The size of now

The future is a very big place.

I know this to be true, because I have spent a lot of time there– typically getting lost in the big-ness of it.

It’s an easy place in which to get lost, in part because there are no reliable maps. Geographically speaking, the future is akin to those oceanic margins that cartographers of old so helpfully labelled “Here be Dragons.” Indeed, there may well be dragons. Or baby unicorns. Or giant radioactive sea slugs. A big problem with navigating the future is that, not only is it immeasurably big, it is also many. If I start from the point in time where I stand right now, I can see a multitude of possible futures, each one uncharted, each one spinning off into infinite combinations and permutations that shift and sway with each forward step.

here-be-dragons

Granted some of those possible futures are more probable than others. Given what I remember about the science of probability from high school math, I would put my money on the giant radioactive sea slugs before I would trust in the odds of a big lottery win. Especially since I don’t buy lottery tickets. But the fact remains that even the most well-informed prediction is no guarantee that something I anticipate is actually going to happen. And as for wishes

I’ve made a lot of wishes. I’ve wished on stars, wished on birthday candles, wished on trains going over bridges and coins thrown in fountains. I’ve wished away a lot of perfectly good nows in pursuit of some pretty nebulous what-ifs.

You know what I mean, because you’ve done it too.

Things will be better when…

I would be happier if…

I just need to hang on until…

But the future is a big place. So big that we can wander there forever without ever finding our way to the precise whens and ifs and untils on which we have staked our happiness.

herebedragons

“Here be dragons” was intended as a caution to the wayward mariner who dared wander beyond that which was known. It has taken me into my 50s to embrace the realization that all I can ever know for certain is now.

And, unlike the future, now is a very small place. Small, and surprisingly manageable.

It took me five decades of wandering lost through the dragon-territory of what-if and if-only to fully appreciate the size of now.

Now is the size of a single footstep.  Now is the size of the first word of the conversation you are dreading. Now is the size of the registration form for that course about that thing you’ve always imagined learning how to do.  Now is the size of picking up the phone to call the travel agent, the real estate agent, the divorce lawyer, the tattoo artist, the friend you had the falling out with. Now is the size of a single push-up. Now is the size of the word “no” when you would previously have said “yes.” Now is the size of the word “yes” when you would previously have said “no.”

Now is a place small enough to navigate without a map, because you can see all the way to the edges from wherever you stand. And you hardly ever see dragons.

 

 

I go walking: Spring, actually

The numbers have been crunched, the stats tallied. We weren’t just imagining it. It really was the worst winter any of us had ever experienced. When it came to cold, we even managed to outdo the surface of Mars. It’s now the third week of April, and there is still a sizeable pile of snow on my patio.

ice floe 2But the river is opening up, so I’m declaring it spring, even if I do still have to wear gloves on the way to work in the morning. This is the season when I can scrape ice off my car window when I leave for work and turn on the air conditioning on the way home. In one afternoon I will encounter people out walking in shorts, passing people who are still wearing parkas.

geeseSpring has been so late this year that the first wave of geese to arrive turned back south again because we were still in such a deep freeze. They are returning again now — each day there are more and more of them, wading in half-frozen roadside puddles and looking perplexed by the piles of snow still dotting the brown grass.

Some of my walking routes are still such an awful mixture of mud and ice that I am, for the most part, sticking to pavement until the thaw ends. Wandering through residential streets affords me a view of the aftermath of plowing this winter’s exceptional quantity of snow. Huge chunks of curb, snapped off by the force of the plows, sit perched atop snow banks that are studded with the road sand and salt.

broken curb 2Everything is brown. The grass is brown.  The trees are brown. The geese are brown. The river is always sort of brown. Even the snow that remains along the side of the roads is brown.

Except the sky, which, in all its blueness, promises that no matter how seemingly endless this winter has been, eventually things will turn green again.

picnic table 1

 

 

 

 

 

On tea bags, time, and running away to join the circus

I forgot to buy tea bags.

I could have bought tea bags at any number of points throughout the day. I knew when I went to bed last night that I was using the last one. But I forgot. And now, bedtime is looming without my usual cup of cranberry herbal tea.

This bugs me, just a little.

On the other hand, it bugs me a lot that the lack of my favourite bedtime beverage bugs me at all.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I talk a lot about how much I value change. So much so, that the word change looms largest in my cloud of most frequently used tags. So I admit to feeling considerable irritation at being forced to face the uncomfortable fact that I am a total creature of habit.

And now this small thing– this lack of a tea bag– has me reflecting on all the other too-comfortable habits on which I rely. My far-from-adventurous diet. My homogeneous wardrobe. My evenings spent in pretty mundane activities. My holidays spent at the same family vacation spot every summer.

Do I really love change as much as I say I do? Or am I just a great pretender?

Am I a creature of habit because I’ve reached the stage in life where I know myself and what I want, or because I’ve settled into a nice, safe rut. This question is causing me a great deal more consternation than my lack of cranberry tea.

Deep down, the changes that I crave the most are big changes. Quitting-your-job-and-running-away-to-join-the-circus changes. Dramatic changes to how I live and how I make a living. Substantial changes to the way I spend my time and the people I spend it with. But they aren’t the kind of changes that just happen. They need building, step by tedious step. Perhaps I need to run out of tea bags more often to jolt myself out of my cozy patterns into taking actual steps toward the big dreams.

Sometimes I fear that it’s too late for big changes. I worry that I’ve reached the age where I should be happy just to settle in and appreciate my comfortable habits and my nightly cup of tea. But then I see other people, older than me, courageously strike out in new directions– new businesses, new relationships, new homes in new cities. And I have to believe that there’s still time for a grand adventure.

With or without cranberry tea.

imagine

 

 

Happy New…anything

calendarIf you really think about it, the hoopla surrounding the arrival of a new year is a bit puzzling. Part of me wants to insist that January 1st is just an ordinary day, made significant only by the inconvenience of having to go out and buy another calendar. There are all sorts of other “new years” we might just as easily recognize. Where I work, everything revolves around a budget year that starts on April 1st. I could easily make my August birthday my own personal year marker.  As a former teacher, the beginning of September still resonates for me as a time for new beginnings. I also grew up with the Christian liturgical year which starts four Sundays before Christmas with the season of Advent. So why make such a big deal about the first day of January?

And yet I still get caught up in it. Not so much in the “new-year’s-resolution” sense, but more in the “reflecting back and looking forwards” sense. As arbitrary as it may be, there is something about the changing from one year number to the next that seems worth celebrating.

Since this is my first New Year’s since starting my blog, I’ve been thinking for some days now about what I wanted to post to celebrate the start of 2014. From what I’ve seen there seem to be three common approaches for an “approaching the New Year” blog post:

  1. The Retrospective post. Given that this blog has only been in existence since September 12, a “year in review” where I revisit all my most popular posts over the past 12 months seems both self-indulgent and silly. Maybe next year.
  2. The Resolutions post. I could write a list of New Year’s resolutions. Except I don’t really make resolutions. At least not in the traditional sense of “here are ten things I’m going to change utterly about my life that I will doubtless have given up on by Valentine’s Day.” More about that later.
  3. The “Why I Don’t Make Resolutions” post. To be honest, this one is the least appealing, mainly because it’s hard not to feel as though it has all been said many times over.

The truth is, the celebration of the New Year appeals to me because it’s all about starting fresh. A new calendar page. A clean slate. Whether you make formal resolutions or not, you are still getting handed a fresh, new untouched bundle of days/weeks/months that are yours to do with what you will.

I like the New Year because it’s a time when, briefly, the rest of the world joins me in reflecting on the positive aspects of change. You see one of the reasons I don’t typically make New Year’s resolutions is that they would be indistinguishable from the resolutions I make every other day. Resolutions about making better use of my time and money. Resolutions about eating healthy and getting more exercise. Resolutions about projects that need finishing and friends I am overdue to call.

A few years ago, during a time when my life was in some chaos, I adopted as my mantra the phrase “change one thing.” I discovered that, regardless how out of control my universe seemed, there was always one thing that I exercised a degree of control over– one aspect of my life in which I could make a choice.  I also discovered that if I changed one small thing, it often led to other bigger changes that I hadn’t dared to hope for.

The changes didn’t have to be big ones. In fact most of the time they weren’t. They were simple things. Make a cup of tea at the office in the morning instead of stopping to buy coffee on the way to work. Rearrange the living room furniture. Go for a walk downtown at lunch instead of surfing Facebook at my desk. The point was simply that they were a change. And a change that resulted from a choice I made.

Which is why I am always making resolutions. Because there is always something worth changing. Always a choice to be made. And because I’m human enough to make lots of bad choices, so there is always room for improvement.

When I was in grade six, my mother decided to quit smoking. But she didn’t just resolve to quit smoking. Instead she told herself: “today, I am not going to have a cigarette.” She told herself that for weeks and months– perhaps years– of consecutive “todays.” The fact that I am telling you this forty years later is some indication of the degree to which I was inspired by her example.

So actually yes, I will be making resolutions for January 1st. But I’m not planning to publish a list of them, because to be honest they aren’t that special. They are the same sort of resolutions I will make for January 27th, or March 11th, or November 16th.  You see, even though we are celebrating the start of a whole new year, the reality is that the year only gets doled out to us one day at a time. And every and any one of those days is a new opportunity to make a small change that will add weight to all the other small changes that ultimately add up to becoming the big changes in your life. So every day is an opportunity for a new resolution. To change one thing.

Flowing

“You cannot step into the same river twice.” — Heraclitus of Ephesus

freezing 3

I can’t keep up with the changes. I managed to snap some photos a few days ago that captured the beginning of ice formation along the edges of the river. But they are already historical artifacts. The ice spreads and thickens daily, and the riverbank is now blanketed in snow.

I wanted to capture the river’s changes as it transitioned into winter, but it seems that the changes march on without waiting for my feeble attempts to record them. It’s dark when I arrive home from work now, and even if there was enough light left for picture taking, it’s difficult to fine-tune a camera focus wearing thick mittens. And you really don’t want to take the mittens off for long.

Under the forming ice, the river continues to flow. In the spring, when the ice breaks up, it will be a different river flowing past my door. It may look the same, but as Heraclitis sagely observed some 2500 years ago, it won’t be the same water, and I won’t be the same observer.

I talk about change a lot. I crave change. I find it energizing and exciting. Without a regular infusion of new challenges, I get restless. I probably use “change” as a tag more often than any other word.

I wonder if my interest in change was nurtured by growing up next to a river. Or  do I find the river soothing because its constant changing resonates with my thought processes?

I don’t suppose it matters. What matters is that the river’s lessons have seeped so thoroughly into my frame of reference that I know exactly what is meant by “you can’t step in the sane river twice.” Because the kind of change that interests me is not a change in what one does. It’s a change in who one is.

freezing 2A fellow blogger got me thinking about transformation this evening–  about the kind of learning that moves you into a place so different from where you began that you can scarcely communicate what the change is all about.

I know I’m not the same person I was ten years ago. The person I was twenty years ago would be surprised by the person I have become. The person I was 30 years ago would scarcely recognize me. In truth, she would probably find me shocking and perhaps a little frightening. Certainly she would be confused by some of the thoughts and things I now hold dear, and baffled by those I have chosen to leave behind.

But, like the continuous flowing of the river, all those versions of me are seamlessly connected. The paradox of the river is that, while it is constantly in a state of change, it is always in the same place. Likewise I am still me, in spite of, or maybe because of, all my transformations.

Without a net

What’s the thing you’re most scared to do? What would it take to get you to do it?

I always chuckle a little when people ask me about my “career plan.” I’ve had a varied career– made several significant changes in role and focus. But there wasn’t a lot of planning involved.

Well actually there wasn’t any planning really. What there was, was a lot of gradual evolving and (sometimes very happenstance) networking. And lots of being in the right place at the right time.

And, there has been an unbroken safety net positioned squarely underneath every one of my career moves.

I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve always been in a position to move from one job to the next without a gap– without unemployment. And I should also acknowledge that I have the good fortune to never have had a job that was so stifling or unpleasant that I felt I just had to escape regardless of the risks.

But I would be lying if I said I’ve never been tempted. There have been lots of times when I have fantasized about walking away and winging it. Times when I’ve thought “what if…”

But I’ve never had the courage to jump without a net. The closest I ever came was leaving a full-time, “permanent” teaching position for a part-time term position with an employer I considered more desirable. But even then I was going directly from one paycheque to another. One pension plan to another. One benefits package to another.

You get the idea.

Once in a while I catch myself dreaming about going out on my own. Freelancing. Consulting. Being my own boss.

I know people who’ve done it– who do it very successfully. I know it can be done.

But I always stop short of giving up the net. When you get to my age, a good pension plan can be pretty addictive.

The good news is that, notwithstanding the fact that every job has its ups and downs, I actually like where I work right now. Fortunately I am in a job that has enough change built right into it to satisfy my endless craving to learn new things.

I don’t know who it was that originally said, ““Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.”  Perhaps I’ve never had the courage to just plain quit any job because I’ve never had a job that was that kind of painful. I know I should be grateful for that. Because I know people who have reached that kind of breaking point in their work life and have had to make the leap–without a net–for the sake of their own well-being and personal integrity.

I still think it takes guts to jump overboard, even if  you are convinced the ship is sinking!

A couple of months ago Marina Shifren resigned from her job with a video that went viral. Now that’s what I call jumping without a net.

Rebuilding

Today’s Daily Prompt says, “We all know someone who could use a pep talk… so write them one!”

I thought about any number of pep talks I could write: for my friend who is on the verge of becoming a mother, for my friend who is in a difficult situation at work, for my friend who is struggling to help someone close confront an addiction. But when I opened up WordPress to craft this post, a new post from a blog I have been following popped up, and I knew who the recipient of my “pep talk” had to be. So Matt, this is for you, and for anyone else reading this who is navigating the murky and tumultuous waters of divorce.

ruins 3To borrow a phrase from another universe of famous social media pep talks: It gets better.

There is such a thing a “normal” life after divorce. But it will take longer than you think. Longer than you want. Longer than you might hope. But you will get there.

The journey will not be smooth.

You will hear things you wish you could forget. You will say things you regret. You will think that you are losing your mind. You will feel like you have lost the will to be kind.

You will rage at the small injustices and crumple under the force of the big ones.

You will cry. Even if you’re not really a crier, you will cry.  And if you ARE a crier, your neighbours might want to head for higher ground.

You will find it utterly impossible to imagine a state where you do not feel as awful as you feel right now.

But it will get better. Someone told me it would take two years for me to feel “normal” again. I’d say that was a conservative estimate. It took me two years to feel relatively “together.” “Normal” was a longer time coming. But it did come.

If you haven’t already done so, make a beeline to your closest bookstore and invest in a copy of Rebuilding: When your relationship ends by Dr. Bruce Fisher and Dr. Robert E. Alberti. Or see if there is an agency somewhere in your neck of the woods that offers the “Rebuilding” course that is based on Fisher and Alberti’s work. It will make a difference.

IMG-20130912-00348 (2)Eventually you will build a new life that doesn’t revolve around this enormous hurt. So will your ex. It will take one of you longer than the other to move on in this way, especially if one of you wanted the divorce more than the other. But eventually you will both find new ground to stand on.

The kids will get older and grow into their own lives. So will you.

One day you will find yourself in a conversation with your ex and realize that you are not clenching your jaw that way any more.

One day you will discover that you have let go of  something you thought would anger you for all eternity.

One day your ex will surprise you with a phone call just to wish you well before a big event like an important job interview. Or surgery.

hairOne day you will listen to someone in the throes of new-divorce angst and rage and self doubt, and you will catch yourself thinking “was that me?” And you will appreciate the learning that you did along the journey from there to here.

And you will be grateful for the person you have become along the way.

Impact

Today’s Daily Prompt: Tell us about a habit you’d like to break. Is there any way it can play a positive role in your life?

I like meteors.

The Perseid meteor shower peaks around August 9-14 every year. Like most events in the night sky, it is best viewed far away from the ubiquitous light pollution of urban areas. I’ve often been fortunate to be at the family cottage where we can lie on the dock, away from even the obscuring effect of the cottage lights, and listen to the lapping of the water and the distant cry of a loon while we watch for “shooting stars.”

Lying next to that particular body of water to observe bits of space rock burst into flame as they enter the earth’s atmosphere is made extra exotic by the fact that West Hawk Lake is actually a meteor impact crater. It is, therefore, hard not to contemplate the reality that once upon a time one of those pretty lights shooting through the night sky fell all the way and hit the earth right where you are lying–with enough impact to make a hole in the ancient granite of the Canadian Shield that is approximately 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) in diameter and 115 metres (377 feet) deep. It’s enough to make one go rooting around in the shed for dad’s old hard-hat.

Shooting stars are a beautiful sight when you are privileged to catch a glimpse of one. Perhaps because they are so ephemeral, they have throughout history acquired near-mystical significance. People once saw them as divine omens. We make wishes on them. But in reality all that magical beauty is just the long-distance view of something crashing into the upper atmosphere and being destroyed by the resulting conflagration.

That’s a less lovely image. In fact, it sound kind of messy.

Pretty nice for a hole in the ground...
Pretty nice for a hole in the ground…

Judging from the way the rocks are jumbled along the shoreline, I assume that, when the meteorite (which is what you call a meteor that actually lands) landed in the middle of the stretch of Canadian Shield that is now West Hawk Lake, it was extremely messy. Today,  the outcome of that catastrophic impact is an exquisite, spring-fed lake that has been my family’s summer destination for three generations.

We may wish on shooting starts, but it’s the meteorite landing that has the biggest impact.

I had my own crash-and-burn moment this week. In spite of my best efforts to ease myself back in gently, my first few days back at work after my leave left me feeling very much like I was hurtling into the atmosphere with enough force to ignite.

For one thing, there were some organizational changes announced just prior to my first day back, so I walked straight into the predictable tizzy that results from any such announcement. On top of that, this is a super busy time of year in my office. We are currently short-staffed. And of course, there was the shock of the overall pace and complexity of it all after so many leisurely days of doing, and thinking about, one thing at a time. But all that wasn’t really enough to explain why my head exploded.

Then about halfway through the week something shifted. I realized that I had fallen into an old habit that never serves me well: the habit of believing that I’m stuck in a rut, when in reality the tools to pull myself out of it have been in my hands all along. I realized that the greatest gift of my three month break from the familiar wasn’t all the fun I had while I was away, but rather a renewed clarity about things when I came back. I saw that for the umpteenth time in my life I had slipped into convincing myself that my work was something that happened to me, rather than something that was mine to create.

I remembered what I liked about my job: I have the great good fortune to be in a position to make an impact.

Marilyn Monroe is reputed to have said, “Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.”

I may be a little singed by the time I hit the ground, but when I do, I intend to leave a mark.

If a tree falls

When you live your life on the riverbank, you are always at risk of losing the ground beneath your feet.

fallen treeThe fallen tree was once a tall oak. Seldom do you get to see a whole tree, roots and all. This tree would have been a great object lesson for my grade 4 teacher—no leaves to obscure the systematic forking of the branches, and not much soil to obscure the mirroring root structure. Just a clod of riverbank clay to which the roots have clung, but to no avail. When the riverbank crumbles it crumbles, and if you happen to be standing on the broken bit, you go with it.

Sometimes we can read the warnings. The ground cracks. Fissures appear in the grass and loose soil tumbles down the bank. There are human-made warning signs too. But even if you could warn a tree it wouldn’t help. Because the tree can’t take a step back.

A healthy tree can bend and flex to withstand the force of tremendous winds. But it has no defense against the force of erosion. And if a tree falls, there’s no getting it back up on its feet. It’s pretty hard to transplant a fully grown oak.

erosion signFortunately, when the ground beneath my feet gives way, as it has more times than I care to contemplate, I am not bound by the force of my own roots to succumb to the collapse. At the core of my resilience is the knowledge that I can take a step back and regroup when I see the warning signs. I may slide and lose my balance for a while, but I can head off the big fall with evasive maneuvers.

Most of the time. There are still moments when the ground beneath me opens up without warning and I find myself suspended over nothing, like Wile E. Coyote sprinting past the cliff’s edge. The secret, of course, is not to look down. Wile E. only falls when he looks down. You won’t always notice when I’m travelling across the void, because the years have taught me to keep going forwards until eventually my feet touch solid ground again on the other side. And take root in new soil.

Know the signs...
Know the signs…

Lately I’ve been noticing some cracks in the soil around my feet. Some things that mattered a great deal to me seem less important now, and other things are gaining prominence. I can feel my universe start to slide. In my sixth decade am coming to a new realization—now that I have learned to cross the void when it comes, I don’t need to wait until I lose my footing. I can step off the edge and navigate the air to a new solid ground. Because you can transplant a fully grown person.

This post has been entered in a weekly writing challenge. Click the button below to read other entries, and on Thursday vote for your 5 favourites.

Keeping track

Lately I’ve been reflecting on my relationship to tracking, in the sense of “keeping track” of details of my daily activities. This reflection is due in large part to the inspiration of an eloquently written and thought-provoking blog called The Unquantified Self. You should read it.

I’m not a big numbers person myself, which helps explain why the unexpected opportunity to swap long division for a drawing lesson stuck in my memory for more than 4 decades. Consequently, I’m not very motivated to keep track of anything that requires a lot of counting.

As a manager, I drive my financial officers crazy. One made it his practice to stop by my office regularly, sit down across from me with a notepad, and smile sweetly as he asked, “What have we spent this week that you haven’t told me about?”

I had a pedometer but I gave it away. Last week I was inspired by Automattic’s Worldwide WP 5k 2013  to venture onto one of those sites that enables you to record your walking route. I wanted to figure out how far I was actually walking a bit more precisely than “I think I was gone for about forty minutes.” It was an interesting exercise, albeit a frustrating one–at least until I figured out that it would indeed allow me to record that I cut through the parking lot and across the field. But it was just an exercise. I can’t imagine actually sitting down and recording the statistical details of my walks on a regular basis.

I can’t remember the last time I owned a bathroom scale. I had to fill out a form earlier today that asked for my current weight. I guessed. I haven’t a clue, really, but I know my jeans fit looser since I started walking every day.

My favourite recipes are the ones that are so simple I don’t even need to refer to the recipe any more— and I can eyeball most of the quantities.

I’m supposed to do 30 reps of each of my hip therapy exercises. It’s apt to turn into 30ish, because my mind so easily gets distracted by other thoughts and then I suddenly realize I’ve lost count.

All my favourite numbers end with “ish.”

My aversion to tracking isn’t just about numbers, because I’m equally undisciplined when it comes to tracking things in words. I have kept a journal at various points in my life, but it’s not something I can sustain on a daily basis for any great length of time. When I embarked on this blog, I promised myself that I would not attempt the folly of committing to posting according to any sort of schedule. You might hear from me daily for a while. And you might hear from me 2 or 3 times in a month when life is particularly crazy. And that’s just how it is.

trackI am more interested in experiencing life than I am compelled to record every passing detail. I’d rather make tracks than keep track. I sometimes wish I was better at keeping track of details. I do have a great deal of respect for people who have the self-discipline to track their activities consistently, but that will never be me.  I also know that for some there is a dark side to tracking, where the tracking takes over and becomes the activity.

But as I thought through what I wanted to say about tracking, it came to me that there are a couple of things I do track pretty meticulously. I am fanatical about writing things on calendars. (This comes, I suppose, from having double booked myself on more than one occasion. The worst example was the time that I made arrangements to personally host both a work-related event and a bridal shower on the same night.) I am also pretty obsessive about tracking my personal finances (although much of the time it feels like I am just doing this in order to wave goodbye to the dollars as they fly out of my account!) I have one of those accounting programs where you enter all your income and expenditures. And I do enter them. And categorize them. But my favourite part is that I can actually enter the regular items in advance, so I use it not just to determine how much I have, but to project what, in theory,  I ought to have after, say, the next three paydays.

It strikes me that, in both cases, I am recording not the past but the future. I don’t know if it’s correct to even call it “tracking” when it hasn’t happened yet, but I see it as keeping track of my resources of time and money. Because those resources make it possible to do the things I want to do.

And I have no trouble keeping track of what I want to do.