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Creating Our Own Magic

It’s spring break for my girls and what better way to spend it but at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. This will be Leah’s second trip and Katie’s first to the Magic Kingdom. This will be my third trip (first as a 7 year old, second and third as an adult) and it’s interesting to experience it again. It’s during this trip that I’m finally enjoying the park for what it is: a place where magic can happen. Yeah, I know…that’s rather naive and counter to the cynical notion of the corporate artificiality of Disney. But, magic can happen if we allow it.

As a kid, I remember being enchanted by the Swiss Family Treehouse located in Adventureland. What young boy wouldn’t want to live in a huge treehouse? Now, as an adult, I tried to relive that magic, but it was strange. The whole experience was just climbing steps to the top and seeing the Robinson’s sleeping quarters, a dining room, and a sitting room. I kept wondering if that was all there was. And for me, that was really all there was.

This morning, my wife got an email from a friend of hers who lives with multiple sclerosis. In their communication, Caroline mentioned that we climbed the Swiss Family Treehouse and her friend offered a whole new perspective on this place in the Magic Kingdom. Turns out that she was told she couldn’t climb the treehouse due to her condition. She laughed and replied that that was all she needed to hear. She got out of her wheelchair, slowly climbed to the top, took a few minutes to savor her personal victory, and then slowly descended to the bottom.

I can’t help but see that treehouse in a whole new light.

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Does Happiness Always Mean Getting Your Way?

The BBC had an interesting article yesterday called Why are Dutch children so happy? that went on to explain why the Netherlands was at the top of a recently published Child Wellbeing Report produced by UNICEF. (By the way, the United States – perhaps unsurprisingly – rates pretty much near the bottom compared to Europe and Canada). The lead-in to the article reads:

Dutch children have been rated the most fortunate children in Europe. Their parents go out of their way to please them, and teachers expect less of them than some of their European counterparts.

Well, that’s not exactly how the UNICEF report portrays the Netherlands, but does raise some interesting questions when we think not only about our own children (regardless of which country you call home) but own lives at work. How much is our own happiness tied to having things go our way? Can there be happiness in our challenges and struggles?

Let’s take this example from the BBC article:

18-year-old Ysbrand, a student in Helmond near Eindhoven, says this picture matched his childhood. He says that his parents spent a lot of time with him when he was younger. His mother stayed at home while his father worked.

But, he said the contrast when you get to 18 can be something of a shock.

“Now I’m left to look after myself,” he told the BBC News website. “My parents say that I need to care for myself and to be independent. It’s hard. I don’t have much money as a student and to go out is expensive. Beer, for example, is very expensive in the Netherlands.”

By focusing on what will make us happy right now, we postpone possible future pain. Not that we shouldn’t aim for joy in our life, but we need to be honest with ourselves and consider whether our present experience – even if it does suck – won’t make us a better person down the road. Sometimes we need to unhappy in order to learn how to be happy. I can certainly remember painful experiences in my life that were hellish in their own special way, but in reflection I’m so glad that they were my experiences. I wouldn’t be half the person I am today without them.

And I hope this doesn’t seem like I’m picking on the Dutch. Frankly, I don’t think the example of Ysbrand above is all that different from some of the experiences I’ve seen from fellow parents here in the U.S. The desire to coddle and over-protect kids transcends borders and culture.

Today, we’re challenged to look at our own happiness and determine whether that happiness is real or is simply deferring pain for another time. Ask whether that graduate degree that might be challenging and even painful to undertake might lead to a better tomorrow for you. Ask whether the pain of quitting your job might not be the first step toward finding your own soulful work. Remember that happiness sometimes means taking the hard and painful path.

Be well.

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We Learn So Much About Life From Death

Things have been chaotic and emotional for our family over the past week. On Monday, my wife’s grandfather, J.W. Starr (known to his grandkids and great-grandkids affectionately as Papop), died at age 85 after a very sudden diagnosis of terminal cancer. Turns out the cancer had been incubating silently within him for a while only to make it’s full presence known at the end. The time from when we first heard the heartbreaking news to the moment he died was less than a week.

Fortunately, my wife scheduled a flight a couple of days before he died and arrived in time to see him and hold his hand one last time. Shortly after he died on Monday, Caroline called me and told me to pack up the kids for the 1000 mile drive from Austin to Albany, GA.

That long drive-time in the car sparked an internal dialogue and reflection on Papop’s remarkable life and the wonderful legacy he left for all of us. He taught us so many lessons just through his simple actions. He modeled the values he felt were most important without ever needing to preach. He gave us the blessing of showing us how to live.

Have the courage to follow your faith even when it may not make sense to others
When he was in his early twenties, Papop volunteered for the military and fought in World War II as a bomber pilot in the Pacific. But before he completed his pilot training, he made the fateful decision to propose to and marry the love of his life, Mary Smith (who we all now call Mimi). Mimi held on to the letter that Papop sent to his own parents announcing his intentions and in that letter he acknowledged that their decision to marry may not make sense to their parents. In particular, Mimi’s parents reasonably feared that she might find herself a war widow before their first anniversary. However, Papop had faith that this was the right decision and knew that it was their love that would bring him home safely. Papop and Mimi were married for 62 years and their relationship is known in our family as “The Great Romance.” Together, they offered a model of what a strong marriage is for all who knew them.

It’s never too late to find your passion
One of Papop’s great legacies is his artwork. His paintings can be found in each family member’s home as well as the homes of art collectors throughout Georgia. He primarily painted landscape scenes of his life: the beaches, lowlands, and marshes of South Carolina and Georgia. As we sorted through some of his unframed works in his attic studio this week, we also discovered some lesser known works, such as portraits and still-life. The amazing thing is that this passion didn’t come out until he was much older. When we asked Mimi about how Papop started painting, she told us a story that surprised all of us. When she was a schoolteacher she had to grade papers. At that time, Papop enjoyed watching television, but it was distracting to her papergrading. So Mimi bought him some paints and brushes and hoped that this less noisy diversion would keep him busy. Turns out it not only kept him busy, but unleashed a vibrant yet untapped talent that inspired him throughout the rest of his life.

Soulful work can last a lifetime
After returning from WWII, Papop continued his education by getting a Master’s degree in Social Work and served as the Director of The Family Service in High Point, NC and then worked for the Federal Probationary Office in Macon, GA. Eventually, he and Mimi came to Albany, GA in 1952 and there he worked in his father’s typewriter sales business. Not too long ago, he retired, but continued to work in the Career Development Office of a local college. He often told us that his work helping young college students figure out their future plans was the most fulfilling work that he had ever done. Papop also gave his time to his church community that meant so much to him. For Papop, work wasn’t something to be shunned or avoided, but something that gave meaning to his life. It was his way of sharing the blessings he had with others.

These are just highlights. Putting Papop’s life into a brief retrospective is nearly impossible, though my sister-in-law managed to do this in what must be one of the all-time great eulogies ever delivered.

We talk about living a full life with no regrets. We talk about how to live in service to others. We talk about leaving a legacy behind us. It’s a blessing to encounter a role model who shows us how to do these things with grace, love, and humility. By reflecting on their lives, we’re challenged to find the magic in each day, to give far more than we get in return, to be the type of individual who makes a positive impact on each person they encounter. One way of thinking about Papop that has stayed with me is that it didn’t matter whether you knew him for an hour or a lifetime, he left a lasting impression that made you want to be a better person.

We all miss him and were blessed to know him.

John Walter Starr (1922-2007)

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The Perils Of Psychic Claustrophobia

I tend to have some interesting phobias, but they’re probably not uncommon to those experienced by other folks. For most of my life, I’ve been afraid of spiders. Here’s where it gets interesting…not all spiders. For instance, I really like tarantulas. I guess its because they’re kind of like giant fuzzy caterpillars (you know, the brown and black kind that you commonly find crawling up trees and along porch rails) only with eight big legs. And I love Spider-Man. On the other hand, I can’t stand the ones with long spindly legs like black widows and argiopes. I find them fascinating, but the thought of having one touch me sends a cold shiver running through my body.

Another phobia that I seem to have is linked to small, tight spaces. I remember my one time doing some cave exploration in high school, I found myself in a confined area trying to squeeze through and all I could think was “what if I get through, but can’t get back out?” Well, that was my last spelunking adventure.

[An aside…as I get older, I realize that many of my fears are irrational and the quickest (but definitely not easiest) way to overcome them is to confront them head on. Perhaps there’s more there for me to consider. Okay, back to the original point]

This weekend is a holiday and my wife decided to take the girls to visit her parents. This left me alone in my home for the first time in quite a while, and it has been a wonderful time. It’s not so much the quiet as it is the isolation that has been rewarding. The past two days have allowed me the chance to review all that has been going on in my life the past few months, to realize that the critical problems I’ve been facing at work are not insurmountable, to reorient myself back toward my north star – the very philosophy that defines how I choose to bring myself to my work and my life.

I realize now that I had been suffering a type of psychic claustrophobia where problems at work and home had closed in on me leaving me constricted and struggling for breath. I desperately sought an exit. Little did I know how simple the solution could be. For me, it was some temporary freedom from many of my other roles: father, husband, manager.

This is what works for me. If you’re finding that nothing seems to be fitting into place like it once did, perhaps its time for a retreat of your own. We each have a different breaking point and a different idea for retreat. And it won’t permanently solve the problem. In retreat, there’s work that must still be done. It might not be isolation that’s needed, but time with a good friend. Whatever it is, be good to yourself and find what your mind, body, and soul need.

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It’s Good To Get Sick Sometimes

As much as I enjoy the annual visit from Santa, this year he left us a rather unsavory gift – the stomach flu. Fortunately, he was nice about it and left us the kind that has the courtesy to wait until the stroke of midnight on December 26 before inflicting damage. It managed to hit nearly everyone of us (eighteen in number) within a 48 hour period. The only two to escape the bug’s wrath were my daughters who stayed well only because they had had it the week before.

Unlike most of my family, I didn’t spend most of the time in the bathroom throwing up. I was nauseous, but I have the kind of stomach that selfishly wants to keep whatever it has. The real kick in the pants for me was the body aches, particularly in my knees and back. So, it was a welcome relief to feel 85% better the next day. As I was enjoying a cup of early morning coffee (after I slept most of the previous day away, I was more than happy to wake up at 5am), it struck me how appreciative I was to be feeling healthy. It’s like the old song line: “You don’t know what you got until its gone.”

And it’s also a main principle of my personal philosophy: to know one thing, we must know its opposite. It’s the natural yin and yang of our humanity. Too often, though, we only want to know what the sunny side of the hill looks like and deny that there is the darkness of the shaded side. It’s natural to want to avoid pain, sorrow, even our inclinations toward our less noble qualities. But does this truly honor ourselves? Does this avoidance lead to a better life?

I think back to those moments in my own life which are painful: getting the emotional crap kicked out of me in high school, getting rejected by a job which I thought I had “in the bag,” suffering a debilitating anxiety attack at a relative’s wedding. Would I want to relive any of these moments? I’d be a liar if I said I would. Yet, each one has offered me an opportunity to experience my own humanity and to better recognize love, joy, and success. Sometimes bad things happen to good people so they can be better people.

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The Power Of Our Common Bonds

Tammy Lenski writes about her most recent experience as a volunteer for the Best Friends Animal Society and their efforts in the Hurricane Katrina area. The temporary sanctuary/triage unit/field hospital/reunification center just north of the Louisiana border in Tylertown, Mississippi has attracted volunteers throughout the country. In a battered place with far from optimal conditions, one might expect to see all kinds of conflict. She noted that none was to be found. In Tammy’s reflection for why this was, she writes:

It’s the power of feeling passionately about why we were there. The power of believing, first and foremost, that our mission was to help these animals, and understanding implicitly that having our own way or convincing someone else that we’re right or the righteousness of feeling tread upon were all less important than keeping these animals alive, helping them heal, and helping them find home again.

And later:

It’s surprisingly easy to set differences aside when we’re focused on what brings us together.

Sometimes it amazes me what petty and minor strife we allow into our relationships. We let the most foolish of things drive wedges between us and our loved ones. We cling to our few competing differences like there’s no tomorrow and forsake the many heartful similarities that bind our hopes and dreams.

None of this is to say that I’m without my own problems on this issue. I have my own family squabbles friendly flare-ups to contend with. Yet, there’s something in Tammy’s post that has nudged me toward a deeper reflection. I find myself asking why its so much easier to get attached to our differences of opinion rather than the similarities.

Whatever the answers, I honestly believe the power and spirit lies in those common bonds that bring us together.

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Dumping The “When…Then” Excuse

I’ve written before about my recovery from perfectionism. One of the related habits that I’ve been able to at least consciously notice, if not kick outright, is the urge to put something on hold until all the conditions are just right. I wouldn’t quite label the action as procrastination, but the behavior has an easy to recognize verbal structure: "when…then."

You may have heard some else say it; an employee, a boss, a spouse. Perhaps it was part of your own inner dialogue. It might have sounded something like…

"When my boss starts to listen to me, then I’ll be able to do my job."
"When I improve my presentation skills, then I’ll submit a speaking proposal."
"When I get that promotion, then I’ll be able to negotiate for more time to spend with my kids."

This kind of thinking not only plays into the obvious futility of our own desire for perfection and control, but masks an even more insidious problem which is a need to play the helpless victim. It’s an excuse to live a halfway life, one that banks on the illusions of safety and comfort. It’s the supposed promise of something better just around the corner.

Instead of believing that the answer to what we want is out there and in someone else hands, this is an invitation to seek answers from within. It’s an invitation to ask ourselves, "why not now?" It’s an invitation to live a whole life with no regrets.

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Lost Is Just A State Of Mind

Yesterday afternoon, I flew into Manchester, NH and rented a car to drive down to Nashua where I’m spending the night. I had my Google-mapped trajectory all laid out, but shortly after leaving the rental car lot I must have made a wrong turn somewhere. This became clear when the two lane road started winding through some truly beautiful country beside the Merrimack River.

There are some folks who would freak out if they discovered they were lost in a strange place. I’ve never felt that way. Honestly, I’ve been known to seek out occasions to get lost and see if I can find my way out (oh, and by the way, I’m a typical guy when it comes to asking for directions – I don’t). This instance was no different. While there were no distinguishable road signs cluing me in on where I was going, I knew I was heading south toward Nashua.

Along the way, I started to ponder what lost really is. Sometimes we talk about what it is to be lost, but is it actually a state of being? Or rather, is it a state of mind? We may not always know where we are and we may not always know exactly where we’re going. And yet, whether we determine that we’re lost is in our own minds. It just might be that where we are and where we’re going will lead us to where we need to go. It’s opening ourselves up to the universe and a greater power to guide us. And along the way, we might see some really neat scenery or discover a cool little roadside vegetable stand. As J.R.R. Tolkien writes, "Not all those who wander are lost."

Consider chucking the maps and the GPS once in a while. Put away those books written by the various gurus and experts. What would happen if you developed a more intimate relationship with your own intuition and instincts? It just might be that you know exactly where you are and the place you’re heading…if only we’ll ask ourselves for direction.

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Exploring Our Unapproachable Rooms

Canadians are, sadly, trying to hard to emulate their counterparts south of the border when it comes to how they relate to their jobs. Nothing terribly surprising here, but still it all points to some damaging trends.

Benjamin Hunnicutt, a historian and professor at the University of Iowa, argues leisure time has become “trivialized” while work has been “elevated to the modern religion,” a way for people to define themselves and find meaning in their lives. As a result, he says, time off can lead to a feeling of emptiness and boredom.

There is nothing wrong with including our work in the fullness of who we are. It’s all a part of an integrated livelihood. But when we allow ourselves to be consumed and allow one aspect of our lives to dominate, it can lead to the kind of hollowness that erodes the soul.

The aspect of the article I found most worrisome was the constant theme of FEAR. Unfortunately, it’s corroborated by my actual experience and observations. There are opportunities for change and growth, though. The point is that each of us are always at places for exercising choice. Once we understand that we have choices in how we live our full lives, the fear subsides.

This fear of loss…most notably, it’s the fear of losing our jobs, losing respect, losing our place on the career ladder. Our ambition can be a hungry ghost at best or a cruel master at its worst. This fear of loss is usually a room in our minds that we never visit. When we have an opportunity to walk down the hallway by the room, we usually run past never to even touch the doorknob. Why? We have no idea what will happen when we open the door. Will it be dark and horrifying? Will we get lost?

Our challenge: In our minds are many rooms that remain unexplored. What would happen if we just opened the door? What would happen if we take a step inside? What’s the worst that could possibly happen? Better yet, how might our lives be improved by taking the chance of inhabiting our darkest places for a little while? Once we choose not to fear those places, we cannot get lost.

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The Path To Our Goals Can Be Irregular And Uneven

We had a pretty nasty storm here last evening: hail, high wind, blinding rain, thunder, and  plenty of lightning. While my daughters are not big fans of noisy storms, I love them. I’m one of those dopey people who gets close to the window to watch nature’s light show. This morning, I visited Doug Thompson’s Blue Ridge Muse blog (I guarantee that five minutes at Doug’s blog will make you want to visit this area of the United States) and he had a fantastic picture of the storm as it hit the southern part of Virginia.

It got me wondering about a very elementary question: why does lightning travel in a jagged line rather than a direct line to the ground? I had an idea, but wanted to check it out. A google search took me to a webpage produced by WV Lightning. Using a simple experiment that would work great for teaching children, the explanation is that the bolt takes the path of least resistance to its destination.

The lightning knows where it needs to go. It doesn’t struggle through the small stuff in its way. It doesn’t complain about the twists and turns it needs to take as it moves. It understands its environment completely and works with it. The path to the ground may be irregular and uneven and yet it finds a way to its goal.

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