Keep Your Eyes on Your Own Paper

I recently read an article by James Clear where he referenced a statement often heard in grade school. He referred to the admonishment of not cheating. Clear pointed out the deeper message, “It doesn’t make a difference what the person next to you writes down for his answer. This is your race to run. It’s your assignment to complete. It’s your answer to create. How your paper compares to someone else’s is not the point. The point is to fill the paper with your work.” It’s the same as Hike Your Own Hike or Sticking to Your Path–your work, art, trip, journey, life is your own masterpiece, project, destination and adventure.

The rebels in the classroom (ahem, like myself) would, once admonished, give a side glance to the room to see who had their head up with their eyes off their paper, or squirmed in their seats or dozed off in the back. I was also gathering information on how confident everyone looked as they took the test or quiz. Scanning the room is nothing but a comparison, which is the thief of joy. Whether or not someone is succeeding on the test, or whether they do it quickly or confidently, has nothing to do with my work. My test. My art.

Here’s how to keep your eyes on your own paper:

Clean slate

As Clear wrote, “No matter what you spend your days doing, every morning you wake up and have a blank piece of paper to work with. You get to put your name at the top and fill it with your work.” The possibilities are endless. There is something magnificent about a clean slate. It’s like starting a new recipe and dicing the onions, sautéing them in the pan, moving forward with possibility. I can keep the onions raw, translucent or caramelized brown. It’s all up to me. I am the chef. I have the paint brush and I can make any stroke with any color I have. There is such power in possibility. And we get a new clean slate each morning and I have absolutely no idea what my neighbor is doing with their slate. It’s your clean slate. Use it for your art.

Don’t judge

As Clear wrote while he reflected on his own writing: “I thought this was a good article. Why don’t people seem to enjoy it? Or, I’ll feel like I wrote something average only to see it become the most popular post of the month. Regardless of the outcome, I’ve realized one thing: we are often terrible judges of our own work.” I can relate. I wrote a post on my father’s time in Korea a few weeks back. I thought it was a great post and yet it had barely 100 views. I wrote a post on Earnest Shackleton’s leadership style back in 2014 and it’s been viewed over 6,000 times. There is no telling who will like it or who won’t. We are terrible judges of our own work. I can remember leaving tests, finals or quizzes from elementary school through grad school and I was rarely good at determining how well I did on the test. Stay away from judging yourself – odds are you really don’t know anyway.

Ship it

In Seth Godin’s book Linchpin, he says: “The only purpose of starting is to finish, and while the projects we do are never really finished, they must ship.” I have to say that especially during test taking, I was without fail the first to leave the exam. If it was five students or two hundred, I was almost always the first to leave. I didn’t go back and double check or perhaps it’s my penchant for the $hitty first draft. I write, I create, I leave my art and ship. Put the pencil down and move on. Perfection is constricting. As Godin says, “Ship it.”

There is one you

Martha Graham was consoling Agnes de Mille about the randomness of success: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.” There is only one of you. Don’t let your art be lost. Keep going. Produce no matter what product, what art, what music. You are here for your unique ability to produce your unique product.

There is joy in being present with the process. Don’t focus on the end product. Or the end product of your neighbor or the runner next to you or the hiker in the next tent. It’s the journey, not the destination. Make your own art, whatever that may be, and be there in the process with your eyes on your own paper.

The Story I’m Making Up

We are all storytellers, especially to ourselves. We fill our heads with distorted facts and assumptions that can create a long-term impact on ourselves and our relationships with others. Brene Brown has been a pioneer in this. She talks about a situation with her husband as she swam in a lake in the hill country of Texas. She has told this story in her book, Daring Greatly and in her recent Netflix special. I was derailed recently by a decision a close relative made. I was talking to my coach friend Sandy about it and she said, “Did you see Brene on Netflix?” I said, “Yeah.” Sandy said, “What was your big takeaway?” I didn’t remember. Sandy said, “What is the story you are telling yourself?” The story I was telling myself was that this recent decision was made deliberately to alienate me from the relative. But once I held it up to the light, I realized that this simply wasn’t true. Once I spoke the story, it magically evaporated.

I hear this a lot when I coach folks. “My son doesn’t pick up his room, making me do all the work.” “My coworker isn’t timely with the report because they don’t respect my time.” “My spouse is laughing with that woman because he’s attracted to her and wants to have an affair.” The story we tell ourselves is almost always detrimental to our self-esteem. Our storytelling is demeaning and makes moving forward difficult.

Here are some ideas on how to stop the damage of storytelling:

It’s an illusion

The first thing to realize is that it’s all just one big illusion. Odds are you aren’t telepathic. Most of us aren’t. It’s amazing how often we all attribute motives to folks outside ourselves. “They aren’t returning my calls because they dislike me.” “He didn’t compliment me on my new blouse because he hates it.” “She offered to drive because she doesn’t like the way I drive.” I do this constantly. I make up judgements from other people that have NO basis in fact. At. All. It’s just like a movie when the main character dies. It’s just a movie. No one really died. The same goes for my story in my head. It’s just made up scenery to make the plot seem more sensational. The story you are telling yourself is nothing but an illusion.

Bring it out into the light

As a child, did you think there were monsters under your bed or in your closet? I did. I used to see hundreds of monsters and ghosts in the shadows of my bedroom. Once I turned the light switch on? They were all gone. Shine a light on the shadow that is making the monster. Bring it out into the light. Say the story out loud to a trusted friend or coach. If there is no one available, speak it. Say as Brene does, “The story I’m making up is…” I like that she says “making up” instead of “telling” because it’s so much more obvious that it’s not true. It’s a figment of your imagination. Speak it into the light.

Stand in their shoes

When I am emotionally triggered, I have completely left my prefrontal cortex and have lost any ability to reason. When triggered, it is really hard for me to try and understand where someone else is coming from. I lack empathy. All I see is an offensive attack and I am devoid of understanding. When I can take some time to let the emotions rest and not be triggered, I think about all the possible reasons someone might be seeming to attack me. My son’s room isn’t clean? Homework has piled up and there’s a new love interest in his life. My spouse talking to another woman? She’s his closest friend at work and supported him on a difficult issue at the Project Planning meeting. Client isn’t returning my calls? They are on vacation or are under a tight deadline at work. When I do “Third Entity” (from CRR Global), I physically have the client stand in the virtual place of the person they have a conflict with. Standing in the other person’s place can help clear up assumptions. Try standing in their shoes.

Hold up a mirror

We all bring our own baggage to any situation. Our own biases, cultural and family norms. Toilet seat up or down. Bedroom doors open or closed. “God Bless” or “Bless you” or “Gesundheit.” A lot of our thinking is on auto pilot based on the last ten, twenty, thirty years of our life. You might think someone is rude if they don’t return a phone call in one hour, one day or one week. Personally, I’d rather someone text or email, rather than leave a voicemail. We all walk around with our own parameters. So what assumptions are you bringing to the situation? Those assumptions are working into your storytelling. It’s all made up.

It’s all about holding your thoughts under a microscope and picking it apart. If you’re like me, you’ve been holding on tightly to assumptions and norms for years that probably need to be let go. It’s so easy to hold on tightly to these assumptions and cause long term damage with the ruminations that take place. Perception and storytelling are not reality. Let it go.

Harpers Ferry: An Intersection in History

My boyfriend Roy and I recently visited Harpers Ferry and, while I assume I visited the historic town as a child with its relative proximity to my hometown of Wilmington, DE, I don’t have any memory of the place. I was struck by how this small little town with a population of less than 300 people had such a vital role in our nation’s history. From its role in the Civil War, to transportation, to small arms producer, to arming the Lewis and Clark expedition, this tiny spot at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers is the intersection of an abundance of American History.

We arrived there in June of COVID-19. Most of the town was shut down and all the National Historic museums (bathrooms!) and parking were limited. There were signs throughout the town discouraging tourists. I was shocked by the number of tourists milling around. The one or two ice cream shops as well as the restaurants appeared to be booming in business. It’s an unusual place in that there are all these historic buildings and plaques sitting right next to an ice cream shop or across the street from John Brown’s Fort. The most stunning place is a church atop what looks like 300 steps that one must climb to get to its front door. A woman made the comment to me: “Well, you had to be a believer to trek up all those steps.”

Harpers Ferry and the Church with many steps

Here are some things I learned about Harpers Ferry:

Transportation

Harpers Ferry is a natural transportation intersection with both the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. Robert Harper established the first ferry to cross the Potomac River in the 1733. The ferry continued to run until 1824 when a covered bridge was built. This established Harpers Ferry as a transportation hub. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (C&O Canal) was built and operated from 1831 to 1924 to run alongside the Potomac to bring coal from the Allegheny Mountains and to make shipping easier. The C&O Canal ran into trouble with floods as well as trying to extend its length into the surrounding mountainous areas. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) (thank you Monopoly) won a bid to build and operate a railroad through this strategic point in 1839. At the time it was the first and only rail crossing the Potomac. This strategic transportation point was the predecessor to many historic events. It’s remarkable how this tiny historic town with antebellum brick homes could bear witness to pivotal events in history.

Amory

In 1794, President George Washington selected Harpers Ferry, Virginia (later West Virginia) as the location of a National Armory. Its proximity to water tributaries was advantageous to create water turbines in the manufacture of muskets, rifles and pistols. Between 1821 and 1830 the armory produced 11,855 arms. It relied on the river to run the machinery to produce the arms. The armory was renovated and expanded from 1845-1854. In 1859, there were 400 workers at the armory. This made the armory a strategic resource for the brewing conflict between the North and South, just miles below the Mason-Dixon line.

Meriwether Lewis

In 1803, Meriwether Lewis arrived in Harpers Ferry to arm his team for their transcontinental expedition. What is remarkable is that besides the 15 rifles, 15 powder horns, 30 bullet molds, 30 ball screws and 24 large knives, Lewis decided to have manufactured a collapsible metal boat frame of his design. I was struck by the pictures of an iron framed boat skeleton that Lewis imagined on his famous journey to the Pacific. The boat was to be collapsible into parts and then reassembled once they arrived at the Missouri River and covered with hides. While on the actual expedition, the guns worked well, the collapsible canoe, failed. When put into water on July 9th, it “floated like a cork” until it began to leak. Lewis’ experiment was left behind on July 10th next to the Missouri River.

John Brown

John Brown, the abolitionist, found Harpers Ferry to be positioned strategically for his needs. It was home to perhaps 100,000 weapons and was the United States arsenal. It was surrounded by slave holders in what was at the time, Virginia. Brown’s plan was to take over the armory and he assumed that the slaves in the region would come to bear arms against their masters and ignite a national uprising. John Brown’s Raid occurred from October 16-18, 1859. They failed to take the armory which was, ironically defended by Robert E. Lee and the United States Marines. By December 2, Brown was tried for treason and executed for his under-manned, failed attempt. All of this was a precursor to the Civil War. John Brown is memorialized in Harpers Ferry from plaques to historical markers to John Browns Fort.

Civil War

Again, Harpers Ferry strategic position came into play.  After Fort Sumter was bombarded on April 12th by the confederates, Lincoln called for 75,000 recruits on April 15th. On April 18th, the Virginia Militia marched on Harpers Ferry and the Federal troops torched the US Armory and Arsenal destroying over 15,000 weapons. On April 28th, Stonewall Jackson occupied his first command of the war and spent the next seven weeks removing machinery and tools and shipping it to Richmond. Between 1861 and 1865, Harpers Ferry changed hands fourteen times. Despite its strategic importance, Harpers Ferry was an indefensible military position. It was a strategic nightmare in that it sat at the base of steep rises of the Appalachian Mountains, making it easy to attack and nearly impossible to defend.

Harpers Ferry sits at the confluence of two mighty rivers – the Shenandoah and Potomac, cornered between steep mountain sides and three modern day states – West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland. How remarkable that something so sought after is barely inhabited now, except by tourists like me to take in its history. But that’s also part of its present-day charm.

H.A.L.T. and Keeping on the Path

I celebrated 3 years of sobriety on July 8th, 2020. It wasn’t easy. I’ve been cigarette-free for almost 20 years and, in contrast, that has been a lot easier. The social constructs for the two habits are vastly different. One habit is the elixir of social engagement while the other is shunned. I remember vividly the moment the acronym of H.A.L.T. slammed me in the face. I was in a hotel lobby in Scottsdale, Arizona traveling alone on business last fall (pre-pandemic). I was in the hotel lobby desperate for dinner. It was ten minutes to 4 PM and the lobby snack bar was closed. The only place open was the bar, which was to have a bar menu. I was Hungry (because I had just flown in from the east coast), Angry (because the only place to get food was the bar), Lonely (because the bar was packed with happy hour folks all there for a convention) and Tired (because I had been up since 2 AM Pacific time). It was the perfect storm for someone trying to stay sober. If I had a rental car I would have headed to McDonalds or Starbucks, ANYWHERE, but there. I survived the experience still sober but the acronym is important to remember, regardless of what vice you are trying to kick.

Here are my lessons from H.A.L.T and keeping on the path:

Hungry

My children have always been very attuned to my state of satiation. I get an edge to my voice, I get impatient, I get antsy. I can hear my daughter Natalie saying, “Mommy, are you hangry?” If so, all bets are off. We may be in a two-hour line at Disney World but we are going to find Mommy some food. Now that I am a plant-based eater, it can be even more difficult. This was the case in the hotel lobby. Most bar menus are meat and cheese based, you know chicken wings, nachos and sliders. I was thinking “my kingdom for a kale salad!” There was a salad on the bar menu as I reviewed it on the stand outside the bar. I stood there looking for a table tucked in a corner away from all those happy folks drinking. I took the plunge and headed to a small table hoping for the best.

Angry

I sat down waiting for a server. There was one buzzing around the many tables of drinking folks. I finally got their attention. She came by to take my drink order. I asked if they were serving food and she concurred. I ordered a club soda and asked for a menu. It took about 10 minutes for my drink. I reminded her I wanted a menu. After another ten minutes, she obliged me with the menu. I waited. I waited. Two servers flitted around the bar refilling drinks. I started to steam. Percolate. Rumble with anger. I was so hungry and, now, angry. I overheard “my” server telling her various tables that it was the end of her shift and she needed to close out their tabs. Ugh. I will never order my food. She will never be back to my table. I sat there another 10 minutes. I knew that the restaurant opened at 4:30 PM. It was now 4:30 PM. I cannot stand skipping out on a check on a server. I spent way too many years as a server and restaurant owner to want to skip out on a check but my sobriety was at stake here. I got up, left money, left the table and the drink and went to the restaurant.

Lonely

When I approached the hostess stand at the restaurant, I explained that I had waited 30 minutes to order food at the bar and that I was hungry (and seething and precariously close to wanting a double martini). They sat me immediately and brought water and bread before quickly taking my order. I was alone in the restaurant, but I had actually felt more alone in the packed bar. Perhaps it was the free-flowing booze, or the camaraderie around a substance that I so freely imbibed for many years. 

I felt like an outcast. It was obvious that most of the folks knew each other.  Everyone was gathered in small groups except for the lone wolf or two at the bar. It struck me how lonely I felt amongst all the people and how, in the past, I would have felt comforted by being surrounded by all those drinkers. I know I was telling myself that everyone was aware I was by myself and not drinking alcohol; I felt that I was on a stage naked and vulnerable. In retrospect, I realize now that my phone was low on power and I felt trapped in not being able to reach out to someone.

Tired

Jet lag is a fickle thing. I can get to my destination and feel amped up and ready to go or completely depleted. Being tired breaks down your willpower and resolve. It’s remarkable as you look around a bar in a destination city like Scottsdale and wonder what time zone someone is on. I’ve met people from Singapore and London and Cape Town all at the same conference. We are all in different stages of rest and exhaustion. I’ve come to realize that I need to plan ahead so that I can be prepared for my state of tiredness when I arrive in a new time zone. I usually think ahead when setting up flights so that I can be better prepared. If I had to do it over again, I would have taken a Lyft to a restaurant that was open all day. When I’m tired, I tend to find the path of least resistance which, that day, was the hotel bar. A little extra effort would have had me either ordering room service or heading out to a Denny’s.

I’m proud to say that I survived the day sober. I remember thinking about the acronym H.A.L.T. that day at 4:15 PM as I waited for the elusive server to come by and take my food order. I looked around that bar as I yawned, seething, isolated and hungry and realized I was sitting in the perfect storm to break my sobriety. I’m proud of myself for surviving it and now I can recount that perfect storm when I face other challenges in the future and be more prepared. 

Benson Noice Junior the Great

I originally posted this last year before my father succumbed to Congestive Heart Failure on July 12, 2019. We had celebrated his 94th birthday as a family just a few weeks earlier with the theme being “Benson Noice Junior the Great”. I thought it appropriate to republish the post on the anniversary of his death. I love you, Daddy.

Originally posted on May 24th, 2019:

“Benson Noice Junior the Great,”this is the title of a book my son, whose name is taken after his grandfather, wrote about his beloved grandfather at the age of 11. I recently discovered the hard-cover illustrated book amongst some other treasures like my Master’s thesis, my brother’s journal of our cross-country trailer trip in the late 60’s and a book of poetry I wrote in high school. I read Benson’s masterpiece to my dad over the phone last week and choked through the tears as I realized how much my son idealizes his grandfather. As I reflect on my father’s life, I realize what a tremendous gift my father has been to his students, his friends and his family.

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Benson Robles and his grandfather Benson Noice Jr. (the great)

These are the reasons that Benson Noice Junior is so great:

Perseverance

My dad is the oldest of three kids and was born in 1925. Being born in 1925 means that the Great Depression had a long-standing impact on him and his family. His father, Benson Noice Sr., left the family after the stock market crash of 1929. Imagine being my grandmother with three kids ages under the age of 5 as my grandfather took off. The impact is that my father has always been very self-reliant. He ended up moving 28 times by the time he graduated college. My father hitchhiked, survived on donuts and milk and spent the night on the Staten Island Ferry as a young adult. All of these hardships are in line with his oft-quoted motto “toughen you up for life.” Dad had a tough life especially in the first 30 years, and the result shows in his perseverance.

Teacher

My dad taught eighth grade history for over 30 years. In my hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, I can remember running into his former students at the mall, school district picnics and at the grocery store. At the time, I would be mortified that people would come up to him and thank him for being a great teacher. There were several men who saw my dad as their mentor. He would meet them either as students or counselors at a boy’s camp where he was the waterfront director. I can remember them either writing or phoning or making the pilgrimage to our house in Wilmington to see their teacher and mentor. As a kid, I was jealous of the attention my father garnered. I can remember hearing him talk extensively about history or economics or politics late at night as I feigned sleep in the bedroom above the living room. Now I can see what an impact he had on these young men and all the students that went through his classroom.

Memory

Considering my father is almost 94, he has an incredible memory. He may not know what he had for lunch or what television show he is watching, but he can still tell you practically anything about the Civil War, the American Revolution and World History. Does he know when Napoleon was born without using Google? Yep. Can he discuss with me the importance of the siege during the Civil War as he did on the phone yesterday? Yep. Can he reflect on George Washington’s merits as a President and how King George couldn’t understand why Washington would relinquish power after 8 years as president? This is amazing to me that he can have a conversation with a neophyte like myself amid his breaths from his oxygen tube to carry on a complex conversation on a subject that is near and dear to him. This conversation, by the way, was brought on by my reading of a book he recommended by Ron Chernow called Grant. I was never a history fan as a kid, or even adult, but over the last ten years, I believe my father’s love of history has infected me or maybe I just wanted to tap into his treasure trove of historic memories; extend the conversation with him.

Unconditional Love

This is my father’s greatest gift and very few possess it. As I have reminisced with him recently and I asked him what he learned from his mother, he said “unconditional love.” My dad was never a good student or at least that’s what he professes. He didn’t marry until he was 30. I can imagine that moving from college to college and not settling down, probably caused my grandmother some heartburn as well as ache. But he said he always knew she loved him. Well, as I sit here, I know I caused my father a fair share of pain over my lifetime between being a rebellious teenager, an impulsive young adult, and a single mom on the brink of financial ruin. My father always has been there for me. Without fail. He has been there for my children, including uprooting my mother to move from Northern California to North Carolina so that he could sit in cold and windy football games on a Friday night, drive for hours to marching band competitions or walk two miles to my daughter’s graduation from Duke University. I know that I haven’t committed a felony or been a high school drop out, but I sorely tested both of my parents. My dad recently received a cell phone. Yes, my dad learned how to use a cell phone at age 93. I am so amazed when I see his number flash on my phone and know that somehow, he figured out (with the immeasurable help of my brother Rick and my mom) how to dial my phone. He reaches out to connect from Albuquerque, New Mexico to make sure I’m OK and let me know that he’s OK and to maybe impart a history lesson or two. Benson Noice Jr. is unconditional love.

If you measure a life by the impact you’ve had on others, my father has had a very rich life. He has spread his knowledge through countless students, campers and proteges. He was a stable, patient father who rarely raised his voice and only became passionate during debates with my older brothers around the dinner table. He was courageous to serve in the Merchant Marines during WWII and in the Army during the Korean War. He was a phenomenal chess player, writer and sailor. I would bet my life that there is not a single person who wasn’t better off for meeting such a generous, patient, humble man. Benson Noice Jr. the Great is my father and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Being Present

It’s easy to run through your day just skimming the surface. I’d bet you were on auto pilot on your last drive to the grocery store or home. You don’t remember that annoying person driving too slow in front of you or that family riding their bikes. It’s easy to blame technology and its incessant dopamine hits calling your attention back to social media and email notifications, so you can acknowledge that jerk at work or that annoying comment from a coworker on your Instagram post. We get wrapped up in our heads instead of actually being present.

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Kayaking on Lake Piuray

There is the novelty of travel and trying to get to the next spot to take the iconic picture. To check another item off the bucket list. To rush and hurry and strive and push onto the next thing. As you even read this, I wonder if you’re simply skimming this sentence (as I tend to do) and rush onto the bullets to see what you might glean (quickly) from this post.

Here are the benefits of being present:

Unexpected. One of the most beautiful moments I had on my trip to Peru a year ago was on Lake Piuray. I knew the plan was to kayak somewhere but besides that, I didn’t know much else. Well, it ended up being a highlight of the trip. We launched from a beach on a spectacular lake near Chinchero, Peru. Outside of a few farms and glacial mountains surrounding the lake, it was mostly uninhabited. The cranes, ibises, and ducks flew by and a clear blue sky bathed us in sunshine. We paddled peacefully near the reeds by the bank. I remember thinking to take it all in for just two beats longer. This is what life is all about; this hour or so of beauty, peace and tranquility. It may have been unexpected, but it was a gift I wouldn’t soon forget.

Ordinary. I have taken a short one-mile walk in my neighborhood probably a thousand times. I usually have a set of earbuds in and am listening to music, an audiobook, or a podcast. I rarely “pay attention” to my surroundings. When I first did this walk (and almost every subsequent one) with my boyfriend Roy, he would stop dead in his tracks to watch the Purple Martins flying. I had never noticed them. Or their nest. Or the Ospreys. Or the Swifts. Now I do. I try not to skim through my day but rather observe the ordinary that I was oblivious to before. Be present to the ordinary.

Stop. I typically rush through my day. I try and check off all that I want to accomplish. Outside of meditating every morning, the rest of my day can seem like a long list of duties and appointments that I am checking off. Last fall, I was hiking a trail next to the Eno River with Roy. He, of course, stopped next to the river for a few moments. He called me over. I stopped and looked as he pointed out the small crappies swimming in the river below the surface, only visible with polarized sunglasses. My typical behavior would be to move on forward down the trail and not stop. It’s in those moments of stopping that magic is revealed. The tiny fish were swimming as Roy threw in a piece of bark that they immediately swam for. Stop and enjoy the moment.

The feels. This has been a revelation over my past few years of sobriety. When I stopped numbing out with food and alcohol, I actually felt things. I know that sounds crazy. It wasn’t like I didn’t have feelings before I quit numbing out, but when I was actually present for the feelings, I actually experienced them. I believe that there is an all or nothing view of feelings. Either we are raging with anger or stoically passing through drama unaffected (typically with a little help of some vice of choice). So, cry when you need to; it’s good for you anyway. Feel deceit, anger, regret, or resentment. Feel the feels. It makes you really present in your experience.

Meditation. I’m not sure how long I have been meditating (I’m guessing ten years) but it’s been over a year since I started practicing Sudarshan Kriya from the Art of Living. I will not pretend that I don’t have thoughts or extraneous worries as I meditate for twenty minutes in the morning. Stuff crops up. But it’s OK. This is not about turning off your thoughts. It’s about focusing on the breath and letting thoughts go as they crop up. It’s not about perfection. It makes me present, out of my head, and back into my body.

Whether today is a run of the mill day with a long list of to-dos, or you are on your dream vacation, don’t rush through: take a breath and feel the moment. Be here now. In this moment, regardless…Be Here Now. Each moment has its magic. Are you ready to be present?

The Benefits of a Jigsaw Puzzle

I do not think I have ever purchased a jigsaw puzzle until recently. I have always loved going to my brother Dave’s and sister-in-law Judy’s house because there always seems to be a giant puzzle on their dining room table. It’s fun to just go over and start working on it and then meander off. There can be one person working on it or five and there is never a set agenda like “I’ll work on the pink flowers” or “You work on the fluffy white cloud.” You are free to choose if you want to work on it or not. My earliest memory of working on a puzzle was at Brant Lake in the Adirondacks as a babysitter for my next door neighbors, the Suiters. We would spend an entire week in a lakeside cabin with a puzzle in the works. So thus far, my memories of working on a puzzle have always been a team effort.

Fast forward to a global pandemic in 2020. I started seeing friends posting completed puzzles on social media. I was envious. I wanted a puzzle. I wasn’t sure why. I had no idea if I could complete one on my own. I just knew I wanted one and I just had to give it a try. Whelp, there were no puzzles to be had. Target was out, Walmart was out and even Amazon was backordered. Puzzle sales are apparently 370% ahead of 2019. Finally, after about three weeks as well as a lost package, having to select another puzzle and purchasing a puzzle mat, I finally received my puzzle. It’s a circular 1,000-piece puzzle and I have to say, it was intimidating. But here I am some 10 days later, and I have finally put the whole thing together all on my own! It is a triumph! It’s been a unique experience. This is what I learned.

The benefits of putting together a jigsaw puzzle:

Preparation

I was glad that I had seen (thanks, Dave and Judy) that it is possible to have a puzzle mat to keep whatever progress you have made in one piece. I was afraid that it might take me months to complete the puzzle. What if I had a dinner party or something, what would I do with the puzzle? I know one thing for sure, I was not going to not finish that puzzle just because of some dinner party (yes, I know I am not going to host a dinner party in the middle of a pandemic). I wanted to be prepared to store the puzzle come what may. I carefully considered which table to put the puzzle on, rolled out my puzzle mat and broke open the box. The puzzle finally arrived after I purchased the puzzle mat, but I knew I wouldn’t have started the puzzle without a way to safely store it. I imagine that if I had started the puzzle without the preparation, I would have been anxious about having to move it. I even thought about buying a card table so I would be positive that I would not have to take the puzzle apart before it was completed. It took me almost a month of preparation but I’m glad I was prepared.

Memory

Putting a jigsaw puzzle together helps with your short-term memory. It’s funny because your short-term memory is a muscle that you can practice. I can remember when I was a cocktail waitress some thirty years ago — I could remember everyone’s drink in the room. If one guy put up his finger for another drink, I knew right away that it was a “Dewer’s with a splash of soda and a twist.” Over the last week, I could scan pieces for specific colors and “arm” widths or corner pieces and remember what I was looking for (or sometimes not). As Jan Bowen wrote in her blog, “Short-term memory is enhanced as clues are retained for solving puzzles. Imagination is also stimulated as the bigger picture is incorporated.” As Brandpoint Content posits, “Short-term memory is enhanced as clues are retained for solving puzzles. Imagination is also stimulated as the bigger picture is incorporated.” I haven’t noticed the benefits yet but I do find I’m less worried about memory tasks I need to do like “pick up some bird seed” or “make sure to call Mom.”

Left and Right Brain

Having both regions of your brain collaborate is good for making better connections. It helps tap into tasks typically found in the right region like expression and creativity and the left region like logic and critical thinking. As Brandpoint Content wrote, “When you are doing a jigsaw puzzle, both sides are engaged, according to Sanesco Health, an industry leader in neurotransmitter testing. Think of it as a mental workout that improves your problem-solving skills and attention span. It’s no surprise that Bill Gates admits to being an avid puzzler.” I have to say that I frequently have been stymied on writing blog posts of late and once I started working on this puzzle, I felt more able and excited about writing.

Relax

I know I have been on digital and screen overload over the past two months of quarantine and exhausted from working from home. Having a hands-on activity that was sitting on my kitchen table for the past week and a half has been a terrific respite. If I was on back-to-back Zoom calls for three hours, I would go to the kitchen for a 15-minute puzzle break. It was nice to have something in a completely different room that didn’t require me looking at a screen or on a device. As Jan Bowen wrote, “Perhaps the busy hands, calm mind best explains the meditative impact puzzles have but research shows that puzzles do in fact simultaneously activate our brains while relaxing us psychologically. They put our brains into a meditative state.” There is the dopamine hit when a piece fits in place. With a 1,000-piece puzzle, that’s 1,000 hits of dopamine. I found that it settled me down and helped me slow down my pace.

Bowen posits, “I think we do puzzles because we have a relentless urge to create order out of chaos.” I have to agree. I think in a time where there is so much out of my control, having the ability to put order and pieces in their place is very satisfying. I was initially intimidated by the prospect of putting 1,000 pieces of chaos into order but the end result is very gratifying.

Missing Daddy

My father passed away on July 12, 2019. Our family was going to gather on what would have been his 95th birthday on June 19, 2020. Due to a global pandemic and my mother still being under quarantine in her senior living center, all that is off. We won’t be able to celebrate his life as a family. I realized I can celebrate him with my words.

Grief is a fickle thing. I won’t lie and tell you that I think about him every day. I certainly did in the months following his death. In the last few months, it’s been sporadic. It might be a commercial about a father teaching his teenage daughter to drive or a mini-series about Ulysses S. Grant, and suddenly I evaporate into tears. I miss my father even though I am so grateful he died last year. It gave us the chance to visit him (pre-COVID) as he slowly succumbed to congestive heart failure.

Here are the things I miss about Daddy:

Unflappable

I challenge anyone to tell me a time when my dad lost his temper. He rarely raised his voice and only did so to tell his opinion in a heated debate. When my two brothers and I were kids there was a lot of rough housing, teasing and taunting that took place; my father was loathe to intervene. He headed up field trips to Gettysburg and Washington, D.C. as a history teacher and always managed to return rebellious and raucous teenagers home with rarely an incident.

My boyfriend Roy and I have been watching the miniseries called Grant about Ulysses S. Grant. There are many references as to how calm and cool Grant would be in the middle of a battle and to be able to keep his wits about him. I think of all the challenges my father dealt with as a sailor on a schooner during a hurricane. As a Merchant Marine traveling from the Pacific to the Atlantic in an oil tanker with a sheared-off bow during World War II. He was never a man who was easily roused. 

I think of him when a co-worker loses their cool. I think of him when I lose my cool. I miss seeing my father and being able to watch him be unflappable.

Wanderlust

The biggest road trip of my life was with my family. We traveled from the East Coast to the West Coast of the United States and then from the Western provinces of Canada to the Eastern ones when I was eight years old. My father loved a view. He really loved the view of a mountain in particular. Whether it was the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada or the Canadian Rockies, my father (who drove our old Ford station wagon and 24-foot trail for all but 10 miles of the trip) would always pull off to an overlook…to have a look. 

I remember rolling my eyes as an impatient eight-year-old as my father would marvel at the view. At the time, I didn’t appreciate the marvelous opportunity my parents were giving me to see so much of the U.S. and Canada. After retirement, my parents traveled the world from Russia to China to Australia. He was always intrigued by foreign cultures, politics and natural beauty. He had wanderlust. I think of him when I see a tall mountain peak or hike to the summit of a trail. I miss and am grateful for my father’s wanderlust as he instilled it in me.

Patience

I have never been as patient as my father and have always been envious of it. He was the best grandfather. He traveled to my children’s marching band competitions, wrestling meets and football games. He never cared how far it was or how long we might sit in the cold or hot humid stands. He was just happy to be there. My son’s football team might be losing by 40 points but he’d be sitting there on the cold hard bleachers until the bitter end.

My father was the man who would patiently walk around the neighborhood with my then 2-year-old daughter reading license plates. At the ripened age of two, she was able to read all the letters and numbers on a license plate, all because her grandfather encouraged her to read. It reminds me of the times when I was in grade school and putting on plays in the basement. He was always willing to pay a quarter for admission and would sit through some haphazard, ill-conceived play for the love of his daughter. I think of him often during this pandemic and how easily he would have dealt with this big pause. I miss his patience and try to summon it often to cope with plans that are scrapped or delayed.

Wisdom

Anyone who lives to 94 is wise. They have survived catastrophes, wars and circumvented fatal errors. My father studied at eight different colleges and universities. He actually went to the University of Pennsylvania and attended West Chester College at the same time without one knowing about the other. My parents scrimped and saved their entire married life in order to send all three of us to the university of our choice. My father was a revered mentor to several young men that he taught in school or who he met as a counselor at a boy’s camp called Camp DeWitt. He was sought after for his advice and counsel for decades after their first meeting. My father’s opinion was one that I always valued. I remember the difficult decision to leave my first husband when I had very young children and countless responsibilities. I valued his opinion above everyone else’s. I never wanted to disappoint him. I miss his advice and counsel. He was the wisest man I’ve ever known.

I remember being with him on his 94th birthday. He was hunched over with an oxygen tube but was still able to read the book “Benson Noice Junior the Great” written by his namesake grandson as a grade school project a decade or more earlier. We all sat in his room as he told stories about his life. I was surprised that he talked about seeing both of my children being born and how miraculous it was. I will always remember kissing him goodbye for the last time in person and him telling me, “I love your blogs.” I find my father in all kinds of places now. In the wind, on a sailboat, at the top of trail or a scenic overlook. I may be missing him but he is there if I just pay attention.

The Art of Paying Attention

I have been working from home for over two months now. It is late spring, and my lakeside home has been a hub of activity. It is not the sort of activity most of my coworkers have in home schooling, piles of dishes and fighting over what to binge on Netflix. The hub of activity is the birds, reptiles and furry mammals that happen by my backyard. The thing is, I must assume that all of this has gone on for the almost two decades I have lived in this home. Perhaps it is the lack of distraction of getting kids to soccer practice, or worrying about getting to work on time, or maybe it’s that the pandemic induces a pause button that has been pressed–overall, I have been paying attention to all that surrounds me a lot more recently.

Here are some thoughts on the art of paying attention:

Turn off the distractions

Turn off the television, the phone, the computer and the tablet. I can remember way back to when I first lived alone after my first divorce. I always came home and turned the television on for background noise. It helped me cope with being alone. Now, I have the compulsion to look at my phone for notifications. It’s all just distractions from being present and taking notice of what is around us. As Harriet Griffey wrote for The Guardian: “Continuous partial attention – or CPA – was a phrase coined by the ex-Apple and Microsoft consultant Linda Stone. By adopting an always-on, anywhere, anytime, anyplace behaviour, we exist in a constant state of alertness that scans the world but never really gives our full attention to anything. In the short term, we adapt well to these demands, but in the long term the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol create a physiological hyper-alert state that is always scanning for stimuli, provoking a sense of addiction temporarily assuaged by checking in.” This is difficult for me but I am trying to keep my distractions to a minimum.

Single tasking

I have taught a terrific class by Franklin Covey called 5 Choices. In that class, I’ve done an exercise where we time everyone task switching from writing the number 1, the letter A, then the Roman Numeral one and then back to the number 2, letter B and Roman Numeral two and so on, up to Roman Numeral ten. When they are then asked to write the list by each category numbers, letters and then Roman Numerals, they cut their time in half. It’s a dramatic example of how task switching slows you down. Multitasking is a myth. We are just slowing ourselves down and getting less done. I am completely guilty of sending a text to answer a colleague in the middle of a meeting or scanning through my emails. But when I focus on the present moment and pay attention, I feel less scattered, more involved in what is happening and much more aware of my surroundings. Try and focus on just one thing.

Look outside

I’m not sure if it’s because the four walls in my house are the same every day and seem to feel like they are closing me in as I cope with working from home, but I have found myself looking outside with increased frequency. My home faces northeast and the sunrise each day is something I have always looked forward to. It may influence why I typically get up at 5AM but I really enjoy the surprise of what kind of sunrise it will be. Will there be clouds, fog or clear skies? Will there be rain or wind? Will there be pinks and orange or just deep blue before the sunlight streams through? I never know but I look forward to that moment. I meditate facing the window to look out at the sunrise and am always surprised that each one is so unique. It changes minute by minute as the colors morph and spread or succumb to the sun. Looking outside gets me to focus on paying attention.

Take notice

Every year, the dynamics of my backyard changes. This year, we have had a contentious battle between three male mallards and one female mallard going on for the past week. The female seems to be mated with what appears to be the middle-aged male. The middle-aged male is constantly running off the younger male if he gets within ten feet of the female. The oldest male by contrast is sitting around napping most of the day oblivious of the fighting between the two younger males but if he walks towards the spot where the female is, the couple flies off. I can get completely caught up in whether they are parents to the younger male or if he is just the pestering younger brother. There is the gymnastic squirrel who is able to access any bird feeder known to man and the stress it causes my poor dog, Baci. There were eight turtles hanging out the other day, bobbing their heads above water. What brought the turtle convention to my backyard that day? There is the regular family of swifts who nest in a drain pipe next to the lake and they always put on a show in the early evening by grabbing insects swooping above the water. This is likely because now I am home all day every day but noticing what is going on has really connected me with the nature around me.

Express gratitude

I put my hummingbird feeder out about a month and a half ago.  It sat vacant for weeks. And weeks. I started googling hummingbird sightings on the east coast and eastern North Carolina seemed sparse. I began to panic that my feeder was clogged up. My boyfriend Roy brought me a new feeder and reported that his mother had plenty of hummingbirds just an hour east of me. I never know what attracts a species to inhabit my backyard or to not. Last year I had a nesting pair of Little Blue Herons and this year they are gone. Three years ago, I had battling hummingbirds dive bombing each other over the feeder. There is a Great Blue Heron who is a constant. They are frequently standing on my lake bank or strutting around my boat slip.  Tall and majestic and glorious in flight. I am so grateful for each sighting.  When I was sitting at my kitchen table yesterday, there it was, the elusive hummingbird scouting out the feeder. A tear came to my eye. They were back. Pay attention but be grateful for what shows up.

Awareness and attention to the natural world helps me escape the heaviness of this pandemic. It is ironic that I find escape in staying at home.  It takes putting aside the myriad of distractions and focusing on the present moment and what is available. What are you paying attention to?

The Silver Lining to a Pandemic

I try to be a glass half full kind of person. Positivity is one of my top 5 strengths. Searching for a silver lining helps me dampen down my anxiety.  I acknowledge that there is an enormous, incalculable, downside to this pandemic. I saw a picture this last week taken in India where people had not been able to see the Himalayas for thirty years and now could. I realized that as bad, uncertain and catastrophic this pandemic is, there is some upside.

 Here are my thoughts on the upside of this pandemic:

Less air pollution:

This has really caused me pause. I live in eastern North Carolina and I never figured that air pollution was really an issue. I must tell you that I’ve noticed that there are more stars at night. I’ve noticed that the sky seems so much bluer. I thought it was an aberration. But if NASA can see the difference from satellites, maybe there was some truth to my observations. As Marina Koren wrote for The Atlantic, “As cities and, in some cases, entire nations weather the pandemic under lockdown, Earth-observing satellites have detected a significant decrease in the concentration of a common air pollutant, nitrogen dioxide, which enters the atmosphere through emissions from cars, trucks, buses, and power plants.” So, step outside at night and look up at the stars. They really are brighter – your eyes aren’t deceiving you.

Changed soundscapes:

I live pretty far from a highway and my home is usually quiet. I typically hear birds chirp and geese honk. I have noticed in the last month that it has been more of a cacophony of avian sounds. As Laura Rawlins wrote for Focus for Health, “Some regions of India can see the Himalayan Mountains for the first time in 30 years, cityscapes are smog-free, and you can find a stream of twitter threads about people asking if birds are chirping louder these days or if that is just the effect of less pollution, noise and the like, in the atmosphere.” Koren wrote, “With so many people staying home—and public-transit agencies cutting service as a result—there’s significantly less noise from cars, buses, trains, and other transportation. Erica Walker, a public-health researcher at Boston University, has taken a decibel meter with her on her socially distance walks, and she has been stunned by the measurements. “It’s a lot quieter,” she told me.” It’s surprising that because cities are quieter, people can finally hear the birds. In my case, I feel like there is a population boom in the variety of birds causing the change in my soundscape.

Kindness:

I’ve noticed an increase in kindness. Last weekend, when my boyfriend Roy and I hiked for the first time in two months, there was a palpable ebullience. Hikers smiled and had a spring in their step. In my neighborhood, the abundance of families and couples taking strolls is evident and everyone is waving hello even if you are a stranger. I’ve had anonymous cars in front of me in a drive-thru pay for my meal. Strangers pull aside in the grocery aisle. Everyone on zoom calls is wishing everyone well as we sign off. As Rawlins wrote, “We can all restore our faith in humanity, because kindness is trending amid COVID-19. There is an abundance of stories of people going out of their way to help. Whether they are getting groceries for their elderly neighbors, sewing masks for medical facilities, or even taking care of a newborn baby when the entire family tests positive for COVID-19, it’s clear that this kindness surge is just as contagious as the virus itself.” I’m grateful for the kindness that bubbles up from this pandemic.

Presence:

I have struggled with all of my plans being on hold. I have felt groundless without a destination to look forward to. I am sad that my one of bucket list items won’t be achieved this year (I wanted to visit Alaska to have been to all 50 states). On the other side of that is an awareness of what is present right now. I have to thank Roy for that. Roy has an appreciation for the moment right now. It’s might be stopping to look at Purple Martins swooping the sky, or admiring countless gaggles of Canadian Geese with their broods of chicks, or noticing a (what seemed like a shark size) carp swimming next to our kayak. Focus on right now. The stars in the sky, the sunrise or sunset, the cup of hot tea, the warmth of the blanket or the tap of the rain outside. Instead of striving to get to my next destination, I can be here right now. Appreciate what is here right now.

A year from now, this may likely all be a memory, or it may not. I just want to try to experience it and pick through the array of changes in my life to find the moments of good. I want to accept the pause and find what is available now. Is there an upside for you in this pandemic?