Personal Growth

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.

The Exhortation Proclamation

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The peacock that sits on my desk to remind me to display my feathers

Once upon a time, in the days before voicemail or texting or the Internet, I kept a box filled with handwritten letters from boyfriends. The box was inked red and white and once contained a small, boombox from Radio Shack that played my New Wave cassette tapes. The empty box became the depository for letters I received from boys, and it housed them safely until I needed a walk down memory lane or a reminder that I was worthy of love. Some of its contents were pages long, penned in perfect cursive and detailing elaborate stories as if letters written by a soldier during war time to his sweetheart back home. Some pages were filled with song lyrics or poems. Some were hastily scrawled notes on scrap paper recalling someone came by to see me. Some were actual store-bought cards with a sweet handwritten sentiment inside. And some were missives written from all the way across country that arrived weekly in the mail because writing was far less expensive than long distance phone calls and miraculously made the 1500 mile separation seem shorter. As a collection, those letters told a story of a young woman I didn’t recognize, a young woman who somehow garnered attention she didn’t understand.

When I became engaged to my husband and we were in the process of moving my things into his house, he asked me to get rid of the box. In his youthful insecurity, he felt there was no need for me to keep letters from old boyfriends; after all, he was my future. And in my youthful insecurity, I decided to acquiesce rather than risk a fight over a past that was long gone and could not be recovered. At 26, I had no idea tossing that box into the dumpster that sunny afternoon would be one of my only regrets and, at 47, my husband feels miserable for having asked me to do so. We live, we learn.

Even though that box and its beautiful expressions of youth were buried in a landfill in 1994, pieces of those penned creations had been read often enough they were indelibly etched into my memory. One sentence from one letter in particular struck a chord.

“If you came across a beautiful peacock with its feathers kept tightly closed, exposing their brilliant iridescence to no one, would you not exhort it to do so?” 

He had written it while sitting at the main desk in the University Memorial Center on the University of Colorado campus during the Odyssey of the Mind conference, noting with humor that the youth in the competition might be better termed the “oddities of the mind.” He had been trying to coax me out of my shell, and I had been railing against the notion that I even was in a shell. He was an incredibly bright, friendly, funny, and confident young man, and I thought he was the greatest thing since the invention of the Sony Walkman (look it up, kids). That he liked me enough to spend any time with me was an anomaly. Yet, he sat there, writing this note to try to convince me of my worth while I sat in complete denial and thought to myself with naive pride, “I know damn well what I am worth and there is nothing wrong with me the way I am so stop telling me how to be.”

As I continue to inch my way towards my fifty year milestone, I find myself drawn once again to that unforgettable sentence. It has taken me almost thirty years to understand that young man was attempting to hold a mirror up to me, to force me to look into it, to see how much I had going for me, and to help me understand what I was missing. Alas, I was not ready for that message then. Hell. Even though his sentence runs through my brain on a loop these days, I’m still not sure I’m ready to hear it. I spent so long being afraid of failure that I couldn’t even fathom reaching for success. It’s a sobering thought made worse by the current understanding that my inability to hear what he was saying cost me decades of ignorant struggle against myself. Some of us are slow learners, indeed.

Still…I’ve been thinking about the peacock I’ve been hiding and I’ve been working on relaxing those feathers a bit, fanning them out a little at a time before pulling them back in to keep them safe. Every time I sit down to practice my drums, they open. Every time I allow myself to entertain the notion that I could write a book, they unfold a bit more. When I think about going back to college and pursuing a new career, I feel them display a little more. And each time the sunlight hits them, I come to becoming the me I was destined to be before I learned to be fearful instead. With each flash of their brilliance, I get more encouragement from those around me and I warm to the notion maybe there is something to me worth appreciating.

So, if you ever come across a stubborn peacock who is acting like a chicken, please write them a letter and exhort them to embrace and display their beauty. You never know when those words might be just the thing needed to open their eyes to their own possibility — even if it takes them nearly thirty years to get there.

 

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.

 

 

Fired Up, Ready To Go, And Not Ready To Make Nice

 

fullsizerenderI have known since November 12th what I would be doing tomorrow. Since the moment I learned there would be a peaceful march for women’s rights the day after the inauguration, I knew where I was heading. I will be walking through downtown Denver with my friends and hopefully tens of thousands of other people who might not be friends yet but are comrades in arms.

Since election night and on the way to this day, a funny thing happened to me. I have found some traction. For a while, I had been slipping around, wanting to experience some gains in self-esteem and to make some forward progress but not having any luck. I’d been reading books, talking to a counselor, and doing some emotional work around that goal, but I hadn’t made much of a dent. It was a continual case of one step forward and two steps back. But in thinking about and mentally preparing myself for this march tomorrow, something at long last clicked. Years ago when reality television was novel and I watched The Apprentice, I never could have imagined that Donald Trump would be a catalyst for my personal growth.

I’ve heard ad nauseam that those of us whose candidate lost on election night just really need to get over it and move on. We need to embrace the new administration and give them a chance. My father said yesterday that I have no reason to put the cart before the horse or jump the gun on what might happen, no matter how things appear to be shaping up at this time. But, if I recall correctly, there were deeply concerned conservatives after Obama’s election and re-election, and they didn’t sit idly by and keep their mouths shut for the sake of unifying our nation. There were protests, marches, and loads of signs with photos of Obama and catchy phrases like “Undocumented Worker”or “The zoo has an African lion and the White House has a lyin’ African.” So, my dear conservative friends, please excuse me if I fail to take heed as you tell me to suck it up and deal with my loss as your party so gracefully did when Obama was elected twice.

Still, even with my myriad concerns about the newly inaugurated president and his chosen cabinet, my march tomorrow is not entirely about what you might think. It’s not about losing the election or being angry how that came about. It’s not about refusing to move on and pouting like a big baby, as I’ve been accused. And it is not about delegitimizing our new president. (I will leave that in his capable hands.) My march tomorrow is about legitimizing myself and validating my beliefs and my opinions through my actions. I spent the first 48 years of my life being a “good girl” and keeping my mouth shut. I grew up being told children should be seen and not heard. I learned early not to rock the boat, to be grateful and keep my problems to myself, never to trouble anyone, and not to think I was a big deal. And that is how I have carried on during what I hope is just the first half of my life, as if nothing I thought, said, or did was important or necessary.

Early this morning, I saw this video and it reinforced my desire to move forward boldly with belief in myself. Tomorrow I usher in a new phase in my life. Tomorrow I make my existence felt. Tomorrow I speak my mind publicly because I believe what I have to say is valuable and important even if others don’t appreciate or agree with it. Tomorrow I prove to myself that my views on love, patriotism, and our world matter, and that I matter too. I can channel the energy, strength, and activism of the suffragettes and merge my voice with theirs as we together continue our fight for equality. Although I am part of something much larger than myself tomorrow and every day, what I do matters for something. I am fired up and ready to go, and I am sure as hell not ready to make nice anymore.

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.

It’s In The Stars

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Chamberlin Observatory at night

Our oldest son chose for his elective this past quarter an astronomy class. Faced with the athletic, artistic, or intellectual, he will nearly always choose the intellectual. I was thrilled when he told me his choice because I too am fascinated by space. As an English major at the University of Colorado, while most of my friends chose Geology for their science requirement, I elected to take three semesters of astronomy…two towards my credit requirement and an extra, upper level course (pass-fail, mind you, because math is not my strong suit) for my own intellectual curiosity.

Joe, being Joe, has spent the entire quarter memorizing facts and statistics about the planets and their moons. Because astronomy is his last class of the day, he often spends our drive home burying me in astronomical facts about the size of planets and the death of stars. Yesterday, though, on our way home he casually mentioned that there was a field trip to the observatory that he might attend because, well, he hadn’t been keeping up on his nightly sky observations and, well, he could get credit in place of the work he hadn’t completed if he spent two hours at the observatory Thursday night.

He told me he wanted to use the large telescope, but he also admitted that he would really rather stay home and binge watch Netflix. I told him it was his choice. It’s his grade and his transcript, after all, and we made the decision to let him be in charge of his fate starting with his freshman year. He’s 15 and we’re not going to babysit him and his school responsibilities. I don’t check the online grade book. I don’t know when his assignments are due. We are not choosing his college for him if he decides to attend college. And I will not be one of those parents calling his professors to ask them for assignment extensions for my son.

Tonight at dinner he seemed committed to going and asked if we would drive him to Observatory Park. On the way there, though, he began lamenting that he hadn’t finished his homework earlier in the week and put himself in the predicament of having to give up two hours of free time on a school night for more school-related work. It was mostly cloudy, light flurries falling on and off all evening, so there might not be much to see, which meant two hours sitting in the observatory listening to lectures without having the occasion to use the telescope at all. The homework assignment didn’t even count for that much. There were myriad reasons not to go. He was counting them off.

We arrived a bit early and sat in the idling car while we waited to see what he would do. As a couple cars opened their doors and spilled their student contents onto the sidewalk, we suggested that he could hop out and catch up with his classmates if he didn’t want to go in alone. He paused for a while, deliberating. Finally, the car door opened and from the back seat we heard, “I really don’t want to do this, but I need the credit.” And with that, he stepped out, closed the door behind him, and walked away, only looking back towards us once before disappearing into the dark park along with the other teenagers.

Parenting is hard. You want your child become successful. You think you might know the best way to make that happen for them. The truth is that the most important thing you can do is let them make their own choices and mistakes, while you sit quietly with your fingers crossed hoping you gave them the right tools for the task. Tonight as Joe loped towards the observatory, I felt fairly confident about his chances of becoming a successful adult. He’s figured out the toughest part about it already: sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do even when you really don’t want to do it. I might be speaking too soon, but I suspect he’s going to make a fine adult. It seems to be in his stars.