Tiptoeing through life

30 06 2016

“We tiptoe through life hoping to safely make it to death.”  — Unknown

I was sitting on an examination table in my doctor’s office, wearing a gigantic shapeless “gown”, a paper blanket across my lap, when I read the line above. I think it would have struck me in another setting, but given where I was it seemed imbued with special significance.

When my doctor entered the room, she asked what I was reading. I showed her the book’s cover and read the line to her. She said, “So, what’s on your bucket list that you haven’t done yet?”

I drew a blank.

She waited for an answer, but when one wasn’t forthcoming, she said, “Well, it’s probably a good idea to get clear on the things you still want to do so you can get busy doing them.”

Its not that there aren’t things on my bucket list (though I don’t have or want a formal one). But most of them are really big things I don’t ever say out loud. Most of them are things I don’t even know how to articulate, much less begin. Many of them are things I can’t do and tiptoe safely at the same time.

In her book, Traveling with Pomegranates, Sue Monk Kidd talks about entering her fifties and, suddenly, fearing death in a way that was new. At the same time, she was overcome with a desire to write fiction – which she had never done. These fears and desires warred within her – and as I reread the book this year, her story resonated deeply within me. The fact that she went on to publish a stunning first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, should fill me with hope.

Instead, I keep getting stuck at the notion that death hovers on a horizon that feels exponentially closer than it did a few years ago. I vacillate between acting as if I can hide from it and wanting to explode into next week shouting, “Let’s see what you’ve got!” Usually, I very quickly fall back into the life-long pattern of tiptoeing.

“We tiptoe through life hoping to safely make it to death.”  What an absurd thought, an absurd way of being in this life. No matter how we live, life ends at the same point for each of us – death. Why do we allow this one future event keep us from living as fully as we can before it arrives?

As I’ve sat with this line, looking at my own tiptoeing ways, I’ve realized a couple of things. First, I’m going to stop warning my loved ones to “Be safe” every time they take off on a trip or an adventure. I’m going to tell them to “Have fun!” “Enjoy” “Go big!” instead. They don’t need my encouragement to play it safe – most of us take that to the extreme. But we could all stand a little encouragement to go for it (whatever it is). For the children and young people in my life, I want to model that playing it safe is not the paramount value in life. They’ll hear plenty of messages about avoiding risks, mine doesn’t need to be one of them.

Second, I’m going try to hold and nurture possibilities for myself as if they are newborn children – feeding them, encouraging them, forgoing sleep if need be. I’ll keep reading books that exhort me to dream big and take steps to make those dreams happen. And the next time someone asks me what’s on my bucket list I’m going to give them an answer. Because I know what I want – and it’s about time I stopped tiptoeing around.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





Love Yourself?

23 06 2016

Last summer, while visiting my brother in Chicago, I insisted he stop the car so I could take a photo of a yoga studio. Not because it looked particularly different from any of the other store-fronts or even yoga studios we had already passed. I wanted to take a photo of its name: Self-Centered Yoga. I wondered what the focus of this particular yoga studio was: Centering the self? Centered on the self? Selfishly self-referenced? It struck me as funny, and I wondered if the owners were knowingly playing on the irony of the name – that to many people who don’t practice yoga, those who do are entirely too self-centered.

I share this story to illustrate my own ambivalence about the topic of loving oneself. Maybe being self-centered has gotten a bad rap? How and how much are we meant to love ourselves?

Even the bible presupposes self-love: the second of the greatest commandments (Mark 12:31) tells us to “love your neighbor as yourself”. We get ample instruction in loving our neighbors throughout our childhoods – share, be nice, “stupid” is a bad word…but very little information is forthcoming about exactly how we are to love ourselves.

A couple of months ago, a friend shared with me that she was responsible for chauffering a speaker for the day, and that he had been very inspiring. She sent a link to his Ted Talk, and I watched it. In telling his own inspiring story as a survivor of trauma, he shared that one of the most powerful things he’d done to bring about change in his own life was to love himself; to believe he is both loved and worthy of love. Looking himself in the eyes in a mirror, he tells himself he is loved.  (Here is the link to Sasha Joseph Neulinger’s powerful Ted talk: https://youtu.be/K_WL5iqvPlY)

A few weeks ago, someone I admire told a story about how using an affirmation of self-love has improved her energy, her relationship with her husband, and her ability to focus on her life goals. I admit, while I kept my skepticism to myself, I was doubtful. This story wasn’t about a healing response to trauma – it was about a young woman trying to live her best life. Hmmm.

I am currently reading a book which suggests ways we can make changes in our lives to live more in line with who and what we want to be. Every chapter ends with a list of “practical” steps or tools to take to accomplish this. Every list ends with “Love Yourself”. It took me several chapters to pick up on this, but then I went back and checked. Yep, every chapter ends with the exhortation. Love yourself.

And then last week I saw the video I shared at the top of this post. I was very moved, seeing this girl’s emotion upon realizing that the doll looks like her. She hugs it to her tightly and says, “I love you.” This simple phrase speaks volumes: you look like me and I love you; I need to believe AND express that I am loveable.

When the same message is repeated over and over again, and directed toward me (as opposed to being a repetitive cultural refrain or social media meme), I think it is important to pay attention. So, what am I supposed to be taking away from this particular thread in my life, popping up repeatedly and insistently over the last eight weeks?

Success coach and author, Jen Sincero (I’d like to take her name as my alter-ego!), says:

“We’re born knowing how to trust our instincts, how to breathe deeply, how to eat only when we’re hungry, how to not care about what anyone thinks of our singing voices, dance moves, or hair-dos, we know how to play, create, and love without holding back. Then, as we grow and learn from the people around us, we replace many of these primal understandings with negative false beliefs, fear, shame and self-doubt…And while there are countless ways that we rip ourselves off, there’s one way in particular that is, without a doubt, the most rampant and the most devastating of all: we invest everything we’ve got in believing that we’re not good enough. We arrive here as perfect little bundles of joy and then set about the task of learning to un-love ourselves!”   (from You Are A Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life)

Fear. Shame. Self-doubt. If I am honest with myself, I’ve invested significantly more of my personal capital in these three than in self love. It is undoubtedly true that this has been to my own detriment, as it keeps me from taking risks, from moving forward with confidence, etc. More important, what I am beginning to understand is that it has also been detrimental to the world I live in and am helping to co-create. Fear, shame and self-doubt cause me to respond to the world by closing in on myself, shielding myself from the prying eyes of criticism or ridicule for being the loser-failure I think I might be. And that closing in (those months of binge-watching “Castle” reruns, the 750+ games of “Monkey Wrench” word search, the daily hours of retweets about politics) keeps me focused on anything BUT impacting the world by sharing my unique gifts and best self. And if I am truthful, harshly judging myself leads me to be much more judgmental about other folks. I want to start labeling them: idiot, moron, baby, coward.

Frankly, I am not afraid of becoming a self-aggrandizing megalomaniac, trumpeting statements like “I have a great mind, one of the best minds”. I don’t have that in me. But “imagine,” says Jen Sincero, “how different your reality would be (and the reality of everyone surrounding you) if you woke up every morning certain of your own lovability and your critically important role on this planet.” That might be a reality very worth investing in.

 





Dear Facebook Friends: This NOT Another Open Letter

16 06 2016

“Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words.”  –Roland Barthes

Dear Facebook Friends:

This week I’ve read a lot of emotion-packed pleas on Facebook (and Twitter). From both sides of the political aisle, I’ve read about: why we need gun control and why gun control would be the end of American freedom; about the threat of radical Islam and the danger of painting one religion with too broad a brush stroke; I’ve read that we should pray for those murdered and injured in Orlando and that offering our prayers is hollow and meaningless; I’ve read people blaming, shaming, and pointing metaphorical fingers and I’ve read people offering love, support and forgiveness. I’m sure you’ve seen them all, as well.

A number of the things I’ve read have been titled, “An Open Letter To…” This is not one of those. First, because one thing that has struck me this week – the long week of anger over the Stanford rape case, the gunning down of a young performer, the Orlando mass shooting, and the small child grabbed by an alligator at a Disney resort – is that we spend way too much time casting our fellow beings as “The Other”. Most of the postings labeled “open letters” are thinly veiled lectures directed at rather than to an imagined and stereotyped other. Second, I’m addressing this letter to my Facebook friends: those people with whom, in one way or another, I am connected off-line as well as on (though I’m sharing it with you, too!)

Here’s why I’m writing. A few nights ago, my dear friend (whom I love and know to be a truly good person) said in a four-way messenger conversation, “I hope you all don’t equate me with a mass murderer because we don’t see eye to eye, politically.” While I had never considered blaming my friend, it occurred to me that I have many friends and loved ones whose views differ from my own – and who might share my friend’s concern. Just as I have many friends and loved ones who have suffered at the hands of prejudice, discrimination and harmful policies. (Some people will identify with both groups.) The many cultural and political issues we face are complex and deeply painful – and our society is far from having it all figured out.

So I want to make some promises to you as we move forward into the next months of what, I fear, will be an increasingly divided and divisive climate in America. Not only are we in the midst of a heated political election season, we are also engulfed in waves of global civil upheaval and unrest, and we are facing – with our brothers and sisters the world over – the very real consequences of climate change. In the midst of all of this, I want to make the following promises to you:

  1. I will own and manage my emotions. I understand that I am not free from emotional response, and that sometimes my emotion overwhelms my desire to be thoughtful and kind; therefore, I will consider very carefully before I hit the button that publishes or reposts something about world or national events. And if my emotion has held sway and I’ve posted something unkind, I will own that and apologize. However, I will call out politicians and celebrities – people intentionally in the public eye – whose words or actions are insupportable to me, along with those whom I believe to be right. Fair warning: this includes Donald Drumpf, whom I consider to be in the insupportable category.
  2. I will not rant arrogantly at you as if you are not intelligent, educated, thinking persons. I just read a post last night which spoke down to all readers, ending with the comment, “if you don’t agree with everything I’ve outlined, you are an idiot.” There is a difference between posts which state a different opinion than mine and those that rant arrogantly at anyone who disagrees with their view. I will strive to discern this difference.
  3. I may type deliberately inflammatory responses to your posts but I will delete them before I hit send.
  4. If I fail in any of these areas, and you point it out to me, I will not respond with knee-jerk defensiveness.  First and foremost, I will appreciate that you brought it to my attention, especially if you did so with generosity of spirit. Then, I will try to see it from your perspective, allowing that I am often wrong, and my communication regularly imperfect.
  5. I will engage in debate as long as it remains respectful, even if it is emotionally charged I won’t always specifically invite debate – I have some brave friends who do so, and I am in awe of their willingness to follow these invitations with open and thoughtful responses. When there is debate, I reserve the right to delete anything on my own timeline if I feel it is inappropriate – including (and probably most often) my own comments.

 

 





Re-Calibrating My Heart

9 06 2016

“The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.” — Ted Hughes

Lately, I have been feeling a bit sheepish. Here’s why:

Most mornings, I stumble out of bed and, after a quick stop in the bathroom, head downstairs for coffee and a brief perusal of social media before getting ready to face the day. I’ve read numerous articles about the fact that getting on the computer, checking email and social media, first thing in the morning is the wrong thing to do if I want to be a productive and successful person who meets all my goals for the day. But this isn’t what has me feeling sheepish.

It’s the fact that I sit at my computer and cry.

One morning, I wept while watching a video of a little girl with a prosthetic leg joyfully receive the gift of a doll with a prosthetic leg “just like me”. Another day, tears leaked out while viewing the latest installment of Carpool Karaoke because…Les Miz! (Sorry, I’ve yet to fall completely under the “Hamilton” spell, but I’m sure it will happen!) I cried reading the letter from the young woman in the Stanford rape case; when I read a post about yet another pedestrian killed by a careless driver while crossing the street in a crosswalk with a “walk” sign. Happy, sad or moving for inexplicable reasons: I cry.

This is a little secret I’ve kept to myself for quite a while. I’m sharing it so that you will know that I do this, just like so many of you. Like so many others, I get caught up in the emotion of things far removed from me – the stories and experiences of people I will never meet – every day. And this is not a bad thing.

But it is a thing that concerns me. We expend a great deal of compassionate energy responding to social media these days. (And, yes, some people expend a lot of energy being trolls, but that is a whole different topic.) Whether we sit quietly and cry at our kitchen tables; whether we click “comment”, “like”, or “share”; whether we write an impassioned response that our friends quickly agree with – we are essentially engaged within a closed loop that we sometimes mistake for actually doing something.

Then we go about our days, feeling harassed and angry at other drivers, at the slow people in front of us at the checkout, at the coffee shop when someone doesn’t know before their turn what they want to order, for crying out loud! In the workplace, we complain about everyone else’s lousy work ethic or bad habit of bogarting the copy machine. We duck into doorways or restrooms to avoid that emotionally needy coworker (you know the one). We don’t engage with people whose political or religious opinions differ from ours, thereby making it easy to maintain strict boundaries between “US” and “THEM”. When faced with people who need our compassion – at the corner or in WalMart or as we drive through a particular neighborhood and suddenly think to lock our doors – all we feel is irritation, disgust, or fear.

I worry that one of the pitfalls of social media engagement is that, while it opens our lives up to a wider reach of people and stories, it also allows us to spend our compassionate energy without actually having to open our hearts and/or join our hands with others IRL. I worry that we prefer it this way, because we don’t get dirty or uncomfortable or risk vulnerability and rejection. We prefer it because it isn’t hard.

The truth is, our hearts are meant to be broken, which is not easy. Hearts broken open allow others to walk right in and find space to curl up and be safe. Hearts broken open let our love and energy to flow outward to touch real people with real needs. They aren’t meant to merely click a thumbs-up button and move on. Hearts broken open don’t press share and write, “I’m just going to leave this here.”

In his novel, The Book Thief, Markus Zusak says “Somewhere, far down, there was an itch in his heart, but he made it a point not to scratch it. He was afraid of what might come leaking out.” With the exception of the sociopaths among us, we all feel the itch to make a positive difference. We all feel ourselves called to scratch that itch. And we all fear what might come leaking out. Still, our hearts are intended to leak in this way; we are meant to face our fear in order to add to the good of this world. I believe this with my whole broken-open heart.

And I worry that I am letting that good, compassionate leakage express itself in tears that fall on my keyboard and nowhere else. If, as Ted Hughes claimed, the only calibration that matters is how much heart we invest, I need to invest my heart in the world outside my kitchen, connected to me by something other than fiber optic cable or a wireless router. I think its time for a heartfelt re-calibration.





As Low as You Can, As Slow as You Need

2 06 2016

 

A couple of weeks ago, I went on a group bicycle ride sponsored by a community organization. I had been told that these were easy rides, all fitness levels welcome, so I decided to give it a shot. The ride leader turned out to be the person who sold me my new bike back in March. He gathered the group together, shouting to be heard above the traffic and the crowds of people there in the busy market. “In case you didn’t know, this is going to be a hill ride,” he called out.

The groans were audible even above the surrounding din. The vast majority of cyclists I know dislike riding hills. Even cyclists who are in good condition sometimes prefer to avoid them. I have a varied history with hills; I hated them until I understood how to ride them. Then I enjoyed testing myself against them, and I got pretty good at navigating even the more daunting ones. However, at this point in time, I’m out of shape for riding, am just building my skills and stamina back up – and I haven’t taken on many hill challenges on the new bike. So while I wasn’t one of the groaners, I was a bit nervous to see how it would go.

Just before we hit the first and toughest hill, slightly under half of the group split off to take an alternate (hill-avoiding) route. I shifted gears and began the ascent. Barely more than halfway up, I was unable to continue on the bike, and got off to walk. The difference between my easiest, or granny, gear on a 21-speed (my old bike) and the granny gear on my new 9-speed is significant. But I was mostly disappointed in myself for losing fitness and gaining weight – both of which are a significant part of why I was unable to ride that hill.

While I successfully maneuvered the remaining hills, and enjoyed the speedy final descent, I was still processing that first hill climb when we reached the park where we reunited with those who had chosen to avoid the hilly passage. When the ride leader approached, asking how it went, I told him that while I love my new bike, I miss my 21-speeds on the hills. He said, “Did I know you were going to ride hills? Because we don’t usually recommend that model for hill riding.” He walked away before I could answer.

I was fuming. Without going into the entire story of my purchase, suffice it to say that his comment was both unexpected and unwelcome. I began to obsess about it, and I was filled with righteous indignation for days. The next few times I went out to ride, all I could think about was that I had a bike that would never meet my needs. This made my rides much less enjoyable, and contributed to a reluctance on my part to attempt any but the most easily navigable hills.

However, it is a truth universally acknowledged by cyclists that a ride in want of daunting hills will never be a truly epic one. Also true? No matter what avoidance techniques you employ there will be hills. So, the next time I was faced with a hill that required me to climb it, I grimly squared my shoulders and kept riding.

I talked myself through it. “Just drop into as low a gear as you can. Ok, doing great. Now, take it as slow as you need to. There’s no hurry.” It wasn’t pretty. It was tortuously slow. Onlookers may have wondered if I would ever make it to the top – and if so, WHEN?! But I just kept repeating, “As low as you can, as slow as you need to.” Eventually, my heart pounding and gasping for air, I crested the hill.

And that’s when I realized that it was an ordinary hill. Not an epic hill, not one for the record books: an ordinary, everyday, hill.

There will be lots of ordinary hills for me to climb. Just as there will, sometimes, be epic hills to get over.

One of the great things about cycling, in my opinion, is that I continually learn things that apply throughout my life, not just while on the bike. In life, we face hills. And we get over hills. Even if we have to go slow; even if we have to walk. In my almost 55 years, I have yet to fail at getting over one…eventually. Sometimes it has been easy-peasey, and other times it has taken everything I had – more than I thought I could muster.

My new hill-mantra, “as low as you can, as slow as you need to”, is one I can generalize and use throughout my life. Drop your affect, keep your anxiety levels down, breathe – in other words, go as low as you can. Ratcheting up the fear, anxiety, or panic because you see a challenge looming on the horizon only makes things worse. More stressful. More difficult. More tense. No job is done more easily with your tense shoulders hunched up around your ears! Relax into the upward climb and it will be a lot less painful.

Then: take the time you need. Life, contrary to what we sometimes glean from our surrounding culture, is not a race. While timeliness can be a factor, it is rarely the only factor. Finishing well is generally more important. I can’t think how many times I’ve hurried through some project or task, only to discover that I could (and should) have taken somewhat more time to do it really well rather than to rush to completion.

Go as low as you can, as slow as you need to. I keep repeating this mantra to myself, on my bike and off, and finding it beneficial in setting a great tone to my days. When I do encounter one of life’s hills, I have a way to approach it that doesn’t incite unnecessary fear or stress. Just the calm, ordinary effort required to keep moving forward.