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!


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.


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'   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.


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.  


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. 


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.


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.  


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!


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.


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!


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.