2014 Week 2: Shifting my gaze toward spirituality

Happy New Year! I love the fresh perspective and motivation January brings.

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Sunset over the Gulf of Mexico

I started this blog two years ago to help me focus on outward goals: running more, eating better, exploring my new home country, writing, learning German, learning to be a mom. And I’m so happy with how these ambitions have unfolded into realities.

For 2014, though, I want to try something a little different. I’m committing this year to exploring not just a continuation of these things I still feel passionately about, but how I go about them. How I go about life, actually. I want to pay more attention to what’s going on inside to help me live my authentic life. And for that, I am giving more thought to my spirituality.

I tend to oscillate between two states — reaching outward toward tangible goals and settling back into introspection as goals sit untouched. The two tend to stay in opposite corners. And I find I have to almost start over with each aspect as I return to one side from the other.

I decided to try to bridge that gap when I heard a comment by life coach Gabrielle Bernstein that keeps replaying in my head: “Speed up by slowing down.”

Here’s her take:

“I’m not saying you should renounce the world and meditate all day—but I am suggesting that you clear space to access your inner power. When you do that, time will seem to expand, and you’ll accomplish more.”

As I got used to being Mommy and found time to return to me, I’ve set more and more goals. But as I reach for them, I sometimes feel frazzled.

It’s true, I’m not rushed by bosses, paychecks, deadlines of a professional matter, or  anything but my little people and my own standards. But my personal desires and familial duties flit about in my head, making me feel, while doing one thing, that I should be doing 20 other things. I feel a bit like a cartoon dog whose legs are spinning but going nowhere.

Well, those spinning legs kick up a bunch of dust but not much accomplishment. Motivation carries me so far, and after a while, what does get done tends to be halfhearted, less thoughtful. In this cluster of mad dashes I begin to lose heart in the things I had felt so drawn to.

Speeding up by slowing down, to me, is a call to turn inward, to refocus on not just accomplishing a to-do list, but in doing whatever I do with true intention. This may be with meditation or reading inspirational, thought-provoking work, whatever. I am calling this spirituality because I see it as tapping into my higher power, one that can guide my thoughts, choices and actions in a more focused, thoughtful and balanced way.

I’ve practiced meditation before. I’ve seen what it can do for me. But the inevitable end was this: after I marvel at its power, I hop on the train to which it led me and the ride is so exciting and wonderful that I no longer have that 10 or 20 minutes to sit in stillness and reflect on anything divine. I have baths to give and tiny people to feed and writing and exercise and language class.

Then it becomes stressful. I think about giving up some of the writing. That makes me sad. So I eat a box of Lindt truffles. I grow more tired so instead of exercising, I nap. I think something has to give. Well, I believe there is something ready to give — it’s that divine energy inside. This year, I want to pay more attention to all it has to offer.

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2013 Week 51: Bern’s Christmas market

There’s a market every week in Bern, most likely it’s very similar to markets across Europe, where you can find street food, herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables, cheese, hand-made crafts, knitted hats and scarves, didgeridoos and bongo drums.

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But during the four weeks of Advent, markets expand into massive Christmas celebrations bringing locals and tourist out to peruse dozens of stalls, experience holiday customs and sip mulled wine and hot chocolate.

Christmas markets date back later than 500 years and have spread from German-speaking Europe to places across the globe. There’s even a tour company that arranges travel to cities hosting hundreds of markets throughout the world.2013-12-11 21.49.17

Ours isn’t the biggest one around, but it’s festive and set on on a beautiful square. I thought I’d share some pictures.

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2013 Week 50: Meeting role model and guru, Elizabeth Gilbert

I’ve been lucky enough to see author Elizabeth Gilbert speak, not once, but twice now, after two different books yielding two different experiences.

Liz Gilbert signs my copy of Eat, Pray, Love at a talk in Miami, 2009

Liz Gilbert signs my copy of Eat, Pray, Love at a talk in Miami, 2009

I stumbled across Liz’s (yes, I’ll call her Liz) work seven years ago when my book club (and the rest of the world) read Eat, Pray, Love. To say I liked the book is an understatement. I devoured it. I became a student of her own self discovery. I uncovered as many tips for finding my authentic self as I could. And when I found myself wanting, as the devout return again and again to their favorite passages of scripture, I turned again to my dog-eared, underlined, highlighted copy of Eat, Pray, Love.

When Liz gave a talk in Miami a couple of years later, I dragged my roommate along, giddy with anticipation at meeting a woman in whom I had found so much inspiration. I hung on every word she spoke. When she signed my worn out copy of her international best-selling memoir I almost cried.

This was the lens through which I approached her 2013 novel, so it took a few pages to wrap my brain around a 19th century theme.

Still, Liz’s writing made it easy to fall for the characters, to be transported to the world of imagined history. (The main character, Alma, is raised with all the things money can buy, by parents who train her to think critically and to never settle for not knowing. Yet her life evolves into a desperate search for the things she cannot understand — desire, love, companionship, keys to science’s greatest mysteries.) Some long parts could have been shorter, some short parts could have been longer. But I liked the book, overall.

I finished The Signature of All Things the day before Liz’s talk in Switzerland.

About 150 people, almost all women, filled the small library reading room and I snatched up a front row seat just a few minutes before the event began. Liz was accompanied by a journalist who asked the questions (in German) and interpreted Liz’s responses. She was also traveling with a woman who read several passages of the book (in German) so emotively, I could discern which scenes she was reading.

Liz Gilbert speaks at a reading in Zurich, 2013

Liz Gilbert speaks at a reading in Zurich, 2013

I was awed by Liz and enjoyed listening to her speak about her process creating fiction, though part of me still hoped for some grand epiphanies about life’s experiences.

She spoke of how her love of gardening fueled the idea for this story set in the midst of a sort of world-wide botanical revolution. She researched for years and at one point refused to read anything printed after 1880 so that Liz began thinking and writing naturally in the tone of the era.

She spoke of her love for writers like Charles Dickens who wrote with such authority that the reader was carried along with ease. And she touched on the true-life, understated role women played in science around the time Charles Darwin introduced the notion of evolution.

I was excited to hear that the makers of Downton Abbey were in talks to turn the book into a miniseries.

While the bits of the presentation I could understand fascinated me, part of me ached for a little of that introspective insight. But at the same time, I am in a different place myself. I’m in a better place, emotionally, than when I read her famous memoir. And I have just completed a rough draft of my first novel, in part with Liz’s thoughts on writing in the back of my head, with a dreamer’s lofty goals of seeing it through to publication.

I saw Liz Gilbert no longer as an emotional guru but as a professional one. So instead of being ecstatic at her talk, this time I rode home on the train feeling … good. It may be a little strange to see the same person in two different lights, but it’s always a gift to be in the presence of someone who inspires you. I thought for a few minutes about the event, then I opened my new book.

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2013 Week 49: YouTube, a Thanksgiving miracle

Holidays create some of the most profound imprints on our memory and recalling those memories with all of our senses brings certain feelings bubbling to the surface. We may not remember the details of our past, but for anyone fortunate enough to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas (or whatever holiday) in a loving home, we remember how the holidays felt. Sights or sounds or smells can draw out a sense of love and togetherness and happiness.

Living a life far away from those experiences, even when we try to recreate the holidays,  can feel like something just isn’t quite right, and can put a damper on your holiday spirit.

I remember my first Christmas in Florida, with palm trees, no snow and flip flops. This was normal for the natives, but for me, a Michigan transplant, it just didn’t “feel” like Christmas. Over the years, I grew to understand it and get into the holiday groove. But whenever I went home and felt that cold northern air, my spirits lifted ten fold.

I love my life in Switzerland, but with the holiday season in full swing, I found, in my preparation for Thanksgiving dinner, something was off.

It wasn’t the turkey dinner. While whole gobblers just aren’t a staple of Swiss cuisine, we were able to order a whole turkey breast from the butcher. I was even surprised that, while standing in line to retrieve it, lo and behold, we saw two whole, small birds — for 113 Swiss francs. Yikes! Nevertheless, there they were. Whole turkeys. Maybe next year?

I was even excited about the preparations. I found a recipe for a delicious cranberry sauce that included port and cinnamon, an easy traditional stuffing, good old green bean casserole with trusty ingredients like condensed mushroom soup and fried onions I ordered ages ago from the online American food store and a super cheesy, new-to-me roll to serve called gougères. No, dinner was not the thing that had me feeling off.

And it wasn’t football. We would have great luck this year with the football games. We subscribe to a channel that offers American sports, which usually shows one NFL game (at a reasonable hour) each Sunday, the day of our Thanksgiving dinner.  The game being shown was Dom’s favorite, the Miami Dolphins, (who won!). To top it off, on Thursday, they showed the traditional Thanksgiving game, my hometown Detroit Lions (who destroyed the Green Bay Packers. Woot!)

The thing missing, the thing that didn’t seem right, was the Thanksgiving Day parade. In the days leading up to Thursday, I searched for any indication that one of the parades would be streaming live online. They hadn’t been the year before, but you never know what could change. But no, there would be no Thanksgiving Day parade from New York City or Detroit on Thursday. I’m not sure why they don’t do this. I would imagine the advertisers might appreciate a broader online audience. Nevertheless, no parades. It felt like someone took a pin to my balloon of holiday joy and let the air out in a slow leak. I love the parade. I can’t remember a year without it. It’s the one thing that shouts from the rooftops, this is a day to celebrate.

So without the parade, Thursday, aside from some good football, would be just another day. So I used it to decorate for Christmas. I put in one of my favorite movies while the girls napped, The Holiday, and did a little baking.

Then I remembered YouTube.

Some wonderful person out there uploaded the entire 2012 Macy’s parade. Hooray! It would be a little dated, but who cares. There would be marching bands and the Rockettes and Snoopy and Santa Claus. And miracle of miracles, that same angel did it again. This year’s parade was available by the time our Sunday Thanksgiving dinner came around.

Suddenly, I was an excited little girl. I couldn’t wait to fill the apartment with the sound of drum lines and trumpets. It may seem a little exaggerated to call a parade a miracle. But I say someone who does something to lift another’s spirits, is miraculous. There were quite a few people who gave this YouTube person huge praises for bringing a little feeling of home to those who live around the globe. And I said my own thanks.

Sunday came and everything went perfectly. The family came over in the early evening and we all watched the Bern soccer team tie Basel, a better team who had just beaten, for the second time, one of England’s powerhouse teams, Chelsea. It was a great game. Everyone took turns playing with the girls. Dinner was done on time and edible with the parade playing, through the TV hooked up to our computer, in the background. It played to my, and the rest of my family’s delight (Sophie kept dancing around saying “I love marching bands!”). After dinner, we watched the Miami Dolphins beat the jets and snacked on coffee and a pumpkin roll that came out successful and yummy after having eluded me for years. Aside from the rest of our family being across the ocean instead of in our living room, and some too-crispy green beans, it was a perfect Thanksgiving dinner.

The day would still have been nice had we not had the parade, but with the festive American sights and sounds, it felt, to me at least, like more than just a nice dinner. It felt like a holiday, a celebration, it felt like home, like maybe I was helping to create a special memory for my girls, it felt like I was a kid again surrounded by love and the special things that make the young and young-at-heart jump up and down at the sight of giant balloons and marching bands.

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2013 Week 48: Watch this Rendez-vous to brighten your day … and night!

It’s not often that standing outside on a cold, dark, drizzly, autumn night for half an hour can lift your spirits.

But if you take the time to watch Bern’s Rendez-vous Bundesplatz, a light and sound show on the parliament square (projected with absolute precision on the building itself), in person or online, you will be wowed.

This is a high-def, full-length video of the show for anyone who can’t go in person. Or, like me, just wants to watch it again.

It’s about 25 minutes long and I know it’s asking a lot to say “watch this” but seriously, watch this! If you really are pressed for time, click through just for a sampling of the show’s intricate detail. The last couple of minutes will set your knees to bouncing.

The production, in its third year, runs for six weeks from mid-October through Dec. 1 (except for Nov. 24-25 when the city puts on its annual and raucus Onion Market).

I didn’t understand the story line, something about a princess, but you don’t have to understand Swiss German to enjoy the creativity in this spectacle.

Here’s a breakdown from the city’s tourism web site:

“Starlight Events GmbH – the initiator and organizer of this cultural event – invites spectators on a fictional journey through Swiss myths and legends, all bundled into an entertaining story: The imaginary King of Switzerland – the nation – wants his daughter Helvetia to marry the country’s best crossbowman, William Tell. But his daughter is in love with a humble watchmaker, and so the story continues…  Swiss and Bernese folk heroes are featured in over a dozen different scenes throughout the show, and the front of the Parliament Building is visually transformed into all types of palaces – in the greatest of detail. We won’t reveal more about the story and its ending here, other than to mention that the show also features a legendary Bernese troubadour – one who died far too young…”

Hope you like it!

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2013 Week 47: “Don’t wait to follow the angels.”

Inspiration comes last, or second to last. But it rarely comes first. Don’t wait for it. It won’t just show up. Not unless, and until, you put your butt in the chair first and do the work.

Those are words, from a lot of authors, but particularly here, from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, that have pushed me to the keyboard every day for the last 18 days and helped me reach what I hope is my first in a long line of book-writing goals.

She writes this:

“So don’t wait around to be inspired before you get to work, folks. You may be waiting a long time. Instead — as I have said on this page before many times — follow your curiosity, which is a more common, modest and trustworthy impulse. What are you interested in? What makes you turn your head and say, “Huh…I want to know more about that…”? What topic or vision is fascinating enough that it could sustain your attention for the years of effort it might take to actually finish a project?

Find that thing, commit yourself to it, and then show up and get to work.

Don’t wait to follow the angels. The angels will follow YOU, once they see you are serious about your labors.”

I have thought about writing this book for years, even attempted a chapter once. That was four years ago and I hadn’t touched it since. Then something kind of bizarre happened. Someone asked me to help edit their book. Just a man who had a story, he sat down now and then over the course of 20 years and pieced together something he wanted to share with the world. He eventually realized he still wasn’t finished, but it struck me — if he can write a book, why can’t I.

I found the National Novel Writing Month project and thought it was just the kick in the pants I would need to sit down every day and write this darn book.

Some days the words came quick and easy. Some days I spent a stupid amount of time staring at a flashing cursor waiting for inspiration. Then I would read pep talks from published authors that said things like; write right now, make it pretty later, And, do you remember how many books you wrote while waiting for inspiration to show up? Probably none.

NaNoWriMo is about writing, not writing “perfection.”

I know some people don’t like NaNoWriMo for lots of reasons like its yardstick for success being word quantity instead of quality. But a lot of people like it for the same reason I do. It’s a personal challenge with the benefit of knowing 300,000 other writers are slaving away at their keyboards. It’s a chance for encouragement, to see a target and shoot for it.

This morning, I sat down to write the last 2, 722 words, a task I could sometimes pound out in two hours. Today was a blank day. I was so close to finishing without a thought of where to go next. So I just started babbling, random words on the page. Little by little, I saw a path for my characters and had them take it. I finished about six hours after sitting down the first time to write.

This approach can feel a little desperate, like walking in the dark when your eyes haven’t adjusted. And it is often where I stop writing. No inspiration. Better do something else.

But just like walking in the dark, eventually you start to see shapes, outlines, you find your way. Maybe you hit a wall now and then. Whatever. It makes for a funny water cooler story. But the point is, the words, the effort of lifting fingers up and setting them down on keys, came first — inspiration followed.

If I hadn’t let that message sink in, “don’t wait to follow the angels,” I would have stopped on day five. I wouldn’t have been able to say to myself, here it is, day 18 and I did it, I have actually written 50,000 words — about 200 pages — of a book.

I know from my time in journalism, and by looking at the state of what I’ve actually written, that the biggest, most emotionally draining and most exciting part is out there still, beyond November. But documenting the end of NaNoWriMo for myself and my friends and family who have been my cheerleaders is a big step in a sweet direction.

Thanks all! I am off to find celebratory chocolate.

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2013 Week 46: Lessons from a toddler — wear gloves to breakfast

Why not wear gloves to breakfast

Why not wear gloves to breakfast

I love this quote by Theodore Roosevelt about the difference between people who try and people who criticize those who make mistakes.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Sophie’s first request of the day had been to have “frozen peas and corn and carrots” for breakfast. Her second was to put on gloves. When she combined the two, the grown-up in me wanted to tell her to remove the gloves first, that it’s a little tricky to hold a spoon with gloves on, that her gloves will get dirty. Or maybe more so that I envision the spilled milk and peas I’d be cleaning off of a table and chair and floor and 2-year-old.

But I was in a “whatever” mood, so I let her have at it. It took a few tries, and she eventually, successfully grasped the spoon between thumb and palm. She even managed to scoop up some veggies and, more than once, shovel them into her mouth. Next, she ditched the spoon and tried to pick up each individual kernel by hand, er, glove, which worked for about three bites. Then she sat there, staring at the bowl until I told her she could take off the gloves if she wanted. She held them up for me to remove them and dove back in to breakfast. And now she knew what it was like to wear gloves while eating breakfast, or what it feels like for an astronaut to use a screw driver on a space walk.

I thought about her experiment this morning when I was feeling thankful I hadn’t passed on the National Novel Writing Month challenge.

A lot of times we see a situation, run a quick assessment and judge that the most likely outcome of certain options is not worth the time, the effort, or worse, could fail miserably. Maybe we even pass along our knowledge to other people whether they’ve asked for it or not. Maybe we’re right. Maybe we save everyone a bunch of time and headache. But maybe, once in a while, we miss out on little lessons, or great fun, by being so practical.

I have written more than 25,000 words of my book in less than two weeks — the halfway mark in the challenge to reach 50,000 words by the end of November. About a week before it began, I started to think I should pass. I have a lot on my plate raising a couple of kids, taking a German language course, and committing myself more to blogging here and for Walking On Travels, a family travel blog I joined this summer. I felt overwhelmed at the idea that I’d have to find another 2,000 words every day for what would, could, become the biggest story I’d ever undertaken. NaNoWriMo seemed too lofty a goal.

But I stuck with it, thought I’d try it out even if I had to quit part way through. At least I’d know better my limits. And here I sit, halfway through this marathon with a pace that will have me finished before the deadline, barring any major meltdowns. Needless to say, I’m so glad I tried, am trying still.

And I’m glad Sophie tried to eat her cereal while wearing gloves. Maybe she learned it’s not her thing. Maybe she learned she can pick up tiny things while wearing bulky things. Either way she learned something, and that’s the point.

Why not try something new just to see if you can?

Why not try something that seems hard?

Why not be silly?

Why not see if there’s a new way to do a boring old task?

Why not do something that takes more time if it makes you happy?

Why not get in there and get dirty?

Strive valiantly!

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