Tuesday, March 31, 2015

My Not So Fascinating Life Story

beautiful table setting

I sipped my wine slowly as we went around the table telling our life stories and how we came to be docents at the museum. There were a lot of degrees with empty plates of food in front of them. The stories of education and foundations founded, career accolades, and success hung around the air as I sat there wondering how I got a seat at this table. As each person finished giving their oral resume everyone oohed and ahhed at accomplishments the storyteller would turn to the person on their left and smile waiting to be regaled with the next story of knowledge and success. I had a flashback to a moment in high school when one day in Latin Preston Phillips asked me "How did you get into this class?"

The sun began to set over the mountain across the lake and the last tired rays of an April sun beamed through massive windows just about the time the crusty gentleman on my right, began speaking. He was suddenly backlit like a heavenly apparition. Unlike the rest of us, he was a neighbor who'd been invited to dinner because our hostess thought he might find the evening interesting. I'd noticed earlier over cocktails that he had a familiar accent but the voices mingled together in the spacious room and somehow got lost high in the beams overhead before I could place it.

"I am a rocket scientist" he began. Something in my brain both laughed hysterically and rolled its eyes with disbelief that the universe had set me up in a way that it clearly found hilarious. I was profusely thankful that there were no brain surgeons at the table while my mind raced wildly in search of anything that would make my life sound interesting following this guy. "I was living in Germany" he continued after mentioning more than one Ph.D. "I escaped to America to avoid working on the rocket program for the Nazis as they were trying to force me to do." He continued on with his story which from time to time drew gasps from the other dinner guests.

I thought about reading Little Women aloud while my kids colored on the floor. I pictured myself driving to ballet classes and baseball games. I had flashbacks of going over dividing fractions again with a kid who understood it yesterday. Just about the time I was reliving my Martha Stewart pastry phase the German rocket scientist smiled and turned his twinkly gray eyes to me. He looked at me and put his hands calmly in his lap as if he'd brought the most exotic yet humble dish to our biographical pot luck. The way you would if you showed up at the fellowship hall and placed your tiki masala between the baked chicken and macaroni and cheese.

Suddenly everyone was looking at me and my mind settled resolutely into owning who I was. I looked around the table making eye contact with everyone and said, "I am an autodidact." Nothing. "Does anyone know what that is?" They stared at me blankly and I thought perhaps I'd used the word wrong. Then the rocket scientist pointed his knobby finger at me and said, "Eet means...self-taught." He looked at me and winked as if he and I shared a special secret. I suddenly loved him and felt him cheering me on telepathically. Of course, that could have been the wine.

I began to tell my story, sure not to leave out mention of my high school diploma kind of like the person who mentions that they have a dog in a room full of parents with genius children. I outlined my plan of personal enlightenment. I preached the tiniest sermon on the salvation of curiosity.  I ended by outlining my theory of education and briefly explaining the curriculum I designed to educate my own children.

My impassioned autobiographical speech was met in the end with affirmations from the group and questions about the process. I left out the parts about lying awake at night wondering if I was ruining the two human beings entrusted to me.  I didn't focus on the more fly by night ideas I had that were abandoned because they didn't work. I omitted the year my daughter was in the 5th grade and we both cried every day during math and she dropped her pencil on the floor every 3 minutes as a means of diversion. My presentation made it sound as though I hadn't just made it up as I went along.

I added that I'm a beekeeper and told about that thing I do every year where I try to learn how to do one new thing. Read about that here. When I finished answering questions and sat back in my chair the rocket scientist caught my glance, closed his eyes, and nodded slowly at me.

No matter what the details are, your story is your story. It's okay to be proud of who you are and what you have learned along the way. It might also be a good idea to have a brief and somewhat entertaining version of it ready just in case you ever have to tell it at a moment's notice. Hopefully, you'll follow someone less interesting than a rocket scientist who escaped from the Nazis.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Secrets to Living Young at Any Age

I don't know about you but I'm terrified of getting old. Possibly because as a child I was never around older people and as an adult the ones I've been around haven't exactly been doing it well. Oxygen tanks, frailty, falling, and a lack of physical energy don't paint an encouraging picture and that is all without the nightmare of dementia.

I've been encouraged recently by a group of women I volunteer with at the art museum (you can read more about what I'm learning from them here). . The book, Blue Zones paints a brighter picture and gets down to how to live well over a long period of time.

One of the things I'm learning from paying attention to those who are aging well is that you have to keep moving. Even if it hurts. Your body was made to move and sitting down will eventually kill you. And not in a quick and easy way. In a slow, dull, painful way...possibly over quite a long time.

The second thing is that the people who live a long time are interested AND interesting.  Baroness Trumpington (isn't that the best name ever?)  said the secret is being "interested in life generally."

Judging from my friends at the museum, many of whom are old enough to be my parents (I get a kick out of listing to them tell stories about graduating from college the year I was born) and recent books and videos, here are the things that will keep you young:

Not smoking. I don't know any older people who are still on the move who were smokers.

Keep moving, even it means overcoming aches and pains. Sitting down, or worse yet, spending the day in bed will suck the life and energy out of you.
cartwheel beach

Do not allow yourself to get overweight. But don't do any unhealthy dieting, you'll ruin your metabolism.

Have a regular sleep schedule. I don't have evidence for this one, but I'm pretty sure you can ruin your circadian rhythm just like your metabolism.

Be interesting, which is likely to mean you are interested in lots of things, and are keen to keep learning. You should have something more interesting to share than the details of your most recent ailment. It's how you keep getting invited to parties. 
woman book art

Be social. Being connected is a huge key, you need a support network outside your family.

men walking

Ditch the negative attitude, grumbling, and complaining.

Refuse to be overtaken by fear.

Embrace change. Would you really want everything to stay the same?

Be grateful.

Volunteer. The most energetic people I know are not just focused on themselves. 

Plan on living to be 100 and start now to adjust your life accordingly. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Tools of the Trade

Besides the actual hives and a swarm of bees you'll need some tools.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Inside the Hive: Comb, Capped Honey, Brood, Pollen

bees and pollen

I smoke the hive and lift off the outer cover and then the inner cover. I always get a rush of adrenaline when I do this. The bees are noisy and the humming can be unnerving at first. You'll get use to that. Once inside the hive I want to look for 3 good signs on the frames. Notice that the bees are building out comb. Those little six sided cells are where they'll store honey, pollen, and brood. When the honey is ready they cap it off. We especially want to see brood comb. Those are your baby bees.

bees honeycomb

frame of capped honey

frame of brood

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

How Bees Are Making Me Rethink Community

beekeeping and community

Bees are perhaps the most organized and productive society on the planet. This is possible because the bees care about the colony. They do things for the group and have a highly developed sense of community. They don't care who gets the credit for the work they do and they do wacky things like making sure all the work gets done and everyone gets taken care of. Pretty radical.

I have been a lifelong worshipper at the altar of the individual. I mean, I live in the US so it's kind of in our DNA. Everything is about me and my rights, right? God bless America and Ayn Rand.  I remember how I felt when Hillary Clinton said "it takes a village." I arrogantly spouted that is only took me and sometimes my husband, when he wasn't at work, to raise happy and well adjusted children who would become productive members of society. And hilarious adults. Because frankly if you brought up kids with a lousy sense of humor I am going to judge you.

But on this side of parenting--the done side--I have a confession to make. That village that I claimed didn't exist was crucial. Because while I was claiming all the credit for having the most amazing children (or pretending not to know them depending on the day) lots of people were helping. Grandparents were giving me a break, Sunday school teachers were reinforcing not clobbering and biting, my friends were mindful and caring. Elderly neighbors shared wisdom learned over long lives. Whoever produces COPS was teaching them what NOT to do unless you want to end up on national TV in your underwear.

As Americans we are terrified that saying that the group matters or that community is important is the pathway to group think and disregarding the needs and desires of the individual. Trust me as a creative person and parent of a couple of free thinkers, you would never catch me saying that. The key is finding the balance in the individual vs. society struggle. 

When I go to schools now to teach about bees one of the important lessons I try to get across to kids is that our actions don't just affect us. Our good actions as well as our bad ones end up affecting everyone. I often ask what their classroom, or home, or neighborhood would look like if everyone did what needed to be done without being asked (or told).

Their eyes light up but then they wiggle uncomfortably. So do I. As an adult this makes it hard for me to walk past trash at the park without picking it up. By the way bees do not tolerate any foreign substance in the hive and are meticulously clean. Just ask the guy who tried to hide 18K in cash from his wife during an ugly divorce. (The bees chewed it up and pushed it out of the hive) Now that is hilarious.

The bees (and the Gospel) make it hard for me to ignore the homeless guy on the corner, which I am desperately trying to do when he is looking at me and I am pretending that whatever is happening to my radio right now is the most important thing ever. Or that the cure for cancer is in my purse if I could only find it --I will admit that I am far from where I want to be. Even at this late date (50 years old) I still have a lot of work to do.

So while the bees also do some things we frown upon in society nowadays-- they will kill a queen if they sense she is weak and raise up a new one. They also throw all the males out in the fall because they just use up resources and are only good for mating. We probably shouldn't do that. But they have a few things to teach us about things like cooperation and hard work.  Lessons we all need.

This beekeeper needs them every day and often more than that.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Bee Love

bees honeycomb

I am currently just a tad obsessed...

Monday, March 9, 2015

How to Have a Productive Mid-Life Crisis

lead in to a great article about mid life crisis

First you need a real crisis, the kind that is life changing and causes growth through pain. Sorry. I don't make the rules I'm just relaying what I've learned.

Are YOU your own crisis? 

This applies mostly to the kind of crisis foisted on you by someone else's actions. You could however be creating your own crisis. Those are mostly brought about by realizing that life is half over, or feeling like you've done what everyone else thought you should do, or grasping for one last chance at youth or freedom. If that is where you think you are you'll need to heal from possible regret over past decisions or the pain of realizing this is not how you thought life would turn out. Trust me, we have all felt that. In which case this post still applies.

Of course the ideal thing is to know yourself so well by this point in your life that you avoid that kind of crisis altogether.

What it looks like

You are going to get knocked down by an event you never saw coming, which it has been my experience you don't need to go looking for or create yourself. The universe will obligingly deliver it to your doorstep.  One day you open the door and there it is in a sort of squashed brown package with ripped brown paper and a tire mark on one side. If you are lucky it isn't on fire. This is your life altering event. It may be deceptively disguised as divorce papers or a call into your boss's office where she hands you a box to put your plant and personal photos in when you clean off your desk. This is God's hilarious way of saying "Hey, let's work on you."

You are going to think this is the worst thing ever. Don't fool yourself. It is. But after this you can stop messing around. Read  Getting Over a Broken Heart in 10 (not so) Easy Steps.

The meltdown:

Now you have this horrible thing that has happened to you and you have a little breakdown or meltdown. Or maybe a big one. You're going to want to buy your tissue from Costco at this stage. Keep some in the car because drivers who cut you off or honk at you in traffic can make you cry. Unless you are a man in which case they may make you want to kill them. Take the gun out of your car and give it to a friend for safe keeping. This is the part where you need some people who love you, or who are at least willing to listen to your tale of woe.

(Read Jane Eyre during this phase.) Read about how to take care of yourself here.

There aren't any time limits on this stage or any other. But do not numb yourself. Don't self medicate. Don't drink too much. Don't start relationships that remotely look like they might involve sex. Those are all just forms of temporarily easing the pain and you are going to need to have felt all of that later on the other side. This is your mid life crisis and it's okay to wallow around in the pain of the crappy thing that has happened. For a while.

Keep your friends close but hold the door wide open for anyone who doesn't want you so they don't have trouble finding the exit. Life is short; stop grasping. Be kind to yourself with healthy food and walks outside. Let your friends nurture you and give you advice. Find a therapist.

What NOT to do:

Don't become the cliche.

You see that guy trying to put a car seat in his red sports car? That's because he started out having one kind of cliche crisis and ended up having another. The middle aged woman at the bar in clothes that it looks like she borrowed from her 14 year old? Just another cliche.

Do this instead!

If you have to be a cliche at least run away and join the Peace Corps or volunteer someplace and do some good in the world. 

Give yourself some time and some space. Being alone isn't the same thing as being lonely. In fact being alone can be sacred. Give yourself permission to stop being so active and noisy and connected with the whole world. Find a sunny window and sit. Take a walk and listen. Temporarily disconnect with everyone else so you can reconnect with yourself and God. Breathe.

Read about why you should be keeping a journal here.

What you want to do is decide what you want to do with your life after this. Take a tiny step in the direction of that idea. Buy some paint and a canvas. Offer to organize friends' closets. Take that cooking class. Whatever you are passionate about move in that direction. You must move so you don't get stuck. 

Read my advice about not getting stuck here.

While you are being kind to yourself and finding your passion make an effort to say yes. I'm a homebody most of the time (unless my passport is involved) and can easily sink into the routine of saying "no" to requests and invitations. If you are feeling sad or struggling with negative thoughts it can be hard to say "yes" but do it anyway. Rethink who you want to be. Throw off any old negative labels that have been given to you by others.

 Read about doing that here.

Make something!

During this time create something. This is the time to take the class to learn how to tile the bathroom or plant a garden. You might journal through the trauma or take photographs. The thing you create might be action about a cause you care about or getting yourself in shape. You don't have to write the great American novel. You don't have to climb Everest. But use your pain or anxiety in some kind of constructive way so that when this part of life is over and you have recovered you have something to show for it. 

The purpose of this post is to encourage you to have something to show on the other side of your crisis for all that pain. Something other than a few more wrinkles and a life that disappointed. Your creation, new skill, or new outlook is going to be your Kintsugi. Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold or other precious metals. The artist sees the cracks and brokenness not as damage that makes the piece worthless but as a part of the history of the pottery.

Fill your own broken places with gold. They are an important part of your story. Here are some things we can learn from the most painful seasons of life:

Lessons from a Rocky Shoreline

Growing Braver

What do You Want Most?

 In the midst of the storm read my crisis reading list. Crisis Reading: a Life Raft of Books 

If you have passed through this storm already I'd love to hear about what you learned and what personal growth you experienced.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Why I'm Going To Stop Saying "Be Careful"

advice from whistler's mother

My daughter, Kirsten, who is busy organizing the world over on her blog Organized Charm, and I have something new we say to each other when we say goodbye.

Where we used to say "be careful" we now say "be fearless!"

Okay, if I'm being really honest I've always been the one saying "be careful." It seems like a natural and motherly thing to say, right? Can I be a good mother if I'm not advocating caution at all times? Let's think about that.

I first began to rethink that warning when I read Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. The author pointed out that we are giving our friends and family a tacit reminder that the world is a scary and dangerous place.  She's right. We start saying it when our children are toddlers and we never stop.

There are times when it's appropriate like when there is ice on the steps or your friend is about to step on a rattlesnake. Maybe we should save saying "be careful" for when there is a specific danger that we can name. But saying it has become a habit. We are subtly reinforcing the idea that we should be afraid and worried all the time. Is that the message we want to send our kids out into the world with?

I still slip and say it, as I did the other day. But I'm quick to self correct and replace it with "Be fearless!"

The Capture of Joan of Arc

The other day I texted it to my daughter and added "Be fierce!"

While we're at it let's add "Be fabulous." If your kids or friends are headed off to a fun event this is even better. Going to a party? Be fierce and fabulous! 

Let's remind our kids and ourselves that they and we have whatever it takes to meet any challenge that may confront them once they walk out the door. Make fearless, fierce, and fabulous your new go-to parting phrase!

Reminder to be fabulous by Chaplan

Share the images I've included with the women you know that may need to be reminded what they are capable of.

The artwork I've used:

Whistler's Mother by James McNeill Whistler
The Capture of Joan of Arc by  Dillens Adolphe-Alexandre
Femme en Rose by Charles Joshua Chaplan

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Marking "Singing in Public" off My Bucket List

performing in public

Recently I marked something off my bucket list: singing in public.

Read my post about the Danger of a Bucket list.

My plan for this event was to practice secretly with my musician friend, have him tell me if my singing was lousy, and if not, possibly just get up to sing with him one night at one of his regular gigs much to the surprise of my husband. Then to sit down as if nothing had happened and mentally scratch a line through "Sing in public" on my mental bucket list.

That isn't at all what happened. The practices were revealed and then on vacation at the beach last fall our friend got out his guitar one night after we'd all had one too many at the Flora-Bama. I ended up singing my song in front of my husband as our other friend nodded off in a chair. When the song was finished I got a "Huh." So I put someone to sleep and got a huh.

Clearly I'd bring down the house. 

Finally a date was set for my debut and I thought I was ready. My husband began telling everyone we saw "Hey, Michelle is singing with Glen at the Mellow Mushroom on the 29th. You should come."  The first time I thought "Well, what's one more person."

Or two. Or three.

Far from the quiet semi-private experience of getting up and anonymously singing my song while strangers ate pizza and watched ESPN over the bar, I ended up with an attentive group of well wishers watching me sing a song with an old friend.

This is what Jack Daniels is for. 

I ate with my friends who had arrived and my daughter and her husband. A couple of friends showed up that my husband had called that day as a surprise.

"I couldn't just get up and do this quietly? You had to invite all these people?"

"Why can't I be proud of you?"


After the first set of songs and a couple of drinks I was ready. 

The guitar intro played and I started singing. At this point even though my singing skills are questionable, my acting skills kicked in. I just kept acting like I could sing.  About half way through the song something in my head exploded like a giant gas filled balloon taking up all the brain space with throbbing pain. I kept smiling and singing. Then a guy in the back stood up and started waving his arms at me.

I waved back with that full arm wave. The one you do when you go  see your favorite band and they play that song you made out to in high school. If I'd been holding a lighter it would have been perfect. Except now I'm the fan of some random guy with a mouth full of pizza who is probably watching his team score on the flatscreen over the bar. I sang the last verse slightly confused by all that and a headache that felt like the balloon in my brain would burst any moment.

Oh good. All my friends can be here when I die.

And just like that the song was over. It took maybe 3 minutes or so. People clapped because that's what you do for crazy people. Think campaign rally. Nearly all clapping.

If it was so un-fun and so uncomfortable what made me do it?  Because the thing I am the most afraid of is lying in a bed at the end of my life thinking "I wish I had..." That is the scariest thing of all. There will probably be something on it still at that point but I am making the list as short as possible. Plus as the parent of adult kids I think I still have some lessons to teach. Among those are overcoming your fears and keep trying new things no matter how old you get.

If you want to keep growing you have to keep doing the scary and uncomfortable thing. You have to keep pushing out of your comfort zone. You have to keep trying stuff. It's how you make an interesting life. 

Oh. You want to know the song, don't you? Mary Chapin Carpenter's Passionate Kisses. Here's how it's supposed to sound.