December 29, 2012

Playing in the Snow

Last spring I discovered the fun of self-timer action shots. And this Christmas my brother-in-law gave me the greatest gift: a wireless remote shutter release. No longer must I run back and forth from the camera; now I can leap with abandon, simply clicking the remote to take a picture. (Thank you, Eric!) 

Today, as a soft snow fell, I jumped and laughed through a series of photos. Afterward, I was positively giddy. There's definitely no age limit on happily playing in the snow.

December 28, 2012

Not Knowing

Difficult truths: I cannot extract pain from a loved one; I can't ensure people like and understand me; I can't make people forgive or be happy or see beauty. I've spent substantial energy trying to change externals--it's a well-grooved habit. But I realize the fruitlessness of that particular journey. When I'm mindful, I accept not knowing.

Will my friend's cancer return? Will my mom surface from her depression? Will Newtown heal? Will my students learn? Will I find a meaningful job after leaving Lawrence? I don't know.

Not knowing is a place that's difficult to inhabit. We humans want ground; we want the known. It makes us feel we have control over this precious life we hold for only a short time. But recently I've sat with the unknown. In fact, I've welcomed it. Instead of filling my December with planning my next career path, I left space. Next September, I will not be employed. My ego emphatically wants me to look ahead, but I want to wait. I want to not know. And interestingly, when I don't know, many juicy things happen: creative ideas pop, authentic intentions emerge, new perspectives appear, and I truly consider options--all while still not knowing.  

Does this process terrify me at times? Yes. But more importantly, the not knowing opens my mind and heart--both for myself and others. Not knowing allows space; space for me to better understand the rich layers of life in us all.

December 19, 2012

What if?

What if our constant searching
leads to an open field
of nothingness?

No explanations,
no fixes,
no accolades.
Just open space.

Can we sit in that field,
in bare awareness,
and enjoy our own company?

December 11, 2012

Life as Paradox

I look through a magazine on blogging; articles encourage writers to be true to themselves (ignore the expectations of others), yet peppered throughout are tips to attract blog readers. Even my Shambhala Sun--a magazine about Buddhism and meditation--has a section for vendors (buy these prayer beads or this meditation cushion or attend this particular retreat). Such is the way of the world. Paradox is what it means to be human.

At a recent meditation retreat, I heard Cheri Maples thoughtfully discuss a particular paradox: take refuge in yourself while also embracing egolessness. That is, establish yourself as a safe place, yet reduce the volume of the "me" dial on the radio. Safety within yourself is healthful; making yourself a huge player in the story of life is suffering.

Regularly, I experience the paradoxes of life. In the same moment, I can feel both shame and peace; fear and love; grief and hope. I was drawn to Buddhist philosophy because it embraces paradox and encourages the middle path. When I was younger, my thinking was more black and white. There was a rigidity to some of my views. Now my thinking is much more gray. There is always some piece of the story to which I'm not privy; there's much more space around my views. I'm genuinely curious about the paradoxes of life. 

When I'm centered,  I feel relief and equanimity about my mom's transition to a nursing home. And that's precisely when ego steps in and encourages me to feel guilty. Yet when I allow myself to feel grief and sadness about my mom's situation, that's when ego chides me for continuing to feel something I've already worked through in therapy. Ego is wily. Life is interesting. We are all walking paradoxes. In the words of Pema Chodron (Start Where You Are), "None of us is okay and all of us are fine. It's not just one way." Indeed, life is not just one way. It's an ever-changing, paradoxical, difficult, and interesting ride.

December 7, 2012

11 More Things You Might Not Know About Me

Eleven more things you might not know about me (in no particular order):

1. I love garlic; when a recipe calls for a clove, I include the entire bulb.
2. I need white noise to sleep--specifically, the sound of a fan.
3. I'm not vegan because I love cheese.
4. I'm a movie snob; I won't watch a move that's not deemed fresh at Rotten Tomatoes (preferably above 80%).
5. I've always felt anxiety when stepping on a scale.
6. I get a massage every week.
7. I don't like my front teeth or my nose; I do like my eyes.
8. I sometimes don't wear my bike helmet.
9. I like to drink champagne just because (no celebratory news needed).
10. I wear the same home-from-work comfy clothes nearly every night. (I do wash them once a week.)
11. I care about my blog stats much more than I'd like to.

December 4, 2012

Working with Sadness

My body feels creaky. My lower back aches. Yet my osteopath and massage therapist find no structural or muscular issues. This doesn't surprise me. My sacrum and belly are reacting to strong emotions--to deep-seated sadness. Sadness I've held all my life.

When I was five, my mom was diagnosed with bi-polar condition. When I reached high school, mom additionally struggled with severe anxiety and worry. Now, my mom struggles to walk. All my life I've wanted to save her--to take away her pain; allow her to see and embrace her beautiful soul; to give her strength and tools to cope. All my life. 

Through therapy, writing, and meditation, I arrived at a place of peace with my mom. I knew I couldn't change her, affect her actions, or save her, but I could love her, treat her with patience and compassion, and listen. Yet even in this place of peace, my insides feel torn apart again. All the sadness comes back as we place my mom in a nursing home. It feels like the final frontier--this could be my last chance to save her, but indeed I cannot. And that makes me sad.

As I make my transition from safe career to soul-filling (unknown) career--as my heart sings and I see the beauty in myself--my mom transitions to a nursing home; her final stop in a life filled with difficulty. Is this juxtaposition ironic or meaningless or telling? I don't know. But it has a powerful pull on my emotions. Does it honor my mom that I'm spreading my wings in a way she never could? Or is that question just another route through which I hope to save her? 

I often think about choices--the choices we all have, even in times when we feel boxed-in. I think of the choices my mom never made. I think of the choices I have made. Perhaps there's nothing here to ponder. I know she loves me unconditionally; she's unwavering in her support of her daughters. I know I love her; I see her kind heart. And, really, that's all I need. So why is this so hard? Why do I feel such strong sadness and pain? Perhaps precisely because of that love. And the complicated nature of relationships and life (and death). No easy answers when working with sadness. The sadness will stay for a while; I'll work with it; eventually my insides will feel less raw.

And, in the meantime, I'm beginning a new path. My mom can't walk, yet I feel like I can fly. And such is the circle of life.

December 2, 2012

Important Choices in my Life

  • Tirelessly practicing (not just playing) sports in my youth
  • Trusting, loving, and committing to Mark
  • Adding Pilates and yoga to my exercise routine
  • Being a teacher, aunt, and mentor, instead of a parent
  • Purposefully surrounding myself with a tribe of loving, supportive, soul-filling, yet truth-telling people
  • Getting rid of cable TV (and any TV reception at all)
  • Creating a peaceful bedtime ritual
  • Practicing meditation
  • Giving a sustained effort to cooking and gardening 
  • Going back to therapy after I thought I'd figured everything out
  • Re-envisioning my photography 
  • Regularly taking a 5-week sabbatical with Mark (no Internet, phone, news--just Caribbean beauty and each other)
  • Trusting in myself that I can change my professional path

December 1, 2012

Born Joy

This year I transition from college statistics professor to who knows? No longer is JoyOfStatistics an apt URL. Welcome to my new URL: BornJoy. I'll only be in statistics for another six months, but I'll always be born joy.

Recently, I've thought through my journey to statistics professor. In college, my major was math (emphasis in statistics). I chose that major not because I loved it, but because I was good at math and it felt comfortable to me. I enjoyed it, but it didn't bring me alive inside. In my last year of college, I didn't know what I wanted as a career, but I did know I enjoyed school--I liked to learn; I felt comfortable in school. (Notice I've used the word "comfortable" twice; this is a purposeful choice.) In what area would I get my PhD? Statistics, of course, because that's what I knew and what felt safe.

Looking back, I enjoyed most of my stats courses in graduate school, but I didn't love them. Yet something magical did happen in graduate school: I fell in love with teaching. I relished both my interactions with students and my preparations for class. At statistics conferences, I gravitated toward the education sessions, where creative teaching ideas were shared. I realized a completed PhD was my ticket to a job at a small liberal arts college, where teaching is revered. That's how I found the discipline to finish my PhD. My love was always for teaching, with a strong like of statistics.

So it's not so surprising I find myself looking for a new career path--one that makes my heart sing. One that is not the safe road. And I realize there are many and varied ways to teach. Regardless of my new professional chapter, I will continue to write, photograph, connect, share, and live life with an open heart. I was indeed born with the name Joy. And I think I was also born filled with joy. And that joy spills out more and more each day.

November 16, 2012

Looking Back

Last weekend I caught up with a close friend. We had a lovely, meandering, heartfelt conversation. During part of this discussion, I reflected on my graduate-school days in Iowa City. It's interesting for me to look back at that period of my life. As with most experiences, it's layered and not straight-forward.

In the first year of my PhD program, I waffled between feeling like the biggest idiot in the world and feeling completely capable and talented. Some days I sobbed after class; other days I walked home with a huge smile on my face. These complicated feelings stayed with me even as I finished my dissertation. Part of me doubted my ability; the other part felt confident and strong. (Lucky for me, I had advisors who believed in me even when I didn't believe in myself.)

I also struggled in my relationship to food (very restrictive) and exercise (too much). Yet at the same time I played doubles volleyball twice a week, which was the most positive, enjoyable athletic experience of my life. I worked with therapists to understand and heal old, painful wounds. Through this process I found my own strength and beauty. I met Mark in my second year of graduate school. I learned what unconditional love really meant.

Here's how I summarized things to my friend: I wouldn't want to go back to that time, but it was really important for me to go through it.

My seven years in Iowa City were part of my life path. A path of learning and growing that will continue until I die. Today I trust in my gifts, believe in myself and my abilities, savor really tasty food, work out in a way that's comfortable for my body, honor and move past my emotional scars, let go more often, and open my heart regularly.

Struggle has been an important teacher in my life. It's uncomfortable in the moment, yet incredibly helpful in the end. Most importantly, I know I'm okay even in the struggle. I trust. I experience. In my early years,  I deeply feared struggle (in a fear-of-death sort of way). But once I emerged from challenge after challenge, I began to relax. This is one of the many reasons why I LOVE getting older. Each year brings more experience, more perspective, more understanding, and more love.

November 11, 2012

Gray Days

It's mid-November in Wisconsin--cue the gray skies and short days. On Wednesday morning, I awoke from a dream. I dream for which I didn't remember the details, but had strong feelings--feelings of inadequacy and shame. On auto-pilot, I slid from bed and into my busy work day. Without mindfulness, the not-enough feeling stayed with me the whole day. And it was a gray day. Gray winter days feel surreal to me; I can't quite tell the difference between night and day; dreams and life. I easily carry with me any negative emotions formed in those early morning hours, not able to shake them without a purposeful pause or meditation sit.

On Thursday, I awoke from a different dream. A dream that gave me neutral to positive feelings. I went to early-morning yoga class, the sun showed its face, and my mood was remarkably different. I was enough, just as is. Such is the emotional weather of my mind and body. This is an apt reminder of what I know experientially from meditation: emotions change, bodies change, thoughts change. Nothing is concrete--not the blah of gray days or the burst of energy from sunny days; not the sorrows or joys of life; not the feelings of fear or gratitude. The weather--both in the natural world and inside our own minds--changes. 

This is both good news (e.g., challenging things don't last forever) and difficult news (e.g., things can change--devastatingly--in an instant; and we have no control). We might get a phone call that changes our life; we might make a connection that fills our heart; we might feel the weight of depression; or we might be buoyed by unexpected sunshine that illuminates a bee balm seed pod:

November 10, 2012


A few years ago, I took myself out of the news world--no longer read newspapers, limit my intake of web articles, and don't follow social media. This was a purposeful choice. After reading the news, I physically and emotionally felt worse. Now I don't. This doesn't mean I'm separated from the world; I feel deep in my bones the joys and sorrows that happen daily. Plus, Mark is a wonderful filter for information (as are my friends and family).

Because of my news freeze, I was unaware of Ann Coulter's post-presidential-debate tweet: "I highly approve of Romney's decision to be kind and gentle to the retard." I only heard about this Tuesday night, while at our friends' house. Andrew & Jen are the closest of friends and their home is warm, cozy, and a lovely gathering spot. Their daughter, Madeline, is a gift. She's 16 months old and filled with spirit. She loves music and has a repertoire of dance moves. She's curious and smiles easily. She gives me hugs when I need them the most. And she also happens to have Down Syndrome.

When I heard about Ann Coulter's tweet, I immediately filled with anger; but this was only  a temporary cover for my sadness and hurt. I felt hurt. As if Madeline, whom I hold so dear in my heart, had been insulted. But then I softened and realized the painful place from which such mean-spirited comments originate. Ann Coulter's life must be filled with suffering. Otherwise, she wouldn't use (and defend) such unskillful speech.

These are times when I'm not sure how to work with the world in which I live. How can I make sense of fear-based media, mean-spirited comments, and intolerance? Then Andrew showed me a response written to Coulter; a response from John Franklin Stephens. I read this letter and cried. I cried tears of sadness, but also of relief. What if we, as a community, interacted in the way of John Franklin Stephens? What if we invited questions and friendships from those different from us? What if we responded to intolerance with tolerance? What if we kept our hearts open--risking being hurt, but making space for acceptance?

Ultimately, I realize I can't control the community in which I live. But I can change how I live. John Franklin Stephens is a wonderful role model. As is Madeline:

November 3, 2012

Us-and-Them Thinking

Last weekend I sat & walked in silent meditation. In this setting, it's very easy (and often unpleasant) to see the judging mind. My thoughts are filled with judgment--of me, of others, of the world. An example:
You're not very good at meditating.
Why is that person making so much noise?
My back hurts; maybe something is really wrong with me.

Judging mind is part of being human. It's the fabric with which we work, but it need not consume us. On retreat, it's easy for me to notice the judging mind, smile, and come back to the breath. In daily life, with all the busyness, it's difficult to see the seeds of judgment. Then they sprout into crankiness or unskillful speech or punishment of myself.

The judging mind is rich soil for us-and-them thinking. The ego concretizes a certain identity (e.g., gender, job, political affiliation, charitable cause) and then locks down. In that mind frame, there's no openness; no space. It's us versus them. If you're not on my side, you're wrong. In my experience, this is a very unpleasant place to inhabit. It feels constricted and untrue. 

Election season is prime time for us-and-them thinking. Yard signs signal sides. Media discourse is telling with no listening. Hallway conversations include criticisms of the other side. Emotion--fear, sadness, hurt--underlies these actions. Fear of change; hurt if someone challenges a cause we hold dear; sadness for the state of the world. These emotions are difficult. Our judging mind would rather us draw lines in the sand. Yet our hearts would rather us open to the emotion, see the middle ground, and work more skillfully. Vote for the candidate you think is best; do good work for causes you hold dear; yet see the human-ness in everyone, especially those on the other side. 

Recently, I watched a movie about World War II. Afterwards I sobbed. I cried for the state of the world--for the horrific things we do to each other. Then I realized these horrific things start very small--as seeds of judgment. And then they build. 

How do I live in a world where people kill other people? By getting more in touch with my kind heart. By setting my own intention to be mindful, tolerant, and kind. By holding the killers and victims closely in my heart.

October 23, 2012

Space To Do Nothing

Life is busy: work, home, relationships, appointments, creative activities, errands, exercise, etc. Most days there is too much busyness and not enough space. We tightly cram our days and there isn't space for life to happen (e.g., helping a friend in need, spontaneous fun). And there's little space to simply be--to do nothing.

I've recently made a career-changing decision that has no detailed what's-next plan. Yet my ego desperately wants that plan. Ego wants me to do and plan. One of my recent ego stories: there's no space for you to let this process unfold; you must know right now what you'll do for money in September; without money you are not enough; without a job you are not enough; if you really think your creative path might make you money, then you must start writing a book right now; you must blog interesting material every day; you must do more to be enough.

Hmmmm. Let's do a fact check on this ego story: the entire story is lies. These fear-based lies are how ego and doubt thrive; if I ignore the lies, then ego is weakened (and my true, wholehearted self is strengthened). Yet my habituated pattern is to listen to the doubt. So my current life path is to plaster that particular habituated groove and re-groove new paths.

Right now I want to groove a path of doing nothing. Well, still serve my students and carry on with life, but allow space to do nothing. I'm tired. At the end of a long day, I can simply enjoy a nice meal, share stories with Mark, and then sit in my big, comfy chair. Just sit. Maybe write in my journal or read a book. Or maybe just sit. Sit and watch my list-making mind think of all the things I could do and purposefully not do those things. My priority for right now: doing nothing. It's what my heart and soul need.

October 19, 2012

Be Brave

In June I connected with my 3 life-long best friends. During that lovely weekend, I found a delicate yet bold necklace that declared, "Be Brave." The message resonated with me deeply; it touched a spot of tenderness and growth in my heart--the part that began to trust myself.

Through years of self-reflection, therapy, and meditation, I've gained insights, changed habits, found happiness, and explored creativity, yet I've experienced an underlying discontent (beyond the basic level of difficulty that is life). Although I knew it was time to be brave, I wasn't sure where this path would lead. In the first weeks of a new academic year the path became clear: leave academia; take my gifts and skills to a new career. The biggest aha moment was when I realized I didn't have to be an academic. For so long--most of my life--academics has been a strongly-held identity for me. School was a place where I achieved and excelled. It gave me a feeling of enough-ness and of control. When things were difficult in my life, I felt I could change, save, or control  via hard work in school. Now I realize I don't have that kind of control. (In fact, I never did.) 

Although my role as a college professor was extremely rewarding for many years, it does not define me. And recently it has drained me. So I stepped outside the academic box. And when I allowed that space, my world grew huge. I saw all the many ways I can serve the world and my own passions. I took the leap: next September I will no longer be in academia (with no back-up plan in place).

When I told my colleagues, there were 3 themes to the responses: "I'm surprised, but actually not that surprised," "I'm sad for Lawrence, but happy for you," and interestingly, the most common response, "I admire your courage, bravery, and honesty." I didn't expect the last reaction, yet it poured in from people--from very different people. This was indeed my be-brave path.

There's a reason Brene Brown's TED talk, "The Power of Vulnerability," has over 6 million hits. She talks about vulnerability, shame, and taking risks. These are topics our society squelches in many ways. Our current level of societal discourse (e.g., news, social media, politics) is often judgmental, not open to vulnerability. So there's any undercurrent of uneasiness. People recognize they want to be true to themselves, take risks, make changes, yet it doesn't feel safe--we don't want to be vulnerable. But someplace deep in our hearts we believe the words of Brene: "Vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, and love." 

To be brave is really to be vulnerable. It's not brave or courageous if we don't expose some part of ourselves. I think the more brave acts we witness--even small ones--the more courage we gain to tell our stories, be ourselves, and share our passions. The reality is we're all vulnerable. And that real-ness is often what connects us. We only need be brave enough to share, even just a little. Or to occasionally take a big leap:

October 13, 2012


For much of my life, I boxed myself into corners: to-dos I must accomplish, outward appearances I must provide, happiness for others I must generate, long hours I must work. These were all corners of my own making, but it took time to understand my role in the process. I began to question the box-myself-in route. I realized there is not one path; there are multiple paths that weave together and apart. Years ago I read a line from Jen Louden and it stuck in my head: "We always have choices, especially when it feels like we don't" [italics mine]. The times when I feel most rigid--when my ego unequivocally boxes me into a corner--that's precisely the time to question. That's the time to open my mind and think of choices; even if it's a micro-choice, it's always there.

On Wednesday, October 3, I sat in the hallway of the Provost's office. My heart raced with anxiety. My ego strongly doubted my decision. My true self was at peace. It was time for me to leave academia, to leave Lawrence. No seeds of doubt. A bold choice made after years of self-reflection. (BTW, ego doesn't like bold choices made from the heart.)

On my way home from work, I thought it appropriate to take photos--to document the Day-I-Resigned. The fall colors were amazing. I appreciated the space to pause, look around, and rest in my heartfelt decision. I lay under a tree. The wind blew and a gorgeous shower of leaves fell to the ground. 

I felt relieved, free, and playful. Life is an interesting journey. Along that journey, we always have choices. Choices as wide ranging as laying under a tree or quitting a job. I'm glad I've made time to know myself--to suss out what's ego and what's me; to understand choices made for immediate comfort and those made for sustained happiness.  

In "Summer Day," Mary Oliver asks, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" My response: live authentically, make heartfelt choices, be kind, know myself, love people, laugh, listen to others and myself, create, be grateful, share my joy, make connections. What will I do next September? I'm not yet sure. But I trust in myself.