Monday, December 27, 2010

Simple Pleasures. Simple Gifts.

Finding the magic, fun, laughter and joy in this holiday season, that’s what I really wanted for Christmas. Simple gifts can get a bit complicated with all the demands and distractions on and off the internet.

Earlier this month, I was part of a teleclass from best selling author, Jennifer Louden where the focus was on setting COE’s for your holiday. What are COE’s? Conditions of Enoughness is a tool created by Jennifer Louden to help put a few boundaries around your life.

How do I do that? Jennifer has 4 steps:
1. Name what is enough in simple facts. What you will actually do in a measurable doable fact.
2. Include a time element. By when, how long, etc.
3. Ensure they’re dependent only on you on a normal day.
4. Declare you’re satisfied when your conditions are met.
(Even if you don’t feel satisfied, that it’s enough, it is.)

So how do I create magic and joy using these steps?
Here’s my attempt:
1. Make a ‘fun’ list that includes joyful connections.
2. Take at least one day a week to do one ‘fun’ thing.
3. Be open to magic by being spontaneous in and around my normal life.
4. Put my list away and let light, life, magic and joy dance in and around me. The more spontaneous I am, the more I declare I’m satisfied.

Here’s a few of my fun, magical, loving things:
Walking through zoolights with my sweetie.

Tasting new seasonal ales at the holiday brew fest.

Lunch with my dear friends.
Bake my shortbread, cherry cake and other goodies.

Decorating the house for the holidays.

Making a warm, easy meal to enjoy after a hectic day.

Dressing up in the beautiful textures of the holidays.
(This is my child wanting a little velvet and prettiness)
Writing my thoughts, reading blogs I love.

Notice anything missing?

Trolling the internet, facebook and email is not on the list. I’ve seen a number of people taking digital sabbaticals lately. In fact, Jennifer Louden is on one now until the New Year. I don’t know if I’m brave enough to try to go off the internet cold turkey, yet. But I’ve decided to limit my time to blogs I love and blogging, checking my email every other day, and taking the holiday ‘days’ off from being online.

So far, this simple list of simple pleasures has brought me fun, magic and loving connections. And that’s what I really wanted for ‘Christmas’ this year!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Christmas Sock Mystery.

Today, as my husband and I were getting ready for the day, I walked back into the closet and there on the floor was a sock I’d lost years ago. It was lying just inside the closet door on the floor. Odd. Because I’d just been in the closet dressing and it wasn’t there. My husband had dressed in there, too and it wasn’t there. But just as we were both ready to leave and I’d gone into the closet one last time, there it was on the floor.

“What the heck?” I said to my husband. “Did you see that?” He came over and looked down, then shook his head. “Nope.” He hadn’t seen it in there until I pointed it out to him. “Where did that come from, I lost it years ago.”
I looked up toward the ceiling, the top shelf, the rest of the shelves, then down to the sock on the floor. Nothing was out of place, nothing else had moved from the shelves. A few months back, I’d cleaned and organized closet shelves. I didn’t find any stray socks, then.

This sock isn’t just an ordinary sock, it’s special. It’s a Christmas sock. Not a stocking, a sock. I remember vividly when I bought them. It was about 4 years ago on Christmas Eve. We had little family tradition that on Christmas Eve, we would spend the afternoon downtown, seeing the big Christmas tree all lit up, drinking a special eggnog latte, going around to the downtown shops taking in the window displays and maybe buying a few small last minute gifts.

One year, to the delight of my, then, small children, I bought a package of Christmas crackers for them to pop at Christmas Day dinner. This particular year, I was looking for a few pairs of bright, warm socks to put into my daughter’s stocking. I lucked out and found these wonderful red and black wool socks at The Gap. They were on sale, so I bought a few pairs for both of us. We both loved them and wore them a lot. So, I went back the next year to buy more socks for our stockings only to find out they didn’t sell them anymore. We were both disappointed.

But my daughter and I still had a pair or two from the last year. And then, I lost the mate to this red, black and white snowflake pair. I remember, because I loved the socks so much that I put the one sock on my closet shelf hoping that I’d find the mate someday soon. Years went by and I never found it. So finally, last year, I got rid of the single sock.

Now, this year, its mate showed up on my closet floor. There it was, lying by the doorway on December 21st, just 3 days before Christmas Eve. I’d already gotten my daughter and I a pair of new socks for our stockings. I wasn’t planning on a trip downtown this year. Our children were grown up now and they grew out of our Christmas Eve field trip tradition quite a few years ago. I’d also finished all my Christmas shopping.

Why now? Why did I find the Christmas sock on my closet floor? When I’d lost it years ago?

I must admit, I called out loud to the spirits of the house, “Ok, having a little fun with me? Am I going to find the other one, now?” Or, I asked myself quietly later, is it a message? Or just a way to remind me of our old tradition of Christmas Eve shopping? Or is it just the way life is…the minute you think something you love is lost, you find it. And in the most unexpected places?

As I write this, I sit looking at this old, red and black wool sock and I see it in a new light. It is a Christmas sock. And it’s empty. Perhaps, it’s here waiting, like we all are, to be filled on Christmas Day with joy. I know one thing for sure, I still love that old wool sock, red and black with its white snowflake, still warm and cozy after all these years.

Maybe the biggest lesson is the most obvious:
Whatever is lost, can be found. Again.

But maybe the key to finding it is in being able to finally let it go.

This Christmas may you and yours find all the mystery and magic of the season to enjoy.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Gifts of courage, hope, faith, spirit, love and joy.

In the last 2 to 3 years, my life has been full of challenges. Some good and some bad. But when the bad challenges threatened to drown me in muck, some very good people pulled me up and out. What a gift they gave me.

During this special time of year, I wanted to give something back to them. Of course, I’m there for them like they were there for me. But I wanted, somehow to let them know just how much their support meant to me in my time of need.

I could only think of giving them something I love, to reflect theirs.

I love metal. I love leaves. I love words.

So I made them each a metal leaf inscribed with a word that described the support I felt from them. Words like love, faith, hope, spirit, courage and joy.

Here’s a picture of one of the leaves that went to my darling daughter. It has the word, joy, etched into the copper. Her presence in my life is a continuing source of joy and during the last few years, she found special ways to bring joy into my life when I needed it most.

Some of these people I didn’t even know a few years ago, much less know well enough to share difficult times. But they were there for me. Especially at this time of year, I wanted them all to know what a gift they gave to me. Knowing I was not alone, gave me the gift of courage, hope, spirit, faith, love and, yes, even joy.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Fill up.

This is the rock that I picked out of a box at the end of a writer’s retreat recently. The small purple grey rock had a message for me, “Fill up.”

It’s a nice, positive, abundant message, right?

Then, why did I want to drop the rock and run?

All of a sudden, I felt overwhelmed. Pressured. The last thing I wanted or needed was a message to ‘fill up’ my already overflowing life. I know that sounds bad. Doesn’t everyone want a life overflowing?

That depends on what it’s overflowing with…abundance, love, health and creativity or job loss, fear, and no health insurance? For the past several years, it’s been a constant race to fill up my life with as much business as I could, as fast as I could, so I could help fill up the cupboards at home with as much security as I could. My creativity was pushed to the limits to produce, to sell, to show, to do, do, do and do some more.

The power of the universe is an awesome and wonderful force that never ceases to amaze me. Because just when the flood of busy-ness was about to drown me, life changed for the better and the pressure was off.

So the last thing I wanted that day at the retreat was to get a message to 'fill up' when what I really wanted was to let go, empty my bucket and lighten my load.

I looked around me another interpretation of that message. One woman felt it meant that I could fill up with more, that I was capable of handling a multitude of things. I nodded. I know I can multi-task with the best of them. But I’ve always seen life as one step at a time, one project at a time, one type of creative work at a time and that doing too many things at once was a recipe for disaster. And I didn’t have flood insurance.

After years of having people all around me, all day eating, sleeping, playing video games, watching TV, on the internet; I was alone. Alone to create, write, sing out loud or lay down on the floor with no one to see or stop me. So what did I do? My first reaction to the new was to do more of the old. I got busy. I cleaned and organized. I threw out the old and worn out. I made lists, shopped and restocked.

Then at the retreat and I reached into the box for a rock and got a message I didn’t want. But just like the Rolling Stones lyrics, "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need."

I did. After the retreat, I retreated. In my studio, my writing room, my creative cave, I sat day after day in silence.

“Fill up.”

Solitude. Silence. Empty space. This is what I needed to ‘fill up’ on. I needed to be alone and meet myself again. I needed silence to hear my own thoughts and feelings. I needed to fill up with empty space in which to explore, rediscover and create room in my own heart for more love, new ideas and creations.

At times, I felt lost in the space. Adrift in the sea of unstructured time and my fear wanted to organize it, push it and produce. I've fought against my fear to fill up with busy-ness and instead listened to my soul ask me to fill up, instead, with openness and silence and solitude.

This holiday season, I want to 'fill up' in new ways. I want to enjoy the season and welcome the abundance that's part of the celebration. But I want to remember to 'fill up' with heart, laughter and creativity and openness, to leave room to let the silence of the season 'fill up' my soul, too.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Questions are her life's work - An Interview with Jennifer Louden.

Best selling author and The Comfort Queen,Jennifer Louden, talks about success, digital stress and answers to her life questions.

It was a series of endings that started Jennifer Louden on the path as a best-selling author, spokesperson, workshop and retreat leader. Her boyfriend broke up with her and his friend wrecked her car. Her dog bit her. She was on crutches recovering from a skiing accident, moving from a house to a very small apartment, and trying to finish a screenplay. Her agent was getting disinterested and she was suffering from a huge case of writer’s block.

“And I couldn’t write. I was rewriting the same two pages of this screenplay over and over again,” said Jennifer.

If anyone needed comfort at that moment it was Jennifer, “Inside this voice was saying, Honey, you just need to take some time off. You need to take care of yourself. You need to maybe go work in a bookstore for a while, or you’re interested in some gardening. It’ll be ok. And I said, Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ll listen to all that when I sell the screenplay.”

But instead of finishing her play, she was helping and comforting another writer.

Jennifer said, “I was very jealous of a friend. I had taken care of her, given her advice, a space to work. She got a better agent than I did and she was just off and running. Here, I was drying up. And, so, I called to tell her I was going to quit writing for a month. But really when I said it, I meant I was going to give up. And that was when the title for my first book, popped into my head as clearly as a voice said to me, The Woman’s Comfort Book.”

At first, giving up her writing and creative life, felt like a huge relief. But the book title kept coming back to her, like a call that wouldn’t go away. Jennifer asked herself, “I wonder what did it mean to comfort myself? And then I began to think about writing a book and that book was very successful and launched everything else.”

Jennifer wrote a series of best-selling books starting in 1992 with The Woman’s Comfort Book, The Couple’s Comfort Book, The Pregnant Women’s Comfort Book, and Comfort Secrets for Busy Women, followed by The Woman’s Retreat Book, The Life Organizer Book and companion CD. Even though she’d published successful books, Jennifer still had problems seeing herself as a real writer. That inner critic was saying to her, “Well yes, you wrote a book and it sold hundreds of thousands of copies, but it’s a ‘self help’ book. It’s not a ‘real’ book. It’s not literature.”

Every book was a ‘self-help’ book for Jennifer. By looking for the answers to questions in her own life; Jennifer helped herself and many other people, too.

“I think that’s why so many of us write anything or create anything because we have a question. And somehow we are directed or constructed, or both, in a way that we don’t just do it for ourselves, said Jennifer.” “There’s something about the conversation that is huge for me. That’s what I love about the internet, and my blog, creating products and doing teleconferences, retreat calls or both, there’s feedback back and forth. And that sparks more learning and questions for me and then I get interested in answering questions for other people, too. But it’s got to be that sweet spot between the two.”

Life, according to Jennifer, is a question of balance and asking yourself, “Am I present enough to know what I want and what is needed in the moment?”
Add the internet to the demands of ordinary life and many moments can get eaten up with what Jennifer likes to call ‘shadow comforts’, “Email for me is the big time suck. I was given a writing retreat by the Fetzer institute in April and my intention for that was to be unplugged.” This made such a difference in her life, she decided to use her own tool, ‘Conditions of Enoughness’ to take a digital sabbatical in August.

“The sabbatical did bring me a huge gift, said Jennifer. “I’ve had a question for years now about what I want to do next and it really made me realize how much I want to be an active part of helping save the world. I think we’re on the edge of disaster and we don’t have a lot of time left. And I don’t think I could’ve done it if I was checking email every hour.”

Jennifer uses a computer program called, ‘Anti-social’ that prevents her from checking email, twitter, facebook or other sites for a set amount of time each day. But although she admits that comments filled with bragging, competition and comparisons can make a bad day worse, sometimes she realizes that it’s not always the sites themselves.

Jennifer said, “I can go on twitter on a bad day and feel horrible about myself. And I can go on twitter on a good day and feel like I’m at the spiritual water cooler. So I go on with limits. Am I feeling good enough to do this? Can I make a contribution or am I going on there to give the mean voices some ammunition? Then I’m not going on.”

What are your Conditions of Enoughness for the internet? According to Jennifer, that’s a question you have to answer for yourself, with many more questions.

“Why are you on there? What’s your intention, asks Jennifer, is your intention to run away from your marriage? Your creative work? Dysfunction in your kids? From the fact that you didn’t exercise today? Or is it, wow, I’d just really like 20 minutes to check in and look at what your friends are doing? Or is your intention to build your business? And are the other live people in your life getting enough from you?”

Jennifer knows that she’s not alone in these questions and now she wants to explore answers in a different way, taking the personal to the global level. After 10 years, she’s saying good bye to the Comfort Queen website, the place that’s sold her books, retreats and workshops. She is designing a new website and blog. Is this a bold move for Jennifer? Her way of changing the world or just her world? Or a little of both, perhaps?

Jennifer answers, “I’ve listened to the mean voice that said, ‘You got lucky with the success of your books, so you need to keep doing the same thing over and over again because you’re not going have anything else.’ And I’m at the point where I don’t want to believe the mean voices anymore and if they’re right, I’d rather go open a cheese store. I’m a person who likes to learn. And I think of the one thing that defines me, it’s learning and changing. So I have to keep doing it or what’s the point of being here. I’ve got to create.”

Jennifer’s not sure exactly what this creation will be yet. Even though she feels strongly about taking time off from the internet, this project will require internet involvement using her blog. Again, Jennifer starts this new project with more questions.

“How do you do enough of your passion that you make a living and savor the world and save the world? And what’s the sweet spot between the three? Because that’s my question, I need to work. I need to make a living,” Jennifer said.

Jennifer Louden has been making a very good living since the beginning. First it was traditionally with publishing advances, book sales and international rights, workshops, retreats and speaking engagements, but with the boom of the internet, Jennifer has creatively diversified her work and products. In 2000, she launched her Comfort Queen website expanded with virtual events, tele-classes, comfort cafĂ© memberships and digital products. Now her income is made in a wider range of diverse products instead of the larger chunks from her book publishing past. Does this cause her to feel her life is too complex, that she’s stretched too thin? Maybe.

“One of my fantasies is that my life would be a little simpler, Jennifer said. “I don’t know if that’s a possibility so I live that question, sometimes I do feel a little spread thin. And the truth is, I don’t like to do just one thing. I like to do several things at one time.”

Jennifer feels doing the same thing over and over is like answering the same question over and over. And to some degree she feels she’s been doing that with Comfort and she needs to explore new questions. How does Jennifer see this new work and life coming together? Right now, she’s not sure. Jennifer has been successful in the ‘self help’ field for decades, but she still has her share of fears and fantasies about future projects.

Said Jennifer, “I may wake up in the middle of the night petrified, but right now it feels great. And I’ll start to have fantasies that I won’t contribute. I won’t get to create. Nobody will listen to me. I’ll be poor.”

Has Jennifer finally learned to comfort herself writing successful self help books? Or not? “It has been an ongoing exploration of….what does it really mean to take care of myself. And I think that’ll be a question I’m living my whole life. I think that’s part of the role of a creative person is to be able to live in the question. I love questions, but I want answers.”

Jennifer Louden has made asking questions and seeking answers for her own life, her life’s work. Whether she’ll find all the answers and learn to savor and save the world is yet, another question. But she has to try, even if it means she has to open that cheese store after all.

“The key is loving the questions, said Jennifer. “Loving the fact that there are so many questions in life. How can we be in that place of curiosity?”

If you'd like to hear Jen talk about her life, listen to the podcast interview on Voices of Living Creatively website. And visit Jennifer's blog at Comfort Queen