Archive for September 2008

Six Steps to Optimism: Day 2

September 30, 2008

“Pessimism leads to weakness, optimism to power.”—William James

It might seem like there is a big divide between pessimism and optimism. Often, they’re polar opposites. We’ve all heard the “glass half-empty, glass half-full” analogy before, or “seeing things in black and white,” or any number of other metaphors for the two viewpoints.

But as far apart as they seem, shifting one’s perspective from one to the other begins with a seemingly incremental shift. We have to change our thinking so that, instead of perceiving life as something that happens “to” us, we understand it as something that is “in” us.

Instead of thinking, “I have to work hard to get over this challenge,” we have the attitude that “I’m going to learn something by going through this”.

Pessimists see themselves as victims of circumstance. All is beyond their control. They are acted upon by outside forces. They are always reacting.

Optimists, by turn, see themselves as creative forces in their own existence. They take responsibility for their decisions and own them, and they live by action and interaction, but never confuse interacting with other people with mindlessly reacting to them.

Pessimism is a way of thought that so conditions the individual to feel powerless in the face of his or her own life that he or she gradually loses any ambition to change.

By putting the power to choose in the hands and heart of the individual, optimism fosters strength, encourages the cultivation of personal power and resolve, and propels us on an upward path.

If you think this is just idle talk, start talking to people. If you ask them about their lives and dreams and really listen to their responses, you’ll be able to sort out the optimists from the pessimists, of course, but you’ll also be able to tell who has the capacity to change from the latter group to the former.

Anyone who sees their current situation, no matter how dire, as a stepping stone and a necessary component on their path to realizing their personal dream is an optimist. This knowledge isn’t always immediate. The death of a loved one, the loss of a home, the disintegration of health are all painful and difficult. We all have emotional, psychological, spiritual and physical responses to these events—that’s part of being human.

An epiphany may be a single moment long, but enlightenment is gained over a lifetime. You don’t just wave a magic wand or flip a switch and say, “See, I’m not a pessimist anymore!”

You have to make that small shift and consciously choose to keep making it in every situation. At first, to do it one time in a thousand is enough. Then, your goal must be once every five hundred tries, then once every hundred, over and over until you are choosing to respond optimistically a majority of the time.

Notice I didn’t say “all of the time”. We all have the capacity for both pessimism and optimism within us, and no matter what, we will never always respond to things exactly the same way all of the time. This is also part of being human.

So what can we expect once we begin to consciously choose to respond in the powerful way of the optimist? I’ll discuss that tomorrow. In the mean time, think about this:

If, after you finished reading this, you were suddenly confronted with a life-altering experience that would completely upend all your assumptions about everything and its place in your world, how would you respond? More importantly, would your perception of your relationship to that event change over time?

Six Steps to Optimism: Day 1

September 29, 2008

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”—Henry David Thoreau

How many people dou you know who, when asked, say something like, “Oh, I wish I could … “ and then follow whatever their wish is with, “But …”?

Millions of people spend their days working at jobs they have no passion for. Thousands are in living situations with people who are abusive. Hundreds of thousands find it virtually impossible to survive with a roof overhead and a meal on the table. In fact, many go to sleep unsure if they will even wake up in the morning.

For every human being on this planet, there is the opportunity to do exactly what they feel called to do. There is a chance to contribute to society in the unique way that only they are capable of.

And yet, for a vast majority of people, the chance is never realized because outward circumstances color the inner workings of the mind and heart.

If, every day, you are faced with nothing but labor that drains you physically and numbs you mentally, if you are constantly presented with situations that undermine your sense of security and sap your capacity for emotional and psychological growth, and you are ceaselessly bombarded with messages of lack, unworthiness, or other reasons why you shouldn’t or won’t ever achieve anything beyond what’s directly in front of you, then it’s little wonder that the zest for life and discovery and creativity that are inborn traits of all children get buried so deeply that they become almost impossible to unlock.

Notice I said “almost”. Even those that we, in America, with our SUV’s, flat-screen TV’s, mortgages and cell phones, consider marginalized because they don’t earn as much as we do, don’t eat or buy as much as we do, even they can live with dignity and hope.

It doesn’t take a 401(k) to make a person feel that they are assured a “good” life. Accounts lose value. Life happens to all of us. Even decisions that at first fill us with doubts and feelings of regret can be turned into something else.

Regret is nothing but living in a “coulda, shoulda, woulda” illusion. “Oh, if only I’d gotten there five minutes earlier …” Or, “Things would be so much better if I had … “

We have no way of knowing what might have happened. We can only live in the present and learn as we go.

These days, a lot of the news about “the economy” is “bad”. Certainly people are struggling as prices go up and paychecks go down. In times like these, some might say it’s pointless or foolish to be optimistic.

But optimism isn’t just burying your head in the sand and pretending nothing’s happening. Optimism doesn’t mean we see everything with rose-colored glasses that prevent us from getting clear, honest, unadulterated views of reality.

Optimism is an outlook. It’s a choice. At first, it has to be a conscious one, especially if you’re not used to making it.

It’s hard to change your perspective from, “I’m never going to make it through the month and pay all these bills,” to, “I don’t know this instant how I’m going to make it through the month, but there is a way, and I’ll find it”.

Optimism is the first choice we must make. All other choices are a consequence of this first one. By choosing optimism, we set ourselves up to continue to make choices along a similarly directed path. Each choice is a step, and each step builds upon the one that went before.

Optimism is the foundation. Over the next six days, I’ll share one way those steps can be ordered and how, simply by choosing optimism first, you can open yourself and your world to tremendous possibilities for miracles.

The House That Ruth Built

September 23, 2008

The first game played at Yankee Stadium took place on April 18, 1923. The last, barring some miracle, was played Sunday, September 21, 2008. Between those times, 151,959,005 people have attended baseball games at “the house that Ruth built”.

The ceremonies Sunday were full of pomp as well as class, as such things usually are. There were plenty of emotions, too, as the bittersweetness of the situation affected players, coaches, spectators, broadcasters, and those watching at home or listening on the radio absorbed a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

There were classic moments for the famous members of the current Yankees roster (Mariano Rivera throwing the last pitch of the last game, or Johnny Damon’s three-run homer). But legend says that Yankee Stadium is also the place where even a relatively unlikely and unknown person can take their place in history. All you needed to see was the reaction Jose Molina got for his two-run homer later in the game.

I listened to the game on the radio at home. To me, this is the best way to take in a game. Baseball is a sport that is somewhat removed from the 21st century. Wooden bats are still used, and games are played at the rhythm of pitchers throwing, fielders catches, runners circling the bases. And, except for teams playing in domes, the games are still subject to the laws and inconveniences of nature, whether its rain or snow or swarms of gnats.

They called the stadium “the house that Ruth built”. On a personal level, I will never be able to say that I set foot in it.

But I have my own house that my own Ruth, my godmother, built, or at least helped to build.

When I was growing up, I took piano lessons. But my family wasn’t wealthy. My godmother never had children of her own, but she made strong and long-lasting connections with her extended family. She was a cousin of my grandfather and became one of my grandmother’s best friends. She also generously supported my piano studies, sending checks each month with the simple notation “Joy” in the memo.

Music then gave me joy and continues to give it daily. For her, it was a joy to be able to see another human being discovering a dream and, through her contributions, further that dream.

Money is not the end, but it is a means. It is not the goal, but it makes achieving a goal much easier when you have it. Ruth spent her money helping me, but more importantly, she showed me by example that the truest riches are the connections we make with other people.

Over and over, my own life has been blessed by interactions that most people would call unlikely. In 2000, I began corresponding in Braille with a blind pastor in the central African country of Malawi. What started as a few letters has grown, and over the years, we have sent hundreds of boxes of Braille books to him. He, in turn, has passed the books to any other blind person who wants to read them. In a country where there is no library for the blind, these books have brought the world to the fingertips of many who otherwise would not have dreamed of touching anything further than their own experiences.

I spent this morning with a friend, packing boxes and taking them to the post office to begin their long journey to Malawi. Sometimes, these trips, the packing and labeling, and the gathering of books from various sources is a real annoyance. Over the years, people who have started to work with me with great enthusiasm have fallen by the wayside as they got involved with other things or just decided they’d had enough.

Sometimes, it’s hard to keep going when it seems that you aren’t getting any visible, tangible results for your efforts.

At times like that, or especially after I’ve done a large shipment like I did this morning, I stop for a moment and just think. I know how much I anticipate receiving books I’ve ordered in Braille in the mail. I look forward to holding them, reading them, opening my mind to the frontiers they lay before me that I wouldn’t otherwise get to explore.

If I, who live in a country with the best library service for the blind in the world, feel this way, how must it be for the children and adults in Malawi? There is no electricity or running water in the district where these books go. There are few, if any, good roads. Blind people are lucky if they have the chance to go to school. They spend their days begging, or sitting at home because they don’t have a way to travel by themselves.

This is not to imply that they are incapable, just that the opportunities we take for granted are far beyond them. The arrival of new books for them is like Christmas morning for a child, full of the possibility of surprise and delight.

Book by book, box by box, I am continuing the legacy my godmother started when she made it possible for me to study an art that would have been out of reach otherwise. In my own way, I am adding to “the house that Ruth built”. For some in Malawi, it may be just the foundation they need to enable them to begin reaching for their own dream.

Beyond Fine China and Heirloom Crystal

September 22, 2008

Yesterday, I walked through my grandmother’s house for the last time. She died in August of last year. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of her. Right now, I’m missing her a lot. Not that I don’t understand that she’s with me always in spirit. But I miss the physical closeness, the chance to hear her say something, or laugh, or tell a story about when she was a girl.

We all have objects in our possession that evoke the memory of another person. As a general rule, I try not to collect a lot of stuff because I know full well I won’t take any of it with me. Besides, the really important things are carried in the heart, not tucked away in dresser drawers or china cabinets.

Still, many of the things I do have from my family have stories behind them. Of course, it’s easy to understand why someone would want the fine china or crystal or sterling silver. They’re valuable and often beautiful to look at.

But houses aren’t full of just fine china and heirloom crystal. They’re a gathering place of all the little odds and ends we accumulate over a lifetime. Sometimes, those odds and ends have more meaning than the fine china does.

Long before my grandmother died, I said that the only thing I knew that I wanted from her house was the set of heavy metal coat hangers that was always in her hall closet. First thing she said to us when we walked through her door was, “Go hang up your coat,” followed closely by, “Come sit down and have a cold drink”. When we were ready to leave and had our coats on, it was usually something like, “Now, you can’t leave without picking three things out of this bag to take with you”. Those odds and ends I talked about earlier? Well, I think my grandmother was the source of many of them, and more odds than ends.

I have those coat hangers in my own hall closet now. I love the jangly sound they make when you take something out of the closet or put it back in. It’s a sound I’ll always associated with time spent with my grandmother.

While it was bittersweet being in her house yesterday—I missed her intensely and still do—I heard stores about the house that I never would have heard otherwise.

Stories about my mother and aunts sliding down the banister of the spiral staircase, or standing up on the third floor and trying to spit on people as they walked by below (that was when there were no heat-saving panels blocking the way and there was an unobstructed path from the downstairs hall all the way up to the top of the house).

I learned about four o’clock grandpa stoves, little woodstoves that were lit, in multigenerational households, at about that time on winter afternoons so the bedrooms were warm when children came up at night. I saw the window where my mother sat and looked out at the horse barn and dreamed of having an elephant out there in the pasture. Handmade writing desks and secretaries, hurricane lamps on the marble mantelpiece, barrel chairs, commodes, my great-grandfather’s diaries and “secret” doors that connected the closets so that you could, at one time, run directly between bedrooms without bothering to use the hall … It was like being in a museum in which the entire collection has deep roots in your own family.

I could have found many other things to fill my Sunday afternoon. I could have been ruthlessly practical and said I had no need to go back there, and at some level, that’s true.

But the heart, at least my own heart, is not ruthlessly practical. It’s emotional. I can’t just flip some switch and say, “After this point, I’m done remembering my grandmother”. My kitchen is filled with things that make me think of her. When my husband and I moved into our first apartment together, she bought me two metal mixing bowls, measuring cups and spoons, and a few other baking utensils. Every time I use any of those things, she is present with me.

This is to say nothing of the composers she liked (Schubert), the phrases she said that pop out occasionally and always make me smile (“Put that in your pipe and smoke it!”.

One day, perhaps someone will be going through my house just as I went through my grandmother’s, picking things up and turning them over in their hands, remembering.

The Magic of Chambord

September 21, 2008

It’s funny how a little liquor can dramatically change your perceptions.

I have a recipe for chocolate chip cake that I’ve been making for years. It’s made in a Bundt pan, and is pretty much fail-proof. It’s one of those recipes I fall back on when I need to bring something to a gathering and don’t have the time or inclination to make a big fuss or try something new and adventurous. Every time I bring it, it gets warm reviews.

But I’ve noticed something. If you’ve made the same recipe for years, you realize that, gradually, the sizes of boxes, cans, jars and other containers change. The original recipe for this cake calls for a “4.5-ounce box” of pudding.

The first time I decided to bake it, I dutifully went to the grocery store with my husband and searched high and low for a 4.5-ounce box of pudding. There is, alas, no such thing anymore, at least not in our grocery store. There was 3.8-ounce, and 4.9-ounce, but no 4.5-ounce.

So “The Conversions” began. I tried, in my super-scientific way, to guestimate how much to leave out when adding the 4.9-ounce box, or how much of a second box to add if I’d come home with two 3.8-ounce boxes.

And that didn’t even touch the subject of the recipe’s request for a “2-layer size package chocolate cake mix”. Maybe it’s in the fine print somewhere, but we couldn’t find one of these, either.

Well, about a month ago, I had finally had enough. I was sick of trying to guess how much 4.5 ounces of pudding was. And while I was at it, I really didn’t feel like measuring 1-3/4 cups of milk anymore.

So, I got the 5.8-ounce “family-size” package of pudding. Figuring “more pudding needs more milk,” I added two cups, TWO WHOLE CUPS, of milk and put the cake in the oven to bake. It was fail-proof anyway, right? So what did I have to worry about?

The first afternoon I made it this way, I checked it at 45 minutes (because the recipe says to bake one hour, but that it’s better at 45 minutes). But my cake tester only came out sort of clean, and the whole thing just felt a little squishy to me. So I left it in, thinking I’d be back for it in five minutes.

In the mean time, the dogs needed a walk. So out I went into the backyard. Ecko did his business right away (what a good boy). But Kiefer had to investigate the whole yard twice, sniffing long and hard in all sorts of nooks and crannies before finally selecting just the right bush to water. With each minute that passed, I kept thinking, “My dog is going to make me burn this cake!”

When I came inside, I took a deep breath. Was that singed chocolate I smelled?

When I took the cake out of the oven, the top was very crusty. I resigned myself to the reality of having to show up for a picnic the next day bearing a “burnt-bottom chocolate chip cake”. At least the name sounded interesting.

But it wasn’t burnt. In fact, it was better than any of the cake’s previous reincarnations, with a pudding and chocolate throughout. It tasted like a $6 dessert at a restaurant.

Later that week, we went to a liquor store for something and happened to buy a small bottle of Chambord that the owner recommended. Chambord is beautiful red and intensely raspberry. Even the bottle is fancy.

We drank it first and liked it. Then I said, “Hey, that would be really good over chocolate cake!”.

There were a few pieces of my unburnt cake left, so we drizzled them with Chambord.

The $6 dessert suddenly became an $11 dessert, and all because of a few drops of raspberry liqeur.

So if you decide to make this cake, do yourself and your companions a favor. Go get a little bottle of Chambord, and sprinkle a few drops on each slice before serving. It looks elegant and tastes even better!

CHOCOLATE CHIP CAKE

1 box devil’s food cake mix (currently, I’m using Betty Crocker Triple Chocolate Fudge with wonderful results)

1 large package instant chocolate pudding (right now, the “family size” is 5.8 ounces)

2 cups milk

2 eggs (three if they’re small)

1 12-ounces package semisweet chocolate chips

Mix the first 4 ingredients, then stir in chips. Bake in a well-greased Bundt pan at 350 degrees for an hour or until done.

Consider the Butterflies

September 20, 2008

I don’t think many of us consider, when we first find our life’s purpose, what we will be like at the end of our journeys. I know that, when I first consciously said to myself, “I’m choosing to be a great pianist,” and then began to actively make decisions that moved me closer to that destination, I had no idea what would be in my path, let alone how it would shape me and the character I would develop because of those things.

Of course, we all have a basic natural way of being, and this stays consistent, I think, throughout life. For example, I’m not going to change from someone compassionate into someone who has absolute disregard for other people, even if I become more single-minded in my quest.

Thinking along these lines, I considered the fawn. It doesn’t notice as its spots disappear. It hardly contemplates as it changes from a creature designed to melt into the sun-dappled, shifting light of the forest’s edge to one who is the drab brown-grey of dead grass and frost-hardened earth.

Or the caterpillar, who spends its days eating, growing in its wormy, furry skin, keeping all its legs sorted out, only to spin itself a silken cocoon and pass through the strange process of metamorphosis to emerge some time later as something with dazzling colors that can fly.

To be able to fly. To be able to go through all the hidden changes that will transform us. To go from a place where we can only look up, only focus on what we will fill our bellies with to a world of color, light, and height.

Today, sitting alone at the piano, it may seem to me as if I can’t make any of my fingers move the way they should to produce the sounds captured in dots on a page. Anyone who attends a recital I give next winter won’t see that caterpillar, either.

Their only perspective, unless they take time to consider, is the perspective of the butterfly, the flights of beautiful notes and seemingly effortless speed.

And, as with all other things in nature, it is a never-ending cycle. I must return, again and again, with each new piece, to the place of the caterpillar and begin my transformation anew.

I Have More Than More Than Enough

September 19, 2008

I’ve come to a conclusion. I set limits for myself. This is fine when it comes to wine and chocolate, but in the realm of the mind, what we think we can’t do or shouldn’t have become powerful antidotes to our success.

I have seen this over and over, but still, I don’t practice it one hundred percent of the time. Yesterday, in the morning, I thought to myself, “Oh, I’ve got so many notes still left to learn in this last movement of Beethoven. Maybe, if I’m lucky and push real hard, I’ll finish by Saturday or Sunday.”

But then, I sat down and started working, and with each page, I thought, “I can do this. Look how close I am! Look how much I just learned! What a great birthday present this will be to finish today!”

And it was. I learned all the notes, and even spent another hour or so playing the whole three-movement sonata and just savoring how it felt to do it.

If this can apply to music, why not to money? Why not to opportunity? Why not to every other aspect of our lives?

Why not indeed! The answer is simple: We’re in our own way.

I’ve spent a lifetime searching for a certain kind of piano teacher. Don’t misunderstand. I’ve learned tremendously valuable lessons and techniques from everyone I’ve studied with, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. They’ve shaped my playing and my mental approach to the art.

But I was looking for something very specific to my own needs, and I’ve finally found it. Well, let me rephrase that: I was presented with it on a bus ride in Minnesota in 2006. At that time, I wasn’t quite ready to receive it, so it wasn’t until almost another two years had passed that the true magnitude of what I’d been given became apparent.

Every day, if we are following our heart and on the path of our dream, what some my refer to as “God’s plan for life” or “destiny,” we will be presented with choices, chances. How we respond will determine what follows.

So, I have chosen to study with the teacher I have been searching for because that teacher has been given to me because I have chosen to pursue my dream of pianistic greatness. That’s not egotistical to say. I am a great pianist and I want to be better. Why limit myself by saying I don’t have the teacher I need, or, if I do, that I have all these obstacles (lack of money, lack of time) that prevent me from taking full advantage of what I’ve been given.

I’ve said to myself that it would be great to find a way to spend an extended amount of time studying piano. I think, “All I need is a way to pay the bills at home … ”

Too limiting! If that’s all I think I need, that’s all I’ll ever get, and I’ll be stuck scrambling, yet again, to just barely scrape by.

Words are powerful. In order to speak them aloud, or even to think them to yourself, you have to organize them and marshall them, order them and make them follow the direction and intention you have. So just by thinking “I have more than more than enough,” I’ve already made a significant commitment to that reality. By speaking it aloud, and choosing to believe it with all the force of my being, by actively using that proclamation to generate my outlook on everything as well as my mindset and inner dialogue, I shift the balance in my favor.

So, I declare it, first to myself, then to the universe:

“I have more than more than enough!”

“I Have More Than More Than Enough!”

“I HAVE MORE THAN MORE THAN ENOUGH!”