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Why Losing My Voice Made Me Feel Like a 5 Year-Old

children's scisssors

children's scisssorsInside Voice.” “Listening Ears.”

These are terms I’d not thought about in a decade since my daughter – now 14 – was in reception (kindergarten) at primary school.

But in the aftermath of a recent surgery on my vocal cords, they are now flooding back. I was unable to speak at all for a full three days last week and must rest my voice for the next two weeks. So I am now, at the tender age of …well, never mind, a pre-school teacher’s dream student.

As a consummate extrovert – someone who can frequently be found talking to herself when no one else will listen – not speaking is hard for me. But it’s all the harder when I am forced to feel like I still ought to be drinking out of a sippy cup.

A case in point. The first night back from surgery, I was watching my favorite French cop show, Spiral, with my husband. Despite being an otherwise rather intelligent man, my husband has difficulty absorbing plot twists rapidly. So every few minutes he would hit “pause” and then I would have to furiously scribble down my explanation for whatever was going on in the show on a piece of paper.

Unfortunately – and this hasn’t shifted very much since I was five – my handwriting is quite poor. So my husband could not decipher my graffiti and (silent) conflict would then ensue.

It got worse from there. With my two teenagers, I was unable to interrupt/scold/micro-manage/cajole/pick your poison with my usual alacrity. This resulted in me resorting to a variety of hand gestures that were definitely NSFW. I know, I know. Bad parenting. But it’s so much more efficient to deploy the odd chin flick when they fail to do the dishes, than to actually try and express my annoyance longhand.

This week, I am thankfully allowed to talk (more) but I am now doing speech therapy. Turns out, the main thing I need to work on is my breathing. When I breathe, far too much of the activity comes from my shoulders and neck, rather than from my diaphragm. It’s actually possible that the stress built up from a lifetime of incorrect breathing caused my voice problem in the first place. To rectify that, I now spend about half of my day blowing bubbles into a glass of water while humming notes and doing scales. Here’s what it sounds like.

I know that a month ago – the last time I was told not to speak – I found the experience to be an important source of life lessons concerning things like empathy and the value of alone time. On some level, I’m sure that losing my voice has also been good for reflecting on how I want to redefine myself professionally right now. (Inside the Crysalis, no one can hear you scream…)

More on that another time.

But this week, all I can say is that I do feel like I belong back in kindergarten. All I’m missing is the art smock and a set of those colorful scissors.

I know I talk a lot about being young at heart on this blog, but this is really pushing it…

Image: Colorful Scissors by Natural Pastels via Pixabay

 

 

 

 

Friday Pix: Recommended Reading For The Weekend

Zeus

ZeusOn occasional Fridays, I point you towards some recommended reading around the blogosphere:

a. As we all know, I’m a huge fan of personality tests. Imagine my delight when, courtesy of Jane Friedman, I happened upon this treasure trove of personality tests over at Personality Lab.

b. I was delighted to happen upon a magazine devoted entirely to…anxiety. Meet Anxy. I think I should apply to be an editor there. Not Kidding.

c. On the opposite end of the spectrum, check out things never heard in an office by Collective Noun.

d. Also in the humorous vein is Zeus giving an apology in The New York Review of Books. He bears a certain resemblance to…well, never mind.

e. Finally, if you are at all acquainted with behavioral economics you will find these behavioral science jokes hilarious. #FlossAversion is a keeper.

Have a great weekend!

Image: Zeus Otricoli Pio-Clementino Inv257 via Wikimedia Commons

Why I Envy Atheists

Brideshead mansion

Brideshead mansion

 

 

 

 

Note: I originally published this post several years ago on this blog. But when I recently re-watched Brideshead Revisited with my son, I realized that my feelings hadn’t changed so I am sharing it with you again:

Every so often you read a book or watch a film that you need to put down or look away from because it cuts too close to the bone.

So it was for me the other night when my husband and I finally finished watching the 1981 British television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Brideshead Revisited, an 11 episode meditation on privilege, family, religion and sexuality, all set in England between the Wars.

Most people – even those who haven’t read the book or seen the series – use “Brideshead” as shorthand for the flamboyant excesses of the British aristocracy on its last legs. And make no mistake, there’s no shortage of champagne flutes, dinner jackets and preposterously polite banter. In short, it’s the kind of thing that Americans tend to lap up. (See: Upstairs, DownstairsGosford Park and most recently, Downton Abbey.)

Read the rest of this post over at Thrive

 

Image: Castle Howard, Yorkshire by Nick Garrod via Flickr

Tips For Adulthood: Five Things You Learn From Losing Your Voice

larynx

larynxI was invited to a brunch recently with a woman who happens to be a yoga teacher. In describing her practice, she noted that when she conducts retreats for families at her home in Notting Hill, she requires that everyone do a “silent breakfast” – one where you cannot speak. (Note to self: Family yoga retreat? Count me in!)

The silent breakfast is a real struggle, she said, for English people in particular, as the culture is so verbal and witty. But there is no talking whatsoever allowed during breakfast and ultimately, she says, everyone comes to appreciate it.

I’ve had my own version of the silent breakfast lately. I have nodules on my vocal cords – which means that I’ve basically had laryngitis since early November. It’s not a dangerous condition, but it does hamper one’s speech considerably. There was a point in mid-December when my doctor advised me not to speak. At all.

I’ll be having surgery later this month to correct this problem, which may come as more of a relief to some quarters than others (cough). In the meantime, I thought I would share five things I learned from losing my voice:

a. You listen more. Cultivating the art of good listening is thought to have all sorts of benefits for business, for teaching and for parenting. When you’re forced to stop talking for a couple of days, you also realize how much you interrupt, depriving others – especially children – of the ability to formulate their own thoughts. It also forces you to intervene less in family conflicts, which can only be a good thing. 

b. You invest in other forms of self-expression. As fate had it, the final performance for my improv acting class took place during one of the days when my voice was completely shot. So I had to go through an hour and a half of group exercises without saying a word. Boy, was that instructive! When you can’t speak, you have to rely much more strongly on gestures (including rude ones!) and to devise other techniques – like miming – for getting your point across. It’s a good reminder that speaking is only one of several ways to communicate. Indeed, deprived of the ability to speak, I am also pouring a lot more energy into writing my book.

c. You develop empathy. There’s a well-known journalist who anchors the BBC’s flagship morning radio show, The Today Programme, named Nick Robinson. Robinson is a veteran reporter, but a couple of years ago his vocal cords were severely damaged during surgery to remove a tumor from his lungs. When I first heard Robinson speak on the programme after he returned to work – still husky from months of voice therapy – I was a bit taken aback. However good a reporter he might have been, I was puzzled that the BBC would be willing to put someone with a voice impairment on the radio every day in such a prime slot. Fast forward two years and now I feel like a heartless fool. Not only is that *exactly* what the BBC should have done – in the spirit of fair and equal treatment of its employees – but Robinson is an inspiration. Whenever I hear him, I find myself thinking: “Well done, Nick! I’m so glad that you have a voice and are using it to make yourself heard!”

d. You take advantage of alone time. When you have a busy life – and especially if you have children – it can be really hard to carve out any time for yourself. And even when I do find that time, I always feel compelled to invite someone else along. But when you can’t talk to anyone, you figure, “What the heck?” I might as well go do something I enjoy by myself. When I was at the height of my self-imposed alone time, I saw two films and one play. All by myself. It was fantastic. Rather than feeling like I needed to “discuss them” afterwards, I just relished the feeling of assessing them on my own. Highly recommend.

d. You are reminded not to ignore physical pain. I have a tendency to avoid pain. That’s not always a good idea. In the case of my vocal nodules, the stress in my neck was such that it quickly spread to my upper back and before long, I could barely sit up. I’m now in physical therapy and things are improving rapidly, but this entire episode has reminded me why – when something goes wrong in your body – it’s important to deal with it quickly and thoroughly.

Homework: Pretend you can’t talk at your next family meal and let me know how you get on!

Image: File:Larynx normal2a via Wikimedia Commons

Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons To Try An Improv Class

improvisation

improvisation

On occasional Wednesdays I offer tips for adulthood.

I did a lot of acting when I was a child. Early family productions of the Nativity story  featured me, as Mary, screaming “The Baby is Coming! The Baby is Coming!” as my brother dropped a Baby Tenderlove™ doll onto my lap from the top of the staircase. This gave way to star turns in plays such as The Miracle Worker in Junior High (Helen Keller) and Pride and Prejudice in High School (Elizabeth Bennett).But somewhere along the way, I stopped acting and got serious about the business of life. Big mistake.

Fast forward 35 years and I am rediscovering my thespian roots. Prompted in part by losing my job – but also responding to a deeper desire to get in touch with my creative self – I signed myself up for an improv acting course last autumn. Much to my delight, it’s had all sorts of benefits that go way beyond getting me back on the stage.

Here are five reasons taking an improv class is good for you:

It loosens you up.

When contemplating an acting class, I deliberately selected improv because I knew that for someone as organized as myself, it was important to be in a performance space that was as freeing as possible. A script always threatens the possibility that you’ll focus so much on learning the lines that you’ll forget what the scene is actually about. Whereas in improv, it all comes from within and whatever emotions you bring in that moment. Better still, you’re always under time pressure, so trying to get something perfect goes right out the window. Don’t think. Just do. Which is, oh!, so therapeutic.

It makes you more tolerant.

One of the basic principles of improvisation is “Yes, and.” This basically means that whatever the other actor throws your way, you embrace it and go with it. So if someone comes in and says, “You’re a Jerk!,” You can’t say “No, I’m not.” You have to respond with something – anything – that accepts whatever they’re offering and moves the story forward. (i.e., “Yes I am a Jerk but that’s because you double-crossed my mother.” And now we’re off and running – we have a plot.)

But the value of “Yes, and” goes way beyond the theatrical. You can also use it in real world conversations, much like the “Is there Anything Else?” game my husband and I sometimes play to resolve conflicts. LINK The idea is to just say “yes” instead of instinctively saying “No.” By opening up conversations, rather than shutting them down, you learn to be more tolerant and less critical.

Imagine if the next time your spouse came in and said “This again for dinner?” instead of replying with an expletive or hitting him/her over the head with your frying pan you responded, “Yes, and I can’t wait to eat it with you!” Try it!  

It improves your public speaking skills

The “Yes, and” principle noted above isn’t just useful for fostering greater tolerance and reducing conflict. It’s also a really useful tool for public speaking. A lot of people love giving talks, but hate the Q and A period at the end precisely because they have no control over what happens there. Unless you know the questions in advance, people can ask anything. And a lot of people freak out if they don’t know what’s coming their way. Improv helps with this. The whole principle of “Yes And” enables you to accept whatever the offer is – even if it’s “I don’t really understand your talk” and go with it. You can respond “That’s a really interesting point. What specifically wasn’t unclear?”, which is just another version of “Yes, and.”

It fosters teamwork

The other thing that improv does is to force you to work in teams. While there are some improv games that only entail one person, most involve at least two or more. When I was a child, I hated being put into groups because while I knew I would work really hard on the project, I could never guarantee that others in my group would do the same. (One of my best friends said the exact opposite: she always worried that she would pull the group down. (I’m sure there’s a personality test to sort for this attitude.)

But now that I’m grown up, I find that I actually welcome group work, especially if it’s on something creative. There’s a certain relief that comes from realizing that everything doesn’t sit entirely on your shoulders. And what you create is almost invariably more interesting than what you might have done on your own. Improv is a really good way to get people to appreciate the value of other people’s skill sets. You also learn how to listen to each other more carefully, which is only ever a good thing.

You’ll Laugh

Finally, improv is really fun. And that’s because people come up with the strangest things to say that will throw you completely off your game. And those gems will crack you up. You’ll also laugh at yourself.

Image: Lige d’Improvisation Montréalease 20101107-04 via Wikimedia Commons

Tips For Adulthood: Five Tools for Crafting Your Elevator Pitch

elevator pitch

elevator pitchAh, the elevator pitch. That magically concise statement of your background, experience and ambition, all neatly trimmed down to 30 seconds and which can, rendered persuasively, land you your next job.

Simple, right?

Not really. Especially if, like me, you’re in the midst of a mid-life transition.

But even as you take some time to figure out exactly what you’d like to do next, there are lots of quick and easy ways to sharpen your focus, without spending a lot of money.

Here are five tools that have helped me hone my elevator pitch and which might work for you:

1. Read Self-Help Books. I’m a big fan of self-help books, especially if – like me – you can’t afford to pay a career coach. Here’s a list of five self-help books that I’ve found particularly useful for sorting out different aspects of my professional development.The key thing to remember is that in order to really get something out of them, try not to dabble. While it’s fine to start and stop and/or to read them alongside something else, be sure that you read each book start to finish, because each one has its own internal logic that builds, chapter by chapter. Above all: do the exercises. They are there to force you to confront tough questions about yourself and you won’t progress if you don’t use these tools to identify your strengths – as well as whatever it is that’s holding you back.

2. Make a list of key words. In my current transition, rather than starting with a list of jobs I wanted to do, I started with a list of words that captured who I wanted to be and what I felt my strengths were. That process felt not only less daunting than picking a new job out of the air, but also more authentic. By starting with words like “insight,” “inspiration,” and “wit,” I am gradually working my way outward to what I want to do next.

3. Take classes. Once you have a reasonably well-formed sense of what you want to do next, try taking a class in it before you commit. I’ve found that adult education courses can be extremely affordable. Classes are useful because they deepen your skills in a particular area, making you feel more confident that you can execute your dream. You also meet other people with that same dream, which helps you to feel less alone. And particularly if you’re contemplating an array of career choices, experimenting with something in a time-bound way, through a class, can also help you articulate what you *don’t* want to do. Closing doors is just as important as opening them as you hone your vision.

4. Experiment with different Online identities. I happened upon this strategy accidentally. In the course of applying for a fellowship recently, I realized that my public identity on assorted social media platforms needed to match the narrative I had presented in my application. So I gave quickly revamped my Twitter handle. Fast forward a month or two and my self-understanding had moved on. That Twitter handle no longer felt 100% accurate, so I honed it some more. And I’m sure I’ll do that again. Part of how we learn to narrate ourselves – to ourselves – is to narrate ourselves to other people. While it might feel scary to put yourself out there in the public domain, it can actually be liberating. Remember, your online self can change!

5. Play. One of the great insights I got from reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way was the importance of play as a stimulus to innovation. Cameron champions the idea of a weekly “artist’s date,” which is about going out and doing something fun to fuel your creativity: going for a walk and collecting Autumn leaves…grabbing your guitar and singing a tune…taking photos of the morning light during your run. I’ve started taking an improvisation acting course. I don’t know where it’s taking me yet, but I do know that it’s helping me to listen more carefully to myself and to take risks.

At the end of the day, I really do believe the much-celebrated line from The Wizard of Oz: “There’s no place like home.” Which is to say that the answer to your elevator pitch – which is in turn a proxy for your next life chapter – ultimately lies within. Hopefully these tools can help tease it out.

Image: R.G.E.M. – Elevator Pitch by aiden un via Vimeo

 

 

Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons To Get A Makeover in Middle Age

eyeliner

eyelinerOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

I’m not exactly what you’d call a girly girl. I hate shopping, I rarely purchase clothes and I only really began wearing make up regularly five years ago when I started my most recent job.

So when my 22 year-old niece recommended me for a free makeover/photo shoot, I was initially skeptical.

“It’s fun!” she insisted.

“Yeah, I’m sure it is, but you’re 22 and I’m…not,” I answered.

When the call from the salon initially came through, I politely declined. But when they later followed up with a text, I found myself wavering.

I’ve only had someone show me how to apply makeup once in my life, another freebie back when I was much younger and first out in the working world. Back then, someone told me that figuring out how to style yourself is all about seasons – and my coloring renders me “Winter” – but I never bothered to investigate what that really meant. More to the point, that was like 20 years ago and I felt like it might be time for a”refresher” course. It was.

Read the rest of this post over on Making Midlife Matter

Image: YSL Baby Doll eyeliner 11 Light Blue by Heidi Uusitorppa via Flickr.com

How I Came To Love Airplane Rides

airplane ride

airplane rideI get very anxious when I fly.

Before take off, I find a quiet area in the airport and spend 10 minutes meditating to the Fear of Flying segment on the Headspace mindfulness app.

Then, as soon as we are “wheels up,” I genuflect. Mind you, I’ve not gone to Church regularly since I left home to go to college more than 30 years ago. And yet, as soon as the plane begins take off, I instinctively find myself doing the signs of the cross.

Lately, however, in the wake of my mother’s recent move and the several transatlantic flights I’ve done in recent months, I find myself actually looking forward to airplane rides. 

Why, with a lifetime fear of flying behind me, am I now enjoying airplane rides?

Because it is one of the few times in my life when I let go of the idea that I ought to be doing anything other than relaxing. Simply put, I let go of my “shoulds.”

Much like a sick day, when I get onto an airplane, I take myself “off of the clock.” I stop thinking that it’s a great opportunity to catch up on email (now that it’s available in flight) or to work on my book or to hunt for jobs. Instead, I do my favorite things.

Not raindrops and roses and whiskers on kittens. But my version of that, which entails skimming lots of New Yorkers, reading a novel by my new favorite Nordic Noir author, Karl Ove Knaussgaard, and watching the occasional film (but only if I can find one that suits my decidedly dark tastes.) The last two eight hour journeys I took, I didn’t even bother with the films. I watched a bunch of different American television dramas I’d always been curious about but had never sampled.

And that is deeply therapeutic.

Happiness blogger Gretchen Rubin recommends that if you want to declutter your house, pretend that you’re moving. Only with that mindset will you feel the urgency of actually getting rid of things you don’t need.

In a similar vein, perhaps the takeaway lesson from all of this flying of late is that I need to make the rest of my life more like an airplane ride. Whenever I find myself starting to get stressed, my mantra should be: “Pretend that You’re Flying.” No one is watching. My Panel of Elders is sleeping. And maybe then I’ll chill out.

How about you? Do you have a place you go – literally or metaphorically – that absolves you of the feeling that you have to do anything? (Yes, I know. Some people call them weekends, but for reasons that will have to wait until another post, I have a tortured relationship to weekends.)

Do share.

Image via Pixabay.com

Friday Pix: Recommended Reading For The Weekend

On occasional Fridays, I point you towards some recommended reading from around the blogosphere:

a. I have started following The Paris Review on Twitter and am really enjoying their online content. Here’s a lovely ode to November from earlier last month.

b. I’ve long been a fan of The New York Times Modern Love column. But I particularly liked this selection of 13-word love stories.

c. Over on It’s Nice That, check out Nadia Lee Cohen’s depictions of distorted suburbia. Love it!

d. Finally, for those of you who are interested in the art of political moderation, one of my cousins has just started a blog devoted to unearthing the intellectual foundations of political moderation. Always a fascinating and edifying read.

Have a lovely weekend!

 

Tips For Adulthood: Five Things I Learned From Re-Reading The Artist’s Way

journaling

journalingOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood. (Whoops! It’s a Thursday! Sorry, folks!)

I rarely re-read books. That’s partly a space thing  – I live in a small house – and and partly that there’s just too damn much out there I want to read to bother going back.

But this past week I’ve had the very odd experience of not just re-reading a book, but doing so immediately after putting it down. The book in question is Julia Cameron’s The Artist Way, a best-selling self-help book designed to help you unblock your creativity.  Doing this three-month course has been one of the big projects I’ve tackled since being laid off from my job. And the reason I re-read it is that the very last task Cameron assigns her readers when they’ve completed their 12 weeks is to go back and re-read the book, before doing anything else.

It’s an amazing book and has been a transformative experience for me both creatively and personally (more on that another time). And yet, I was still skeptical, and considered whether I should ignore this task altogether. But I trust Cameron, so I gave it a shot.

Here are five things that really made sense to me only when I re-read the book for a second time:

a. Morning Pages Matter. These are the three pages of hand-written writing you do every day when you wake up. They are *the* most important element of the creative recovery. I was very open to this idea when she suggested it, but I thought it would serve merely as a way to dump all the anxiety out of my head that had accrued overnight while I was sleeping, so that I could put that aside before I started writing. (It does.) I never imagined the morning pages would also serve my writing directly . Since starting to journal first thing every morning, ideas have emerged that have been directly channeled into blog posts, personal essays, fiction and my book project itself. When I went back through the book and also re-read my morning pages, I could trace this evolution very clearly.

b. The Artist’s Date is a Date. The other pillar of Cameron’s exercises is a weekly (or more) “artist’s date” – what she describes as “a block of time set aside to nurture your creative consciousness.” It took me about four weeks until I realized that I’d gotten this concept entirely wrong. I thought the Artist’s Date was just about setting aside time to execute a creative project (e.g. writing). So I keep giving myself a pat on the back when I spent some time writing every day. “Heh,” I thought. “I’m doing an artist’s date every day – this is easy!” But that’s *not* what the Artist’s Date is. It’s about going out and doing something fun to fuel your creativity, not your creative project itself. So going for a walk and collecting leaves counts. Grabbing your guitar and singing a tune counts. I started taking an improvisation acting course – that’s my main artist’s date these days. I’m so glad I figured this out!

c. Affirmations: External vs. Internal. To jump-start the creative recovery process, Cameron suggests that you make a list of “affirmations”- i.e., specific pieces of praise you’ve gotten from other people that will make you feel more confident about undergoing your journey of creative self-discovery. My big realization when I read the book through for a second time was that while all of my affirmations when I started the course were external – i.e,. a letter of gratitude from a colleague, an inspiring comment from a reader of my blog – by the end of the course they were largely internal – i.e., me telling myself something positive about my writing/myself. Cameron never says that’s supposed to happen, but I am very happy that it did.

d. Images help imagine you into your future self. Cameron also advocates compiling an ongoing collection of images of things you like and/or signify your future self as a way to remind you about the tangible things that contribute to your creative happiness. At first, I was dubious. I’m not a terribly visual person and I didn’t feel like taking time out of my day to hunt for images of a typewriter on Google. But I did it (I’m an upholder, after all!), and soon I found myself making a list of images I wanted to collect – like making jewelry and reading on beaches and other aspects of the “ideal life” I’m composing for myself – and adding to that folder from time to time. Re-reading the book reminded me of my initial (misguided) reluctance to do the image homework.

e. Creativity and God. Cameron is very religious and she makes this very clear from the get-go, even though she doesn’t force you to buy into the concept. If you’re more comfortable talking about a “creative force,” so be it – all of her advice still applies. I’m deeply ambivalent about religion and so initially the whole God thing didn’t work for me. I was actually worried early on that it might put me off the whole process. But I hung in there and discovered that not only did Cameron’s vision of God work for me – (she likes to think of God as a generous, supportive force rather than a punitive, miserly one), I realized that sorting this out was absolutely fundamental to the creative catharsis I subsequently underwent.

If you’re thinking of a holiday gift for someone and you sense they may have an artist trapped deep inside them, I’d urge you to get them this book.

Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers!

Image: Journaling by Seth Barber via Flickr