Life Purpose

While browsing blogs last weekend, I came across a post from Steve Pavlina about finding your life’s purpose…. in 20 minutes. I have lived my life in a purposeful manner, conscious of my personal development, and thought it would be a snap to come out of this exercise with a concise, clear statement of the purpose of my life.


Pavlina suggests that we sit down with pen and paper or a new wordprocessor file, title the page, “What is my true purpose in life?” and answer the question until one of the answers makes us cry. I wrote pages and pages of answers and none of them brought even one tear to my eye. All the things I have done in my life — education, travel, service — and none of them is my true purpose?

I almost gave up on the exercise several times, but I did stick with it for more than an hour. In the end, I whimpered a bit when I wrote that my purpose in life is to be loved by cats. It was late, and my cats were hanging around waiting to demonstrate their love for me by letting me feed them and then cuddling up with me for the winter night. I put the computer away and let my little colony shower me with affection.

Pavlina said some people — “those who are very entrenched in low-awareness living” — might need more than an hour to uncover their purpose. They might need to write down 500 answers to the questions before one of the statements breaks them open.

I decided to try again. On the 46th line of round two, I wrote, “My purpose is to make the world a little bit more beautiful and loving and to help others find the place in themselves where it becomes possible for them to reduce suffering as well.”

This answer produced the open feeling in my heart … and the tears. In addition, the statement logically rings true with my history.

When I am feeling harmony, my activities are obviously contributing to added beauty and reduced suffering. When I feel out of sorts, generally, I’m spinning my wheels in mud, causing pain or contributing to the ugliness in the world. Or I feel like I am. Sometimes, moving toward a personal place where we can reduce the suffering in the world may cause some initial pain. When I facilitate someone taking tentative first steps on the path of self discovery, I may appear to be causing that pain. That’s short-term thinking, however.

In the long term, some of my students who seemed to be suffering the most have come back to me later and thanked me for sticking with them and insisting that they learn. That’s a life of purpose.


Useful and Pleasant in New Mexico

My viewOne of the great benefits of my job is occasional travel to present at conferences. I’m participating in the SW/TX Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association annual convention in Albuquerque, New Mexico, this week.

I presented in a panel on activism online yesterday and chaired one about blogs and apps. Today I’m participating in a round-table discussion on the future of computer culture. I’m honored to have been selected from all of the participants in the computer culture division to help lead this discussion.

The research I presented concerns recruiting for social movements in social media. In particular, I’m analyzing communication about rescue of shelter animals on Twitter and Facebook.  Can we use this rhetorical moment to determine if the call for “No More Homeless Pets” is evidence of a social movement (rather than a lobby group)? What we can learn about recruiting activists for social movements in social media through this example? The paper was well received, especially for 8 am on the first full day of the convention, and we had great conversation about my research and work on Jet Li, It Gets Better, and the role of social media in the Arab Spring.

I also get to see mountains and friends, and take a side trip to Santa Fe. Useful and Pleasant, indeed.

Surprise Uses

I got my own Boppy pillow for my birthday!

Boppy specializes in products for infants, and this one is meant to support them while they are nursing, so you may be wondering what the heck I’m going to DO with my Boppy pillow.

Seated on the pillowI am going to SIT on Boppy. I fell down the stairs at work a few years ago and my tailbone hurts when I sit too long. The shape of the Boppy pillow is absolutely perfect to help me protect my tailbone from the pressure of sitting. I’ve tried other types of pillows, but nothing has ever fit my purpose as well as the Boppy.

My brother and his family use the pillow for the intended purpose — caring for their 3-month-old daughter — and they showed me how to let Boppy help me care for the baby too. That’s how I figured out that Boppy could work for me too.

We make things for one purpose, but they are often good for many things. Recognizing a creative use of a tool for an unintended purpose can make life more pleasant.

What are some creative uses you make of tools or products intended for another purpose? Post a creative repurposing in the comments by next Wednesday (January 31) and get a little surprise!

Happiness is…

Whooping cranes flyingSharing a little love with the Whooping Cranes in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. They come down from Alberta to spend the winter.

The refuge is the most significant breeding area for the rare crane and depends on fresh water from the Guadalupe River (which runs through the town I live in) to feed the marshes. The Aransas Project is working to make sure the waters make it all the way to the mouth of the river.

We took a cruise with Captain Tommy Moore on the Skimmer. He’s an amazing bird spotter and supporter of the Whooping Cranes. The boat is outfitted perfectly for bird watching, and the combination of environmental education and entertainment is just right.

In addition to observing two pairs of whooping cranes, we also sighted two dozen other species of birds. And that’s not counting any of the ducks!

The (fairly) complete list follows. I plan to add a few more pictures when I get home. Now, I’m heading out for “birthday” brunch at Cheryl’s By The Bay in Rockport. We were planning dinner out last night but were too ready to crash to get all dressed up.


Birds Sighted Jan. 21 in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge:

Crested Caracara


Whooping Crane


Dowitcher, long-billed and short-billed

Great Egret

Reddish Egret

Peregrine Falcon


Eared Grebe

Herring Gull

Northern Harrier

White-tailed hawk

Great blue heron

Black-crowned Night Heron


American White Pelican

Brown Pelican

Plover (several kinds)

Roseate Spoonbill

Caspian Tern

Royal Tern

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck


Lesser Yellowlegs




Happiness is…


Unexpected narcissus in the middle of winter.

Recent Thinking About Retirement

While I was taking “Introduction to Financial Planning” last year, I used the formula in my textbook to figure out how much money we’re going to need in retirement income.  This is the formula your planner, if you have one, would also have been taught to use.

First, planners take 80 percent of your salary, adjusted for inflation (financial planners call this “replacement rate”). They multiply that number by the number of years you expect to live in retirement, and then figure out the size of the nest egg that would produce that payout (again, adjusted for inflation) for the number of years you expect to live. Most planners subtract the amount you expect to receive from social security benefits, but not everyone believes the promised benefits will materialize.

Anyway, according to this formula (and some tables to back it up that appear in a recent study from The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College) I would have to save somewhere between 45 and 70 percent of my monthly pay (depending on rates of return on my investments and how old I am when I retire) to build a nest egg sufficient to draw 80 percent of my salary, even assuming that I got no more raises. Ever. Scary moment, I must say.

I don’t know if I could face living like a graduate student again. I can live simply, but it’s hard not to simply give up in the face of that sort of sacrifice, again.

Those of you who started working in your profession when you graduated from college and have been saving all along would never have to think about how to save half your income for retirement. (That’s the benefit of compounding. According to the CRR study, if you start saving at 25 you’ll build a substantial retirement account by saving 7 to 12 percent of your salary.)

I, however, didn’t finish my education until I was 30, spent two years getting a degree in another field, and engaged stable, professional employment at the age of 41. Not that I didn’t have work before that, not that I didn’t have some resources to put aside… Many people who made the educational and professional choices I did also face student loan debt, so I have a huge advantage in having borrowed less than $3000 during all those years of undergraduate and graduate study. Nor do I have children, who turn out to be rather expensive.

Bonnie-Jeanne MacDonald, a Canadian actuarial researcher who studies the financial conditions of retirement and the economic behavior of retirees, has questioned the usefulness of some of the financial planners’ standard assumptions. MacDonald told Reuters that making large reductions in standard of living before retirement is not without consequence. The return of higher income during retirement thus may not be worth the losses of lower pre-retirement standard of living.

MacDonald, her collaborators, and other North American researchers who look at economic behavior have found that we don’t spend consistently throughout retirement. Heads of households who are 65-75 years old spent, on average, 72 percent of the amount they did in their peak spending years (from 45-54). After age 75, we tend to spend about 55 percent of our peak spending.

I’m gradually increasing my retirement saving, assuming a fairly low rate of return, spending modestly. I will pull all of my financial documents out again and rework my plan.






Happiness is a bin of matched socks

socksMy life got a bit too “useful” to leave time for writing about it.  I am bursting with thoughts and hopeful that I’ll be posting regularly again, maybe even more than once a week. We’ll see.

I finished my Christmas novel, The Language of the Sea, before the end of my New Year visit to my brother and his family, so the first thing we did was visit the bookstore at Detroit Metropolitan Airport on the way home. The store there had one of the three suggestions my personal Bookseller had given me earlier that day. I bought the book, figuring that fate had set it before me without distraction, so how could I refuse?

The Happiness Project doesn’t have a well crafted plot — which I thought I needed for an airplane read — but it does offer the compelling idea that most of us could feel a lot more happiness than we do with a few changes in behavior and mindset. Yes, we all have different happiness set points dictated by our genetic code. No, we don’t have to take off for a round-the-world spiritual journey to move a few points higher on our own personal happiness scale.

Gretchen Rubin read philosophers and researchers to get a sense of what happiness meant to them then set down her own definition before she created a year-long plan to boost her ability to feel the beauty of the life she was already leading. Rubin makes it clear that everyone’s project will be as different as the things that make us happy. Her website offers support and materials to create a project of one’s own.

The idea of a personal happiness project appeals to me, and I’m going to develop one.

Removing clutter from her apartment and her mind was the first element of Rubin’s Happiness Project. I started on that task back in August and will keep at it. My aspirations have changed since I collected a lot of the things that fill my house and office. I’m whittling away the items that are no longer relevant to me and trying to pass them on or recycle them rather than consign them to the landfill. If you’re interested in books about women war correspondents, drop me a note and I’ll send them to you!

Last week I matched my socks and straightened the lingerie bin. Yesterday, I deleted several thousand stored email messages. What little piece of happiness can I uncover today?

Women’s Work for Peace

Fifteen women have received the Nobel Peace Prize. Nine of them are alive today. Three of them found out only a couple of weeks ago that they are now Nobel Prize Laureates.

I will be speaking at our local library about the women’s side of the Nobel Peace Prize on Thursday evening. We arranged for the talk — on research I did a few years ago that will be published soon (if not out already) in a book of essays on women’s transnational strategies from the 18th century to the present — months ago, so it’s just a lucky coincidence that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee, both of Liberia, and Tawakkul Karman, of Yemen, won the prize this year.

A woman inspired Alfred Nobel to include a prize for peace along with those he established in the sciences. That woman, Bertha von Suttner, won the prize in its fourth year. The way the prize criteria were applied in the early days of the prize, few women would have found themselves in a position to win it. How many presidents and diplomats were women in the early 20th century? von Suttner was an activist. She organized and wrote to influence public opinion and the men who made policy decisions. Those who spoke for the Nobel Foundation construed the role of women in peace processes more as influencers than as actors.

History constantly demonstrates the great influence of women. Women have encouraged the ideas of war, the attitude to life, and the causes for which men have fought, for which their sons were brought up, and of which they have dreamed. Any change or reformation of these ideas must be brought about chiefly by women. The human ideal of manly courage and manly deeds must become more enlightened; the faithful worker in all spiritual and material spheres of life must displace the bloodstained hero as the true ideal. Women will cooperate to give men higher aims, to give their sons nobler dreams.

Jørgen Gunnarsson Løvland, Chairman of the Nobel Committee, said on April 18, 1906, in a speech that followed Bertha von Suttner’s Nobel lecture.

After World War I shattered the Nobel Foundation’s hopes that women’s influence would bring about peace, the Nobel spokesman who presented the prize to Jane Addams in 1931 said

We must nevertheless acknowledge that women have not altogether fulfilled the hopes we have placed in them. They have allowed too much scope to the old morality of men, the morality of war. In practical politics we have seen too little of that love, that warm maternal feeling which renders murder and war so hateful to every woman. But fortunately we have seen something of this feminine will which revolts against war. Whenever women have organized, they have always included the cause of peace in their program. And Jane Addams combines all the best feminine qualities which will help us to develop peace on earth.

Addams was deathly ill an unable to attend the ceremony to accept her prize. Emily Green Balch also won the prize after a long life of service to peace and human dignity. Both women were among the founders of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Mother Teresa was almost 70 when she accepted the prize; she died in 1997. Swedish diplomat Alva Myrdal was 70 and died only four years after winning the prize.

All of these women received the prize at the end of lives of sacrifice to the ideal of a peaceful world.

Rigoberta Menchu Tum, in her early 30s when she won the prize for 1992, saw the award as a spur to continued personal action

In my opinion, the Nobel Peace Prize calls upon us to act in accordance with what it represents, and the great significance it has worldwide. In addition to being a priceless treasure, it is an instrument with which to fight for peace, for justice, for the rights of those who suffer the abysmal economical, social, cultural and political inequalities, typical of the order of the world in which we live, and where the transformation into a new world based on the values of the human being, is the expectation of the majority of those who live on this planet.

Menchu Tum and all of the women who followed her into the ranks of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates have shared her views and have worked together when they can to amplify the voices of women working for peace in their own areas of the world. Wangari Maathai worked with them in the Nobel Women’s Initiative until her death in September.

Women who challenge powerful social and political systems that are intimately tangled up with violence face considerable risk. Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan Maguire have been working under some protection that comes with the aura of the Nobel Peace Prize. This aura is now extended to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman.

May they all live in peace, and may we all stand taller and speak up more often to challenge violence in all its forms because of their example. May we give thanks to them and to all the women who work, often in obscurity and danger, to end the sway violence has held on human society for far too long.

There have not been many women among the Laureates, and no doubt there should have been more. But let us at least take credit for having made an early start. With her self-sacrificing, untiring and fruitful service to humanity and peace, Jody Williams is a worthy successor to Bertha von Suttner, who inspired the Peace Prize and brought Nobel to the realisation that peace must be rooted in the human mind.

–Professor Francis Sejersted, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Oslo, December 10, 1997.



A Career in Writing: Susan Wittig Albert

rosemaryIt’s never too late to reach for your dreams. That’s what Susan Wittig Albert told women who gathered today for a luncheon sponsored by a local women’s club.

“You can start late,” Albert said. “I was 52 when the first China Bayles came out.” Albert went on to write 17 mystery novels about Bayles. She followed these with dozens of other mysteries for both adults and teenagers.

In childhood Albert knew she wanted to be a writer. When someone asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she said, “Nancy Drew, but if I can’t be Nancy Drew, I’ll be Carolyn Keene. And then she headed off to university and a career in medieval studies with quite a few years of academic administration on top of it. She made it way up near the top of the academic profession.

And then she walked away from it all to write for a living.

First, she wrote mysteries for hire to hone her craft. In fact, she wrote NANCY DREW mysteries.

“I grew up to be the person I wanted to be when I was 12 years old,” Albert said. Although she was living out her dream to “be” Carolyn Keene, Albert did outgrow writing to a synopsis created by an editor. That’s when she created China Bayles. This was in the early ‘80s when the mystery genre opened up to women writers like Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller and Sara Paretsky. The protagonists of the novels were women who worked as private detectives in big American cities on the coasts, and of course, V I Warshawski in Chicago.

“We had one on the East Coast, one on the West Coast, and I thought we needed on in Texas,” Albert said. She also said that a female private eye wouldn’t fit in Texas, so China Bayles brought a career in law to her detective work.

I have read and liked some of the China Bayles mysteries and had seen some of her memoirs, but I had no idea just how productive Albert has been in a mystery-writing career that started, for all intents and purposes, when she was in her 50s. She’s written for numerous series of young adult mysteries, several series for adults, memoirs, and literary fiction. Most of the work revolves around strong female characters and is based on extensive research.

The culmination of Albert’s talk was a bit of a preview of her latest literary project, a novel based on the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. It turns out that Wilder started to write about her life because her family needed money during the Great Depression. Her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, formerly the most highly paid female fiction writer in the United States, had lost everything in the Crash of 1929 and had come Missouri to scratch out a living with her parents on their farm. They had livestock and land, but no cash.

That’s when Laura Ingalls Wilder set pen to yellow pad and began, at the age of 62, to write her life story. Her daughter shaped the stories into the Little House novels many, many American girls read as they are growing up.

Albert is fascinated by the story of the Wilder family for three main reasons  First, the two women wrote to make money.  The mother-daughter collaboration also fascinates her because Albert has written many novels in collaboration with her husband. Finally, the 1930s, when the Wilder women sold the Little House stories, was a tough market for writers in the 1930s and the current market is similar.

With her current contracts for mysteries in series and the Laura Ingalls Wilder literary novel, Albert expects to be busy until she’s 75. Albert hopes to keep busy at her computer, doing what she loves as long as she is alive.

I can’t wait to dig into her book on women who transformed their successful careers into meaningful lives that do not include high-powered positions. I’ll be reading Work of Her Own: Success off the Career Track in bed tonight.

Special thanks to GadgetGrl, who graciously invited me and my six students of journalism to attend the luncheon and lecture with the Seguin Study Club at the Weinert House Bed and Breakfast. I am about to buy some books in the photo illustrating the Seguin Gazette story about the event.

Photo by ccharmon on Published here under a Creative Commons License.


Into the Container

I’ve been feeling a shift. It’s not a change of seasons (we apparently aren’t leaving summer behind this year in Texas). I couldn’t describe what I’m feeling and thinking until I went to hear Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest with dozens of inspirational books to his credit, speak about his latest, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, at my university Sunday.

 I have long understood that falling, or failing, or flaming out, or collapsing, or whatever happens that opens us to our suffering also opens us to the divine, so I get what Rohr is saying in the first half of the title. The notion presented in the second half fascinated me much more, that is Rohr’s description of the different main spiritual tasks that engage human beings in the first and second half of life.

 Specifically, in the first half of life, Rohr says, we are building a container for our self. In the second half, we put aside concern for the container and begin to focus on knowing what is actually in the container. We become less concerned with building an identity and more interested in exploring what is actually incorporated in ours. My shift is, at least in part, in losing interest in my container and focusing my attention on what is inside the container and not caring what others might think of me. In addition, I find myself deeply curious about the process of letting go a little more of the container I worked so hard to build earlier in my life.

 Building the container involves, for the most part, figuring out who you are not, if I understood Rohr correctly. We build the container for our self based on identification with our group, in Rohr’s case, feeling great about being a white, male American Roman Catholic from Kansas. Ideally, Rohr posits, when we compare this container with other possible containers, we find our own to be superior. Sunday evening he said that the healthiest people he knows grew up in “traditional” situations similar to his.

 “Build your container,” Rohr said. “It’s ok. There’s not much depth, but we’ve got to do it.”

 But we don’t have to focus on the container for our entire lives. “It’s not the best way to continue and certainly not the best place to end,” Rohr said.

 Lots of people get so attached to their container, Rohr continued, that they dig in and defend it for the rest of their lives. Rohr doesn’t advocate tossing out the foundations you received in childhood, but he does think a well-lived life doesn’t stop with building a sound container.

 “If you build your container well,” Rohr said, “You don’t need it [in the second half of life].”

 In order to mature, we need to leave the tasks of the first half of life behind, but contemporary American culture makes that very difficult. “The United States is the only society that has idealized teenagers over elders,” Rohr said. “We’re not going to get anywhere by all wanting to be teenagers.”

 Instead, we should develop wisdom and serve in the role of elder. When we have established a sound container, then we can move on to figure out what, exactly, is going on inside that container. Our failures and losses open the possibility of exploring the contents of our container (thus Falling Upward) and point us on the path to wisdom and to becoming elders of our community.

 Rohr quoted the Dalai Lama in describing the transition from the first set of tasks to the second set. “Learn and obey the rules very well so you will know how to break them properly.”

 In second-half-of-life tasks we let go of either-or, black-and-white thinking. We are no longer impressed by loudness and the shock factor of “bad words.” We learn to accept paradoxes, hold ambiguities. We learn that the law is not an end in itself and come to value mercy, justice and compassion over strict application of rules.

 We seek wisdom, which is found not in the either-or, but in the principle of both-and. For Rohr, this means that we do not reject the church that helped to form our spirituality, but we challenge its assumptions by opening to other ways of thinking and accepting that, “[we’re] never 100 percent sure [we’re] right.”

 Suffering is necessary to step into the second half of life (no matter one’s age). The necessity of suffering to heal and gain god’s mercy is a familiar theme for Christians. Rohr presents his idea that the mercy is present in the fall as well as the healing as a bit of an innovation. I probably wouldn’t have used the same words to describe my understanding of my own life, but I feel it.

 The falls are not aberrations that activate me to crawl up out of the mud, instead, they took me into a space where I didn’t have to be cool or right. Where I was pretty darn sure that I was not often right, and where it didn’t matter if I was or not. Life went on.  I agree with Rohr that we benefit from separating our thoughts about ourselves from our actual selves. He also made a great point about pitfalls of having a good reputation. “You’ve got to live up to it. You’ve got to pretend it’s true.”

 I particularly liked Rohr’s answer to a question from an audience member who was concerned that he didn’t feel wise. “We don’t need great people,” Rohr told the man. “We need honest, humble people. They keep growing.”

 Now, I have a new way to understand the path my thoughts are following, leading me deeper into the container. Maybe I’ll find some wisdom in here, maybe I won’t, but I’ll keep growing.