Setting Goals and Facing Failure

First of all, please excuse my absence on the blogosphere recently. I have been writing and writing and writing, but I can’t put anything I’ve been working on here because I have submitted it all to various journals and newspapers to try to get it published!!! As a result, much of my allotted writing time has been dedicated to that pursuit. Happily, I just received word this week that a creative nonfiction essay I wrote will be published June 15 in Sky Island Journal! Woohoo!

And, with that, let me write about some of the highlights of what has been in my mind – setting goals, and also failure, rejection, making mistakes, and trying anyway.

For some reason, I have a terrible time setting goals. I know the SMART goal recommendations – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-sensitive. I love the list, but I still can’t come up with a goal.

I took a little online blog branding course several months ago after I started this blog. I was trying to figure out if there was some sort of methodology I should be following so you, dear readers, don’t wonder where on earth my head is every single time you read one of my blog posts. In other words, is there some sort of path or a strategy to building a blog that I have as yet not followed? (Answer: yes; but, see, it requires setting goals and focusing…so please proceed to the next paragraph…).

One of the first exercises was to come up with 3 goals. Oh cripe. My crossfit coach is always encouraging us to come up with goals, too. I have dodged that bullet for two straight years now. Both cases have got me thinking about how really and truly awful I am at setting goals and why that might be. I am 100% not awful at all at achieving things, I am just terrible at setting goals and answering questions like “what would success look like?” I don’t like to be hemmed in. In fact, probably if I set some goals I’d achieve them before I even wrote them down. Start a blog. See? That could have been a goal. But I did it already. Figure out how to pitch for publication. Done. I am a do-er. But I am also a planner, so I am slightly mystified about why this task both eludes me and causes me so much agita.

In the end, I’ve decided that my problem isn’t so much the task itself as the destination. I understand full well that if I knew where I was going and took actual concrete steps (i.e.: goals) to get there I might actually get there (or get there faster). I do get places, it just tends to be a more circuitous, scenic route. I’ll be the first to say that there’s a lot to be learned by not going from point A to point B. But if I am being completely honest, there’s also the reality (which I know is real thanks to decades of journaling because I would never remember this) that I re-learn truths I discovered already over and over again. My cousin wrote this great book called Things I Want to Remember Not to Forget (by Chris Waddell). I so thoroughly relate to that title. Is this life (asking for a friend)?

Anyhoo…I suspect my brain block about goals has at least a little to do with the unpleasantness of failure and rejection. If I set a goal and don’t achieve it, well that’s no good. Who wants that? If I set a goal and fixate on achieving it, that wouldn’t be great either, to be fair. Pitching to journals, even blogging, sets me up to be rejected and to push that old fear-mongering anxiety button that says I am not enough – not good enough, not smart enough, not worthy enough, a failure. Jeez. Tough crowd. But here’s the beauty of getting older – I get now that I am the one telling myself all these horrible untruths. Sure, I was helped along with material by the horror of being a rule-following, nerdy kid in middle school (fact: kids at that age are mean). But, ultimately, it’s down to me to face those negative storylines, check the narrative (“the feelings are real, but is the story they are telling true?”), and strive to make great mistakes. Then try again. This is what my husband and I teach our children. My goal is to be a good example. And, FINE, @crossfitlaunchpad, I’ll get my first strict pull-up, too.

Mountain proverb

 

An Ode to Moms Everywhere

“I See You”

I see you, mom, in pajamas at school drop off. You who could care less about your appearance because the fact that the kids actually made it to school on time is such an accomplishment it hardly matters. Today. This time.

I see you, mom, who can’t say no to volunteering, who says no one else steps up so you have to do it, who feels like life turned into one long tumble in the washing machine, dizzying and cold.

I see you, mom, with your junk drawer completely overflowing with accumulated, well, junk. Like bumper stickers that aren’t car worthy and old iPhone chargers and receipts and spare keys to neighbor’s homes, if only you could remember whose they were.

I see you, mom, who got lost along the way and doesn’t recognize much of who you are anymore, spending all your time in the service of others, so much so that you couldn’t say what stirs your soul if you were asked and you fall into bed so dead tired you don’t have time to think about it. Anyway, no one’s asking.

I see you, mom, with the nice pump on one foot and the mismatched flat on the other. Some days the best you can manage is to show up.

I see you, mom, with spit up dried into your new, dry-clean only blouse. There is officially no dignified way to exit the house when you have a baby.

I see you, mom, on a frenzied mission, scrolling through websites for quick healthy meals for dinner tonight. Guess what? They don’t exist. Especially if it’s 4:30pm and you still have the commute home and day care pick up and you haven’t gone to the grocery store in days. Because, seriously, who has the time? What dimension of hell is this that kids need to be fed three times a day anyway???

I see you, mom, racing away from gas pump with the nozzle still in your car.

I see you, mom, who is starving for intellectual inspiration and adult conversation, but can’t figure out how to balance even part-time work with all the other stuff that needs to get done for the family.

I see you, mom, head throbbing, feverish, body aching while ringing way too loudly in your ears are the repeated and urgent words, “Mooooommmmm, I don’t feel well.”

I see you, mom, at Starbucks, who absolutely knows that this latte is going to be the highlight of your day.

I see you, mom, who tries to do it all, chaperone and sell Girl Scout cookies and make healthy, homemade meals and sign the kids up for all their activities and then actually execute on getting them there. Did I mention the full-time job?

Or the:

Birthday party planning

Dishes

Laundry

House cleaning

Haircuts

Lunch boxes

Homework

Bedtime routine

Sleepless nights

Doctors appointments

Play dates

Sick days

SNOW days

School supplies

Sports equipment

New clothes

New shoes, ideally well before you are leaving for the piano recital and realize that the dress shoes don’t fit. Either kid.

I see you, mom, who is buried under never-ending piles of laundry and groceries to buy and bills to pay and birthday presents to buy and holiday meals to make.

Did someone say decorations? Yeah, I see you, mom, whose holiday lights are still on the tree. In May. Way to plan ahead for next year.

I see you, mom, who wonders why it is that the kids have to be reminded to wash their hands, pack their school bags, unpack their lunches, clean their rooms, practice their instruments…EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. How many years have we been doing this?

I see you, mom, who feels like the trip leader of life, like you are everyone’s guide on this journey and they can’t seem to function without asking you how to do it first. And then they ignore you and do it their own way anyway.

I see you, mom, who is taking care of your mom, and missing her wise counsel and yummy cooking and mom advice. You, who are flooded with memories of the incredibly capable woman she was, and can’t reconcile them with the woman she is now, who barely knows you let alone remembers your birthday or a recipe.

I see you, mom, who lost your mom far too young. And, you, whose mom is alive and helpful and wonderful and still bugs the heck out of you sometimes.

I see the whisper of tears in your eyes that you quickly brush away, when some days it just feels like too much. Strong shoulders, but human shoulders. Vulnerable and tired and overwhelmed by the pace and the volume and the sensation that you are not terribly in control.

I see you, I see you every day, and I know.

I understand. And I am here acknowledging all the little things that just don’t get done without you.

In Solidarity.

Happy Mother’s Day.

In gratitude for moms everywhere and for my village.

It’s a good time to put your own oxygen mask on. This is another writer’s take on why:

https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/put_your_own_oxygen_mask_on_first

make-sure-your-own-mask-is-secure-before-assisting-others-unintentionally-profound-quotes

True Confessions of a Mom Set Loose

October 31, 2018

On the plane from Miami to Guatemala City. This is my first extended solo excursion since having children, my first trip to Central America, my first trip to the developing world in a very long time. It’s a lot of first’s and with that comes excitement and joy and a re-awakening of my spirit or some part of me that’s been quiet for some time…as well as a visceral, biological longing and sadness that I can’t control and didn’t expect. It’s hard to say goodbye to my family and, much as I am sometimes desperate to bust out of the routine and the daily grind, it’s also incredibly difficult to break away.

By chance, the man who drove me to the airport this morning grew up in Guatemala. He was stunned that that was where I was headed. It feels like the universe conspired to cross our paths. I told him (between sniffles) that I hadn’t really done much for myself in 11 years and that I wanted to soak in the moment. He said, “You are like a comet, passing through so rarely but shining so brightly.” I like that idea!

So, here I am, halfway to Guatemala with my journal out and two books sitting beside me – Open Veins of Latin America (by Eduardo Galeano) and Less (by Andrew Sean Greer) – that I might actually be able to read with all this uninterrupted time. For the time being, though, my mind keeps jumping between thoughts of travel past and the younger me; about my kids, already anticipating our reunion; and imaginings about what this trip will be like! And this tells me that maybe I should take a couple minutes to just sit and be, quietly…but, first, a haiku:

Mundane and routine

Break the mold of must and should

Rare delight, bright light.

What if I fall quote

 

 

The Fixer

Life is such a committed and earnest teacher. Everyone has their stuff. And life dutifully provides opportunities, over and over again, to practice navigating whatever yours might be.

I like to fix things. Not like broken machines, but like broken people or uncomfortable situations or disorder. In fact, now that I think about it, I don’t like the feeling of anything that I feel responsible for being out of place. And I feel responsible for a whole bunch of stuff. That goes for people as well as a leaky faucet. I. Just. Can’t. Ignore. It.

I am experienced enough now (read: old) that I can see it happening, and I actually recognize it for what it is. I discover a “problem,” a switch flips in my mind, adrenaline floods in, and I hone in with laser focus on “solving the situation.” Everything else going on around me becomes annoying distraction. It’s really primitive. And if it weren’t so uncomfortable and I weren’t so focused on whatever the perceived threat might be, it’s also quite fascinating. I know what I am supposed to do here – lots of deep breaths and comforting reassurance to my anxious parts. But my brain keeps tacking back to the VERY BIG PROBLEM THAT NEEDS TO BE FIXED. In those moments, all I really, really want is to fix it so I can put this horrible feeling away and chillax.

The way this manifests when it comes to people who need help is much less obvious than when something breaks in my house. When I say “need help,” I don’t mean like they are hurt or that their house is on fire. Surely I’d go into adrenaline-driven fixer mode in those cases. No, in this case, I mean they need help with something emotional. There isn’t the flood of adrenaline or the laser-like focus, but it’s still a problem to be solved. Internally, it feels like some sort of calling, that it’s my job to fix the bad feelings, or at least temporarily to take away the pain. That’s a lot of pressure and, rationally speaking, it’s totally unrealistic. But who ever said this behavior was rational?

I noticed long ago that very often one’s best attribute or character trait doubles as one’s worst. For me, this is where being reliable and dependable kind of backfires. I am dependable and reliable so people find any number of ways to depend and rely on me. And, of course, then I feel the need to continue to prove my dependability and reliability and to not let anyone down. And it goes on like this in a sort of self-fulfilling cycle for ever and ever…until I crash and burn because I have lent out so much of myself to so many people that I have completely hollowed out my own core. Emotional problems tend to have a longer-running course than physical, house-on-fire problems. They require the pacing of a marathon versus a sprint. But when it comes to fixing things, I have the mindset of a sprinter and, inevitably, I hit a wall and start to get awfully tired…

I think a lot of moms suffer from the feeling of having only so much to give, being needed by many, torn in too many directions, and wanting to fix things that are out of their control. That’s certainly the case for me, and I fully support little getaways here and there to revive oneself and actually be able to think and breathe and just be.

But, for me, this internal fixer is a lifelong pattern. Only after I completely lost myself with the responsibilities of parenting (I don’t even need to explain that kids have needs), childing (also known as: being a reliable and dependable daughter), working (see also: proving I am a productive citizen and “pulling my weight” because, obviously, only a paycheck tells you that), being a good friend (“you can count on me!”), did it become clear to me that the two most-used phrases in my vocabulary are “I’m sorry” and “I should.” I’m either a disappointment/failure/inadequate (“I’m sorry”) and/or I’m driven to prove my worth/worthiness/value (“I should”). Nowhere in there am I thinking, “gosh, I’d love to do that.” It got to the point where I would ask myself, “What stirs your soul?” and I had literally no idea how to answer. Because, I’m sorry, I am so selfish, I should not be thinking about myself when so many people need me.

It turns out that it just isn’t possible to save everyone without totally tanking yourself. Another disappointing life lesson, but a true one. That’s the whole reason my blog has the title it does – it’s a reminder that you can’t run around putting everyone else’s oxygen masks on while simultaneously allowing yourself to be asphyxiated. It won’t end well.

None of this is to say be selfish. Not at all. I certainly struggle with that notion, because that’s how it feels: I am letting people down. I am selfish. I should just try harder. And, of course, there are plenty of things that just need to be done, whether they fill your cup or not. That’s life, and I spend the majority of my day doing just that. Most days, I do much of my to-do list, in all its mundane glory, joyfully. And I admittedly love knowing that people can count on me, and that they know that I am loyal and reliable no matter the circumstances. The trouble strikes when I need a break and don’t know how to say no. It would seem to be such a simple word. Two letters, and virtually the same spelling and pronunciation in multiple languages. And, yet, I am much more apt to say “maybe,” which really isn’t super helpful to anyone involved because it leaves the door open to a road I already know I don’t want to go down. SO, take it from me – when your plate is full and your cup is spilling over with responsibility to and for others, make sure there is a little time carved out in there for you. And if there’s a “no” screaming in your head, say it. It’s not indulgence, it’s self-preservation.

You can be more effective, not to mention more fulfilled, if you actually replenish yourself along the way. Find your inner compass, actually listen to it, and let it guide you. Prioritize. Be in charge of your to-do list, not subjugated by it. Evaluate the opportunity cost of the choices you make – what do you sacrifice by committing to x, y, z? Be intentional with how you spend your time. Think “if I say yes to ‘x’, what will I have to say ‘no’ to?” Say no sometimes. Be true to you. Make sure you are filling your cup. I can assure you, life will provide ample opportunity to practice.

 

In Honor of the Extraordinary W. S. Merwin

W.S. Merwin, United States Poet Laureate and winner of 2 Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry, author of The Wonder of the Imperfect (among many, many other poems), and founder of the Merwin Conservancy passed away on March 15, 2019.

I admit quite readily that I am no poetry expert, and I have only been to Hawai’i once. I cannot possibly honor the full depth and breadth of Mr. Merwin’s life and works, so today I am posting a collection of tributes and poems by those who knew him best.

What captured my attention and admiration was Mr. Merwin’s authentic, genuine approach to life. He lived his life his way, with a gentle, persistent faith in the renewal of a forest, and of humanity; with a constant striving and belief in his art, his work, the natural world, even or especially when it was contrary to the mindset of the day. He modeled for us what happens when you find your passion and you stick with it. He lived his values with integrity.

The most healing thing you can do for your mind and your soul is to become more aware of your surroundings, to take a deep breath and appreciate what’s around you, to care about the world we live in, and to be uniquely and passionately you. W.S. Merwin lived that ethos his entire life. Take some time to get to know him and the incredible legacy of  his poetry and his palm forest. Today, in his honor, let the antidote to the ridiculous pace of life, the absurdity of the political shenanigans we are subjected to daily – to whatever ails you – be gratitude and moments of joy for this life, for this day, for being authentically you, having hope, and following your passion.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Merwin. With sincere gratitude for your example and your teachings,

Meg

Garden photograph credit to Mr. Larry Cameron

https://merwinconservancy.org/2019/03/poem-of-the-week-for-the-anniversary-of-my-death/

https://merwinconservancy.org/2019/03/pulitzer-prize-winning-poet-w-s-merwin-passes-away-at-91/?fbclid=IwAR1tTYbgyRPbAD_GBhLdM5issWC1Jvri-lYsFXoasQgYFrtbbCgOQdKMmvU

http://time.com/5555727/poet-w-s-merwin-obituary-by-rita-dove/

https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2019/03/18/poem-for-merwin/?fbclid=IwAR3uvgYWLxMaloO4kl6o-SVu5rvb7fUYGOFYDwDKjK90Ms0YnYWKX6Ynfag

 

Vanilla, Powerfully Plain

I mentioned that my family has bit of a love affair with the chocolate chip cookie. You know what the smallest make or break ingredient in a chocolate chip cookie is? The vanilla. The difference in taste that a single teaspoon of vanilla makes is astounding.

But I have often heard vanilla used as a synonym for plain. In fact, Merriam Webster dictionary defines vanilla as, “lacking distinction : plain, ordinary, conventional.” And, yet, a world without the vanilla bean would be flavorless and bland.

Where does the majority of the world’s vanilla grow, you ask? In one of the least plain, ordinary, or conventional places on Earth. That’s right, my old love, Madagascar.

Madagascar boasts more than 75% of the world’s vanilla fields. All of Madagascar’s vanilla is grown in the SAVA (Sambava, Antalaha, Vohemar and Andapa) region in the country’s northeast. Vanilla is Madagascar’s largest export, which is pretty remarkable given that the plant, which was introduced from Mexico during the French colonial period, needs to be hand-pollinated.

This CBS video from 2017 discusses the recent vanilla bean shortage, a little about the price fluctuations over the past two decades, and the impact of the shortage on US businesses. What the video alludes to but doesn’t dive into, is what life is like for vanilla farmers in Madagascar now that vanilla is second only to saffron as the most expensive spice in the world.

Used to flavor so many sweet treats in the west, with the US, France, and Germany being the primary importers of its vanilla, vanilla beans in Madagascar are labor-intensive to cultivate. In a developing country like Madagascar, where the rule of law is flimsy at best, corruption is rampant, poverty is beyond most westerners’ comprehension, and cyclones can wreak havoc on a crop that takes three years to be marketable, sustainable livelihoods are elusive.

When Madagascar was a French colony, the French government set prices for vanilla producers. Madagascar gained its independence in 1960, after which the Malagasy government set the vanilla prices. During both of these periods, prices were low and predictable. In the mid-1990s, however, just about when I arrived in Madagascar, the Malagasy government de-regulated vanilla prices because of pressure from global financial institutions. This was the beginning of the dramatic vanilla bean price fluctuations that have been on-going ever since.

Increased demand and higher prices would, ostensibly, seem to be a good thing for Madagascar, one of the world’s poorest countries by GDP (the 10th poorest according to the World Atlas). Global vanilla prices were hovering at about $450 to $500 per kilogram as of August 2018, with the expectation that this year the prices would decline somewhat due to increased production. For context, this is about the same as the price for silver.

Demand pressures, however, have led to farmers harvesting beans too early to prevent theft; increased need for security at vanilla fields; and generally more dangerous conditions for vanilla farmers. Much of the vanilla profits go to middlemen, though the SAVA region has also benefited from this boom period. For vanilla farmers, it has been documented that they typically don’t know what to do with the windfall. In the context of rural Madagascar, where the closest bank is often a day’s walk along routes patrolled by armed bandits, long-term savings are not realistic. A large influx of cash in rural Madagascar turns into a liability pretty quickly.

Because of the vanilla boom, in addition to demand for rosewood, protected rainforests in the northeastern part of Madagascar, like Masoala National Park, have been illegally cut to create more vanilla fields. It makes logical sense from the perspective of the local population, the majority of whom are barely surviving on a daily basis, with absolutely no social safety nets. No one wants to miss the opportunity to become a “vanillionaire”, and the long-term implications of their actions on the island’s unique flora and fauna, like the use of its vanilla beans, are luxuries that appeal to those who live in another world. They are irrelevant to day to day survival.

Except that, in the end, it isn’t irrelevant at all.

For the long-term sustainability of the region, of the very vanilla plant that is the source of such demand, it makes no sense at all (check out this 10-minute BBC documentary to learn more, starting around minute 7:30). Other aspects of the local economy benefit from tourists interested in seeing lemurs, wild orchids, and rosewood trees in their natural habitats. Even more esoteric to the rural population, but still meaningful, is the potential for medicines cultivated from plants that grow in Madagascar’s forests, such as from the Madagascar periwinkle, which is an ingredient in leukemia treatments. These are much the same issues I observed in 1996.

Where do we go from here? Trust me, this is a question I have been asking myself for over 20 years, since I first set foot in Madagascar. There are no easy answers. Education has to be one component. Functional government is inevitably another. There aren’t short-term solutions for long-term, sustainable outcomes. For creative ideas, I like this World Bank blog that reports on initiatives happening in Madagascar, and also Madecasse’s efforts to establish bean-to-bottle production within Madagascar. As in so many aspects of life, I also think it’s a good idea to have small, specific, achievable goals that can be accomplished in the short-term, but that begin to establish the path toward a larger, long-term goal.

So, for now, the next time you buy vanilla extract or vanilla ice cream or almost any sweet treat, think about that little dab of vanilla and what a difference it makes to your taste buds, but also what an impact it has on a little country way on the other side of the world. The story of vanilla is more complex that it appears, and it is far from plain.

Pictures courtesy of Madecasse and National Geographic

 

 

 

The Void

Have you ever felt like you were being chased by silence? Or felt the weight of nothing?

The sudden loss of someone you love does that. There’s this constant sensation that something is missing, this echoing emptiness enveloping you. In quiet moments, the sadness creeps in, sneaks up behind you and surprises you with its tenacity. It’s still here…

My mind searches and searches for answers, attempting to fill this void, but the result is always the same. She is gone and it’s incomprehensible. She was so vibrant and full of life one minute (actually for 71 years of minutes!), and then she was gone. Who knew that the absence of someone could take up so much space in a room? Who knew that silence could be so loud? That emptiness could be so heavy?

Everywhere I look I see the negative space in the composition of my life with Nancy. Where once the space around her defined her physical presence, now the space where she isn’t defines her absence. I first learned the concept of negative space in 11th grade art class. I am not 100% sure I am interpreting it accurately, but this abstract way of thinking resonates with where my grieving mind keeps landing.

We went skiing last weekend, one of Nancy’s favorite activities. When I opened the door to the condo, I expected her to be there, as if maybe our paths just haven’t crossed this past month. Her smile and her voice are so vivid, my mind insists that she’s here somewhere. Out at dinner, the lack of a chair reserved for her made my chest ache. Her absence weighs on us and fills the space between us. I thought I saw her walk by the ski lodge when I was waiting in line inside to get lift tickets. My heart leapt and I almost ran out to call her name. And then my brain caught up with what my eyes thought they were seeing.

On our first run, laying down the first tracks that day after hitting the chairlift for the opening bell, the sun’s rays shone brilliantly through the clouds. I always call this God lighting. In that breathtakingly magical moment, I knew Nancy was with us, that this was her peeking through to whisper hello and good morning and I love you all.

Sun Rays at first run
Nancy’s Hello

What I wouldn’t give for a hug from Nancy right now. How she would have enjoyed being with us.

It was great to see how much fun the kids had, how life goes on for them with so much less heaviness. They happily and fondly and vocally remember her. We talk about her a lot. She is still very much with us, her positive spirit guiding us and encouraging us onward. She would absolutely be telling us to go, live, and enjoy life. And we are…but, for a while anyway, there’s also this mental leap of loss, this inescapable physical void that accompanies us.

I’ll close with this beautiful Maya Angelou poem that the amazing author, storyteller, life coach, and my kindred spirit Susie Rinehart sent to me recently. It expresses so eloquently what I am stumbling through here. Enjoy. And go out there and live!

They Existed, by Maya Angelou

“When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
examines,
gnaws on kind words
unsaid,
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
nurture,
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance,
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance of dark, cold
caves.

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.”