The Grass is Green Where You Water It

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Why is it that we think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence? We see the lives others’ lead, the relationships they have or the opportunities that we think just “fall into their lap” and convince ourselves that their side of the palisade is a more majestic place to be.

For many, rather than model our lives after the behaviors and actions that we see of the caretakers as we longingly gaze into that seemingly lush carpeted world of wonder, we pull up a lawn chair, prop our feet up on the fencing and allow seeds of doubt, jealousy and envy to take root. We start to spend our time obsessing about how wonderful it would be to roll in that green, green grass, right? Oh, what we wouldn’t give for just a moment to slip off our shoes and walk barefoot through the splendor of that grass, feeling the spongy, cool softness under our tender skin.

Let me clue you in on a little secret:

“All grass is brown.” “The grass is isn’t always greener on the other side. It’s green where you water it.” –Justin Bieber

If you are looking at your life and thinking that the grass is greener in someone else’s yard, there’s a big chance you aren’t taking care of your own. You need to water it, fertilize it and take the time to periodically get on your knees and pull the unwanted weeds out. Beautiful lawns, aka beautiful lives, don’t come easily. They require care and feeding. They are the product of commitment and dedication. They are beautiful because they are loved and tended to often. They require patience, sacrifice and hard work.

People who think jumping the fence and abandoning their brown patch for someone else’s green one will soon be in for a rude awakening, for I’ll bet my next paycheck that lawn will be just as ugly in no time. It isn’t about what you see, but what you do that makes your grass green. Changing addresses won’t change behavior. You have to abandon your own selfishness and accept that it isn’t about you.

Another blogger wrote an amazing passage on the same topic:

What if God has placed you where you are precisely because the grass is greener somewhere else? What if spending a season or a lifetime on a patch of brown grass is his purpose for you? What if living life on the other side of the fence is God’s way of shaping you and making you into what he wants you to be? What if God’s purpose for you is to spend your life making the grass greener where you are instead of taking your gifts and resources to where the grass is already care for and well maintained? What if dying to yourself means that you are supposed to spend yourself on behalf of the grass that isn’t quite as green?

Building an outrageous life doesn’t happen because you hopped over someone’s fence and decided to take up camp in their fabulous journey. It comes when you do the work of figuring out who you are, caring for the gifts and talents you have and making sure that the grass you have is as lush and green as you can possibly make it.

Don’t spend your life endlessly searching for the perfect patch of green; the tools you need to make your brown patch beautiful are found deep within. Water it, nuture it and watch just how beautiful it will become!

 

Ramps: Be The Outrageous Cousin; It’s More Fun!

 

20130422-074640.jpgSaturday found me deep in the woods by my house foraging for ramps. You don’t know what ramp is? I didn’t either until a few years ago; now I think I need to form my own self-help group. Of late, I have become an aficionado of these distant cousins of the Lily. Some say I am so crazed, that come spring, I watch for the first signs of the telltale shoots of the coming crop like a nervous schoolgirl waiting her first date.

Yes, as the last snows are clearing, I begin to wait in anticipation for the perfect time to harvest my favorite wild vegetable. I am giddy over the creative ways in which I can use every aspect of the delectable little forest delight! From dehydrated root (for soup!) to bulb and leaves, nothing will go to waste!

I didn’t have a clue what a ramp, (or Rampon, wild leek or – if you are a very sophisticated Epicurean, an ail des bois) was until I found myself happily married to a man with roots in West Virginia. Shortly after buying property there for a weekend home, we stumbled across a patch of our own wild treasures on a walk several years ago. Sometimes referred to as wild garlic, ramps have a personality – and an aroma – that is uniquely distinct. They appear in forests from South Carolina to Canada and are usually found near water in shady areas of the woods. Ramps favor sandy, rocky soil and seem to particularly thrive near fallen timber.

Digging requires patience and selflessness; you must have a gentle hand to coax the build free and not damage the gentle root system and you must take caution to not let your enthusiasm for the crop lead to over harvesting. The latter is especially critical! I took too much last spring and noticed the markedly smaller size of our field this year. In the spirit of being responsible, we harvested less than I wanted and have decided that next year we will need to find a new place to forage. Protecting the long-term sustainability of this unique gift from nature is important to me – at all costs!

Fried in bacon fat with potatoes, the pungent bulbs were a delicacy to even the poorest of mountain children who learned to live off of the land and eat richly of Mother Nature’s bounty. Unfortunately, the punishment (or reward?) was no school: my mother-in-law tells me when she was a child, you were not welcome at school for two days after consuming ramps, a testament to their perilous aroma.

My approach to cooking with ramps is different from the traditional menus of yesterday. Tonight’s dinner was a frittata made with pasta, fresh asparagus, ramps sautéed in garlic, olive oil and all flavored with some amazingly meaty Snows/Bumble Bee White Clam Sauce samples I brought home from work; it was beyond amazing! Even my ten-year-old asked for the left-overs in her lunch for school tomorrow! I’ll tell her later it was clams – she claims she doesn’t eat seafood…score one for Mom!

The recipe brain is on full throttle: I have plans for a spicy marmalade (for winter cheese and crackers) with the bulbs, a modern Korean-style kimchi with the leaves, a tart with asparagus and ricotta and caramelized bulbs; collecting recipes is as much fun for me as deciding what I will make. Two very special bulbs are set aside for a swim in their own bottles of vodka…I am envisioning some wicked Bloody Mary’s ahead! That said, most of my bulbs and leaves will be freeze-dried and carefully doled out in cautious measure over the next 12 months, for it will be a long time until next April. I love the chaos and madness of trying to get as much as I can – fresh, pickled, preserved and frozen – out of the harvest and making it last for the year ahead!

2507972058_47bb7cc6ddI do so love these stinky little wild onions. I love that they are rare, prized gems that God made to fight their way into existence from the bottom of a forgotten hillside. Not precious enough to be a fragrant lily, they are instead, a distinctly outrageous delicacy that cause people from all walks of life to celebrate and commune together over every spring. The festivals and community dinners that take place in April and May all over the Eastern region are a testament to the traditions of church, fellowship and family.

They give reason for “city folk,” like my husband and I, to sit for hours together in the woods laughing and talking without distraction about a million things we might otherwise never make time to do while we gather and clean our harvest. They inspire chefs to create, writers to write and environmentalists to protect wetlands and conserve. For smelly little guys, they are pretty amazing! They unite generations and cultures in ways I don’t think their sophisticated cousins could even imagine!

If you have never tried a ramp, or made time to take a long walk in the woods lately and rediscover the wild, wonderful world of nature, now is an amazing time to get up and go! These little harbingers of spring can be found until the tree canopy comes out, sending them back underground for another season. Iff you are fortunate enough to find a beautiful patch of what looks like lilies, but smells like onions, please give me a call! I need a new place to forage – and commune with nature – next spring!

Don’t Be Afraid to Stand Out!

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I grew up in Red Bud, Illinois. The town drew its name from the wealth of Red Bud trees (cercis canadensis) that populate the region. When it is Springtime, there is nothing better to herald the arrival of the end of the bitter ravages of winter than that first burst of purple that signals the blossoming of the Red Bud trees. Before you know it, everywhere you look, the world is a contrast of eye-popping magenta and a thousand shades of brilliant greens; the world is waking up from a long, cold winter and the belle of the ball is the Red Bud tree.

Growing up with these gorgeous trees all around me, I’ve always taken them for granted. But now that I live in Virginia, they are not as plentiful and I am not even certain that the variety of Red Bud tree that I see here is the same Eastern Red Bud tree varietal that I am accustomed to. But this I do know: I still get a little swell in my heart when I drive past a stand of trees and see that brilliant splash of color on Mother Nature’s otherwise gray and dreary canvas.

I don’t know if it is because Red Bud trees put on their majestic exhibit in April, when those “April Showers” are most likely to also be at their peak, but I find that their color seems to intensify against the darkness that comes with the gray skies of springtime rains. The gloomier the skies get, the more brilliant those blooms become. Perhaps just a study in contrast, but one I definitely do not want to miss the lesson on!

I love the heritage of my hometown. A business trip next month to the area allows me to sneak home for a day or two and I can hardly wait – it has been too long since I’ve made a visit. I’ll unfortunately miss the breathtaking beauty of the city streets lined up and down with their decades-old Red Bud trees in full-bloom – it truly is a sight to behold. But I haven’t lost the image in my heart that matters:  be the Red Bud tree in the otherwise colorless bloom of the day.

Don’t ever be afraid to stand out! We’ve all be given unique talents and skills that give us the entre to a world of opportunity and experience. But we have to be willing to put those God-given talents to use and allow ourselves our moment to shine! Be the splash of color on that gray canvas: the world awaits your masterpiece called an Outrageously Wonderful Life!

It is Never Too Late To Right Past Mistakes

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An email I received on Friday blew me away. It was so unexpected and so amazingly wonderful to receive that it made me speechless. A feat, for those who know me, that few can accomplish and I knew immediately that it was fodder for my next blog.

Nearly five years ago, I found a crafter online to make a rustic sign as a gift for my husband as a Christmas present. After tracing his family lineage, we had learned that his 8th great-grandfather owned an inn in Wethersfield, Connecticut that shared our family name and figured prominently in the planning between General George Washington and General Comte de Rochambeau on how they would join forces for the siege at Yorktown. I thought a weathered sign, commemorating the inn and event would be a fun gift and great piece for his “man cave” at our lake house. Unfortunately, when it arrived, the date was wrong by 90 years; instead of the correct 1781, it was listed as 1871.

I reached out to the get the sign corrected and was promised a replacement sign; it never came. The wrong sign, gifted that year with the promise a correct replacement was forthcoming, was relegated to the basement where it has sat for years. After a few attempts at connecting with the proprietress of the website, I finally gave up in defeat. I thought about trying to correct it myself, but I never did. I chalked it up to a wasted $100 and periodically thought about tossing it in the garbage, but never got around to it.

So you can imagine my shock when this email comes out of the blue on Friday: “I am hoping this is still your address… I did a custom sign for you years ago … I was in the process of correcting it when … [enter a series of unthinkable personal, health and other events simultaneously occur] … I know I made a mistake with the date and this as haunted me all this time. For the life of me I do not remember if I ever got it repainted and sent to you…”

She goes on to tell me the journey she has been on to put her life back together and how her concern over taking care of my simple sign has been an issue in her own road to recovery. It makes me feel horrible about the bitter thoughts I had in the early days, when I saw that sign and wondered why my emails went unanswered. It gives me hope that there are those out there who know, deep down, that people matter, customer service reigns supreme and that our word is our bond and our own personal credibility.

I know by the emails we’ve since exchanged that the road to recovery she’s been on has been challenging, but her attitude and commitment to getting her life back will be the fuel that takes her, not only to where she was before her world took a dramatic turn, but to places of greatness she cannot imagine. Her “can-do” attitude and positive outlook on having her life back is sheer inspiration! Despite pain, financial loss and much heartache, she sees herself as victorious! She told me in an email,

“I can do nothing and be miserable or I can do what I love and pay the price! I choose the latter!”

Something tells me the payment for her choice will be beyond her wildest dreams. God has a way of opening doors and doing wonderful things for those who seek to serve him and do the right thing.

So thank you, Jean, for giving me a renewed hope in this world again. You’ve made my weekend and I’ve shared your story so many times. I’ll be keeping both signs – hanging them together – so I can always remember and share the story of why it is important to never, ever, lose faith in people…even those you will likely never meet. For you just never know the back story or when the truth will hit you square in the eye and make you stand in the mirror and have to face your own faith in humanity.

We’ve all made mistakes in life. Some of us – me included – have made some really BIG ones. But the amazing thing is, big or small, it is never too late to set those past mistakes right. We can always seek forgiveness and find a way to move forward in life with no regret. When we take that burden off of our back, we will find that we can soar to heights we could only dream of before!

Reaching Beyond the Requirements

312697_blogI’ve always been accused of being an overachiever, a bit of a perfectionist. And yes, maybe even a little OCD at times. To be honest, I rarely agree with my critics on this topic. Admittedly, I might be wrong — and I freely admit that — but I’d just like to think that my standards are a little higher than the average bear. And if that higher level of requirements I see as being the “minimum standard” are more than others’ like, so be it. To me, they are the difference between “good enough” and “Wow!” quality and I’ve always been a “Wow!” kind of girl.

I’ve been working on a massive project at work the past few weeks and, while the requirements are very clearly articulated, one can easily take two paths to completion: answer the questions asked in a clear, concise and factual manner; or use the answer as a way to clearly and factually respond and simultaneously paint the story of how the answer fulfills the need of the questioner. Don’t just answer it; bring it to life. Make it jump off the page and be a bit of virtual reality – in words – for the reader. For fun, here’s what I mean in a simple way. By the way, I don’t do help desks, so this is a lousy example to those of you who may actually know this field:

Question: Does your company offer help desk support services? Please specify the hours of operation.

Factual, but Boring: We offer 24/7 customer support services for all customers, providing services ranging from telephone, web- and social-media based solutions.

Wow!: We take a personalized approach to every customers’ support needs, building solutions that are scalable, flexible and customizable to meet your company’s unique business, workflow and multi-channel priorities. Working around the clock with highly trained, friendly associates who are dedicated to representing your company to your customers in a highly professional manner, we deliver a turn-key help desk solution that revolves around you.

My peers, who seem to like the ease of effort offered by the “factual, but boring” path, are clearly frustrated with “Wow!” approach I demand we take. My rejection and rewrites (and a little, err, raised voiced concern) regarding the quality of their submission isn’t being met with much enthusiasm. Tuff tookies; I don’t want to deliver a response that simply meets the requirements, I want to deliver a “Wow!” experience. My belief? “Wow!” first impressions lead to “Wow!” opportunities and “Wow!” opportunities make customers for life. Yes, it takes a little more effort to reach beyond the requirements and bring the experience to life, but isn’t it worth it?

Have you ever shopped from a The J. Peterman Company? Now, that’s reaching beyond the requirements and delivering a “Wow!” experience at its best! Just reading the copy on one of their sweaters or a ball cap is a romantic experience. One walk through their catalogs makes you want to book a passage on the Orient Express or steal off into the night on a month-long escape to Burma. It’s a direct-mail company in Ohio, for crying out loud! But man, do they know how to do it!

I don’t want a life of “checking the box” and meeting the minimum requirements for passing to the next level. I want to blow away the competition! I want to be champagne to everyone else’s tap water. I think the ‘bare minimums’ are for the lazy, the uninspired and the unambitious masses who are too afraid to challenge themselves to put it all on the line and give it everything they’ve got. As for me and my house? We’re going beyond the requirements…we’re going for maximum “WOW!” all the way, baby!

Outrageous living isn’t an option when you just stumble through life looking to scrape by as a result of “checking the box” and getting to the next task. It comes by pouring out your heart and guts, challenging status quo and maybe, just maybe, irritating a colleague or two on the way to getting the team in position for another big win.

The Miracles of Spring

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Spring has finally come to Washington, DC!  All around us, the heady aroma and visual sensory of cherry blossoms abound!  If you’ve never seen the beauty of these wonderful trees in full bloom, it is a sight to behold.  I liken it to a trip to Candyland, where cotton candy trees circle the Tidal Basin and the sweet smell of the trees, tulips and hyacinth overwhelm the air.  There is no better way to herald the arrival of Spring than a walk around National Mall and take in the majestic sights of Spring in full bloom.

With the arrival of Spring comes this wonderful freshness, too.  I love the inspiration of fresh thinking that it brings.  The “out with the old and in with the new” ideas that come to home, work and personal lives.  Runners start running with a renewed fervor.  Spring cleaning takes on a new intensity.  Birds and squirrels work overtime to build their nests.  Lawnmowers return to a cadence of familiar Saturday morning symphonies.  All around, the pace intensifies, but in a positive, recharged way.  Fresh, crisp and clean; the arrival of Spring signals that rebirth is here.  New opportunities are soon to spring forth!

Spring is a miracle.  It brings new life for all who are ready to seize the moment.  I love the pink world that is all around me right now, the “peak” of Cherry Blossom season.  I am admittedly a little drunk on the aroma and intoxicated with the excitement of the promise of tomorrow, now fulfilled.  It tells me my next outrageous opportunity is just about to burst open like that fat bud on a cherry tree.  And boy, am I ready!

Be More Than Alphabet Soup

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We were sitting around last night with dear friends talking about life, jobs and the future. It’s a frequent discussion these days, as it seems so many people we know are at a crossroads in their careers and the current job market makes “the hunt” particularly challenging for many.

The topic of degrees, business associations, volunteerism and professional affiliations came up. For many of us, our educational background, certifications and industry memberships are the foundational blocks and the stepping-stones to what we have become. College degrees and roles we’ve taken on – in our professional or personal lives – have enabled us to gain experience and hone critical skills that have opened the doors to opportunity. Alone, those degrees and affiliations are just alphabet soup; it is what we’ve done with them that matter.

There’s a young woman I know who is desperate to make her mark on the world. In her youth and exuberance, she wants to be the leader of everything and the boilerplate on her emails is her own mini-resume. A jumble of “look at me” degrees, affiliations and memberships, you can trip over her self-proclaimed importance. Yet in her efforts to lead and engage, she has yet to come close to her own billing. Sadly, her view of leading is to recruit people she believes she can control, quickly dismissing them when they disagree with her, and disappearing when the real work comes. I’m sorry, but there’s no meat in that alphabet soup.

Contrast that to the assistant on my team who received her Law Degree as a young student in Vietnam. Her parents immigrated to America when she was in her early twenties, bringing her and her siblings with them. Adrift at sea for weeks as boat people, she was the lone person in a boat of hundreds who could speak English. At the height of their horrible experience, she scaled a gas tanker in the middle of the ocean to tell their story and, eventually, helped bring the entire party to safety. A brilliant and detail-oriented woman, she has never been able to practice law in America. Despite her advanced degree, amazing story of survival, she is a quiet, humble and dedicated employee. She completes any task given to her, arriving early and working late to ensure everything is done with precision. She has the respect of all around her, both at home and at the office. Her soup, if you will, is chock full of letters; she does not ever feel the need to use them.

My goal in life is to be more than alphabet soup. Being a great doctor is more than a medical degree. Being an amazing teacher doesn’t require a Master’s or a Doctorate in Education. In fact, some of the finest teachers I know have not completed high school. Being great at what we do and the impact we make on others starts from within. It is in how we take the life lessons; the opportunities to teach, listen, learn, contribute and give back to society. It is in the selfless way in which we use the time and talents God has given us to impact the world around us.

Emerson said it best:

“To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”  –Ralph Waldo Emerson

Being Resilient

IMG_2900[1]Being able to take whatever life throws at you and bounce back is a pretty enviable skill these days. Even more than enviable, in these times of change and uncertainty, I’d say it is a rather valuable and in-demand tool to have in the kit bag of life! Any person who can look the setbacks and disappointments dropped in their path — never allowing them to knock you off course — is someone to be highly regarded and sought after! In my book, that kind of strength and resiliency is worth its weight in gold!

Over the Easter holiday weekend, we took a day trip to a town that is a living, breathing example of resiliency. Helvetia, WV, is an isolated village in the Appalachian mountains of Randolph County, WV. Founded in the 1869 by Swiss immigrants, the community is known for maintaining the traditions, folklore and food of its European heritage. With a population of 59 in the 2010 U.S. Census, the town is a case study in human resiliency.

The locals tell us they have been buried (and I do mean buried!) in the snow since Superstorm Sandy. Despite the beauty of mountainous snow drifts piled on charming alpine structures, the thought of not seeing the ground since October seems rather depressing to me. Storm damage in many areas remained untouched, and the flyer in the General Store/Post Office/Fasnacht Mask Museum made clear, the “community clean-up” date has been rescheduled more than once due to the lingering effects of winter.

The Hutte Restaurant, a prime attraction, is a step back in time itself, where the only food on the menu is Swiss-German traditional favorites and all are homemade. Fresh bread, locally made cheese and sausages, desserts that melt in your mouth, etc. It was like a Sunday dinner at my Grandmother’s house. On the walls were newspaper clippings of local history and lore, antiques that I was surprised hadn’t been slipped into someone’s jacket and a million relics that I could have spent days admiring. It was a living history to the people and traditions of Helvetia.

The jobs there are scarce. If you don’t work at one of the handful of businesses that cater to the (mostly seasonal) tourist trade, you are driving a very hard hour each way to work, or are a part of the local coal mining industry. But despite the endless snow, the quaint yet humble homes, the scarce jobs and the isolation that is Helvetia, the people are unforgettable. They greet you with the warmth of a long-lost relative, welcome you into their world with a pride and friendliness that is inspirational and have a resourcefulness and spirit about them that is contagious!

The resiliency of Helvetia’s people are what keep’s this town going. From their Spring Ramp Festival (don’t miss it if you are anywhere near the area!), their Fourth of July celebration, the amazing Lampion Parade and celebration of Fasnacht (the last Feast before Lent) and all of the dances they hold at the Star Band Hall, this town knows how to celebrate life, make merry and rejoice in the blessings of life, friendship and nature. They embody what we all should strive for in being resilient:

1. Be positive and enthusiastic about life: find the silver lining in even the most difficult of circumstances. While they see the bad, they also see the good in every circumstance and situation.

2. Seek the lesson in every situation. Every challenge brings with it a teacher to make us smarter. When challenges come, if we miss the lesson that is brings, we only get the adversity of the situation, not the opportunity. Find the lesson, you emerge the victory, regardless of the challenge. This humble town did not go away when people and jobs left; they give people reasons to come from all over the world to discover – and rediscover – it!

3. Keep your heart open. Acts of kindness and generosity are all around us. Opportunities to give and opportunities to receive. Being resilient means keeping your heart open to recognize the opportunities to be a giver and a receiver. Make it a point to be a giver, and learn to receive. Being humble and grateful will open your eyes, and your heart to the world around you. Friends made here are likely friends for life; celebrations here will be memories never forgotten!

4. Take care of yourself. Be true to yourself, be authentic and take care of you. Have good spiritual, mental and physical habits. Get outdoors, have good friendships, talk to God. When you take care of yourself, you can take on the challenges life throws your way with agility and grace. You cannot look at the beauty and majesty of this community and its people and not be inspired to live better, take care of yourself better and live a deeper, fuller life.

5. Laugh…a lot! Don’t take life or yourself too seriously. There is a reason why the saying “Laughter is the best medicine” has stood the test of time. It is true. Just go and ask to meet Helvetia matriarch Eleanor Mailloux at the Hutte Restaurant.

The people of Helvetia may not number many, but are an impressive bunch. High up in the Appalachian Mountains, their ancestors found a pristine vista to call home and build a community. Hard work, determination and a lot of resiliency has, over the years, built up a living testimony to what can be accomplished when people come together and make commitment to family and community.