Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Dream a Little Dream for Me (Discovering My Dreams, week 3)

When I was growing up, September was a special time for me. School began again, for one thing. As much as I enjoyed long summer days spent bike riding, roller skating, listening to records, etc., with friends, I always loved school, particularly the first month.

September also brought to my hometown a yearly week-long extravaganza known as the SEMO District Fair. The largest city park turned into a midway of carnival games and rides, and the large Arena Building became the home of exhibits and judging of 4-H projects and of quilts & other works of art as well as all sorts of food items -- jams & jellies, cakes & pies, cookies & candy --  created by women from our part of the state. In one section of the park, row after row of huge pole-barn type structures housed 4-H and FFA (Future Farmers of America) livestock.  And the food! Cotton candy, corn dogs, funnel cakes, candy apples and caramel apples, saltwater taffy . . .

September was also the time when temperatures cooled a bit. While I loved hot weather -- in fact, the hotter it was, the happier I was -- schools weren't air-conditioned then, and the cooler temperatures made the days much more comfortable.

September also brought high school, college, and professional football, and I loved going to the high school games every Friday night and spending Sunday afternoon in the family room with my dad, eating junk food and watching whatever games were available on the only 3 channels we got back before cable TV brought hundreds of them into our home.

As the years passed, September retained its charm for me. The opening of the school year was moved to the middle of August, but everything else stayed the same. And 30 years ago, on a beautiful Saturday evening in the middle of the month, my husband I got married.

Yes, September was always special.

Five years ago, though, September became something quite different; it became a month that I dreaded, containing the day that brought a horrible end to the worst 6 weeks of my life, followed just 13 days later by a bittersweet reminder of what was no more. I was hoping, though, that this year would be better, that the pain would be less sharp.

Instead, this year has proven to be the most difficult September in several years. Part of this is, I know, due to events in the community I work in and in the world at large, events ranging from the merely troubling to those that are deeply tragic.

More significant, though, is the fact that this September I am facing the not-too-distant loss of yet another person who has played a significant role in my life. A woman I've known for 32 years, who has been a treasured friend and mentor. The beloved mother of my husband and grandmother of my children. A woman who is facing the very grim diagnosis of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer with grace, dignity, and courage borne of her unwavering Christian faith.

Her illness is, as I tell people who hear of my mother-in-law's diagnosis and immediately ask how I'm doing, not about me, and I don't want to make it about me. But with every passing day there's another test, another treatment, another sign that her condition is worsening. And with each test, each treatment, each sign, I'm reminded of a similar journey 5 years ago.

I see around me the same loved ones -- my children, my father-in-law, and various other in-laws -- grieving, and I know that the situation will only get worse and their suffering will only increase in the days and weeks to come.

As so, last week I found it very difficult to dream and plan a' la Dream Save Do.

But what about you? What have you been dreaming of? As you look to the future, what would you like to see there?

I hope you'll share even just part of your dream, either through a comment or by emailing me (pattimiinch@gmail.com).

So please, dream a little dream for me.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Stress -- What's a Gal (or Guy) to do?

"There cannot be a stressful crisis next week. My schedule is already full."  Henry Kissinger

I'm right there with you, Henry!

Every time I've turned around the past four weeks, another stressful situation has been there to meet me. Phone calls with news of medical tests, a grim diagnosis, and various procedures for a beloved family member. News broadcasts of angry people reacting with violence. Unexpected travel (and not for pleasure) resulting in an ever-growing to-do list with more than a few "overdue" items. Disconcerting situations at work. And the list goes on.

Until a few years ago, I had three go-to strategies for dealing with stress. One strategy, which I refer to as "hunkering down", found me lying as low as possible, looking neither to the right nor to the left, and simply surviving the situation.

Picture a toddler who is intent on watching television despite his mom's announcement that it's time for a nap. His eyes remain determinedly focused on the TV screen -- "if I don't look at her, I don't have to acknowledge what she's saying, right?" -- while he remains as small and still as possible, hoping mom will forget he's there. That doesn't work for the toddler, and it wasn't an effective strategy for me, either.

My other, equally-ineffective manner of dealing with stress was to let the steam build for a time until an insignificant but irritating event occurred, at which time I would "let off some steam". Nothing major -- I was never a hairbrush thrower or tantrum-pitcher. Instead, I would express frustration to those around me, talking the situation to death until I ran out of steam.

Picture a far-less-destructive, verbal Mount St. Helens, if you will.

Even the oft-recommended strategy of journalling about a stressful situation didn't work well. Instead of being able to release the negativity and stress through writing, I tended to relive the negativity and become even more stressed.

But experience with very personal, intense stress that lay like a thick blanket over every aspect of my life for well over a year taught me that what I was doing didn't work very well. I didn't "toss out the baby with the bathwater", though; instead, I've found ways to alter what I had been doing in order to make them more productive.

First, I now allow myself to "hunker down", but only for a very brief time, and only for the purpose of giving myself time to better understand the stress and its cause(s). I actually give myself a deadline -- sometimes it's just 10 minutes; for more complex situations it may be longer.

For the most part, talking about the negative situation has ceased to be a strategy. The whole point of talking through the situation was interaction with someone else -- their validation (sincere or fake) of the fact that I had every right to be frustrated or upset. Dazey (my Norwich Terrier) failed to provide either the interaction or the validation I found comforting, so I turned to venting on Facebook.

Sharing my frustrations in response to Facebook's "What's on your mind?" was an eye-opener. I realized more than a few times that I had allowed my stress level to rise at a rate disproportionate to the stressor. I also found that seeing my words in black and white made me less willing to put them out there for all the world to see.

Seeing my thoughts in black and white, on a page, has also changed how I utilize the strategy of writing about what is bothering me. Several months ago, I realized that journalling on paper had become less a joy and more a chore and that blogging provided me with both the writing outlet I love and a sense of connection with others that I wanted. As a result, I quit paper journaling.

As with Facebook, I've found I'm very reluctant to vent here. First, while I address negativity and stress here, I choose to focus more on overcoming both and on not letting either overcome and derail me. As with Facebook (again), I find that when I pause long enough to write for others (as opposed to for my eyes only in a journal) I gain perspective. In turn, that perspective stops me from allowing the stressor(s) from gaining a life larger than its own.

I've found other strategies that help. I can't claim credit for the vast majority of them; articles touting the helpfulness of a healthy diet and exercise, pet ownership, and placing strict limits on the amount  media exposure (television and print news in particular) can be found in a variety of professional journals, magazine articles, and self-improvement books.

Doing what I love -- watching sports on television or in person, knitting or scrapbooking, reading, and listening to music, to name a few -- also helps alleviate stress. Attending a knitting class and being surrounded by cheerful women laughing and talking as they knit and purl makes a positive difference as well. Reaching out to someone who is hurting is also beneficial; writing a short personal message on a Hallmark card and sending it to a coworker who is recuperating from knee surgery, for example, brightens my outlook.

Limiting time spent on social media has also removed a significant amount of stress. While I want to be aware of what is going on in the world around me, expressions of outrage, concern, sorrow, and pain in post after post from beloved friends is not healthy for me.

And that, I think is the key. Finding what is -- and what is not -- healthy is essential, because what works for me in reducing stress might actually make your stress level rise. What eases the stress in your life might be totally ineffective or, worse, create more stress for someone else.

It's important, I believe, to be honest with yourself about how you deal with stress. Is what you're doing effective, or is it causing more harm than the original situation? Equally important is being open to strategies you may not have tried and even those that you've utilized unsuccessfully in the past.

I'm making headway in dealing with the stress in my life. Oh, I'm not ready to throw down the gauntlet and challenge life to give me all it's got, but I'm ready to deal with each day -- sometimes each hour -- as it comes.

And this gal is content with doing just that.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Oh, the Possibilities! (Discovering My Dreams, week 2)

Last week, I focused on identifying things in my life that I wish could be changed, reduced, or eliminated; I thoroughly enjoyed listing those items and then brainstorming ways to address each one. If you're joining me on this Dream Save Do adventure, I hope you'll share some of your dreams.

I turned my attention this week to listing things I would like to add to my life, and what an interesting experience that turned out to be!

First, I brainstormed my list. Once I got past the first few items -- more time with my son and daughter, time/experiences with creative people, and authenticity, for example -- I ran out of steam. Where things I wanted to change/reduce/eliminate were readily apparent, what I wanted to add came to mind much more slowly.

I pondered that throughout the week and think I found two interrelated reasons for this. First (and in no particular order), I am at a point in my life when I am, as I've shared before, paring down on "stuff". As a result, I'm hesitant to add anything to my life. However, I realized that by reducing/eliminating the irritants I listed last week,  I'll be freeing time and space for the things I really do cherish without over-crowding my life and my schedule.

Secondly, while I am not wealthy by any means nor do I have lots of fancy possessions, I have all I need. It wasn't surprising then, that when my list was finished (for now, at least), there was only one tangible item on it! And that item -- "water" -- isn't something I would own; rather, it refers to the fact that I want to live on the ocean or a large lake.

After my list was complete, I turned my attention to how each possibility inspires me, and then I looked at common denominators. Interestingly, all of the 19 items overlapped in very significant ways. For example, almost all of them involved time and experiences with people who I already love and care about and with people who are creative and interesting in a variety of ways.

The latter group of people highlights another commonality -- creativity. The final unifying threads were peace (i.e. less stress), authenticity, and experiences.

The last thing I looked at this week was how I could make each item from the list of possibilities part of my life now. Perhaps, again, because I'm hesitant to add more "stuff" to my life, I struggled with this step and am still working on it.

I think it would be helpful, for me at least, to make a master "swap list". This week, then, I'm going to add to my own Dream Save Do notebook a  2-column list. In column A, I'll list things I want to reduce/change/eliminate, and column B will contain items from this past week's possibility list that are reasonable alternatives. I'll work on that and share the results next week.

What about you? What would you like to add to your life? What would you like to have more of? What new things would you like to try? Do you dream of having an organic vegetable garden? Do you want to travel or learn to knit or buy season tickets to your community's theater or symphony? I hope you'll join me in dreaming about a redesigned life and that you'll share what you would like to add.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Finances & Life Decisions -- Righting Some Wrongs

Conventional wisdom in the form of counselors, life coaches, and literature & books on the grieving process asserts that no major life decisions or financial decisions should be made for 12 months -- 6 in extreme cases -- after a divorce, the death of a close loved one, or other significant loss.

Conventional wisdom is wrong.

I'm not a financial planner or whiz of any kind, nor am I a life coach or a counselor. But I've been down this road; I've dealt with two major losses -- the loss of a job and the loss of a spouse -- and I know that many of the "rules" we've heard throughout our lives are not gospel. In fact, in some -- perhaps many -- cases, following those rules will create huge problems; conversely, breaking those rules may be the best thing a person can do.

Let's look at my own situation.

When my husband passed away, 65% of my household income disappeared. Unfortunately, 100% of what had been our expenses were now mine . . . and I had 35% less income to work with. We hadn't been living hand-to-mouth, but my part-time teaching salary simply could not cover all of our monthly financial obligations.

Fortunately, I received a modest lump-sum life insurance payout. Had I listened to conventional wisdom, I would have promptly deposited that check and done nothing with it for a year.

What would have been wrong with that? At the time, 2 of the 4 family cars were not yet paid off. Each of those loans had a percentage rate of approximately 6%. At the time I received the insurance payout, various savings accounts -- even those paying the very best interest rate -- were paying far less than 6% interest. Conventional wisdom dictates that I should have continued paying 6% interes while earning around 2%.

Now, I'm not a mathematician. I'm not even a budding mathematician. But even I could see that earning 2% interest while paying 6% interest *when I had the money to pay off the loan without significantly impacting the balance of total funds* simply didn't make sense.

Similarly, I don't hold a PhD in anything, but I was smart enough to realize that not doing a thing about my employment situation would mean that I would be teaching part-time not only that current school year (my husband passed away in early September) but also the next. And I was smart enough to know that that was not a good idea.

So what did I do?

I ignored conventional wisdom.

But I didn't just run out begin doing things will-nilly.

First, I made a list of monthly expenses and noted what could be immediately eliminated (land-line phone, for example) as well as the outstanding balances on what could be paid off (cars, small credit card balance, etc).

I still didn't make a single financial decision. Instead, I made an appointment with a trusted financial advisor and discussed my entire financial situation with him. I made careful notes of his recommendations, and then I visited a 2nd trusted financial advisor and did the same thing again (without telling the second advisor what the first advisor said).

Then I made decisions that were in line with my own common sense and the advice of both financial advisors (they were 100% in agreement in their recommendations). These decisions allowed me to live within my means -- and without undue financial stress -- until my income changed.

That positive change in income came because four months after my husband passed away I turned my attention to finding a new teaching position. I did the normal job-seeking things -- updated my resume and my reference pool, began haunting appropriate websites, etc -- and had secured a full-time position for the following school year before the current school year ended.

That gave me plenty of time to list and sell our home (another major life decision that could not wait), find a place to live in the city I would be moving to, arrange for the sale of large items I would no longer need or have the room for and for moving, and then get settled in my new home before starting my new job.

For me, waiting an entire year to make any financial or major life decisions would have created significant -- even catastrophic -- problems.

I'm not saying that others -- you, for example -- should do what I did. Perhaps you should wait 6 months, or even a year, before making a big financial or life-altering decision.

What I am saying is that you should ignore the so-called "rules", enlist the advice of appropriate advisors that are trusted, reliable, and credible, and move forward in a manner in which you feel comfortable and that is right for you.

Oh, there's another "rule" I need to address. When I was a young girl, an elderly female relative informed me that a lady never talks publicly about finances and politics.

Yep. She was wrong, too.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Out with the Negative (Discovering My Dream redux, week 1)

I read and fell in love with the Dream Save Do process last Fall, when I first read Betsy and Warren Talbot's book of the same name and began working through it. Since then, I sold my house, donated a large quantity of stuff, and moved into an apartment; these fundamental changes significantly impacted the "Dream" portion of the process, so I recycled the notebook I'd been working in and began anew.

Creating a list of things I wouldn't miss if they were to disappear tomorrow was my first task. The new list includes 17 items; there are some very familiar items on the list -- things that, despite the progress I've made, haven't yet been eradicated. My daily commute, unwanted/unneeded stuff, car dependency, unneeded/unused living space, and extreme (for me) weather conditions (very hot and very cold temperatures) fall under this category.

Additionally, a few new items made the list. In looking at those more closely, I realized that each of them should have been on the previous list -- I just hadn't thought of them. One of those items is worries about retirement; as each year brings me closer to the year I would like to require, I am reminded that unless something fairly significant changes, my retirement years may be a bit leaner financially than I'd like.

I love list-making, so that step and the next -- identifying what specifically bothers me about each item -- were easy and took little time.

The third step, which I haven't finished, has proven to be a bit more challenging. I was to list each irritant and root cause and then brainstorm 3 possible strategies to change, reduce, or eliminate each one. The first strategy must be something that can be implemented right away; the second is to be something that's realistic but could take some time; and the third has to be something totally off the wall.

My first thought to listing strategies I could implement right away was, "What? Don't you think if I could be doing something to change or eliminate the things in my life that I don't like I would have already done it?"  Once I stifled my indignation and got to work, though, I had an implement-now strategy for 50% of the irritants and root causes! (My apologies to the Talbots for doubting them just a bit :))

Off-the-wall strategies came fairly easily once I stopped 2nd-guessing everything I came up with and simply wrote them down. I ended up with unconventional (aka wacky) strategies for 70% of the irritants and root causes on my list. Rule-follower that I am in my daily life, I enjoyed coming up with unconventional -- even absurd, in some cases -- strategies. I'm beginning to think a rebel lurks inside me!

When I finally set aside my pen and looked at my list, I discovered that I'd come up with at least one strategy for each category (implement now, realistic but takes time, and off-the-wall) for just under 1/2 of the irritants/root causes. I came up with an idea for two of the categories for several irritants/root causes, and at the end of the day, three irritants/root causes had me completely stumped.

I'm not giving up, though, and I'm looking forward to seeing where the Dream Save Do process takes me!

If you'd like to join me and discover your own dream, save for it, and implement it, please check out Betsy and Warren Talbot's wonderful book Dream Save Do.