The Perfect Age

When my son was six and about to turn seven, he confessed that he didn’t want to become seven because it seemed like too much work.  Even though adults tend to view all of childhood as easy and fun, I knew what he meant.  Seven was the end of first grade and the beginning of second grade with real homework.  I told him that every age has good parts and bad parts.  I reminded him that when he was only five, that he didn’t have homework, but he wasn’t old enough to play on a soccer team yet and he couldn’t have sleep overs.  I think that made him feel better.

We tend as humans to imagine that another time in our lives was or will be easier.  When my husband and I were 35, we bought our first home and it needed a lot of renovations.  When we looked at the endless work and costs ahead of us, I do confess that I wished that I was 25 again.  After all, at that age, I didn’t own anything, except a used electric piano and a cheap bed, and I wasn’t married.  I didn’t have to deal with picking out china patterns or pleasing in-laws.  I had a job but it wasn’t a career yet.  It didn’t matter, because I was only 25. And yet, I remember distinctly the year before when I turned 24, I cried off and on through the day, because I realized that the doors of childhood had shut behind me.  I wasn’t in college, I wasn’t living at home, I had to support myself completely, and the world was not the sweet, supportive world of my childhood; I was on my own.

It’s so easy for us to believe that whatever age we are right now or whatever stage of life we’re experiencing is not as easy as a previous time, or maybe a future time. Maybe we wish we were back in school and didn’t have work obligations, or not married and carefree, or with grown kids so we didn’t have the day to day stress of parenting.  I’m fortunate as a parent and life coach to have witnessed most decades at this point, and each has its pluses and minuses.  My kids have loved being kids, but even little kids want to be big kids, until  they are about 12  and then they are desperate to hold on to some of childhood.  Joni Mitchell wrote in her gorgeous song, The Circle Game, “And they tell you take your time, it won’t be long now, before you drag your feet just to slow the circles down.” Among my high school clients, they are desperate to have the simplicity of childhood and to escape all the pressures and expectations of getting into college.  College students feel pressure even more acutely, now that college is so expensive.  The days of lying on the grass and reading old Victorian poems for the fun of it are gone.  Parents want business degrees and results and students are staggering under the weight of student loans and pressure to get a great job to justify their degree.

My clients in their twenties struggle with finding love in an era of Tinder, which is a “dating” app– you swipe right or left, depending on whether you want to meet that stranger.  (Note:  this is not the path to long term love, but rather short term sex.) They are trying to find themselves, pay off debt, deal with roommates, adjust to the stress of their first real job with demanding bosses and travel, and learning all the boring rites of adulthood, like insurance and mortgages and investment strategies.  Clients in their thirties realize that the minute they turn 30, people expect them to be married.  And for women, their ovaries are open for discussion, since the pressure is now on for having kids before it’s too late. For clients in their forties and fifties, as well as many friends, it’s a mad dash against the clock to attend to work, kids, home repairs, and investing.  For those who are single still, the pressure is even greater, because they feel that maybe it’s too late.  And for those in their sixties and beyond, there’s a freedom for a lot of people that they didn’t have when they were younger– the kids are grown and dogs are dead– but they are dealing with health issues and money concerns and a lot more logisitics. The fact is that none of it is easy and all of it is wonderful.  Turning 7 is as magical and stressful as turning 87.

We tend also to think there might be a perfect age in history that was somehow easier.  But I’m reminded of the pioneer women who bore and raised children while traveling in a covered wagon, or women who were burned at the stake for being too powerful in the middle ages, or leaders like Queen Victoria, who weren’t afraid to rule, but were terrified of childbirth since so many women didn’t get through it alive. As we Americans accept, for better or worse, the passing of the guard today of American presidents, let us remember that this time in history is no easier or harder than other times.  Just like personal ages we experience, it’s the same yin and yang.

As my grandfather used to say, “This too shall pass.” When we are in a particularly hard time in our lives or in history, it’s important to remember that all things change, some things for the better and some for the worse.  As you connect with what your world stage is, remember to accept the age you’re in, both how old you are and where in history you are.  It’s important to honor all the stages of our lives and to be present in the moment of history in which we find ourselves. And if you feel stuck or afraid, find one small way to celebrate your current age.  Remember the great poet Rumi’s words:  “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

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Invisible

I will never forget a comment that an older person made to me once a few years ago:  “Just wait until you’re no longer young and pretty.  You’ll love becoming invisible.” I was horrified by her words, because she seemed to revel in the idea of becoming invisible as you get older.  She also seemed to think that being invisible is a good thing.  Now I know what my son would have said when he was 5.  He wore capes nonstop for all of preschool and wanted to save the world from “bad guys.” It was part of his dream to be invisible so he could sneak up and get the bad guys when they weren’t looking.  But he didn’t always want to be invisible; always invisible sounds kind of sad.  Frankly, when I’m really old someday, I will do everything I can to stand out and be heard.  Poet Jenny Joseph once wrote the famous poem called “When I Am Old” with the first lines stating: “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple/With a red hat that doesn’t go, and that doesn’t suit me.”

We live in a society in which so many of us are made to feel invisible.  Victims of date rape on college campuses are shamed into silence, while rapists like the Stanford swimmer get out off with 3 months of prison time. Presidential candidates are allowed to body shame and demean women repeatedly, even during the debates, and the victims are criticized for speaking up. People on the margins, from the homeless, to the drug addicted, to the abused, are not valued because they broke the rules for how to behave, and therefore they have no voice.  Older women, who no longer turn heads, are made to feel invisible, as though their looks is all they have to offer the world.  And women like Hillary Clinton, who dare to run (and possibly win) for president are made to feel shame for campaigning rough and dirty like a man.  She is not just a pretty face– and in fact never was– but she is smart and she is tough and she is very threatening to a lot of people, because she is daring not to be invisible.  At all.

As a woman raising kids, I often feel invisible.  Somehow my kids’ doctors and nurses feel comfortable calling me “Mom.”  I have had to remind many nurses in many offices that the only people allowed to call me that are my kids, and to remember that I have a name, which is Melinda. It is demeaning not to call someone you regularly see by their name.  Before Civil Rights, white people felt entitled to call a black man “boy”, which is thankfully no longer acceptable.  For the years that I was pushing a double stroller with two young kids, I was invisible, because nobody wanted to deal with the hassle and the noise that two babies bring.  I was kicked out of the library multiple times for my baby crying, even though libraries are for kids.  So I wrote letters reminding the library staff that I paid taxes for access to children’s books that my kids wanted to read.  I refused to be invisible.

But on the small things, it’s so easy to remain invisible.  If someone says something that hurts us, how many of us actually speak up?  How many of us share with people that we are religious or passionate about art or care about politics or are struggling with something in our lives?  Or do we instead post happy pictures on Facebook and let everyone think that our lives are perfect?  That’s making yourself invisible by playing small.  To be honest, many of us are so scared about fitting in and being liked, even as adults, that we don’t really show who we are.  I have noticed over the years that since most people know me as a mother and a life and vocal coach, I haven’t talked a lot about my music, even though I have two albums out and I’ve been a professional musician since my late teens. (You can check out my music at http://www.melindastanford.com.) The fact is I got busy with raising kids and I was surrounded by busy people who didn’t have time to listen to my CD’s so I gradually stopped talking about it.  I became invisible.

Not anymore.  Now that my kids are older and I’m finally coming up for air, I’m making myself heard and known in a way that I haven’t been able and willing to before. The fact is, the greatest gift we can give our kids, other than our time, is the example of putting ourselves out in the world again and again, even if it means stumbling and falling over and over. What other choice do we have? Giving up should not be an option.

Here is one of my favorite quotes from Marianne Williamson, which I’ve written about before:  “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure… We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?” To claim your world stage, notice where you are invisible and take one step to change that.

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This is a giraffe hiding, but animals do it for the right reasons 🙂

 

 

Big Rock, Little Rock

I love the metaphor of life being like a container of rocks.  If you fill it with small rocks, there is no space for the large rocks.  It’s only when you put the large rocks in first, that there is room for the small rocks in the remaining space.  And yet how many of us fill our days taking care of our small rocks first, such as unimportant work emails, cleaning out the fridge, picking up dry cleaning and filling out forms?  After a day of getting everything done on your to do list, how alive do you feel?  If you feel frustrated and tired, it may be that you didn’t give yourself any time to attend to the big rocks, such as quality time with family, exercising, spending time meditating or stretching, doing creative pursuits, and maintaining or finding a great relationship.  At the end of our lives, we will not remember the small rocks, but we will know whether we attended to our big rocks and others will remember as well.

This week for me, in the whirl of back-to-school for two children at two different schools, my life seemed to be filled with endless little rocks:  piles of laundry, gifts for last-minute parties, orthodontist appointments and other drudgery.  In the past, I made the mistake of thinking that the goal was to take care of all those endless little things, and only when they were finished attend to the big things that matter, like getting in shape, building my business, and singing.  So many of us are perfectionists who feel somehow even now as adults that we are still being graded on how we live our lives.  We want to be good and do the right thing and respond to emails within the hour and be all things to all people.  But we’re tired.  And after a certain point, if we’re lucky, we realize that the little rocks don’t fill our spirits; they just crowd our to do lists.  It’s the big rocks that matter.

This week, if you had come by my house unannounced, you would have found laundry that was partly folded for days and kids digging through it to find their soccer uniforms.  You would have seen very strange meals of leftovers for a few nights since my husband and I had evening commitments and no time to cook.  You would have seen our kids eating way too much ice cream, not to mention the backlog of emails and the ongoing clutter in my office. But you also would have seen lots of snuggling with my kids, lots of talking and listening, time for walks, lots of laughter, and connecting with family and friends.  This week I noticed the leaves were turning into a brilliant red and delighted in a bright orange sunset, went on an evening flashlight walk with my son through the neighborhood, and spent extra time talking with my teenage daughter about life before I dropped her off at school each morning.

To find your world stage, identify what your big rocks are.  For me, it’s family and close friends, music and writing, coaching, travel, and spending time in nature. One great way to identify your big rocks is to make a list of what matters most and keep it where you can see it. In addition, watch out for your small rocks, because they will flatten you and steal your joy if you try to do them all.  Take time to enjoy nature as it enfolds each year, and take the time to really be there for your friend or spouse or child.  The less time we spend on our phones and on social media, and the more time we cultivate our inner spirits, the better.  Once we start focusing on our big rocks, we give permission for the people around us to do the same.

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Trail Blazing

Whenever I go hiking with my parents on Black Cap Mountain in New Hampshire, they point out the colored blazes on the trail, which remind us where we are and whether we are on the right path.  I recently learned that the literal term “trail blazing” refers to the process of marking a path with blazes to create a clear path for the next person.  The metaphorical term “trail blazing,” which refers to a person or organization forging ahead before others, is what we hear more often.  I can’t think of a more apt metaphor for what it’s like to try to forge a new path for yourself.  First you’re lost in the woods, then you finally find a path, then you mark it with blazes for others so that their path is easier.  The early abolitionists, like Frederick Douglass, paved the way for the Civil Rights Movement a hundred years later, and the early feminists marked a path so that women could be taken seriously in their careers a generation later.

We have this idea, however, that trail blazers know the trail ahead of time, even though they are, in essence, forging ahead through a thick forest with no path that they can see.  They just have to keep walking forward, and sometimes backwards and sometimes perhaps in circles to find their way to the other side.  The trail blazers who came before us didn’t have brightly colored blazes to follow, and yet today when we’re trying to create our own path, we think we have to have it figured out before we start.  If we don’t have a clear map or trail, why bother?  The reality is that nothing great is accomplished without a series of failures, attempts at a trail that end up nowhere.  The difference between someone who succeeds and someone who doesn’t is often the ability to persist no matter what.

Whenever my kids have a setback, I tell them about all the failures and setbacks that Abraham Lincoln experienced in his lifetime.  In 1832, at age 23, he lost a job.  The following year he failed at his business.  Two years later his fiancee died.  A year later he had a nervous breakdown.  It wasn’t for ten more years that he was elected to Congress, only to lose the nomination two years later, and be defeated for the Senate six years later. He was then defeated for the Vice Presidential nomination two years later, then defeated for Senate two years later in 1958, when he was almost 50.  Then he became President two years later, a product of part-luck and part-timing.  I believe that it was only when he was forced to contend with the Civil War, that the country was able to see his true greatness.

I’ve heard often the phrase, “What would you do with your life if you knew you couldn’t fail?” but I think it’s unrealistic and harmful to let people think that the perfect path is an easy path clear with blazes.  I prefer asking,  “What is the thing that you must do before you die no matter what?”  That’s the thing you need to do, even if you’re lost in the woods with no sign of a path, even if you look silly, even if your friends think you’ve lost your head.  That’s what you need to do.

Remember as you forge a trail, there is no clear path to start, just woods at first.  But if you keep walking forward, eventually a path will appear by your movements and by your forward motion.  You will get clues along the way as to whether you’re on the right path, but there won’t be blazes set for you until you have found the way.  The blazes are to show that you were there and to light a path for the next person. This week look for clues as to what moves you, makes you happy, and what fills you with excitement and joy.  Those clues will help you know where to step next.

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Finding the Magic

So many mothers today want to be perfect, to do everything right, as though parenthood is a series of difficult gymnastic skills, that if you only try hard enough, you can land perfectly for those Olympic judges watching. I don’t know how this evolved. It certainly wasn’t present in the sixties and seventies when many women drank, not in spite of being pregnant but because they were pregnant.  My mother was surrounded by equally young, just barely-out-of-college, new moms.  They did not compare who was parenting better.  They read interesting books and tried gourmet recipes, while their kids waded in the kiddie pool in the backyard unsupervised.  How did it come to this?

Since I was pregnant with my first child in 2002, I have been criticized for the following:  gaining too much weight in pregnancy (um, I was hungry); not carrying my daughter around in a Snuggli so that we could bond (it hurt my back); not giving her enough educational stimulation in the form of books and videos (she was happy sucking on a spoon); and feeding her too much food for a baby (given that she dropped a lot, we had to start with more).  For my son two years later, it was that I shouldn’t have let him cry himself to sleep (I needed to sleep!);  that he was too aggressive in school (he was 2 and he liked to hug people!) and on and on.  The stay-at-home moms thought I worked too much, at 10-20 hours per week, and the working moms were sure that I didn’t work enough, since I clearly had time to eat Bon Bons in between raising kids and working part-time.

Even now that my kids are older, the criticism continues in a form of micro-aggressive comments from mostly other moms who feel that they are competing with me for the one Great Mom! prize.  (As if.) All these jibes become a buzz in your head that never goes away, even when you’re camping in the woods as I was last weekend.  I’ve had moms in the past at the Mom’s Weekend at my daughter’s camp tell me that I was doing the origami project wrong and that I needed to listen better (really?), and that I should climb to the top of the 40 foot tower since other moms were doing it, even though I have a genetic and paralyzing fear of heights.  But this weekend, with insane weather patterns, alternating between 95 degree blazing heat and intense rainstorms with thunder and lightening, I had to let all the shoulds go.  I just accepted that I wouldn’t be on time or even participate in all the classes, because we had to get our tent up, or I had to sit in the shade because I couldn’t handle any more than three hours playing in the lake by the afternoon.  I had to be ok with not being like most of the moms, running like crazy people from one impossible activity to the next.  I was more concerned frankly about getting hit by lightening, staying in a soaked tent all weekend, or collapsing from heat exhaustion, so I listened to what I needed and what worked for me, even if the chorus of judges didn’t approve.

The result?  A magical weekend and none of the magic was planned:  ditching yoga class in the middle of it to run with my daughter in a rain storm and get our tent put together with another mom’s help (who came out of nowhere and disappeared almost like an angel); making up a rap song about broccoli with my girl with drum and kazoo that brought down the house; getting up really early the next morning (which was easy to do because I hadn’t slept at all) and finally do the Polar Swim together, going down the water slide and playing with inter tubes and splashing and laughing; jumping on the water trampoline and then  capsizing again and again on the paddle boards since we both tried to stand up together; sitting in the cabin with teens listening to the sounds of thunder and singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to them to cheers, and seeing my kid’s proud smile; eating snacks and giggling outside till way too late, glad about having fun and being alive.

None of that magic was on the schedule, and most of it would have been missed if we had had the perfect weather and if I had rushed around sticking to the perfect schedule, like so many exhausted moms.  How many of us miss a chance to lie on the grass and look up at clouds with our kids because we’re rushing to the next activity?  How many of us insist on our idea of what a perfect day should be, possibly missing the magic that happens when we let go of trying to be perfect and do everything and control the unexpected, like the weather?

To find your world stage, try to let go of the reins of perfection and control and realize that the best moments occur when we’re not looking and have other plans. This week, try to do less and plan less and be less perfect in all things, knowing that magic just might creep up on you.

 

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Do Less

Every year our local public school has a day long carnival that raises a lot of money for the PTO.  While I have volunteered in other ways in the past, this is an event that I try to avoid, between the crowds and the screaming kids with cotton candy in their hair. A friend once said regarding volunteering for this event, “What is the very least that I can do for this?” My answer seemed pretty obvious: “Nothing is the least that you can do.” I guess that option hadn’t really occurred to him.

So many of us feel guilted into doing too much for too many people and organizations and then wonder why we’re exhausted and feel stretched so thin.  One thing to remember is that you can always do less, and that doesn’t make you a bad person; it makes you a sane person.  There’s always going to be the person who feels it’s her job to make sure you’re volunteering enough at school. This is usually the caffeine-fueled “CEO” of her children’s lives who feels it’s her duty to direct you toward more volunteering “opportunities.”

I fell into that trap of pleasing other people early on as a new parent, but then gradually learned to say no over and over to most things and yes only to what really mattered.  (No to one more bake sale, but yes to recording songs with my kids.) I once had a man call from a church we had only been attending for six months to pressure me into serving on the vestry, which is the governing board of the church. At the time my kids were 4 and 2, I was working part-time, and barely had time to breathe, let alone help lead a church.  My answer: “Thanks for asking, but no.” The man continued on and on as though I hadn’t said no.  I finally said, “You’re wasting your time and mine since I already said no.” He said, “So you really mean no?”  I wondered how he was teaching his kids to respect some else’s NO if he couldn’t do it himself.  I think he was stunned, because most women roll over with enough pressure, they want to be liked, and they can often be convinced ultimately to say yes (in lots of situations) when they don’t want to.  They have the disease to please. Not me. Not anymore.

If you want to contribute what you came to this world to do and find your world stage, figure out how you can do less of what you don’t want to do so that you have more time for what does matter, what makes your heart sing.  For me, it’s snuggling with my kids, laughing with friends and family, singing, coaching, traveling, and watching sunsets in Hawaii.  Remember, you get to decide, not other people.  So this week do less, please fewer people, and see how your spirit soars.

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