Too Young to Be So Damn Old

 

 

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.

Light Every Candle That You Can

Lately, too many days have followed this pattern:

I wake from a dead sleep, struggle to untangle myself from the sheet and blanket on my bed and stumble to the bathroom to get ready for the day. As I drive to work, I am angry at every other driver for,,,existing, apparently. I jump into work like a kid jumping into the deep end of the pool before actually learning to swim – after a long, breathless time, I paddle and flail my way up for air. The day is gone.

I drive away from work listening to my brain argue with itself about stopping at the gym. The days I stop are the good ones. Many nights I lie to myself that I will trade the workout for a productive night at home, checking many items off the needed-to-do-last-week list (and I always believe that lie, despite all evidence to the contrary).

At home, I check the news while my dinner cooks. I give up any thought of productivity, as the day’s latest atrocities suck my energy into the waiting ocean of anger and despair. I take my dinner upstairs and eat while watching The Voice or This Is Us or, God help me, The Match Game. Whatever. I play a jigsaw puzzle game on my Kindle until I fall asleep. Sometime later, midnight or one, I wake up. Stiff from sleeping upright, I get ready for bed.

But I don’t sleep when I get there. I try reading a book. The good ones are the ones I can concentrate on long enough to fall into the story. Some nights, that just won’t happen. I lie awake and try to breathe through the ambient anxiety. Or I open social media on my phone and, before you know it, two hours have passed. I finally fall asleep again, not only worried, but truly heartsick. I dream chaotic or stressful or lovely dreams. In the morning they are all jumbled together, and I try to tease them apart, parse them like an obtuse sentence. When my alarm sounds, I tell myself not to get up, “Just lie here (warm and comfortable and thoughtless)…just a little while longer”. And I do.

Until I have to get up and the whole thing repeats itself.

This past week, on Sunday evening, I had tickets to see Carrie Newcomer perform. I had to fight the inertia of Sunday night, plus a winter weather advisory, just to get myself in the car. Once at the venue, my friend Molly joined me. We chatted until the lights went down and Carrie and her accompanist came onstage.

I heard an owl call last night
Homeless and confused
I stood naked and bewildered
By the evil people do

Up upon a hill there is a terrible sign
That tells the story of what darkness waits
When we leave the light behind.

I felt like Carrie’s first words described where I have been living – bewildered, in the darkness.

Don’t tell me hate is ever right or God’s will
These are the wheels we put in motion ourselves
The whole world weeps and is weeping still

And I was. Weeping in the dark auditorium, I felt, for the first time in a while, not quite so alone in my despair. The whole world (not just me) weeps. And then:

Though shaken I still believe
the best of what we all can be
The only peace this world will know
Can only come from love.
I am a voice calling out
Across the great divide
I am only one person
That feels they have to try
The questions fall like trees or dust
Rise like prayers above
But the only word is “Courage”
And the only answer ” Love”

There have been songs written about this experience of sitting in a theater or a bar, listening to a stranger whose song articulates what has been living, unarticulated, in the listener’s heart. Carrie’s words spoke directly out of my heart – and I am certain that she chose this opener for me. Because a gifted artist knows her audience, and those of us gathered that night were all in need of a blessing. We are all part of the weeping world, but, yes – still believing in what words like courage and love stand for; believing in the promise of the “beautiful not-yet”*

Later, after the concert, Molly and I walked to our cars, arm-in-arm, through swiftly falling snow. The crystal flakes landing on my upturned face felt like a benediction, their melting a baptism. Washed clean of my wretchedness, I was ready to follow Carrie’s exhortation, and hold the promise in my heart:

 

Light every candle that you can
For we need some light to see
In the face of deepest loss,
Treat each other tenderly
The arms of god will gather in
Every sparrow that falls
And makes no separation
Just fiercely loves us all.

 

_____________________________________________

Note: Carrie Newcomer’s opening song, lyrics quoted above, was “I Heard An Owl”. You can listen to it here: https://youtu.be/MyD632qIww0 . Carrie’s songs are amazing, a balm to my weary soul.

* “The beautiful not-yet” is the title to another of Carrie’s songs.

Puzzled

“A puzzle with a solution is a game. A puzzle without a solution is a work of art.” –Marty Rubin

My friend Wendy made a passing comment to me in December about her enjoyment of online jigsaw puzzles. I don’t remember the context, but it wasn’t as if we had a lengthy discussion about it – she mentioned it and we moved on to something else.

Fast forward to January. I found myself, most evenings, restless and fidgety. Too tired to go out, too wired and worried to relax. Wendy’s comment about jigsaw puzzles popped into my mind one evening, and I immediately downloaded an app for my Kindle. That first week, I not only did the daily mystery puzzle (no picture to tell me what I was putting together), I also put together three or four easier puzzles a day. I was so obsessed with these puzzles that my brain began processing normal objects all day long as if they were puzzle pieces needing to be fit together (the same thing happened, briefly, in the early 90s when I became addicted to Tetris). I realized that this was not a good sign. Gradually, I increased the difficulty level and reduced the number of puzzles, until I hit a steady groove of completing one puzzle a night.

As stressors amp up in my own life, compounded by the stress we are all experiencing on the political landscape, I feel almost a compulsion to solve the daily puzzle. When I finish it, especially if it is particularly challenging, I feel a sense of accomplishment and completion – a brief but satisfying relief of anxiety.

As my anxiety has deepened, my sleep patterns have shifted. I fall asleep for a few hours then wake, sometime between 1:00 and 3:00 a.m., for up to two hours. I’ve developed a bad habit of looking at social media in this interregnum between periods of sleep. I’ve read late-night screen-time is not good for my brainwaves and I know from my heart rate it is terrible for my emotional state.

The past couple of nights, rather than logging onto Twitter, I’ve been thinking about my sudden fixation with jigsaw puzzles. Why this particular activity at this particular time? At various points in the past, I’ve similarly questioned my Tetris addiction, my repetitive binge watching of “Felicity” and “Ally McBeal”, the weird card-counting solitaire game I invented one winter…and each time, the first answer I’ve hit upon has been a variation on the theme of control. In particular, when I feel as if I am inadequately meeting the challenges confronting me (i.e. under-prepared, under-skilled, and/or under-resourced), I have a tendency to take refuge in some meaningless activity that allows me to feel even a minimal level of mastery. I have everything I need to solve a jigsaw puzzle:

  • there are borders/boundaries; I know where they are and how to identify them;
  • I have all the necessary pieces (especially on my Kindle, where random pieces don’t end up on the floor or in the cracks between my couch cushions);
  • the variables are limited – basically, I find the right spot for each piece based on it’s immutable color and shape.

Wouldn’t it be nice if managing people or politics or my own fears and insecurities was as easy? How would it feel in other areas of my life to engage in a single activity that has shape, form, a clear goal and an easy way to assess that I’ve successfully achieved it? That might just be my definition of heaven on earth. Instead, my life is filled with complexities, from the people I interact with to the projects I engage with to the mission I try to live and serve. There are no immutables here: everything is changeable, everything shifts and forms and reforms into different shapes and very few of my tasks are of the kind that can ever be considered “finished”.

I said the first answer I hit upon was about control. Another answer for this fascination with jigsaws, which came to me in the quiet moments of wakefulness the other night, goes deeper than my control issues. This second answer is about interconnection and interdependence. Living in a “post-truth” world, where nuclear aggression is suddenly back on the table and, even in Iowa, the protests are loud and contentious, I feel the need to seek out models for a different way of being and interacting. Jigsaw puzzles are an excellent candidate. Each piece is unique, specifically both itself AND an integral part of a much larger whole. Without connection, the full picture cannot be viewed. Each piece is interdependent with every other piece in helping the whole image to coalesce into something meaningful.

If I am interdependent with all the other pieces of this jigsaw puzzle we call the universe, if we are all part of the same whole, then the very things that I am fearful of and rail against are part of that same whole; by extension they are part of me. Seen in this light, my sudden obsession with completion of puzzles becomes a quest for wholeness in a fractured world.

It appears that my commonplace problems and my deeper existential anxieties often surface and make themselves known to me through sudden behavioral anomalies. They enter my days practically unnoticed at first, disguised as simple distractions. It is only when I have (or take) the time to question what is happening, then to slow down and get quiet enough to hear the answers, that I begin to understand myself. But what do I do with this understanding?

After the election in November, Martha Beck published an article titled, “From Inside the Darkness“, in which she says:

“My job today is to feel all the parts of me that are like the darkest parts of my profoundly divided country, my profoundly divided species. It is to listen to them, to understand them until my own fear, anger, and sorrow dissolve into the light of compassion.

I can only do this inside myself–but that will be enough. It will be enough because one healed person broadcasts an energy that can pull dozens, hundreds, millions of people out of their own darkness.”

She goes on to state, “Compassion, friends, is the most revolutionary power on earth–not simpering and weak, but magical, powerful, the very force of Creation.” That compassion, according to Beck, must first be extended toward ourselves: compassion for our imperfections, our less-thans, our wish-I-weren’ts, and our hate-that-I-ams. When we extend the healing energy of compassion to ourselves, our little piece of the puzzle shines – and that shining light then radiates into the other pieces with which we connect.

It would be silly to suggest that I will heal the world by putting puzzles together on my Kindle. That said, thinking about why those puzzles have been occupying so much of my time has proven fruitful, and has led me to think differently about the divisions in my heart, my life and our world. It has reminded me that the way forward is one of healing and compassion. As the old song goes, “Let there be peace on earth. And let it begin with me.” Let it begin in me.

Intense Clarity

“There’s nothing quite as intense as the moment of clarity,

when you suddenly see what’s really possible for you.  — Christine Kane

Once, many years ago, I was driving down  Highway 30 at a good clip (about 75 mph). The road had just changed from two lanes to four lanes, divided by an emerald green grass median. I was in the right-hand lane, passing another vehicle on a curve, boxed in by cars both in front of and behind mine. And that’s when it happened: I saw a wooden palette fly off a truck taking the same curve from the opposite direction. As the palette cartwheeled across the median, I could see the line of it’s trajectory as if it was a lighted runway leading directly to me. Because of the cars on every side, I couldn’t speed up, slow down or move out of the way. Time slowed and stretched exactly like a film on slow-mo, the palette’s roll appearing gracefully choreographed. I followed my mind through each step of reasoning leading to the realization that there was nothing I could do to stop the impending collision, and I still had time enough to wonder, “So, this is it? This is how I die?”

News flash – it wasn’t. Curiously, there was no fear in that split second after the possibility that “this is it” occurred to me. But there was a certain clarity of mind that suggested I relax into the moment. What else was there for me to do? To my utter amazement, the palette smashed into my Saturn, then slid under it. There was no crash, though I slowed down, not really understanding how I was still on the road. The other cars surrounding mine didn’t hesitate though they couldn’t have failed to see the impact as wood splintered and flew in every direction. They disappeared down the highway as I finally found a hole and pulled onto the shoulder. There was significant damage to the car – both driver’s side tires were bent out at crazy angles. I had ample time, during my two hour wait for a tow truck, to wonder about that odd moment of clarity.

Since that experience, I have had other, similar, moments – in the midst of sudden unexpected events, that still moment of pause. These haven’t all been events when I thought I might be facing death. But each was a moment when I suspected that what was happening right that second might be the catalyst for a complete sea change in my life. The event that turned my life, or the community or even the world to a new course. A new path. And in the middle of each event, that still moment of clarity in which my conscious self stepped out of the slipstream of time to ask, “Is this it?” When that happens, any tension, anxiety or fear I feel dissipates. I am aware that I am aware.

Looking back, I can see that sometimes the moment was a significant or historic one and sometimes not. On the morning of September 11, 2001 when I watched in real time as the second plane crashed into the twin towers was definitely significant (and a moment I shared with millions). But whether each event changed my life’s trajectory, causing my own cartwheel through existence to appear graceful – or not – seems almost anticlimactic to the experience of that brief clarity and cessation of fear. Whether I remember what preceded or led to that moment, I remember those moments. Standing on the path through the national monument at Pecos, New Mexico staring into a raven’s eyes. Pausing on the hill above Cedar Rapids and seeing the downtown in complete darkness during the flood of 2008. On my bike in the woods, hugging a tree I had nearly careened into headfirst. In each mental picture is the memory of that curious calm, suffused with a clear mental light.

The past couple of weeks have been a time of frenzied activity and a certain amount of anxiety. My sleep patterns have been disrupted by worry-induced insomnia. My ability to stay centered emotionally and mentally through long, demanding days has been tested. And in the midst of that, another of those moments of awareness: late on a hot and humid afternoon, standing on a path leading through restored tall-grass prairie. Later, as I thought about it, I realized that I am notoriously bad at predicting, while in the experience itself, whether a moment is a pivotal one or not. I have generally assumed that having that moment of clarity is a sign of the importance of the moment as a turning point; but I have been proved wrong way more often than right. What if I’ve been thinking about this backwards? What if instead of predictive those moments are redirective?

What if the point of that clarity is to remind me that attempting to see the future is, well, futile? Or to remind me that I am more effective when I am centered – not when I’m trying to control circumstances outside my scope of influence? What if that still, uncluttered moment is my reminder that relaxing in this very present here and now, waiting patiently for the unfolding of whatever is to come, is the actual way forward. It isn’t that this moment is important and pivotal, it is that each moment is. I am aware that I’m aware. And that is enough for right now.

 

 

Finite Math

At 5:15 a.m. my neighbor begins making breakfast. A strange trick of acoustics in this building means that, in my upstairs bedroom, I hear every rattle and bang in their downstairs kitchen. I roll over and attempt a return to slumber.

Some days, that works. Some days I stretch my sleep-sore muscles and fall gracefully, gratefully back asleep. But not today. Today, I stretch and wonder about that heaviness in my leg – is it a sign? Should I see the doctor? From there, the worries and anxieties held at bay while I sleep come marching forward, a neurotic, necrotic parade.

Knowing sleep will not return at this point, I get up. In my kitchen, I begin the morning ritual of making my double shot Americano. Add hot water and the finely ground espresso becomes the rich loamy soil in which I will plant a new day. Whether it will be a good day, productive and interactive – or not- is often determined in this moment.

My friend Wendy has spent the last seventeen years telling her children that they have a choice – if you don’t like how you feel in this moment, choose to feel differently. Happiness isn’t a destination, its a choice you make in every moment of action or reaction. I watch her girls, all teenagers now, and see them apply this choice. It is like the sun emerging from clouds, that moment.

This morning, as I sip my coffee, it feels like a herculean task, that reframing of mindset. I’m not sure I’m up to it. I turn on my computer, and find Parker Palmer’s weekly “On Being” blog post, this week called “Poetry as Sacrament: Disentangling from the Darkness”, in which he meditates beautifully on Mary Oliver’s poem “Landscape”:

Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.

Every morning, so far, I’m alive.

So far, I think (using the calculator function on my phone) that is 19,726 mornings. I google the question, “How many decisions per day?” and read:

According to multiple sources on the Internet, the average amount of remotely conscious decisions an adult makes each day equals about 35,000.

690,410,000 decisions and counting. My first thought is “No wonder I don’t want to decide where to have dinner or what book to read for book club.” I think of texting my younger friends and letting them know they haven’t used theirs up yet, so from now on they must choose – my decider is worn out from overuse.

My next thought, “How many of those ‘remotely conscious decisions’ were good ones? How many were ‘the right’ ones?” No function on my smartphone could ever calculate that number. This I know: it falls somewhere between 1 and 690,410,000.

That’s as far as math will take me; there’s no point in attempting to calculate the incalculable. There’s no point in lingering over that parade of worries that began its march through my head while I was still in bed this morning. Of the approximately 35,000 decisions I will make today, some will be good ones. Some will not. Mistakes will happen. Anxiety in advance and obsessive second-guessing afterwards won’t change that reality.

Like Wendy’s girls, I have a choice. I can hold the doors of my heart open so that my choices can be made from the place of infinite things (like mission, like compassion, like gratitude). Or I can close those doors, out of worry or indecision or just plain inattention, and be “as good as dead”, rendering my choices lifeless as well.

When I think of it this way I say: let my inevitable mistakes be life-affirming ones; let my errors of judgment emerge from seeing the best in others; let me work to stay centered enough that my infinite humanity, rather than my finite ego, decides. Choose; then move on.

19,726 mornings. And every morning, so far, I am alive.

 

 

 

Feeling Time

Oh, it’s time to start livin’
Time to take a little from this world we’re given
Time to take time, cause spring will turn to fall
In just no time at all….

One evening last week, I got dressed up (well, if fleece leggings under a long skirt passes for dressed up) and made my way to Minneapolis’ Orpheum Theater to see the musical, “Pippin!” I was very excited to go to my first big theater event in the Twin Cities – and there was the added element of adventure since I was attending alone (though I planned to say hello to my favorite usher, who was working that night). I had longed to see this show for several reasons. First, since high school, I have loved the show’s most well-known song, “Corner of the Sky”. Second, I saw a piece on CBS Sunday Morning about the preparations and practice the touring cast (the very cast I was about to see) had made to be ready for this physically demanding revival, re-imagined as a circus-themed production complete with acrobatics and high-flying aerials. Third, I knew nothing about the actual story, so the show would be almost entirely new to me.

A fourth reason I was excited about this particular experience was that it was taking place at the Orpheum Theater. Years ago, before I ever thought of moving here, I visited my friend Mike on a Halloween weekend. That visit was memorable for several reasons, most importantly because I met Mike’s sons (Alex and Matt) for the first time. One of the things we did that weekend was take a haunted tour of the Orpheum. It was a fun, almost magical, tour – but not once did it occur to me that I would ever attend a show in that beautiful, historic theater. So, as you might imagine, my heart was full before I walked in the door to see Pippin. (Oh, and my favorite usher, mentioned above? Mike, of course!)

I found my aisle seat, toward the back of the main floor. I was thrilled, as a vertically challenged viewer, to discover that no one was seated in front of me. In fact, mine was the only occupied seat in my entire row and the row in front of me. The house lights went down and the stage lights up, and I was in my own little envelope of space with the show.

A brief plot synopsis might be helpful. Pippin is a young prince who feels he is called to lead an extraordinary life, and sets out in search of his place among meaningful events and activities. In the end, however, he discovers that giving your heart to the life you have is truly meaningful, even if that life is one of ordinary pursuits. (Check out www.stephenschwartz.com if you want to know what the show’s creator has to say about its themes and meaning.)

In Act 1, Scene 4, Pippin visits his grandmother, Berthe (played in the show I saw by the amazing, Tony-award-winning Priscilla Lopez). Berthe’s show-stopping number, “No Time At All”, was a song I knew but didn’t realize was from Pippin. The 66-year-old Berthe/Lopez not only looks incredible when she strips down to a trapeze-artists’ costume, she manages to fly through the air AND SING, appearing completely at home in the aerial number. “No Time At All” becomes an audience sing-along, and while I thoroughly enjoyed belting out the choruses, by the last one, I found myself overcome by emotion.

Now, days after my Pippin! experience, I find myself still singing that chorus – and ready to share why it choked me up.

One reason was the sheer admiration I felt for Priscilla Lopez. What an inspiration that was – I hope in my mid-60s to be ready, willing and able to engage so audaciously with the challenges life offers me.

But there was also a more spiritual component to what I felt. Throughout my life, there have been moments when, in the midst of a special experience, I have felt myself step out of the stream of time. When this happens, my “normal” self remains as is, doing whatever it is doing. In this case, I remained in my seat thoroughly enjoying the performance. But my consciousness somehow steps outside my experience, and is able to look upon it (and myself) with some separation. Briefly, at Pippin, I stood outside the moment, and saw myself shining with enjoyment, radiating life and energy. The worries and cares of the day had dissipated, I was no longer concerned about the financial splurge required to purchase my ticket; no longer worried that I had forgotten where in the unfamiliar ramp my car was parked; no longer awkward about indulging in this experience solo. Looking at myself, I saw beauty. I knew that this is how we are meant to live: without unreasoning fear, without concern for conforming to expectations, but with energy and joy for this moment we have been given. The gift of this present.

As we grow older, our sense of time changes. It rushes past us, faster each year. Sometimes I am stunned that another week, month or even year is already gone. This feeling of time rushing past creates anxiety, bordering often on fear. Though people talk about young adults being in too much of a hurry, of their need to slow down and let their lives unfold, I am finding that this is much harder to do at 53 than it was at 23 or 33. Back then, I thought I knew there was time for everything. Now, I am very aware as each day passes that it was another grain of sand in a rapidly diminishing hour-glass. I can’t count the grains that are left and I have no way to accrue more than are already there. This makes it very difficult to allow my life to unfold. To have patience. And so the anxiety creeps in, ratchets up as I worry that I’m not moving fast enough in my life.

The gift I received during that musical number was awareness that this is a false sensation. It is always time to be living, always time to make the most of this world we’re given. Spring will turn to fall, it is inevitable. No point in getting all angst-y about it. No point in regretting the past or looking with fear toward the future. I am not in control of it. All I can do is choose how I interact with the gift of the present as it unfolds. I can be in it, living it, or I can waste it with fear, worry, anxiety.

When I arrived home after the show (after having no difficulty finding my car in the ramp, though I drove in circles on the one-way streets downtown for a while) I was still so energized by the experience that I couldn’t sleep. I posted this on my Facebook page:  “This is what the best art in any medium can do: shine a light into our shadowed spaces and allow us to see with new eyes.”

We are often advised in life to “pick our battles”. What I’m seeing with new eyes this week, thanks to Pippin!, is that my battle isn’t with Time. Time is unchanging – time is as and what it is. My battle is with false perceptions of time, which lead to fear and anxiety. And that is a battle I know I can win with faith in God, trust in myself, and attention to this gift of the present.

 

Learning to Breathe

The address arrived via text that afternoon. Although I probably could have biked, I decided to drive. I didn’t know what to expect, nor did I have any idea how long the session would last. I pulled up to the house, a small two story in a very modest neighborhood. I recognized no one on the porch or just inside the house as I walked to the front door, but they appeared to be expecting me.

Then my friend Melissa materialized, and I felt much more grounded. I was introduced to the others. At first, it wasn’t clear who were the practitioners and who the practice subjects (other than me). Our hosts were a warm and very welcoming couple, and I felt any lingering unease –  my usual discomfort in new situations rather than any concerns related to the purpose of the evening – dissipate.

I had intentionally avoided seeking more than the basic description Melissa had originally given me when she asked if I would be one of her practice subjects as she learned to facilitate something called Rebirthing Breathwork. For one, I wanted to enter the experience with an open mind – and my initial thoughts associated with the word “rebirthing” were anything but open. I’ve never really been a fan of the idea of “rebirthing”: healing the trauma experienced as part of our own births. Also, there was something about past-lives in the brief description I had received. While I scared myself with Bridey Murphy stories as an adolescent (and when I thought about my brother Jeff’s detailed vignettes about his life “inside mommy’s tummy”), I’m also not a big believer in the idea that we may be seeking healing from events which occurred in other lifetimes. Do we live multiple lives with the same soul, if not the same corporeal body? I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about this: my hands, my brain, and my emotions are full enough handling this one life I’m currently living.

After a brief introduction to Rebirthing Breathwork, Melissa and I got started. I laid down on my back on the floor, cushioned by a mat and pillow. And I began breathing. The breathing technique was neither difficult nor complicated. Conscious connected breaths consist of inhaling and exhaling without a pause between the two. At first, it just felt strange. Then, my body wanted to fight it, tensing instead of relaxing. I had to really focus on relaxing my muscles (particularly in my upper torso and jaw).

Eventually, I relaxed into the process. My mind occasionally strayed from my breathing, but when this happened Melissa was there to recall me to focus. The session began at 6:20 p.m. and ended after what felt to me like approximately 40 minutes – I was shocked to learn that 90 minutes had actually passed. It is difficult for me to describe exactly what I felt through the course of that 90 minutes, but here goes:

  • I began to feel a slight tingling sensation in my hands and feet, almost as if my limbs had fallen asleep. The difference was that this tingling spread into my whole body and became a deep, thrumming, energy – almost like electricity – that felt like it was ready to shoot out of the top of my head like a geyser. A geyser of bright, white energy.
  • While I was acutely aware of my body, thrumming with energy, I also had the sensation of my mind moving through space and time at a highly accelerated rate. I described it, later, as feeling like I existed on two planes at once (my body on one plane, my mind on another) with time moving at a different pace on each.
  • Because of the focus on my breathing, my thoughts were not wandering all over, or playing their usual “greatest hits”: what I’m not getting done, what I’m disappointed with, what I’m afraid of. I leaned into the sensation of being in what I can only describe as a non-ordinary reality.

When I was instructed to breathe normally and to take my time returning to the more usual reality of the front porch of a house in a neighborhood in Minneapolis, I took my time. The electrical energy coursing through my body began to dissipate, but it didn’t leave me entirely. In its wake, I felt light and almost giddy.  I didn’t want to open my eyes and let go of that feeling, so I kept them closed while I stretched every muscle in my body. When I did finally open my eyes, I looked at Melissa and giggled. I felt high, euphoric.

Melissa warned me before we started that everyone responds differently. For some people, conscious connected breathing will bring about connection to past trauma, resulting in a range of emotional responses. I connected with nothing but energy and light. The relaxed state I was in immediately following the session remained with me. Later, I slept soundly and throughout the night. Not once did I wake with anxious thoughts or worries – something that has, for me, become routine in recent months.

In the week prior to the breathwork session, I had told my friend Molly that I hadn’t felt “normal” since last fall. There was a weight sitting squarely on my chest – the weight of accumulated stress, anxiety, fear, loneliness that has accompanied my efforts to build a life here in Minneapolis. In the flush of bliss I felt after the breathwork session, I didn’t immediately recognize that this weight had lifted. Sometime the next morning, as I set about my daily tasks, I realized that it wasn’t there. I felt blessedly normal. For days, now, that weight has not returned. I no longer feel blissful or euphoric, but that is a small matter compared with the surcease of constant anxiety.

Despite my purposeful decision not to read-up on Rebirthing Breathwork before my session, my curiosity to know more about how it works has been piqued, and I’ve been reading-up on it this week. I am not the most skeptical person I know, but I am my mother’s daughter – which is to say, I don’t swallow everything I read or am told hook-line-and-sinker. Some of what I’ve read triggers my inner skeptic in a powerful way; but I keep coming back to my experience of light and energy and gentle healing. There is a connection between breathwork as described by “rebirthers”, and that described by and used in yoga and meditation practices. Taken in that context, the accumulated information about the importance of breathing well is convincing. As is the observation that, in this age and culture, we have become a society of shallow breathers. This begs the question: Is there a connection between our poor breathing and the epidemic of anxiety we’re experiencing these days?

I don’t have the answer to that question. But I am sharing my experience – limited as it is – in order to suggest that there is something important here. Something worth paying attention to. Whether we engage in Rebirthing Breathwork, yoga, or meditation; whether we sit in prayer or silent contemplation – whatever we name our experience of reflection – learning to breathe is a vital, cleansing component.

Below are some links you might find useful if you’re interested in learning more.

 

http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/ART02039/the-art-and-science-of-breathing.html 

http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Mental_Health_Letter/2009/May/Take-a-deep-breath

http://www.rebirthingbreathwork.net

When the Dog Bites

This looks a lot like the little yapper that bit me.

So, Thursday evening, I got bitten by a dog. It was my first real dog bite ever, and from a complete stranger dog, too.  Last night as I arrived home late from visiting a friend, I was approached by a man I’d never seen before as I parked my car – he wanted money and couldn’t understand why I refused to get out of my vehicle after he assured me, “I’m a good guy, I promise!” (I was fine, I opened the window a crack and passed him the only dollar I had. I watched until he was a full block away before turning off the ignition and going inside). Today, I inadvertently left my favorite gloves on the fender of my bike while locking the bike to a rack. When I returned to the bike: yep. Totally stolen.

But am I going to let these things harsh my buzz? No way. Because today I am focused on the things that make me happy.

Instead of the dog bite, I’m thinking about the awesome weekend I had with friends and family. Hanging out with Sara and her kids helped me truly relax. Friday’s dinner with my brother Jeff and his wife Marsha was particularly special because it served as a reunion between Jeff and our friend Mike after decades apart. I’m thinking about how grateful I am for the blessing of positive health news on all three family members about whom I’ve been concerned – a late-night panhandler can have my last dollar in light of that! The kindness of a stranger who wrote a personal note to me in a rejection letter or my coworkers bringing me information about low-cost services are good counterbalance to the theft of my gloves.

Earlier today I read a post on Allison Vesterfelt’s blog (This is Where Your Fear Comes From) in which she recounts watching an interaction between a mother and child in which it appears that the mother, in an attempt to reassure her child, actually convinces the perfectly content child to be afraid. Allison’s “AHA” that fear is a learned response got me thinking about how so many of our reactions to life’s events, big and small, are learned responses. And once we’ve learned to respond in a particular manner, we practice it until it is habitual.

If you’ve been following Jenion since I moved to Minneapolis, you’re aware that I’ve been living in two different realities at once – the reality of loving my new life and new city, engaging with new experiences and people; and also the reality of panic, fear and loneliness. Here’s the thing: most of my life I practiced what I learned as a kid and I got really good at risk aversion/avoidance, waiting for the other shoe to drop, feeling insecure, and worrying about bad things that could happen. Then, I experienced life-altering change, and began developing new skills like optimism, trust, confidence in my ability to figure things out. Also a belief that joy is readily available if I choose it. But these are fledgling skills, neither as strong nor as ingrained as the others. So I struggle to keep them active, to make them the default instead of the less-helpful skills I’m valedictorian of.

The lyrics of the song “Pompeii” by Bastille perfectly illustrate my conundrum these past few months:

I was left to my own devices
Many days fell away with nothing to show

And the walls kept tumbling down
In the city that we love
Great clouds roll over the hills
Bringing darkness from above…

A pretty bleak picture, that. But the song goes on to ask what, for me, is an all-important question, “How am I gonna be an optimist about this?” 

No matter what we may have been told in the past, optimism and pessimism are not mutually exclusive or immutable traits with which we are hard-wired. You may, like my sister Gwen, be born with a disposition that bubbles with laughter. Or you might have an Eeyore-like tendency to overemphasize that which is glum. But these are predispositions, not personality requirements. We can practice rewiring our thinking, keeping the best traits of both optimism and pessimism, thereby impacting our physical and emotional health for the better. “Both personalities could use a little bit of one another to really keep an individual at peak health. The optimist needs the caution of the pessimist, and the pessimist needs the drive of the optimist. For well-balanced health, the middle road is the ideal way to go.” (“How being an optimist or a pessimist affects your health”)

So, since I may have been describing myself, above, instead of Eeyore, I am taking my cue from Bastille’s “Pompeii”. Whenever the negative threatens to overwhelm me, I’m asking, “How AM I going to be an optimist about this?” The truly amazing thing is that I can usually come up with workable answers. Answers that allow me to invest my energy in skills and beliefs that take me out of the anxious reality and back into the engaging one. Because there’s no question which one I – or any of us, really – would prefer to live in, is there?

 

 

 

 

The Case for Uncertainty

Image

When Reverend Robert H. Schuller posed the now famous question: “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?”, I wonder if he had any thought of its ongoing impact – of how often it would be presented, posted (reposted), asked as a motivational tool. I get what he was going for, but the truth is, I’m kinda tired of this question.

I’m tired of it because I think it is the wrong question.

Let’s face it – for most of us, the truthful answer when asked “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail” would be, “What I did yesterday. What I am doing today. What I plan to do tomorrow.” We build our lives around daily routines that are composed of things we can’t fail at: eating, sleeping, working, laundry. On the micro/daily level we don’t fail at these. At the macro/lifelong level, we may question whether or to what degree we were successful at these things – but mostly we muddle through without labeling ourselves as failures. We feel secure in our “fail safe” routines, as if our lives are manageable, predictable.

Besides, we can all point out, in fact are hyper-aware of, the times we do or have failed. We deal with failure to the best of our ability and move on – what else can we do? There’s even a kind of trendy “failure is good” meme out there right now, encouraging people to take risks, reminding us of how many times Michael Jordan missed a basket or how many rejection letters J.K. Rowling got before someone agreed to publish the Harry Potter books. The message is that failure is a necessary risk if we hope to succeed at anything worthy in life. I don’t take issue or argue with this point.

However, last winter I read Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection, in which she alters Rev. Schuller’s famous question. Brown suggests that we ask ourselves, instead, “What is worth doing, even if I risk failure?” This raises the stakes by introducing the concept of uncertainty. Not “I can’t fail” but “I might fail”. I would argue that the most important word here isn’t fail, though that’s the word that captures our attention and most of our immediate fear. The word to pay attention to here is might.

What is glossed over or skipped entirely in most pep talks for daring greatly is that uncomfortable period during which we must live with uncertainty. If we want to create real change in ourselves, our lives or the world, we will have to get comfortable with uncertainty. “Real change only comes from encountering what is unfamiliar, what is new and unknown”, say authors Fred Mandell and Kathleen Jordan. “We can copy ourselves over and over again, every day. Or we can step into the unknown.” (from Becoming a Life Change Artist: 7 Creative Skills to Reinvent Yourself at Any Stage of Life).

Stepping into the unknown is uncomfortable. Un-easy. Underappreciated. I remember a conversation with a senior colleague, a woman the same age as me, in which I was told, “You still dream of accomplishing something new and different with your life? I’m not sure I do.” When I actually resigned my job of nineteen years, with no detailed plan for what came next, that same colleague called me courageous. At the time, I felt courageous – because I felt certain. Certain that leaving was the right decision. And,  though I am less likely to apply the “courageous” appellation now, I continue to feel that certainty.

But certainty is old news, or at least isn’t my uppermost experience these days. For months now I have been living with and in uncertainty. Living contentedly with the daily unknown of “What’s next?” comes neither easily nor naturally to me. Here’s what I think I’ve learned so far, the tentative case I am building for the importance of uncertainty:

  • Living in uncertainty, for any length of time, requires the development of trust. Trust that there is a higher purpose or good to be unearthed in my life, and trust in my ability to recognize it when it begins to unfold.
  • Expertise is a hard shield of certainty that can be used to protect us from the openness required of beginnings. Stepping out of my role as expert, no longer having a “professional pigeon-hole” in which to dwell and shedding certainty about what I know opens my mind to new thoughts about the world and the role(s) I wish to play in it.
  • Lacking certainty about tomorrow puts attention more squarely on today. Living in the present moment takes practice, and I wasn’t ever very good at it.  Now, though, it is abundantly clear when I stray out of the present – anxiety and fear serve as barometers that immediately register my movement into past recriminations or future fears.
  • In a similar vein, living with daily ambiguity forces me to be vulnerable – something I, for one, have always avoided. In the present I feel my emotions (is it ok to say I have a love/hate relationship with feelings?). But I also have the time to examine them and tease out the jumbled threads to understand them, something I could never do when time was always in short supply.
  • Uncertainty allows for play. Trying new things on for size. Engaging in exploration that can’t happen when every step is already mapped out. It allows us to give up, for at least some portion of time, the need to succeed and instead to focus on process rather than results. Carla Needleman, in The Work of Craft, says: “…the desire to succeed is the progenitor of real failure and…this attitude is a far more pervasive force than we realize…The craving for results in objects, or in opinions, the need to name, the need to ‘know’, which means to end the discomfort of not knowing, is the seemingly innocuous backdrop against which all our activities take place. I don’t know how to feel about the pot (she’s talking ceramics here) because I don’t know how to feel about myself. The pot and I then make a closed circle in which no new knowledge can enter precisely because it hasn’t been asked for.”

Uncertainty may not be comfortable, but it is certainly fertile – if we allow it to be so. Recently, a friend shared a blog post by a woman who quit an unfulfilling job in a community she didn’t care for, moved to Colorado, and took the better part of a year finding the right situation for herself. She characterized herself, during that year, as being “uninteresting”. Her conclusion was that all she did was worry about money and finding a job. This focus prevented her from engaging in interesting activities.  I read her post as a cautionary tale – after all, our stories are similar. What I am beginning to grasp, if imperfectly, is that the gifts of uncertainty are sometimes difficult to mine, but in the end are worth any extra digging or effort on my part. Whether there is an eventual outcome which can be labelled as a success or as a failure, I want the hallmark of this time to be growth. The treasures being unearthed are knowledge, efficacy, compassion, gratitude – of and toward both myself and this amazing world I am part of.

I’ll close my case for uncertainty with one more elegant argument, which I stumbled across online earlier this week:

“If you take away uncertainty, you take away motivation…There’s no magic to getting where we already know we can get.”
           — Pete Athans, alpinist, from National Geographic, “Famous Failures”
 
Image 1
 

Managing the Cowbird

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
              –Anne Lamott, from Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
IMG_2389

The patio at my parents’ house in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, is one of my favorite places to be. From the front, their house is unremarkable – a neat, cared-for home in a neighborhood of similar (if less-cared-for) homes, in a city in a desert where a three-year drought has turned the entire place into a matchstick waiting to be struck.

Except this back yard.

In the mornings, we get up at 6:30 a.m. and, when it isn’t too windy, bring our coffee onto the patio. The early morning sunshine is warm, and the day’s watering begins almost immediately. This attention to watering is what has helped my folks create an oasis of green in their little postage-stamp sized piece of the desert. I sip my coffee and marvel at the ordered beauty of this yard and patio.

At some point, Dad gets up and tends to the birds. Every day, he fills the feeder next to the bird bath with seed. Almost as soon as he walks away, the birds swoop in. They eat, occasionally they squabble. They take a quick dip in the bath. If the hummingbird feeders are nearing empty, Mom has already boiled the water for the preparation of sugared water that fills them. Soon, the tiny thrumming bodies are zooming around our heads. All kinds of birds come to this yard – finches, doves, robins, thrushes, jays. Humming birds, ruby throated and ferrous. One morning, Mom pointed to the back wall (which is just above waist height) and there was a covey of wild quail, notoriously shy of humans, nervously deciding whether to get any closer to the feeding frenzy.

Anyone who follows me on Facebook knows that, when I’m in New Mexico, my camera is typically attached to my hand. But these morning bird-watching sessions, though offering a great opportunity to practice, have remained unphotographed. My camera, and often also my cell phone, remain inside. I have wanted to keep this time as peaceful as possible, to be fully in it as opposed to having the experience mediated by a camera lens.

The past few mornings, especially, I’ve welcomed this coffee and bird time. It has come at the end of nightmare-filled nights. The dreams have been filled with bugs, betrayals and residual stressors from a job I no longer have. It has occurred to me that my waking self has been avoiding thinking about the enormity of the tasks waiting for me at the end of this New Mexico interlude, though my sleeping self is clearly in touch with that reality. Taken as a whole, the process of starting over feels overwhelming, regardless of the adventure and excitement inherent in such a move. It will be a lot of work to find a job, to move into a place and settle in there. It will take time to establish new relationships and renew old ones. It has been so long, do I even remember how to do any of these things?

When things feel overwhelming or tasks feel insurmountable, there is a tendency to experience a certain paralysis. Not that the will stops being willing, just that the brain stops being able to process it all. Just that the heart quakes a little with fear that you might not have within you whatever it will take. This fear can manifest itself in a variety of ways, from tears “for no reason” to heart palpitations to nightmares like mine. The first step in mitigating the effects of feeling overwhelmed has always been, for me, recognizing it for what it is. The second is learning to break it down into smaller pieces or component parts and creating a plan to tackle those pieces one at a time. This is one situation in which seeing the trees may be more important than seeing the forest – forests are vast, while trees are familiar and huggable (i.e. we can get our arms around them). An important note about creating a plan – for me, having a plan is key. However, sticking to that plan is not – which is a good thing when the way forward is riddled with unknowns. I’m usually pretty flexible and adaptable; I can adjust in mid-stream.

Which brings me back to the birds in my parents’ yard. Some come every day, expecting to be fed. Others happen upon the feast and gladly partake. All of them have to take what comes – whether that is delicious feed or an attack from larger, predatory birds who swoop in and cause the avian crowd to scatter. Each morning on the patio, I watch these creatures respond to what they find, and I am fascinated. Sometimes, the variety of birds that happily co-feed is surprising. Sometimes, the larger birds bully the smaller ones – a few of whom give up right away and fly off looking for a more peaceful breakfast venue. But others are more tenacious. They dart away then back quickly, avoiding the bully skillfully, if cautiously. Some birds approach the food tentatively, perching on the edge of the birdbath to take a look. Maybe I am anthropomorphizing, but it sure looks like joy when they discover the bird bath has water in it, and shower their wings with cool droplets tossed from their beaks.

The Irish writer, Robert Lynd, said “In order to see birds it is necessary to become part of the silence.” Morning coffee on my parents’ patio isn’t silent, but it does offer a pause before the start of the day’s activities for us humans, to enter briefly into that world the birds inhabit. It is impossible not to relax and let the lingering effects of nightmares dissipate in that world. Birds definitely live in the “now”, and when you watch them, you do too. That is the gift “Dad’s birds” offer each morning.

The birds offer a lesson, as well as a gift. Their lesson is beautifully captured in this quote from J.M. Barrie, creator of the magical Peter Pan: “The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply because they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings.” The future holds what it holds, regardless of your plans, they tell me. This moment holds seed and water and sunshine – make the most of it. Tomorrow, or the next day, there may be a brown-headed cowbird bogarting the seed. You’ll manage the cowbird when it happens: have a little faith, and take things as they come.