Fifty (or fifty-one if we’re being specific) is a marvelous thing. With five decades behind me, I now understand my place in this world much better than I have before. I’ve learned that I am not as important or influential as I thought. I am not responsible for everyone else’s feelings. After fifty years, I am free of the burdens and expectations of others. Mostly.
I was raised to believe I was the direct cause of other people’s suffering. You know the phrase, “That sounds like a you problem?” Well, everything negative that happened in my interactions with others was a me problem. It all rested squarely on my shoulders. If someone was unhappy with me, it was because I was selfish or lazy or thoughtless. There was no onus on the other person. I was to blame. Always.
The natural consequence of believing that my every mistake, misstep, or misspoken word made me less likable was a conditioned level of fearfulness around other people. I didn’t dare express what I liked because someone else might not agree and that would be awkward. I didn’t feel comfortable asking for what I wanted because that might put someone else out. I was terrified others would see how naive and foolish I was if I spoke up, so I kept to myself. I played along. I didn’t ask questions. I didn’t impose. I didn’t want to rock anyone else’s boat. It wasn’t until I hit fifty that I realized my concern for not rocking anyone else’s boat meant I never learned to sail my own.
For most of my life, the you problem comment bothered me. I found it haughty and mean-spirited. Eventually with therapy, I began to understand that diagnosing a you problem had less to do with being dismissive of someone else’s feelings than it had to do with being responsible for my own. A you problem is a problem you are responsible for. Nothing more. Nothing less. As long as I own my part, it’s okay to wish, hope, or expect another will own theirs. Believing someone else is responsible for their own feelings is not dismissive of my responsibility to them. It acknowledges that I am responsible for only my part in the transactional nature of our human relationship. It allows another the opportunity and responsibility to accept their fair share. It’s equality.
I still live my life trying to be decent and fair to others. I still try to consider other’s feelings and cause no harm. I still strive not to be a burden. I just no longer accept that I am 100% responsible for someone else’s reaction to what I say or do. I can only be responsible for myself. If you’re reacting negatively to what I say or what I need, you should examine why it bothers you because that is a you problem. It feels good to let you shoulder your own feelings and expectations. It feels good to let that go.
After our first incredible day on safari, I thought nothing could compare. I was wrong. On day two of our sojourn, New Year’s Eve, our hosts raised the bar. This will live on as one of the favorite days of my life ever. And, to be fair, I’ve lived a fortunate life, have traveled to four continents, and enjoyed many “once in a lifetime” experiences.
We awoke early to breakfast with the morning plan being a guided safari walk. We were outfitted with gaiters to protect our legs and feet from acacia thorns and bugs, stainless steel water bottles and holders, and horse-tail swatters to discourage biting flies. Our guide drove out a short way from camp begin our walk. Before we had left the security of the vehicle, we were debriefed on safety. We would be walking with our guide who was carrying a high-powered rifle and a park ranger who had a fully automatic assault weapon. Realizing we would be on the ground with creatures larger, bigger, and faster than us that could stomp, gore, claw, kick, bite, and ingest us if they felt threatened was intimidating. We were not to speak unless directed. We were to remain in a single file line. We learned hand commands meant to keep us safe if wildlife grew agitated or aggressive. If an animal charged, we were not to run.
The first thing we spotted was a mating pair of tortoises. A bit later we noticed females and young elephants grazing. In the other direction, two bull elephants were doing the same. Our guide was careful to check our position and the wind direction so we would not be detected. We walked silently through the bush. The flies were relentless in heavily foliaged areas, and the swatters were a godsend. We saw ostrich, varieties of antelope, and warthog, and fortunately did not encounter any predators. We stopped to identify a buffalo that had been killed, its bones scattered by scavengers.
Of the creatures we found, none were more shy than the antelope. They watched us warily from great distances and were only able to be photographed decently with my husband’s high-powered camera lens. The warthogs were the most fun to be around because, while still reticent, they were animated, curious, and checked up on us often.
We somehow wandered right back to our vehicle, although I had no clue how given our circuitous route not following any given trail. I was grateful the guides hadn’t had to use a weapon, although they admitted they rarely had to. Through extensive wildlife safari training and experience, they know how to keep people and wildlife safe.
That afternoon, four of the six of us went out for a drive and were treated to an elephant extravaganza. We encountered several herds up close. Their bodies were tinged red after time in the water followed by a roll in the earth to smother the ticks they regularly acquired. Some scratched themselves on massive, abandoned termite mounds. Some used their trunks to cover themselves in dirt. Being this close to an elephant, close enough to see her eyelashes and be dusted with the dirt she threw on herself, was a gift I will never forget. (Video here)
I was not prepared for Tanzania to be as beautiful as it was. The short rains of November and December had created an environment that was fertile for grazing with short grasses that offered us unimpeded viewing of the creatures who call this place home. We had flawless weather (warm days, temperate nights, very little rain) and the benefit of an endlessly green landscape. I was awestruck by the scenery.
As we were driving towards our evening plans, we witnessed large family groups of elephants trumpeting and beating either a hurried rush towards a sunset get together or a hasty retreat from some unseen predators. Ammy told us he had not seen so many groups exhibiting this same behavior, and he had no idea what might be the cause. I wish I had photographs of it but, because of the distance at which the elephants were and the fading light of day, it was not to be captured. Still, as a lover of these grand beasts, I felt as if someone had commanded them to put on a display just for me. Over a hundred, perhaps several hundred, were all on their way their way somewhere with great purpose. Maybe it was the beginning of their New Year’s Eve ritual. Who knows? It was my Day of the Elephants and my heart was full.
Ammy told us it was time to move on and began driving with serious purpose as the sun began to sink on the western horizon. At last we rounded a bend and I understood what his rush had been. Sundowners! I’d read about this, but honestly had no idea the level to which this tradition was taken seriously.
Sundowners are drinks at sundown in the bush. I saw several safari vehicles congregated near a set up of camp chairs with a table and a makeshift-but-well-stocked bar. I couldn’t help myself and uttered to Ammy several statements of disbelief and joy. What? Are you kidding me? This is nuts! You guys are unbelievable.
Karen, my sister-in-law, popped open a bottle of champagne they had on ice for us. This was accompanied by freshly made potato chips and followed by made-to-order drinks of our choosing. Our oldest son, who is only 17, was treated to a glass of champagne too, making him feel extra special. And while we stood there sipping our drinks, the sun went down in a spectacular flourish of yellow, orange, pink, red, and violet.
After dinner, our final event was a nighttime game drive in an open air vehicle. With the use of high-bean flashlights, we watched a genet climb stealthily through tree branches, hoping to capture a bird who was perched there. We also saw a variety of mongoose on the prowl. And while the creatures were not as generous with their time or numbers as they had been earlier in the day, the experience of driving at night, seeing stars which we had never seen in such multitude, was unforgettable. We might as well have been the only people on the planet. So far removed we were from our usual lives at home, from the bustle of cities and relentless visual noise of light pollution and the distraction of electronics and to-do-lists.
We returned to camp overwhelmed by our day and settled in for late dinner around the campfire. Every new year should begin from this point of peace and oneness with nature and Mother Earth. Every new year should begin by taking a moment to inhale and exhale consciously and appreciate the current moment. The future is not a guarantee, but a wish. Live now the wind whispered to me through the trees.
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.
A few weeks ago while I was out of town, my husband messaged me and told me he had been watching the popular Netflix series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. I rolled my eyes. He’s always loved the idea of simplifying, even as he continued to purchase new travel bags and backpacks, the latest home automation gadgets, and new paraphernalia for his hobbies. It’s quite a conundrum for him, the desire to pare down while feeling the pull of shiny things. Still, he said he was cleaning out his closet using the KonMari method, going through boxes of old sweaters and t-shirts I have been begging him to jettison for years. That had to be good, right?
When I got home and witnessed the magic Marie’s art of tidying up had brought to his closet and office, I got a little inspired myself. Although I twice yearly empty my closet of items that didn’t see the light of day over the past few seasons, I emptied my closet of everything, setting it neatly on the bed, and appraising each item in terms of joy. In some cases, the decisions were easy. Love the details on this top. This makes me look ten pounds heavier. This dress gets so many compliments. Pretty sure I’m never getting back into this pair of pants. In other cases, I struggled. Eventually, I unloaded two full kitchen bags of items whose existence caused me a tiny discomfort when I opened my closet, either by being too small and therefore a reminder of how my body has changed or by inspiring guilty feelings knowing I had wasted money on them. And, in the end, when I looked at the closet filled only with items I can and will wear, I felt lighter. I told my husband I was grateful he jumped on the Marie Kondo bandwagon.
This notion of evaluating things for how they make me feel has set me on a new path. What if I took a critical look at my life and assessed what areas are bringing me joy and commit myself more fully to those? Wouldn’t my joy exponentially increase if I said goodbye to obligations I accepted long ago when they fit me but which no longer make me happy? Could I eliminate some bad habits, like playing Toy Blast on my phone when I need to get out of my brain, and make space for activities that foster growth rather provide mindless escape? What if I off-loaded some limiting thoughts that arose as a necessary protection mechanism but that now only chain me to an outdated version of myself? If removing items from my closet made space for mental tranquility, what were the possibilities if I examined the people and relationships in my life? I could start by reducing my social media footprint. From Facebook I could drop those who aren’t in my life in any substantive way, people whose posts and comments don’t align with the life I want for myself. Through that process, I would gain greater understanding of what is valuable to me and then I could consider the personal relationships in my life. Which ones make me better and more joyful? Which ones support and encourage and which ones frustrate, sadden, and tether me to past negativity? Where can I find peace and space without judgement by acknowledging my gratitude to people and situations I’ve outgrown and then taking a deep breath and moving forward purposefully without them?
“Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.” ~ Marie Kondo
I’ll be honest. I’m nervous about undertaking this gargantuan mental and emotional cleanse. Tidying my house is a safe undertaking. Tidying my head space is discomfiting. But, like every other life on this planet, I am daily running down the clock. I can either let go of what doesn’t serve me or I can spend whatever time I have left in this beautiful world being dragged behind it like a water skier who has fallen yet hasn’t realized it’s time to let go of the tow line. It takes a special kind of stupid to keep repeatedly making the same mistakes. So, I’m letting go of what has been dragging me. I’m going to go KonMari on my life so I can wrap my arms around better things.
Dyslexia. For most of my life, the word conjured in me a sense of doom. Like so many people, I imagined a dyslexic person would be sentenced to a life without reading, a life without higher education, a life being thought of as a dummy. I never imagined dyslexia would touch my life. And then I tried to teach my sons to read.
Joe struggled with simple character reversals, consistently transposing b and d and 2 and 5. He couldn’t say his alphabet, always leaving letters out, skipping from p to v. His first grade teacher gave him a failing grade in reading during the first trimester that year, and I could not figure out how a child in first grade who was learning to read could be failing at it. We later discovered Joe had ADHD and mild dyslexia. Luke’s reading issues were worse than Joe’s. Luke not only transposed letters but couldn’t seem to stop confusing entire words, like what and that and the and who. When we tried to get him to read to us, he had every excuse imaginable. When he hit third grade, he began falling behind and we had him tested. Luke was diagnosed with moderate to severe dyslexia. We were told he needed to be taught to read in an entirely different way from his classmates and would either need to enter an intensive reading program for three months, which meant taking him out of school for that period, or be moved to a remedial school. I was crushed.
At that point, we made the decision to put both boys into a private school for children with learning disabilities. There they received not only reading instruction delivered in a way that allowed them to catch up to their peers, but also individualized math lessons and time with occupational and speech therapists. They began to blossom. We all began to see their strengths more than their struggles and started feeling hopeful about their prospects despite their dyslexia.
People often speak of their heroes: brave soldiers, firefighters, police officers, and selfless volunteers. I have never believed heroism belonged solely to people who save other’s lives or make immense sacrifices. I choose to find heroism in those who face adversity and rise above. My sons are my heroes. They started out behind their peers and have been working to catch up since birth. They’ve never given up. They’ve never accepted less for themselves. They’ve figured out how to embrace their strengths while working to overcome their struggles. It’s been a gift watching them develop and grow and push beyond the limitations inherent in the way their brains are set up. They inspire me.
Luke reads every day in his free time. He is not a fast reader, but he soldiers on. He challenges himself. He never quits. In seventh grade, he got 100 pages into self-chosen Mein Kampf before deciding he might not be mature enough for it yet. Last year in eighth grade Honors literature, he read White Fang, 1984, Watership Down, Of Mice and Men, as well as Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, and in his spare time he also read the 650-page biography of Steve Jobs and The Man in the High Castle. This summer he chose to read Homer’s The Iliad and then followed it with The Odyssey. On his Christmas list is a rare book about World War II written in 1948 by a Jewish soldier in the British army. His teacher this year assigned Bless Me, Ultima and then said she was hoping they could compare that to Like Water for Chocolate, which she hasn’t yet assigned but he has finished reading anyway. I have no idea how this is the same kid who fought us when we asked him to read Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.
A few weeks ago Luke said something I have been turning over in my mind since. He said, “Dyslexia is not a reason not to read. It is a reason to read.” And that sums up Luke. He’s Han Solo who says, “Never tell me the odds” or John Locke from television’s Lost when he exclaims, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do.” I’ve thought a lot about his attitude, about taking what is difficult and turning it to your advantage, about being told who you are and proving them all wrong. As a child, it’s easy to take what you are told about yourself and believe it. I know I did. But I think it’s time I start looking at life through Luke-colored lenses. Maybe all the things I was told I can’t do should become all the things I have to do. By my side will be the child who has shown me what it means to believe in yourself, naysayers be damned.
“I crashed down on the crossbar, and the pain was enough to make a shy, bald Buddhist reflect and plan a mass murder.” ~The Smiths
A little over a month ago, my youngest sister called to let me know life had dealt her an epic smackdown. She was reeling. I was reeling along with her. And so I packed a bag just barely under the 50-pound limit, said goodbye to my husband and teenage sons, boarded a flight to Hartford, and settled into her home for an extended 5-week stay, presumably to offer comfort and make her life a smidgen easier.
A little over a week into my stay, however, the Universe decided one epic smackdown was not enough. On an unusually rainy day in the midst of an unusually rainy week, I grabbed Julie’s jumbo umbrella and headed out to collect a package UPS had left in the wet driveway. I walked out the back door and was descending the wooden steps from the back patio when my flip-flops betrayed me. With unbelievable flourish and zero panache, I caught serious air in a feels-like-slow-motion wipeout that would have won the day on America’s Funniest Home Videos if I had been unfortunate enough to be caught on camera. I landed butt-side down on the unforgiving edge of a step, one arm wrenching backwards and loosening the umbrella from my grasp, the other slamming onto the step beside me. From there, I proceeded to slide down three more stairs on my already tender tush because, well, I’m just that good.
I gave birth to two sons through induced labor. I suffered through seven years with gallstone pain before finally acquiescing to surgery. I had an emergency appendectomy. I am familiar with pain. When I at last came to a halt on those wicked stairs, the pain was exquisite enough to take my breath away. I began to sob a pathetic whimpering cry reminiscent of The Man in Black after Count Rugen ratchets his torture device up in The Princess Bride. I sat for a couple minutes while my tears disappeared in the soaking rain and tried to determine if I dared to move. I wasn’t sure if I had broken anything. I was afraid if I shifted in any way I would feel worse.
A couple hours afterward, already sporting impressive swelling and dark bruising, I found myself lightheaded, nauseous, and experiencing cold sweats. I had my sister drive me to Urgent Care. After examining me, the PA told me I had only a severe bruise and significant hematoma. The fainting spells were likely vasovagal syncope responses to the trauma. The numbness I felt in my hands was due to swelling and the whiplash I sustained in the fall. All of this was good news. I simply had a severe minor injury, which was still nothing more than a minor injury. Sure, I blacked out again during the car ride home, sending my sister into a near panic, and later I had to crawl up the stairs to bed after another fainting episode, but it could have been much worse. I lucked out.
I’ve had a plethora of time resting my backside on ice and heat since then to reflect on my mishap. I keep coming back to the first Buddhist Noble Truth. In each life, sickness, loss, and death occur. They are inevitable. The Universe, God, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, insert your higher power here, doesn’t play favorites. The human condition is the great equalizer. No matter who you are, no matter what type of life you lead, you will suffer. I arrived in Connecticut on my high horse, prepared to sweep in, full of sunshine and light, to help my sister deal with the unwelcome unexpected. I ended up on my sorry ass at Urgent Care with my own unwelcome unexpected.
It’s not what happens to us but how we handle what happens to us that matters. I can’t avoid suffering, but I can reframe it and refuse to let it define me. Two weeks have passed since my digger on the stairs. I am still bruised. I have what appears to be a permanent dent in my hindquarters. It doesn’t matter. It’s part of my experience. It’s not what I envisioned, but any time I spend railing against what is wastes my time here.
Epic smackdowns are growth opportunities. They are an elbowing nudge from the Universe imploring us to open our eyes. I’m awake now.
“I am better than I was yesterday but not as good as I’ll be tomorrow.” ~Anonymous
Our oldest is coming to the end of his second track season. When he chose this sport last year (after I convinced him that coed track would allow him to spend more time with girls in shorts than boy’s baseball would), we were track virgins. We knew nothing about the sport save that the kids ran in circles and some jumped hurdles and some leapt into sand pits. As the season progressed, we began to understand the events, the lingo, and the skills necessary to be competitive in the sport. We learned that track is a race against yourself even as you race with others. The whole thing fascinated me. By the time this spring rolled around, we were honestly excited to drive an hour to sit for five hours to watch Joe run for no more than 7 minutes total. It’s official. We’re veteran track parents now.
Joe is a daddy long legs. The kid is 5’8″ tall with a 34″ inseam. His coach usually puts him in relays, as well as the 400 meter (once around the track) and the 800 meter. The 800 meter is considered the most difficult race because, unlike longer races, you don’t have time to pace yourself. You need to give it your all for both laps. It looks miserable. I don’t know how he does it, but he does.
Last week he told us that his goal for this season is to run the 400 meter in under a minute. He’s finished a few seconds off that mark a couple times now. This past weekend, I watched anxiously as he tried to break that minute goal. He almost always starts at the back of the pack and, bit by bit, as the other kids run out of steam Joe turns it on. He’s very incremental about it. He looks at the guy ahead of him and challenges himself to get ahead of just that one. Once that is done, he sets his sights on the next kid and so on. As he started down the last straightaway in the 400 last weekend, I noticed he kept looking around him, making sure no one was coming from behind. He finished well, with his new personal best time in the event, but still off his mark by .84. Less than one second now separates him from his season goal.
That night Steve and I told him that his goal is completely achievable at this next meet. Steve suggested wearing his cleats instead of traditional running shoes to shave off that final second. I told him to stop checking out the runners behind him, focus on his own lane, and keep his eyes on the finish line. That bad habit is slowing him down. There is no time for paying attention to others. Stop doing it and you will reach your goal. As the words rolled off my tongue, it occurred to me I should take my own damn advice.
The phrase you hear around the track is “Run your race” with the emphasis on your. And this is what I told Joe after he missed his goal by that fraction of a second. I have been repeating it to myself for days now. We all do what Joe does. We look around and make comparisons. We slow ourselves down by worrying about what someone else is doing or thinking or saying. And all it does is ruin our momentum and peace of mind.
Life is basically a giant track meet. What we have in common is that we’re all signed up to run. That is it. We come to the race with our different skills and baggage and attitudes and strengths. How we handle ourselves, how far, how focused, and how efficiently we go is up to us. We sabotage our own progress when we spend too much time worrying about what others are doing or looking back rather than focusing on the road ahead of us. Oh, the amount of time I have squandered perseverating over what others were doing or had done in comparison with my own efforts before I recently realized none of that matters. I could not have run anyone else’s race just as no one else is as uniquely qualified to run mine as I am.
Run your race, people. I wish you luck. Just stay out of my lane. I’ve got a personal record to beat tomorrow. And the next day. And the day after that.
This weekend I am doing something I have never done before. I am going to be the drummer for a band — live and on stage. When my drum instructor mentioned back in July that he was going to set up a performance for some of his students, my first reaction was to laugh, all the while thinking Oh hells no! When he asked me what I thought of the idea of performing, to my surprise, while my head was in a there’s-no-way-nuh-uh-you-can’t-make-me space, my mouth opened and spoke what I knew in my heart.
“It would probably be good for me.”
We chose a song for me to perform at the exhibition. And we were off.
Jeff showed me a preferred beat for B.B. King’s The Thrill Is Gone, a slightly stepped up version of a beat I know already. But the minuscule sixteenth beat that the “fancy” (as he called it) version added turned out to be Herculean in scope for my brain. I have only one other drum beat in my repertoire that includes a sixteenth beat hidden among the eighths. That beat took me four months to get under command. I’m still not proud of my fluidity on that one, but at least when Jeff tells me to play go-go beat I no longer stare at him blankly. Progress.
Learning drums is a formidable task. You are training four limbs to do four different things, all while operating from the same one brain. No brain wants to operate four limbs independently. Humans don’t work that way. To drum, you have to retrain your mind to get your body to do what it has no natural inclination to do. Learning to drum requires infinite patience with oneself. I am infinitely short on patience for all things, most especially myself.
I spent the last two months whittling away at the mental impediments to procure the fancy drum beat for this song, all the while continuing to learn the other elements so I would be ready in time. I was fully committed to performing that fancy beat. And I spent an hour to two a day for fourteen days after the boys started school again working on it with my new bass drum pedal so I could go into my lesson last Friday and show Jeff I had met my goal. And I really thought I had gotten there, or at least within striking distance of there.
I hadn’t. When I got to my lesson, I could not do the beat. My brain and my right foot, in complete defiance of every bit of progress I had made, flat out refused to pop in that extra note. Each time I missed it, I grew more anxious and more despondent. I had spent triple the amount of time I usually ferret away for drum practice to nail that beat, and in the clutch moment it had vanished. Sensing my frustration and with a week left before the scheduled performance, Jeff told me to scrap it. He told me to focus on the groove and let that beat go for now. I agreed that was the best decision, and we continued the lesson without it.
The moment I got to my car, though, I lost it. The tears gently fell and my head ran a steady stream of self-flagellation until I reached my son at school and pulled myself together. Perhaps drumming wasn’t for me? Maybe it was time to burn the sticks and drop the kit into the dumpster? Maybe this dog was too old for new tricks? A year into drumming, and I still sucked at it. I felt lower and more exposed than a naked mole rat. I was an imposter and soon an entire audience would know it. Fantastic.
I have spent the last week doing some additional brain retraining. I haven’t been focusing on that bass drum part. I have been getting my ego in check and my attitude on straight. Turns out this has been nearly as difficult as acquiring the fancy drum beat, but I am finally there. Drumming is supposed to be fun. It was always supposed to be fun. I knew it would be difficult and, to be honest, that is why it appealed to me. Drumming is about the sense of accomplishment when something clicks and becomes automatic and I am able to advance to the next goal. The trick lies in not focusing on what is left to learn and instead noticing how far I have come from the point a year ago when Jeff handed me a pair of his drumsticks and I sat behind a kit for the first time ever.
I am performing on Saturday for better or worse. I’ve decided to be excited about it. I’ve decided to remember that the best things in my life have always come at the end of my comfort zone when I have taken on something that scared the bejeezus out of me and that I wasn’t sure I could handle. I’ve decided to play and be present and let go and not expect anything but a three-minute-long life lesson. It’s about the journey. I’ll get that fancy beat eventually. Until then, I need to refocus on the ride because B.B. was wrong. The thrill is not gone and, knowing my determination, it won’t be gone until I am.
Back in February, at the bequest of my eldest son, I added the eclipse on August 21st to our family iCalendar. Then I forgot about it. In April, Joe mentioned he wanted to travel to Casper, four hours north of us, to view the eclipse in totality. He told me this eclipse was a huge deal and we should make a plan. I shrugged it off. August was months away. I told him I would get to it. By early June when I finally got to it, there were no rooms available. No rooms. Zero. In Casper. Wyoming. No camping spaces anywhere within the Wyoming area of totality either. On AirBnB, houses were renting for upwards of $1k per night with a two-night minimum. I thought I was in a parallel universe. This is a state where you can travel for hours and see more pronghorn than people. Joe enjoyed a hearty I told you so, and I ate crow and dug out Plan B.
So on August 21st, we awoke in Nebraska. Through ludicrous amounts of searching, I managed to discover a spot within the Nebraska area of totality to park our rPod trailer for a bona fide, eclipse-mania bargain of $50 a night (two night minimum, of course). We spent the previous night camped in a grassy field in the Morrill County Fairgrounds in Bridgeport with about fifty other families who also had put off nailing down an eclipse plan until the last possible moment. These likeminded procrastinators were my eclipse tribe, and we were poised to use our verified, paper, solar-eclipse glasses to see our magnificent star blotted out momentarily by our only satellite. We lucked out. The morning fog had burned off, and the Nebraska sky was clear, blue, and ready to oblige us with an unobstructed view.
I struggle for sufficient words to describe what I felt as the moon eclipsed the sun. As a family we had made a conscious determination to spend our minute seven seconds of totality present in the moment and not absorbed with the misguided notion we could capture and catalog this singular experience with an iPhone. When the moon made midday in Nebraska into dusk and exposed me to a 360-degree sunset, I exclaimed to myself (but somehow loudly enough for my family to remember): This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. It was incomparable. I could not hold back the tears.
I recount this personal tale not because I felt the world needed yet another #solareclipse2017 story, but because I realized on our way home from Nebraska that an older version of me, a Justine 1.0, would have missed the experience of totality. Being ever realistic and focused on the big picture, I would have done what many Denverites did. After finding lodging completely booked and reading road signs warning of high traffic and news articles advising travelers to bring extra cash, extra food and water, and emergency gas cans because of the unprecedented amount of day travelers expected to make the trek, I would have cut my losses and stayed home. I would have decided it wasn’t worth the risk or the expense or the vacation day hubby would take or the potential 8-12 additional travel hours in endless traffic or the missed first day of school for the boys. I would have determined that 93% of an eclipse was close enough. I would have told myself I would catch the next total eclipse in 2024. And I would have shared all those same rationalizations with my son in lieu of an apology for making him miss something he had been begging to see. I would have told him he had an entire lifetime to catch one later.
But I am no longer Justine 1.0. I am Justine 2.0. Because of my sons, I am daily aware how short life is and how quickly time goes. I know you don’t always have a second shot, a do over, another day. I have learned sometimes if your intuition tells you something might be important, you have to take a leap. You have to decide the adventure is worth it. You have to make it a priority. You have to tell the myriad excuses to talk to the hand. We left the house Sunday night hoping to see a total eclipse, but knowing we might not. We discussed all the things that could go wrong, including rainy skies, running out of gas, and wasting hours in traffic to see not much more than we could have seen from our yard. We decided that at the very least we’d come out of this with an amusing anecdote of a crazy family trip. At most we would fulfill our expectations and maybe even be surprised by something greater.
We weren’t disappointed. Despite the glitch that left us scrambling for lodging at the last minute, Justine 2.0 proved a definite improvement over the earlier version. I’m starting to suspect that Justine 2.5, currently under development, will be even faster on the uptake.
You have to pay attention because, if you don’t, you will miss the best things.
My mind has been parsing the notion of loss lately. I’m not talking only about losing a person or pet to disease or losing my children as they grow and become their own people, although these two particular losses have been weighing heavily on my heart recently. I’m also talking about losing things like my hair or the bottle of peppermint oil I had in my hand a minute ago or the astounding piece of wisdom I was about to share but which vaporized before I could pry it from my brain. I seem to be losing everything these days.
When the universe persists in presenting me with opportunities for growth, eventually I catch on to the pattern. And the current rate at which I have been facing loss has given rise to non-stop mulling about the loss and what loss even is and where it comes from and how I can best deal with it in the moment and how to survive it long-term and what I can learn from it to help me along my path. Searching for meaning is what I do as a double Gemini.
Buddhism teaches that suffering is a constant condition of the human experience, and our inability to deal with all types of suffering (from physical pain to the pain of persistent change to the pervasive conditioning that finds us repeating the same negative behaviors from which we need to escape) keeps us from experiencing true happiness. If you are born, you will suffer and you will die. It’s how we choose to approach suffering that determines the quality of life before we leave.
Loss is painful because we have a misguided notion we have some right to claim ownership. We don’t. We don’t own our bodies, we occupy them. We can’t keep them from aging or changing. We may be able to lessen the visible effects of our unhealthy behaviors and the constant pull of gravity and genetics, but we cannot stop our march towards death or the visible proof of that continual process. We don’t own others. They too have a timeline and will move through this life on their own path. Our inability to accept that life is transitory and that the people in our lives are as impermanent as we are creates a path to misery because loss of life is unavoidable. In the poignant words of Walter White, “Every life comes with a death sentence.” We don’t even own items we own. A burglar can take my computer. An auto accident can wreck my car. A fire can incinerate my home and everything inside it. And there is very little I can do about any of it, really.
This morning I looked out my bedroom window into the park-like backyard I am fortunate enough to enjoy. There were finches and nuthatches clinging to the feeder. Squirrels chasing each other around the tree trunk. A mouse scurrying away with a fallen bit of feed corn. A small bunny gnawing a dandelion. This is not the same bunny that inhabited our yard before (I will never forget you, wherever you are, Wobble Bunny), yet our yard still has a bunny. The dead squirrel we found last week has been replaced by another squirrel happy to stake his claim. The players are different but the play is the same. This, in a nutshell, is life.
Loss is certain. Change is inexorable. Pain is compulsory. How we approach and what we take from these guarantees is a choice. My children are almost grown, and I can wallow in sadness about their impending departure or I can appreciate them now. People I love will move on. My hair will get thinner. Items I have lost may show up eventually or they may not. But squandering time perseverating about the loss of people or belongings I could never stake claim to in the first place is useless. I am going to practice appreciating life and its players now. So, I am going to close up my computer, drag my sons out of their basement cave, and take them outside to appreciate the carousel of revolving life in our yard because the only loss I can avoid is a wasted opportunity to own the fullness of this moment just as it is.