Learning to Live Small

How do you shoehorn a house full of artwork and oriental rugs into a small sailboat? You don’t. Instead you learn to “live small.”

During the three years I spent living on a sailboat, a story captured in Sailing Down the Moonbeam, I learned that life is richer if you aren’t trapped—controlled—by “stuff” that has to be maintained and insured and protected.

I was recently asked to talk about living small with half a dozen elderly widows in a retirement community. I hoped that the lessons I learned as I navigated from house to boat would offer some insights for people whose boundaries are shrinking.

The flow of insight went the other way. The widows all spoke of coping with loss … husbands, homes, the souvenirs of a lifetime. One described the religious artifacts she had collected, but was now donating to a museum. Another spoke of her prized antiques, few of which her children wanted.

Each of the women had something unique that she had collected and was now giving up. But I heard no sense of sorrow or regret. Near the end of the hour, the oldest woman, frail and nearly blind, spoke up. “You know,” she said with a quiet smile, “It isn’t about having things. It’s about collecting things. It’s collecting that keeps you alive.” Everyone nodded.

They’d come to hear me because they were still collecting. Life stories instead of bibles or teacups. But still collecting. They already knew that even if you live small in terms of stuff, you can still live large in life.

Giving Up Control

Today, I gave up control — I sent a draft of my first novel, A Fitting Place out into the world.

Well, not the whole world, but to ten “beta readers” who have volunteered to help me birth my child.  Ten people who will tell me what I can do to make my novel better.  

Almost every day for the last two years, I’ve worked on this fictional tale of a competent and capable woman who pays a high price for getting involved in a rebound romance.  I tried to make good use every bit of art and craft available to a writer of fiction. Does the plot work? Will the pace keep the reader turning the page? Does each chapter have its own story arc? Are my characters sympathetic and credible? Have I left any loose ends?  

But after two years, I know my characters too well … what they like and don’t like, what they dream about and what they eat for breakfast.  I can no longer be objective about what is on the printed page. I see on the page what I have in my mind.  

But my beta readers don’t know my characters. Will they like them?  Will they joy in their successes and empathize with their failures?  Will they keep turning the page?

I expected I’d be drowning in anxiety.  But for once, I seem to be taking my own advice about letting go, about giving up control. It feels I’m on a well-deserved vacation.  

Check back in a month’s time.  That when they will gather to tell me what they think.

Teaching the Teacher

Will I ever learn to listen to my own advice?

Tonight was the first night of an MBA seminar in which I ask my students to examine their attitudes toward success and failure. Since we’re all surrounded, all the time, by people and situations over which we have no control, it isn’t enough to decide what you want to happen, or even to work hard for what you want.

The brutal fact is that success often relies heavily on good luck. Failure, even if it isn’t “our fault,” is often life’s best teacher.

Having taught this seminar twice before, to positive reviews, I expected my class to be eager and willing. They were not. I was confronted by a sea of faces that almost dared me to make the next three hours interesting. I knew I was in trouble when several of them announced they were taking the class because it was “the only one that fit their schedule.”

Over the next few hours, a few heads nodded in agreement or bodies leaned forward to listen as I raised a topic or idea that seemed to resonate. But overall, keeping them engaged was hard work, harder than I expected it to be.

Hummh. Harder than I expected it to be. Expected based on what? Why would prior years’ reviews be relevant? Every class is different … different personalities, different life situations, different needs. And why would this group care — if indeed they knew — how last year’s class responded?

If this class is to be a success, I have to meet them on their own territory. I have to deal with their issues, not the issues that were important to my class a year ago. I have to get rid of my own expectations.

Requiem for a Lost Tradition

It was a perfect moment.  Vaulted ceilings.  Stained glass windows.  A red-robed choir.  A small orchestra with strings and horns performing Faure’s Requiem.  

Lyrical and inspiring translations of the Latin text, interspersed between choral movements, added to the magic of the moment.

You could not help but be moved by the splendor of the music in that sacred space on Good Friday evening, music composed by a man of great talent who wanted to bring glory to his god.  

It was a moment made for mindfulness.  But I blew it.  

I was saddened to see a church barely half full.  I grumbled about gospel readings that were banal, devoid of the poetic language of the Faure’s text.  I complained, yet again, that so many of the awe-inspiring rituals of the Christianity of my youth have been replaced by bad guitar music and superficial gestures of fellowship. 

Once again, I failed to take my own advice.  Instead of simply relishing the moment of beautiful music, I got caught up in trying to hold on the past.  Instead of being mindful, I slipped into the realm of desire for something I couldn’t control, couldn’t bring back.

Learning to Blog

Today, I pronounce myself officially a blogger as well as a writer.  There is more than a little irony in this decision.

As a graduate student in the 1960’s, I played at the leading edge of the IT curve, not as a creator, but as a user of programming and computer tools that made life easier and opened amazing new avenues of intellectual enquiry. I continue to adopt new communication tools. WI-FI. The iPad, iPod, and Iphone. SKYPE. A website. Facebook and Linked-In. E-books. Twitter. But not blogs.

As a published writer for more than forty years, first as business writer and more recently as a creative writer, I appreciate direct and concise communication. I used lots of different styles and types of writing. But not blogs.

Why not?

For a start, I’ve never much liked calling attention to myself.  But more to the point, the writing process for me involves a first draft to get the skeleton … a second to put some muscle on the bone, and a third to make it come alive.  But who has time for three drafts of a blog one or twice a week?  Not me.  And why would I want to expose the world to my half-baked thoughts?

But that’s not a good enough reason any more. Social media — not the technology of it, but the culture of it — has revolutionized the world around me. Where once a snazzy cover and a good location in a bookstore would sell my books, I now need to identify the right “keywords” … and a way to keep them in front of my audience 24/7.

Am I the only one for whom this is so difficult?

Out of Control, Las Vegas Style

I know most things in life are outside of my control. Most of the time, I take genuine pleasure in letting the chips fall where they may.

But Las Vegas seemed designed to test my mettle.

Take, for example, music. Music emanated from every imaginable space… from the shrubs lining the lake, under my seat in the restaurant, in the stanchions that hold up the pedestrian walkways. Even in our hotel room, 12 stories up, I could hear the courtyard music, 24 hours a day. It wasn’t loud enough to keep you awake, but loud enough that you knew that silence was utterly beyond your reach.

Take, for example, the tourist attractions. You can’t get to any place in any hotel without going through the casino. Fair enough. Most people in Las Vegas come to gamble. But even with a floor plan in hand, it was impossible, in most hotels, to figure out how to get where you wanted to go from where you were standing.

Take the check-in line at the Mandalay, one of Las Vegas’s tonier hotels. We watched in amazement as several hundred conference attendees waited to check in. The line circled the cavernous lobby and streamed out into the adjacent mall. Conference planners distributed water bottles to people who had been waiting for hours. Just to check in! 

The absolute worst was the gondola at the Venetian. We had to go through the casino (of course) and down what felt like miles of shop-lined “streets.” Every so often, the street forked with no indication as to which fork to take. By the time we found the gondolas–as far from the hotel entrance as it was possible to get–I hardly cared what the ride was like.  

By the time I left town, I was … what … frantic, frenetic, exhausted from a constant rush of adrenaline as I lost one battle after another against the institution of Las Vegas.  I desperately needed to do something mindless and repetitive. 

And that’s when I got it. The mindless and repetitive thing you do in Las Vegas is the slot machines. Even if you’re not a gambler. 

I left town in the nick of time.

Learning to Sail – Again

It was a humbling day.  Although I fancy myself an experienced sailor—I sailed across the Pacific Ocean in 1987—I felt totally out of control on today’s race around the buoys off Oceanside Harbor. 

I forgot to tie a knot in the end of the jib line, so everything snarled when the captain raised the sail.

I forgot about balancing the boat … moving to the high side to offset the force of the wind in the sails … moving to the stern so the bow would ride high in the water.

I couldn’t remember which direction to push the tiller when we needed to tack (turn) to starboard (right).

For the first hour of our sail, I wanted to take a long walk off a short plank.  And then, in a flash, I realized why this was happening.  The simple fact is that a 23-ft day-sailer bears only the slimmest resemblance to my 37-ft ocean-going yacht.  

On the 13-ton cruising vessel my husband and I sailed across the Pacific, nothing I did with my measly 130 pounds of body weight would have any effect on the boat’s balance.  On a day-racer weighing less than 1,000 pounds, every ounce counted.  

On a cruiser with a steering wheel, you drive it like a car.  If you want to go to starboard, you turn the wheel to the right.  On a day-sailer, you push the tiller left, exactly the opposite of what comes naturally.  In fact, I was a novice, totally out of my depth. 

I had to learn to sail all over again … a different type of sailing, but in its own way, just as glorious. I mean, really, what can be better than learning to sail on a sunny afternoon racing around the buoys off Oceanside.  

Even if you lose the race.

Jaywalking as an Environmental Protest

For years, I’ve been an inveterate jaywalker, too impatient to wait for the light to change if there is no traffic.  

California, which takes stoplights and crosswalk signs very seriously, has converted me.  But not the way they might have hoped.  Far from religiously obeying the crosswalk signals, I have become an unrepentant jaywalker.  I search out opportunities to cross against the light.  And there are lots of opportunities in Carlsbad.  

Despite advances in traffic management technology, Carlsbad relies on an antiquated system in which the lights go red and green without regard to the way traffic patterns change through the day.  Minutes go by while I wait … and wait … and wait … despite the absence of any cross-bound vehicular traffic.  It happens dozens of times each and every day.

But what makes me really cross is watching a line of cars that waits … and waits … and waits at a red light when cross-bound traffic at that time of day is exceedingly rare.  

The waste of uncounted gallons of fuel as cars idle for no purpose at the intersection —in a state that purports to show America how to use natural resources wisely — is maddening indeed

I can’t control the lights, but I can jaywalk.