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Saturday, January 6, 2018

WHY I CAN'T KNOW


 "Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."  Forrest Gump
For most of us, the beginning of a New Year feels, symbolically at least, like an opportunity for a fresh start.  We reflect on the year just ended with a mixture of pride and melancholy and look forward to learning and growing and building on the progress we have made.  For many of us 2017 was a uniquely challenging year we should be glad to see the back of; however, instead of welcoming 2018 with open arms we feel a weariness at what we have already been through and a dread of what is yet to come.

I am a planner.  I like to have, in my mind, some kind of map as a guide to my next steps and I like to imagine the possible future scenarios in a way that helps me define my preferences.  In other words, if life actually WAS a box of chocolates, I’d prefer it to be a Whitman Sampler, with the handy guide that lets me know exactly what I am getting into ahead of time.  I have never enjoyed the experience of choosing what I thought was a toffee, only to discover it was actually a maple crème (ugh!).
2017 was a year full of maple crème for me.   A lot of uncertainty that left a bad taste in my mouth.  A lot of difficult dilemmas, and no map or guide.

When a friend of mine’s son was a very little boy, he would always answer queries that baffled him by saying, I can’t know! instead of “I don’t know”.  Of course, everyone thought this was adorable and hilarious, because it is.  But in the last year I found myself facing a lot of questions to which I wanted to scream, “I CAN’T KNOW!!!
Naturally, what is adorable and hilarious in a small child’s behavior will, generally speaking, not translate well in a very middle-aged adult.  Adults are supposed to KNOW THINGS; and, when we don’t, we are meant to FIND IT OUT (made so much easier these days by Big Brother!  Oh…I mean, GOOGLE!).  “Not knowing” is frowned upon, but to say I can’t know sounds downright defeatist.

But I will tell you something…not only is I can’t know a valid response, it’s a pretty liberating one as well.  Recently, I haven’t known up from down; but ironically it is when your life is facing its greatest upheaval that people who care about you start pressuring you constantly to accurately PREDICT THE FUTURE.  What are you going to do? seems to be the favorite question of those who see you dangling off a cliff’s edge while on fire. 
Ummm….I’m going to burn here until I let go, at which point I will plummet into the ravine.  Also, why are you asking me questions at a time like this?????

I CAN’T KNOW!!!
Sometimes, whether we like it or not, life becomes about the mere act of survival:  making it through the day intact and making sure, to the best of your ability, that everyone else in the family does as well.   Crying helps with this—just giving yourself a little privacy and having a good old-fashioned sob-fest is a good cleansing and releasing ritual.  But I know, when people ask me “What are you going to do?” the answer they’re looking for is not bawl my eyes out.   So I would say a little of this, a little of that, or, if feeling utterly overwhelmed, “I don’t know.”

But inside?  (Scream) thinking, I CAN’T KNOW!!!
“Being at ease with not knowing is crucial for answers to come to you”, says spiritual master Eckhart Tolle, which is really just a fancy way of saying “life is like a box of chocolates”.  But with so many different aspects of my life spinning in so many different directions, NOT knowing felt especially terrifying.  On the other hand, accepting the fact that even when we feel dead-right certain about a thing, we still CAN’T KNOW for sure how things will play out has been a really helpful thought as I waited for even one aspect of my life to get back on solid ground.

It was a loooooooooong wait.  With a couple of disastrous false starts.  One afternoon last fall, while grappling with the fact of an unsustainable, temporary “solution” that had manifested, I had what can only be described as a mini-breakdown. 
Crying?  CHECK!  Screaming?  CHECK?  Railing against the fates?  HELL, YEAH!

After I finished completely and totally melting down, I went for a long walk, which is my daily solution to most stressors.   I did a lot of deep-breathing, I sincerely congratulated myself on having made so long before having a serious meltdown, and then I started a one-sided conversation with my beloved Dad, who passed on 11 years ago.
I explained to him how frightened and angry I was feeling; I also described to him in excruciating detail what needed to happen in order for things to even begin to get back on course.  I acknowledged that I had zero control over the situation I was demanding resolve for, and therefore COULDN’T KNOW how to “fix” it.  I told him that if there was any way he could help, or even just comfort me, I would greatly appreciate it.

I felt calmer when I got home; the venting, the release, admitting that even in my vulnerable position I felt worthy of my “wants” was healing.  But I was still in day-to-day survival mode.  Let me make it through this day and woe to you that asks what I am going to do tomorrow.
A few more tomorrows came and went in this manner, with me KNOWING what I wanted but accepting the fact that under these circumstances I CAN’T KNOW how to get it.   And then, less than a week later, my prayer to Pop was answered (Thanks, Dad!).  Miraculously, suddenly, in a serendipitous, almost unbelievable way; in a way I could not have imagined or known.

Have you ever had a wish come true like that?  I had definitely experienced little moments of magic in the past, like the day I was wishing for a white hair tie and a beautiful one appeared, perched atop a garbage can.  More dramatically, when we moved to Virginia I became obsessed with a house that was already under a contract; I looked at it every day online and just kept praying that if I couldn’t have that house, one equally charming would come on the market before we had to settle for something less.
Lo and behold the contract fell through and we snapped my dream house up (and it really was my dream house; I was crushed to leave it).

But this was the first time something so big and so ideal just fell out of the sky and solved several major problems at once.  The relief I felt cannot be described in words; my gratitude profound.  Most importantly, the reminder that while we can’t always know how things will work out, they usually do.
Now, this is in no way a recommendation NOT to make plans or set goals or take action (or read the handy guide on your Whitman sampler!); all of those things really work and waiting for a miracle is NOT a strategy.  However, even if you do make plans and set goals and take actions, understand that you CAN’T KNOW how it will all work out, so stay flexible and be OPEN to the possibility of miracles.  Sometimes they are small (the hair tie), sometimes they are large (the dream house) and sometimes they are life-altering moments of mind-blowing synchronicity.

I can’t know how my life-altering moment came to be, but because it did I can start making plans and setting goals and taking action again.  It didn’t convince me to give up and wait for answers; it convinced me that “being at ease with not knowing is crucial for answers to come to you” and that answers always come.  So the next time you are stuck and you don’t know which way to turn, remember:  you CAN’T KNOW.
None of us can.  We just do our best on a daily basis with the information we have and we have to trust that is good enough.  Because the one thing you CAN KNOW for certain is this:  YOU are good enough, even when you are struggling, even when you feel lost.

Adults are supposed to KNOW THINGS; and, when we don’t, we are meant to FIND IT OUT, it’s true.  Just sometimes (often in fact), it is in accepting our ignorance instead of blundering and blustering our way through that the answers FIND US.  When we allow that we CAN’T KNOW, we open the door to more possibilities than our limited knowledge could ever have planned for; we open the door for miracles.
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday, December 1, 2017

WHY LOSING SANTA MATTERS

On the far East Coast of the United States where I live, people “look forward” to “falling back” into Daylight Savings Time with nothing short of stated dread.   By mid-November the sun dips below the horizon by 4:30; come winter solstice we will experience only a little over 9 hours of light.  The angst this causes in the majority of residents recalls the superstitious fears of the years long past, where malicious spirits were thought to roam the earth freely during the seemingly endless nights.

I am one of the only people I know who actually enjoys the time change; the bare trees look enchanted in the low light of late afternoon and the spirits I imagine wandering among them remind me of the magical hours of my early childhood spent anticipating the arrival of the holiday season.  Decades before “The Elf on the Shelf” became a thing, my older siblings warned me that Santa’s helpers were lurking about the woods and peeking in through the darkened glass of our windows to make sure I was being nice, not naughty.  I envisioned the shadowy streets of our quiet neighborhood filled with otherworldly creatures in felt hats, reassuring me that my best behavior would surely be rewarded on Christmas morning.

The story of Santa Claus, in its many incarnations, can be a very important one for children to hear, I believe.  The idea of being good for goodness sake is a simple one; but to have goodness incarnated at the superhuman level St. Nick represents is in and of itself a powerful lesson.  The generosity of this character, who has devoted his life to making and distributing gifts to children around the globe, is incorporated into the young psyche as not only possible, but probable; the loss of this belief can be truly devastating, but also represents a unique opportunity for healthy growth.

My parents meticulously and seamlessly wove this mythology into my childhood and I was immune to school bus taunts that indicated anything other than the definite existence of the Jolly Old Elf.  I pitied those who had lost their faith, luxuriating in my surety.  Christmas morning was always a breathtaking spectacle, not so much of material gain but of magical surprises.

As I got a little older and experienced the understandable sleeplessness of excited anticipation on Christmas Eve, I also began to encounter a bit of anxiety—what would happen if I didn’t fall asleep in time?  Would Santa pass us by? 

One year as I fretted that my sister, a decade older than me, had not returned from a holiday party by what I considered a reasonable hour, I actually saw a small red light gliding across the tops of the trees in the woods behind our house and panicked…

Was it Rudolph?  Had my sister selfishly managed to forfeit a whole year’s worth of gifts?  I hid under the covers, my heart pounding.

As an adult I can assure you that I saw what I saw.  We lived in rural Pennsylvania, not near an airport and in the long ago far away time before cell phone towers.  I never saw the gliding red light before that night or ever again.

I saw what I saw.  And, at the time, I believed I knew what I was seeing.  But the next morning our stockings were stuffed full as usual and my worries seemed a million miles away as we had ourselves a merry little Christmas Day.

My loss of illusion would come, as it does for all children, and when it did I grieved.  But my mourning was brief, for I had a younger sister as well, and I was committed to keeping the story alive for her sake as long as possible; I became part of the team.  And it quickly became a role I relished.

When my son was born I was determined that his childhood would be as full of enchantment as my own had been.  The internet and round-the-clock TV along with the ubiquitous problem known as “other children” would make this more challenging than it had been for my parents, but I guarded the story of Santa ferociously…and kept my son off the internet entirely until 6th grade, when it became necessary for school.  At that point I knew Santa’s days were limited anyhow, and was proud of his very excellent run.

I had never tried to sell the story of a one-horse (actually, 8 reindeer) operation; starting when he was 4, I took him into New York City to FAO Schwartz (RIP) ever year at Christmastime and told him that everyone there worked for Santa.  Likewise Santa at the mall, likewise at Macy’s, which hosted the Thanksgiving Day parade and boasted large red mailboxes in all of their stores to get letters to the North Pole quickly.  Santa was real, but to pull off the now Herculean feat he had taken on so many years ago, he required a vast network of helpers from every walk of life.

And like I believed my older siblings when they told me elves were lurking in the woods around our house, my son believed me.  Anyone might be working for Santa; it was a worldwide conspiracy for GOOD.  I also told him that one day he would no longer wish for the kinds of gifts Santa delivers and he would voluntarily take his name off of the list to leave room in the sleigh for other, smaller children.

He accepted all of this easily.  He wrote his letter each year, he carefully laid out cookies and carrots (for the reindeer) by the hearth every Christmas Eve.  He would only receive a gift or two from the big man, but each was chosen for maximum wow factor, like the year he became obsessed with Kiwi birds and found a beautiful stuffed toy rendering of such peeking out of his stocking.

“Santa really KNOWS me!” he marveled, hugging the toy to his chest with glowing eyes; you cannot trade that kind of parenting moment for anything in the world.

His faith was strong; even with the whole internet at his fingertips, he never thought to ask or look.  When others mocked his belief he was incredulous, just as I had been as a child.  “I don’t understand how people can NOT believe in Santa.  Could anything be more obvious?” he demanded.

His loss of illusion would come, as it does for all children.  At the hands of Google’s aggressive manner of guessing what you might want to know before you finish typing, he had written only “Is s” when Google thoughtfully suggested “Is Santa real?” as a completion to his query.  Thanks, Google, btw.

I came into his room a short time after, not knowing what had happened, but I could instantly tell he was out of sorts.  He is not a blurter, so I started asking questions about what was wrong and what could I do to help.  After a few minutes of this, he demonstrated what had just happened using his school laptop.

Oh, how my heart sank.  A month before Christmas…really, Google???  His beautiful eyes filled with tears and he said, “Mom, there was never a doubt in my mind.”

Of course there wasn’t, my love.  Because could anything be more obvious?

Santa may not be “real”, but losing Santa surely is.  We lose our belief in the obviousness of goodness, the obviousness of true generosity, the obviousness of magic.  When we lose Santa, we lose the security of knowing for sure that all of those things exist “out there”.

But what we gain is the clarity and wisdom that all those things actually reside within us.

Believing in Santa teaches us that “Santa” is who we can be—essentially good, essentially generous, but also allowed to exercise discernment.  We give our gifts to those who are capable of receiving them, the people who believe in us.  We understand that “magic” will always be a question of perception rather than “fact”, and in knowing this we will recognize it easily when we see it—we will know what we saw.

My son is adjusting quickly to the loss of Santa and is excited to be part of the team; when I asked him to promise me he would never tell another child that Santa isn’t “real”, he teared up.  “Why would I ever do that?  Santa IS real!” 

Yes my son, there is a Santa Claus; and we are him.
 
 

Monday, September 11, 2017

WHY HOPE IS NOT A STRATEGY

“Hope is not a strategy”…these somewhat harsh words of wisdom spoken by an old family friend who happens to be (drumroll, please!) a LAWYER.  So legally speaking, the man makes perfect sense.  He also happens to be (plot twist!) one of the kindest, loveliest human beings I know, so this advice was also coming from a true heart.

Actually, he didn’t give me this advice directly; it was shared in an anecdotal way for general consumption.  But I found myself repeating the line often in the weeks that followed.  A nerve was hit, but I couldn’t say just yet why.
Of course the last year of my life has been so fraught with uncertainty and turmoil that some days hope was the only strategy left available to me; but like a band-aid covering a permanent scar, the relief was illusory.  It occurred to me, not for the first time, that hope is a very different animal than faith, although we carelessly pair them up with some great frequency.  “Hope” is a yearning uncertainty; faith is a grounded knowing.

So this line, hope is not a strategy, brought into my mind the old “hope chests” of yore…used to collect items such as household linen by unmarried women in anticipation of married life.  Or the more contemporary “vision board”.  Not that having a vision of what you want to bring into your life is in any way wrong, or a bad idea.
But hope is not a strategy.

Now I am sure my friend’s intent was not to drain people of hope, but rather to indicate that a winning strategy must entail some ACTION!  You know, planning, researching, executing, that sort of thing that we all do every day whether we realize it or not.  But the reason we do so much of it unconsciously is because (drumroll, please!) most of the time we assume we are not going to fail.  In other words, we have FAITH that our actions will produce the desired results.
Example:  when we pack our kid’s lunch and make sure he has done his homework and put him on the bus in the morning, we don’t “hope” that he’ll make it to school and have a productive day, we assume that he will.  Because he has the tools and has taken the appropriate actions to make that happen.  When we make a list and head out to the grocery, we don’t “hope” we’ll be able to find enough food to make our family supper; when we pay our bills on time and maintain a positive balance in our bank accounts, we don’t “hope” our electricity doesn’t get turned off or our credit score isn’t ruined.

We have faith that our actions will produce the desired results. 
So if we are able to do this so well that it is virtually unconscious in most of our day-to-day routines, why are we not able to make this leap when it comes to our “hopes” (cough, cough) and dreams?  And why do we call them “hopes” anyway?  HOPE IS NOT A STRATEGY!

The problem with “hope” as I see it, is that it has its own handy-dandy little built-in excuse:  DOUBT.  If you “hope”, you doubt.  I “hope” I can lose some weight! (um, of course you can)… I “hope” I can meet my deadline! (24 hours in a day!)…I “hope” I can make it to your party! (well, now you’re just lying).
You might as well say I doubt I can lose weight, meet my deadline and make it to your party.  Because that is the belief you have reinforced when you say you “hope” you can do something you so obviously CAN DO.  Sorry, tough love—but hope is not a strategy.

As useful as hope can be when life has kicked the tar out of us and we are on the mat wondering if we’ll ever get up, the bottom line is that hope is a band-aid that covers up our doubt—the relief is illusory.  The only thing that can make you rise again is faith.  And here’s the kicker—it doesn’t actually have to be faith in a so-called “higher power”—it can be as simple as faith in yourself or as logical as faith in logic.
Some of us have faith in the intrinsic goodness of humanity; some of us have faith in science.  Some of us have faith in chaos; some of us have faith in pronoia (the idea that everything is working in our favor).  Faith is the biggest driver we have towards action, ironically; ultimately it is our belief in the inevitability of certain outcomes that causes us to take the steps we need to get there.

Whew!  You still with me here?  Are we getting the realization that hope is not a strategy?
I “hope” so, meaning of course that I doubt all of you are.  But I have faith some of you will get it and in fact some of you are even ahead of me on this particular path.  We need to transform our hope chests into faith chests if we want to produce the desired results.

Whenever we are stuck in life it means we doubt our ability to discard the unwanted and accomplish what we desire.  But why would we ever do that?  When you think about it, not only do we manage the life we have planned for on a day-to-day basis, we also handle so many curve balls it’s no wonder baseball is considered the great American pastime. 
We do so damned much successfully, it’s amazing we haven’t been laughing the idea of “hope” in the face for years.  So what is it you are “hoping” to do?  If I told you there was not a doubt in the world that your actions would produce the desired results, what would you be doing differently?

Or is “hope” your excuse for not taking any action at all?
 
 

 

 

 

Saturday, July 15, 2017

WHY I AM GRIEVING MY BIRTHDAY

Soon I will be celebrating a “milestone birthday”.  Not a fun milestone, mind you.  We are not talking Sweet 16 here.   We are talking officially over-the-hill and on the way down.

People stopped making a fuss over my birthday ages ago. 

No one has ever thrown me a surprise party or taken me on a spa weekend (hint, hint).  Nine years ago I literally spent my birthday at a family wedding.  Someone knowingly scheduled their wedding on my 41st birthday and I was required to attend.  
They are divorced, btw, for a while now.  Happy Birthday to me.

So there’s the math for you; I can’t say the number out loud but UGH.  How did this happen? 

I remember my 11th birthday like it was yesterday!
We were about to move away from the wonderful neighborhood where we had spent the last 7 years, my entire elementary school education.  My parents let me throw a going away bash with my best local friends plus my childhood BFF from out of town.  A sleepover, no less!  We stayed up practically all night, raided the fridge, ran around the yard in our pajamas.  We listened to the soundtrack of Grease, which I had received as a gift. 

That was the hot movie my 11th summer.  More math for you.

I remember that birthday perhaps more than any other in my lifetime because it truly defined “the end of an era”.  Life was never as simple and free after we moved away.  Of course, this was partly the function of dawning adolescence; but it also was the leaving behind of people and a place where I felt truly comfortable and truly at home.
That feeling of home and belonging has been somewhat elusive ever since.

So here I am, on the eve of another big birthday and I just got some difficult news; our beloved next-door neighbors from those many years ago, a devoted couple, passed away last weekend within hours of each other.  It’s hitting me hard, I admit it.  As anyone who reads my blog knows, the last year of my life has not been a good one and I had been, as a result, horribly remiss in being in contact with them.  They had recently left that house I grew up next to and moved into an assisted living facility where they had no private phone (they never took to the internet), and I (lazily) had neglected to write, a habit we had been in since I left town in 1978.
Ironically, I briefly chronicled our relationship on this blog after what was to be our very last phone conversation in 2015.  That conversation reminded me that what is real is forever; the handful of times we spent together after the move provided tangible proof.  They were my tribe, my people.  And even though they are gone now, they will always be a part of who I am.

This is a good thing to remember as I grieve this “big” birthday.  Another year has gone by where I didn’t make changes I have been determined to make and didn’t hit goals I thought would be under my belt ages ago.  The deeper I wade into middle-age, the more urgent these desires become; time’s a wastin’!  No time like the present, old lady!
I am not anywhere near where I imagined I would be by this age.  Nothing about my life seems settled or set; I feel more adrift than I did 20 years ago, when I still believed my path was leading somewhere specific.  Turns out, not so much.

But losing these old friends has reminded me that often it is not the trail we beat our way down that leads to contentment, but rather the path we stumble upon.  I certainly did not “set an intention” to live next-door to those good people for seven years; being the young child that I was, I can hardly believe I earned their lifelong affection through any deliberate behavior or choices I made.  They loved me and I loved them because we did.  We just did; and it was real and it lasted “forever”. 
I grieve their passing, but with gratitude for all the comfort and happiness that relationship brought me.  And so I will grieve this birthday as well, grieve that passage of yet another year where I did not “make happen” what I wanted to happen.  But I will grieve with gratitude for all the comfort and happiness so many people in my life still bring me in spite of my shortcomings.  Because it is the goodness we did not “earn” that makes us feel most blessed; the love we perhaps don’t always “deserve” that is the most healing.

We spend our lives, between those birthdays, working for what we want and working to keep what we have that we enjoy and working to get rid of those things we don’t.   We are always working at something, with wildly varied results.  But when we sit back on that day that is meant to be celebrated, it is the gifts we rejoice in most…and I don’t mean the birthday gifts, although some may qualify.
I mean the things life has “gifted us”, the things we didn’t “earn”…a strong body or a strong will, a beautiful face or a beautiful disposition, a kind heart or a kind neighbor.  These are the things that make us feel at “home”; these are the things that help us to understand that we matter, no matter what.  That we are intrinsically worthy, even if we never make that first million or the cover of a magazine.

I have had a hard year and the smoke doesn’t seem to want to clear for me.  I am wandering a bit blind at the moment, wondering if there is something I should do differently or some call I am not hearing.  I am grieving the clarity of my youth while embracing the uncertainty of my future.
I certainly wasn’t looking for something specific when my family moved to that neighborhood the year I turned four, but the gifts of those years have resonated deeply within me every day since.  So on my birthday I will have faith, as I blow out the metaphorical candles, that there are gifts before me I cannot even anticipate, or imagine.  And those are the gifts that will make me feel most blessed—the ones I did not even know I wanted or needed.

My wonderful friends, with my mother and son, c. 2007

Thursday, June 8, 2017

WHY WAITING IS THE HARDEST PART

For a person who writes about ME all the time (as one astute reader put it:  you seem like you’re really self-absorbed), I consider myself to be relatively private.  I tend to be vague in my descriptions of life challenges, writing about them (mostly) with 20/20 hindsight and its inherent wisdom.  While I may be some people’s definition of “uncensored” (that would undoubtedly be the profanity), I am no one’s definition of “raw”.

But today I am going to write about something pretty damned raw.  That is your “trigger warning”, as it were; look away if you don’t want to see.
The last year of my life has been in most ways a SHIT SANDWICH (there’s some profanity for you, right up front!).  And while some of the most pressing challenges have eased, a LOT remains up-in-the-air in a crazy making way.  It has been an extended period of one-foot-in-front-of-the-other-is-as-good-as-it-is-gonna-get-today.

But because I am ME, the relentless, churning nature of my stressors has not prevented me from my usual hyper-vigilant routines; two weeks ago, that meant going for my yearly mammogram, a somewhat unpleasant but never before upsetting event.  My technician was an obviously nice girl who was currently suffering from a condition we like to call being “hangry”.  She spent the entire exam talking about how she couldn’t think of anything but lunch at the moment and that she and her co-worker had been fantasizing about food for the past hour.
At one point she accidentally “pinched” me with the machine—yes, OUCH—but apologized and corrected it quickly.  Afterwards I had a weird sensation like I was going to puke or faint (a first) but it passed quickly.  I went about my day and didn’t think much about it.

I had some residual soreness on the left side because of the little mishap, but I certainly wasn’t worried.  Until I got THE CALL, a few days later; there was something hinky with my results, and I would have to go back for more imaging.  Cue Munch’s “The Scream”.
Of course not only were they scheduling a week and a half out, after I grabbed the very first appointment available I was quickly informed that I was being pushed out another day.  I took the next appointment available, only to be soon told that I was being rescheduled YET AGAIN.  Tears got me in the same day as the previous appointment, but in the late afternoon rather than the morning.

And so the waiting began.
Now, a little medical background:  my personality, which as I said I often describe as “hyper-vigilant”, goes into overdrive whenever medical issues arise.  My doctor has admonished me on more than one occasion that if I had JUST LEFT IT ALONE, things would not have gotten so bad.  But I am a Jedi Warrior when it comes to potential threats against my health.

Not only do I employ “The Force” (Mind-over-matter, I can WILL myself back to good health!), I have a cabinet full of DIY remedies, both homeopathic and traditional, that would put Gwenyth Paltrow to shame.  I had an ear infection last fall right after the election (I attributed this to a psychosomatic desire not to HEAR the results), and went after that bad boy with everything but the kitchen sink.  When I finally admitted defeat and headed to the doctor’s office, she took one look, informed me it was a virus and would pass in another week or so and oh, btw, would I please stop FUCKING WITH MY EAR (more profanity).
So now that you know me a little better, we can go back to my mammogram results.  My first reaction was “THIS IS BULLSHIT!” because anger is my first reaction to most bad news but also because the Jedi Warrior in me insists there is NO WAY this is right.  But, you know, my left breast was still kind of sore, so the obvious solution was to start CONSTANTLY EXAMINING IT and the surrounding tissue and then Googling anything I found that I had questions about.

Am I the only one who does that?
Of course Googling can be alternately comforting and terrifying, for those of you who have never succumbed to this siren.  So there was a lot of flip-flopping between I’M DYING and I’m fine.  Meanwhile, the self-exams were happening spontaneously on the street, as I kept grabbing myself like a baseball player with jock itch to make sure I didn’t feel anything unusual.

More backstory:  anyone who reads me regularly knows that my SHIT SANDWICH OF A YEAR was kicked off by my FIRST EVER traffic accident last summer.  Since then, my left shoulder has been “out”—yes, I have addressed it with massage and chiropractic treatments plus my usual barrage of DIY remedies, but it has never gone completely back “in”.  And the stress of this situation made it go “out” even worse than the triggering accident.
Which meant that my left side (same side as the pinched girl part) was in progressively more pain as the muscles cinched themselves tighter and tighter and the knots along my rib cage multiplied (I Googled it; it’s a thing).  So I started FUCKING WITH IT while continuing the relentless breast examinations.  Which meant the entire left side of my upper body hurt like something that needed to be amputated as my retesting day drew near.

Lest you think this is how I spent the ENTIRE week and half leading up to my second examination, I will say that I continued my life as normally as I could, including daily meditation and walks and meeting deadlines, eating healthy, doing yoga etc.  I could even get so absorbed in my work that I forgot all about it!  But like how your tongue can’t resist a canker sore, my mind couldn’t resist this frightening puzzle.
The universe responded accordingly with a little lesson in "the power of attention", of course.  I’d click on a link with a title about writing and it would actually be about BREAST CANCER.  My homepage on the internet (undoubtedly due to my Googling) was suddenly full of stories about CANCER.  One day I even walked to the mailbox to find a lone postcard from my former insurer (NOT the one that paid for this mammogram) informing me that all costs related to BREAST CANCER would be covered due to a law that requires it.  Oh, and have a nice day.

The day of reckoning finally arrived, but I had to be patient until the late afternoon.  The weather cooperates with my mood by being cold and wet and gloomy.  I walk anyway.  I pray.  I meditate.  I even work!  I wait.
As I am driving to the hospital I feel surprisingly calm; I have decided if the retest is bad, I am still lucky because it has only been a year since the last one and we are catching it early.  Walking up to the building, though, my fear must have shown on my face because a nurse saw me and asked where I was going.  I told her and she made sure I got there without a problem, like a ministering angel.

I try handing my insurance card to a woman at reception but she ushers me right in to change.  She brings me into the screening room and tells me, yes, it is a problem with the LEFT side.  My stomach drops; remember, my left side currently feels like the entire thing needs to be amputated.
She is gentle (not hangry) and kind; she takes two pictures and tells me she is going to talk to a radiologist and will be back in ten minutes; she returns sooner and says—everything is clear—you are fine.

And I start to cry.
She apologizes for how long it took to get me in and says if I ever (knock wood NO) need a rescreening again please call her and she will get me in IMMEDIATELY.  It is hard not to hug her.  She tells me to have a nice night and I tell her, “I will now!”

I text the four people I told about this and share the news.  I come home and start a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs, perfect for such a cold, gloomy day.  I get a phone call from my adorable primary care physician who cheers my good results.
But I can’t stop the instinctual self-exams.  Or giving thanks that I am fine, because one in eight women will not get that same happy answer.

You know, I like to try to gain a little wisdom and perspective from this thing called life and this lesson was a doozy;  the first thing I had to acknowledge is that so often we are going through some kind of challenge like waiting for results.  At any given moment anyone could be grappling with something you know nothing about and I wonder, what if I were able to say to myself whenever people are unkind or unpleasant—they might be waiting for results. 
Or, even worse, they just got some bad news.  Would that change how I react to them? 
The other thing I had to admit to myself was the powerful lure of my own attention--how because I was thinking about cancer, I was seeing it everywhere.  I am not blaming myself for thinking about this possibility after getting THE CALL, that was a totally normal response.  But I do now realize in a practical hands-on way that we see exactly what we are looking for.
So if I can live my life understanding that everyone is going through something AND being more mindful of where I focus my attention, this experience becomes a blessing; miraculous, even.  Let's remember what potent medicine kindness is and look everywhere for our blessings, okay?  That way they will show up as a certainty.

 

 

 

 

 

Friday, May 19, 2017

WHY YOU CAN'T DO IT WRONG

The other day in class my yoga instructor was guiding us through a relaxation exercise and reassured us by saying “You can’t do it wrong.”

That set off a tiny bell in my head; it reminded me of the quote from Robert Schuller:  what would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?  A part of me just wanted to dismiss it because OF COURSE there are billions of things you can do “wrong”, including yoga poses.  But my mind kept returning to the idea that you can’t do it wrong.
Although the Schuller quote is wonderful, I think it is a little bit daunting as well; most people, even if they have a “can-do” attitude don’t necessarily have a “can’t-fail” one.  Because all of us are going to “fail” sometimes.  It’s an experience that we learn and grow from; it’s a natural, healthy part of life.

However, I do think our obsession with “right” versus “wrong” and “good” versus “bad” does not serve us as well.  The lapsed Catholic in me returns to these concepts more often than I care to admit.  But as I was recently reading a wonderful blog post by a man whose young son has utterly embraced the so-called “princess culture” (and he celebrated that wonderful and unique self-knowledge and self-confidence in his child), I couldn’t help but think of the many articles I have read vilifying parents for letting their daughters participate in it.
Of course this precious boy is just being himself and we applaud that; I think we question our little girl princesses because we fear a diminishing, co-dependent gender norm may have been pushed on them.  But there’s a really good chance a lot of them are just being themselves too, don’t you think?  That’s when it hit me…the thing about being yourself?

YOU CAN’T DO IT WRONG.
I think this may come as news to some (most) of us.

For all the Democratic joy the free-market of capitalism provides, unfortunately there are a lot of industries that exist (and thrive) because we are convinced (or they have convinced us) that we ARE “doing it wrong” a lot of the time and need the help of services and products to help us get it “right”.  And now the dog chases its tail because OF COURSE if these services and products help you to feel better about yourself, you should employ them post haste.  But do so without guilt, because again, YOU CAN’T DO IT WRONG.
To return to the little boy “princess”…I think children actually have an intuitive sense of the fact that YOU CAN’T DO IT WRONG that we as adults fairly meticulously train them out of; I have a story I often tell on myself trying to do just that for the very first time.  I was still a teenager when my older sister had her son, and one day when he was a toddler we were coloring together.  I, of course, as the “grown up” was coloring “the right way”—inside the lines.  He, as I quickly informed him, was doing it the “wrong way”—essentially scribbling over the picture monochromatically.

As I patiently (in my mind) explained to him that he was “supposed” to use different colors and stay inside the clearly marked borders, he listened with a thoughtful expression.  I demonstrated good form and he watched curiously.  And then I handed him a crayon I thought would be nice for one of the elements in his picture.  He cooperatively took the crayon and proceeded to scribble all over the picture without compunction. 
I got exasperated, as teenage girls are wont to do, and to express this in what I thought was a humorous way said, “How would you like a nice Hawaiian punch?”  His response was clear and reasonably stated:  “How would YOU like a nice Karate chop?”  In other words, he schooled his old Aunt in the basic truth that YOU CAN’T DO IT WRONG.

Of course it is our job as mentors to guide the children in our lives to metaphorically “color inside the lines”; we teach them to be polite and respectful and to eat healthfully (with good manners) and to get a good night’s sleep and to obey the law, to name a few of the many parameters.  But do we also sometimes inadvertently (or deliberately in some cases) teach them that who or how they are is wrong?  And I am not just talking about the kind of parent who would shame a son who wanted to dress like a princess.
I am part, anecdotally at least, of a whole generation of girls who were called “Sarah Bernhard” when we displayed sensitivity.  I know my own parents said it with humor and warmth (I can’t vouch for any of the other women who shared this experience) but it still hurt; it made me think that my emotions were inappropriate or “wrong” somehow.  Certainly a lot of boys of my generation were taught that sharing their feelings was “unmanly”.

We as adults sometimes teach our children to suppress or deny aspects of themselves “for their own good”.  We don’t want to see them hurt or vulnerable or ill-prepared for the cruelty the world can fling about so casually.  But in doing so we risk squelching their true nature; we risk imprinting on them the belief that somehow they can fail to BE themselves.
So let’s amend the Schuller quote, not just as a guideline for those of us raising and guiding kids, but also for ourselves: would you attempt to be yourself if you knew you could not fail?  You literally cannot fail to be yourself; you are the world’s foremost expert on YOU.  So when it comes to being you, YOU CAN’T DO IT WRONG.

And give yourself permission to ignore anyone who tells you otherwise.  We don’t all have to LIKE each other, see?  That is an unattainable standard and not a prerequisite to being human. 
But when we accept ourselves, a miraculous thing starts to happen…it gets easier and easier to accept other people, too.  When we begin to withdraw our judgments we start to catch a cool breeze that whispers maybe (just maybe) we can’t do life wrong, either.  What would you attempt to do if you believed that was the truth? 


Friday, April 21, 2017

WHY YOU'VE GOT THE POWER!

When I was growing up, often when my Dad felt frustrated by circumstances, or another person’s choice or anything he believed was both stymied and beyond his control, he would say “I wish I had a magic wand”.   I think parents everywhere yell “HELL, YES!” at this sentiment, for who among us does not want to, like Glinda the Good Witch, afford our children the magical protection and deliverance of those ruby slippers?

It is hard to be Zen when dealing with our nearest and dearest, but I recently had an experience where the lovely daughter of some of the loveliest people I know was accepted into two prestigious college programs and had to make a fairly quick decision.  There was some angst in this, because the program of her DREAMS was considerably more expensive than the other, also impressive choice.  So I, as an outsider with no vested interest said to her, “I am going to give you a magic wand.  And whatever decision you make, I want you to take the wand and bless it as CORRECT.  That way, you cannot go wrong!”
And seriously, she could not go wrong.  Two awesome choices for an awesome girl.  But we know how being put on the spot makes all of us feel.

There is a reason the expression and concept of “Deus ex Machina” is so pervasive… often, when faced with a dilemma or choice, we just wish God (or Oprah, might be the same thing) would swoop in and tell us or show us what we should do.  FREE WILL is a bitch, as Adam and Eve discovered first.  When we have the power of choice, we also have the mantle of responsibility, and that is a heavy yoke for most.
As much as we think we would like to be Captain of our own Ship, the idea of being the one in charge can be daunting at best and crippling at worst.  What relief we feel when “fate” seems to make a decision for us, EVEN if that decision is not much to our liking.  Sometimes resignation feels so damned NOBLE, as opposed to the vulnerability of actually having to PICK what we WANT.  Hell, even admitting what we want can feel shameful.

Martyrdom is not just for saints, folks.  It is a passive aggressive stance most of us take at least once in a while, if not frequently.  And it is the exact opposite of saying “I got this”.
Somewhere along the way we probably heard the message that actually getting what we WANT is selfish.  Or immature.  Or immoral.  Or some nonsense along those lines.

So we develop a protective position of “whatever YOU want” to put the onus of selfishness on somebody else.  ALSO:  we abdicate the burden of decision whenever possible.  Raise your hand if you have ever been forced to make plans for a large group of people simply because no one else wants to be the “bad guy”????
Let’s face it, a large percentage of us have been brainwashed into believing that if we WANT something, it is probably not good for us.  WANTING is SELFISH, never mind GOING FOR what we want!!!  Going for what we want is downright SOCIOPATHIC!

Alright, so now I am being a bit of smartass, but to make a valid point…one of the biggest obstacles any of us face in this lifetime is that of getting comfortable with desire.  Even the word, “desire” has gotten such a bad rap.  Yet Deepak Chopra has opined that desire is the “direct path” to God:
To judge desire is to judge its source, which is yourself; to fear desire is to fear yourself. 

So who is super uncomfortable now?
I have a friend who tells a story about being in an elementary school art class and asking her teacher for more clay to complete a project she was working on.  Her teacher not only refused to give her more clay, she also shamed her for the request, asking if she thought she was “special”.  Um, I don’t know if this happened during the Great Clay Depression of the 70’s, but how I would love to time travel to that classroom and tell ALL of the children to take ALL the damned clay they want and that btw—they are ALL special.

This is an obvious example of a message a lot of us heard growing up—there isn’t enough to go around, don’t ask for more than your “fair share”, and don’t think you actually deserve what you want, that is spoiled and egotistical—and so even though as adults we can rationally understand that clay is a naturally occurring element that there will never be a shortage of (even in the event of nuclear war) it is the underlying meaning we took to heart.  That no matter how simple our desire (more clay!) it is simply too much to ask.  And so we learn to do without.
But guess what?

You actually DO have that magic wand my Father wished he had for all those years…and that magic wand is the power of your choice.   And yes, with great power comes great responsibility; you have to be willing to face not only naysayers who tell you that your choice is wrong, you will also have to face YOURSELF when you actually GET what you have chosen without guilt or recrimination.   And yes, we do often feel guilty when we get what we want; how is that for an obstacle to well-being?
Because the catch is this—if you do not believe you are worthy of what you have chosen, you will either not be able to attain it or even if you do, you will live in constant fear of losing it.  And we have so much programming that needs to be countered, including the classic “Monkey’s Paw” mythology—that getting what we want comes at a terrible price.  Hence, the popular belief in the “Lottery Winner’s Curse”.

So even though you DO have the power to be or have or do whatever you choose, you have to believe in your intrinsic worthiness first.  That is always the best place to start any endeavor at all.  You don’t have to believe you are the smartest, or best looking or most talented…you simply have to believe you are worthy of your heart’s desire.
Your belief in your worthiness gives you the power to shape the clay of your life any way you choose.   And there is a never ending supply of clay.  So what will you make of today?