Some books are long and some are short but we rarely, if ever, get through an entire book in one sitting. So we use bookmarks.
Me? I love to read so I use bookmarks all the time. Problem is, they’re often just slips of paper and sometimes they fall out and sometimes they’re hidden because I’ve wedged them inside the book rather than sticking out of it. At times like these, I find myself cursing as I back-track, trying to find my place, wondering why I wasn’t more careful. Inevitably, I wind up reading sections again. If I haven’t read the book in a while I end up re-reading even more of what I’ve already read and, sadly, this problem is only exacerbated by my aging brainpower.
In spite of being ‘bookmark-challenged’, I continue to use them for the same reason that most people do:
Bookmarks remind us how far we’ve come.
Fortunately, they’re often right where we expect to find them but sometimes they’re not. And whether we lose them outright or we just bury them too deep in the book, it all amounts to the same thing: we begin searching to find anew the place we got to, revisiting the characters we met and the plots twists, wee discoveries, and bombshell epiphanies we had along the way on our first time through.
I’ve often said to my kids: “You’re the author of your own story. All I ask is that you make it a good one -- the right one for you.” Of late, I’ve given some serious thought to adding: “And it’s a-ok to lose your bookmark from time-to-time.” Why? Because there’s nothing wrong with a little searching to remind you how far you’ve come.
Living in the past? Not a great idea I know. I just like to think of one’s personal history as ‘his story’ or ‘her story’ and by understanding our past, we can shape our future. Ralph Waldo Emerson offered the world a great gem when he said that ‘the only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.’ So might we not make better decisions going forward if we lose our ‘personal bookmark’ from time-to-time? Might there not be a really enlightening upside to having to search through our own story’s characters, events, and plot twists to see just how far we’ve come?
In our personal history, as in any story, there will be a number of central characters and a considerable cast of supporting characters. Every single one of these characters (yes, every single one) will contribute, directly and/or indirectly, to how we feel about ourselves, how we feel about others, and how we view the world. Thankfully, some characters will bring out the very best in us but there will be others who come bearing great potential to bring out the worst in us. Some characters will support our view that the world is a place ready to welcome every good, authentic action and intention we bring to it. And yet there will be others who will actively work to thwart a positive world view and seek to replace it with a negative one, one in which the world is unwelcoming and hostile toward us and our intentions.
Likewise, our personal history will include a whole slew of events, experiences, plot twists, and grand epiphanies that shape us. Some of these things we will have worked actively to write into our story, like, for example, the experiences that feed into our hopes and dreams. We don’t own a crystal ball but we often key in on an experience that’s aligned with our hopes and move toward it. Along the way, we will also inevitably encounter events and experiences that catch us blind-sided. At times like these, sometimes we’re pleasantly surprised by our adaptability and resilience and sometimes we feel woe-fully unprepared to confront them, let alone tackle or rise above them.
Getting back to personal bookmarks and the value in losing them from time-to-time….
You are the author of your own story. You know your story better than anyone else. You may not have always understood it but, let’s face it, you lived it. Along the way, life’s demands have likely necessitated stepping away from the main thrust of your story from time-to-time, and ‘putting in a bookmark’ to mark your place. Problem is, these mental bookmarks can be lost or, at the very least, trickier to find when we come back. But instead of stressing over finding where you left off, flip your mindset to the potential upside of just where your search might take you. After all, you just might grow in new and unexpected ways from the whole experience! As Norman Mailer once said: ‘Every moment of one’s existence, one is growing into more, or retreating into less.’
It’s in the moments when we lose our bookmark and have to go searching that we get to revisit the impact that some of our story’s characters and experiences have had on us, positive and negative; they remind us how far we’ve come. Sometimes we’ll feel immensely satisfied with how far we’ve come, and other times, perhaps not so much. Regardless, going back to Emerson’s earlier gem, as we move forward, we decide the person we will become; we hold tremendous power within ourselves to change the main thrust of our story going forward. Doing so is not always fun and easy and sometimes it can take a whole boatload of courage to make the changes we need to make to grow.
We can’t rewrite our past to make our story’s tough times and its tough characters ‘easier to take.’ Our story needed those valleys in it as much as it needed its peaks in order to support our growth in body, mind, and spirit. If we look hard enough, we’ll not only see how much stronger, wiser, and kinder we are precisely because of the adversity we faced, we’ll reach a place where we’re prepared to give thanks for all of it, that is all of the peaks and all the valleys.
Going a bit further on this idea of growing from the valleys, if every time we lose our bookmark we keep coming back to the same character(s) and past experiences with the same malaise and negativity, the universe just might be trying to teach us an important lesson: these characters had their place but perhaps it’s time to make peace and move on. In the brilliant words of Mike Posner: ‘beginnings always hide themselves in ends.’
To me, losing your bookmark can be of the type I’ve described so far – entirely accidental – but it’s worth saying that it can also be a conscious choice, a welcome but serendipitous one, or one born out of what might be considered akin to ‘writer’s block’. Regardless of how it was lost, the story must go on. Best make sure your writing instrument is filled with faith, hope, love, courage, perseverance, resilience, curiosity, and gratitude. And remember the wise words of Abraham Maslow: ‘One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.’
My kids have given me a few flower arrangements through the years that have come in square glass containers. I decided to try turning a couple of them into decorative 'Fairy-Light Gift Boxes' this year. It's actually super-simple. You get some battery-operated fairy lights, randomly coil the fairy lights inside the container (leaving the cord and the battery pack outside for easy 'on/off' access for the lights), turn the glass container upside down (so what was originally the bottom of the container is now the top of the 'gift'), and wrap some semi-transparent ribbon around the container, finishing with a bow on top. It could work on any square or rectangular glass floral container.
Holidays have a lot to do with expectations. Yours. Mine. His. Hers. Theirs. (The list goes on.)
Some are big. Some are small. Some are (thankfully!) straightforward. But alas, there’s no denying that there are some that are next-level complex, as in buckle-up, baby, here’s your handy-dandy ‘yes/no/if/then’ decision-making protocol.
Some expectations are left unspoken. Some are thrown out there and met with ‘Yup. Got it.’, while others are met with confusion and a ‘Wait. What?’ There will always be some that raise eyebrows. And, not surprisingly, there will be some that are met with a hearty ‘h*ll no!’
Expectations met? Right on. Expectations exceeded? Brilliant!
But fall short? THAT can be painful.
But it doesn’t have to be.
It all comes down to mindset.
Being human means having expectations. We can’t have beliefs and past experiences and not come to expect things. From life. From ourselves. From other people. These expectations impact not only how we see the world but how we react when we’re met with that enthusiastic ‘Yup. Got it.’ or an indignant ‘H*ll no!’
We can profess to love one another to the moon and back and even still our expectations are never going to let us see eye-to-eye 100% of the time. And – true story -- nor would we want to.
Now before you get all ‘But can’t we all just get along?’, let me tell you straight up that conflict in relationships is not only normal and inevitable, it’s essential. After all, we’re generally hoping to have relationships that go the distance and in a healthy way and we’ll never get there if responsibility for getting along falls squarely on the shoulders of one individual. So conflicts arise and they (hopefully) give way to healthy conflict resolution, which, by the way, is a lot like dancing the tango: it takes two.
But rather than talking ‘conflict resolution strategies for the holidays’, let me offer up some humble words of advice – one girlfriend to another – on some of the things about expectations that mess with feeling a little peace on earth this holiday season.
1. Perfection is over-rated: being your best on your worst day is where it's at.
Expecting perfection of yourself and others usually leads to a whole lot of heartache and conflict. Cut yourself and others some slack. The meal, the dessert, the décor, what you’re wearing, what the kids are wearing (the list can go on and on and on) – obsessing over these things throws a big, wet blanket over the very essence of the holiday season: JOY!
Please hear me now like I’m shouting it from the rooftop: people tend to forget a lot of stuff but they tend not to forget the way another person makes them feel. Nobody likes to feel like they’ll never measure up. Not me. Not you. No one. And nobody likes to feel like the person right in front of them is not really present because they’re fussing over things that no one will remember a year from now, let alone 10 years from now.
You may not be perfect but no one’s perfect and guess what, girlfriend? You’re doing just fine.
2. Expect the unexpected: you don’t own a crystal ball.
It may not be a full-on, close-encounter with Murphy’s Law but, girlfriend, sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you plan (and plan and plan), the universe has other plans for you. At times like these, when faced with the choice of giving up or going on, look for the silver-lining (because if you look hard enough you’ll usually find one), call in the reinforcements (because there’s no shame in getting by with a little help from our friends), and fast-forward to laughter as soon as you possibly can. Dolly Parton’s ‘Truvey Jones’ in Steel Magnolias hit the nail on the head when she said: ‘Laughter through tears is my favourite emotion!’ Be like Truvey.
3. Sometimes you hang on and sometimes you let go: it’s about balance.
How many times have we all heard don’t sweat the small stuff and, at some level, we buy into it. And then the holidays hit and we forget. And we sweat. Profusely. Over small stuff. The stuff we wouldn’t sweat over at virtually any other time of year. We forget how to ‘pick our battles’ and everything (well, maybe not everything, but a lot of stuff) becomes a battle. Problem is that, more often than not, battles result in someone feeling like ‘the winner’ and someone else feeling like ‘the loser’. And, when, I ask you, were the holidays ever supposed to be about winners and losers?
I’m not saying for one minute that we should all cave to the will of others in the interest of bringing peace to the holidays. What I’m saying is that we’d do well to remember that life is about finding the right balance between hanging on and letting go. We suffer when we hang on to EVERYTHING we think or feel should happen and, not surprisingly, we suffer even more when we hang onto everything 24/7 that we think or feel should happen. The same is true of letting go. It’s about balance.
So, girlfriend, hang on to the thoughts and feelings that really truly matter to you at your very core and let go of everything else that doesn’t.
4. Give for no other reason than because you can.
So many things in life are transactional: I pay you what you expect to receive for an apple and, in return, you give me the apple. It’s a simple example but it highlights an important point: we like it when we come across well-defined expectations of what we’ll get for what we give.
(Indulge me please. I’m going to get a little cerebral here.)
What if we gave the apple and didn’t expect anything in return? What would happen then?
Because we’ve given the apple freely, we don’t have to be concerned about counting the money, making change, or where to put the money. We’ve removed the distractions that draw our attention away from what’s going on right in front of us: the person’s enjoyment of the apple. Maybe they were expecting it, maybe not. Maybe apples are their favourite fruit, maybe not. But what if this apple we gave is all they ever wanted? Go ahead and give it a think. How ‘bout them apples???
Aesop had it right when he said: “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” But when these acts are unleashed on the universe without expecting anything in return, girlfriend, that’s when the magic really happens -- for the receiver AND the giver.
So there you have it: a few humble words of advice – one girlfriend to another -- on how to keep your head on straight about holiday expectations.
There are going to be some expectations you stop and some you start and some you continue but whatever you do, just remember the best expectations to hold onto are the ones that leave you (and those you love) laughing harder, loving more, and feeling lifted.
So from me to you: Happy Holidays!!! (And girlfriend…expectations/shmeckspectations…keep your chin up! You’ve got this.)
The more the better. Go big or go home. Two of my workout mantras.
If I can do something that safely and properly works out more muscles or more muscle groups at one time, then why wouldn’t I? Makes sense – right?
Common sense tells me to look for workout efficiencies. After all, the party I’m hoping the happy endorphins will have in my head is the end goal and if I can get there safely and with proper form but quicker, why wouldn’t I?
If you’re buyin’ what I’m sellin’, then my advice to you is simple: smile more.
You heard me. Smile more.
While there’s tons of discussion out there about the muscles involved in smiling and frowning and what constitutes a smile versus a frown, scientists generally agree that if you boil it down, a smile that only raises the corners of the lips and the upper lip a bit uses 10 muscles, whereas a simple frown uses six.
So going back to my workout efficiency argument, this is a 67% difference in workout efficiency in smiling versus frowning! The workout warrior in me can’t help but smile at the thought.
Likewise, scientists estimate that it takes about 30 muscles to laugh, as opposed to about 20 to stick your tongue out. That’s a 50% difference in workout efficiency and I think we can all agree that we’d rather cut to the chase and let loose the happy endorphins that go with laughter than potentially forego the experience entirely. (Having said this, I will concede that a tongue stuck out ‘tongue in cheek’ generally results in laughter on all sides so there are obvious exceptions to the rule. Lol.)
Smiling sends important messages to the brain that have the potential to change the way we feel and behave.
Years ago, in one call centre’s quest to improve the quality of their customer service, a consultant advised them to put mirrors in front of all of their representatives. The supervisors got on board with the idea (after all, it was their job to promote quality service to their customers) but none of them could have anticipated the win-win that came from this simple change: customers reported greater levels of satisfaction and employees reported less mental fatigue, more happiness, and greater job satisfaction.
Wow! Great news! But why?
The mirror provided the customer service representative’s brain with information on how they were feeling about the general ‘good or bad’ tenor of the conversations they were having. When conversations were going well, the representatives smiled more and these smiles were captured in the mirror, sending positive vibes to the brain. These vibes led to feelings of contentment, which promoted access to important service-oriented problem-solving channels in the brain. If the conversation was not going well and the representative was feeling discouraged, the mirror cued them into their frowns and the associated negativity, prompting them to want to change their reflection to a more positive (smiling) one. In short, the mirror provided the catalyst needed to break the negative cycle and allow more positivity to enter into their personal experience and that of the customer. That’s a win-win if ever there was one.
So smiling sends important, positive messages to our brain. Got it. But (there’s always a but), it doesn’t end there. For better or worse, smiling also sends important messages to others about us.
Social scientists have found that smiling and frowning leave impressions on others that are universal across cultures. Smiling is associated with friendliness, while frowning is associated with sadness and disapproval. For better or worse, others view our smiles and frowns as indicative of our emotional state, mental wellbeing, health, and credibility. From there, it tends to pan out along the lines of that old English proverb you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. People naturally gravitate to happy, smiling people. Simply put, a smile really is the shortest distance between two people.
Don’t want to smile because you don’t care what others think? Fair enough. Don’t do it for them. Do it for you!
Make a conscious effort to smile more and your own personal feelings of happiness and wellbeing will increase. What’s more, according to one Chinese proverb, every smile makes you a day younger. So we’re actually talking about increased feelings of happiness and wellbeing AND a little ticket to the fountain of youth? You bet you can sign me up to smile more!
Now, please don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying plastering a smile on your face when you’re crying on the inside should be your new modus operandi. It’s simply not possible to smile 100% of the time. Life’s not like that. But if your thoughts are broken and smiles become increasingly hard to come by, reach out. Please. If you had a broken arm, you wouldn’t just live with it, you’d reach out. Broken thoughts are no different. Reach out. Mental health is health.
In the end, I guess what I want to offer up is the idea that there’s a HUGE upside to smiling more often, both for our own personal happiness and wellbeing but also for the relationships we seek to establish with others. Go ahead and make a conscious decision to smile more often and see what happens. If smiles really are contagious, this could be the start of something pretty amazing. No. Something pretty AWESOME!
Don’t borrow trouble -- three simple words strung together to make a statement that, on the surface, is relatively easy to understand. But living by them? Well, that’s an entirely different story.
Growing up, I can recall my Mom telling me (and on more than one occasion) that no good would come from borrowing trouble. She knew me and still knows me so very well. I’m naturally an anxious sort. Some might even say I’m queen of the what ifs.
I appreciate it when situations and circumstances that will impact me offer a window of opportunity (and it doesn’t have to be a big window at all) whereby I can exert some control and actively work to shape my destiny. Coming up with what if scenarios is my brain’s processing ‘go to’, and the loops it puts out have been known to drive me rather bat sh*t crazy.
Ahh….self awareness is a beautiful thing.
I mention the beauty I find in self awareness of my natural propensity toward anxiety partly to bring some levity to the whole vibe around my experience – humour is a fantastic and well-documented moderator of stress -- but mostly to make the point that knowing what you’re up against can be half (or more than half) the battle. Please don’t misunderstand me; anxiety is a serious issue and I have seen firsthand how its effects vary from individual to individual, spanning the gamut from a person being a bit hesitant in new situations to someone being completely paralyzed at the thought of leaving their house. Anxiety is very real and to brush it off in any way is not cool. I simply choose to see elements of humour in my own personal anxiety experience. It may not help everyone to do so but it helps me, so I’m throwing it out there.
Funny thing about anxiety is that the messages keep coming, like the one right now that’s telling me to digress and indicate quite clearly my view on mental health, lest someone think I’m flippant when it comes to its importance. Mental health is health and mental health matters. Period. It’s so important and yet we’re so quick to dismiss it because there’s so much we can’t see about how a person’s thoughts are connected. I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it until the day I die: if your arm was broken, you wouldn’t sit there and live with it – you’d reach out for help – why do we not act the same when our thoughts are broken? Reach out. You matter. The world needs you to be your very best you and it’s not about perfection. Oh no, my friend! Perfection is totally overrated; being your best on your worst day is where it’s at.
Getting back to the idea of not borrowing trouble and my mind’s natural inclination toward what if, I feel the need to share a recent personal victory on this front, courtesy of some Devil’s Advocate self-talk I decided to try.
I’m a 50 year old woman who watches what she eats (more often than not) and appreciates the value of the party that the happy endorphins have in my brain after some physical activity. Until recently, if you asked me if I had any physical health concerns, I would have told you ‘no’, other than perhaps losing a few pounds. I really have been blessed with good health for many years. So imagine my surprise when a routine mammogram revealed a “suspicious result”, necessitating a recall ‘magnification view’ mammogram and ultrasound. I was beside myself.
I immediately went to my iPad and scoured various sites for rates of false-positives, and was met with all manner of findings on pre-menopausal and post-menopausal rates and a deluge of information on the impact of having dense breast tissue on mammogram detection rates. I knew I was post-menopausal and that the only mammogram baseline they had to work from was a pre-menopausal one but did I have dense breasts? Hell if I knew! I had never heard of this and, thus, had no idea to ask, but that’s beside the point; I was already borrowing trouble. The what if processing loop had already gained some traction.
Hindsight being what it is, please listen to me when I say emphatically DO NOT go to the internet for health information when faced with news you weren’t expecting. Talk to your doctor directly. If he or she is suggesting follow-up testing, ask questions. If he/she won’t answer them, ask a different doctor. Most of all, believe them if they tell you that they’re just being cautious and don’t borrow trouble. Doctors, while human, swore an oath first to do no harm, and remember also that malpractice insurers don’t take kindly to their insureds brushing off unusual findings that can easily be investigated further.
But, as I was saying, I looked at the net and the what if scenarios were being generated with great speed. What I needed was something to throw a wrench in the generator and that’s when my Mom’s wise advice surfaced from the memories of my youth and moved to the forefront of my thinking: don’t borrow trouble. No question. I was, indeed, borrowing trouble.
As I meditated on the idea of not borrowing trouble, my mind drifted toward the whole Devil’s Advocate strategy that I had used so successfully throughout my career to flesh out thoughts, ideas, and strategies, and in that moment, it hit me like a freight train: what if this IS nothing? What if the doctors ARE just being cautious? What will I have gained by worrying? Nothing. Not one d*mn thing. What will I have lost? Joy. Any chance of experiencing joy while I’m waiting to find out the results would be stolen from me because time has this habit of marching on, meaning there’s zero chance of going back and asking for a do-over if I learn that it is, indeed, nothing.
By the way, the magnification view mammogram and ultrasound revealed three “unusual spots”, necessitating a biopsy, which I will have in the coming week. And once again, my doctor has told me that they need to be cautious and it could still be nothing so I’ve decided to run with the idea of not borrowing trouble. I’ve made the Devil’s Advocate my new (almost) best friend. I don’t want to miss one minute of the joy that’s right in front of me: my husband’s devotion to our family and his super-whacky wit, my son’s success in the employment law class he was dreading and his ability to balance school and his part-time job at the bank, my daughter’s phone calls and SnapChat stories, chronicling her adventures and personal victories in her first year at university. Nor do I want to miss the joy I find in my writing, walks and cuddles with my two fur-babies, lunches with my best friend, Monika, who kicked breast cancer to the curb a few years ago and has a wonderful habit of calling me out regularly for borrowing trouble, and the gab sessions I have with family and friends across the miles who regularly fill my loving cup to overflowing. There’s so much joy out there for me. I am, indeed, tremendously blessed. Why would I ever choose borrowing trouble over experiencing joy?
For me, life is about having no regrets, only lessons learned. This lesson was a good one.
Editor's Note: Some of these brilliant words, author unknown, have seemingly
been circulating for an unknown time. Penny added her contributions.
Perhaps the next reader will do the same.
The heart-breaking, gut-wrenching devastation that came in the wake of 9/11 will be felt by many for many, many years to come. So much loss of life. So much loss of potential. All of it gone seemingly in an instant. The stories of loved ones lost and heroes who sacrificed their lives to help others, losing their own lives in the process, hit us all like a freight train, leaving us shattered and grasping for answers to the question of how humans could ever decide to take willful and direct aim at so many innocent people and think it would further their cause? I don’t have answers. There are bits of insight here and there but, on the whole, it mystifies me still.
What I do know is that I choose love over hate. You may say that it’s easy for me to invoke this platitude from my comfy chair in Canada, one of the most peaceful nations there is. You may even say as it relates to 9/11 ‘what do you know? You weren’t there that fateful day. You didn’t lose someone you loved.’ But I wasn’t and I didn’t only because of a ‘hiring freeze’ (you know those instances when HR slams the breaks hard on hiring). If not for whoever it was in HR at Oppenheimer who made the decision in 1998 to put the brakes on hiring, Rob would have been there. I would have likely been in Queens where we thought we’d get a place. I would have been at home with a 3 year-old and an 18 month-old but he would have been at World Financial Centre, right in the thick of it.
Each year on 9/11, I wonder ‘would he have made it out?’ We’ll never know because he wasn’t there. But if he had been, I know in my heart that as much as he loved us, he would have been one of the heroes who helped others first. That’s just who he is. It’s one of the many reasons that I love him.
Like I said before, I choose love over hate. The Beatles’ 'All you need is love' and John Lennon’s 'Imagine' are great reminders of the power of love, kindness, and understanding to transform our world. I would argue that one of our greatest human needs is to be understood. You understand me. I understand you. Now we can get somewhere. Understanding comes with patience. Understanding comes with kindness. Understanding comes with love. And what’s the biggest barrier to understanding (in my opinion)? It’s simple: hate. That is why I choose love over hate; I believe in our human potential to love, be kind, and seek understanding.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but (I hope) I’m not the only one. Peace and harmony are waiting for us. We know what we need to do. Now, like Nike, we need to ‘just do it’.
Remembering with abiding love, all of those, near and far, who felt and continue to feel the weight of 9/11 and feeling forever thankful that our little family was spared the loss of someone we love very much.
Penny has a degree in social and developmental psychology and has devoted her career to programming for kids of all ages in the fields of physical and intellectual literacy. This dedicated fitness enthusiast and involved mom of two university students lives in Oakville with Rob, a great guy with whom she'll soon be celebrating their 25th anniversary in 2019.