Saturday, May 13, 2017

On Staying, and Going - Part I

I've lived in the same house for 22 years.

The little house on Roosevelt was supposed to be my "starter" house twenty-two years ago. I chose it primarily based on the price, the views it had of a beautiful private golf course, and the "good bones" that I saw under the white paint, pale carpeting, cruddy landscaping, and very dated kitchen and bathrooms. It was a mid-century tract house, but it felt a little like home even on my first walk-through. I had no way of knowing how much life I'd lead while living there, the highs and lows and all of it.

And now I'm in a rented temporary space, hoping that the new house deal closes next week. There are so many memories to process, but not urgently. I'm thinking about the many decisions and choices and hurdles I faced while living in that little house. I went back to school and earned an MFA. I married my longtime partner, who became my second husband.  Kitties joined us.  Boulders were purchased.  I gardened my little fingers off, and rode my bike hundreds of miles and learned about plants that love our climate. We hosted parties and laughed with friends and colleagues (who became friends) and I became a bellydancer. I tried to have a baby, but was not successful. I explored options for adopting, but was interrupted by the experience of caring for my husband through first a chronic and then a terminal illness. I learned how to seek and find peace. I found my lioness spirit, found my center, and tried to resist the labels of others. I became a passionate advocate for hospice care and rediscovered my tenderness. I lost my second husband. We made the little house over, added even more windows. My life opened again. I met and married Eric.

My brother recently commented that when I speak of my home, or of the homes I was considering, I barely talked about the actual house. I talk gardens. It's true. I have a friend who fought cancer (and kicked ass) while working from home, pulling weeds and deadheading while on conference calls, holding on to threads of normalcy while permitting chemotherapy to kick cancer's ass. If you are a gardener, you probably know what my gardens meant to me. From the first moments living in the little house on Roosevelt, it was clear how desperately the yard and garden needed love. Making over the garden spaces took years. Decades. So much work, and so much love, and so many dollars, and a half-dozen reinventions. I rediscovered my love of dirt on that corner lot. I adore the spaces that I created, and coaxed, and updated, and coaxed some more. I poured love that needed an outlet into the dirt, and it paid dividends. I felt so at peace looking out my windows at beauty I'd envisioned and brought to life. In happy times, the gardens were a place to create order, to enjoy beauty. In the most difficult times, they gave everyone who looked at them a sense of peace. The fountain, the benches, the way the flowering vines created a sense of lushness and privacy, were all features of those gardens that were unique to Roosevelt St.

When you live a long time in a place, if you tend a garden, you learn to measure seasons by glancing at plants. You measure years in four parts. You shiver at bitter cold and send good thoughts to your gardens to stay strong, to survive. Spring is always and ever a miracle of rebirth and growth. You welcome the seasons and the blooms and the scents, and time passes through your fingers softly, one month and season of bloom melting into the next.

But it passes. You see? Time passes while we are making plans, and making choices, and equivocating. While our gardens are emerging and growing and blooming and going dormant. And rebirth can sometimes be a surprise, the fear that it may not come simply the breath of cynicism whispering darkly. Time passing is the constant. Feeling sad or anxious or calm or joyous about that constant is what we may choose.

The Roosevelt St. gardens were selected to be on the Botanical Garden's home garden tour in June, had the house not sold. I'm very proud of that fact. And those gardens will always be a part of my legacy, no matter whether the deed for the property has been recorded in a new name.

All of that said-you know what? Onward. The new house has beautiful views of the city and glimpses of the Owyhees, and almost zero garden beauty. It is close to Foothills trails and has room for all the things I like to do. It has cruddy lawn and too much of it, too few plants, soil that needs piles of compost, a couple of pines that need to go, some sad scrubby trees too close to the house, some junipers that attempted a coup of the neighbor's lot-line and of the Idaho Power services box. Yay. Time to roll up my sleeves. Opportunity to create new beauty.

Deep breaths. Blank slate. New chapter. Here we go.

My best, as ever, to all who happen this way. ~ plk

Sunday, September 11, 2016

On Leaping and Landing

When I was seeing Cameron-the-Counselor for grief counseling after Jeff died, we spent time talking about the fact that grief and loss is a change that makes everyone uncomfortable. He reminded me that pretty much everyone else is invested in those who are grieving getting back to "normal." I treasured the people in my life who were not invested in that, who let me just be who I was and let me feel how I felt. We talked a lot about how "back to normal" is not normal and would never again be normal, how we never are the same people again after a major loss.  

What has been apparent to me recently is that I forgot to count me among the people who wanted to see me back to "normal."  For a while I remembered this, and guarded against it.  Then I forgot.  And pretty soon I was back to some semblance of normal, but a normal that was sometimes like an ill-fitting garment. There are still elements of my life that do not quite fit, that chafe tender places.  

Two weeks ago, a woman I know on Facebook, the director of a dog rescue in Seattle, sent me a note. I had been considering fostering to adopt some small dogs, rescues who had become bonded to one another in the rescue foster home. I'd decided it was the wrong time for me to add those little creatures to my life. To my life with Eric in the small house and the pretty gardens, to my life with a demanding job, to my life where I was still grieving the loss of Jessie (and Ella, to be honest, who died last year). Jessie was the last of my trio of felines, the most challenging of the three in personality, and beloved. Her death was the end of something, something I'm still working through.  

Then I received this message from the rescue director, sent very late one night, that these sweet dogs would have to be split up, because no one wanted them both. And so, uncharacteristically, I leapt. Yep, we'll try it, is what I said. 

Years ago, I was in a work meeting and one of my coworkers presented a very compelling model for envisioning your life plan, your daily commitments, as a written document. Be careful, was the advice, to leave enough margin on those pages. Make sure to put both life and work on your plan. Leave margins so that you have room to squeeze in the unexpected, the unplanned. It was good advice, a good life strategy. It felt like it was better advice for other people than for me.

My own experience is that I couldn't ever leave enough margin. My experience is that a life plan is more like a hazy outline of things that you might do. My experience is that things will happen in your life that splat all over your life plan and splash coffee on that bad boy. While I never really realized it, thinking of my life that way has contributed to a habit of thinking that says "no" to what I want too often. Sometimes before I even let myself admit what I want. Some of the decisions I'd like to get back, the choices I'd like to re-choose, or more actively choose, were made with knee-jerk-no thinking. And then, too, I'm pretty big on commitment. When I commit, I am in. Through fire, flood, hurricane, illness, money troubles--I'm in.  

Those habits and that thinking is part of the reason I am not usually a leaper. I am usually a person who has minded my limits about those things I can choose because my life has had a bunch of hand grenades thrown into it, and I have too often let my work take up too much page space. And when I commit, it's for reals. In my confused (and busy) brain, I think I developed these habits because I am trying to leave a LOT of margin. It doesn't work, by the way.  

This is a very long wind-up to explain why and how it was very out of character for me to just try this dog foster thing. It will seem silly, I'm sure, to many of you who have complicated home lives. Or children. But it was out of character for me that with very little planning, we climbed into the car. We drove to Seattle, saw a friend, saw Eric's mom, picked up two little dogs, and drove home. 

What I have to keep remembering is that commitments come in stages.  

These little foster to adopt dogs have dragged me out of my routine, mostly in a very good way. I'm out before sunrise and after moonrise, wandering about with them while they sniff *everything* and relieve themselves. I've been humbled by poop bags (mine are lavender-scented--I am not kidding). They have cheerfully jingling collars and tags, they are zoom-y, they are sweet as sugar most of the time. They greet me like I'm a rockstar when I come into the room. Balance all of that against the fact that they deserve more of my time than I have to give (I know we all wrestle that one), and they have some habits that will take work and focus to change. I'm trying to discern what they need and what I can give and see if it's a close-enough match. I'm trying to weigh how this leap impacts my marriage, because I don't live alone in the small house on Roosevelt Street.  

So far, I have this:
  1. If this can't be their permanent home, I will know that I tried (and that they had a great Idaho vacation).
  2. I don't have to travel to spend time outside looking at stars and moons and sunrises.
  3. Even if this leap doesn't lead down the path I expected, leaping isn't all bad. Stick the landing, that's the trick.
  4. I spend way too much time glancing into the lives of people I know and care for on social media, sharing snippets of my life with them.  Too much Facebook, too little face time.  
This life thing is a journey, y'all.  My best, as ever, to all who wander this way.  

~plk

Saturday, August 13, 2016

This Corporeal World


In the church of St. John the Divine in ManhattanKedar Photography

I'm so stubborn, y'all.  Seriously.  I'm especially stubborn, it turns out, when it comes to thinking I can keep doing what I'm doing and get a different result. I'm stubborn about not giving up on people, even when they hurt me. I'm stubborn about saying "yes, but" (or even, "yes, and...") when I should sometimes just say "no."

So why am I not stubborn about demanding boundaries on my time, my gifts of love or money or support? Why am I not stubborn about honoring my needs for self care? I think it's partly because I was raised not to be selfish, and this can sometimes feel selfish.  But I think it's also the fact that, until very recently, I have never admitted in my heart of hearts that time is finite. We only get to spend each one of our minutes once. There is no compounding interest on time. Once a moment is gone, it's spent. That.Is.That.

This refusal to accept the limits of time lets me drift along, sometimes for years, without correcting behaviors or situations that need to be corrected. It's the reason I can gain a lot of weight before hearing big alarm bells. It's the reason I can spend years in a job that I've long outgrown. It's the reason that I can let unhealthy relationships and friendships go on for far too long without being corrected.

I've recently been thinking a lot about faith. I'm not a churchgoer. I left the Catholic church on a hot afternoon in 1983 after my parish priest felt it necessary to scold me for my mother's refusal to attend mass after her stroke. I've been unable to return to a church because so few are accepting of people in all their variations. I do not, as a result, think of myself as having a lot of faith. I've known faithfully religious people. I've admired them, envied them. I've categorized them into "the real deal" and "the kind who mostly just attend a lot of services." A very faith-filled friend recently told me that he thinks of me as one of the most faithful people he knows.  "You," he said, "have more faith that the world is unfolding as it should, as you often say, than most of the pastors I've known."

And I do.  Not because I feel that there is a divine hand guiding all things. No, I can't, and don't, believe that there is a divine hand guiding the things that we must face each day. I would be embittered if I believed that a divine hand dealt the losses in my life, at the times I faced them. I couldn't make sense of the world if I believed that. Instead, I believe we are making our way through a minefield of experiences and that all we really have is our free will, our connection to others, our kindness, and our grace.  I can't imagine that the divine can be called down to football fields, or even to hospital beds. Not to change the realities of this corporeal world. No, I believe the divine is only available to us in the ways that we must deal with our fears and our losses, our joys, and our disappointments.

And I believe firmly that I can communicate with the people I've lost who loved me. My atheist friends call this a coping mechanism. I respect, but don't agree, with that opinion. So maybe my friend is right. Maybe that's faith. And maybe it is this belief, this habit of stubborn trust in the unfolding of the universe, that has allowed me to stay in tough situations through thick and thin and pain and tears and laughter and death. Maybe it's this habit of thinking that has enabled me to stay, to be unflinching when things are awful, which has rewarded me with moments of such exquisite grace that I am sometimes overcome with gratitude. I know with certainty that at the core of my gratitude are these experiences of grace, of bearing witness to such tremendous beauty and such humbling courage.

I can be both if I am mindful, both the steadfast and giving person I like to be, and the self-protective person who will draw better boundaries and limits. I'm winding up for another trip around the sun, and I'm hoping some of this in-my-head wisdom starts translating to in-my-schedule wisdom soon.

Thanks to those of you who tarry here, and my best as ever to all who pass this way!

~plk

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Of Course I Can

Since I was in high school, I've been a morning person.  In my 20's, I developed the habit of getting out of bed very early to fit important but easy-to-skip things into my morning, before heading to work.  For years, even decades, I got up at 4:30 AM so I could work out and write before launching my work day.  I lost some of that habit when I had a job that required me to get out of bed for on-call responsibilities, or when I was a caregiver. But those things have changed, and still I struggle to get out of bed some mornings. I've lost the rhythm in my days, and I miss it.

Here's the thing--I'm stubborn. And that means I'm just as stubborn when I'm sure I've failed as I am when I believe in myself. Here's another thing--I'm tough to discourage, but it can be done. And, lastly, like a lot of the most results-driven people I know, one of the worst things to hear or know is that I've disappointed someone.  I'll dive across pavement to avoid disappointing someone I care about.  I'll work myself stupid to avoid failure of my team.

This is not news. I've been this way since I was a little girl. I've gotten myself into unhealthy situations on any number of occasions because of this. Tell me I'm wrong or I screwed up and I'll debate you.  Tell me I disappointed you and I fold.  This is a good thing to know if you're in my inner circle and you want to quickly win a conflict with me.  (Ha!)

I've been thinking about this quite a lot lately, especially as it relates to changing parts of my life that I want to change.  It seems this is all tangled up with my ongoing (and now life-long) struggle with my weight.  It seems it is all tangled up with my ongoing struggle to balance work and life.  It is all tangled up with my inability to satisfy my need for time and mental space to write, and read, and create.  This is maybe "interesting" behavior, if you're a person studying behavior.  But if you're a person who wants what's best for me, or if you read this and commiserate, and you're trying to stop talking about these things and get doing/finding/achieving them, it's a baaaaad deal.

In the last two years, I've had a series of disappointments. A shuffle at work prevented me from finishing something I'd started and very much wanted to finish. My whole team was laid off, including me. I gained a lot of weight, and that has been a disappointment to me and to some others. My writing habits, and my reading habits, are abysmal. And I've had some wins, too--I found a great new job doing something that matters for someone I believe in. I handled all of that corporate work junk with grace. But there have been two times in the last two weeks where I had flashbulb moments of realizing that despite my wins, I was disappointed in me. And in those situations, the shock I felt was the realization that I had simply folded. I had given up, walked off. When I scold myself and berate myself and beat myself up, I never come out of that with a big motivation to never do whatever.it.is again. Nope, I just feel like hell. Which is not very helpful in finding energy to regroup, to change course.

I lost my faith and my certainty that I could be a writer, a fit person, and an effective leader in a chaotic job all at the same time. Whew. That's pretty hard to admit.  So, y'all, of course I can be. I've done all of this in the past, sometimes while also being a caregiver. I'm going dust myself off and get back to it.

I can't change what I feel, but I can change what I do.

When people make me feel I've disappointed them, I'm going to try to call them on it. I'm also going to try to call me on it, because sometimes that is not at all what they intended and it's that anxious little voice in my head getting in my way. When I hear that little voice in my head beating me up, I'm going to try to silence that bullying biatch.  It will be difficult. The voice in my head knows all my soft spots. She aims flying jujitsu kicks at all my most tender places.  She nods with a smug look when I feel self-doubt. You probably have one of these voices, too. 

And, lastly, I'm going to do the thing I always advise others to do--try every day to see yourself through the eyes of those people you know love you most purely, who see your flaws, your strength, beauty, and your worth every single second.

Here we go, one more time, with feeling.  Let's do this.

Best to all who happen this way!

~plk

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Precisely As You Are

I've missed writing this blog. I've missed writing, period.  I'm going to try to be back.

I am a very lucky woman in many ways. My life has been sprinkled with experiences that I know are not typical, and many times when I have needed help in my life I've encountered generosity and kindness in people who might just as easily (more easily) not lifted a hand to help. One of the ways that I've been most lucky has been in my personal life experience of being a heavy woman in a country that equates fat with unhealthy, unsexy, lazy, ugly, undisciplined, shameful--a whole pile of assumptions and baggage all wrapped up in a person's size.

This has been on my mind lately, as I look at the numbers on my scale and wish for an undo button. It's been on my mind as I read posts and memes and essays and news stories that urge body acceptance, fat acceptance, human acceptance. It's been on my mind as I unfriended a few Facebook friends who were a bit too mean-spirited or self-satisfied in their dismissal of fat people. It's been on my mind as I witness the lives of friends and acquaintances wrestling with their body acceptance, health, food addictions.

And through all of this witnessing, as I try to find my own path through this life I'm leading, I am simply lifted up by memories of those people who helped me see my beauty and worth past all the judgmental voices in my head, in my life, and in the media. So few people have those voices in their lives, and are left only with the clamoring of those voices of self-doubt, the voices of the media, the ignorant, sometimes unmeaning, sometimes casual cruelty of loved ones and strangers and acquaintances. I know these things are true. And I know that I'm lucky. I remember a good friend, urging me to spend less energy thinking about how I looked on a bike and more energy mastering hill-climbs. I remember another friend who was shocked, truly shocked, when I told him that I have always avoided photos because I was heavy. "But you're so beautiful," he said, and his voice was so honestly incredulous and confused that I was ashamed of myself for being an idjit.

Many of you know that I am a belly-dancer. As is the case for me with almost every kind of physical art form or sport, my skill is greatly enhanced by my enthusiasm. Which is to say that I'm not all that great, but I'm enthusiastic enough to carry me through. I started dancing at my heaviest weight ever. Me, the person who avoids both mirrors and photographs, decided to take a swing for the fence and dance with other women in a studio. With mirrors, mind you. I was never going to perform, of course. And then, dazzled by the sparkly costumes, warmed by the women of my group, I did decide to perform. Outside, at a festival, in public.

I will always remember from that day the camaraderie of the women I dance with, the women I still think of as dance-sisters. I will remember that I learned wind is like a Russian-roulette factor for dancing with veils. I remember that we finished our dance, laughing. My husband, Jeff, was standing on the hillside in the crowd dressed in tie-dye and clapping his hands over his head with the biggest smile on his face. His was the loudest voice that day. Jeff had myasthenia gravis, and it had been quite a process to get his energy level up to attend the festival and the performance. Myasthenia gravis made it difficult for him to lift his arms. And there we were. He knew what it cost me in bravery points to get on that stage, and I knew what it cost him in sheer will to raise his arms above his head and applaud. And that is my best memory of that day, one of the best memories of my life.

That day was a long time ago now. I'm still proud of us both. I'm talking kick ass and take names proud. So today, I'm holding on to that memory to buoy me up as I chart my course back to strength and health.  I hope that if you are reading this and you're also charting a new course for your life, that you remember to be gentle with yourself, that you remember to see all your beauty and strength just as you are this moment.  I hope that this choice gives you joy.

Best to all who happen this way.

~plk



Friday, August 15, 2014

Uptown Hoho

I've been trying for several weeks to write a blog post about body image and acceptance, about my own journey to make sense of the relationship between health and fitness and obesity, about the subtle and unsubtle messages that the world sends about your worth if you are too fat or too thin. The writing is stuck. I feel wrung out on this topic, sick of considering it despite it's continued power to wound me.  

Then last weekend while gathering my thoughts and soothing my heart on a long walk along the Boise River Greenbelt path, I encountered several families stopped for snacks along the path, bikes stacked together in various jumbled piles of neon-colored painted metal and shiny chrome spokes. It's difficult not to notice how many children are heavier now than when I grew up. And, since I was one of the heavier children in my family and in my grade school classes, I wonder if any of the stigma has worn off. I think not. That sense of stigma is what drives guilt and shame, two of the most caustic and useless emotions we can feel.  To be utterly truthful, I have never effectively expressed the feelings I have when my weight feels in balance to me, the enormous sense of relief that mixes with the sense of accomplishment and balance. It has taken me decades to reject the judgments of others and find my own "best self" weight and fitness level, to accept and embrace and even celebrate that I have never and will never be the weight shown on weight charts as "ideal" but that I will damned well ride my bikes and run slow miles and hike up mountains and foothills anyway.    

All of that was swirling through my head last Sunday morning on the Greenbelt. I was disheartened about my fitness level, and feeling very isolated. And then I stopped to drink from a fountain. Nearby a pretty, fit mom offered her beautiful daughter a choice of snacks, a Rubbermaid container of home-baked brownies cut into bite-size portions in one hand, a bowl of bright juicy strawberries in the other. I smiled when the ponytailed daughter chose one of each, and then alternated bites. A baby gourmand! I smiled because that mother seemed to know that denial doesn't work, that bites are not the problem. I smiled because instead of sitting inside in front of some screen, here was a family out pedaling along the river in the rapidly gathering heat of a Boise summer day, thoroughly enjoying their sweaty progress, bites of brownies, bites of strawberries, sips of cold water. I smiled because I'm pretty sure that little girl is going to grow up just fine, even if she winds up wearing a jean size bigger or smaller than whatever it is we will think of as ideal in 10 years. 

I know what I believe - that there are a thousand versions, ten thousand versions, of beautiful, that health comes from living fully and being in motion, that no one should feel shamed because of their size, color, weight, height, sexual orientation, race or gender, and that we all feel best when we practice what BrenĂ© Brown calls "healthy striving." 

Tonight while out for dinner I ordered what the server described as a miniature uptown Hoho - a cake with ganache and a dollop of whipped cream, the whole thing perhaps four or five bites in size. I enjoyed each bite. There are some longer essays unfurling themselves in my writing folder, but tonight while I was smiling over my enjoyment of that little cake, I remembered the little smiling girl on the Greenbelt, and thought I would share.

Yep - I think maybe I've found my way back to my center just in time for my 50th birthday.  

Best to all who happen this way!

~plk

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Choose your Burden

    Freedom means choosing your burden.     ~ Hephzibah Menuhin

Recently I overheard someone say that they would have been more tolerant of another person's failure to deliver on work commitments and general lack of zazz if she had realized what that person was going through in his personal life.  It happens that the zazz-less person is caring for a loved one with a debilitating chronic illness and working full time in addition because that is what most of us have to do when disease strikes our families. It happens that the complainer somehow managed in her own mind to make her guilt the wronged person's responsibility. The implication was that in order to be generous, one must know details. "I wish I had known that," she said.

And I said nothing, because what I wanted to say was inappropriate for my relationship with this woman. What I wanted to say was, "I think you'd save yourself a lot of negative energy if you just assume that the people you encounter are doing the best they can, that they are likely facing difficulties that you cannot be aware of, that their failure to do what you wish they would do is more your issue than theirs. And I think you might want to consider offering to help before you threaten to tattle."

It reminded me that not everyone walks around believing that we should all practice giving the benefit of the doubt to those we encounter. I hear the hard anger in the voices of those who judge and I think, "have you really never been in a position that you needed the grace of another?" Or, worse, "is it so easy for you to forget those who have helped you in your time of need?" Here is the thing, none of us, despite our confidence that we do, really know what the people you encounter are living with on the day, the hour, that you encounter them.  You can't know the pain they are in, what burdens they are carrying, what their worries are.  It's too much to know, you see. We can barely, it seems, remember one another's names. And so you have a choice--will you assume the best, until that person demonstrates otherwise? When they screw up, will you force yourself not to assign intent ("he wanted to see this fail") unless that is the only possible reason? Choosing this may mean that you have to carry more of the workload on a project, may have to pay more than your share, cover the bill in any one of a thousand ways. I, personally, choose to do that. I'd rather err on the side of being taken advantage of occasionally than fail to help when my help might make a significant difference, when the fact that I've helped might remind the person I'm helping that they are not alone.

And then, when someone does reveal themselves to be taking advantage of your grace, holding them accountable will be as natural and fair as breathing.

Today I did not dance with my troupe when we performed at Boise's Goddessfest because I was feeling unprepared, and feeling too wrung out to dance in joy.  I spent some time recharging this weekend. I watched my dance sisters and felt pride in what they do, what we do. I felt warmed by this group of women who come from every corner of our city with backgrounds as varied as you can imagine. We talk about costumes, we compare notes about a million things in our lives. And we dance. As I sat in the warm sunshine today, watching my troupe sisters dancing the familiar choreography of our routine, I was so proud of them all. It will be a long while before I miss another performance. It will be easier than it has been in a long while to make time for practice, in my schedule and in my busy-busy brain. Sometimes it takes stepping out of your place in line and observing how beautiful the thing is that you are a part of to understand how you fit, how important this thing you've built with other people is. And for me, it was quite something to have not one of my dance sisters complain about my failure to "suit up" in sequined dance pants and glittery make-up--despite the fact that they had to change the choreography at the last minute. They knew that even though there is no visible blood on my person, no obvious signs to show how wrung out I feel, I needed the break. So they covered my absence with grace.

When I was caring for my terminally ill husband in home hospice, my then-boss let me work from home almost exclusively for a few months. It was mutually beneficial--I had a skillset that was needed, I could work remotely without impacting my teams, I needed the paycheck and benefits and there were times when work gave me something else to think about.  When I returned to work after he passed away, the man who sat in the cubicle next to me made a cutting comment about my extended absence. He had not, it seems, been in the loop on the details of where I had been or why. So I told him. If you know me, you know that I am not a person who yells--and I did not raise my voice. But I was perfectly, utterly, excruciatingly clear about the reasons I'd been allowed to work from home. He looked pretty ashamed of himself when I was only 20% of the way through the explanation. I did it because I wanted him to realize something important, and because he was a man in his mid-30's who had worked beside me for years, and he should have known better than to assume the worst. He was, most of us are, better than that.

Let's all try to be better than that. Be the person who is better than that, and recognize the people in your life who are better than that.  It costs so little.

Best to all who happen this way.

~plk

Sunday, June 8, 2014

On Cleanliness and De-Cluttering

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."  ~ William Morris 

This is a great quote.  I've been cleaning today.  If you would like a reminder of why it's better to cook bacon in the oven, rather than on the stovetop, you should spend an hour cleaning the stove-side steel shelf that you have not cleaned thoroughly in a month (COUGH-it's.really.been.more.like.a.year).   Full disclosure: this activity might, in fact, put you off bacon entirely for a while.  

Deep cleaning almost always coincides with efforts to get other things in my life "cleaned up."  These days I'm working on balance, on nurturing my health and my joy.  I'm reaching for the tools that have always helped me: love, time in my garden, time on my bike, food that is "close to the source" instead of packaged neatly and chemically preserved.  I'm working to find my healthy center again, and my efforts are working.  I'm trying to define what "healthy" looks like to me, for me.  

Questions of body image seem almost impossibly tangled with judgement.  I have friends who feel too skinny, friends who feel "fit but fat" and friends who either feel they are too fat or feel other people feel they are too fat, those other people ranging from mothers to spouses to friends to utter strangers who feel qualified to judge because we have BMI ranges and weight charts with nifty labels that let everyone who cares to indulge that sort of impulse feel like an expert.  It's a colossal waste of energy, and if it were not so charged with emotional pain it would be boring.  I'm bored by my own exploration of how best to manage my weight.  Sick of it.  Bored to death by my own voice when people ask how my latest efforts are faring, what the "secret" is.

The secret, it seems, is probably nothing new.  It is likely to be comprised of eating real food and moving our bodies as much as we can.  The secret is probably avoiding foods that contain chemicals we can't identify or pronounce.  It's likely best to eat food that didn't come from a process (Ore-Ida friends, remember the "formulated factory" label?  there's a sign!).  The secret is probably balancing our lives so that pleasure and work, joy and striving, stress and reward, are all in balance. The secret is probably enjoying food without guilt, but not turning it into a reward and punishment system that makes us lose sight of the basic function of food as fuel, or the simple pleasures of food as part of a life well lived.  The secret may involve lounging in gardens with books, dancing to music, hugging people we love, drinking wine or coffee or whatever makes your heart sing--just not in a mega-mug.  

I have struggled and wrestled with "healthy weight"--but not with any other symptoms of health--my entire life.  In my 20's I discovered that if I quit worrying about the number on the scale and whether other people thought I was too fat to walk, hike, play tennis, bike or swim, I could have a damned fine time doing all of those things and become a fitter (slightly smaller) version of myself. I have especially always loved biking, which has been a favorite activity from the time I had my first gold Huffy with the sparkly banana seat.  In my 30's, I routinely logged 150 miles a week on my bikes, most of it on the Boise Greenbelt pathway.  

That said, there is a weight range that I feel comfortable in.  I feel strong, energetic and (if I'm getting enough time on my bike saddle or in my walking shoes) fit.  That weight range is well above what weight charts think I should weigh.  I'm not big-boned, I'm big-curved.  And if I diet and struggle enough to get to the "target" weight, I'm tired all of the time but can't sleep 12 hours a night because I have to fight like a demon to maintain it.  

But you know what's strange about our culture?  If I write about wanting to get back to MY self-defined healthy range, which is still in the too-high BMI range, the too-heavy for healthcare discounts range, I will risk being labeled as a hater.  A fat-shamer.  I'm not, for the record.  I have very little interest in telling healthy women or men how much I think they should weigh.  I have very little interest in anyone else's weight at all, except as a function of how good they feel.  If I love someone, I'm likely to also have an opinion about how much junk (food that isn't food!) is in their daily diet.  Live, I say.  Splurge a little, I say.  Enjoy, I say.  Eat produce prepared delectably. Eat what makes you feel good, and makes you feel like living well.  Hell, eat some junk!  Just don't confuse food with happiness, don't confuse the bliss of a chunk of chocolate cake with fulfillment of a lasting kind.  Don't feel entitled to a gigantic serving of anything Starbucks or Taco Bell or your favorite Thai place makes because you had a difficult day.  The food and the challenges of everyday life are not related, you see.  Conflating them will cause no end of blechiness, including the fact that you won't enjoy the food.  

But the fact that I need to cushion my words with these assurances--I'm one of you!  I am not judging!--hurts, more than a little.  It makes me aware of how achingly judged people who weigh "too much" or "too little" feel.  It makes me aware of how lucky I am to have been loved and have found success in many corners of my life while simultaneously being a heavy person.  I know that the labels hurt--but I have also learned that the labels are only words.  I know that they are not limits on what I can do unless I believe them.  I know that it is 100% okay to love the me I am today while striving to be a fitter, and slightly smaller as a result, version of me.  I know that those who love me will love me no matter what.  

For me, life at my heaviest was not painful because I thought I would be judged for my size.  In fact, I was often shocked on those occasions when I realized that I had been judged for my size.  No, it was painful because I did not feel true to myself.  It was painful because I hated how clearly my size was reflecting the crazily out of balance nature of my life.  It was painful because Jeff, my then-husband, felt responsible for all of that and it was so visible, so clearly present, that I could not deny any of it.  It was painful because it was actually more difficult to do the things I believe healthy bodies are meant to do, to dance and walk and bike.

As ever, I am aware that not everyone has been as fortunate as I have been.  Not everyone feels loved no matter their weight.  Not everyone has been successful despite having a body size outside the narrowly accepted limits.  And so, while I love Morris' quote, it helps to de-clutter a home, and a life, I think some variants are useful:
  • Eat nothing that you do not fully enjoy, and do not allow guilt to color your enjoyment.
  • Remove from your life anyone or anything that does not make you feel joyous, happy, worthy or beautiful.  
    • Corollary: Feeling guilty that someone who is important in your life does not make you feel joyous, happy, worthy or beautiful is not a reason to ignore this life rule.
My best to all who happen this way.

~plk

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Carrying Weight

The older I get, the more difficult it is to accept backsliding. In 2012 and 2013, I made a lot of progress on three important-to-me fronts - losing weight, eliminating debt and finding a balance between work and life. I had a plan for each of these items, and I was working these plans like a mofo. And then life intruded. I lost focus on all three of these. I had unexpected expenses and made a major purchase (new car!). I lost my focus on weight management, and then I wound up sick and taking a medication that turned me into an eating machine.  Many things happened at work that conspired to dial up the intensity of my work life.  

And, too, I had many happy things happen. I've met and married a wonderful man, I've reconnected with some friends and family, and I've made new friends. If this were a balance sheet exercise, I'd be in the black. But life isn't really like that. Personal fulfillment doesn't work as an average across categories.

So, in early February, I took stock of where I was and had a little melt-down.  Several of them, actually. I kicked and swore and cried. And, at the end of that, I'm still where I am and there is nothing to be done except dust myself off and rewrite the plans and get to work again.  

That's the thing, though. Once I've kicked something, once I've made progress and corrected course a few times, I know how to find that course again--but I also know exactly how difficult it was, exactly how much effort it required. The effort to dig deep and find the energy to get back on course is simply more difficult the third, fifth or hundredth time. For the first time in a long time, I realized that I'd begun to question whether it is even worth the effort.  

Of course it is worth it. It is merely fatigue and the weight of being disheartened that makes it seem unworthy. Actually, it is the physical weight of my heavier body and the psychic weight of being disheartened about backsliding. And it is simply the bone-deep knowledge that it will never be easier than it is now (the corollary of which is that it will only get more difficult if I wait) that is difficult to accept.  

So I'm shaking it off.  I'm reminding myself why these goals are important. Here are four reasons:
1. Debt puts a stranglehold on your ability to make choices.  
2. Carrying this extra weight is very tiring, and I have a lot of pretty clothes that will not, at present, button.  :)
3. My work life is difficult, and it also is a handy excuse not to spend time doing what is difficult and very important to my heart--writing.  
4. I want to live a fulfilled life, and this stuff stands between me and my ability to do that.  

It's Sunday, the day each week that I, and many of us, prepare for the challenges that will come at us in the days ahead.  I'm being gentle with myself today, but I'm resolute. It is not helpful to kick myself for losing focus, it is not helpful to berate myself for falling into familiar, bad habits. So, I'm not going to to that. Instead, I'm going to pick one or two of those three big goal areas and make a plan to get moving forward again, just a tiny bit wiser than I was before. A tiny bit warier, too. 

Sending love out to all of my fellow travelers.  

~plk

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Bring on the Forsythia

I'm feeling pretty proud of myself today, and also pretty resolute.  I was just out in the back yard looking at the forsythia, trying to will it to bloom immediately and end this whole winter thing for real.  

It's been an interesting and demanding couple of months. I've been thinking a lot about the way, for a writer, your life fuels your craft. I've been thinking about the fact that when we write essays and blogs, we are writing about real people in our real lives.  It is a tricky thing to write about people you know, people you love. It's easy with colleagues, or those we know socially, but it gets tricky (and worth reading) quickly when we are writing about family, spouses, besties. How to ensure that your "material" isn't an invasion of their privacy?  How to avoid being paralyzed in the telling of a story?  Often I managed that balance by writing fiction. :) 

But I have stories to tell now that will be cheapened and weakened by that strategy. And I have been thinking lots about that balance. When my late husband, Jeff, was alive, I wrote almost nothing about his illnesses, his challenges, our challenges.  He was a very private person, and both a stoic Czech and a Nebraskan.  He hated pity, despised selfishness and pettiness, had a core of something like steel or iron or titanium infused with grace, better able to face the truth than almost anyone I've ever known. So part of my decisions not to write about him were to honor his sense of privacy--but it had another function, too. Before he had cancer, he had some chronic illnesses that were difficult to live with.  They were illnesses that impacted everything in our lives, from finances to lifestyle choices to our relationship with one another. And those realities shaped the life choices I was able to make. As a person, I carved out online spaces and pieces of writing where I could be just me, just Patti, and in those spaces I did not write about Jeff. What I gradually realized during that time is that it felt, as I assume it does in almost every close and committed relationship at one point or another, that his needs were automatically more important than my needs. Imagine my surprise, when I finally shoved those words out of my mouth in a counseling session one afternoon, when my counselor's response was a very calm, "Well, yes. They actually are more important, or at least more urgent, and probably always will be. But that is a factor having to do more with the person you've chosen to be than with Jeff's needs."  

Because I could have left, you see. I could have given up entirely and left. I could have driven big changes in our home life. I could have said no, I could have said "not my problem" and I could have stopped fighting on his behalf. Some of the choices I made are permanent--I'll never have a baby, for example.  And sometimes people ask me if I regret that choice. I wish it were otherwise, will probably always have a soft spot in my heart where I wonder what might have been. The only actual regrets I have, though, are in not being more kind, not being more courageous with Jeff. All he wanted was for me to be happy, and there were times I was afraid to ask him to help. My motives were pure--to be protective of him when he needed some buffering from the world--but I do think I erred on the side of cowardice.

That moment in the counselor's office was one that changed my whole understanding of the universe and my place in it and how resentment can color everything you see. I still, six years later, have moments when realization explodes like a flare and I know that what is happening to me will only change if I change it. A fact that is both empowering and exhausting. When I'm feeling resentful, most of the time, it's mine to undo.   

When I'm feeling trapped, I need to remember that something made me make, and re-make, and re-re-make the choice that has me now caught in a situation I don't care for.  The demands of my job, for example, were pretty well known to me when I said, waaaaay back last summer, that I wasn't sure I wanted to step into this circle of crazy. But step into that circle I did, and I need to own that choice and work hard to focus on the good stuff, on changing what I can around me for the better.  

Yesterday my bellydance troupe performed in front of a very enthusiastic crowd in Salt Lake City. We were all there, all 6 of us, and each one of us had made choices to perform in spite of obstacles. We had injuries, several of us are looking with dismay at the number on the scale, there was some expense involved, there were competing demands for our attendance at other events--but we were all there and while we were imperfect, we danced with joy.  

I hope the forsythia bloom early, because I could use some sprays of bright yellow blossoms in my life. We all could.  

Here is to courage, to making thoughtful choices and to dancing with joy. 

~plk

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Universal Beauty

This week it occurred to me that some of the people I've always thought of as being filled with low-drama stoicism, Midwestern stiff-upper-lip types who march through hell and fire with little comment, might simply be, or have been, introverts who didn't see a need to discuss what was simply fact. It has occurred to me that because many people (even those who know me best) think of me as hyper-communicative and very extroverted, the fact that I don't talk about what I feel could be misconstrued. Often is. Hmmm. Interesting. While I always knew I needed to listen carefully to the stoic people in my life, to make sure they were okay under that stiff upper lip, I know that I do not inspire that concern in others, because I seem like the type who will holler if I need help or am unhappy. Do you have people like me in your life? People who are neither quiet nor open about what they need? Do they drive you crazy? Because I'm pretty sure this particular combination has driven several people in my life crazy.  :-)

I've been thinking about this because I am writing essays that are difficult to write and I can't make enough time for them.  I'm struggling to make room in my crowded life and my busy mind to settle at my writing table and put paragraphs on the pages, and I'm frustrated by the things that are tugging at my minutes, demanding my attention.  I want to complain, but I don't because complaining never changed a thing.  Not one.  Or has it?  As usual, what I do is double-down on tasks so I can get ahead of them.  This is a strategy that seldom works, by the way.  What works is to do the difficult and important thing, not get busy with minutiae.

Dani Shapiro, a writer who has written memoirs and fiction, recently responded to an angry Facebook fan who felt her memoir was not close enough to her chronological life.  Shapiro is a thoughtful writer, a careful writer, and the letter is worth reading.  This, however, was the section that spoke to me:
"The memoirist looks through a single window in a house full of windows. After all, we can’t look out of all the windows at once, can we? We choose a view. We pick a story to tell. We shift through the ever-changing sands of memory, and in so doing create something hopefully beautiful, by which I mean universal."

It was as though Shapiro wrote those words for me. There is no perfect version of the story that I'm trying to tell. There is no version that will include all the angles from which this experience could be seen, or felt. There is no version that will not be filtered through my flawed, imperfect lenses. The version I write will be filtered through the lenses of imperfect memory, of immense love, of pain, of loss, of anger and acceptance and the thousand other filters that each of us bring to our lives and to our memories. But if I can find my way to the truest version, when I can choose the window that will show the clearest view, when I can discipline myself to find language that is clear, that will help me share these moments with my readers--it's possible I will find my way to beauty, and truth. It is possible, and even likely, that the universality I am so certain is a part of my experience will be something I manage to share with my readers.

I've been struggling so hard with these essays. They are so important that I can't stop tripping over my desire to make them perfect. And I need to let that go and make them honest. Perfection can wait. So can laundry.

Best to all who happen this way.

~plk



Tuesday, January 7, 2014

So Much Damned Beauty

I was talking with a friend today while at work, and found myself in tears while sitting in the relatively public area outside my company's mail room.  I was overtaken by a wave of memory, shaken by a combination of anger and grief and, oddly, gratitude.  My friend's mom is in a coma in a local hospital, having suffered a stroke.  She is terminally ill, and my friend is trying to prepare for what will come.  

My advice was heartfelt and simple.  I said to be gentle with herself and to assume that her mom could still feel her touch, hear her voice if not her words.  I suggested foot massages, head massages, pedicures--whatever was possible in the confines of the hospital bed.  This is something I can help with, the moment when you must prepare for the imminent loss of someone you love.  The logistics are less onerous than you anticipate, and the long periods of not-knowing, of waiting for the next development, are painful and precious in waves of swelling, alternating emotions that are a surprise--or that were a surprise to me.  

And my friend thanked me, and she said she knew I would be helpful.  I've had a lot of early loss, and I share what I've learned freely.  And then she said something to me that made me cry.  She said that I was a beautiful person, and it broke something loose in me to have her compliment me in the midst of her own pain and loss and confusion.  Not because of the compliment, which itself was a lovely thing to hear.  No, it was the experience of witnessing such generosity of spirit.  The fact that we as humans can find the capacity to be gentle and kind with others when we are being crushed by circumstance is something that I am continually amazed by, continually gratified to discover.  There is so much damned beauty in this world, in the midst of pain and loss as well as in the midst of joy and plenty.  

And her words reminded me of so many things, including the generosity of three hospice caregivers who I had the pleasure to know.  I remember my gratitude for each of these women, and I think that part of what they must have been moved by in our time together was the same thing that I was moved by in my friend.  In the midst of my pain, I remember telling each of these women why they were so important, so amazing.  And I'm so grateful that my heart was open enough to see that, because seeing it made those days and hours easier to bear.  And seeing it was a testament to the kind of person I hope to be, try to be.  

It was a difficult day, and my friend's journey is not over.  But it was a good day, too.  Any day that we lessen the burden of someone else is a day worth living.  

Best to all who pass this way.  

~plk 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Labors of Love

I spent the last four days making order from disorder.  In my house and in my head.  I reordered some messy cabinets, put away the Christmas stuff.  I worked on some blog posts, a budget, some idea maps for three of the essays that will comprise a big part of the memoir I am working on.  I got some gentle exercise.

The Bat Buggy
This weekend we also said goodbye to a friend who is following her dreams and starting a new adventure in Bend, Oregon. Another friend is at the hospital, her mother had a serious stroke and, while being evaluated, was also diagnosed with lung cancer.  And I've been smiling over photographs of my great-nephew's birthday and crazy-awesome gift, a custom-built Batman-themed go cart created by his Dad.  Eric spent much of his weekend working on the labor-of-love network project that he tackled at the Idaho Botanical Garden.  What I am struck by is how much love is in my life.  How many people I am proud to know and love.  How many lives being spent doing good things intersect with mine--things that might not stack up on some best-of list, or be notable on the national news, but things that require courage and strength, optimism and love.  

In an ideal future, a good part of my time and energy will be spent on things that can best be described as labors of love. I'm in charge of making that happen. Tonight, I'm feeling centered, and happy.  And I hope that I'll be able to hold onto this feeling for a while.  I like it quite a lot. 

Here we go - first week of work in 2014 coming straight at us!

~plk

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Firing up the Zen mojo

This morning I was sitting on the sofa juggling banking minutiae and looking out at the blessedly clear skies and the happy people walking dogs in the thin-but-real sunshine.  A man with a Goldendoodle walked past, and when his dog took care of business on the sidewalk, this horse's-patootie of a man just walked away. I was incensed. My coat was on and I was halfway out the door in slippers carrying empty Albertsons bags to "suggest" that maybe he'd forgotten something. But something stopped me at my door. Something more than the blast of chilly air. A quiet voice said to chill out. So I did.

And 15 minutes later, the nice man, who was clearly NOT a horse's patootie, was back, bag in hand, looking for the spot he needed to clean up. And I was glad I'd hushed myself. I was relieved not to have to smile sheepishly at him the next 874 times I see him out walking his dog. I was happy for that little voice, the one that so often helps me take a moment to reframe my assumptions about the motivations of others and determine if what I am chalking up to malice or asshattery could more easily be explained by ignorance, thoughtlessness, bad manners.

When I'm feeling pinned by circumstances, it is pretty easy to assign intention to the actions of others.  Or corporations, banks, traffic lights, weather patterns. It is a pretty quick trip from "this sucks" to "why is he/she/they/it doing this to me?" And, of course, the other person, corporation, bank, traffic signal, driver, weather Gods are blissfully just doing what they do.  Sometimes thoughtlessly or carelessly, but seldom with any intention at all as it relates to me and my (small) concerns.

This is one of the toughest realities I've wrestled with in my life. Acceptance of what is, that's the only way to get to the next step, the one where we deal with that reality. Assigning intention to whomever or whatever has "wronged" us is just a delay in the process. It has served me well, most of the time, to skip over that process and get rapidly back to what I'm doing to do about it.

The trick, then, is determining when it is good energy for me to try to exert some control or pressure over an outcome.  Sometimes that's easy. If I don't like the way banks charge me punitive interest, I should double-down on my efforts to be debt-free. Not, as is so tempting to do, think that my dissatisfaction will in any way change their for-profit motives or actions. If I dislike the mission of my employer, I should look for another position. And driving is really simple--get my Zen mojo fired up, accept that I'm not in charge of the road or the people on it, and plan some extra travel time.

But it gets tricky when my sense of "I deserve better than this" or "I've earned better than this" butts up against my concern that I'm edging toward a sense of entitlement, which I think is a poisonous force in our country.  When should I press for a bigger paycheck or a better title at work, for example, rather than being satisfied with the healthy paycheck and title I've attained?  The answer has to be more complicated than a matrix of rules. It has to consider factors such as the economic climate I'm working in, the other factors that are driving my sense of inequality. During the years that my late husband was sick, I spent almost zero energy on these questions, and that was appropriate. But now it is not. I'm sure I was easier to manage, in many ways, when I had the major demands and distractions that I had 4, 5, 6 years ago. Because even in the midst of lots of other demands, I have always delivered professionally. Always.

But now, I'm wrestling with the question of how to use my work life for the next 15 or 16 years, and how to make space for the other things I plan to accomplish, the other parts of my life that deserve time.  I've begun by accepting that work is an exchange, that Monday through Friday (and occasionally on weekends) I give a big chunk of my one and only today to my employer in return for pay and benefits.  My job is not a definition of me, it is a job. Yay, me, I have a first step. Next has been trying to identify and put a value to the many intangible benefits mixed into this exchange; am I doing work that matters to me, am I developing others, am I able to solve problems, am I empowered to be successful, am I able to live where I want to live, am I able to leave work when I'm no longer at work, do I like the people I work with and the people I lead. And then the really uncomfortable questions, like gender equality within my industry, or my company.

And you know what?  It can be paralyzing. It can make me less happy to spend all this energy on matters I've always trusted would sort themselves out if I keep doing great work and keep a positive attitude.  And that, my friends, is a sign that I'm not feeling valued. Which could be valid, or could be a hint of that entitlement stuff I mentioned up there ^^. It will, I trust, sort itself out. With a little nudge here and there from yours truly.

In the meantime, I'm in the middle of the only today I'm going to get.  I spent some time writing and some time in necessary life maintenance stuff, and now I'm going to queue up some background music and begin writing wedding thank-you notes.

Life is sweet!  My best to all who happen this way.

~plk

Photo credit to the Facebook page "Peaceful Daily"

Friday, January 3, 2014

Better Together

Today I'm taking down the Christmas tree. We didn't leave our childhood with many objects to remind us of our family's life together. Illness, financial problems, a sheriff's sale--circumstances. But we have lots of memories. I'm old enough now to have accumulated a great many objects, including 30 years worth of Christmas ornaments. As I look at them, boxing them for another year of attic storage, I see that they tell a story. One collection took years to assemble, the gold plated ornaments with intricate details that sparkle madly on the tree. There is the collection of Lenox snowflakes, glowing porcelain lace. There are ornaments that perfectly capture the spirit of a year. They tell stories of my years of plenty and joy, and the years when no new ornaments came into my home. And I look forward as I box this year's additions, a beautiful silver bell ornament that was a wedding gift, and a heavy, pretty mistletoe ornament that I found for Eric. And so a new chapter, a new season of plenty, begins.

One of the things my counselor often asked me is "what is the worst thing that can happen?" I have relatively few fears about being in the world, or about my ability to "take care of business" but, as it turns out, I have quite a lot of fears about people letting me down. It's a strange business, this messy process of learning to count on other people. And I have lots of reasons to suck at it - many of the people I've tried to count on in my life have had illnesses (and early deaths) that prevented them from being able to be my safety net. My logical brain knows that it has been circumstance that prevented them, not their choice. But fear is not based on logic, as it turns out.  

I accept that I am not practiced at counting on other people. That makes sense, right?  Being out of the habit makes sense. But it makes absolutely no sense to me that I'm so afraid that when I do ask, the person I ask will let me down. This fear keeps me from asking, even when I dimly realize I could, or even should. Why all the anxiety? Really, what is the worst thing that can happen? If I ask and am let down, can't I can just take care of me, instead? Well, yes, but it might be harder because I might have less time, or have budgeted my time or money expecting not to need to handle X. Still, though, I know there is more to it. It has something to do with feeling valued, or loved. Because while we can logically understand why people we love who are sick or absent can't take care of us, while we can absolutely put on our big girl panties and make sure they never ever know that we are hurt or feel bereft--we are still actually feeling hurt, or bereft or both. Abandoned or let down or some combination of the two. And unfortunately, this habit of non-communication can develop into a bit of a problem. Let's be real, here: the last thing a sick person needs is confirmation that the reality they fear most is true, that their needs are very difficult to meet, that the family's resources are focused first on them, that their spouse (or children, or parents) are hurt in ways they cannot fix. Finding a way to live around a loved one's illness, to stay loving, joyful and authentic with one another when an illness is chipping away at not only your health but your finances, your daily lives, your routines, your self esteem--this is one of the greatest of life's challenges. So when counselors say to be open with one another about needs, even in the midst of illness or depression or crippling anxiety attacks, I have steadfastly disagreed. The patient comes first. Corollary: ask only for what can be given or can be soothed away. If I'm ever in that situation again, it will very likely continue to be my plan. 

But I'm not in that situation now. My life has changed. I've moved into a new life with people who are not sick. And yet those habits are deeply ingrained. They extend outside my personal life to my professional life. So maybe I struggle to ask for help. Or maybe I struggle to hold the people in my life accountable because I am so out of practice. Or maybe I become paralyzed in my communication (this is not the same as silent, although sometimes I'm silent). I've done all of these things. But none of these behaviors is "how I am." They are, instead, simply a set of behaviors and habits that I can change. If, as you read this, you find it resonates with you, then this next bit is for you and me: we have to hope that we'll figure it out. We have to try to figure it out, and stumble. And ask for help, or say when we are hurt, which feels as monumentally difficult as a kidney transplant.

So, to answer the question, the worst thing that could happen is that I say what I need and find that no one cares. The worst thing that can happen is that I will need help and no one will be there to help. In the range of human possibility, that's not so big a risk. I can take that one. And I can live in hope and certainty that most of the time, someone will be there for me. My husband, my siblings, my friends, even my colleagues. When it is truly important, someone will be in that scary black void with me.

So - one of my most closely-held commitments this year is to identify, accept and embrace what I need to be fulfilled in my life. I need to practice acknowledging it, first. I need to practice giving my needs and wants language, because that is how they will become real to me, how they will move from pie-in-the-sky dreams to goals. And then I need to practice reaching out to those who could help me find or attain those things. I need to ask people I love, people who love me, people I've helped along the way who would love to return the favor.

The Christmas tree has been disassembled and wrestled into a new storage bag.  I'm here with a cup of coffee, looking at the empty space where the tree has been twinkling cheerfully for the last month or so. It doesn't look bereft, it looks like a blank slate.  And so it is with the year ahead, as I go inward and try to find the route that will put my life, especially my professional life, on the path to something I find truly fulfilling.

We are better together than we are alone.  Happy New Year!

~plk

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Commitments, baby!

Five commitments I'm making this year: 
  • Move more, browse the internet less.
  • Write something every day that is not a work product for a major retail company. 
  • Spend less money, accumulate less stuff and spend less time worrying.
  • Eat less sugar and (even) more vegetables, but enjoy everything I consume without the crushing stupidity of guilt.
  • Remember every single day how much the love in my life has sustained me and continues to sustain me.  As a corollary to this one, I will also express my love for others without concern for looking silly, and without expectation.
Tomorrow, I will have more to say.  For tonight, I'm focused on taking some time to read something worthwhile.  Hooray for long weekends!

Note: I've committed to making writing a priority in my life again this year.  And while some writers feel that blogging is a way to avoid "real" writing, I think that the accountability of writing daily in a semi-public forum is just exactly what I need to cement the writing habit in my daily life again.  So if you read these posts, thank you.  Leave a comment here or on Facebook - it will help me make this a priority.  


Saturday, June 8, 2013

Pavlov's Freaking Dogs

I'm a person who often (maybe even "generally") makes choices about my own life that I hope/guess/calculate/infer will best serve the people I love, or (less commonly these days) those I feel responsible to.  And I am ridiculously, crazily, exhaustingly empathetic, with a strong and accurate sense of how others feel, what they "want."  However, if you ask me what I want, I am often unable to reply.  It is, I think, a habit of mind, a way that I make sense of the world and the people and situations I interact with each day. Seek to understand, as "they" say, then to be understood.  It is also a little teeny way to be in control and not be disappointed - if you never want anything, you can never be disappointed not to achieve it.  Tada!

How people make choices is a topic that interests me deeply, both as a person and as a writer.  It has only a little to do with your intelligence.  Smart people make stupid choices all of the time.  And over the last several months, I've been ruminating on the choices that keep us stuck--in jobs, homes, activities, behaviors, relationships, friendships--that don't suit us, that simply do not fulfill any part of who we want to be, the person we are at our core when all the stuff that doesn't matter is stripped away.  Habits of thought and behavior, habitual choices - they are not easy to change.  But I don't believe in "that's just how I am, baby."   The truth is that it's simply a matter of priority.  Things that we make a priority to change, we change.

So, there.  All set.  Just stop making wrong-headed choices.  Done and done!  Of course it isn't so simple, the comfort of the familiar is simply too strong.  It can feel so "right" to make a choice to do something that we know intellectually and in our hearts is self-destructive, or counterproductive.  Physiologically, we're often rewarded for making these wrongheaded choices--humans often feel less anxious when we make a familiar choice, no matter whether it is a good one.  But anxiety is born of so many factors--and sometimes it is born of trying to move toward dwelling in a happier, healthier, safer, cleaner, more aligned with our values but unfamiliar way of living or being.  So we make the choice that rids our bellies of that anxious fluttery feeling.  But sometimes, maybe even often, the choice made to quiet our butterflies is not a healthy one. It is merely familiar.

Right.  Got it.  Can I say that I'm so freaking sick of learning this lesson?  It is so frustrating to watch myself and the people in my life keep tripping over the same mistakes we've always made.  I'm not all that interested in the kind of psychotherapy that "undoes" trauma and the crazy bad decision making that we learned as coping mechanisms when we were children or young adults.  Conversely, I'm pretty invested in the kind that helps me grow, pretty interested in NOT continuing to use the skills I learned at 9 or 19 when the lessons I learned at 23, 29, 39 and uhm, well, 47 are so damned hard-won and valuable.

Which is why I'm annoyed with myself.  I've fallen out of some very good habits that I fought to bring into my life and back into some stupid ones.  I'm eating too much sugar and white flour.  I'm not working out.  I'm not writing enough.  I'm not reading enough, even though I can literally feel my brain calm itself when I'm reading great prose regularly.  I'm working too much and thinking about work when I'm not working.  I'm not holding people accountable to treat me as I should be treated - hell, I've slipped out of the habit of even thinking about and acknowledging to myself what I need/want.  Yep, big deal, I know.  I'm human.  First world problem.  We all fall off the wagon.  I'm busy.  My life has stress in it.  I'm super-cute and deserve my bad habits.  (Ignore the lack of logic in that last one - it's literally the kind of logic we use to self-justify our stupid choices 12-18% of the time.  Your actual percentage and mileage may vary.)

Blah, blah, blahhhhh.  For me, at my age, with my life experiences--it's all crap.  Excuses.  Reasons to keep being where I have said emphatically I.Do.Not.Want.To.Be.  Pavlov's dogs were utilizing the same level of thinking and judgement that I have in some of these choices.  Seriously.

And this week I attended another funeral for another great man who left this planet too early.  It can happen to any of us.  And once more, our mortality is on my mind.  And once again, I'm faced with the fact that this is the only life we'll be given, today and this moment are all is we have for certain.  I'm still the same freaking realistic optimist I've been since age 9.  I will try to be gentle with myself.  I will continue to live in gratitude.  But making excuses for myself and others has to stop--and stay stopped--if I'm to live the live I want to lead.

So, let's do this again.  Let's keep doing it until it sticks.  Let's get back up when we fall down on our great intentions and start once more.  Do not live in fear, but live fully in the knowledge that today, this moment, is the only guarantee that any of us have.  Make good choices, my friends.  Love people wholly.  Know what you need from those around you, and ask for it.  If they fumble or are defensive, try to forgive it and repeat yourself.  When the calm person in your life freaks out over seeming minutiae, ask why it matters so much instead of asking why they are freaking.  Pay it forward every chance you get.  Treat children, the less fortunate and every animal you see with kindness.  Treat the people you love with the courtesy and care and tenderness that you think about showing them "when you are less busy" or that you think must be obvious.  Move more, read more, dance more, smile more, laugh more, eat food that is made of ingredients you can pronounce.  Give 75%, not 50%, in your relationships and don't judge the people you love, don't assign motivation to their behavior.  Be less busy, and more determined to mindfully live each day with care.

Best to all who happen this way.

~plk

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Toasting Courage

"Why do people lie to people they love?"

The question popped out of my mouth unbidden while watching TV.  I've been watching "Shameless" the last few weeks.  The show is filled with titillating sex scenes and bathroom humor, but it is also dead-on in some depictions of humans in self-destructive undertows, and in very rare moments of grace.  The characterizations are strong enough that we can't seem to look away, and so we keep watching episodes as these characters make bad decisions, lie to one another, hurt one another -- and then, suddenly, we are rewarded with a moment of grace that feels true and honest.  

One night, curled into the corner of the sofa watching an episode where two characters lie to one another about important events, the question just fell from my lips, and fell into my lap.  And then we were on to the next scene, which was undoubtedly some tangled mess of bare limbs in a badly lit room.  It is, I think in retrospect, a silly question.  Naive.  People lie to lovers, or to their spouses, children, parents or best friends for a relatively short list of reasons, though we may be motivated by a variety of emotions. but I would posit that the most common thread among them, the most common motivation, is fear.  And, in my experiences, those fears can be relatively simply categorized.  The two big categories are fear of being judged once the truth is out, or fear of being called out for behavior we know is foolish, selfish, self-destructive or hurtful.    

And then, one afternoon speaking with a young female friend, I listened while she detailed a fear that her lover was lying to her about his drinking.  She was working out a plan to catch him, to prove to herself, or to him, that he was lying (or underestimating?) his drinking.  For a moment, she reminded me of a character in "Shameless."  And, after a moment, I thought how lovely it is to be my age.

Trust your gut - this is what we learn as we grow older.  One of the most interesting realities of growing older-and-wiser-and-more-pummelled-by-gravity is the increasing sense of accuracy we have about sensing lies.  When we are young, there is so much energy and focus on proving our intuitions right (or wrong).  But there comes a moment, or a year, or a decade, when validating our intuition is no longer the question.  We simply know, without question or "proof" when someone we love is lying, withholding, telling half-truths.  We do not know, of course, the truth of whatever the matter is, but we no longer question whether our instinct is incorrect.  Luckily, or happily, or blessedly, one of the other amazing gifts of wisdom that we earn with our wrinkles is the ability to choose how to react to that knowledge.  Will you confront the person and demand an accounting?  Will you chase down proof of what you sense?  Will you wait it out to see whether this is a pattern?  Will you walk away from this person you know is lying?  Or, will you try to unravel why they feel it necessary to lie, whether something in your behavior toward them makes lying to you seem safer than telling the truth?  Perhaps you'll just let the entire thing go, presume that the intentions are not, or were not, malicious and focus on something larger.  Or play ostrich, if you're feeling tired and beat-up.  

I've been told big, uncomfortable truths by my father, by friends, by coworkers, lovers and by my late husband.  They are often difficult to hear, and always difficult to accept.  Because of who I am, the people in my family and the people I surround myself with, those I invite into my life, the truths have often dealt with substance or alcohol use or abuse.  I'm grateful for having heard all of them, because they freed me to understand my own choices and life in the light of reality, and not the pink glow of false hope, or the yellow-brown murk of half-known reality.  

But, even writing that, I know how difficult those truths were to tell.  Telling the truth can be risky, as can demanding the truth.  It can end or damage a relationship, show our weaknesses and faults to someone that we love, make the person we are demanding tell us the whole truth feel cornered or pursued.  And it is in recognizing these risks, knowing them, that we find our way.  It is the gift of age and wisdom to understand that in many parts of our life "truth" has shades, that our right to know is balanced against each person's right to privacy.  And, the big truth, that claiming too vigorously the right to privacy may well equate to limited intimacy.  Sometimes those limits are healthy, but I tend to think that the healthy limits will not trip that ol' gut-meter, unless we mix a pile of self-doubt into the stew.  And we wrestle because all of these, all of them, are the normal tensions in a friendship, a family, a couple.  

Reading this, it seems I've made a pretty good case for keeping secrets, doesn't it?  That's because secrets can truly be a way to maintain privacy--and that is not "wrong."  Anyone from a big, nosy family or a small, nosy town knows this.  But secrets, while they may protect your "privacy," will never free you.  What I know about telling the truth when being silent might be easier or safer is that it is an expression of trust.  What I know about trust is that it is the path to intimacy.  And real intimacy, I'm here to tell you, beats any other possible way of being with the people that I love.  I'm talking about real truths, about sharing the important scary places in who we are with just those few that we need to trust.  Our weaknesses, our screw-ups, the times and ways that we are not our best selves.  Intimacy is made or broken based on trusting those we allow to know these big, scary secrets.   Which, in a frustrating twist of human connection, means that these will be the things that we most fear sharing.  The things that we most fear are those that will reveal some dark morass in us that makes us unloveable, unworthy of connection.  Airing them and not being judged is the essence of intimacy.  And, as many of you reading this may now, sharing them brings the glorious gift of robbing them of their power to shame us.

Did you get that part?  A secret that you keep from the people you love out of fear of being judged, out of fear that telling the truth will make others stop loving you, maintains power over you.  That power has a name, and it's shame.  Whether you think of that word or not, that's the one that fits, unless you have sociopathic tendencies.  We long to trust, we long to connect and be honest, and a secret you're afraid to share carries shame.  So that's why examining your little pile of "privacy" items to make sure they are not facts, behaviors or memories that you're simply too ashamed to share, is important work.  Blechy, but important.   

I wish my young friend well in her quest to prove the unproveable question of whether her lover's drinking is excessive, and whether he intentionally misleads himself and my friend when he speaks of it.  I'm done with that sort of investigation.  

And so it was that I was wandering alone in Kathryn Albertson park in Boise yesterday, in thin early-spring sunshine, being grateful for wisdom.  While I walked I was remembering some of the big brave truths I've been told, thinking of some of the times that I've been brave enough to share my scariest truths, and how those moments nearly always built upon one another.   It's a dance, isn't it?  A more grown-up, complex and rewarding version of "you show me yours, I'll show you mine."  

So thankful for the path I've walked, for the people I love and have loved.  When I raise a dram of scotch (or a glass of decidedly NOT green beer) later today, I'll be toasting all of those people I've trusted and who gave me their trust.  I'll be toasting many of you.  I wish us all strength and courage on our journey.

Best to all who happen this way.

~ plk

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Snowfall on Roses

Snow has been falling on Boise since Monday morning.  I've had enough of wintry weather, of ice and snow, of required down coats.  Eric spent several hours over the weekend scraping and shoveling the driveway, ridding it of the built-up ice I'd allowed to accumulate.  It annoyed me to watch his handiwork disappear under more snow.  

I ran some errands after work, so by the time I was able to get outside to shovel the snow, it was dark.  Crisply cold, though not bone chilling.  I wore layers, I wore boots, I had sensible gloves and I was ready to do battle with the snow.  And then, something magic happened.  The snow had stopped falling, and the sky and air were clear as I stepped outside my back door to clear the deck.  Moonlight lit the new snow, piled in small glowing drifts that highlighted leaves and branches of shrubs, the curved tops of the fenceboards, the arching beautiful limbs of my Russian Olive trees.  And in that moment, all of my annoyance fell away and I saw, really saw, all of that beauty.  I set aside the snow shovel, and spent 40 minutes wandering the streets around my house.  I admired the flat sweep of the golf course greens, the way the moonlight made the pretty bridge over the empty canal seem to be made of icing sugar.  And as I wandered, I was reminded of how that flat expanse of golf course looked before this new snow, with week-old snow and icy clumps of tree sap and the ugly evidence of flocks of Canadian geese.  I remembered the icy canes of my climbing rose, which on Sunday looked almost surely to be dead--and marveled that tonight they glittered and shone with as much beauty as the rose has when in full bloom in June, the snowy splendor in moonlight a rival for June's emerald greenery and lush blooms.

When we are young, and sometimes when we are older and caught up in periods of hapless nostalgia tinged with depression, we are often a little preoccupied with firsts.  First kiss, first lover, first job, first...uhm, marriage?  Whoops, outside voice.  I avoid the mildly pejorative tone of "obsessed"--but the word is often accurate.  Firsts are special, they hold sway in our memories, they are lit with the soft light of naivete, a freshness and a glorious (it often seems when we are older looking back on those moments) absence of expectation.  And it's clear that all of those early experiences can imprint and shape us, in ways both good and bad. In ways that may or may not require extensive therapy.  So, yes--I understand and appreciate why there is a reason that "the firsts" are the topic of so much literature, why they preoccupy us as they do, why we sometimes long to have a moment back so that we can relive it or share it with someone new.

But as my time on the planet continues, I find myself longing to perceive and appreciate moments of beauty in the now, in the flawed glory of a moment, with people and objects that have withstood the tests life has thrown their way.  At our best, we get up from tough experiences and allow ourselves the grace of softness, as I've written about both here and in the essays I'm working on these days.  I seek, and am learning to recognize, the people who have also uncovered this truth.  Wisdom and experience can sharpen and enrich our experience of beauty, of this I am convinced.  But not if we are forever looking backward, comparing this moment, the moment we are in now, to a softly lit moment caught in a bubble of amber in our memory.

When spring comes, this harsh winter will have taken a toll on the flowers in my gardens.  I'm prepared for that, for the replanting of those spaces with new lovely things that I will find with Eric in one of our favorite Boise nurseries. We are already animatedly discussing where to plant vegetables, how to make the most of the sunny corners of the yard on Roosevelt Street.  And that is how this garden will become our garden.  It is one of the simplest pleasures, creating a well-tended garden around a home that you live in through the cycles of seasons.  Gardens, and the tending of them, the ways that they change and evolve and surprise, are one of the pleasures of staying, at least for people who love dirt.  It is a well-worked and familiar literary tool, the garden as a metaphor for a life, but it is endlessly resonant for me.

I'm reminded tonight not to fast-forward to spring, not to mourn the perfection of some earlier season, not to presuppose the amount of destruction that a long and hard winter will have caused. There will be time enough to assess and plan when spring comes.  There will be time enough to clear the ground and find the perfect plants for this new version of our garden.  For now, I'm going to spend a few more minutes admiring the beauty that is all around me this very moment.

Be well and happy in your corner of the globe.

~plk

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Journeys and Dreams

A few nights ago, unable to sleep and reflecting on the many people I know who are at crossroads, I found myself thinking about a poem by Marty McConnell, a performance piece, really, titled "instructions for a body."  I love this poem, which is unusual for me because (shhh - this should not be something I admit so freely) I am generally undone by poetry.  I can see where the beauty and power is, but it is more as an analyst than as a experience.

I could quote the entire poem, but this section, the ending, is what is ringing in my ears just now: 
...tell me you don't matter to a universe that conspiredto give you such a tongue, such rhythm or rhythmless hips, such opposable thumbs – give thanks or go home a waste of spark 
speak or let the maker take back your throatmarch or let the creator rescind your feetdream or let your god destroy your good and fertile mind
this is your warning / this your birthright / do not let this universe regret you.
From the poem "instructions for a body" - © Marty McConnell, 2005
The use of the word "regret" instead of "forget" seems especially telling, and brilliant.  Don't we all, when we are considering our lives, worry that we will be forgotten?  We plan, and assess, counting our accomplishments and considering our legacy.  But, in truth, I am ever more convinced that it is better to live the smaller life that doesn't trample others in our wake, to make the hundred (or the one or two) small gestures each day that are kinder, more generous, more giving than we are required to be.  Leave the world, or the person you just encountered, no worse for your having been here, and strive to leave it all just a bit better.

What had me sleepless, surprisingly enough, was hitting a milestone in a journey I'm on.  I am three-quarters of the way through a year of reclaiming my body, and I've now lost 75 pounds.  The number shocks me.  I'm very proud - my weight has been the thing that kicked my butt for years.  I've far exceeded my original goal.  But this progress is something that feels more like coming home than like a rebirth or makeover.  The truth is that the entire time that I was carrying all those extra pounds, I felt as though I was inhabiting someone else's skin.  I keep repeating this story, and I'll share it here, too.  My good friend Kat and I were once talking about being overweight, and she said out loud what I'd often felt.  When you are heavy and your body feels foreign to you, it seems perfectly logical to think, "ugh, people think I look like this."  Which is, of course, utterly illogical.  You do in fact, I did in fact, look exactly like that.

But as the weight melts away, the woman I've always known was in there is the one that the world sees, too.  It's good.  Now that part of me is in alignment - I look more like the person I really am.  Which, very effectively, erases my body as a reason or excuse that I can hide behind.  And that, I think, reminded me quite forcefully that my life's guiding principles, which for so long were tangled up in the responsibilities of caring for and providing stability to someone I loved, are now all mine to choose.  What a realization to accept, both the acknowledgement that for years they were not, and the scaryexcitingfabulous fact that I am choosing, right now.

This next connection is tenuous, but I believe it's real - just as I was the woman carrying all of those extra pounds, I am also the woman who must own all of my choices and actions.  The ones I highlight on my resume, and the ones I wish I could wipe away.   "People think I am like this," is as illogical a thought as "people think I look like this," but I am relatively certain it guides some of my (and maybe some of your), decisions.  We are "like" the actions and choices we make.  My life, my legacy, will be the sum of all of those actions and choices and blunders and moments of small triumph.  My life will not be the life I intended to live - it will be the one I actually lived.

Which is why I was sitting in my pretty little house late at night, unable to sleep, hearing the words "dream or let your god destroy your good and fertile mind" on a slow, rolling repeat.  Here it is, people - life is short.  Dream.  Dream often, in small ways and in wild and improbable ways.  Find the path your feet are meant to be on, and walk it.  You can take breaks if you need to.

Best to all who happen this way.

~plk