Circling to settle in

It’s the first full day of my planned almost-week off from work. I’m supposed to be looking at my dissertation draft, or, rather, the collection of writing I have done to assemble this monolithic paper. I’ve been procrastinating for two hours.

The time has come for me to recommit and make it stick, or do the honest soul searching to decide if yes, I do really want to finish this and be awarded a doctorate degree.

Come to think of it, I do not know that I ever really had that private, inner discussion with myself. I think I just took for granted that I do. Why else would I have started this journey in the first place?

When I set out to get a PhD in the Humanities, I was sure that I wanted to finish. At the time, I saw it as a new challenge and a goal that I could achieve though the generosity of a (then) employer that paid tuition for degree programs. This was my Plan B, or my future optional career path of teaching at the college level. A PhD is a must-have, and I saw it as a great way to transition, when I was ready to move on to the next career phase.

It is now several years later. I successfully completed all the required coursework, exams, and topic proposal, and have been treading water in the dissertation phase for far too long. I no longer feel that a professor’s path is calling me. But I do know that I cannot abandon this work until I have finished it.

Life pulls at us.

Life pulls at us. It makes its demands of work, family responsibilities, the human needs of rest and relaxation. For me, there is also the intense lure of the creative. The need to explore my interests, my arts, my thirst for experiences. I’ll abandon my research chores in a heartbeat if I even glimpse at the first chapter of a new book that I can’t put down.

I used to be far more disciplined when I had a goal. Now, I find that giving in to the lures of personal pursuits and human limitations are much more important than goals. We get one go-round here.

So for the next six days, anyway, I will settle in and demand of myself the discipline to do the work. I’ve been round and round trying to find my comfort zone, but this topic is not one that fosters “comfort.” I mean, writing about the way people write about their grief… I can see how you might think that’s a bit of a downer.

Then again, if I thought that my dissertation did not have the potential to inspire, empower, perhaps even help others to interpret their loss in a powerful way, I would not push myself to stick with it. The paper is called:
Toward a Theory of Internet Memoir: A Content Analysis of Expressions of Grief in Social Media. I’m seeing evidence every day. There is so much to understand here. Maybe I can help.

So I’m back at it. This time it’s personal. Keep an eye on me here, will you?

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Fearless, Awe-inspired, Undeterred (so far)

Got my hiking on over the weekend to prepare for the 30-mile Trailblaze Challenge. The Challenge is about three months away, but since I’ve never hiked that far in a day, I figured I’d better get out and see what I’m up against.

Apparently, I am up against a lot.

First, there was the four-letter word posted on a sign at the entrance to the Bent of the River Audubon Center. Well, to be precise, it was a four-letter word in the plural: Bears.

The warning sign posted at the entrance to Bent of the River in Southbury, Connecticut, that black bears are among us.

The warning sign posted at the entrance to Bent of the River in Southbury, Connecticut, that black bears are among us.

So there’s that.

I’ve seen the reporting of black bear sightings in the news for a few months and have been on the lookout, given that our home is surrounded by woods. I’m sure the chances of me coming upon one of these regal beasts are fairly small. Still, it’s good to know.

Add to that the fact that I recently finished reading, Emory’s Gift, a coming-of-age story about a boy who befriends a grizzly bear, and my awareness of the wildlife living in the woods was high enough to, let’s say, put a bit more spring in my hiking steps.

Reminding myself that I am hiking for a children’s charity, I took the bear warnings — both fictional and real — as a sign that I need to be fearless in my focus to get the job done.

I chose to hike the upper trails of the looping nature center, to get a level-set on my abilities, stamina, and overall fitness for the task that lies ahead in this Challenge. As previously noted, I’m up against a lot. And apparently, the recommended training goal for this weekend was 4-5 miles, so I fell a bit short there. Well, technically, I did log 5.5 miles on Saturday, but only 3.27 of that was actual “hiking” miles. But I’ll take it.

I was all alone in the woods for my hike. But in truth, I really wasn’t. The birds, the animals that were there but not directly within my sight— rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, and who knows what else — all surrounded me. The trees stood sentry as I stepped along the paths. You might think I’m going overboard in my sensitivities to the experience, but it was an awesome feeling.

I have always loved the crunching sound of the sticks and old leaves — long since shed by the trees — and always loved the feel of the smooth rocks and soft forest floor under my hiking boots. I was tuned in to the sounds of the wind in action, and the rustle of streaming waters somewhere in the vicinity. I was surprised that I did not see a single person on my hike, at least not until I changed directions on the turn for home. But I was pretty pleased to have this natural beauty to myself for a couple of hours.

Climbing up the Pootatuck Trail, I barely stopped to hold a steady frame. The photographs in my mind are somehow clearer than this one, seized by my smartphone's lens.

Climbing up the Pootatuck Trail, I barely stopped to hold a steady frame. The photographs in my mind are somehow clearer than this one, seized by my smartphone’s lens.

I’ve come to cherish solitude, because it is one of those things that you must seek out with intention. Our daily schedules threaten it, and I worry that many of us are not mentoring our children to value it. We are quick to sign on to promote “peace” in our world, but what about nurturing peace within ourselves? For some, it is not easy to let the quiet have its time.

One of the benefits of volunteering to support the Make-A-Wish organization is my personal rediscovery of my love of the outdoors. And while I was thinking that my spontaneous volunteering was a bit philanthropic of me, I am already grateful for the gifts that these anonymous children have given me: a reminder of the beauty of nature and the chance to challenge my physical abilities. In other words, another way to explore being human.

Recommended Reading: 

I’m intrigued by the thoughts that came to mind as I hiked, and I have to wonder if these are the kind of thoughts that prompted Emerson to write Nature, or Thoreau to pen Walden (two books sitting on my coffee table for my ration of summer “fun” reading, once I finish my required research work). This year, my appreciation of nature has been energized by the reminders that this is the 100-year anniversary of America’s National Parks system. Suddenly, I’m researching John Muir and re-embracing Ansel Adams and savoring my National Geographic each month.
A couple of other books for your own exploration: Emory’s Gift by W. Bruce Cameron; A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. Any other recommendations out there?

Magical Trailblazing. Who’s in?

I really did not know I was going to do it.

A 30-mile hike on the Mahican-Mohawk Trail in northwestern Massachusetts. In one day. On a Saturday in October. 

This year.

I don’t think it has sunk in yet, what this will demand of me, but yes, I have signed up to take the Make-A-Wish Foundation’s Trailblaze Challenge. It’s a commitment that will require training and time, two words that have tested me endlessly throughout my life. Then there is the individual goal to raise $2,500 for this organization that plays fairy godmother to children between the ages of 2 1/2 to 18 who have life-threatening medical conditions.

Make-A-Wish has a hefty goal: To go out and find every possible eligible child and grant him or her their greatest wish. The Connecticut chapter of the organization is looking to grant 250 wishes this year. As of yesterday morning, I volunteered to help.

I committed to supporting this cause after barely five minutes into the introductory remarks of the information session at the Bent of the River nature center in Southbury, Connecticut. It was probably the anecdote about the little girl whose wish was to be a published author that nailed it for me, but I could be wrong…

Today, in the light of a new day, the question did come. What in the world am I doing?

I am not a joiner. I am not a salesperson, and I hate asking people for money.

I don’t have any children of my own, but I can say that I have always felt a special love for kids. How many times have I visited a friend or relative who had small children and found myself being taken by the hand to help them color, or play Barbies, or let them affix a full package of assorted hair clips to my head so they could practice their hairdresser routine?

Yeah, I’m a sucker for kids, so maybe that’s my reason. Add to that the fact of illness, and the opportunity to do something nice for a child becomes a compelling motivator for “getting my hiking on,” as our Trailblaze Coordinator Sierra would say.

Naturally, as a writer, this means that my insane compulsion to capture the stories of this experience kicked in. I’ve relaunched my Walking Distance blog and heck, maybe I’ll toss in a podcast or two along the way so you can listen to the voices behind this cool journey. I’m excited to find my way to help this worthy cause, and I’m hoping that my network of friends, family, colleagues, and beyond, will support me in this effort.

My personalized fundraising web page will be live online soon. I’ll let you know when it’s ready for you to get on board. There’s no pressure, but I hope you’ll consider it.trailblaze bandana
Meantime, kick around that giant question for yourself, because it’s an interesting one to ponder: If you could have one wish in the entire world, what would it be?

Now, imagine if you had a fairy godmother just waiting to make it come true. That’s where we all come in, in this opportunity. We get to bring the Magic.

Mom’s a Superhero; Her Power? Abundant Love.

It was a fourth grade homework assignment that should have been easy for the A-student that I was, but for some reason I had put it off. I’d waited until the last minute to get it done, and there I was stressing out as only a fourth grader of my delicate constitution could.

I’m fuzzy on the details but as I recall, the project was for my Geography class. We were tasked with creating a map of a location – might have been Connecticut, or maybe we were allowed to pick a state that we were studying at the moment. Whatever the assignment, I was wrestling with how to accomplish it. I found myself on the evening before the homework was due, completely baffled. Fear of failure, or more likely, fear of not handing in the homework, had me frozen and distressed.

Lucky for me, I have the best mommy ever. My mother, who at the time was a school teacher with vast experience, was there to rescue me.

It’s impressive what one can do with a little poster board, Elmer’s glue and imagination. 

Mind you, there is no doubt that I had to suffer a mini-lecture about putting off my work. It wouldn’t have been right, had my mother not set me straight on the obligation to assume one’s responsibilities. Nine-year-old child, or not, I could learn from this.

ImageWe worked on that map together, gluing feathers from a pillow onto the poster board, letting the Magic Markers inject just the right amount of color and imagery to the location. 

I have no idea what my grade was for that assignment, but the memory of my mother’s support, guidance and compassion has never left me. She didn’t do my homework for me, let’s be clear on that point. She helped me to think it through, and nudged my creativity.

Good mother? The best.

 

Who has a fond memory of their mother to share? I’d love to hear it!

 

 

 

Lick your wounds, adjust your mind, then fight back

We’ve all been there. Well, some of us have. The “job” starts sucking the life out of you. Getting you down. Stressing you out. You feel like there’s no escape.

I’m having that experience lately, and it isn’t the first time. I can accept that maybe this routine I’ve come to live over and over again is partly my fault, for caring about the work I do and wanting to excel.

But enough is enough, right?

Corporations are cutting back, eliminating jobs but not lowering their expectations of what their employees must produce and be accountable for each day.
Lean is one thing. Skeletal and anemic is something else.

So this past week when I felt the crush of work demand just a little too severely, I allowed myself a momentary meltdown. No husbands or pets were harmed in this incident, and no snap decisions made about the course of my career. I simply allowed myself a couple hours to let the bad experience eat me up.

I swallowed two acetaminophens, got into my jammies and clammed up. Well, first I let the tears flow.

Cathartic, maybe. Weak, eh. I don’t care. I needed a release and that was all I had in me.

I have been told by several people that they see me as an exceptionally strong person, capable of handling adversity and struggle. Looking at my history, I can agree with that. We all have our junk to deal with, and my methods of doing so have generally been healthy ones.

But a person can tire of being resilient. Still, I guess I bounce back pretty well. By the next morning, I was on to the new day and my 45-minute commute, for once, served a positive purpose. I turned on the radio and resisted the news channels. I switched on my favorite music station and stayed in the moment all the way to work. It was just the tonic I needed to set me on a better course.

From Queen’s “39” to Dave Loggins’ “Please Come to Boston” and Heatwave’s “Groove Line,” I let my physical reaction to this audio medicine flow. Bouncing along in the driver’s seat, I literally drove myself to a better mental place.

It’s a start. Will I maintain the positive attitude? There are no guarantees. All we can do is keep fighting the good fight. Who doesn’t have something they struggle with? I’m working on keeping a good focus, and looking ahead to the next good thing. It’s just a matter of time.

Thank God for music, good husbands and pets, and yes, 45-minute commutes.

http://bit.ly/1qpPXUx

I Just Met Marina

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I just can’t seem to shake her story and the way it continues to be told through the magic of the Internet. Marina Keegan was a Yale grad in 2012, poised to bust out of academia and into a fresh new life chapter with a job at The New Yorker, an essay-gone-viral after it was published in the Yale Daily News, and a now newly published book of essays that delivers this talented young woman’s voice to the world. 

As I am studying the continuous, almost rampant evidence of grief expression and the development of a person’s life story on line, I am stunned at the way I have come to know some of Marina’s life story in such a short time. I came across Marina quite inadvertently. It was simply the opening of my web browser one morning before work, as it is often my routine to scan news feeds for interesting stories to share on my social media networks – usually to save those links so I can return to them later when I have more time to absorb and savor their information. But Marina’s story was not one to save for later. I saw the headline as my Yahoo! account opened up, and the words instantly reverberated. That’s what working on a dissertation will do to you. Your brain is at heightened sensitivity to the terms, images or concepts that you are drowning your thoughts in, on a regular basis: 

Life Lessons From Marina Keegan’s Posthumous Book of Essays

Life lessons. Posthumous. 

What is this? I thought. An immediate “click” and I was thrust into Marina Keegan’s life.

I hate to “summarize” her because there is so much to share, but with the Internet at your disposal, you can find out more details than you probably should be allowed to by searching for her on line. For now, I’ll just tell you that at 22, Marina Keegan led a life of purpose in exploring her talents and how to offer them to the world in words and deed. The Boston Globe ran a story just the other day about Marina’s book of essays, so I’ll let that article fill you in:

http://b.globe.com/RfuFcW

This is why I am writing a dissertation. This experience of being compelled to know more about this young woman, and understanding how this kind of content on line presents something of a phenomenon in literary expression. I need to figure out what it all is, still, but I am convinced that something big is happening here.

The story that introduced me to Marina, as many Internet stories do, contained other links. Those led to other content about Marina including photos and the now archived news coverage of the accident in which she was killed. The layers of information and storytelling kept going.

For now, I continue to explore this hard-to-pin-down category of grief storytelling. And I grieve for the loss of someone I never knew, but whose work and life approach has inspired me.

Copyright 2014 By Marianne V. Heffernan

Fresh slate

Here it is, a new year. 365 days ahead of me. Less than that, if I aim to graduate before year-end. 

Impossible? Let’s just say “impossible” is not a word I use frequently. I’m not sure if I’ve ever used it, now that I think about it. So perhaps that means I am an optimist who believes anything is possible if you put your mind to it. 

It’s going to take more than determination or thinking to get me over the goal line of finishing my doctoral program this year. If today is any indication, I am going to be hard pressed to do it, seeing as how I didn’t write a single word. 

No, my doctoral research consisted of more “percolating” than writing. I’ll allow myself that. One day to restart the project that’s been on a back burner for almost a year. My exploration of grief memoir – or, what I suggest is being produced as “grief memoir” online today – has been on hold for too long and I am not willing to let it sit any longer.

But today was the first day of a new year. The first day of the rest of my life, you might say. I took this day to do good: for someone else, and for myself. Recharging the batteries, reviving a goal (or two), taking action to say, “I’m committed and I am going to take charge.” 

Maybe all that binge-watching of Breaking Bad last weekend fired up more in me than my passion for writing. Maybe it brought out the Walter White in me. You have to admire a fictional character who can get you thinking about your life. 

Walter White, the main character in AMC’s Breaking Bad, is diagnosed with lung cancer in the pilot episode. Without describing the full series here, I’ll zero in on the point that resonated with me – Walter White takes control of his life by deciding to live it by his rules, on his terms. 

Now that’s freedom. 

I followed that mandate today – got rid of all the “requirements” of my day and just went with it for the whole day. And you know what I learned? 

There is great freedom in living in the moment. Your focus is clear and your experience is full. 

In the moment today I went out for coffee with my husband. I ran the vacuum for my parents and had a leisurely visit with them afterward. I went to the high school track and ran 1.25 miles, and felt great doing it. I had a lovely dinner with my husband, and spent 20 minutes in meditation. 

Did I write a single word on my dissertation? No, I did not. But I reviewed my notes (a little) and I refreshed myself with relationships, healthy exercise for my body and renewal for my spirit.

I’d say I’m ready to jump in and get my project back into gear. It’s back to work tomorrow after a long holiday break, but I’m refreshed to tackle things with presence of mind and an eye toward saving sufficient energy for my after-work time. Tomorrow, I pick up the pace.

 

Content that shakes the soul

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Grasping to understand the need for news organizations to pump out 140-character details of the Sandy Hook state police report before posting whole stories. Surely, this is the kind of story that requires more thought than the rapid tweeting on the social media site Twitter that ensued yesterday after the official report was made public at about 3 p.m.

Many reporters showed great sensitivity on Dec. 14 – just two weeks ago, on the one-year anniversary of the shooting – by not converging on the little village of Sandy Hook to cover the “news” of how residents and the families of the victims are faring. Most did that work in the days leading up to the anniversary, to give the families a respite when they clearly needed their privacy on what would undoubtedly be a painful day of remembrance. 

But there many were yesterday afternoon, pumping out the bits of information as soon as the report was out. It makes sense as a business strategy, of course. News organizations must entice followers and drive social media metrics, presumably to encourage online readers to go out and get the hard copy newspapers today to read the more comprehensive coverage. In the news business, you’ve got to be first. You want to be known as the best, the leader in your field. You want readers to keep coming back because they know they will get the scoop from your organization. You’ll get it right, you’ll get it first, and you’ll deliver the goods with professionalism and sensitivity.

As a former journalist, I had a heightened awareness to the release of the records, and a curiosity, like anyone else, about what they contain. As a social media user, I also wanted to see how the story would play out on Twitter and other sites. And there’s where I’m having some trouble getting my head around it.

What is the value of a piece-meal telling of a story this complex? The competition of a 24-hour news cycle and an immediate, on-demand mentality to be first and accurate is mind blowing to me and fascinating. I’d love to have been there for the news meeting where editors and reporters discussed how to cover the release of the report, because the social media element of dispatching the news is just a whole different realm.

Maybe it is because I know what it feels like to be the family member of a murder victim that I am sensitive to the news spotlight on details that, for a family member, feel like they are yours and yours alone to share or not. It feels exploitive to hone in on details without offering a full story in context, to consider it with deliberate thought before pressing the “Send” button that publishes it for the world to read. How do we decide that quickly what information is of value to the reader? Where does the news judgment have a chance to weigh in when you are tweeting to beat the clock?

I get it, it’s a different news industry than the one I belonged to some 14 years ago. But in a sense, it isn’t. Back then, we were all about grabbing readers and driving up circulation, thus sales. The difference was we had a longer deadline window to review the facts, consider the angles of the story, and bounce it around with editors and other reporters to flesh out a story that would do a service to readers.

It’s also true that many people – particularly the younger generation of 20-somethings – get their news from social media. They may never pick up a newspaper but they’ll scroll through social media on their smartphones and get enough detail to feel like they’re in the know.

I have many friends and former colleagues who are still in the news business so I mean no disrespect to them for their social media efforts to get the news out. Quite the opposite – I highly respect the extremely difficult job they do. It is a tough job to do well, and I am honored to know so many who fit that bill. As a matter of fact, in scrolling through the tweets from news sites yesterday, I think it is remarkable that so many of them were done so well. This is content that shakes the soul.

But I have to wonder how it feels to sift through a report like the Sandy Hook file on a timer. 

 

Wheels up

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As the start of a new year looms next week, I am doing my usual self-assessment, reflecting on where I am and who I am. I’m thinking of my hopes for the year ahead. I had kicked off 2013 by hitting the road for work on the first day back after the holiday break, and an intense schedule of accelerated deadlines and on-demand assignments put work on the front burner and everything else on the back one. 

Arkansas to Louisiana. Brazil, Norway, Las Vegas, West Palm Beach, Washington, D.C. Back to West Palm Beach again.

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I can’t even remember all the places I traveled for work in 2013. Great experience, no doubt, but every time I packed my bags for business, I left my PhD dream twisting in the wind. 

Well, this year, I’m thinking it’s time to consider a new way. Mind you, it’s not totally within my control to orchestrate a work load that allows my work days to have a clear beginning and end. I am told it is the nature of the business when you have a job in “communications,” to be on call and in demand 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

I choose to change that channel. The pinging in my psyche has grown louder. The passions that I have for storytelling, and my need for a healthy lifestyle in which my daily schedule includes time for meditation, yoga, a brisk walk, or the exercise of my choosing are just too big to ignore.

Among all of these “needs” clamoring for my focus and attention is my Journey to Dissertation. For most of the past year, I have failed to move ahead in my research writing. I can admit that my discipline was not in peak form, but I chose rest and family most times when I had the time to sit down at my laptop after an extended day juggling the requirements inflicted on me by my day job.

It’s true, I am behind schedule to graduate. Still, I am not ready to quit. I am renewing my commitment to get it done, and to get it done in 2014. It may mean the job landscape has to change. It may mean my indulgence in great storytelling (through books, favorite movies, or rare, solid television programming) will cease. For now. It is a double-edged sword: to give up my exposure to stories that inspire me means I’ll lose some of that spark to generate the ideas for my own storytelling. That’s a sacrifice I must make. A temporary one.

It’s time to finish what I started. As hard as it is to find the threads I was weaving into a clear research study, I am sure of one thing: I need to finish. I know that I started to uncover an important trend in grief memoir evolution, and that my work will make an important contribution to scholarly study.

I also know that it will lead me back to the inspiration that pointed me down this path: my sister’s story. The loss of my sister Joyce nearly 30 years ago is at the heart of this journey.

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Perhaps that is why I cannot stop until I finish. I have much to learn on this journey, and much to teach in my learning. I’m mapping it out, my schedule to succeed. If you don’t see me around, keep a good thought for me. It means I’m in the canyon, navigating, exploring, uncovering. Mine is a journey with a final destination: a doctorate. ETA: the end of 2014. Wheels up. Time to fly.

 

 

 

 

Counting my blessings

As 8:19 a.m. approached this morning, I was marking the close of my 50th year. The ritual of another birthday always officially begins with a specific phone call that comes at that time. 

For the last 25 years, my mother has called me at the moment of my birth. The past two months threatened to take away that precious memory this year, as my mother was dealing with health issues that arose from what was expected to be a “routine” surgery. 

So when the phone rang at 8:18 in the ring tone I assigned to my parents’ home phone number, I barely let it finish its first tone before taking the call. 

I usually don’t make birthday wishes because there isn’t anything that I want so desperately to utter a fervent wish for it. This year was different. I knew what I wanted quite a few weeks before today arrived.

I would have felt supremely blessed in my mother’s sweet call, but the birthday blessings continued to flow all day, from a surprise call from my father (who is not a phone guy), to calls and texts and Facebook messages from friends, family, and colleagues from all career-points in my life. Tremendously grateful, am I, for the kindnesses of so many. 

As I relished the goodness coming my way, I couldn’t help reflecting on the year past. There were so many pivot points. I thought about all that I had hoped to accomplish when I turned the Big 5-0. I am a List Maker and a Bucket List keeper. I take this stuff seriously. 

So what did I hope to achieve in my 50th year on the Planet and how did I do?

For one thing, I had hoped to finish my dissertation and get my PhD. What a grueling process it is, and I hate to admit, I missed the target again. Paint my home office, improve my health and fitness, read several of the books on my shelf. Nope, nope and nope. Didn’t exactly hit the mark on those things either. 

Many of my goals were sidetracked by life’s offerings, good and bad. That’s LIFE.

I chose to visit my mother in the hospital. I spent extra time with my father while he was adjusting to a lonely home life during the two months that my mother was away with illness. I accepted my husband’s offer of a few moments of “normalcy” when life was upside down all around me, opting to lounge outside in the autum chill warmed by a bonfire instead of hunched over my laptop deciphering research code.

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Moments like those I wouldn’t trade. They were God’s blessings, even the tough parts. 

Even though I didn’t get to do all the things I had planned or wanted to this past year, I’m counting my blessings. I laid eyes on the Grand Canyon and Acadia’s Cadillac Mountain views too, with a bonus of the Hoover Dam tossed in — all Bucket List wishes granted over the last several months.

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My husband and I vacationed with our kids – teenagers now and a far cry from the little ones we last vacationed with more than seven years ago. A different experience but a wonderful one, and memories of our week in Maine are indelibly etched in my mind.

My job pushed me hard, especially with travel assignments, but the flip side of working my butt off and being away from my loved ones was the opportunity to fly over the fjords of Norway, to get up close and personal with the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, and to take a side trip to New Orleans in between uncooperative flying weather in the Gulf. Complain? Not a chance.

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So in the year that I have been 50, did I do everything I set out to do? Of course not. If I had, I would have had to say no to the flow of life, the unexpected and the difficult. Miss the experience, miss the growth. I’ll never say no to what Life serves up.

Blessings are two-sided, you know. You just have to flip them over and take a different view.

Copyright 2013 by Marianne V. Heffernan