Herald Square: Staying Sane in an Overstimulating City

I work in midtown NYC in the publishing field.  I often walk to the PATH train at Herald Square after work, instead of taking the subway.  It gives me time to call friends or family, lets me fit in some exercise, and I can save the $2.50 for a trip to a cafe in my Ironbound neighborhood of Newark.

One person I often call on these walks is my 94-year-old grandmother.  She always wants to know where I am and what I see as I’m walking.  She lives in rural Indiana and I imagine she would be taken aback by just how busy NYC is.  This is true year-round, but it particularly strikes me in December.  There’s no shortage of sights and sounds to take in–some positive, like the lights at Macy’s; others negative, like the sirens that make me plug my ears–but all of them stimulating.

How do we survive so much stimuli in a place like NYC without becoming overwhelmed, particularly for a highly sensitive person like I am?  For me, the answer lies in filtering the sensory stimuli, deciding what is most important to focus on.  Letting the rest go, and letting what’s interesting be heightened.  This way, I can appreciate the beautiful parts of my surroundings (the iceskating rink at Bryant Park), and pay little attention to what I dislike.

What’s even better is when I can apply this filter to my own thoughts.  Perspective is so powerful.  What is it like to focus on life events that displease or discourage me?  Conversely, what is it like to appreciate the good in all my experiences?

Two of my character defects are negative thinking and perfectionism.  My character strengths (whew!) include gratitude and curiosity.  I have practiced paying attention to which thoughts could allow me the most insight, and infusing that perspective with curiosity and gratitude.  For example, although I am tired after work, isn’t it good to have a choice of whether I go to the gym, and how hard I work out once I’m there?  What if I focused on what it would feel like to go for an easy jog?  How would I feel 10 minutes into the run, and again after I’ve finished running?  How would I sleep afterwards?  Isn’t it good that it’s a choice to be curious about, not a rule to beat myself over the head with?

My choices have consequences.  I’m grateful that I can experience the results of my choices and notice what does or doesn’t work, in a way that’s loving and observant, not judgmental.  I can change my perspective, like closing my eyes when the train is packed to capacity.  Or I can change my actions–like walking a half-hour and making a phone call instead of cramming myself onto the subway, on days when that’s the last thing I feel like doing.

And when I feel like I’ve made a lousy choice or am having a lousy day, I can see it instead as a chance to practice having a creative perspective.

How would it feel to tweak the thoughts and actions that we choose on a daily basis?  How many possibilities would open up?

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In Transition: Home and Other Improvements

No one likes to live through the process of doing a significant home improvement.  But we all crave the result.

This is what our dining room looked like when we were most of the way through having our floors refinished and walls painted.  You can see we managed to move the piano back in, not an easy task.  You can also see there were several annoying tasks left to be done:  removing the painter’s tape.  Moving the china cabinet back in, along with the china, and trying not to break anything in the process. Adding crown molding, which we’ve postponed for several months.

Living through this process meant that we had no access to our living and dining rooms for much of October, and limited access in November until we found time here and there to get things back in place.  Today my husband and I would probably both tell you it was so worth it.  And we would also say having it done (finished, finitio) is so much better than going through having it done.

So many things in life are only tolerable because we’re able to maintain a vision of what we hope the result to look like.  Because we preserved an image of a home with refinished hardwood floors in the place of ratty old carpet (not to mention a replastered ceiling after removing the old drop ceiling), we were able to accept the compromises that come with living in transition:  having extra stuff packed into the bedrooms…not being able to watch movies in our living room.  Because we had a vision we were moving towards, though, we could put those sacrifices in perspective.  After all, they were temporary.

I can often be impatient about living in transition in the context of my own personal development–which is, of course, most of the time.  I am never a finished product.  But I dislike weathering the discomfort of opening myself up to being molded.  How will I look and feel after a change has occurred?

Old habits can be so comfortable that I’m tempted to resurrect them long after I know better.  Why not worry and future-trip…won’t that make me powerful and solve everything? Once I have started practicing a new behavior, it takes awhile before it feels “good” or comfortable like the old one did.  Like wearing a new pair of boots.

Today I believe there’s grace in waiting, not knowing, becoming, discovering, uncovering, practicing.  There’s a beautiful paradox in having a vision of my best self and best life that I’m growing into, yet not really knowing, and staying open to the unknown, that gives me faith to persevere.  I have many great teachers along the way who keep me on track.

Even if the process of change can feel icky, today I recognize if a behavior feels new and uncomfortable, I am probably doing something right.

In the case of our home upgrades, the sacrifices paid off.  We no longer have pink walls and ’70’s-era carpeting.  If that isn’t success, I don’t know what is.

Falling Down: Adventures in Skiing

After Christmas, my husband and I went skiing for a couple of days in the Poconos.  It was our first ski trip in 7 years, so as you might expect, we didn’t instantly have our ski legs back.  In fact, as we approached the ski lift on our first time up, we were rather unceremoniously knocked to the ground when we mistimed the lift’s arrival.  Well, I think I mistimed it, moved forward too soon, and consequently knocked my husband to the ground, as well.  The guy working the lift made the rather unhelpful comment, “You’ve got to watch where you’re going.”

In spite of a rocky start, it was a wonderful chance to recharge our batteries, now that the flurry of entertaining and being entertained was over, not to mention all of the Christmastime singing and playing that comes with being musicians (6 times over 5 days)!  The Victorian-style B&B with a step-up bathtub didn’t hurt, either.  When else do I take candlelit baths?

However, I was reminded that the gifts didn’t only come when things went smoothly–when I glided down the slopes as if I had been on skis since the age of 4, like quite a few kids we saw on our trip.  The gifts also came from that small opening when things didn’t quite go according to plan, and in the ability to choose my response.

My other notable fall was one I’m proud of.  On our second day of skiing, Kevin and I were feeling pretty confident.  We had navigated all but two slopes, including several black diamonds.  We were exhilarated.  Kevin was mostly in charge of keeping track of which slopes we had skiied (I attribute it to his Master’s of Library Science degree) and shared that we hadn’t tried Mohawk, so we glided over to check it out.

It was starting to get dark.  The sky was a beautiful, deep blue.  We looked over the edge of the cliff.  It was steep.  It had moguls.  Kevin asked, “what do you think?”  I knew if I thought too much about it, I’d lose my nerve, so I said, “I’m going down,” and off I went.

I didn’t last more than 10 seconds before tumbling over a mogul (not knowing the trick was to go AROUND  it), losing a ski several feet up the slope from where I landed in the process.  No twisted ankles, only bruised pride, as other skiiers could see me from the lift above as I fumbled uphill towards my ski.

Yet I knew even in that moment this was a win.  I had ventured something difficult, and was still alive to celebrate that fact.  My fear had not held me back, and the stakes were not really that high.  (If I had feared veering into the woods, I wouldn’t have attempted it–or would have at least considered wearing a helmet!)

How many times do we not try something because we imagine it will be too hard or we’re afraid the results will be messy, imperfect?  Yet there I was, on mogul-riddled Mohawk, the sky growing ever darker, not too proud to accept help from a more experienced skiier who stopped to retrieve my ski.  He helped me reattach it, each of us clumsily balancing with our poles on the steep pitch of the mountain, then off we went our separate ways.  While I did feel slight embarrassment, I focused on my pleasure at making it down the mountain without another fall, and my gratitude for my own bravery and daring.  Not recklessness–but willingness to risk results that were uncertain, messy, an imperfect and fun adventure.

Daring in Webster’s:

1: willing to do dangerous or difficult things

2: showing a lack of fear
I think “showing” is a key word. Acting in spite of fear, not letting it dictate one’s actions.

When have you acted in spite of your fears?  I’d love to read your comments!

Living Joyfully

Each January, I choose a word for myself to set an intention and a tone for my year ahead.  Over the past year, my word has been “joy.”  I’ll be the first to admit I don’t feel joyful every minute of every day.  It can be easy to get distracted by dirty dishes, vague fears, or even a rainy day.  I can momentarily lose my focus.

But more and more often, I find that the negative stuff that stands in the way of living more joyfully–boredom, fear–is just that, momentary.  And they can be great teachers.  If I feel anxious about the future, I can use my senses to bring me back to the present.  If I’m lonely, I know how to pick up the phone and call someone I care about.  Rather than stuff the initial feeling, I’m learning to get really curious and invite in what it can teach me.

I’m more comfortable than I’ve ever been acknowledging I don’t know what the future will bring.  I no longer even want this superhuman ability.  I want to be fully present in this day.  I want to receive the gift of moving through an uncomfortable feeling, not judging but befriending it, and taking baby steps to move into a better place.

I have heard this process described as telling the feeling “thank you for sharing,” then going ahead and acting as if.  Moving through it, not being blocked by it.  When I choose to take the next right action, and the one after that, and the one after that, I’m affirming that feelings aren’t facts, and life just keeps getting bigger.

For me, that can mean bundling up and heading out on a cold night to practice the organ, even if I feel like sitting at home eating brownies, because I know once I get there, I will feel alive and will be moving toward my goals.  I will be living joyfully and in connection to my core self.

It can also mean doing most of the dishes (who needs perfectionism!), taking a hot shower, and crawling in bed with the cat for 8 hours of sleep.  Self-care can take different shapes from one day to the next.  As long as I’m moving toward my goals in the most important areas of my life over the course of a week, then I know I’m on track.  If I tell myself it’s too hard, or focus on the negative, I lose sight of the positive baby steps I’ve taken that add up over time to a fuller, more authentic life.

I’d love to hear from you!  What’s blocking you from experiencing a more joyful life?  When do you feel most joyful?