What does it take to be a hero?

What does it take to be a hero? As I look at the news feeds about rescues in Syria and some of the monumental acts of sacrifice that take place daily, my first thought is that a hero is someone who does something super-human. Somebody who gives everything he or she has for a purpose they believe in. Not something that your every day, run of the mill individual is necessarily cut out to do.

And then I watched the Olympic Men’s triathlon.

I was watching Andrew Yorke. Andrew is my son Rory’s friend, a young man that I watched grow up. I have pictures of Andrew bobbing for apples in our basement, snowboarding with our family, and even some from he and Rory’s grade 8 graduation. Memories, too, of loading bikes on my truck and going over to Albion Hills to ride up and down the hills with a crew of kids that always included Andrew. Always moving, always playing, always laughing.

Still, kind of a run of the mill individual from Caledon East.

But Andrew was also the kind of kid who, when Rory was deciding whether or not to go to the regional arts high school and leave all his friends behind, called him up to tell him he had to go there…and they’d still be friends, even if they didn’t go to school together. Pretty heroic for a run of the mill 14 year old.

Andrew was ready for the Olympics, and in the best shape of his life. He stood at the beach, ready to enter the water, obviously prepared to give everything he had. And he did.

Yes, Alistair Brownlee won the event. He out-swam, out-rode and out-ran all the other competitors, Andrew included. But it was Andrew who is my hero. Because he gave everything he had. And more. Who knows what happened to cause the crash, but Andrew and Jason Wilson went down. Then Andrew did what he always does – he got up and kept going. Imagine spending years of your life focused on this single outcome, and then have your goals shatter into smithereens in a heartbeat….and then having the guts and the internal strength to get up, push your bike uphill, and keep going.

Something like that would crush most of us average mortals. We would sink into the ground and be afraid to rise. Not Andrew. He kept going. He finished the race, and he turned and waved to the crowds.

If you must know, I was crying when I saw Andrew cross the finish line. Not because I felt sorry for him, but because I am so fiercely proud of this young man. He is our Olympian, with a spirit and determination that knows no bounds. Andrew, you are a hero to Caledon, to Canada, and to all who know and love you.

Don’t aim for the trees!

I was 38 years old when I started skiing. My then husband had skied all his life, and we wanted our family ski together. So Rory (5), Jaime (3) and Susan (38) started into lessons at the Mansfield Ski Club. 7 years later, we could all ski down anything, and had skied in Utah and all over Alberta and BC. In all those years of lessons, I am pretty confident that each and every ski instructor shared this lesson: don’t look at what you want to avoid…look at where you are going, and your skis will take you there. Trust your skis and your ability.

Susan, Julie and Kira contemplating our skiing exploits!

Susan, Julie and Kira contemplating our skiing exploits!

In 2007, we were skiing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming with my most wonderful friend Kira and her family. Second to last day, lots of powder and great weather, I (stupidly) decided to follow Jaime down some steeps through the trees. I dodged the trees successfully…until I slowed down and came out into a clearing…and managed to catch a spruce tree that I was trying to avoid with my right ski. That ski released. The left ski did not. 

3 breaks in the lower left leg, a most memorable toboggan ride, emergency surgery, a rod, a plate and lots of screws, 7 months of intensive physiotherapy and I was back to skiing the next winter. Kira and I headed to Banff and skied Lake Louise. It was as if I hadn’t broken my leg. Except, I had developed a new and irrational fear of skiing in trees. If I even got close to them, I had an immediate and visceral reaction of panic.

I still love to ski, but I always stay away from trees. Those beautiful little glades with trails that beckon? I avoid them. Even the larger open tree areas in Whistler and Big White, I stay away from those. It limits the areas I can ski, but quells my panic. 

A bit of mountain to ski down...note the lack of trees here.

A bit of mountain to ski down…note the lack of trees here.

However, last week, the most miraculous thing happened. Kira and I were in Whistler, and after the first day of heavy, wet snow (and tired legs), Kira reminded me that we just have to trust our skis and our abilities…and make sure we look at where we want to go, not what we want to avoid. In other words, don’t aim for the trees.

We ended up in Symphony Bowl one morning, and down we skied. We took different routes and before I knew it, I found myself in some tight trees. I could feel the panic start to rise as my skis were turning. I found myself staring hard at the trees, turning past them and looking for the next one to get ready for my turn.

Then it happened. I heard Kira’s voice in my head, echoed by all those other ski instructors, and I actually listened. Then instead of looking at the trees, I looked at where I wanted to go.

Holy cow. 

It really worked! 

I was turning like a  ninja (or my version of an old lady ninja), gliding between the trees like I wasn’t afraid at all.

And you know what?

I wasn’t afraid at all!

I could end my story here, celebrating my brave and skillful skiing ability; how I learned to look at where I wanted to go, and not at what I needed to avoid – the trees. But that is not the purpose of this story. As we went up the chair lift, I shared my inspiration with my two ski buddies (who love and tolerate my relative insanity). In a moment of quiet contemplation, Remy turned and said something like this:

Three skiers focusing ahead...or at least on the camera!

Three skiers focusing ahead…or at least on the camera!

“That is a metaphor for life. Trust yourself, trust your abilities, and point yourself in the direction you want to go. Don’t look at what you want to avoid…look ahead at where you want to go.”

So, my friends, whether you are skiing, traveling, writing a policy document, developing a new learning program, or just trying to live a good life, remember to focus on where you want to go. Don’t focus on what you want or need to avoid. That will lead you astray, or at least into the next tree. Look ahead.

Trust me, it works. 


Change and Soccer: A retrospective

Change. It happens every day, all the time. We change our socks, change directions, change our plans. If we like change, we relish each new perspective. If we are anxious about change, we develop habits to maintain the status quo. But regardless, we live lives of change.

I’ve learned that there is more to change than meets the eye. In fact, I’ve found three key things that I bring to clients, friends and others when when they are experiencing change:

  • We can adapt!
  • Change is different for everyone.
  • The “behind the scenes” parts of change are often the greatest…and we don’t expect them.

My daughter was 5 years old when she announced she wanted to play soccer. Not only that, she wanted to be a great soccer player. Before I knew it, I was a coach for a bunch of little girls, all running in different directions, trying to chase a ball towards a net, with Jaime leading the charge. The “Red Team” was pretty good, and in time, we made the shift from House League to Rep.

The changes were all worth it...here's the Captain of the Blue Devils!

The changes were all worth it…here’s the Captain of the Blue Devils!

The changes were HUGE! More practices, more time traveling, more injuries; where do I stop? I almost run out of breath when I think of my life, let alone the girls’ lives, during those 5 years of Rep play and travel. It was a wild ride, with moments of great joy, of shock and disbelief, of exhaustion, stinky shin pads, and everything in between.

It was so very worth it.

I learned more than I bargained for being a soccer coach.

I learned that we can adapt. To anything. Shifting from House League to Rep meant meant onerous paperwork, more formality and accountability, and way more games. The change was hard, at first, but we adapted.

I learned that the change was different for everyone.

The girls had to adapt to the physical and emotional demands of playing at a higher level, 12 months year. They couldn’t stay out late, they had to get up early to do homework, they had to eat better to perform better.

Parents had to plan to travel to away games, pay for competitions in the US and England, and explain to their friends why they had no social life away from the soccer pitch.

I spent much of my waking hours designing practices, running games, traveling and trying to fit my day job around my every increasing soccer demands.

The “behind the scenes” parts of change were unexpected. Who knew that going from House league to Rep would impact my grocery bill so much? Or that my knowledge of cruciate knee injuries would become almost encyclopedic, and I would start to invite the local physiotherapist home for dinner?

Traveling with Jaime and Maddie (who is the physiotherapists daughter and now plays professionally!)

Traveling with Jaime and Maddie (who is the physiotherapist’s daughter and now plays professional soccer in England!)

Who anticipated that my entire family needed to have their passports up to date? Or the countless hours I spent reading weather forecasts? All this, just because my daughter wanted to be a great soccer player?

She became a great soccer player, by the way. Captain of her university team. The changes she made, I made, and everyone else made, were all worth it. Yup, they were hard at the time (the grocery bills were astronomical!). But we chose to accept the changes that were a result of a life of soccer.

I challenge you to stop and think about a change that you may soon be undertaking, and consider these things:

  • If you are moving, changing jobs, changing an activity at work, know that the obvious change is do-able and you can adapt. We all can.
  • Change will impact people in a different way. Your children may be affected by a move differently that you. Changing jobs will mean you will work with new people, who will be influenced by you.
  • There is residual change, or “behind the scenes” change, too. A move means getting to set your kitchen up just the way you always wanted. Learning a new software program means adding a new item to your resumé.

I believe the act of choosing to accept change makes all the difference in the world. If you accept the larger grocery bills and the long drives with exhausted (and stinky) teenagers, you will survive, and even thrive in a world of change.

One of the changes/gifts of being a coach? Gaining another daughter...the tall one!

One of the changes/gifts of being a coach? Gaining another daughter…the tall one!

Phantom pain and the scent of pine

I’ve been working pretty hard and the to-do list on my desk is a bit overwhelming. Time for a run. I suit up and head out the front door. The first part of any run from home involves a bit of trail running, so I have to focus carefully on where I step. But once I get out on the road, my mind wanders and I think about other things.

I was flying up Escarpment hill, and an unbidden cacophony of scattered  “to-dos” dance around in my head – gotta finish writing up workshop results, do a briefing note – who reads them anyway? – plan for the team training initiative – who will be there? upgrade the latest strategy…OMG!

PAIN! Lightning bolts of agony below my left knee cause me to stumble and sway, like the theatrical soccer player who flings himself on the ground when he stubs his toe, as Merebeth well knows! I’m cursing out loud, angry and helpless.

I am so stupid. Yet again, I let the stress of work take over my life, and my body’s reaction is one of extreme, phantom pain. When I broke my leg years ago, I had all sorts of metal inserted and screwed into my bones. Over time, as my leg healed, most of the titanium has been removed. But I find when I am under stress, I get phantom pain in my leg where the screws used to be. Each time it happens, it is related directly to my own state of mind, and I have learned I can make it stop very quickly, if I can reduce my stress.

LIttle scars below my knee mark the history of titanium screws in my leg.

Little scars below my knee mark the history of titanium screws in my leg.

According to Mika Nagel, Studio Director at Chopra Yoga Centre (and I imagine according to most practitioners who deal with this topic), stress is a choice. Rather than value and savour the moments I was spending running, I had chosen to think about my workload. My body’s reaction was one that forced me to stop experiencing the stress and focus on something else completely…PAIN. Talk about a wake up call.

Naturally, despite the pain, I don’t stop running. I’m a runner. We don’t do that. But the pain forcibly reminded me that I need to allow myself to experience the run. I can and should be mindful of the moment and shift my perspective, bringing awareness to the here and now, and not the “what if”.

Funny, when I do that, two things happen. First, I inhale and my nose is filled with the sweet scent of pine. And second, as I push-off with my leg to run another step, the pain is not noticeable.

I realize that the pine scent comes from branches torn off tree stems during a storm last week; I see two pileated woodpeckers chasing each other into those very trees; the heat from the spring sunshine makes my hair stick to the back of my neck, when the day before, I was wearing mittens…all that I would have missed, if I had still been thinking about…what was I thinking about?

When I am mindful of the moment, I succeed. If I am working, I am productive and I don’t miss out because I am perpetually functioning with focused attention. When I am running (insert whatever you want here), I don’t miss out either because I am mindful of what I am experiencing at the time.

Try it. Let’s hope you don’t wait until your phantom pain brings you to a grinding halt. Choose mindfulness, choose to pay attention to the present.  Life can be profoundly moving and you don’t want to miss it. Enjoy the sweet scent of the pine.

Capitol Experiences!

A person can learn a lot from three days in the nation’s capitol. I’m doing some interesting but unusual work for Natural Resources Canada, and it will take me to Ottawa fairly regularly for the next while. 2 mornings of running along the canal and 3 days of meetings generated a lot of learning opportunities for me. I’ve distilled them below, for your reading and learning pleasure. Enjoy!

Cab drivers can be amazing! Rory asked me if being in Ottawa improved my sense of nationalism. I told him it did, all because of a conversation I had with a cab driver. My driver was originally from Lebanon, hadn’t been home in years and missed it terribly. But his son is going to graduate from med school this summer, and his daughter is already a lawyer. He told me that coming to Canada gave his children a future, and he is so proud to live here. Chatting with him made me proud to be Canadian.

Eating alone in a fancy restaurant can be fun. Too often those of us who travel a lot spend our time ordering room service and working while we eat. This visit, I ended up going out alone to a wonderful Italian restaurant, Mama Theresa’s. It was busy with couples and groups, and as I sat at my table, people looked at me with curiosity and a perhaps a dash of pity. That is, until the waiter brought me a free glass of chianti, and waited on me as if I was the most important patron in the entire place. And as I sat sipping my wine, I couldn’t help but listen to the woman sitting behind me talk to her dining companion about her parents. They had moved from Budapest to Belleville in the 1950s, and she was so proud of their brave decision to leave home. It put tears in my eyes. I might have missed that had I been with other company.

Civil service working conditions are not glamorous. I spent one day moving from meeting to meeting, bouncing between cubicle to small, windowless boardrooms. The next day, I was in a government building that was built in the 1700s (I am only speculating here) and was filled with dust, darkness and mildew. The folks I am working with are vibrant, interesting and motivated people who have to do their work under these challenging conditions. If you work for private industry, you’d never have to work in conditions like that. These folks believe strongly in what they do to put up with those conditions.

Runners in Ottawa are TANKS! Either that, or I am one serious wimp. Each morning, I ran out to the canal and danced over the icy trails, wearing my IceBugs (http://icebugcanada.com/). I wore winter running tights, jacket, a wool cap and mitts. The Ottawa runners wore ¾ length spring tights, little ball caps and had bare hands! Perhaps living in the nation’s capital forces you to toughen up more than the rest of us. I was duly impressed.

Smiles are infectious.  Running along the canal, most runners keep their faces turned inward. Not me. My experiment involved smiling, no, beaming at everyone who dared make eye contact with me. Each and every runner I saw smiled back. Then the guards who work security in the government buildings? I grinned at all of them. Most of them now think I am certifiable. But by the end of my second day, I had a new friend behind the security desk who loved Stompin’ Tom and offered to be my escort in the building. Smiles are a valuable commodity. Use them well and use them often.

So when in Ottawa, listen to your cab drivers, eat alone, be vibrant, respect the toughness of runners and above all, smile!!!

This is the kind of grin that works!

This is the kind of grin that works!

Can you use your passions to slow down?

Busy-ness and passion. Those are two things I’ve been thinking about lately. I’m busy packing, storing, throwing out, doing all those things involved in moving. Oh yes, and then there’s my work, filled with projects and clients who need time and attention. I’m madly running from one place to another, trying to organize while my head is spinning around on my shoulders.

All I really want to do is indulge in my passions for a while – skiing, running, fishing, and music.

Because when I am involved in something I am passionate about, “it”, and not all the other “stuff”, captures my attention and focus. My mind, that is currently flitting from project to client to tape and packing crates, will slow down and focus on one thing instead of a gazillion. Here’s what I wrote to a friend last year about how I feel when I am fishing…

For me, there is a bizarre sense of urgency coupled with a peace of mind, body and soul that salmon fishing brings. A sense of urgency, because once I am near “the river” (which is any river where I might wet a fly), I want get out, walk around, make decisions about type of fly, where the best lies are, and how quickly can I get my waders and gear on to get out in the river. My heart just races, and I usually laugh out loud because I’m so anxious. Once I get geared up and I know where I want to cast, I step into the water. 

And that’s when time stands still.

Just one more cast?

Just one more cast?

The urgency stops. All the thoughts that seem to bang around in my head – about kids, money, relationships – everything leaves my mind. I feel the pull and push of the water, and focusing on balance becomes essential, and then second nature. The temperature of the water means my feet get cold, but it doesn’t matter. My heartbeat seems to slow down and as soon as I start to cast my line out, there is a peace the just embraces me. 

Things that we are passionate about allow us to rest, or allow our minds to rest. For those of us who are busy doing those gazillion things, when we indulge in our passions, we let all the extraneous busy-ness float away, and we pause. Casting a fly rod, riding a horse, skiing down a mountain…it is all the same. Our minds, used to traveling at warp speed and changing directions at a moment’s notice, are quieted and focused.

For you, it may be the thrill of the steeps at Whistler. Or the calm and delight that comes from writing a new song. Perhaps it is walking in the woods, or playing a guitar. But that time when you are focused on your passion allows you to pause and rest.

When I really think about all the work I have ahead of me, I get so anxious my teeth chatter and I want to chain myself to my desk (or cover myself in packing tape!). But then all I do is focus on my ankles…where I can imagine the water coming up over my wading boots and the feel of the current pressing on my legs.  My passion allows me to pause and rest.

What is your passion? Can you use it, in these busy and hectic times, to pause and rest? Try it. Tell me how it works.

Pretty passionate about skiing as well. Peak to Peak Gondola with no one else but the two of us!

Pretty passionate about skiing as well. Peak to Peak Gondola with no one else but the two of us!

Stop, look and listen

My running buddy, ready to go!

My running buddy, ready to go!

Noon o’clock, time for a run. On go the tights, jacket, my winter IceBug running shoes, iPod and out I go. 6 degrees with a breeze on my face that feels almost like spring. I’m listening to Sprag Session (http://spragsession.com/) playing in my ears, and I’m pumping up the Escarpment hill with my most wonderful running companion, Lucy Blue.

When Lucy and I reach the top (and my breathing starts to slow down), I take a glance over my left shoulder…and come to a complete halt. The view I see are fields of white, green and brown, with the Toronto skyline in the distance. It is both elegant and peaceful, and takes my breath away.

Remember when you were a little kid and your parents taught you to “Stop, look and listen”? Why that thought came into my head, I don’t know, but since I was stopped, I thought I’d complete the steps by looking and listening.

I looked. Not just a glance, but a long, careful look. Then it occurred to me that I was only looking in one direction, so I took a few steps and turned 360 degrees. I not only saw Toronto, but I saw the red pine forest behind me, the snowy, gravel road ahead of me, and a red-tailed hawk that I would have missed if I hadn’t turned.

Just for fun, I crouched down to look at the world from a lower level – the level from which Lucy sees the world. The dirt on my shoes was much clearer (and closer), and I realized that she couldn’t see over the grass to see Toronto! Her line of sight was much different from mine, though we were traveling together.

I listened then. I could hear my own breathing, slower now, and that of Lucy’s. I heard the wind in the pines, and whistling call of a blue jay, almost like a summons for me to stand up and get moving. The sound of my steps, crunching in the muddy gravel, was louder than I expected. Lucy was ready to bounce and play again – she is such a joyous running buddy – and we headed west with a renewed sense of adventure.

I rarely stop when I am running. I tend to suit up and just go, letting the cares of the world slide away while I focus on form, breathing, movement. But my stop, look and listen session was a gift I gave to myself that made the entire experience a better one.

This got me thinking about my work, and how I need to spend more time stopping, looking and listening.  I have a tendency to try to work as fast as possible, to provide my clients with their outcomes as soon as I can. But there is a time and place for stopping mid stream, looking at the work to date, and then listening to the client, to my colleagues and my own conscience, to ensure I am providing the best quality work possible.

We are all so busy in our personal and professional lives that stopping sometimes is the furthest thing from our minds. But if you stop, only for a few moments, you can focus on things that are not in motion. You can see things from different perspectives, and find things you might otherwise have missed. You may appreciate those who travel with you a bit more as well, because you see and understand their efforts. Stop, look and listen. And learn.