Thursday, March 22, 2012

Magnum Opus

Greetings NIP,

            Today is my fifth wedding anniversary. Erin and I are having a fairly low-key celebration by going out to dinner. My students were asking me yesterday about what I was going to get her for our special day, and they were shocked to discover that I hadn’t purchased her a gift. Though I didn’t get her flowers or any other material good that can be purchased in a store, I did give her something tangible. When she gets the mail today, she will receive a 3 page letter I wrote during our spring vacation. I thought a great deal about what I wanted to tell her, which was much more difficult than I had anticipated. Some feelings cannot be conveyed with words, so I felt as if I was stumbling throughout the entire epistle. The time I took to reflect on the first five years of our marriage was instructive in that it made me realize how much I’ve grown as a person, a husband, and a teacher—all of which would have been impossible if it hadn’t been for her influence in my life. If anything, Erin’s belief in me helped me believe in myself, which is critical for creating the life you want to live, NIP. Are you living such a life? If not, why? Anyone can do this, to be honest. We can all craft our lives in a way that gives them meaning and purpose, but as I mentioned a few letters ago it takes patience and persistence to create our magnum opus, our “master work,” which is our life itself.
            I read a great book titled The Alchemist during Spring Break that has left me thinking about this idea a lot. Throughout the short novel the protagonist, a young shepherd from Spain, is constantly reminded to discover his “personal legend,” his critical role to play in life and the world. Other characters tell the boy that each and every one of us has a personal legend, but it often goes unfulfilled because we let others tell us that trying to achieve our dreams is impossible. They also go on to tell him that it’s often a matter of paying attention to what life is telling us from moment to moment, as it is often trying to help us realize said dreams. The problem, however, is that we disregard these intuitions because we rationalize how impractical they are—which is exactly where we go wrong…
            I can easily relate to this because for the longest time I completely ignored my own intuitive hunches about situations that have presented themselves throughout my life. In my cynical youth, I would talk myself out of doing this or that—even things that would have been better for me in the long run—because I was sure my rationalization was correct. Now that I’m older (and one would hope wiser), I am not too quick to dismiss my intuitive thoughts and feelings on certain subjects. I am open to exploring them now because when I do everything seems to fall into place. Just as in the book, if we are willing to make a good faith effort with every opportunity that presents itself we often are pleasantly surprised by the outcome. Things eventually did begin to work in my favor, as if life was somehow complicit in these outcomes. The bottom line, NIP, is that we should never be afraid to listen to our intuitions. They are often directly connected to our dreams and what we’d like to accomplish with our lives. We can discover our own destinies by listening to intuition and not limiting our opportunities for personal growth. Don’t be afraid to dream, and don’t be afraid to follow through on them, even if the whole world thinks your pursuit impractical. Only when we pursue that which we are most passionate about can we truly become authentic human beings filled with purpose. When we do so, it is then our obligation to share this with others and inspire them with our masterpiece, our life itself.
            When I began writing these letters nearly two years ago, one of the first posts was “Top Ten Secrets”; it listed ten brief statements that have helped shape my life over the past few years. Number 1 on that list is “keep chipping away” because I had compared our individual lives to works of art. Your life, NIP, is a work of art if you choose to see it that way. Each day we wake we’re given another chance to work on our magnum opus, to sculpt our lives into what we want them to be. No two works of art will ever be the same, but in pursuing this ideal I believe we achieve something similar to the idea of “personal legend” found within the pages of The Alchemist. And though you wield the hammer and chisel and give shape to your life through the choices you make, others are helping you whether you realize it or not. I am grateful for all of the changes that I have successfully made to my life—none of which would have been possible without the love and support of my family, friends, colleagues, and students—but I am only just beginning to discern the shape of my life’s work. Sculpting anything is a slow, arduous process, even more so when it’s your own life, but it’s worth the effort. The other beautiful idea behind the sculpting metaphor is that there is no need to worry about mistakes. We all make mistakes in the form of bad choices, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be fixed. A sculptor would merely buff them out before picking up the hammer and chisel again. Never give up on your dreams, NIP. Some people will wonder what you’re working on, only to walk away puzzled. People think I’m a little crazy, and that’s just fine. It’s fine because I know deep down that I am really happy and seem to be more and more fulfilled each day. Creating our magnum opus is a lifelong process. If you have put down your chisel and hammer, NIP, maybe it’s time to pick them up again. It’s never too late to chase down your dreams and fulfill your personal legend.

Keep chipping away at your magnum opus!


Sunday, March 11, 2012

La Familia Es Todo


            While speaking with my brother Brad on the phone yesterday, the conversation turned to our other brother, Greg. Though we are different in many ways, the one common trait that we all share is that we’re driven. We’re determined to find a solution to any situation, even when one doesn’t seem evident. Brad and I discussed how we became this way and the best answer we could agree upon was simple and straightforward: our upbringing, our family. This left me thinking about how crucial family is and how it shaped me into who I am. At one point in my reflections, the title of this letter popped into my head because it was a poignant line spoken by Hector Salamanca, a character on AMC's Breaking Bad; it means “family is everything,” a sentiment I now share yet took me more than 30 years to truly appreciate.

            If you had asked me 25 years ago at age 11, the boy I was at that time was disillusioned with family. My parents were on the verge of a then-bitter divorce, but as a child I didn’t—perhaps couldn’t—comprehend their reasons. To me all I saw was a family imploding. Perhaps it was this time period that planted the seeds of my cynical worldview that I carried as my own personal cross, coloring my (mis)perceptions in the process. As I began to see my life and the world differently after meeting Erin, I realized the error I had made so long ago—I had let my heart become calcified. It took wedding my wonderful wife to teach me that it wasn’t the institution of marriage that I distrusted, but my own capacity to love. As I learned to open up my heart again, it helped me realize that the divorce that I saw so much as a curse when I was 11 turned out to be one of the greatest blessings of my life. I have two sets of parents, Dad and Kim, and Mom and Gerry. While Dad and Mom might not have been right for one another, the people they ended up with certainly are. Erin’s parents are divorced, too, so I have multiple in-laws as well. I’ve also gained brothers and sisters by way of marriage, and all of them have also contributed to my life in many ways.

            While my immediate family has certainly shaped me into who I am becoming, the same is true for my extended family as well. My Godparents were instrumental in seeing me through at two crucial points in my life: the summer of the divorce, when their home was a safe haven in tumultuous times; and when I dug myself into deep debt in my late teens, during which they instilled the values of hard work and thrift. My other aunts and uncles taught me responsibility, as I was the oldest grandchild and the go-to babysitter for many of my younger cousins. My grandmothers instructed me in the art of patience, even in acts as simple as stirring a couple of ice cubes into hot soup as Mémère Ward used to do. Now that many of my cousins are grown and married, I see the love that has been instilled in them being passed on to the next generation as they have children of their own whom they nurture and teach in turn. It is for all these things and more that I thank and celebrate my family. They have had a helping hand in who I am becoming and for that I will always have a tremendous debt of gratitude that I hope one day I can repay in some way or another.

            I think what’s more important about family is what it teaches us—how to love. My sister-in-law, Joie, once remarked that we are lucky to have come from such a good family that strengthens one another. I understood her point and I think it underscores how fortunate I have been to have won the family lottery in some sense. As a teacher, though, I know that we all learn from examples and non-examples alike; perhaps even those of us who come from families that aren’t as strong or close will still learn how to love in time because they’ve unfortunately learned what love is not. I believe in the capacity for any single one of us to render great change in our lives if we are willing to make consistent efforts. It certainly has been made possible and easier in my life by the family into which I was born. And while there is no way for us to ever repay the generosity of our forebears, the best way we can try to do so is by paying it forward. The love that my family has shown me is best reflected in the love that I have for others, whether my wife, parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, students, strangers or anyone else. While family teaches us how to love, it cannot stop there. We must learn to widen the circle to encompass everyone else with whom we come into contact. Not only will this help us become better individuals, but it will help us become a better global community by integrating the lives of others into our own and recognizing the value of interdependence.

            Brad may be right that he, Greg, and I are all driven. But we might not have been this way had we not been born into such a copious, caring clan. I’ve achieved several awards this year that never would have happened had it not been for the constant support, encouragement, and love of my family. Though I don’t often have the time or means to visit and spend quality time with them (especially my RI family), I think of them fondly and often. If anything, I want them all to know that each in his or her own way has made an indelible contribution to who I am and the better person I know I am capable of becoming. It is directly because of your influence that I have learned to let go of my cynical worldview and a past that I once viewed as a burden. The wisdom I accrued over the years has taught me to be positive and to believe in myself and my ability to effect change in my life and the lives of others. For all of these reasons and so many more, I sincerely thank each and every member of my family. Know that I will do my best to always live out the lessons you have taught me—especially the most important lesson of all…how to love.

Be thankful for your family, NIP, they’ve helped make you who you are.

- Ryan

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Twin Pillars: Patience and Persistence

Dear NIP,

            With all the recent traffic to the blog over the last few days due to the release of’s article, I’ve decided to pen an extremely brief blurb about the blog and its aims. More than anything, I began this blog two years ago to reach out to others who want to accomplish their goals, whether they are weight-loss or personal growth oriented. If you’re a first time visitor and want to read letters that address weight loss/physical health, then I would check out letters such as Genesis, Exodus, or The Land of Milk and Honey; if you’d like to read some that address the more philosophical aspects of living life to the fullest, then you might want to read letters like Strive, Gratitude for the Here and Now, or May the Blessings Be (or check out the "Popular Posts" on the left-hand side below).

            The other reason I wanted to write this short note is to post the radio interview that aired on WUSF the afternoon of 3/1. Though we talked for more than 40 minutes, the interview is only 4 ½ in length. Don’t get me wrong, Dalia did an excellent job putting it together, but if there were one additional thing I wish had been left in the edited version was what I said at the tail end of the interview: patience and persistence. To me, these are the twin pillars upon which all of our personal development must stand. I had remarked during the interview that I feel that’s the biggest mistake others make is establishing unrealistic goals (or perhaps timelines within which they expect to achieve said goal). I’ve had people ask me, “if I want to lose 25 lbs. in a month, how can I do it?” While there are ways it can be done, they often involve taking short cuts—and short cuts only backfire in the long run. We are better off by applying ourselves a little more each day, building momentum and willpower that will eventually begin to create a snowballing of personal progress. As this momentum gains traction, you’ll find it gets much easier to turn away from temptations that once got the best of you. But it won’t happen overnight. My journey began nearly 15 years ago and it took lots of learning before I even really grasped at what I was trying to do—allow my life to flourish to its maximum capacity. Granted, this never would have been possible without Erin. If she’s “the bedrock of my being,” it is upon this foundation that I have erected the twin pillars of patience and persistence.

            If you’re not a patient and persistent person, NIP, then these would be the first two attributes I would try to cultivate each day. Don’t be discouraged when you backslide, we all lose our grip from time to time during the toughest climb of our lives. But just as I said in the interview, if I can do this, anyone can. In one of the earliest letters my last secret to a successful life is to “keep chipping away.” Our lives are individual works of art and we are the sculptors holding the hammer and chisel. With patience and persistence as our guiding hands, our magnum opus can be wrought. Thanks for stopping by and checking out the blog. I hope that in some of these letters you can find some reassurance and inspiration to institute the changes you want to make in your own life.

Patience and persistence, NIP, are the keys to any goal you want to accomplish...

- Ryan  

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