Making Change: Sometimes It Helps to Start Small

Many times when we think of making changes mid-life, we consider them on a grand scale. Quitting an unfulfilling job to pursue a dream career, ending relationships that no longer satisfy us, and moving to a new city, state or country are examples of this. Often overlooked are the ways in which we can begin to make small, daily changes that might ultimately lead us to happier, healthier, more authentic lives.  An example of this is a recent walk I took on a beautiful spring day during my lunch break at work.

After a long, hard, snowy winter, it felt amazing to feel the warm sun on my skin. I came upon an expanse of lush, green lawn that looked so inviting I decided to take a break from walking to sit on the grass. As I sat there, I was overcome by an urge to lie back and close my eyes.

This urge might seem natural enough, but I was a professional staff person on a university campus wearing a conservative dress, stockings, and heels. Final exams were over and most of the students were gone, but what if my boss or another colleague came upon me sprawled out on the grass on my back? It would hardly be the picture of professional decorum.

I wrestled with what to do. Do I maintain my professional persona or give into my natural urge?

The longer I resisted giving in, the more it struck me as ridiculous that I was even debating the matter. One day I’d be dead and would anyone really give a damn if I had lied back on the grass? I seriously doubted it, but I on the other hand would have missed out on an amazing moment.

I lied back on the grass. It felt divine. Slightly damp, but otherwise a plush cushion of comfort. I stayed there for about five minutes basking in the sun, feeling more natural and more myself than I ever had before on that campus. Reluctantly, I stood up, brushed off my back end, and returned to the office.

This is what I mean by making small, daily changes. Those of you who live life as an adventure every day may consider my example pathetic. For me, who often fights my natural impulses for fear of being judged, it was liberation. This one small act – lying in the grass on a warm, sunny day – opened me up to the possibilities of living more authentically in the moment as a way to facilitate meaningful change.

Not everyone can make major life changes without drastically impacting or risking their family, friendships, finances, or future well-being. All of us can make small, daily changes that make us feel more fully alive; less TV and Internet surfing, exercising more, engaging in creative endeavors, practicing gratitude, or simply committing to being more spontaneous. These types of changes might not bring the instant gratification or excitement that comes with a drastic, large-scale change, but they’re a good start.

Don Draper’s Midlife Spiritual Awakening

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The long-running AMC series Mad Men came to an end Sunday night with its leading character, Don Draper, having a spiritual awakening while in the midst of a midlife meltdown. It was an unexpected, though not altogether surprising, twist for the chronic adulterer, alcoholic, and creative genius who’d finally hit rock bottom.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, Don’s flaws, I’ve always liked him. He did what he wanted, when he wanted, and didn’t give a damn what anyone thought. I couldn’t help but admire his indifference, though at times it made me cringe.

Living for one’s own pleasure, however, comes at a cost. In this final episode, Don finally realizes the price that he and his loved ones have paid for his hedonism. With his second marriage over, his business and creative autonomy gone, and his first wife facing an early death, Don sets out on a desperate journey to California that will ultimately lead to salvation or complete demise.

When a friend, concerned for his well-being, insists that Don accompany her to a spiritual retreat center, at long last he finds what he’d been searching for through casual sex and at the bottom of liquor bottles. It is a deep connection with the universe, one that introduces him to the self-love and self- acceptance which has eluded him thus far. In the series’ final scene, viewers are presented with a peaceful Don sitting in half-lotus pose, chanting Om with a group of spiritual seekers on a cliff by the sea.

This scene, combined with the classic Coca Cola commercial that follows, gives one hope that Don has returned to New York and his job at the ad agency spiritually changed. It is a satisfying end to a series that presented human beings as they are – broken, selfish, complex, and flawed – and reminds us that it is never too late to make amends or to become the person we’ve always longed to be.

Farewell, Don Draper. You are and always will be the quintessential middle-aged madman.

Thank You, Ma’am

If you’re a woman of a certain age, you probably remember the first time someone called you “ma’am”. Maybe you can’t recall the exact date, time, location or culprit, but you do remember the feeling. Suddenly you were aware that you’d officially crossed over from the youthful world of “miss” to the more sedate land of “ma’am”.

It can be shocking when we are faced with someone else’s perception of us.

For me, it was a teenaged boy who uttered the word. Probably he was a bagger at a grocery store or a busboy. I can’t recall the details, but I remember thinking, once the initial shock wore off: Ma’am? Who do you think you’re talking to, buster?

The poor lad had no idea his attempt to be polite was so offensive to me.

I’m not sure if there’s an equivalent moment for men. It might be the first time they’re addressed as “sir” or “mister” instead of “dude” or “man”.

Since that defining moment, I’ve been referred to as “ma’am” many times. I no longer get offended. I realize it’s the natural progression of life.

Lately, though, an interesting phenomenon has been occurring: People are starting to call me “miss” again. Granted, they are mainly elderly gentlemen attempting to be complimentary.

I also had the surreal experience of being carded while buying a bottle of wine at a liquor store recently. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. I said point blank to the young clerk, “Seriously? Is this some kind of marketing ploy to get middle-aged women to keep coming back?” He gave me a confused smile, but said nothing.

It just goes to show you that life has a way of coming full circle.

Mom, You’re Old

I was 38 years old when I gave birth to my youngest son. Hardly ancient by today’s standards, but having had all three of my other children before age 30, my body felt the difference.

With my past pregnancies, I’d waitressed until the ninth month, walked up the hills and staircases of a college campus with a heavy backpack in tow, and bounced around in a pregnancy aerobics class. As soon as I brought my third son home from the hospital we were taking daily walks. Thanks to the elasticity of young skin, I could still wear a two piece bathing suit with relative confidence.

Not so with my final pregnancy. Imagine the polar opposite of everything above. In short, I dragged butt through the entire pregnancy and for several years afterward, for of course he was the child who didn’t sleep through the night until age four.  And forget about ever wearing a two piece again.

When Christian started kindergarten, it was obvious to my husband and me that we were a bit older than many of the other parents. We joked to each other that we’d be attending his high school graduation using walkers. Still, I was surprised one day about a year ago when this little offspring said to me, “Mom, you’re old.”

Excuse me?

I didn’t know what to make of such a comment. Was it funny or insulting? I decided it was best to let it go.

But he kept on saying it, day after day, without any context to go along with it. What was going on in that little mind of his? I knew I needed to address it because whatever his intention, he sounded rude and the phrase was beginning to irk me. I asked him why he kept saying this to me, but he didn’t have an answer. I told him that I didn’t appreciate it and to stop.

He didn’t stop. In fact, one night at the dinner table, out of the blue, he said to my husband and me, “Why did you guys have me when you were so old?” To me in particular, he said, “Why can’t you be young like the other moms?”

Holy dart in the heart. Talk about out of the mouths of babes. Clearly, my oldness was bothering him, but I was hardly decrepit for crying out loud. Here I was trying to age gracefully, and the little bugger wouldn’t let the topic go.

My response to him was, “Because God gave you to us when He did, that’s why.”

Miraculously, this shut him up, but only temporarily. At least a few times per week he still says, seemingly more out of habit than anything else, “Mom, you’re old.” Most of the time I ignore it. Sometimes I agree with him and say something like, “Yes, I am a little bit old, but there are people older than me.” Or I’ll tease him back and say, “Christian, you’re young.”

I also like to remind him from time to time that his brothers knew me when I was young, and as proof I’ll show him photos of me with them when they were little boys. I have come to realize that doing this is more for my sake than for his; I like to remember on occasion that once I was a young mother.

Excuses Don’t Burn Calories

Excuses. We all make them from time to time. Some of us make them all the time. As we enter mid-life, we owe it to ourselves to examine the myriad of excuses we use that hold us back from reaching our full potential and achieving our life goals. Otherwise, we might come to the end of our days and realize that we’ve excused away our lives.

Don’t be that person.

According to Dictionary.com, an excuse is an “attempt to lessen the blame attaching to (a fault or offense); seek to defend or justify”. Some people might think of excuses simply as the reasons or explanations for why they can or cannot do something. I have come to believe that they come down to personal choices.

Case in point: I’d wanted to lose 10 pounds for a while. I’d gained the extra weight while pursuing my master’s degree on top of working full-time and caring for a home and family. The little spare time I’d once enjoyed had been replaced with reading texts, writing papers, and working on projects. To deal with the stress and busyness of my life, I turned to stuffing my face with cheese and crackers while studying at night and drinking too much wine on the weekends.

I’m sure many of you can relate.

My attempt to awaken at 5:00am to exercise lasted only a few months. When my students started telling me with increased frequency that I looked exhausted and was repeating myself, and my husband point-blank said, “You’ve been acting really bitchy since you started waking up earlier” (ouch), I knew I needed that extra hour or so of sleep more than the exercise.

When I graduated in December, my plan was to start working out immediately, but it didn’t happen. I had so many good excuses why not: I’m too busy preparing for the holiday season; it’s too cold and dark out when I get home from work; I’m too drained and exhausted from work; I just need to chill out and recover from the insanity of the past two years.

Then one day I saw them, emblazoned on a billboard advertisement for a fitness center, four words: Excuses Don’t Burn Calories. They resonated so deeply with me that I practically stopped the car in the middle of the street.

My initial reaction was resentment. I mean, the model on the billboard couldn’t be a day older than 18 and was skinny as a rail. What could she possibly know about the stress of juggling a demanding full-time job while trying to keep a family, household, and marriage going? She was so young that her metabolism probably worked in overdrive; I’ll bet she burned hundreds of calories just by breathing.

Then I felt ashamed. The model was probably a lovely young woman, and what did I know about her life anyway? I certainly didn’t want to become one of those pathetic, bitter older women who despised any woman who was young and attractive. Where was the grace in that?

I drove by the billboard a few more times after that. Each time the words sunk into my psyche a little more, until finally I realized that I had a choice: I could keep making excuses for not working out and changing my diet or I could make a choice to lose the weight.

It’s been a little over a month since I made the choice to lose the weight. During that time I’ve been going to the gym three times per week without fail, power yoga once per week, and educating myself about calories and healthier food options. It’s not always easy. Some days I’m so exhausted when I come home from work that, after cooking dinner, I literally have to drag myself to the gym by putting one foot in front of the other. But I always feel so much better afterward. So far, I’ve lost close to five pounds.

I’ve come to realize that excuses blame factors outside of us. They keep us numb and stagnant. Choices come from within; therefore, they have the ability to empower us. When we feel empowered, we are more apt to make decisions for our life that support our well-being rather than harm it.

Excuses don’t burn calories. They don’t help us get that new job or promotion. They don’t improve our relationships with others. Excuses don’t start and complete projects, decrease debt and increase savings, or do a damn thing to help us realize our dreams.

What excuses are holding you back from leading your healthiest, happiest, most fulfilling life? You owe it to yourself to ask.

Note: I must give credit to Planet Fitness; it was their billboard advertisement that inspired me. Visit them at: http://www.planetfitness.com/.