Let’s Get Cookin’

It’s that time of year, my favorite time of year. “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables. I agree. Presently, on a cool October morning, overcast, damp and chilly, I sit in a coffee shop in Downtown Napa, writing, sipping and getting things organized for the rest of the day and for the upcoming weekend. It is warm and cozy and smells divine in here. There is enough activity to be interesting, but not so noisy to be overwhelming.

Where I am enjoying my morning.
Where I am enjoying my morning.

On my list of things to do today is to dig up the pumpkin soup recipe I made, traditionally, for many years, before the kids went out trick or treating on Halloween. I always believed in family dinners and pulled them off on a regular basis, until both kids were in high school and we had multiple activities in multiple directions, every night of the week. So, even on Halloween, for many, many years, there was a family meal. We’d have my pumpkin soup and the kids would be off to trick or treat. I usually stayed home, dressed as Morticia from the Addams Family, answered the door and doled out candy. It was our tradition. My soup recipe comes from my favorite cookbook. I have many, many cookbooks. I love cookbooks, really good, quality cookbooks by esteemed chefs. I like to browse through them, given the time, especially when preparing to entertain. I read them like novels and sometimes I will find myself amidst a pile of cookbooks and half an afternoon has vanished.

My collection, and this is my pared down, minimalist lifestyle, essential collection.
My collection, and this is my pared down, minimalist lifestyle, essential collection.

My pumpkin soup recipe comes from my favorite cookbook, the one cookbook I always reach for first, my “go to” guide to all things kitchen. Fannie Farmer, revised by Marion Cunningham. There may be a newer version out there, mine is pretty faded, splotched and tattered from many years of use, but it is this book I love, no matter its antiquity.

My all-time favorite, go-to cookbook.
My all-time favorite, go-to cookbook.

My mom has her favorite cookbook, the Better Homes and Gardens one. She gave me a copy, too, when I went off to college, I think, but I no longer have it. My man has his favorite cookbook, always on the windowsill, at the ready, “The Joy of Cooking”, his “go-to “guide, that, and anything that Jacques Pepin said, ever.  No complaints, no complaints, he is a master in the kitchen and never have I been disappointed.

An old standard.
An old standard.
My man's favorite go-to cookbook.
My man’s favorite go-to cookbook.

There is a “neighborhood” wine tasting party in his neighborhood in a couple of weeks. Sadly, I won’t be there to attend, but he’d mentioned maybe making pumpkin soup, so, I thought I’d send him my recipe, I mean Fannie’s recipe, or Marion’s. The recipe I’ve used many, many times. We’ll leave it at that. The recipe I use calls for canned pumpkin puree, which is fine and, even by my standards, can be obtained in a suitably organic, sustainable variety. Otherwise, I’m not much of one for canned food. I buy organic canned tomato sauce and fire roasted tomatoes from Whole Foods for a fast, weeknight spaghetti sauce, but, generally, I prefer fresh. I thought I’d look up pumpkin soup recipes on my favorite “go-to” online recipe resource, AllRecipes.com, and I found pages and pages and pages of pumpkin soup recipe. I only wanted one, one that used fresh pumpkin, as an alternative to my recipe and the canned pumpkin puree. Pages and pages and pages, and many of them with many reviews and many stars, which would be my obvious selection criteria. I mean, really, who would choose to use a recipe that had only a few stars, or none, and only a few reviews, or none? My point, exactly.

Too many pumpkin soup recipes!
Too many pumpkin soup recipes!

So, today, at some point, I am going to gather up two recipes for pumpkin soup, the one I’ve used with fantastic results for many, many years and another that I decide on from AllRecipes.com, I’m going to tuck them into a sweet, romantic card I’ll find, no doubt, at Target, fill it with mushy musings, and address it to my Sweetie, far, far away.

Recipes. It occurs to me that recipes are much like life. Think about it.

We are all trying to piece together a life for ourselves that ends up like a beautiful cake, the perfect crumb, texture, moistness, flavor, the loveliest icing, decoration, and garnish. There are as many lovely cake recipes as there are people on the planet, I’m nearly certain, if, ever, you could gather together every known cake recipe of all time. I mean, I have “The Cake Bible” and in my entire life I don’t think I could ever bake every recipe in that one book alone, though the idea intrigues me in a “Julie and Julia” kind of way. Food for thought, no pun intended, and you know, I am the Queen of Puns.

If I were to find the perfect recipe for the cake of my dreams and you were to find the perfect recipe for the cake of your dreams, I’m 99.9% certain we’d have different recipes and that our idea of the cake of our dreams would differ considerably as well. So it is with finding the recipe for our perfect life. We all have unique, individual ideas of what “our perfect life” would be, and even over time, our ideas are certain to change. Just like I may decide carrot cake with cream cheese frosting is my favorite, I may change my mind, at some point, and declare red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting my favorite. That’s okay, our goals, purpose and passions in life change like our preference for dessert, but, generally speaking, we have a few favorites we are always happy to see on the dessert menu!

If I were to make a carrot cake or a red velvet cake, again, there’d be countless recipes from which to choose, and each would be a different combination of different quantities of ingredients. Almost certainly, for carrot cake and for red velvet cake, there’d be common ingredients across a majority of the recipes; flour and sugar, for example. Again, so it is with building our perfect life, there are likely to be key ingredients we are going to want to include for best results.

So, if I wanted to piece together a perfect life, what would my recipe look like? That’s the first question, always, what kind of cake do I want? There are several ways to approach selecting a recipe, one is to consider the ingredients you already have on hand, the number of people you intend to feed, the cost, the nutritional value, another is to see a picture or read a recipe, and no matter the contents or cost, that’s what you want to bake!

With choosing the recipe for our perfect life, then, do we consider the ingredients we already have on hand? Or do we start from scratch using the pretty picture and yummy sounding recipe as inspiration? That, you must decide. Do the ingredients in your life, now, include things you want in your final recipe? Your home, your family, your career? Likely so. Or, are you in a place where you are gathering those ingredients up and don’t have them on hand, just yet? You see what I say?

There are going to be those secret ingredients, too, that all good cooks have, that ensure their success. A dear friend of mine, one I’ve known since kindergarten, is a well-known, successful pastry chef. She has always loved to cook and to bake, even as kids, she’d come over to my house after school, now and then, and we’d get out my Betty Crocker Cook Book for children and we’d whip up a batch of cookie dough. We’d practice our fractions and halve the recipe, or quarter it, and, once in a while, we’d even bake the cookie dough. Usually not. Anyway, she went on to enter the Napa Town and Country Fair cake decorating category every year beginning in high school, and she’d win. She decorated cakes for all us girls for birthdays and other occasions. She graduated to baking cakes, having attended a culinary program at a nearby community college, and, year after year, her cakes won at the local fair. She’d be asked to produce a recipe, which she had, in her mind and would have to transcribe it in written form to be published in The Napa Register. Every year she won, and every year, it was, essentially, the same cake recipe. Chocolate with a rich, chocolate filling and frosting. Her success was in the quality of her recipe, and she applied it consistently, and won. Consistently. She has since gone on to accomplish great things, I’ve seen her name listed in Gourmet Magazine a time or two, which considering the number of pastry chefs in Napa alone, is quite an accomplishment.

How it all started.
How it all started.

So, what’s your recipe? Mine includes the following ingredients:

Purpose

Passion

Values

Guiding principles

Roles

Goals

I decorate my cake with carefully selected ingredients, including:

Self esteem

Self-confidence

Self discipline

Inspiration

Motivation

Enthusiasm

Action

Every now and then, I have to adjust the ingredients a little, add a little more self-confidence and a little less action, or I may re-evaluate my roles and goals, but, in the end, the same key ingredients are always in my recipe. And that is my recipe for personal success, that’s how I piece together my perfect cake.

When you look at the ingredients list, though, each and every one of those ingredients are rare and somewhat elusive. Like making an exquisite cake, some of the ingredients may be very hard to find, very hard to come by. We often struggle with identifying our passion, but we must in order to find our purpose. We have to know our roles in order to be able to identify our goals. All of this takes time, a lot of discernment, constant consideration and occasional adjustment. Other ingredients will need to be continually replaced, refreshed. You’d never use old eggs or outdated cream in your cake recipe, would you? Likewise, my self-esteem, self-confidence, inspiration and enthusiasm need to be refreshed daily, for best results.

And your recipe may differ from mine in the source of your ingredients, though, in all likelihood, the same key ingredients will be there. You must have passion and purpose, you absolutely require values and guiding principles, and I can’t imagine a recipe not including roles and goals. None of these key ingredients are going to mix well and rise properly without self-esteem, self-confidence, self-discipline, and inspiration. And it all requires action, like baking the ingredients, otherwise, you’ve just got batter!

As we become comfortable in the kitchen, the recipes we use regularly are rarely written down. I’m fairly certain that most of the meals we cook, nightly, week in and week out are not carefully measured and read out of a cook book. We know how much salt, pepper, and smoked paprika we like on our pork chops, we aren’t measuring an eighth of a teaspoon of each, precisely, based on the written recipe. And I’m sure we all use slightly different amounts of slightly different ingredients. The results are all good, I bet I’d like your pork chops nearly as much as mine. My point here, is that our daily recipes, our most successful and relied upon recipes, are from memory, are so familiar and reliable that they are comfortable to us, and we don’t have to labor over specific instruction to prepare them. And, our daily recipes that we are so comfortable with, that we rely on for sustenance, regularly, are completely individual and unique, as each of us are as humans. We are all masters in our own kitchens, we all have our unique masterpieces. My Sweetie and I both love to cook, when he cooks he does things his way and the result is fantastic. When I cook, I do things as I’ve always done, and the results are wonderful, if I do say so myself. We do things differently for different reasons, based on different resources and preferences, neither of us is more or less right, just unique, just individual preference, just habit.

So, whatever you come up with, ultimately, as your recipe for your perfect life may contain many of the same ingredients as mine, but as master of your own kitchen, you may use a whisk where I’d use a wooden spoon, you may use Canola oil where I’d use EVOO. The results of both will be extraordinary, guaranteed, but unique, I promise. Put your apron on, read a few cookbooks for inspiration, and get cooking. Life was never meant to be just batter, but better. You can have your cake and eat it, too!

Scarlett’s Letter September 3 – 5, 2013

The days grow shorter here in Alaska. Oh, sure, there is still more daylight this time of year, this far north, compared to home. But, the days are indeed growing shorter. I can tell, if for no other reason, than my last week of vacation for the year seems to be flying past at an alarming rate. My last trip here was over two weeks long, and not long enough. With just over a week for this trip, I feel I have barely been here and I’m already preparing myself mentally for the trip home and the long duration without visiting, without Alaska, without my Sweetie.

Yesterday we wiled away the day running errands and attending to things before today’s “road trip”. The absolute highlight of the day yesterday was a long awaited and oft attempted tasting adventure at HooDoo Brewery in Fairbanks. This brewery has been around a few years and has been gaining experience, favor, followers and a crowd. We rolled up before they opened, again. We’ve done this before. We’ve rolled up on the day they were closed, we’ve rolled up before they’ve opened. We have never caught anyone home. On our first attempt yesterday, we were only a little early, so we found another quick errand to run and returned to find the “open” sign illuminated and the parking lot jammed. I was excited. Completely. It is safe to say that I love beer as much as wine and nearly as much as Oreos.

HooDoo offers a great sampler deal, with a generous pour of each of their brews. The darker the samples, the happier I became. Like all things I ingest, I begin with what I’m pretty sure will be my least favorite and work towards what I’m sure will be my favorite. I do this with food, I do this with wine, I do this with beer. Ironically, there is color-coding involved in each, pretty much, the darker, the better. I begin with a Pinot Noir and end with a Merlot. I begin with the vegetables and end with the steak. I begin with the IPA and end with the stout. The brews were all good, but the stout stole my heart. So then I had a whole pint.

Our road trip; a “pilot car” run from Fairbanks to Coldfoot. I’ll explain for those not in the know. I know few will ever admit to watching Ice Road Truckers. I don’t either. But, there are, indeed, truckers, not the ones on the show, mind you, but real truckers, who transport pipe, equipment and structures of various shapes and sizes, mostly huge, to the oil fields in and around Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. As the loads are all “oversized”, they require pilot “cars”, usually pick up trucks, with banners, a yellow flashing light, a flag for directing traffic and a driver who knows what he, or she, is doing. My man has been piloting trucks up the Dalton Highway for more of his life than not. In the million mile Ford, which, by the way, is legend on “the haul road”.

The purpose of the pilot cars is to guide the driver and the oversized load safely up the road, to communicate between the truck driver and the other pilot cars what’s ahead, what’s passing from behind. The pilot car drivers are also responsible for communicating, and at times, directing other drivers on the road to keep them safe and out of the path of the large load in corners and over bridges and other crossings. They act as a guide, as a facilitator.

In life, what pilots you safely through the turns and crossings you must navigate? Have you defined your mission, your purpose, your goals, your roles and your guiding principles? Like a pilot car driver and the trucker with the oversize load that trusts him, our roles, goals and guiding principles, based on our values, are what guide us through life, no matter what lies up ahead.

I’ve accompanied my man to Prudhoe Bay before, in early March, well before summer. The landscape was white, the road was ice and we saw an Artic fox, muskox, ptarmigan and the aurora borealis. It was a little chilly, sure, but nothing my guy’s big, warm parka and fifteen layers of my chic clothes from Uniqlo, H&M, Forever 21, Charlotte Russe, Buckle, Love Culture and a pair of Ugg boots couldn’t ward off. It was awesome. I have pictures. Roughly one thousand.

I’ve wanted to return. I’d hoped to return, crossing Atigun Pass, in the summer, when the wildflowers were out. But there weren’t any trips when I was here during wildflower season. Another summer, perhaps. The flowers are amazing. This, I know, because last year, someone very special, stopped several times on his way home from Prudhoe Bay and picked wildflowers. For me. A week later, I received a surprise, an envelope with a cardboard card, cut out from a Honey Bunches of Oats cereal box, with dozens of different wildflowers carefully adhered to it. Sigh. I know, right? Even dried, the flowers were breathtaking and I really want to see them in living color.

I have also wanted to see the fall colors over the pass. In fall, the tundra looks like it has been set ablaze, changing from a million shades of lush green to yellow, gold, orange, red and burgundy. We didn’t score a trip all the way to Prudhoe until it was too late to go, but we did get the trip to Coldfoot, about half way up the “haul road” to Prudhoe. Coldfoot is south of Atigun Pass, but still, there was plenty of vibrant hued tundra to enjoy.

When piloting, and when a passenger in a pilot car, the trip up, the actual piloting, is very different than the trip back. All business on the way up. Of course. That’s what it’s all about, getting the truck and it’s shipment to it’s destination without delay, without danger and without disaster. This trip, unlike most, was with an “independent” trucker, an “owner/operator”. Most of the trips north my man makes are as a contractor with one of several companies that routinely move big stuff from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay. So we were to meet a driver, headed to Fairbanks from Anchorage, hauling a Caterpillar D9, a large, correction, a very large tractor. The load was wide, fourteen feet wide, to be precise, and because of it’s width, would require two pilot cars to guide it safely to it’s destination a few miles north of Coldfoot. One pilot car would be in front, the other in back. I’m sure you’ve seen such things even in the part of the world you live in. On the Dalton Highway, it is more the norm than un-piloted loads. Passenger cars are both a rarity and a nuisance, as I surmise.

We’d hoped for an early start and even headed into Fairbanks at an impressively early hour. But, when noon came and went and we hadn’t heard from the driver, we called. He was still a few hours from Fairbanks and would need to shuffle the load and fuel up once he arrived. Our early morning departure was becoming a late afternoon and then a later afternoon departure. A trip to Coldfoot, about 250 miles from Fairbanks, if begun in the morning, depending on the load, could be delivered by afternoon and everyone could be home, in their own bed, in time to enjoy most of the following day. That was our hope. But, it was not to be.

We managed to fill our day in town getting stuff done. Thankfully, there was plenty of stuff to be done. Errands and such. We ate Philly Cheesesteaks and fries at the Food Factory, for lunch, because there aren’t any drive-thru’s on the haul road. You pack a sandwich or two and go. There is food in Prudhoe Bay, and truck stop food in Coldfoot. There is also truck stop food at Hilltop, about twenty miles past Fairbanks, sort of the last bastion of necessities before heading further north. How are Philly cheesesteaks different than truck stop food? Well, it’s more of a quality question, I suppose. Get your Philly cheesesteak in town, not a truck stop, while both are unhealthy, the truck stop variety is likely to take an additional year or two off your life, I’m pretty sure.

We met the driver and the second pilot car at about 5:45 PM. Well past morning, to say the least. The driver told the pilots that since he was an owner/operator and paid for his own brakes, we’d be taking the downhills slow. We already knew the uphills would be slow. We headed out just after “curfew”. Oversize loads are forbidden from traveling through Fairbanks during “commute” time, between 4:00 and 6:00 PM. I think their commute traffic is adorable, but, I guess I get it.

Our driver, which requires explaining, I suppose; when you are piloting some trucker up the haul road, as I gather, you sort of adopt him or her as yours for the duration. They become “my driver” or “our driver” depending on the number of pilot cars involved. Anyhoo. Our driver hadn’t eaten all day, so, we stopped at Hilltop for sustenance. This is a truck stop. Terrified of the exponential lethality of truck stop food, and, really, not all that hungry, I had a salad. My man had potato salad, ate half, and thrust the remainder in front of me. I ate it, taking my projected life expectancy down to 111. Ok, so I shoot high. Why not? Then if I die at 101 everyone will say I died an “untimely death”.

At 7:45 PM we depart Hilltop and begin our long, mostly uphill journey into the evening. As I mentioned, the trip up is all business. That means, for me, an unlikely passenger, unless there are northern lights or grizzly bears, I’m probably going to sleep. And I do. Our driver was true to his word, he was moving slower downhill than up. A little backstory is required. Many truckers drive this road day in and day out. They know every pebble, every turn, every nuance. Corners have names. Hills have names. There is a community here. The truckers and pilot car drivers all know one another and chit chat on the radios to one another. Yes, there are multiple radios; one is on an agreed upon channel to chat with your driver and other pilots, then there’s the “road channel” that everyone has turned on to communicate with one another. And, so, the pilot car drivers report upcoming vehicles to their driver on the agreed upon channel, then report the upcoming oversize load to other drivers on the road channel. It is all very impressively complicated and I think there must be some advance degree of study to manage all of this. I don’t know. I only went to college for eleven years, it’s beyond me. Moral; these guys know the road. “Our driver” does not. He has driven the haul road a few times a year, not a few times a week. He is taking it slower than his wide load and brake pads require because he doesn’t know the road. We are in the front, and my man is warning our driver of nuances in the road, to be helpful, and, hopefully, the give him the faith and confidence to speed up, maybe just a little.

I sleep. I wake. I sleep. I wake. I sleep. I wake. I eat a half a sandwich I packed. I sleep. I wake. I get out and pee. I sleep. I wake. And this is how my night goes. Two hundred fifty extremely slow miles. Do you have any idea what it’s like to be a girl, on the haul road, and have to pee? Especially when you’re being followed by a big truck hauling a big tractor, being followed by another pickup truck, all occupied by men. I mean, I’ve been the only female on a ten-day backpacking trip with seventeen boys and men, and peeing was a challenge, but it wasn’t an Olympic sport, like peeing on the haul road being followed by trucks full of men. We made it to the top of a hill, several minutes ahead of our driver, so we thought, in order to be able to warn our driver, and the oncoming traffic, of the other party, respectively. I jumped out of the million mile Ford, pulled down my jeans and squatted by the right, front, tire. The road was just a soupy mud, so what I added really mattered little. I was about 7/8 done with my duty when headlights crested the hill behind me. It was growing dark and I’m pretty sure my silhouette was pretty apparent. I heard an exclamation from within the truck and in a split second, I finished, became air born and partially pulled up my jeans, mid air, while opening the truck door. I landed on the seat, bare butt, pants sagging like a middle school delinquent. As I launched myself from a crouch on muddy earth, into flight, into the truck, streams of mud followed me, clinging to my jeans from the knee down. I’m glad there was no video of my endeavor, and at the same time, kind of disappointed there wasn’t. It had to be spectacular, especially in slow motion instant replay mode.

We left town before 6:00 PM. We made it to Coldfoot at 5:30 AM. And we slept in the sleeper. Both of us. Synchronized rolling over went very well, we’re on about the same schedule, our old bones begin to ache at about the same time, which is cool. I guess.

We are awakened by a very loud pickup truck pulling up next to us in a rather obvious and engine revving sort of manner. I am, at first, annoyed, but I think it was the first “alarm clock”. Shortly after the noisy truck pulled up, there was a knock on the window from the other pilot car (noisy truck) driver. The snooze alarm just went off. I get it. The engine revving was just a “courtesy” to make sure we were awake, or dressed, or whatever, for the approach to the drivers’ window. Not many girlfriends accompany pilot car drivers. I get it. We slither out of the sleeper, fully clothed, and right into our respective seats, the truck is started and we drive across the lot to the restaurant at Coldfoot. I pee in captivity and grab three coffees for the tow of us. We meet our driver and are on our way to drop the D9 at it’s final destination a few miles up the road. A slow but safe trip.

It’s the trip home I look forward to with ample time to pull over and take pictures. My guy will never understand my desire to take so many pictures, he shakes his head when I complain that my MacBook is overloaded because of the forty thousand photos I have in iPhoto. But, still, he offers to pull over every time I lift my iPhone for another shot.

Aside from pictures, we have the rifle with us, just in case a large, male moose should cross our path somewhere south of the Yukon River. Bow hunting is allowed north of the Yukon and rifles to the south, so we’ll keep our eyes opened to the south. We also take advantage of a side road here and there to cut some firewood. There is no excuse for coming home with an empty truck bed, if not moose, then, certainly we can take down a standing dead tree or two! There are a few cords of wood cut, split and stacked in front of the house, but a couple more are in order, shortly, for winter. While he makes short order of a few trees, I pick berries. We are hunter/gatherers on our way south on the Dalton Highway. We see lots of moose hunters, and, still, no moose. There is chatter on the radio, not far away, of a cow and calf that crossed the road in front of a trucker, but no bull followed. While it may be moose season according to the calendar, it isn’t moose season according to the moose. Too warm, still. The bulls will chase the cows when it’s cooler. So I’m told.

We arrive at home, sandwiches eaten and the truck bed full of something useful for the winter. But not a moose. The trip was long, but a success. Our driver and his D9 reached Coldfoot safely with assistance from his two pilot cars, helping him manage the curves and crossings safely. Just like our values, roles, goals and guiding principles help us navigate through the turns and crossings life will certainly take.

Now that we’re home, it is time to upload photos from my iPhone to iPhoto. I’m excited. Every time I look at these pictures it will be almost like reliving the trip, again! A picture, a thousand words, a million memories!

Piles

Today is the day I make piles, in earnest. The piles sort of started forming yesterday, if you can call three items a pile. I’m actually feeling a little behind schedule in my making of piles. You see, before any trip, whether for work or for pleasure, I put things in piles so I won’t forget to pack them. I pile first and pack last minute. I’ll usually have a pile of electronics and related stuff, a pile of clothes, a pile of shoes, and a pile of other flotsam and jetsam.

Before checking out of a hotel, usually the night before, I gather up all of my things, which I keep hyper-organized in strategic locations within my hotel room, and move those hyper-organized piles closer to my suitcase. I centralize the smaller piles into sort of a cluster of piles. By morning, as I’m getting ready before checking out, those piles just get placed into my suitcase/s, computer bag, purse and I’m off. I have only ever left one thing behind accidentally; a razor in the shower.

This system, piles, works well for me. Even in preparation for an early morning run, I will make a pile of everything I need to remember to take with me the night before; my watch, my hydration pack, my food, my “running wallet” (smaller than my daily wallet), and a reminder to grab the chocolate milk out of the fridge.

You would think with as much as I travel as I do, packing would be no big deal. And, during my busy work travel season, that is very much the case. I really don’t even unpack. I come home, often in very late at night or even in the wee hours of morning, take my clothes out of my suitcase, launder them, hang them to dry and pack them back into the suitcase later in the morning. I sometimes have a less than twenty-four hour turnaround at home. I have duplicates of cosmetics and personal care products and will just refill any travel-sized containers I have when I shower. Even when work trips are a little further apart, like now, I keep many things in my suitcase; ugly shoes accountants would wear, trouser socks that are only ever worn with ugly shoes accountants would wear, my bag of duplicate cosmetics and personal care items, about a thousand Target bags to pack shoes and stinky gym clothes in, and my traveling kitchen which includes a stemless wine glass, a jar of spices, Via coffee packets, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, snack bags of Ezekiel cereal, a paring knife, a set of cocktail service with a little knife, fork and spoon, a couple of little plastic bowls, those sheet plastic cutting boards.

When I was backpacking regularly, I had the same approach; I’d hike, come home, launder, repack and a) be ready to go and b) have a handy place to store all my backpacking stuff. In the backpack.

I’m sure it is fairly common practice to make piles in preparation for doing laundry, right? A pile of dark clothes that can be washed on the “regular cycle”, which for me, is about two items. Then there’s the pile of dark clothes for the delicate cycle and another for lighter clothes for the delicate cycle, and, finally, white things, delicate cycle, of course. How else would you do this? Do people do laundry without making piles first

I muse at how this all started. Was it because my mom always had me lay my clothes out for school the night before? For all the good that did, I always changed my mind eight or ten times between the time I got up and the time when I was at the front door ready to go. Sure, it may have worked when I was seven years old and was only supplied with three mix and match outfits for the school year, options were very limited. But, by the time I was seventeen and began my lifelong career of making up for a childhood of having only three mix and match, color coordinated outfits for school, by stuffing my closet full of clothes I picked out and purchased myself, selecting what I planned to wear to school the night before was a futile exercise. This may explain a lot about me and my clandestine shopping tendencies, even as an adult. At last. Now you know.

But, there may be more to the origins of my preference for piling things up than an evening chore my mother tried to instill in me as a child. I am surrounded by piles. Her piles. Mom piles things up and always has. I don’t understand the logic of her piles, but, piles are very personal. That’s for her to know. I’m sure she doesn’t understand my piles, though I think mine are far more evident. Perhaps not. Whatever (link to article). Mom has piles, mostly of paper; newspapers, ad inserts from newspapers, magazines, catalogs, important mail, unimportant mail that may end up being important, and unimportant mail that isn’t clearly understood so may seem more important than it is.

A pile on one chair the nature of which I don't totally understand.
A pile on one chair the nature of which I don’t totally understand.
A pile on the other chair the nature of which I don't totally understand.
A pile on the other chair the nature of which I don’t totally understand.
A pile on the table, which I assume had more immediacy than the ones on the chairs, though I could be mistaken.
A pile on the table, which I assume had more immediacy than the ones on the chairs, though I could be mistaken.
The pile on the counter of unknown significance.
The pile on the counter of unknown significance.

I am not really frustrated with Mom’s piles, except they take up seating space and if company is coming I’m the one that has to quickly relocate her piles to the “office”, which was supposed to be the laundry nook, with folding doors, downstairs off the family room. Mom had the laundry hookups placed in the garage and my dad used the laundry closet as his office. Actually, his antique roll top desk is in there, but I don’t actually ever remember him sitting there to do any work until he retired. Like me, Dad despised television. The television is in the family room, adjacent to the “office”. So, he did his nightly bookkeeping from his bike shop upstairs at the kitchen table in relative peace. Mom dominated the family room with news, news, news, sitcom, sitcom, sitcom and the news, again, as a nightcap. When Dad retired, he learned to enjoy television, too, and set his computer up in the office. Now that he has passed, the office provides more flat surface space for Mom’s piles. I have relocated Dad’s computer to my office, the third bedroom upstairs. His computer is piled up with my other laptop, my MacBook, when not in use, my iPad and Kindle. So, for my upcoming trip, I need only grab and pack that whole pile of electronic wonderment! Easy peasy! See?

Mom, however, is frustrated with my piles. I have piles of boxes in the garage. When I relocated here, it was from a full size, single family dwelling appropriately full of my things; furniture, décor, dishes, small and necessary household items, most of which I wished for, worked for and acquired with some effort; Cuisinart food processor, Dyson vacuum, Pampered Chef baking stones, the entire collection, an entire set of crystal from my wedding, my grandmother’s china, which Mom thinks is ugly. I think you get the idea. These, among other things, are my treasures. I downsized a great deal over the past five years, with five moves occurring in that time frame, but these are my treasures. That they fill one third of the garage, okay, the third that would be the floor, is not my fault. That the shelves are full of Christmas decorations that only saw one year of use and are packed in boxes labeled with said year, is not my fault. That there are two ten foot long clothes racks hanging from the ceiling full of clothes from the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties that don’t fit my mom, is not my issue. My issue is, I have no other place for my things. The dresser drawers that were mine as a child, in my bedroom, are now full of piles of things that haven’t seen the light of day for decades, and, so, my clothes remain in piles of boxes in my room and in the garage. Yet, as it was expressed earlier this week, “your piles of boxes in the garage are stressing me out.” Okay. Let’s see Mom try to live out of those boxes for months on end and reexamine stress levels.

My pile of boxes in my room from which I deal on a daily basis because of the piles in the closet and drawers that once were mine, but, now, are not. Yet.
My pile of boxes in my room from which I deal on a daily basis because of the piles in the closet and drawers that once were mine, but, now, are not. Yet.
Some of my boxes in the garage, piled. My treasures, mostly china, crystal and long sought after kitchen equipage I'd prefer to use rather than have boxed, if there were only room in the kitchen for them. Sigh.
Some of my boxes in the garage, piled. My treasures, mostly china, crystal and long sought after kitchen equipage I’d prefer to use rather than have boxed, if there were only room in the kitchen for them. Sigh.

And this seems to be perpetuating, generationally, too. When my daughter moved to the east coast, when she married her high school sweetheart who is, now, in the Navy, I was left with her treasures and her trash. In piles. I spent several weeks sorting through it all, throwing away the true trash, donating the unwanted treasures and re-boxing the true treasures. All of which are now piled in the corner of a storage unit three counties away. At my expense. In my to-do pile is the plan to re-sort and relocate that pile, here, space permitting.

My son moved to Hawaii last week. He did a fair job downsizing, but, again, in a storage unit three counties away are his treasures, piled in another corner. There is a pile in the garage of the house he vacated which I am to, at my convenience, retrieve and find a place to pile. And, in my office, upstairs, is a pile of books that I am to box up in flat rate boxes, periodically, and send to him, except he has not yet found a place to pile them, he is still looking for housing. Until then, the books are piled on the floor of my office. And, ironically, these are a pile of very nice books, Automobile Quarterly, that my dad subscribed to and accumulated over many years. My dad was downsizing his piles and wanted to “get rid” of these books. As they were lovely publications, and my son has the “gear head gene” that seems to run in the family, my mom, who, I think we’ve established, really resists getting rid of stuff, suggested that my son may enjoy the books. So, the entire collection was loaded into my car and piled into my son’s room. Until now. Now they’re back in the house of origin, in my room.

My Dad's books that became my son's books that are now in my office, back in my parents' house, until they can be shipped to my son again. A pile, nonetheless.
My Dad’s books that became my son’s books that are now in my office, back in my parents’ house, until they can be shipped to my son again. A pile, nonetheless.

So, today is a day of piles. Two-fold. I am piling things up for my trip and Mom and I are each taking a pile of things, two cars full, to donate to Community Projects. If I have to prioritize, though, the top of my pile is going to be packing for my trip. The trip to Community Projects can be left in a pile for later, if need be.

Packing for a trip gets a little more complicated, when I’m not traveling for work quite so often, like now, and a pleasure trip comes up. I need to empty my suitcase of unnecessary items, because suitcases become excellent storage facilities when not in use, and fill it with more appropriate stuff. I have a week in Alaska fast approaching. I depart Friday morning. And like a good Boy Scout, yes, I am a registered Boy Scout, I am always prepared. We have several ideas of what we’re going to with our week, but nothing absolutely set in stone. I need to be prepared for just about anything. I know, at the very minimum, I need jeans, something to wear with my jeans, a bunch of shoes and a case of wine. That’s the easy part. Now I need to think of all those things I might need. For example, last trip I ended up layering my pretty, black work cardigan under a flannel and a hoodie to keep my warm while beheading and gutting salmon into the wee hours of the morning along the Copper River in Chitina. I’ve replaced that pretty black cardigan with five new cardigans, a pile of new cardigans, one in black, one in burgundy, red, navy and navy with hand-painted white polka dots. A trip or two ago, again, I ended up layering almost everything I packed for an overnight pilot car adventure up to Prudhoe Bay where it was forty below and blowing. I once had to buy boots for a snowmobiling excursion, not that I ever mind buying footwear, but this is not nearly as enjoyable when supervised, especially by your sweetie. There is a process to buying shoes that most men will never understand. I did manage to score cute AND inexpensive boots that garner compliments when worn, so we were both satisfied. I am the master at shoe shopping.

Piles. What else piles up on us in life besides mail, clothes and books?

Piles of laundry, some of which will be packed, some of which will be hung, some of which will be folded and put back into their boxes. Reference boxes and drawers.
Piles of laundry, some of which will be packed, some of which will be hung, some of which will be folded and put back into their boxes. Reference boxes and drawers.

Do you ever feel like you have a pile of troubles, problems, concerns, worries, and issues that you need to deal with? Fret about? Lose sleep over? This is a common complaint I hear and I don’t think anyone is truly immune. How we deal with those piles, though, is the difference. How we deal with those piles of negative things; troubles, problems, concerns, worries, and issues, is the difference between managing them and letting them manage us.

In letting problems and such pile up to the point where we worry, fret and lose sleep is really not much different that letting piles of newspapers and junk mail accumulate on the back counter in the kitchen. We are constantly reminded of these troubles, problems, concerns, worries, and issues, because they are ever present and amassing. Stephen Covey, author of, among other great books, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” suggested that we should only ever touch a piece of paper one time. If we go out to get the mail, for example, before we set it down, anywhere, it is classified and dealt with; junk mail immediately in the trash, important mail dealt with and mail for others distributed appropriately. Done. No pile. Could our troubles, problems, concerns, worries, and issues not be dealt with in a similar manner? Sort, classify and deal.

Why let a problem or worry linger and fester? I know there aren’t always immediate solutions to dilemmas in life, but, if the solution is not immediate, what purpose does fretting, worrying and losing sleep over it now, serve? Address the problem immediately, if possible, and as immediately as possible, and, until it can be resolved, focus on more positive things. Focus on the now. If a problem can’t be resolved, it lives in the future. We live now. If we focus on the future, and the problems in the future, we lose the now, the present. We can only ever impact the present, now, the immediate. Fretting over what lies ahead, in the future, steals our ability to deal with what we can effectively deal with now, the present. Worry manifests in this manner, by depriving of us effectiveness and efficiency, now, and because of the negative focus of worry, into the future, makes us dread what lies ahead.

If we are to pile anything up, at all, it should be an arsenal of useful tools and useful habits to arm us with positive thoughts and actions that will propel us through any troubles, problems, concerns, worries, and issues that may arise throughout life. By practicing a positive mental attitude and focusing on living only in the present, by expressing our gratitude for all that we have, all that we are grateful for, by recognizing our strengths, our value and our power as individuals, by setting clear and decisive goals, based on our purpose, our guiding principles and our values, we are driven through life, and all its trivial and petty little dilemmas, with a positive, confident, powerful force that comes from within. We can make molehills out of mountains, tiny piles out of insurmountable ones. I am not saying it is easy, this takes, first, making a decision, second, making a decisive change contrary to human nature, a course of education oneself, and a great deal of diligent effort. But, the reward is piles better than the alternative. Worth the effort.

So I begin my day of piles. Laundry, emails, work, boxes to go to charity, and, best of all, things to go in my suitcase for vacation. And, at the end of the day, the piles will have all been dealt with and I will sleep peacefully, because I don’t let anything I can’t deal with immediately accumulate. That’s my present for living in the present.

 

 

Disappointment

Disappointment

dis·ap·point·ment

/ˌdisəˈpointmənt/

Noun

The feeling of sadness or displeasure caused by the nonfulfillment of one’s hopes or expectations.

Synonyms

letdown – frustration – chagrin – disillusionment

Ever feel that way? Ever not feel that way?

Disappointment, I’m afraid, is just part of life. I just had a phone conversation with my son who is trying to secure additional student loan funding for a summer course and a planned transfer to another school. Unfortunately, due to many prior disappointments in life, the funding was denied and he is extremely disappointed. His “Plan A” is just not going to be possible. We talked for a while about alternate plans, other possible scenarios for summer and fall and for completing his college education. And we talked about disappointment.

Sometimes it’s pretty hard to believe that our natural state is one of happiness. How are we to be happy all the time if we constantly face disappointment? Disappointment is, really, nearly a daily occurrence, in one way or another. And the very definition of disappointment is “a feeling of sadness”, in direct contradiction with happiness, our supposed natural state. It’s all rather disappointing, isn’t it?

We need to separate disappointment, the feeling of sadness, from happiness, our natural state. Though seemingly related, as feelings or emotions, and in direct opposition, truly, one does not negate the possibility of the other. If you are, generally, very happy, it is perfectly natural, ordinary and commonplace to have some disappointment. If we are disappointed for one reason or another, it does not in any way prevent us from experiencing happiness overall.

Disappointment, again, by definition, is caused by the nonfulfillment of one’s hopes or expectations. Disappointment is not defined as the removal of happiness from your life. If your hopes or expectations are not fulfilled you just need to regroup and focus on a different hope or expectation, if not a different method to attain the original. Nonfulfillment of a hope or an expectation is rarely permanent.  Disappointment is temporary. Disappointment doesn’t erase your hope or your expectation; it just means you’ll have to find another way to fulfill it. Disappointment, if you get creative with it, is a catalyst for, well, creativity. So, if “plan A” doesn’t work and you are disappointed, use that energy to draft another couple of plans that may move you in the same general direction as the original plan.

As to happiness, our natural state; happiness is permanent, it is organic, and it is easily accessible to anyone. Happiness is nothing more than living in the present. Now. Period. If it is so simple to have permanent, lasting happiness, why does the world seem filled with misery? Because no one lives in the present. Now. Period. Don’t dwell on the past, don’t fret over the future, live each and every moment focusing on the present. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have hopes and expectations, but that you should not be so focused on the future that you are missing the opportunities, in the present, to take action and move forward towards the future, towards your hopes and expectations.

We must have goals. We must have goals that align with our values. Goals that align with our values provide us with guiding principles. Guiding principles are what we use, in the present, to move us towards our goals without being totally myopic about the future. Simple.

So, when disappointment strikes, how do we cope? Again, keep in mind that disappointment, the nonfulfillment of hopes and expectations, is related to the course of action, or plan, that failed. The hopes and expectations are still there. Using your goals, aligned with your values, following your guiding principles, take one step in the direction of your hope or expectation, right now. If that one step is creating a new plan, a new timeline, a new budget, identifying a new resource, it is an action, taken in the present, that may advance you towards the eventual fulfillment of your hopes or expectations. Make sense?

As to the timeline we apply to our hopes and expectations; has anyone, ever, been able to control time? Never. We only ever hope to learn to manage it. As a general guide, a timeline is nice, but in a world of infinite variables, a hard and fast timeline for every goal is never practical and has us doing what? Focusing on points in the future, with stress and anxiety, rather than focusing on the present with peace and clarity.

There is a bit of a trick, though, when your hopes or expectations involve others. Disappointment due to the actions or inactions of other people are completely out of our control. And this comes down to your goals, your values, your guiding principles and living in the present. If your hope or expectation is to have a lasting, loving relationship with a specific person, you are attaching your hopes and expectations to a person you have no way of controlling. And, to make matters worse, seeking to control that person is more likely to cause the relationship to fail than not. This is true for just about anything where your hopes or expectations rely on the performance of another person or people. Adjust for it. Instead of stating your goal “I want so and so to love me forever, to be faithful and true, passionate and caring, for as long as we live” you might just state your goal as “I am lovable, I am loved, I am loving”. The specifics will follow in a more natural and fulfilling manner once you achieve the very general. You cannot control the “who”, you cannot always control the “when” or the “how” but you can control the “what”, and it should all be based on the appropriate “why”.

Have you ever heard someone say “be careful what you pray for?” Sometimes in praying or asking for very specific things, with energy and intent, we get them, and all their hidden or undesired consequences. For my whole life, I wanted a ranch. When a rare but risky opportunity presented itself, I prayed and prayed and prayed to somehow, some way, be able to “get the ranch”. Not “a ranch”, but “that ranch”. Through miracles and very creative mortgage financing, my hopes and expectations came true. With a change in the economy and the deterioration of my husband’s already lacking work ethic and motivation, the dream ranch became impossible to sustain on only my income. It became a nightmare, not the dream. And eventually, it was lost. The pain and the lesson all reinforced in my mind the fact that you need to be very careful in what you pray for. General is better than specific. Take steps towards it in the present and make sure it aligns with your goals, values and guiding principles. Creative mortgage financing, in hindsight, was not in alignment with my goals, values and guiding principles.

For my son, the hope or expectation that he was going to obtain financing, today, requiring a willing and qualified co-signer, in order to attend a specific summer course in his field of study, at a specific time, so he can then move before the fall term to another state, to advance his studies in order to affect a transfer to yet another school that would provide him leverage on admission to the graduate program of his dreams, all may have been a little to specific. The goal is to attend the graduate program of his dreams and that hasn’t changed. The timeline, the budget and the path have. The nonfulfillment is temporary, the goal has permanence.

The means to an end. Is it the means that matter, or the end? Are there not a million ways to reach the end? More than one mean? Of course. With the happiness of living in the present as our energy, fueled by meaningful goals, aligned with our values, creating our guiding principles, we can venture down as many paths as are necessary to fulfill our hopes or expectations. Furthermore, each path we venture down will also broaden our experiences, an added benefit.

So my son and I talked about disappointment today. I said, “if everyone got their “plan A”, we’d all be ….” and I struggled for the right words to express my thought. My son completed my thought perfectly, he said “we’d be weak.” In disappointment, we have the opportunity to find the strength and the means, and often, the very strength and means required to fulfill our hopes and expectations.

Goals. Values. Guiding principles. Now. Period.

 

 

I Rock

Stability. We need stability. We need stable ground to walk on, we need stable ground to build our homes on, solid footing to set the foundation upon. We need stability in our lives, too. We are all looking for something in our life, as solid as the earth, to root into. Something solid to build from. Even those of us who crave excitement, experiences and spontaneity require stability in our lives as an anchor point. When a bird takes flight, supported only by the current of the air, they light upon something that will support them. When a bird builds a nest, it chooses a place it is certain will support the weight of the nest, the nesting partner, the eggs, and, eventually, the fledglings. We are no different, we need something supportive to light upon, to nest upon, something we are certain is secure, stable and sound, and this is in a metaphorical sense as much as a tangible sense.

Do you recall the 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake near San Francisco in October 1989? Perhaps not. But I felt that earthquake over eighty miles away in Sacramento. So much more destruction occurred to buildings in one area than in others, not because of the magnitude of the quake, but because that area of the city was developed on fill, on ground that was not as solid as it would seem. The very ground that supported the buildings in that area of destruction pretty much just turned to Jell-O. The buildings that were constructed on actual earth fared much better. An illustration of how important it is to have a solid base before you build, whether building buildings or building a life

The mistake people tend to make, the mistake most people make without exception, is that we try to anchor to something, or someone, that cannot or will not offer us the stability we desire. None of us are immune from this shortcoming, myself included. And I know better, I know so much better, and yet, here I am.

Sometimes, to understand stability, we have to have the rug pulled out from beneath us. In the past five years I have lost my home. Two, actually. I’ve ended my marriage of over twenty years. Both of my children have grown and left home. My father passed away. My life, still, is extremely uncertain and lacks any sense of permanence in almost every respect.  And with nearly every conversation I’ve had in the past week with family, friends and those I allow close to me, permanence seems even more illusive. And I am fine. Through all of this, I have learned that you need to find an inner strength as your anchor, to provide you with stability, because no one and no thing will ever provide you the solid ground you need to support yourself through life. Everything in your life can, and likely will, change, and not always for the better. And I’m a glass half full type of girl, but this is reality. The inner strength you draw from may be the only solid ground, the only rock, you can ever light upon after having to take flight. I am my own rock.

So, you need to find, within yourself, your own rock to cling to, to land upon, to build from. No matter what happens, then, you have that solid footing, and no one can take it from you. And still, we tend to want to find other rocks, rocks outside of ourselves. Knowing this, and having done, I think, an exemplary job drawing from my inner strength through it all, I still find myself groping for other rocks in an attempt to secure stability. This is a facet of human nature, and of self, that I struggle to understand, that I vow I will never again fall victim to, and, yet, here I am again. But I am my own rock.

Have you ever crossed a fast running, cold mountain stream during snowmelt? You seek to leave the solid pathway on which you stand and find a way across a tumultuous stream on uncertain footing before finally reaching solid ground on the other side. Perhaps there is a felled tree or a log fashioned into a bridge. It may be narrow, or wet and slippery, or not anchored well on one side or the other, but it provides something solid by which you may be able to cross the cold, rushing water. If not a log crossing, there may be a series of boulders in the water that you can use as stepping-stones to cross the raging waters. Personally, I prefer rock crossings to log crossings, any day. But even rock crossings are not without peril, often the rocks themselves are not solidly anchored in the streambed and wobble and topple when you put your weight on them. You learn to stand on the shore, from the highest vantage point your can find, and look for rocks that are large enough and solid enough to support your weight for a period of time, until you can progress to the next rock. You learn to step, apply some weight to ascertain the stability of the rock, then, if satisfied, you shift your entire weight onto it, landing safely for a moment, before identifying the next rock to step to, again, testing it first.

And, so it is with life. We may have that solid rock within from which we derive the strength and the power to get us through the challenges life will present us. Think of the challenges life presents like crossing a stream, having to step away from the solid ground, your internal rock of strength, and venture across a carefully chosen and perilous path, before you are again able to stand upon your own, solid rock. Some of us seek to cross these streams, some raging rivers, some babbling brooks. Others of us find our path in life puts us in a position where we have to cross the creek. Either way, the water must be crossed in order to continue on. Look for the right rocks to provide you a safe crossing, back to your own, strong internal rock of strength. Be your own rock.

What is your rock, your internal rock of strength? The type of rock that will anchor you in the worst of storms, one you can cling to when the waves are crashing hard and fast, one you can sit on as the flood waters rise, one you can use as a wind break in a storm, one you can bask in the sun on after a cold night. Your internal rock is made up of many things; things you can draw from in your journey through life. Your internal rock is made up of things you use for strength; your values, your guiding principles, your faith, your hope, your independence, your integrity, your commitment to self, your self-confidence, your motivation. You decide, but at a minimum, at the core of your rock, you need to know your values and your guiding principles, the rest will follow, the rest will just make your rock larger, providing you more solid ground to stand on. Be your own rock.

With such a formidable base to stand on, then, why do we seek to cling to other rocks? Again, a facet of human nature, or self, that I wish I understood. I have just caught myself jumping onto wobbly rocks in a perilous stream and wondering why I felt so off balance. Now that I have tested the rocks in the center of the stream, and I know they are not solid, I must decide whether to continue across this stream, or retreat to safety where I will cling, again, to my core, the solid rock within. I am my own rock.

What are your wobbly rocks? Have you identified them, or perhaps they will take you by surprise. Relationships? Career? Material possessions? Any of these can seem to provide you with the security and stability, the strength you need, and without warning, each and every one of these may wobble and spill you into the stream.

Relationships. How many friends have I heard tell me the same story? It’s like reading a book written by a very popular and prolific fiction author, it’s basically the same plot, the same story line, with a different geographical setting and slightly different characters. The story remains the same, like a template or a boilerplate.  “He cheated on me.” “She came home one day, handed me divorce papers and said it was over.” “I do love you, I’m just not sure I can do this.” “You’re great, it’s just me. “I just suck at relationships.” Sometimes after a month, or maybe thirty years, and we are always taken by surprise. Or are we? We didn’t see it coming. Or did we? The rock wobbled and ploink, in the cold water we go, to be swept downstream by the current, looking for something else, or someone else to grab on to. I’m not saying we should go through life lonely, that we should not dare to enter relationships, for there is much joy that comes from the loving another. But, in relationships, never anchor yourself to that other person to the point where you rely on them to fulfill you, to make you happy, or to support you. Don’t cling to that other person because you can’t imagine life without them, because you may have to some day. Be your own rock.

Career. Layoffs, downsizing, bankruptcy, consolidations and other business failures, rapidly advancing technologies, regulatory requirements.  In my career as an auditor I have to assess the risk of any or all of these, and a million more, as they pertain to the businesses I am auditing. If you think your position within a company is going to provide you with the strength and stability you require throughout life, you have been very, very, very lucky, and perhaps a bit ignorant, up to this point. Your career should be rewarding and fulfilling, but it should never be your cornerstone, your bedrock, because one little conference call, one little form letter, one little pink piece of paper and the rock has toppled and ploink, you’re in the cold, cold stream sputtering for breath. Be your own rock.

Material possessions. No matter how large or small, expensive or affordable, material possessions can never, ever provide us with the security we require. A turn in events, in the economy for example, can put you in peril of losing that which we most often identify as our most solid base; our house. Perhaps you seek self-expression and identity with the car you drive, or the clothes and shoes you wear, the boat, the motorcycle, the RV, the vacation home. All are great, but certainly are not the foundation on which your life should be based. One poorly timed lane merge, one freakish storm, one shorted wire can find you flailing your arms as you slip from that rock and ploink, into the river, swimming against the current to the shore for safety. Be your own rock.

Do you remember the story of the three little pigs? They had to go out into the world and build their own homes. The first pig built their home out of straw, the second out of sticks and the third from bricks, or stone. The first two pigs looked for the easiest building materials they could find, materials that would require the least amount of effort, and in both cases, their houses toppled. The third pig was very selective in his building material and applied considerably more effort in erecting his house. And it withstood. Build your house from stone. Be your own rock. And like the little pigs, when the unthinkable happens, you are safe and secure and you may even be able to provide strength and stability, temporarily, to those you know who are in need.

I was an Assistant Scoutmaster for a Boy Scout troop for many years, the only woman leader for most of the time. I was on a backpacking trek with a group of boys and men in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We were training for an upcoming ten-day trek in New Mexico. I was new to backpacking, though I had hiked for many years. I was managing quite well though I had packed more in my pack than I needed, weighing it down much more than necessary, and I, myself, weighed about forty pounds more than I do now. I was able to keep up with the boys, the men were hiking behind me a good quarter mile, so I was pleased. It wasn’t cardio or endurance that was my issue, it was balance. We found a flat piece of ground to sleep on our second night out, it was across a stream and there was not a makeshift bridge made of a log, nor were there any rocks to use as stepping stones in order to cross. We were going to have to leap across the stream. The boys all bounded across without any trouble, leaping off of a large boulder on one side and landing on the bank on the other. My turn came. I stepped up onto the boulder and my full and over-packed pack shifted ever so slightly. In slow, slow, slow motion, I lost my balance. I was in a war with gravity for what seemed a full minute, I could feel the pack pulling me backwards and no matter how I tried to correct myself, I could feel myself tip further and further off center. In a second that seemed to last for hours, I was on my back, on my backpack, wedged helplessly between two boulders. Three men pulled me, and my pack, upright. I suffered no injuries other than a sound blow to my pride. I was relieved of my backpack and easily leapt across the creek, my pack was tossed across safely thereafter. I laughed the whole thing off, of course, and from this I started “the turtle club”, an exclusive club that only awarded membership to people who fell in some unceremonious and embarrassing manner. We ended up with several members over the course of the months that followed. So, I guess the lesson here is to be very careful when you select a rock to leap from, make sure you are well balanced, perhaps lighten your load, and be certain you aren’t overestimating your ability to land safely on the other side. Be your own rock.

I was also a Girl Scout leader for many, many years. My girls did not just sell cookies and burden their parents’ refrigerators with tacky arts and crafts projects, my girls hiked and biked and snowboarded and rode roller coasters and camped. And rock climbed. Some of the girls were attending the local council’s rock climbing camp and one of the activities was going to be rappelling into a cavern, which was a little troubling to a couple of girls, my daughter included. We were fortunate enough to have a very experienced rock climber among the group of parents involved with the troop and he volunteered to teach us to rappel down a cliff in a remote canyon in the Sierra Nevada foothills. I have always been a little nervous about heights and took advantage of this opportunity to confront my trepidation. If you have never rappelled off of a cliff, you should, with the proper instruction, supervision and equipment, of course. There is nothing quite like taking that first step off the ledge, walking backwards, focusing on the rope, the knot and the anchor as you descend. Will it hold? In rappelling, you hold your own rope, you lower yourself down at your own pace, you hold your fate in your own hands. And, really, life is no different. You hold your fate in your own hands and every day, you are stepping backwards off the cliff, rope in hand. And as you step bravely off that ledge, remember, your feet are solidly planted on rock, it is stable, and that’s all we want, that’s all we need. Be your own rock.

Let’s rock and roll, then. You absolutely need to build your own solid core, your internal rock, consisting of your core values and your guiding principles. Spend some time identifying these, like the third of the three little pigs and his wise and careful selection of building materials. Read books on the topic if you need guidance, but identifying your core values and guiding principles is the first, most critical step. In identifying your core values you are likely to determine that certain traits or characteristics are important to you, for example, health, fitness, independence, self-confidence. Add these to your rock, embody them, and draw from the strength they provide. Once you have your solid internal rock, nurture it, never let it crumble against the tide, against the current. That rock, that base, becomes your vantage point for identifying stones to test, to step upon, to cross any streams you may encounter.

Once we have identified our core values and our guiding principles, once we have that solid rock deep within, we are more capable of handling whatever the world throws at us. That rock, that base, will always be there. With a solid base, our own touchstone, if you will, we can actually explore options in life that we may never have had the courage or confidence to attempt before. Remember, that with every new experience, every new adventure, every fear faced, we become stronger, wiser and more confident. Our rock is fortified. I am my own rock. I rock. Be your own rock. Rock on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ambience – The Hum and the Glow

am·bi·ent
/ˈambēənt/
Adjective
Of or relating to the immediate surroundings of something: “ambient noise”.

Have you ever noticed the ambient noise in a completely “quiet” house? With the television off, music off, no one else home, what do you hear? There is a humming. There are appliances running, heating and cooling systems, water heaters, any number of things just whirring away, and really, when you focus on it, making quite a lot of noise. The hum.

As an only child and a latchkey kid for much of my childhood, I remember doing this frequently. Sitting in an empty house and just listening. My dad was a hobbyist and loved old clocks, the tick tock clock variety, with the Westminster chimes every fifteen minutes. Our house is a split-level home, a ground level, a mid level a half a story up, then the upper level, a full story up. I remember sitting, often, on one of the stairs between the upper story and the middle level and just listening to all of the clocks ticking. A cacophony of ticking, like madness. Imagine the ruckus when all the chimes went off!

Last night, late, we had fairly high winds, and just before going to bed, the power went out. There are two things I love about power outages, lack of ambient noise and lack of ambient light. I relished lying in bed, in complete and total darkness and hearing only the wind in the tress outside. This spurred my thoughts on ambience, which rolled around in my head for the better part of the night, in the darkest dark as the wind whipped through the trees outside.

Having lived in a very remote country home, having backpacked in the wilderness extensively, again, there are things I adore about being far removed from civilization, temporarily; the sound of the wind, and nothing else and the darkness of the sky, except for the millions of stars. Have you ever been far enough away from the city to see the Milky Way in the sky? It is surprising how many people have never seen this wonder. Have you ever been out far enough in the countryside to be able to see the orange glow in the distance where the next town or city is located? This is light pollution from the ambient light of thousands of homes, cars, and businesses. The glow.

On a backpacking trek a few summers ago, I had the opportunity to tour a gold mine shaft with a group of people. One of the self-imposed limitations I have, and have made a concerted effort to overcome, is claustrophobia, or something like it. I fear being unable to escape, if my access to a clear exit path is blocked, I get a little panicky. Funny, isn’t it, that one of my major ruling assumptions is freedom, independence and autonomy? See any relationship there? I was in a narrow mine shaft with about a dozen or so other people, the guide, as she explained clearly beforehand, and I consented to, turned off her light and instructed us to turn off all of ours. We experienced a pitch-blackness so complete I can’t even begin to describe it, I could feel it more than see it, it was oppressive, it felt heavy, weighted. In this complete absence of any light, ambient or otherwise, we had to place our hand on the shoulder of the person in front of us and walk forward in an attempt to follow each other out of the mineshaft in total darkness. It was extremely disorienting, our balance was compromised completely and it was easy to become disconnected with the person in front of you, leaving you hopeless and helpless in the dark. It was impossible to successfully navigate towards the exit and to the relief of daylight. The guide then had us place our other hand out so we could feel the wall, still holding onto the shoulders of those ahead of us. With the assistance of the sometimes slimy wall, we were better able to balance and navigate our way back to light. I will never forget that darkness, that total absence of ambient light!

Isn’t it interesting how what we don’t really notice, ambient noise and ambient light, can actually be so significant in our lives?

An article in Scientific American summarizes a study performed by OSHA on the stress related hazards related to low-level ambient noise. Stress-related conditions, such as high blood pressure, coronary disease, peptic ulcers and migraine headaches could increase as a result of the measurable stress caused by ambient noise in the home and at the work place. Among other things, ambient noise has been associated with the release of cortisol, the hormone that is released in the body after a “bad experience”. The release of cortisol, at a minimum, can impact our ability to plan, reason and manage our impulse control.

A couple of years ago I read about a study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute linking ambient light to increased risk for breast cancer. Other similar studies noted increased rates of ovarian cancer in women who worked night shifts, and so, were sleeping in daylight or in near daylight conditions. The studies hypothesized that our hormones (melatonin release) are linked to the natural patterns of light and dark in nature. When that natural pattern is disrupted with unnatural, ambient light, when it should be dark, our hormones don’t behave normally and this increases the risk of cancer.

Things that are ambient, that we really don’t normally pay attention to, can actually impact us in very major ways. Ambient light, ambient noise, ambient temperature all relate to our immediate surroundings, our environment. From this, comes the word ambience.

am·bi·ence
/ˈambēəns/
Noun
1. The character and atmosphere of a place.

To me, ambient light and ambient noise are subtle, unnoticeable and sometimes beyond our complete control. Unless we focus on them, we usually don’t even notice them. Ambience, on the other hand, I think of as being manipulated or contrived, something we are in complete or near complete control of, something we create, with intention.

The ambience of a restaurant is often referred to in its write up or in patron reviews. The ambience of a setting often dictates that expectation of our activity; a loud raucous bar with a group of friends out for a good time, a quiet, candlelit, corner table in a dark quiet bistro for a romantic evening.

I try to control ambient things, light and noise, to the degree I can for the benefit of my long-term health. I am, at the very least, more aware of ambient noise and ambient light and seek to mitigate their effects in my life. I also deliberately manipulate the ambience of my settings for a variety of reasons.

We’ve already touched on sleep and how ambient light can disrupt its benefits. The power of restorative sleep, absent of ambient noise and unnatural, ambient light, energizes, heals, and can actually restore youth by promoting the natural and beneficial release of HGH, human growth hormone. Creating an ambience for restful, restorative sleep can also help in your effort to evolve by increasing the healthful benefits of sleep that nature intended for us. I know, for me, I find that small sources of ambient noise and light disturb me. Perhaps more so having read up on the potential hazards associated with each of these. But if I am trying to drop off to sleep and I can hear the television downstairs, I find before long, that’s all I can hear. Like the cliché dripping faucet we see in movies, stories and cartoons! If my iPhone screen illuminates it is nearly blinding! Even the little flashing light on the front of my closed MacBook becomes a glaring beacon over the course of the night, enough to disrupt me from sleep. So, I seek to remove all of these things from my sleeping environment, I create an ambience for restful, restorative sleep.

I seek to control my ambience when dining; I make eating a special event, every meal. I set the table nicely and use nice dishes rather than the food packaging to serve my meals. I try to prepare meals that are pleasing not only to eat, but to look at as well. I am so proud of how my meals look, I actually take pictures of them for my food journal! I also tune out distractions while I eat and actually focus on my food and the simple pleasure of eating, the tastes and the textures of the food. I do not read or watch TV while eating, I avoid texting, working or social networking, and just focus on enjoying my food. Focusing on your food, on the act of eating, is proven to reduce the amount of food you consume. When you focus on what you eat, and enjoy the experience, you find satisfaction in a single portion rather than mindlessly eating two or three helpings. Distraction while dining is extremely detrimental to our diet.

Consider the ambience for sex; imagine a romantic room with a lovely bed, candles, flowers, music, chocolate would be nice, too, an inviting environment, rather than making do, so to speak, on a long unmade bed of mismatched sheets, with piles of dirty clothes all around and the dog watching from nearby. I read a fascinating and entertaining book last year, Veronica Monet’s “Sex Secrets of Escorts: What Men Really Want”. She had a great deal to say about the ambience for good sex that made a great deal of good sense.

In our efforts to evolve, to improve ourselves, it is important to consider our surroundings, our setting, our ambience and what is ambient. We need to consider deliberately creating an ambience, or an environment, for self-improvement, self-development, and evolution. We need to find a way to sit in the silence, in the dark, figuratively, and think, without anything ambient to distract us. We need to tune out the ambient noise that influences our lives much like the sound of the highway a few blocks away influences our sleep. The hum. We need to remove ourselves from distractions in our lives, like we do flashing lights while we sleep. The glow.

In our lives, in order to truly find our purpose, our direction, ourselves, we need to find a way to tune out the hum and the glow, the ambient noise; people who influence us, the media, etc. We need to think independently, in the solitary, quiet ambience of our own being, what matters to us, what are our guiding principles, even if they differ from those of people close to us, what do we really believe as individuals? There is always noise around us; the opinions of others, the strong beliefs of those we love, that may, in fact, be different from what we truly believe if we could just be quiet long enough to think about it. Ambient noise. Ambient light are other influential distractions like the media, the press, the entertainment industry, news talk radio, the clergy, business, our employers even, academia. They are all suggesting not just verbally, but visually, how we should think, feel, vote, act. Stop. Tune it out, find a peaceful, comfortable ambience, away from the hum and the glow. Think about it, apply logic. How do YOU really feel when you are away from the hum and the glow? This is where you will find your guiding principles, these are your core values. Cherish them, honor them, live by them, but first, you must know them.

Become aware of the hum and the glow.