Let’s stop trying to fool ourselves. It’s not going to be easy.

As my children will attest, some days it takes only a minor stimulus to illicit a rant from me. Today it was this booklet that made its way to the top of our piano – How to Get Good Grades, in Ten Easy Steps.

Easy? Really?

Now, let’s be honest, if you’re not academically inclined, there is nothing easy about getting good grades. And if you ARE academically inclined, well then you wouldn’t be picking up this little booklet, would you?

Do you think the publishers of this book are doing the students any good by putting the word “easy” in the title? I don’t think so. You’re not going to fool a kid who’s ready to give up on school by telling them there’s an easy fix. If they’ve failed a few courses and their self esteem is in the toilet because of it, setting them up for one more failure by calling it “easy” is just cruel rather than helpful.

And here comes the rant…

Most of the things in life that are worth their weight in gold are most definitely NOT going to be easy.

Let’s stop trying to pretend they are. Let’s stop trying to sell ourselves on the idea that there’s such a thing as “easy weight loss” or “easy relationship fixes” or “easy steps to physical fitness”. Let’s toss “ten easy steps” out the window for once and for all, shall we?

The marketers who are selling you those easy fixes? They’re lying to you.

Good things take work. And practice. And perseverance. And blood, sweat, and tears.

My oldest daughter was struggling through her first high school math class last term. After a disappointing start, she was determined to improve her grade. After weeks of studying, extra homework, meeting with the teacher, re-doing her homework, and studying some more, she did just that – improve her grade. Was it easy? Not a chance.

Several years ago, my husband decided that, after 22 years in the transportation industry, he wanted to become a teacher. He’d never even finished high school, and yet he had this dream. Five and a half years later, he had two university degrees and a teacher’s certificate. There was very little about that journey that was easy, not even for those of us who supported him through it. But was it worth it? Of course!

I’m in the midst of becoming a runner. This morning I was very proud of the fact that I ran six miles. That accomplishment couldn’t have happened, though, without nine months of practicing and sweating and hurting and practicing some more. Yes I may love it and want to keep doing it, but… easy? Not one minute of it.

I am also writing a book. Sure there may be some days when the writing flows and it feels like it requires no more effort than breathing, but there are other days I feel like l’m slitting open a vein and letting the blood pour. And even those pages that showed up without much effort will still require hours of editing and rewriting and agonizing before they’re ready for prime time. Nope, nothing easy about that either. I want it more than almost anything else in the world, though, so I’ll stick with it.

Anyone who’s developed a meditation practice or yoga practice or dance practice or any other kind of practice can tell you that it requires years of dragging yourself to the mat or cushion or floor, working through heaps of resistance and pain, and persevering through all of those times when it just feels like nothing is happening. Easy? No way. Worth it? Oh yes.

Anyone who’s worked through depression or eating disorders or anxiety disorders or mental illness of any kind will tell you there’s nothing easy about that either. Worth it when you’ve worked through to the other side? Yes. But easy? Don’t ever insult them by implying that it is.

Anyone who has committed themselves to social change – protestors in Tahrir Square, people committed to peace and justice working in Darfur, front-line workers in poverty-stricken neighbourhoods all over the world – will tell you that it’s terrifying and hard and discouraging and only occasionally exhilarating, but easy? Never.

You get my point. Growing, learning, changing, improving, transforming – all of those things take years of effort and pain and frustration and surrender and practice and agony.

Sure, there are things that fall within your gifts that might feel easy from time to time (eg. I once had an article published in the Globe and Mail that took no more than 15 minutes to write and not a single edit), but perfecting anything – even if it comes naturally – is hard work. Just ask any Olympic athlete or world class musician.

Let’s stop trying to fool ourselves. It’s not going to be easy.

Worth it? Most definitely. But easy? Not a chance.

Hunger for beauty

There are few things that nourish my spirit more than a meditative wander through nature with my camera.

Mindful photography is for me what prayer or meditation is for others – a time to connect with the Creator through the tiniest of details on a leaf or the grandeur of the waves crashing on the coastline.

Unfortunately, in winter, I too often forget to do what I know will nourish me.

Yesterday, I remembered.
(Note: Video includes music from my friend Steve Bell.)

What is so dangerous about women?

Over the holidays, I have been making my way through Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi. It’s a fascinating memoir about a university professor who, after teaching in universities in Iran for a number of years and giving up out of sheer frustration because there are so many restrictions put on her and the way students are allowed to learn, begins a small private class in her home. She invites a circle of young women to study some of the classics that have been banned by an oppressive regime.

More than simply the story of a circle of women reading Jane Austen and F. Scott Fitzgerald, it is the story of how the Revolution in Iran silenced the voices of women and anyone who dared to believe something other than what the Ayatollah Komeini believed. It is about how oppression can grow in a place where there once was freedom, how more than half of the population can be silenced by the use of force and bullying. Whether or not they are Muslim, women are forced to wear veils, and are subject to inspections which ensure that they aren’t wearing any make-up, showing any hair or too much skin, or even wearing brightly coloured socks.

As the regime becomes more powerful, some young women are imprisoned, banned from university, and even executed for baring too much skin.  Other women are abused or raped because they dare to speak out. One woman – a former government Minister – is tied in a sack and thrown in the river.

The thought that comes to me as I read this is… what is so dangerous about women that for so many centuries, in so many countries, they have been forced into silence? What are those in power really afraid of when they oppress women by forcing them behind veils and out of positions of power?

It’s not just Muslim countries (though those are the most obvious because of the head coverings). I’ve seen it all over the world. Some places it’s obvious, and other places it’s more subtle. In North America, for example, women appear to have great freedom, and yet if they speak too loudly they are subject to ridicule and abuse. (And not just by men – women are often the first to call a strong woman a “bitch”.)

I ask again… WHAT is so dangerous about us?

In Muslim tradition, in my understanding, it’s mostly about sensuality – women are dangerous because their bare skin causes men to fall into temptation.

But is that all? I don’t think so.

I think there’s a deep and abiding fear (all over the world) that a combination of women’s wisdom, power, sensuality, and passion could dramatically change the course of the world.

I think the old guard – both men and women who are most comfortable with masculine wisdom – are terrified that if the women’s true voice were to be heard more loudly, the world they’re comfortable with would be transformed beyond recognition.

Change is frightening – for all of us. But I think it’s absolutely necessary. I think women need to stand up and say “Look around! See the poverty, the oppression, the human slavery, the damage we’re doing to our earth. This world NEEDS changing!”

And then we need to get our hands dirty and get to work. NOT by overthrowing those who’ve lead before, but by bringing our wisdom to their tables and working with them.

What I find especially beautiful about Reading Lolita in Tehran is the reminder of the resilience of the human spirit. Despite the way that the women are being oppressed and forced to hide their beauty and strength and read literature in secret, their spirits are not crushed. Their beauty and strength is not gone – it’s just waiting to be uncovered again.

I am reminded once again of the woman I met in Bangladesh (above photo). When I motioned to her that I was interested in taking her picture, she let me, but then motioned to me to wait – she wanted me to take another one. Removing her black head covering, she revealed a colourful one underneath. THIS was the version she wanted me to see. I can’t help but wonder what she might have revealed if we’d been in the privacy of her home.

What fire lies smouldering beneath those strong eyes?

In celebration of growth – an invitation to celebrate my birthday with me!

My birthday is coming up on Thursday, and since my dear friend Michele is throwing a little celebration in my honour tomorrow night (if you live close enough, YOU are welcome – at least, if you fit the “ladies only” profile), I’ve decided that this year I’m going to celebrate a whole BIRTHDAY WEEK instead of just one day! Yes, I’m feeling horribly narcissistic about the whole thing, but I figured I’ve done a fair bit of sacrificing in the past month or two, so it shouldn’t hurt to have a little balance in my life. Giggle.

Seriously though, I feel like this birthday week marks some pretty big growth for me. Those of you who are regular readers will know about some of the big challenges that have forced me to plunge a little deeper into my heart to find out just who it is that resides there and what the source and shape of her strength is. When we open ourselves to it, challenge and struggle will usher in growth and acceptance, and that’s what I’ve seen happening in my own life.

There have been some pretty significant breakthroughs for me in the last two weeks, in my relationship with my body, my relationship with my loved ones, my relationship with food, my relationship with the divine, and my relationship with the core of who I am created to be. As I wrote a few months ago when I was recovering from surgery, I’ve been feeling like a caterpillar who has to give up the life she knows, commit herself to the cocoon, and wait for the transformation to come.

I just learned recently that in the cocoon stage, caterpillars actually break down completely into a gooey gel-like substance that has no resemblance to either caterpillar or butterfly. We have to give it up – whatever we believe ourselves to be – in order to emerge into the beautiful creature we are meant to be.

It’s true, isn’t it, that we are never finished growing? I feel like a sculpture that is forever being molded in the Sculptor’s hands.

There’s a bubbling energy in me this week that feels a little like what the butterfly must feel when she has the dawning awareness that it’s time to break out of the cocoon. I feel strong in ways I didn’t expect to feel strong – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I’ve been running, biking, praying, doing yoga – and a bunch of other little things that feel like they are helping me step into a new strength. The beautiful life-giving thing about it is, the more I step into this strength and share it with people around me, the more it is returned to me in affirming ways – like a lovely note from a cousin who’s heading out on a solo trip to the Grand Canyon and says it was partly inspired by what I write on this blog!

A month ago, when Marcel was in the hospital, I began to describe myself as a warrior because of the battles I had to fight as his advocate. And in a few weeks, I’ll be in a workshop at ALIA about “leaders as Shambala warriors”. I’ve never really thought of myself as a warrior before (maybe it’s my pacifist roots), and honestly, I often doubt myself as a leader because of some of the struggles I’ve had in this job that usually end up leaving me feeling like a failure. But something is shifting, and I’m trying to step into whatever it is that’s emerging.

No, this week is not about “look how great I am”. It’s more about “there is something powerful in what God is shaping my life to be and I want to celebrate the way I’m growing into it”.

Tomorrow night, our little celebration will include a bra-burning ceremony to mark the transformation to my body (through breast reduction surgery). In a strange and unexpected way, the surgery marked a turning point for me – a moment when I finally gave myself permission to want a new story for my body. It’s all been part of the metamorphosis process – letting go of old stories I tell myself and embracing new truths and new possibilities. I have learned to love myself in a new way since I let go of the weight that was cut off. I have learned to treat my body with new respect and gratitude (thanks in part to Geneen Roth’s book) and I am slowly becoming healthier for it. (I realize that might sound a little twisted – having plastic surgery to learn to love yourself – but it’s working for me.)

What I would really love is this… even though you might not be able to make it to the celebration tomorrow night, I’d be delighted if you would consider marking this week with me, on your blog, on Twitter, or just in the privacy of your own home.

Here’s what I’d like you to do… have a virtual “bra-burning” party! No, you don’t have to burn your bra (unless you want to!), but think of some old story you’re telling yourself about who you are (who you’re supposed to be by other people’s standards, what limits you, what you’re lacking, why you’re a failure), and burn it! Write it down on a piece of paper, light a candle, a lantern, or a big ol’ bonfire and BURN THAT SUCKER! Let it go! Give it up to the fire!

Do it in honour of my 44rd birthday, but more importantly, do it for you!

And take pictures, ’cause I’d love to see all that burnin’ energy!

What do you see when you close your eyes and daydream?

Not long ago, I wrote about how Maddie loves to build magical worlds under the dining room table. Recently I found her there, lying on her back, staring up at the bottom of the table. When I asked her what she was doing, she said “oh, I’m daydreaming. I have to do it here because Madame doesn’t let me at school.”

Now, I’m a big fan of daydreaming, so I told her to go ahead and do it at school – just hide it by pretending she’s reading! (I got away with that many times when I was in school! I still do!)

Well… what do you think I did this morning? I climbed under that table, where Maddie has her boxes, her magical stool, her stuffed toys, and now her Little Lovely painting from Connie at Dirty Footprints Studio, and I daydreamed! Because what’s a better way to spend a morning when you’re still hiding in your cocoon waiting for your energy to come back?

About five years ago, I worked my way through a book called The Path, by Laurie Beth Jones. Laurie believes in daydreaming too (though I think she calls it “visioning” – a grown-up version of the same concept). She suggests that you sit down and write a vision for the future, a fairly specific “day in the life” of the person you dream of being in five years. She says that in her experience, a lot of people who do that kind of visioning end up very close to what they write about – maybe not in five years, but somewhere along the way.

Yesterday I pulled out my five year old daydream. There are a few parts of it that have come true – like the part about my husband coming home after teaching in his first classroom and feeling good about having gotten through to at least one student. He’s finally got a full time teaching job and I don’t remember when I’ve seen him happier. It’s a pretty tough school, but he’s in his element, helping inner city kids realize the value of education.

There’s a big part of the vision though – the part that’s mostly about MY dreams as opposed to my husbands – that hasn’t been fully realized yet. If I wrote another “five year vision” it would probably contain essentially the same thing. It’s the long held dream of making my living as a full time writer/speaker/consultant.

It’s closer to coming true (now that Marcel has a full-time job), but I’m not quite ready to quit my job yet. I’m not in one of those “just putting in time to bring home a pay cheque” jobs, so it’s not one I have to run away from. A few of the blogs I read are about people who are excited about quitting “the man” and launching their own businesses. Well, I wouldn’t really be quitting “the man”. I did that six years ago when I left a secure, fairly high level job in federal government for non-profit. For me it would be more like quitting “the woman” – by which I mean the marginalized, impoverished women who are being supported by the incredible organization I work for.

I keep wrestling with it, in fact. There are times when I can hardly WAIT to walk away from a 9-5 job and sink my teeth into a life of writing, speaking, traveling, and teaching leadership and creativity workshops. But then there’s that little voice that pipes up and says “Hello!? Remember how lucky you are to have a job that gives you such a great opportunity to use your gifts in leadership, creativity, writing, etc., that fits so well with your passion for justice, and that lets you travel to some of the most interesting parts of the world in search of a good story and photograph.” And lately I’ve been excited about the new staff I’ve hired who bring lots of great energy and ideas and who are a pleasure to lead. There’s a lot of exciting potential going on that I would be sorry to leave.

The truth is, though, when I lie under the table and daydream, that old familiar dream comes back to me every time. I’ve got a book (or two) published; I’m traveling to conferences and retreats to speak to people on topics related to leadership, beauty and justice, and leading a creative life; and I’m writing, writing, writing.

The past six years at my job have been truly incredible. I’ve stretched in incredible ways, I’ve met some of the most amazing people in the world, I’ve slept in a tent on a farm in a remote part of Kenya, I’ve held hands with a young teacher with a beautiful soul on a tiny island in India, I’ve taken incredible photos all over the world, I’ve gotten to write lots of stories, I’ve learned more about leadership than I could have imagined possible, I’ve lead film crews through Ethiopia, India, and Bangladesh, and I’ve been reminded time and time again that some of my greatest lessons come from my failures.

I remember six years ago, when I first got the job, I said to a friend “this job will stretch me” and I couldn’t have been more right.

I don’t know for sure when the time will be right to leave this work I love. I’m not really in a rush. But I can’t let go of the idea that the past six years have been preparing me to step even more fully into my calling. The possibilities are endless, and I’m ready to ride the wave wherever it takes me.

What about you? I’d love to hear what would be in your daydream if you sat down and wrote about a day in the life of the person you want to be in five years.

Stories of the generations

I’d forgotten about this photo until I unearthed it the other day. I am absolutely IN LOVE with it in a way that I don’t remember being when I first saw it. There were other photos from that day (like the one in my banner) that grabbed me more at the time. (Video here.)

It tells such a great story of the generations of women I’m embedded between. My mother, my daughter (Julie) and me.

I had just jumped out of a plane. Look how incredibly joyous I am! What a moment of pure, intoxicating adrenalin! I finally knew what the sky tasted like!

When I landed, my mom and Julie were the only people to come running across the field to greet me. (My husband followed later with the camera.)

Mom, carrying my chute, supporting me, content to pick up the rear. Proud of me. And not one bit afraid to watch her daughter do something as crazy as jump out of a perfectly good plane. In her heart I know she was a little bit (maybe even a LOT) envious. If there’s one thing I inherited from my mom it is my “adventure junkie” tendencies.

Julie, wearing my helmet, leading me forward, grinning with pride, and also… a whole LOT jealous of me. Of my three daughters, she’s the one voted “most likely to follow her mom’s footsteps and go skydiving some day”. She developed a new dream that day – work at the skydiving place so she could skydive as often as possible. If there’s one thing she inherited from HER mom it is her “adventure junkie” tendencies. (If you watch the video, you’ll hear her eager voice wanting to come rushing to me before the plane landed.)

It just makes me smile to see the story of women as it passes from generation to generation – through my mother to me, and through me to my daughter.

What about you? Why don’t you play along? Show me a picture that tells a story of your generations. Or write about it in the comments.

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