The Three Lacks

21 07 2017

“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.” Marcus Aurelius

Thursday morning. I wake up to the alarm, knowing I set it with the intent of one snooze cycle only. But I am so sleepy. Each time it sounds I can only hit snooze again. When I finally decide I am awake, I check my FitBit, which tells me that of the six hours I was “asleep” I spent roughly the exact same amount of time awake as in deep sleep: 51 minutes.

In the kitchen, as I wait for the coffee to brew, I am tempted to log in to my bank accounts. I don’t need to as I’ve spent plenty of time there in the last twenty-four hours. I have a pretty exact idea of where every penny is allocated. I have the spending of an unplanned-for small fortune on my vehicle yesterday to thank for this crystal-clear knowledge.

I think about the day ahead. So many things to do, not nearly enough time. I have this image in my head: like Jacob Marley’s ghost, I carry a chain of heavy links-each one an undone thing I ought to have already attended to. An unreturned phone call, an incomplete task, a disappointed colleague or friend.

I sit at my kitchen table, sipping the coffee that finally finished brewing. At the start of this new day, I feel tired, broke, discouraged.

It starts to rain.

I try very hard to focus on abundance, but I cannot get the three lacks out of my mind: I lack resolve; I lack funds; I lack time. They are the three lacks I always seem to battle.  Maybe everyone does? Brene Brown says, “For me, the opposite of scarcity is not abundance. It’s enough. I’m enough.” But even lowering the bar to enough, I fall short many days.

I fall short today.

It isn’t even 8:00 a.m. and I have decided that the day is a bust. Already, my day is defined by what is lacking rather than by what is present.

I get dressed and drive to work – yelling at the other drivers for imagined transgressions.  (It only helps a little.)  Once there, before I can take the three lacks out on everyone else, sucking the abundance from their days, a colleague shares a poem that seems selected with my martyrdom of scarcity in mind:

Everything Is Waiting for You

Your great mistake is to act the drama

as if you are alone. As if life

were a progressive and cunning crime

with no witness to the tiny hidden

transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny

the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,

even you, at times, have felt the grand array;

the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding

out your solo voice. You must note

the way the soap dish enables you,

or the window latch grants you freedom.

Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.

The stairs are your mento of things

to come, the doors have always been there

to frighten you and invite you,

and the tiny speaker in the phone

is your dream-ladder to divinity.

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into

the conversation. The kettle is singing

even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots

have left their arrogant aloofness and

seen the good in you at last. All the birds

and creatures of the world are unutterably

themselves. Everything is waiting for you.

–David Whyte

 

And it helps. More than a little.

 

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Too Young to Be So Damn Old

14 07 2017

 

 

The past couple of years, I’ve been struggling with midlife anxiety. Worrying about things that haven’t happened yet (and may never), fearing the future and whether I will have the wherewithal to survive comfortably, terrified that some amorphous but horrible tragedy will strike. I’ve sometimes felt like the busy thoroughfare of life I started down became a dead-end street when I was, somehow, not looking.

I’ve finally had enough of that.

I can’t stop bad things from happening through sheer force of preemptive fear. They will either happen or they won’t – and I’ve decided to be miserable when I have to be rather than volunteer for it in advance.

Here are a few other things I’ve decided:

  1. I will not watch depressing movies about early-onset alzheimers. I don’t care if they have beautiful cinematography, amazing scripts and finely wrought performances from an entire cast of academy award winners. Please reread the first paragraph above if you don’t immediately grasp the reason for my boycott.
  2. I will deviate from social norms if I feel so inclined. Really? You want to publish a list of things women my age should or shouldn’t wear/do/be/think? Go right ahead. But the minute you try to shame me into compliance if I choose otherwise, be prepared. Most of you have never been on the receiving end of the full force of my verbal wrath. Believe me, you will not like it.
  3. When I am feeling “stuck”, I will not write my own obituary or walk through a graveyard to contemplate the fleeting nature of time. I know there are workshops that use these activities to good purpose. But at this point in my life, writing my own obit is a little too real. Save these activities that “begin with the end in mind” for people who are actually at the beginning.
  4. I will not apologize for my gray hair…or my magenta, blue, or purple hair if I choose to go that way. If I color my hair, I do so for me – not because anyone else has an opinion. Who knows, there may be some wild colors coming. Gray hair makes me feel old, which in turn causes me to feel anxious. I hope that won’t always be the case, so I’m letting myself ease into it. I promise you, I’m not trying to recapture my youth. I’m aware that youth is not only fleeting, it has done fled.
  5. I will stop, throw in the towel, or give up any elective activity I so choose. There was a time I could not put down a book I had started reading until I had finished it. No more. I’ll never get that precious time back. So now, if the book isn’t doing something for me, I can quit it. Same for movies, card games, and seeing every booth at the farmer’s market. When I’m ready to be done, I’ll just stop. (The exception is Monopoly – I won’t even start playing that game so don’t ask.)
  6. I will follow my curiosity, even if it means I’m the oldest one in the room. I’m actually already used to being the oldest one in the room. I’ve been immature for my age basically my whole life. I thought that alone might protect me from midlife anxiety, but not so much, it turns out.
  7. I will sing the song in my head if the mood strikes me. This goes for whether the song is playing on Muzak or not. Since I was in about sixth grade, I’ve been self-conscious about singing in public. But recently, I’ve caught myself singing in the hallway at work or, once, while checking out the sales racks in Von Maur department store (they have a live pianist there). Sometimes you just have to belt out a Manilow tune.

Speaking of singing, I discovered a wonderful Swedish proverb earlier this week.“Those who wish to sing always find a song”. Fear and anxiety often encourage silence. The longer we are silent the greater the power our fears hold over us. I’m not entirely sure what reminded me that I am someone who wishes to sing. I’m just grateful to finally be finding a song again. I recommend taking my list of “decisions” with a grain of salt. But if you suddenly hear someone singing “Ready to Take a Chance Again”, you can bet your hard-earned money its me.





Excuses are reasons past their prime

6 07 2017

When, exactly, do reasons become excuses? 

I’ve been wondering.

I was having coffee on Sunday with three dear friends whom I don’t see as often as I’d like these days. At first, we talked about normal life stuff: food, our crazy schedules, the difficulty of maintaining perfectly groomed toenails. When you haven’t been together in a while, it takes some “warm up” talk before you get comfortable and start sharing what’s really going on in your life – how you feel, not just what you’ve been up to.

When we got to the real stuff, I listened with compassion to my friends’ concerns, as they did to mine. But afterwards, thinking about what I’d shared, I couldn’t help but wonder: was I holding onto reasons so tightly because I was, in fact, using them as excuses?

Many of the things that trouble us in life are not of our own choosing, and even the things that initially are choices often turn into things that are beyond our control. One example: you choose to have a child, but once they pop out you are basically SOL in the control department. Another example: I chose my job, but that doesn’t mean that, in any real sense, I get to choose how each day in that job unfolds. Mostly, I try to manage the chaos and hope for the best.

There are reasons, often good ones, for why things turn out the way they do. Which is fine – end of story – if the way things turn out is copacetic. But when it isn’t? When we’re unhappy or uncomfortable with where things are (where we are)?

How long do reasons remain reasons in that unhappy or uncomfortable space? When do they morph into excuses? I haven’t exactly figured that timing out yet.

But I do know that change has happened for me.

If I’m honest, I realized it when talking with my friends on Sunday. As I told them the reasons for my 80-pound weight gain and loss of physical fitness, I heard it in my own voice. “Menopause,” I said. “Medications,” I added. “Mobility challenges!” And that’s when I heard it: the false, tinny note of self-excusation.

What might have been reasons to begin with are not any more. Now, they’re just the excuses I use to justify inaction. Realizing this totally sucks. Now, I have to stop making excuses and make changes instead. And the fact is, making changes is hard. There’s also no guarantee that the outcome of these changes will be everything I want it to be.

But the eventual outcome isn’t the most important reason to change. A much more important reason is to be able to say, without reasons or excuses, “I’ve done the best I could do.” No matter what else happens, I’ll be really glad when I can say that again.





The House or The Tree?

29 06 2017

“But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease.”

                                                                                                                John Muir

On Sunday evening, I left my apartment to take a walk, and stopped at my mailbox on the way out. I’ve developed the bad habit of only checking my mail sporadically – often enough that bills don’t languish past their due dates (admittedly sometimes by a razor-thin margin). To my surprise, the mailbox yielded a wonderful, newsy, handwritten letter from a distant friend!

It was a cool early summer evening, a fresh breeze ruffling the profusion of new summer growth everywhere. I savored the letter as I walked, enjoying my friend’s stories of her life. Most especially, I appreciated her self-reflection as she, like me, struggles to find her way in midlife.

One thread in the letter concerned her ongoing struggle to navigate personal relationships – a theme most of us can relate to. My friend wrote that she has spent a lot of her life thinking that she is deficient in some way, that when her relationships were troubled or refused to thrive, it was because of some lack in her, some sabotaging flaw. She went on to say that, lately, she’s been trying on a new perspective: perhaps, she wrote, these other people in her life had been/are assholes (users, takers, completely self-focused). The kind of people who keep shifting the bar intentionally so that she would work harder, do more, within the relationship to keep their attention, their love. Maybe, she wrote, she’s not the problem, after all.

At this point in the letter, and in my walk, I felt the need for a pause. I sat on a short cement wall, one hand on the sun-warmed cement, the other, holding the letter, resting in my lap. I looked across the street, seeing an abandoned house with a tree in front of it (pictured above). As I gazed at this scene I thought:

How easy it is for us to see ourselves as this house: broken, abandoned, lonely, spoiled, past our prime. Unloved.

How easy it is to see everyone else as that tree: strong, beautiful, inviting (it has lilies dancing all around it’s trunk!), sheltering. Wanted.

We think we are so lucky that the tree has chosen to be near us.

What would happen if we shifted our perception, adjusted our vision, and thought of ourselves as the tree?

And what if we think of some of the people who come into our lives as the lilies, and the birds, and the many tiny creatures who are at home with us? They enhance our lives and we enliven theirs; we mutually benefit.

Now and then, one of these houses appears. We generously offer it shade, and companionship. But we don’t allow it to alter our basic tree-ness: we stay whole and beautiful. We are ourselves, and we know that the house is itself, too. It is not our task to make the house feel whole and new again.

What if, instead of thinking we are lucky to be chosen, we thought, “We are all so lucky to be together.”

At this point, I got up and resumed by letter-reading and walking. When I got home, I felt relaxed and content, so although I’d intended to sit right down and write a return letter to my friend, I went to sleep instead.

When I got up the next morning, the week’s needs and events overtook me almost immediately. But at least once each day, in the midst of the busyness and overwhelm of the work week, a little whisper has come into my mind. “What if you are the tree?” it asks. Gradually, I have begun to see how that would change everything.

 





What I Allow

22 06 2017

“The two important things that I did learn were that you are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be, and that the most difficult part of any endeavor is taking the first step, making the first decision.”  –Robyn Davidson

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  • In 1975, Robyn Davidson moved to Alice Springs, in Australia, to work with camels in order to prepare for a trek across the desert.
  • In 1982, Sr. Helen Prejean agreed to be the spiritual advisor to a death-row inmate named Elmo Patrick Sonnier.
  • On December 10, 1997, Julia Butterfly Hill climbed a 180-foot-tall, 1500-year-old California redwood tree in order to prevent it from being cut down.

*************************

Recently, I came across something called the five second rule. No, this is not about dropped food. This rule is used to help get you unstuck and moving forward. The basic concept is this: you have an idea about something you could/should/wish to/want to do (ask a question in a public forum, clean your bathroom, take dinner to a friend convalescing from surgery). Such ideas come to us all the time, but often we don’t act on them. The longer we take to act, the less likely it is that we will take the action at all. The five second rule suggests counting backwards from five, challenging yourself to act on your thought or idea within that five seconds – thereby short-circuiting the tendency to (through procrastination or fear of failure, etc.) forego action.

Since reading of this concept, I keep noticing how many times I think of something to do yet do nothing. It is not only astounding – it is deeply disturbing. It is disturbing because part of the noticing process has been paying attention to the self-talk that keeps me from action. How humbling is it to really hear myself rationalize laziness, excuse sloth, forgive weakness, and cave in to fear.

At the same time as this heightened self-awareness, I have been reading Tracks, Robyn Davidson’s memoir of her trek across the Australian desert accompanied by four camels and a dog. In the final paragraph of her memoir, Davidson shares the thought I quoted, above, about what she learned. Two important takeaways in that one short sentence:

  1. You are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be.
  2. The most important part of any endeavor is taking the first step.

Davidson goes on to say that, like all important life lessons, these two need to be re-learned, over and over throughout our lives.

After finishing the book, I set it down and thought, “I should go for a walk.” Unbidden, my brain began the process of counting backwards from five…four…three…

“Alright!”, I told myself, grabbing my tennies. After changing my shoes, I headed outside, and spent about an hour walking around my neighborhood. Thoughts of Davidson’s trek – the fact that she had an idea but zero skills or experience to back it up, yet did it anyway, blew my mind. And it led me to think of other people I’ve admired who said yes to a thought or idea, not sure where it would lead or how it might turn out.

Sr. Helen Prejean and Julia Butterfly Hill, both social justice heroes of mine, came to mind. Neither of them knew, when they first took action on an idea, that it would become a life-altering choice. The idea came – in the form of an invitation or a creative solution to a problem – and the first step was taken. The path revealed itself over time, just as Davidson’s trek wound its unexpected way through the Outback. For Sr. Helen, next steps took her into the international spotlight as an advocate for those sentenced to death. For Julia, that first choice led to 738 days living in the tree which became known to people everywhere as Luna.

It is easy to think of these women, and others like them, as extraordinary; to think of them as possessing something special with which the rest of us were not gifted. But I’ve had the good fortune to break bread with both Sr. Helen and Julia, and I’ve discovered that this kind of thinking is, mainly, a cop-out. They are lovely, wonderful, fiercely loving individuals – but they are not some special subspecies of homo sapiens. They are not that different from me or you.

If, as Robyn Davidson suggests, we are as strong and powerful as we allow ourselves to be, then these women have opted to allow strength, resilience, individual personal power – love – to flow through them. If Davidson is correct, the biggest difference between them and me is this issue of “allowing” myself to be powerful.

I’m not off on any quests through hostile landscapes, nor will Susan Sarandon be portraying me in a movie any time soon. Still, isn’t it time to seriously consider life’s most important question? Will I continue to sit on my couch making excuses, or will I allow myself to be as strong, as powerful, as I am capable of being?

“The question we need to ask ourselves is not, “Can one person make a difference?”  Each and every one of us does make a difference.  It is actually impossible to not make a difference.  So the question we need to ask ourselves is, “What kind of a difference do I want to make?”  http://www.juliabutterfly.com/

 





Inspirational vs Motivational

15 06 2017

Inspirational tweet:  “Stop wishing and start willing.”                                                             Response to tweet:  “I will college was free.” *

A few days ago, I read these tweets and moved on. But I keep thinking back on them with a chuckle.

I’m pretty much over my “inspirational quotes” phase. These days, I am likely to sigh heavily and skip them. Even when a friend I know is quite earnest reposts or retweets them, I might mutter, “yeah, right”. Often, I find myself wanting to make a clever response (such as the one above) or perhaps launch into a diatribe about why that particular quote is insipid or too Pollyanna-ish.

Usually, I am able to refrain from raining on someone else’s positivity parade. The reason for this is that I’m not actually against inspiration – I can be happy when others find it in a snappy, clever sentence. In fact, I seek inspiration in life as much as the next person. Lord knows (and so do you if you read this blog) I’m not against finding inspiration in pithy or meaningful quotes. However, more and more I find, that inspiration comes to me in less easily digestible platitudes. And forget the haranguing pep-talkers who string them together into long paragraphs that seem to shout at me “BE INSPIRED, DAMMIT!”

I follow a former student of mine on FB and Instagram. I read everything she posts, even (maybe especially) the really long stories. I always come away feeling inspired. She writes from the depth of her heart about raising her six adopted kids, her experiences as a foster mom, her fierce love and joy amidst the chaos and exhaustion of everyday life. Her very real experiences and thoughts are so much more heartening and energizing to me than an impersonal adage.

I am inspired when people I respect share themselves authentically. I am inspired when people who have accomplished something I admire them for or wish I could emulate, show that they are imperfect and vulnerable too. I’m less inspired when someone goes all Vince Lombardi on me in order to light a fire under my feet.

In much the same way that I have had my inspirational meme phase and passed through to the other side, I admit I am moving past my political meme fascination as well. For a time, since the last election, I was delighted to come upon a list of witty protest sign slogans or humorous (even shocking) tweets that encapsulated someone’s political bent – especially if it happened to match how I am bent.

I am finding it much harder, as time goes on, to find relief in these mini-position statements. Yesterday, I woke to the news of that horrible high-rise apartment fire in London, then to the shooting of congressmen on a Virginia baseball diamond. The news all day was horrific or glum or demoralizing. One item after another in a ghastly line. On such a day, what feeling person could truly take joy in snippy one-liners?

Just before bed, I happened to be online trying to track down some information for a project I am doing at work, and I came across the following quote from Lynne Twist, activist and author.

“Many social justice or social activist movements have been rooted in a position. A position is usually against something. Any position will call up its opposition. If I say up, it generates down. If I say right, it really creates left. If I say good, it creates bad. So a position creates its opposition. A stand is something quite distinct from that.

There are synonyms for “stand” such as “declaration” or “commitment,” but let me talk for just a few moments about the power of a stand. A stand comes from the heart, from the soul. A stand is always life affirming. A stand is always trustworthy. A stand is natural to who you are. When we use the phrase “take a stand” I’m really inviting you to un-cover, or “unconceal,” or recognize, or affirm, or claim the stand that you already are. “

What struck me about this quotation, is that it differentiates between two concepts that are sometimes used interchangeably but which, as she points out, are actually quite different. I found myself looking at my own political biases, and hoping I can be someone who takes a stand, and not someone who continues to set up the push-pull dichotomy of taking positions. I know what I stand for, but do I articulate that so others know? Or do I just contribute to the right/left/right/wrong/up/down/red/blue tug of war?

As I thought about this concept of “position” versus “stand” , I realized that the same kind of differentiation can be made between “inspirational” versus “motivational”. Suddenly, it became clear that I’ve been conflating the two.

“Motivational” wills me to do something, pushes me toward achievement. “Inspirational” fills me with spirit. The first is about doing, the second about being. At this point in my life, I am less taken with words (and the people who utter them) about motivating or pushing me. In my mid-50s, I hope my greatest motivators are intrinsic. If I’m seeking motivation externally (on Twitter, for example) I’m probably truly struggling.

On the other hand, I hope I am never too old to be en-spirited – whether by the spirit of love, or grace, or mercy or kindness. Authentic words (and the people who utter them) about sharing real struggles and victories will continue to touch me deeply – will continue to inspire me.

 

 

*Sorry, I didn’t take note of whose tweets they were, and I couldn’t find them when I went back to Twitter.

 





Give Light

8 06 2017

“The cure for all the ills and wrongs, the cares, the sorrows and the crimes of humanity, all lie in the one word love. It is the divine vitality that everywhere produces and restores life.” –Lydia M. Child, abolitionist

In a small city like Cedar Rapids, people are connected to one another in ways that are not obvious – or even known – until there is a loss. Then, it is as if the threads of a tapestry light up and you can follow them as they criss-cross town. Folks who had appeared unconnected are suddenly linked, woven together by their shared sorrow. When the loss is sudden or unexpected, this effect is intensified; more so if the individual was a light-giver to others.

In these moments, so many things we are used to thinking of as important fall away, replaced by the certainty that love is paramount. Love given, love received, love multiplied exponentially by the very act of expressing it outwardly in ways big and small.

Suddenly, we understand that the people we see as “leaders” may have their roles, but the people who who give love freely, understanding that relationship is everything: these people are the actual beating heart of our communities.

When the communities we are a part of are reeling with the loss of such individuals, the paucity of loving leadership in the larger context of our state, region, or nation is revealed by stark contrast. You cannot lead from love and be a liar. You cannot lead from love and promulgate a scarcity mentality, in which your  group or country will not have enough if others do (leading to policies and acts that are needlessly cruel and selfish). You cannot lead from love and encourage hate.

It follows, then, that true visionaries are those who lead with and from love, who inspire love in others. Leading from love generates love – abundance, shared growth, community.

Maybe we don’t think of love as a quality of leadership. If that’s the case, maybe its time we start.

“Give light, and people will find the way.” — Ella Baker, civil and human rights activist