“Pay It Forward” Fever

Two friends in Grand Rapids, Michigan spent the month of March “paying it forward” (aka performing Random Acts of Rainbow) in fun and creative ways. Thankfully, CNN captured them on this video. I plan to borrow their idea of assembling care packages for homeless people. (On the way to work, I walk past about a half dozen homeless people asleep under a “deluxe” lighted and heated overpass and have been wanting to do something for them.) What’s your favorite “pay it forward” idea from this dynamic duo?

Craigslist Joe

Feeling down on Friday night after an extra-stressful work week, I decided to watch a new documentary film called “Craiglist Joe.” It’s about 29-year-old Joe Garner who, for one month, leaves everything behind except his cell phone (with a new number that his friends and family don’t have), laptop and the clothes on his back, and lives off of the kindness of strangers he meets through Craigslist.

Would the internet community enable Joe to survive for 31 days as he crisscrosses the United States (including stops in Chicago, New York, New Orleans and San Francisco)? It does that, and much more. So if you need a little uplifting shot of “feel good” like I did, check out “Craigslist Joe” (in theaters and on Xfinity On Demand). It’s definitely my Rainbow of the Week.

“I Never Saw the Difference Between Disability and Ability”

Every four years, we’re treated to amazing stories about athletes’ roads to the Olympic games. One of the most inspirational stories to come out of the 2012 Olympics is that of South African runner Oscar Pistorius. A double amputee at 11 months old, Pistorius has played sports his entire life. In this video interview, he explains that, as a kid, he just thought he had different shoes than everyone else.

Pistorius is the first double amputee to compete in the Olympic games, making it to the semi-finals in the men’s 400 meters. He’ll also compete in the 4×400 meter relay.

I thought of Pistorius when I got up this morning. My legs were sore and my mind started to search for excuses to skip my morning run. As Pistorious says, “You’re not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have.” Sometimes I forget how lucky I am to be able to run. Pistorious helped me remember.

Tough Love 3: You Can’t Change And Stay The Same

A typical American, I started practicing Iyengar yoga for the physical benefits and to help mend my problem hips. Little did I know that yoga would transform much more than my body. One Iyengar yoga teacher in particular, Manouso Manos (who doles out a very memorable brand of tough love), said something that stuck in my mind and drove me to examine how I was living my life: “You cannot change and stay the same at the same time.”

From The Sticky Mat …

Manouso was explaining how yoga teachers push students beyond our comfort zones, help us release our inner control freaks, and step out of the hard boxes we put ourselves in. Iyengar students learn these lessons through performing poses or asanas and observing our minds and bodies in action. Through observation and analysis, we can catch our habits of letting the strong parts (e.g., calves) do the work while the weak parts (e.g., hips) attempt to evade notice; doing things the same way over and over again (e.g., gripping my calves so my hips can release) without noticing our patterns; and avoiding certain actions (e.g., twisting standing poses) because they highlight our imbalances (e.g., weak and tight hip muscles).

Good yoga teachers help us become more self aware and show us how to do things differently in order to build strength and balance. Nothing is as transformational as having a teacher put your body in true alignment and feeling as crooked as Lombard Street to let you know that you need to change something. In order to incorporate the teacher’s corrections, yoga students need to maintain an open mind and be willing to shed old habits and adopt new methods.

… And Beyond

This approach was having positive results for my yoga practice and my hips. But Manouso’s words — “you cannot change and stay the same at the same time” – carried far beyond the sticky mat. I was unhappy with how I was leading my life. I felt the need to change. What was holding me back? My desire to maintain the same lifestyle. I wanted to change yet remain the same at the same time.

Turning to what I learned from yoga, I observed myself in action: What habits was I engaging in that were causing the misalignment? How could I break free from the box I’d put myself in and do things differently? The answers came fairly quickly. To borrow a term from Stephen Covey. I neededa paradigm shift. As Covey explains in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:

“We can only achieve quantum improvements in our lives as we quit hacking at the leaves of attitude and behavior and get to work on the root, the paradigms from which our attitudes and behavior flow.”

The Paradigm Shift

When I examined my life, I realized that I had fallen into what Covey describes in The Seven Habits as a “money centered” paradigm, putting economic security at the top of my priority list:

“When my sense of personal worth comes from my net worth, I am vulnerable to anything that will affect that net worth. But work and money, per se, provide no wisdom, no guidance, and only a limited degree of power and security.”

Latching on to material things had created weaknesses and imbalances that skewed my priorities as much as my wonky hips had skewed my body.  In order to change and create the life I envisioned, I needed to let go of the pseudo-security of owning a home and being able to buy whatever shoes strike my fancy at Nordstrom’s.

Once I opened myself up to moving away from a money-centered paradigm and aligned myself with my core values, the changes began to flow. In Covey’s words, “paradigm shifts move us from one way of seeing the world to another. And those shifts create powerful change.” Driven by my desire to use my talents to help others and to save money for my Reinvention Fund, I can now breeze through Nordstrom’s with no desire to buy another pair of shoes for my too-large collection. In fact, I’m amazed at how quickly that “shoe girl” disappeared.

That’s not to say that change is easy. The hard work of selling my condo and moving to a much smaller place ranks right up there with the challenge of working on my tight and weak hips. But by developing self-awareness (in my case, through yoga and Manouso’s tough love), we can identify habits that don’t serve us. No matter how deeply embedded those habits are, with persistence and the courage to change and a vision for a better life, we can replace them with more effective behaviors that strengthen and balance our bodies, minds and souls.

The saviour of 669.

Sticking with the theme of compassion (as inspired by Marc Barasch’s “Field Notes on the Compassionate Life”), here’s a post about Sir Nicholas Winton, a man who saved nearly 700 children in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Sir Nicholas is part of what Barasch calls the “gold-standard group”: people who saved strangers during WWII at the risk of their own lives. And “the only recognition they could expect was betrayal to the SS by a craven neighbor.” Sir Nicholas is an inspiration for us to be kinder to everyone, especially those who are suffering.

Field Notes On The Compassionate Life

He captured me with his first paragraph:

“Every now and then, I’ll meet an escapee; someone who has broken free of self-centeredness and lit out for the territory of compassion. You’ve met them, too, those people who seem to emit a steady stream of, for want of a better word, love vibes. As soon as you come within range, you feel embraced, accepted for who you are. For those of us who suspect that you rarely get something for nothing, such geniality can be discomfiting: They don’t even know me. It’s just generic cornflakes. But it feels so good to be around them. They stand there, radiating photons of goodwill, and despite yourself, you beam back, and the world, in a twinkling, changes.”

Thus begins Marc Barasch’s Field Notes on the Compassionate Life: A Search for the Soul of Human Kindness. An inspiration for Tom Shadyac’s film “I Am”, the book chronicles Barasch’s quest to find the origins and essence of human compassion. Why bother with an entire book about compassion (a term Barasch describes as “kindness without condition”)? Well, as he puts it, “A compassionate life is more fulfilling….it’s only when the ego bows out that the curtain rises on real life.”

Compassion: The Transformer

Field Notes is one of the most thought provoking, inspiring and remarkable “self help” books I’ve ever read. In a writing style that’s friendly, funny, intelligent and never pious, Barasch takes us on his journey to find answers to provocative questions with tremendous implications: What if the great driving force of our evolution were actually “survival of the kindest”? How can compassion, a trait hardwired into our nervous system and waiting to be awakened, transform our lives? Can we increase our own compassion quotient with practice? And how can we open our hearts to those who have wronged us?

To explore these questions, Barasch draws on evolutionary biology, social psychology, spirituality, history and his own experiences, like living for several days as a homeless person. He also interviews people who have gone against their own self-interests to help others, including those who forgave and even befriended murderers of family members (Chapter 10, Loving the Monster); citizens of Nazi-occupied Europe who rescued persecuted Jews (Chapter 8, The Altruist); and people who voluntarily gave kidneys to strangers in need of transplants (Chapter 7, The Giveaway). The stories of why they did what they did, and the impact it had on their lives, are unforgettable.

The Kidney List Expanded

The kidney donors particularly struck a chord with me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve kept a mental “kidney list”: a short roster of people to whom I’d donate a kidney if they ever needed one. (Kinda bizarre, I know, but aren’t we all?) Getting on my kidney list is no easy task. After all, you only have one kidney to give. Barasch made me think: Could I expand my kidney list to include every human being in the world? Even people who, at least in my mind, had harmed me?

Maybe I’ll start more slowly by not harboring hatred toward them. As one of Barasch’s subjects — a woman whose pregnant sister was murdered by a teenage thrill-kill from a wealthy family — memorably points out: “Hate is like drinking poison, and expecting it to kill the other guy. But it doesn’t kill him, it kills us.” Like Barasch did with a former business partner of his, we can forgive people who have wronged us, as much – if not more – for our own sake as theirs:

“I was persuaded by a remark I once heard the Archbishop Desmond Tutu make: ‘To forgive is the highest form of self-interest. I need to forgive you so that my anger and resentment and lust for revenge don’t corrode my being.’ I was corroding in my prison of ill-feeling. If I depended on my enemy to say he was sorry, then he was my jailer. I resolved that no matter what happened between us, I would filch the key and set myself free.”

The Audacious Altruist

Field Notes also examines why altruism can provoke negative reactions, like one of the voluntary kidney donors whose husband “just about threw up” when she told him what she was doing. Insights from the book came in handy recently when a good friend was greeted with hostility for having the audacity to tell a group of family friends that she preferred they make charitable donations in lieu of gifts for her birthday. You would’ve thought she asked them to ram bamboo shoots under their fingernails.

Thanks to Barasch, I understood that her act of altruism had (unintentionally) made them feel guilty or somewhat “less than”, which manifested in anger towards her:

“If they’re normal, then maybe I’m deficient, so there must be something wrong with them. Their lights are on so bright, we find ourselves looking down for their feet of clay. What are they up to, anyway? Which category of too-good-to-be-true should we check off: people-pleaser, queen of denial, religious nut, other? After their noble come-ons, their freebies of grace, what will they try to finagle in return? When we look behind their boons, will we discover a sell-by-date stamp?”

Learning To Be Kinder

Barasch’s insights helped me not only understand why my friend’s selfless act was met with anger, but why some people have reactions verging on horror when they learn I’ve applied for the Peace Corps. The understanding I gleaned from Field Notes helps me be kinder towards them. And as Barasch concludes, that’s really what it all boils down to:

“I often wonder if those most gifted with ‘caring thinking’ aren’t some sort of harbingers. But we don’t need a new set of genes or extra smarts to share our candy. Something within us already conduces toward heartfulness, and its nature is to grow with the merest effort. Aldous Huxley, asked on his deathbed to sum up what he had learned in his eventful life, said, ‘It’s embarrassing to tell you this, but it seems to come down mostly to just learning to be kinder.’ And though I set out to write a more hardheaded, less softhearted (and perhaps less softheaded) book, I can only conclude the same.”

My “Really, Really Middle-Aged Woman” Hero

She was the keynote speaker at More magazine’s Reinvention Convention in Chicago three years ago. I vaguely knew who she was but wasn’t expecting that much from an athlete. She blew me away that day with her grace, humor, determination and character (not to mention those abs!!). She blew me away even more this past week with her performance at the U.S. Olympic trials.

At the age of 45, competing against swimmers less than half of her age, Dara Torres missed a spot on her sixth Olympic team in the 50-meter freestyle by less than a tenth of a second. Torres won a total of 12 medals in the 1984, ’88, ’92, 2000 and 2008 Summer Games. This includes three silver medals at the Beijing Olympics at the age of 41, which she started training for shortly after giving birth to her now six-year-old daughter, Tessa. Referring to herself as a “really, really middle-aged woman”, Torres had knee surgery in 2009 to combat osteoarthritis. Last year, her coach, Michael Lohberg, passed away from a rare blood disorder.

But after her last race at the Olympic trials, Torres offered no excuses. Her tweets evidence the strength of her character:

“Well, I gave it everything I’ve got & left no stones unturned. Time to cheer on all the amazing USA swimmers heading to London!”

“I guess it’s time to figure out what I wanna do when I grow up!”

Thanks to Dara Torres, when I go to the gym this morning to do my 45-minute run, I won’t let the fact that I’m surrounded by people half my age bother me. And I won’t use the surgical scars on my knee or any of life’s other hard knocks as an excuse to not work hard. Thanks to Dara Torres, us “really, really middle-aged women” know that with strength, determination and a healthy dose of humor, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish.

Lost and Found

This week, as I sort through and pack up my belongings to move to a smaller place, two things are happening: (1) I’m shedding boxes and bags full of stuff that’s no longer me (why in the world did I accumulate so many things relating to shoes??); and (2) I’m finding old beloved things that I had forgotten all about (so THAT’S where I put the watch my dad got when he retired!), and I’m bringing them back into my life. I’ve also been following T.D. Jakes’ advice to “move into a new room” that makes me “dream again, think again, read again, learn again, a room with people who make deposits and not just withdrawals in your life.” Part of moving into that new room is doing this blog. I’ve encountered some very kind and helpful people in this new room, including Kate MacNicol, who recently reminded me that I should be reading Writer’s Digest.

Writer’s Digest used to be a regular part of my life when I was working on my Masters in Editing and Publishing at the University of Cincinnati, back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth. (OK, there were no dinosaurs, but there were no iPhones or Kindles either.) I lost that part of me when I went to law school, like a cozy sweater I put in a storage box and lost track of. By directing me back to Writer’s Digest, Kate helped me remember how much I enjoyed focusing on the writing profession before I got sucked into the black hole of lawyerdom. Finding that part of me again feels pretty wonderful. So thanks, Kate, for being a rainbow in my moving clouds this week!

If you’re also in the midst of moving into a new room, keep at it! Your efforts will pay off if, like T.D. Jakes advises, you take baby steps, wait for the payback, and have courage to take risks. And if you see a chance to help someone who’s moving into the room where you already reside (like Kate did for me this week), seize the opportunity to be a rainbow in their clouds….