he had managed to bungle, remarked, “Oh, Alfred, don’t be an asshole!”

He nodded serenely and said, “You know, that’s exactly what they called me in Omaha. Only there they pronounced it, Maestro.”

My mother of course was utterly charmed (as always). So was I. And why not? What a wonderful way to demonstrate the sly superpowers granted when you adopt a positive perspective.

A rule for living: You get to choose how you see things. (And hear them, too.)

Perspective Changes Everything

March 13th, 2014

Repo man

A knock came on my front door at a few minutes after eleven o’clock at night. My son and I were watching television together in the living room, sitting not ten steps from the door. I got up, padded over, and opened it.

A very big guy, mid-twenties, loomed on my front step.

“I need your car keys, man,” he said, in a tone both apologetic and firm.

This was fifteen years ago. In the years leading up to this moment I had made a great deal of money, then lost it. (“The first million,” my friend Scott observed philosophically, “is to blow.” Apparently.) At the time I was freshly post-divorce, living in a small apartment, and struggling financially. And doing even worse than I thought, because here was a repo man standing at my door, about to take away my Lexus.

And now the $64,000 question: what is the most effective way to deal with a situation such as this?

Here’s what I did.

The next day I called the Lexus financing company, in full fury.

They had not given me warning, I told the operator, simmering rage barely in check. Yes, they’d sent me overdue notices, but none had specifically informed me that I was on the verge of repossession. She pointed out that they’d tried calling me. Numerous times. “But you never left a message!” I shot back.

What was I was thinking? That my unassailable logic would cause the company to suddenly change its mind and give me back my car? That righteous indignation would prevail? In any case, that didn’t happen. The call did not end well.

I thought about that conversation long and hard, all that afternoon and all that night. What would have happened, I wondered, if I had come at the thing from a different perspective?

The next day, I called again.

This time, I quietly filled the operator in on what had happened: I had let my payments get too far behind and eventually they’d had no choice but to take back the car. My fault, entirely. She sympathized. I told her I knew there was nothing she could do, I had just let it go too long. She agreed, ruefully. I wondered if she knew where the car was at that point. She checked; it was long gone, by now in the next state, stripped of its license plate and sticker and sitting on the lot awaiting auction.

I nodded, said, “Wow. Well, this sure has been a lesson.”

She paused. Then she said, “Hang on … let me check something.”

I waited.

A minute later she came back on and said, “You know, you might still be able to get it back.”

I nearly fell out of my chair. “Really,” I said. “Um, what would that entail?”

“Well,” she said, “you’d need to show up at the lot on Monday with $1,400 cash in hand. Have you got a pen? I can give you the address.”

At that instant I had no more than $200 in the world. This was a Friday. That weekend I was hired by a friend to do a writing job that would pay a few thousand dollars—with a down payment of $1,400. That payment would not arrive for days, but I managed to get a quick cash loan from another friend. Monday morning I showed up at the auction lot in a rental, cash in hand, and drove away with my prodigal Lexus.

I drove it through five more years, 100,000 more miles, and a good deal more insight.

In The Go-Giver, Pindar the mentor explains it this way to Joe, the young seeker:

Go looking for conflict, and you’ll find it. Go looking for people to take advantage of you, and they generally will. See the world as a dog-eat-dog place, and you’ll always find a bigger dog looking at you as if you’re his next meal. Go looking for the best in people, and you’ll be amazed at how much talent, ingenuity, empathy and good will you’ll find.

Ultimately, the world treats you more or less the way you expect to be treated. In fact, Joe, you’d be amazed at just how much you have to do with what happens to you.

A positive perspective doesn’t just allow you to see and experience events differently. It can also cause events to happen differently.

Let It Snow

March 8th, 2014

2013-01-24-blue-magic-900x505Photo by Michał Słupczyński © Copyright Asmodiel.de

My decision, at the age of 17, to leave the established school system and join with some friends to start our own high school was inspired in part by my sophomore-year high school English teacher, Mr. Gimbel.

Inspired, though not in a good way.

One cold gray November day, we were all bent over our desks, quietly studying a chapter on poetry. Mr. Gimbel was bent over his own desk likewise. (Perhaps he was grading papers, or preparing a grocery list.)

The kid seated next to me nudged me, then without a word nodded toward the window. I looked up. It was snowing: big, fat, luscious flakes. The first snow of the season.

We both stared in awe at its silent beauty.

Another kid, sensing the shift in our attention, looked up as well, following the direction of our gaze. Soon half the class was looking out onto the world, transfixed by the glorious spectacle of crystallized water vapor pouring over the planet’s surface in eternally non-repeating manifestation. It was as if heaven itself had chosen this moment to sprout a chorus of ethereal dandelions, blanketing the earth with its milky-white seed heads.

Suddenly Mr. Gimbel glanced up and realized we were all staring out the window. Leaping to his feet he shouted, “Hey, stop looking at that snow and get back to your poetry!”

It was the single funniest thing I heard during all that year. It was also the moment I thought, “We need a new high school.”

We went on to build that school, and it was a great success. We studied history, writing, dance, music, physics, computer engineering, nutrition, great literature, and, yes, even poetry.

And Mr. Gimbel’s unfortunate example has stayed with me as a cautionary tale: Don’t let your focus of the moment blind you to the poetry around you.

There are an awful lot of snowflakes to see.

A Walk to Remember

March 4th, 2014

Seahorse

Did you know you have a seahorse in your head? You do. It’s a delicate little thing, and it’s important to feed it — because it helps you remember who you are and what you’re doing here.

It bears a fancy name: hippocampus, which is simply the Greek word for “seahorse.” Of course, it isn’t actually a seahorse at all, it’s a tiny neural organ nestled deep within the rich fatty tissues of your brain. But it’s fitting that it so closely resembles an ocean creature from prehistoric days, because it plays a crucial role in sorting through the ocean of data and information swimming through our brains and gathering them into concrete memories.

As I said, it’s is a delicate little thing, and easily affected by stress. Combat veterans, victims of violence, and others who suffer with post-traumatic stress syndrome often show diminished hippocampus size. The greater the trauma, the greater the shrinkage.

It is also one of the first regions of the brain to show signs of deterioration in people with Alzheimer’s. Even healthy people typically begin to exhibit atrophy of the hippocampus with age, starting about 55 to 60. (In otherwise healthy people the shrinkage is roughly 15 percent; in Alzheimer’s patients, up to 50 percent.)

Happily there is a great exercise you can do for your memory-horse that has been proven to help it grow big and strong.

You can take it for a walk.

Three years ago researchers at the University of Pittsburgh studied 120 healthy but sedentary men and women, averaging sixty years of age, randomly assigned to two exercise groups. One group did a mild routine including yoga and resistance training with elastic bands. The other group simply walked around a track, three times a week, building up to forty minutes at a stretch. Both groups continued for close to a year.

At the end of the year, they scanned the brains of all their participants. Guess what? Among the yoga and resistance-training group, the hippocampus had decreased in size by about 1.4 percent on average. Which, for this age group, is considered normal. And among the group who took regular walks? That group’s hippocampi had increased in size by about 2 percent.

Let me repeat that.

Taking a good walk three times a week didn’t just slow the typical process of hippocampus shrinkage — it dramatically reversed it.

A few days ago I wrote about taking a walk with my wife. It’s a great practice, and I recommend it. Here’s the part I didn’t mention: when we go on those walks, we’re not just getting exercise. We’re making memories.

Literally.

Walking Grateful

March 1st, 2014

Barefoot2

After I write this post, I’m going to join my wife in a three-mile walk around the neighborhood.

This is not as simple an accomplishment as it sounds.

Back in May, 2006, two years before we were married (in fact, more than a year before I proposed), Ana was running out to do some errands and tripped on the steps, slamming one foot down against a concrete floor. The impact broke her knee. It was an awful compound fracture, shattered in sixteen places, and she couldn’t walk for well over a year. On June 10, 2007, the day I kneeled on a restaurant balcony floor facing a Hawaiian sunset and asked her to marry me, she was still on crutches.

That fall she had surgery to help clear out the remaining debris, so that poor knee could finally heal all the way. The surgery, happily, was successful.

And then the following summer, in the midst of a tornado — an extremely rare thing in New England where she was at the time — she tripped and fell. On that same concrete floor. And broke her knee.

Again.

Yes, the same knee.

For the next several months I watched her once again grit through physical therapy. Filled bags of ice for cold packs, carried her books and bags, helped her up and down the stairs. Served as her hands in the kitchen as we cooked. We went on quite a few trips during that time, and itineraries dotted with airport wheelchairs, crutches through squeezy airplane aisles, electric scooters at conventions, and bag upon bag of ice from rattling hotel ice dispensers. And that miraculous thing, the body’s capacity to reknit itself, once again worked its interior magic.

It’s now eight long years since that first compound fracture, but its influence in our lives is always with us. And I can tell you one thing about the two of us: Every morning when we wake up, we really — really — appreciate the simple joy of being able to get out of bed, stand up, and walk.

“I wept because I had no shoes,” goes the Indian proverb, “until I met a man who had no feet.”

What we learned: Noticing and genuinely appreciating simple things like knees, fingers, eyes, ears, breath, and sensation — those “little” things that are in fact much bigger on the inside than they are on the outside — can make mundane, everyday living into quite a joy.

Gratitude, not variety, is the spice of life.

Okay. Time to go walk.

The Art of Savoring

February 20th, 2014

smell the flowers

A few days ago I wrote about savoring. It’s worth writing more.

One of the great “hidden” truths of happiness is this: when it comes to creating more happiness in our lives, the biggest difference is made by the smallest, simplest things.

I like to bring my wife, Ana, a cup of hot tea in bed every morning when she wakes up. I bring myself one, too, climb into bed, and we sit relishing that hot, creamy-smooth, indescribably delicious first cup of the day. Most times after the first or second sip one of us will look at the other and say, “Ohmigod. That is sooo good.”

Here’s the thing: It’s just a cup of tea. It’s not like we’ve never had one before. But we’ve learned how to lose ourselves in the moment of it — not just the warmth and smoothness and flavor and mild buzz of it, but also the feeling of sitting in bed, warm and cozy, in each other’s company, without a care or trouble in the world. (Of course, there are cares and troubles in our world. We know that. But they can wait another ten minutes.) It’s a fantastically nourishing way to start the day.

Interesting thing about the word savor: it shares a common root with savvy and the sapiens of Homo sapiens. That’s no accident. Savoring = deep knowledge. By taking a moment to deeply taste something — the feel of the sun on your face, the sound and sense of a well-turned sentence, a sip of hot tea, the person next to you — you gain insight.

Into the thing you’re savoring, and perhaps into yourself, too.

To savor the moment is to know the moment.

“When each day is the same as the next, it’s because people fail to recognize the good things that happen in their lives every day that the sun rises.” — The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho

My father was born and grew up in Hamburg, Germany. My (very American) mother used to say, “I married a Hamburger … with relish.” She never got tired of delivering that punch line. I never got tired of hearing it.

Don’t just stop for a moment to smell the roses. Get down on your hands and knees and smell the soil that grew them. There’s deep knowing in there.