Life Is Often Found In What We Are Trying To Avoid

Someone does not want to feel their feelings

I have a confession. Every time I take a flight, as we’re taking off I make peace with my life. I think about how grateful I am for the beautiful, fortunate journey I’ve taken thus far and I think about how much I love and appreciate those who have earned my confidence. I suppose it’s the equivalent of a little prayer of thanks because you just never know what might happen. I am not fearful of flying but, like most people my age, I’ve seen my fair share of air disasters. LOST remains one of my favorite tv series ever, so I am acutely aware of airplane crashes. Even with all the uneventful air travel I’ve enjoyed, the thought of plummeting from 30k feet crosses my mind. Call it fatalistic. Call it macabre. Just don’t let anyone say of me that I was ungrateful for this life or that I was unaware my life, like all lives, had an expiration date.

This morning as our flight was taxiing out of PDX, I did my usual rundown and rehashing and the tears clouded my eyes as they always do when I think about my life and loves. And as I was flooded with the gratitude of a full heart, I reflected on how emotion adverse we humans are. We don’t want to be sad or lonely or frustrated or ashamed and we will do almost anything to avoid feeling uncomfortable. We seek only positive, happy, or joyful experiences. In the absence of those feelings, we will settle for zero feeling because neutral is better than pain. This is why we numb ourselves with all the usual vices, alcohol, drugs, busyness, food, gambling, video games, whatever it takes to move us to a place where we can forget our emotions.

There is something, though, to the exhortation of therapists to feel your feelings. Our emotions are what give our lives life. They comprise the sum total of the human experience. Barring any mental hardwiring that makes experiencing darker emotions unbearable, feeling our feelings is the most important thing we can do to live our lives fully and completely. Is it easy? No. It isn’t. But feelings are the only constant in life. The goosebumps you get when your favorite song comes on the radio, the rapid beating of your heart with anxiety before a presentation, the tears that fall when you lose someone or something precious, the butterflies in your stomach when you realize the person you like likes you back, they are everything.

I’ve long been impressed by Buddhists who shun alcohol and drugs because they alter our ability to stay aware and present. It takes courage to live with ourselves 100% of the time because we are not always likable and our actions are not always honorable. Numbing makes the most horrifying parts of our life travels palatable. Choosing not to numb means we must suffer. We must sit with our darkness and our light. We must feel. I honor Buddhists (and any other individual or group) who choose to say yes to all of life. I’d like to say I could be that brave throughout my entire human experience, but I am not a Sith and am therefore unable to deal in absolutes. I like to keep all options on the table. Still, though, I think their path is probably the most honest way to experience life.

So, I take my therapist’s advice and feel my feelings as much and as often as possible. The anxiety, the heartbreak, the love, the anger, the boredom, the joy, the stress, the fear, it’s all necessary. So if you see my eyes tear up when I am sitting on a flight about to take off (or at any other time, really), no need to ask me it everything is all right. It is. I’m just feeling my feelings, grateful for the opportunity to do so.

Slaying The Shame Monster

“Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City to take back the child you have stolen, for my will is as strong as yours and my kingdom as great. You have no power over me!” ~Jim Henson

Me at a time in my life when I almost made my shame escape

As I mentioned the other day, I’ve been reading The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. It was given to me by a thoughtful, supportive friend last month, and I’ve slowly been making my way through it. The beautiful thing about Brené Brown is that her struggles and her authenticity seep from the pages of her books, making her words both relatable and heartening. She touches on so many difficult and uplifting emotions in the book that reading it has been equal parts soul-crushing reality and soul-inflating inspiration. Read about shame, guilt, perfectionism, fear, blame, and addiction and recognize how much those habits and emotions define and control you. Then read about hope, joy, play, creativity, resilience, authenticity, and self-compassion and see where you might be able to grow in a more positive direction. More than once while reading I’ve exclaimed out loud to myself in response to what I have read. Holy crap. That is me. I operate that same way. I so relate. I need to work on that. That makes so much sense. I have some work to do. I am really good at that.

The part of the book that hit me the hardest was the portion about shame. I know Brené began her work as a shame researcher, delving into the components of shame and how humans deal with or deflect it and how we can grow out of and away from it in healthy ways. So I fully expected to read about shame in this book. What I didn’t expect was to discover that for the majority of my life shame was my constant companion and operations manager. Ouch.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by this discovery. I grew up commonly hearing, “You should be ashamed of yourself” and “You’re embarrassing yourself.” Most of my reactions to events in my life were approached from a shame vantage point. Boyfriend broke up with me? Of course he did. You were acting like a needy jerk. It’s a wonder he didn’t leave you sooner. New job too much for me? Of course it is. Who do you think you are? You have no life experience. You can’t be expected to manage other human beings. Can’t stick to a diet and lose that stress-eating weight? Of course you can’t. You suck at dedication. Struggling with parenting? Of course you are. Your mother always said you were too selfish to raise children and it turns out she is right. Brené’s definition of shame snapped me like a wet, locker room towel: “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” It was through this lens that I grew up and approached my adult life. I was an imposter, one misstep away from everyone I knew discovering my deep secret. To deal with this, I became a perfectionist. (That is another blog post entirely.)

I was continually baffled that anyone would want to be my friend or date me. I couldn’t see what they saw. I only saw my unworthiness. Still, I must have been presenting something else to these people too. They didn’t seem to see what I was seeing. The incongruity was not lost on me, but it never once occurred to me that maybe what they were seeing was the true Justine and what I was seeing was a story I had been sold. It took decades for me to figure that out, and I’m still shredding the pages of that story and working on my rewrite.

Perhaps the most life-affirming part of this book for me has been the section on Cultivating a Resilient Spirit because this is where I shine. I grew up feeling unworthy, less than, and invisible, but I persevered and took risks. Somehow, despite all the negativity and fear, I knew deep in my core I was capable. In my late teens and early twenties, I arrived at a place where I almost was able to recognize the big lie I had been sold. I was brave enough to imagine for myself something bigger. I took steps in that direction. I stepped away from guilt and forced obligation and walked towards autonomy and growth. I stepped up. At age 22, I graduated from a four-year university, the first in our family to do so. By 23, I was starting graduate school. At 24, I voluntarily sought help and signed on with a debt relief organization to pay off tens of thousands of dollars I had accumulated in loans and credit card liability. I was adulting and taking ownership, being resilient, and moving forward.

Then I realized I’d run out of money for graduate school. Rather than rising up and trying to find a way through that financial quagmire, I took my mother’s advice and I quit because I couldn’t afford it. I fell right back into the pattern of being a fearful, self-pitying, self-loathing coward and I stayed there for another two decades, operating from the familiar mindset that told me I wasn’t worthy.

I’ve spent more of my life in that shame mindset than I have spent believing in myself. I let other people’s negativity inform my choices. I asked for advice from the wrong people. I spurned the pleas of the right people who tried to guide me towards my better angels. Now I’m grateful for the difficult day that opened my eyes and taught me who was not to be trusted with my dreams and hopes. I learned to lean towards the people who raise me up, and I walked away from those who make me feel less special, talented, helpful, kind, and important than I am. I ignore those who don’t get me or who think they know me but don’t. I face my shame, talk about it, and deconstruct it. And all of this has led me to a place where I am starting to understand who I am and to like myself.

Shame grows through secrecy, silence, and judgment. Understanding this gives me a pathway out of it. You deny it oxygen by addressing it, sharing your difficult stories with others, and walking away from those who would keep you grounded in it. I am happier more often now, able to be joyful and at peace. I make better choices and I forgive myself more easily when my choices aren’t the best. I appreciate others. I try to apologize when I screw up. I am still working on self-love and I am having a devil of a time beating the judgment out of myself and my life, but I am making progress. I’m embracing my humanity and feeling part of a bigger whole rather than feeling like a lonely pariah. I am proud of myself, dammit. It feels good.

Sharing my darkness and vulnerability is terrifying, but blogging about these shadow monsters here has changed my life. Shame has no power over me anymore because I have named it, gotten cozy with it, and discovered its weaknesses. It will never leave me because it is part of my story, but it buzzes quietly in the background now, just white noise that my brain blocks out.

Hawaii: The Big Island – Day One

We were up early, no surprise when you are in a time zone three hours behind your own. So, after flopping around in bed from 4:00 a.m. until 5:00 a.m., we decided to call it good and start moving. We had arrived after dark, so we had no idea where we had gone to sleep, although we knew we were near the ocean. We woke up in our rental condo (only one night here before moving to our house for the next 10 days), and this was our view. Damn, Hawaii. You know how to bring it.

Not too shabby for a morning view

First order of the day was copious amounts of caffeine at Kona Coffee and Tea, where this little fellow decided to try to peddle insurance to us while we sipped our beverages. He was too cute to ignore, so we listened to his pitch but ultimately told him we weren’t ready to switch to Geico and he politely went on his way and left us to our day.

Did you know….

After finishing coffee, we thought it might be fun to see if we could get a view of the home we would be staying in for the remainder of the trip. We knew the house was near a public access beach, so we parked the rental van, traipsed down the sandy public access path, and found Keiki Beach relatively empty at 8:30 a.m.

We wandered around, staring into tide pools as we made our way towards the rental house. I knew exactly where to find it (thank you, Google Maps) and there it was, exactly as pictured on VRBO. We were drying to get in, but check in wasn’t until 4 so we settled for a view for the time being, feeling relatively confident we would be just fine with our chosen lodging. I mean, how could we not be?

Looks good to me

Since we had hours to kill before the 4 p.m. check in time, we decided to drive up to Waikoloa to right a wrong. A few years ago on a flight to Montreal, I lost the koa wood band we had purchased in Maui five years ago. Steve and I had first seen these wedding bands in Kauai in 2013 and thought someday we would get them. Then we did. Then I lost mine. Today we replaced it. Third island is the charm? While in Waikoloa we did some souvenir shopping and stopped to have lunch at the Lava Lava Beach Club, which had great food and drinks, and an even better view.

The rest of the family was landing in Hawaii around 4, so after lunch we hightailed it into town for some grocery shopping and check in time at our rental house. After one slight hiccup with a security alarm that was not supposed to have been set but was, we finally got to tour our vacation abode. We were not disappointed in the home, which features this in the entryway. Seems like someone knows the recipe for serenity.

Rules of the house?

While the boys and I got settled, Steve made the fifteen minute drive to the airport to retrieve the rest of our family. When they arrived, we got caught up on the trip out, the hoops we jumped through just to make it to Hawaii, and our relative levels of exhaustion. Then we ordered some take out, consumed Thai food and cocktails on the deck overlooking the sea, and finally called it a night.

What struck me the most about the Big Island on my first full day were the textures. With a conscious decision made to spend less time on apps and more time on mindful presence, It seemed everywhere I looked there was depth and detail: from the evergreen branches climbing towards the sky to the shell of a minuscule snail to the veins in a hibiscus flower to the rough lava rock at the tide pools to the soft clouds above pointy leaves. The island was begging me to pay attention to it. I acquiesced. How could I not?

There is a reason why we love Hawaii so much and keep returning. She never disappoints.

Peace Lives At 32k Feet

“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” ~Leonardo da Vinci

Is there anything better than the view from above 30k feet? There is something about witnessing the clouds through an aircraft window, rather than from Earth, that brings me a peace I can’t find any other way. It’s a reminder of how small and insignificant I am. A momentary note about how far we have come, an acknowledgment of our stretching our wings to be more, to see more, to achieve more. It’s a humbling view of the globe in a way that illuminates her possibility. It is freedom. Plain and simple. And I am grateful to be able to venture, to afford the luxury of seeing the world as so many, sadly, never will.

And when the sun sinks, setting the cotton-puff clouds on fire, and the stars begin to appear in the darkest sky imaginable, dozens at a time, there too do I find solace and peace in the heavens, closer than I have ever been to them.

Some people like to feel important, want to leave a legacy, and that is where they live. I feel most alive when I grasp my insignificance in the grand scheme of the planet, the solar system, the universe. That is where I can take my deepest breaths, feel part of something infinitely larger and more consequential than I am. Be detached from the world and in touch with the essence of the universe to which I belong, no greater or lesser than any life that came before or will exist after. I have no fear above the clouds. Only gratitude.

Travel is where I find oxygen. Travel is what unites me with all the other living, breathing entities on this floating ball. Some say there is nothing like coming home. I say there is nothing like leaving home because that is where I find myself,

The Reality Tree

I am not a fan of the holidays. I think I’ve made that clear. I do love one holiday tradition, though. Last year, after we bought our pandemic house, we bought a pandemic Christmas tree to match the new house. It’s not the 9 foot tree or the lights on the tree that make me happy. It’s the ornaments Steve and I have collected and curated over the past 26 and a half years. Some were gifts from friends. Some we bought to remember trips or events. Some the boys picked out.

My favorites are the ones we had personalized for our family members. Each of us have our own ornament on the tree. We have one too for each of the pets we have had. And each time I put those ornaments on the tree it’s a walk down memory lane. It makes our tree ours. And every night when I light the tree and sit and look at these ornaments, I see my life, not the life I was given, but the life I built for myself. Every ornament, from the wooden sea turtle we purchased in Kauai to the silver camper I gave Steve to represent our Airstream dreams to the ornament our friends had made that looks exactly like our Ruby dog, makes me happy. The tree as a whole is a representation of my life now, and as I look at it I feel proud and grateful.

The stress of the holidays, the over-the-top and unnecessary shopping, the gift wrapping, the obligations, all of it I could do without. But the tree, the tree I like because it is the antithesis of the holiday insanity. It is home and heart and love and history. It grounds me when everything else is swirling like December snow. It’s my anchor to what is real.

A Little Daily Thanksgiving For Real

I am grateful for nature’s choice to turn off the lights with panache

I’ve stopped watching the television news. I’ve also turned off the news notifications on my phone. It came down to what I saw in a tweet the other day regarding the constant struggle between “I should probably be more informed about current events” and “I would like to be a functional human being with at least a vague will to live.” I decided I would like to be a somewhat functioning person without a casual drug habit. So, I’ve tried as much as possible to check out in a positive way. And for good reason, apparently. Because today I checked in on the news for like two minutes and discovered concern over a new variant, the real potential to lose abortion rights for women in this country as the now conservative majority Supreme Court hears a case from Mississippi, and yet another high school shooting with multiple fatalities. Are you kidding me? I wanted to throw my phone across the room. It reminded me of a scene from the 1987 film Roxanne starring Steve Martin, where the main character buys a newspaper from a machine (those were a thing once), reads the headline, and then puts another coin into the machine to open it so he can put the paper back. I don’t want to know all this.

I went to my meditation group meeting tonight where the theme was gratitude. We talked about how we can practice gratitude to improve our lives. There is actual science regarding how being grateful changes us in a positive way. This is what I need more of in my life. I need to pay attention to all the things that make me feel loved, supported, safe, sane, and secure, all the things I am deeply grateful for. Focusing on a pandemic that has taken over 5 million lives and doesn’t show any signs of abating is not helpful. Watching footage of terrorized teenagers after another school shooting is not helpful. Ruminating on the potential rollback of women’s rights after 50 years is not helpful. I’m not sure there’s a news story out there right now that could make me feel better. So, I am going to give gratitude a try and focus on all the good in my small universe of concern. This is the place where the most important people to me are. This is the realm that matters right now. Yes. I understand that people need to be engaged in society for positive change to come about, but society is a mess right now, and I shouldn’t be around them anyway since they could be contagious.

The next time I get overwhelmed by something, I am going to try to see instead an opportunity in that stressor for gratitude. If someone is vexing me, I am going to be grateful for the space they are giving me to grow in patience and love. Okay. Okay. Maybe I won’t succeed in that last one consistently, but you have to start somewhere.

Gratitude may not be the answer, but it has to be more positive than focusing on our shared reality, which feels not unlike watching the aftermath of a 100-car train wreck. So is anyone with me? Is it time to start a revolution of appreciation for the good we know is there but are choosing not to focus on? I’m going to need some strong positivity warriors in my camp. I’m not known for being Sally Sunshine. Glennon Doyle likes to say, “We can do hard things.” Finding gratitude these days seems like it might be a hard thing, but if Glennon says we can do it, then we can.

When Life Imitates Star Wars

While many Americans spent tonight eating Thanksgiving leftovers or turkey tetrazzini or turkey sandwiches or turkey soup, we decided to get take out. We defaulted to our favorite local Italian restaurant for pizza. When we got home with the order, we immediately noticed the number on the boxes.

Any Star Wars fan worth a dime remembers Order 66 from Revenge of the Sith, the order that Chancellor Palpatine enacts to kill off the Jedi. “Execute Order 66” is burned into our sons’ brains, and therefore into ours. I can’t tell you how many times the boys have seen that movie or how many times we have seen it as a result. Star Wars runs through our blood over here. So, of course, together we looked at those pizza boxes and registered Star Wars.

The best thing about being part of a family, or a member of any social circle, big or small, lies in the connections you make and share. I’m grateful to have shared the time I have with the family I created for myself. If life is about the small things, today I am grateful for the pizza boxes that all four of us noticed and photographed and laughed about tonight. A day after Thanksgiving, I find myself with a little extra gratitude and peace.

The Kindest People I’ve Never Met

People publish a blog for many reasons, to earn a living or to promote their career or to connect with other people or to share some expertise. I’ve been writing for decades, going back to keeping a journal with regular entries when I was 13 years old. I started posting online on my first blog, Suburban Sirens, in 2009 when I was a 41 year old stay-at-home mom with 6 and 8 year old sons. Looking back, I think I began blogging as a way to reconnect with writing and editing, a career I jettisoned in 2001 with the birth of my first son. I felt separated from the art that had become so much a part of me that when it was gone I felt I had lost a part of myself. I was a bit lost without writing. I felt adrift.

If I put my thoughts out into the universe, if I started writing again, then perhaps I would feel slightly less invisible and slightly more heard than I felt as a stay-at-home mom with no income. And I had gotten to a point in my life where the boys were in school and I had a little quiet time to myself to reflect. As it turned out, blogging became an important way for me to process my sons’ struggles with learning disabilities and my difficulties adapting to their difficulties. Blogging became for me a type of low-cost therapy.

All of this is to say that I never began blogging to gain a following or even to be read, necessarily. I started posting a blog as a means of keeping myself accountable and figuring out what was going on in my mom brain. When I began posting on Live Now and Zen, I was genuinely surprised that 1) anyone (even my friends) took the time to read anything I published and 2) that some people who didn’t even know me read what I had to say. So, imagine my total shock when people I didn’t know began commenting on my posts. When I hit 1k subscribers, I was in denial. What are these people thinking? Don’t they have anything better to do? I’m still in denial about their readership and kindness. I don’t get it because, honestly, I do not spend much time reading on WordPress. I should read more. I should be spending a great deal more time seeing what others are saying. But, damn, I barely find time to write and publish most days. I feel guilty for not being a better blog community member and, next year when I am officially no longer a stay-at-home parent, I plan to ameliorate this situation at long last.

Despite my inattention to other’s posts, along the way I found several bloggers who were/are kind enough to read my posts often and leave me a comment. I cannot thank these individuals enough because their attention, encouragement, feedback, and comments have been more of a gift than I ever imagined or felt my writing deserved. So, I want to take a self-indulgent moment to thank my friends on WordPress: Paz (Armchair Zen), Gail (nightowlgail), msw (reallifeofanmsw), E.A. (bleuwater), babsje (babsjeheron), and Real Women (realwomen1). You have made me feel heard, appreciated, and understood during times when I have been struggling to find myself. Your encouragement and kind words have changed my opinion of my efforts. It’s been astounding to me how something I never sought or expected has given me so much.

You never know how a kind word can touch someone else. I encourage anyone who engages in an artistic practice to tell people who are working at their craft that you see them. You don’t know how that one comment might change everything for that struggling artist, writer, actor, sculptor, or performer.

Colorful Colorado

I had to drive my son to a volunteer shift this morning. On my way home, I had a full view of the entire front range of the Rocky Mountains in Denver. We have many sunny days in Colorado, but the clearest ones often occur in fall. The mountains have a light coating of snow, so they appear larger than they have all summer. The foothills seem closer because of the scrub oak bushes that have turned orange and red. And with the bright blue sky overhead, it’s simply gorgeous. This morning was so beautiful, I shed tears in my car as I headed west towards our home. I am so fortunate to live here. I moved here when I was 8. I’ve lived 75% of my life here, not long enough to be considered a native, but it’s home. Every day I get to wake up and remember I live here.

So today I am sharing photos I’ve taken of home.

Snow Mountain Ranch
Boulder and the Flatirons from a hot air balloon
Kebler Pass
Mt Sherman
Wildflowers on Rabbit Ears Pass
Steamboat Lake State Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park
View of the other side of Colorado’s famous Maroon Bells taken from Paradise Bowl at Crested Butte
Aspens changing color near Vail
Cliffs in the background of Haviland Lake
Powder day Crested Butte Ski Resort
Wilderness near Telluride
View from winery near Paonia
Mesa Verde National Park
Falls near Telluride