This summer I’ve been studying the Alexander Technique, an educational process developed by New Zealander F. M. Alexander in the early 1900's that teaches you how to release tension by sending messages to your body to undo unnecessary patterns of holding.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover that Alexander’s idea of achieving greater freedom and ease of movement works also with more than just muscles, nerves and bones.
Looking for places in my body where I habitually store stress, it didn’t take long for me to discover what felt like a sizzling mass of hot wires in the back of my neck and left shoulder blade that appeared whenever I was provoked by an unpleasant sensation, e.g. sitting for a long period of time in summer traffic.
But it took a while to figure out where I stashed my emotional patterns of holding. When I heard myself sharing a painful situation in my life exactly the way I’d shared it for the last two years, I knew I’d hit paydirt.
I’ve been aware of this trend for some time, but it came into clear focus recently when I read the words “Farm Raised” in bold print on the front of a carton of organic milk.
Having grown up in an era when the New England countryside had more dairy farms than shopping malls, my first thought was, “Where else?” But sadly I know enough about how the “food-industrial complex” works to understand that most of the milk in the dairy case comes from places that are a lot more like factories than farms.
Last month I talked about the chronic nature of long-term unemployment. But there’s another elephant in the living room—systemic ageism.
In a recent segment on the PBS News Hour Paul Solman reported, “For those 55 and older, it takes at least a year on average to find work, longer than any other age group.”
He then sat down to talk with a group of bright, skilled, articulate older men and women who been unsuccessful at finding work.
Although each of them had tried to appear younger using such tactics as truncating the work history on their resumes, their attempts had ultimately backfired.
“I was coming in for a face-to-face interview,” one person said, “and the HR recruiter saw me, assumed who I was, and his face—I could just see his face almost fall when he saw me and how old I was. After that, I pretty much got pushed through two of the people I was supposed to talk to. The other three got busy and I couldn't see them.”
The others nodded and related their own experiences of losing an interviewer’s attention or being given a perfunctory half hour before being shown the door.
It’s taken me a long time to accept that the signs of spring—green grass, purple crocuses, yellow forsythia—can’t always be counted on to appear on schedule where I live on Cape Cod. More often than not, the dominant color of April is brown and you have to bundle up to take a walk just as you did in February.
But I’m a daily walker and the other day I donned my wool coat and hat to go out right after reading an article in the Boston Globe that said nearly four million people have been out of work for a year or more. Before the recession, 10% of the total unemployment number represented the long-term unemployed. Now it’s almost 30%. There’s no spring for these work-seekers either.
According to the article, long-term unemployment is the “most intractable” consequence of the last recession and because of a lack of political will, despite all the talk about creating jobs in the last election, few resources are being directed toward it. The problem, the Globe said, is “chronic.” They make it sound like an illness.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever spent a lot of money on a textbook for a class you really didn’t want to take.
I have a vivid memory of waiting in line in a college bookstore to buy an 800-page statistics manual for a quantitative methods course in an MBA program. I was recently divorced, in my mid-forties, re-entering the work world, and this was the prescribed credential.
But as I inched closer to the checkout area, I happened to pass the Art History section and my heart beat faster as book cover images of Gothic cathedrals, Old Masters and Impressionist landscapes caught my eye. A powerful urge to abandon multivariate data analysis for Degas’ ballerinas came over me, but I dutifully held on to the textbook, even as it grew heavier in my arms.
During the holidays, a senior executive I work with unplugged and loved the time it gave her to think, to enjoy breathing space, and “feel more sane.” At the end of the long first Monday back, her non-stop schedule with too much work and too many meetings left her wanting to do nothing but stretch out on the couch and watch Downtown Abbey. Yet she found herself in work mode, sitting up and tensely typing tweets instead. She had to make herself stop and enjoy the show.
Harper Reed, Chief Technology Officer for President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, was used to receiving thousands of emails a day, but when the election was over, he chose to put distance between the campaign and what was coming next in his life by giving himself a week away from the Internet and 140-character tweets to read a 1,000 page history of the Stalingrad Campaign.
I like these examples of creating a healthier balance between time spent on- and offline because they represent conscious choices that are far removed from all the hype we’re hearing these days about “digital detox.”
My husband and I have a standing joke about traveling Amtrak. When we first started doing it, it seemed like there'd always be someone who would board, take a seat in front of or behind us, whip out a cell phone, make a call and say, “Hello, I’m on the train.”
And so now, whenever we settle into our seats, we look at each other and one of us will say, “We’re on the train!”
This Christmas our little joke took on new meaning. When we arrived in New Haven, our usual point of departure, the long-term parking lot in the station was full and so were all the others in the surrounding area. This had never happened before. It was beginning to look doubtful that we would be able to get on that train.
As the minutes ticked away, my husband drove around like a maniac, hopping from red light to red light, looking in vain for a lot that didn't have a sign that said FULL in front, while I kept saying we needed to pull over, get information and pause to consider our options.
On our third circuit of Union Station, he finally heard me. He pulled into the passenger drop-off area in front where just it so happened that Santa Claus was waiting to give us what we most needed for Christmas—a parking space.
Like most people who live on the outer hook of Cape Cod, where the land juts thirty miles out into the Atlantic Ocean, I've long accepted my vulnerability to howling winds and rising seas, but I’d be less than honest if I didn't admit to thinking a great deal more about it since Hurricane Sandy. When the images of devastation on television look a lot like the beach houses, marinas, and sand dunes you see every day, it's a powerful reminder that it could be your turn next.
So how do you get ready—not physically, but psychologically and spiritually? Whether it’s a superstorm, a professional crisis, or a personal loss, how do you prepare yourself to move beyond your own fears so that you can be a calm and supportive presence to others? What can you do to make it more likely that in a disaster you will be able to offer the best of who you are?
Shortly after arriving at my retreat destination on Skaneateles Lake, I took a walk on Glen Haven Road, a narrow lane cut into the steep hill above the western shoreline.
Just beyond the bend in the road where crimson Virginia Creeper had wrapped itself like a shawl around the arms of a golden maples, I saw a woman jogging up the hill toward me, and then a car approaching from behind her. A moment later I heard I car coming up behind me as well.
Suddenly my walking route, which was normally deserted on an off-season weekday, had turned into a crowded thoroughfare. There was no shoulder, and I thought I might have to leap down a ladder to a boathouse to get out of the way, but both cars stopped, and the driver coming toward me pulled over as far as he could to let the driver coming from behind me pass, and then he carefully proceeded. We all waved at each other and went on our way.
These acts of courtesy felt very special to me. Why? Because they were in sharp contrast to the stories of rudeness I routinely hear about from my clients who are looking for work.
As you read this, I am on my annual rest-read-write retreat at Skaneateles Lake, so I am offering this column about a past trip in 2010. Of course, I don’t yet know what will come from the creative space of this year's visit, but I promise to let you know in a future column.
My time at the lake this year was about being in the here and now. I try to do this at home, but being away frames it differently.
There's the packing and the unpacking, the seven hour trip there and back, the joy of arriving and the sadness of leaving. Going to the same place every year has sharpened my awareness of these dichotomies, and I know the alternating rhythm well enough that sway with it immediately.