Judy

I opened the email from our department’s VP with the subject “Sad News,” more than half expecting it to be about someone in the company I didn’t know.

So when I saw Judy’s name and the words “passed away unexpectedly,” they seemed to fly right off the computer screen and into my heart. I had to read them twice, three times, before I could even gasp.

I was sitting at a desk in our East Rochester office, probably not far from the desk where she had worked, when I read about Judy’s passing. My home office is in Syracuse, but my co-worker Michelle and I travel the 85 miles to East Rochester about once a week to meet with folks there on a project.

Every once in awhile I would think, I should stop by and say hi to Judy during one of my trips there.

Judy’s job involved providing support to the Customer Care staff in East Rochester. This meant handling everything from incoming faxes and returned mail to sending out letters, forms and other materials that customers requested. And, more than likely, dozens of other tasks that she just sort of took on over the years without being told to, but just because.

I can’t remember exactly when my instant messaging relationship with Judy began; it’s been years. I must have really helped her out at some point with some work-related question, because every so often she would reach out to me when she had a situation that she didn’t know what to do with.

Over time, her messages to me began with a familiar greeting: “hi pal o’ mine!” She favored using a bold purple font and lowercase letters. That was just Judy’s style.

Me, I try to be grammatically correct and professional, even in my instant messaging (unless I forget to spell check before hitting send), although I have recently changed my font to one I find more attractive, and made it blue, my favorite color.

“Hi Judy!” I’d type back.

Then came the request. Sometimes it was as simple as sending a reminder out on the department blog, which I maintain.Other times she had a question, or needed direction on how to handle a particular piece of mail or fax.

In any case, once I sent the reminder or helped her figure out what to do with her issue, Judy’s response invariably came back in the form of one of those cute animated emoticons, the kind that gives virtual hugs, blows kisses or produces a bouquet of flowers.

Now and then, if she felt her question was particularly thorny or if I got back to her more quickly than she anticipated, Judy would simply type the words “you rock!” instead. In purple, bold lowercase letters, of course.

I’ll never see those words in that font again.

I checked out her obit, and saw the face of a pretty blond woman smiling back at me. I couldn’t recall ever meeting her in person. Not that I hadn’t had multiple opportunities.

And I read the adjectives other people used to describe her in the funeral home guest book: wonderful (used most often), warm, caring, funny, helpful, kind. Yes, she was.

And yes, I feel regret–regret that I didn’t take a few minutes out of my workday, even once, to locate her work station when I was in East Rochester and experience her smile in person. Or maybe exchange a real, face-to-face, hug.

I’m sure you know where this post is going.

If it occurs to you to call someone, call her. Send her an email or, if you’re old school, a card or a note.Stop by her desk the next time you’re in her office or on her floor.

Because you just never know, right? You just never know when “all the time in the world” ends up being no time at all. Or when there won’t be a “next time I’m in the neighborhood…”

All I can do now is return one of Judy’s virtual hugs. Maybe send her one last, big, “mwwwwwah!” A silent apology for not stopping by to say hello when I had the chances.

And the hope that, wherever she is, she is being appreciated for her wonderful, warm, caring, funny, helpful, kind self.

Because, Judy, you rocked, too.

 

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What Do You Think?

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Came across this Henry Ford quote recently that I love, love, love:

“Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.”

Now, you might say, “Come on, Mary Anne–I think all the time! In fact, I can’t ever seem to stop thinking! I think even when I’m asleep! I think that not thinking is wa-a-a-a-a-y more difficult than thinking!”

Au contraire, mon frère, and I know this from personal experience. What swims around in our brains 99 percent of the time are memories, worries, ruminations, replays, reactions and judgments (of ourselves, as well as of others). They’re sound bytes and flashbacks. We can call them thoughts–but they don’t constitute thinking.

What happens most of the time between our ears is a mental cacophony.

As seen in Rodin’s famous sculpture, thinking requires effort. It requires concentration. Just look at his face. That ‘s thinking.

Real thinking is active, not passive. Real thinking is purposeful.

What’s more, real thinking is almost always more positive and productive than the unchecked babble that goes on  in our heads much of the time. Real thinking solves and creates. It empowers us.

Take, for example, when something someone says to us hurts, whether it’s a romantic partner, a family member,  a boss or whomever. Most of us lick that wound over and over until it grows and even gets infected. We replay the words, and the subsequent pain, so repeatedly that they become etched in our memory for future playback, a permanent part of the mental chatter that consumes most of our thoughts.

Now what if, instead of reacting to the words we perceived as hurtful, instead of letting those words upset, anger or sadden us, we chose a different reaction? What if we mentally stepped back, thought “Well, now that wasn’t very nice!” and then went on to not let it affect the rest of our day? Wouldn’t being able to do that feel so much better?

I actually managed to accomplish that recently, sort of, with what I consider a great deal of success. My life partner John, who means more to me than 99.9 percent of the rest of the world, said something that I felt was unkind and unnecessary. My eyes teared and I did say, “You just crossed the line,” but that’s all I said about it.

Next day when I awoke, I realized I had a choice. I could stay hurt and angry with him and drag those feelings around with me like a ball and chain, throwing off negative vibes that would not only impact me  but everyone else within striking distance. I could stoke that hurt like an old coal stove by reliving what he’d said, damn him, and letting my reaction to those words suck the oxygen right out of me…or I could choose to be happy. Choose to make it a great day. Choose, if not to forgive just yet, then at least not let what was said yesterday become the focal point of my today

What a difference such a choice made. And choosing is, or at least can be, a very empowering form of thinking.

As has been frequently said, most of us spend more time planning their vacations than our lives, or how we can contribute to or make a positive impact on the world.

Heck, many people even spend more time planning a meal, right? Case in point: we’ll spend days planning and prepping for Thanksgiving dinner, and were seconds giving thanks. What’s up with that?

And it’s not like we give ourselves much time or space for thinking–instead we cram our days and nights with doingness and/or mindless entertainment. I’m as guilty of that as the next guy. It’s a lot easier to play two dozen Words with Friends games simultaneously or watch “Rizzoli and Isles” than to write a blog post, or deeply think about how I want my next (hopefully) 20 some-odd years on earth to play out.

I wonder about the Rodin sculpture. Is the man weighing the pros and cons of a huge decision that he needs to make? Or is he mentally working on an intricate math problem, or how to bring an invention to fruition, or about some philosophical conundrum about the nature of mankind or the meaning of life?

Whatever it is he’s thinking about, I’m convinced the world would be a better place if a lot more of us did that, too. If we thought before we spoke. Or thought before we react. Or thought about what kind of impact we’d like to make while we’re alive or what kind of legacy we want to leave when our earthly time is through.

And we can’t do that if our eyes are constantly glued to a smartphone, computer screen or television. Our best thinking is done in nature…or in silence…or while listening to certain types of music…or, for those who believe in its power, while praying.

I think, if more of us devoted more time to purposeful thought, the news media would find it a lot more difficult to come up with their endless stream of horrendous and worrisome stories to shine their spotlights on.

And wouldn’t that be a wonderful world?

Think about it.

 

Inspirational Kool-Aid

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There’s been a battle waging inside me for decades that I think some of you might recognize in yourselves: the battle between what I was raised to believe and what I want to believe.

Ever since I first stumbled upon Richard Bach’s strange little parable, Illusions, over 30 years ago, I became a “shelf”-help fan. From topics that included creative visualization, NLP, EFT and others, and authors from Jack Canfield to Zig Ziglar and numerous others alphabetically in between, I’ve spent countless learning about concepts, tips and techniques for creating an amazing life. A life on purpose. A life that matters.

I’ve consumed volumes of books and recordings about the habits, practices and mindsets of the truly successful beings who walk among us–or rather, who drive really, really nice cars and have never come anywhere near most of us. I’ve created vision boards, kept gratitude journals, and written goal cards that I’ve carried with me. I collect inspirational quotes to this day, and continue to line my bookcase with tomes that have purpose, passion, abundance, focus and success in their titles.

Yeah, you could call me a self-help junkie.

Today, I attended my umpteenth motivational seminar, this time bringing along my youngest nephew Eric. For less than the cost of a dinner out, at Applebee’s no less, he and I spent eight hours listening to one speaker after another tell incredible stories and shower the audience with golden nuggets of wisdom, hope, humor and inspiration.

The line up included Bob Harrison, Dave Martin, Omar Periu, Keith Johnson and Willey Jolley. Our own Syracuse University basketball coach Jim Boeheim gave a talk. And while unable to appear in person, Les Brown ended the program via video.

Many of the concepts from today’s program–and even some of the stories the speakers told–I had heard before. What I loved about today was watching my young nephew listen to what the speakers had to say, nod in agreement and furiously take notes. Although he had already begun to study and follow success stories from his own generation, I could see that some of the people from mine, or not much younger than me, were having an impact on him.

And yet as I looked at Eric I still felt the conflict: was I helping or hurting him by opening up this gateway to all things possible, when I had yet to achieve anything close to success myself?

Was I urging him to follow a provocative but fruitless path, to drink the Kool-Aid of prosperity and triumph that only a few people seem to ever attain?

Or was I encouraging him to look at life in a way that, outside of my books and tapes, no one had ever told me was possible when I was his age?

A treasure chest or a Pandora’s box?

Now mind you, not one of the speakers indicated that his or her road had been easy. In fact, far from it. Most of them had stories that included poverty, abandonment, public humiliation, failure and other huge obstacles that stood between where they were and where they wanted to be.

In fact, come to think of it, most of them had childhoods or faced hurdles far more difficult than any that I had personally experienced.

And yet they persevered. They became successful. And more than that, they went on to careers in helping others do the same.

No one there today pitched a high priced program. In fact, most of them didn’t pitch any products or programs at all. And the ones who did had offerings that ranged from $59 to $99 for three-day seminars that even included free software and/or follow up coaching–and one of those speakers gives all the seminar money raised to the American Diabetes Association.

It was certainly a far cry from some of the offers I’d heard at other seminars where I had paid much more to attend, only to be pitched $5,000 upsells, $10,000 one day retreats or $100,000 mastermind memberships.

No, today was totally refreshing. It cost me $20 for two tickets, $5 for parking and $99 to sponsor my nephew in a program that I hope he can benefit from.

Plus I got to hear a lot of good stuff. Stuff that I can still put to good use.

And I got to see the look of determination and possibility on the face of a young man. That in itself was priceless.

It’s so hard to stay focused on the big dream when everyone around you is playing it safe. But, as I’ve written about previously, how much would we all have lost if everyone had always played it safe? It’s the dreamers and doers who have made the most profound impacts on our lives and on the world as a whole.

What Eric does with his experience today is entirely up to him. Me, I came home and tweaked a plan of my own I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and made it more defined.  Because what I do with my experience today is entirely up to me as well.

If ingesting positive messaging is indeed drinking the Kool-Aid, well, it’s delicious and refreshing–and it certainly helps to offset the bitter, terrible sadness that we see in the news day in and day out. That said, you can make mine a double.

The world needs all the Kool-Aid it can get.

 

Your Own Personal Prison Break

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“Care about what other people think–and you will always be their prisoner.”

~Lao Tzu, philosopher and writer

I collect quotes that strike a chord with me, and file them away for future reference. Sometimes, when I need inspiration for a blog post, I dip into this quote file and randomly select one to write about.

At first, when I opened the saved email with Lao Tzu’s admonition above, I was tempted to just close it and make another random selection. I didn’t feel ready–or particularly qualified– to write about this quote.

Maybe that’s because, at any given moment, and far too often, I am still someone’s prisoner. Which I guess makes me about as qualified to write about Lao’s quote as the next guy.

One thing I do know for certain is that those of us who care what other people think–and, like it or not, that’s the majority of us–were not born with this trait. Or should I say liability. It’s probably why I’ve always enjoyed being in the company of toddlers. They see potential in everything and everyone. A stick turns into a magic wand or a toy gun. Other children in the park whom they have never met before are potential friends. Adults become horsies they can straddle, or amusement park rides that propel them high into the air.

Toddlers don’t worry that they might appear foolish. They don’t give a whole lot of thought to what other people think at all.

That is, until they cross some unforeseen boundary and behave in a way that garners disapproval from an important adult in their lives. At first, they might instinctively believe their behavior was justified–but no, the adult is clearly unhappy with them, and is expecting some sort of apology or acknowledgement that what they did was unacceptable. This is where it starts for most of us, this caring what other people think. And then the lesson gets solidified once we go to school, where what other people think can impact our report cards.

U’s were unsatisfactory. U’s terrified me.

Now don’t get me wrong; I firmly believe that children need parameters set for them, as differentiating between right and wrong does not always come naturally. Take the situation that occurred at a recent family get together, where my four year-old great nephew bit my three year-old great nephew on the arm. Clearly such behavior needs to be addressed, and it was. We wouldn’t want the little bugger growing up thinking that biting arms (or other body parts, for that matter!) was OK, would we?

But what many of us fail to do as we age is to learn how to distinguish between the disapproval we might receive for doing something harmful or illegal, from the disapproval we might receive from others who simply don’t agree with something we’ve said, done or want to do. And the more important those others are to us, the more we crave their approval or worry about what they think of us. Worse yet, we extend that need for approval to include people who don’t really matter that much, and sometimes even to people we don’t particularly like.

And the fact is, unless we are doing something illegal, immoral or that would cause harm to ourselves or others, we really shouldn’t worry about what others think of us at all. Or at least try not to. Chances are they aren’t thinking of us anyway. And if they are, well, there’s no way we can control other people’s thoughts–especially since we have such a freakin’ hard time controlling our own.

Once again, I am writing about a concept that I continue to personally struggle with, but that I really feel is true. I think of all the amazing inventions, all the wonderful books, music and movies, all of the great companies and all of the tremendous acts of charity and kindness that would have never happened if the people who created or performed them worried too much about what other people thought.

And I think of all the things I didn’t do over the years because I did.

I think that’s why, when someone shares their idea or a dream with me, I’m all over it like  paparazzi on a celebrity. My thoughts zoom right past “That’ll never work,” and I go into “What can we do to make that happen?” mode. I envision entire marketing plans for businesses, projects and programs that are just a twinkle in their daddy’s or mommy’s eye, then rein myself in to suggest first steps.

Ask me what I’m so passionate about that I could do it day after day for free, and I’d say, “Helping people go for something they really want.” And, under my breath I’d add, “And not care what other people think.”

See, I think a lot of us don’t go for our personal gusto, not because we fear failure–we’ve all failed at something in our lives and survived just fine. It’s that we fear what other people might think of us if our crazy idea failed.

So we keep that crazy dream locked up inside. And the world never gets a chance to benefit from or enjoy it.

That’s a damn shame.

In her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware shares what she learned from her patients during their final weeks of life. The number one regret?

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

I don’t want to bring that particular regret to my deathbed. Yet, now that I’m 60 years old, I am more aware than ever how finite life is. Better get my ass moving on that bucket list.

Referring back to the Lao Tzu quote, I hereby commit to setting myself free from this day forward–as best I can, at least. This can be the most amazing time of my life if I want it to be.

How about you? Is there an adventure you’re postponing? A dream you’ve been suppressing? I think it’s time to give yourself permission to pursue it.

Time to stage your own personal prison break.

 

Golf Ball Season

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Our house in Syracuse is across the street and down a hill from a municipal nine-hole golf course. You can’t actually see the golf course from my house, but you can’t help but know it’s there because, every spring and early summer, it’s golf ball season.

See, there’s a certain hole in that course where, if you slice them just right, you send golf balls over the fence, down the hill and onto our property. I find them nestled against the curb in front of our house, on my front lawn, or in the flower beds on either side of my front porch. One memorable time, while I was weeding my backyard garden, I witnessed one in action, bouncing down our driveway and coming to a stop at our garage door.

Finding golf balls is as much a part of my spring as the blossoming of early perennials, packing away my winter sweaters, and medicating my reaction to tree pollen.

The one waiting for me at the foot of our driveway when I got home from work today happened to be a nice, pretty new Titleist. I generally feel a little badly for the golfer when he or she sends a new one over the fence, as those things aren’t exactly cheap. But the majority of the balls that land in our yard are obviously practice balls, the more expendable, practical choice for the beginning golfer.

I never learned to play golf. Oh, I took some lessons and tried playing it on the very course I live near today, but it didn’t come naturally to me, so I quit.

I quit because, for too many years, I prided myself on being a perfectionist. And I used this desire to be perfect as a compass for my life; if I was good at something (and/or received praise for it) I stuck with it. If not, I dropped it.

Besides, what’s wrong with wanting to be perfect, I’d wonder? Isn’t “perfect” a wonderful word, a positive one? Don’t people remember Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci for her perfect ten? Why settle for B’s when you can get A’s, for “good” when you could be “best”?

And that perfectionism served me in many ways. I did very well in school. Loved reading because I was good at it, and writing because of the grades and accolades it brought me.

Then there was art. From the time I could hold a crayon, I loved to make pictures. Although I had no formal art training, I experimented with watercolor, chalk, pencil, ink, charcoal and acrylic paints. My mother didn’t just put my pictures on the refrigerator–she framed some of them. I believed I was destined to design greeting cards and illustrate children’s books…that was until, my sophomore year in high school, I got a C in art.

I never took art in school art again. Nor pursued a career as a commercial artist.

Writing, on the other hand, consistently brought me the grades, praise and awards I craved. Long before I graduated from high school, I had my mind set on being a writer.

Little did I know that the perfectionism that drove me to write would also turn out to be my biggest roadblock to a successful writing career. Far from being a “positive’ trait, it held me back, taunted me, scolded me. I’d get a rejection slip and quit writing for months at a time. I’d start a novel and, compared it to the work of my favorite authors, then abandon it, embarrassed, disgusted. Without teachers to stoke my ego and provide me with the encouragement I so needed, I floundered and procrastinated, struggled and avoided.

Yeah, perfectionism does that. So much for being a positive trait.

What I didn’t understand for the longest time…well, actually there were three things:

First, Nadia didn’t achieve her stunning level of performance naturally. She practiced. A lot. Yes, she possessed physical attributes that lent themselves to becoming a gymnast, but she also needed to spend countless hours honing them to accomplish what she did during those ‘76 games. Certainly she stumbled and fell and had imperfect dismounts during the years of practice leading up to her perfect scores.

Nadia exemplified the phrase practice makes perfect. If I had worked on my writing or art with even a tenth of the dedication Nadia put into her routines who’s to say what I could have accomplished.

Second, I’ve found that with any endeavor, the best lessons often come from one’s mistakes and failures. I think–I hope–that I am a better sister, friend, aunt, employee, writer and all around person based on the mistakes I have made over the years and what I eventually learned from them. In fact, I have come to believe that we’re all here to learn. Life is one unending series of lessons. And we’re not going to excel at each and every one of them–what’s the challenge in that?

And third, whether it’s pursuing hobbies or vocations or better mental and physical health, it’s important to have fun with the journey. When I finally stopped expecting myself to write epic prose and just began writing more regularly, I began enjoying both the process and the outcomes more. Sure, I still wince a little when I catch a typo or grammatical mistake I’ve made, and I still sometimes really envy the brilliance in other writers. But I know that my time at the keyboard is cathartic for me and, I hope, beneficial to others. Plus I learn from those other writers. And truly, that’s enough.

So as I retrieve the golf balls that come to my yard each year, I hope that the people who sent them my way don’t give up too soon. If they’re having fun, getting exercise, and spending time with friends, I hope that can be enough for now.

My only advice would be not to invest in new Titleist balls from the get go. Learning something might come at a cost, but it doesn’t have to be so expensive.