An exercise on mindful thinking at the close of the year

An exercise on #mindfulness - www.alliepottswrites.comI decided to go for a jog one morning after feeling a guilty over recent excesses. The air was cool, but not chilly enough to need a jacket or put on gloves. My dog, Her Royal Highness, was happy enough to trot along beside me. The sky was a clear, albeit pale blue and the neighborhood quiet. In short, it was a perfect morning to be outdoors.

Raleigh is home to a greenway system that stretches from one end of the city to another and it is quite easy to forget that you are in the state’s capital when you enter one of the many wooded paths. But that morning, I had a specific destination in mind. If I could jog to a certain point on the trail without stopping, I would consider the run a success.

A slight tension on the leash informed me that Her Royal Highness wouldn’t mind picking up the pace. I ignored her request as I remained focused on my feet. She should understand. A trip or stumble due to a slippery patch of leaves or fallen branch would at a minimum ruin my stride, but could also prevent me from taking her out again for a long, long while. We rounded a corner, passing a walker and another dog on the trail. Her Royal Highness tugged, urging me to stop and say hello. Once again I refused her request.

I am not the fastest on the trail. Nor were there any fans cheering me on from the side of the path. But slow, but steady, I eventually made it to my goal one step at a time. Her Royal Highness wagged her tail and sniffed around as I took in the view.

My muscles in my legs stiffened in the seconds it took me to turn around. That’s when it hit me – the rather large error in my plan. The goal I’d set in mind was the furthest point in my run. I’d forgotten to consider the distance it would take to run back. Dang it.

Her Royal Highness sprung into action, but unfortunately, now that I’d stopped once, keeping up our steady pace was no longer as easy to do. I found myself walking more along the return, but by doing so, I was also able to look around.

The sky had taken on a deeper, richer shade of blue and the sunlight now filtered quite nicely through red and golden leaves. I stopped again at a bridge near the greenway’s exit, only this time instead of focusing on my stiffening muscles, the aching reminder of how far I’d come, or the distance I still had yet to go, I let myself appreciate just being in the place I found myself in now.

I removed my ear buds, and the music that had boomed and pulsed, keeping me inspired to run, was replaced by the sound of a creek flowing over rocks under the bridge. Leaves tumbled down as the trees swayed in the morning’s breeze. I turned and took the scene in more fully.

I might have lingered there longer, but the sound of footfalls on the path of an approaching walker broke the moment and soon we were once again on our way, taking the memory of the moment with us.

At the close of the year, I like to reflect on my accomplishments, and while they aren’t always easy to identify, I know there are always a few. At the same time, I like to plan for the year ahead and set my goals and challenges, just as I suspect many others do too. But moments like this are a good reminder to also be mindful of the present, for there is beauty to be seen in the now if you only take the time to stop and look around.

Autumn creek and #mindfulness - www.alliepottswrites.com

The secret success of the magnolia tree

magnolia

Image courtesy of Liz West and http://www.flickr.com

I took the dog for a walk. The act wasn’t particularly notable. I haven’t been confined to the house for an extended period, or otherwise recovering from some debilitating injury or illness. This isn’t a story of bravery. It wasn’t cold outside, nor was it overly hot. This isn’t a story about overcoming the elements. In fact, there was very little about that morning’s walk that might differentiate it from any other walk I might take on a given day. But on this average walk on an average day, for whatever reason, I happened to beyond the space where my feet came in contact with the sidewalk.

“Mindfulness isn’t difficult, we just need to remember to do it.” – Sharon Salzberg

I saw a tree in a neighbor’s yard. A magnolia to be exact. Its blooms had started taking on the yellowish tone of petals past their prime and the leaves were already showing signs of summer browning. It wasn’t a particularly beautiful specimen, but it wasn’t remarkably ugly either. The best word that I can use to describe it is, average. Being that we naturally prefer to seek out that extraordinary, my eyes immediately sought something more interesting to look at and landed on the more wooded area behind the magnolia where trees more than twice the magnolia’s height swayed against each other in the breeze. In comparison, the average magnolia now looked isolated and puny. It looked almost as if it wasn’t even trying.

“Just because Fate doesn’t deal you the right cards, it doesn’t mean you should give up. It just means you have to play the cards you get to their maximum potential.” – Les Brown

I felt a little sorry for the tree as I compared it with those behind it. I remember a magnolia tree in front of my childhood home that seemed to touch the sky. I remember climbing its thick branches, pretending to set up a home well above the ground like Tarzan or the Swiss Family Robinson, and using its huge strong leaves as a fan in the summer. When I was a child, there was no grander tree than a magnolia. It made me pause. To think, I was now considering this magnolia tree small and weak when the tree in my memory had achieved so much more.

“Many people never reach greater because they don’t leave good enough behind.” – Steven Furtick

The trees that towered behind average magnolia did not grow to their massive heights overnight. With so many close together fighting for the same sunlight, they had no choice but to grow up with each new generation building upon the last growing ever so taller. That kind of success takes time as much as determination.

“You can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.” – Warren Buffett

As I continued my walk I imagined what the other trees might say to the average magnolia were they to talk. (I know, it might sound odd, but that’s the sort of thing that crosses my mind especially early in the morning). Did the other trees look down on their tiny neighbor in disdain, confident in their combined successful heights like some stereotypical A-list high school clique? Or did they secretly envy the shorter tree for the wide open space around its branches as theirs were tangled with their neighbor’s?

“A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at him.” – David Brinkley

It occurred to me then why the magnolia tree had stopped growing upward. It didn’t need to reach the same heights as its neighbors to be successful. It grew where no other trees did, spreading its branches out to collect sunlight where little competition existed. The average magnolia had achieved an entirely different sort of success.

“The strongest oak of the forest is not the one that is protected from the storm and hidden from the sun. It’s the one that stands in the open where it is compelled to struggle for its existence against the winds and rains and the scorching sun.” -Napoleon Hill

And so as I finished my loop around my block, my thoughts about the magnolia tree also came full circle.

“There is a choice you have to make in everything you do. So keep in mind that in the end, the choice you make, makes you.”

“The most important key to achieving great success is to decide upon your goal and launch, get started, take action, move.”

– John Wooden

At the end of the day though it doesn’t matter if a tree grows up or out. To be successful all a tree has to do is grow a little every day. The same applies to people too.

quotes courtesy of http://www.azquotes.com

 

Monsoons, Moments, and Mars

It was just me and LT over the weekend. Lamont and Kiddo had embarked on a father-son overnight camping and fishing trip, a trip they go on at least once a year. While they had been gone, there had been heavy rain showers at the coast resulting in texts like “It was a monsoon” and “it turns out that our tent is only 95% waterproof,” messages that amuse me to no end, especially as I sip my wine, comfortably on my couch, while watching a chick flick, foreign film or similar typically vetoed movie selection.

kid's tea party

A four-year-old and a porcelain tea cup – also known as a terrified parent’s near heart attack with every sip.

I certainly felt that we’d gotten the better end of the deal as the weekend progressed. LT and I attended a tea party where he’d pulled on an over-sized straw hat, proclaimed himself a cowboy, and then shouted “Yee-Haw” to other guests (“use your inside voice, LT” x 100). LT had gone in search of waterfalls with his Nana and to a friend’s birthday party. I just knew Kiddo would envy the fun (and dry weather) we’d had.

I was wrong. When Kiddo and Lamont returned, I asked my boys if they would like to swap roles the next time. Did Kiddo want to stay with mom while LT went with dad? Kiddo looked at me like I was speaking another language. LT, misinterpreting the question and his brother’s answer into meaning that only one kid could go and Kiddo was it, practically threatened to secede from the family in protest. “Wait a minute, LT, didn’t you have fun?”

Even though I am happy enough to have some me time, the sound rejection stung and a little hurt must have shown in my face. “It’s not you. He is just afraid of missing out,” Lamont consoled me.

Later, after the kids were in bed, (or at least should have been bed – LT has been rather,… shall we say,… bedtime adverse over the last several days so it is hard to say for sure) Lamont stood outside waiting for Her Royal Highness to finish her evening’s business (by all means, Ms., please take your time). A bright, full moon shone overhead, illuminating exactly how little HRH cared about our impatience.

“We’re supposed to be able to see Mars,” I commented to Lamont as I joined him on the porch.

“Yeah, it’s by the moon.”

Mars Hubble

Image courtesy of the Hubble Telescope and Wikipedia Commons,  and not at all representative of what I could see from my porch.

I looked where he pointed. Sure enough, there was a large brilliant orange dot in the sky. I ran inside (I’m a bit of a space enthusiast) and collected Kiddo’s telescope, a basic children’s starter model. I was able to locate the spot in the telescope’s view finder, but no matter how much I adjusted dials or re-positioned the lens, I was never quite able to capture a clear shot of the planet in full with all its peaks and valleys. I would have to be content instead with what I could see with my naked eye.

“It was even brighter at the beach.” Lamont informed me as HRH finally deigned to make her way back inside.

As I returned the telescope to its regular resting place it occurred to me that if the sky cleared long enough for Lamont to get a clear view of Mars, the trip hadn’t been the total washout his early texts would lead one to believe. Those texts were only snap shots from their weekend together, mere grains in the hourglass of their time. I also knew I’d only miss more as there were more journeys away from mom.

And that’s okay.

I could insist on joining them at the beach, but instead, I am looking forward to the excitement in the air, second only to Christmas, prior to their trip and the joy on their sun-browned faces as they tumble out of the car on their way to greet me on their return. I am looking forward to hearing the stories they collectively are suitable for mom’s ears and confronting Lamont with a smile when one of the boys accidentally shares something mom doesn’t need to know. But, as much as I love and will miss them, I am also seriously looking forward to a few moments to myself (like the occasional bathroom break).

I don’t need to see all the moments to be content. I am not afraid of missing out. I just want a clear sight when it comes to the moments that matter.

 

To be like the lavender fields of Old Town

Old Town DubrovnikYears ago, my husband and I planned to visit my family’s ancestral home, located just outside of Dubrovnik in Croatia along with my parents and my sister. None of us lived in the same city, but we managed to find flights that were expected to land around the same time even if not on the same airline. Once booked, I spent the next several weeks worrying about what to pack and how to communicate once there, but hardly thought about the logistics of getting to our destination.

“Cancelled? What do you mean cancelled?” we asked an attendant as we stood, stunned, at the ticketing counter on the day of the flight with our bags in tow.

“You should always check ahead,” the agent muttered. We felt it best not to respond.

The agent sighed before offering, “let me see what I can do.” Click. Clack. Clickey, clack. “Okay, I can get you on another connection… hmm…” Click. Clack. Clickey, clack. “Yes, I can get you on an earlier flight, through Vienna by way of London, but you’ll need to hurry.”

Bags checked we rushed to the security checkpoint along with several dozen other passengers headed to other destinations. At the sight of the line, I started to panic. I knew my family’s flights were already off the ground. They wouldn’t know how our plans had changed – I hadn’t thought to sign them up for alerts. I looked at my ticket, the other passengers, and at the large digital clock. “Ma’am,” the TSA agent caught my attention. “Ma’am, you are going to need to calm down or we aren’t going to be able to let you through.”

Calm down? Calm down? Did my near breathless panting as I ran up to the checkpoint not clue him in that time was not on my side?

Fine. I took a deep breath, attempting to appear serene. I’m sure I failed, but at least we were able to enter the line for the first leg of our now four-leg journey.

On the second leg, I watched as the graphic representing our plane on the in-flight entertainment system showed us approaching London. And passing London. And approaching London again. Psst, the flight’s overhead speaker system spat as it came online. “Ah, Ladies and Gentlemen we’ve been told that there is a lot of ground congestion. We’re going to need to circle around a few more times while the runways clear, but don’t worry, we’ll get you on your way soon.”

I glanced at my ticket and at my watch. It would be tight, but there was time to make our next connection. There just had to be.

An attendant stopped by our seats, dashing my hopes. “You aren’t going to make it.”

What do you mean we aren’t going to make it? I started rummaging through the seat pocket for the vomit bag. I was going to need a vacation after this vacation.

We wouldn’t finally reach Dubrovnik until the following day. Thankfully I’d found my phone allowed for international text messages, even if it wouldn’t make calls so at least my parents weren’t equally frantic when we didn’t show.

Up in Old TownAfter a long cab ride from the airport to Old Town Dubrovnik, I was stressed and travel weary. All I wanted to do was put my feet up. Unfortunately, the downside about visiting a walled city recognized as a World Heritage site is the lack of accessibility by modern transportation. I was dismayed to learn the only way to reach to reach the home we’d rented was by ascending several flights of narrow stairs while carrying our bags. My back and calves ached. No part of this vacation was going to plan.

Eventually, though it was time to locate something to eat and the group of us followed the rings of stone footpaths and more stairs until we’d reached a line of open air restaurants. We sat back and waited for our order. And waited. And waited some more. No one seemed to care about turning over a table so that other patrons might eat. Who runs a business like this, I wondered.

The owner approached our table. Rather than apologizing for the delay in bringing out our food he pulled out a bottle of a locally distilled beverage and offered us a glass freely as if we were visiting relatives rather than customers. My dad and hubby tasted it, but one whiff of its strength was enough to tell me I was better off abstaining. The owner told jokes as the food was brought out and made sure we all felt welcome. Apparently, a happy one, I answered myself.

Meal times the following day played out very similarly in both informality and length. Each meal drug out so long that by the time we were served there was really only time to plan to where to eat next. I had heard of the slow food movement, but this went beyond what I had experienced at various trendy tapas bars in the States.

Dubrovnik is a cruise boat destination and during the main season the streets of old town are crowded with tourists, but the season was nearly over. The streets of Old Town were filled instead with lavender in the form of soaps, oils, and as a featured ingredient in bottles of an otherwise clear beverage similar to the one from the night before, but what was missing was a sense of pressure. If you were interested in one of the various wares, you bought something, if you weren’t, there were minimal attempt to persuade you otherwise. It was as if they were simply content to let life work out the way it would.

We ventured outside of Dubrovnik to where my family’s house still stood in a state of mid-renovation. In the distance, I could see tufts of wild lavender scattered across an otherwise rocky hillside. Their presence explained the plethora of lavender based products in the market below. I watched as tall blossoms, where little else grew, undulated in the wind like the waves of a purple ocean. I was one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever witnessed.

Later, as I sipped on a cup of coffee in an open-air plaza while watching the people go by, I thought to myself how lovely life was at that moment and felt the last of my stress go. Eventually, I knew I would have to return to my home and all of its rushing from a to b, but that was a problem for another day. For the balance of my trip, I was content to simply be like the fields of lavender and the people who had built their livelihoods around it, and let the wind take me where it would. And that was a souvenir worth taking back with me.

Sunset in Old Town

It’s all relative

its relative

Background image courtesy of Unsplash

I was honored to present the following on The North Raleigh Rotary Club’s family day.


In high school, one of my English teachers gave us a creative writing assignment. We were to pick any literary classic and re-write it as a modern retelling. I thought there had been enough adaptations of stories like Romeo and Juliet. I wanted to do something different. Edgy. I picked Dante’s Inferno.

Dante’s Inferno is one of the works that make up the Divine Comedy. In it, the author is given his own personal guided tour of hell encountering various tortured souls along the way. (You know – comedy). However at its heart, it is satire, as those souls are in fact thinly veiled references to various famous people of Dante’s time.

For my retelling, I wanted to be true to the original source material, but at the same time, I didn’t exactly want to send anyone to hell. My teenaged mind got to thinking. Where would be a suitable alternative setting?

At the time of my English project, I had only participated in a handful of family reunions, although we called them something else then. They consisted of a meal with way too many people crammed into a house with too few bathrooms. You were expected to make small talk and to nod politely as someone fussed over how much taller you’d grown. (An observation, that in my case, stopped ringing true quite some time ago.) To make matters worse, there were no friends at these events. Only family.

I thought the setting was perfect.

I got to work, placing stereotypical relatives in various scenes. The end result was completely fictitious, but I thought it was hilarious. After completing the assignment, I decided to show it to my mom and stepdad and waited to hear their laughter.

None came. Instead of being amused, my stepdad almost looked hurt. As he handed me back my pages, he said, “you never put me in your writing.”

I remember thinking, did he not pick up that my characters were in a hell? He should be happy to have been left out of this story.

It took me awhile to realize that he was hurt, not because I had left him out of hell, but because I had left him out of a story about family.

I am grateful to have this opportunity to correct my slight. Not everyone is.

I was in college on September 11th. I’d met Lamont, but most of my family was hours away, including a cousin, living in Brooklyn, who no one could reach. Several hours later, I learned that my cousin had gone into town after hearing about the first crash, never expecting there to be a second crash or that the towers might come down.

My cousin was okay, but as I listened to reporters say how the world would be forever changed, all I could think of was those other people who had gotten on a plane that day or had gone into work thinking September 11th was going to be no different from September 10th and my heart went out to those they left behind. Just as it does to all those affected by any tragedy, even those that play out on a less international stage.

Tragedy teaches us that every day is precious.

The world hasn’t gotten any less scary, but it doesn’t have to stay that way.

Fred Rodgers, the host of one of my mom’s favorite children’s shows, once said that as a boy, when he would see scary things in the news, his mother would say, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

She was right. For every tragedy, there are stories of regular people who ran into danger instead of away from it in order to save others.

These everyday heroes create hope that good will ultimately prevail. Their stories can rally a community and make it stronger. We just have to remember to look for the right story.

After I told my family that I wanted to try writing professionally, I was given a copy of a book entitled, How to Write a Damn Good Novel. One of the best pieces of advice it offers is that before you started writing a single word, you need to identify one thing that you wholeheartedly believe and develop your story around that premise.

Well, I believe that every day has value. Even the bad ones.

My book was published. Now I didn’t just want to be an author. I wanted to be a successful one too. I once was asked to define success during a job interview. At the time, I gave the cheeky answer, to never eat Ramen Noodles again. However, I now define success as being happy with myself and with what I have.

When I started blogging, I made the conscious decision that I was going to maintain a positive site with the hope that I would attract other positive-minded people and we could grow successful together. But writing for a blog is different from writing a novel. You can’t go a year or two between publications. You are expected to regularly generate content.

I looked for inspiration. I saw my children.

Their world consists of home, school, daycare, and the occasional visit to Nana’s or a cousin’s. Some might consider their world small. And yet, to them, it is something wonderful and worth exploration. I started writing down the lessons about life my children taught me.

I became more aware of the moments. By putting my observations down in writing, I began to recall the lessons my parents, grandparents, and even Lamont had taught me, wittingly or otherwise, and as I did so, I began to develop a deeper appreciation of them. Not just for how they have supported me, but as individuals as well.

This is not to say that since starting my writing journey every day has become rainbows and lollipops. They haven’t. That’s life. Later today, traffic is going to be awful. Inevitably one kid will refuse to eat anything at all on their plate because their food either touched or wasn’t cut to their standards.

I will have plenty to complain about, but more to be grateful for.

It’s all relative.