Sunday, April 23, 2017

Overwhelmed? A Look Within

A few weeks ago, I spent the afternoon with a team of teachers interviewing applicants for an open teaching position. While I am relentlessly resolute that interviews should only be a fraction of the decision to hire (or not hire) someone, they do reveal a glimpse into the mind and heart of the candidate.  It offers a snapshot of their story and tells me about the journey to here and now.

And I always learn something from interviewees.  Each time, I hear something that resonates deeply, something that challenges me to reflect upon how and why we do what we do.  As an example, I like asking candidates, “Tell me about your areas for growth.”  Their answers reveal what they think about when they look ahead. 

This time, we were interviewing a young woman who was confident and well spoken, in spite of her palpable nervousness.  When asked how she wanted to grow, responded in a way I’d not heard before. 

Speaking slowly, as if figuring something out for the first time, she said,  “I think my biggest area for growth is finding how to not overwhelm myself.”  

She paused. 

“Here’s the thing,” she explained.  “I’ll get an idea, and then I’ll start to think of all the ways it could be really fabulous.  I consider what I could do to make it work really well.  I think of children who would benefit from the idea, and then I start to worry about how to turn the idea into a big, beautiful experience for every one of them.  And then I think about the complications and the resistance, and how to keep it all together.  About how to grade it, and communicate my purpose to the kids, their parents, and my teammates.  And then I’m almost too overwhelmed with it all to understand how to get started.” 
We all nodded, identifying, understanding—we were right there with her. 

It’s so easy to do, isn’t it?  Being overwhelmed can be self-inflicted.  We let too much in.  We make our lists and plans.  We checklist through all the things we want to do, the things we have to do, the things we should do.  And then suddenly we’re breathless with the I-just-can’t—that wave of feeling we can’t possibly­ it all and do it right.  

What impressed me was this interviewee’s ability to take responsibility for the feeling of being overwhelmed.  She wasn’t looking to blame; instead, she looked firmly at herself.   With complete, unapologetic honesty.  It was impressive.  After all, it's  hard to admit that it isn't the world conspiring to overwhelm—it is our approach to it that overwhelms.  

That’s a pretty mature way of thinking, there.  I betcha we could all be better if we look honestly at we’re doing to ourselves that might be making our work more difficult.  

Saturday, April 15, 2017


I go to a hot yoga class six or seven days a week.  Not because I love it, because I would never put the word “love” together with that kind of heat.  And it is hard work.  But I do love how I feel afterwards—strong, and confident, and able.  And, too, I don’t ache like it did back when I ran millions of miles—that was me, the feeble and never-blossomed marathoner.

So I’m all in on the hot yoga thing.  The past couple years, I’ve even gotten a little playful with it.  A little gymnastic-y.  Which makes me feel fancy, and kind of legit.  

This morning, I fell into a nice rhythm, sneaking in a couple of great handstands and headstands.  I was sweating from every pore, cleansing my toxins; I was looking toward a good day. I felt like a badass.  A badass in charge of stuff.  I felt good.

Then, the teacher directed us into a pose that naturally led to a headstand.  Legs gracefully in the air, I did a couple of curls and turns (fancy me, right?), and then—whoops—I wobbled a bit.  No big thing, I thought. My mat was near a wall, right? —So I’d just tap on it and get back upright again.  You have the wall.  Tilt toward the wall.  Reach.  Toes.  Reach.  Reach--? 

And then:  Oh, no. You were working from the back of the mat, you dolt.  You forgot where you were.  There’s no wall.

I floundered and fumbled, legs all flopping and flailing, down down down, and then:  Splat.  Flat on my back.  Loudly.  It sounded like a sweaty, middle-aged body crashing to the floor, which of course is exactly what it was.

I scrambled up and around, excusing and apologizing, saying something about a wall, and there was awkward laughter from the other (heretofore stoic) faces in the room, and the teacher asked if I was okay, and everyone was all ha, ha, ha.  And then, blessedly, everyone went back to business, serious and focused as before.  Upright again in body and mind, I closed my eyes, marveling at the speed with which my confidence had turned into a clumsy fall, and how quickly I’d gone from feeling like a ballerina to a one-legged goat.

I thought about it as I went through my day—about being confident and still having humiliating, inevitable crashes.  Confidence is, after all, a funny thing.  Leaders need confidence.  We’re weak and untrustworthy without it.  People need to know we can stand up and be freakin’ awesome.  But the minute we think we’ve really got it—that we’ve mastered it—that we're done—our confidence may splat itself into bits on the floor.

And then—?

Each time we splat, we need to get up again.  That's the secret:  Get back into the pose, the groove, the rhythm.  Avoid pouting or feeling downtrodden along the way; just accept the collapses and move on.  If we plan on the wall, and there’s no wall, well, then, there’s no wall.  Reaching for it won’t do a bit of good.  Fall... and stand up again.  That's all.  

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Being a Feeling Person

I used to think I’d grow into a person who goes to the movies a lot.  I didn’t go as a young person—only two times, by my memory.  Annie was my first in an actual movie theater.  My grandmother was visiting and took me, buying me a gigantic box of Dots that were so deliciously sweet my teeth ached.  A few years later my father took me to see Rainman.  There were no Dots—just the aftermath of an emotional brick thrown into my face as I worked my adolescent self through all the stuff in that movie. 

I fell in love with going to the movies in my late twenties.  I finally had the money and time to give to really dedicate to movie watching.  Together with a friend of mine, I made it my mission to see all the movies nominated for Oscars.  I loved how indulgent and arty I felt, being such an expert moviegoer. I even went alone sometimes, unapologetically buying myself the big tub of popcorn and munching away until the salt made my tongue dry. 

And then, two things cut my movie attendance to zero.  For one, I was too busy with work and building my family.  But I also stopped enjoying movies.  They got too loud and frightening, too mired in crime and death—impossible car chases, guns and bombs, people blown to bits in the name of a plotline.  Even the previews—“trailers,” they’re now called, which I just don’t understand—even those 2-minute clips would make me tremble.  Far from enticing me to see the movie, I’d feel nauseous and overwhelmed and turned off.  Too much CGI.  Noise.  Bombs and guns and blood.  Death, death, death, and more death. 

So I stopped.  I didn’t see movies for a long time.  I was embarrassed about it, actually, because I thought it revealed a shameful truth about myself—that I was too sensitive, too raw, too open to injury, too unable to shut off my feeling-ness.  Other people could do it, after all; they could watch horrific movies and still get up afterwards to go out for a cheeseburger and a beer. 

Recently, though, I gave it another go, and I’m so glad I did, because it helped me make sense of why so many movies are so difficult for me to watch

My husband and I had planned a rare night out, but, restricted by crappy weather and bound by time constraints, we decided we’d see a movie.  Skimming the listings, we only had one option I thought I could stomach:  La La Land.  Okay, then.  That would be it. 

We bought tickets. 

And there it was, once again, in that sweet and lovely movie:  The magic of going to the movies, of losing myself in a simple love story in which there is heartbreak and sadness, but it’s actually okay, and I understood why it was okay.  Because I wasn’t slammed in the face with murder or betrayal or bad guys; it was just a snapshot of life happening, and it made me think about the choices we make and what we gain and lose by each choice.

I sought a more clearly articulated explanation by perusing movie reviews of La La Land.  The best came from Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle (brilliant writer, by the way).  Mr. LaSalle said it beautifully, which is why I quote him directly here.  He says the movie whispers, and, “What it whispers is not the usual musical thing, or the usual movie message.  It’s saying that a very good path in life cuts off another good path, and that every gain in life, however wonderful, comes with a loss.  It’s saying that this is what it’s like to be a feeling person, but that being a feeling person is the only way to go through life.” 



Being a feeling person is the only way to go through life.

That’s pretty beautiful, no?  That makes me feel a lot better about... well, a lot of things. 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Even After We're Gone

Not long ago, I had a couple delicious hours alone and spent it with a fun romantic comedy called The Proposal. 

There is a great scene where Betty White’s character, the feisty and hilarious Grandma Annie, wants to give her wedding dress to Margaret (Sandra Bullock). 

“I can’t.  I can’t take this,” Margaret says, in an unexpected display of humble unselfishness.

Grandma Annie insists.  “Grandmothers love to give their stuff to their grandchildren.  It makes us feel like we’ll still be part of your lives even after we’re gone.  Take it.”

Instantly, I thought of my late grandmother.  In the last five years of her life, she drove us all bonkers because she talked incessantly about who would get what after she was gone.   Everything was up for discussion: her Spode china, her stacks of valuable books, her silver, her engagement and wedding rings, which grew increasingly loose and clink-y on her finger as she aged and thinned.  My siblings and I rolled our eyes each time it came up, and my cousins were similarly annoyed.  It became a joke amongst us, especially when my grandmother took to labeling things with index cards so we’d know who was supposed to get particular items—and then frequently moved these assignments around.  On one visit, I was slated to get her antique silverware; on the next visit, it was now labeled for my sister.  The Greek brass drawings she’d acquired overseas were assigned to my aunt, then to my mother, then to my cousin, and then back to my aunt.  It was by turns hilarious and infuriating—hilarious because we thought she was acting like lunatic, and infuriating because it felt like she was using her stuff (her “stupid stuff,” I believe I called them in my surly teenaged years) to manipulate us.

With time and reflection, though, my understanding has changed.  Now I know that she wasn’t being a lunatic at all.  On the contrary, she was clear-eyed, focusing on passing on her things because she needed to know they would continue to tell her story, and would remind the world that she was here.  And she moved her assignments around because she wanted to make sure they were honored appropriately, and worried about them landing in the right spot.

My grandmother assumed she would pass quietly in her sleep, dignified and elegant, and her things would be taken, as assigned, in a somber and grateful post-funeral walk through her house.  Circumstances never play out the way they are supposed to, though; her old-age illnesses drained her money, and many of her things were sold.  Others ended up in boxes in a storage facility and, when it was finally cleaned out months after her death, no one had the emotional or physical energy to allocate things with the care we should have.

So in spite of my grandmother’s plans, I do not have her high-heeled pumps or her tea set from Cairo, her English hats or her collection of rare books. I ended up with just one thing:  a single gold wedding band.

And I value it like nothing else.  I wear it every day, on the ring finger of my right hand.  I catch an unplanned glance at it a hundred times a day, and when it happens, I have a milli-flash of memory of my grandmother.  Just a snapshot, there and then gone, sometimes practically unconsciously:  A memory of the time we made donuts together, the most simple and delicious donuts I’d ever tasted.  How she scolded me for sock-skating across her hardwood floors.  How she always ate a breakfast of oatmeal with half a banana sliced on top, saving the other half for the next day.  How her words slurred a little after too many vodka tonics.  How she pressed a $10 bill in my hand and told me to go buy myself a “nice suit” for my graduate school intake interview.  Her final months, when she insisted on a glass of water by her bed at night with two—no more, no less—ice cubes in the glass, refusing to reason with us about inevitable melting.

The gold band brings all of that back.  Just this—this slim, indestructible, shining reminder—opens up a slew of snapshots of a good woman’s life and the connections she made with her granddaughter.

Here’s the thing:  As we go through this life, we never know when we’re taking a snapshot for someone else’s memory, and we never know how many years will pass before it is seen again.  But it’s a good reminder to work hard to build a gallery of positive snapshots, so no matter what we leave behind, we’ll still be part of the memories our loved ones keep. 

Teaching, Time, and Water in a Sieve

"Time flies."  The nurse shook her head and locked eyes with the infant I held in my arms.  She was finalizing paperwork to discha...