Your Pilot Light

As we write our New Year’s resolutions, it’s worth thinking not just about what we want to achieve, but also what can get in the way of that and how we can avoid that happening. This new year, millions of people will once again claim that they will lose weight or get control of their finances, but how many actually will come up with a specific plan? How many pounds will they lose by when? How much money will they save by when? And how many people will come up with a plan for how to deal with push back, like friends thwarting your new eating plan because they miss hanging out and eating junk with you, or family members who like to shop or go on expensive vacations with you when you need to pay off debt and save for retirement?

One of the best things I learned years ago in my financial life was to have a clear plan outlining how much we made, how much we spent– tracking every single expense every day for over twenty years, which may be boring but is really helpful–and what we valued in terms of spending, such as education and travel instead of fancy clothes and cars. But I realized as ten pounds crept on in the past few years, that I didn’t have the same clear plan and “road map” when it came to fitness and health. It took me a while to realize that I need to treat my fitness goals the way I treat my finances. Now I’m learning to record what I eat, just as I keep note of what I spend. I’m also preparing for contingencies with “Plan B” work-out videos at home for days when there’s a storm outside and I can’t get to the gym.

What’s even more important in this new year is notice the things in general that are getting in the way of the life that you want. Now is the time to assess what works and what doesn’t. Do you have supportive friends and family members who inspire you, or do you feel as though you do all the listening and giving? It is true that opposites attract but not always in a good way. If you are a great listener who is naturally generous, it’s essential to watch out for people who love to talk endlessly about themselves and ask for favors and take advantage of your good will. We all know how it feels to have people talk and/or brag continuously. It leaves us feeling drained and annoyed. Having boundaries here isn’t cold; it’s essential for protecting your spirit.

Beyond relationships, it’s important to ask if you like where you live, how you spend your time, and the work you do. Do you feel as though you’re making a difference? If not, now is the time to think about changes you can make, starting with surrounding yourself with positive people who want to help you and who inspire you to do great things. I often ask clients to think about the scenario that they have a year to live and have to decide how to spend their time and with whom. Some people end up realizing that they are living someone else’s values—with all the trappings of success (big house, nice cars), but that they are not inspired and fulfilled and surrounded by people who build them up. This can be a rude but important awakening. I also ask clients to imagine being very old and looking back at their life and describing all the things that made it so special. This can be a wake up call for some, and for others, a sign that they are on the right path. The key to all of this is to figure out what you value and make sure that all your actions and choices are in line with those values. The worst thing is to let others choose your values by just going along with the crowd, since the crowd is often lost themselves, thinking that social media and reality TV will teach them what they need to know, which of course is not true.

To find your world stage, don’t let the worlds’ demands, your day-to-day obligations or others’ agendas get in the way of preserving your pilot light. That is the light within you that you need to protect at all costs, the way you protect the fire that keeps you warm when you’re in the wilderness. Like a pilot light that allows for a flame to burn, the metaphorical one is the one that drives your passion. You can’t let that go out and must protect it at all costs. If you do that, then the world is your oyster.

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Peace on Earth

This is the time of year when we send and receive holiday cards that say, “Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward Men.” I think of all the times in history, however, when getting a card like that might have seemed a bit ironic. How about 1861 after the Civil War had begun, or 1917 when the United States entered World War I or 1941 after Pearl Harbor, when we involved ourselves in yet another war, not to mention more recent wars, like the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf Wars? We are hardly practicing peace on earth as a nation or as a world, and goodwill toward men is a joke in many schools in which bullying is rampant. We even have a president-elect who never learned the important life adage that if you can’t think of something nice to say, don’t say anything. And whatever you do, don’t tweet angry diatribes at 3am, because that never ends well.

Regardless of which candidate you voted for and why, none of us realized how easily a foreign country and enemy could hack into our country’s classified documents and intervene in an election. This is the stuff of Hollywood movies, not real life. None of us could have imagined that we would have a president elect who plans to make business deals on the side that will benefit his personal bottom line and compromise national security. None of us could have imagined the hate crimes after the election, with head scarves being ripped off of innocent Muslims and Hispanics being threatened if they don’t “go back home.” None of us could have imagined the anti-Semitism that has been rising over the past few years, even before the election year, and the Alt-Right/Neo Nazi rallies picking up traction this year.

Last week, a teenage girl who had been cyber bullied for years, was so sad and desperate to be heard by her parents, that she shot and killed herself in front of them. But even after her death, the cyber bullying continued so that the tormenters could harass the parents. This girl may not have been in one of the vulnerable groups that Trump dissed—she was not a minority or Muslim or gay—but she was deemed unacceptable by her peers and they decided that she would be tormented relentlessly just for kicks until they pushed her over the edge. This is the world we live in. And as the parent of a teen and preteen, it sickens me and frankly scares me.

Why all the rage and mean spiritedness? I think people can be kind when they feel secure in their lives. But if you think you’re paying taxes for someone who doesn’t feel like working, or you feel like your job is disappearing to immigrants or shipped off oversees altogether, or you feel like it’s harder to get into college today if you’re a white man, since you’re supposed to apologize for “white privilege,” then a rage can boil up and explode. For many people, political correctness has gone too far, and the rights of others is now interfering with your rights. People are feeling forgotten and disrespected, and when that happens, it’s like being stuck in traffic in New York during rush hour in a blizzard and they’ve closed off your exit to get home. You’re not going to be gracious or pleasant and you stop caring about the needs of anyone else.

In this season of supposed joy, let us remember, regardless of our religion, the message of love– that we are called to love, to give to those in need, and to remember those who have no voice, particularly children in warn-torn countries like Syria, where children as young as seven are sending desperate texts to the outside world, begging for help before it’s too late. We have a responsibility to people who have less than we do. But we also have a responsibility to stand up against the ridiculous movement to rename buildings, in an attempt to erase history, and to over-focus on white entitlement, because it’s backfiring and pushing too far is creating an extreme reaction that is reminiscent of Germany in the early 1930’s.

To find your world stage, remember that the stage is big enough for everyone as long as every person contributes his or her absolute best to the world. We have so much to learn from each other as long as we are all good-spirited and hard-working and contribute. And for those who are given much, much is expected. For peace on earth, we must give people who are not like us the benefit of the doubt, and for goodwill toward men, we need to care for the smallest, most vulnerable and displaced among us, just like that baby in a manger two thousand years ago, who was a homeless immigrant with seemingly nothing to offer the world. Only the wise men knew how that baby would change the course of history.

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Caution: Crazy Alert

This time of year, many of us who are already going too fast a pace, speed up even faster to get to everything on our list. But beware: the faster you’re spinning, the less likely you are to realize the warning signs that say “Caution:  Crazy Alert.” It’s the perfect storm really, because we feel that we must be nice during the holidays and say yes to everyone and make people happy, but at the same time, our defenses (and our radar) are down so that we don’t notice what’s really going on.  Here are a few examples: the friend who says that she is going to bring appetizers to your holiday dinner party and shows up two hours late and then checks the labels of all the food you’re cooking with to make sure after the fact that your meal works with her allergies; the teen who tells you the night before that you need to buy a Secret Santa gift for a boy who expects to receive an expensive video game and won’t understand something cheaper because he doesn’t really speak English;  the kids (yes mine!) who used to be okay just with stockings when they believed in Santa, but then started a new tradition of treasure hunts the year we were living abroad during Christmas, and now insist on both. And since we’ll be in a different state for actual Christmas, we need to have stockings and treasure hunts in both places.  (That’s four times as many things to buy and process!)

I’ve written before about energy vampires– people who drain our energy in one way or another, from constant chatterers, to endless criticizers, to nonstop whiners.  These people are actually easier to spot because they are so amazingly consistent in their bad behavior.  It’s as though central casting cast them in a role and they are getting paid to play that role perfectly over and over.  What is harder to spot, however, particularly when we’re moving so fast that our head might spin off, is that people who act like crazy makers  may be nice people who are simply asking too much (like kids during the holidays), in which case the answer is, “Um, no.” (We settled on two treasure hunts, one at our home in Boston and one at my parents’ home in California, but no stockings.) But there is also crazy in the form of telemarketers trying to convince you why senior citizens need solar panels, when you’re not a senior citizen.  There’s the customer service lady at Amazon, who in response to hearing that Amazon sent the wrong teddy bear by accident, tried to convince me that all teddy bears were the same, in such a thick Filipino accent that I thought she said, “All teddy bears are insane.” Forty-five minutes on the phone later, a new, apparently different teddy bear is on its way and I have no idea what it will look like.  Then there’s the reflexology place I went to recently, where they play an endless loop of bad synthesizer Muzak alternating with uber hits like “Starry Starry Night.” It was 30 degrees outside and about 40 degrees inside because the owner confessed that he didn’t feel like fixing the broken heater. The nice Chinese lady with the improbable name of “AMY” on her name tag, kept apologizing in broken English and piling more blankets on me when she wasn’t scolding the owner in angry Mandarin. All of that feels a little crazy to me.

Then there are the people we know who are so thoughtless, that it comes across as crazy.  I had a friend whose father had just died a few days before and one of the family friends called her not to offer help and condolences but to ask for ideas for their upcoming trip. Another friend is a recovering alcoholic who asked her family not to drink around her.  Her first sober Christmas, the family showed up with wine and beer and pot, proud of themselves that they left the vodka at home. Finally, there’s the woman whose son was in my daughter’s cello recital.  The mom, realizing that her son was fourth on the program, decided that she had time to duck out and make a few business calls in the hallway (which we could all hear), but she didn’t manage to time it right, so she showed up just as her son had finished playing.  She marched down the aisle, shouting, “My little Sebastian needs to play his pieces again, since I didn’t get to hear them!” So all of us sat through another ten minutes of a 7 year-old playing everything so out of tune, that my husband turned to me quietly and said, “It doesn’t even sound like he’s playing a cello!”

To stay sane for the holidays (and re-discover the magic of the season), as well as to find your world stage, watch out for crazy in all of its forms. The key is to take great care of yourself, particularly this time of year.  Get lots of sleep, eat good food, exercise, and give yourself down time.  Do less and do things less perfectly.  (You should see the way some of our gifts are wrapped– lumpy with too much tape!) When you are taking care of yourself, you are much more likely to notice any form of crazy, take a deep breath, smile, and say, “No. That doesn’t work for me.”  And if they don’t like it, remind them that your “suggestion box” is under the sink, conveniently in the same place as the trash.  Now go do something fun that makes you happy 🙂

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Not As They Seem

Earlier this week, I attended a lovely panel discussion at my daughter’s school.  We sat at tables with linen cloths while tiny plates of interesting food were served.  The topic was on healthy eating, sustainability, and mindfulness.  All three panelists were parents at the British School of Boston, including a chef, a mindfulness coach/executive, and a model.  The model, however, was not just any model.  She was Gisele Bundchen, the world famous super model, married to Tom Brady.  She was on stage maybe fifteen feet in front of me talking excitedly to this relatively small gathering of sixty parents and teachers, and she was talking in a warm, animated way that I believe never would have happened if People Magazine had been there, vying for another alluring shot of her.  Instead, we were instructed not to take pictures or videos.  As a result, she spoke to the group as though she were just like any mom, even though she has a staff, including a well-known chef who prepares all of their organic, healthy meals.  She spoke about teaching her children the importance of giving; both of her children asked their friends to give to charity this year in lieu of presents, just as my kids did.  Given that they could afford to buy everything in a toy store for their kids, this was particularly touching.  She talked about watching the sunrise with her 7 year-old many mornings, and teaching her kids to be grateful.  She was warm and funny and real, not to mention beautiful inside and out.  And she was nothing like the media has portrayed her– as aloof, self-focused, superficial.  It was such a great affirmation that so much of what drives the fame machine is not the celebrity, but the publicists and the trashy magazines.

Today as I was shopping for Christmas gifts at Target, I realized the whole Bruins hockey team was in the toy section with me buying toys for underprivileged kids.  At first I just thought it was a few guys dressed up in Bruins jerseys, but once I saw about 20 of them and realized that they looked big and muscular, I figured they were the real team. I am not someone who plays hockey and I have only been to one pro hockey game in my life– the New York Rangers on a double date, which was not the most romantic setting because of all the drunken guys surrounding us shouting. Even though two of my nephews play hockey, as well as their parents, I always figured that hockey players were rough and tough and not that smart.  But as I was moving through the toy section, I overheard two of the Bruins players discussing what to get for two little girls they were trying to buy for.  One was asking the other, “Do you know where the princess shoes and the pink nail polish is?”  It was the sweetest thing seeing these big athletic men who were completely absorbed in finding something special for a few little girls in need.  As I made my way to the games section, a player named Domenic Moore was selecting toys while cameras were filming him.  The helpers from Target were trying to suggest games and he kept asking, “But are they educational?  I want to make sure they are learning something.”  So I interjected, “I would go with Scattergories, since it’s a game that makes you think. My teen and preteen love it.”  He wanted to know how old my kids were and how smart.  I said, “Smart!”  He smiled a big smile.  I added, “So you play hockey?”  He smiled and said yes, even though it was probably obvious to everyone else in the store.  “And you’re on the Bruins.”  “Yes,” he answered smiling again.  “Sorry I’m not that into hockey. I’m more into the arts.”  “That’s ok, he said.” And that was it.  Because of one pro hockey team buying toys for needy kids, all of whom were polite and dedicated to the task of helping kids, I became a hockey fan too, and have decided that the players are lovely and smart.  (Dominic actually went to Harvard.)

I’ve now encountered two famous people in one week.  My daughter couldn’t get enough hearing about Gisele, and my son was so excited to hear about the Bruins, even though he is not a hockey player, since sports are still just something he knows and cares about.  I learned that things are not as they seem, that famous people can be warm and lovely and accessible, but that the fame machine has changed our perception of them so often.  I also learned that it’s disarming to famous people not to be fawned over.  I’ll never forget when my grandfather met my sister’s college roommate, Jodie Foster, at Yale graduation.  He had no idea that she was a famous actress at the time, so he said, “And who might you be?” when she hadn’t introduced herself.  She was very pleased to say, “I’m Jodie.  Jodie Foster.  I’m an actress.” I’m guessing for Gisele, it was a relief to be surrounded by a mostly international crowd, many of whom don’t follow her husband’s football career and don’t care much about modeling.  She could just be a mom and a health nut and talk to us as though she was sharing with a girlfriend.  Likewise, for Dominic, I’m sure he appreciated that I was just helping him find a board game, and that I was not that into hockey.  It’s always charming to be fearless and just be yourself.

To find your world stage, remember that the goal isn’t fame, because the fame machine of publicists and crazy fans and toxic press and paparazzi, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  The goal is to use your gifts to make the world a better place, whether it’s acting, playing hockey, modeling and now advocating for the environment and children, or anything else. Things are not always as they seem, and it’s a gift when you get to peer behind the curtain to see the real thing.

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Pace Yourself

December is one of my favorite months.  In addition to Christmas, it’s always been the season of birthdays in our family.  My great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mom, my nephew, and my daughter were all born this month. When my husband and I were dating seriously and discussing children, however, I said, “I just hope we don’t have a December baby.  There’s too much already going on that month.”  But five days before Christmas, my first born arrived.  I naively had thought that having a December baby simply meant remembering to wrap birthday gifts in non-Christmas wrapping, but I hadn’t thought about birthday parties. That adds a whole other layer to the holidays.

Although I’m not a runner, I hear my friends who compete in marathons talk about the importance of pacing themselves, so they don’t burn out early in the race because they started out too fast.  The same thing is true for December.  We need to pace ourselves.  And even though the holidays may feel like a race, they are in fact not.  And yet there is some kind of crazy Keeping Up With the Joneses that I feel during the holidays that I don’t feel other times of year.  We don’t have outdoor lights or elegant reindeer statues in our yard.  We don’t have cascades of ribbons and ornaments on our banister.  Our house is decorated but not like the White House, not even close.  Instead, I’m trying to pace myself for the next few weeks so that I can stay healthy and sane.

My day today was what a typical day looks like in many families with working parents and kids. The dishwasher was replaced as I was trying to get work done, while emailing and calling our mortgage company to get a necessary trust letter, while I was on hold for our travel flights, while I was planning my daughter’s birthday parties. (She’s having two- don’t ask.)  I had a phone date with a friend but couldn’t find my cell phone because I had made our bed over the phone.  (Thankfully, I was able to call my number from another phone and listen for the muffled ring under the sheets.  It was the buzzing that gave it away.) The lawn care people came to get rid of our leaves and clean the gutters and while I was talking with them, the doctor’s office called about scheduling my routine mammogram, all of this while I was trying to work. My son’s two friends arrived tonight for dinner before their first dance, my daughter has a swim meet tomorrow, we have church and a Handel Messiah on Sunday, and the following weekend we are having the two separate birthday parties within 24 hours, in addition to a client’s art opening. The weekend after that, we have three Christmas parties, a swim meet, a celebration at Sturbridge, and my daughter’s actual birthday before we head to California for Christmas.  (It does sound like a crazy version of the Twelve Days of Christmas!) I bet others of you have an even busier schedule and yet you do manage to put outside lights up.  (See how we beat ourselves up?)

I know my parents’ generation shakes their heads at ours, reminding us that they weren’t as scheduled and busy in the 80’s.  I’m not sure that’s true.  My dad worked every weekday in the weeks surrounding Christmas except for the day after for decades.  And then he was washing windows and getting groceries for the various houseguests and dinner guests.  My mom worked 60 hour weeks as my eighth grade teacher. (She was an amazing teacher, because she taught her students to really think and to write well, something that’s rare to find these days.) And yet she still put on much more elaborate parties than we do and made it all seem easy.  I admire that but have come to accept that that is just not where my talents lie.

In this busy season, it’s important to remember that the point is not to get through our “to do” lists and to rush through the mall and to get to January in one piece.  The point is to pace ourselves so that we can enjoy the ride, whether it’s taking pictures of 6th grade boys before their first dance, or accepting that sometimes teenage girls need two birthday parties– one for old friends and one for new, since they don’t know each other and it’s just easier. We also want to pace ourselves so that we can remain kind and open in a season in which there are lots of people who are sad or lost.  Let’s remember to hold doors open for people and be extra nice to receptionists (what a tough job!) and use some of our time and money for the needy.  We give money to charity and church every month, but at Christmas, we like to have our kids choose toys for poor children so that our kids always remember to be grateful.

To find your world stage, remember to pace yourself.  As they say, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and neither is your life or your dreams.  Remember to enjoy the ride, so that when you arrive at your destination you can remember with fondness whom you knew and loved  and what you experienced along the way.

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