Unexpected Warmth in the Season of Ice

I spent last weekend in Minneapolis, visiting my friend Mike. Friday night and Saturday were very nice. I truly enjoyed the time spent in low-key activities such as attending a high school girl’s basketball game, shopping with Mike’s sons for their winter formal fashions, and a delicious dinner at primebar in Uptown (if you go there, definitely get the steak flatbread; we had ours without the bechamel sauce).

It was great. But…

…I couldn’t relax. I received calls and texts from work throughout the evening on Friday, and again both Saturday morning and afternoon – it was difficult to disconnect from the stress of the work week when it followed me to another state! In addition, I was concerned about my Dad, fighting double pneumonia in Albuquerque. To top things off, I worried obsessively about the impending weather. When I left town on Friday, all weather reports were for some mixed precipitation on Sunday, but the forecast wasn’t particularly alarming. However, by Saturday, it became clear that ice was likely to be a major issue.

I needed to get back to Cedar Rapids on Sunday! I had so much to do! This couldn’t be happening! (Insert frantic hair pulling and frown-y face here)

Sunday morning, I was up by 7:15, disappointed to see the Iowa DOT website covered with the pink dots denoting 100% ice covered roadways. As I continued to check the Iowa and Minnesota DOT sites every fifteen minutes for the next two hours, the news got worse. Dark purple sections of road (travel not advised), tow bans (for those unlucky souls who were on the road and ended up in a ditch), and hazard triangles showing the locations of crashes proliferated. By 10:30 the weather radar and road maps had finally convinced me – the drive home simply was not going to happen until Monday.

And then the most amazing thing happened: within minutes of accepting that the situation was out of my hands, every part of me relaxed. I don’t mean I sat a little more comfortably on Mike’s white IKEA loveseat. I mean, deeply relaxed. Muscles let go of tension, blood slowed to a normal pace in my veins, breathing became deep and regular.

The rest of the day, we took our time. Mike scoured his kitchen sink, I scoured my blog reader for interesting posts. I showered. Mike showered longer. When we left his apartment for lunch, the morning rain was just switching over to ice pellets. By the time we reached our destination, Turtle Bread, the ice was visibly accumulating. Inside the warm bakery/deli, we were cozy, surrounded by fresh-from-the-oven loaves and inhaling warm, humid, yeast-scented air. We talked and laughed as we leisurely ate our salads and homemade chicken pot pies. Facing the windows all along the front of the cafe, I saw the ice turn to big, fat snowflakes which quickly blanketed everything in quiet white. I watched as passersby exhibited varying reactions to the snow, some hunched up inside their winter parkas looking grim and others displaying childlike exuberance and joy.

The remainder of our lazy Sunday flowed from there: browsing the shops in Uptown, Kowalski’s for pizza toppings (we bought fresh pizza dough at Turtle Bread), back to Mike’s for an evening of public television (of course, Downton Abbey!) and fresh food, topped off by a viewing of “The Mexican.” Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt – how can you go wrong?

Honestly, not one minute was “productive” (well, Mike did some laundry), and not one moment was spent worrying about what was not getting done. I had let it all go. As a result, I have rarely passed a day that more perfectly resonated with what I needed from it.

Normally, at this point in one of my posts I would get all academic, sharing the insights I’ve received from a variety of sources addressing exactly this instance. How to let go, how to relax, why I can’t let go, decision-fatigue, blah-dee-blah-blah. But this time, just this once, I want to let the experience speak for itself: the paradox of how an ice storm could suffuse me with so much calm warmth.

Mysteries, Yes
 
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds
will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.~ Mary Oliver ~(Evidence)

Taking a Flying Leap

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“You remember the old Roadrunner cartoons, where the coyote would run off a cliff and keep going, until he looked down and happened to notice he was running on nothing but thin air?”

“Yeah.”

“Well,” he says. “I always used to wonder what would have happened if he’d never looked down. Would the air have stayed solid under his feet until he reached the other side? I think it would have, and I think we’re all like that. We start heading out across this canyon, looking straight ahead at the thing that matters, but something, some fear or insecurity, makes us look down. And we see we’re walking on air, and we panic, and turn around and scramble like hell to get back to solid ground. And if we just wouldn’t look down, we could make it to the other side…”

–Jonathan Tropper,The Book of Joe

I was sitting at my dining room table, trying to decide what to share in today’s post. My recent reflections have been, indeed, reflections of my state of mind – serious, heavy, full of the weighty feel of winter. I was attempting to think of something to say today that would lighten the mood a bit, but I was coming up empty-handed.

Then, I happened to look up and see the little painting (in the photo above) that my sister, Gwen, gave me for Christmas. When I got home from the holidays in New Mexico, I put the painting in the little niche in my dining room, where it resides with angels and saints, a diminutive ceramic creche, a glass charm against the evil eye. And I promptly stopped noticing it until now.

The woman silhouetted in the painting is leaping – with abandon and joy, it seems — across a chasm. She is looking ahead, at her goal, not down at what is or is not currently beneath her feet. Does she know, I wonder, what lies ahead? I doubt it – it seems clear that this is a leap of faith. Faith that she’ll land safely on the other side. Faith that the choice to leap was the right one. Faith that the time for leaping had arrived. And faith that, whatever awaits on the far side of the chasm, will be worth facing and taking the leap.

Faith is what I’ve been forgetting to cultivate in this dark winter. And in so doing, a joyful spirit is what I’ve imprisoned in anxiety and fear. The overwhelming to-do list I’ve written with my obsessive thinking lacks both faith and joy – I have been thinking of everything as something I have to do (even time with loved ones has been relegated to the status of “onerous chores”) rather than as something I choose to do – or better, as something I am privileged to do.

I am reminded of what Brene Brown says in The Gifts of Imperfection about resilience: “Feelings of hopelessness, fear, blame, pain, discomfort, vulnerability, and disconnection sabotage resilience. The only experience that seems broad and fierce enough to combat a list like that is the belief that we’re all in this together and that something greater than us has the capacity to bring love and compassion into our lives.” (my emphasis)

So here’s to cultivating resilience: to leaping forward without looking down, to releasing a joyful spirit from the gloom of winter, to celebrating connection, and to actively practicing faith.

Both Sides

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The screensaver on my computer is a photograph of an Iowa summer sky. There are many clouds, giving the sky depth and interest. In places, the clouds are black and roiling, obviously about to let loose a storm of some magnitude. On the opposite side of the picture are spots where the clouds have thinned and rays of sunshine are shooting through with that sense of portent that makes you strain to hear a choir of angels letting loose with a majestic song of praise. I love this photo for a variety of reasons, but mainly because I think the sky is beautiful and it makes me happy and peaceful to see even a small re-creation of our expressive midwestern skies.

The funny thing is, I can remember the day I took this shot. I was driving back to Cedar Rapids from Dubuque (about 75 miles, for those not from these parts). I was actually terrified. I had the radio on, and every three minutes or so a weather siren would sound, startling me every time. There were severe thunderstorms with high winds and hail in Dubuque County, and tornadoes sighted in Jackson and Jones counties. I was surrounded by dangerous weather and my knuckles were white on the steering wheel. I scanned the skies, looking for any sign of tornadic activity, feeling very vulnerable in my Saturn-brand tin can hurtling down the highway.

Perspective is interesting and magical like that. It allows us to see the exact same thing in different ways. On the one hand, I can look at the scene described above and be entranced with its beauty. Or I can look at it and feel anxious and fearful because of its power. You might remember an old Joni Mitchell song, “Both Sides Now” that came to mind as I was writing about my sky photo. The first verse shows two different perspectives from which she’s viewed clouds:

Bows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere, i’ve looked at clouds that way.
But now they only block the sun, they rain and snow on everyone.
So many things i would have done but clouds got in my way.
–Joni Mitchell, lyrics, “Both Sides Now”
 

The main difference between these two perspectives on clouds is focus. We see what we are focused on seeing. This is a hard truth to fully understand because mostly we are not taught to see it. We grow into adulthood believing that perspective absolute, that mood is what we feel, and we are powerless to do anything about it.  The truth is, though, we can affect perspective and mood by changing our focus. And focus is a choice.

Life happens, and we often (usually) are not in control of the things that come our way. Lately, I have struggled with perspective. In fact, I have found myself in a pretty dark place of fear and “stuckness”. I focused on the fear and the feeling of being stuck. Shifting focus did not occur to me. Instead, panic occurred to me, and my perspective was one of powerlessness. I felt powerless to address my own life needs. And that, friends, is a truly terrible perspective to be stuck in.

In “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are”, Brene Brown sums this up eloquently:

“Powerlessness is dangerous. For most of us, the inability to effect change is a desperate feeling. We need resilience and hope and a spirit that can carry us through the doubt and fear. We need to believe that we can effect change if we want to live and love with our whole hearts.”

One way to shift ourselves out of the perspective of “I am powerless” is to do something, anything. I chose to start small – a trip to the doctor’s office to address the lingering respiratory illness I’ve been fighting for weeks and to ask about whether there might be a physiological reason for what I perceived as “panic attacks”. Not much was resolved by that doctor’s appointment (there are follow up appointments and an overdue physical to be done, etc.). However, a course of antibiotics and some blood work have gone a long way toward helping me shift focus from “I am powerless” to “I can be proactive to address my health.” Perhaps not a giant step, but let me tell you, the perspective from here feels a lot better.

Once we start doing something, it becomes much easier to address the issue of mental focus and shifting perspective there. When I start to see only the gray and stormy side of clouds, I can actually stop those thoughts and refocus on their beauty. It isn’t always easy, but we can shift our focus from powerless to hopeful. Brene Brown writes, “I was shocked to discover that hope is not an emotion; it’s a way of thinking or a cognitive process. Emotions play a supporting role, but hope is really a thought process…”

We don’t have to be in the depths of deep emotional pain to benefit from learning to shift perspective. One night over the Christmas holidays I was playing Yahtzee with several members of my family. Dice games can be so frustrating, because although you make some choices (which dice you keep, how many times you roll, etc.) the reality is the outcome is mainly left to chance. I was losing miserably. I remember thinking, “Why am I so unlucky?! I have always been unlucky.” I was about to say something to that effect to the group. But when I looked up from the useless combination of numbered spots lying on the table, I saw my nephew’s smile, my parents, my beloved brother-in-law and had an “Ah-ha!” moment. I realized that I AM lucky – Yahtzee be damned. I’m so lucky it is stinking unfair!

Last week’s post ended with my statements about choosing to be happy in the present moment. They were declarations about making a shift in thinking that would impact mood, focus and perspective. Those choices, and the ones I’ve written about today, are powerful ones. They are the choices that allow us to be hopeful and to see ourselves as having agency in our own lives. I’ve told a couple of friends that, for now, I’m focusing on practicing good “mental hygiene” – cleaning up my thoughts so my hope and powerfulness are in good working order! Perhaps you’d like to join me in this endeavor!

 
 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

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I had an appointment with a doctor yesterday. He said, “As long as you’ve plateaued and aren’t backsliding, you should just give yourself a break. Relax for a while.” I really appreciated his comments, more because they were unexpected. So, I’m trying to relax. We’ll see how that goes 🙂

From Half to Whole

People magazine’s annual “Half Their Size” issue is out (here). I noticed it while in line at the supermarket, then picked it up to take a closer look. The women who made it on the cover look good, having lost 137 and 126 pounds respectively. The subheadings read, “No surgery!” “No gimmicks!” I contemplated purchasing a copy, thinking, “Wow, I wonder how they did it?”

This question was not one of idle curiosity. The people being highlighted in the “Half Their Size” stories have accomplished something spectacular. I imagined reading their stories,  learning the secrets of their successes, and finding something useful that would rub off on me.

And that’s when I stopped myself.

What was I thinking? My own weight loss total is 154 pounds (give or take a couple pounds on any given day) – a bigger number than either of the cover women put up. And I did it without surgery or gimmicks, too. This doesn’t mean I should no longer be interested in or celebrate other people’s weight loss journeys. What brought me up short, though, was the realization that I had just been thinking of these other people as “successful” and myself as “not”.

The reasons for that are complex, and I’ve been trying to sort them out in my head. One time some young friends asked me to help them untangle the embroidery threads they were hoping to use to weave friendship bracelets. Unpacking my thoughts and reactions to the “Half Their Size” issue has been a lot like untangling the mass of threads those kids handed me. So far, I’ve managed to separate a few threads from the rest:

  • Comparisons are at the root of discontent. Looking at what someone else has/has accomplished is a sure-fire way to feel less satisfied with what you have/have done. Not only does the grass look greener over there, but we are not privy to whatever is lurking below the surface. This is very true for physical appearance issues like weight – the women on the cover of People look great. When I look in the mirror, I see rolls and flab and the pounds that still need to be shed. But it is also true for our inner selves. Many people appear happy, positive, well-adjusted and relatively problem-free – in comparison to us. When we look at our ourselves, we see the inner struggles, the warts and blemishes, the imperfect whole – and we end up feeling like an inferior mess. Comparing ourselves to others is a red-herring. It diverts our attention from our true focus, which is being our best selves.
  • Perfectionism derails a sense of accomplishment. Our culture regularly proclaims the importance of cultivating a relentless pursuit of excellence. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t strive for excellence. However, this push can cause us to denigrate “pretty damn good”, as if the only acceptable or worthy-of-cheering result is perfection. And if we do achieve something praiseworthy, we celebrate quickly and move on to the next challenge – “Woo hoo! What’s next?”
  • Failing to self-reflect keeps us in deficit-thinking. In our hurry to move on to the next thing, we don’t take the time to incorporate our new skills, achievements, recently discovered strengths into our self-definition. When we face a new hurdle, we forget that we have assets we worked hard to attain. Instead of seeing our real strength(s), we continue to operate from a sense of self that is outdated and underdeveloped.
  • Success and happiness are not the same thing. We often trip ourselves up by thinking that this thing or that accomplishment will make us happy. The truth is, we can be very successful at something that we don’t enjoy. We can also be very happy without meeting outward measures of success. The reason for this? Success is about what we do. Happiness resides in who we choose to be.

So, in the face of People’s “Half Their Size” issue, who am I choosing to be? I am choosing to be someone who can celebrate others’ success without downgrading my own. I’m choosing to remember that, regardless of what goals I have set for myself, I am already whole and valuable as I am. And I am choosing to find happiness inside my own heart and inside this present moment. I hope you are choosing well for yourselves, too!

The Year of Girlfriends

Late afternoon on New Year’s Day, my Twitter feed started to light up with mentions of my Twitter handle. While I haven’t signed on to the site much recently, I have notifications set to alert me when I am mentioned or receive a direct message. My friend, Molly, had tweeted: “Declaring #2013 as the year of the girlfriends. 🙂 I may not survive my 30s without them…True words.” When she didn’t get an immediate response to this tweet, Molly tweeted again, calling on several of us to join her for #theyearofthegirlfriend. Nothing would satisfy her until we had all responded that we were “in”. I may not always like being called out publicly, but I have to say I didn’t mind it for this pledge of friendship in the new year.

And what a group of women to be included among! Molly named only four or five of us, but there are more than that in our merry band of women friends. We range in age from mid-twenties to early 50s (that’s me, by far the oldest); we’re all over the map with regard to political leanings, social standing, marital status, and spiritual beliefs. What we have in common would be difficult for a stranger to parse, but seems to make sense to us. First and foremost, we were in the same place at the same time for a brief moment. This proximity cannot be underestimated as an initial catalyst, after all, even in a digital age we crave closeness on both the physical and emotional levels. But proximity alone doesn’t begin to explain what has kept us interested in developing and deepening our friendships with one another. That is about seeking out, from among those physically near, those whose inner selves call to our own best selves. My closest women friends, whether connected with this group or not, allow me to be who I am and love me in spite of my flaws. However, they also know I have a vision of a better me I’m striving to reach. So they nurture her, too, and help her bloom into being.

I don’t think Molly was exaggerating her claim that she might not survive her 30s without her girlfriends. In fact, I think she might have been understating things a bit. Recently, there has been a tendency to focus on women as “frenemies” and “mean girls”, to the detriment of real women and their meaningful relationships with one another. However, research apparently tells a different story. One study, a  comprehensive study of women’s health, resulted in surprising findings – we’ve all heard about the “fight or flight” response to stress; women, however, may have a stress response better characterized as “tend and befriend”. (Text of the original study can be read here. However, an easier to read article summarizing the findings can be found here.) The study suggests that this “tend and befriend” response is triggered by the release of oxytocin, which is further enhanced by the presence of estrogen. The result is a powerful calming effect on stress not experienced by men. According to the study’s authors, this response may even explain why women outlive men. Other studies consistently show that having close women friends helps women sleep better, improves their immune systems, staves off dementia and, ultimately, helps women live longer. One study (Flinders University, Australia) found that women with more friends lived 22 percent longer than women with fewer friends. Even if these reports were exaggerated or from flawed research (I just searched and found them on the internet, after all!), they still point to a powerful truth – women need their girlfriends. It may even be a matter of life or death!

While I find it interesting that there are biological factors which affect and/or are impacted by women’s friendships, it is much more important to me that my friends impact my emotional and psychological well-being in positive ways – and that my friendship, love and concern have that same positive impact on them. I can only speak for myself when I say that my friends are sometimes the only motivating factor for getting me through the day. It isn’t that I spend every day baring my soul, my deepest thoughts and feelings to them. Or that they always have excellent advice. Rather, it is the acceptance and lack of judgment, the sensitivity to nuance of mood, the willingness to hold me up with their strength or to sometimes give me a kick in the pants that makes my girlfriends so important to me. My girlfriends can be fierce when necessary, but they’re never mean. And while we may occasionally hurt one another’s feelings, it is always unintentionally done – never purposeful “frenemy fire”.

So here’s to making 2013 “The Year of the Girlfriends”. To all my girls out there, near and far, old and young – be well, be happy, and be proud of your tending and befriending ways. The life you save may be your own, but you’ll likely lengthen – and enrich – a few other lives along the way!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

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Well, the holidays weren’t as bad for my weight as they might have been. One reason was illness, which rendered even my favorite dishes into interesting but flavorless textures in my mouth. The second was my niece Zoe. I offered the 7 year old the money-making chance of a lifetime – if you see me eating any time except during a meal, you call me on it and I’ll pay you a dollar. She watched me like a hawk, and earned herself three dollars in cold, hard cash! She might have earned more, except that the rest of my family banded together to protect me from Zoe’s sight during my occasional weak moments!