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Wednesday, February 27, 2019

WHY I AM PLAYING WITH THIN ICE


I have told the story before about the very first time I came to see the home I currently (and for the past ten years) have lived in.  I had authorized my husband to purchase the place sight unseen (by me) because after what felt like an endless and fruitless search I had finally honed in on what appeared to be the perfect offering on Realtor.com.  My husband and our realtor scheduled an appointment post haste and when they reported back that is wasn’t a lemon, I made the snap decision to make a full price offer and put the nightmare of house shopping behind us; it was a calculated risk, yes, but I trusted my instincts and it paid off.

However, ten years ago smartphones weren’t really a thing and GPS was optional, so my husband trusted Google maps to direct us on our first visit together (DON’T.  EVAH.) and we ended up on this creepy little backroad that was hardly more than a path;  when the chickens and goats crossed in front of us, I openly began weeping.  Ah, memories!  Anyhow, like I said, it turns out we live in a perfectly lovely neighborhood with perfectly lovely neighbors and the chickens and goats are more flavor than template.


In the many years that have passed, my life therapy/exercise has drawn back to that fateful road on a daily basis.  Now an overgrown and muddy trail, it is still favored by walkers, runners, bikers, and ATVers; this has caused many deep wells to be impressed in the mud which are then graciously filled with snow and rainwaters by Mother Nature. In the spring it is a fertile breeding ground for frogs and hosts literally hundreds of newbies; in the winter it becomes a miniature ice rink and this is where my story begins.

As a related aside, I would like to mention that one day fairly recently my 13-year-old son returned from some errand with his father with a fast food soda cup in tow;  I walked in on him melting the ice with warm water and marveling at the wonder of it. It is there one minute, entirely fierce and rock solid.  But then a mere trickle of warm water causes it to dissolve and be no more. 

Wow, how is that for a metaphor for facing our fears in life?
Okay, so back to the goat trail—these cavernous puddles, created by ATV enthusiasts, have endured a bizarre winter of freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw and I have had the joy of observing it.  Yes, and interacting with it.  Because like my son, I have determined that ice is a very satisfying plaything.  
 
As I walk I am always on the lookout for good sized rocks that I can easily carry in my pocket.  These rocks will be enthusiastically thrown into the ice to determine its fortitude.  Just the other day I hit the ice with such a precise shot that the rock made a bulletlike hole and sank below the surface, leaving the water no choice but to actually glug up through that clean and tiny opening.
The weather has been so unpredictable, however, that these simple puddles have becomes a scientific wonderland. With the temperatures fluctuating so wildly day-to-day, I have observed some fascinating phenomenon—my favorite being how the outer edges of the puddle will freeze with a kind of air pocket beneath, creating sheets of thin ice that shatter like window panes when pressured. So one day, as I was stepping on these fragile edges and then picking up the pristine pieces of ice and hurling them onto the more solid frozen center of the puddle, a lady on a bike happened upon me. 

She assumed (wrongly) that I heard her approach (shattering ice is LOUD) and so our near collision surprised both of us greatly.  When she realized, she apologized and I shamefacedly admitted—Well, you caught me playing.
 We have all heard the expression “skating on thin ice” and we have all heard the expression “playing with fire” but have we ever realized that they mean the same thing? They mean we are taking a calculated risk—we are employing what we know about these elements and trying to use them to our advantage, understanding that the possibility of backfire is higher than average.  We understand what we are dealing with and are betting on our luck? Cunning? Intuition? to guide us to safer and higher ground.

 I am laughing now (like I did as I admitted to the biker that I had been “playing”) because faith, in its most common human form, is a bit like skating on (or playing with) thin ice—we have a sense that it is generally okay but we know that our fear can sink us.  We know that what we DON’T know is a wild card, and we choose to walk forward in faith or retreat into that fear.  Will the Red Sea part or will we drown? And is one thing necessarily better than the other?
The older we get, the more comfortable we are with that kind of ambiguity; we know we don’t have all the answers and therefore we hesitate to label anything GOOD or BAD. We understand that the more open we become to all possible outcomes, the more likely the “best” possible scenario will manifest. This is the power of aging; the knowledge that thin ice may not be as “stable” as solid ice, but it’s actually considerably more interesting.

 RISK.
Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.” ~Helen Keller

To grow up is to no longer retreat into superstition. It is acknowledging that which has most meaning for us and acting on it, come what may. Today I am daring you to skate on thin ice and play with fire; but ONLY if you trust yourself.  That is where our power lies—in self-trust and self-worth.
As long as we are fishing for those answers outside of our own souls (“there’s no place like home”), we are using the wrong bait. You are the only authority as far as your world is concerned—shatter those illusions and grasp the gold ring—understand that satisfaction is not about outcomes but process.  As Goethe wrote, “The dangers of life are infinite, and among them is safety.

 Is that not a call to freedom?



Thursday, January 31, 2019

WHY I AM DRAWING A LINE

When I was a little girl, I LOVED to color.  Actually “love” is almost not a strong enough word—coloring in black and white pictures sparked my imagination and my soul in a way that was almost transformative.  I imagined, with each precise stroke of my crayons, that I was bringing worlds to life; I was animating the inanimate and it gave me a sense of sovereignty and joy.

My very favorite series of coloring books was called “The Ginghams” featuring four beautiful sisters who always dressed in (you guessed it!) GINGHAM dresses.  For anyone who has led a life way too interesting to know what this means, “gingham” is a fabric featuring tiny checks of white and some other color.  Tiny, tiny checks on all of those dresses that needed to be filled in, one by one, in a white/pastel pattern over and over and over again.

Look, I know “OCD” is a real diagnosis with serious consequences, but for the sake of "painting" the most accurate picture of the anal child that I was, let’s call my obsession with coloring these books an OCD-like fixation.  In keeping with the template provided by the technicolor covers, one sister always dressed in green, one in pink, one in blue and one in red; I was fastidious in maintaining this suggestion and reveled in my perfect “creations”.  Not one stroke of color outside the line, of course; everything was in its place.

Now, let’s flashforward:  I am a teenager, past the coloring years, but my sister, who is ten years older than I, has married and started a family.  Of course it was a top priority for me to introduce her first child to the joys of coloring! I remember vividly sitting on the floor with him at my sister’s house when he was just a toddler, demonstrating my perfect coloring form.

He would watch with polite interest; then, grabbing some bold primary color in his fist, he would scribble all over his half of the page.  Oh, the HORROR!  But I was determined to be a patient mentor, so I demonstrated, with my hand over his fist, how to choose an “appropriate” color and then yes, how to “color inside the lines”.

Again, he politely complied.  But when left to his own devices, he once more joyfully scribbled all over the picture with abandon.  My teenage self lost patience very quickly and said sneeringly, in a catchphrase of my own youth, “How would you like a nice Hawaiian Punch??”

My little nephew did not bat an eyelash.  He looked me dead in the face and responded, “How would YOU like a nice Karate Chop?”  (Kids DO say the darndest things!)

Of course I laughed and that was the end of my career as a coloring tutor.  Whereas my joy had been derived by meticulously staying within the lines, his was enhanced by the bold ignoring of such perimeters.  In retrospect, a normal, healthy toddler exploring his boundaries.

“Boundaries”!  This is something we talk about a lot these days; but I recently had a conversation with my son explaining to him why so many adults totally stink at holding them.  My generation, and those that came before me, were taught that children were not allowed such a thing.  Children did as they were told, went where they were asked and had NO RIGHT whatsoever to state preferences.

We were expected to eat what was put in front of us, even if it made us gag; we were subjected to bullying experiences within our own family and extended family interactions that were normalized; we were to be seen and not heard.  Consequences for attempts to enforce a boundary ranged from ridicule (do you think you’re special?) to punishment.  When it came to family culture, you had to toe the party line or be branded an outcast or a black sheep.

This was the entirely “normal” experience of most of my peers and virtually every single person I know who is older than me; children were expressly forbidden to “draw a line”.

Perhaps this is why staying within those lines felt so comforting to me.  I could not exert this control in my day-to-day life; but on those pages, I was in total control.  I was choosing my experience and it felt absolutely amazing to tiny me.

So now that I am a not-so-tiny me, I have come to realize the wisdom of that child; “drawing a line” is one of the most critical components to personal happiness.  We all, but women in particular, were taught that having preferences was somehow “selfish”; our every interaction was supposed to conform to the path that was least likely to “rock the boat” in any way.  Most of us were raised to believe that having “boundaries” was strictly a prima donna move.

Back when I was still in my 20’s, I developed a coping strategy that I referred to at the time as “the screen door”.   It was something I implemented when a person who entered my life for any reason—whether through work or socially or family marriage, etc—did not feel entirely “safe” to me.  I could still interact with this person, obviously, but I maintained the equivalent of a screen door between us—a latched screen door at that.

Some people you just throw the door open and welcome them inside almost immediately, but for the most part, the screen door is a decent bridge that gives you some breathing room.  It’s not fool-proof, of course; sociopaths and narcissists can entangle even the most self-aware of us; but it’s a good starting point.  And the older I get, the more able I am not only to hold healthy boundaries but also to pretty quickly recognize those who won’t respect them under any circumstances.

And really?  Who can blame the many generations who were taught it was not okay to say “I don’t like that” or “I don’t want that” or “That makes me uncomfortable” for NOT KNOWING how to draw a line?  It’s kind of a miracle any of us figured it out!  And oh, BTW?

MOST of us who are capable and willing to draw a line (especially women, sorry) will to some degree or the other be vilified for it.  Because it is not yet “the norm”.  We have not yet reached “the tipping point”.

So here is my manifesto for 2019, and I welcome all of you to share it with me:  I AM DRAWING A LINE.  Call it a line in the sand, call it a “limit”, call it “life is too short for B.S.”, but above all call it HEALTHY.  It is healthy to have preferences and act on them; it is healthy to make a decision not to tolerate abuse or disrespect.

Yes, I am drawing a line and going forward, like the little girl with the coloring book, I will decide which hues and nuances and boundaries animate my world; I will express my sovereignty and joy in technicolor.  “Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere,” suggested G. K. Chesterton nearly 100 years ago.  Let us go forth and express ourselves artfully and with common morality by drawing a line.
 

 

Monday, December 31, 2018

WHY I CAN'T TURN BACK TIME

This weekend, while visiting friends near my old stomping grounds, I asked my 13 year old son if he had anything he wanted to do or see.  He requested the grand tour of my old neighborhood in Newtown, Ct, something we did not have time to do last year when we were in the area.  I happily explored the town with him, pointing out landmarks from “the old days” and explaining how things “used to be”.

“That used to be the post office” I informed him, and told him about the time my younger sister got bit by a dog while exiting the building; the owner assured my mother it would be fine, as the pet “bites my grandson all the time”.  I drove around my old middle school parking lot, reminiscing that the only 3 point basket I ever made was in that gym and how Mom drove off after a game without my sister, leaving her no resort but to chase the car yelling.  I explained how we used to get dropped off at the Town Hall for one dollar movies on the weekends, and the shame I felt at 14 when my Dad flagged me down in front of a gaggle of my peers while wearing light blue shorts, black socks and sandals.
Oh, and also he was calling for me using an embarrassing family nickname.  Good times!

We ended up back at our old house; I showed him where I waited for the bus and told him about the crazy neighbors who fed about 100 stray cats out of their garage.  I confessed how we used to sneak onto the grounds of the country club at the end of the street to sled and cross country ski in the winter.  I pointed out the former homes of the people we still know, some of whom he has met.
I showed him the house of one of the boys who used to wait with me at the bus stop, the brother of my sister’s best friend.  I told him how this man, my age exactly, somehow inexplicably and suddenly passed away just before Christmas.  I admitted to him that when you are an adult, time seems to warp speed by, as if your very existence has become a science fiction movie.

There is nothing like the untimely death of a peer to cause a sobering reflection on how little time each of us is given in this life, even the longest lived among us.  How when we are young, like my son, we take our days for granted and assume everything will go on relatively as is ad infinitum.  Middle age, where I quite squarely sit now, is when we notice the first signs of aging, the rapid diminishment of our seeming invincibility.
The subject of time keeps rearing its ugly head in my life recently, and no matter how much I would like to bury my head in the sand, the sand always ends up being of the “like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives” sort.  For example, I am reading a book, long neglected in the Everest sized pile at my bedside, called “The Age of Miracles” which is about the potential consequences of a fictional slowing of the earth’s rotation.  The story tragically posits that this deviation from the norm and uncertainty would cause friction, discord and the potential for drawing battle lines rather than drawing humanity closer.  Unfortunately this rings truer than ever in the era we are living in.

We, as a species, are very invested in the concept of “the sure thing”.  We have set up structures and institutions that reinforce our (blatantly false) idea that we can somehow control outcomes and live life to the fullest while making safe bets.  In spite of all the progress that has been made in my lifetime, we are still culturally hung up on the heteronormative ideals, including the white picket fence and 2.3 children; meanwhile, the “guarantees” that the generations before us had like traditional pension plans, employer provided health care and well- funded social safety nets are all but a thing of the past.
Most of us are living by the skin of our teeth anymore, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.  The razor’s edge is no longer a place where only thrill seekers dwell; it is a fact of life for the 8 in 10 American workers who now live paycheck to paycheck.  Even if it is a “wonderful life”, it appears that we are currently living in Pottersville instead of Bedford Falls.

The desire to “turn back time” (or at least slow it down) is a natural and reasonable one. When we lose someone we love, when we are confronted with undesirable change, when we stand face to face with the reality that things didn’t exactly work out as planned.  The irony of course being that loss, change and unpredictability are in fact our only “sure things”—if only we could commoditize them (oh, wait.  Big insurance already did that).
As we stand together and face this New Year we have no choice but to go forward; or as Winston Churchill supposedly but unverifiably said, “If you are going through hell, keep going.”  This is solid advice.  As the Butterfly Effect (and It’s a Wonderful Life) serve to remind us, even one change to the past could have such far reaching and potentially catastrophic consequences, it is best to drop our woulda-coulda-shoulda trajectories and focus on what is.

When my son and I were driving home after our tour, he asked me if I thought one day he would drive his own children back to our current neighborhood and tell them stories about his growing up years, as I had just done with him.  He seemed skeptical about the possibility, but I assured him that he likely would.  Often times the lessons and even the beauty of our lives are best recognized in hindsight; this is part of why we long for “the good old days”.  But what better way to apply our belief in the “greatness” of our past than to use it to help us recognize the “greatness” of our present.
Back in 1938 W. Somerset Maugham wrote “We live in uncertain times and our all may yet be taken from us.”  That is all day, every day and never has been different and never will change.  That is, as my beloved and sorely missed father would have said, “the good news and the bad news”.

No, we cannot turn back time.  Nor should we turn our backs on each other, no matter how rough the going is right now.  The life cycle, like the seasons, is not a “one and done”—it is eternal; so is our capacity for rebirth after loss and change.
There is a reason the past resonates with us so deeply—it is the journey we took to get where we are standing today.  And whether you like where you specifically or we as a nation are right now or not, it is critical to understand that we all got here together.  Remove the influence of even one of us, and you have altered the course of history forever, as George Bailey so poignantly learned.

No we cannot turn back time but we can remember, especially as we enter a New Year, that every single thing we do matters on a level we will never fully comprehend.  So let’s treat each other and ourselves with all the respect due to the power we each have.  As even the smallest stone will cause a ripple many times its size, let us wield our influence wisely.
 

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Why I Am No Farrah Fawcett


“I mean, you’re no Farrah Fawcett.”

This pearl of wisdom came from my mother when I was in my 20’s and struggling mightily with body image and self-acceptance.  We were in the car, going to or from an airport as I remember it, and I was venting my insecurities about my appearance and shame about my figure.  Mom was trying to reassure me, that I am, in fact, an attractive person.

“I mean, you’re no Farrah Fawcett.”

This was the qualifier she felt the need to add, in case being told that I am an attractive person might blow my head up in delusions of grandeur; or, as the case may be, pin-up status.  Obviously I did not need to be told that I am no Farrah Fawcett—the tears and anxiety about my looks should have held the clue.  But my mom is of the real old-school; walk it off, tough it out, rise and shine, there’s no crying in baseball and, as my Dad was fond of saying, rarely has a thought cross her mind that doesn’t quickly hit her lips.

“I mean, you’re no Farrah Fawcett.”

And truthfully, mom’s parenting strategy worked; I’m tough as nails.  Tenacious, persistent and indefatigable (by necessity, not preference); and like mom, my brain-tongue barrier is tenuous at best, especially when there is an elephant in the room.  I even made peace with my body, albeit later in life than I would have hoped, but better late than never, as mom would undoubtedly say.

“I mean, you’re no Farrah Fawcett.”

Okay, so when Farrah was my age, she was posing in Playboy magazine and rolling around nude on canvasses covered with paint to create her “art”.  Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!  I really AM no Farrah Fawcett, let’s face it; although I did admire her beauty and spirit, may she rest in peace.

No, I am no Farrah Fawcett, so when I recently met an adorable boy-genius-dentist-plastic-surgeon, I immediately started complaining about the aging process rather than showing him my latest centerfold.  This bright, engaging, polite young man argued with me, not in the typical oh-don’t-worry-you-look-great-for-your-age way that whippersnappers often do, but rather in the logical everybody-ages-and-that’s-how-it-is-supposed-to-work-so-suck-it-up kind of way. 

But I am tenacious, persistent and indefatigable, as I mentioned, so I railed on a bit more about the unfairness of it all.  Wah-wah-wah.  As I persistently bitched, he started scrolling through his phone, which is a young person thing to do I guess (although he seemed so polite!) and honestly I’ll bet the first thing everybody does when they learn someone they met is a plastic surgeon is to start complaining about their looks (well, Farrah Fawcett would not have done that, but as we’ve established I am no Farrah Fawcett). Finally, after a minute or so he holds up his screen for me to see what he was searching for:

A PICTURE OF FARRAH FAWCETT.

 Now, this is the first time I had ever encountered this person in my life and he literally knows nothing about me (well, except the fact that I will complain to perfect strangers), so he had no inkling of my troubled past with the former Charlie’s Angel.  He asked me then, quite seriously, “Do you know who this is?”  And of course I burst out laughing.

YES, WHIPPERSNAPPER, I KNOW WHO THAT IS.  A BETTER QUESTION WOULD BE: HOW DO YOU KNOW WHO THAT IS?

He then said, again quite seriously, “That is Farrah Fawcett.  She was married to The Six Million Dollar Man, you know.”  These kids today!  History buffs, I’m telling you!

He goes back to scrolling and shows me another picture—this time, the iconic bathing suit poster that every teenage boy in the 70’s (including my brother) had hanging on his wall.  I am enchanted that he thinks he’s somehow educating me; I saw this shot every damn day of my life when I was in elementary school.  But that is exactly what is about to happen—he is going to teach me something.

 “Do you see her?  That is what YOU look like.”

Um, what?  Say what, kid?  You obviously don’t understand that it has been confirmed that I am no Farrah Fawcett!!!!!

I could write something disingenuous here, like how I had forgotten my mom even said that until the moment he made the comparison, but no; I had not forgotten.  The sincerity with which the whippersnapper assured me that I look, to his eyes, like Farrah Fawcett (“That’s you all over!”) felt like a weird sort of full-circle homecoming thing.  My mom’s qualifier, meant as an obvious statement of fact and not a cruel jibe, had nevertheless stuck in my craw for oh these many moons (that’s something we older people say when we mean a long time). 

The kindness and generosity of not only this young man specifically but the universe in general was not lost on me.

“I mean, you’re no Farrah Fawcett.”

Turns out, it’s a matter of opinion.  Of perception.  In the eye of the beholder.

The reason I am telling you about this, apart from obviously to brag about the fact that a guy practically young enough to be my son thinks I bear some small resemblance to a complete and total knockout, is to remind myself once more to watch what I say and watch what I think.  Because words are so damned powerful, and we cast a spell, whether deliberately or not, when we use them.  But also to remind you that you are being heard.

And not just by your children, not just by the people you are deliberately communicating with, not just by Alexa and Siri; you are being heard and answered by a vast and unfathomable consciousness that always knows the perfect answer to your queries.  Some call it God, or a "Higher Power", but I think those terms are too limiting and localized.  There is a sea of energy, an intelligence that connects us all and communicates with us constantly.

We see it demonstrated through things we call "coincidence" and "serendipity" and "synchronicity", but these are actually just reflections of our powerful thoughts and beliefs.  If you are being completely honest with yourself, you will have to admit that the self-fulfilling prophecy is not an occasional occurrence; it is a way of life for most everyone you know.  It's not magic; it's not voodoo; we act on what we think and believe and those actions bring fairly predictable results.

“I mean, you’re no Farrah Fawcett.”

So what is the takeaway here?  First, with apologies to mom, if what you are about to say has zero constructive value

“I mean, you’re no Farrah Fawcett.”

then please--just don't say it.  But because we cannot control others (only our REACTION to others, grrr, how annoying) PLEASE don't let other people dictate your moods, behaviors or ideas about yourself

“I mean, you’re no Farrah Fawcett.”

and understand that the judgments and perceptions of others only have the power you do or do not give them. 

But when that sweet and sincere young man told me that to his perception, I am Farrah Fawcett "all over", it meant something more to me than one person's opinion.  It meant that somehow, someway, after all of those years of having that off-the-cuff remark

“I mean, you’re no Farrah Fawcett.”

stuck in my consciousness, somehow, someway...

I really did not believe it.  If I had really believed it, there is NO WAY in the universe I could have "randomly" encountered someone who, however unlikely it may seem, directly and specifically contradicted the idea.  It works this way for all of us, btw, so pay very close attention to the messages you are receiving.

They tell you the truth about what you believe (which you could change TODAY if necessary.)

IT'S ALL PERCEPTION ANYWAY.

So choose carefully, because only you can prevent forest fires* (of your consciousness).

*total 70s reference.  I tell you, I'm REALLY showing my age!
 
 

 

 

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Why You Can Lead a Horse to Water

Do you have a case of the “If only”s?

You know, I would be happy “if only”, or I would be successful “if only”, or he/she/this job/this house/this world would be perfect “if only”…?
“If only” we could shake the “if only”s, we’d all be a lot better off!!! 

Ha.
I have noticed recently, a tendency of people that I perceive as being decent, kind and compassionate, to overlook some REALLY egregious behavior and frantically waving red flags due, in part, to their tendency to think in terms of “if only”.

We all have at some point (and probably currently) drawn into our life relationships that cause us more pain than gain.  Friends, lovers, family, co-workers, you name it, who mire us in melodrama, or undermine our efforts, or devalue our creativity, ideas, emotions, experiences.  Those who’s selfishness, wounding, upbringing, stubbornness, you name it, is constantly at odds with our happiness, growth and greatest good.

And what do we usually do when dealing with these folks?  Politely show them the door?  Or say “if only” they were different and then continue to bang our heads against the wall in frustration at their behavior?
I am one of those people who agrees with the adage that generally speaking, people don’t consciously behave in ways they believe are “wrong”, given their model of the world.  In other words—racists don’t believe racism is “wrong”.  They believe their point of view is valid and justified and act accordingly.

This is why it is so difficult (nay, impossible) to convince another person to change their perspective through debate alone.  We don’t change our opinions or behaviors because someone else tells us we should; we change because our life experience has proven to us that this is the “right” thing to do or what is best for us.  Unfortunately, it often takes a tragedy or otherwise dramatic event to shake someone loose from their firmly held prejudices.
People believe what they believe because they believe that their beliefs are in the best interest of themselves and their loved ones.  Even if those beliefs are rooted in ignorance or outright lies, they will cling to them in hopes of assuring the best possible outcome for those most important to them.  This is true of all of us, not just the people who perpetuate negative stereotypes about people of other races, religions and sexual orientations, etc. 

So this leads us to the horse.
If you are the sort of person who says, “So-and-so would be SO great IF ONLY  he/she wasn’t:

racist/sexist/xenophobic/homophobic/classist/whatever-their-particular-brand-or-brands-of-hate-are”, THEN you are most likely also the sort of person who says, “My partner would be SO great if only he/she wasn’t:

always sitting in front of a screen/undermining my dreams/emotionally shut down/abusive.”  

You are the sort of person who leads horses to water and then spends a lifetime perplexed about why they won’t take a damn drink.

Let’s talk about this for a minute from a parenting perspective—if you have had the honor of raising a child from infancy, one fact that cannot be denied is that babies are born with PERSONALITY.  Even before they can walk, talk or assert themselves in any kind of a meaningful way beyond crying, you will already start noticing things about their character. 
“He’s so stubborn!”  “She’s so easygoing!” “He’s curious!” “She’s social!”
The older the child gets, the more these intrinsic traits bloom, which is why parents will laughingly peg their offspring as future scientists or vets or chefs or race car drivers as early as pre-school.  The kid is who the kid is and attempts to force the kid to be other than who they are will end badly.  Yes, we are here to set a good example of character and perseverance for our children, but mostly we are here to keep them loved, safe, clothed and fed and to get out of their way as they evolve into themselves.

With children you will learn over and over that you can lead them to water, but if they don’t want to take a drink?  Woe to you who resorts to dunking them in.
This is not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t encourage positive traits such as integrity and compassion;  Lord knows there are plenty of people encouraging intolerance in their broods.  This is to say that no matter what you are encouraging, the truth will out—which is why a racist can raise a civil rights leader and good parents might raise a criminal. 

You cannot make someone else into something that they’re not.  Only they can choose change; only they can choose growth.  And you standing over them lecturing or pushing and pulling won’t make much of a difference, if any.
It might even push them further in the opposite direction than you wish.

So if you have a serious case of the “if only”s in any of your primary relationships, I am going to gently suggest that not only is it not good for you to be intimately engaged with someone who consistently does not meet your needs and support you in becoming who you are meant to be, it is actually also not good for THEM to be in relationship with someone who doesn’t accept them where they are at (even if it is for a great reason.) 
Time has taught me that whenever I am blaming an “if only” for my unhappiness in a relationship, I am essentially living a delusion.  I am saying, “This would be a good relationship IF ONLY that other person wasn’t who that other person is.”  DUH.

You cannot change anyone but yourself and you cannot fight another person’s nature.  If you are with an artist and think you’d be happy “if only” they would stop pursuing their art, or if you are with a workaholic and think you’d be happy “if only” they didn’t work so much, or if you are with a couch potato and you think you’d be happy “if only” they’d turn off the damn TV, guess what?  You would ACTUALLY be happy if you found someone who already wasn’t an artist, workaholic or couch potato.
You aren’t loving the person who actually exists, you are hoping to love the future version they might become “if only” they would comply with your wishes.

If only you would realize how unhealthy and unfair that is, you could move on.
 

Thursday, September 27, 2018

WHY IT DON'T COME EASY

As a young woman right out of college, I moved to New York City and studied and worked in theater.  Translation:  I waited tables.  And handed out programs for “experimental” performances.  And did lots and lots of “staged readings.” 

I very quickly got fired from my first job because the restaurant had a “sidewalk element” to it and one day, while I was fetching drinks, a payment got lifted off one of my tables by a delightful passerby.  No, not my fault.  Yes, that manager hated me.

My next job, soon after acquired, was in the financial district.  It was hoppin’ for lunch but relatively dead at dinner.  I preferred the slower paced evening meal and the opportunity to bond with my customers, so soon I was unofficial head waiter of that shift.

One night, as I was weaving through my station making small talk and delivering drink refills, I had a customer say to me quite out of the blue—“You know, I have never seen a waitress who is quite so attentive to service.  But you do realize you are doing everything the hard way, don’t you?”
Actually, I didn’t.  I was doing what felt logical to me.  I was doing what felt “right”.

But as he described my movements as an observer, I got to see his perspective.  I was certainly not taking the shortest distance between two points (that would be lazy).  I was also adding extra (translation: anal) steps to nearly all of my duties (hypervigilance is a definitive character trait of mine).
I was not at all insulted by this man’s observations; truthfully, I felt a bit prideful.  Look at me, I thought, going the unnecessary extra mile to make sure a room full of strangers get their needs met and then some!  Yes, I know…because we are all adults, we can see where this is going.

But I was a very young woman, blissfully unaware of how the “extra” mile quickly becomes the “expected” mile both in the workplace and in personal relationships.  Also blissfully unaware that while your “extra” effort may make you the “go to” gal in a lot of situations, it doesn’t necessarily translate into “extra” pay, “extra” appreciation, or “extra” love.  Almost never, actually, in my experience.
Thus began my long and storied career of “reinventing the wheel”, because the easy thing to do and the right thing to do are almost never the same…right, 1 billion inspirational memes??? 

It can’t be any good if it’s easy, right?  It’s only worth having if you fought for it tooth and nail, right?  Right?????
Yes, we are all adults and can see where this is going.  But I was a very young woman and hypervigilant by nature and something of a perfectionist and maybe a tiny bit of a martyr and…well, we can see where this is going.

So because we live in an excruciatingly cooperative universe, my belief that what was “easy” and what was “right” were not the same thing began to reflect in my life in every way possible.  Soon, virtually nothing was “coming easy” to me—backbreaking effort was required to accomplish things most people could do practically in their sleep…naively, I was baffled.  Why was I working so hard for so little? 
Getting pregnant was a struggle (IVF).  Childbirth was a struggle (36 hours of back labor).  Parenting was a struggle, as my son faced some unique and, at the time, mysterious developmental issues.

Those first four years of my son’s life, in addition to dragging him to virtually every kind of doctor on the planet, also included dealing with the death of both of his grandfathers, two job losses for my husband and two moves.   Emotionally and spiritually I was crawling across the desert in search of water, all while attending to the needs of everyone around me while my own consistently fell by the wayside.  And as my expectations for my performance continued to grow, what I expected from others was proportionately diminished; better to do it myself then ask for help and risk being  a burden, or being let down.
As years went on I heard myself being described thusly:  “The most low-maintenance person I know”; “A self-sustaining ecosystem”; “Ferocious”; and most tellingly: “It must suck to be you”.  I was not at all insulted by these observations; truthfully, I felt a bit prideful.  But about two years ago, as I stood there pridefully with all my fingers already stuck in all the various leaky dams in my life, the universe “cooperated” once more and the proverbial sh*t hit the proverbial fan.    

I graduated from crawling across the desert to making this same trip in a gluey quicksand, and I quickly came to realize that the more I struggled and efforted, the deeper I sunk; the quicksand was swallowing me whole. Panic became how I woke up in the morning and how I laid down at night.  I felt trapped and doomed, but like Dorothy in the witch’s castle watching the red sand run through the hourglass, for the first time in my life all I could think to do was stand there and cry and pray someone would save me. 
So there I was, feeling alone and weak and helpless and pitiable (translation: surrendered), and the universe once more cooperated with my idea of myself and (drumroll, please)…SAVED ME.  A solution to one of my biggest problems (two of them, actually) dropped out of the sky like I was one of those women on Sex in the City.  It was like Hollywood magic; it came EASY. 

EASY!  So that means it can’t be right, right?  At first my anxiety, in spite of the miraculous intervention, did not abate, because EASY can’t be GOOD.
And then I started thinking about the things in life that DO come easy…like falling in love, which, when it happens,  is as unavoidable as falling when you go over a cliff.  Or loving your child…the most inevitable and powerful love in the universe.  Or…being good at what you are good at, which is different for everybody but inevitable as well.

It’s easy to laugh.  It’s easy to do the things we enjoy; it’s easy to watch a sunset, give someone a hug, go for a walk.  Easy people are delightful, easy days are restorative; easy is where we can REST.
Easy is what gives us the down time to face what is difficult, because difficult is also inevitable.  Easy is a critical piece of the yin and yang of life and we should welcome easy when it comes and trust that the very easiness of it is a sign that it was meant for us.  To paraphrase Rumi, the answers we seek that come easily were seeking us as well.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I won’t go giving up difficult cold turkey because difficult, in addition to being inevitable, has also brought me many beautiful gifts, too.  Also, I’m not meant to be anyone but myself and sometimes I need to do it “the hard way” in order to really hear the lesson.  But I will also remember, as Ringo Starr sang, “peace is how we make it”.
I will remember that while it’s not all going to be easy, it doesn’t always need to be difficult.  I will remember that I don’t always have to be easy to be lovable.  I will remember that peace is possible always when you accept yourself exactly where you are, whether it is an easy or very difficult place.  

 
 

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Why Happiness is Not a Luxury

Back when I was a young, single girl in L.A., I had a friend who would often opine that any problem that could be solved with money is not a “real” problem.  Of course, none of us had any money, so we had lots of “fake” problems; and “fake” problems, like “fake news” are actually very real.  Not being able to pay your rent may be a “fake” problem, but it will still get you evicted.

But the core truth of what she said has always stuck with me.  Things like disease, depression, addiction, loss of a loved one—these are things we can throw all the money in the world at to no avail.  All other problems tend to be transient, to some degree; even if we do get evicted, the vast majority of us will not end up permanently homeless.

And all of us will face various challenges throughout our lives and for the most part will eventually either triumph over them or at the very least get past them.

Which brings me to the topic of happiness. 

When we get caught in a cycle of challenges and difficulties, it is easy to lose sight of it.  While we will still cherish the way our child embraces us, or a beautiful sunset or a good book, being generally a “happy person” with a “happy life” starts to seem like something only possible for our Facebook friends, who appear to be forever on holiday or at the very least eating gourmet meals on a regular basis.
Happiness itself seems like a luxury, not something we regular folk with 99 problems, “fake” or not, get to enjoy.  Happiness is for the lucky, the beautiful and yes, the rich.  The rest of us are just trying to get through the day, keep a roof over our heads and keep the kids alive and relatively well.

For the last 9 months, many of the big, major ("fake") stressors I had pressing down on me started to shift, mostly for the better.  Of course the shifts have caused adjustments, not all of them desirable, but for the most part life is a lot better than it was a year ago.  However, I also developed a new problem, something that may be judged as frivolous by some, but that has really been bothering me.
When I mentioned it to my mother a few months ago, her response was, “At least you don’t have cancer!”  Classic Mom.  Of course I wish NOBODY had cancer; I lost my Dad to it 12 years ago and consider cancer to be a cruel thief and worthy of nothing short than eradication from the planet.

But just like not having enough money to pay your bills is only a “fake” problem when you do, just because we are fortunate enough not to have a ravaging disease does not mean other conditions won’t cause us pain.  Bad relationships, bad jobs, even a bad back can wreak havoc on your ability to sit in a state of bliss; “at least you don’t have cancer” might remind us to count the blessings we DO have.  But, as I told my Mom when she said it to me, I think ALL of us have the right to want to set the bar a little higher than “not having cancer”.
It may be an unpopular opinion, but I think we have the right to be happy. 

I also think that for most of us, “happiness” is not some pie-in-the-sky, unattainable ideal; we wish for yes, physical health, but also emotional freedom.  Good relationships with people we respect and trust.  Good work that is meaningful to us and helpful to others.
Feeling at home in our own skin, our own psyches, our own environs.

So when we are in a state where a lot of those markers aren’t being met?  We feel unhappy.  And unhappiness begets unhappiness and often we spiral into a sense of powerless.
We may yell at the kids or our spouse, we may underperform at work, but most of all we will take it out on ourselves.  Unhealthy eating or too much drinking (smoking, etc) can easily become coping mechanisms, and the dis-ease these sorts of behaviors cause in our bodies can compound our sense of worthlessness.  Self-talk runs in circles where we blame ourselves for not having the “courage”/financial ability/support system to leave unhappy (and sometimes abusive) circumstances, as we self-confirm on an endless loop our own hopelessness.

This is why I am going to call it:  happiness?  It’s not a luxury.  It is actually the very least you deserve.
And I know there are a lot of people with that old-school mentality that says we don’t DESERVE anything inherently; we need to work for everything we get or else we won’t appreciate it.  This is partially true, but actually not a contradiction of my belief that we deserve happiness.  Yes, we are inherently worthy of happiness, but yes, we do have to work for it.

So what does “working for” our happiness look like?
It looks first and foremost like healthy boundaries; the ability and willingness to say “NO” to people and situations that undermine, take advantage of or abuse us.  It also includes prioritizing those things that feed and/or soothe our soul—music, reading, exercise, alone time, cooking—whatever that means to you.  Another critical component is accepting your own preferences (being “okay” with who you are and what you want) while at the same time NOT trying to force your preferences on anyone else (some people have more trouble with the first part of that equation; some have more trouble with the second, but knowing thyself is crucial).

Now many of the same people who don’t believe we are intrinsically worthy will say my recipe for happiness is “selfish”.  Because how dare we say NO, how dare we nurture ourselves, how dare we accept and allow ourselves to be and extend this same courtesy to others who may or may not share our belief system?  We actually have a cultural bias AGAINST happiness, due in part to the fact that happy people are not indiscriminate consumers and therefore “not good” for a capitalistic society.
But I say this is false; yes, happy people are NOT indiscriminate consumers.  But happy people are more motivated and productive (better workers); happy people are more confident and energized (more likely to take care of their bodies and splurge on that special outfit, for example).

Happy people are more loving and compassionate.
Happy people have better relationships, both with themselves and others.  Happy people are more likely to “go the extra mile” and work towards their dreams.  Happy people are more generous and supportive and enthusiastic and open-minded and flexible.

Happiness in not a luxury.  Happiness is that which we should be seeking whenever possible and that which we should encourage in others through our words and actions.  Sanskrit wisdom (and some believe Ghandi) taught that “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

Does that really sound like too much to ask for?