Entitlement to be yourself

Occasionally I will read a piece and think “these words were written for ME.”  I felt that way about Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. 

Backed by research, personal stories, and interviews, Cain argues that modern western culture undervalues and misunderstands introverts. But her book isn’t a rail against western culture so much as it is a rally for introverts.  She holds a magnifying glass up to the personality and lifestyle of introverts, offers a compelling description of the gifts introverts have to offer in the home, workplace, and community, and suggests strategies for introverts to employ in order to thrive in a talkative world.

In Cain’s introduction, she writes, “If there is only one insight you take away from this book, I hope it’s a newfound sense of entitlement to be yourself.”  I certainly finished the book with a greater understanding and acceptance of myself, and here are a few reasons why:

  1. Cain normalizes the fear of public speaking.  Not only did the feelings of dread that I always experience before giving presentations, making announcements from the pulpit or even introducing other speakers used to make me miserable in and of themselves, they also sparked further feelings of guilt and embarrassment.  I would think, “Speaking in front of others is a normal, adult thing to do; feeling this anxious is immature and unreasonable.”  By sharing her experiences of not being able to sleep before a big presentation, and of having to practice for hours and hours before feeling comfortable with the content for a talk, Cain helped me to see that failing to relish public performance is not a reflection of my maturity, ability, or mental health (or lack thereof, in each of those categories).  It’s just an aspect of my personality type. 
  2. While encouraging me to accept the fact that I prefer being out of the spotlight, Cain also helped me see that I’m capable of being in the spotlight.  She writes about Free Trait Theory, the proposition that we are born and culturally endowed with certain personality traits — introversion, for example — but we can and do act out of character in the service of “core personal projects.”  In other words, “introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly.”  The reminder that I can do things (and can do them well!) that I don’t necessarily want to do is empowering.  I may just need extra practice, training and support throughout the process. 
  3. Cain gives introverts permission to fortify themselves to operate in an extroverted world with restorative practices and behaviors in their homes and personal lives.  As she suggests to introverts that stepping out of our comfort zone in order to advance “core personal projects” will bring us satisfaction in the long term, she also warns us that it will be challenging and tiring at times.  She reminds introverts to be intentional with where and when we choose to stretch ourselves, and advises that we allow ourselves to lean into our introversion in all other circumstances.  My favorite example that she offers: “Cross the street to avoid making aimless chitchat with random acquaintances.”  This is something that I have done many times, and have always felt a little bit funny about.  Cain validated a behavior that helps me, and I really appreciated that. 
  4. Cain highlights the qualities of introverts that make them valuable members of the workforce, political scene and humanitarian realm.  While noting that modern culture is enamored with extroverted qualities such as charismatic leadership and outgoing sense of humor, Can reminders her readers that there are other ways to lead and have an impact.  She writes of the less glamorous qualities of persistence and reflectiveness that I identify with (much more than charisma and sense of humor!) and emphasizes that introverts can use these qualities to share ideas powerfully, if quietly.  She writes, “The trick for introverts is to honor their own styles instead of allowing themselves to be swept up by prevailing norms.” 

 

Photo by Ryan Riggins on Unsplash

School of Life

Some lessons you have to learn the hard way.  Some lessons you have to learn the hard and expensive way. 

My dad describes these lessons as having “high tuition in the School of Life,” a metaphor that has at least made me smile through the tears as I’ve lamented to dear-old-dad more than one expensive error in the past. 

Recently, I have made a few pricey and extremely frustrating mistakes.  I misread a text from an airline notifying me of a delayed connecting flight, and ended up missing the first flight.  I didn’t realize that a magazine subscription was set up for automatic renewal on an old (but not-cancelled) credit card, and so I missed a payment and had my first-ever late fee.  I backed into a fire hydrant, majorly denting my bumper, while making a seventeen-point-turn to get out of a dead-end street. 

What bothered me most about each of these situations — more than the toll they took on my bank account — was how sloppy they made me feel.  With each mistake, I found myself baffled by the fact that they were happening, and inwardly revolting: I’m not the type of person who misses flights and neglects credit card payments and drives badly.  I’m responsible!  I’m organized!  I’m careful!  I hate to be melodramatic, but the blunders messed with my sense of identity.

Education is an investment of resources, financial and otherwise, and this is as true for the School of Life as it is for grammar school, secondary school, college and graduate school.  As with any kind of investment, the hope is that the value gained exceeds the expenditure.

So, here’s to finishing these particular courses in the School of Life with good notes and significant insights!  Here are some key lessons that I’m taking away from a missed flight, late fee and a dented bumper:   

  • Read any text with important information twice.  Or three or four or five times.  Read it out loud.  Read it to a friend.  Do whatever it takes to make sure you really take in the information.
  • Don’t set up automatic renewals for magazines. 
  • Cancel old credit cards (or that one old credit card). 
  • When backing up, anytime, look very, very carefully. 
  • Don’t be afraid to tell a passenger that you need a moment of silence to concentrate. 
  • Remember: there isn’t a type of person who makes mistakes.  We all make mistakes because we are human. 
  • Give grace and hugs to people when they make mistakes.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

A Vial Full of Glitter

Every other summer my extended family goes on a backpacking trip, a trip that will encompass a whole gamut of emotions and experiences: awe at the majesty of the mountains, annoyance at the hiker who doesn’t carry his weight, sheer joy at being with those nearest and dearest to us, disgust from the smells of sweaty feet and unwashed clothes, peace born of unplugging from the world, frustration with the inevitable knee-back-hip-foot pain, giddiness from laughter at stories shared around the fire.  The ups and downs of the experience are as varied as the trails marked on our topographic maps. 

And yet, the memories of the experiences always glow for me.  The annoyance, disgust and frustration disappear along with the blisters, and I’m left with a solid case of rosy retrospection.  I find this to be true in most areas of my life.  Excepting one particular internship, my first fight with Caleb, the job search during my final spring term of divinity school, and a few other select periods, I look back on experiences both big and small with a sense of great content. 

Why is that?

I imagine it like this: our minds have a way of distilling an entire experience into a bite sized portion, and a single memory is like a little glass vial meant to hold the distilled experience.  The vial can only hold so much, and so our memory of an event depends on how we choose to fill the vial.  “Choose” may not even be the right word, because perhaps how we memory-keep is unconscious.  Through a mixture of biology and family and circumstance and personality, we’re each inclined to hold on to different aspects of an experience, so that two people may share a history, but have vastly different recollections of their shared past.  We each pick up different pieces to be preserved forever in the little vial devoted to a particular experience.glitter-vial

When surveying my storehouse of vials — rows and rows of tiny jars labeled “Christmas 2002,” “9th birthday,” “sophomore year,” “half-dome hike” — I can see that they are, with rare exception, full of glitter.  For better or for worse, I remember fondly, and so I enjoy wandering through the recesses of my mind, reflecting on the past and recalling previous moments. 

It’s helpful for me to consciously acknowledge that I have a tendency towards rosy retrospection, because it equips me to deal with the drudgery of the everyday.  Take this very moment as an example: I’m chilly, and somewhat dreading the presentation I have to give at work later, and I’m really missing my dear friend Angela.  But.  The Christmas tree glowing in the corner is magical, and the coffee I’m sipping is sublime.  The candle burning smells delicious, and I’m about to meet a friend for tea.  Hearing her life updates will be a delight, and simply being in her presence will sooth me.  The glowing, sipping, smelling and delighting are the glitter that will later fill my vial, and, these aspects of my life are glitter in the moment, too.  It’ harder to notice them when they are mixed in with the dust — the fear, grief, insecurity, frustration and boredom that are a part of any human life — but the sparkle is there. 

Apartment-versary

Apartment

A year ago today, Caleb and I packed the last of our boxes, watched as movers emptied our Somerville apartment, dropped our keys in the landlady’s mail box, and followed the moving truck to our new apartment in Providence.  We carried boxes up to our third floor “Victorian Treehouse” (our tree-line view inspired this nickname), debated the ideal placement of our bed, and mourned our beloved hand-me-down red couch as we realized that it wouldn’t fit through our narrow doorway.  At the end of the day, exhausted, we ate Indian food at a now-favorite local whole-in-the-wall gem.   

While my predominant thought at the moment is how glad I am that we’re spending the day in a coffee shop writing instead of bleeding money, sweat and tears in the moving process, I’m also feeling reflective as I consider the year that we have had in Providence.  Anniversaries, like holidays, endings, and beginnings, are a good opportunity to look back on the past, feel appreciation for the present and look towards the future.  And I think that this act of looking back, examining the lowlights and the highlights, can help me to soak in the beauty of the present and move forward with energy, joy, and grit. 

Historic Homes Providence
Photo credit: America Pink

Hard stuff about my first year in Providence

  • I was homesick for Boston for much of the year, and if I am being completely honest, much as I have come to love Providence, there are things that I still miss so, so much about my old city.  I miss the MBTA.  I miss the vibrancy of my old Church.  I just miss the specifics of Boston: the old brownstones of Commonwealth Ave and the lively activity of Harvard Square and the rarified air of the Boston Public Library and narrow little streets of Beacon Hill. 
  • It was crazy hard to make friends, and so I felt lonely for a lot of the year.  I’ve made some friends and am building relationships, but I still don’t feel at my old-social-level.
  • Working at a job that requires a significant commute and a significant amount of evening and weekend hours is less than ideal.  It presented a stumbling block socially. 

Highlights of my year in Providence

  • There is good, good food in this city.  We could go to a new restaurant every week and still have more to explore.  There is great coffee shop culture, and a huge variety of food, and lots of places with amazing ambiance as well as eats. 
  • Being able to live in a place where we can afford a beautiful apartment is a gift.  I love our sunny kitchen, and our spacious dining area, and our cozy living room.  I love our gallery wall and my yellow desk and our little parking spot and our wood-paneled stair case.
  • I’ve found special, life-giving communities in my new city.  The two that come to mind are the Chaplaincy Center, though which I’ve gotten the opportunity to work in a variety of clinical settings and meed a wide range of people whose work and ways of being I admire, and the Providence Atheneum, that gorgeous little library that also serves as a magnet for smart, witty and creative people. 
  • Having a car (which we likely would never have in Boston) enabled Caleb and I to explore the New England area more, which brought us a lot of fun this year.  Favorite trips included Portland, the Cape, Newport and Bristol. 
  • I love living in a walkable city. Even though Caleb and I have a car, we more or less only use it when taking trips, or when I commute to work.  This feels like a priority for me in terms of places that I live. 
  • This city is clean and has beautiful architecture and landscaping.  I really value being in an aesthetically pleasing environment. 

Lessons that I’ve learned/Themes of the year

  • There’s no way out but through: moving is hard, making friends is hard, starting from scratch in terms of networking is hard.  It will always be hard before it becomes easy.
  • Things take time: building a sense of community, making friends, and finding special places.
  • Distance relationships with people I love are worth spending time and money on nurturing.  Having a car made driving to visit my family and friends in PA possible, and so I found myself going often.  The time and energy are worth it.  The same goes for friendships in Boston.  It’s worth spending money on a commuter rail ticket to meet a friend for coffee; it’s worth driving in to the city to meet with my old book club.
  • “Going for it” with persistency is hard, but worth it.  I have a hard time pushing myself to put myself out there.  It feels scary and exhausting.  But that’s the only way to meet new people, get integrated in a community and take on new roles. 

Designing My Summer

SummerA few weeks ago, Gretchen Rubin and Elizabeth Craft discussed “designing the summer” on their podcast Happier.   They spoke about how their days of a three-month-summer-vacation are long over, but somehow, summer still feels set apart from the rest of the year.  Perhaps more accurately, they long for it to feel set apart from the rest of the year, and regret that often the season just passes them by without actually being any different, despite the mental feeling that it is different from the rest of the year.  Together, they “designed the summer,” each naming specific things they would do to make summer feel set apart and special (for an example, Gretchen will devote two hours each summer morning to re-reading some of her favorite books). 

The topic resonated with me, especially considering the fact that this is the first year that I don’t have some sort of official “summer break.”  I’ve actually felt a bit glum entering the summer, mourning the fact that the days are longer and the weather is golden and I still have the same work obligations.  I have always looked towards the summer as a time to relax, rejuvenate, travel and have some fun, and I want summer to remain a time for all of these activities whether or not my day-to-day life differs as drastically as it did when I was a student and had summers “off.” 

Listening to Gretchen and Elizabeth as they brainstormed convinced me that the antidote to my grieving the loss of an extended summer vacation is to design my summer, to come up with a few activities that will make summer feel like summer.  My season was kickstarted this past week during a beach vacation with my in-laws, and as I sit here in the Charleston airport, returning home, I feel truly in the summer state of mind.  I’ve mulled over various ideas these past few weeks and am settling on these five, effective immediately.    

Designing my summer

  • Take a day trip to a new location each week that doesn’t involve some other sort of travel
  • Eat/drink on the deck/patio of a new (to us) restaurant each non-travelling week
  • Talk to an old friend on the phone/facetime/skype every week
  • Write one blog post each week
  • Complete a few projects that have been on my list for ages:
    • Learn how to use Caleb’s camera
    • Create a photo wall to display recently taken pictures
    • Complete a writing project
    • Buy and fill in a birthday calendar
    • Hang artwork that has accumulated

Looking at Churchill and Looking at Myself

I’ve been a longtime fan of Gretchen Rubin, an author with whom I became aquatinted through her more recent books about happiness and habit formation (The Happiness Project, Happier at Home and Better Than Before).  Because I liked these books so much, I decided to check out one of her biographies, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill. 

I welcomed the opportunity to study Churchill (he’s one of those figures about whom I feel like I should know something, like Alexander the Great or Napoleon or Queen Victoria), but what I liked most about this book had less to do with the facts that I learned about Churchill and more about the thoughts that it sparked in me about reflecting on a life.  Read more

Sacramentality

70HIn my first blog post, I wrote about how taking notes on life helps me pay attention to life, that writing for me is a practice of taking notice and cultivating appreciation.  I just finished reading a book for work (I’m a Youth Ministry Coordinator at a Catholic Church) that put my understanding of writing and my commitment to paying attention to life into spiritual terms. Read more

Slowing Down

red doorI have neither read nor had the particular desire to read anything by Marcel Proust, and yet, when Gretchen Rubin (one of my favorite contemporary authors) recommended Alain du Button’s How Proust Can Change Your Life in her monthly book club blog post, I was drawn to the title.  I am glad that I was.  Offering historical information, humor, and bites of wisdom, this easy-to-read blend of literary biography and self-help was a gem.  I gained a tremendous appreciation for Proust without having to slog through his seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time, which I also tremendously appreciated.   

Ironically, avoiding a slow process (reading In Search of Lost Time) is very anti-Proustian.  A central theme of the book is that much can be gained from taking things slowly.  Du Button tells the story of Proust meeting Henri Nicolson, a young French diplomat, and asking him to recount his experience at a peace conference after the Great War.  When the diplomat began “we generally met at 10:00” Proust stopped him, wanting to hear all the details.  The diplomat went on, and Proust was enraptured.Cover Image How Proust Can Change Your Life

“An advantage of not going by too fast is that the world has a chance of becoming more interesting in the process.  For Nicolson, an early morning that had been summed by the terse statement “Well, we generally meet at 10.00” had been expanded to reveal handshakes and maps, rustling papers and macaroons – the macaroon acting as a useful symbol, in its seductive sweetness , of what gets noticed when we don’t go trop vite” (46).

Proust’s attitude called me to think about my reading process.  I read quickly, which I usually consider an advantage, and especially when I dislike the book I am reading.  Recently, I re-read Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, and despite my desire to like it (I feel sloppy admitting that I don’t like Virginia Woolf), and my attempt to like it (I hoped that reading it for leisure rather than for school might change my outlook) I found it dull, and so I rushed through it…only to turn the last page with a disappointing aversion.  When I spoke to Caleb about my distaste, he asked what I thought about a particular scene that had captured him.  Though I had just finished the novel, I had no recollection of the scene.  I rushed through a novel that I considered boring, but perhaps if I had moved more slowly, like Proust suggests, I wouldn’t have missed the very details that make the novel compelling to so many people. 

The next time I find myself desiring to rush through a book, a meal, or a process, I’m going to channel Proust and slow down. 

Examining the examen…and my past month!

clover-828698_1280

I just finished reading Jim Manney’s A Simple Life-Changing Prayer, a reflection and guide on praying “the daily examen.”  Though the examen is an ancient practice, Manney writes about it within the context of St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. (Ignatius founded the Society of Jesus, an order of Catholic priests also known as the Jesuits, in the 16th century and the Spiritual Exercises was a practical guide instructing the Jesuits and others on how to experience the presence of God.)  The examen itself is a method of prayer in which one reflects on the events and experiences of the day in order to detect God’s presence within them and therefore live with increased sensitivity to the movement of the God in one’s self and one’s life.  If the examen is a “how to manual” on experiencing God, then Manney’s book is a how to manual on praying the examen.Cover Image Manney Read more

Contemplating Attention, Cultivating Appreciation

Woman WritingI have an inkling that there is a direct correlation between attention and appreciation.  Increased attention to the stuff of life – books, conversations, scenery, foods, people, tasks, and so on – leads to an increased appreciation of what could otherwise be easily overlooked.  For an example, I find that annotating articles or books helps me pay closer attention to the ideas expressed in them, so that regardless of the extent to which I like or dislike the piece of writing, I am more able to understand and appreciate the point the author made.  The more I take notes, the more I pay attention, and the more attention I pay, the more I appreciate.  Read more