To Memphis and back: lessons I’ve learned along the way

We have officially returned and started to resettle into the Seattle area after spending a year ‘abroad’ in Memphis. For this last entry I’ve taken some time to step back and reflect. Below is an attempt to share with you lessons I learned or that were reinforced with our transition to, living in, and return from Tennessee. 

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Pic taken from Memphis looking over Mississippi River and I40 bridge

I’m not going to lie, I have fumbled around with this last entry and trying to figure out a way to make it sound less Life Coachy (not that there is anything wrong with Life Coaches per se… but full disclosure here: I am not one). After several starts, stops, and edits, I’ve just decided, it is what it is. We’re all coaches of at least one life (our own) so in sharing lessons from my life it’s hard for me to escape this tone. 

Also, I’m always hesitant to write, or share, things that border on advice, because I rarely believe in a one-size fits all model or life-view. I am far from a perfect individual and don’t want to come across as holier-than-thou or I-got-it-all-figured-out. The below lessons are things I have found helpful in my life, and you may or may not find the same. Feel free to take or leave anything I say.

So without further ado, here are a few of the life lessons I’ve learned over the past year:

Be careful with too much free time

Upon moving to Memphis I was not working and we didn’t have any local social contacts. I suddenly found myself with an abundance of free time. The more the merrier, right? I could finally pursue my hobbies, keep on top of all my household chores, try out some new recipes, workout regularly – this was going to be fantastic! Well, yes, I’m not going to lie, it certainly has the potential to be. But I have noticed a pattern in myself, and perhaps it may be familiar in you as well: The more free time I have, the harder it is to focus and actually perform tasks in a timely manner. I have all day to exercise, look up a new recipe, go to the store, cook dinner so it’s fine if I indulge in a bit of __________ (fill-in-the-blank aimless task). And then all of a sudden it’s evening and I hadn’t actually done any of those things that I wanted to do. Whoops. 

I quickly realized that with so much free time, I needed to organize my days to some extent. It helped when we first moved to Memphis that we only had one car. If I wanted the car for the day I would have to get up early and drive Jeff to work. Once awake, and on Base, I would then utilize their workout facility and exercise first thing in the morning. While at first this felt like a chore and sleeping in seemed much more appealing, after trying out the two options, I often felt much better and had a more productive day if I performed the former instead of the latter. 

Everyone is different in what their optimal schedule might look like and how and if it varies from day to day. Just be aware that your body’s default preferences might not be what is best for it. Mine certainly aren’t. Sometimes it needs a bit of external motivation or regimentation to get it going. I didn’t follow the exact same pattern every day but I would try to map out the things I wanted to accomplish, in order of importance, and work from there.

Scheduling daily activities to ensure they get done is part of the battle, but more important is making sure that the things you do are actually meaningful to you. Perhaps my list of the day’s activities included: watching YouTube videos of house pets walking on treadmills, finishing the tub of mint chocolate chip ice cream in the freezer, scrolling through my Facebook wall to read all my ‘friend’s’ new posts, binge-watching a past season of Survivor, and ordering Chinese food for dinner. Supposing I then accomplished all those things in the day (quite likely if that were my list), I probably wouldn’t go to bed feeling fulfilled or like I had a sense of purpose. Without continual self-reflection and focus on meaningful activities or goals, it can be easy to waft through the days aimlessly. I addressed this topic in one of my previous reflective posts under the headline ‘Insights from not working’ and what this can mean for our identity (Reflection time: challenges and insights – Part 2).  

Another reality of finding yourself swimming in free time is that you have more opportunities to be awash in your thoughts. Spending time with your thoughts can be a positive source of self-reflection, creativity, cultivating joy and purpose… but it can also lead to dangerous places. The unhealthy possibilities are endless and likely unique to each person: self-centeredness, loneliness, addictive behaviors, ruminating, catastrophizing, to name a few. Just checking the news headlines every morning and then having free time to reflect or read follow-up articles can set you on a depressing, fearful, or anger-inducing pathway. 

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It is important to be cognizant of where we focus our thoughts and emotions. I tend to have a very active mind. If it is not filled with a specific activity, it can wander or perseverate on any number of potentially detrimental areas. One way to help moderate your thoughts is to increase your awareness and regulation of them through some kind of mindfulness or meditation practice. I’m not going to go in depth here, it’s kind of a trendy topic right now, but studies are supporting the positive impacts it can have on our nervous system and overall health. There are many ways to do this and they can be secular or spiritual. 

Another helpful tool I found for directing my thoughts is acknowledging my locus of control. There are wise sayings in many traditions that go something like: Why be unhappy (or worry) about something if you can do something about it? And what is the use of being unhappy (or worrying) if there is nothing you can do about it? This is not, I repeat, this is NOT an easy thing to do. I am still a work in progress on this one, but I find it a good foundation to return to when my thoughts start to spiral down unproductive pathways.

Change is what you make of it 

Change can be scary. No matter how good that change is, it’s still new and different and we often take comfort in the old and familiar. I am not naturally a very adventurous person. As a Highly Sensitive Person (term from Elaine Aron’s book on the topic) each new experience was a bit overwhelming and by default I usually preferred the previous thing. My mom said as a small child I would have been content subsisting on a diet of milk and bananas. Every time she introduced a new food to me I would resist (sorry Mom). 

As young children we don’t exactly have much voluntary control on our attitudes as our responses are probably more emotionally driven. But as we get older we gain control of our perspective on trying new things. We can have a negative perspective: Nothing is going to be as good as bananas, it’s a waste of time to try something else. Or we can have a more positive perspective: I’m not sure what this new thing is going to be like but maybe it’ll be as good, or even better (if that is possible) than bananas. 

But what if it isn’t as good as bananas or there’s a sudden dearth of bananas (actually an imminent threat at the moment: Why the world faces significant banana shortages) and we’re forced to consist on this new thing? We could just sit sullenly, longing for bananas the whole time. Or we could try to have a positive attitude about it. What was that wise saying I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago about being unhappy about something if there’s nothing you can do about it? 

Okay, I acknowledge there are definite shortcomings to this positive attitude perspective. This approach is in reference to the new circumstances I found myself in: moving to a new area with new people, new job, etc. I would say it works best when encountering different but somewhat neutral changes. I am not saying always put a positive spin on things or mind-over-matter in all circumstances. Sometimes life changes downright suck. You can’t positive attitude your way through abuse, or injustice, or death etc. If life gives you Drano to drink you don’t set aside your bananas and give it a go. You put a Mr. Yuk Sticker on that thing and keep it far far away from your food supplies. Or, say, you somehow ingested some Drano… don’t sit still and put a positive spin on it, get up and seek help immediately!

Sorry, that was a pretty terrible analogy (or was it? I can’t really tell…). What I’m trying to say is that this positive attitude thing is an oversimplification but, when properly applied, it can be a powerful tool when facing the unknown. It’s often true that the attitude you approach a new situation with, as well as the attitude you adopt after experiencing the new thing, can have almost as profound an affect on your well-being as the experience itself. Change is often what you make of it.

It can be helpful to view life as seasons

I have discussed in previous posts, most notably here: Springtime Interlude – the changing of seasons, my observations of the literal seasons while in Memphis. I love the Northwest climate but it really is quite moderate compared to other places (though maybe I wouldn’t be saying that if I had been there for Seattle’s #Snowmaggedon2019).

We throw out the word ‘seasons’ frequently in a metaphorical manner. Most often regarding pockets of time and circumstance in life. We can relate our emotions or stages in life with our observations of the periodicity we see in nature. I found that I was able to connect more to this analogy by actually experiencing and examining nature more fully over the course of this last year. 

Acknowledging these seasonal changes can help us appreciate them more. The Southern summer was so hot and humid that the first days of cooler weather in the fall felt more refreshing. The winter scenery was particularly forlorn which made the emerging spring colors seem more vibrant. Even the perceived negatives of one season can be a positive in another area, or vice versa. Yes, I detested the colors in the cooler months but I loved the climate for running outdoors. While the summer flora was beautiful, the oppressive heat and insects that it brought with it created a horrible environment for outdoor activities.

There have been times in my life (when I was working full-time while taking a certification program or planning a wedding or training for an Ironman) that I felt overwhelmed, sleep deprived, and I longed for any unscheduled free time. Conversely, over the past year, with so much free time I found myself missing the routine and sense of purpose that the busier periods in my life provided. If we spent our entire life in one season we would miss the benefits or perspective that other seasons provide.

I recently finished reading The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World which was a multi-day interview on the topic with the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (I would recommend the book to everyone). One of the pillars of joy that they both discussed was perspective. The Dali Lama said, “When you look at the same event from a wider perspective, your sense of worry and anxiety reduces, and you have greater joy.” It can be our default to narrow our vision when we’re in a particular season and have difficulty seeing beyond our own immediate circumstances. Opening up and recognizing that there are other seasons, and that the people around us are in various seasons of their own, can free us from some of that self-centeredness and worry.   

Seasons aren’t eternal (well, maybe they are in fantasy tales or perhaps places like Siberia…). This can create valuable perspective in both directions. The most obvious being if you find yourself in a difficult period of life: A period of loss or mourning, of feeling overwhelmed with life, or depressed, or falling on hard times. It can be helpful to know that things can change, this is not your eternal lot in life, this is merely a season. 

Oddly, in my case in the last year, I had some difficulty with the opposite. I felt overwhelmingly blessed, almost to the point of guilt, with where I was at in my life. I knew that I had many privileges with time and finances and health that many do not have. But I found viewing this period as a season was helpful as well. My life will not always be seamless, so I should enjoy it while I have it. Obviously, be wise with what you do with it, but don’t feel bad about it. Life will inevitably give you things to feel bad about so it’s kind of foolish to stress the good times too.

Get connected as soon as possible

While I was able to use technology to stay connected with distant friends and family, this section is talking about face-to-face interactions with people who live or work nearby. The older I get, the more important I realize this is. As a life-long introvert who’s struggled with social anxiety, I have long tried to rationalize this truth away. But if you are a living, breathing, human being, social connectedness is vital for health and wellness. I know, how inconvenient. 

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If we were to move somewhere new again, I would make this my number one priority. Instead, my initial focus was to participate in various activities – festivals, concerts, events, etc. I searched for things to do in Memphis. I looked at upcoming activities at the Recreational Center on Base. Though this approach proved helpful in strengthening Jeff and mine’s bond with one another and introducing us to the area, it did little to foster connection with new individuals. Unless you’re the rare, perplexing, social butterfly that after a brief conversation manages to exchange contact information and plan a dinner date (really, what’s wrong with these people?!), one-off activities are not usually the best way to make deeper connections.

A better approach, for someone such as myself (more of a social meerkat), is to get involved in reoccurring activities where you are surrounded by the same group of people. A side note to extreme introverts such as myself: I’ve found that socializing with, or getting to know, strangers is much more palatable when done in the guise of another activity. For me, since I love physical activities, I can muster enthusiasm to join a hiking group or sign-up for a sports league. As a comparison, it was often too intimidating to go out for a happy-hour or a party where the primary activity is face-to-face conversation with a bunch of unknown people. If you’re introverted, you don’t have to be athletic or outdoorsy, but surely there’s some activity that you enjoy – art, crafts, games, music – that you can find a community of enthusiasts to participate with. If you connect first over the shared activity, and continue to show up and engage with the same people, deeper, more personal connection will eventually occur.

Okay, long side note aside… How did we do in immediate participation in reoccurring activities? Not great. I looked up running groups in the area and took note of several. The only problem with that idea was that we moved to Memphis in the horrendous heat and humidity of mid-summer and aforementioned running groups ran at pre-dawn, no-one-should-be-awake-this-early times (and even then it was still pretty stinkin’ hot). We also made a point of trying to find a new church immediately. Though, for anyone who’s gone to church regularly, weekly attendance by no means translates to automatic connection with others. We signed up to greet on Sundays and join a small group but, due to reasons beyond our control, our participation in those areas took awhile to materialize (though once we started meeting with our small group it was one of our best and closest connections). 

So what advice would I give my previous self upon moving to Memphis last summer to help minimize loneliness and facilitate more human connection? If you’re not going to start work right away, find some other way to meet people – but be intentional. For me this could have been a regular volunteering duty, maybe on the Navy Base or for a local non-profit. I could have made more of an attempt to meet my neighbors – actually invite them over (I know, sounds terrifying). In short, as in most areas of life, it is easier to accomplish something if you’re active rather than passive. If you deem it important, don’t just wait for it to happen to you, take meaningful steps towards facilitating its occurrence. 

There is joy in being curious and paying attention 

In a book I was reading recently, the author, Anne Lamont, made the assertion that we are designed for awareness and curiosity. The more I ponder this statement, and think about experiences in my own life and from observing others, the more I agree with it. We are born as curious beings. It’s how we grow and develop. It’s easy to recall the look of excitement on a child’s face as they are playing and discover something for the first time. But somehow, as we mature along the way, it seems that we often lose sight of this. 

I’m not sure if it’s more a result of ego or inattention. Perhaps we fool ourselves into thinking we already know most things or we are too important to be bothered by the ‘mundane’. We don’t want to waste time being inquisitive, or risk looking silly. So we suppress our curiosity or limit it to areas we deem safe. But even if ego is not involved, we often just stop paying attention. As we become more and more linked to our jobs, our daily activities, and our technological devices, we simply stop looking at anything else.

This last year in Memphis I tried to take the opportunity to look around. It helped that I was in an entirely new environment and had no pretense that I should know what everything was. It also helped that I had extra time with less stress or duties I had to attend to. So I asked lots of questions. I became more observant. I would leave my phone at home and go outside and notice things like the areas and time of day different animals were present, the order that plants started flowering in the spring, the seasonal decorations and lawn ornaments that neighborhood houses chose to display. While one could argue such observations are meaningless on their own, they brought surprising peace and joy to me, the observer. In a world where it’s so easy to be stressed, we should be careful not to undervalue anything that brings such refreshment.   

Surprisingly (well, not so much in retrospect), this blog has also helped me in cultivating my curiosity and paying more attention in the last year. It was intended as a way to stay in touch with friends and family as we lived cross country for a year. Since I naturally enjoy writing and taking pictures, I thought I might as well share these things with others. While it has served as such a venue, I found that it also shaped the way I viewed some of our experiences. I subconsciously approached our time in Memphis with this narrative of finding, comparing, and relishing new things. There’s an entire fast-food stand that specializes in Sno-Cones? And they put ice cream on top?! Well, that’s different… and kind of amazing.

In short, my time spent writing and editing this blog did far more to enhance my experience than any impact I’ve likely had on you the reader. So thank you for putting up with my often long-winded descriptions of our adventures and observations over the last year. This is my last entry for this site and I intend to take a hiatus from this form of writing for the foreseeable future. It has been a pleasure to share my experiences and often random insights with you.  

To end, here is a summary of my lessons learned, written here more as a series of personal mantras than a mandate to you all:

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2 thoughts on “To Memphis and back: lessons I’ve learned along the way

  1. Very nice Danielle. I will have to read your other posts, retired people have the same dilemma when it comes to purposefully living each day.

    Like

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