Mindfulness

Sorry, B.B. — The Thrill Is Not Gone Yet

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Trying to overcome negativity while wearing a shirt that says NOPE.  Me in a nutshell.

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.

Justine 2.0 Eclipses The Original

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Our Nebraska eclipse home

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 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.

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Rocking their eclipse glasses waiting for totality

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As midday became night

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.

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The one photo I took during totality that proves you can’t capture an experience with an iPhone

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.

The Permanence of Impermanence

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Saw this pink flamingo slowly dying on the street this morning. Wonder if someone is missing it? 

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.

The Inchworm in the 200 Meter

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On your mark

Our oldest son, a high school freshman, joined the track team last month. For most people, having their child participate in an extra-curricular sport is no big deal. But our kids, while not being completely unusual (well, except for Joe’s inexplicable obsession with K-pop), have struggled with sports. We provided and paid plenty for opportunities in activities like swimming, baseball, soccer, and golf, but nothing has stuck. I decided to accept that they were geeks, and sports were not their passion.

As winter gave way to spring this year, Joe expressed an interest in joining either baseball or track. We had been trying since the fall to steer Joe toward running for two reasons. First, he has these crazy long legs (he’s five inches shorter than his father right now but has the same inseam). Second, baseball requires mad hand-eye coordination while running requires, well, legs. We felt track would be a much better fit as a first sport for him, but no kid wants to be told what to do by his lame parents so he had been resistant. When he told me he was set on baseball, I gently reminded him that track is a co-ed sport where the uniforms are tank tops and short shorts. Ding. Ding. Ding. Winner, winner, chicken dinner! We were suddenly track parents.

I had no idea what that entailed, honestly. If I had known that track was going to require Saturday morning alarms set for 6 a.m. and meets in distant towns that ran from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. in unpredictable and often downright cold spring weather, I might have given baseball a second thought. Still, a couple weeks ago we headed out for his first track meet and got to be spectators as our child participated in something.

Joe is our little inchworm. With his ADHD and his sensory issues and learning disabilities, he’s been a bit behind the pack from the beginning. His growth and development in most areas has been slow, steadily moving an inch at a time while other kids leapt forward in great strides. Joe approached the meet with the laissez-faire attitude and lack of competitive spirit he’s always shown knowing himself to be that inchworm. He ran his three events and finished last in each heat. We decided to count our blessings as they were. He was attending daily practices, taking responsibility for his uniform and gear, talking to different students, and committing to weekend events that encroached on his precious free time. Those are impressive feats for a teenager whose typical weekend events include marathon texting sessions, non-stop You Tube video viewing, and competitive carbohydrate consumption.

Toward the end of the meet, a fellow teammate backed out of the Men’s 200 Meter. The coach dropped Joe into the event in his stead. We had planned on cutting out a bit early, but bellied up to the fence to witness his last race. The starting gun popped and he was off. It looked like we were headed for another participation-ribbon run but, as he rounded the last turn, something clicked. Maybe he was tired of finishing last. Maybe he just wanted to be done more quickly. But, for whatever reason, he turned it on. We watched and cheered as he passed two other runners to finish 6th out of 8. It might not seem like much, but to me it was everything. I was teary eyed. He blew me away. I could not have been more proud if he had placed first in the fastest heat against the best runners at the event. It didn’t matter. He had progressed before my eyes, and it was beautiful.

After that race, I caught up with him. He was tired, but I had to ask. What was behind the change in that last 100 meters in his last race at the end of a long day? What was up with the afterburners? He told me he just decided to push himself and see what happened. He had his answer. His swagger had increased tenfold. He had found his motivation. Running with people is fun. Passing people every once in a while while doing it is more fun.

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Not in 8th anymore

Since that first meet, Joe has made continual improvements. His coaches have him working on his stride and pacing. He’s learning to use his upper body to add momentum. He’s using the starting blocks to his best advantage. He’s finished heats in second place, not eighth, and he’s done well enough to advance to more difficult heats where he is now finishing in the middle of the pack. My kid, who a few weeks ago told me he would finish out the season but didn’t think this was his thing, told me yesterday that he may do track and cross-country next year. I smiled inside but didn’t let on because, well, I wasn’t born yesterday and am not stupid.

Full disclosure. There have been times in Joe’s almost sixteen years when I wished he would hurry up and reach his stride. When would our inchworm start moving a little more quickly? I reasoned that at some point he would have to go at breakneck speed to catch up. Well, he’s running now, but he’s still an inchworm. He’s making incremental gains in his own time on his own schedule because an inchworm moves the only way he can, the way he does it best, slowly. He’ll never be a jackrabbit or a cheetah. It’s not his deal. I’ll never be able to speed Joe up to reach the milestones I had met by his age. It’s not happening. Instead, he’s teaching me to slow down, to be patient, and to trust that everything will work out as it should. I believe the world gives you what you need. I’ve spent most of my life running around without purpose in large circles and getting nowhere. It took an inchworm who runs track to show me how to gain ground with intention.

We Are All Wobble Bunny

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“The wise bunny knows to live in the world that is rather than the world that should be.” ~Bunny Buddhism

Wobble Bunny lives in our yard. I first discovered him a couple weeks ago. I glanced out the bedroom window and there he was, resting close to the fence near a hole I hadn’t previously noticed. I know that bunnies are bad for our lawn and our garden, but that has never stopped me from appreciating them. Not sure if it’s their skyscraper ears or their soulful round eyes or their puffy white tails that tug at my heart, but the bunnies speak to me, and so I have decided to let them do what they must to our yard in the name of survival.

Wobble Bunny is not like other bunnies we’ve shared our yard with before. As he munches in the grass, he often rolls over. It starts with a wobble and then he lists and rolls onto his side or back. At first I thought perhaps he has neurological issues or had gotten into something he shouldn’t have. Upon closer observation, however, I discovered he has an issue with his back left leg. It is weaker than it should be and this causes Wobble Bunny to lose his balance and topple over while sitting or lapse into a barrel roll as he hastily hops toward his hole to avoid danger. It’s simultaneously comical and heartbreaking. It’s an outward display of his vulnerability, and it just makes me adore him more.

I’ve lost hours observing Wobble Bunny. I never let the dog out until I am sure he is safely hiding under the neighbor’s shed or ours. When Ruby perches herself over his hole, her legs mindlessly dancing the doggy Charleston in excitement over a furry prey, I scold her and rein her in. I’m vigilant about protecting this wild bunny, not because I can save him or tame him, but because Wobble Bunny’s shaky existence is a metaphor for all humanity. We are all Wobble Bunny.

The First Noble Truth of Buddhism explains that life is suffering. This does not mean that life is a continual sufferfest. It isn’t. There are rises and falls, but we are constantly exposed to suffering. It begins at birth and continues as we get sick, age, lose loved ones, and don’t get what we hope for or want. It is an inescapable condition of life on this planet. We all suffer. Learning to acknowledge, accept, endure, and alleviate our own suffering (and the suffering of others) is the way to a peaceful heart. It’s a bitch of an obstacle course to run.

Wobble Bunny is my daily Buddhist meditation. There he is. Hopping through his life the only way he knows how, with wobbles and tumbles and missteps. He goes on falling and getting up over and over again because he must. He knows no other way. I wish I could take away his suffering and his weakness. I can’t. But in watching out for him, in doing what I can to make his life less stressful and insecure, I make my own life better.

“My responsibility it not only to other bunnies. It is to all creatures everywhere.” ~Bunny Buddhism

Wobble Bunny reminds me daily to let go of negative thoughts, to be compassionate to other creatures, and to face suffering for what it is…a given. I can’t eliminate all the undesirable conditions, but I can learn to negotiate the minefield with greater skill.

We are all wobbly bunnies. Practicing acceptance and patience around that knowledge is the greatest gift we can give the world.

 

 

More Alike, My Friends

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With all the ruckus that is going on in our country right now, with all the division and pettiness and anger and bitterness and resentment and finger-pointing and general nastiness floating around on social media, I thought I would just leave this here today as a reminder of what the truth is.

HUMAN FAMILY by Maya Angelou

I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.

The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.

I’ve sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I’ve seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.

I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I’ve not seen any two
who really were the same.

Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.

We love and lose in China,
we weep on England’s moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we’re the same.

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

Source: http://www.familyfriendpoems.com/poem/human-family-by-maya-angelou

We Won’t Go Back…To Email Forwards

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We Won’t Go Back is the mindset I am working from these days. Forward motion only. 

For the past couple months, there has been a whirlwind of activity in my little brain. I’ve had a lot to think about. I can trace the upheaval to November 9th, the day I moved from the backseat to the driver’s seat in anticipation of some unsettling revisions to life as I have known it over the past eight years. During the past two months, I’ve done a lot of self-reflection, some changing of habits, and a bit of reaching beyond my comfort zone. The universe, it seems, is hell-bent on providing me with growth opportunities. Another one of those opportunities knocked on my door two nights ago.

My father sent me and my sisters a forwarded email message about Kellyanne Conway entitled Trump’s Campaign Manager Kellyanne Conway Reveals How Faith In Jesus Led To Huge Success. In his comment on the forwarded message, he stated that Kellyanne is just like his three daughters, “educated, working diligently, family centered, and lovely.” While the message began with a comment that the attached message was “not political,” the forward outlined Kellyanne’s accomplishments and her role in conservative politics and many times invoked her Christian faith and her pro-life views. I assume a conservative Christian would read the message and get a boatload of warm fuzzies about Kellyanne and her new role in the White House as counselor to the president.

Here’s the thing about email forwards. It helps if you know your audience before you hit send. A one-sided religious or political message sent to a likeminded person may be appreciated, but the same message sent to someone with differing views may feel at best didactic and at worst totally out-of-line and heavy-handed. In this case, my father didn’t consider his audience. He sent a message in praise of Kellyanne Conway, a religious, conservative, pro-life advocate, to his atheist, liberal, pro-choice daughter. While as a rule I take all religious and political email forwards from my dad and relegate them immediately to the Trash folder to avoid conflict, this time something hit me. I can’t expect my father to know his audience when to avoid uncomfortable conversations with him I’ve not been explicit about who I am, what I believe, and what I am willing to stand for. I’ve allowed him to think I agree with him by not disagreeing with him. I’ve been complicit by accepting the forwards and not presenting my beliefs in contrast.

I know my father meant no disrespect by sharing that message with me. I know he felt he was paying me a compliment. He could only believe that, though, by not knowing me at all. So, last night, at the ripe old age of almost 49, I hit reply and shared my views with my father unabashedly for the first time ever. I explained why I am pro-choice and why I support Planned Parenthood, and why, while I can appreciate all Ms. Conway has achieved in her life despite her personal struggles (we all have them), I don’t appreciate his email forwards about religion, politics, or the pro-life movement. I reminded him I have been a functioning adult for thirty years now and, as such, possess my own beliefs, which don’t happen to coincide with his. I told him I don’t share email forwards supporting my views with him because I respect that he has the right to seek his own truth. I also mentioned that I know he meant no harm or disrespect to me, even though my ego felt it.

Our country is deeply divided. There is rancor everywhere you turn. I would like to see us move to a place where discussion is possible, but that type of discussion is never going to be possible unless we as a nation are 1) brave enough to share our views openly, 2) comfortable enough with others to try to understand where they are coming from and consider the points they are making, and 3) willing to acquiesce on some of our stances to meet in the middle somewhere. At some point, we decided that compromise is weak and accepting less than 100% of what we want undermines the legitimacy of our beliefs. We are a nation of contrasts. We can’t possibly all get what we want. Compromise is crucial. It is democracy at work.

Last night I took my first step towards improving the conversations in my life. I was brave enough share my views rather than remain silent to preserve a false peace while my insides roiled with dissent. My second step will come this weekend when I participate in the Women’s March on Denver with my family in support of Planned Parenthood. I am going to continue to work on my mindfulness skills so I am better equipped to take deep breaths and enter into crucial open dialogue with people of differing viewpoints. I am going to work towards practicing compassion for others when they test my open-mindedness and poke me with their sticks of self-righteous certainty. It’s going to be a process but, then, all good things are.