“Accept Yourself, and Expect More From Yourself”: A Q &A with Gretchen Rubin

I bought Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project in early 2010 after reading about it in a magazine, and within hours had covered it in my personal hieroglyphics of passionate response. Hearts, stars, underlinings, circlings, exclamation points, “I agree”s, “yes!”es, and smiley faces from my pen covered, decorated, and bedecked its pages, making it almost unreadable by anyone other than myself (these scribblings, however, just ensured that I’d buy more copies and give them as gifts to friends and family members rather than loan out my precious copy!). What a kindred spirit, I thought! And how is it possible that although we both did our undergraduate and graduate degrees at Yale, we both had family members in the legal world, and we were both devoted aficionados of children’s literature, we’d never met or crossed paths in any way? When, almost a year later, my publisher told me that Gretchen had sent in a wonderful blurb for my first book, THE ANTI-ROMANTIC CHILD, it was one of those moments you’ll never forget as a publishing newbie. We’d received no blurbs yet, and the first one we got was from Gretchen Rubin?! I hadn’t even known we’d sent her a galley. I was a huge fan of this author, and she loved my book!

Gretchen and I have since become online friends, and she recently sent me a copy of her just-published book Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life. I am delighted to report that I loved it even more than I loved The Happiness Project. I found it wiser, deeper, purer, more beautiful and true. I could not stop reading aloud from it to my husband and laughing hard, nodding vigorously, or putting my hand over my heart while I did so. It is so smart in the least pretentious and most accessible way and so endearing in its honesty and vulnerability and sweet Gretchen-ness. I felt an even more powerful sense of kinship with Gretchen- I too hate driving, need to “give myself limits to give myself freedom,” and love Little House in the Big Woods and the cozy, snug, sacred sense of home it embodies- and I also felt such gratitude to Gretchen for her reminders that we are all different and her refusal to give easy answers or one-size-fits-all solutions. Happier at Home is a true pleasure to read- reading it made me very happy indeed!- and a veritable storehouse of helpful tips, profound insights, adorable, charming, illustrative anecdotes, and compassionate solidarity with all of us who struggle to make ourselves happier- and that means all of us!

Gretchen generously agreed to answer an eclectic bunch of questions that I posed to her. Here’s our dialogue!

1) I absolutely love your formulation: “every day, I remind myself to accept myself, and expect more from myself.” This is a very difficult balance to strike, and one I think many people puzzle over how to achieve. How do you, Gretchen, simultaneously demonstrate self-compassion and encourage yourself to do better? What helps you to both know and accept yourself as you are (Be Gretchen!) and motivate you to do and be more (“Choose the Bigger Life”)?

As you say, this is a difficult balance. W. H. Auden articulates this tension beautifully: “Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity.” It is really a matter of constant self-reflection and acknowledgment.

2) Your point that giving gifts to others is a great way to foster happiness in oneself really resonated with me. I’m a passionate gift-giver and buy gifts for my loved ones all year long, then store them in my filing cabinets until the occasion arises to give them! I’m always looking for new shopping venues to find unique, nourishing, and charming things. What are your favorite stores or websites to buy gifts?

Bookstores! Hardware stores and office supply stores. My favorite perfume stores (Frederic Malle, CB I Hate Perfume, Jo Malone.) In my family, we are often very specific about what we want as a gift, so it’s very satisfying to know that you’re giving something that someone REALLY does want.

3) Inspired by The Happiness Project and your work, I bought Bluebirds of Happiness from the wonderful Chinaberry catalogue for myself and my fiance for Christmas in 2011- they made exquisite, albeit fragile, stocking stuffers!- and then we gave our 3 children each a bluebird after our wedding in February 2012. These beautiful glass birds are such an easy and inexpensive way to bring joy to everyday life. What are some other objects or small items that you would recommend to parents or spouses looking for an inexpensive gift with maximum happiness boosting potential?

This is so specific to a person…I’m not sure there’s one suggestion that would be widely applicable.

4) Describe one possession of yours that gives you immense happiness every time you look at it.

My laptop. I take it with me everywhere I go, and everything that’s important to me is in there somehow.

5) If you could take only 5 books to a desert island, what would they be and why? Tough question, I know!

I simply can’t answer a question like this. I can’t choose! It makes my head explode. I have far too many favorites.

6) I wholeheartedly share your passion for children’s literature and your belief that reading it is one of the best spurs to happiness and one of the most effective antidotes to melancholy. What are your daughters’ favorite books? Are there any books that you loved as a child that they didn’t much care for? Any newer books they introduced you to?

Hmmmm….I guess I just don’t think in terms of “favorites.” Too hard! We have books that we love. My older daughter doesn’t love high fantasy, so
while I love something like the Narnia books, she doesn’t.

7) As the former associate editor of the Johnsonian Newsletter, I was thrilled to see that Samuel Johnson both gave you the title of your book and informed its pages in all sorts of profound and surprising ways. When and how did you discover Johnson and why is his writing so appealing, thought-provoking, and inspiring to you?

When I read Samuel Johnson, I feel as if I understand myself better. In a few sentences, he can illuminate very complex aspects of human nature. He’s like Orwell, in that you can’t predict what his arguments will be or how they will unfold. And, of course, he’s funny. He’s a great patron saint for people doing happiness projects, because he made and broke so many resolutions throughout his life. For instance, when he was 55 years old, he wrote:

“I have now spent fifty-five years in resolving; having, from the earliest
time almost that I can remember, been forming schemes of a better life. I
have done nothing. The need of doing, therefore, is pressing, since the time
of doing is short. O GOD, grant me to resolve aright, and to keep my
resolutions, for JESUS CHRIST’S sake.”

From Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson

8) What piece of music or song invariably makes you feel happier?

I don’t have much of an ear for music, I have to confess, and when I do love a song, I have a bad habit of wearing it out–I listen to it too many times, and then don’t love it as much. But for a long time I’ve especially loved Fat Boy Slim’s “Praise You.” I love it (and it always reminds me to appreciate my husband). When I was writing Happier at Home, I was obsessed with the song “Raggle Taggle Gypsy,” though it doesn’t make me feel quite “happy.” In my mind, I have a category of things that I love that contain what I call “symbols beyond words,” and this song is in that category.

9) What are 3 quick happiness boosts that you’d recommend to:

new parents?

Get enough sleep. Under-react to a problem. Remember these Secrets of Adulthood: You know as much as most people; most decisions don’t require extensive research.

someone going through a difficult time professionally?

Get enough sleep. Stay connected to friends. Try to keep a sense of humor.

a new college student?

Get enough sleep. Accept yourself, and expect more from yourself. Be [insert your name here]

someone with a cold or other mild illness?

Get enough sleep. Manage pain and discomfort. First things first.

10) I moved recently (combining two apartments and two households), and wow has it been tough! Knowing that moving is typically associated with great unhappiness both reduced my anxiety and made me itchy for concrete strategies to ease the seemingly inevitable stress. Six months after moving, we are still in the process of making our new apartment homey, and after reading Happiness at Home, I realized that my husband has unwittingly been creating what you call “shrines” (so far, we have Music, Fun and Games,Children’s Literature, and Family)! What advice do you have for people who are in the process of transitioning from one home to another? What are some quick and easy ways to make a new space feel homey, and happy? What are some long-range strategies or approaches for designing a happy home?

Go through your stuff as you pack and get rid of everything you don’t use, don’t need, or don’t love. Don’t move it to the new place! Don’t keep things that are part of a fantasy of who you are (e.g., a bread-maker) but aren’t actually used, needed, or loved. Find ways to spotlight possessions that make you happy. Be very wary of letting things into your home–once there, they’re very hard to remove. Don’t “store” much–things that are “stored” are generally never used (except for seasonal items), so why are you keeping them? I highly recommend Christopher Alexander’s book A PATTERN LANGUAGE for a new way to think about designing spaces. It blew my mind.

Gretchen Rubin is the author of several books, including the #1 New York Times and international bestseller, The Happiness Project—an account of the year she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, the current scientific studies, and the lessons from popular culture about how to be happier. On her popular blog, The Happiness Project, she reports on her daily adventures in the pursuit of happiness. In her new book, Happier at Home, Rubin embarks on a new project to explore how to make home a happier place. Starting in September (the new January), Gretchen dedicates a school year—from September through May—to concentrating on the factors that matter most for home, such as possessions, marriage, time, parenthood, body, neighborhood. The book’s title was inspired by a line from Samuel Johnson: “To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition.”

Gretchen Rubin’s newest book, Happier at Home, is now in stores! You can follow Gretchen at http://happiness-project.com

 

A Celebration of Trees

 

My husband recently took this photo of a magnificent tree he came across during a late-afternoon, early evening walk.   I love trees of all colors, types, heights, widths, and kinds.  I have an entire bookshelf full of books about trees, and I used to teach a seminar on tree poems.  Today I share this photo along with an eloquent passage about trees:

“Trees have about them something beautiful and attractive even to the fancy, since they cannot change their places, are witnesses of all the changes that take place around them; and as some reach a great age, they become, as it were, historical monuments, and like ourselves they have a life, growing and passing away, –not being inanimate and unvarying like the fields and rivers.  One sees them passing through various stages, and at last step by step approaching death, which makes them look still more like ourselves.”
Wilhelm von Humboldt

Here’s to “the leaping greenly spirits of trees” (ee cummings)!

“Friends and Feelings”: The Fred Rogers Company’s new DVD to Help Children With Autism

As both a huge Mr Rogers fan and the mother of a child on the autism spectrum, I was thrilled to learn that The Fred Rogers Company had put together a new DVD called Friends and Feelings: Helping Children with Autism in Social and Emotional Learning. The DVD features four classic episodes of the show plus helpful introductions for parents and professionals. The episodes, “It’s Very Hard to Wait,” “Ups and Downs of Friendship,” “Learning About Sharing,” and “Learning Self-Control,” are each gems, and the DVD as a whole is both practically helpful and emotionally moving, a veritable treasure-house of tips and inspiration for children with autism and their families, teachers, and therapists. I was honored when Alan Friedman of the Fred Rogers Company agreed to answer my questions about the DVD and offer further encouragement and hope for autistic children and those who love and work with them.

1) How did the idea to do a Mister Rogers DVD focused on autism come about?

The Fred Rogers Company has long heard from parents and teachers of children with autism about the benefits of watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Then, friends of the company who work with children with autism began urging us to make the program available directly to children with autism and other special needs. We also were motivated by the growing body of research on the effectiveness of video modeling (i.e., observing appropriate behaviors and then practicing them in real-life situations) as a tool for helping children with autism learn social skills.

2) What challenges were involved in putting it together?

We wondered if we would find that young viewers who are new to the program today, whether or not they have autism, would find it too slow, too calm, or too otherwise old-fashioned to be interesting. But the project is confirming that children, particularly children with autism, continue connecting with it in powerful ways.

3) How did you select the episodes to include and the themes or topics to focus on?

We gathered input from numerous professionals and parents to determine where there is the greatest overlap between important but challenging skills for children with autism and themes that are central to Mister Rogers Neighborhood. Then, we developed a list of episodes in which Fred and his friends and puppets talk, sing, and play games about these skills in engaging and memorable ways. We chose a final four episodes that are longstanding favorites among all children: “It’s Very Hard to Wait,” “Ups and Downs of Friendship,” “Learning About Sharing,” and “Learning Self-Control.”

4) Tell us a little about the experts interviewed on the DVD and how they came to the project.

Pittsburgh is home to a wealth of eminent professionals dedicated to children with autism. Pittsburgh is also something of a small world. Mark Strauss, a developmental psychologist, is a friend of a few staff members at The Fred Rogers Company. With Martin Lubetsky, I recently served on a local disability services task-force. Through Martin, I met his wife, Michelle Lubetsky, a behavioral analyst and special education consultant. And I learned about the work of Stacy Porter Smith, a social skills therapist, and Terry Sheffey, a community outreach coordinator, at an autism conference at Slippery Rock University. I want to thank these commentators and the many other contributors to the project.

5) What has the reaction to the DVD been like?

Support from local foundations was intended to fund the distribution of 5,000 copies throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania. We wound up distributing 12,300 copies through 20 very motivated partners, autism service organizations that are using and distributing the DVDs in their home visits, classrooms, social skills camps, and other programs. We haven’t yet collected a lot of feedback, but viewers seem to be responding very positively.

6) Did Mister Rogers ever speak or write about autism to your knowledge? Did he ever correspond or work with famed autism expert Stanley Greenspan?

Fred did not speak or write about autism. But he spent time with a great many children with autism who came to meet him and visit the TV studio. There is a wonderful article that first appeared in Esquire, in which Tom Junod writes about Fred visiting for 20 minutes with an autistic boy who had come, with his father, all the way to Pittsburgh from Boise, Idaho. The boy had never spoken, until one day he said, “X the Owl.” He had never looked his father in the eye until one day his father had said, “Let’s go to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.” By the time he met Fred, the boy was speaking and reading.

7) Why are Mister Rogers’ approach and sensibility so valuable and helpful for children with autism and those who care for or teach them?

The program is valuable and helpful by virtue of what Fred has to say and how he says it, both of which correspond to the learning needs and styles of children with autism. Fred and his neighbors talk and sing all day every day about feelings, appropriate social behaviors, and thinking about others. They live in a world defined by very comforting routines. And unlike so many other producers of children’s media, Fred kept the pacing calm and the special effects to a minimum. He always made eye contact. He and his interactions with children are wonderful models for adults.

8) Are there plans to release more episodes presented and introduced in this way, on autism or other subjects?

We hope to continue re-purposing the Neighborhood in this way and learning from viewers about how to make the collection as useful as possible.

9) Can you think of a quotation from Mister Rogers that you think would especially help a child with autism? His or her parents? His or her peers in learning to accept their autistic classmate?

These words from Fred may be meaningful to a child with autism:

“You are a very special person. There is only one like you in the whole world. There’s never been anyone exactly like you before, and there never will be again. And people can like you exactly as you are.”

These words may be helpful to his or her parents:

“What’s been important in my understanding of myself and others is the fact that each one of us is so much more than any one thing. A sick child is much more than his or her sickness. A person with a disability is much, much more than a handicap. A pediatrician is more than a medical doctor. You’re much more than your job description or your age or your income or your output.

“If the day ever came when we were able to accept ourselves and our children exactly as we and they are, then, I believe, we would have come very close to an ultimate understanding of what ‘good’ parenting means. It’s part of being human to fall short of that total acceptance—and often far short. But one of the most important gifts a parent can give a child is the gift of accepting that child’s uniqueness.”

And these thoughts may be helpful to his or her peers in learning to accept their autistic classmate:

“What is essential is invisible to the eye. When we see someone who looks or behaves differently from what’s familiar to us, it’s possible to feel a little shy, scared, curious, or awkward. I know how much I’ve struggled to look with my heart and not with just my eyes. One of life’s joys is discovering that we can be open to new experiences that at first seem strange or even scary. It’s exhilarating to find that the barriers that seem to separate us from other people begin to vanish when we take the time to get to know those people. That’s the way it is with real friends.”

If you are interested in “Friends and Feelings,” you can order a copy directly from the nonprofit Fred Rogers Company. All proceeds support work that advances and extends Fred Rogers’ philosophy and values.

www.fredrogers.org/autism

Priscilla Warner on Learning To Breathe

I first “met” Priscilla Warner when she friended me on Facebook in the fall of 2011 with the following message: “Hi Priscilla – Since your name comes up every time I start to type mine, and your book looks fascinating, I thought we should connect! Sound good?” I wrote her back: “Wonderful! and I just read about your new book, and ordered it- I am so excited- I’m a big meditator, and I love the sound of your book. So happy you reached out to me.” Thus a cyber friendship and a mutual admiration society were born. We met in person for the first time when Priscilla came to see me speak at a Child Care Council of Westchester event- we couldn’t stop hugging each other!-, and last March we hung out at the Books for a Better Life Awards where our books were both nominated. Priscilla is one of the warmest, most down-to-earth, unpretentiously smart, life-giving people I’ve ever met, and I was delighted when she agreed to answer questions for this blog. You’ll find a wealth of insight and practical tips in the answers she gave me. Thanks to Priscilla for gracing this blog with her spirit!

Priscilla Warner is a co-author of the New York Times bestselling memoir The Faith Club and the author of a new memoir, Learning To Breathe, which was nominated for a Books for a Better Life Award. Inspired by the impressive meditation practices of Tibetan monks, Priscilla set out to heal from a panic disorder that had plagued her for decades. On this winding path from panic to peace, with its hairpin emotional curves and breathtaking drops, she also delves into a wide range of spiritual and alternative health practices. Written with lively wit and humor, Learning to Breathe is a serious attempt to heal from a painful condition. It’s also a life raft of compassion and hope for people similarly adrift or secretly fearful, and an entertaining, inspiring guidebook for anyone facing daily challenges large and small, longing for a sense of peace, self-acceptance, and understanding.

1) Tell us about your yearlong quest to bring calm to your life: what inspired it, what it taught you, and how it concluded.

For years, I’d been reading stories about Tibetan monks who meditated so effectively that neuroscientists were studying their brains. I’d also been suffering from panic attacks so debilitating that they left me unable to breathe. My experience with a previous book I co-authored, The Faith Club, had left me exhausted but also exhilarated by what I’d learned from people of all religions. I was open to learning how to meditate, and eager to study with Buddhist teachers. One in particular – a young Tibetan monk who’d suffered panic attacks as a child and healed through meditation – became my first teacher. He taught me how to meditate in an open-minded way – eyes open or shut, sitting, lying down and walking, listening to music. My last communal meditation experience was at a zen center where I stared at a white wall for 30 minutes at a time. In between, I meditated every day for 20 minutes, and discovered effective therapies that grounded me and lessened my anxiety significantly. I achieved a kind of inner peace I could never have imagined.

2) What are some of the biggest roadblocks or obstacles that prevent us from achieving calm and truly breathing?

We think too much! Meditation allows us to let go of thoughts.

We over-react to things! Meditation changes our brains so that we can digest incoming information with less judgment.

We judge ourselves too harshly! As Tara Brach, one of my teachers, taught me, we all have a golden Buddha deep inside of us that we can learn how to access, a basic goodness that can guide and comfort us.

We want things to be different from they way they are! And that’s the definition of suffering, according to Buddhist teachings. Once we accept that we are all suffering humans, we can have compassion for each other and ourselves.

3) What are some of the best strategies you found for calming yourself and reducing your anxiety?

Meditating daily for 20 minutes has altered the way I react to stress. And I don’t always have to do it in a solitary way. I can listen to guided imagery and music in order to calm my mind.

Somatic Experiencing and EMDR Therapy, two very powerful therapies, helped me ground myself and release disturbing physical sensations brought on by trauma and buried emotions.

4) What would you say to people who dismiss meditation as fluffy, new-agey, or ineffective?

It’s not new agey in my mind, since it’s existed for thousands of years, as an important component of many different religions and cultures!

It’s not fluffy or ineffective, because it allows us to access a place deep inside of us that is strong, secure, safe and powerful.

5) How would you define resilience? What do you think are some good strategies for becoming more resilient in the face of life’s inevitable challenges, difficulties, and hurdles?

I define resilience as the ability to adapt to circumstances beyond our control. In order to do that, I think we need to be humble enough to seek help from others, and to be curious and dedicated enough to acquire skills that allow us to heal.

6) How were your marriage and your parenting affected by your intense anxiety and panic attacks? How did your husband and your children react to your quest for calm?

My husband was always patient and understanding when it came to my anxiety. He loved me because I was vulnerable, and valued the idea of being vulnerable along with me. Displaying that vulnerability is freeing, and it connects us to others powerfully.

As a parent, my biggest challenge was to appear calm to my children. For years I sought help from a therapist in order to do that. She taught me how to manage my own anxiety so that it wouldn’t cloud my judgment or spill over into the way I parented, increasing my children’s anxiety. That’s not to say that I was a serene Madonna. I wasn’t. But I tried my best to heal from my own anxiety so that I could help them face theirs. Although my fantasy was that they could lead lives free of suffering, that’s just not the case. Learning that my children need to face painful experiences on their own sometimes, to suffer disappointment and anxiety, then move forward on their own, was a very difficult thing for me to accept. Although they are young adults, they still come to me occasionally during stressful situations, and it’s always a challenge for me to stay grounded so that I can be helpful to them.

My husband and children have told me how proud they are of what I accomplished by writing this book, and they’re happy to see me happy!


7) What advice do you have for anxious parents? How can they learn to breathe and let go?

We can’t raise healthy, happy children if we aren’t doing our best to be happy, healthy people. We need to feel safe and secure so that we can provide safety and security to our children.

What I love about establishing a meditation practice (which I urge even the busiest parents to do – starting with just five minutes a day) is that it provides a safe haven, a port in a storm, a room of one’s own.

Parenting can be lonely, hectic, depressing, exciting, rewarding, confusing and disturbing. Meditation teaches us that all of those emotions come and go, along with the moments that trigger them. Once I developed a meditation practice, I became less reactive to events. I was able to step back and observe myself, my family, and my friends without jumping to conclusions or donning a superhero cape to try and fix everything heroically. Parents want to be superheroes, but we need to have our feet planted firmly on the ground, and meditation helps us do that.

8) What are some of your favorite books and authors?

I was deeply moved and inspired by Lucy Greely’s extraordinary, courageous book, Autobiography of a Face, as well as Alison Smith’s Name All the Animals and Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison. Those raw, honest memoirs gave me the courage to write Learning to Breathe. I love fiction that grips me immediately with characters I care about deeply. A Fine Balance is the gold standard for me in that regard. I love anything Tom Wolfe writes. The last book I finished and really enjoyed was Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder.

9) Who inspires you (public figures, writers, people in your personal life)?

People who share their stories about the painful experiences they’ve encountered in life – like you, Priscilla – inspire me. For so long, I thought I was the only person with a panic disorder, and I’ve received the most beautiful emails from readers who’ve shared their lives with me. Their courage, honesty and insights sustain me. And of course I am still inspired by Tibetan monks! And all of the teachers and healers I met in my book. I’m amazed at how many people there are in the world who want to help and heal others.

10) What quotation would you use to summarize you and/or your approach to Life?

I love this quote from Joseph Goldstein, a Buddhist teacher: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” Life can be difficult and we can’t predict the ways in which we’ll be challenged. But my meditation practice has taught me how to surf the waves of sadness, fear and sorrow that we all encounter. I still get knocked over occasionally, but everything I learned through this experience has given me the strength and confidence to get up again and keep swimming.

Priscilla Warner grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and spent many years in Boston and New York as an advertising art director, shooting ads for everything from English muffins to diamond earrings. Priscilla co-authored the New York Times bestselling memoir The Faith Club, then toured the country for three years, hyperventilating her way through an extended book tour. Finally, in the skies over Oklahoma, she vowed to find her inner monk, and began meditating her way from panic to peace.

My Chicago Tribune review of Buzz Bissinger’s Father’s Day

I had never read a Buzz Bissinger book before I began his new memoir, Father’s Day: A Journey into the Mind & Heart of My Extraordinary Son, but nothing could have prepared me for the detonation of its opening paragraph. Zach “has just come from work at the supermarket where he has bagged groceries for four hours with one fifteen-minute break,” Bissinger writes. “It shames me to think of him placing sweat-drenched jugs of milk into their proper place and learning, with the extensive help of a job coach, that the eggs must be placed separately in double plastic bags. . . . My son’s professional destiny is paper or plastic.”

I hadn’t expected a soft, gauzy “journey” from the author of Friday Night Lights, but this was more of a dizzying free fall into a pit of shame, anger, and despair. And things only get more intense from here. The three minutes that separated the birth of Buzz’s twins, Zach and Gerry, has resulted in a chasm between their life paths: Gerry is in graduate school at Penn studying to become a teacher; Zach will never go to college or live independently. Bissinger does more than refuse easy platitudes or misty romanticism about the gifts of disability; he dismisses hope, unmasks euphemism, and punctures cliche with a brutal force: “Why sugarcoat it? My son is mentally retarded. Because of three fucking minutes”. For “a father awash in ambition”, his son’s bagging groceries is the ultimate humiliation; for a man who “wanted bragging rights to my son”, having that son attend special schools populated by “broken children” and “freaks” is a deep source of shame.

Most of all Buzz hates the sense that there will never be progress, growth, or breakthrough, that Zach is stuck in a dead-end job and a small life, that he and Zach are locked into the same tiresome ways of relating to each other (he repeatedly compares his interactions with Zach to Waiting for Godot) and declares: “We are like the film Groundhog Day except nothing ever changes”). And so in part to break the “feeling of perpetual stasis”, Buzz decides to take his son on a ten day road trip across America. They will visit schools Zach attended, places Zach lived, and as many amusement parks (Zach’s special passion) as possible.

But the proposed terms of the road-relationship are both pointed and peculiar. “I vowed on this trip,” Buzz tells us, “to probe his mind, find what is there, what is not there, and what never can be”. He will try “to pry Zach open”. True to plan, Buzz is mercilessly direct and dissecting of Zach’s inner states: “do you know what brain damage is? Do you know your brain is not a little right?”.

As the inquisition continues, at often deeply uncomfortable length and invasiveness, the reader’s questions become insistent in response: what does Buzz want? What does Buzz need in this exchange? In comparison to Zach’s obvious needs, Buzz’s neediness and his insistent probing as an aggressive and wildly off-key form of communication—seem self-indulgent.

But a large point of the book is that Buzz is aware of this pattern. The book is about the weakness of this style of knowing his son, a style which is deeply associated with his identity as a man, as a thinker, and as a writer. When Buzz declares that he despises his own “negative narcissism and the constant fear of failure, the unquenchable neediness”, he is describing the very qualities that we as readers are likely to find repellent. He shares our horror, and his disgust turns inward: the same analytical gaze which probed Zach now probes the father.

The question that this reversal of focus brings to the surface is the point on which the book turns: to what extent Zach will be accommodated to his father’s need for understanding. Escaping this desire for mastery and control will require an abandoning of the author’s hyper-masculine (one almost wants to say “literary”) way of relating. He will need to replace (or at least to complement) the standards of “intellect and riches and status” with the rediscovery of “what was vital, fatherhood, the best part of me”.

This transformation is the true journey in the book, from a need to possess Zach like a text or a trophy to an ability to allow him to be his own man. And in this part of the story it is Zach rather than Buzz who dominates.

As the book and the road-trip progress, we discover that Zach’s mind is not only limited but also gifted: he is, in fact, a savant with an extraordinary memory and a remarkable facility with maps. He is also and more importantly gifted in less measurable or culturally validated ways: he is “kind and honest and true,” “his warmth . . . a balm to the most savage soul.”

Ultimately, much like Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother, Father’s Day contains within itself its author’s own come-uppance as the parent is humbled and enlightened by the child. Zach, in his gentle, kind way, stands up for himself, resists his father’s intrusions, and asserts himself in small but meaningful “statement[s] of his individuality and independence”. He signs his own name, he refuses toothpaste, goes off to his own room, buys a belt, asks to stay overnight with friends. Buzz comes to see what we have seen: “I am boring into my son like a lab rat by asking him intimate questions that make him sad or confused or nervous”. He can now appreciate the solid logic of Zach’s “idiosyncratic” world view, respect the integrity of Zach’s “interior life”, and accept the ineffability of Zach’s being. An exhilarating joint bungee jump and Zach’s “I love you Dad we had a fun trip” are simple gifts to be treasured.

The book’s last few pages had me weeping- overpowering in their naked tenderness and fervent affirmations- as Buzz expresses in soaring prose the radical shift in priorities being a father has brought about and declares his son “the most fearless man I have ever known, and the most admirable.” Fearless himself in his breathtaking honesty and admirable in his ardent love for his child, Buzz writes like Zach who gave the most touching eulogy at his grandmother’s funeral “in unfiltered words straight from the heart”. If, as Kafka once said, “writing means revealing oneself to excess; that utmost of self-revelation and surrender,” then Bissinger’s memoir is the quintessence of writing: an utmost act of self-revelation and surrender.

Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy, which has just been published in paperback by Harper Perennial.

This review originally appeared in the May 13th 2012 issue of the Chicago Tribune.

“Signs to Decorate Your Life”: A Q &A with Barn Owl Primitives’ Kristi Quill

 

 

I came to Kristi Quill and her company Barn Owl Primitives via one of my heroines, Brene Brown.  Brene wrote a blog post about Kristi and her endearing, uplifting, charming, and wise “signs to decorate your life,” and I was enchanted by Kristi’s unpretentious and straightforward aesthetic, her bright sunniness of palette and temperament, and her untreacly, realistic optimism.  Kristi and I have had so much fun getting to know each other via email, and I can say that in addition to being a wonderful artist, she is also an absolutely lovely, down-to-earth, humble, sweet, funny, and altogether wonderful human being!   Here is a woman whose runaway success is truly well-deserved and whose modesty, commitment to good things and good work, gratitude, and golden heart can be examples for us all.  Here is a Q &A that will inspire you, embolden you, and delight you!

1) Tell us how you came up with the idea to make “signs to decorate your life.” 

A few years ago, when money was tight and making handcrafted Christmas gifts seemed like the way to go, I started making hand-painted, door-hanging snowmen for my family and friends. They were well-received and friends of friends started placing orders. That snowballed into Barn Owl Primitives {BOP}, and a little shop on Etsy was born.
Since snowmen eventually melt, I needed to add some things to my shop that would last all year. I started with You are My Sunshine and Family Rules typography word art signs. Fast forward almost three years, and the writing is all over the wall.

2) What is your background in the visual arts and what visual artists and architects inspire you?

Ironically, I don’t have a background in art.  My degrees are in Family and Child Development and Early Childhood Education.  I guess you could say I’m a self taught artist.  But I believe it’s my love for math and problem solving that actually enables me to use both the positive and negative space with words on a board to create art.  My 11th grade math teacher, Mr. Misner, taught us that “Math is not emotional.  Math is true.”  I always challenged him because I loved solving problems in our functions / analytics class from the outside in and using no traditional formulas and functions to achieve the answers.  I told him it was my passion for math that made it emotional.   I’ve finally figured out a way to truly make my “math” emotional.  Wonder what Mr. Misner would say if he could see me now.

3) What was the first sign you made?  What’s your favorite sign you’ve made?

The first sign I made was our family rules sign.  It hangs in our kitchen and reminds us daily about what’s important and inspires us to be the very best big and little people that we can be.  Choosing a favorite sign is impossible.  Really.

4) Which signs do you have in your own home, and in which rooms?

Our family rules sign hangs in our kitchen, along with a Grocery sign above our pantry and a Mom’s Diner Hot Food • Good Company sign above our kitchen table.  A we can do hard things hangs above our front door to encourage us as we brave each new day.  A typewriter alphabet sign hangs in our family room because, as I’m sure you’ve noticed,  I’m obsessed with letters.  I rotate motivational signs through my studio.  Currently I have three decorating my life.  Two are my favorite quotes by Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Edison and the third is my creators rules sign.

5) As someone who’s kept a quote book since 7th grade and shares inspiring and motivating quotations daily on Facebook and Twitter, I am an ardent believer in the power of pithy phrases and resonant sentences to offer jolts of inspiration and comfort during times of stress.  How do you think affirmations and reminders like the ones on your signs can help us cultivate resilience, achieve success at work and in our relationships, and attain a greater degree of serenity and joy?

As an educator, I learned the power of positive reinforcement.  As a mother, I’m living the power of positive reinforcement.  I truly believe that we can create  our own forms of positive reinforcement in our lives simply by the choices that we make.    We are responsible for our own energy.  And we draw on the energy of those around us.  
Surrounding ones self with wit, inspiration and motivation sends a positive message not only to yourself but to all who enter your space.


6) What music inspires you?  Do you listen to music while you work?  

I LOVE Pandora and always listen to music when I work.    My current favorite station is Zac Brown Band with Dispatch, Cold Play and America (thrown in for some throwback memories of my childhood.)    I guess I’m a little bit country and a little bit rock-n-roll.

7) Where do you get ideas for your work and in what conditions do you work best?  

I get most of my ideas for my work through every day life.  I analyze everything and often look for things that I can spin into signs.  I’m always looking at motivational quotes and love weaving ideas together to create unique pieces of art.  I do my best work at night after my house has gone to sleep.  My mind is free to create and wonder and dream.  In those quiet moments, I can escape reality and get lost in the paint and the letters and the designs.  When I started, I used to fire up the power tools at night too.  I’m fairly certain my neighbors all rejoiced when I made the adjustment and now only turn them on while the sun is smiling down on my driveway!

8) What are some of your favorite quotations?

“I am a great believer in LUCK, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” ~ Thomas Jefferson
“Opportunity is missed by post people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”  ~ Thomas Edison
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” 
“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” ~ Harriet Tubman
“Anything is possible. Anything can be.” – Shel Silverstein
“All art requires courage.”  ~ Anne Tucker


9) I’m a huge admirer of Brene Brown.  Can you tell me how you know Brene and about the work you’ve done for and with her?

Last summer a dear friend sent me a link to Brené’s first TED talk.  I watched it 10 times (in one night) and then immediately bought two of her books on Amazon.  A few days later, I was inspired to create my Be Real sign.  (https://www.etsy.com/listing/79064674/be-real-be-wholehearted-with-bunting)  My shop was closed at the time, so the sign just sat in my studio waiting for the shop to reopen.   I opened my shop and was getting ready to list my new designs when I received an order for a playroom rules sign.  When I saw the customer name I screamed out loud and nearly fell off the couch.  Someone pinch me, Brené Brown ordered my playroom rules sign.    So I did what any level headed person would do.  I immediately emailed her, gushing all over her about how much I loved her and her books and her work.  I also shared a photo of the Be Real sign.  She emailed back a few minutes later, ordered 3 and asked me if I’d be interested in doing a giveaway.  A few months ago I created a custom We Can Do Hard Things sign for her as well.  It hangs in her kitchen and inspires her and her family to never give up.  I’ve already pre-ordered her new book, Daring Greatly, and cannot wait to read it in September.


10) Who inspires you?  These can be public figures, authors, historical figures, people from your personal life?

For me, it’s more about what inspires me.  I’d say life inspires me.  I find inspiration in everything around me.  Simple trips to the park, library, farmers market and antique stores have lead to some of my favorite signs.  My family is also a great source of inspiration.

11) What’s the best advice you could give other parents about how to juggle creative aspirations, the exigencies of professional life, and the demands of parenting?


Know your limits.  Ask for help when you need it and more importantly, accept help when it is offered.  Set a schedule.  Be flexible.  Determine what you can let go of and outsource when you can.  For me, hiring a cleaning service and a landscaper has made a big difference and freed up several hours each week.  Plus my lawn and house have never looked so good!

12) If you could make a sign for anyone, who would you choose and why?

I have sold signs to some pretty amazing people. My We Can Do Hard Things sign is hanging in the Etsy Corporate Office in New York City and in the MTV Office in London.

But by far the orders that I am most proud of are from people you’ve never heard of. The daughter who purchased a sign for her parents 50th wedding anniversary with a quote that her dad has been using to describe their marriage over the last 50 years.  The girl who purchased a sign for her neighbor who lost her husband after a brave battle with cancer.  The sister who purchased a sign for her brother that was putting himself through college and raising a family as a single dad.  These are just a few of the accomplishments that I am the most proud of and the ones that make what I do so rewarding and worthwhile.

 

Kristi Quill Bio:

A day dreamer with a LONG list of projects yet to be completed. A lover of coffee, breakfast for dinner, flip flops and all things vintage. And the artist behind Barn Owl Primitives.

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A Q &A with National Book Award Winning Author Kathryn Erskine

 

In November 2010, my editor, Claire Wachtel, sent me an email that went something like this: “book about girl with aspergers just won Natl Book Award.  called Mockingbird.”  I immediately bought the book and read it through a haze of awe-struck tears.   I became a Mockingbird proselytizer, buying multiple copies and sending them as thank-you gifts to my literary agent and my editorial team at Harper, recommending it with fervor to every sensitive reader I know.  On a whim, I sent Kathryn Erskine a galley of my book and thought “there goes nothing; how many books must she receive?”   Then one day many months later, a friend emailed me :”did you see that Kathryn Erskine just gave your book 5 stars on GoodReads?!”   That was an amazing moment!  I contacted Kathy via Good Reads and thanked her for making my day;  she wrote back immediately and sent me a generous blurb, which appears inside the paperback version of The Anti-Romantic Child.  Kathy has since published a very different kind of YA novel, The Absolute Value of Mike, which my 13 year old Benj devoured, chuckling and laughing uproariously and nodding as he did so.   I’m honored that Kathy has agreed to answer my questions about her favorite books for people of all ages, and the music, visual art, movies, food, and places that inspire and nourish her.

But first, in the spirit of this blog’s ongoing theme of resilience, here’s one of my favorite quotations from Mockingbird:

“I don’t think I’m going to like it at all. I think it’s going to hurt. But after the hurt I think maybe something good and strong and beautiful will come out of it.”
Kathryn Erskine, Mockingbird

Questions about Books:

What are some of your favorite books for

babies/toddlers (birth-3)?

I think reading babies and toddlers to sleep with any children’s books is wonderful, but for active engagement I’d want to include GOODNIGHT MOON by Margaret Wise Brown, BROWN BEAR by Eric Carle (and any Eric Carle books), GOODNIGHT GORILLA, and anything with color and rhythm.

young children, ages 3-6?

Dr. Seuss and anything with rhyming, engaging language.  There’s a world of wonderful picture books out there.  Here are just some of my recent favorites:

MOUSE WAS MAD, Linda Urban

THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND, William Kamkwamba

HALF PINT PETE THE PIRATE and PIRATE PRINCESS (and others), Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN? and TEACH YOUR BUFFALO TO PLAY DRUMS, Audrey Vernick

JOSIAS, HOLD THE BOOK, Jenn Elvgren

DUMPLING SOUP, Jama Kim Rattigan

ME…JANE, Patrick McDonnell

JO MACDONALD HAD A GARDEN and PIRATE vs. PIRATE, Mary Quattlebaum

HOW ROCKET LEARNED TO READ, Tad Hills

A TIME TO PRAY, Maha Addasi

CROCODADDY and JACK OF ALL TAILS, Kim Norman

ME WITH YOU and SURFER CHICK, Kristy Dempsey

TIA ISA WANTS A CAR, Meg Medina

FLY FREE, Roseanne Thong

ALFIE THE APOSTROPHE and PENNY AND THE PUNCTUATION BEE, Moira Donohue

MARTIN DE PORRES: THE ROSE IN THE DESERT, Gary Schmidt

young readers 6-10?

They tend to love series at the early elementary age, so books like THE MAGIC TREEHOUSE (Mary Pope Osborne), THE BUDDY FILES (Dori Hillestad Butler), and CLEMENTINE (Sara Pennypacker) are great for the younger set, as well as beautiful stand alones like THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM 1963 (Christopher Paul Curtis), HOUND DOG TRUE (Linda Urban), BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE (Kate DiCamillo), LOVE THAT DOG (Sharon Creech), and SAVVY (Ingrid Law).  As they get older, there’s the HARRY POTTER (J.K. Rowling) and INKHEART (Cornelia Funke) series, two of my favorite, and a whole wealth of wonderful novels … I could go on forever so I’d better stop now!
YA readers?

Here goes, to name just a few:

THE BOOK THIEF, Markus Zusak

BUCKING THE SARGE, Christopher Paul Curtis

CONVERTING KATE, Beckie Weinheimer

FEED, M.T. Anderson

SPUD, John van de Ruit

THE GIRL WHO COULD SILENCE THE WIND, Meg Medina

LIZZIE BRIGHT AND THE BUCKMINSTER BOY, Gary D. Schmidt

RESTORING HARMONY, Joelle Anthony

PURPLE HEART, Patricia McCormick

HEART OF A SAMURAI, Margi Preus

BAMBOO PEOPLE, Mitali Perkins

MILLIONS, Frank Cottrell Boyce

LOST BOY, LOST GIRL: ESCAPING CIVIL WAR IN SUDAN, John Bul Dau

A LONG WALK TO WATER, Linda Sue Park

NOW IS THE TIME FOR RUNNING, Michael Williams

SEEDFOLKS, Paul Fleischman

grownups?

Anything on the YA list and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee.  Some great reads include Alexander McCall Smith’s series, THE NO. 1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY, MAJOR PETTIGREW’S LAST STAND by Helen Simonson, ROOM by Emma Donoghue, THE GOOD DAUGHTER by Jasmin Darznik, and THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES by Sue Monk Kidd.
What is the one book you think every writer should read?

It’s a toss up between Stephen King’s ON WRITING and Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD.  They’re both part memoir and part craft advice, and both excellent.

What is the one book you think every parent should read?

RAISING CHILDREN WHO THINK FOR THEMSELVES by Elisa Medhus, particularly today when we seem to have grown overprotective of our kids who are capable of so much more than we expect from them.

What is the one book you think every human should read?

MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING by Viktor Frankl.  And, of course, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee.  (Sorry, I couldn’t help adding that.  I’m not very good at picking ONE book, am I?)

Questions about Music:

I love the Playlists section of your website, where you share the songs you listened to while working on your books.  Can you tell us a little more about how music inspires you and informs your writing?

Although I don’t listen to music while I write–I need silence–I always create playlists of songs that I associate with a novel in progress.  They’re songs that make me think of the characters, the time, the place, or somehow remind me of the story.  Then, I listen to that playlist while I’m driving or walking so I can keep the story present in my mind.  Often, I’ll come up with ideas or solutions to problems while listening to the playlist.  It’s kind of fun to post them on my blog (which reminds me, I’m behind in doing that) and also to hear what songs others come up with for my novel.  Sometimes book groups will send me their list of songs for the novel which I always find fascinating.

Do you play an instrument?  If not, what instrument would you most like to play?

I play flute a little bit.  I’m thinking of taking up the ukulele because guitar was a little difficult for me and I think the uke would be more manageable.  I love the violin, though, and if there weren’t such a learning curve that my family (and I) would have to suffer through, I would probably try it.
Who is your favorite singer/songwriter and why?

It’s so hard to pick one.  It depends heavily on my mood.  I like the Scottish twins, The Proclaimers, anything by Miriam Makeba, Motown, classic rock, and young start up bands like La Crosse, Wisconsin’s Neon.

Who is your favorite composer and why?

Again, it’s so hard to choose just one.  I love the security and predictability of Vivaldi, Boccherini and Bach, and any of the classical pieces transcribed or written by guitarists Andres Segovia, John Williams, or Julian Bream.

Questions about Other Forms of Nourishment:

I know that you are a chocoholic like me!  What are your favorite kinds, forms, and brands of chocolate?

There are so many!  I still enjoy my childhood favorites like Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut and Reese’s peanut butter cups, but I’ve matured to dark chocolate, particularly Ritter Sport with hazelnuts, anything Fair Trade (Divine, Dagoba, Green & Black’s) and best of all, Gearhart’s, my local chocolatier.

Who is your favorite visual artist?

My daughter.  :o)

What are your some of your favorite movies?

Mostly funny, but with heart, like The Princess Bride, The Full Monty, Galaxy Quest, classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, documentaries like Lost Boys of Sudan or small indies such as The Dish, The Station Agent, and Waking Ned Devine.

What are some of your favorite places in the world?

Scotland, Italy, Guam, Maritime Canada, Boyds Mills, PA, the woods near my house, my desk when the house is quiet and I can write.

Kathryn Erskine spent many years as a lawyer before realizing that she’d rather write things that people might actually enjoy reading.  She grew up mostly overseas and attended eight different schools, her favorite being the Hogwarts-type castle in Scotland.  The faculty, of course, did not consist of wizards, although . . . how did the headmistress know that it was “the wee redhead” who led the campaign to free the mice from the biology lab?  Erskine draws on her life stories to write her novels including Quaking, an ALA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, Mockingbird, 2010 National Book Award winner, The Absolute Value of Mike, a Junior Library Guild selection, and the upcoming Facing Freedom (Fall 2013).

 

“Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare To Dream”: A Q &A with Dare Dream Do’s Whitney Johnson

A few months ago, I was sent a book by an amazing woman named Amy Jameson, who used to work with my mother and now has her own agency and editorial consulting firm.  A good friend of hers had published a book Amy thought I would love, and so on a chance, she sent it to me.  Dare, Dream, Do is my kind of book: filled with inspiring and poignant stories of real women facing real challenges and pursuing real dreams, uplifting and encouraging quotations (you know I ate those up!), and practical, detailed, compassionate advice about how to be effective and tenacious in realizing our dreams.   I was thrilled when Whitney agreed to answer questions I posed to her about the nature of dreams and how best to achieve them, work/life balance, challenge and resilience, her own strategies for maintaining optimism, and what people, books, and quotations inspire her.

Whitney Johnson is the president and co-founder of Clayton Christensen’s investment firm Rose Park Advisors, and author of Dare, Dream, Do: Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare to Dream (Bibliomotion, 2012).  A former Institutional Investor-ranked sell-side analyst on Wall Street, Whitney is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, was recognized as a top ten blogger by Marcus Buckingham, and is one of Inc Magazine’s 12 People to Follow on Twitter in 2012.  She also serves as a senior advisor to the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards, and is the mother of two children.

Dare, Dream, Do provides a three-step model for personal advancement and happiness.  Whitney first encourages us to DARE: to boldly step out, to consider disrupting life as we know it. Then she teaches us how to DREAM, to give life to the many possibilities available, whether to start a business, run a marathon, or travel the world. She shows us how to “date” our dreams (no need to commit!) and how to make space for dreams. Finally, Whitney’s model brings out the businesswoman in her; she teaches us to DO, to execute our dreams. She showcases the importance of sharing dreams with others to give them life, creating your own “dream team.” Rich with real stories of women who have dared to dream, DARE, DREAM, DO offers a practical framework for making remarkable things happen.

 

1) Tell us how you came to write your book, Dare, Dream, Do, and what you hope to accomplish with it.

When I took a sabbatical from Wall Street in 2005, I was brimming with confidence at having risen from secretary to award-winning stock analyst.  Having discovered my dream could come true, I began to ask others, particularly women, about their own dreams.  While many of these well-educated, eminently capable women confessed to not really having a dream, often there was an unspoken, “I’m not sure it is my privilege to dream.”  Concerned, but mostly saddened, I knew I had to do something.  To build the case that dreaming is an inalienable right.  I began my Dare to Dream blog in 2006, which eventually became the inspiration for Dare, Dream, Do.

2) What are the greatest obstacles or roadblocks to doing what we dream?  How can we overcome them?

Whether you are plagued by perfectionism, or riddled by self-doubt, there are a number of derring-do hacks.  First, persuade yourself you have the right to dream.  Second, throw out conventional planning because dreaming is discovery-driven. Third, go ahead and date some dreams, lots of them – you don’t need to commit to every dream you date. Dare to disrupt yourself.  Dream your very own dream. Do.

3) What would you say to someone who insists he or she just doesn’t have the time or luxury to dream, let alone dare, or someone who claims dreaming is for impractical and self-indulgent romantics?

When we dream, we make meaning of our life, discover the essence of ourselves, truly grow up, and most importantly model for our children how to dream.  As we focus on our ‘to-be’ list, rather than our ‘to-do’ list, research indicates we’ll actually get more accomplished.  Dreaming then, is anything but a luxury or a lark for the romantic (though it is that too), but rather a productivity-maximizing tool for the pragmatist.

4) What personal dreams have you not yet realized?  are there some dreams better left unrealized?

The right dreams expand our hearts, binding us to those we love. They also enlighten our minds, as in ideas begin to flow.  If it feels right in both our heart and our head, the dream becomes delicious.  I love that word delicious:  delicious pineapple, strawberries, cherries, apricots. Delicious dreams.

As for my still to be realized dreams, I have the once-in-a-lifetime privilege of working with one of the world’s most innovative thinkers, Clayton Christensen:  he knows — and has encouraged me in my dream to one day have my own venture capital (VC) firm.  I also dream of producing a documentary.

5) What do you rely on in your daily life to help you stay focused and centered, to help you do what you dream of doing?  for example, meditation, a spiritual practice, special diet, support groups, etc?

We believe within the context of our deeply held beliefs:  I’m reminded of those beliefs when I pray either alone or with my family, read scriptures, go to church on Sunday, journal, walk/run outdoors alone or with friends.

6) Tell us about attending to multiple dreams, or multi-tasking.   How can we achieve a more sane and fulfilling work-life balance?  How can we pursue our individual dreams and still make time for our crucial relationships?

According to Jungian psychology, our psyche is made up both masculine (power) and feminine (capacity for love) components.  In order to dream, we need to develop both sides of the psyche, to handle power and to love, to learn to be a ship and a harbor.  To “have it all”.  The question, to me, is less about whether we can have it all, but rather what our definition of ‘all’ is.  If it is vital to be both ship and a harbor, it means we have to make choices. For women, the choices we face may feel Solomonic; we simultaneously feel the tug of our ship full of dreams while trying to keep one foot grounded on the dock of family life. But a choice we have to make, trusting that we’ll know which are the right dreams for us.   And only us.

7) How would you define resilience?  What do you think are some good strategies for becoming more resilient in the face of life’s inevitable challenges, difficulties, and hurdles?

When plagued by fear and perfectionism, resilience =  “never, never, never, never giving up” to paraphrase Winston Churchill.   It means when you come to a challenge, rather than sidestepping, you make meaning of that challenge, asking, what am I supposed to learn so that I can do what I’m supposed to do next.  Resilience is behaving as if the biggest lesson we can teach the next generation is to let them see us our mistakes, and gradually shorten our recovery time, such that every time we fail, we fail forward.

8) Who inspires you? (this can include public figures, writers, and people in your personal life)

In the public sphere, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Barbara Corcoran, Brene Brown, Gretchen Rubin, Joanne Wilson.  In my private life, I have a core group of girlfriends whom I adore, and with whom I find respite, and of course my husband, and my two children – they are my harborhaven advisors.

9) What are your favorite books and authors?

I started to think about my favorite books, but then I realized that if I start wracking my brain, for anything other than top-of-mind, then the book is probably not my favorite.  So here goes: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Enders’ Game by Orson Scott Card, The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen, Personal History by Katharine Graham, and of course the myth of Psyche.

10) What quotation would you use to summarize you and/or your positive, inspiring outlook on life?

“You can bet your life, and that, and twice its double, God knew exactly where he wanted you to be placed.” These lyrics from Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, encapsulate what I believe about your life and mine.  Each of us is exactly where we are supposed to be.  So we can learn what we need to learn, accomplish what we are meant to accomplish, help who we are supposed to help.  Where we are, who we are, and what we do matters.

www.whitneyjohnson.com

A Q &A with Sean Meshorer, spiritual teacher and author of The Bliss Experiment

 

One of the last projects I sold when I was working as a literary agent was a fantastic book called The Bliss Experiment by Sean Meshorer.   The book has just been published by Atria, and I’m delighted to share with you a Q &A I did with Sean via email recently.

 

THE BLISS EXPERIMENT

 

28 Days to Personal Transformation

 

Sean Meshorer

 

A cross between The Power of Now and The Happiness Project, The Bliss Experiment reveals how to tap into the innate state of joy that resides in all of us: bliss.

HAPPINESS IS GOOD. BLISS IS BETTER.

We have a higher standard of living and more ways to fulfill every desire than ever. Yet we remain unhappy because happiness isn’t what we truly want.   What we seek is bliss: a complete spiritual state where happiness, profound meaning, and enduring truth converge. With it come unshakeable joy, interconnectedness, and wisdom. It offers a solution to both personal and societal suffering. The book includes stories, over 300 scientific studies and exercises that have worked, time and again, for people from all walks of life.

Sean Meshorer is a spiritual teacher and New Thought minister based in Los Angeles. He graduated from Stanford University with a degree in philosophy and religious studies. He spent fifteen years meditating, studying, practicing, and living in an ashram and spiritual community in Northern California. Sean lives with daily, chronic pain from a serious back injury and finds bliss nonetheless. 

 

1) Define bliss.  What does it mean to you and why do you see it as such an important goal for all of us?

Bliss is an inward experience of happiness. With it comes a complete feeling of inner peace, contentment, love, connectedness and joy that dwells inside each and every one of  us, no matter our background, religion, age, gender, genetics, or life experience. It exists entirely independent of our external circumstances, including negative ones. Once we discover bliss inside, it’s something that we can confidently know to be a permanent and positive inner resource that’s always with, no matter what’s happening around us.

2) What would you say to people who dismiss the possibility of bliss as fluffy, new-agey, or unrealistic? 

According to a recent study published by the Pew Research Center, almost half of all Americans have had a bliss experience and they come from every religion (and no religion) and background across the spectrum. So it has nothing to do with anything new age, or even unconventional. These kinds of experiences are happening all over the place and in all kinds of people but they’re not always well-understood and there’s a great reluctance to talk about them–and most people don’t even have the vocabulary to talk about it. And the 50% of people who haven’t had a bliss experience probably haven’t just because no one has ever told them they have that potential or how to realize it. Once you know, it’s not that hard to have at least a glimpse of taste of it. And even a moment of bliss can completely transform your life.

3) I’m a big fan of Gretchen Rubin and her Happiness Project, as are many of my readers and followers.  What is the relationship between happiness and bliss? 

Happiness is an important way-station on the way to bliss but by itself it’s incomplete. Happiness is based on external circumstances–whether lower-order pleasures or higher-order positive relationships–that is itself fleeting. Happiness ebbs and flows. For example, we might go out for a night of drinking with friends and a loved one and it’s all highly enjoyable but what happens the next morning? The hangover comes. Even the most optimistic positive psychologist will readily tell you that it’s impossible to be happy all of the time. Bliss is different: once we know it’s there and learn to access it, it can always be with us, no matter our external circumstances–even when bad things like unemployment, illness, or relationship problems are happening in our lives.

4) What are the greatest obstacles or roadblocks to experiencing bliss?  

There are three major obstacles. The biggest obstacle is not knowing that we have the potential to experience it. Awareness is truly half the battle. Second, we have to learn to stop looking for authentic joy outside of ourselves–especially in wealth, material objects, sex, romance, beauty, fame, or power. These outward things distract us from looking inward, which is the only place that genuine bliss dwells. Finally, we have to learn how to control and quiet our own minds, especially the myriad negative thoughts, feelings, and images that so many of us experience on a daily basis. These are like cloudy ripples on the surface of our mind, creating mental disturbances that prevent us from having the peace and clarity necessary for noticing the quiet reservoir of bliss that lurks beneath the surface of our agitated minds.

5) Is it possible to attain bliss if one is facing a major challenge like divorce, job loss, a cancer diagnosis, a child’s learning or developmental disorder, or a chronic health condition?  How have you achieved bliss despite your own struggles, losses, suffering, and challenges? 

Absolutely. In fact, not only is it possible but ultimately when life is going poorly, it’s the single best and most effective resource we can have to help ourselves rise above whatever outer challenges we’re facing. No one–and I mean no one–has a perfectly turbulent-free life. None of us can fully control our circumstances–some, yes, but never fully–but what we can learn to control is our internal response to difficult circumstances.

6) Give my readers 5 concrete strategies they can use to bring more bliss to their daily lives.

1. Don’t look for fulfillment in things like money, material objects, fame, beauty, sex, or power. It’s not that those things are bad, it’s that they’re neutral. Empty vessels. The only thing that gives them meaning is the inward meaning that we bring to them. The faster we understand that, the faster we can turn our attention inward.

2. Learn how to release the past, forgive others, and stop ruminating about the bad things that have happened to you. The more you dwell on that, the more miserable you make yourself.

3. Practice being aware of this present moment. Right now. Don’t live in the past or the future. The present moment is all there really is, it’s where everything happens, and it’s the doorway to bliss. If we pull ourselves too far out of this moment, not only do we stress ourselves out, we miss the positive opportunities in front of us.

4. Learn how to harness and control your mind. For most of us, our minds are seriously out of control. We have up to 50,000 thoughts per day and even someone who is just average and not severely depressed, at least half of those are needlessly negative. That’s a lot of negativity that courses through us all day, every day. If we can be aware of that and then learn how to reduce those needlessly negative thoughts, we can realize very fast gains in our happiness.

5. Practice giving something positive back into the world. Be nice to people, give them a smile, act selflessly whenever possible, practice compassion towards others. Happiness and unhappiness are highly contagious–we pass emotions back and forth in as little as a second–so be aware that what your’e doing and how you’re behaving is actually affecting others and quite literally changing the world. Studies show that the emotions we transmit directly to someone then end up transmitted by that person to complete strangers who didn’t come into contact with us. So if you want the world to be a better place, realize that it has to start with you.

7) As someone who’s kept a quote book since 7th grade and shares inspiring and motivating quotations daily on Facebook and Twitter, I especially liked the section of your book on the positive practice of affirmations.  At one point, you say “while often seen as excessively self-helpy, affirmations are anything but New Age . . . [but rather] are based on the neural operations inside our brain.”  Can you explain how and why you’ve overcome your distaste for affirmations and come to see them as crucially important to cultivating resilience, achieving success at work and in our relationships, and attaining bliss? 

I’m the first to admit that affirmations can sound embarrassingly new age. That’s certainly what I thought until I stumbled across more than a dozen scientific studies that prove they work, including one that showed inner-city, African-American schoolchildren could almost entirely close the test score gap with their white, middle-class peers solely by affirming their abilities and self-worth. There’s something scientists call Hebbian Theory which basically means, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” If we repeat affirmations in a certain way with repetition, it actually helps create new neural pathways in our brains that in turn give us the brain resources necessary to make whatever we’re affirming a reality, whether that’s workplace success, relationship improvement, or spiritual realization. That’s the key: most of the deepest and hardest personality changes also require our brain grooves to change–and it turns out that affirmations are one of the most effective techniques to enable this.

How would you apply the principles, attitudes, and actions of your work on bliss to the act of parenting?  

No one needs the inner experience of bliss more than parents! The more chaotic, stressful–and exhausting–our outward life, the more crucial it is that we cultivate the inner resources to deal with that. It’s really not the difficult or time consuming to practice some of the bliss techniques.As a parent, you might only have a few minutes here and there, bliss practices can help us go on an instant vacation, revitalizing and centering ourselves very quickly. Most importantly, bliss helps us stay centered in the moment, helping us rein in our fears, anxieties, and negative emotions. We can actually come to enjoy and appreciate our family time much more–plus feel confident that we have the inner resources to deal with whatever challenges our children throw our way!

9) How would you define the word resilience?  What is the relationship between resilience and bliss? 

In one sense, resilience is a sub-aspect of bliss. To be blissful is to be perfectly resilient, among other things. In another sense, bliss supersedes the need for resilience which implies that we’ve been knocked around but found a way to rebound. When we learn how to access and feel our full inner resources, we often don’t get shaken to begin with. As my own teacher said, “We learn to stand unshaken amidst the crash of breaking worlds.” But of course, that’s not always the case. Often, we are thrown for a loop by life circumstances but ultimately the only thing we can truly control is our own response to whatever is happening outside us. Bliss and its attendant practices give us the techniques and resources needed to bounce back from whatever negative is going on–and often very quickly.

10) Why do you think I chose to represent your book?  What values and aspirations do we share?  What similarities do you see between my experience and yours, my approach to life and yours?  Why will readers of The Anti-Romantic Child or followers of my Facebook page like your book? 

Priscilla, you are one of the most hopeful, joyful, and positively infectious people I know! You instinctively try to find the good in a situation which is one of the foundational mindsets necessary for finding bliss. Like many of us, you’ve also suffered greatly in your personal life but instead of it destroying you, you’ve found ways to learn and grow from it–and then share that with others. These are all aspects of the bliss process. I think, too, we have a shared background–private schools, high academic achievement combined with a certain kind of intellectual training and approach, and even similar types of families in which we’re raised. You get where I’m coming from and where I’m trying to go. In The Anti-Romantic Child there’s this kind of intersection between intellectual understanding and practical experience, that attempt to actually apply your love of poetry, Wordsworth, and the feelings and ideas represented by that to your daily life–and all woven into a compelling personal story. You merge together two worlds that often seem, or can be, separate. You insist on exploring how Wordsworth really does apply to the experiences and lessons of daily life. The Bliss Experiment shares this sensibility. I needed to merge together my intellectual background and rigorous scientific studies with my own practical experiences in these past 15 years, while telling not only my own story but those of dozens of interesting people that I met along the way.

 

“Blooming Where We’re Planted”: Resilience, Tenacity, and Community

A few months ago, I shared these photos on my Facebook page and tonight, with my mother in the intensive care unit after emergency surgery, they have even more uplifting and reassuring resonances for me.

 

 

I took this photo because the image of tiny, delicate, yellow flowers poking out around the edges of and in between large, solid, grey stones evoked for me the potential for hope and resilience in all of us when faced with obstacles, hurdles, challenges.  There is light . . .

Many on my Facebook page looked at the photo and wrote “weed!”, but others pointed out that dandelions are edible and medicinal too!  They are also quintessentially resilient.  One woman wrote: “I aspire to be a dandelion. If I can ever reach that level of tenacity for life, sunshine, air . . . Inspiring and true. The brilliance of what is commonly thought of as a weed . . .  that has found a way to overcome all odds and bloom where it is planted.  That’s beautiful. No matter what kind of weed you may have been born.”

My husband took this photo at a lovely little tulip garden in the middle of New York City:

 

 

I find this profusion of blooms planted by good citizens in the service of bringing beauty, freshness, color to a grey urban block a lovely example of a concerted and sustained effort to uplift others.  The world would be a richer place if we could all aspire to plant and grow and nourish tulips, both literal and figurative, for each other during difficult times.

Thanks to the many incredible doctors and nurses who are caring for my mother tonight . . .

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