53 Lessons

Last year, on my 52 birthday I made a list of 52 things I am grateful for. You can read about it here.

Not so originally, this year I am making a list of 53 things I have learned in my life so far. There are way-way-way more than 53 things but for the sake of having a reasonable list I’ll keep it to 53.

You may already know some of these, learned them before me, or are simply on a different trajectory. Maybe some of these lessons are not even on your radar. This is the beauty in our individual lives.

I am grateful to age, to stay open, to accept the lessons that are presented to me, to charge through them, sometimes disintegrating the crystal barriers and other times plowing myself face-first into a solid brick wall of a lesson—over and over and over again. Sometimes I’m a slow learner.

In no particular order here are some lessons I have learned about life, people, and myself:

I have learned that:

1. We are more similar than we are different. We draw lines between us, culturally. But, the truth is, the more I meet people and experience the world the more I see that we are the same. In high school walking home with my Hindi friend, we’d talk forever on the corner where she’d head north and I’d go west, about what it was like growing up in our respective homes, hers Indian and mine Greek. We concluded that our experiences were so very similar. In Turkey, chatting with a shop owner, drinking apple tea laughing and storytelling with the shopkeeper this so-called enemy of the Greeks could have been my uncle.  At a sweat lodge, watching the elder on his knees with the smoke of sweetgrass held the visual of a Greek priest—three fingers held at his forehead and then at his belly—praying, blessing. Who decided that worship is so different, that friendship so spaced, neighbors so disconnected? We should close those gaps of space between us and stop keeping our humanness at bay. It is a gift we all deserve.

2. Dancing it off is a form of therapy. I give Shonda Rhimes all the credit for the phrase dance it off. However, Zorba The Greek was also a man of dance and Kazantzakis wrote about the therapy of dance before our contemporary, Shonda. “There is so much beauty, emotions and wisdom there.” Says Kazantzakis. And he’s right. When life hands me moments that seem a little too slippery to get a good grip on, or I’m just daunted by what is to come I have found that turning down the lights, turning up the music and dancing until I’m done—dancing like no one is watching—puts my problem ‘over there‘ for contemplation and solution.

3. Hard work is a great teacher. I was not the brightest kid in the class but I learned to dig my heels in and work hard. Very hard. This tenacity came in handy in my future. I found my work ethic edges. This is why I’m able to teach and to write—to do two jobs at the same time.

4. Failure is an even better teacher. I have learned more about myself and life from failing than from sailing through. Sometimes it sucked but I don’t regret those lessons (see lesson #22).

5. Resting is as important as powering through. Pacing myself when needed is important to continue on. It’s like interval training of life. Of. Life.

6. High school didn’t matter. And maybe what happened ten years ago doesn’t really matter either. There’s an irony in this statement as I teach high school-aged students. All the value I put in those days as a young person—people who I wanted to impress—I have no idea where they are. Ideas I had about myself have changed for the better. What I thought life was and what it actually is has changed so very much. None of my worries from then are even relevant today.

7. Done is better than good. Heather Nickel, my publisher, editor, and dear friend said this to me a couple of years ago. She’s right. If it’s done we can always fix it up. Besides, the concept of getting something perfect is a bit bullshit, isn’t it? What is perfect anyhow and who decides?

8. If you make friends with yourself you’ll never be alone. Of course, we need others, but if we reconcile with our aloneness we don’t have to be afraid of it. I used to feel so lonely but now I savor time by myself. It’s an interesting dichotomy because one of my love languages is time spent. I suppose I understand time is precious. Just like being with people is equally precious has something to offer, being alone has given me gifts too.

9. Everything tastes better cooked slowly. This is the wisdom from my friend Charles who lives in South Carolina. He’s right. Outside of a seared steak, all other things need time to sugar, release juices and blend together. And if that’s not a metaphor I don’t know what is.

10. Getting outside and walking daily is a big part of mental wellness. Roy Arroyo, a Costa Rican eco-lover says that nature is our original house. We need to visit it. Every. Single. Day. For a little or a lot. Time in nature will change us for the better. Van Gogh said, “If you truly love nature you will find beauty everywhere.” Roy and Vincent are both correct. Go outside and camp. I do it to remind myself where my first metaphorical home is. By putting myself in nature, sleeping on the ground, cooking on a fire, walking through the woods, separating myself from what is man-made I settle myself. I am grounded. The forest heals so does the sea.

11. Learning to listen isn’t just a respectful activity you do for others but a gift you give yourself by being fully engaged and not just waiting for your turn to speak.

12. Personal boundaries are one of the most important things we will erect. I used to find my personal value in helping others. If I helped I felt I would be loved. I over did it. I felt depleted too often. So, now I help but it’s within an amount that is fair to me. If I am unable to give I just don’t and I don’t feel bad about it. If people don’t like it—they’re not my people.

13. Storytelling is a critical part of being human. It isn’t just for entertainment. It’s for problem-solving, for remembering history, keeping family archives alive. Find your family storyteller and have them over for coffee. Record their tellings. We all have a story in us. Some of us put it out there formally others just share it casually, with fewer words.

14. Nurturing the sibling relationship is important. Baz Luhrmann said to keep your siblings close as they will be the only family you have when your parents are gone. I consider my siblings part of my team and I love them. They’ve helped me many times in many ways. Once, when I was moving from my ex’s and needed help my dear brother offered. He sent a message that said “Friends help friends move. Good friends help friends move bodies—should I bring a shovel?”  Best. Message. Ever. My sister has done her best to make her family my family, to have me over for dinners, visits, children’s celebrations, pet visits, vegetables from her garden, and backyard hangouts.  I am lucky. Because, well, you can’t pick your family but mine is pretty terrific.

15. Travel changes us. Going forward with curiosity is important in enriching our lives—wanderlust and curiosity for the world enhance who we are. I’ve been to some pretty amazing places, climbed mountains, hot air ballooned, snorkeled, explored cities chatted with gypsies, and with affluent people.  Everyone has added value to my experience. But I’ve entered into it with curiosity. Two dimensional resorts are not my style.

16. I should always try the octopus. I’ve had the octopus. It was delicious. That’s just an example of how life is meant to be lived. There shouldn’t be fear of experience. If we didn’t explore taste we’d still all be eating pablum—yuck. I’m not a picky eater and I’m always willing to try a new food or new food combination. I have nothing to lose and the idea of restriction doesn’t pair well with my value of freedom. I also think there are other parallels with food and character. You can think about that one.

17. Trust issues are not about not trusting others. They are about not trusting ourselves to have the strength to get through, to survive a moment, a challenge, a relationship. People, unfortunately, will try and take advantage and it’s up to us to know full well that we have the chutzpah to get through it. Trust yourself…your trust issue is with you.

18. Finding good partners is critical. I don’t mean romantic or intimate partners but rather business partners and people we work with. It doesn’t mean you won’t have rough patches but a good partner will figure a way through a dilemma, be patient and accepting, be willing to have difficult conversations. They will teach and share where they can. And they will listen and accept your lessons. I’m grateful for Dave, my writing partner—even when he makes me crazy, because, hell, the man can have a shit ton of enthusiasm and he’s always onto the next cool idea. He really keeps me on my toes.  He’s taught me a lot about writing, process, programs, publishing.  He is my first source for brainstorming when building a story and he accepts how much fun and light I bring to the duo.

19. The champagne bottle must be opened. Don’t wait for a big reason. The reason may be that it’s Friday night, or your favorite team won. Or your car is paid off. Or it’s summer. Celebrate.

20. Regrets are dumb. Don’t regret anything. Learn from it. It’s a lesson. Although I do not live with regret I have one moment I will go back and do. It’s almost a regret. I spent a weekend at Chateau Lake Louise. It was so beautiful. There was fancy food and a fancy hotel room. There was a blue sky. Lots of hiking in the sparkling snow and some skating. However, I did not skate face first into a snowbank which was like a big poofy cotton embankment, and shit damn! I wish I had! I watched a brave kid do it several times. I wanted to. I was afraid. The lesson is that the next time I’m at Lake Louise in the winter with my skates I am going to skate right into that snowbank. My inner child is going to love it! But as far as regrets, there aren’t a lot of things I want to charge up my time machine for.

21. You can change the narrative of your life. You can. It’s your story. So, go, laugh in places where you cried. Make new memories that are full of joy. I have and I’m glad I did.

22. Laughing heals. Laugh often and laugh big. It’s a gift you give to others. That beautiful vibrational energy gets shot into the world and it really does have affect.

23. Volunteering is part of belonging. Giving time to help others is the same as figuring out how to stand in someone else’s shoes. Empathy, true empathy will change the planet. Wrap presents for Christmas. Help at a soup kitchen. Donate time to building houses for charity.

24. I am more than my body. My middle-age body isn’t what I thought it would be. It’s better. I am so appreciative of my human suit.  It has never done me wrong in terms of health.  I push it up mountains and into forests.  It takes me dancing and walking and well, it’s not too shabby for 53.  I’m more comfortable in a bikini now than I ever was in my 20’s and if I don’t look as good as I did in my 20’s I actually don’t give a shit which is another blessing of being older. I am grateful for aging.

25. Part of our job as humans is to find our strength and stretch that muscle. My visual brain never lets me down. I can picture almost anything.  It’s like free television.  No wonder I don’t like television. It just can’t keep up with what’s in my head.

26. We shouldn’t be afraid to feel things deeply. Cry loud. Laugh hard. Love big. Each feel big moment is a reminder of what being alive means. And on that note hug and kiss as often as possible!

27. Friends are not just my peers. I have friends who are in their early twenties (and maybe some who are younger) and I have friends in their 30’s and 40’s. There are some sweet people in their 70’s and I have a beautifully special friend in her 80’s. I just love her and her knowledge, experiences, and zest for life.

28. Coffee. It’s not really a lesson but more of a shout out. I just really love it.

29. Experiencing diversity makes us better humans. Growing up in the core in the early 70’s when we first immigrated to Regina was rough and interesting.  I had friends of all ethnicities and backgrounds. Living in a lower socio-economic neighborhood I got to see all sorts of people and how they lived. It was not a sheltered experience and sometimes it was scary but it was real. The gated community is still not my style.

30. My house is clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy.

31. Love evolves…and has gotten better with age. I’m grateful for the good man I have beside me.  He’s level, kind, helpful, funny, non-judgmental and not a picky eater! One of the kindest things he said to me was right at the beginning of our relationship. He said “you need to be the most you you can be” like he knew. He’s accepting and he’s got a very level moral compass. 

32. Fear is powerful but it’s not the boss of me. It can divert us from joy. I’ve honed in on the skill of keeping my fear in check.  It helps when I’m camping and hiking and moving forward in endeavors that I’m not sure about but it also helps when the inner voice decides to be an asshole and tries to keep me from my desires.  That asshole is just fear that I have learned to put a cork in. 

33. Reading for pleasure is more than pleasure. It’s an escape. It’s knowledge gathering. It’s focus. It’s visualizing. It’s brain training. And if we don’t keep reading books we are going to lose something super important in this current digital world.

34. Road trips are a valid and fabulous form of travel. Besides, on a road trip you get to stop when ever you want. There are no weight or bag restrictions. The safety demonstration consists of someone saying ‘buckled up?’ You decide who gets in your vessel and you can sing as loudly as you want! Can you imagine doing that on an airplane? Headphones on, belting some Lady Gaga song from seat C 28? Hilarious!

35. Introvert and extrovert can be mutually exclusive. We are humans and we are pliable. Sometimes we are loud and boisterous and other times we are a whisper. We shouldn’t pigeon hole ourselves.

36. People don’t really change. In the immortal words of Greg Hisey “Angie, from what I’ve learned people change—a little—very little.” He’s right. Unless they do a ton of work or go through something life-changing people generally stay the same. So, if they are showing you who they are, believe them.

37. We should remember the basics, the details. Wear sunscreen. Floss. Stretch. Pray. Drink enough water.

38. The opinions others have of me are none of my business. After all, they are just opinions.  If I do sit with something someone said, it’s from a thoughtful impartial place.

39. Adulthood can be a trap. We forget to have fun when we are busy adulting. If you want to improve your day spend some time with children. They’ll remind you of the simple joys of life. Or, find a dog—or if you’re not a dog person then find a kitty and put that kitty in your lap. All three will remind you to pause, to enjoy the simple things and to take a moment.

40. Documenting what you can is a lovely gift. As humans we always have. Look at those ancient cave paintings in France. Journal. Photograph. Document. I do. Even if it’s just for me. A friend once watched me journal and concerned they stated “If I start journaling, one day I may go back to the old journals and read them. What if I discover I wasn’t cool?” I thought Dude you’re not cool now. The point is to always evolve. And eventually, in the far future, I’ll go back and read the journals, and look at the photos and laugh or shake my head. Maybe I’ll cry. Maybe toss them into a big ol’ bon fire while I drink champagne straight out of the bottle!

41. If you believe you can or you believe you can’t you’re probably right.

42. Gratitude improves our daily condition. Years ago I started keeping a gratitude list. I didn’t have the chutzpah to journal so instead at the end of every day I simply made a list of five things I was grateful for. I was looking for things to write down things to be happy about. It was a sad time. And you know what they say when you change the way you look at things the things you look at change. I found things to be happy about. It worked.

43. I am a whole person on my own. I am completely capable getting what I need in this world on my own, and I have. I don’t need a husband or children to be complete. This seems like an obvious statement but the truth is that a lot of people still ask all the stereotypical questions. Do you have a boyfriend? Are you moving to the ‘next level’? Going to make it official? When are you having kids? Don’t you want kids? Maybe I don’t want to get married. Maybe I don’t need to get married. Maybe my version of happiness is different than yours. Do I look happy? Yes. And that’s the only question and answer that’s needed.

44. Cooking—composing foods, that creation of sustenance is a task that brings joy. The delicious magic that comes out of the kitchen, the pleasures of the senses in cooking and my ability to dish up a yummy meal from scratch has made the time I have spent in my life preparing food time well spent. It’s sensuous and nurturing.

45. Approaching life with the enthusiasm of a dog doing zoomies or a child wearing a cape no matter what age we are is a good for us. My friend Amanda has that exact sort of enthusiasm. No wonder I feel so good after each of out visits.

46. Do not buck moderation when it comes to alcohol. Don’t let substances own you…this includes sugar. These are poisons and in excess are a terrible idea. But never buck the opportunity to explode a belly laugh ’til you cry.

47. Everyone should work in the service industry. The skills you get from working in service are useful to the rest of your life—to future you. These experiences make us more polite and compassionate, make us a great judge of character, have us assessing people in minutes, teach us to deliver the goods and to find the good in people. It’s humbling to do this job.

48. Just because a person starts in one career doesn’t mean they have to stay in it or even end with that same career. We evolve and a job that was a perfect fit at one point in our lives may not work at a different stage of life and that’s okay.

49. Girlfriend time heals almost anything. Even if we have a good man, woman energy is something special. Gathering together with our girlfriends makes life just a little bit easier to handle.

50. Generosity and giving should only be in direct proportion to what we are willing to lose. This means that when I give something whether it’s money, or food, or a book, or a sweater or whatever I either say good bye to it forever (in my mind) or I don’t give it. If I never get paid back or it’s not returned it’s happy birthday to them. If I do, well, good for me. If I want it back then I won’t give it in the first place. My people who love me will love me regardless of how much or how little I give them.

51. Comfort zones are for pussies. If you’re fearful and super lazy then you can stay in your comfort zone if you want a mediocre experience as a human. Stay there, in your comfort zone, under your blankie nursing your worries. But if you want to really live, well, step out of that zone and have an adventure or two. Give an out loud whoo hoooo once in a while.

52. Lists contribute to success. Every day. Find a list of things that soothe your soul. Do them daily. You’ll feel happier and your family will thank you.

53. Life is about learning lessons. When the learning is done so is life. So, here’s to learning a whole bunch more as I carry on this big beautiful thing I call life.

Happy birthday to me. Thanks for reading this.

*Photo credit to my friend Ashlee

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