O Christmas Tree

I wrote this last year, but wanted to share during this Christmas season. Remember: no matter how much preparation you make, your holiday will be imperfect and that’s okay. This year, we are going to Italy and I’m reminded that the last international trip we took as a family in 2017, we missed the flight because I was too busy to notice that the flight time had been moved up. (We were able to reschedule for 2 days later). Then, our car broke down on the freeway next to a Portuguese slum. We still had a great trip.

I remember walking my daughter to her first day of kindergarten when she was five. Since she felt like a big girl, she walked alone ahead of me, with her big sparkly princess backpack which she chose. I held her brother’s hand, which was tiny at the time because he was three. I remember that I could fold my hand around his little hand to get a good grip, since he was a busy little guy who tended to dart away from me when I wasn’t looking.

Today my son’s hand is almost my size. My daughter still walks ahead of us but not because she’s a big girl with a shiny backpack, but because she’s a teen and we are embarrassing.

Every year my husband and I get smaller in comparison to our kids. Every year their hands are bigger and less likely to hold mine. But they still snuggle us and call us “Mommy and Daddy” which my husband and I definitely did not by their age.

Last weekend, we put up our Christmas tree, the lovely fake tree we bought 14 years ago as a temporary tree since my daughter was putting everything in her mouth and we didn’t want her eating the tree. We kept it through my son’s oral stage too. And then the tree became part of the family, since every year the kids would beg to keep it. Even though each year more of the bottom branches have fallen off, it still looks amazing after all the ornaments are on. So every year, we get down the four dusty boxes from the attic, we unpack all the ornaments, even the fragile ones now that the kids are old enough not to break them, and take turns putting up the ornaments.

The first year that we had the fake tree, my daughter was one and my husband hoisted her up to put a few shiny ornaments on the tree and then she was done. We finished up on our own later. That went on for a few years and then by the time the kids were four and two, they wanted to decorate the tree all by themselves, which meant one very small section of the tree and that was it. (We had to shift things around after they went to sleep).

Then there was the year my son was having a terrible three’s tantrum and pulled the head off my favorite ornament from my childhood– a lady with a purple shiny dress. He pulled her head right off and threw it across the room. The preschool years meant a lot of art and homemade popcorn ornaments that graced the tree. Then there was the “let’s buy some new ornaments every year to add to the ornaments from our parents and grandparents” until the tree was bursting at the seams.

Every year, my husband and I argue about how to hang the lights and why we forgot to get new Christmas lights since the bottom rows never work and start flashing or just stop shining if you move too quickly near the tree.  So we tiptoe around the tree, like it’s a sleeping giant or some old man we don’t want to wake.

Every year, we listen to our Christmas albums, which include Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby. But this year, my almost teen daughter pulled out her phone and her play list and introduced us to R&B infused pop songs that vaguely resembled Christmas songs.  Even she agreed ultimately that the music sounded more loud than festive, so we finally got to put our usual songs on.

Every year, we vow that this year, there will be no fighting when the tree goes up. In the early years it was, “It’s not fair that she got to put up more than I do.” Now it’s, “I can’t believe I had to put up so many since I have a lot of homework!” It’s easy to feel like we’re doing it wrong, and that everyone else is in a Norman Rockwell painting that has come to life, as they patiently unwrap each ornament and laugh and compliment one another.

I think what our little fake Christmas tree has seen over the years.

What really helped me to enjoy our rambunctious, slightly complaining tree decorations this time was to realize that how we show up is how we show up. The main thing is that we do. Someday soon, before we know it, our kids will have moved out, and we’ll be lucky if they help decorate the tree when they’re home from college or grad school, maybe still insisting on the same old fake tree that was part of their growing up. And maybe later their kids will decorate it so that they don’t get real tree stuck in their mouths. And then they can decorate one small part since that is what they can reach, or pull the head off the doll, or fight over who does what. And the cycle continues.

As Joni Mitchell wrote so beautifully in her song, Circle Game, which is about growing up:  “…And they tell you take your time/ it won’t be long now/Til you drag your feet/just to slow the circle down.”

As you seek your world stage, relish the imperfect gatherings you have with your family- whether it’s your kids, or your parents or other relatives and friends, because the end of the ride comes too soon, and you will wish you had dragged your heels to slow the circle down.

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Merry Christmas!

Wherever you are in the world and whatever holiday you celebrate, I want to wish you a Merry Christmas in as many languages as possible.

This season, remember that we are more alike than we are different, and that the answer to having peace in the world is to be a light for others. Practice love, show joy, extend kindness, and be of good cheer. As you find your world stage and claim your voice, use your gifts to brighten the world. It needs it now more than ever.

Wishing you all a very joyful season. With love and gratitude,

Melinda Stanford

World Stage Coaching

 

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Be a Torch

I got a nice email recently from a music colleague who had invited me to a singing party. I had to decline the invitation, as well as another one the same night, because my teenage daughter was having 20 friends for a skating party. The colleague wrote: “We’ll miss you, but you are where you need to be.” I thought that was lovely, because it reminded me that we can’t be in more than one place and usually we know where that place needs to be. A week ago, I flew to California as a surprise for my mom’s 80th b-day the next day, in which 30 people from all parts of her life came together to celebrate her. Then I spent two more days with friends and family hanging out and having fun. I flew home a few days later and then the next two nights, I was at my daughter’s school musical which she co-starred in, and then two days ago, my son performed a solo in the school wide Yule Fest. Yesterday I spent all day in a recording session for two different students, and then last night celebrated my daughter at the skating party. I was where I needed to be and it felt good. Yes, I’m tired, but I couldn’t have said no to any of these commitments, so they are what I focused my time and energy on.

Meanwhile, the dirty laundry took over the house, non-essential emails crowded my in box, I missed three holiday parties, and have no idea currently what is going on in the news. But I’ve laughed a lot, spent great time with family and friends who matter, and I feel filled up rather than depleted. I also stopped doing things that were making me feel bad, like watching true crime shows that scare me, reading the endlessly depressing news, and spending time with people I don’t enjoy. I also went on a few long hikes and walks and got a massage.

One of my favorite quotes about how to live well comes from George Bernard Shaw:

“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for a moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to the future generations.” 

For this holiday season, ask yourself how you can be a splendid torch for others and how you can burn brightly every day.

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Play Big

I wrote this two years ago but wanted to share this now that we are in the holiday season. So many women I know spend all of their energy making Christmas perfect for everyone else and end up feeling depleted, not to mention resentful. Part of claiming your world stage is knowing when to say no and allowing yourself to have needs, to take up space, to attend to yourself. This year we are having a light Christmas away from home, where the focus will be on travel and not on gifts. I am excited and relieved. You don’t have to travel away from home to simplify. Part of playing big is stating what you need.

I was attending a middle school presentation last night at my son’s school.  All the presentations by the middle school teachers were great, but I noticed that the women presenters tended to apologize either in words or body language.  One apologized for talking behind the podium, since she said she “wasn’t a podium kind of person,” even though all the speakers used the podium. Then she went on to give a riveting speech about learning and adolescence.  The other had a quiet little voice and made sure that she didn’t take up too much space on the podium, even though she was the focus of our attention.  Both women are very bright, talented professionals, and yet clearly on some level they were letting themselves play small.

When I lived in New York City after college, I rode the subway a lot to and from my job and navigated the crowded commuter trains.  What I’ll never forget is how many women took up half a seat or didn’t even claim an empty seat that opened up, whereas the men often took two seats and grabbed the free seats.  The men would really spread out in their seats too, with their legs spread apart and their hands crossed behind their heads with elbows out.  There’s now a term for it– Manspreading– because it’s still a huge problem.  But why aren’t women claiming their space?

Marianne Williamson, a spiritual writer and speaker, wrote once, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”  She goes on to write that we often think, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?  Actually who are you not to be?” How many of us apologize for ourselves because we’re afraid that if we shine too brightly, we might overshadow someone else.  What would happen if we really did let ourselves shine?

As you contemplate stepping onto your world stage, remember that a stage can only really light up if the people on it allow themselves to shine.  And it’s when we shine that we allow others to see their brilliance.

Notice when you want to play small and try this week to play big.

 

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Raise Your Standards

To me, there is nothing more attractive than a personal with high standards, from a strong moral code, to a larger sense of purpose. As the holidays unfold, remember that you are so much more than what presents you give. It is your presence which can inspire and change others. This week, think about spending less time consuming and more time creating, and see if your spirit soars.

I had a client a few years ago who is a talented performer but felt that he had hit a ceiling, and couldn’t imagine going further in his career.  I asked him a lot of questions about how he was spending his time and whom he was spending it with.  This client was very hard working and put a lot of great writing and music out into the world. To the outside, he seemed to be successful, but inside he felt stuck.  When I asked him, “What’s going to help you to break through to the next level?” he mentioned sheepishly that he had surpassed a lot of his friends, who preferred to hang out and complain about what wasn’t working, as opposed to supporting each other in going for their dreams. I reminded him that if you leave feeling shamed or drained by your so-called friends, it’s time to raise your standards.

As business philosopher, Jim Rohn, once said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”  Some of us have dreams we haven’t taken seriously because the people around us are too busy expecting us to be there for them, or to just sit around and be stuck, because that will make them feel better.  Making changes and going to the next level of success can be very tough, because it sometimes means making new choices about how you spend your time and with whom.  If people expect you to be the friend who is always there for them and you’re now working 24/7 to finally get that novel done or to launch the new business, they may be hurt.  This is where setting kind but firm boundaries and saying no more often is helpful.  If we don’t set those boundaries that allow for our dreams to flourish, we can easily get pulled back into what is comfortable and easy–which is not writing, not working, not achieving.  We want to be the good friend, the caring parent, the helpful person who never says no.  But is it worth it, just so that we can be the person who is always there no matter what for everyone?

At the end of your life, do you want to have gone for your dreams or pleased everyone around you?  You get to choose, but it’s not possible to do both. The family and friends who really care about you will respect your new boundaries and cheer you on as you say yes to yourself, one step at a time.  The others will fall away. In order to move to your world stage, you have to consciously choose who gets to come with you and whom you need to leave behind.  So this week, raise your standards for what you can and will achieve and notice who is still standing beside you.

 

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Giving thanks Again

This year, my family celebrated Thanksgiving alone, with just the four of us. It was a blessing to have something simple, given that my husband’s very good friend died unexpectedly two days before. In spite the busyness of our lives, we were able to slow down and grieve and my husband was able to help his friend’s widow with notifying others of the news and preparing for the service tomorrow. We also got to have dinner at a new friend’s house who cooked dinner for the four of us and his older daughter, and we ate and laughed for five hours. And then tonight we had friends over whom we haven’t seen in months and it felt so great to catch up and see our kids together, whom we have known since our son and their oldest son were friends in kindergarten. (My son didn’t like the boys in his class, so he went to the playground to scout out the friend he wanted to meet, who is the nicest boy to this day.)

We had a long to do list for this weekend, and to be honest most things didn’t get done. But we got to spend time with a new friend, who is so inspiring because he is joyful in spite of losing his 9 year-old younger daughter to cancer three years ago and then his wife 15 months ago, who had struggled with cancer off and on for 17 years. A lot of people would be bitter after so much loss, but he is open-hearted and present to whatever life brings. I am so humbled by this, particularly when I catch myself complaining about minor inconveniences. Clearly I have a lot to learn from this friend about how to focus on what matters and how to always be open to life, in spite of great loss. We also got to see old friends, who have two full-time jobs and four kids, but make time to be good friends. They delivered balloons and asked what else we needed last year when my son had emergency surgery. And all four of their kids are people you want to be around– they are smart and kind and interesting.

This week, the lesson was to be open to all of what life brings us, bad and good. So often, I focus too much on what I have to do and forget that the point of life is to live and enjoy and listen to music and be in nature and be with people who make us feel good. So often these days, the news is negative, and it’s easy to get caught up in all that’s wrong. But here’s what’s good: playing hide and go seek with a toddler, as I got to do tonight; coaching students to prepare for theatre auditions, which I did a lot this weekend, and seeing the look of pride in their eyes when they feel confident enough to get out on stage; glorious trees like this one which I took a picture of at my son’s school in early November; time with friends, new and old, and the gift of life, no matter how long it is.

As we enter the holiday season, remember to give thanks and surround yourself with people who show gratitude. We are so blessed indeed.

 

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Giving Thanks

I wrote this blog post two years ago. The bad news is the world feels even more unstable and violent, and people seem more rushed and more out of touch with their spirit than ever. The good news is that people are starting to wake up and envision a better world.

It is easy to forget, in the busyness of the holiday season, that Thanksgiving is about so much more than eating until we’re stuffed, spending hours doing dishes, and then collapsing on the couch. Last night we hosted twenty of my husband’s relatives, whom I happen to really like. We had people ranging in age from 84 years old to 6 months old, and the four older kids (ranging from 11-13 years old) put on a variation of a show that they have been putting on since they were little tiny kids, each year adding in the younger kids and making the dances and skits harder. Since my son is the only boy in that group of kids, one year the girls decided to dress him up in girls clothes, which he didn’t mind since he was little. Sometimes there are magic tricks and sometimes singing, like when my son sang “Down On the Corner” in a Cajan accent in his sports coat and tie, with all his front teeth missing since he was only six. Most years the show involves dancing and jokes. This year, we had a 2 year-old and a baby watching the show, getting ideas for when they are old enough. To me, that’s what the holidays are about: silly rituals, a pack of kids, and all generations celebrating together.

I’m concerned, however, that some of us are missing the point. Retailers have decided to cash in earlier every year, so that Black Friday now begins on Thanksgiving. I was at the gym this morning watching the news, and there are already stories of people getting hurt in stores, fighting over discount items. One shopper even shot and killed another shopper over a coveted parking spot. Our family decided long ago that we would boycott Black Friday, since the holidays should not be about shopping; they should be about family and twinkling lights and festivals and rituals and whatever religion you believe in. What would the pilgrims think of our commercialism taking over what was supposed to be a reverent reference to them? I admire the pilgrims for their survival skills through brutal hardships. They weren’t just survivors, though. They were religious and strived to be good.

I recently read about a Muslim community who bought land a few years ago across from a church in Memphis Tennessee. The Christian community was so upset, that many people threatened to leave the congregation. The pastor, however, decided to pray about it, and realized that the best way to show their religion was to welcome the community with open arms, including letting the Muslims worship in their church the entire month of Ramadan, since their building hadn’t been finished yet. The two communities now do clothing drives and bake sales side by side and hold each other up, as friends and partners.

As we begin this holiday season, let us remember to give thanks for all of our blessings and remember those who are without, particularly the people in war-torn countries, and those who have no home or friends or hope. To find your world stage, remember that the world extends so much beyond our tiny lives. And yet, we are so needed in the world. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. The world is waiting.

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Tiny Steps

This post is so important to remember this time of year, as the holidays are upon us. I tend to make the mistake of trying too many changes at once and then get overwhelmed. Most of us do that. What if instead we just took tiny steps?

I was coaching a client recently who just landed a great job in her dream city. Instead of feeling happy, though, she was feeling anxious about all the other parts of her life that she didn’t have time for yet, since she was traveling a lot for work and still unpacking from her move. I reminded her of all that she was doing and that navigating a new job in a new city is hard enough, without adding more to do’s, like daily exercise, meditation and a set sleep schedule. Maybe this was the time for tiny steps, which are the smallest steps you can imagine taking toward a goal. “What is the tiniest thing you can do right now?” I asked.  She talked about needing to go to bed much earlier since she wasn’t getting enough sleep. She wanted to start going to bed two hours earlier every night, but then realized that getting to bed before midnight for starters was doable.  It didn’t seem like a very impressive step but it was something she thought she could do, so it was the perfect tiny step for her.

So often people trying to find their world stage are so overwhelmed by all the things they want to change in their lives, that they don’t do anything. So often we want to lose 10 pounds in a week, as the grocery store magazines promise, but what if we just do one tiny step like start walking around the block once before dinner? Or eating desserts only on weekends? Many of us think that doing something small will have no impact, but what if we played the guitar 5 min per day or practiced Spanish every time we were in the car? We would start to see small shifts that over time really add up to a life we love.

The key to finding your world stage is first asking yourself what you wish you had in your life and then taking the first tiny step. If you want to find a partner, perhaps you try smiling at every person you encounter as you walk down the street instead of looking at your phone.  If you want to start finding paying work after having been at home with kids, perhaps you start by saying no to any new volunteering so you can carve out time for you.

If you think about how a garden grows, it always starts with tiny seeds, that if cultivated, grow into something beautiful.  The same is true for people. What is your next tiny step?

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Saying No Is Good

As we head into the holiday season, it’s so important to remember the magic word, which is no, whether it’s no I’m not buying that, or no I’m not able to make it, or no I don’t have the time or energy or money to do that. Less is more, particularly this time of year….

I was thinking about how often we as people don’t like to say no, particularly women. We want to be nice and helpful. We want to be liked. We want to be the person who can make it happen for others, who creates the magic and saves the day.  But what is the cost to ourselves and others? I had a client once tell me that she just wanted to make her teenage son happy. In the moment, it felt great to say yes. Her son was passionate about the arts and had talent, but lacked resilience and resisted criticism from anyone, even teachers trying to help him. He was eager to be in a residential arts program that was very competitive and had never been away from home, but even the process of auditioning was too much for him. She didn’t want to say no, because she always said yes, but she realized on some level that he wasn’t likely to make it through three weeks of a grueling competitive camp and that it could actually be harmful to him. But she did it anyway because she couldn’t say no.

Most of us would not let our toddlers run into the street, but how many of us have the courage to say no to coed sleep-overs?  Or to letting our kids live at home after college for years on end because they can’t find “meaningful” work, when maybe the goal should just be getting a job now and finding meaning later?

When you think of the metaphor of the helicopter parents hovering over kids’ lives, even when their kids are adults, what happens if the helicopter gets too close?  The swirling blades can hurt or kill anyone nearby.  I’ve heard of parents buying property near their kids’ college so they can be there to help and intervene. My husband, who is a professor, has heard about professors getting calls from parents asking for a grade change for their child. And employers complain about parents calling them about a job offer or a promotion. I hear these stories and wonder if parents know that they are crippling their kids.

But beyond parents wanting to please their kids, saying no is essential for your well-being, regardless of whether you have kids or not.  If you want to claim your world stage, you’ll need to say no to everything that is not an absolute yes.  As you launch a business, for instance, you need let go of volunteering for a while and tv and time-consuming hobbies. There are, after all, only so many hours in the day. If you don’t decide how you spend your time, others will happily decide for you. The same goes for money. If you don’t decide what your financial priorities are, many businesses will be happy to decide for you.

What if we were to think of saying no to others as saying yes to ourselves? What if saying no to our kids, meant saying yes to their future? We’d have a very different world, one in which our children could say “What can I do for the world?” as opposed to “What does the world owe me?”

Try it today.  Say no to everything that is not an absolute yes for you. And then wait for magic. You may find that you start spontaneously dancing.

 

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You Do Not Have to Be Good

This is one of my favorite poems. As the cold descends suddenly upon us and the leaves fall, and the world seems to spin out of control, remember that you do not have to be good. You do not have to repent. Instead, let yourself announce yourself in the family of things.

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountain and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.