About To Bloom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oh No! She’s Gone Full KonMari!

IMG_4015Let go or be dragged.  ~Zen Proverb

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. 

 

Never Tell Me The Odds

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My son’s prized book collection hidden behind a clay tank he created and his Pop characters

Dyslexia. For most of my life, the word conjured in me a sense of doom. Like so many people, I imagined a dyslexic person would be sentenced to a life without reading, a life without higher education, a life being thought of as a dummy. I never imagined dyslexia would touch my life. And then I tried to teach my sons to read.

Joe struggled with simple character reversals, consistently transposing b and d and 2 and 5. He couldn’t say his alphabet, always leaving letters out, skipping from p to v. His first grade teacher gave him a failing grade in reading during the first trimester that year, and I could not figure out how a child in first grade who was learning to read could be failing at it. We later discovered Joe had ADHD and mild dyslexia. Luke’s reading issues were worse than Joe’s. Luke not only transposed letters but couldn’t seem to stop confusing entire words, like what and that and the and who. When we tried to get him to read to us, he had every excuse imaginable. When he hit third grade, he began falling behind and we had him tested. Luke was diagnosed with moderate to severe dyslexia. We were told he needed to be taught to read in an entirely different way from his classmates and would either need to enter an intensive reading program for three months, which meant taking him out of school for that period, or be moved to a remedial school. I was crushed.

At that point, we made the decision to put both boys into a private school for children with learning disabilities. There they received not only reading instruction delivered in a way that allowed them to catch up to their peers, but also individualized math lessons and time with occupational and speech therapists. They began to blossom. We all began to see their strengths more than their struggles and started feeling hopeful about their prospects despite their dyslexia.

People often speak of their heroes: brave soldiers, firefighters, police officers, and selfless volunteers. I have never believed heroism belonged solely to people who save other’s lives or make immense sacrifices. I choose to find heroism in those who face adversity and rise above. My sons are my heroes. They started out behind their peers and have been working to catch up since birth. They’ve never given up. They’ve never accepted less for themselves. They’ve figured out how to embrace their strengths while working to overcome their struggles. It’s been a gift watching them develop and grow and push beyond the limitations inherent in the way their brains are set up. They inspire me.

Luke reads every day in his free time. He is not a fast reader, but he soldiers on. He challenges himself. He never quits. In seventh grade, he got 100 pages into self-chosen Mein Kampf before deciding he might not be mature enough for it yet. Last year in eighth grade Honors literature, he read White Fang, 1984, Watership Down, Of Mice and Men, as well as Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, and in his spare time he also read the 650-page biography of Steve Jobs and The Man in the High Castle. This summer he chose to read Homer’s The Iliad and then followed it with The Odyssey. On his Christmas list is a rare book about World War II written in 1948 by a Jewish soldier in the British armyHis teacher this year assigned Bless Me, Ultima and then said she was hoping they could compare that to Like Water for Chocolate, which she hasn’t yet assigned but he has finished reading anyway. I have no idea how this is the same kid who fought us when we asked him to read Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.

A few weeks ago Luke said something I have been turning over in my mind since. He said, “Dyslexia is not a reason not to read. It is a reason to read.” And that sums up Luke. He’s Han Solo who says, “Never tell me the odds” or John Locke from television’s Lost when he exclaims, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do.” I’ve thought a lot about his attitude, about taking what is difficult and turning it to your advantage, about being told who you are and proving them all wrong. As a child, it’s easy to take what you are told about yourself and believe it. I know I did. But I think it’s time I start looking at life through Luke-colored lenses. Maybe all the things I was told I can’t do should become all the things I have to do. By my side will be the child who has shown me what it means to believe in yourself, naysayers be damned.

F.I.P.

“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

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Splashy, aka Foggy Foo

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.

 

Lessons in Epic Smackdowns

“I crashed down on the crossbar, and the pain was enough to make a shy, bald Buddhist reflect and plan a mass murder.”  ~The Smiths

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Slimy Steps of Despair in Connecticut

A little over a month ago, my youngest sister called to let me know life had dealt her an epic smackdown. She was reeling. I was reeling along with her. And so I packed a bag just barely under the 50-pound limit, said goodbye to my husband and teenage sons, boarded a flight to Hartford, and settled into her home for an extended 5-week stay, presumably to offer comfort and make her life a smidgen easier.

A little over a week into my stay, however, the Universe decided one epic smackdown was not enough. On an unusually rainy day in the midst of an unusually rainy week, I grabbed Julie’s jumbo umbrella and headed out to collect a package UPS had left in the wet driveway. I walked out the back door and was descending the wooden steps from the back patio when my flip-flops betrayed me. With unbelievable flourish and zero panache, I caught serious air in a feels-like-slow-motion wipeout that would have won the day on America’s Funniest Home Videos if I had been unfortunate enough to be caught on camera. I landed butt-side down on the unforgiving edge of a step, one arm wrenching backwards and loosening the umbrella from my grasp, the other slamming onto the step beside me. From there, I proceeded to slide down three more stairs on my already tender tush because, well, I’m just that good.

I gave birth to two sons through induced labor. I suffered through seven years with gallstone pain before finally acquiescing to surgery. I had an emergency appendectomy. I am familiar with pain. When I at last came to a halt on those wicked stairs, the pain was exquisite enough to take my breath away. I began to sob a pathetic whimpering cry reminiscent of The Man in Black after Count Rugen ratchets his torture device up in The Princess Bride. I sat for a couple minutes while my tears disappeared in the soaking rain and tried to determine if I dared to move. I wasn’t sure if I had broken anything. I was afraid if I shifted in any way I would feel worse.

A couple hours afterward, already sporting impressive swelling and dark bruising, I found myself lightheaded, nauseous, and experiencing cold sweats. I had my sister drive me to Urgent Care. After examining me, the PA told me I had only a severe bruise and significant hematoma. The fainting spells were likely vasovagal syncope responses to the trauma. The numbness I felt in my hands was due to swelling and the whiplash I sustained in the fall. All of this was good news. I simply had a severe minor injury, which was still nothing more than a minor injury. Sure, I blacked out again during the car ride home, sending my sister into a near panic, and later I had to crawl up the stairs to bed after another fainting episode, but it could have been much worse. I lucked out.

I’ve had a plethora of time resting my backside on ice and heat since then to reflect on my mishap. I keep coming back to the first Buddhist Noble Truth. In each life, sickness, loss, and death occur. They are inevitable. The Universe, God, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, insert your higher power here, doesn’t play favorites. The human condition is the great equalizer. No matter who you are, no matter what type of life you lead, you will suffer. I arrived in Connecticut on my high horse, prepared to sweep in, full of sunshine and light, to help my sister deal with the unwelcome unexpected. I ended up on my sorry ass at Urgent Care with my own unwelcome unexpected.

It’s not what happens to us but how we handle what happens to us that matters. I can’t avoid suffering, but I can reframe it and refuse to let it define me. Two weeks have passed since my digger on the stairs. I am still bruised. I have what appears to be a permanent dent in my hindquarters. It doesn’t matter. It’s part of my experience. It’s not what I envisioned, but any time I spend railing against what is wastes my time here.

Epic smackdowns are growth opportunities. They are an elbowing nudge from the Universe imploring us to open our eyes. I’m awake now.

 

Run Your Race

“I am better than I was yesterday but not as good as I’ll be tomorrow.”  ~Anonymous

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This kid 

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 Great Reframe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Permission Slips

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had paralyzing self-doubt. Some people doubt their beauty. Some people doubt their intelligence. Some people doubt their athleticism or their math capabilities or their decision-making skills. I doubted the entirety of my self-worth. When others would point out my positives, their words might have well as been Sanskrit. I was unable to process their praise, much less accept it. I would deflect with self-deprecation, never responding with a simple “thank you” because I couldn’t own it. Still, those kind words, repeatedly offered, planted seeds. They gave me permission to entertain, at least briefly, the modest notion that maybe I was more than I felt I was.

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My 7th birthday…when someone else decided a scary clown candle wouldn’t give me nightmares

Since the beginning of January, I’ve been considering a party to celebrate my 50th birthday next month. But, every time I would think about it, I would determine it wasn’t worth the money. Or I’d create a guest list only to decide no one would forgo their Memorial Day weekend plans to celebrate with me. I stressed about choosing a place where my vegetarian, gluten free, dairy free, beer connoisseur, and junk-food junkie friends alike could eat. I worried people wouldn’t find parking. I borrowed all manner of trouble looking out for other people, while the number of excuses I invented to avoid looking out for myself was macabre. My potential birthday party morphed into a monstrous, self-imposed migraine, and I decided perhaps it wasn’t worth marking the occasion at all.

I mentioned this during my weekly mental health session on Monday. My therapist, knowing the only way out is through and the only way through requires action, decided I needed to plan this event. The exercise in putting myself first, in believing I mattered enough to selfishly devise an entire day around my own likes and wishes without considering what others would choose, would be excellent skill-building practice. As I sat in her office pondering my preferences, it hit me. I had no idea substantive idea what I love. I had no clear preferences. It’s a blindspot I developed over a lifetime of never feeling worth the effort of asserting myself. My default has been to allow other people to choose where we eat or what we do or where we travel or when we go. I learned early on that anything I wanted was silly and wrong, not to mention undeserved. So I let others take the lead because I lacked the clout to choose. I was never in the driver’s seat, only along for the ride. By asking me to uncover my preferences, she handed me a permission slip, carte blanche to put my hands on my hips and declare, “It’s my birthday and I can do whatever I want and if others don’t like it or feel inconvenienced then they can stay home and miss out.” I didn’t have to feel guilty about it, either. It was a required assignment. Insecure rule followers are comfortable being told what to do. It’s safe.

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My 21st birthday…when someone convinced me pleated shorts were a good look for me

Because I wasn’t sure what I wanted, I concentrated on what I didn’t want. My aversions, unlike my preferences, are clear cut. I didn’t want to go to a baseball game. I didn’t want to eat sushi or pasta. I didn’t want to cook or bartend for others. I didn’t want to invite people out of a sense of obligation or guilt. I didn’t want to stress small details. I did not want negative people, no matter long we’ve known each other, involved at all. I did not want a party where people bring black balloons and Depends to suggest I’m at the precipice of death. Little by little, through the process of elimination, my mind was freed to discover what I did want. I was able to create a game plan that felt life-affirming, fun, adventurous, memorable, and empowering.

And since it was my birthday and I could do what I wanted, I decided to rebrand it. So, I am not having a 50th birthday party. I’m having a twenty-four hour Re-Birth Day. I know I don’t want to operate my next 50 years through the same rubric. I’ve been slogging  through a quagmire of issues that have plagued me since childhood and, thanks to my insightful and supportive therapist, every day I feel better about myself, more confident, less willing to deal with bullshit and naysayers and energy suckers. This is where I start owning my life rather than letting others direct it. This is where I begin self-advocation. This is my damn story. I deserve to tell it without someone else’s narration. I no longer need an advisory board. It no longer serves me.

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My 48th birthday…when I didn’t even believe I deserved a chair

With these things in mind, I’m approaching the next seven weeks as a growth quest. I know I won’t be able to return all my demons to the Upside Down before my birthday, but I might be able to sequester the remaining troublemakers in a soundproof cage long enough to create a better headspace for taking positive action for myself. Initially, I needed someone else to hand me a signed permission slip to look out for myself. It was a jumping off point, and you have to start somewhere. I accept that…for now. With a little practice, I’m sure that by this time next year I’ll be writing all the permission slips I need. The year after that, maybe I won’t need any at all.

 

What in your life is calling you,

when all the noise is silenced,

the meetings adjourned, 

the lists laid aside, 

and the wild iris blooms by itself 

in the dark forest, 

what still pulls on your soul?

~ Rumi

Is There An Echo In Here?

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Which is smarter? Amazon Echo or my plastic IKEA houseplant? 

My husband is a geek. And he is becoming more of a geek with each passing year. In the past, I would never have complained about this because, well, he’s my personal tech support. He’s the geek I go to when I’ve already rebooted and don’t know what the hell to do next. He is the one who talks me off the ledge when my phone is doing that thing again. He totally understands what an HDMI cable is. I simply understand that an HDMI cable is. He’s all about embracing new technology. And, despite the fact that our house contains several plastic bins filled with antiquated tech (my kids tell me that is the correct term) that he still hasn’t taken to the electronics graveyard, much to my chagrin, I have struggled to make my peace with his curious addiction to the latest and greatest invention meant to make life better. At least, I thought I had made my peace with it. That was until the Amazon Echo arrived in our home early in 2016.

It seemed innocuous enough. One day he came home with this curious new speaker thing. I vaguely recall being a little peeved because, as I pointed out at the time, we didn’t need another speaker thing. Because of his tech addiction, we already had four wireless music players. That’s right. Four. This one, he told me, this one was different. You could talk to this one, like you do with Siri. He prattled on for a bit about how this was not just a speaker because this could also turn our lights off and on remotely. While he spoke, I went to my happy place because when something like this catches his eye the only way to get him to stop talking about it usually is to let him have it. So I did. I rolled my eyes, sighed and, like a parent accepting the stray dog her son brought home, told him Echo could stay as long as he took care of it.

Since that night, Steve has been working with Echo to transform our house into what I assume is supposed to be a much more convenient, high-tech haven. He started by adding the special light bulbs necessary and then programming it to operate our lights, at least in the living room and hallway. Then, against my wishes, he persisted in teaching me the commands so I too could turn off our lights by barking orders across the house.

“Alexa (for that is the damned thing’s name), turn off the LIVING ROOM light.”

Emboldened by the success of having this electronic entity controlling our interior illumination, he added more bulbs in our bedroom so we could yell across the room at the thing on the dresser to turn off the lights on our nightstands, a process that takes longer than simply reaching over and turning off the lights by hand. Undaunted, he persevered with his toy. I told him that the technology creeped me out because occasionally, for no apparent reason, Alexa will start speaking, telling me about the weather or giving me some random definition for a word about which I had not inquired. It all feels a bit Big Brotherish to me. He shrugged off my negativity. This is the future. He expects me to assimilate.

Last Christmas, Steve decided our son might be an ally in the ongoing Alexa battle. So he bought a $30 Hue light strip Joe could attach to his bunkbed, presumably so he could read in bed (ha), and he bought him the smaller Echo Dot which doesn’t have its own speaker. Joe seemed semi-interested in the technology aspect until he realized that the light strip made his bed feel like the tunnel between Concourses B and C at O’Hare Airport. Then he too noticed that sometimes Alexa would start speaking out of the blue. Unbeknownst to his father, Joe unplugged the Dot and tossed it into his closet where he found it creeped him out much less.

Undeterred by his family’s lack of enthusiasm for his home automation, Steve continued in his quest. He added more light bulbs to control in his office. He added another Dot downstairs so we could use it as an “intercom” to beckon the boys upstairs when we wanted them. (Side note: It turns out we never do this because we prefer to yield to the more organic and primal habit of screaming at them from the stairs as parents have done for generations.) He programmed Echo to interact with our smart Nest thermostat so we can shriek at her to turn our heat up or down. He set Echo so now if we bellow at her she will play Sirius XM radio on our Sonos system. Most recently, he’s connected Alexa to our home security system so we can clamor for her to turn on our home alarm. Never mind that, aside from the lighting, we are able to do all these things via our iPhones without caterwauling through the house.

Last night, I caught Steve asking to Alexa to do his bidding again.

Alexa…turn off the Living Room light,” he called out.

“Living Room doesn’t support that,” came Alexa’s reply.

Steve repeated the command more slowly and firmly, as if Alexa were a disobedient child who simply needed to be told twice.

“Alexa…turn off the Living Room light.”

“Living Room doesn’t support that,” Alexa replied again, rolling her eyes.

It occurred to me that perhaps Echo’s name is quite intentional.

“Alexa…turn off Living,” I said, remembering Steve had recently changed the command so it included both smart bulbs in the living room lamp.

“Okay,” she said, and the damn living room light finally went off.

“Sometimes you have to wonder just who is controlling whom,” I said and strolled smugly off to bed for the night.

Steve might have an overactive case of Jetsons envy. He longs for flying cars and homes equipped with every possible automation. And I get it. We Gen Xers are experiencing an amazing shift from our childhoods when we tuned in on one of a few channels on a cumbersome television box with a rabbit-ear antenna on top to watch George, Jane, Judy, Elroy, and Astro living in their sky home with their robot maid, Rosie, attending to their every need, to a time when home automation, or some semblance of it, is reality. It is exciting and fascinating, and it’s easy to get caught up in the Jetson fantasy in 2018. Still, my hope for the future is that the speed of advancing tech becomes so rapid that Steve is at last unable to keep up or technology becomes more efficient so I can stop commanding the black cylinder on my kitchen counter to turn off the lights that all three men in my house seem incapable of operating either on their own or with Alexa’s brilliant assistance. I am not surprised Echo was given a female name. If you want something done, you ask a woman.

There But For The Grace Of Rum Punch

This week I have been on a cruise in the eastern Caribbean with my mom and sisters to commemorate my mom’s 75th birthday. Earlier in the week, the four of us did a rum and salsa dancing tour in Puerto Rico together. The next day my sister Kathy and I snorkeled in St Thomas. For the last excursion, I did something out of my comfort zone. I chose a catamaran trip to St Kitts and Nevis alone. When I booked the excursion, it never occurred to me that I would have to interact with people. Other people whom I don’t already know. As I pondered this the night before we arrived in St Kitts, I wondered if I’d made a huge mistake

When I got to the meeting space, I noticed everyone was part of a pair, accompanied either by a significant other, family member, or friend. I was the only solo traveler, the one who made our number an awkward odd rather than a neat even. It was all good, I told myself. As a reticent introvert, I have many coping strategies for being alone while part of a crowd. I occupied myself with photo taking, listening to headphones, and staring out at sea to avoid eye contact lest someone should view my gaze as an invitation to chit-chat. I spent most of the tour, including the snorkeling time, successfully isolated. I had no direct contact with anyone save for one of the catamaran crew members who kept checking to make sure I was all right. I rode out to the snorkel spot without conversation, swam by myself, finished lunch alone, and quietly sat on one of a pair of beach chairs under an umbrella while my bag occupied the companion seat. I focused on solitude and relished it.

On the way back, I determined I wanted to ride on the net of the catamaran. I had never done that before, and it seemed like something I should experience. So when the boat came back to pick us up at the beach, I made sure to be one of the first to board so I could secure a coveted spot. I had visions of stretching out up there with the water rushing by beneath me, eyes closed, sun on my face, relaxed and at peace. I live in a rainbow world. 

I had been in place maybe one minute before a group of people whom I had earlier pegged as the party crowd descended like locusts on a harvest. Suddenly I was surrounded on all sides by peers who were 1) loud, 2) not concerned about observing my requisite two-arms-length personal space boundary, and 3) more than a few rum punches ahead of me. I was trapped at the front of the net, and the only way out would require gathering up all my belongings, stepping over people, and beating a hasty retreat to the covered part of the boat to sit with the retirees. I sat for a minute doing a cost analysis. My options — run like a coward or make the best of it. I decided these people might make for an interesting blog post, so I stayed to see what might transpire. 

My rowdy compatriots shouted for more rum punch while I tried to figure out how they could get any more drunk. Once we all had a plastic cup, one of them raised his punch aloft and called for a group toast. There was no turning back. I was one of them now. A hearty salud later and we were off to the races. A tantric yoga instructor from Mexico City started a get-acquainted drinking game.  When it was your turn, you had to look at the group, chose someone, and from their appearance suggest something that might be true for them in real life. If you guessed correctly, they had to drink. If not, the drink went to you. I started to deeply regret my decision to stay up front. I watched quietly at first, hoping they would overlook me all together and the game would die out without my participation. No such luck. The ex-military guy next to me guessed I was a teacher. Nope. I looked around and saw a woman wearing a baseball cap with hibiscus flowers on it and guessed she had been to Hawaii. She took a drink. The game went on for a while, rum punch sloshing its way into our rapidly emptying cups over and over. One person guessed I was 42 and said I was too fit to be almost 50. I knew then I was among good people. Somewhere along the way, we stopped honoring the game play and talked amongst ourselves in small groups that ebbed and flowed as we each overheard and then pursued new topics with different people. And rum punch, being what it is, transformed us into quick friends. 

Life on the net

By the time we got off the catamaran, we were all intoxicated. A few folks showed the early signs of what would become painful sunburns. We swayed our way onto the pier, arm in arm, holding each other up, before getting our bearings and stumbling our separate ways. I walked off as alone as I had arrived, imagining I looked lucid but knowing I probably did not. I doubted many of my fellow tour buddies would remember much about the trip because, while rum punch makes friends, it also blurs memories and they were drunk when the game began. For my own experience, though, I was sober enough that I will never forget that excursion. It was the day I learned sometimes it’s good to let loose and see what happens. Yes. The people I met were what I said. They were loud and borderline obnoxious. But they were also full of interesting stories and a shit ton of fun. I watched as other members of the tour alternately gave our net full of crazies a disapproving once over. I thought about how I could have chosen to sit with them and judge rather than join. Indeed, I have lived most of my life that way. On that trip back from Nevis, though, I realized that sometimes judges really miss out and I am finished missing out.