Need it to Survive


“How do you write like you need it to survive?”

The above lyric is from the song Non-Stop, which closes Act I of the soundtrack to the Broadway musical Hamilton. I first listened to Non-Stop last Saturday and the line jumped out at me right away, especially since I had just blogged the day before about Yes Please by Amy Poehler.  In that post, I noted that the preface to her book:

… makes writing seem like the worst idea ever and also more important than you thought… maybe even necessary for survival.

I heard that song, that line, and felt gratitude. It eloquently echoed something that was obviously on my mind already: the importance – the necessity – of writing more. The above lyric in Non-Stop is followed by: “How do you write every second of your life, every second of your life, every second of your life?”

Leave it to a mega-talented composer, lyricist, librettist (rapper, singer, actor… more on Lin-Manuel Miranda shortly) to create an entire song about the prolific, tireless nature of his subject.

What are we wanting to do, planning to do, that we keep putting off? What if we decided that we can’t wait, that our life depends – at least mentally and spiritually – on taking action. On making art, on making connections, on making moves. Today is what we have. Nothing else is promised.

Writing inspiration aside, I’m rather obsessed with the Hamilton soundtrack right now. I don’t generally gravitate toward musical theater – or American history, for that matter – but the writing and performances in Hamilton are astonishingly moving and fantastic. I laugh, I cry, I have these songs running through my head constantly!

It’s hard to describe the complex, beautiful layers that weave throughout these two acts. The layers upon layers: lyrical, musical, emotional, contextual, and so on. And I’ve only listened through the whole soundtrack twice, so I’m sure it’s even more rich and fertile than I fully realize quite yet.

I’m also reading Ron Chernow’s hefty tome Alexander Hamilton, the source material that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda (my new hero) in the first place. Chernow’s book is well written and dense with detail. I’m extra excited, though, to get Miranda’s Hamilton: The Revolution, which gets released next week. It promises to tell the story of the Broadway phenomenon in pictures, song annotations, and prose. More of Miranda’s lovely words? Yes please!

If I ever get the chance, I’d love to ask Miranda the question that opens this post. When he discovered Chernow’s book and began to envision a musical about founding father Alexander Hamilton’s life, he had already written and starred in an international hit musical, In the Heights. He started working on his first Hamilton-inspired songs, ultimately distilling Chernow’s lengthy book and, indeed, the entire story of Hamilton’s life into 46 powerful, entertaining, beautiful songs. Then he brought the title character to life on stage and recording alike.

It’s inspiring not just as a writer but as a human being.

What’s inspiring you these days?

Yes Please


Cover image source: Entertainment Weekly

I loved Amy Poehler’s memoir, Yes Please.

I’ve always enjoyed Ms. Poehler’s (Amy’s? I’m going to call her Amy; what the heck) acting and her interviews, so I was probably inclined to like her book, as well. But I didn’t necessarily expect to find so much value in it. As insightful and (sometimes painfully) honest as it is funny, to me her book is sort of a humorous manual for living.

It’s true that she and I are contemporaries (full disclosure: I’m 3.5 years older). While I have never been an improv comic, a national TV and movie star, a mom, or a bestselling writer, I am intimately acquainted with growing up in suburbia in the 1970s and, more recently, navigating the 21st century and adulthood with varying degrees of bemusement and accomplishment.

That said, I think most people will find plenty to relate to in the pages of Yes Please. I especially enjoyed some of her observations about writing:

The truth is, writing is this: hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not. Even I have lied about writing. I have told people that writing this book has been like brushing away dirt from a fossil. What a load of shit. It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver. I wrote this book after my kids went to sleep. I wrote this book on subways and on airplanes and in between setups while I shot a television show. I wrote this book from scribbled thoughts I kept in the Notes app on my iPhone and conversations I had with myself in my own head before I went to sleep. I wrote it ugly and in pieces….

Honestly, I have moments when I don’t even care if anyone reads this book. I just want to finish it.

I can’t say enough about the entire preface (which is titled writing is hard: a preface). It is seriously, hilariously brutal. It makes writing seem like the worst idea ever and also more important than you thought… maybe even necessary for survival.

The entire book is well worth your time, but I daresay the preface is elevated to must-read status for anyone who wants to write or has ever thought about writing or who happens to own a pen.

Entertainment Weekly recently shared the ten lines from the book that Kindle users highlighted most often. Here are just a couple:

  • “Sticking up for ourselves in the same way we would one of our friends is a hard but satisfying thing to do. Sometimes it works.”
  • “Wordsworth also said that the best part of a person’s life is ‘his little, nameless, unremembered, acts of kindness and of love.’”

The ten tidbits in EW’s list only scratch the surface of the book’s many lovely little gems. Have you read it? If so, what was your favorite part? If not, what are you waiting for?


Focus Pocus

It’s still Blog-toberfest! And while I haven’t posted in a couple of weeks, I’m still excited to have written quite a few blog posts this month. I’ll aim for once a week going forward. It’s now on my calendar, which will help me follow through. Planning is key, especially when there’s a lot going on.

Speaking of which, I have felt like things are extra busy these days. I’ve also been sick. It is tempting for people — myself included — to think of such situations as plain old fact. Yes, they often do have some basis in truth. But I’ve come to learn there’s more to it.

The bigger picture is the way we construct stories relating to the facts and circumstances we experience… and the way those stories can unconsciously drive us, our lives, and our outcomes. Circumstances can become excuses, and plans can get derailed. Week after week, if we let them.

The truth is, I can prioritize things that are important to me, no matter what is going on in my life. What’s more, I always am prioritizing things, as evidenced by the things I actually do. Every day, we prioritize actions by giving them our time, attention, and energy. The question is, are we prioritizing the things we say we want to focus on? Are we putting our precious time and energy into the things we claim to matter most?

In recent weeks, I’ve been challenged by a few different coaches and mentors to call BS on my own negative thoughts and blame games. Today, I called BS on feeling irked by my headache and stuffy nose (and on blaming the weather for not feeling my best). Life is good, I am beyond fortunate, and I can focus on that and find gratitude, instead of dwelling on what’s not 100% perfect right now. Perfection doesn’t exist, and getting stuck in those trains of thought inevitably derails our aspirations and takes us out of the present moment.

When we focus, we feed and encourage the objects of our attention. In shifting focus, I can improve my perspective and make progress on the things that really matter to me. Writing more, for example!

Easy Does It

“Life is hard.”

“Why me?”

“This sucks.”

Sound familiar? For many of us, these are daily mantras. We rant and rail against traffic, the weather, and a thousand other circumstances that we can’t control. Other people often top the list. Not only do things never seem to go our way, but why is everyone out to get us?

The truth is, most of these sentiments and statements and outlooks boil down to one thing: perspective. We can choose another way to look at almost anything… but we have to acknowledge that. And then we have to choose to choose differently.

If we think life is hard, then everything we experience will be framed by that belief. But we can decide that it doesn’t have to be that way. We can acknowledge that, sure, stuff happens… and a lot of it is pretty amazing! We can begin to see life’s little bumps in the road as opportunities to grow. Minor inconveniences are not insurmountable obstacles; they’re more like unexpected rain. We can put up an umbrella, or even get wet. Either way, it’s not the end of the world.

As for other people, most of the time they’re just lost in their own thoughts and lives. One of the Four Agreements (as explained in the book by that title by Don Miguel Ruiz) is “don’t take anything personally.” Other people’s actions, words, and behaviors are about them, not us.

While this principle certainly doesn’t excuse crime or abuse, it can offer us a path to forgiveness and peace for a thousand perceived transgressions, once we recognize that they are not personal. Rather, they are driven by the other person’s own fears and insecurities and efforts to survive this life (which they likely think is hard). If we recognize this, our capacity for empathy, even forgiveness, grows immeasurably. Forgiveness — and eventually acceptance — of other people in all their fallible, human glory is such a gift to ourselves.

I loved this post by Kara at Zen Barbell about one of her favorite phrases: “Just like me.” She writes:

As you are walking through a store (airport, busy area) you see some one just standing in the middle of the walkway, seemingly oblivious, blocking every one’s way.  You start thinking “UGH! I can’t believe they are blocking every one’s way! How can they be standing there not aware that they are completely blocking traffic! How rude!”.

Now you add the “magical phrase” ‘just like me’.   It now becomes “”UGH! I can’t believe they are blocking every one’s way! How can they be standing there not aware that they are completely blocking traffic! How rude!…Just like me!

Not so funny but VERY eye opening. [Check out Kara’s other two magical phrases, This moment and Is it true? It’s a great series of posts, and her source material is well worth reading, too.]

We are all human, and we can all use more compassion, toward ourselves and toward others. Sometimes it’s easier to start within, and sometimes without. But starting is key. Compassion can help us shift toward a mindset of possibility and wonder.

Another way to start shifting our perspective is by practicing gratitude every day. Perhaps before bed, or first thing in the morning, find three things for which you’re thankful. Write them down if you really want to build up a gratitude collection. Flipping through a week’s or a month’s worth of entries is a great boost when we need one.

It might seem silly or even elusive at first. But if we let it, writing these down can take on a momentum of its own and help us trade in a mindset of scarcity for one of abundance.

There are lots of other ways to shift perspective, and I will write more about it in future posts. For now, try letting this practice work its magic. When we are filled with gratitude, there is less room for grievances. Life might start to seem a little easier, a little lighter… even with the traffic and bills and cranky co-workers.

Speaking of making things easy, I used that approach today when I exercised before my morning shower. In the interest of spending more time upside down, and knowing my own tendency sometimes to push too far, too fast, I could have tried diving right in to handstands against the wall. Instead, I decided to ease in and play with some more gentle versions of, well, inversions: downward facing dog and standing forward bend.

In a lovely bit of timing, shortly thereafter I received an email with this link: 5 Yoga Inversions for Beginners. It confirmed what I had applied in my morning practice; downward facing dog definitely counts as an inversion. It also gave me some more places to play as I rebuild my strength and comfort in upside-down positions. (I probably won’t practice number 5, supported shoulderstand. I have found that pose to be contraindicated for me as a migraine patient. As with any physical endeavor, it’s important to know our bodies and consult with experts when needed, especially when trying new activities.)

In fact, I was reminded this morning that I’ve been doing these poses relatively often all along, so my inversion game isn’t quite as rusty as I originally may have thought. Now I can build from here and benefit from turning my world upside down more and more each week.

Practicing gratitude and otherwise trying to shift our perspective might also feel a bit like turning our worlds upside down at first. But I truly believe the benefits — across the board — will be more than worth it.

Upside Down

I wrote last week about moving — and playing — more. One way I would like to do more of that is by making more time to be upside down. Handstands are fun and it’s never too late to get better at them. When I was going to the yoga studio, one of my instructors helped me incorporate a bit of handstand play in Ashtanga class. I’ve been wanting to revive my handstand adventures, and there is no time like the present to dig in and start working on playing with them again!

Luckily, there are a lot of great posts and resources available online for mastering handstands and other inversions. Here are a few that I will be referring to in the coming months:

  • The Beginner’s Guide to Handstands. Not only does Nerd Fitness’s guide have Star Wars figures (of course; yay nerds!), it also addresses the fear factor. Many of us grown-ups are out of the habit of spending time upside down, and it can be disconcerting!
  • The Adult Handstand. Garage Gym Girl focuses on a couple of other things that might trip us non-kiddos up: wrist weakness and dizziness. The post helps with those elements and helps break down the handstand mastery process over time.
  • Charlize Theron, Imperator Furiosa, Inversions and Arm-balances. This post from the great trainer and fat loss coach Josh Hillis is laden with links and videos, plus it references the fantastic movie Mad Max: Fury Road!

I love it when play time can make us stronger and provide a lovely metaphor for shifting our perspective.

Ouch Potato

I ended up with a pretty bad migraine attack this week, so my walking adventures were put on hold for a few days. I try not to be too sedentary when I’m coping with pain. Still, I often opt for rest, especially during the worst of an attack.

I’ve had migraine headaches all my life. Often, just when I think I have a handle on them, something changes and I have to regroup and figure out a new pattern. Fortunately, they’ve been fairly light for the past couple of years. But that doesn’t mean I’m out of the woods, as this week’s pain and nausea can attest.

I’ve learned that my mindset has a big impact on how I am able to manage migraine headaches and other pain. I’m not saying that I can think or wish my pain away. It’s more that a shift in my perspective can help me accept my pain as a part of my life, not as something to fight and rail against. Because I don’t want to be at war with my body. For one thing, having an embattled perspective can be a slippery slope to feelings of resentment, comparison, and bitterness. Plus, I strive to embrace the yin/yang and recognize that both are perfectly natural parts of life. We don’t always get the balance we want — in fact, sometimes life may not feel very balanced at all — but we also can’t assume we know what a perfect balance would really be.

So acceptance, then, is such an important component. It’s a concept I have come back to again and again throughout my life. I remember reading Michael J. Fox’s Lucky Man when I was in the midst of a minor but irksome bout of depression in my early 30s, and his perspective — his capacity for acceptance — showed me a new way to live my life. He wrote:

If you were to rush into this room right now and announce that you had struck a deal — with God, Allah, Buddha, Christ, Krishna, Bill Gates, whomever — in which the ten years since my diagnosis could be magically taken away, traded in for ten more years as the person I was before — I would, without a moment’s hesitation, tell you to take a hike.

For every loss we might think Parkinson’s would incur, Fox chooses to focus instead on the gifts it gave him. Insights, people he met, new appreciation for his relationships. And perspective. Because it always, always comes back to perspective. And we get to choose that perspective, as hard as that might be for us to grasp sometimes. In fact, our perspective, along with our words and actions, are often the only things we can choose when faced with many of life’s little — and not so little — challenges.

That’s why it’s so important for me to continue studying mindset, and to try and share what I’ve learned. Earlier this year I passed the Level 1: Certified Mindset Specialist course from the Mindset Performance Institute, and I’m currently taking Level 2: Certified Mindset Coach. Through MPI’s outstanding programs, I’m learning even more about acceptance and other components of a healthy, successful mindset.

One thing I love most about MPI is the way it incorporates science into the curriculum. Dr. Mike T. Nelson is one of the instructors, and his knowledge on the brain, neuroplasticity, and other scientific factors in mindset and success is as informative as it is broad. He recently shared this lecture on pain by Dr. Lorimer Moseley, which is so enlightening about the biology of pain and some of the implications of those mechanisms. It’s worth a watch for anyone who experiences, or even has loved ones who experience, pain.

Years ago I came across this article, “Suffering Is Optional,” in Yoga Journal, and it was so useful that I try to re-read it every so often. This section also echoes some of my MPI studies, and it has been instrumental in helping me understand and cope with my migraine attacks:

Within all pain and distress we discover there are two levels of experience. One is the simple actuality of the sensation, feeling, or pain, and the other is our story of fear that surrounds it. Letting go of the story, we are increasingly able to connect with the simple truth of the pain. We discover that it may be possible to find calm and peace even in the midst of distress.

Buoyed by knowledge and tools, I aim, as much as possible, to breathe through the worst of my pain. In addition to the benefits of meditation, breathing plays a big part in my pain management. I read once that people often hold their breath in the face of stress, pain, and the like. If I recall correctly, this was related to the fight-or-flight response, though I don’t remember all the details of what I read, and I am by no means an expert on fight-or-flight psychological theories.

Nevertheless, after reading that, I started noticing that I did, indeed, tend to hold my breath when hurting. I still do, in fact. But at least now I have awareness. I am usually able, during painful interludes, to bring my attention to my breath and return to a steady, deep breath pattern when I find I’m breathing shallowly or hardly at all.

I also practice gratitude for my pain-free days (there is a lot to be thankful for, as unfortunately there are many people who suffer much more frequently and/or severely than I do) and try not to take them for granted. And, despite the headline of this post and my acknowledgement that I have been resting quite a lot recently, I also know that moving can be beneficial, both for avoiding pain and for diminishing it when it does come to visit. The key, as always, is to be in tune with the body and the effects of the activity. For me, rhythmic, relaxing movement, such as slow walks and gentle yoga, serve best at those sensitive times.

Meanwhile, I’m starting to feel better, which reminds me that distraction can also be my friend when it comes to pain. At its worst, I need to avoid certain activities, but once I get to the “lurking” phase, as I call the aftermath of a migraine episode, it often behooves me to read, or write, or have a lovely conversation. Sometimes we can expedite pain’s departure by depriving it of our attention.

Field Day

I recently had the opportunity to take a tour of Ford Field. It was pretty cool to go behind the scenes — and on the sidelines:
  The stadium stands on the site of the old Hudson’s flagship building and incorporates some of its original structure, such as this brickwork:

These quotes are on the walls at the mouth of the Lions’ tunnel: 

The view from the press box: 

Words of wisdom in the locker room:

We learned that the stadium opened in 2002 (I don’t pay much attention to such things and was surprised to learn it had been that long). Everything is so pristine, it seems much newer.

All in all, an interesting outing and a fun way to log some activity while learning a bit about the inner workings of one of Detroit’s premier venues.