Dreaming for the Future

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If you were to ask me as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have confidently stood up and shared with you a glimpse of my future – I would someday become the President of the United States. If you were to ask my older brother the same question about my future, he would have quickly insisted there was no way I could do this because I was a girl. My parents never let him have the last word and left no room for confusion while explaining we could be whatever we aspired to be. In other words, they encouraged dreaming.

I recently attended the first TEDx Greensboro event, one of the many Tedx programs hosted around the world to share ideas, foster learning and inspire communities through a series of speakers. The particular focus of this event was dreams, with topics ranging from the future of aviation to the building of community through the act of turning strangers into neighbors.

tedx_briggsOne of the speakers, Dr. Cyndi Briggs, shared her personal and professional thoughts about dreaming through introduction of the Imagination Installation Project, a social capital movement that harnesses the collective power of community. As one of the organizers of the grassroots effort, she invited all attendees at the event to participate by finishing a statement beginning with “Imagine when…..” to tap into imaginations and initiate dreaming. The cards included each contributor’s name and were then posted on a wall for all to view throughout the day. The results were fascinating, thought provoking and interesting.

Even more interesting, though, was the nervousness and lack of confidence I felt (but didn’t expect to) seconds before mustering up enough courage to write down my own initial response on one of the cards. According to Cyndi, I was not unlike many of the other adults she’s witnessed participating in the exercise. In her presentation she explained that dreaming is a major part of childhood, but somewhere along the road adulthood we lose confidence to share ideas and future aspirations. Sad, but true.

Every morning I ask my  two year-old daughter what she dreamed about the night prior. I can usually count on a response including one of the following: doggies, Dora the Explorer or sunshine. She’s at a fun age with a budding imagination. Most days, she informs me that Dora and her friends are at our house and joining us at the dinner table, using plastic containers to hold their invisible food. I often drink invisible coffee out of toy buckets for her enjoyment and act surprised the seventeenth time she delivers a plastic farm animal to me as a new piece of “mail”. She’s just beginning to scrape the surface of her imagination and dreaming, while I am at an age it is no longer encouraged by society.

While I no longer believe I am headed to the White House, I am now a mother of two young daughters who will need me to encourage them to dream as they age, just as my parents have into adulthood. But just as important will be the reminders I share with them, pointing to the positive events, relationships and conversations in their life that they might not have dreamed of. These moments, along with their dreams, will shape their future and help make possible what once seemed impossible; simply by imagining when.

Clearing the Happiness Fog

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In The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin accurately describes the way I’m feeling these days taking care of a defiant toddler and newborn baby – extremely happy, yet in a fog. It’s something she calls “fog happiness,” described as being the kind of happiness resulting from activities that, at the time, don’t seem enjoyable.  Instead, feelings of happiness are delayed and appear once the fog clears. For example, hosting a party may bring happiness, but it’s not usually until after the party that we realize it.

This is exactly the way I feel about parenting; enjoying every single moment, yet not realizing much of the happiness until about 11 p.m. each night when the house has settled down. After watching and listening to coffee shop patrons, I found I am not alone. My favorite example of this concept was the exchange between a father and son one morning.

The man rushed in the front door, wearing a flannel shirt and stained jeans. His hair was fluffy and uncombed. At his side was his son, a toddler with curly blonde hair. The boy was fidgety and impatient until his Dad brought him a scone to eat. As most toddlers do, he wanted to eat the treat at his own pace, his own way.

The Dad, noticeably impatient, began helping the young boy.

“It’s OK if it’s broken; you’re only going to eat one piece at a time,” he said softly.

The boy didn’t seem to care and wasn’t ready to take the advice and instead continued taking his time.

“Eat it, throw it away, or put it in a bag to take with you,” the Dad said before picking the boy up and carrying him out of the building as if resembling a human airplane.

While the Dad might not have thought so at the time, I found his words to be helpful and applicable to parenting experiences. Accept them, get rid of them, or take them with you to look at once the fog clears.

 

 

Why we should live more like Gumby

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A few years ago, I received invaluable advice from a respected business leader: when in life you are presented with the opportunity to stretch yourself, take advantage of it. In other words, she was saying live like Gumby and embrace vulnerable situations.

After hearing these words, I began noticing something; these opportunities appear for all of us, and more than we recognize. Nearly every day, we are faced with decisions – personal, professional; large, small; easy and difficult. Those that seem more difficult are that way because they are unfamiliar, and therefore, will force us to experience something new.

Have you ever noticed it seems easier to take on a task or enter a new situation once you’ve already had a similar experience? That’s not a coincidence.

Brené Brown, Ph.D., a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, has studied the topic of vulnerability for more than 10 years. Her work has been featured on national television, major publications and in multiple TED talks.

 

She says when people are vulnerable, they are willing to let go of who they thought they should be to be who they are and fully embrace vulnerability, believing it is what makes them beautiful.

I think she’s on to something.

When thinking about her definition and my own vulnerability, a few recent experiences immediately come to mind.

  • Signing up for a co-ed kickball team, not knowing there was such a thing and without knowing anyone playing, only months after moving to a new city. Did I mention sign-up was at a bar in a college town on a night my husband worked? Or that I realized on my way there that I didn’t know what the team captain (or anyone else for that matter) looked like? Yes, that awkward woman standing near the pinball machine scoping out the packed establishment with baby in tow was yours truly.
  • Meeting someone for coffee for the first time and not knowing what they look like. Asking other seemingly lost customers if they too are looking for their coffee date until the fourth person finally says yes.
  • Taking our two-year-old daughter to her first friend birthday party for a classmate at a local kid play zone, only to realize we were relying on her memory to help us navigate bouncy houses, slides and tunnels to find the little girl.

We all have the opportunity to place ourselves in vulnerable situations, to spark uncomfortable feelings and potentially embarrassing moments. However, instead of taking the plunge or enjoying the splash of a new experience, we continue repeating only those experiences we know and then wonder why we feel bored.

Now that I’ve embraced these situations, I want to have a few words with what used to be feelings of vulnerability. Sign me up for another kickball team. Schedule a meeting over coffee with a stranger. Invite my daughter to a birthday party at the local kid zone. Been there, done that.

The next time you have a chance to move your muscles and gain new experiences, give it a try. You don’t have to turn green; just wiggle your arms and get ready to stretch.

There’s a funny thing about aging; finding the hidden benefits

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When a group of women more than twice my age gather in a coffee shop to chat, it’s hard not to listen. It becomes even more important to pay attention when they begin dishing out advice and sharing wisdom about the benefits of aging.

After a round of gossip at the table about who is getting divorced for the second time, the women began talking about updates in their lives while giving and seeking advice from the others about various topics.

“You need to be on the Facebook,” the one said while the others politely smiled. “That is where all of the fun is happening.”

The chattiest of the bunch leaned back in her chair as if feeling defeated and started sharing the struggle she’s having with her teenage daughter.

“The coffee shop down the street is hosting trivia night Friday night. They’re even playing songs from the Beetles and ask guests to request,” she said. “My daughter will be home from college and I’d like to take her, but I know she wouldn’t want anything to do with ‘old people’.”

The women laughed and moved into a discussion about the benefits that come as a result of accumulating years.

“There’s a point you get to when you realize age really doesn’t matter,” one woman said. “I’ve decided to stop counting at 69.”

The conversation continued, with a list of important aging benefits trailing close behind.

  1.  Discounts at grocery stores
  2. Cheap Frosty’s at Wendy’s
  3. Ability to say what you want; and
  4.  An unsaid societal license to use the word “dead” without sounding to harsh, when speaking about those who have passed on before you

The best of the advice, though, was that from the last woman to leave the table.

“These are the perks of getting older. We need to take advantage of them because we’ve earned it!”

Unconventional ‘Spring Cleaning’

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Spring is in full force – the sun is peaking through the clouds, pollen is flying through the air and traditional spring cleaning has begun. For me this year, the season of spring is also bringing a desire to participate in an unconventional twist to spring cleaning, de-cluttering all aspects of my life and bring with it a renewed focus.

I recently overheard a woman talking about her two-year-old son and his experience during Christmas this past year. She was sharing how, when married to her former husband, her then mother-in-law would “go crazy” during the holiday season and purchase nearly everything in the store. As a result, her ex-husband cringed each year as the seemingly jolly season would approach. His childhood experience, filled with an overabundance of tangible items left him feeling a void in more ways than one. This Grinch-like attitude was following him into adulthood and leaving a similar impression on his toddler, who, by instruction, was not allowed more than one toy for Christmas.

In a separate visit, I listened in as two men began talking about their upcoming mother’s birthday. She was turning 90 years old. One of the men shared his wife’s stress about what to purchase as a gift, saying “she probably already has everything.” After a short recollection of the previous year, the brothers decided they would purchase a generator for their mother, as she had lost power five times in the past year.

In both of these conversations, it seems, there was more emphasis placed on the actual gift rather than the act of giving, causing unnecessary stress and frustration.

After hearing these stories, I began a self-reflection and audit of my own life’s “stuff” — tangible and intangible. At a time when many are cleaning closets and making room for more purchases, I am joining the crowd. But, this year, rather than adding clothes or shoes, I am hoping  to de-clutter life by making small, subtle changes to my every day routine. A few examples include:

  • Walking with my dogs in the evening instead of Facebook scrolling;
  • Sitting outside in the sun with a magazine instead of inside on the couch;
  • Hosting impromptu get-together’s with new friends rather than wishing I had elaborate dinner plans;
  • Sending already read books to a good friend a few states away in exchange for her already read pieces of work;
  • And, most importantly, making time for long conversations with my good friends and family who matter most.

So far, the plan is moving along nicely, and I am feeling less “cluttered”. One day at a time.

What about you? Are you spring cleaning this year – traditionally or unconventionally? And if not yet, don’t worry, there’s still time.

The Name Game

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Have you ever played “the name game”? When, within the first few moments of seeing a new stranger, you rack your brain in hopes of coming up with the best guess for a person’s name given your first impression of them? OK, so maybe I’m the only one who does this. But, either way, participating for me means adding a splash of fun to what may otherwise have been an ordinary day.

During my first visit to a local coffee shop, I quickly noticed something much different from other establishments – when ready; every order and customer name was called out loudly through a microphone at the front counter.

Now, I know what you may be thinking: surely she’s been to a place with this routine. But, nope. Not like this.

“Marrrry! Your order is ready. Order ready for Mary,” the gentleman at the front loudly exclaimed, as if trying out as the announcer of a local baseball team.

This caught me off guard because it was abnormally loud, but also because it spoiled any plans I had for playing “the name game”.

Just as I saw a new customer and began making a list of name guesses, a loud, drawn out announcement was made.

“Ssssstephanie! You have an order at the front counter!”

At first I was a bit annoyed and turned off by the nuisance. But then I decided to use the obstacle as a jumping off point for inventing a new name game. For the next 30 minutes, I listened and took note of customer first names. Among them: Ashton, Jessica, Don, Faith, Buddy, Judy, Jason, Brian, Valerie, Lane, Barb, Caroline, Kate, Gavin, Phyllis, Mike, Sherry, Elizabeth and Donna.

No real rhyme or reason to the names, but interesting nonetheless.

I’ve recently noticed multiple articles claiming older names are “in” and are becoming increasingly popular for those parents looking to name their new babes. Perhaps it’s because I personally know of 11 women pregnant right now,  but I couldn’t help but think of these statistics when hearing names belted over the loudspeaker because, well, these customers were babies once, too.

According to TODAY Moms, baby name trends for 2012 are fierce and heroic. Baby Centre gives a nod to and blames the “100-year rule” for old-fashioned names being “cool” again. Parenting Magazine also released a list of 20 vintage names moving back into style. Of those, none of the coffee shop names made the list.

My attention was steadily captured by the man announcing each order until a gentleman sitting near me loudly shared his thoughts about the ordeal.

“Is it just me or should he take it down a bit?” he said, making eye contact with me. “I’m just waking up.”

I just smiled.

He then looked up at me before making a candid suggestion.

“You know, it would be much smoother if you went up and asked him to calm down his announcements,” he said. “If I went up there, I’d just simply look like a jerk.”

I smiled again and told him the noise wasn’t bothering me. (What I didn’t tell him is I was taking notes.)

After jotting down a series of names and packing up my belongings, I started toward the door. While doing so, I passed two older gentlemen sharing a newspaper.

“Do you like to look at the obituaries?” one of them asked.

“Yes, I like to see if someone with my name is in there,” the other man answered.

Hmm, I thought. Looks like someone else has a name game to play, too.

Stop acting like a fish and sit where you want

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Stereotypes. You’ve heard of them, and probably taken part in using them. Usually a popular belief about one specific group of individuals,it’s no surprise using stereotypes to define others can be somewhat misleading. What is even more interesting, however, is the same principle seems to hold true when identifying ourselves and where we ‘belong’ – in social settings, at school, work – and in coffee shops.

It only takes a few minutes after walking through the door of an aroma-filled building to scan the customers and recognize the “rules” of a specific coffee shop — who sits where and how one should act in the given environment. Nearly all coffee shops are the same, collecting patrons from all walks of life while overlaying invisible seating charts to designate where a person should sit.

Most visitors can be grouped in one of the following categories: 

1. Businessman/Businesswoman: Professionally dressed, confident posture and an uncanny fixation on the computer screen in front of them. Usually order the largest coffee and consume in one sitting, only pausing to take a quick (and noticably important) phone call. Watching sometimes gives me the urge to instate a “don’t drink coffee and type” rule, as I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen unnoticed coffee dribbling down the chins of these folks and onto their shirts. Without saying a word, it’s evident others in the establishment understand their message: “I came here to work, so please don’t bother me.”
Location: Sits around the perimeter of the room, hoping for less noise in case needed for an important phone call.  

2. College Student: It’s common for these individuals to sport sweatpants, glasses and half-brushed hair. Books with titles I cannot yet pronounce cover every inch of their table, except for the small space being occupied by a silver laptop and flashy iPhone.   A calm and relatable air to them, the college student nonchalantly orders the largest drink on the menu. He/she has open more than five web browser tabs at one time, alternating between social media sites and email to try to forget about the blank Word document lingering in the background; a reminder of an unfinished assignment.
Location: Near an electrical oulet, close to the front counter in preparation for a quick coffee refill.

3. Parent: Usually a mother, the parent enters the place with children attached, as if desperately looking for a break from reality (not to mention a fix of caffeine!). Food and drinks are ordered for the kids and the stay isn’t long thanks to the screaming toddler leaving a trail of crumbs, even on their way out.
Location: Far away from anyone in the place without kids, hoping for less interuption and feelings of guilt.

4. The Others: A ‘catchall’ for those not fitting nice and neat into the categories above, among them: couples, girlfriends of varying ages and ranging from teenager to adulthood, middle-aged women reading alone with a cup of tea and the weird woman in the middle of it all, writing in a small pink notebook (that’s me!).
Location: Varies

I find it interesting that no matter the location of a coffee shop, they all have a similar theme – a common place, collecting people who enjoy coffee and others who don’t. Either way, there’s no dress code, no prerequisites, no judgement. And yet, stereotypes and unsaid cliques still exist.

In The Book of Awakening, Mark Nepo shares an experience a friend of his had while cleaning a fish tank and found it resembled something we often see in our society among humans.

“[He] put the fish in the tub, so he could clean their tank. After he’d scrubbed the film from the small walls of their make-believe deep, he went to retrieve them. He was astonished to find that, though they had the entire tub to swim in, they were huddled in a small area the size of their tank. There was nothing containing them, nothing holding them back….I began to see just how much we were taught as children to fear life outside the tank.”

I recently overheard someone say “find yourself in everyone you meet.” I am, and have been, in every one of the categories above. Yet, I too continue to stay in  the same corner of the coffee shop based on my identity on a given day, sipping coffee among the others in my school of fish.

The next time you walk into a public place, look around. Have the fish gathered? If so, find your fins and join a new school of fish. Because whether in life or as a fish, it’s better to swim than to float.

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