Monday, August 31, 2009


When I first became a Buddhist I found it inspiring- yet a bit painful – to take responsibility for my life. I’m a middle child and attributed most of my difficulties on being a member of this ignored placement in the family birth order. It would seem the oldest child is usually the most successful, and the youngest siblings make great comedians and performers. Middle children’s claim to fame is they are often the peace makers of the family (more about this in another blog).

However, the point is, I spent a lot of my life blaming my problems on someone – or something, outside of myself. I had a litany of excuses for why I couldn’t accomplish any given task or role. Whether or not my reasoning was sound isn’t the point. It really boils done to the fact that blaming others for my troubles did not help me overcome anything.

Over the years I have made good strides in taking personal responsibility for things. However, I was recently reminded about how deeply ingrained denial, or the “blaming others for your problems” can have on one’s life.

Here’s a case in point.

One of my clients is The Schuster Center, the first business school created exclusively for dentists. One innovative program Dr. Schuster created is the Dental Fitness program. This program includes an interactive process where the patient gets a tooth-by-tooth analysis of their teeth and gums. The amount of plaque, as well as bleeding (which denotes infection) are evaluated and given a number from 1 (minimal problem) to 10 (severe infection and bone loss). By knowing exactly where they stand, and with instruction on proper maintenance, patients learn how dental and gum disease begins, and how to stop it.

The program grew out of Dr. Schuster’s frustration in the early stages of his practice.

“I had a difficult start in Dyersville, Iowa when the farmers would send their boys to a dentist to 'get all their teeth out because they were going to lose them anyway’,” said Dr. Schuster. “I remember talking to these people and saying….what is it about teeth that you think you can go without them or just let them rot and take them out. You certainly wouldn't let that happen to your fingers or your toes. Doesn't it make sense to find out what causes t his disease and control it rather than just take the teeth out?”

To prove his point, Dr. Schuster guaranteed his patients that if they participated in his Dental Fitness program they would have no new decay or gum disease. If there was, they didn't have to pay to fix it. However, the patients had to stay in the program and keep their oral health to a certain level, which Dr. Schuster’s office measured three times a year. A mere 18 months later, folks were coming in from three different states for this unique approach to oral health.

I think this is a fantastic way to look at oral health and life. However, I was surprised that a lot of my friends weren’t interested in this program. They said they avoided the dentist at all costs. And, of course, the cost was high. Dental decay and gum disease are progressive. Ignoring it only makes it worse. They would (and will) go to the dentist – when they need a root canal or some other painful malady. But until it was an emergency, they were going to live in denial.

I may have had some experience as a “responsibility dodger” as a youngster, but when it comes to oral hygiene, I made an exception. Because my mother had suffered from dental issues as a young girl, (she grew up during the Depression and even though she asked her mother for a toothbrush, they couldn’t afford it). Subsequently, she developed issues with her teeth, something that bothered her immensely. When she married and had children of her own, she vowed we would have bright smiles and strong teeth. We were poor, but she made sure we had yearly dental exams, and hovered over us to ensure we were taking care of our chompers. Dr. Leo Wirth, our family dentist, helped explain about oral hygiene, and cleaned and polished our teeth at least once a year (now I go to his son, Duane, every six months). But if I were lax and my teeth were in need of help, I knew it wasn’t the dentist’s fault – it was mine.

It really doesn’t matter whether the issue is dental health or another component in life. If we don’t accept personal responsibility for our actions, our lives will be filled with decay (both physical and spiritual). Denial and blame are not powerful agents for self improvement. Not only will this mindset make things worse, an attitude of blaming others for our problems will rob us of the power to overcome the difficulties we face. So please take these words and chew on them a while. And when you’re done, be sure to floss and brush. The world always looks brighter from behind a smile.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Write Way to Live

I recently attended the Willamette Writer’s Conference in Portland, Oregon. I stayed with my friend and fellow writer, Cindy Brown. I’ve been to writer’s conferences in Los Angeles, Santa Fe and Phoenix, but this event was truly outstanding – but not for the reasons one might suspect. I was inspired by many of my fellow writers who were attending this conference, including Cindy.

Cindy moved from Portland to Phoenix two years ago, and she was nice enough to introduce me to several of her writer friends. This was a welcome relief to me as I find it is much easier to enter unfamiliar territory if I know at least one or two people who are attending the same function.

In my interaction with Cindy’s friends, as well as several other authors that I met, I noticed the folks in the Pacific Northwest are a different breed of animal. They possess a collaborative spirit that I don’t run into in the other places I’ve lived or visited. People are happy to share notes, offer advice and sincerely wish you the best in your endeavors – even if you share the same occupation.

I enjoy this helpful attitude because I believe it’s important to live in a humanistic and compassionate manner. However, I’ve had some friends and family members chastise me for “helping the competition.” This always seemed odd advice to me. I’ve never felt life was a zero sum gain experience where there is only so much opportunity in the world and if you offer a bit of help to others that you will lose out on your share.

And while I do believe in karma, I don’t expect an equal amount of good things in direct proportion for any of my benevolent choices. Life is more complicated than that, and so is karma. If I only perform a kindness because I am looking for something in return, my intent is not generated out of compassion, it is emerging from a bartering perspective. It becomes a kind gesture in a tit for tat world and I don’t like keeping score.

My father used to tell me that if I could do a good deed for someone, and it didn’t hurt me to do so, then go ahead and do it. But he also cautioned me to not expect anything in return – not even gratitude. Kind actions are not always appreciated by the recipient. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it anyway. So I do. It’s a lesson that has served me well. I enjoy helping others, and it has become a way of life for me.

This same credo manifested in the spirit of many of the writers and teachers I met at the Willamette Writer’s Conference. Not only did they share information they learned about how to succeed as writers, they also practiced common courtesy at a higher level than I generally experience. People consistently gave up their seats to the elderly and disabled, they opened doors for one another, they drove courteously and they seemed genuinely friendly. It wasn’t an isolated case or two of interacting respectfully, it seemed to be an inherent part of the culture.

Unless someone is a hateful grouch, my guess is everyone has been kind to others on occasion. So I am asking myself (and you too, dear reader) why not extend this type of kindness and helpfulness to more people every day?

I plan on attending the Willamette Writer’s Conference next year. I learned a great deal about marketing, publishing and writing, but one of the most important lessons was not listed in the conference guide. It was the experience of being surrounded by so many people who live by the Golden Rule. And at the risk of being redundant, do unto others as you would have them do onto you, is one important lesson that bears repeating.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Let Your Spirit Fly

One of my favorite dreams is about flying. There is something powerful about defying gravity and soaring above the earth, or perching from the top of a tall building like a bird. And no, I’m not tempted to mimic our feathered friends and leave deposits on people’s windshields. This blog is about erasing negativity, not creating more nastiness.

Flying dreams make me think back to when I was a little girl. I remember someone coming to the school and giving us an inspirational talk about how we could be – or do – anything we wanted. That wasn’t entirely true We weren't allowed to chew gum or leave school early. I had tried both of those activities and got in trouble. But the future did seem to have a lot of possibilities. My friend, Laurie, decided she wanted to be a nurse. I wanted to fly. My problem is I didn’t want to fly in an airplane – too many gadgets to worry about. I just wanted to do it on my own – like Superman or Mighty Mouse.

Most of the kids took the message with a grain of salt. We were probably seven years old and already a significant number of my classmates had put a limit on what they thought they could achieve in life. Laurie’s dad was a doctor. She wanted to be a nurse. I don’t think it occurred to any of us that she could be a doctor. This was the early 1960s and female doctors were still a rarity. As far as most of my classmates were concerned, Laurie had about as much chance of being a doctor as I had of flying.

A couple years later I decided I wanted to be a writer. I had entertained the idea of a couple other careers – the first female professional baseball player, a nurse, a pediatrician, but I decided writing was an achievable dream. Fortunately, I believed I could attain this goal, and so did my mother. I took journalism classes, wrote for the school newspapers and even won a few contests. The first story I submitted to a newspaper, the Arizona Republic, was picked up. I earned a whopping $30. My first submission to the college newspaper won first place in the Rocky Mountain Community College Journalism Competition.

Then reality set in.

Everyone told me how hard it was to be published. Tales of constant rejection – even for the most famous and talented scribes - circled around my head like mosquitoes in a swamp. My idealism and optimistic mindset were severely challenged. I had occasional victories, but it was always after a difficult battle. There were times when I thought I just didn’t have what it takes to succeed as an author. Fortunately, I’m a stubborn cuss. People may have varied opinions about whether or not I have any talent, but I will only be defeated if I give up. And I have no intention of doing that.

Which brings me to my point (and yes I do have one). I still want to fly. I have a laywoman’s knowledge of how gravity works, but I’m still hopeful that someone will invent a gravity belt, or some other contraption, and I’ll shoot up into the air like Dick Tracy.

The other day I took a walk along the Sacramento River. There is a beautiful park along the river’s edge and I inhaled the scent of the trees and watched the birds. The sights, sounds and smells took me back to the nature walks I went on when I was a kid. All of a sudden, the child in me was on board. I skipped down the trail. Why is it that almost no one over 10 skips anymore? I felt more alive than I had in a long while. I watched the birds fly overhead and imagined I could join them in flight. In my mind’s eye, I could see the top of the trees and path below. My heart raced with joy.

I returned to reality and enjoyed the rest of my earth-bound hike. But those few minutes where I let my heart and mind experience flight brought me incredible joy. On the return back to the motel, I felt an exuberance I hadn’t felt in a while. Everything seemed possible again. The energy and creative thoughts that seemed unable to percolate through my system, were now flowing through me like river water tumbling over rocks.

Reality is what we make it. Was the flight I experienced imagination? Probably. Do I care? Not one bit. Perhaps my earth-bound body was on terra firma, but my spirit was flying – and I won’t let it stay grounded for too long again.