My life feels a little boring right now. Not too much new and exciting going on. Everything's kind of in a good and stable place. So nothing for me to get all riled up about either positively or negatively and therefore not so much to write about. But I do feel a bit obligated to keep this blog going if nothing else as a way to keep friends and family in the loop. So this post will be completely random and stream of consciousness. Enjoy!

1) Election.
Oh my. What an amazing time to be in America. I have been moved emotionally over and over the past week. The crazy anticipation leading up to Tuesday, the cathartic backwash after. It's funny, I'll be walking down the street and see a newspaper with a photo of Obama on the front and the realization of what we accomplished will wash over me again and I'll start crying. I scared one of my classmates on Wednesday because I was crying before class and I couldn't stop. She was not convinced that it was "good crying" not "bad crying" and was quite worried about me. Ha ha. So proud and happy to be a part of this history. Now, onwards and upwards. Let's get things rolling to get the country back on track.

2) Exercise.
Ummm, what's that? Ha ha. It occurred to me at some point last week that I don't think I ran or walked the whole month of October. October was a bad month. Very busy, very stressful. Very full of chocolate and frozen pizzas. Yum. I un-did some of the weight loss momentum I had accomplished prior to October but I didn't COMPLETELY un-do it. I am, thankfully, still in my big-but-not-too-big jeans. I figure as long as they still fit I can still get the ship turned around. So, I'm back to walking and running again. The weather here has been so nice it's been a pleasure. Very good for my soul.

3) School stuff.
Everything's going ok. I'm in a nice lull right now which is fabulous and much needed. Got a lit review due in two weeks which is frustrating me because there doesn't appear to be any literature on the topic I am reviewing. Hmmmm… But that's also good because I think it will shape up into my research stream, and if not much has been written, maybe I'll be more likely to get published. Fingers crossed.

4) Zach & Miri Make a Porno.
Saw it last night. It's, well, exactly as the title implies. It's not for the faint of heart or the sexually squeamish. But it's really funny if you can handle the subject matter.

5) Cleaned my House.
All by myself. Yes, I did. That's a big deal, actually, because I hate hate hate cleaning and have found a way to hire house cleaners for years. Even though I can't really afford it, I'd rather go without eating out twice a month to pay for a housekeeper once a month. Got my priorities straight. Ha ha. But, I cleaned my house myself! Yay! Floors, bathroom, kitchen, dusting. Did EIGHT loads of laundry. Eight. Crappity crap crap. But I washed all the blankets, comforters, bathroom mats, etc. Yay for clean.

6) Poor-dom.
Yes, I'm in it. It is finally sinking in that I AM a poor grad student. When I got here I was still living a similar lifestyle as before when I had a salary. But that has changed now because I've burned through the money I saved before I moved and my house STILL has not sold in Virginia. Getting really nervous about that. As a result, I am trying to live very very sparcely and only spend money when I have to. Sigh. I call it zero-spending and I really works for me. Helps me stay in the mindset of need versus want.

7) Leaf Raking.
Lots of pretty yellow leaves waiting for me on the front lawn. Yuck. I'm trying to convince myself that it will either (a) be lots of fun to rake them or (b) be good exercise. Neither is working so far. But State College has a great system where we rake them to the curb and they come through and suck them all up. I think they use them as compost which is a good thing.

Ok. That's enough for now. My cat is walking on the keyboard and demanding attention, so I will sign off. Adieu!

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Life, the Universe, and Everything

First a confession… I've been avoiding this blog for the past few weeks. I've been going through so many things and thinking so many things that it was swirling around in my head like a tornado and I couldn't make enough sense of it to know what to say let alone write it down. So, avoidance theory. It works every time.

But the past 48 hours have been pretty important. At least I think so in this moment. My moods are like the weather… wait five minutes and they'll be different.
Wow, where to start? TV class…
Monday night is my tv class. I think I'm going to really like it. I loved it after the first night, actually felt euphoric afterwards, But then I got all jumbled and twisted and turned and now I'm back to thinking I will like it. This week the whole class had to write short reaction papers for two of the weekly readings and then post them on the class Angel site (like BlackBoard for you JMU'ers).
I was all anxious about it – of course – because it was my first assignment as a PhD student and I really had no clue what to expect. But I worked on them and posted them like a good little student. Then I went back and read other people's and I started to feel worse and worse.
Monday's class was our first "real" class because of Labor Day. I was ok for the first 15 minutes –  answering questions, contributing, engaged. Then I started to feel worse and worse. And I shut down.
Then I went home and cried.
And questioned myself, my intelligence, my abilities, and every single decision I made on the way to landing in this moment in time, in grad school, feeling like a complete idiot.
Monday I felt like the dumbest kid in class. 
Was I really? Who knows. But that doesn't really matter. What matters is that I suddenly wondered if I could even make it through the first semester let alone the whole program. I have never felt that way. Ever. I'm not dumb. I know I'm not the brightest bulb on the tree, but I'm also not the dimmest. I did really well in my master's program. They thought I was a good student. See? Proof!
But Monday night was a pretty bad night. So, as I am inclined to do, I retreated inside and swirled around in my head. Questioning. Wondering. Thinking. Processing. Analyzing. Round and round and round and round. And round and round and round and round. It's my way.
Things were still pretty bad when I woke up Tuesday. But by noon they were looking up because I had two lightning bolt insights that calmed the chaos and helped me begin to breathe again:
1) Most of the other people in my class are 1-3 years into their Master's or PhD programs which means they are 1-3 years ahead of me in what they have been exposed to and studied. How can I be expected to know after two weeks what people know after two years? Maybe some people can and do, but not me. This is a completely new discipline for me and I do not have any of the foundational knowledge or theories to draw from. I'm getting it all for the first time and am just trying to see the forest for the trees. No one has those expectations of me except me, I'm sure. But my expectations sometimes have a life of their own. So… perspective… it's a good thing. It takes off some of the (self-imposed) pressure.
2) Then I suddenly remembered the first two weeks of my master's program and realized I felt EXACTLY this same way. Totally lost. Totally stupid. Unprepared. Not smart enough. Freaked out of my mind and scared to death. Like everyone else was so much more sophisticated and smart and wise and scholarly.  Again, perspective… it's a good thing. I've been here before and I not only survived, but thrived.
So, I began to breathe. And relax.
And took down my walls, made myself vulnerable, and told a few people what I was going through.
And I started to feel.
That's a big one for me. Feeling.
I trap myself nicely up in my head and block out the world and keep everyone away.
I'm really really good at it.
So when I get to a point when I am feeling, which doesn't happen much these days, I know I'm in a good, if scary, spot.
In fact, in a lot of ways, this whole journey that I'm on right now is all about that. I had a great life before. Anyone looking at me would have seen a happy, successful person living a pretty darn charmed life. But I was walled off in a lot of ways, in a deep deep trench, and knew I needed to make huge changes in order to get life back on track. Or to re-create it the way I wanted it to be. So, here I am.
That tornado that hit me on Monday has – oh please please please – started the process of jumping me out of the old patterns from my old life. I have started to feel. I have opened up and shown people my real, true, honest, and vulnerable parts. The parts I usually try to keep secret.
Today, Wednesday at 1:30pm, I am hopeful. Oh so hopeful that this really is a first step towards living a life of joy and passion and love and energy and excitement and happiness again. I don't want to be ok anymore. I want to LIVE my life like I used to. I want to smile all day every day. I want to have friends that burrow themselves so deep in my heart I can't even tell where the entry point was. I want to find romance and a partner to walk through life with. I want to take everything this PhD program can throw at me and savor every moment and ask for more.
Today, Wednesday at 1:30, that's what I want. It's scary to admit and I am actively resisting the temptation to delete it. If I leave it and I hit the post button, it's going live. Even if no one reads this, it's still out there in the public world and not locked away like a secret in my heart and in my head. Am I ready?
Robert Downey Jr. visited me in a dream last night. Apparently we dated back in college. How about that? Who knew? But I felt something in that dream. Felt something strong and powerful and intoxicating. And that gives me hope.

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It’s Vacation, Dammit!

Welp, I've been in State College for just about two weeks now and it has flown by. I feel pretty settled, all-in-all. Everything's unpacked and I finally got things up on the walls and knick knacks placed. That makes it feel like home. I'll take pictures of the interior soon. Need to mow the grass but have no lawnmower… hmmmm…

My theme these days has been to remind myself over and over that I'm supposed to be on vacation. VACATION, dammit. I'm so programmed to the run run run lifestyle that it's hard to stop and sit still. I have been better the past few days. Giving myself permission to just rest, watch the Olympics, go for long walks, etc. I have one more week of this before things gear up for the semester.

Honestly, I wish I had two weeks. There have been so many things I felt pressured to do since I moved in that I actually got sick I was pushing so much. Now that I'm finished with the major stuff I can get started on resting and relaxing. As Tracy Hakala said, it would be nice if I got to the point that I was bored. Then I will know I'm ready to get back to work.

I've been walking a lot, which I'm happy about. I do have the best of intentions to walk to campus as often as possible. I've walked the route several times and it's pretty easy, but once classes get rolling and I have to think about walking home after dark and changes in the weather I might be singing a different song. Plan B is the bus, there is a stop right outside my house. I have heard that (1) annual bus passes are upwards of $500 and/or (2) students can get passes for free. Hmmm… There's a big difference between $500 and free. Plus it takes a lot longer to ride the bus, so I'll have to factor all that in.

Yesterday and today I walked 4+ miles. My feet protesteth mightily but it feels good. I am really hoping to walk myself back into my skinny clothes. I also started stretching again… Oh my… I used to be super stretchy and limber like a rubber band. Now I bend like a steel pole. I'm working on it. Once I get my bike tuned up I can also ride to campus.

I've been doing quite a bit with my assistantship so far. It's been very daunting, exciting, thought-provoking, and fun. I went to a mini conference last week with a expert on distance learning from the SUNY system. She showed us a whole bunch of really cool technology tools (jing!). There was a session on SecondLife, Penn State has an AWESOME campus. They have really put effort into it and have a very well thought out plan for how to utilize it in a bunch of capacities. I'll blog about my assistantship soon but I need to kind of digest and let things settle for a bit.

Other than that, LOVING this amazing cool August weather. Love love love love. I had to break into my house tonight after I locked myself out. Umm hmmm… Climbing in the kitchen window. Ha ha. And I have found two amazing neighborhood parks that remind me of the Secret Garden. Like my own personal paradise. I'll take pictures and/or videos but I doubt it will do it justice. They are just so quiet and lush and green and hidden away. Sigh… That will be my happy place when I need to unwind.

Dunkin & Isabel are fine. Sleeping and looking out the windows. I put up three of those lambswool window perches and they could not be happier. Sometimes they are in one together, so cute!

Life is good. I am happy.

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Oh, sigh…

Now that my grad school search is over, which I have been stressing and fretting and worrying and obsessing about for 11 months what the heck am I going to talk about?


Perhaps my cats? They have been sadly un-bragged about recently. Here they are, my two lovelies…

Still no luck on selling my house. Lots of people are telling me I should hold onto it, hire a property manager, and rent it out. Anyone have thoughts/opinions on that? It scares the poop out of me financially. All those "what if's"…

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Life, Love & Death: Part 3

The final message was from Tom, a Vox neighbor. I have copied his story just for convenience, but it is of course on his blog...

You know, it’s easy to write a story. I can think up a character and put him in all kinds of situations. Just like my last entry, I can write a story where the character gets picked on and then finds the inner strength to overcome it. The thing is, though, no matter what I write, that character doesn't exist and every situation that he gets into, every feeling that he has is totally make believe. There is no physical attachment between me and the character. It's not real life.
On the other hand, real life hit me in the gut this morning after I got to work. I started my normal routine of checking e-mails and following up on items that I had been working on yesterday when an older woman that I work with brought a sympathy card to me. One of the guy's mothers had passed away and, like normally happens, a card is passed around for everyone to sign. Mary was standing there waiting for me to sign the card when she whispered something that I couldn't quite understand. I work in a loud factory and it is often hard to hear, so I finished signing the card and turned to face her so I could pay close attention to what she was saying, "What did you say?"
She said, "My brother was killed on Saturday."
I blinked in disbelief, not expecting this kind of news at all, especially from the person who was passing around a sympathy card for someone else. I can honestly say that my heart started hurting when she told me that. In a clumsy, stuttering voice I told her that I was sorry and she started telling me what happened. Her eyes watered up and she told me how a 17 year old boy swerved off the road and then jerked back on, sending his car across the road head on into her brother's car. Her brother was killed instantly and the young boy died on the way to the hospital.
What do you say at a time like that?  "I'm sorry"  just doesn't seem like enough, but that's all that I found myself saying. She managed to fake a little smile and said, "Thank you." Then she was walking away, off to get the sympathy card signed by someone else.
I have more respect for that woman than she will ever know. Here she was, grieving over the loss of her brother, and she was doing every thing she could to comfort someone else in their time of grief. It humbled me and I have been thinking about it ever since. Life can be so unpredictable… and so painful.

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Life, Love & Death: Part 3

One day, when I was a freshman in high school, I saw a kid from my class was walking home from school.

His name was Kyle.

It looked like he was carrying all of his books. I thought to myself, "Why would anyone bring home all his books on a Friday? He must really be a nerd."

I had quite a weekend planned (parties and a football game with my friends tomorrow afternoon), so I shrugged my shoulders and went on. As I was walking, I saw a bunch of kids running toward him. They ran at him, knocking all his books out of his arms and tripping him so he landed in the dirt. His glasses went flying, and I saw them land in the grass about ten feet from him.

He looked up and I saw this terrible sadness in his eyes

My heart went out to him. So, I jogged over to him as he crawled around looking for his glasses, and I saw a tear in his eye. As I handed him his glasses, I said, "Those guys are jerks. They really should get lives."

"He looked at me and said, "Hey thanks!" There was a big smile on his face. It was one of those smiles that showed real gratitude.

I helped him pick up his books, and asked him where he lived. As it turned out, he lived near me, so I asked him why I had never seen him before. He said he had gone to private school before now. I would have never hung out with a private school kid before.

We talked all the way home, and I carried some of his books. He turned out to be a pretty cool kid. I asked him if he wanted to play a little football with my friends. He said yes.

We hung out all weekend and the more I got to know Kyle, the more I liked him, and my friends thought the same of him. Monday morning came, and there was Kyle with the huge stack of books again. I stopped him and said, "Boy, you are gonna really build some serious muscles with this pile of books everyday!" He just laughed and handed me half the books.

Over the next four years, Kyle and I became best friends. When we were seniors we began to think about college. Kyle decided on Georgetown and I was going to Duke. I knew that we would always be friends, that the miles would never be a problem. He was going to be a doctor and I was going for business on a football scholarship.

Kyle was valedictorian of our class. I teased him all the time about being a nerd. He had to prepare a speech for graduation. I was so glad it wasn't me having to get up there and speak

Graduation day, I saw Kyle. He looked great. He was one of those guys that really found himself during high school. He filled out and actually looked good in glasses. He had more dates than I had and all the girls loved him. Boy, sometimes I was jealous! Today was one of those days.

I could see that he was nervous about his speech. So, I smacked him on the back and said, "Hey, big guy, you'll be great!" He looked at me with one of those looks (the really grateful one) and smiled.

" Thanks," he said.

As he started his speech, he cleared his throat, and began

"Graduation is a time to thank those who helped you make e it through those tough years. Your parents, your teachers, your siblings, maybe a coach…but mostly your friends… I am here to tell all of you that being a friend to someone is the best gift you can give them. I am going to tell you a story."

I just looked at my friend with disbelief as he told the story of the first day we met. He had planned to kill himself over the weekend. He talked of how he had cleaned out his locker so his Mom wouldn't have to do it later and was carrying his stuff home.

He looked hard at me and gave me a little smile. "Thankfully, I was saved. My friend saved me from doing the unspeakable."

I heard the gasp go through the crowd as this handsome, popular boy told us all about his weakest moment. I saw his Mom and dad looking at me and smiling that same grateful smile. Not until that moment did I realize it's depth.

Never underestimate the power of your actions. With one small gesture you can change a person's life. For better or for worse.

God puts us all in each others lives to impact one another in some way. Look for God in others.

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Life, Love & Death: Part 2

By Lennie Echterling
JMU Counseling Faculty

Two years ago on Valentine’s Day, a reporter from the local television station called me.  She wanted to film an interview with a  counselor about the psychology of love for a news feature that evening.  Even though I was busy, I agreed to do it because I had a particular agenda that I wanted to promote.  I have long been concerned that the media have placed entirely too much emphasis on one particular form of love – romantic.  This interview would be a nice opportunity to draw attention to the other kinds of love we have for our fellow human beings. In a time in which there is so much conflict and strife in the world, I wanted to promote Valentine’s Day as a time to commemorate, cherish, and reflect on how others enrich our lives with their countless acts of love, generosity, kindness, and compassion.

Before the interview, I quickly jotted down several talking points. The first fact that I wanted to highlight was that every year teachers receive more Valentine cards than any other demographic group.  Another important piece of information I wanted to note was  that Valentine cards for nonromantic relationships, such as relatives and friends, dominate the greeting card racks. In fact, millions of people use this holiday to express their feelings of affection and devotion to those with whom they are not romantically involved, but nevertheless deeply love.

As the camera began to record the interview in my office, I used every chance I could to point out that love for others is not limited to only courtship.  In fact, a sense of attachment is a fundamental need not only in the early years of our personal development, but also throughout our lives.  Our deep bonds of loving relationships include those with our parents, caregivers, friends, relatives, mentors, teachers, spiritual leaders, and healers.  I even came up with what I thought was a great sound bite.  I said to the interviewer, “We celebrate our independence on the Fourth of July, but we should rejoice in our interdependence on Valentine’s Day.”  I went on to talk about how we could use this day to thank those whose loving devotion had made such a big difference in our lives. Valentine’s Day was our chance to express our love and gratitude to all humanity, not just our romantic partners.

In spite of my best efforts to convince her, the interviewer wasn’t buying any of it.  She kept coming back with questions about courtship and I stubbornly stayed on message.  At one point, she asked, “Is there such a thing as love at first sight?”

I answered, “Of course! For example, in my work with disasters, I’ve  witnessed countless acts of love that strangers offered to survivors. It’s so inspiring to see these people immediately show their love by  reaching out to those in need and sharing their time, sweat, money, and hearts.”

That evening, I watched the local news and discovered that the reporter had cut nearly all of my comments.  Instead, she had found another counselor who focused entirely on romantic relationships and  passionate love.  I was disappointed, but not surprised that this resourceful reporter had found another spokesperson in agreement with her perspective on Valentine’s Day.

A few minutes after the broadcast, I received a telephone call. I thought that it was someone who had seen the news feature, but the caller was my brother Dennis, who lived across the country from me. He had recently returned from a business trip to Thailand and telephoned to share his adventures with me.  I immediately forgot about my disappointment as I heard the wonderful details about his travels, discoveries and experiences. He described the beautiful temples that he had visited, the warm people he had met, and the fun  he had parasailing for the first time.  Of course, I made a stupid pun about the great ties that he must have found there in Thailand. Dennis always brought the kid out in me.  We also exchanged updates on our children, spouses, and day-to-day lives.  After nearly an hour, we ended our conversation.  We wished each other a happy  Valentine’s Day and, as we had done in closing our telephone calls over the past several years, told one another, “I love you.”

Five days later, Dennis was killed in a mountain-climbing accident. The sudden and tragic loss of my brother was a painful shock.  He left behind a young widow, two teenage children, and many grief-stricken relatives and friends.  In my heartache and anguish, I found that I took some small comfort in the fact that our final words were affirmations of our love to one another.

As the second anniversary of my brother’s death approaches, I feel even more strongly that Valentine’s Day is a reminder to cherish and celebrate all forms of love. The fundamental challenge we face in life is not so much in finding true love with one special person as it is in recognizing the true love that is all around us.  The deep and heart-felt emotional bond tying us together takes on many wonderful forms – a parent’s rapt gaze into an infant’s eyes, a  mentor’s patient presence in a child’s life, a stranger’s random act of kindness, or a life-long friend’s playful bantering.  Whatever the form, love is the core of our humanity, the fabric of our shared sense of community, and the measure of our meaning in life.

My intention in sharing my Valentine’s Day story is not to uplift you.  Instead, my hope is to goad you into feeling a sense of urgency  to make every day – not just Valentine’s Day – a labor of love.  The most important lesson of that experience for me has been to treat every encounter as possibly the last I will ever have with someone. In that never-to-be-repeated moment, I have the existential choice to listen with empathy, speak from the heart, act with compassion, and  show unconditional acceptance.

I was lucky that my last conversation with my brother ended with us  affirming how we felt for one another.  But you and I cannot leave such a vitally important message to chance.  If we are truly dedicated to personal growth and thriving relationships, then we must treat every day as if it were Valentine’s Day. Once a year is hopelessly inadequate to address our fundamental needs. We need to exercise our hearts with daily workouts of compassion for all our fellow human beings.

So, this is my Valentine to you. Thank you for allowing me to share my story and I wish you the best in being an agent of compassion throughout the year!


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