Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Stripping Away

Moving to the city has been a form of insulation-removal for us.  It occurred to me this morning as I walked the dog through our new neighborhood, as has become our morning ritual, that I have lived in the suburbs my entire life.  Or, if not technically in the suburbs, in a small enough town that I had no idea what living in the city would be like.  And Bubba, well he was born and raised in the same house on a few hundred acres bordering a wide river with nothing but cattle and sugar beets for neighbors.

Our new house, while spacious and definitely in a residential neighborhood, is not insulated.  I don't mean it lacks that fluffy pink fiber stuffed in to the walls and attic. I mean that if we leave the back doors open on a sunny afternoon we have to be careful not to crank the music too high because the neighbors might be having dinner on their patio next door.  I mean that four doors down is an old Victorian that has been converted into four apartments and across the street is a 60-something Caucasian woman who is ragged raising her daughter's two half-black sons by herself. I mean that our front lawn is seen by dozens of people each day, some strolling by slowly with dogs of all sizes and others rushing to catch a bus a few blocks south, ears sprouting speakers or bluetooth devices.

In every other house I have inhabited, the front lawn might be a playspace for children or pets, but mostly it served as a buffer. A way to set the house back from the street and give us some space. Some insulation. On our quiet cul-de-sac, nobody ever saw our front lawn except the neighbors.

In the suburbs the grocery stores were not walking distance away and so each had spacious parking lots, landscaped with trees and shrubs and, in some cases, herbs and other edibles.  Each car had its own ample space. A separation from the others.  Here in town if there is a parking lot at the store it is nominal with no room for plants beyond the occasional weed poking up through a crack.

Since we moved I have noticed more. More people close by. More noises. More light. More life.  At times I have found myself uncomfortable with the lack of insulation as though I'm sitting outside on a cool evening in just a tank top. The activity around me, the closeness of others not just like me - they act as a cold breeze raising goosebumps on my arms.  This heightened awareness is disconcerting but electric all the same.  I feel more aware. More exposed. More available to everything.

For most of my life I have been able to surround myself with open space and a cushion of comfort. Our previous neighborhoods were quiet and serene. If we wanted action we could go find it. If we visited the city for a day to attend a cultural event we could come right back home and lament the sad spectacle of dirty streets and panhandlers and crowds in the cocoon of our home.  We could remove ourselves.  Insulate ourselves.

In our new house we certainly are able to come inside and close the doors, retreat to the basement and watch TV in peace if we so choose.  I can curl up on the couch with a book and delve in to a different world.  But the buffer around us has been pared down.  Our neighbors are closer and more diverse than anywhere I've ever lived.  It took the dog a few weeks to figure out that every car or truck that came down the street was not stopping at our house. He barked excitedly at the door every time someone walked by on the sidewalk or drove past the backyard through the alley, certain they were coming to visit us.  I know how he feels.

And yet, I am so grateful for this shift in my life.  The opportunity to take a step closer to life in the city is keeping me on edge in a good way.  In the past I was able to convince myself that distance was normal. That I could retreat from my surroundings with a wide cushion around me and venture out on my own terms. The suburbs gave me the impression that control was possible. No massive tree roots were allowed to push their way up, tenting sidewalks to dangerous heights.  You could always tell what day the garbage pick-up happened because house after house sported the green and blue plastic bins at the end of the driveway. Neighborhoods with single-family homes sat apart from those with condominiums and apartments.  Here in the city our mantra has become, "Watch your step" as we take a family walk with the dog. When I asked the former owners what day garbage and recycle service came they looked blank despite having lived here for five years. The trash bins simply live in the alley behind the house where the massive trucks rumble through once a week or so. There are renters and 'owners' alike in our neighborhood in the city and many homes with multiple generations living within.

While it remains true that I dip a toe in the water only when I choose, the world is closer now and, for me, that is a reminder that life is meant to be tasted and experienced.  That the bright colors and sharp noises of the city represent a brighter mosaic that I have decided to be more fully a part of.  The chaos and disorder of old next to new, wild bumping right up against sculpted, tribal music in the park as I lie quietly reading on a blanket gives me a new sense of imbalance that feels a little alarming. A little sensory-overload. A little like a really good scalp massage that takes me by surprise and sends shivers down my back but wakes me up and leaves me wanting more.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


All too often I forget the lesson I've learned that where I choose to put my energies matters.  I have this ingrained neural highway in my brain that started in childhood - cry about something and get attention. Whine or complain and someone will come ask, "What's wrong? How can I help?"  Of course, get to a certain age and that becomes untrue - people don't respond to adolescent whining with much more than annoyance or judgment, but because those nerve connections were forged over and over again pre-language, my brain still insists on traveling down that particular road more often than not.

And so, since the horrific shooting in Aurora, Colorado, I have spent a lot of time and energy railing against what I feel is the ridiculous lack of gun laws in the United States - drawing comparisons that I feel will illustrate my point (well, mostly pointing out comparisons that others have come up with and shared on Facebooks).  The act of ranting about an issue that is important to me, that inspires passion, feels good for a while and then falls flat.  Unfortunately, when it falls flat, it also reminds me of the other times I've felt the same way - impotent in the face of hatred and inequality for homosexuals, the lack of an adequate healthcare system that will provide care for each and every person who needs it, corporate interests trumping human and environmental concerns like clean drinking water and a safe food system, you know, the regular stuff.  And then I get depressed. Because this particular "Route 66" is barren of color and softness - it is simply pavement that enables me to speed from anger or fear or frustration to more of the same.

Fortunately, from time to time I get bored with the monotony of this concrete path and look to one side or the other, realizing there's a much less used deer path that goes off in another direction.

That deer path, bravely forged from time to time in my consciousness, is a much more attractive alternative that I rarely slow down enough to use.  That deer path represents the power of positive energy. It is the place where, instead of ranting and banging my forehead and fists against the brick wall I see in front of me, I choose to step back and see what is going on in the vicinity. Focus on other things.  And generally, what I find is heartening.

I find other bloggers like Elizabeth who feel the same way I do about a variety of subjects and continues to highlight innovative ideas and point out absurdities to ponder and share lovely poetry in the spaces inbetween.  I discover this from Jason Alexander of Seinfeld fame - an eloquent and impassioned essay about the tragic shooting incident in Colorado.  I see threads of conversation on Facebook and Twitter concerning the Boy Scouts' recent ruling on excluding homosexuals or denying Sally Ride's domestic partner of 27 years survivor benefits simply because she was female and they weren't allowed to marry.  I see momentum. I see rational discussion. (I also see ranting and hatred and de-friending behavior, but that's par for the course).  I see people who care about others and who feel that it is important to share their thoughts on difficult subjects.  I feel empowered because I truly, honestly believe that this kind of discourse can only produce action. That putting energy in to compassionate thought and support for all of humanity will result in its growth and development.  It is a reminder to me that putting my energy into fighting against something, while it feels justified and powerful initially, only feeds that thing.  Instead, today, I am choosing to direct my thoughts toward what I do want to see. Manifesting the outcome I hope for with every cell in my body.


As I stood in the shower this morning feeling somewhat defeated and sad I took a second to begin listing the things for which I am grateful.  I recalled a quote I saw once that says that, "Gratitude is a way of returning energy for energy received."

Generally, when I begin this exercise I feel a little like I'm just going through the motions. And I get a little cynical with myself, noting that I list the same things every time - my kids, my husband, my friends, access to healthy food and clean water, the grace and beauty of nature.  And somewhere along the way I begin laughing at myself because who gets cynical and snotty about those things? How long can you say, "Yeah, yeah, so I live in a beautiful part of the world with a healthy family and I get to breathe clean air. So what?"  It doesn't ring true.

So excuse me for being a Polyanna, but when I step off of that fast-moving highway of scorn and whining and put my bare feet squarely in to the soft grass of acknowledgment and gratitude, the shift that comes about is profound.  I begin to realize that this is how things change.  People who care enough about something to speak up do so and others realize they aren't alone.  More join them in their quest for compassion, equality, humanity, and the tide begins to turn.  And I honestly believe that is what is happening right now.  It will certainly not happen overnight, but if those who care continue to put positive energy toward the outcome they desire, it can't fail.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Raising an Introvert

Well, at least that's her story.  I'm not sure I'm buying it, but I am also not sure that it matters what either of us thinks. The part that is becoming crystal clear to me is the fact that Eve isn't me. (I know, that ought to have been clear a whole lot earlier than now.)

Summer is a hard one for me.  Every year I try to find that elusive balance between down time and scheduled time. I know that this is a good problem to have. I have many friends who work full-time and have to sign their kids up for some combination of summer camps and daycare just to get through a 40-50 hour work week. I am lucky enough to work from home and have the flexibility to take my summers easy, if not entirely "off."

And so, along about February I start perusing the options and polling the girls on which camps they would like to attend, which friends they would like to arrange schedules with, and budgeting how much money we can spend on which exorbitantly expensive summer activities.  In years past, I've horribly over-scheduled them and only realized it when we got to the end of August and hadn't picked berries or gone to an outdoor movie or taken an impromptu drive to a beach.  I have also grossly under-scheduled them and been left with whiny, bickering, "bored to death" children who stare at me as though I am the world's most negligent cruise director and demand to be entertained or they will fight over ridiculous things and sigh theatrically all day long.

This year I was very distracted by the sale of our house and our move and scheduled very little, hoping that moving to the city would offer us more options than carbs at Ye Old Country Buffet.

For the past three weeks, we have had nothing pre-scheduled except for a week of Math Camp that Lola attended at the last minute (and LOVED, by the way - I know, go figure).  Eve, on the other hand, is fully embracing her nearly-teenage status by staying up as late as she can get away with and sleeping until 10 AM every day.  She lounges on the couch and reads, goes for walks in the neighborhood with the dog and asks to go to the library or shopping nearly every day.  She is driving me nuts.  I ask her every day whether she wants to invite a friend to come over, sleep over, do something and she always cocks her head as if she's considering it before declining.  She did have one sleepover with two of her best friends last week and was in the kitchen pulling me aside to make sure they left before 1 PM the next day so she could, "have the rest of my day to myself."

I think that most of her teachers would say that Eve is gregarious, outgoing, friendly and socially engaged.  I think she is, too.  At school.  At home, she prefers to hole up in her own room for hours belting out her favorite songs or reading.  At least once per day she tromps down the stairs to find me and declare that she doesn't know what to do. She's bored.

I realized the other day that I was feeling responsible for her entertainment.  I was feeling all this pressure to think up things for her to do, but since she doesn't want to hang out with her friends, this means that I have to find things for her to do with me.  Since her favorite activity is shopping and my seventh circle of Hell is shopping, that's out.  My favorite activities involve walking in nature (or our new neighborhood) and exploring the city's (free) cultural offerings like parks and outdoor art and farmer's markets and she quickly tires of those, so that's out too.  My frustration built to a crescendo the other day and I admitted that I didn't know how to solve her problem.  Left to her own devices, she begins whining to play on the computer or watch a movie which is not going to happen since I have instituted a technology ban from 10-3:30 every day and the weather is lovely, lovely, lovely.  Foiled at every turn, she begins messing with her sister which degenerates into bickering and general nastiness on both sides.

"I don't understand why you don't invite some of your friends over. I'll go get them if their parents can't bring them.  I'll take you guys somewhere - theater in the park or an outdoor concert or the pool."

"I don't want to, Mom. I'm happy just hanging out at home most of the time."

"But you spend so much time alone. I feel like it's my job to entertain you and that makes me mad. And I worry that you're lonely or depressed."

She looked at me like I was nuts.  "It's not your job to entertain me, Mom. And I'm not lonely or depressed. I'm an introvert. I recharge away from people. It is work being around other people, especially at my age. I'm not you."

And therein lies the rub.

You see, my issue is simply this: I'm not bored. I'm overwhelmed having them around all the time. I want to be SuperMom and have fun! exciting! stimulating! activities planned for them. And then I want them to go to someone's house and play so I can get my book reviews written - I'm behind by two - and maybe a blog post or two.  And then I want to hang out with my friends.  I miss my friends since we moved and I want to invite someone my own size to come do something with me or just have coffee. But the problem with that is that I have to ditch my kids to do that or I have to invite a friend with kids my kids want to hang out with. Lola is always up for hanging out with other kids regardless of age or gender.  Eve not so much. She would rather be alone.

So yet again it turns out that my issues with my children are simply my issues.


Monday, July 16, 2012

The One That Got Away

The Chopra Center offers four 21-day free guided meditation sessions every year and my friend Thereza turned me on to it last summer. We agreed to do the meditations every day and get together once a week to compare notes.  I never would have stuck to it without knowing that she was expecting me to have some insights the following week, and it turned out to be such a great experience that I have signed up for every one since then.  I have had mixed success, always starting out with the intention to find 15-20 minutes a day to sit and listen and meditate, but somewhere around day 5 or 6 I find myself skipping one or waiting until the evening to do it and then being antsy the entire time.

I haven't gone to yoga or meditated in at least two months now, given the disruption in our schedules from moving and the beginning of summer, so when this meditation challenge rolled around, I signed up without hesitation.  This morning started out perfectly for the first day of the session.  Bubba headed to the airport at 6:30 and both girls were still asleep as I rolled out of bed.  Nobody woke up when I loudly steamed the milk for my coffee or clanged the kibble into the dog's metal food bowl.  I did a quick scan of my favorite news website to make sure nothing earth-shattering happened overnight, checked my email to determine the same, and then settled in to meditate.

We always start by simply noticing the breath coming in and out of our nostrils and the next step for me is generally critiquing my breath. Is it too shallow? Too quick? Am I flaring my nostrils instead of simply letting the air flow in and out? Am I breathing from my lungs or my diaphragm? (Sounds restful, huh?)  As I gently try to push those thoughts out of the way and sit, I do my best to imagine a deep, slow-flowing river out in front of me. Every set of words that forms in my brain becomes a leaf on the surface of that river that I can watch float downstream. That is how I attempt to let those thoughts simply evaporate from my consciousness and bring my awareness back to my breath and the meditation.  It doesn't always work, but it's my method.

Today, because it was the first time I've meditated in a while, was harder.  It is always harder to let the thoughts go when I've been accustomed to holding on to them, manipulating them, squeezing every last drop of usefulness out of them and letting them lead me on to something else.  I am rarely surprised by the things that pop up for me during meditation - what should I cook for dinner tonight? when was my last blog post? can I get some meaningful message from this meditation that I can write about? (not likely if I don't stop thinking and start meditating, idiot).

Today, I did actually notice something new.  While I was attempting to float my thoughts away, I found myself wanting to ensure that some of them would come back around after meditation.  I know that during meditation I am not supposed to grab on to them, but that thing I thought about making for dinner? I was afraid if I let it slip away that later I wouldn't remember what it was.  Same with the idea for the book I wanted to look for at the library today.  I realized that I am really rather attached to my thoughts as finite entities that will disappear into thin air if I don't develop them.  And then where will I be? Reinventing the wheel (dinner menu/blog post/list of who to call to do research on ____________.)

In some desperate attempt to ensure their survival in my psyche later, my brain tried to etch key words on each 'thought leaf.' After two, I realized that this counts as holding on to those trains of thought which is definitely not what I was supposed to be doing here, so I resigned myself to letting that go and focusing on my breath again.

So, to recap: Morning 1 of the current Chopra Center Meditation Challenge. I discovered that, yup, I'm still frustrated by my own racing thoughts during meditation. Yup, I need guided meditation to have any hope of a chance of focusing on quieting my mind. And, most importantly, the reason I have such difficulty letting my thoughts simply pop up and disappear is because I am afraid they won't pop up again later and they might be really good ones. Ones I can't afford to let slip away.

Clearly I need this process. If only as a reminder of my own tendency to emphasize the importance of my every thought, my tendency to over-inflate and lose perspective.  Bring on Day 2!

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Please Pass the Wabi Sabi

The above image is a traditional wabi sabi tea bowl, designed to have unique, "flawed" features. 

Wabi sabi is a concept I only recently learned about from a friend at a yoga retreat and, I'll admit, I didn't remember what it was called at first so I had to search online to figure it out.  Here is the official Wikipedia definition:

a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. Wabi-sabi is the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of traditional Japanese beauty and it occupies roughly the same position in the Japanese pantheon of aesthetic values as do the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West."[1] "if an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi."[2] "[Wabi-sabi] nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.

I can't yet decide which part of this I like the best. The fact that it is a world view (ie. pervasive and holistic in Japanese culture), or the notion that it is how something makes us feel that defines its worth.  

I spent far too many years of my life fully buying in to the notion that there was some ideal state that was attainable and achievable if I could just work hard enough. That the way things looked was of integral importance. That perfection was real.  This was not a difficult thing to imagine given my Marine Corps father's attention to detail and willingness to teach me how to do things the "Right" way. We spent hours on everything from making beds with hospital corners to the proper way to wax a car and I was steeped in the tradition of the Platonic Ideal.  

Thankfully, having children and suffering from deep depression helped me to understand that there is another way to live and that, no, Virginia, there is no such thing as perfect.  

The more I learn about wabi sabi the more I begin to realize how many of the things I truly treasure because of the grounded, calm way they make me feel.  These things, experiences, people are all linked by the common thread of me not giving a damn that they are imperfect.  I know my children are flawed and yet there is nothing more peaceful and fulfilling than stretching out next to one of them in the hammock for a snuggle or reaching over to brush my hand across the smooth surface of Eve's hair.  My favorite coffee mug has a chip in the handle and was once part of a set of four (it now stands alone), but I still feel better when I drink my morning latte out of it.  Our new house has a leaky laundry room sink, warped hardwood flooring in a few places that would make a terrific roller coaster for Hot Wheels cars and weeds sprouting between the deck slats but the smile that creeps across my face every time I walk up the sidewalk and catch sight of the front door erases all that.  

There is a Native American folk tale that someone once told me about that expresses this notion of imperfections as perfect. I will continue to look for it, but the upshot is that there was a weaver who purposely added one strand of mismatched thread to each of her rugs in order to make them more beautiful.  Nobody would buy her work if it were too perfect because they couldn't believe that she had made them without the help of the spirits and to have a rug made by a spirit could be hazardous, so she was forced to give them the look of a human-crafted object by adding some special flaw.  Her work became revered throughout her community and the society eventually learned to value sincere effort and hard work over perfection.  

I hope that one day our culture will also come to understand that there is beauty in all expression regardless of our expectations or preconceived notions of what something ought to look like.  It takes more time and effort to understand the virtues of something or someone because of who or what they are than it does to measure them up against our ideals, but I honestly believe it leads to a richer, fuller, more satisfying life.  
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