Sunday, October 14, 2012

Dear Abby (and Crys) -- Good Advice from My Straighttalkin' Sisters (MB)

I've got an embarrassment of riches when it comes to amazing people -- friends, family, and colleagues -- in my life.  But I must admit there are only a few who I consistently go to for advice and who readily dish it to me straight.  I have a big mouth and strong ideas in any given moment, so it takes a certain willingness to risk adversity to truly give me advice.  I get this; there are many, many loved ones who could probably impart great knowledge on me and perhaps I am just too damn stubborn or unreceptive for that to work.

You, Abby, and my friend Crystal who is in NC, are the two straight-talkin' sisters who are usually able to break through and really nudge me in a direction I need to go in, through the simple exchange of seeking (me) and providing (you) advice.  You've met Crystal briefly, I know, because I recall when she was in Madison one hot summer you were up in your single window air-conditioned bedroom upstairs in your big house on Jenifer Street, and you were very pregnant with Charlie, and she and I came up to check on you in your state of keeping cool and waiting it out.

You and I had the chance to have a very long check-in by phone last Sunday, and it was great.  The longest conversation, to be sure, that we've had since you left for CA.  You got to fill me in on many details of your exciting developments out there (which I will leave you to explore in your own posts), and I was in great need of advice.  In fact, much of our conversation could be appropriately nicknamed a "Dear Abby" discussion.

I have been thinking about the very meaningful advice you gave me in that conversation, and generally, and I wanted to capture some of it in writing.  My mind also wanders to some consistent advice Crystal has given me over the years, most of which actually overlaps perfectly with yours, albeit phrased differently based on your different styles and experiences.  Without further adieu, here's the condensed treatise of big picture advice from my straighttalkin' sisters, Ab and Crys.  It's applicable to everyone, and I hope others will take it to heart too:

1.  Seek something extraordinary; don't settle for ordinary.  This particular point is made by example by both you and Crystal; but it often comes through in advice from you both when I am moaning about some challenge I've encountered (or continue to encounter) in my particular brand of living.  For you, I think this is an issue of making things interesting and fun.  Your perspective is -- isn't the most fun way to live to do something original?  For Crystal, it derives from some more traditional spiritual teachings and the like, I do believe.  Her verbiage for it would be something to the effect of "you have one precious life, make the most of it, live abundantly. . . ."  I'm sure the two of you have your moments when the hum-drum and challenges start to drift you away from this theory, but you consistently articulate it when I'm the one drifting.

2.  Surround yourself with the right elements to find the extraordinary; be aware of the way your context affects you.  This is really useful advice, and I would say I hear your voice, Ab, when I think of this one.  What you have told me is to be conscious of the way spending time with people makes me feel.  Who makes you feel good, and who's got that magic that helps you remember not to settle?  Crystal went on vacation recently and came back talking about how the getting away reminds you of how big the world is out there and puts your day-to-day norm and the culture and community you're in back in perspective.  You and I talked a lot on Sunday on the impact of Madison, the east side of Madison, regions, and communities may have, for better or for worse, on our own ability to think creatively and live the way we want to. . . .the important thing that I take away from all this is to be conscious about individuals, environment, and community so that you take full advantage of all you can in your immediate surroundings -- but, also make wise choices about the influences that, if allowed in, create the backdrop to what you're trying to do with your own unique life.

3.  Don't compare yourself to others; they are not you, and you may not actually want the same things as them, despite the temptation to believe you seek the dominant paradigm.  This goes along a bit with #2, but it deserves its own spot in the list.  You are in L.A. doing all sorts of funky new things, and I gather you currently have a perch in the world that evades destructive comparisons with some other "norm" or dominant paradigm.  But in the midwest, in almost every other place and time, even when you are the most open minded person in the world, there's always that risk of feeling that your unique path doesn't measure up to some other norm.  At moments when I needed it, you and Crystal have both astutely urged me to get away from all that.  Crystal's always helpful in reminding me that my timing is a little funny.  I may not be where I want to get to in some areas of my life but I've been raising kids since I was 20 and will be an empty nester when I'm 40, for example.  Your point from Sunday went something like "I don't think you WANT what most people have, MB!"  And you're right.  I don't want what most people have, and it's key to have a very personal unique approach and dream --  but, there's still a whole world of opportunity to self-destructively attempt to measure one's own progress along some dominant track or trajectory, and not against one's own personal unique track.  Well, to hell with that. 

4.  It's totally OK to do whatever it takes to enjoy, savor, and experience to the fullest, being a mom -- even at the cost of other things (because being a mom is one of the coolest things you can do!).  One time you said to me "I guess I just really like being a mom and having kids -- I mean, it's pretty much the most fun thing you can do."  Again, the "maximum fun"(this is another podcast reference, right?) underpinnings of your philosophy come through.  Crystal and I bonded originally over being young moms in college at the same time and really enjoying the mom thing.  I think all three of us have carved out creative ways to get the most out of our years with kids at home, and this raises all sorts of interesting questions about career, self-care, finding time for your own interests (or even remembering what they are), and relationships, to name a few.  I believe it's fair to say all three of us, on our own terms, have been challenged by some of these questions.  I have always gotten great reinforcement from both of you that letting the mom experience take the front seat is a perfectly OK way to go; the rest will come, and you'll never regret this prioritization.

5.  If you know you want something, come out and say it to yourself, write it down, put it out there.  How are you supposed to get it if you don't put words to it and pursue it actively?  This is classic, and both you and Crystal have separately suggested this (and I have done it) at various points.  Crystal talks in terms of "manifesto" -- write down what you actually want (deciding ends up being the hardest part, come to find out).  You have recently pointed out that I should get the big goals down on paper quick so I can stay focused on what it is I'm exactly trying to do, so I don't get all jammed up on the details.  I've got them up on the wall, with a card I got from Crystal with the Thoreau quote "Go confidently in the direction of your dreams!  Live the life you've imagined."

6.  Know your worth, in every situation.  Ah yes, this is really an Abby thing.  This one's all about the economics of relationships and what one has to offer.  No relationship -- personal, professional, familial, is totally perfect or pure; there are exchanges that occur, and they matter.  You've always been one to point out that it's okay to understand what you have to offer others and what they have to offer you. This understanding helps through the tougher moments, when pure fraternity just won't be enough get you through a tough moment gracefully, and won't be enough to convince the other person to do what you think is right by you. Having a clear understanding of the exchanges that are going on in our relationships, and the value of everyone's contributions, can help us find the right approach and face things with a little more practical spirit, when emotions might otherwise blow things up.

7.  Do the stuff that makes you feel good and affirms your authentic, soulful self.  Otherwise finding the extraordinary, surrounding yourself with the right elements, being an awesome mom, knowing what you want, and knowing your worth is going to be impossible.  Crystal talks about the metaphor of those standard airplane safety instructions of putting the oxygen mask on the adult first, before helping minor children -- you're better for your kids and as a caretaker and a boss, etc, if you yourself are doing well and taken care of.  She's pulled this one out on me before when I was a bit burned out and out of touch with the little things that delight me like travel, books, music.  You reminded me when we talked on Sunday to sing, escape into a good book, and do the things that bring me "flow".  We have long referred to this concept casually after reading the pop psych works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (here's a link to his 2004 TED talk on "Flow -- the secret of happiness":  I very much buy this theory but haven't been a very devout subscriber.  The idea is that by regularly doing things that require or lead to total focus and absorbtion and application of skill, and that give you immediate satisfaction and engagement, you become a happier healthier person overall.  I do think we live in a world where way too much time can be spent stuck in a car, on the phone with the cell phone company, passively attending to some office-style work task, etc.  Then you make a great baked good or dig in the garden for a while or spend an entire day putting a boat in the water and paddling down a river or write something for several hours that requires your full mental attention, and you realize -- wow! -- that felt good; I focused on something entirely and fully!  To take this even a step further, focusing on the things that are our very personal, soulful "flow" activities, really does get you back in touch with your real self.  That getting in touch with yourself thing helps infinitely with authentically following all of the outstanding advice on this entire list. . . .

Dear Abby, thanks for all the advice.  Remember it all for yourself, too. . . . I'm going to be reminding my other sage friend Crystal of the same. . . . . here's to maximum fun and abundant unique lives. . .