A Virtual Book Club - What are YOU reading?!

Tag: self improvement

Some Of Us Need A Step Stool To Get There

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Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash

Tom Hanks wrote a book. Did you know that? I didn’t. I found “Uncommon Type” at Barnes & Noble a while back and picked it up. My first thought was, “Tom Hanks can’t write a book! He’s an actor. Just because you’re an actor and famous (and awesome) doesn’t give you the right to put your name on a book.” I scowled at it. Maybe it’s not THAT Tom Hanks but an author thinking he’ll cash in on people thinking it’s the actor Tom Hanks and buying it because…well…because Tom Hanks the actor is pretty impressive, his book would be impressive too. I wasn’t so sure. I flipped through, looked at the back, yep, there’s his picture. Interesting. “I’ll buy it but it better be good or I’m going to blog about it!”

Yes. This is exactly what went through my mind as I discovered the book and added it to my pile to read that I really didn’t need more of that day but…BOOKS!

Guess what? It’s awesome. I loved every one of the short stories I found inside. Some were more endearing than others. Some made me cry. Some made me smile. I closed it a little sad that it was over. I hope he writes more.

The book got me thinking in a couple of ways. First of all, I thought the stories were wonderful. As a writer, they inspired me. They are good stories that filled me with hope. “I could write stories like that someday,” I thought. Tom Hanks had his published because he, and the publishers, used his name. He has a built-in audience (one he has built himself with his skills as an actor) that’s sure to buy it. And that is awesome. That was my second thought. Step stools to get to the next level are not illegal or immoral. We use them all the time and we should.


I’m the shortest person in my house these days and there’s a step stool in my kitchen that I use just about every day. I got it when I moved into my first apartment. When I see it sitting there, in the corner of my office, I’m reminded of that apartment.

It was a studio apartment right next to Disneyland. My parents were not happy about the area I had chosen to live in, but it was what I could afford on my own, it was close to work, and I was determined to make it on my own. In my eyes, it was perfect. An older building with built-in cabinets in the bathroom, hallway, and kitchen. Up on the second floor of the building, it had a big front window that I could sit in and watch the fireworks from.

The front door had a slatted glass window in it, making it look like you were entering the laundry room and not another apartment. It opened to a long hallway that spilled into a large living room with a bedroom nook set in the corner. To the right from there was an old 50’s style kitchen with beautiful original cabinets and Formica countertops. The two-burner gas stove and oven had to be lit with matches that I kept in a magnet box stuck to the old refrigerator that came with the apartment. Between the living room and kitchen areas, was a short hallway that led to the bathroom, a pink and white enamel tiled masterpiece! The hallway had a built-in dresser at one end with a rusting mirror over the top of it. The moment I saw the place, I knew it was mine.

The only trouble I had was that everything was built so high up. The ceiling was probably nine feet high and the cabinets in the kitchen and hallway were built right up to it. I’m not “short” but at 5’ 5” I was going to need a step stool if I was going to be able to use all the storage space. I needed those upper cabinets. At 20 years old, I still had a lot of my teenage stuff and I was starting to build up my own set of holiday decorations just like my parents and my grandparents.

I made a point to stop at Kmart on the way home from work one day to pick one up and found the perfect thing. It was only one step, all I really needed, and the top opened to reveal a toolbox inside. Small, heavy, strong, and sturdy…kinda like me! I took it home that day and I’ve had it ever since. I’m 46 now. I chose well.

That step stool/toolbox now sits in the corner of my office, still filled with my own personal set of tools. A hammer, a screwdriver, hex wrenches, electrical tape, etc. In a house full of boys and men, it has always been nice to have my own set of tools that I didn’t have to search the garage for. They were kept sacred in my office for times when I just needed a small hammer to hang a picture or a wrench to tighten up a chair. And it always reminded me of my first apartment and my independent, single days.

Michelle! Why are you going on about a step stool?!

Hold on! I’m getting there.

Everyone is entitled to use a step stool in life to get to that thing that is just out of your reach. The key here is the active word “use”. It doesn’t matter really where you get the step stool, just that you do something with it. Some people are given one as a gift. They are born with it or their parents helped them. Some have to scramble and scratch to make one out of anything they can find. Some can buy one and some borrow. But no one is entitled to give you one. In fact, if you get one yourself, you’ll probably be better off in the long run.

Standing there complaining that you don’t have one, that you’re too short to reach, and waiting for someone to help you is a waste of your precious time and everyone else’s. You have important things to do in this life. You have particular talents that need to be expressed. If you can’t reach, get a step stool. If you can’t get one, build one. Don’t just stand there doing without that stuff on the top shelf. Don’t cheat yourself!

Learning to Understand and Accept Change

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Photo by Ramiro Martinez on Unsplash

There is something important that I’ve recently learned to understand and accept. Things change. And they don’t always change permanently. Analogies about the cycles of the moon have become cliché but maybe there’s something to it after all.

I never really noticed the changes in the moon until I moved to the rural desert. The living room of our desert home is mostly windows, which makes the moon-rise, and the sunrise for that matter, very visible. Through our mostly uncovered windows, it’s obvious that the sun and moon rise and set each day more and more to the north and south as the earth wobbles on its axis. It’s amazing to watch and makes one see very clearly why ancient people might worship this cycle. It’s very comforting.

While the sun takes its sweet time moving across the sky, the seasons change day by day, week by week, the moon gives us a whole different feeling. To me, the sun is the big picture, the whole life, but the moon is our daily struggle. She rushes across the night, coming up at different times of the day or night, in different shapes and sizes. Her cycles are quicker and more dramatic than the sun’s. One week she comes up at sunset full of herself. The next week she’s late and half-dressed. Sometimes she comes up a shell of her usual self, right in the middle of the day. Some days we can’t see her at all. And yet, no one stresses about it. No one thinks, “Oh shit! The moon! Something has upset her. We have to fix it!” We just wait, because we know she’ll be back if we leave her to her own devices.

And the moon? I don’t see her as caring much about what the sun is up to, or the earth, or us. She just does her thing and we love her for it.

What if we were more like that? What if we became more aware of our own cycles and simply accepted them? What if we understood other people will have different cycles that have nothing to do with us, and accepted them right where they are?

And why is it that we think that we must live in a straight line or a climbing staircase? These analogies cause us to believe that if we fall to the left or right of the line or reach the end of a set of stairs with no way to go up farther, we fail. We look at our relationships with the world around us as if they can only escalate or die, reach the next level or die off.

For me seems to be more of a cycle that comes around again and again, sometimes with the same person, sometimes with a different person, with any type of relationship. Whether we’re talking about a romantic relationship, a platonic friendship, a sexual relationship, or a parent, child, or sibling, etc., makes no difference. All relationships cycle through and around and back, spiraling up, down, or laterally. Even the relationship we have with ourselves.

My relationship with myself is complicated. There are days and weeks that I feel like she’s doing a fine job of all the things I expect of her. I’m proud of her accomplishments, her strength. She’s a good, responsible friend to have. And then, even though she has not changed one bit in reality, my feelings toward her change. She forgot something I wanted her to remember or took a day off from responsibility to play. I blame her for everything that has gone wrong with our life. In time, again though she’s not changed at all, I begin to fall in love with her. She’s sexy and confident and I want to be close to her, to spend time alone with her. Then it’s gone again, she’s just another woman in my way and I long to break free. Days later, there she is again impressing me with her strength and brilliance. And we’re coming around on the cycle again.

In every relationship we have, each time we go around this cycle we learn more about each other. With every successful ebb and flow of the tide of emotions, we learn to trust each other more. What constitutes “successful?” We don’t walk away from the relationship and we don’t throw hurtful words or actions at each other to make the other do or act the way we want them to only to make us feel better. Success is loving the other unconditionally, regardless of our feelings at the moment.

The more I come to understand that how I feel is not necessarily a reflection of anyone else’s behavior, but merely a season or phase of the moon, the stronger my relationships grow. Every time I learn again that the cycle will return, that every feeling is temporary, the stronger that cycle turns into a spiral ascending into the sky.

Pretty “out there” isn’t it? It’s the truth though. You won’t always be happy. You won’t always be sad. No one needs to be fixed. No one needs to be set straight. It all just is. Accept it. Be in it. And wait for the moon to cycle back again.

A Grocery Clerk Can Change Your Outlook

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Photo by Arren Mills on Unsplash

“You have an interesting accent. Where are you from?” A conversation begins, enthusiastic exchanges, small family history tidbits, a flash of red hair and she’s gone.

Jogging up to an elderly man in a mobility cart, “Can I help you out with that, sir?” He looks at her abruptly, as if he needs the help, but softens, and smiles, “Sure, honey.” “You drive out and I’ll drive her back!” she chirps as she follows him out to the parking lot.

By the time it’s my turn at the register, she has returned. Grabbing groceries and putting them into reusable bags, she comments “Oh, I love these! So good!” I smile and laugh.

Does this woman have anything negative to say, ever? With all that energy, all those smiles, you’d think she were nineteen years old, the world before her, but she’s not. She looks to be about thirty, young but not a baby anymore, old enough to be worn down a bit like many of my neighbors. I wonder if she goes home from her shift at the grocery store happy and humming along, or does she collapse onto her couch in exhaustion. Is this her natural state, or is she putting on a show? All I know is that it is impossible to be sad or grumpy around her. I’ve seen a few people try and fail.

As she finishes up and runs to the next check stand to bag more groceries, I make a comment completely outside my own comfort zone. I feel compelled by her enthusiasm to speak up. “I just can’t help but smile and leave here in a better mood than the one I came in with when she’s here.”

The checker agrees, “Who? Joi? She’s amazing. We can’t help but be happy around her either. Feels like we’ll let her down if we do. You should tell our manager that! Oh, wait. He’s right here.” We stand and chat for a few seconds. It seems everyone that meets her, loves her. It must be nice.

As I’m heading out the door, she comes walking back in the store. I hear, “Hot out there?” It’s over 100 degrees in the desert parking lot. “It is!” she smiles, “but the wind is blowing nicely so it isn’t bad at all!”

I smile thinking about her as I start putting my groceries in the truck. And there she is again, chatting with an older woman, pushing her cart to her car.

Groceries loaded carefully in the back seat so that they don’t go sliding off the minute I turn a corner, I hope, cart returned to the corral, I climb in the front seat and start the truck. As it idles and the air-conditioning starts to cool off the interior, I take a deep breath and relax for just a moment, thinking about Joi and the joy she apparently carries.

It’s been a difficult day, not for any reason other than a bad mood, a dark cloud I just can’t seem to get out from under. It isn’t like anything is wrong, no crisis looms, it’s just…sadness. Watching her interact with the people around her, I feel chastised. Why can’t I be more like her? In a lot of ways, I am. I don’t usually tend toward the negative. I am generally good natured. But there is one thing very different, she’s not afraid to talk to people.

Several times, on this grocery trip and others, I’ve seen her notice and compliment people. She compliments the things people are wearing, shares her love of the things they buy, or asks where people are from. I notice those things, but I rarely engage people. Why? Because I’m afraid. What if I say the wrong thing? What if they don’t want to talk to me? I smile politely and nod to people, keeping even my positive comments and compliments, my joy, to myself.

Remembering the checker and the store manager’s reaction to Joi’s enthusiasm and openness, I straighten up in the front seat and resolve to be more like her from this moment on. Her honest love of people is infectious.

Shifting into gear, I remember…crud…I have a package to pick up at the post office. Should I get the groceries home before the milk spoils and then come back into town for the mail? Nah, I’m sure it will only add a minute to the drive home and I’ll save the gas of the extra drive.

I pull into the post office parking lot and run inside. Perfect. Next in line. While I wait a woman walks in behind me. The first thing I notice is the beautiful scarf over her head and around her neck. It reminds me of an Arabian princess, a flowing silk thing to keep the sun off her head. Now’s my chance to say something kind. On second glance, she is small and frail, her head is shaved close, and I hesitate. What if she doesn’t want that kind of attention? What if she thinks I’m weird for making such a comment about a stranger? I stay silent, get my package and leave.

 

And The Stars To Guide Me

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Photo by Wil Stewart on Unsplash

“However much we may admire the orator’s occasional bursts of eloquence, the noblest written words are commonly far behind or above the fleeting spoken language as the firmament with its stars is behind the clouds. There are the stars, and they who can may read them. The astronomers forever comment on and observe them. They are not exhalations like our daily colloquies and vaporous breath. What is called eloquence in the forum is commonly found to be rhetoric in the study. The orator yields to the inspiration of the transient occasion, and speaks to the mob before him, to those who can hear him; but the writer, whose more equable life is his occasion, and who would be distracted by the event and the crowd which inspire the orator, speaks to the intellect and heart of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him.”
From Walden by Henry David Thoreau

This. Wow. This morning, sitting there with my book, distracted like a squirrel by anything that moves or makes a sound, I read this.

I wasn’t enjoying Walden very much until this chapter, Reading. And then I almost cried. He spoke to my soul with this chapter, from 100 years in the past. And that’s exactly what he was trying to say.

How can we relate old written words to our current tech-filled, fast paced life? Read this book and you’ll know. He writes of the telegraph, the train, newspapers, and city life as we would of social media, world travel, mainstream media news, and city life. Ha! And his point still stands.

Do we really have that much to do? Are we overwhelming ourselves and forgetting what it’s like to be human? Are we so filled with “business” that we lose site of the real point of our lives?

This morning, I got up from my reading to make breakfast as I usually do and thought, I should go back to eating better. I haven’t been feeling as healthy as I should the past few weeks and I know it’s mainly because I’ve been skipping a good breakfast and starting my days with coffee and toast or cereal. I walked into the kitchen, opened the fridge, and looked at the vegetables, eggs, cheese, that I had bought the day before.

“I don’t have time to cut up veggies and then make eggs.”

I don’t have time? Why? Because I have so many pressing responsibilities? Because I have to be at work? Because I have babies to feed and love? No. I don’t have time because I want to get back to the distraction of scrolling through social media feeds. I’ve lost track of my priorities.

I’m not condemning social media, fun, or friendships. I’m not saying sell all your possessions, quit your job and live off the land. I’m saying make time for what you really want. And to do that we have to start with knowing exactly what it is we want.

For me, that means deliberately setting everything else aside for a while and going back to basics, maybe even spending some serious time in solitude, to reflect and refocus. When I’m quiet and undisturbed from the outside, my mind begins to settle down and the real thinking begins.

I need to go back to my stars and stop looking at the clouds for direction.

Personal Narratives Can Change

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Photo by Liana Mikah on Unsplash

We all have stories about how things are supposed to work out. We get them from our parents, our extended family, friends, education, entertainment, everywhere. The trouble is, they aren’t always true, or at least they aren’t true for everyone. What happens when we run into a reality that conflicts with our established narratives? Motion sickness.

I’ve always been very susceptible to motion sickness. I was the kid in the back seat of the VW bug complaining that it was too hot and turning green on the way to the grocery store. I was the one that had to sit in the front seat with the AC on in my face. I’m the one using every trick in the book, from deep breathing to focusing intently on the road ahead, to keep from having to pull over and rest on the way to anything. And not just on mountain roads! I can get sick just driving down the freeway if someone asks me to look at the map!

Motion sickness is said to be caused by a conflict between your eyes and your ears. Your eyes tell your brain that you are still, but your inner ear says that you are moving. Conflicting information causes your body to rebel and become nauseous. I’m not sure what evolutionary help this is, but it does cause someone like me to reflect on the bigger picture.

As we grow we all create these personal narratives. They make it easier and more streamlined to deal with all of life. This works like this. He acts like this. This relationship works this way. We don’t need to think about those things as much. We put them in the back of our head and work on the new things.

But what if the story we’ve built in our heads about how things are supposed to go doesn’t match the reality of the situation we are currently in? Anxiety, anger, depression, that nauseous feeling that something is horribly wrong!

Just like when I start to get motion sickness, it’s time to focus on the reality and take some deep breaths because things are about to change. It’s what I have learned to call a “growth point,” the place in my life that I learn something new, my world is about it become bigger. It can be so scary though. What if reality isn’t nearly as good as my fantasy? Then again…how can one live in a fantasy permanently? Life, no matter how complicated, is much easier to deal with when we accept the reality, or at least as close as we can come to it.

Change is unavoidable. How we deal with those changes is what makes the difference in our lives.

Do we hold on to what we believed to be true and ignore reality? Do we get angry and blame the people around us for letting us down? Do we walk away from situations, people, environments when they fail to meet our expectations? It doesn’t seem very productive. If we keep searching for the world that matches our narratives as we know them, we may never find it. We may just keep walking away from the very people and places that are offering us the opportunity to grow into something better.

What else can I do? I could stop, take a deep breath, and make some space for my feelings first. Things are changing, something is different. What is it and how can I see it more clearly? I could ask some questions. Is this person or situation failing me, deliberately hurting me, or causing me some kind of trouble? Or are they only doing what they have always done, doing what’s best for them at the moment? Will it really hurt me? Is it really wrong? Looking at the situation or person with an open heart helps. I want to understand.

What seems to help is talking to a special someone, someone that is as open to change as I am, someone that has no stake in the game. That person is hard to find and changes according to the situation. I’m not really looking for advice what I talk. I’m only looking for feedback, someone that will ask questions from a different point of view and is willing to go down some crazy rabbit holes with me. Talking to the wrong person can make my situation infinitely worse. I’ve learned to be very selective.

When I lack another human to speak with, I write. And I write a lot. I write whatever comes to mind, even the meanest and nastiest thoughts. Writing out the hurt and the angry words, the words sparked by fear and mistrust, seems to release them into the void and make space for clearer thinking. Once my narrative is out on paper alongside of the potential for change, I feel like I can think more logically. I come back to that same writing the next day and walk away feeling stronger and ready to embrace change, only to come screaming back to scrawl on the walls of my paper cave over and over again.

I talk to myself on the pages. I fight and scold and lecture, I listen and give myself feedback. Lord, I hope no one reads that stuff some day and has me committed! Some of it strongly resembles the raving of a very sick person. But maybe that’s the reality of it. At moment, I am sick. What my eyes see and what my inner ear feels doesn’t match, and my mind is reacting violently. But I know from experience, the feeling is only temporary. Focus and adjust, take a rest from the effort, and try again. It’s the only way to grow.

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