Finding a New Comfort Zone


medium_524314942The SOLD sign is gone. The money is in the bank.  The new owners have moved in. 

I’ve loved my century old brick home perched on hill. The open floor plan. Rooms flooded with light throughout the day.  Deep windows that didn’t need to be draped.  The sometimes joyful, sometimes raucous laughter of neighborhood children. The shaded north-facing garden with its spontaneously-generated masses of tiny grey-green moss flowers alongside my intentional beds of color by the season—daffodils, astilbe, roses, lilies, and phlox. 

IMG_2996I lived there thirteen years, much longer than any place else. It’s where I wrote Sailing Down the Moonbeam and completed several drafts of my forthcoming novel A Fitting Place.  Twice now, coming from town, I have driven right past my new home, heading to the old one out of habit.

And yet, in a way I don’t fully understand, I am glad that house is behind me.

Some of the reasons are obvious. One is a growing resistance to the burdens of a charming but also aging house with a garden that needs constant tending. Another is my desire to travel; I want a place I don’t have to worry about when I’m away. And it seems right and fitting that Kent and I should have “our” home instead of trying to carve out a place for him in “my” home.

Less obvious is the notion of stepping outside your comfort zone, of having to deal with a world that is different and sometimes unsettling.  Since childhood, I’ve consistently strayed beyond the boundaries of whatever situation—good or bad—I happened to be in, in search of new ideas and new experiences.

If you define comfort as places and things that are familiar, I’ve spent most of my life outside my comfort zone.

Perhaps “familiar” is not where my comfort zone lies. Perhaps my comfort zone lies in meeting the challenge of the different and unsettling.  Could it be that my much loved house had become too familiar and it was simply time to move on? 

How do you define your comfort zone?  Do you need to redefine it from time to time?

Illusion of Control – Feline Version


IMG_6206After 16 years, Calliope and I are about to be separated. I will miss our morning breakfast routine, a time when she talks constantly, and has an unerring instinct for being in the middle of the path from the kitchen table to the coffee pot or the refrigerator.  Her hope is that Kent or I will massage her belly or her head with a foot (be it shod or bare).  We do, of course, and have gotten quite adept at balancing on one foot while the other slides across her fur.

Our first meeting was a moment of perfect serendipity. 

A flower shop is not the kind of place you go if you want to adopt a cat.  But there, tucked among the seedlings at the Plantshed at Broadway and 96th Street in New York City, was a six-week old handful of white and tan fur, mewing in the thin, reedy and high-pitched sound I associated with a calliope.  She was cute, no doubt about it. But when I looked into her hazel eyes, I was hooked.  Without a second thought, I tucked her into my bag along with several exotic plants for my terrace and off we went.  

Our parting is an equally amazing piece of serendipity.  Kent and I are moving into an apartment building that will not allow pets, and for months we’ve agonized over what to do about Calliope.  She is too old for the adoption agencies to want her. And since she’s never spent a night anywhere except this house in more than thirteen years, I was sure any move would be intolerably traumatic.  Given her age, I couldn’t justify putting off decisions we had to make because of our age, but neither could I justify putting a still healthy and beautiful animal to sleep for my convenience. 

And then, when I didn’t think I had any more tears left, we sold our house to a wonderful family of five that wants to keep Calliope.  I know they will love her — as I write she is sleeping happily on one of the unwashed tee-shirts they delivered a few days ago, so she could adjust to their smell while Kent and I were still with her. And it seems that we can come and visit her from time to time, at least for a while.    

Control is a much over-rated phenomenon. Despite all my planning and organizing, Calliope came into my life on her terms and she is leaving that way as well.  No way I could ever have planned any of this.  Serendipity?  Luck?  Who knows, but it sure wasn’t control.  

Confessions of an Aging Book Lover

More than a dozen years ago, I discovered Anne Fadiman’s “Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader,” a collection of essays on her love affair with books.  My favorite was the story of how, after five years of marriage, she and her husband finally merged their bookshelves, a tedious process that included a lengthy debate as to whose copy of the many duplicate books they would keep.

My tale has a different twist. Because Kent and I have different tastes in reading we have few duplicates to wrangle over. But the heart of Fadiman’s tale seems all too apt. Our imminent move from a house to an apartment requires us to divest ourselves of at least half the books on our 70 feet of bookshelves.

I have been picking through my share of the library on a daily basis for a month now.  Each time I find a few more books I think I can bear to part with.  

  • Commercial photo books and maps of my travels were the first to go: today, the images and information are easier to find on the internet than thumbing through print copies.
  • Biographies took a big hit. While most are about interesting people, few are really well written or offer enough insights to make me want to read them again. Robert Caro (biographies of Lyndon Johnson), Anais Nin, and Jill Ker Conway are notable exceptions.
  • Business books: Most weren’t worth reading even when I worked in finance.  I should have disposed of them years ago.
  • Fiction.  Any novel I enjoyed found a niche on my shelf.  But there are very few I’ll make time to read again.  And if, perchance, I do want one, Amazon or my public library will ride to the rescue.  What did I keep?  Barbara Kingsolver, Sue Monk Kidd, Hermann Hesse, Patrick White, John Barth.  Some are great writers, some had a profound impact on me when I first read them … and I have read most of them more than once.
  • Philosophy. These were among the hardest to sort through, as my continued study of philosophy and religion leads me to refer back to things I read years ago.  I’ve kept all but a few that were particularly badly written or badly reasoned.
  • Cookbooks.  I don’t have many, but I’ve kept them all.

As ruthless as I have been, I still have too many books. And the pain gets deeper with every pass.

How about you?  What would you keep and what would you get rid of?


Teaching from a Map


classI like teaching, most of the time.  

But a few nights ago, as I walked into the first session of the MBA class I teach on “Managing Career Risk,” I wondered why.  I don’t like being the center of attention.  My sense of humor is not the sort that puts an audience at ease and I fear being struck by lightening if I dare to tell a joke.  I much prefer to ask probing questions than to offer solutions.

So why, for the fourth year in a row, was I standing at the front of a lecture room, urging ambitious young professionals to re-think their career choices?  As if I knew what choices they should make.  As if . . .   

Something like an answer came to me a few days later, during a presentation by author Christina Baldwin entitled “Leading Change through Story.”  Her message was that the stories we use to make sense of our lives are, metaphorically, maps for those who follow in our footsteps. 

And I have lots of stories.  Six or seven career changes, depending on how you count. Some remarkable successes and two very painful failures. A history of “dropping out” (three years on a sailboat, two years managing the finances of a non-profit that serves the mentally ill) and then returning to the work-a-day world, each time in a better job than when I left.  

Those stories give shape and color to themes that might be considered banal or trite.  The growth that comes when you step outside your comfort zone.  That most aspects of life—including one’s career progress—depend on factors outside of your control.  That a decision to not take a particular career risk is a decision to take a risk of a different sort.  The odds that you will be more successful if you love what you do.

Using Baldwin’s frame, the shape and color of my stories allow me to recast these banalities as a roadmap for young professionals peering nervously into the future.  After a 40-year career, I have a pretty good idea where the main road is likely to take you … and first hand experience with some of the alternatives that are available if you decide to veer off.

In Baldwin’s frame, my teaching role is not about giving advice or offering solutions.  It is about providing a well-drawn roadmap that my students can use to plot their route.

This is why I like teaching.  Because I keep learning!