charles dickens' christmas, maggie mcreynolds blog

Great Expectations

I was 12 when I first read Dickens’s serialized novel about Pip and his “great expectations” (translation: whopping big inheritance, morphing from lowly orphan to influential man about town, marrying the elusive Estella), but even I knew life was gonna throw Pip a few curve balls—if only because if it didn’t, it was going to be one big snore of book.

Still, that didn’t stop me from spending the next couple of decades having great expectations of my own. Some of them were big—famous actress! editor of The New Yorker! Others were more modest—that cute boy in English lit would ask me to the prom! there’d be six inches of snow by Christmas!

All of them required a lot of rules about what things had to look like in order to be “perfect.” A good number of them hinged upon my having mysteriously acquired direct control over the behavior of someone else.

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Overcoming Analysis Paralysis

Don, a computer programmer and amateur saxophonist, spent the better part of a year driving his long-suffering family all over the Midwest in search of the perfect replacement for his aging horn. After a particularly memorable trip involving carsick twins and pursuit by an outraged Rottweiler, his wife finally demanded he buy a sax, any sax, or he and his old horn would end up sharing a rented room with a hot plate.

choices, decisions, woman standing in front of five doors, maggie mcreynolds blogMichelle, a statistics professor, is the go-to gal when her friends are in the market for anything from a microwave to a labradoodle—because whatever it is, she’s exhaustively researched it. Ironically, Michelle rarely buys anything herself—in fact, her dishwasher bit the dust three months ago, but she just can’t commit to a new one when she suspects that with just a little more digging, she’ll nail down the perfect choice.

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Stop It

There’s a great “Mad TV” sketch on YouTube guest starring the incomparable Bob Newhart as—what else?—a psychiatrist. His patient tells him she has a pathological fear of being buried alive in a box. He has two words of wisdom: “Stop it!”

Somewhat taken aback, she goes on to detail her other issues: she’s bulimic, she’s been stuck in a series of abusive relationships, she’s a compulsive hand-washer. “Stop it,” he says. “Just stop it, what are you, some kind of nut?”

After five minutes of this, she’s had it. Outraged, she protests that she hates this therapy, it’s moving too fast, it’s ridiculously simplistic. “You want more?” asks Newhart. She nods. He leans across his desk. “Stop it or I’ll bury you alive in a box!” he shouts.

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cherry tomatoes, maggie mcreynolds blog

Tomato Injures Boy, Self

When my son was about 18 months old, he figured out how to open the refrigerator, a development that came to my attention one morning when I heard him give a sudden wail from the kitchen. Heart in my throat—had he burned himself? Was something broken? Was he bleeding?—I ran in and found him standing in front of the open refrigerator and holding half a cherry tomato, his face covered with juice and seeds and the flush of outrage. “It kachoo-ed at me!” he sobbed indignantly.

What a cool, fascinating deduction! Based on his limited experience—he had never eaten a tomato before, but he had, apparently, been sneezed upon—he came to a brilliant, though entirely wrong-headed, conclusion. It took me a while to convince him that the stuff I was cleaning off his face was not, in fact, tomato snot.

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river dam, maggie mcreynolds blog

In Recovery

“Low Disk Space!” said the error message on my laptop. “You are running out of disk space on your recovery drive! Delete old or unnecessary files!”

I had been getting this message every three or four minutes for over a week, ever since a failed back-up attempt. I had tried clicking where it said to click, deleting the files it suggested I delete, and reinitiating a back-up, but still the error message kept flashing, infuriating in its persistence. I had far too much to do to figure out how to make it go away.

See, that’s the thing, I was busy. I had deadlines, both external and internal, and I had my hands full with flogging myself to meet them. There wasn’t time to cook dinner, or eat healthily, or exercise, or meditate. There wasn’t time to read, or watch TV, or go for a walk. I had important things to do, urgent things. I was taking care of business.

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Ask for What You Want

A woman is sitting, menu closed in front of her, in a nice restaurant. Angrily, she waves at a passing waiter. “Where’s my dinner?” she demands.

woman holds blank placard, maggie mcreynolds blogThe waiter is nonplussed. “You haven’t ordered yet,” he says.

Unfortunately, the customer is unmoved by mere logic. “You ought to know what I want!”

“But…how would I know that?” the waiter stammers.

“If you really valued me as a customer,” the woman insists, “you’d know what I want.”

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Take This Quiz! Or Not.

If you’re on Facebook, you’ve seen the quizzes: If you were a children’s book author, who would you be? Which sexy movie star are you most like? Which Peanuts character are you?

Do we take them just for fun? Or are we hoping for some sort of confirmation that the world sees us as we see ourselves—or, perhaps even more accurately, as we wish to be seen?

What do the answers even mean? Maybe Facebook says I’m like Marilyn Monroe. Yay! Beautiful, curvaceous, iconic, adored! Oh, wait. Also miserable, confused, drug-addicted, and, um…oh, yeah. Dead.

i am graphic, maggie mcreynolds blogWhy do we so love to label ourselves, to compare ourselves to other people and things? It’s not unlike the Hollywood cliche of the screenwriter in a pitch meeting, packaging his story idea into a pre-digested form he thinks his would-be producer will understand and therefore buy: “I’ve got this great script! It’s ‘Gandhi’ meets ‘Hairspray’!”

When I was in high school, there was one brave guy in my whole senior class who came out of the closet—and he chose to do so in a spectacular way. He wore feather boas, Elton John-esque oversized sunglasses, and was fond of sweeping into the room and announcing things like, “I’m just so Scarlett!”

I’m not sure in what way he identified with Scarlett O’Hara—belle of the plantation who had men wrapped around her little finger? savvy seamstress who could whip up a darling frock out of the front parlor curtains?—but his label, while fascinating, didn’t have much of anything to do with who he actually was.

Even the labels about ourselves that sound true don’t have much to do with our essential selves: I’m a dog lover, we say. I’m a mountain biker. I’m a little bit country. I’m a little bit rock ’n’ roll. Those labels aren’t who we are, any more than we are “Marilyn Monroe,” “Scarlett O’Hara,” or even our own name. Those things are what we do, and what we and others call us. They say something about us, to be sure. But we are not a hobby or a role, any more than we are our houses, our children, our jobs, or our passions.

So while it is a social convention to say that I am Maggie McReynolds, I am a writer, a mother, a life coach, a terrible guitar player, there’s a core, absolute, essential me that these labels don’t describe and can’t reach.

The most honest, though perhaps uninteresting, thing I can say is: I am.

And that would make a really terrible Facebook quiz.

woman watching sunset, maggie mcreynolds blog

Change Your Mind, Change the World

I used to work with a guy who hated his uncle. I mean hated—to hear this guy tell it, his uncle was a jerk of epic proportions with no redeeming features whatsoever. One weekend, my coworker saw a movie that moved him to tears. It was all he could talk about the next morning at the office—how much he loved that movie, that movie really spoke to him, what a profound, amazing experience it had been. Then he found out his uncle had seen the same movie, and his uncle had loved it, too.

Did he rethink his long-held conviction that his uncle was a jerk? Did he wonder if maybe there was more to his uncle than he thought, since this movie that he so loved had moved his uncle in some way, too?

Nope. His take on his uncle was far too deeply entrenched, and he had years of anger and resentment invested in believing it to be true. So instead of being willing to give his story about his uncle a fresh think, he chose to recast his own experience of reality instead: “Eh,” he said. “It wasn’t such a great movie after all.”

It’s sad, but it’s all too human: when we have a long-held belief—even a painful one—and that belief does not conform to reality, our first impulse is often to distort, reshape, or manipulate reality until it’s back in balance with the limiting belief.

“I am someone who just can’t lose weight. I’ll always be fat,” Mary says. When Mary goes on a diet and loses some weight, she is exhilarated—but she’s also feeling some tension. If she doesn’t recognize and change her limiting belief about herself, she experiences cognitive dissonance when the reality (she is indeed losing weight) doesn’t match up with what she feels in her bones (“I can’t lose weight.”)

Without the ability, self-awareness, or willingness to change her belief, she’s likely to sabotage her diet and regain the weight she lost. She won’t be happy about it, but she’ll find some relief from tension when her reality once again is in balance with what she holds to be true: she can’t lose weight. It isn’t a good place to live, for sure, but it’s comfortable, familiar territory.

So what’s a girl (or guy) to do? Find a different thought, one that feels at least as true, or truer, than the one that’s keeping us stuck. Mary might come to believe that “I am a person who can lose weight,” or “I am committed to reaching and maintaining a health weight.” Odds are good she’ll find this hard to hold onto, even if she has ample evidence that this thought is true. Some of us need to write our new beliefs down, to repeat them to ourselves, to practice this new way of thinking about the issue until it is as deeply ingrained as the original painful thought.

Bringing what you think and what you observe into balance feels delicious—and we don’t have to sabotage ourselves and distort reality to do it. The only real way to change the world is to change your mind.

What are you thinking today?


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