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.
I was flipping through my phone yesterday morning when a news story caught my eye. I know you saw it too. The random backfiring of a motorcycle in New York City caused a panic and sent hundreds of people running for cover, fearing they were being fired upon. Last weekend’s mass shootings, added to the unacceptably long list of mass shootings already logged, have us all on edge. We’ve become like soldiers suffering from PTSD, and most of us are suffering from it without having experienced a real-time mass shooting situation. We’re suffering from empathetic PTSD, expecting we are the next victim. We’re on high alert constantly. Everything we see and everything we hear is cause for panic.
We feel unsafe. Understandably so. There have been shootings at schools, churches, malls, restaurants, movie theaters, grocery stores, and concerts. There is not a location in our nation where you can consider yourself safe from gun violence. Through constant connection to news via our devices and social media, we have been conditioned to anticipate catastrophe.
Like most, I’ve struggled to keep my head on straight despite the barrage of negative news. I’ve worked hard to teach our sons by example that a life lived through fear is no life at all. Our oldest hasn’t been comfortable in a movie theater since the July 2008 shooting in Aurora, Colorado, but we still take him to movies. We have to. Life is filled with risk. How will he learn to live with his discomfort if we give it a foothold? Where do we end up when we allow the possibility of gun violence to stop us from taking full advantage of the freedom our country allows?
I found this chart to help my sons put things in perspective. The possibility of something bad happening is omnipresent. The probability, however, is not what we think it is.
Yes. You could become the victim of gun violence, but that potential is far less than the potential of falling victim to an accident or a prevalent disease. So, do you hole up in your home, hoping to stay “safe” (whatever that means) or do you live your life? I’m not implying these statistics aren’t alarming. They are. We just need to shift our focus away from catastrophe and onto reality. Heart disease is the most likely scenario for most Americans, but it probably doesn’t stop us from eating foods we shouldn’t or sitting on the couch when we could be getting some exercise. We weigh the overall odds and make a choice. We decide the pleasure of eating the cheese fries is worth the risk of artery damage. We tell ourselves, you gotta live, right? And we are right.
Shit happens. No amount of wishing shit didn’t happen is going to change the fact that it does. Can we do something about gun violence in the United States? I’d like to think so, but while we struggle to climb this Everest-level problem we can make small changes that will positively impact our lives now. We need to stop smothering ourselves in every detail of every depressing news story and turn our minds to what matters, what we can control, and what positivity we can foster. Delete the news apps (or at least silence the constant notification barrage) and withdraw intentionally from the things that make us anxious. It won’t change the reality, but the distance we create might make us sleep a little easier. It’s not about burying our heads in the sand. It’s about choosing to place our energy on positivity in the present rather than borrowing trouble from a future we cannot control.
Finding Nemo was released in 2003, when we had a 2 year old and a newborn. It was the first Pixar DVD we purchased for our sons. I couldn’t tell you precisely how many times I’ve seen it, but it’s a lot. As our sons have grown and started spreading their wings, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on that movie, the constant soundtrack to my sons’ young lives, thinking of poor, anxiety-ridden Marlin who in his fervor to avoid losing his son causes that exact thing. It’s easy to let negative past experiences ruin current positive ones.
I understand why the folks in Times Square started running when they heard the backfire. I probably would have joined them. It was a knee-jerk reaction fomented by 24/7 coverage of our mass shooting nightmares. We’re conditioned to expect the worst. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could consciously choose to return to a time when a motorcycle backfire might cause us to startle, maybe quicken our pulse rate a bit because of the unexpected loud noise, but that is where it would end? Perhaps as a collective we could decide to be less like fearful, negative Marlin and more like glass-is-half-full Dory by engaging in some short-term memory loss. It’s time we stop terrorizing ourselves by focusing on worst case scenarios. If we’re going to focus on something, let’s focus on good and watch it expand.
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.
“I’m not a mess but a deeply feeling person in a messy world. I explain that now, when someone asks me why I cry so often, I say, ‘For the same reason I laugh so often–because I’m paying attention.’ I tell them that we can choose to be perfect and admired or to be real and loved. We must decide.” ~Glennon Doyle
On Tuesday night, minutes before we were scheduled to leave for our son’s high school Cross-Country Awards Banquet, I discovered our African dwarf frog belly up on the rocks at the bottom of his aquarium home. Although he (I decided years ago he was a he without any biological proof) hadn’t been acting himself for weeks and I had suspected this was coming, the knowledge he was gone left me with a frog-shaped hole in my heart where he had escaped like a cartoon character busting through a wall and leaving only his outline.
Nine years ago, as a heart bandaid after a life-scarring debacle in which my son and I unsuccessfully attempted to raise a tadpole into frogdom, I purchased from Brookstone (don’t ask) four fully grown aquatic frogs in small habitats. Each of my young sons would have two critters to care for. That was the plan, anyway. Although the boys named them, Padme and Anakin and Swimmy and Splashy, we all know how the story goes. I fed them. I cleaned their watery homes, bought their food, and looked for new plants for their decor. They were mine in all their froggy glory from the beginning because I had killed their tadpole and these were my mea culpa. Still, I told the boys that these frogs were temporary, short-lived pets and they needed to prepare themselves for that.
Padme, like her Star Wars character, was the first to perish that first year she moved in. About a year later, Swimmy and Anakin died within a few weeks of each other. I figured the last holdout wouldn’t last much longer on his own and I would be free of the stigma of the tadpole catastrophe and the work of the frog experiment. Splashy, who was now referred to by the unfortunate sobriquet Foggy Foo, however, continued to thrive. Research told me most most aquatic dwarf frogs lived less than five years in captivity. After six years, I began to suspect Foggy Foo was an anomaly.
Foggy and I worked out a marvelous relationship over the years. He recognized my voice and would emerge from his house when I called him. He did not do this for anyone else. He would swim to the top to eat when I fed him and had on occasion eaten from my hand. I would often pause during my day to check on him. I enjoyed watching him and listened for his muffled songs. We had a bond. He was my little guy. I loved him as much as any human can love an amphibian, although definitely not in the same way Sally Hawkins loves her amphibian in The Shape of Water.
My heart broke a little the night he left us. Although I compartmentalized the loss until after the awards banquet, when we got home I carefully lifted him via fish net from the bottom of the tank and brought him upstairs to the main floor commode. I gathered my men, gently deposited Foggy’s lifeless form into the bowl, and we said a few words about our deceased friend. Float in peace, we told him as I depressed the high-flow option on the toilet and flushed him with great flourish to his final resting place.
I won’t lie. I shed a few tears Tuesday night. And, since then, I’ve shed a few more. I am verklempt thinking about him now. The space on the counter he occupied for years is desolate, and I suspect the frog-shaped hole in my heart is there to stay. Perhaps it seems silly to mourn a tiny frog who existed on the periphery of our lives, but the smallest things can hold within them the deepest of life’s lessons. That frog was a link to the days when my boys were young, noisy whirlwinds who made our house reverberate with life. With Foggy’s passing, I can see that my little guys are also gone, replaced by hirsute young men with booming voices and earbuds that render me silent. Letting go of Foggy is an acknowledgment that soon my sons will leave Joe- and Luke-shaped holes in my heart as they also escape my world. It sucks and it’s worth a few tears.
I am working on the Buddhist notion of patient acceptance, knowing that the most important thing I can do for myself in this life is to welcome what is without wanting to change it. This is much easier said than done. Joe and I will begin touring colleges next week, and I have no idea how we got here. But life is messy and emotional and difficult, full of reasons to laugh and cry. So, I will float on and be in what is and cry when I need to and laugh when I can because I am paying attention. I will practice my patient acceptance so I too can float in peace someday.
“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.
The other day I was sitting in the car with my youngest while we waited for the high school to let out. I glanced over at Luke who, per usual, was already busy scribbling responses in a vocabulary notebook. As he worked diligently to get ahead on his homework for the evening, my eyes were drawn to his hand. I don’t normally notice the boys while they are ensconced in their school work. But, sitting in the car without much to amuse myself, I got curious to see what he was working on. As I looked over, this is what caught my eye.
Luke has one of the most unique ways of holding a writing implement I have ever seen. This visual sent me tripping down memory lane, thinking of all the teachers and aides and tutors who were flummoxed by it. It was labeled maladaptive. When he was young and spent hours drawing and coloring, his grip constantly broke crayons. Beginning in preschool, teachers pointed it out as if it made him a freak, the Hunchback of Handwriting. I was told he’d never be able to get through school with that grip. His hand would tire. His writing would be illegible. Quelle horreur! Occupational therapists spent hours working with him to redirect it, to bring it in line with what is considered “normal.” For my part, I consistently deferred to their assessment that the situation was untenable and needed to be corrected because, well, what did I know? I was no expert. So Luke continued to do therapy and classroom work and tutor time in an effort to fix it, even though he didn’t see it as broken. In the end, no matter the effort that went into ameliorating it, he reverted back to what was natural for him.
Eventually, I found a reason to stop thinking about his odd pencil grip. When his third grade teacher mentioned it in our first conference with her, I told her we really could not care less. It was a non-issue. She looked at me like I had three heads and rattled off the reasons I’d heard myriad times as to why this was, in fact, a huge deal. I slid his psychoeducational evaluation across the desk and told her improving our dyslexic son’s reading skills was our only focus. Nothing like a bigger problem to make a smaller problem diminish. His pencil grip and handwriting blipped off the radar screen. It became nothing more than an extension of Luke’s character: creative, unbridled, and charmingly quirky. Nothing wrong with that.
Years later, I one day noticed my own pencil grip. It also would be considered maladaptive. It too would make preschool teachers cringe. Maybe if I’d considered it sooner, I could have saved Luke all the hassle of hours in occupational therapy, knowing I’d survived school and life with my own weird grip. Like mother, like son? Sorry, buddy.
The little things aren’t always the big things we imagine them to be. Our fruitless attempts to remediate Luke’s pencil grasp taught me to choose my parenting battles more wisely in the future, to listen to experts but to weigh their advice against the bigger picture and my own gut feelings. With time and practice with my Little-Miss-Rule-Follower self, I’ve started to recognize I don’t always have to follow common procedure. Some things will improve with time and some things aren’t worth the trouble. My son who, despite his dyslexia, struggled his way from two years behind reading level in third grade to become the kind of kid who at 12 was reading adult, historical non-fiction books like Band of Brothers for fun, never needed help getting a grip. He needed help teaching the adults to let go of one.
People ponder the question of nature versus nurture. I posit it’s a bit of both. Sometimes one wins out, sometimes the other. We would like to be in control, to manage, to create order from perceived chaos, but the universe seeks to teach us otherwise. Maybe it would be better if we accepted that sometimes things are simply out of our hands.
The truth is that you already are what you are seeking. ~Adyashanti
People are prodigious purveyors of the best advice, which they themselves never follow. I have a gift for envisioning paths and solutions for others. When it comes to my own life, however, I have difficulty zooming out far enough to formulate a plan. I am so hyper focused on the micro that I don’t even recognize there is a macro point from which to view the entire dilemma. My successes have been achieved through a series of fits and starts over years of time spent haphazardly careening in the general direction of something in which I had interest. Then, when I finally reach a goal in this meandering and sloppy way, I complain about how much time I wasted getting there. Eye roll.
Negative thought is the constant rabbit in my garden, nibbling the buds of potential while I struggle to pull up weeds. And the curse of negativity is that it works the same way as positivity. What you focus on expands. So if I focus on the rabbit (as I’ve been trained to do) as it wends its way through the sprouts I’ve been striving to cultivate, more rabbits materialize. Cute, furry, reproductive little bastards they are. And when I become obsessed with their presence, they take over completely and I am left standing there on barren ground, wondering what the hell happened. There have been periods of my life when I’ve battled against negativity akin to the Rabbit of Caerbannog.
It has gone this way for me for a long time. Only recently have I gained enough ground to make progress against the rabbits. I’ve learned to notice them increasing in number and then plant some marigolds and install chicken-wire screens to dissuade them. I recently added a border collie to shoo the most stalwart rabbits away. Sometimes the border collie snoozes and a couple sneak in, but when she finally gets after them she pursues them with a renewed fervor that makes them far more cautious and less attracted to the garden. And, in this way, the potential that was always there for me is beginning to flourish. It’s Secret Garden-level brilliant too.
I spent a lot of time cursing the rabbits in my garden. It never helped. The more I railed against them, the more damage they inflicted. But when I shifted my frame of reference away from them and onto the potential I wanted to nurture and protect, I began to make headway where it most mattered to me. Instead of wasting time complaining and being fearful of stunted growth, I moved the frame away and onto protecting what mattered. I began to find solutions. When I stopped fighting against the negativity and started fighting for my growth and my dreams, my life changed. Fighting for wields more power than fighting against ever will.
There will always be rabbits. They will creep back into the yard. It’s inevitable. But I’m learning look at them differently, to take my large portrait frame, step back and shift it in a way that I see how a long-eared, fluffy bunny hopping around a safely protected, well-tended garden is not a problem at all. It’s a representation of life in balance.
Where can you move your frame so it holds the most positive, life-affirming tableau you can imagine, the one that will feed your soul?
A friend reminded me last night that I have not posted a blog in a while. He was right. I haven’t. And it is weird when a writer stops writing. Writers have a reputation for not holding back, for both celebrating the good and for laying themselves bare in heart-wrenching detail with words. Sometimes the words launch themselves in rounds from an automatic rifle. Sometimes they come on the back of a desert tortoise. And, sometimes, the words lie in wait. They wait for clarity or resolution or time to heal or situational appropriateness. Sometimes they aren’t written for a period because it is not time for the truth to out. Sometimes they never make the light of day.
This morning, I saw this quote on the page of a fellow blogger.
You are here. However you imagine yourself to be, you are here. Imagine yourself as a body, you are here. Imagine yourself as God, you are here. Imagine yourself as worthless, superior, nothing at all, you are still here. My suggestion is that you stop all imagining, here. ― Gangaji
I have spent most of my life imagining (believing, really) I was crammed inside a box labeled Supposed. Inside this box, unable to wriggle into a different vantage point, I continually faced the false narrative of who I am supposed to be. Like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, inside that box I was made to view dark, horrific imagery until what I saw of myself made me sick. I began to accept what I saw on the inside of that box as the only Truth of me. I lived inside that box so long that I forgot who I once was on the outside.
A couple days ago, like a young child, I marked my half birthday. I am now six months from the big 5-0. I don’t know how I got this far, but I do know I don’t want to live the last bit of my life, however long or short that may be, cowering in the box I was stuffed into before I understood the air holes poked in the cardboard were not large enough to keep me from suffocation.
Recently, I have been working with a therapist to kick the sides of that box from within and weaken my corrugated cell. On Monday, I did my first session of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy. I sat in the therapist’s office, following her fingers from left to right like a patient undergoing hypnosis while reimagining an incident that had a negative impact on my sense of self. A few hours after I left the office, I noticed the memory was no longer painful. It was simply something that happened. And the message I learned about myself on the basis of that incident had been replaced by something its polar opposite. Since Monday, I have been able to accept without question a truth about myself that had been waiting for me on the outside of my box all this time. We opened an air hole large enough for a breeze to enter and wide enough to allow me to see outside for the first time since my incarceration began. Outside, I can see hope.
I now believe there will be a time in the foreseeable future when I won’t be imagining myself as something negative and I won’t be fighting to imagine something positive in its place. Like I quote, I won’t have to imagine anything. I will simply be here. And being here will not only be enough, it will be everything. And I will go on to do the great things I imagined I could do if I ever busted out of that crappy prison box and left it like a discarded skin on the side of the road out of town, proof of my growth.