The play’s the thing…

All the world’s a stage,/ And all the men and women merely players:/ They have their exits and their entrances;/ And one man in his time plays many parts. – Shakespeare

There’s a belief common in spiritual practice that all the people who play important roles in our lives, from our parents, to our friends, to those who hurt us the most, signed up for their roles to teach us something that we came here to learn. And that those who love us the most are the ones who hurt us the most, because in being hurt we have the biggest opportunities to learn and grow.

And, when we exit, we will meet all of them again as their authentic selves, not in the role they played on the stage of our lives.

As a dear friend reminded me recently, we are all acting out plays that were written a long time ago. He was referring to our behavior patterns and thought patterns, which can become ingrained at an early age.

Except we forget that it’s a play. We get invested. We think it’s real. This is like believing the funhouse mirror shows us the real picture.

If our lives are pure fiction, what stories are we telling and re-telling? More to the point, what stories are we buying? And what stories are we re-living?

The challenge is to see the play for what it is. To recognize the players in our own mythology. The heroes. And the villains.

And the bigger challenge? To re-write the story and change the ending. To become the heroes of our own lives. To rescue ourselves instead of looking for someone else to do the heavy lifting.

We shall not cease from exploration/and the end of all our exploring/ will be to arrive where we started/and know the place for the first time. – T.S. Eliot

Living Well, Part II

Lately I’ve been having a surprising number of conversations that go something like this…

-Are you married?


-Do you have children?


-Oh. I’m sorry.

Usually the person asking the questions is a relative stranger, and the conversation ends with some sort of awkward pause during which I’m not sure what to say.

Apparently I’ve reached an age where to be single is unquestionably indicative of some sort of personal failing (at best) or a massive character flaw.

And being childless (or child-free, as I prefer to think of it)? In a word, pitiable.

It surprises and saddens me a little to learn that so many people consider a woman’s fulfillment to be so singularly tied to marriage and children. This goes back to a topic I discussed earlier this year in Scare-City and the Single Life: The Future is Now.

On the whole, it seems to me that people who are married are not necessarily any happier than those who are single. Perversely, it seems that many married people live vicariously through their single friends, and those who are single long to find “the one.” It’s funny because most marriages nowadays end in divorce. So, is finding “the one” more of a fairy tale now than ever?

Maybe the real theme here is that a great many people are not satisfied with the here and now. They spend much time longing for the future, or the past.

I think living well has a lot to do with being satisfied with the here and now, rather than saying “I’ll be happy when….” This isn’t to say we shouldn’t have goals, plans, and hopes for the future. But if those get in the way of living fully today, or if we feel that life can’t start until we have the perfect partner or the perfect family, then we may be denying ourselves the joys of the journey.

Each stage of life has its unique pleasures. When we allow ourselves to experience those fully, we are truly living well.

Living Well

People often say to me, “You seem so calm, all the time. You really must have no stress in your life.” I must admit, I’m terribly flattered…and also surprised.

It’s a lovely compliment which no doubt speaks to how much I’ve learned over the years about stress management and time management.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I have not been, historically, a calm person. But I think it was the fact that I so often found myself riddled with worries and anxiety that led me to the practices that have helped me become the person I am today.

If you add to that the fact that I surround myself with positive and supportive people, I think it goes a long way toward explaining what other people perceive as a calm, stress-free life.

The changes in my life didn’t happen overnight. But as I began to make better decisions for myself, I began to experience much more peace and satisfaction in my life. And these became the foundation, the basis of a question I would ask myself, kind of a barometer for making choices: What brings me more peace and a greater sense of satisfaction in my overall life and circumstances?

It’s worth mentioning here that one definition of stress is not experiencing challenging situations in one’s life, but rather it is wanting things to be different than they are. That is what often leads to frustration and emotional turmoil.

Even if we define stress as a challenging situation or life event, the ways that we perceive that event and then respond to it are largely learned. And they can be re-learned.

It goes back to what we hold on to, and what we choose to let go of. Every day, we have the opportunity to make choices that will bring greater peace into our lives, or leave us greater ensnared in chaos and emotional drama.

How we structure our value system, and how we live those values, will largely determine not only our overall direction in life, but also whether we truly are able to live well.

On Letting Go, Part II

(See part one of this entry.)

Let’s face it: Change can be hard. But sometimes, we make it harder than it needs to be by holding on. Whether we’re holding on to a person, a job, a house, or other situation in our lives, by investing in maintaining what is, we are refusing to allow what will be to take shape. For example, by holding on to a relationship that doesn’t work, we deny ourselves the opportunity to meet the right partner.

Often the motivation to maintain the status quo in a circumstance in our lives stems from the fear that, if we let what we have go, we will have nothing. We will lose.

But in order to grow, we must first create a space, an opening, for something more, something or someone who will be a better fit. And in that space is an opportunity for healing, for clarity, and for intentionality in manifesting the next experience.

Recommended reading: Letting Go of Attachment, From A to Zen

How we see things…Part II

“We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.” – Anais Nin

Many of us are attached to the idea that the reality we see is objective. But objectivity is difficult to come by. Our prior experiences, preconceptions, projections, and (often faulty) beliefs alter what we see.

Think of a funhouse mirror. Get the picture?

Now, this isn’t necessarily a problem unless we fail to realize it. In other words, if we become so invested in what we see in the mirror that we believe it’s real.

One of my favorite teachers, Swami Bodhananda, says that if we look in the mirror and see a fractured image we are only “lost” if we believe that we are actually fractured or distorted. It’s only the image that’s distorted. And the image isn’t who we are.

To take this a step further, consider, Who (or what) are we? Are we merely a collection of our thoughts and experiences? Are we our emotions? Our words and deeds? If identity is a construct, from what elements do we build it? And if we dismantle it, what do we have left?

Travel by Rail

Recently I took a trip by train to visit family. A long train trip. Several of my friends thought it sounded romantic, exciting, and fun. It wasn’t.

Thanks mostly to movies, train travel has been glorified beyond the reality of the experience. Perhaps a slightly more realistic image comes to mind when I recall the Sex and the City episode in which Carrie and Samantha take a cross country trip by train. The “deluxe sleeper car” turns out to be, well, less luxurious than expected.

One of my favorite written descriptions of train travel can be found in Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, in which he details his travels around Britain, often by rail. Of course, European trains and American trains are not at all alike, but perhaps people everywhere are the same.

Bryson, much to his chagrin, discovers that he is sitting behind “Cellphone Man.” I’m here to report that Cellphone Man is still alive and well. And multiplying. Bryson’s book was first published in 1995, but a surprising number of people still seem to feel the need to call all manner of friends, relatives, and work associates to report – “I’m on the train.” I’m pretty sure this is why text messaging was invented.

For a quirky movie about three brothers’ train shenanigans, check out The Darjeeling Limited, in which three brothers travel by train across India.

If you’re planning a trip, remember that real life isn’t quite like the movies. You may wish to consider another mode of transport.

If at first you don’t succeed…

With all the hot weather we’ve had recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time at Lake Michigan. It’s an excellent place to watch people doing, well, the things people do. On a recent visit, I watched a guy getting into a kayak.

Now, if you’ve ever kayaked, you know that it’s much easier to get into the kayak from relatively shallow water. (I used to do quite a bit of kayaking, and I did share this suggestion with him, by the way.) But rather than do that, he walked out into the lake with the kayak until the water was about 4-5 feet deep, and then proceeded to spend about 15-20 minutes attempting to get into it.

As I watched, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a turtle I saw a few weeks ago by the St. Joseph River, trying valiantly to climb onto a log to sun itself.

After more than a few unsuccessful attempts, the man, like the turtle, eventually succeeded in climbing into the kayak.

I suppose persistence pays off.

But so does learning from the experience of others, which can save you a whole lot of time and effort. (And sometimes, maybe even a little dignity.)

Even still, there are some times when we have to learn through our own experiences. It can be a slower, and perhaps at times more painful process. But the lessons we learn that way are not easily forgotten.

Photo by Virginia Olson © 2012

Birds of a feather…

Earlier this week I was in the kitchen when I heard a flock of birds making loud screeching noises outside the window. When I looked out into the back yard, I saw a hawk on the ground. When I looked closer, it appeared the bird was sitting on something.

That something turned out to be a full size bluejay.

After a few seconds the hawk abandoned the frightened bluejay, and flew to a nearby tree. The apparently unharmed bird flew away, but his posse was not happy. At least a dozen other bluejays continued to surround the hawk, screeching their disapproval and virtually swarming around him.

They finally drove him out of the tree, and as I watched him flying away into the distance, I saw that one or two were still in hot pursuit.

I had no idea that bluejays would defend their own against a predator. It was a surprising and inspiring example of strength in numbers.

I think sometimes it’s easy to get caught in the illusion of powerlessness. In that respect, I think we can take a lesson from the bluejays. Individually we may be small, easy prey. But united as a group, with others who are like-minded, we are mighty.

Blueberry View

I just came back from Blueberry View Artists’ Retreat. The Retreat, located about 10 miles north of Saint Joseph, Michigan, was started in 2010 by Janet Sullivan and her partner Mark Toncray, both sculptors from the Chicago area. Its purpose is to give artists a space to create away from the distractions of everyday life.

In addition to a cozy apartment and studio space, the Retreat features lovingly tended gardens and the blueberry fields for which it is named. And of course, the inspirational beauty of nearby Lake Michigan. I stayed at the Retreat for just under two weeks, using the time to work on a book I hope to publish later this year. Not only was I amazed by the amount of work I finished during just that brief time period, but I also benefited in other ways.

Taking a break from life’s distractions – phone, internet, television, social engagements and the like – is an opportunity to focus on the things that really matter. A successful retreat, then, is not just a vacation or time away from home, but a time to reflect on values and priorities.

I think that one of the keys to living well is to know what you value, and to spend your time accordingly. In that case, it pays to ask a couple of important questions:

  • Do you know what really matters to you?
  • How much of your time do you spend on the things that really matter?

Photos by Virginia Olson © 2012




Everyday Heroes

I went to the beach earlier this week to watch the sunset over Lake Michigan. While I was there I heard a guy who was out in the water start to argue with his girlfriend. As the discussion escalated, he began cursing at her and criticizing her weight – I never heard her say a word from where I was sitting.

It was disturbing and painful to listen to. In fact, I was getting ready to leave when an older man sitting in a lawn chair called out to the young man and told him to watch his mouth.

He then actually got out of his chair and walked partway out into the water toward the younger man. He again asked him to watch his language, or leave, because there were children present. He gestured toward at least a dozen little kids playing on the beach within earshot.

I didn’t hear another word out of the younger guy the entire time I was there.

I think everyone – it was mostly women and children on the beach – breathed a sigh of relief.

And that guy in the lawn chair? He’s an everyday hero.