As it turns out…

…curbing the violent thoughts which run rampant in my head while driving is extremely difficult.  (In case you didn’t read last week’s entry, I have decided that conquering my violent thoughts is the new frontier.)  On Saturday, I grumbled about another driver in the Barnes and Noble parking lot, realizing only after I verbalized my thoughts that I had a passenger — and she had read my blog entry only that morning.  We looked, startled, at one another then burst into laughter.  Embarrassed laughter, on my part.  Humbling moments, such as this, serve to either convince me that a resolution I have made is hopeless or to recommit to it with greater vigor.  Which direction will I go?!

A few years ago, I read several publications, and watched some interesting films (What the Bleep? and The Secret) on the concept of the “Law of Attraction”.  The basic concept, and I am seriously simplifying here, is that we give off energy that attracts like energy to us.  I have experimented with this concept, and while my experiments have been limited, I have found that it works — to a point.  It’s all about focus: I need to focus on what I DO want, not what I DON’T want, to attract.  Behind the wheel, I am always focused on what I don’t want — a slow driver, or a tourist, or someone who doesn’t use turn signals, in front of me.  My friend, Sara, can vouch for the fact that I seem to be a magnet for unsure and infirm drivers.  This is one of the reasons that I am certain that I will have a better experience when driving if I somehow curb my thinking.

But it goes deeper than wanting a more pleasant driving experience.  Many minds more gifted than mine, from theologians like Pierre Theilhard de Chardin to visionaries like the woman who became known simply as Peace Pilgrim, have written about the need to take a close, hard look at what we allow to exist in our hearts and in our heads.  That these thoughts have real consequences in the world.

Many years ago, I was introduced to one writer who has had a profound impact on my understanding, if not my actual behavior. Etty Hillesum wrote extensive diaries and letters about her spiritual transformation during the period leading up to and culminating in her death in Auschwitz.  She had many offers from admirers and friends to go into hiding, however, she chose to work openly to try to relieve some of the suffering of her people — and to share in their suffering herself when the time came.  Before she was sent to the death camp, she gave her diaries to a friend for safe-keeping, with the instruction to publish them if she died.

In her diaries, which were finally published in the 1980s, Etty speaks eloquently to the point of managing your inner dialogue.  “I see no other solution…than to turn inwards and to root out all the rottenness there. I no longer believe that we can change anything in the world until we have first changed ourselves.  And that seems to me the only lesson to be learned from this war.  That we must look inside ourselves and nowhere else.”  By February, 1942, when Etty wrote this, she had seen enough inhumanity that she could easily have been forgiven for vilifying the Enemy.  But she took another route.  “By our own hatred…our greatest injury is one we inflict upon ourselves…True peace will come only when every individual finds peace within himself; when we have all vanquished and transformed our hatred for our fellow human beings of whatever race–even into love one day.”

You may be thinking it is a far cry from rising to noble heights while living through one of the greatest human atrocities of the modern world to training oneself not to curse at other drivers.  But that’s not really true.  How can I root out and unlearn my own ingrained prejudices if I can’t even curb this petty vitriol?  That is the real question behind my desire to get a grip on my driving problem.  Which takes me back to the question: decide its hopeless or recommit with renewed vigor?  Taking my cue from Etty Hillesum, what other choice is there if I value peace in this world?

Anti-Rage Road

My alarm went off at 5:50 this morning, and I only hit snooze once.  I quickly dressed for the gym, grabbed my water bottle and bag, and headed out the door.  It was crisp and cold, very dark with a barely orange line on the eastern horizon.  Inside my car, heat blasting and radio up, I heard several hateful and factually incorrect campaign ads (from both ends of the political spectrum) within minutes.  I drove as if my speedy arrival would save a life, when in reality it merely ensured I would arrive on time for my morning fitness class, “Whole Body Torture”.  Other drivers kept getting in my way, moving slow, braking when the wind picked up.  I caught myself thinking the most terrible things about them — name calling in my head in a way I never do unless driving.  I mean, really vicious thoughts about people I would never voice under any circumstance…except when they piss me off while I’m driving.  The environment in my silver Saturn was toxic with the invisible smoke gushing out my ears like an old Yosemite Sam cartoon, a telltale sign that my head was about to explode.

Now, some might say this was an inauspicious start to the day.  Others that I need to exercise better self-control. Still others might just consider this normal, workweek angst.  I took it as a sign that today would be one of those days: the kind where external messages coming toward me from the world get magnified, and reflected back.  Vile and hateful messages on the radio, viler and more hateful messages in my head.

Today many people chose to wear purple as a statement against anti-gay bullying and the recent suicides of youth who couldn’t live with the bullying any longer.  Though I was heartened by the number of people I saw sporting purple attire, I was discouraged by the need for such a gesture.  I couldn’t shake the many images that came to mind of young people I have cared for who have lived with these experiences.  I couldn’t shake the anger that flared inside me — nor could I stop myself from resorting again and again to violent thoughts and name calling toward the bullies.

As I was leaving work for the day, my friend Sarah mentioned her intention to go for a bike ride and I weaseled my way into her plans.  I ran home, changed, and within minutes our bikes were in the back of Big Red, Sarah’s truck, headed for the Boyson Road trail access.  The trail was sparsely populated with a mixture of runners and cyclists.  The first four miles are paved, winding through suburban back yards and crossing streets busy with families returning home after work and school.  Once we flew through the tunnel beneath County Home Road, we hit the unpaved section of the path, otherwise known – tonight at least – as Nirvana.  If I could have gotten the camcorder on my phone to function, I would have taped the road ahead of me.  Sun trickled through orange, red and yellow leaves still on the trees and scattered on the trail.  Suddenly, the view would open to rolling fields still being harvested and a sky first blue, then pink and blue, then pink and gold.  Sarah rode on ahead as I fumbled with my phone/camera, leaving me alone and surrounded by beauty.  I rode in silence, soaking up the sights and smells and quiet sounds of the woods and fields.  Geese honked overhead, my tires hummed below me.  When I turned around, heading back only because of impending darkness, I marvelled at the sunset on my right hand, the moonrise on my left.

In his treatise on beauty, John O’Donohue writes, “The wonder of the Beautiful is its ability to surprise us.  With swift, sheer grace, it is like a divine breath that blows the heart open.”  And that is what happened, beauty cracked me wide open.  All day I had been like a balloon, filled with gas almost to the breaking point, impermeable mylar skin causing me to be buffeted about.  Whenever I entered a space containing some external emotional currents I would float in that element and become part of it.  At last, the stale air inside me escaped and dissipated in the cooling breeze.  Any lingering morning rage, any purple haze remaining from the day, disappeared.  And I became permeable, no longer reflective like a mirror.  I could feel gratitude, and hope, and love.  I could feel the beauty surrounding me, and knew that I could take it inside myself and use it to learn the art of thought control — because violence done inside my head is still violence, still adds to the measure of rage and unrest in this world.  And I don’t want to be part of that anymore.  I prefer to add to the beauty of this world, and am making that my path through the woods of this life.

The H Word

“The way I figure it, Heaven and Hell are right here on Earth.  Heaven is living in your hopes and Hell is living in your fears.  It’s up to each individual which one he chooses.”  Jelly paused.  “I told that to the Chink once and he said, ‘Every fear is part hope and every hope is part fear — quit dividing things up and taking sides.”

–Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about hope.  First, I read a reflection titled “Fragile Frightful Hope” ( http://wp.me/p3KXs-wK ) in which Randy Greenwald suggests that many of us take shelter in the idea of ourselves as realists in order to avoid the fear inherent in allowing ourselves to hope.  Then, on Tuesday, I attended the annual fundraising banquet for the House of Hope, (http://www.houseofhopecr.org/) an organization offering hope to many women in this community.

The story of the House of Hope is one that highlights the relationship between fear and hope.  Melody Graham, its founder, was working with a woman who needed help, but the kind and intensity of help necessary just weren’t available via local social services.  The first time I heard Melody describe what happened, she said, “And as I was thinking about what this woman needed, I heard a voice ask, ‘Why don’t you open a house for women?'” Each step of the way to establishing the House of Hope was an exercise in facing self-doubt and fear — I mean, its scary to buy a house with no money.  It’s difficult to convince other people to invest in your inspiration.  Melody faced each of these fears, because her hope was stronger.

Melody has been an inspiration to me (and countless others) for years now.  We are amazed by what she manages to create, along with a strong group of friends and allies she has recruited along the way.  I’ve also listened closely as Melody says, “All I did was keep taking the next step.”  Hope leads us forward, if we have the courage to risk doing so without advance knowledge of the outcomes.  And really, the fear is all about outcomes — about being let down, hurt, broken.  We will never know the outcome when we take that first step. Or the next.

At this point in my life, I am not directly engaged in the work of changing my community or creating new structures to support those in need.  But I am engaged in the personal work of transforming a fearful life into one of hope. One next step after another.  Which brings me to the Tom Robbins quote, above.  I have loved this quote for decades, because I believe the wise Chink makes an important point.  When we are sheltering in the cave of Fear, it is easy to delude ourselves into thinking that our only “out” is to leave the cave completely behind.  Stepping out into the pure sunshine of Hope.  But my experience of reality is not that — instead, hope and fear become inextricably mixed.  Sometimes, when I experience that weird flutter in my gut, I can’t even tell for certain which of the two caused it.

This week, today, I living in a place of hope and fear.  I am both afraid I will and afraid I won’t acheive or receive in my life some things I am hoping for.  It doesn’t really matter what these things are — what matters is that I am choosing to hope after a long period of not hoping.  And some of what I’ve hoped for has come to fruition in wonderful ways.  Does it feel less fearful, therefore, to choose hope? Not on your life!  But the quality of the fear is different.  It is a lighter, less depressing fear:   a what if I risk it and it doesn’t happen? instead of a no way can I take that risk!  Sometimes, I can still plunge without warning into the “NO” of pure fear.  But then I realize I can see a little light beginning to glow on the horizon.  Fragile, frightful, hope returns.  And I take another step.

Wherever I go, there I am!

One day last week (like Alexander in the children’s book by Judith Viorst),  I was having a terrible, horrible, very bad, no good day I updated my Facebook status to say, “I don’t mean to be a whiner, but today totally bites.”  That evening, I had a voicemail from one of my oldest friends.  She said, “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I was so happy to see your Facebook status!  You’ve been so chipper for so long, I was beginning to wonder who you were, and what you did with my friend!”  Was there any way to take that message other than to laugh and admit she had a point?

Dear readers, I have often shared that my life has changed materially in the time since I began this blog.  It is true, I am happy for probably the first time in my adult life.  The kind of happy that penetrates deep below the surface of daily ups and downs.  The type of happy that prevents me from writing depressing status updates or complaining incessantly about minutiae.  I am “big picture” happy — and that is a really great place to be.

If you don’t know me, or if, like my relieved friend above, you stay up-to-date through electronic means and infrequent chats, you might not be getting an accurate picture of how my newly happy self interacts with the world.  Those who see me daily were less surprised, I am sure, to read my complaint!  Being happy doesn’t mean I have stopped expressing emotional ups AND downs, or that I have magically overcome all hurdles in my emotional, physical, or professional life.  Far from it.

Example #1:  I am able to go for relatively lengthy periods of time having what I would call a “right relationship” with food.  I eat and truly enjoy fresh, healthy food prepared by my own hands.  In fact, this begins to feel so right and so normal for me, that I start to believe that I have conquered the old “wrong relationship” of using food to feed my emotional needs — I mean, anyone can overcome an ingrained, lifelong coping mechanism, right?  And then a really difficult hurdle pops up and I find myself eating my way through a Thursday night and most of a Friday.

Example #2: Negative self-talk is something most of us have experience with.  I have sometimes taken it to the extreme of hatefully loathing self-talk.  (If I heard someone say to another person the things I’ve said to myself, I would be unable to refrain from physical violence.)  Even on good days, I sometimes catch sight of myself in a mirror and that voice in my head starts in:  “You think you look good?  Who are you kidding?  No wonder you’re alone. Look at you, who would ever be attracted to that?”

Example #3: When I have a bad day at work, I am tempted just like everyone else is, to rail against the other people who are clearly, patently, responsible for my bad day. Some days I totally give in to that temptation, and suddenly the number of miserable people multiplies exponentially. Who doesn’t start to feel worse when they spend time with Debbie Downer?

But the big difference about these situations now, what causes me to seem so changed to my old friends —  none of those things defines me, nor do they set my agenda for days and weeks to come.  Fell off the food wagon?  I’m no easily bruised peach, and I’m certainly able to catch up to the wagon and jump back on!  Talking smack at myself?  It may not always be easy, but I tell that biach to shut up if she doesn’t have anything constructive to offer.  Having a bad day at the office?  Get in line! Or better yet, stop complaining and find something productive to do.  I really have learned to stop my negative spirals and bring my spirit and mood back up to even keel.  Some days I can do that immediately, others it takes longer.  But I do get there, and that is the biggest gift happiness brings to my life.

So, to all my friends who have wondered where the real me went, SURPRISE! She’s still here.  She’s just the new and improved version: more resilient, more self-confident, less cranky…most, but not all, of the time.