To Myself On My 39th Birthday…Things I’ve Learned Over Nearly 4 Decades.

 

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Photo credit: Felix

A random assortment of things that I’ve picked up over 38 39 years, from people, books, and my own experience. These are my rules to live by.

  1. You can’t choose who you love; you either do or you don’t, and you are free to love whomever even if they don’t love you back.  And you can be OK with being loved back or not being loved back.
  2. It is never too late to stop, turn around, and go in the other direction.
  3. Where you live doesn’t matter, and where you live doesn’t bring happiness.  You can be just as happy in a little house in nowheresville as you can be in a big house in a happening place.
  4. How other people treat you has little to do with you.  They are dealing with their stories about you.  Likewise, when you have a problem with someone else, it is really a problem within yourself. You are projecting your own baggage onto other people.
  5. Eat less. Eat unadulterated food as much as possible. Plants. You’ll just feel better.
  6. Try to never make decisions rooted in fear, guilt, or shame.  Choose what you want in your heart and stand by your decision.
  7. God isn’t angry.  He/she was never angry.
  8. You don’t have any problems right now.  Your “problems” are either in the future or the past, and those are just illusions.
  9. Do whatever necessary to protect your sleep rhythms. It heals you.
  10.  Don’t forgive people to make them feel better. Do it simply to liberate yourself.
  11. Cut yourself some slack when parenting.  The things that scarred you are not the same things that will scar your children. Stop trying to extrapolate how every one of your mistakes will ruin your kids’ lives.
  12. Two glasses of wine in one sitting is enough.
  13. Sometimes radical self-care looks like complete irresponsibility in the eyes of others. Just carry on. You know what you need.
  14. Pay attention to your dreams; they can tell you alot about yourself, and sometimes offer glimpses into the future.
  15. Let your children be your teachers: they reflect back to you who you are.
  16. Welcome whoever life brings your way, but intentionally choose who you do relationship with.
  17. Give away most of your stuff. Only keep what brings you joy.
  18. Don’t wait for the perfect temperature; go outside and play anyway.
  19. You can do more than you think you can; it’s all really just a mind game.
  20. Your parents did the best they could with what they knew at the time.  Generally.
  21. Family is not always biological.  They are sometimes found in the most unexpected people.
  22. Find what you’re really passionate about and pursue it with abandon.
  23.  It is possible to find at least one commonality with every single person you meet.
  24.  Jesus was totally right when he said to find yourself you must first lose yourself.
  25.  Working in the hospital can freak you out.  Healthy people get sick.  Get the flu shot.
  26.  Cheese and corn syrup are in literally everything.  Read the labels.
  27.  Sometimes you need to plan diligently, deliberately. And sometimes you need to be bat-shit crazy impulsive.
  28.  Community is important, whatever that looks like for you.
  29.  Sometimes the scariest option is the absolute best option.
  30.  Just buy the hammock.
  31.  Don’t avoid doing what you really want to do just because no one is there to do it with you.
  32.  Live your questions; don’t demand answers for everything.
  33.  Surround yourself with people of all ages.  Babies and the very old usually have the most sense.
  34.  Don’t hit. Ever. It won’t bring the results you want.
  35.  Don’t punish yourself for making a bad mistake by living with that mistake forever.
  36.  People will exploit you only as far as you will tolerate their behavior.
  37.  There is enough.
  38.  Everything belongs.
  39. Sit with a dying person, and really SEE them. It might be the most meaningful thing you ever do, and it might be the only time they’ve ever really been seen for who they are and not what they do.

When You’re Tackled Out of Nowhere By Grief

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My mom died just a little over five years ago.  It was one of those terrible situations to find yourself in, where you want a person to live but at the same time you know they’ve been miserable for so long that passing is the better option.

When she died, I flew down from New York to help my dad plan the funeral.  My sister-in-law was due to have her second baby at any time, so the decision was made for my brother to stay with her and not come to Texas.  I can’t even imagine how hard of a decision that was for him to make. I always wonder if he was able to get closure around my mom’s death.

In the days surrounding my mom’s funeral service, I jumped into high gear. I didn’t want my dad to have to worry about anything, and I strove to take care of all the little details that would cause him stress.  My best-friend/cousin Jeana and I put together programs and photographs, cooked meals, sorted through my mom’s things, and worked really hard to ensure my dad held together.

The service felt so surreal. The church was packed with people who knew, loved, and respected my mother and her many accomplishments.  We had dressed her in in a lovely blue dress that she had worn to my wedding years before.  And since the cancer had done a number on her hair, we adorned her head with a pretty brown bob wig that Jeana and I had bought her just a couple of weeks earlier.

In the years since her death, I visit her grave when I’m in Texas, and chat with her a bit.  I jog the two miles from my dad’s house to the Heard cemetery, and sit among the long line of my family’s gravestones, hoping to avoid hidden fire ant dens.  I only cried at her funeral, and then, only when I saw others cry for her. I assumed at the time that I had already grieved, that I was fine.

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My father recently remarried on a mild November day, in the same church that he had married my mother just over 40 years before. In an ironic switch, this time my brother was able to attend, while I couldn’t get away from work and obligations to make the trip from Indiana to Texas.

My father’s new wife is a lovely woman, a person I don’t yet know well, but am still entirely happy to have her as part of the family.  She made my dad happy again and gave him hope for a future once more.  That makes me supremely happy.  Coinciding with his marriage has been my dad’s gradual transition into retirement from over 40 years of managing the Flying J Ranch. He and Fiona moved into the house on my dad’s place that he has been building, meticulously, for almost as many years.  Out of the house that I grew up in, that my mother cooked meal after meal in, with the yard that she valiantly tried to raise rosebushes in, with the front porch boasting an amazing view of the hills and decorated with potted ferns grown out of Emma Heard Nelson’s cuttings.

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I’m now finding myself overwhelmingly, soul-splittingly crushed with grief.

I never saw it coming.

I always wanted my dad to remarry and encouraged him to consider the possibility. I had pushed and pushed for him to finish his house and move in, especially to honor my mother, who had dreamed of that house for their entire marriage and yet never got to live in. I badgered and pestered my dad to retire, telling him it was time that he have the chance to mend his own fences, putz around on his own property, and put an end to bulldozing, tractor driving, controlled burning, and all the crazy stuff he does on a ranch that doesn’t belong to him.

So it caught me completely by surprise when all of these changes began to come about and I was taken over by sorrow, not joy.  After dancing around the subject for months, I’m finally willing to look more closely at where my grief is coming from.

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I lost my human mother, and now it feels as though I’m losing another mother, and with it, my sense of home.

The land that raised me, that owned me in a sense even though I didn’t own it, is no longer mine. It’s been slipping away for years.  We’ve been loosening our grasp on each other since I left for college twenty years ago. I’ve always lived so far away that coming back to the ranch I grew up on became a less and less frequent event.

I always resonate with Wendell Berry’s poems because he knows what it means to be tied to the land and to the animals that live on that land. The bulk of my childhood memories are bound up in that 6,000 acre piece of land in the Texas hill country.

I remember swimming in the river below a field while my father drove a hay baler. I remember all the pasture roads trampled down as I learned to ride by hanging on for dear life to my dad’s feisty mare. I remember birthing calves in the pens with my dad at three in the morning. I remember every field and wood that my dad took me to hunt, where I used the little single shot rifle he bought me. I remember every bump gate and cattle guard, all the best swimming holes, all the amazing vistas that required 4 wheel drives to get to…

And on that huge piece of land, a little ranch house that I lived in for 18 years. A simple hunting cabin that was added onto several times until it grew into a house. It used to drive me crazy as a kid; all the rooms were lined up in a linear fashion and so everyone had to walk through my room to get anywhere. But now, the thought of that house sitting empty, yet still carrying all the memories of my mother, is enough to bring me to tears, and if I’m honest, a little panicky hyperventilation.

The house where my mother cooked the most amazing Thanksgiving meals. The house where I would sneak into the living room and watch old episodes of Cheers in the middle of the night with my dad. The house that my mom worked so hard to keep clean and presentable even with my dad tracking in muddy boots from the cowpen, or greased-covered clothes from fixing a broken down ranch vehicle.  The house, surrounded by cattle pens and tractor barns, grain bins,  and a mechanic shop…

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I think that part of my grief arises from the fact that I’ll never be able to pass any of this down to my own boys.  And I worry that I’m giving them a damn shabby childhood compared to the one I had. We moved so many times in the last 13 years that it’s hard to know where home is. And while Indiana suburbs are nice, they are benign and safe and unadventurous and tame. My childhood was none of these.  Truth be told, I’m lucky to have escaped alive from a  few events that happened back then.

It feels so unfair that I have never been able to really share with my kids the things that were always so important to me growing up. Even when I try, they are treated by others as “city” boys, patronized and shamed for not knowing the “country” way of life.

Now, I literally have less and less from my childhood that I can share with them, and I wonder – will their childhood be good enough?  Will it be rich and delicious like so much of mine was?

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So now I face this grief that tackled me from out of nowhere.  I try to console myself with words from those I trust, like this:

“Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.”
― Rumi

I know that all things are passing, but it’s really hard to let go of attachments to those things that you rely on to ground you, that give you an anchor in life no matter where you go or what happens. I think this is part of the task of living – to let go of our anchors to places and things and the past. I think we sometimes believe when we let go of those anchors, we are denying what they’ve meant to us. And we struggle to believe that life will bring us more good and we will be able to find home again.

I’m trying to give myself space to really grieve now – my mother and the loss of a place so central to my childhood, but it’s hard. I’m afraid to face it head on, afraid that it will be bigger than I can handle.  It seems ironic…I’ve had so many loved ones die in my life, attended so many funerals, let go of so many other things….but this is different.  This feels like the closing of a door and having to admit-fully, completely-that the only thing permanent with me, is me.

 

 

 

The Problem With Hope

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Photo credit: Sharon Tate Soberon

We just finished up the Christmas season and are diving headfirst into yet another year. With that new year come the countless resolutions that people will make to try and improve their lives – lose weight, save money, let go of bad habits, rock the world.

We who follow Jesus as a teacher often look to Christmas as a time of hope; we see it as an annual event to remind us that a savior was born who came to confront the systems of the world and show us what God is really like. We reflect on the birth of Jesus in that quiet hidden place, the manger surrounded by calm, adoring animals, and we try to extrapolate our imaginations of that event on to our lives and our futures.  Jesus came, and all will be well.  We just have to keep holding on to our hope that things will be made right one day.  We just have to make it through whatever is going on right now.

I’m a big fan of hope – the idea that there are forces working alongside me and within me for my good – it’s certainly gotten me through some difficult times in the past.  However, I’m beginning to think that many of our current understandings of hope can get us into alot of trouble and maybe cause us unnecessary suffering in life.

Consider the following Bible passages that, at least in English translations, include the word hope:

  • Isaiah 40:31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
  • Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
  • Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.
  • Romans 8:25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

These are just a few verses containing hope; there are many more.  Having grown up in the church, I am very familiar with the way these verses tend to get interpreted for our lives. Usually, it is along the lines of “Life may suck right now, but just hang on and God will bring better days.”  Or, “The world is going to hell in a handbasket but if we just hang on until we get to heaven all will be OK.”  Or, “Just hold it together through this period of [insert whatever life circumstance you don’t currently like – singleness, marriage, a bad job, potty training of toddlers, whatever], and God will bring something better, circumstances that you are happier with.

While we all want our futures to be brighter and “happier”, I really believe we get ourselves into trouble when we take on these kinds of attitudes of just trying to get through right now in order proceed to where we really want to be, or fervently believing that somewhere down the road all of our problems will suddenly be fixed, or believing that one day we will get our crap together and live in a state of static perfection.

Here are a couple of problems I see with this way of interpreting hope, where we perceive a God completely external of ourselves who we believe/think/hope will swoop in and save the day or change our situations:

  1. We are denying our humanity – Life is right here, right now. The past doesn’t exist, and neither does the future.  They are illusions, dream-spaces. We have no control over what happened in the past, and the future is just conjectures of what could possibly happen, created by our minds. The only thing that is real is this very moment that we are in.  When we are constantly thinking about what we want to happen tomorrow, or in a month, or in a year, we are not living our lives.  It’s like we step into a virtual reality game in our minds to avoid being fully present now.  If we spend all of our time constantly mulling over what has already happened or what we want to happen, we could very easily reach the end of this material life and discover that we never really lived it fully at all.
  2. There is no hard and fast guarantee that our life circumstances will improve- Some people seem to do everything right, and shit still happens to them. I’ve known several people in my life who I thought were really dealt a horrible hand – no matter what they did, it seems like they’ve been assaulted from all sides time and time and time again with really hard life circumstances.  It appeared so completely unfair that they could be struggling so much while other people I knew (who had questionable ethics) could be sailing along smoothly. But going back to the master teacher, Jesus – being a stellar human doesn’t guarantee an easy life. Just being good to others, and healing people, and living simply and unselfishly doesn’t ensure that you won’t be crucified at some point.
  3. When we sniff or moan at our current circumstances and focus only on escaping them, we are ultimately declaring that Life (God) is bad and we know better.  This is one of those difficult arguments to make because someone will invariably come back and be like, “Well, are you saying that slavery is good, or injustice to the poor is good, or abuse of children is good? Shouldn’t we strive to end them?” There are people who can definitely explain this argument far better than I, and may I humbly suggest reading works by Pema Chodron, Byron Katie, Ram Dass, and Thich Hhat Nahn on this idea.  But I’ll try here to explain how I see it:  in my mind, God is the Ultimate Reality, or Life, or simply, What Is.  I don’t believe that Life at its best is all about rainbows and unicorns and fairy dust.  Life is not about being ecstatic and comfortable every single moment.  However, I do believe that Life (God) is good, and that only by accepting everything that happens can we be in a solid place of understanding to institute change for the problems mentioned above. [Now, do I in practice accept everything that happens to me without complaining  – absolutely not, but I’m practicing a little more each day.)
  4. If you’re not happy with your circumstances right now, you won’t be happy with your circumstances when they change.  Buddhist teachings remind us that everything is temporal and relational. Nothing is static and everything will eventually change in form and expression.  And as Richard Rohr likes to say, “Its heaven all the way to heaven, and it’s hell all the way to hell.” The point he is making is that if you can’t find happiness where you are right now, you won’t find happiness when you get the life situations you think you want.  You can find contentment and peace in any situation, or you can find hell and misery in any situation.  Which ultimately means that happiness is in your mind, not your external environment.  I don’t need to prove this to you – think of all the people you know who finally got that expensive car, or fancy house, or promotion, and are still just as miserable as before?  Or think of the people you may know who are dying slow horrendous deaths from disease and are still positive and joyful? It is not our situations that make us happy or sad, or bring heaven or hell – it is what we think and believe about them.

So, now that I’ve attempted to philosophize a bit, I will offer a tentative description of how I view hope: hope is not horizontal, but rather, vertical.

We tend to understand hope in a horizontal, linear, time-bound fashion.  But this, as I’ve described above, is not helping us out because it bases our happiness on what is going on outside of us or the changes we think we need to be happy. I think that hope should be understood vertically – maybe like a deep well within each of us.

Hope is our ability to look deep within ourselves, to our core, where we connect with the Divine, or Life, or God within us and know that all is well and all will be well.  It is the conviction that we are OK as we are now, and we will be OK when our external circumstances change.  It is the trust that what Reality brings us each moment is good and trustworthy. It is the belief that what we see with our eyes or perceive with our five senses is not the end of the story and is not the ultimate truth.

So, now, when I look at the Christmas season and remember the birth of Jesus, I don’t long to be gathered from this earth and carried to heaven. I have a different kind of hope – where I see how Jesus lived – not bound by the circumstances of his life – and recognize that the same can be true of my own life. His example shows that I can live well without feeling the need to manipulate and control everything around me. I can trust that what comes my way, no matter how difficult it is, will be for my good. This understanding, then, completely reframes how I read verses like Jeremiah 29:11, mentioned above. Plans to prosper me no longer means a guarantee that I’ll be financially successful, or have a brilliant marriage, or that everyone will love and respect me. Instead, it means that I can trust that everything that I encounter in my life is good for me and comes from the hand of God – that includes the hard stuff as well as the exciting and fun stuff.

Christmas, for me, is the reminder to stop wishing circumstances would change for me…to claim peace…and to relax into Life. 

“All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” – Julian of Norwich

How To Save the World All By Yourself

 

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Photo credit: _Teb holes

Yesterday, at church, I sat next to a dear friend whom I haven’t seen much lately because we both live crazy lives. As we hugged and she asked how I was doing, I gave the obligatory “Oh, I”m fine!”  I was raised in the South, this is what you’re supposed to say no matter what is really going on in life. My friend, on the other hand, was more honest and admitted life was really hard for her at the moment.

 

“You’re right, I’m not really fine, either,” I confessed.

“You do know what FINE stands for, right?” my friend asked me.  I shook my head.

“Fucked-up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional.”

I laughed, because this is very true. We offer our “fines” when it doesn’t feel appropriate or sacred enough to drop f-bombs on Sunday morning, or when we’re trying to keep up the facade of “I’m rocking it at life right now, thank you very much” when the opposite really feels more authentic.

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Do you ever feel like you have to save the world by yourself, or at least die trying, in order to be accepted by God or to win at life or whatever?  I know with my higher level brain that this is not the case, but I swear I live my life every day like it’s all up to me.  I’m not really sure where I got this tendency; it might have had something to do with all the pressure I felt as a kid and young adult to get as many people to Jesus and heaven as possible.  Some preachers can really make it feel like the success of God’s whole agenda is in your court and you’d better not drop the ball because hell is on the line.

I’ve been watching myself very closely over the last few months, and specifically the mad driven-ness I have in certain areas of my life. Here is my list of craziness, things that plague me on a daily basis.  When you see me sitting around doing nothing, or at work taking care of people, or driving my kids somewhere, all of these things are simultaneously churning through my mind: [Note to self – maybe these are why I always have resting bitch face….I can never just relax and chill out]

  1. I have to eat plant-based perfectly because doing so is the best for the environment and our resources.  If I don’t eat vegan perfectly every day I will single-handedly be the tipping point that pushes our climate beyond redemption.
  2. I have to keep my home energy use significantly less than all of those around me because I don’t want to be the one who caused an electricity grid blackout or used the last remaining stores of propane on the Earth.
  3. If I don’t figure out how to parent perfectly then my kids will automatically become addicts, slobs, purposeless vagrants, or writhing heaps of fetal-positioned therapy clients who hate me because I couldn’t get it together as a mom.
  4. I must listen to NPR and all other credible news sources daily so I know what is going on at all moments in Zimbabwe, and Peru, and Liechtenstein, as well as the big news making countries that are constantly in the headlines. If I’m not aware of EVERYONE’s suffering, then I must not care for ANYONE’s suffering.
  5.  I must read every book ever written because I have to be cultured and be able to reference all of the experts so that I have something worthwhile to say.
  6. I have to be an activist – for EVERY worthy cause.  Civil rights, women’s rights, child slaves on chocolate plantations in West Africa, clothing makers in Bangladesh, migrant food workers in the Pacific Northwest, etc ad nauseum.
  7. I’m aware of my ego, and aware of the real “me” that lies behind that ego.  As such, I have to constantly be aware of all of my motivations and work as hard as possible to keep waking up.
  8.  And finally, for now at least, I have to be a super well-rounded person all of the time – working full-time, while freelance writing, while doing graduate school, while parenting three kids [one of whom is special needs], while trying to do all of the above list perfectly.

When I write all this down, it really seems ludicrous. No wonder I’m exhausted all the time.  But honestly, I don’t think I”m the only person in the world who is like this.  Yeah, I have my own special kind of crazy and ADHD and core wounds, but I know plenty of people who are out there thinking they have to save the world, too.

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The fact is, I can’t save the world by myself.  Whether or not I live perfectly vegan and plastic free, or have the tiniest carbon footprint ever, or be the most amazing mom that ever lived, life is really out of my control. When I have my wits about me, I recognize that I really only have the tiniest bit of control over the most trivial things. The big stuff is ultimately out of my hands.  I might be able to offer influence, but that’s about it.

It is very unlikely that little old me, or little old you for that matter, will ever be the tipping point for the climate, or political systems, or global food production.

And the fact that I obsess about this huge list of really big things on a daily basis begs the question: am I really trying to save the WORLD, or am I just frantically trying to save MYSELF?

Furthermore, what am I trying to save myself FROM? Am I really putting all my cash into this one pot of Earth, or do I think that life and meaning will extend well past whatever ultimately happens to this planet?

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I”m in another Eckhart Tolle phase.  I usually cycle back to him at least two to three times a year, and each cycle feels like a spiral.  I pick up something new from him that I wasn’t previously able to understand or grasp.

Right now I’m thinking about the spaciousness that he teaches on – how we need to accept what life gives and let there be space around those things. Because, it is this space from which new things can spontaneously manifest.

Another point of Tolle’s that I”m mulling over is how we don’t really do LIFE, LIFE does us.  Life is dancing US, Life is playing through US, not the other way around. Life is expressing itself through a variety of different forms, and we can see that through all that is created.

I don’t tend to leave much space in my life, mainly because I’m frantically trying to save the world. I’m going to run out of time, I tell myself. I get too caught up in forms (including the form of time), trying to make them perfect and thinking that we will be saved through the saving of form.

What would it be like I wonder, if my hero journey in life is not to set out and find the things I need to save, but let life bring them to me? Do I trust life to bring me what is mine to do, and trust that it will take to others what it has for them to do?

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There is a Jewish concept that I really like called tikkun olam. Now, preface here, I am not a Jewish scholar so don’t tear me apart if I misrepresent this a little. I love how it was once described by Rachel Naomi Remen in an episode of the podcast On Being:

“In the beginning, there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. And then, in the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand, thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. And the wholeness of the world, the light of the world was scattered into a thousand, thousand fragments of light, and they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.

Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. It’s a very important story for our times. And this task is called tikkun olam in Hebrew. It’s the restoration of the world. And this is, of course, a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world.

And that story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.”

And then another quote:

“One part of Judaism called tikkum olam. It says that the world has been broken into pieces. All this chaos, all this discord. And our job – everyone’s job – is to try to put the pieces back together. To make things whole again … Maybe we’re the pieces. Maybe what we’re supposed to do is come together. That’s how we stop the breaking.”
― Rachel Cohn, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist

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This idea of tikkun olam, as I understand here, changes everything. No longer is it about me trying to find EVERY SINGLE BROKEN piece in the world, sorting through them, and putting them all together.  The pieces are not outside us – I am a piece, you are a piece, and so on. We are looking for the light inside of each other – or, Namaste…the divine in me is recognizing the divine in you.

We as the broken pieces in humans and the broken pieces of creation are to come together and unite once again. But this can’t be done by us frantically running around smashing into each other and saying “By God, we will make this fit. This puzzle will come together right now in this way. This is what the one Light is supposed to look like!”

No, this is where Tolle’s space comes in. We must sit, be still, and allow the space, allow the brokenness that exists without fighting it. Then, perhaps Life will break through in the space and bring the right pieces to us, bring us to the other pieces that are right for us, and the Light will begin to concentrate.

I am one corner of the puzzle.  I can’t fit together all the pieces on the other side of the puzzle.  But I can be part of the healing in my little place; I can join with the pieces that the God/life brings to me.  And if I miss a corresponding piece the first time around, that same God/Life is trustworthy to bring it back again. [I’ve got more than enough evidence of this regarding tough life lessons.  :)]

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As one final thought, largely to myself. The greats in history, the ones I look up to and sit [figuratively] at the feet of, didn’t try to save the whole world.  Jesus, the Buddha, Gandhi, and countless others…..they only did the work that was in front of them. They didn’t take on work that was not for them to do.  Yet, the willingness to piece together their little parts of the world enabled that piecing to spread outward.

So, how can you save the world by yourself?  How can I?  We can’t save the world. All that we can do is say yes to the Life that is dancing us, welcome it, let it lead.  That is the very most, and best, that we can do. And this joining with Life, and God, and Light…this is how we are saved.

 

 

 

Don’t Strive to Be Liked; Strive to Be Authentic

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Photo credit: Col·legi Oficial Infermeres 

Here’s a little secret about me. I still struggle with some big insecurities.

All of you who know me well are laughing right now because this is no secret to you. They come out the most strongly when I’m under alot of stress, or am facing something new or challenging. Almost all of my insecurities are rooted in my childhood fears:  am I enough?  Is there a place for me in this world where I truly belong?  Am I seen?  Am I loved?  And at my core:  am I likeable?

Thanks to alot of shadow work, therapy, and battling my demons, these insecurities have subsided to a level where I can function quite well in my daily life. The majority of the time I don’t pay as much attention when thoughts flood my head from these reservoirs of lack and “not enoughness” hidden away in my ego.

However, as I have grown into a skilled watcher of myself and the way my mind works, I have noticed a phenomenon about me.  When I am in brand new situations where I’m not completely confident in my skills or abilities, it is very easy for those insecurities to rise up and take over, and suddenly I am interacting with the world around me through my child-self once again.

Have any of you ever experienced the following:  you leave home as an adult, live life on you own as a competent, secure, confident person who stands up for what is important to you, and then……you go home to the people and places you grew up with and suddenly you regress to who you were back then?  It’s like a switch is flipped and this other personality, the one that you tried to rid yourself of for so long, comes right back out?  It’s like your family and people from your past still see you as that young, immature person you once were, and somehow them still perceiving you that way causes you to transform instantly back into that person?

I think this is a version of the Pygmalion or Golem effects in a way; it’s like how people perceive you in some circumstances literally controls how you view your own self and how you act in those situations.  And it’s maddening, frankly.

I’ve always wondered why this happens to me – why am I triggered by my family, childhood home, and new situations to revert back to someone that is no longer representative of who I am now, the real me at my core?  And am I getting some kind of subconscious pay-off by continuing to allow this to happen?

A couple of months ago I started working at a local hospital as a brand new nurse. Stressful, unfamiliar new situation for sure. And sure enough, some of these old insecurities rose up again and my timid, low confidence, defer-to-everyone else self took over. It was pretty frustrating because I would no longer typically describe myself to be the cautious, introverted person I used to be so much of the time.

I love this new job, but it has been alot to take in with so much to learn in a fast paced environment.  As the first several weeks passed and I was on the floor learning the ropes and taking care of patients, I could feel the strong pull within myself to shrink back, to be super nice to everyone ALL the time, to make sure everyone’s needs were put before my own (not talking about patients here, but fellow colleagues), treating myself as though I was a wet-behind-the-ears newbie with no significant life experience.  Which, of course, is absolutely not true.  I may be new to nursing, but I am not new to life.

On one particular day, I had one of those periods of “If someone even looks at me I”m going to burst into tears.”  I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and my ADD was seriously in overdrive. My preceptor would give me instructions and I swear my brain would literally stop – I would retain nothing and would have to retreat to quiet corners of the unit to help my synapses start firing again.

I listen to audiobooks everyday as I drive to work, and as I so often do, I turned to Brené Brown to get some insight into this spazzy little mouse I was regressing into. I’ve done some wicked hard things over the last few years, I thought. I am way stronger and more confident than I ever used to be – why is the job making me such a pansy that feels like I have to please EVERY SINGLE PERSON I walk by every moment of the day?

Brené didn’t really give me the cause of my deep insecurities, but listening to her book The Gifts of Imperfection made me realize that I was working way too hard at ensuring that I was well-liked by everyone instead of striving to live out my authentic self.

This is exactly what I did as a child and young adult. I wanted to be accepted, included, liked…and so I did what I thought I needed to to have that happen.  Which usually involved me trying to tame my quirky personality, be super Christian girl who never did any wrong, and be uber polite and gracious to EVERYONE.  Two things I have learned from this:  it is exhausting, and trying to be who everyone wants while trying to squelch who you really are inside usually ends up in disaster.  Either you die a little more on the inside, or you find that those people you were trying to make like you aren’t going to like you anyway.

So, to my point:  I realized [thanks Brené!] that this was exactly what I’ve been doing in my new career. Something, maybe the stress or exhaustion or my lingering fear of failing, had triggered me into reverting into my old ways of viewing the world and behaving. I had slipped back into that dream-state where I was convinced everyone has to like me and I have to be perfect in all of my interactions with other people. But all of this was at the expense of me, myself, and I.

After I had this audiobook epiphany, I went to work with the resolve that I would choose being my authentic self over my need to be liked.  And can I just say, that in the last couple of weeks, it has made all the difference,  Suddenly my ability to learn and retain information has improved, I said what I thought more instead of mulling over every little thing to make sure it was received well by everyone. and I refused to engage in conversations that absolutely did not resonate with me just so others in the group would think I was nice and had the same interests they do.

Yesterday I had to call a particular doctor about a patient – he and I had never spoken before, just walked by each other. Later, my preceptor told me that the doctor had asked if I was new, and said that he was going to “test me”.  The “me” from a few weeks ago, in my timid mouse moments, would have been upset and worried – what if I prove my incompetence and he thinks I”m stupid?  But instead, this time I thought – Punk resident! Bring it on! I’m not playing this stupid hospital game where techs, nurses, and doctors test and intimidate the new person. I will continue to do the best that I can and be my authentic self. I will not cower under someone just because they think they are smarter, or more skilled, or are more powerful than me.  That’s no longer who I am.

At the end of the day, it is way more important to me that I go to bed knowing I lived out my true, authentic self. I’ve worked so hard in the past to be liked by everyone, and in the process was taken advantage of, walked over, and demeaned by plenty of people.  I want to be in relationship with people who appreciate who I am because it is who I am, not because they find copies of themselves when they look at me.

Finally, I don’t want others to feel like they have to change themselves in order to be in relationship with me. Obviously, in this diverse world we are going to encounter people that we just don’t like and will never get along with. But I think that’s OK – I would much rather people be genuine and true to themselves than feel like they have to live lies and wear facades just so we can all not cause each other any discomfort.

I’ve worked really hard to get to where I am now. It’s taken alot of painful excavating to discover the real me. I’m not prepared to bury that all again just for the sake of someone who has opinions about how things should go but has no history or vested interest in me. I hope all of you will strive for and hold on dearly to your own authenticity, too. Don’t let others be the ultimate judge of your “enough-ness”, value, or place in this world.

 

 

Leaning Into Life’s Sharp Points

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My stress level has been at an all-time high lately. I finished nursing school and passed the NCLEX (thank God), and started a new job as a nurse a few weeks ago. All of these things were stressful enough, but what made me the most anxious were the logistics of life as a single parent with young kids.

I have decided that 12-hour nursing shifts were not created for women who have kids but don’t have partners or helpful family that live nearby.  Thank you Jesus for good friends and College Nannies/Sitters who have helped me out and significantly reduced my desperation levels. But even with these, I struggle on a daily basis to breathe and keep panic attacks at bay.

Each morning as I drive to work I have Pema Chodron playing on audiobook. It’s people like her, and Eckhart Tolle, and Byron Katie, and Ram Dass, and others who have pushed me forward these last two years…to be present, to get comfortable with discomfort, to find and embrace my edge.

Pema says in one of her books that her teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, told her to learn to lean into the sharp points in life. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like sharp things, and I especially don’t like leaning into them. I like smooth, soft, rounded, and safe. But I think I’m finding that when I do lean into the sharp places, and face them head on, I’m discovering that I can handle more than I thought…I’m braver than I used to be….and hard things don’t scare me quite as much anymore.

When I first moved back to Indiana and got divorced, I would flip out at much less than I do now. Two of my dear friends bore the brunt of this flipping out…the phone calls where I would be half crying, half hyperventilating, dropping just about every swear word and proclaiming that I absolutely couldn’t take anymore.  Funny thing is, I took those things I thought I couldn’t, and then I took more. Those two friends have remarked that I don’t flip out nearly as easily as I used to. The things that used to set me off now just make me laugh or shake my head.

The sharp places in life aren’t just the painful things that come for us; there is also a razor-thin edge that must be walked to live truly awake, to wholeheartedly discover the kingdom of heaven, to be here right now. I’ve been thinking alot about Jesus and his remarks on the broad and narrow paths.  I don’t think that Jesus was talking at all about paths to heaven and hell, or paths filled with a few good people versus a whole lot of bad people.

I think Jesus was trying to tell everyone that it is a very hard thing in life to “wake up” and stay awake, but a very easy thing to stay asleep or fall back asleep after you’ve gained some insight or awareness. It takes real effort to “be here now”, to live in the present, fully alive and unwilling to let every distraction overtake you.

In my mind, the narrow path is a tightrope, that must be carefully crossed. Tightrope walkers are fully awake: they aren’t worrying about the future or the past, and they don’t allow the crowds distract them.  They are focused intently on what they are doing at that exact moment.  If they do let themselves become distracted, they risk falling off the rope and missing their destination.

The broad path, on the other hand, is playing life safe…always making sure there is at least one escape route present…a contingency plan for when things go wrong. It is also the path of least resistance – doing what comes easy and not pushing past to one’s edges and limitations. It is about putting safety and security as the highest value in life.

It is my tendency, and I think that of many people, to pull away from the sharp points in life, to not even try to walk that tightrope, to pull back from our edges that look more like cliffs. We draw boxes of right and wrong, identity, and social constructs so we can climb inside and feel safe. We allow ourselves to be distracted by the most meaningless things, and we avoid all that we fear.  As a result, we literally sleep our lives away, living in the dreamland of the past and future, and we fail to journey forward to find out what it really means to be human.

I’m learning that if you face your edge, that sharp place where you will either survive or go plummeting across the side of a cliff and die, somehow you make it and you find that your edge keeps extending outward.  I have also discovered that the more you wrestle with the great possibility that life will indeed fall apart or that you might actually die, you become less and less afraid of it. A very real paradox for sure.

With the help of Pema and others, I am starting to believe that the sharp points in life are my teachers, and so in a sense, they are gifts.  Where I used to bemoan hard things and say “Why is this happening to me?  This isn’t fair!”, I am sometimes able to welcome them as the wisdom of life, bringing me exactly what I need to wake up.

A final note about sharp things: I think most of us tend to believe that once we can get all of our crap together, life should smooth out and get easier, less unpredictable. When things go badly we wonder what we did wrong, or why God isn’t working for us, or if Satan or someone else is targeting us. But the reality of life is, there is no static perfection. Things come together, and things fall apart.  The trick is to ride those waves without attaching so tightly to the outcomes that we identify with them.

Logistics and scheduling in my life right now is a nightmare.  But that doesn’t mean I suck as a mom/adult and did anything wrong. I could get everything figured out perfectly this week and it may all get shot to hell next week. The point then is not to run from the sharp places that are painful and scary, but to accept them, be grateful for them and their ability to open our hearts, and then release them when they go.

Yes, way easier said than done, but I think this is real truth.

“People get into a heavy-duty sin and guilt trip, feeling that if things are going wrong, that means that they did something bad and they are being punished. That’s not the idea at all. The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart. To the degree that you didn’t understand in the past how to stop protecting your soft spot, how to stop armoring your heart, you’re given this gift of teachings in the form of your life, to give you everything you need to open further.”
“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
― Pema Chodron

 

Bit Rot and the Difficult Task of Curating Your Past

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Credit; Antonio Roberts

I occasionally hear of people who have degrees in library science.  This has always puzzled me – I could see how someone might get a bachelors degree in such a field, but a PhD?  What would the dissertations cover?  Reconfigurations of the Dewey Decimal System? Strategies to improve database search efficiency?

A couple of weeks ago I finally met someone who had degrees in library science, and now I finally GET it.  She explained some of the in’s and out’s of storing data, the process of archiving, and the tough job of knowing what to throw away and what to keep. Library science also seems to require some conflict resolution and negotiation skills to help people let go of items, books, and documents that are no longer relevant.

And where I once thought that library science might possibly be the most boring degree path possible, I now think it shall be a path for me to pursue in a future incarnation.

During my brief lesson on the need for and usefulness of library science, I was introduced to a phenomenon I’d never heard of. Bit rot.  For some reason, it strikes me as really funny, and I laugh every time I say it out loud.  Bit rot is the gradual degradation of data and information in storage media – also known as silent corruption, a phrase that is even funnier to me.

Electronic data in these storage mediums isn’t really decaying the way one would typically imagine when envisioning a rotting material. To put it very simply, storage media contains tiny metallic regions that hold an electrical charge. Sometimes, through various factors that contribute to decay, these regions can change their electrical charge, known as flipping. These charge flips can cause data to be corrupted or lost. Bit rot can cause small issues, such as clicks or pops in audio files, to the extreme of entire files becoming completely unreadable by software.

My amusement by the idea of bit rot got me to thinking more about a topic that is always at the forefront of my mind: knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep.  And, if you keep something, how long should you keep it?  How important is what I’m keeping and this will affect the type of storage I use?

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I read a really great little book a couple of years ago called Experience Curating by Joel Zaslofsky. (By the way, it is ridiculously cheap on Amazon right now – this is my own personal endorsement; I am not receiving any kickbacks for posting this.) In his book, Joel makes the point that with all the information we have flying at us every day, we have to come up with a way to sift through it, isolate what is most important to us, and store the information in such a way that we can easily retrieve it. Just how a museum curator might select and display only the best and most relevant pieces to represent certain ideas or historical periods, so we must be ruthless in how we gather and deal with the information in our own lives.

I don’t think most of us are very good at curating our lives. We try to convince ourselves that we really can take in all the information available to the world, we can read all the books, we can listen to all the music, and so on.  But, this is entirely impossible. According to a recent Forbes article, 90% of the data currently existing in the world was only created in the last two years. Mind boggling, much?!

This begs the question, can everything really be meaningful?  Or does everything start to lose its meaning when there is too much of it? And with the wealth of ideas and “stuff” in the world, how do we determine what is most meaningful to each of us personally?

Here’s an example.  With the development of cheap digital cameras and smartphones with good camera capabilities, people take insane amounts of photographs. But really, how many of those photographs are quality work? Also, are the myriad of photographs we are so quick to snap really helping us to remember an event or special moment? There’s something called the photo-taking impairment effect that says our frantic need to photograph everything might actually reduce our ability to fully appreciate and remember the subject of the photograph.

How many of us go through all those photos stored on Facebook and Instagram and actually organize them in any useful way?  And how many of us have SO many photos that the idea of culling our collections seems completely daunting and overwhelming?  I should add here that all of your old photos sitting away in files somewhere are subject to bit rot, too, so you might not want to wait too long before deciding which ones you really want to save long term.

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Besides the ninja-skill requiring job of sorting and sifting information that is shoved at us every day, sometimes curating our past can be equally difficult. I’ve been struggling for a long time to figure out what to do with old photographs and possessions that I no longer want…but they aren’t entirely my possession to make decisions about.

My mother passed five years ago, and so I’ve made alot of difficult choices about what things of hers to keep and what to throw away. Some of her prized possessions hold little meaning for me because I don’t know the stories behind them or the emotions stored within them. However, it still feels rather cavalier on my part to just dismiss the gravity those things carried for my mom by giving them away or throwing them away.

My dad is about to remarry and is also deciding what possessions from his “previous’ life should continue forward and what should be left behind.  And again, I’m asked if I want this or that, and should this be thrown away or kept? I struggle with knowing whether I will one day regret the choices I am now making about those things.  Right now, simplicity and minimalism resonate with me – will I always feel that way?

I wonder too about how my children play into this curation game. I had not thought about it until recently….that what I am throwing away and keeping impacts them, what they know about their heritage, the stories and photos that would have contributed to their shaping.

I have been divorced for almost two years, and I felt a great need to get rid of as many things from my old life as possible.  I no longer wanted the furniture, kitchen items, or house decor that my ex and I had once bought together and shared.  Those things only kept me tied to something I am very happy to be free from.  But I am heartbroken now to realize that I never took my children’s feelings about those things into deep consideration.  I thought of how I desperately wanted to be rid of things, but not that they might desperately need to stay attached to those same things from the years that their father and I were married.

I’m glad I came to this realization before I tossed out all of the old photos I had of our family when I was still married. I’m glad I didn’t delete all of the digital photos I have stored on Facebook that still have their father in them.  I credit this to an article I read a while back.  Those old photographs and even the household “things” I got rid of don’t belong solely to me – they also belong to my children. Tossing old photos is kind of equivalent to erasing their past, and saying that those years didn’t matter.  But they did. And it is not my job to curate my the information and memories that are important to my children and their lives.

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Like most things in life, I think we have to pursue the middle way in deciding what to keep and what to throw away.  Keeping nothing or just very little has the power to rob loved ones in our lives of stories, items, and memories that they are entitled to.  At the same time, keeping everything take away meaning, reducing what is special and unique to the realm of the commonplace.

I think what I’ve learned by chewing on all of these ideas is that, like all things, nothing that I do impacts only me.  My actions, what I consider meaningful, and how I curate my own life ripples out and affects others, most importantly, my children. I’ve been quick to throw away so much because it reduces my stress and makes me feel more comfortable. But that is not necessarily true for them.

Perhaps we should approach our lives a bit more like archivists. The currently trendy idea of minimalism tells us to discard with abandon, while our consumeristic culture is also telling us to buy cheap and buy fast.  Maybe we need to put the brakes on both of these ideas by taking the time to determine what we really find most meaningful in life, and then carefully preserve just those things.