Personal Development

Packing Light: Part I.

My sweet cousin Nicole shared a book she loved with me recently as I was working on making the move out to California called Packing Light: Thoughts On Living Life With Less Baggage. It came to me at the perfect time, and I eagerly dug into the soulful thoughts the author Allison Vesterfelt shares with her readers. Truthfully, I carried this book around with me a bit like the tattered Velveteen Rabbit as I traversed the country that year, reading it on the plane and as my eyes grew heavy at night, folding over many of its pages, underlining and scribbling notes with vigorous head noddings and a-has. Her words were a source of comfort and strength as I figured out what the biggest transition of my life to date was going to look like, sans road map. If other people could do big scary things, I could too! I highly recommend it as a companion for anyone experiencing any kind of growth or life transformation.

Our brains are funny in times of transition. The closer we get to taking a leap or making a big change, the more fear creeps in and makes us want to cling to the walls, screaming with a megaphone in our ear all the reasons why we can’t do it. Fears also come up for the people who love us as change is in the air, and the overwhelm can get, well, overwhelming.

My ex-boyfriend Mike coined a phrase Exhilafrightciting to explain the times in life such as these, and I find myself using it a lot lately. Exhilarating, frightening, exciting. It describes many of life’s moments: new love, new changes, new adventures, new anything.

Vesterfelt writes: “We get so focused on what we think is going to happen, so worried about it, we don’t even consider something better might be coming, something we couldn’t have possibly dreamed up ourselves.” That is one of the key lessons for me of this book- lightening our loads, emotionally and physically, leaves us more free to pursue what is truly important and open to receiving infinite possibilities that might come our way.

I’ve been working on ‘packing light’ for a long time. As my Dad likes to joke when he asks me what I’m doing, I usually answer “getting organized.” I spend a lot of my time getting ready to do something. This is somewhat due to my procrastinating, recovering-perfectionist nature to be sure. But also because, I’m Busy. Hopefully less of the culturally glorified Busy that is starting to be frowned upon instead of being worn as a badge of honor (which I am certainly guilty of), and more of the truly just-have-mucho-stuff going on. I like it, obviously, because I’ve lived this way as long as I can remember. If you asked my people to describe the definition of busy they would say that my photo is next to it in the dictionary. My Mom frequently says supportively: “We all know Val needs more hours in the day.”

In peak childhood days circa age six to ten I was churning out colorful loom potholders, coloring intricate designs on graphic outlines, and watching my favorite TV shows of the 80’s simultaneously, usually Saturday morning cartoons or sitcoms such as the Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, Little House on the Prairie, and later the Love Boat and Three’s Company, the latter much to my mother’s chagrin. Come and knock on our door… I digress!

My varied ADHD-esque interests and curious nature left me with with lots of eclectic items in my possession. It began with collections: book series, special soaps in the shape of things like animals and golf balls, pencils with unique eraser toppers, paper napkins, stamps, baseball cards, paper and office supplies.

I can still smell the soaps and remember the feel of them and the oils on my hands. They were all beautiful and unique. A swan, a flower, a heart. I have moved several times over the years around the country, but due to my illness was unable to effectively purge things during most of those and my physical and emotional load grew increasingly heavier.

When I left Austin, Texas for North Carolina to seek answers for my health concerns, I took a babystep and let go of some of these special childhood treasures. I snapped a photo of my soap collection and said goodbye. It was not easy to part with. I came across the photo technique in one of the million of organizing books I had amassed and it felt like a decent solution.

As an archiver of life, letting go of special items with sentimental value feels damn near impossible. The professional organizer I hired many years later said that these types of possessions were the toughest to part with for most people, and her recommendation was to start with evaluating (and getting rid of) the easy stuff first. Some early quick “wins” give us a boost of confidence to keep moving forward.

I think about the irony that our possessions can so easily possess us. The stuff keeping us stuck. I used to love binge watching a show called Clean House, where the crew would intervene on a household struggling with too much stuff. The deeper reasons behind these situations was usually some kind of familial or career loss, illness, or other personal struggle.

I felt a lot of empathy for the participants, drawing strong parallels with my own story. It was powerful to see the end result (albeit at an orchestrated-for-TV mach speed pace), where the participants have lightened their loads considerably, faced some deep emotional demons head on, and are left with a peaceful home environment and a fresh start.

Vesterfelt’s book captures some of the heart of this process for me. “If we want to be truly alive, truly awake to the reality of the world around us, packing light will be a continued, daily struggle.”

As we embark on exhilafrightciting new adventures, I keep in mind what my doctor says: it's not “leap and the net will appear,” it’s leap and build the net on the way down. That’s what I take Packing Light’s message to be- when we follow what’s calling us on our journey, we are provided with the support we need in one way or another, even if it takes an unexpected or perhaps initially undesirable form. We are open to new opportunities. This echos Paulo Coelho’s concept behind The Alchemist- all the universe conspiring to help us achieve our dreams once we follow our path or personal legend. Fodder for another post! 

I want to know - how are you practicing packing light in your lives?

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A Dream Deferred.

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In the late 1990s and early 2000s I went to San Francisco for the first time with my dear friend Caitlin from college, and we returned several years in a row thereafter. I fell deeply in love with the city and its diversity, culture, trees, water, horizon, and healthy food on every corner and we vowed to move there together at age 23. Life happened... she moved and I did not.

Fast forward to sixteen years later where I've spent the past three years scheming to get out West, inching ever so slowly closer to fulfilling my dream deferred to move to the Bay Area. I first heard this concept of a dream deferred studying Martin Luther King Jr.'s work, a deeply influential leader in my life. I was honored to hear his son speak in Arizona, and on the third Monday of each January I take time to reflect on his legacy and how I can be a more engaged citizen of my community.

In his sermon delivered on April 5, 1959 he shared the disappointment that can come from dreams not being realized: “Very few people are privileged to live life with all of their dreams realized and all of their hopes fulfilled. Who here this morning has not had to face the agony of blasted hopes and shattered dreams?” A more direct statement: “I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes.”

He took influence from Langston Hughes' 1951 poem Harlem:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

It's a heavy piece that rings true for many, connected to the pervasive and painful political unrest and societal injustice still raging on today, sixty years after Hughes and King Jr.'s time.

My personal use of the term is on a different plane and parallels the themes of consciousness and social change starting at the individual level, daring to bravely own our stories and who we are (thank you Brené Brown), no matter how long it may take or how the crooked path leading us to pursue our truest desires and calling.

There's a quote I love from E.E. Cummings that says, "It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are." One of those life lessons not taught in school, and hard won. They say time is a great healer, and I would add that it is also a great clarifier and filter. Years pass, mental clutter falls away, and what's Important surfaces.

The word defer means to put off to a later time, postpone. It doesn't mean die or never. There have been people in my life who didn't understand why this old dream was still beating for me. It took time and patience and lots and lots of baby steps to block out the outside chatter, listen to my inner voice, and clear away the things that were keeping me from moving forward.

I'm grateful for another Hughes poem Dreams:

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.


I recently watched the 1984 film adaptation of the novel The Natural starring Robert Redford. One of the few baseball movies I hadn't yet seen, something about it really resonated with me. It came to me a few days later- the main character Roy also had a sixteen year deferment of fulfilling his dream to be the best player of all time because life intervened. The story is bittersweet- towards the end we discover he doesn't have much time left to live out his dream once he finally "arrives," and I think that sense of urgency is starting to come up for me as well. Our days are not promised.

So on this very rainy Sunday morning in January, close to the MLK Jr. Holiday, I sit at a table with eight other women writers at a literary writing and coffee drinking club in Berkeley with a feeling of arrival washing over me. I am indeed privileged to have an opportunity to live out a dream. I'm ready to learn, grow in my new habitat, and take these broken wings and learn to fly.

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My first trip to San Francisco circa 1999 (pre-cell phone selfie), and shirts I made for Caitlin and I for our "unwreckable journey"
(complete with misspelling of Francisco!) - I wore mine yesterday Happy.

Little Fish, Big Pond: Growing Pains.

I moved to the Bay Area last week. Exactly one week ago today, in fact. And by move I mean drive endlessly and relentlessly across the country following the California Trail from North Carolina to Missouri, across all of Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, and the fresh hell that is Nevada (sorry, Nevadans).

2,800 miles, 3 nights/time zones, 4 days, and many potato chips later I landed safely at a dear friend's house who is graciously allowing me to set up shop in her home for the next several months until I find a place. All while managing a healthy workload and expanding my consulting business.

Needless to say it's been a bit of a whirlwind and I've been craving a status check and some much needed processing. One week in, here's what I know:

• I'm experiencing a bit of culture shock (in addition to the expected but still surprising sticker shock). People are well-coiffed, hip, savvy, and all seem to be doing Important Things with their very big brains. I've been out of the academic environment for a long time where this was more or less the scene in general, and in the real world I've been living in based out of humble Greensboro, NC, the pace of life has been just a wee bit slower.

• I wanted Inspiration, and I'm gonna get it. Of this I can be sure of. My friend reminds me to embrace this growth mindset and soak it all in... and after chatting with her I realize I'm experiencing the big fish in a small pond to small fish in a big pond leap. After these initial feelings of intimidation, I remember that there are very good reasons that I am exactly where I am at this moment in time. I remember that I grow when I'm being challenged and stimulated, and that I want to be around people who push me to be the best version of myself that I can be.

Marc Andreessen says the same thing in the context of career planning:

Never worry about being a small fish in a big pond. Being a big fish in a small pond sucks—you will hit the ceiling on what you can achieve quickly, and nobody will care. Optimize at all times for being in the most dynamic and exciting pond you can find. That is where the great opportunities can be found.

Ah yes- this is why I do exponentially better playing tennis with someone more talented than me (and why all the pros recommend it too).

• Ideal Self versus Real Self: When I was in San Diego this spring I had a wonderful talk with a colleague who had spent a few years living where I did and then decided to move back to his home state of CA. I was expressing my regrets for not having done more in the community in my time there. He told me there was my Ideal Self and my Real Self. My Ideal self wishes she could have made more of a contribution to that community, while my Real Self needs to be in an environment in which I will thrive. That really resonated with me. He also told me that this move would feel like being on a roller coaster, blindfolded, and that I just needed to hang on and enjoy the ride. Happy

• Yet another friend shared how often big life transitions bring about other transitions and new things into our lives by virtue of us making a huge seismic shift, some of which I am excited to see already taking place for me.

Along side of these growing pains, I will learn to surf and ride the waves. I may be a little fish, but I am an excellent deep water swimmer.

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It all comes down to this: Self-Help Cliff Notes.

Self-help books. I sheepishly admit to spending a small fortune on them over the years (working at a bookstore in my twenties did not help matters).

If you ask how many I have actually read cover to cover, that number could be close to zero shockingly enough.

In preparation for a move, I’m drastically pairing down. To make a very long story short, this is the first move I’ve gotten to fully engage in this process. Because of many years of chronic illness my previous moves were heavily supported by others and I never really got to go through the cathartic experience of methodically pairing down and making deliberate choices about what I want to keep or toss.

Why self-help books? They were comforting friends and companions on my journey. I remember struggling with anxiety (unaware that it was caused by allergies until later on), despair, and general angsty soul searching post-college in my early twenties and turning to books as a source of reassurance and hope.

Knowledge has always been an essential core value of mine, and these books were sources of information to help me grapple with adulthood, just as young adult fiction helped carry me through my adolescence (including torturing myself regularly with tear jerkers like Six Months to Live). Some are still favorites today, like the Tillerman family series by Cynthia Voigt featuring the fiercely independent and brave character Dicey Tillerman.

Early on I read Succulent Wild Woman, You Can Heal Your Life, Quarterlife Crisis and daily readers like Time For Joy and Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much. Knowing what I do now about how important words are to me, I think this was another reason I surrounded myself with books of all kinds. Over the tumultuous twenties my self-help collection continued to grow and expanded into relationship guides, workbooks, dream logs and journals. In the past decade it has become more about organizing, leadership, personality and assessments. They have been the companions, friends, cheerleaders and coaches I needed during the many phases of my life.

I have read, re-read, and cherished books like The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, The Alchemist, and Tuesdays With Morrie. This is a certain offshoot of the self-help book with a more allegorical/parable style that appeals to me. I have purchased these books many times as gifts for loved ones as well.

These few aside, the bulk of my self-help collection has remained unread all these years. I can now say with confidence that they have worked by osmosis- all you have to do is keep them on your shelf for 10 years, and like magic, you know the answers and the books are no longer necessary! 😊 By getting rid of them, they "worked" and have come full circle.

With some major pieces of furniture recently gone in my house, most significantly two huge bookcases, my remaining items are instantly equalized in piles on the floor. I sort them into final stacks: to sell, donate, keep, and burn. The well loved and worn old friends will go into the fire and be offered up in the transition from old life to new.

As I speed read and skim through the remaining books, here are a few of the overall highlights:

• Feel the fear and do it anyway
• It is time for joy
• There is only one you - the world needs your authentic self
• Reduce clutter to live better
• Let go
• Don't make assumptions
• Don't take anything personally
• Observe and not judge
• Understand yourself and your values 
• Don't let perfect be the enemy of the good
• You are the only one responsible for your life and choices
• Accept others exactly as they are- don't try and change them
• Learn about boundaries and how to use them 
• Embrace empathy and putting yourself in other's shoes
• Everyone else is making it up as they go along too
• Life is not a dress rehearsal ... 


Have you learned via osmosis from the self-help books on your shelf? Is the knowledge within you now so you can pass the books on? 

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*Original post on Linked In Pulse
here