Embracing nature, in life and through writing

As I began planning the subjects that I would cover in this blog, the list pretty much wrote itself. Most of the themes that I am addressing have been simmering inside me for months—years even. But I do plan to challenge myself periodically to take on matters that I don’t typically contemplate or put into words. So, here is the first topic from outside my comfort zone… 

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Geoff walking along the path at Lake Linganore, Md.

Naturalist John Muir said, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” This is one of the many lessons I’ve learned since moving to a more rural area.

Once upon a time, I was a teenager dreaming of escaping the boring suburbs and living in the big city. At the age of 21, I made this dream come true (with a little help from my friends). For close to eight years, I luxuriated in the civilized nectar that is New York City, and I didn’t think much about the natural world. I liked the look of the big trees in Central Park, but that was about it. I preferred instead to gaze upon the tall buildings and intricate bridges.

I then moved on to the suburban sprawl outside Washington, D.C. These suburbs weren’t quite as dull as the Florida one I grew up in, but they weren’t exactly inspiring either.

The yearning to live in a rustic environment snuck up on me. The seed was planted when we briefly rented a rundown house with a big back yard in a tree-lined postwar neighborhood.

But maybe the desire to be closer to nature is just something that happens as many of us get older, as the years of being out of touch with the earth accumulate? Perhaps it’s related to the search for self, to the desire to be grounded and connected.

Whatever the impulse, I find myself living now on a lake, surrounded by plants and animals and water. Sometimes it feels like I’m inhabiting a classic Disney cartoon.

The squirrels are literally everywhere, and the lake is full of geese and ducks. Sightings of chipmunks are sporadic, but they always provoke a squeal (from me, not them), as they are exceptionally cute and tiny. The rabbits out here are also small, and the raccoons are huge. In late summer the insects are downright prehistoric looking.

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Rooster at England Acres farm in Mt. Airy, Md.

My husband and I find ourselves trying to mimic the distinct songs of our favorite birds. The owls sound like howling dogs. The egrets and other herons are beautiful to observe as they gingerly walk along the lake looking for fish, but their screeches can be terrifying.

We drive by farms every day, where we can see cows, horses, goats, and the occasional herd of alpacas. Deer are ubiquitous. We have a mother deer who sometimes shelters under the trees in our backyard, and we once saw her nurse one of her young in our neighbor’s yard. Bald eagles soar over the lake on rare occasions, and they take my breath away every time.

I’ve fallen in love with how the seasons change and how flowers appear seemingly out of nowhere. The colors, the textures, the shapes—how could one not admire the accomplishment of a perfect flower in bloom?

My favorite sight is the sunlight glimmering on the water. Depending on the time of day or the time of year, the light can look quite different, but it always makes me feel awestruck and at peace. I’ve started using this image while meditating, and it almost always relaxes my chattering, preoccupied brain.

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Kayaking on Lake Linganore, Md.

Of course, even Disney cartoons aren’t all rainbows and roses—just look at Bambi. Nature means life and death, growth and destruction. You can’t drive around in our area without seeing a dead animal on the side of the road. I even ran over a very large raccoon one night, and I’m sure you’ll forgive me for not elaborating on the experience.

We’ve seen the damage that water, wind, and tree limbs can cause. In the ongoing clash between humans and nature, it often feels like nature has the upper hand (probably because it does).

One day I was in the yard, yanking at the ivy that grows everywhere. I was angry at it—the way it spread wherever it wanted, invaded territory without invitation. With perverse pleasure, I jerked another strand out by its root. Why do I hate it so much, I wondered.

Is it because the ivy is bold and remorseless, because it doesn’t need permission to run wild? Is the cautious, timid side of me jealous of the ivy that runs rampant in my yard?

Flowers in our backyard on Lake Linganore, Md.

That might sound ridiculous, but the more I thought about it, the more I concluded: Nature is just like the people in our lives. Sometimes we love it and want to surround ourselves with it. Other times it drives us crazy, and we wish it would just do what we want it to do.

And maybe that isn’t so unusual, because we are nature and nature is us. Learning to live with nature, and each other, is our only option. It won’t always turn out perfect, but it’s in our best interest to find fruitful ways to coexist. Paying attention and learning from nature might just save us after all.

So, there it is—my first “off-topic” blog post. Not sure yet how I feel about it, but one thing’s for sure…there’s lots of room for improvement! 

Upcoming blog topics:


The three main factors controlling our lives

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Me, my grandfather, and my mom at the Sandy Cove church retreat in Maryland.

When I was a kid, all I wanted was to have a normal family. I know now that the words “normal” and “family” have little overlap in the real world. But the fact that I had a somewhat unconventional home life was the peg upon which I hung most of my youthful disappointments and frustrations.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved my family. Still, I had a single mom back when all my friends had married parents living under the same roof. I didn’t know my father—never even laid eyes on a photo of the man. My mom and I lived with my retired grandparents; my mother worked full time, and we didn’t have much money.

When I was about 15, my mom suffered a serious depression during which she barely came out of her room. This experience was frightening and lonely, and it forever shifted the balance of our parent and child roles.

On a scale of personal trauma or tragedy, the situation into which I was born and raised doesn’t rank very high. But it left its mark on me. My tangled roots, my less-than-typical origin story will always be there behind me. I definitely learned a thing or two from my jagged beginnings, but the question lingers . . . what if things had started out differently?

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Roulette wheel hanging out in the back of a shop in Brooklyn, N.Y.

When thinking about how our lives unfold—the advantages we enjoy and the challenges we face—I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s crucial to acknowledge the three main factors that contribute to our fate.

The first is luck: What point in time we are born and where, into what economic circumstances, what gender, what race and ethnicity, what family structure, what health conditions and physical abilities, and so on.

Luck jumps in at other junctures throughout our lives as well, reminding us that we are not in full control. Some luck is happy, like meeting the love of your life, or a much-wanted pregnancy when you’re least expecting it. But most of the examples that come to mind are negative: Weather disasters, car accidents, cancer, a parent’s desertion, the loss of a child, being in the wrong place at the wrong time in any number of ways.

Some folks will proclaim that people need to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” and overcome their disadvantages. But it would go a long way toward mutual understanding if we could all appreciate, just a bit more, the varying and often unforgiving forces that mold each of our lives.

The obstacles I’m talking about here have been thrown in our paths; they were not brought on by our own actions. But we must reckon with them all the same.

Old swingset in our neighbor’s yard on Lake Linganore, Md.

Which brings us to the second factor: personal control. Yes, we humans do have willpower, grit, passion, and all those internal resources that can turn things around and change our lives. We can make our own fate—within reason. I think it’s fair to admit that we don’t all have the same type or level of internal resources to draw upon, so some struggle more than others in certain areas. One person’s breaking point may be another person’s turning point.

In my case, there came a time when I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and stop bemoaning all the stuff I felt cheated out of having, like a father and a mother with a partner to lean on. I had to become my own cheerleader and my own coach, and I had to push myself harder than I really wanted. The results have been mixed, and the evidence that self-determination is a never-ending effort is right here in this blog.

The third factor is institutional. Some people prefer not to focus on this influence, while others spend a large portion of their lives trying to shape it. I’m talking about the form of government and financial structures under which we live, the various laws we must abide by, our voting rights (or lack thereof), the make-up of our health care system—I could go on and on.

To a certain degree we are stuck with the institutions that are in effect in the place and time in which we live. There is little doubt that these institutions hold some people back while giving others a leg up. Many people go bankrupt, are jailed, and even die because the rules and conventions of society have great power over people’s lives.

You might think that this factor intersects with luck, and to some extent it does. But many of the institutions I consider part of this category can be molded, changed—even torn down altogether. Humans, working together, can alter or upend these institutions because we are the ones who create and maintain them. But we cannot do this alone. We must form alliances.

Three supporters at the National Equality March in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 11, 2009.

I worked for nearly two decades at a non-profit organization dedicated to social justice. We saw many victories and many losses. But we knew that we had the power to make change. We also knew that some of that change might not take place in our lifetimes, but hopefully some of it would. Just look at the fight for equal marriage, which began in earnest right around the time I started working for social justice and is now a reality.

Perhaps these three factors seem obvious. They certainly bear a striking resemblance to the famous Serenity Prayer. Regardless of how they took shape in my head, thinking about them helps me feel centered and grounded.

First, I recognize that luck exists, but I try not to dwell on it—I try to cut myself (and my mother) a break, and then move on. I also make an effort to understand the different ways that other people’s lives have been impacted by the cards they have been dealt.

Second, I do my best to take control of my life wherever I can. I promise to check in with myself regularly and ask: Is there something different I could be doing to make my life more complete, more productive, more fulfilling?

Third, I look for ways to work toward the societal change that I think will bring justice and opportunity to people’s lives. How can I use the skills and resources I possess to help bring about a better world?

None of this is easy. Sometimes it’s so much simpler to complain, deny, and avoid (see my previous post on negativity). But ultimately, the most satisfying results come from doing right by yourself and marking the way for others.

Upcoming blog topics:

More than a few words about negativity

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Ballerina figurine at Tomorrow’s Antiques in New Market, Md. Note: I chose photos that make me happy to counter the post’s focus on negativity.

Have you ever gotten together with co-workers for lunch or happy hour, and you spend most of your time griping about work? If this has happened to you more than once, did someone eventually say, “Let’s try not to talk about work this time,” and then you all tried but failed?

Venting is necessary, even healthy, to a degree, but once it gains traction, it can be hard to put on the brakes. Negativity in its many forms can be both contagious and addictive.

So, in addition to exploring new activities, I am trying to be more positive and more at peace with myself and the world. While I like to think that I’m a mostly cheerful person, sometimes I find it difficult not to dwell on what’s wrong. I am well-acquainted with overreacting, sulking, and bitching.

The evening before I launched this blog, I agreed to go out to dinner when I didn’t really want to. I had to run an errand after work, and it ended up being more challenging than expected. By the time we were out to dinner, I was grumpy and making the experience unpleasant for everyone.

This situation was within my control: I could have declined the dinner and just explained that I wasn’t up for it. Or, I could have committed to not punishing my dinner companions for what was my decision to go out. Also, I could have put the errand behind me—it wasn’t traumatic after all, just annoying—and focused on having a nice time. I did not do these things.

And then I heard myself being super cranky, so I took a deep breath and tried to change my attitude. But not before making a few excuses to justify my behavior.

“Cherish” bird placed in the flower box by the previous owners of our home.

Negativity comes in a number of varieties, all of which I have been guilty of at some point, and I’m sure you’ll relate to at least a few. I think calling each one of them out will be helpful in dampening them.

One type I’m particularly familiar with is “woe is me.” You know this one: “Why did I get in THIS line—it’s taking so long.” “I can’t believe it had to rain on today of all days.”

Often, we let the circumstances get us down even more by concluding that a fleeting bad event is actually a sign of something ingrained and ongoing. Usually we blame ourselves: “I always choose the slowest line.” Or we blame fate: “Every time I plan something fun, bad weather ruins it.”

A close relation to “woe is me” is “nobody loves me/everyone’s a jerk.” If we’ve been waiting a couple days for a call or text back from a parent, child, friend, or date, we might infer that we just aren’t endearing enough to get a speedy reply, or maybe the other person is selfish and thoughtless. We skip right past the fact that the other person might be busy, and instead go straight for the interpretation that contains the most drama.

Then there’s the martyr complex—similar to the above, but with an extra dash of righteousness. “I work all day, and then I do the cooking, and the dishes, and put away the laundry, and no one appreciates it.”  “I worked so hard on that project. I did more than anyone else, and people barely noticed.”

Intense self-criticism can be a particularly brutal strain of negativity: “I’m so fat,” “I’m so ugly,” “I’m so stupid” — repeated on an endless loop. Talk about soul-crushing!

One brand of negativity that I’ve already worked hard to scrub from my brain is obsessive worrying, particularly about something you either have little-to-no control over or don’t plan to do anything about. I used to lie awake many a night pressing on my throat, convinced I had cancer. Any slight shift in my physical condition was a sign of a major illness. I also worry (still, though less so) about car and plane accidents and other spontaneous ways of dying. Constant worry can consume you, making your life downright depressing. And it can keep you from doing things you really want to do.

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Stop sign and kites in Brunswick, Md.

Negativity also comes in several deliciously judgy flavors aimed at others. There’s gossip, spite, bullying, and “Oh. My. God. Becky.” (Hat tip to Sir Mixalot.)

If you don’t know where I’m going with that last one, it’s picking apart someone (typically a stranger, and not to their face, so it seems ok) for their clothes, their hair, their weight…whatever. Many of us do this without even thinking; it’s a bad habit that can be hard to break.

Another off-putting tendency is being overly critical of every little thing someone close to you (usually a partner, parent, or child) does that isn’t up to your standards. My husband can tell you that I have lots of practice with this form. Most of the time it’s little stuff, like how to chop a vegetable or hang up shirts or clean the counter. Sometimes it’s over something more important—but either way the damage arises in the frequency and the delivery.

Not long ago both my husband and I were working from home, and I was participating in an online conference call. During a break in the call due to technical difficulties, I turned to my husband to grumble about his handling of a financial issue. Apparently my laptop microphone picked up and carried my voice to others on the call, and my boss had to remotely mute my microphone.

Not only was this excruciatingly embarrassing, but the experience forced me to think about how I was speaking to someone I love.

Last on my list is disagreeing just for the heck of it. I once spent a long weekend with a group of people who were highly skilled in this irritating practice. One person would say, “I think it’s supposed to be really cold out today, so let’s not forget to wear our winter coats,” and another person would have to say, “Oh, I think tomorrow is supposed to be the cold day. Today should be fine.” And so on, and so on, and so on.

Now, a variety of opinions is what makes the world go ’round. But sometimes people rely on reflexive disagreement as a form of conversation, and it can get old fast.

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“You are My Sunshine” mural by Jeffrey Sincich on the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg, Fl.

To be clear: I am not suggesting that you or I should just shut up and ignore real problems. Human nature is inclined, thankfully, toward identifying faults—things that are not working, injustices, cracks in the system. This is a good thing. But even then, you eventually have to shift from the problem to the solution and not get mired in complaining.

So, let’s move on to my commitment to nurturing positivity and serenity.

My current To Do list includes:

• Get over small indignities and annoyances faster

• Find the positive in situations

• Give people a break

• Give myself a break

• Compliment others

• Be thankful for what I have

• Aim to be kind and understanding

• Appreciate the beauty, humor, and serendipity in life

• Give myself permission to relax

• Research more about embracing happiness, like reading more from author Gretchen Rubin, who says: “Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

I will start right now by saying how grateful I am to be able to create and promote this blog, and how proud I am that I wrote my second blog post in less than a week. Thanks for reading this, and thanks for being the fabulously unique person that you are!

Upcoming blog topics:

A work in progress, still and always


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Traffic sign in St. Petersburg, Fl.

When I first registered the web address for this blog, I was downright giddy. Finally, I was going to build a creative outlet for myself. I sat on my bed pecking away at my laptop on a Friday night, hammering out my mission statement, which would eventually evolve into my About page.

Dang, I was excited! I couldn’t wait to share how I was turning over a new leaf in life. Not only that, but this blog would hold my feet to the fire so I would have no choice but to maintain my momentum.

So much was going on: I took an email creative coaching course, which in addition to inspiring my blog development also encouraged me to meditate for the first time in decades.

After many years of thinking it might be fun, I was actually taking drum lessons. Every other Wednesday night after work I would sit at a drum set in my teacher’s basement feeling self-conscious but trying my best to be sweetly patient with myself.

I was determined that when opportunities or ideas presented themselves, I would no longer look the other way—I would jump right in. This would include all kinds of things, from the simple and brief to the more demanding and long-term.

As soon as I saw a post on my community Facebook page, I signed up for a Saturday morning knife skills cooking class.

After several years of seeing a hot air balloon floating around our area, I contacted the local guy who pilots the balloon, asking if I could come photograph one of his launches. What an experience! I’m sure actually going up in the balloon is even more incredible, but that’s going to require a bit more guts (and money) on my part.

Next up, I was going to get back into practicing yoga. And I visited a rock climbing gym that was near my office and inquired about classes for beginners.

It was at this point that things began to fall apart. A nagging thumb injury flared up and made drumming unwise. Yoga and rock climbing were put on hold before they even got started.

In addition to my physical limbo, I seemed to be placing myself in a mental limbo. I would write and re-write the aforementioned About page over and over, clearly putting off drafting my first actual post.

I started to feel like a fraud: How could I launch my blog when I was in such a funk? What kind of example would I be? I was wallowing, and it wasn’t pretty.

But as I thought about it, I realized that this situation is basically what this blog is all about—hesitating, getting stuck, questioning yourself. And then taking a deep breath and finding a way out, a way up.

Walking by Lake Linganore in New Market, Md.

The day after July fourth I stopped letting my thumb get the best of me, and I started a new effort to become a morning person—the kind of person who gets up early to exercise. The kind of person I am not.

Much has been written recently about the ability to change your behavior. I’ve read that you can create a new habit in 21 days, or possibly 30 days—some manageable, magic-sounding increment of time.

It’s been more than a month now, and I’ve been getting up earlier about three, four, sometimes even five mornings a week to take a walk. The trees and flowers smell incredible at that hour. The dog walkers are out. The construction workers are arriving at their sites. The hills in my neighborhood are a challenge and it feels great to move—to literally step my way out of the hole into which I was sliding.

So, here’s to making this new routine stick. And here’s to launching a blog even when you aren’t feeling on top of the world. In the words of author Elizabeth Gilbert, whose recent book Big Magic inspired me to finally start this blog, “You are allowed to be both a masterpiece and a work in progress simultaneously.”

Progress is the key word. Even, and especially, when you’re challenged.

For more on the inspiration behind Bittersweet Nugget, check out About this blog and the Sources of inspiration page. 

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