Henry David Thoreau-ing It

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived.” ~Henry David Thoreau

Me a bunch of years ago celebrating at Red Rocks (with food I can no longer eat)

Birthdays over age 50 are something else. On the one hand, you have to acknowledge you are definitely over that hill and the time ahead for you is far less than the time behind you. On the other hand, you know people who have already left this world, perhaps classmates that didn’t make it to your advanced age, and you are grateful to be here. It’s a mixed bag. I’m simultaneously glad to be 54 and annoyed to be 54. But time marches on and the only way to stop it is death, and that is not an option I am anxious to explore. My fingers are crossed that my luck continues to hold.

While I did not go into the woods like Henry David Thoreau, this month I have been taking a much needed hiatus from social media. My reasons are a little different than Thoreau’s, but the thought is the same. I wanted to eliminate the bullshit. I wanted to face only the essentials of life, to see what those people around me and the situations we shared in person together could offer me. I wanted to delete the distractions provided by the socials. I wanted to ensure I wasn’t wasting my life gawking at other people’s lives. And I needed to make sure I wasn’t so busy presenting a life to others that I was no longer consciously living one myself. I picked a curious time to do it too, given that this month is filled with experiences one would love to post on social media…birthdays, graduations, parties, reunions, and travel.

Still, I’m not doing it quite right. I admit to playing some games on my iPhone and watching playoff hockey and episodes of Formula 1: Drive to Survive. I’m not checked in 100% of the time, but I am present more than I have been. This is both good and bad, as I’m struggling with accepting that our youngest will graduate one week from today, and in August we will drive both sons to Washington and leave them (along with part of our hearts) there and return to an empty house. So it’s useful to give myself, from time to time, the opportunity not to focus on the huge changes that are afoot. It’s important to feel your feelings, but it’s my birthday and I don’t want to spend it sobbing about my most challenging, most favorite job ever coming to an end.

This weekend, Steve and I will be taking scuba classes. This should keep my mind off my kids and allow me to celebrate myself and my life and what I am able to learn, overcome, and accomplish, even at the advanced age of 54. This weekend I start the next phase of my life even as the last one is wrapping up. It’s time to make new friends. And if everything goes well and my ears clear and I don’t freak out underwater trying things that are way outside my comfort zone, on Sunday I will finish my first two dives at the aquarium among my new fish friends. I’ve done a lot of exploring on land in my life. Time to see what the sea has to offer.

I’ve decided to refer to this social media time out as “Henry David Thoreau-ing it.” I think he would appreciate my wisdom and the shout out.

All Dressed Up With Some Place To Go

With our senior set to graduate in 39 days, 17 hours, and 30 minutes (not that I’m counting), last night we attended our final Denver Academy Gala as parents of a current student. Because the last two gala events had to be held virtually, we were thrilled to learn this year’s event would be in person again, and at The Ritz-Carlton, nonetheless. I’ve missed this event because it is my yearly excuse to get dressed up and prove that I know which fork to use at a full place setting. I get to wear a lovely dress and heels and see my husband looking dapper in his suit. And raising funds so more students can attend this private school that teaches students with learning disabilities the way they learn best is a passion project now. Steve and I will likely continue to attend these events after Luke graduates because the school changed our sons’ educational trajectories so dramatically. Luke entered 7th grade at the school reading more than a year below grade level, but four years later at 17 he was reading at post graduate level. Joe, who struggled in nearly every subject in elementary school, now attends a competitive liberal arts college and has a 3.6 grade point average. You can’t argue with that success. This year the school celebrates fifty years changing lives for these neurodiverse kids. We were happy to dress up, show up, and donate from the deepest corner of our pockets.

It’s not hyperbole when I say Denver Academy saved our family. Once our sons started at this school, there were no more homework battles; in fact, we were rarely asked to help with homework at all. Parent/teacher conferences no longer made me cry. The boys started believing they were capable. Smart, even. This was new territory for them. They began getting involved in sports and clubs. For our part, we attended a seminar that simulated what it’s like to live with learning disabilities and gained a better understanding of our sons’ struggles. We showed up for every lecture and presentation DA held that we felt could help us do better for our kids. We bonded with other parents whose experiences with their children were eerily similar to ours. We no longer felt isolated in our situation with our children. We found a home, and nothing in our lives has been the same since.

Thank you, Denver Academy, for teaching our kids how to be successful in their skin and for teaching us that learning differences are something to appreciate, not fear.

The Troubadour of Sterling Ranch

Photo by Jefferson Santos on Unsplash

One of the first things I noticed as we were settling into our new neighborhood two summers ago was a curious neighbor. I don’t mean curious in the way that he was curious or nosey. I mean only that I found him curious. I didn’t know what to make of him. He was decidedly hard to miss as I made the left hand turn leading towards our home. There he was. Standing on the sidewalk, playing his guitar and singing, smile broadened across his friendly face. The first time I saw this, I thought it was a little odd but I figured it might be a one off. Perhaps I was missing something. Maybe there was a reason he was out there playing and singing. Maybe he was waiting for someone and planned to greet them with a song. That made sense to me, so I went with that thought.

But as I continued to drive back and forth in the coming weeks as we settled into our new home, I noticed he was out there nearly every time I drove by. I eventually made my peace with the idea that this was a regular occurrence, but I struggled to understand why. My introvert self was deeply confused by this blatant display of extrovert power. What did he want? Was I supposed to acknowledge his playing? Was he playing for himself? Should I wave? He couldn’t wave back. Should I just smile? Nod a visual acknowledgment of his existence? In my 52 years, I’d never encountered a situation like this with a neighbor standing on a residential street singing to no audience in particular. Sometimes on walks with my dog I would see he was out there and panic. What do I do when I walk by? Should I stop? Is that what is polite? My mind could not fathom a situation in which a person would do such a thing. It felt so awkward to me because I didn’t understand why he was doing it and felt confused about what I was meant to do when I saw him. When I found myself driving by him, maybe for the third or fourth time that day, and running out of what I felt were legitimate ways to regard him, I would avert my eyes. And while I was thinking he was this crazy guy out there singing to himself, he probably was thinking, “How many times is she going to drive by today?”

Over the intervening years, I’ve accepted something about Chris. He is out there, in all sorts of weather on all sorts of days, because he is doing what feeds his soul. Who does that? You rarely see a grown adult performing and smiling on the street without a tip jar out for collection. It was a foreign concept to me. I know people who like their jobs, but I don’t often catch them executing their job on a public street. Granted, it’s a bit easier for a singer/songwriter to share the joy of what they do with others than it would be for, say, a teacher. You don’t often see elementary school teachers standing on the street reading aloud from The Giving Tree or whatever. So the more I thought about Chris and his playing and singing, the happier it made me. Here was someone following their damn bliss. It was so brazen. Chris is out there living his best life in plain view of everyone else. Once I got over my introvert conundrum regarding how to approach the visual of this happy individual singing his heart out, I decided he was inspiring, actually. And when I checked out his website, which was shared with me by our neighbors, I decided he was even more inspiring because not only is he a songwriter and performer, but he is also a poet and a published author. He’s a busy guy.

Chris is busy making the world a better, more positive place. It’s no wonder his behavior confused me. You don’t see much of it these days.

Rock on, Chris! We appreciate you.

The Best In My Corner

I got this surprise care package today from my sister. In the adorably decorated box (with a side-eye warning on the top to keep the men in my house of out my things), I uncovered items to make me smile, to give me something to do to distract my mind, and to lift my spirit. There is, of course, a corgi and then a white Fennec fox called Phoenix to help me rise. And anyone who knows me at all knows Haribo is my favorite candy ever. Just made my day.

Everyone should have someone in their corner the way my sister is in mine. It’s been an honor to support her when she has needed it, and it’s been an even bigger honor having her support me as well.

Life Is Often Found In What We Are Trying To Avoid

Someone does not want to feel their feelings

I have a confession. Every time I take a flight, as we’re taking off I make peace with my life. I think about how grateful I am for the beautiful, fortunate journey I’ve taken thus far and I think about how much I love and appreciate those who have earned my confidence. I suppose it’s the equivalent of a little prayer of thanks because you just never know what might happen. I am not fearful of flying but, like most people my age, I’ve seen my fair share of air disasters. LOST remains one of my favorite tv series ever, so I am acutely aware of airplane crashes. Even with all the uneventful air travel I’ve enjoyed, the thought of plummeting from 30k feet crosses my mind. Call it fatalistic. Call it macabre. Just don’t let anyone say of me that I was ungrateful for this life or that I was unaware my life, like all lives, had an expiration date.

This morning as our flight was taxiing out of PDX, I did my usual rundown and rehashing and the tears clouded my eyes as they always do when I think about my life and loves. And as I was flooded with the gratitude of a full heart, I reflected on how emotion adverse we humans are. We don’t want to be sad or lonely or frustrated or ashamed and we will do almost anything to avoid feeling uncomfortable. We seek only positive, happy, or joyful experiences. In the absence of those feelings, we will settle for zero feeling because neutral is better than pain. This is why we numb ourselves with all the usual vices, alcohol, drugs, busyness, food, gambling, video games, whatever it takes to move us to a place where we can forget our emotions.

There is something, though, to the exhortation of therapists to feel your feelings. Our emotions are what give our lives life. They comprise the sum total of the human experience. Barring any mental hardwiring that makes experiencing darker emotions unbearable, feeling our feelings is the most important thing we can do to live our lives fully and completely. Is it easy? No. It isn’t. But feelings are the only constant in life. The goosebumps you get when your favorite song comes on the radio, the rapid beating of your heart with anxiety before a presentation, the tears that fall when you lose someone or something precious, the butterflies in your stomach when you realize the person you like likes you back, they are everything.

I’ve long been impressed by Buddhists who shun alcohol and drugs because they alter our ability to stay aware and present. It takes courage to live with ourselves 100% of the time because we are not always likable and our actions are not always honorable. Numbing makes the most horrifying parts of our life travels palatable. Choosing not to numb means we must suffer. We must sit with our darkness and our light. We must feel. I honor Buddhists (and any other individual or group) who choose to say yes to all of life. I’d like to say I could be that brave throughout my entire human experience, but I am not a Sith and am therefore unable to deal in absolutes. I like to keep all options on the table. Still, though, I think their path is probably the most honest way to experience life.

So, I take my therapist’s advice and feel my feelings as much and as often as possible. The anxiety, the heartbreak, the love, the anger, the boredom, the joy, the stress, the fear, it’s all necessary. So if you see my eyes tear up when I am sitting on a flight about to take off (or at any other time, really), no need to ask me it everything is all right. It is. I’m just feeling my feelings, grateful for the opportunity to do so.

Slaying The Shame Monster

“Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City to take back the child you have stolen, for my will is as strong as yours and my kingdom as great. You have no power over me!” ~Jim Henson

Me at a time in my life when I almost made my shame escape

As I mentioned the other day, I’ve been reading The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. It was given to me by a thoughtful, supportive friend last month, and I’ve slowly been making my way through it. The beautiful thing about Brené Brown is that her struggles and her authenticity seep from the pages of her books, making her words both relatable and heartening. She touches on so many difficult and uplifting emotions in the book that reading it has been equal parts soul-crushing reality and soul-inflating inspiration. Read about shame, guilt, perfectionism, fear, blame, and addiction and recognize how much those habits and emotions define and control you. Then read about hope, joy, play, creativity, resilience, authenticity, and self-compassion and see where you might be able to grow in a more positive direction. More than once while reading I’ve exclaimed out loud to myself in response to what I have read. Holy crap. That is me. I operate that same way. I so relate. I need to work on that. That makes so much sense. I have some work to do. I am really good at that.

The part of the book that hit me the hardest was the portion about shame. I know Brené began her work as a shame researcher, delving into the components of shame and how humans deal with or deflect it and how we can grow out of and away from it in healthy ways. So I fully expected to read about shame in this book. What I didn’t expect was to discover that for the majority of my life shame was my constant companion and operations manager. Ouch.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by this discovery. I grew up commonly hearing, “You should be ashamed of yourself” and “You’re embarrassing yourself.” Most of my reactions to events in my life were approached from a shame vantage point. Boyfriend broke up with me? Of course he did. You were acting like a needy jerk. It’s a wonder he didn’t leave you sooner. New job too much for me? Of course it is. Who do you think you are? You have no life experience. You can’t be expected to manage other human beings. Can’t stick to a diet and lose that stress-eating weight? Of course you can’t. You suck at dedication. Struggling with parenting? Of course you are. Your mother always said you were too selfish to raise children and it turns out she is right. Brené’s definition of shame snapped me like a wet, locker room towel: “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” It was through this lens that I grew up and approached my adult life. I was an imposter, one misstep away from everyone I knew discovering my deep secret. To deal with this, I became a perfectionist. (That is another blog post entirely.)

I was continually baffled that anyone would want to be my friend or date me. I couldn’t see what they saw. I only saw my unworthiness. Still, I must have been presenting something else to these people too. They didn’t seem to see what I was seeing. The incongruity was not lost on me, but it never once occurred to me that maybe what they were seeing was the true Justine and what I was seeing was a story I had been sold. It took decades for me to figure that out, and I’m still shredding the pages of that story and working on my rewrite.

Perhaps the most life-affirming part of this book for me has been the section on Cultivating a Resilient Spirit because this is where I shine. I grew up feeling unworthy, less than, and invisible, but I persevered and took risks. Somehow, despite all the negativity and fear, I knew deep in my core I was capable. In my late teens and early twenties, I arrived at a place where I almost was able to recognize the big lie I had been sold. I was brave enough to imagine for myself something bigger. I took steps in that direction. I stepped away from guilt and forced obligation and walked towards autonomy and growth. I stepped up. At age 22, I graduated from a four-year university, the first in our family to do so. By 23, I was starting graduate school. At 24, I voluntarily sought help and signed on with a debt relief organization to pay off tens of thousands of dollars I had accumulated in loans and credit card liability. I was adulting and taking ownership, being resilient, and moving forward.

Then I realized I’d run out of money for graduate school. Rather than rising up and trying to find a way through that financial quagmire, I took my mother’s advice and I quit because I couldn’t afford it. I fell right back into the pattern of being a fearful, self-pitying, self-loathing coward and I stayed there for another two decades, operating from the familiar mindset that told me I wasn’t worthy.

I’ve spent more of my life in that shame mindset than I have spent believing in myself. I let other people’s negativity inform my choices. I asked for advice from the wrong people. I spurned the pleas of the right people who tried to guide me towards my better angels. Now I’m grateful for the difficult day that opened my eyes and taught me who was not to be trusted with my dreams and hopes. I learned to lean towards the people who raise me up, and I walked away from those who make me feel less special, talented, helpful, kind, and important than I am. I ignore those who don’t get me or who think they know me but don’t. I face my shame, talk about it, and deconstruct it. And all of this has led me to a place where I am starting to understand who I am and to like myself.

Shame grows through secrecy, silence, and judgment. Understanding this gives me a pathway out of it. You deny it oxygen by addressing it, sharing your difficult stories with others, and walking away from those who would keep you grounded in it. I am happier more often now, able to be joyful and at peace. I make better choices and I forgive myself more easily when my choices aren’t the best. I appreciate others. I try to apologize when I screw up. I am still working on self-love and I am having a devil of a time beating the judgment out of myself and my life, but I am making progress. I’m embracing my humanity and feeling part of a bigger whole rather than feeling like a lonely pariah. I am proud of myself, dammit. It feels good.

Sharing my darkness and vulnerability is terrifying, but blogging about these shadow monsters here has changed my life. Shame has no power over me anymore because I have named it, gotten cozy with it, and discovered its weaknesses. It will never leave me because it is part of my story, but it buzzes quietly in the background now, just white noise that my brain blocks out.

Hawaii: The Big Island – January 2, 2022

If there is a word that could encapsulate the dread that hung in the air for Steve, Joe, and I (Luke isn’t a big beach guy) on this last day, I would use it. But there isn’t one. We had been doing our best to distance ourselves mentally from the notion that we would actually have to say goodbye to the rental home that had begun to feel like our actual home, board a plane for the long trip back to Denver, and say goodbye to Hawaii for who knows how long. The time had come to face reality, though. So we did our best to live in the moment and soak up every last bit of Hawaii peace.

While I sat on the lanai outside the master bedroom working on the blog post about New Year’s Day, Steve and Joe went for one last snorkel at tiny Keiki Beach.

Around 11, we decided to head up to Waikoloa Village for lunch, a last walk on Anaeho’omalu Bay (A-Bay), and some shopping. Steve, the boys, and I had started our trip here on December 23rd, so it seemed fitting that we would finish it here as well. We brought the rest of the family along this time for lunch at the Lava Lava Beach Club. Yes. It’s pricey. You’re paying resort prices in Hawaii, so it’s to be expected. But the view. Damn. How often do you get to sit seaside and watch sea turtles? Plus, the drinks are amazing and the food is quite tasty too. And the atmosphere is fun. So you pay a lot, but you get a lot.

We tried to dawdle at lunch to soak it all in, but the restaurant has a two-hour-per-table limit, and they are quick with the service to ensure that time table is honored. So, we bid farewell to this lovely spot, hit a few stores and a gas station, and headed back to pack. Boo. Once we had done most of the abysmal work of packing up to leave a place we did not want to leave, we headed back to the ocean behind the house to soak in every last second we could before emptying the fridge, doing a final sweep for personal items, and locking up for the last time.

With our final sunset in the books, we headed for the airport. We would be returning the same way we came, Kona to LAX, LAX to Denver via overnight flights. As luck would have it, I was unable to sleep. Not the case for my traveling companions. I think I was just too full of gratitude for the entire vacation. Every time I go to Hawaii, I struggle on the re-entry to normal life. It is nice to be home, but it takes me a week before I feel like I belong in Denver again.

Two of my favorite traveling companions

While my family slept, I helped myself to the on-board wifi and searched for homes for a potential next trip to Hawaii. No. We don’t have anything we’re planning, at least not yet. But it sure is fun to dream about a return trip, and it helps ease some of the pain of leaving when you make yourself believe you will be back. I’m grateful for every minute I get to spend in Hawaii. I would head back tomorrow if I could. Okay. Maybe not tomorrow. Maybe next week. I could use a little rest in my own bed first.

Aloha, Hawaii. Mahalo for the memories. E ho’i makou!

Hawaii: The Big Island – December 26, 2021

Mornings here are getting into a rhythm. Steve and I wake early, take some photos when the area behind the house on the makai (towards the sea) side is calm and mostly people free. I like to wander down to the tidal ponds to see any fish that might be stirring. This morning, as I meandered towards the water, I noticed this flower that someone in our family had placed along the lava rock wall surrounding the pool. There aren’t as many flowers blooming here now as there would be at other times of the year, but that makes the ones I am seeing more of a treasure.

The big excitement of the morning came when Luke was the first of us to spot humpback whales in the ocean behind the house. We’d been wondering if we would see some. We know they usually visit between December and April, but we’d been told it might be a little too early to see many of them. In fact, while verifying the time of year when they travel through these waters, I found that other Google searchers had similar questions. The funniest question I saw in my search was, “What time of day is the best for spotting whales?” I laughed. We Americans are so used to having the world at our fingertips that there are those among us who think the whales actually have a schedule they follow to make it easier for us to see them. The pure, simple, and beautiful answer about when you see whales is whenever they need to come up for air. They aren’t an attraction at Disneyworld that runs on a tight schedule. They are actual creatures living their lives. We just happen to be fortunate enough to bear witness to that on occasion. Throughout the rest of the day, though, the whales decided to inhale in front of me four additional times when my eyes just happened to be trained on the sea. Here’s hoping that the trend continues.

The rest of our day was spent snorkeling and hanging at the pool. I love snorkeling. While I am not well practiced given my status as a landlocked, mountain girl, I do revel in the view underwater. I saw a banded coral shrimp, which I had never seen before. The boys (aged 20 and 18) acted like boys (aged 6 and 4) in the pool, beating each other with foam noodles and using snorkel masks to dive. While they were doing that, I made another little green friend on the lanai where I was busy composing yesterday’s blog post.

The highlight of the day was a dinner cruise down to Kealakekua Bay, the site where Captain James Cook was killed. This cruise, conducted by Body Glove Ocean Adventures, was surprisingly informative, well run, and fun. I typically view these trips as tourist traps. I still book them, but I am prepared for them to be hokey and subpar, worth only the opportunity to get out on the sea. The cruise was recommended to us by the concierge service at the property management company that oversees the rental home we’re occupying, so I am grateful to them for that. The dinner was delicious: a locally grown green salad, Hawaiian-style barbecue ribs, a coconut milk, green curry vegetable side with white rice, and a coconut roll. I was impressed they were able to pull this off so well given that the boat we took unloaded passengers just 10 minutes before we were able to board. During the trip, we were gifted with whale sightings and the opportunity to see both spinner and bottlenose dolphins. By the end of the cruise, with copious tropical drinks on board, most of the passengers were singing and dancing along to YMCA by the Village People. I am usually a cynic and find this type of behavior beneath me, but I may be growing because I found the entire spectacle charming and actually participated. There was a lovely Indian family (about 15 of them) who were celebrating some family milestones, and they formed a large circle near the singer/dj and led the crowd in the revelry. After so long being sequestered and not being in the company of strangers, it was heavenly, even for this introvert.

When I can get myself to back off my cynicism and check my opinionated mind at the door, I rediscover the simple pleasure of witnessing connections between people and remembering that these moments give this ephemeral life its breath.

Peace Lives At 32k Feet

“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” ~Leonardo da Vinci

Is there anything better than the view from above 30k feet? There is something about witnessing the clouds through an aircraft window, rather than from Earth, that brings me a peace I can’t find any other way. It’s a reminder of how small and insignificant I am. A momentary note about how far we have come, an acknowledgment of our stretching our wings to be more, to see more, to achieve more. It’s a humbling view of the globe in a way that illuminates her possibility. It is freedom. Plain and simple. And I am grateful to be able to venture, to afford the luxury of seeing the world as so many, sadly, never will.

And when the sun sinks, setting the cotton-puff clouds on fire, and the stars begin to appear in the darkest sky imaginable, dozens at a time, there too do I find solace and peace in the heavens, closer than I have ever been to them.

Some people like to feel important, want to leave a legacy, and that is where they live. I feel most alive when I grasp my insignificance in the grand scheme of the planet, the solar system, the universe. That is where I can take my deepest breaths, feel part of something infinitely larger and more consequential than I am. Be detached from the world and in touch with the essence of the universe to which I belong, no greater or lesser than any life that came before or will exist after. I have no fear above the clouds. Only gratitude.

Travel is where I find oxygen. Travel is what unites me with all the other living, breathing entities on this floating ball. Some say there is nothing like coming home. I say there is nothing like leaving home because that is where I find myself,

Can The Grinch Be Tamed By Mele Kalikimaka?

Picturing myself here

The worst part about vacation is the getting ready. The worst part about taking a vacation during the holiday season is that you have to do all the work for the holidays that you normally do, but you have to do it in less time, and you have to add all the vacation prep to your already tightened schedule. I’ve been a stressed out nightmare the past couple weeks. My days packed, my list of things to do seemingly insurmountable, trying only to get from one event to the next, never being able to get ahead. I’ve been testy and tired, anxious and annoyed. I’ve not been my best self. Some days, I wasn’t sure who I was. Today, it hit me that I have been the Grinch.

My goal for vacation is to toss off my grinch mindset and embrace the present with peace in my head. That will be achieved through some meditation, some fresh, salty air, and some sand under my feet. And maybe a piña colada or mai tai or two. Maybe without all the traditional trappings of the holidays, without the obligations and the busy work, the peace that is meant to consume this season will consume me and allow my grinch heart to grow three sizes.

Can the Grinch be tamed by a Mele Kalikimaka? I will let you know if Hawaii is able to work her magic. Stay tuned.