The Permanence of Impermanence

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

You have to pay attention because, if you don’t, you will miss the best things.

My mind has been parsing the notion of loss lately. I’m not talking only about losing a person or pet to disease or losing my children as they grow and become their own people, although these two particular losses have been weighing heavily on my heart recently. I’m also talking about losing things like my hair or the bottle of peppermint oil I had in my hand a minute ago or the astounding piece of wisdom I was about to share but which vaporized before I could pry it from my brain. I seem to be losing everything these days.

When the universe persists in presenting me with opportunities for growth, eventually I catch on to the pattern. And the current rate at which I have been facing loss has given rise to non-stop mulling about the loss and what loss even is and where it comes from and how I can best deal with it in the moment and how to survive it long-term and what I can learn from it to help me along my path. Searching for meaning is what I do as a double Gemini.

Buddhism teaches that suffering is a constant condition of the human experience, and our inability to deal with all types of suffering (from physical pain to the pain of persistent change to the pervasive conditioning that finds us repeating the same negative behaviors from which we need to escape) keeps us from experiencing true happiness. If you are born, you will suffer and you will die. It’s how we choose to approach suffering that determines the quality of life before we leave.

Loss is painful because we have a misguided notion we have some right to claim ownership. We don’t. We don’t own our bodies, we occupy them. We can’t keep them from aging or changing. We may be able to lessen the visible effects of our unhealthy behaviors and the constant pull of gravity and genetics, but we cannot stop our march towards death or the visible proof of that continual process. We don’t own others. They too have a timeline and will move through this life on their own path. Our inability to accept that life is transitory and that the people in our lives are as impermanent as we are creates a path to misery because loss of life is unavoidable. In the poignant words of Walter White, “Every life comes with a death sentence.” We don’t even own items we own. A burglar can take my computer. An auto accident can wreck my car. A fire can incinerate my home and everything inside it. And there is very little I can do about any of it, really.

This morning I looked out my bedroom window into the park-like backyard I am fortunate enough to enjoy. There were finches and nuthatches clinging to the feeder. Squirrels chasing each other around the tree trunk. A mouse scurrying away with a fallen bit of feed corn. A small bunny gnawing a dandelion. This is not the same bunny that inhabited our yard before (I will never forget you, wherever you are, Wobble Bunny), yet our yard still has a bunny. The dead squirrel we found last week has been replaced by another squirrel happy to stake his claim. The players are different but the play is the same. This, in a nutshell, is life.

Loss is certain. Change is inexorable. Pain is compulsory. How we approach and what we take from these guarantees is a choice. My children are almost grown, and I can wallow in sadness about their impending departure or I can appreciate them now. People I love will move on. My hair will get thinner. Items I have lost may show up eventually or they may not. But squandering time perseverating about the loss of people or belongings I could never stake claim to in the first place is useless. I am going to practice appreciating life and its players now. So, I am going to close up my computer, drag my sons out of their basement cave, and take them outside to appreciate the carousel of revolving life in our yard because the only loss I can avoid is a wasted opportunity to own the fullness of this moment just as it is.

Clever Girl

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That tiny dot about halfway down in the center of the brown line is Earth as seen from deep space by Voyager 1. Feel small yet? 

“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam…

…To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

– Carl Sagan

I have a deep and abiding respect for those, like Carl Sagan, who are able to see beyond themselves and understand the precarious nature of life on this blue orb that affords us our existence. Some of my favorite images were captured by the Hubble telescope, an instrument with value that can’t be calculated in the billions of dollars it has taken to create and maintain it. Through its lens, we measly creatures are barely able to scratch the surface of the vastness of the universe. Sit for a while with a Hubble image of a galaxy cluster and allow its magnitude to envelop you. When life hands me an epic smackdown, I view photos from the telescope to put things in my life back into perspective. All the stress we feel in our tiny lives and all the weight we give ourselves is lost in those images. We are nothing. We are less than nothing with regard to what we have been able to discern of the universe, yet what we do on this minuscule speck of cosmic dust means everything to our survival.

President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, while disappointing and disastrous on many levels, is not surprising. Small minds yield small thinking. As full-disclosure of the president’s decision penetrated the news world yesterday, I discussed it with our teenage sons. There is nothing more important to me than teaching my sons their place in this world and their responsibility to it as educated, white males of privilege. I encourage my kids to be forward thinkers and solution seekers. There is no room for a future in a world where we live in the past. As I was lamenting the damage done by climate-change deniers and our unwillingness to make personal changes to save this planet, my oldest said this:

“The planet doesn’t care what we do. We will all die off and the earth will go on without us. The earth has suffered far worse than what we are doing to it now and it is still here.”

Dozens of hours spent voluntarily absorbing science-based programming on his iPad has given my son a realistic understanding of life’s precariousness here. We place so much importance on our impact on this planet, and for good reason, but our impact on this planet only matters insomuch as pertains to the existence of life on it. We don’t matter at all to this space particle that transports us around our star. If all humans suddenly ceased to exist, in as little as 25 years, three-fourths of paved roads would be covered by vegetation. In just three hundred years, man-made metal structures like the towers “great men” build and emblazon with their glowing, gold names would crumble and disappear. And after 10,000 years, only stone structures like Mt Rushmore and the Great Pyramids would be left to offer proof that we ever existed. We don’t matter to the earth. It does not give a shit if we cease to be.

We are erasable. For all the movies we’ve made and books we’ve written about alien populations wiping out our existence, we are our greatest threat. We know this, which is why we write stories about escaping the damage we leave behind. If we continue to barrel along, turning a blind eye to our impact on the air, water, and land we rely on for survival, then we will die off. We will have earned that fate with our ignorance and intransigence. Someday, perhaps a future population will refer to us the way we now refer to the dinosaurs, as sad, ancient relics incapable of stopping their own extinction, doomed to disappear. The difference is that the dinosaurs will have lived 159 million year longer than our species and have done so without sentient brains in their reptilian heads. Clever girl, indeed.

Swear Like A Mother

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Word

When you become a mom, everything changes. Your life is no longer wholly your own, a fact both awe-inspiring and terrifying. Little eyes are making mental notes of your example right at the moment when you are most exhausted, stressed out, and unsure. It’s not fair. Still, we try to do our best, especially when our children are young. For example, when our sons were small and learning to speak, I gave up swearing. Well, at least I tucked my offensive wagging tongue back in my mouth for about eight years when they attended Christian school and I didn’t want my words to come back to haunt me with their teachers. (On a side note, my youngest did go to the principal’s office in kindergarten for exclaiming a hearty son-of-a-bitch when he didn’t get to be the first kid in the reading teepee, but he overheard Sawyer say that while we were watching LOST. That one’s on you, ABC.)

As my sons aged and we moved away from the Christian school, I eased back into my potty mouth persona. First, I stopped substituting cheese and rice for Jesus Christ and crud for crap. But each swear word is a gateway drug for another, more foul word. Soon, shoot became shit and dang it became dammit. From there I went to the hard shit, right to the mother effing F-bomb when the occasion warranted. I mean, when the Costco rotisserie chicken you planned to serve for dinner slips out of your hand like a soapy kid in the bathtub, you have every reason to cut your tongue loose right before you look around for witnesses, invoke the 5-second rule, and toss that puppy onto the cutting board where it was headed in the first place. Who could blame you? Sometimes the situation deserves a meatier expletive.

Today, my friend (and fellow potty-mouth mom) Lynne sent me this article with a link to the new ad from Kraft released in time for Mother’s Day. In the ad, Melissa Mohr, author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, covers creative substitutions for swear words because, well, moms are expected to set a good example for their kids. In the midst of raucous children interrupting her video and the all-too-common experience of stepping on rogue Legos, Melissa offers examples of ways to curb your swearing with more colorful expressions that aren’t verboten expletives. The ad is funny and honest. It hit close to home for me, as I imagine it will for millions of mothers everywhere.

My husband is not a fan of my swearing. He came from a home where his parents rarely, if ever, swore. In twenty four years, the only curse I have heard from either of my in-laws is an occasional good grief from my father-in-law which, let’s face it, is more of a charming interjection than a curse. Steve would like me to stop swearing altogether. My potty mouth bothers him, and I get it. But, dammit, after years of curbing my own behaviors and words for everyone else, from my parents to my sons to my teachers to my sons’ teachers to pretty much anyone who is not me, I am sick of pretending that you are only a good woman, a lady, when you eschew foul language. While I appreciate other’s reasons for not swearing and I honor their choices, I can’t get behind it in my own life. I am clever enough to cease use of inappropriate words in inappropriate situations. I often avoid swearing in my blog posts to prove that I have good judgment occasionally. But, our boys are about to turn fourteen and sixteen. If they aren’t hearing these words from me, they sure as hell are hearing them from their teenage friends or the television. No point in worrying about what language they might pick up. There are so few perks to getting older, but one of them should be the ability to say whatever you want under your own roof without censure. Steve, if you’re reading this, I understand your concerns, but I gotta be me.

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More great cards from my friend Colleen at ©Personal Paper Hugs

As Mother’s Day approaches, I would like to give a shout out to the moms I know whose foul mouths make me smile, from my friend, Colleen, who runs Personal Paper Hugs, an online store filled with cheeky cards she creates (add it to your Etsy favorites here) to my Queen Bitch, Leanna, whose daily language so closely mirrors my own that sometimes it’s hard to tell which comments are from her mind and which are from mine. I owe a lot to the fearless, mouthy women who raise me up with their honesty, the women who make me feel normal. There is too much unsolicited advice about what defines a “good” mother constantly weighing us down. We spend far more time berating ourselves over what we perceive as parenting foibles than we do acknowledging and appreciating the dedication, resolve, and sacrifice we make daily for our families. Sometimes we even beat ourselves up for letting a couple choice words slip in front of our children. We’re human. It’s about time give ourselves a little leeway to act human, even if we are also mothers. To all you moms out there who curse (on occasion or perpetually), remember that even with the naughty words you are amazing, vital, and, above all, doing a fucking great job. Your kids aren’t going to be derelicts simply because you pepper your life with a few not-so-creative word choices. Sometimes a well-placed curse is the only thing keeping you from losing your proverbial shit. Motherhood is hard. Expletives may be required.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Inchworm in the 200 Meter

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On your mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Not in 8th anymore

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

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

The Exhortation Proclamation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

We Are All Wobble Bunny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

More Alike, My Friends

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

HUMAN FAMILY by Maya Angelou

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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