‘Tis the season?

I’m settled back in to my home in America and find myself seeing my old world through new eyes. Something about returning to a place gives me a warm feeling when I recognize something familiar, but a bit of a jolt when something is different. If you’ve left your home for any decent stretch of time and returned, then you know the feeling.

Tonight on my drive home I saw Christmas lights draped across a large hedge. Then a bit further up the road, a full blown Christmas tree lot with an inflatable Santa bouncing around happily, beckoning to minivans loaded with small children.

On Saturday, I went for a hike with my book club crew and stopped by Walmart on the way home to pick up a few things. I noticed that the outdoor garden center was jam-packed with rows of children’s bikes neatly parked on kick stands waiting to light up little Billy’s eyes on Christmas morning. Just inside the store an entire seasonal section was loaded with wrapping paper and bows and every other imaginable Christmas item.

And if all got me to thinking…why can’t we celebrate the moment? The present moment being Thanksgiving season in America. It feels a bit intrusive to me that retailers and tree vendors and even homeowners have taken the decision to simply over-shadow a huge America holiday by thrusting the trapping of the next holiday on us.

Then I realized that the retailers would certainly not be stocking items before people are willing to purchase them, which means we are part of this equation. The guy running the tree stand is not going to start stocking perishable trees before people will buy them. And for Pete’s sake, a person wouldn’t choose to spend extra money on lights decorating their shrubs before they deem it’s the right time.

So, I’m left wondering. In the midst of our apparent crisis of not being able to live in the moment. Leading to a host of books and podcasts and seminars and retreats on mindfulness. Here’s a perfect time to try it. Can we all come together and say – no, it’s not Christmas season yet. The season upon us is Thanksgiving. Let’s fully live this season and then move on to Christmas! How about we all try it on for size? It’s a great test of our ability to implement mindfulness and savor the season, as they say on all the frozen turkey wrappers.

Otherwise, I’m thinking we might as well give up now and just go ahead and join our friends down under and celebrate Christmas in July!

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Lap Child

Lap Child

Yesterday I boarded my third and final connection to get me back home after a week of business travel in Germany. The time was about 9:30 pm and I’d been traveling for approximately 15 hours. As I boarded the Air Canada flight, I had one thing on my mind – plugging in my headphones and getting some rest. I found my seat – 5D – threw my carryon in the overhead bin, shoved my backpack under the seat and sat down. 

You can imagine what I was thinking when a few minutes into boarding a lady walked up carrying a small child in her arms and said she had the window seat next to me. I asked her if she’d prefer the aisle, something in me said this would be easier for everyone, and she accepted it happily. As the little fellow began to settle in I replaced the batteries in my noise canceling headphones and prepared to tune out with some music and my book.

But, first, I decided to say hello to my new seat-mates. Lately, I’ve been trying to reconnect with the people next to me on the plane. I think it stems from this desire to counter the toxic themes in our society by being part of the change. I want to make more connections and be part of a pleasant exchange with another person. It doesn’t mean I chat the entire flight, but it just seems like a decent thing to do to acknowledge the human sitting next to me, breathing the same air. 

We exchanged our hellos and then the mother had the delightful task of convincing her 21 month old son, who’d also, by the way, been traveling all day, to sit facing her for take-off. He was having none of it. The frustration and screaming began and at first I thought “this is going to be a long short flight”. Headphones secured I tried to block out the noise. Then I decided to take a different tact. Maybe instead of blocking out the “problem” I could be part of the solution…

I began to play with the little tyke. We turned the reading light on and off, then moved on to peek-a-boo. I realized I hadn’t played with a little kid this age in a while and racked my brain for little games or songs to sing. I found the teensy weeny spider hiding in the cobweb of my memories, and pulled it out. He was fascinated! 

After takeoff, I decided to work on some drawing I’d begun on the long flight over the ocean. Of course, this peaked his interest and I loaned him a pen to decorate the in-flight magazine. Along the way his mother and I chatted about life and travel. Occasionally we were silent, enjoying the peaceful moments.

When the drink service started things took a turn for the worse as my seat-mate decided to dump a glass of orange juice on all of us. Luckily, I had my leather jacket draped across my lap for warmth and was saved the shower. His poor mother was drenched. As she looked over in horror, I laughed and said, for perhaps the 20th time that flight, its fine, don’t worry! I was amazed to find that I actually wasn’t upset at all.

I found myself feeling like I could relate to the poor fellows frustration of being locked up once again, unable to move freely, except for brief strolls up and down the aisles. I have found myself angry and wanting to cry on a plane after a long day of travel. So, I wasn’t at all surprised that this 21 month old little cutie was freely expressing his emotions.

As we prepared for landing his mother had the fun task of again securing him. By this point the poor fellow was even more frustrated so in addition to peekaboo and the teensy weensy spider song, I added the try to grab my hand routine. It was a hit. As we slowly rolled up the runway toward our gate, he gave up and fell asleep, snuggled securely in his mothers arms. This presented a new challenge – how would she gather all her things? I and another fellow helped out and then she and I walked along side-by-side toward the baggage claim area. Each pushing one handle of the stroller which he wasn’t in the mood to sit in and was loaded up with a tiny backpack and diaper bag.

I marveled at how encountering a lap child sitting on the flight next to me had felt like the worst way to end my day, but in fact was a tremendous gift. As I waited for my husband on the curb, I felt lighter. The memories of his little smiley face and the gratitude of his mother lingering in my mind. So, next time you wind up next to a lap child, remember that instead of an apparent problem, it might just be an opportunity for joy. It’s all about how you choose to respond to the situation. 

No photos please

This evening I had the pleasure of sharing a lovely dinner with friends in Düsseldorf. One thing I noticed was different about this dinner. While phones were around, they didn’t consume the guests attention. As I observed this, I found myself itching to ask the guests to gather together for the usual cell-phone groupie to remember the night.

I paused to consider why I wanted a photo. Would I post it on Facebook? Would I look at it in the airport lounge on my way home – a few pixels to remember the night? Would I simply add it to the series of other photos of my increasingly cluttered digitally-curated life?

At the moment when I wanted to request a photo, my friends were comfortable – hair undone, make-up non-existent or minimal, clothing casual and comfortable. They were beautiful and natural, but maybe pausing to take a photo would make them assess the way they looked. After the snap, they might pull the phone out of my hand and critique a wrinkle they acquired from smiling in the sunshine while playing with their children. They might think “geez I should have done my hair instead of squeezing in a yoga class before dinner”. We’d have to snap another and another until everyone looked good, or someone half-heartedly said, “we’re done now, it’s fine”.

Requesting a photo would have taken us out of the moment. Our conversation string broken. Who knows what brilliant piece of German/English fusion would have been lost in that moment? Would we have lost the discussion of a book author, or an artist, or why is everyone so consumed with their phone? Time that is spent for one purpose can never be used for another.

No, this moment was too precious to capture in a photo. This moment I would capture in my memory by studying the faces at the table – glowing in the soft light of the low-hanging table lamp. The sparkling white gemstones that dangled from the ears of my friend, her shoulders cloaked in a dark green scarf to deflect the draft. The way my friend across the table curled her legs up under her chair and earnestly followed the conversation with serious concentration in her eyes. The open, content smile of my host – perched on her child’s chair to my right, with one hand gingerly supporting her suddenly not-so-comfortable-back. 

The warm, earthy flavor of the ratatouille cooked with loving care by my hosts. The bright green of the fresh-cut cilantro that I sprinkled atop it with my fingers. The rich, slightly dry red wine that rolled across my tongue. Contrasted with bubbles of sparkling water poured from a ribbed glass pitcher that spit and hissed as it hit my glass. 

Soft candlelight glowed on one edge of the room and the children came and went until bedtime. Then the oldest snuck into the entryway again – a ghost chased back to his room by his parents.

No, taking a photo was not the way to remember this night. This night was too precious to be rendered as purely a digital snapshot. This moment needed to be lived, completely. A memory reinforced by scents, tastes, sights, sounds and wrapped up in the warm embrace between two friends. 

Maybe tonight was a turning point for me. Next time you see me not taking a photo – don’t think it’s because I don’t care… There just might be a memory in the making.

United by Joy 

Today I found myself re-engaging with an old familiar routine – early-morning airline travel. I’m off to Germany again – but this time not to my apartment (which is no longer mine) but to a hotel for a week of business meetings. I managed a remarkable 21 day stint at home! Nearly a record for me. And when it came to packing-up, boy did I ever procrastinate!!!

Which is how I found myself waking up at 5 am, barely managing a quick coffee and a shower, before I madly packing my suitcase and backpack. I thought I’d done pretty well until we pulled up to the first turn and I realized I had forgotten my jeans – back to the house we went.

No harm no foul.

To make this journey fun, my husband and I pretended it was my first trip to Germany. Wow – it was going to be so amazing to visit a new place and finally practice all that German I’d been learning. Adding a humorous spin to the day certainly lifted my mood.

A quick farewell at the curb and I checked in my suitcase (I’m returning with gifts for the other expats and will also load up some clothes I left with a neighbor), passed through security and lined up in the old familiar cue of weary travelers at the Starbucks. Americano and banana in hand, I rode the people mover down to the gate. Last weekend, on my 39th bday, I was overly ambitious and rode two mountain bike trails with my husband. My back sure is making me pay. Let’s just say I’m feeling my age!

So, here I was as I boarded the United flight to Newark, New Jersey – sleepy, a bit melancholy about leaving home, with a sore back. I was so happy to be greeted by a smile and some humor from the flight atttendant – Berg. I quickly surmised that this man loves his job. Either that or he just decided to be positive today.

Every gesture was accompanied with a smile, humor and kindness in his eye. I found myself wondering, does he truly love his job? Or does he just chose to be happy? Did, in fact, something very terrible recently happen in his life and he’s chosen it won’t get him down? Maybe he in fact woke up in a bad mood but decided he wouldn’t share it with others? 

I don’t know what question is true, but I decided to be one of the few people who gave him the curtosy of watching the security briefing and silently chuckled at the extra silly mimes he interjected to the standard routine. After we were airborne, coffee was served up hot with an offering of Bailey’s to “spice it up”. I politely declined and resumed drawing in my notebook. Happy to be in the presence of a joyful person.

The flight was short – a mere hour and fifteen minutes – and as we began to descend I noticed Berg was meticulously folding a piece of paper. My first guess was he was assembling a paper airplane to throw at someone before we landed, a final, desperate gesture to improve the mood of grumpy, early Saturday-morning travelers. 

As the folding progressed, he tore off the bottom third of the page and was left with a neat square. He stayed busy with his hands and it quickly became obvious that he was practicing origami – a crease, a fold, followed by multiple firm swipes down the edge. Crease, fold, turn, the pattern continued. 

We landed and I became distracted by the act of gathering my things. I lost track of the origami and frankly forgot about it for a moment, until I deplaned. As I passed by Berg, I offered a smile of farewell. He smiled in return and firmly pressed a paper crane in to my hand.


As I bounced up the gangway to the terminal, with a smile plastered on my face, I was amazed at the power of a piece of paper in the hands of a creative, positive person. Remember that how you behave can either make someone’s day better or worse. Which do you choose?

Happy Tears 

This morning I woke up, looked out in the courtyard of Melrose Place and decided my favorite chair was just the place to enjoy a coffee. As I sat in the chair and kicked up my feet on the little brick ledge that borders the grass (that lovely green grass that has filled me with happiness for these two years), I felt tears begin to well in my eyes.

This is how I’ve begun my last full day living as an expat in Düsseldorf. There were times when I didn’t know if I could (or wanted) to survive the loneliness of living without my husband in a foreign place. And, while I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, I’m proud of both of us that we stayed the course. Because along the way, as we gave up so much, we gained much more.

I gained a group of friends who have become like family in another country where 2.5 years ago I could speak maybe 10 words of the native tongue. And sometimes the things we learn need to be pointed out to us by others. My aunt observed that because I threw myself out there in the world, I learned just how vulnerable and fragile a human life is and this has taught me empathy. Which is true!

As I prepared to go home people asked what I would miss and what I won’t miss and what I’ll be happy to return to in America. Besides my husband (who is part of the answer to all those questions, by the way), I found that mostly what I miss and what I won’t miss and what I look forward to are not things or places. It’s people and feelings and interesting local patterns that lead to unique traditions. 

I won’t go into answering these questions here, besides it’s getting hard to see the screen… but I will say that if you have the chance to immerse yourself in a new country for a time. I say, do it. But, remember that your happiness is in your hands. As I strolled through lovely Unterbilk last night snapping photos of my favorite places (oh so many) I was filled with gratitude that I fought through the tough times (with kind coaching from so many friends and family) so that my mind is fillled with happy memories of Düsseldorf.

Tomorrow I will go home and begin the next chapter. As my dad put it, “this was just a blip, you’ve got loads of adventures ahead”. But, what an incredible chapter it was! Filled with love and laughter and, yes, tears. Like now. But they’re happy tears and that’s totally ok with me.

Enough sappiness, I’m off for one last morning run through the Hafen. Have a great day my friends!

Gratitude 

Gratitude 

Today is move day. 

This morning I whirled through my apartment trying to get all the stuff set aside for the air shipment and to throw in my suitcases. I had a big pile of coins that I always meant to take to the bank, but I never did it. I tossed them in a ziploc bag and threw it in a duffel bag that I’ll leave with a friend for return trips. Thinking, I’ll take care of it sometime when I’m back for business.

The movers arrived early and I dashed to the store to buy them some cold drinks and stopped in the bakery for a sandwich and a coffee. As I hurriedly walked to the bakery, I passed by a gentlemen who is always sitting at the corner begging for coins. He has one leg and he travels there by crutches every morning. When I saw him, I knew what I needed to do. There was no question in my mind.

I went home and grabbed my bag of change and gave it to him. He smiled and made a sound of gratitude (I think maybe he can’t speak), looked me in the eye and shook my hand. 

I think that is one of the most fulfilling moments I have had all year. 

I walked by again later and he looked at me and put his hand to his heart and then pointed it to me. I’m blessed and he blessed me with his gratitude. 
Sometimes when we’re trying to take care of ourselves it’s worth it to stop and remember to take care of others. You will be rewarded in a way that can never be measured on this earth.

White hairs, they’re a coming…

Lately, there’s a lot in my head as I’m closing in on my last days in Germany and nearing my 39th birthday. I feel mostly great about both things, but they are moments when it’s nice to pause and reflect. In the midst of all of this, today, when I looked in the mirror I noticed more white hairs. At this point, they’re coming inpretty  steadily, and although I’ve decided to let them stay, I think I’m not totally at peace with that decision. I’m wondering – why? Why do I find white hairs offensive?

Why is there an intuitive judgement that if my hair follicle has shifted from producing a brown or a blondish-colored hair to a white one, then it’s suddenly not good? Why am I focused on trying to appear to be an age that I am not? Why do I resist embracing my age in it’s fullest expression, including the inevitable white hair?

I have decided I won’t color my hair, at least for now, and embrace the way my body is aging, at least on my scalp! I stay active, and fit and make sure to retain muscle and cardio ability by training nearly every day for at least half an hour. This makes me feel clear-headed and strong and ready to tackle whatever comes.

But, the hair, the white hairs, again, why do they bother me? Why is it that on a man, white/grey hair I think is distinguished, but on a woman I think it looks old? 

Why do I invest even one ounce of energy looking in the mirror and judging the completely natural evolution of my scalp?

I continue to support myself in deciding to keep my hair natural and not alter the color to perpetuate the notion that I am youthful, when actually, I’m tipping on 40. While I do strive to have a youthful body, I want it to be supported by a wise mind. A mind that occasionally says, hey the right hamstring is tight, let’s take it easy running today. Or a mind that says, calm down, it’s not as bad as you think it is – keep some perspective here! 

So, I’ll be a bit optimistic here and say that maybe the white hairs are really coming in now because I’ve achieved some sort of wisdom in my 39’s and my hairs want to show this to the rest of the world. From that perspective, why the heck would I cover it up!?

Basically, I’m looking for some support and wisdoms from the tribe here…how do you accept an aging scalp and the white hairs that follow?