A Book Worth Reading: Gold by Chris Cleave

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I read Chris Cleave’s book Little Bee about a year ago.  It was beautifully written, touching, and haunting.  After updating it on my goodreads account, I added Cleave’s other books to my “To-Read” list.  When I came across Gold at the library, I recognized the cover and immediately added it to my checkout pile.

GoldThe book opens as Zoe is about to complete in her first Olympics in track cycling. Meanwhile, her good friend and rival, Kate is home with her infant daughter Sophie.  The story caught my attention at first but then I had a bizarre experience.  The second chapter heading is futuristic and the characters are obviously involved in some sort of Star Wars reenactment.  I kept trying to read this part of the book while dozing off in bed.  After a couple tries, I was downright confused about the plot of the book.  I’m not much for science fiction, so I put it aside for awhile and read other books.  Finally, I decided to try Gold again, but this time I read this sci-fi section while wide awake one morning. After a brief chapter, the storyline returns to what I expected.  Whew!

I’m so glad that I pushed through and gave this book it’s due, because it was great!  The descripter I used most often as I flew through the book was “riveting!”

Most of the story takes place eight years after the initial Olympic scene.  Zoe and Kate are preparing for their last Olympics and are each others’ greatest competition.  Kate and Jack (her cycling Olympic gold medalist husband) are balancing the demands of training and their daughter’s cancer treatments, the best they can.  These circumstances create scenes with strong emotional depth and interesting juxtapositions between the highs and lows of life.

The characters are extremely well developed and intriguing.  I love books that introduce me to a world that I’d previously known nothing about.  The setting of Olympic track cycling taught me a whole new set of athletic culture and vocabulary!  Also, the race scenes were exciting and suspenseful.

I’m looking forward to reading more by this captivating author!

Exploring Connection

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Have you ever been part of a conversation and tuned out? You got distracted by your thoughts and then realized you’d missed a significant portion of what the other person said? The worst is when you get caught and have to admit you weren’t listening and need them to repeat them-selves. Other examples of this type of mental distraction include arriving at a destination without having any memory of driving there (this always happens to me when I’m on the phone!) or reading a page of text and realizing you haven’t taken in any of the content.

happiness trapWhat’s this all about? Dr. Harris explains that these are all instances where our observing self is distracted by our thinking self. The thinking self is like a time machine – constantly pulling us into the future by planning, worrying, and dreaming or into the past by rehashing events or remembering when times were better. When we do actually think about the present our mind typically judges, critics, and struggles against reality. “And this constant mental activity is an enormous distraction. For a huge part of each day, the thinking self completely diverts our attention from what we’re doing” Harris states.

This section of The Happiness Trap helped me to understand an odd phenomenon I used to experience pretty routinely, often while checking out at the grocery store but also at the office. Man, this is hard to explain. It felt like I was in a daze, of sorts. Like I was listening and trying to engage another person but my mind was cloudy and my thoughts and words weren’t coming as quickly as usual. After several instances of this, I noted that it occurred after a long stretch of being “in my head” and then trying to switch gears to communicate with someone else. Now I can recognize that “being in the moment” had actually started to feel strange because I spent so much time absorbed in my thoughts. Or, to use Harris’s terms, I was simply disconnected.

Connection is the third core principle of ACT. What is connection? It means “being fully aware of your here-and-now experience, fully in touch with what’s happening in the moment.”   And why is it important to be in touch with the present? Because “to create a meaningful life, we need to take action. And the power to act exists only in this moment.”

040When I think about being connected to the moment and primarily experiencing life through the observing self more than the thinking self, it reminds me of that quote by John Stuart Mill: “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.” Once your mind starts commentating on what is happening, you are pulled from the pure experience of the moment (that may help you live a meaningful life) and engage in judging, evaluating, or critiquing your feelings.

So, practicing connection simply means letting your observing self take over. Harris says, “it involves bringing our full attention to what is happening here and now without getting distracted or influenced by the thinking self.”   There are several exercises that Harris outlines; the first few all involving awareness of your surroundings, such as being aware of your body, your breath, and sounds. While doing all of these simple exercises, Harris notes that thoughts will continually pop up and advises:

  • Let those thoughts and feelings come and go, and stay connected.
  • When your attention wanders, the moment you realize it, acknowledge it.
  • Silently say to yourself, “Thanks, Mind.” Then gently bring your attention back to the exercise.

Building on thesebasic exercises, he describes the “Notice Five Things” exercise:

  1. Pause for a moment.
  2. Look around and notice five objects you can see.
  3. Listen carefully and notice five sounds you can hear.
  4. Notice five things you can feel against the surface of your body.

These exercises are simple, but they really helped me to realize how disconnected I’d been from my present, here-and-now experience. Harris uses the expression “half awake” to describe a life lived with the thinking self running the show. Maybe that’s the best description of the odd feeling I tried to express above!

The way Harris describes the observing self as registering “everything it observes with openness and interest” is very appealing to me. Curiosity is great! Therefore Harris explains:

“The fascinating thing is that when, with an attitude of openness and interest, we bring our full attention to an unpleasant experience, the thing we dreaded often seems much less bothersome than before. Likewise, when we truly connect with even the most familiar or mundane experience, we often see it in a new and interesting light.”

Can you guys relate to feeling the distinction between being disconnect or connected to the moment?  I’d love to hear others thoughts on this idea!

Take Your Child to Work Day!

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I’m been looking forward to having Sienna participate in my office’s “Take Your Child to Work Day” event for quite some time.  Today was the day!  We had a whole day full of activities, present-ations, and fun planned for the kids.  Sienna, at 6 years old, was the youngest. I’d say the average age of the ten kids was about 9 years old.

Sienna comes to the office fairly often so I figured she’d be in her element.  However, I forgot how shy she tends to get in new situations.  Typically she’s just hanging out with my team or sitting in my office drawing.  Today was a much more structured event and she got really clingy when it was time for me to leave her with the group in the conference room. So, I got to join the group!

003It was cool to watch her gradually warm up.  After some coaxing she finally sat in one of the big executive chairs around the conference table.  She participated in the activities, and concentrated really hard on the 100 point connect-the-dot puzzle the Auditors handed out during their presentation.  Mid morning the kids headed out for a bit of exercise with our resident fitness coach.  She loved running around, playing “Red Light, Green Light” and trying to stand on one foot while stretching.

Before lunch she was in my office for an hour.  I had some scheduling to do and it was an easy thing for her to help with.  I’d tell her what names to type or how many hours to enter and she could search for the letters and numbers on the keyboard. Kind of perfect for a kindergartener!  We then headed to Rubio’s to lunch.  Later when I asked her what she liked best during the day, she replied, “Having lunch out with my mom. That was really fun!”  I agreed.

008When we returned to the office, she told me “I don’t need you to stay with me, Mom.”  She was officially warmed up to her environment.  So, she got to engage in a marketing project and learn about HR, while I got some work done.

It’s always fun and fulfilling to have my work friends tell me how sweet my children are.  Sienna had her share of silliness today, but she was very respectful and attentive.  Also, as the littlest one there, she was pretty adorable!

What a good day.

Staying Within Myself

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Learning to be comfortably in the moment instead of trying to control my thoughts in order to avoid feelings other than “happiness” has literally changed everything for me. One of the areas I can really see and feel the difference is with my athletic activities: swimming and running.

SwimmerBefore the anxiety started last summer, I’d been swimming regularly with the Masters Swim group at the YMCA in my neighborhood. It was so fun to be coached and learn how to improve my strokes! I’d gradually gained speed and had moved up from the “slow lane” to the next lane over. Suddenly, it wasn’t as much fun as I felt pressure to keep up with the faster swimmers. I started having to bail out of more challenging sets and would agonize about the workout (which was printed on a whiteboard) in anticipation of not being able to keep up the pace. For some reason, a set of repeating 100s was much more intimidating to me than an equal distance of repeating 50s. I was completely over thinking and trying to control how I’d feel during future laps or sets.

Being in the moment makes is so much easier for me to tackle swimming workouts because I’m no longer looking forward and being anxious about an upcoming set. I just swim each lap as it comes. It reminds me of that phrase “staying within yourself.” It’s athletic performance psychology 101.

Similarly with running, if I began a run and didn’t feel strong, I’d start thinking, “I’ll never be able to make it 5 miles!” or whatever distance I’d planned to run. Being “in my head” while running was so normal to me that I’d often run the 5 mile loop around Lake Miramar and realize I’d barely looked out at the water, even once! Now, I enjoy longer runs because I look around, take in the scenery, feel the wind, and am more in touch with my body and my surroundings.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother change related to running is my choice of music. Previously I’d select a Pandora station that would ensure upbeat songs to motivate me and consciously avoided songs that were too emotional. Green Day, Pink, and AC/DC were my go-to stations. In the last several months, I’ve really enjoyed putting Pandora on Shuffle and just listening to whatever song it plays. It’s fun to be surprised! Plus, I’m now okay with a song that’s slow paced, melancholy, or downright depressing playing while I run. Not being afraid of how a song will impact both my running performance and my emotional state is very freeing. During a run last week, I listened to everything from Bruce Springsteen (which will always remind me of Dennis!) and Sara Barellies to the Rent Soundtrack, Clay Walker, and Eartha Kitt. Then, in the last mile and a half, “Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky came on – it couldn’t have been more perfect timing!

Running is actually a great metaphor for emotions. While on a long run, there will be stretches where I feel kind of rotten and wonder how I’ll make it, and then I’ll begin to feel better and stronger. I’ll typically enjoy several moments where I think, “Man, I could run forever!” That cycle may repeat itself once or twice, depending on the run. Emotions are really similar. They’re always changing. This has been such a revelation because I used to feel and act like whatever emotion I currently had would last forever. Being able to push through the crummy feeling during a run is like practice for enduring emotional distress. This experiences also teaches that I shouldn’t become too attached to the euphoric feelings that arise. I can (and should!) enjoy feeling good but running isn’t only worthwhile if it feels good. Whatever the feeling, if I just keep running (or living) my feelings will inevitably change again and again.

Easter Delights!

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040We had a delightful Easter weekend!  We enjoyed time as a family, had festive fun with friends, and kept the real reason for the holiday at the forefront: celebrating Christ’s sacrificial death and glorious resurrection.

Saturday morning, Sienna and I finished up the Easter cutout cookies we’d started Friday afternoon.  After frosting several pink, blue, yellow, and green bunnies, butterflies, and geese, we were inspired to mix the pink and yellow frosting to make pale orange.  Then we frosted the carrots in a very pleasing and lifelike color scheme.

041To continue our lesson in color mixing, we created lavendar frosting.  Our springtime, pastel colored cookies were complete! I LOVE making cutout cookies for holidays!  It’s a lot of work but so worth it.  The recipe for both the cookie and frosting were handed down from my mom and they’re amazing!  I’ll post the recipe as we get closer to Christmas.

This batch of cookies was our family’s contribution to an Easter Egg coloring party at our friends’ house that afternoon.  Several families got together to enjoy food, drinks, and each others’ company as the kids colored easter eggs outside at two big tables draped with plastic tablecloths. Such wise hosts!  Sienna patiently colored her eggs like a big six-year-old.  Whereas Mateo was burning through his supply of eggs – dropping one after the other into blue dye and then retrieving them within a minute.  I asked him to leave the eggs in a little longer so they’d become darker blue.  He replied, “They are dark blue!” as he lined his fifth, very pale blue egg in the drying carton.  Anyway, he had fun.

063We came home with about 18 eggs and made egg salad for lunch after church on Sunday.  Yum!

A wonderful surprise to our Easter weekend was having one of Sienna’s school friends and her mom join us as church!  I’d gotten a text on Thursday asking if we were going to church Sunday since the mom wanted to take her daughter and they didn’t know where to go.  I’m constantly mentioning our church involvement to the moms I’m getting to know through Sienna’s school.  I wasn’t doing it as an evangelical effort, per se.  It’s just that we’re always planning or doing something related to our church and preschool.  It felt pretty awesome that this mom felt comfortable to ask about coming to our church!

057After a backyard Easter egg hunt for the kids (seriously, what’s more fun than an Easter egg hunt?!) we read the kids a terrific book: The Very First Easter.  It’s written directly from the biblical narrative and provides an amazing amount of theological information in a very assessible way.  The author, Paul Maier is a Lutheran scholar; he was the speaker at our churches’ 100th anniversary gala and is pretty incredible.

first easterThe kids love this book!  Teo had me read it to him four times over within five nights awhile back.  It’s not a short book but the illustrations and content keep his attention.  There’s a picture of Jesus after he’s taken down from the cross.  There’s a small, red gash on his side that Mateo stops at each time – “What happened to Jesus there?” he asks.  I always reply, “The soldier stabbed him.” “Why?” he asks.  “Because they wanted to make sure he was dead.” “Oh.” he knowingly nods.

This book was just a joy to receive.  I’d gotten jaded over the years by “Easter” books for kids that were all about eggs, candy, and spring.  The Berenstein Bears are a favorite of mine, but the Easter book drove me nuts!  The “real meaning of Easter” is not about finding baby chick eggs in a nest.  If you’re interested in teaching your children the true story of Jesus’ ministry and the events of Holy Week, I really encourage you to check out this book.

064As we drove home from church on Sunday, I reflected on the sense of rebirth that Easter, the resurrection, and springtime all collaborate to create on this day.  The new life in Christ that we enjoy because of his death and resurrection is fresh, bright, and pure.

Martin Luther said, “Our Lord has written the promise of the resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in spring-time.”

The Fruit and Power of Christ’s Resurrection

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This passage is from Martin Luther’s sermon “The Fruit and Power of Christ’s Resurrection” originally written in 1525.

“As we heard while explaining the meaning of Christ’s passion, that it was not enough to know its mere narrative and history; so it is not enough to learn only how and when Christ our Lord arose from the dead; we must also preach and understand the benefit and use both of the sufferings and the resurrection of Christ, namely, what he thereby acquired for us. For if we preach only its history, it is an unprofitable sermon, which Satan and the godless know, read and understand as well as true Christians; but when we preach to what end it serves it becomes profitable, wholesome and comforting.

martin lutherChrist himself pointed out the benefit of his sufferings and resurrection when he said to the women in Mt 28, 10 – “Fear not: go tell my brethren that they depart into Galilee, and there shall they see me.” These are the very first words they heard from Christ after his resurrection from the dead, by which he confirmed all the former utterances and loving deeds he showed them, namely, that his resurrection avails in our behalf who believe, so that he therefore anticipates and calls Christians his brethren, who believe it, and yet they do not, like the apostles, witness his resurrection.

The risen Christ waits not until we ask or call on him to become his brethren. Do we here speak of merit, by which we deserve anything? What did the apostles merit? Peter denied his Lord three times; the other disciples all fled from him; they tarried with him like a rabbit does with its young. He should have called them deserters, yea, betrayers, reprobates, anything but brethren. Therefore this word is sent to them through the women out of pure grace and mercy, as the apostles at the time keenly experienced, and we experience also, when we are mired fast in our sins, temptations and condemnation.”

Today I’m resting in the simple knowledge that Christ accomplished all that’s required for the salvation of the world when he left the tomb.  He is risen!  This is most certainly true.