It’s The What Ifs That Will Ruin You

“I knew who I was this morning, but I’ve changed a few times since then.” ~Lewis Carroll

Spinning in a cycle of what ifs is like riding a merry-go-round

There is a show starting on television next week called Ordinary Joe. This is how the network describes it: “Life is all about the choices you make – and sometimes, what you do in a single moment can change everything.” In a preview for the show, we hear Joe’s voice say, “It’s only natural to wonder, What if?” We all have asked ourselves at one point or another how our life might have been different if we’d made a different choice. What if we’d pursued medicine like we wanted to instead of settling for an easier career path? What if we’d given that one boyfriend a second chance? What if we’d decided not to have children? There are a million what ifs any one person could come up with relating to their life. Let’s face it. All the what ifs we conjure up are infinitely more glamorous and desirable than our current reality because we’re dreaming, and that is the nature of dreams.

Most of my what ifs have centered around “what if I had realized earlier that the stories I had been told about myself as a child were just stories and not at all true reflections of who I was on the inside? What if I had grown up feeling loved, secure, and lovable, rather than alone, fearful, and unlovable?” These what if thoughts, in particular, have really done a number on me. They’ve taken the past I was handed and made it heavier than it already was. So, in addition to carrying around the mental weight of the trauma I endured, I was annoyed that I didn’t figure out until well into my mid-40s that there was trauma in the first place.

I’ve been thinking about this since I first saw the preview for Ordinary Joe. Here is what I have decided: what ifs may be natural, but they are not at all useful. When we make a decision, we are making it with the only skills we have at that time. Whatever knowledge or experience we’ve acquired up to that point figures into our choice. We couldn’t have done better for ourselves in the past because in the past we weren’t who we are now. When we think what if, we are imagining for ourselves in the past using our present experiences and mindset. We didn’t have our present knowledge and experience back then and, therefore, would likely have made the same choice we already made. There is no better outcome. We are where we are now because of where we were then. If you’re taking time to imagine what ifs with a more positive outcome, you’re basically in a fantasy. And while imagining a different, potentially more positive outcome (because who here wants to imagine a worse outcome) might be the kind of fantasy in which we would like to indulge, it’s only hurting us because it’s keeping us from accepting our present with gratitude.

When we focus on what ifs, we are focusing on two things that don’t matter. The past is over and done with, and we can’t unring that bell. And the future is guaranteed to no one, so dreaming what our future might look like is wasting the only time we know we have, which is happening right now while we remove ourselves from it.

I’ve decided it’s time to stop beating myself up over a past I wish could have been different. It couldn’t have been. I was who I was and I made the only choices I was capable of making given the reality I knew. It wasn’t until I understood my reality was skewed that I could do better for myself. So, I am going to try to stay in my present and appreciate what is rather than wondering about what ifs from my past or dreaming about what ifs for my future. We all have made choices we wonder about now, but that is a waste of precious time in the current moment. Maybe if we spent more time focusing on now, we wouldn’t be so concerned about mentally rewriting our past or dreaming about a future we are not guaranteed. We are perfect the way we are, and who we are right now in this moment is all we are called to be. Everything else is just noise.

Flipping The Script

While searching my brain for something to write about tonight, I found this gem on Facebook. I love the idea of flipping the script, taking something basic and turning it upside down until it looks a little more intriguing. When I was years and years younger, I did this with my career as stay-at-home mom. I told people I was a “Wildlife Manager,” which was infinitely more descriptive and appropriate. Seriously. Have you ever tried to manage two boys under the age of 5? They are a bit much.

So much of what happens in life is predictable, prescribed, and ordinary. We fall into boxes readily, like cats into taped off squares on the floor, because they make us feel secure. Student. Business professional. Realtor. Doctor. Parent. Dog mother. Athlete. When you meet someone new, what is the first place the conversation naturally flows? “So, where do you work?” If you’re lucky, you get a more nebulous, “What do you do?” We are comfortable when we can rely on these scripts. We feel good about ourselves when can give someone the elevator-chat, ten second version of our life, a version that usually revolves around what we do, not who we are, not what makes us happy or interesting or passionate. I think this is a crime.

I propose that we mix things up. Let’s stop talking about what we do. Let’s start talking about who we are. Wouldn’t a cocktail party be much more interesting if instead of starting with work talk (because who wants to talk about work when not at work, anyway?), we asked what someone’s first concert was or which television character they would invite to dinner if they could. And what if our ten-second, elevator-chat personal description went more like this:

“I’m Justine. As a child, I was terrified of anything having to do with UFOs. I played cymbals in high school marching band. I suck at throwing frisbees. I’m a die-hard introvert, but I love to plan parties that I preferably would not have to attend. Oh, and even though I’m 53, I sleep with a stuffed dog I named Eliot.”

Imagine what we would know about each other, imagine what we would learn about ourselves, if we stopped putting people into boxes based on religion, politics, and career and began talking to each other as if we were all the unique, interesting individuals we are. What barriers might we break down? What assumptions about others might we lose? I think if we started flipping the script, we might be able to raise the level of discourse in this country. Let’s re-enchant life by focusing on the parts of our human experiences that make life worth living.

Grab Your Monkey Mind By The Tail

Look, Ma! I’m on top of the world!

“Worrying is using your imagination to create something you don’t want.” ~Abraham Hicks

A few months ago, I joined a women’s midlife mindfulness and meditation group in my neighborhood. I had been meaning to get into meditation to rein in my monkey mind for at least the past 8 years and had even started practicing a few times, but I never stuck with it. When I saw the post on our local Facebook page, it was a sign. Now there would be some accountability. Even if I didn’t become a master at meditation, I reasoned, I might acquire more control over my thoughts and keep them from running away from me unnecessarily.

Last night our group met in the shade outside our local community center and discussed the “Don’t-Know Mind.” The don’t-know mind, I learned, is a central concern of Korean Zen, and it’s a representation of our enlightened mind before preconceived ideas, thoughts, judgments, and opinions create needless anxiety and suffering in our lives. Many of us spend our entire lives borrowing trouble that doesn’t yet exist. You have your negative life experiences and memories of bad news and you apply them to events that haven’t occurred yet. It happens all the time, and it’s a waste of precious life energy because we can’t possibly know how things are going to work out before they occur. We humans are not as all-knowing as we like to think we are. How many times have you imagined the worst only to later live a completely or mostly seamless experience? How much time have you wasted catastrophizing for nothing?

I can recount dozens of times I have borrowed trouble when I had no reason to believe an event would end badly. It happened last night. My sons decided yesterday to climb Mt. Bierstadt, one of the 53 peaks in Colorado over 14k feet. This is a well-traveled hike with a well-marked ascent. It is one of the easiest of these climbs. Hordes of people climb this mountain every day in the summer, and you rarely hear anything about it other than the trail was too busy. Still, my 18 and 20 year old sons would be leaving before dawn with a friend, traveling up the interstate into the mountains on little sleep to ascend to 14k feet alone for the first time. Their momma bear was anxious. Although I fell asleep quickly, I woke up with my mind racing and imagining the worst. I pulled out the don’t-know mindset.

You don’t know what will happen tomorrow. You don’t know that there is any reason for concern. What if nothing bad happens? What if there is no traffic at all and they arrive safely? What if they packed the perfect amount of snacks, water, warm clothing, and safety gear? What if all that happens is that they make it to the top to view a cloudless Colorado morning with 360-degree breathtaking views? What if they make a memory together they will cherish forever? What if this gives them the confidence to climb other mountains, both physical and mental? What if they arrive home, beaming with accomplishment, and share photos from their adventure? You don’t know.

I took a few deep breaths, relaxed into the mattress, and fell back asleep, confident that the likelihood things would work out was far greater than the likelihood they would not. I slept so well I didn’t hear them getting ready and I didn’t wake up in time to say goodbye to them. When I finally awoke at 7:10, they were long gone. And when I checked my phone I noticed Joe had already sent a photo of them safely at the trailhead ready to begin their upward journey.

I think the trick is to grab your monkey mind’s tail as soon as you notice it. Once you have it in your grasp, tell that monkey to back off because it doesn’t know what it thinks it knows. The more often you catch that damn monkey, the more practice you have stopping its useless chatter. Eventually, you realize there is no benefit in determining an outcome you don’t want to have and likely won’t experience. You begin find stillness, peace, and positivity can fill the space in your head and give the monkey no room for running and jumping and bouncing around. I’m not there yet, but my monkey catching skills are improving.

The friends you meet along the way

About To Bloom

IMG_8313“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” 

Yesterday I had one of those life-altering conversations you can only have with someone who is your dedicated cheerleader. It started as a call to vent a frustration I was having over something I should have not been surprised about, and it ended over three hours later with me having reached 10,000 steps on my Fitbit (I nervously pace while on the phone). My friend, saint that she is, when she could get in a word in, said precisely the things I’d been needing to hear to jumpstart my life on the backside of a yearlong depression. For some reason, everything she said and everything I rambled on about suddenly made perfect sense. It all clicked into place. Only your best friends can give you the kick-in-the-ass encouragement you need precisely when you need it most.

Last year was not my best. I was in a fog of self-pity. I was turning 50 and didn’t know how that had happened. I’d let go of my health and fitness when I’d stopped exercising (because I was officially OLD now and who cares) and, because of my sloth, I was at my personally allowed maximum density, and my clothes weren’t fitting right or at all. My sons were growing up and moving on, and it was an ever-present reminder that they are on their way out of our home and my job description and that I had no idea what my next career move is or can be. My therapist, the one who had changed my life with EMDR therapy, moved away. And my sister was having serious health issues that blindsided the whole family. I was relying on outside sources to provide happiness without doing the work on the inside that would make a difference. I was spending way too much time playing mindless games on my phone as a diversion tactic. I sat in bed way too often. I was cancelling plans to stay home and binge watch shows in my pajamas. I could not be bothered to care. And I was making things worse by convincing myself that there was no real reason for me to be depressed. Certainly there were people in the world who were far worse off than I was with my first-world, privileged-white-girl problems; therefore, my lazy, apathetic behavior was anathema to me and only produced more self-loathing.

After yesterday’s conversation, this morning I felt clarity and drive again. I woke up at 6 a.m. and began writing about our trip to Africa over Christmas break. I drove the kids to school and on the way home I got a further boost from this morning’s sing-along song, The Middle (full lyrics here) by Jimmy Eat World. I’ve heard this song a million times, but today it felt meant for me.

Hey
Don’t write yourself off yet
It’s only in your head you feel left out or looked down on
Just try your best
Try everything you can
And don’t you worry what they tell themselves when you’re away
It just takes some time
Little girl, you’re in the middle of the ride
Everything, everything will be just fine
Everything, everything will be all right

As soon as I arrived home, I saw a text from my friend, a continuation of our conversation from yesterday that essentially echoed the song lyrics that had finally reached my heart. I decided that the stars must be aligning. It’s the only explanation for how Regan at Alt Nation and my friend, Heather, would know exactly what I needed to hear this morning. I’d like to share, with permission, what Heather said to me because maybe you need to hear it too.

Life is short. We all know this. And one of the biggest parts of life is enjoyment. We all die, and most of us only leave behind a legacy to those the very closest to us. So we owe it to ourselves (whether we think we deserve it YET or not) to pursue what is driving us. To enjoy what gives us pleasure REGARDLESS of what we produce. Like [the band] Rush says, “The point of the journey is not to arrive.” You’re no less special than anyone else. You’re deserving to pursue what brings you enjoyment and to develop your God-given talents. Doesn’t matter if what you produce is earth shatteringly amazing!!! In fact, what you have already produced has touched people. But that’s not the point and that should not be the goal or the pressure. It’s okay to do something purely because you know it’s what is inside of you and it needs to come out. And on the days when that voice is yelling at you, you yell back! You say, “Hey, Evil Spawn Thought. Welcome. Welcome to my brain because I’m just gonna use you to fuel my enjoyment of what I’m doing because you help me be who I am. I overcome you daily and, though you mean it for my destruction, it’ll be used to make me an even stronger, richer person.”

I printed out these words and I put them on my writing desk where I will see them daily. The fog of depression is lifting. After jettisoning some mental baggage that is no longer necessary to protect me, I am ready to move forward. Halle-fricking-lujah!

Last fall, I planted some bulbs, something I’ve eschewed doing thus far in my life because spring in Colorado is predictable in its unpredictability, and the first buds are often murdered by a heavy, wet snowstorm. But I decided to be bold and take a chance. Having never planted bulbs before, I followed the planting directions to the letter, depositing the future tulips 8″ below the surface. Yes. I measured. This spring, I waited. And I waited. As I saw flowers sprouting up in other people’s yards, my flower bed remained dormant. I began to wonder if they were ever going to grow. Perhaps I’d gotten a bum batch of bulbs? I watched that patch of dirt next to our patio like I was waiting for a million-dollar package to sprout up there. Every day I surveyed it with cautious optimism. I moved the mulch around looking for the tiniest inkling of life. And then, one day, a crocus popped up along the border. Not long after, some narcissus joined in. And at long last the tulip leaves began to push their way into the sun and follow suit. This morning, after weeks of anticipation, I could at last see the vibrant color of one tightly still-closed tulip. It had happened. I’d actually grown something.

Thinking about it now, in the light of the past twenty four hours, maybe that small garden plot was a sign for me too. Maybe it was never about growing something in particular. Perhaps it was always just about growing, however it happened.

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The Great Reframe

The truth is that you already are what you are seeking.  ~Adyashanti

IMG_0721
My husband took this photo because he liked the shadow of one building on another. He was, however, vexed by the reflection of the lights from his office in the photo until I told him those reflections form artificial clouds. I think they’re perfect. It’s all about shifting your perspective. 

People are prodigious purveyors of the best advice, which they themselves never follow. I have a gift for envisioning paths and solutions for others. When it comes to my own life, however, I have difficulty zooming out far enough to formulate a plan. I am so hyper focused on the micro that I don’t even recognize there is a macro point from which to view the entire dilemma. My successes have been achieved through a series of fits and starts over years of time spent haphazardly careening in the general direction of something in which I had interest. Then, when I finally reach a goal in this meandering and sloppy way, I complain about how much time I wasted getting there. Eye roll.

Negative thought is the constant rabbit in my garden, nibbling the buds of potential while I struggle to pull up weeds. And the curse of negativity is that it works the same way as positivity. What you focus on expands. So if I focus on the rabbit (as I’ve been trained to do) as it wends its way through the sprouts I’ve been striving to cultivate, more rabbits materialize. Cute, furry, reproductive little bastards they are. And when I become obsessed with their presence, they take over completely and I am left standing there on barren ground, wondering what the hell happened. There have been periods of my life when I’ve battled against negativity akin to the Rabbit of Caerbannog.

It has gone this way for me for a long time. Only recently have I gained enough ground to make progress against the rabbits. I’ve learned to notice them increasing in number and then plant some marigolds and install chicken-wire screens to dissuade them. I recently added a border collie to shoo the most stalwart rabbits away. Sometimes the border collie snoozes and a couple sneak in, but when she finally gets after them she pursues them with a renewed fervor that makes them far more cautious and less attracted to the garden. And, in this way, the potential that was always there for me is beginning to flourish. It’s Secret Garden-level brilliant too.

I spent a lot of time cursing the rabbits in my garden. It never helped. The more I railed against them, the more damage they inflicted. But when I shifted my frame of reference away from them and onto the potential I wanted to nurture and protect, I began to make headway where it most mattered to me. Instead of wasting time complaining and being fearful of stunted growth, I moved the frame away and onto protecting what mattered. I began to find solutions. When I stopped fighting against the negativity and started fighting for my growth and my dreams, my life changed. Fighting for wields more power than fighting against ever will.

There will always be rabbits. They will creep back into the yard. It’s inevitable. But I’m learning look at them differently, to take my large portrait frame, step back and shift it in a way that I see how a long-eared, fluffy bunny hopping around a safely protected, well-tended garden is not a problem at all. It’s a representation of life in balance.

Where can you move your frame so it holds the most positive, life-affirming tableau you can imagine, the one that will feed your soul?

 

The Book Without Pictures

ImageFew things are as burdensome to a child with dyslexia as required reading. At least, this is what I have discerned over years of working with Luke and watching him battle with text. Because the only way out is through, Luke has to work twice as hard as typical children to make half the progress in reading. With a couple years of personalized instruction in decoding (phonics for children with dyslexia) and comprehension, he has made huge strides. He has jumped four grade levels in reading in two years. He is now a sixth grader reading at fifth-grade level. Things are getting easier, but they are still not easy.

And so, reading continues to be Luke’s least favorite activity. It’s the last bit of homework he chooses to attack each night. On the rare occasions that I can convince him to read aloud so I can track his progress, I swear the process is more difficult for me than it is for him. He is painfully slow, stumbling over words most children his age would not blink twice at. He continues to interchange “what” with “that” and “why” with “who” often enough that I find myself unable to follow along with the story in places. But, along he plugs, undaunted, while I do my own decoding to keep up.

For a couple months now, I’ve watched Luke carrying around this hardback book and pulling it out during his reading period. I never really thought about it much. I knew the title, had a vague idea what the story was about and that his teacher had chosen it for him, and that was where my brain came to rest on it. It was a book about a soldier in Afghanistan who felt compelled to save the stray dogs he found there. And it combined two of Luke’s favorite topics: war and puppies.

The other day, a little disheartened to see him still lugging around and reading the same book, I asked him about it.

“Luke…how many pages do you have left in that book? It seems like you have been reading it forever,” I said.

“About fifty, I think,” he replied easily.

“How long have you been reading that book now?” I asked.

“Since October sometime, I think. I can’t remember.”

“What page are you on?” I inquired.

“249” came the reply.

I sat with this number for a while, letting it slowly seep its way into my understanding like water filtering into sand. Two hundred forty-nine pages. Two hundred. Plus forty. Plus nine. Holy crap. That is a lot of pages for Luke.

“Can I take a look at it?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said, handing me Pen Farthing’s One Dog at a Time. All 308 pages of it. I flipped to the book’s center expecting to see a slew of photographs. There were none. Next, I paged carefully through the book. Twenty five chapters. Twelve point font. No drawings. No graphics. Adult vocabulary. War theme. Full of acronyms, foreign place names, and soldier-driven terminology. Then, it hit me. My eyes grew wide. This is a grown up’s book.

“Luke, this is a serious book. I’m really proud of you for sticking with it,” I praised.

“I’ve been going extra slowly because I want to make sure I’m not missing anything,” he told me.

“If you’re going to have this book at home over Christmas Break, I’d like to read it,” I told him. “I’m thinking we can share it and then when we’re both done we can have a book club meeting about it. Maybe we can go to Red Robin, just the two of us, and talk about it?”

“Sure,” he said. “It might take me a little longer to finish it, though,” he acknowledged.
“No worries,” I replied as I handed the book back to him so he could finish up his required twenty minutes of painstaking work.

I stood there, watching him for a few minutes, reveling in how tough he is. He is a warrior. Every day as a student he goes into battle, fighting to size up, outmaneuver, and slay the beasts that would diminish his opportunities for success. He knows more about himself and about what he can and cannot do than most adults I know. He struggles. He problem solves. He strategizes. He adjusts. And, most importantly, he perseveres. While reading a 300-page book at 12 might not be a tremendous effort for many children, it’s a Herculean task for Luke. So, I hope you’ll excuse me if I appear to zone out while you remind me again about your child’s sixth consecutive semester on the Dean’s List. I mean, that’s great and all, but my dyslexic son is nearly finished reading a three-hundred page book without pictures. Clearly, I win.

Life Is Short…Don’t Be Your Own Wet Blanket

Wet everywhere
Wet everywhere

How many times have you talked yourself out of something because the situation didn’t seem quite right? I have done it thousands of times. I am the Queen of Justification. I can talk myself out of anything. This also means, though, that I have the ability to talk myself into anything. It seems easier to avoid than attack, though, which is why I have let so many opportunities in my life slide because it seemed like they might be too much work. Today I decided to challenge myself to go forward rather than retreat.

Three weeks ago, my friend Brooke and I planned to hike on May 4th. So, this morning I woke up ready to hike…until I looked out the window. From my bedroom window at 7 a.m., I saw low hanging clouds, wet ground, and not one patch of blue sky. I texted Brooke to see what the weather was like in Boulder. Light drizzle, she said. I have traditionally been a fair-weather hiker. I try to avoid hiking in the rain when possible because I am not a big fan of being cold or wet or muddy or especially all three things at once. So many reasons not to hike today and only one reason in favor. The forecast for the rest of the week in Denver is rain, one to four inches of it. I decided light drizzle might just be the nicest weather all week. I grabbed my rain jacket and my waterproof hikers and headed to meet Brooke.

On the drive, I tried to convince myself that it was as good of a day as any to hike. I pulled out all my zen and told myself the only moment I have is this one. I can spend it whining about the weather or I can pretend that I’m above it all. By the time I got to the trailhead parking lot, I was convinced this was a good idea. I parked in a giant puddle, zipped up my rain jacket, stuffed my iPhone into one of my waterproof pockets, and embraced our adventure.

Mud is the equivalent of ankle weights, right?
Mud is the equivalent of ankle weights, right?

True to what Brooke had said, there was a light drizzle. I couldn’t actually tell if it was drizzle or just mist from low hanging clouds. Either way, there were no drops of rain. We started up the trail, planning to do a 4 mile hike I’ve done many times with my family. As we turned to head uphill, the path beneath our feet became increasingly muddy where rain had rushed down, following gravity’s lead all night long. For about three-quarters of a mile, we hiked uphill through heavy mud, trying to walk on rocks when we could, scraping our hiking shoes off when we’d gained an extra pound per foot. My mind wandered back to how these shoes had hiked the entire Inca Trail without getting wet. They’d survived four days in the Andes with hardly anything to show for it. I was making up for it now. I blocked out the notion that it would take me an hour to clean them when I got home. I kept on trudging.

I realized about two miles in that we were not on the path I had intended to take. Oops. No worries. We’d figure it out. We kept heading uphill, towards the trees, hoping that once we got into them we would find a trail that had been protected from the moisture. Around the point that we hit four miles, it was clear we had wandered further off course than we’d planned. I pulled out my phone to view a trail map so we could get our bearings. We were two hours into the hike. We’d passed two people. Although the views weren’t much because of the fog, the rainy weather had afforded us a hike in solitude. The only sounds were a gurgling creek running full with rain from higher up the foothill, some frogs chirping, and songbirds flying in and out of the bushes around us as we passed. Being a fair-weather hiker, I’m used to sharing the trail, to catching silence in between polite greetings with groups of fellow hikers. Today there was none of that. There was just peace.

An abandoned house in the fog
An abandoned house in the fog

We figured out which trail to hit and began our descent. We stopped to take photos and enjoy the less muddy section of trail. We paused to appreciate the scenery, limited though it was, and revel in the isolation. Eventually we passed one more set of hikers before we reached the parking lot. By then, the stats on my Fitbit app were impressive. We had logged seven miles in 158 minutes and climbed the equivalent of 116 floors under less than ideal conditions with mud-packs as ankle weights. And to think I had nearly given this up morning workout for an almond-milk latte indoors. Craziness.

I’m going to make a concerted effort more often to go with the flow, even if that flow is from rain. Despite all the mental excuses I could come up with today to skip our hike, nothing bad that I had imagined actually came to fruition. The rain held off, I stayed dry, and most of the mud fell away from my shoes on its own. Even when we realized we were off our intended path, we found our way back to where we needed to be. Everything worked out because everything always works out one way or another. I spend too much time imagining the worst, meanwhile missing out on what might have been the best.

“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” ~Vivian Greene