36 Things I Have Learned at 36, by Catherine Mulligan

Catherine Mulligan shared today's Things I Have Learned list, the first to come with its own soundtrack.

Catherine Mulligan’s contribution to the Things I Have Learned series is fabulous not just for the insights she shares but also for the approach she took — her list is the first to come with its own soundtrack.

Catherine wrote her list of 36 things she has learned at 36 and gave each nugget of knowledge its own accompanying song. Much like reading Scott Daris’s chronological list, in which he assigned one lesson learned to each year he’d lived, I read Catherine’s piece and marveled at her creativity. I love music but it had never occurred to me to think musically about this series.

Catherine grew up a bookworm in Connecticut and later stumbled into a career in commercial insurance, if only to prove that English majors don’t have to become teachers.  When she’s not traveling around the U.S. playing business lady, she is scribbling over at her blog, The Flamingo Room, a place to share compassion and connectivity as we scratch out a life map together.  She currently is working on a book of essays.  Catherine lives in New York City with her partner, Andy.

Here is her list:

1) Show yourself some compassion.
Don’t be so hard on yourself! Life is hard enough. You’re doing the best you can.
(Theme song: “Breathe (2AM)” by Anna Nalick)

2) Show others some compassion.
They’re doing the best they can, too.
(Theme song: “One of Us” by Joan Osborne)

3) Use your resources.
Don’t be afraid to seek out help.  Whatever your particular difficulty is, there are people out there who can help you with it. It’s never too late.  I’ve also learned that getting help is way easier than living with sadness and badness.  And the rabbit hole is less scary once you go down in it than looking at it from the outside.
(Theme song: “Excuses” (acoustic) by Alanis Morissette)

4) The past can be a badass motherf***er.
That doesn’t mean you have to carry it around with you. (See #3)
(Theme song: “Let’s Forget About the Past” by The Detroit Cobras)

5) Moreover, nostalgia can be overrated.
You’re really not required to be in love with something for sentimental reasons just because it is a commonly held belief. For example, I hated college. I don’t wish I could go back there. I’m over it. You might have a similar memory of something. Feel free to let it go.
(Theme song:  “Your Ghost” by Kristen Hersh with Michael Stipe)

6) Eyes on your own paper!
Let other people deal with their own sh*t. You don’t need it.
(Theme song: “Not the Doctor” (acoustic) by Alanis Morissette)

7) Surrender, Dorothy!
That is, let go of fear.  The decision to surrender is typically hard won – we fight to hang on to so many deeply destructive things (to all the other divorcees out there: holla!) – but when we finally open up our hearts and hands, it’s not only a relief, it also opens up a new, bright, clear path for new energy to come flowing right in to us.
(Theme song: “Stephanie Says” by The Velvet Underground)

8) Be brave!
Once you fully surrender, you’ll realize you have it in you to face the very worst that life can offer.  The best part about facing the mushroom cloud after your life has blown up is realizing, “Hey! I’m still standing!!”  Or, as the song says: “I wanna throw a quote from Martin Luther King/I am not afraid/I am not afraid/I am not afraid!”
(Theme song: “The Outsiders” by REM with Q-Tip)

9) “Lean into the spear.”
Stole this one from Pema Chodron. There are lots of creative ways to avoid feeling the full range of emotions, particularly the sad and bad stuff, but if we do, we miss the opportunity to learn from them. (Stupid spear.)
(Theme song: “Conscious Evolution” by Donna the Buffalo)

10) “In a world where you can be anything, be yourself.”
I have a plaque in my room that says this.  My friend, David, says the world is “doing its best to cow originals out,” and what amazes me is how complicit we can be in the process!  It’s so easy to bite back our true feelings, hopes, wishes.  Not sure why that is, but wouldn’t it be fun if we all rejected the conspiracy?!
(Theme song: “The Obvious Child” by Paul Simon )

11) You’re weird.
So am I. This brings a finer point to number 10.  Not to go all Howard Roarke on you (a little conformity keeps society peaceable), but let’s all just embrace our innate wackiness. How fun!
(Theme song: “I Was Dancing at the Lesbian Bar” by Jonathan Richman)

12) Speaking of The Fountainhead: I hated it.
I also think “Brown Eyed Girl” is a super annoying song. I’ll take Dean over Frank, vanilla over chocolate. You may agree or disagree. The good news is: we have a program for everyone in this life. Variety keeps things interesting.
(Theme song: “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong or “Choice in the Matter” by Aimee Mann)

13) Reach out when someone is grieving.
Even if you don’t know what to say, be brave and drop them a line. And keep doing it, even if they don’t respond. They’re doing marathon work, and they need you.
(Theme song: “Calling all Friends” by Low Stars)

14) Learn to manage your finances.
Being in control of this aspect of life has a terrific trickle down effect into other areas of life.  See #3 as necessary.
(Theme song: “Money (That’s What I Want)” by The Flying Lizards)

15) It’s not the Olympics.
A peculiar Mulligan trait is to give up if we’re not immediately awesome at something. I’m learning to let this go.
(Theme song: The theme from “The Greatest American Hero” by Joey Scarbury)

16) But…if something does come easily to you, that’s your natural talent calling!
It doesn’t have to be laborious to be meaningful. Suffering doesn’t necessarily add value to something.  In fact, if it comes easily, it means you’re naturally good it, so go chase it.
(Theme song: “Let Your Light Shine” by Keb’ Mo’)

17) In the bedroom, let your freak flag fly.
Seriously. Get over it. Don’t be shy about whatever floats your boat. And remember to share this with your partner.
(Resource: Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel)
(Theme song: “Nightswimming” by REM….or “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Making Love)” from the soundtrack to Avenue Q)

18) Everything can be a bell of mindfulness.
Okay, I stole this one from Thich Nhat Hanh.  I’ll give you an example of how it works: when my late friend, Alpana, was very sick, she vigorously practiced mindfulness, that is, being fully present in the moment.  Sure, sometimes the “present moment, wonderful moment” didn’t always feel so wonderful, but each snapshot in time kept her aware and grounded.  I’ve found it is a practice that brings some relief from worry and underscores what is good in each breath, each ray of sunshine or drop of rain.
(Resource: Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh)
(Theme song:  “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying” by Sting because “everybody’s got to/leave the darkness sometime….”)

19) Keep in touch.
Yeah, you’re busy. Me, too. But a wee text or email is quick to send in this day and age, and you never know how much it might mean to the recipient.
(Theme song: “In View” by The Tragically Hip)

20) Seek and nurture inner silence.
Prayer and meditation help me with this.  Still the waters inside and you’ll bring great power to the outside.
(Theme song: “Deeper Well” by Emmylou Harris)

21) Your energy changes your environment.
I’ve learned that when surrounded by a**holes, I should really look in the mirror to see what kind of loveliness I’m putting out into the world.  Conversely, if I put good stuff out there and act with intention and without fear, wow! Amazing things happen.  (An addendum to this is a favorite saying of mine: “If you can’t control the wind, adjust the sails.”  Word.)
(Theme song: “New Shoes” by Paolo Nutini)

22) Absolutes are the language of childhood.
“Never,” “always,” “no one,” “everyone,” etc. are unhelpful words in adult conversation, especially during a disagreement.
(Theme song: “Mint Juleps and Needles” by Brenda Kahn…not that this is song is specifically related to this item, it’s just a good song, and it also makes me think of immature things.)

23) Know your power for both good and evil.
Learn to understand, appreciate and control your inherent power, and use it for good whenever you can.
(Theme song: “Right Next Door (Because of Me)” by Robert Cray)

24) Learn to engage in conflict.
It’s possible to be calm and rational during a disagreement. It’s imperative to put all issues on the table. Incredibly, all of this can be learned.
(Theme song: “This is Why We Fight” by The Decemberists)

25) Secrets are poison.
Privacy, yes. Deeply held secrets, no. They’ll eat you alive.
(Theme song: “What I’ve Done” by Linkin Park)

26) Question your motivation.
I learned this one from a family friend who has been in AA for decades, but I think it applies to all of us. Be brave enough to ask why you are or are not doing something (“Hmmm, why am I staying in a bad relationship, not going back to school, etc.”). I have found that the answers are fascinating.
(Theme song: “Why, Charlie Brown” by Wynton and Ellis Marsalis)

27) Forgiveness is a miraculous gift.
Work to give it and accept it. It’s incredible.
(Resource:  Jack Kornfield’s Loving Kindness meditation, which you can download)
(Theme song: “Pretty Amazing Grace” by Neil Diamond….yes, Neil Diamond. See #12. Or, if you prefer: “Sinners Prayer” by Ray Charles & B.B. King)

28) Go to the doctor.
Yes, it’s creepy and the test results can be scary, but knowing all the facts will help you chart a course that could be lifesaving.
(Theme song: “Little Fine Healthy Thing” (Live) by Delbert McClinton)

29) The Wanda Sykes’ Principle: “Exfoliate yo’ ass.”
Meaning: when you look good, you feel good. Even if your life is in the gutter right now, take care of your appearance. Fake it until things get better.
(Theme song: “At My Most Beautiful” by REM)

30) Get your eyebrows done.
This is a more specific corollary to #29. Ladies, you’ll look even more fabulous if you do this. Gentlemen, a little trim helps us see your nice eyes.  Take it from a late bloomer who knows.
(Theme song: “Eye of the Tiger” by Paul Anka. You heard me.)

31) Pay attention to your dreams if you can remember them.
Our subconscious minds work out a great many issues while we’re asleep.  What mysteries may be unraveled in our dreams!
(Theme song: “Kite” by Patty Griffin)

32) You have a voice.
Remember that next time someone wants to try to bully you.
(Theme song: “Silent All These Years” by Tory Amos)

33) And speaking of bullies: Don’t let the turkeys get you down.
Who do they think they are? You rule. Own it.
(Theme song: “King of Anything” by Sara Bareilles)

34) The arts enrich us (even if we don’t understand them all the time).
I was sitting outside at Battery Park when Anthony Braxton’s 100 Tubas walked by. I didn’t get it; it sounded like Planes over Dresden to me. Still, I kind of love it.  Here’s a link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aNVhBAPCuak
(Theme song: “Oops! I Did it Again” by Richard Thompson)

35) Our national parks are awe-inspiring.
As are the global heritage sites. Visit them!
(Theme song: “Sweet Old World” by Emmylou Harris)

36) A mix tape is still an awesome way to communicate.
It’s old school but true. I’ll burn a CD with these songs for the first three people who comment on which of these resonated for you and why.
(Theme song: “Mix Tape” from the Avenue Q soundtrack)

Catherine Mulligan is the 10th contributor to the “Things I Have Learned” series, running on Thursdays on Newvine Growing. Previous lists have come from:

Each person’s list is their own. Life teaches us all different lessons, even when we face the same experiences. I’m honored to share this series of life lessons in each contributor’s voice.

If you’d like to participate, I’ll just need your list, plus a recent photo and a short bio of maybe two or three sentences. I can link to your blog or website, if you like.


Categories: career, creativity, health and well being, home and family, lifestyle

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10 replies

  1. I’m a little late in the thread, but I just wanted to say that everything is better with a soundtrack – I love this list! Such interesting and wise people here.

  2. Catherine, these are great – I think 1, 2, 27 and 29 really spoke to me! And 10 reminded me of my favourite bit of advice from Gretchen Rubin (the Happiness Project) to ‘Be Gretchen’. Just love reading your writing, and it would be great to see you back here in Oz some time!

  3. Li!!! You inspired me. Thanks for your ongoing support. I have your mailing address, but I hope I can give you your CD’s in person. 🙂

  4. Thanks, April. You can do it! Please send me an email at theflamingoroomblog (at) yahoo (dot) com with your mailing address (or send it Colleen) so I can send you your CD’s! 🙂

  5. Geez Mully, I keep re-reading this list and want to pick just about all of them (guess that’s why we get along so well). But I feel like a few highlights are: 1, 7, 13, 27…mostly because I feel like they’re the ones you’ve demonstrated with me and helped me to embrace myself. Now – can’t wait for my mix tape/CD so that I can appreciate you for #36 as well!

  6. Love your list. Especially # 21 cause I am at a point in my life of trying not to let my environment control my feelings and actions. Thx


  1. What have you learned in your time on Earth so far? | Newvine Growing

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