Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Finishing the Year With a Vital Question

These past months have been inordinately busy ones for me, and while I can point to a long list of productive things I've accomplished, I was able to make an important distinction yesterday between being good at something and being passionate about it.

As a Catholic child of the 70s, I was raised to believe that I had been given a gift or gifts. Something that I was inherently good at that would lead me to serve the world in an important way.  Like most little girls, I desperately wanted that gift to be a talent that would make me famous - perhaps the voice of a superstar or the athletic prowess of a prima ballerina.  And while I did have moderate talent as a ballet dancer and the drive to succeed, my father's move to Green River, Wyoming where nary a ballet studio existed put the nail in the coffin of a seven or eight year run of ballet for me.

I had long since found and capitalized on something that I was very good at by that time, though, even if I didn't identify it as my 'gift.' I was a fixer, talented at assessing complicated situations and identifying what might fall apart first so that I could patch the hole.  I quickly learned the art of the 'workaround,' finding ways to circumvent obstacles or reframe challenges in pursuit of constant forward motion.  I fixed things for my mother, my siblings, myself.  And as I grew up, I began to thrive on the adrenaline rush that came with the first glimpse of a frail system and the pride that ensued after I worked hard to shore it up.

It was nearly a decade ago that I found myself unable to breathe from the constant cycle of looking for things to fix and fixing them for others and decided that something had to change.  Being good at something does not mean that I have to do it. I am no longer tied to the Catholic belief that God bestowed certain gifts on me that I must not forsake. I don't have to make it my life to fix things for other people, or even myself.

And yet, it is so easy to sink right back in to old habits.  As we attempted to finish up our remodel this fall, my days were spent coordinating subcontractors, reviewing bills, and troubleshooting city permits. I was also navigating ever-more-complicated schedules for the girls and working with two veterinarians to coordinate a treatment plan for the dog after his melanoma diagnosis. Bubba continues to travel a great deal which leaves the running of the household to me for the most part, and when the city forced us to take a dangerous tree off of our property and repair the sidewalk in front of our house, I had to find an arborist and a contractor to complete that project as well.  As if the Universe were testing me, Lola's shower sprung a complicated leak in mid-October that ended up opening Pandora's Box and led to a twelve-week demolition of both her entire shower and half of our kitchen ceiling before it could be repaired.

Throughout all of this, I have been, by turns, exhausted and overwhelmed and pleased as punch that I kept all of the balls in the air and managed to still get out of bed every morning.  Just before Christmas, Lola got the flu (confirmed H1N1), and we packed up to head to Oregon for a week to see family.  The dog popped his stitches out for the fourth time, leaving a gaping hole in his leg that just won't heal and I spent a lot of time walking and meditating and breathing deeply.

We arrived home two days ago and after a solid night's sleep in my own bed, I awoke with a question hanging in the air:

What do I want to spend my days doing?

Each and every morning I awake to do the things at which I am accomplished. My day starts with feeding the cat and dog, assessing the needs of the children, emptying the dishwasher. It is as if these activities serve to stretch the canvas of my life and I've gotten so caught up in creating the backdrop that I've forgotten to splash a little paint on there to liven it up. I have spent time racking up canvas after empty canvas, rarely ever taking a moment to decide what I'll adorn them with. It's wearing me out, but only when I stop to think about it. The truth is, if I only ever listened to the adrenaline and the momentary hit of pride I get from tying up loose ends and smoothing out wrinkles, I might go through the rest of my life tired and frazzled, but feeling accomplished. And while this work is important, it is most certainly not my life's work, the work that will bring me a deeper sense of joy. It's time to listen to my gut and start splashing a little paint around. But first, the all-important question: what the heck am I going to create?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Noodling

I really like that word and all it conjures up for me. I "noodle" a lot on any given day. When I read something that strikes me or a particular circumstance piques my attention like it hasn't before, if I give myself the space and time to think on it, I often find nuggets of wisdom or a way of seeing the world differently.

Yesterday, a friend posted a link to this article on bimodal sleeping. If you have the time, go read it. It's really interesting and basically says that our ancestors used to go to bed early (around 8:30pm), sleep for several hours, awaken in the middle of the night and spend a few quiet hours reading or writing or praying or even communing with friends and family, and then go back to sleep for several more hours before beginning their day. It struck me for two reasons. First, because I know many perimenopausal and menopausal women who wake for several hours in the middle of the night and fret about it. This might be a new way of seeing that time in a more productive, relaxed fashion. Or not.  But the second reason I was taken by this article was because of the philosophical question the author asked about the nature of time and how we treat it. He says,
"I can definitely see the benefits of recognizing, and attempting to live by, a new understanding of time. Time as quality. Duration. Flavor....It’s not important to quantify time like we do. Maybe what’s needed is to step back and be present..."
All of a sudden, I envisioned us like fish in the sea, swimming in time. What if I can begin to see time as simply a medium through which I move instead of something that is finite and exhaustible? What if, instead of feeling like I can work like mad now and "store" time for retirement (ie. sleep more, relax more, do more of what I like when I have "more time,") I don't put so much emphasis on time itself? If it is simply the water through which I move as I pursue those things that are truly important, it ceases to be a taskmaster to which I answer every day.  Worth noodling on, I think.

I walk the dog at the same time every morning. We stroll the same path every time, encountering the high school students rushing to class and an occasional neighbor walking their dog, and it is a short walk, but there is comfort in the sameness of it. The dog does his business in pretty much the same place every day, rain or shine, and we see the same faces and houses every day. While there are minor changes from time to time - the leaves on the trees or the sidewalk, Halloween or Christmas decorations adorning the houses - they are the things I am drawn to because the basic structure and framework of the route remains the same.  This morning I happened to notice how dark it was outside and as the dog paused to sniff at something interesting, I noodled on it a bit. Two weeks ago we were in the midst of my favorite kind of days, the ones that bring cold, clear skies in the morning and brilliant sunshine in the afternoon that barely melts the frost on the grass. These mornings are fraught with a riot of color streaking the sky, the sun painting the few low clouds with glorious pinks and oranges and reds, and they are light.  For the past several days, we have awoken to dense fog or cloud cover that blocks the  morning sun and makes me feel as though I got up an hour too early. As I stood scanning the sky I could see clear spots pockmarking the clouds here and there and I marveled at how much a thin cloud cover can block the morning light.  I was reminded of the way that works in my brain, as well. Sometimes all it takes is a little frustration or stress to begin my day in darkness instead of light. Maybe now that I know this, I can work a little harder to find those pockets of clear sky and remind myself that the sun always comes up and just on the other side of those clouds is the warmth and clarity I want to reside in.

And for those following the saga of the ultrasound, an update: While there were no glaring issues, there was at least one question raised that prompted my doctor to request further testing and I am torn. I am thrilled that most of the results were negative for anything really bad, but since I have been feeling pretty darn good since about a week before the ultrasound (of course), I am tempted to chalk it all up to perimenopause and assume that my hormones will assert their will over my body for several years before they finally give up.  This may all change when and if I start feeling badly again, but for now what I really want for Christmas is to avoid the doctor for a while.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Prayer for Peace

I can't find the original citation for this photo, but if anyone else knows it, let me know so I can give credit where it is due.


The President of the United States travels to South Africa for Nelson Mandela's memorial service and all the news outlets can talk about is his (shocking) handshake with Raoul Castro.

Seriously?

God forbid we entertain the notion that everyone deserves respect.
God forbid we ever consider that each person contains both light and dark.
God forbid we we treat everyone who comes across our path with humanity and kindness.

I hope that President Obama never hesitated or analyzed whether he ought to shake Castro's hand. I sincerely hope that on that special day he was filled with humility before the legacy that Mandela created and compelled by a sense of hope and wonder for all that this man did throughout his lifetime. I hope that he was buoyed by possibility and optimistic for change and carried forward by the momentum of love for humanity.

I wish the politicians and news media would shut up.

In other news, I am very much feeling the weight of the upcoming anniversary of the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. I am sitting in the very room I was in when I first heard of it and my throat is tight with tears, my sinuses prickling with remembrance of the horror and sadness I felt, the images of my girls that hung firmly in my mind as I rocked back and forth on the floor with the dog, grieving for the parents and children and loved ones who lost people on that day.

May we all find the courage to shake the hands of those with whom we disagree.
May we all see the humanity in everyone.
May we all create peace in ways big and small every day.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Finding Gratitude in Cold Places

These things make for a raw start to the day.

Going to bed wondering if the puddle forming beneath the boiler in the basement might turn out to be more troublesome than we think.

Going to bed wondering whether the dog will manage to tear another stitch or two out of the wound on his leg despite the fact that he is toting around a giant plastic cone.

Going to bed knowing that tomorrow morning won't bring my customary latte because I'm fasting for an abdominal ultrasound.


I woke up to a house that has finally succumbed to the "cold snap" the news has been talking of for a week. The boiler gave it up while we slept and the radiators are frozen hunks of iron, no good for warming my towel as I shower. The dispatcher warns that it might be days because most of the folks in town have no heat, either, and haven't for days.  I am grateful for the gas fireplace and the electricity to run the fan that pushes warmth out to the family room and kitchen.  I am grateful for the dryer that dispenses warm clothes I can bury my cold nose in as I walk up the stairs.

I woke up to a gaping wound on the dog's leg, trailing drops of blood throughout the house. His head is still unwieldy with the cone of shame, and I marvel at the doggy yoga he must have performed to get his teeth around the stitches and tug.  I am grateful for hardwood floors that I can simply swipe with a wet paper towel to clean the mess. I am grateful that the wound is clean and free of infection for now. I am immensely grateful to the vet who chucks him affectionately under the chin and injects a local anesthetic to put him back together again.

I sit in the waiting room watching the other people here for bone density tests and x-rays and ultrasounds. I eavesdrop on the couple in their late 6os, she the patient with the clipboard who looks to her husband for the answers.

"Do I put what kind of cancer? Or just when?"
"Medications? Do I put all of them?"

She is not confused. Simply leaning on him for validation, assurance. She is not wavering in her emotion or fragile, he is not paternalistic. They are simply there together. A team. Two halves of a whole.

The young man (ten years younger than I, I know because I heard him say his birthdate to the receptionist) who is there for an ultrasound. He is well-groomed, healthy-looking, and I wonder what part is being ultrasounded. I hope it's nothing. I hope it's not testicular cancer or something like that.  He sits down with his clipboard and I look away. My eyes well up with tears when a young woman walks in and heads straight for the chair next to him. He isn't alone. He has someone to wait with him.

There is a woman in her late 50s or early 60s sitting alone across from me. She pulls out a knitting project - fat, fluffy yarn the color of mint leaves in the spring. I know exactly what it would feel like just by looking at it. There are thicker knobs of yarn interspersed with thinner parts and I think She must be making a scarf. A Christmas gift for someone. Her hands are small and a little gnarled, but she knits with comfort and precision.

I am brought back to an exam room and given a gown that opens in the back. As the technician leaves the room I think how absurd it is that I have a gown that opens in the back when they will be doing an ultrasound of my abdomen. I briefly consider putting it on backwards so that I can just open the two halves to expose my belly when she comes in, but opt for compliance. If I follow all the rules, everything will turn out okay. That is my 8-year old self talking, but she still occupies a powerful place in my head, so I do what I'm told.

After a few strokes of the wand through the warm gel, I close my eyes in order to resist the temptation to interpret every movement the technician makes. If she raises one eyebrow, I instantly begin analyzing what that might mean; where is the wand on my body, does it hurt there, could that be a signal that she saw something she didn't expect? If she shifts in her chair suddenly is that to get a closer look at something? When she clicks the mouse to record a measurement, is that normal or does that mean she found a mass to measure? Closing my eyes is the only defense against her silence. I know from experience that she won't tell me anything, that she isn't allowed to. So, in closing my eyes, I breathe life into the idea that there will be nothing amiss. That it will be frustrating because there aren't any answers, but any answers that lie within my abdomen aren't answers I want, anyway. I inflate that balloon and let it float above my head.  I am grateful. I am grateful. I am grateful.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Christmas Cards As Meditation

Yup, it's that time of year again. Did I buy enough cards? Do I have current addresses for everyone? Can I get enough holiday theme stamps?

I don't really remember when I started writing Christmas cards, but I think it was my first year in college.  I was fresh off of high school graduation, having addressed envelopes to each of my aunts and uncles and grandparents stuffed with graduation announcements and once again with thank-you notes for the cash gifts they sent.  I'm pretty sure I felt like it would be a nice (and terribly grown-up) thing to do if I sent them all holiday greetings as well, now that I was 'on my own.'

Over the years, I have continued to send cards to friends and family, deviating once or twice to experiment with a holiday letter typed up on my computer or a photo collage of Bubba and I with the kids. Each time, though, I took the opportunity to at least sign my name by hand and address each envelope by hand.  I'm not sure why. I don't judge others who send computer printed envelopes or holiday newsletters - I'm thrilled to get the mail and hang the cards up in the house to make it more festive.

It was a week ago that I found myself in a book store and suddenly realized I had yet to purchase this year's cards. I wasn't my usually picky self, given that I only had a few minutes before picking Eve up down the street, but I still made certain to get a few different boxes of cards. I like hand-choosing which family or friend gets which message (for example, I always try not to send my cousins who are siblings the same card in case they ever compare notes), so having an assortment of cards is absolutely necessary.  Yes, that's a little over the top. No, I don't care. It's me. That's the way I roll.

This morning when I sat down to begin writing the cards, I felt a momentary sense of drudgery and chalked it up to being so long out of my routine of writing and walking and reading. I wondered what would happen if I turned this task into a meditation. It turns out that was precisely what I needed today.

With each turn of the page in my address book, I took a moment to think about the next person or family I was sending holiday wishes to. I carefully chose which card they would receive, pictured them in my mind, and felt the pen flowing across the slick surface of the page.  More often than not, a memory popped into my head about a time spent with them or something they once said, and by the time I had written the address across the front of the envelope and sealed it, I was filled with gratitude for their place in my life.

I made it through the "Es." My maiden name started with E, so there are some pretty special people in that section of the address book, from my big brother to my Dad's widow to my paternal grandfather. A couple of those envelopes aren't sealed yet since I have to slip Eve and Lola's school photos inside, and I took a minute to wonder what happens when these snapshots fall out of the card as they are opened. Do they instantly get compared to last year's? Are there exclamations of delight or amazement at how much the girls have grown? Is there a desire to reach out and connect soon? I don't know.  What I learned from this morning, though, is that this ritual is a warm, grounding one for me. A reminder, as I sit quietly and write out a short sentiment, of just how important each of these people is in my life; a touchstone of connection, of shared history, for which I am grateful. I will never again begrudge the time I spend engaging in this special, simple practice of reaching out to those I love. Thank goodness my sense of duty twenty-some years ago called me to start sending holiday greetings. Thank goodness I stuck with it. Thank goodness it's that time of year again.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Making My Way Back

It's been a crazy couple of weeks and with each day that got away from me it became harder and harder to imagine the long trek back to productive writing.

We have had some very unexpected events here at home that have required much project management by me (despite the fact that my insurance company appointed an agency to do just that -- turns out the kid who got chosen was in over his head for weeks and couldn't figure out how to cry, "Uncle!") and I have felt foiled at every turn.  The phrase "comedy of errors" has bounced around in my brain more than once as I sidestepped a series of miscommunications by subcontractors, ironed out details in scheduling and logistics over and over again for everyone involved, navigated bureaucracies I never knew existed and forced myself not to cry when one more person didn't show up to do their job when they were supposed to. I also managed to keep my cool when a very contrite 50-something plumber made his way to the kitchen the day before Thanksgiving to tell me he had accidentally put a sledgehammer through my shower wall into Lola's bedroom, scattering sheetrock dust and tile bits all over her desk and knocking her art off of the walls.

When I awoke this morning to a house free of guests and the prospect of one more day of kids at home I was optimistic that I might somehow find my way back to writing today. Or at the very least, doing something I wanted to do, given that the last several weeks have consisted of me reacting to a series of events I had no control over.

By 2:30, I had had enough of plumbers, carpenters and the crew demolishing the sidewalk outside my house and decided to take the dog for a walk.  As we strolled the neighborhood on a crisp, gloriously sunny afternoon, I retreated in to my mind, intending to revisit the last few days' worth of news and family holiday stories in order to find connections I might write about.  And while a few headlines whizzed by and I was able to recall some pretty cute moments from the past weekend, mostly I felt unable to access any sort of mojo at all.  It wasn't for lack of desire, and while I am really terribly exhausted, I am rarely too tired to write. It was more like I was trapped in a long, dark hallway with beautiful doors on both sides of me and I couldn't find the knobs. I simply don't have access to the goods right now. I can't get in.

The good news is I don't feel desperate. I'm certain that it is only a matter of time before I can settle back in to my comfortable routine of finding things I'm passionate about to share.

The best news is that throughout this entire frustrating process with contractors and subcontractors and insurance companies, I have discovered that I no longer have a taste for anger. I used to love getting angry. As a teenager, I can remember wishing that someone would say something particularly ignorant to me so that I could unleash an indignant lecture on them, righteousness flashing in my eyes, and put them in their place.  I would invent entire conversations in my head, playing both sides, just so that I could say all of the things I had always wanted to. As a freshman in college, I had a roommate who watched soap operas in her down time and I recall thinking how fantastic it would be to play the role of the villain, spewing rage out at people who would never take it personally. I was a particularly mean driver, flipping people off and honking and riding their bumpers if they didn't drive as fast or as deftly as I wanted them to. Anger felt good. It fueled me, and while I was never hateful or nasty to my friends or family, when I could yell at a stranger who screwed up or tell a story to a friend about how pissed off I was at so and so, I loved it.  Anger was warm and exciting.

I haven't felt that in years and it embarrasses me now to admit that I used to feel that way, but over the last few weeks, while I might have been justified in yelling at someone for making a giant mistake that cost me weeks of  my time (or for putting a sledgehammer through the wall that means we won't have these people out of our house until nearly Christmas, now), I haven't. I have composed pointed, detailed emails to people in authority outlining the series of errors that have been made. I have had phone conversations where I respectfully demanded that someone take some accountability and try to see my perspective.  I have made it clear that I will never again employ most of these people, nor will I recommend them to anyone. But I have not raised my voice, threatened, thrown anything or called anyone a name other than the one their parents gave them.  I have tried to facilitate progress and see this situation for what it is - a sad mixture of communication errors (systemic in at least one of the companies, and not something I can ever hope to effect) and lack of accountability.  And in the end, the majority of folks to whom I have spoken about my frustration are happy to bend over backwards to do what I ask them to do now. I still have no hope of having them all out of my house anytime soon, but even as many of my friends and family say I ought to be unleashing rage upon them all, I find that I can't do it. Somewhere along the way, that warm feeling I got from being angry turned to mush and now it feels dirty and wrong to vilify someone else, no matter how incompetent they might be.  Maybe I've finally learned that holding on to anger and rage is harmful to myself more than anyone else. Maybe I know better now that everyone is human. Maybe this is the result of learning not to take anything personally (thanks, Eve, for beating me over the head with that lesson - nothing better than a teenage daughter to bring that one home).  I don't know, but I will say it's easier to have perspective from the clear sight of exhaustion than it is through the fog of rage.
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