Every Monday, you can bet that people are going to ask you if you had a good weekend.
What they want to hear are epic tales of pure awesomeness. For the record, I’d like to ban the word “epic” unless it relates to The Iliad or The Odyssey because it has ceased to indicate anything extraordinary. This guy does a better job of explaining that. But I digress.
Usually, my answer to this question is, “Nothing much.”
I’ve tried the upbeat approach and answered, “I think it was good because if it was bad, I could give you chapter and verse, but I got nothin’, so that probably means I had a good weekend.”
I’m not alone in this. Most of us focus on annoyances and wrongs, collecting real and imagined hurts like stamps:
- “Oh look, here’s a 1991-Wasn’t-Invited-To-That-Birthday-Party—not all that rare, sadly.”
- “See? This is a May-2012-Driver-Who-Yelled-Mean-Things-At-Me.”
Or maybe you have your never-ending to-do list doing laps in your head. All this past and future stuff roils into a bubbling, steamy, tormenting brain stew.
I’m trying to work on noticing things right now, which means getting out of my head by ditching distractions like cell phones and playlists when I’m outside running or walking the dog. Some people, my husband for instance, have a natural talent for noticing the good stuff.
“I’m going to walk the dog,” I said Sunday evening, grabbing my earphones because I saw it as an opportunity to sneak in more time with my audiobook, breaking my no-headphones-while-outside rule.
“Oh you’re going to love it,” my husband called out. “We’re having beautiful-sky weather.”
I grabbed the camera instead and jogged down to the park two steps behind my soft-pawed, kindhearted Australian Shepherd, Maggie.
I looked up and enjoyed the show. And I looked down and tossed the tennis ball. I looked up and took some pictures. We had the park to ourselves. I often marvel at how spending time with a (really good) dog brings me into the moment. We were two happy bitches.
I also think dog smiles are beautiful:
Except now, I have a new stamp to add to My Personal Injustice Collection:
“George R.R. Martin! Are you fucking kidding me! You bastard! Episode 9 crushed my soul!”
I’ve been speechless in the wake of high-profile suicides by teen girls who were raped and then mercilessly slut-shamed. As I struggled to find the words to express my thoughts, news of the Boston Marathon bombings hit, and then the killing of the soldier in London. Now, there’s the growing anti-Muslim backlash.
The common refrain in these situations is, “How can people do this?”
I’ll tell you how. First they convince themselves that women or cultural groups or people of a different sexual orientation or political philosophy or religion are less-than equal and less-than human.
When you acknowledge the humanity in others and don’t buy into a separation of us-versus-them, hurting or killing others is unthinkable because they’re not “other”. When you look in someone’s eyes and see your own staring back, how can you strike them down?
How can people do this?
Easily. It starts with words like this:
It’s hard to remember that our species is capable of occasional acts of selflessness and beauty. It’s easier to descend into hopelessness. But that’s the crux isn’t it? Hope just sets us up for a fall.
I am trying to give up hope, but it’s a hard habit to break. If I can’t rely on hope to see beyond the darkness of humanity–a darkness we all share, what then? This is my struggle.
The answer, my friends, was on Facebook:
Sometimes I feel like I don’t have faith, but if believing that another breath will follow this one and that morning will follow this night, I guess you could say that I have faith.
What I’ve been missing was perspective. Without perspective, it’s too easy to believe that all humanity is shit and in doing so, forget the hands that have lifted me up in in good and bad times, and miss opportunities to extend that kindness and support to others.
As I like to say, if your head is in the toilet, all you see is shit. I’m getting sick of the view, ya know? Then, I look at my children, family and friends, and I feel better–until fear starts bubbling up because I want them all to be safe all the time. The trip from despair to fear is a short one for me.
I’ve been listening to Brene Brown‘s audiobook, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t). Brown is an expert on shame and vulnerability . I want to thank Schmutzie for tweeting about Brown. Brown’s work will change your life. Here’s a quote from the book that’s a reality check about the us-versus-them paradox:
“We are the others. Most of us are: one paycheck, one divorce, one drug-addicted kid, one mental health diagnosis, one serious illness, one sexual assault, one drinking binge, one night of unprotected sex, or one affair away from being those people. The ones we don’t trust; the ones we pity; the ones we don’t let our children play with; the ones bad things happen to.”
We are all vulnerable to misfortune. Let’s not contribute to people’s pain by distancing ourselves to feel safe or superior.
Here are my recorded thoughts for my five-minute mediation this morning:
- I want a new kitchen faucet. That dripping is so annoying.
- Damn! I forgot to make lunches.
- I should have just gotten up at 4:40 a.m. when I first woke up, instead of tossing and turning. Then I could write more. I know I should write more. It’s like I’ve given up.
- I wonder what I should make for dinner.
- That dog should wear slippers. I can hear her pacing upstairs on the wood floors like some sort of rhythm-challenged tap dancer.
- Gotta remember to get that error message translated to Japanese.
- Wait a minute. I don’t have to worry about that error message because we found a workaround that won’t throw that error.
- Time’s up.
- I suck at this.
- Maybe I could add another couple of minutes? Nah.
You know what I wish? If I was going to be distracted by thoughts, I wish they were better thoughts, like sadness and concern for garment workers killed in Bangladesh and Cambodia, or casualties of the Oklahoma tornadoes.
Susan: “You know, I feel like I’ve finally figured out my hair just as my face passed it’s best-before date.”
Me: “Well, just as my eyelids have become habitually red and swollen,my bangs are falling out and my eyebrows are disappearing.”
Ding-ding-ding! I won that round of self-sabotage. As much as I dislike this tendency among women, I am a master at it.
Instead of conceding to the champion, Susan goes into problem-solving mode.
Susan: “You could buy a series of ruffled collars and claim that you’re mastering the Elizabethan look.”
Me: “Or hopefully, I’ll manage to retain what little fine-motor skills I have, so I can draw my eyebrows on. Or, I can cling to our friendship in the hopes that you draw them for me every day.”
Susan: “Maybe we can invent eyebrow stamps to make it easier for people like you. They could compliment your eye stickers.”
I think she won that one. I guess I could have come back with something like, “Add white highlights to your hair and then everyone will compliment you on how young your face looks.”
Except that everyone already thinks she’s much younger than she actually is (and than I am). Grrrr.
What’s the difference between suffering and misery? Attitude and the right ski wax.
Inadequate preparation for an endurance ski event provided ample evidence and illustrations of human imperfection.
My husband, elder daughter and I did a 25-km ski loppet recently. Despite trepidations over my lack of cardiovascular fitness, I signed up. Lesson #1: Listen to your gut. Sporadic 25-minute jogs are insufficient ground work for a 25-kim ski.
It was a classic ski tour (as opposed to skating) and with temperatures hovering around zero with fresh snow, it was tricky to nail the wax. We didn’t. Lesson #2: Don’t commit to things in advance. My personal rule is that if it’s icy or hovering around 0C, go skate-skiing.
We were able to climb hills like Spiderman, but snow accumulated in the centre of our skis and by the time we made it to the crest, gliding was impossible. It was like wearing elevator skis. It went like this: climb, stomp, lurch, scrape, repeat.
I sweated through my clothes in the first three kilometres. Lesson #3: It’s all about now. Focus on the present.
When we passed the 4-km mark after about an hour, I snarled, “You have got to be kidding me. 21 fucking kilometres to go.”
Perhaps I could swap a lack of physical toughness for mental toughness. Lesson #4: In spite of a lack of control over your surroundings or situation, you always have control over your mind.
My daughter was having the same physical struggles, but she was singing. You know what I was doing? Chanting in my head: “motherfucker, motherfucker, motherfucker.”
I was blowing the whole lead-by-example thing, but then there’s always a teaching moment in times like these, right? Lesson #5: See hardship as an opportunity to teach resilience.
“Honey, ” I said to my daughter. “If you see anyone going by on a snowmobile, wave them down.”
“Why?” she asked. She flipped her sunglasses up and turned her huge blue eyes in my direction. Her cheeks were an exquisite pink from exertion; mine were a hideous puce.
“I’ll pay them $20 to take us back to the lodge.”
“No. Forty bucks.”
Oops. I blew that too. But here was a moment to show the fallacy of the “winners never quit” adage, but that failed because we didn’t come across anyone in a motorized conveyance who could bail us out.
This experience illustrated my low threshold for frustration and the beartrap that expectations set for us. Truly, what did I expect?
I was insufficiently prepared for the event. When things didn’t go as I envisioned them, I thought I’d do a better job of holding my shit together. After all, I’ve been meditating five minutes a day, 1-5 times a week for seven years. That should be sufficient training to hang onto a sunny disposition in tough times, shouldn’t it?
My daughter fell about 20 times, but she got back up every time, and smiled and laughed.
Maybe she can by my guru.
Lesson #6: When things go wrong in a non-catastrophic way and you get a sufficient emotional distance from events, they make great stories.
“Being a grown up seems to involve running really fast to stay where you are,” my friend Anna said as we sat sipping at cappuccinos provided to us by our amateur barista pal, Sue, who was trying out her new java wonderment machine.
Anna’s like that. She sits quietly, listens and then sums everything up in a pithy little sentence.
“No kidding,” I said. We had been chatting about how we’ve all become incidental high maintenance women. Aside from our constant fretting over our children, husbands, parents, houses, bills, and jobs, there’s the exponential scope creep in the time and money required for personal maintenance—both physical and mental.
Getting older would be more tolerable if it didn’t involve feeling and looking worse, ya know?
For example, I used to exercise because I loved it—the speed, the effort, the burn. Now, I exercise, so I don’t feel like shit or look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. My new personal best involves sorting out the recycling without resorting to Robaxacet.
We have so much to be grateful and it’s difficult to avoid grasping and hanging on tight in a desperate bid to keep what we have. A lighter touch would be better and really, aside from showing up on time and doing what needs to be done, we have little control over our circumstances or the people we love.
But there’s no denying the constant work involved in family life, along with the pressure of trying to fit into last year’s pants. We have to be strong and well enough to do the work, don’t we? Look better; feel better, goes the adage. There’s a lot of truth to that. Want to lift your mood? Even an insincere smile gets the happy endorphins going.
I recounted the things I do to keep functioning physically, mentally and emotionally and by the time I got to the end we were in hysterics. Keep in mind that there are days I sleep in and skip stuff:
5:40 a.m. – Wake up and lift weights or do yoga (alternate days) for 20-30 minutes
6:05 a.m. – Five minutes of meditation, which involves: self-castigation for having a monkey mind, fake fights with people, reviewing internal work and home to-do-lists, imagining some worst-case scenarios, silently yelling at myself for producing the thought barrage, finding 24 seconds of peace, and then time’s up. This feels like an hour.
6:10-7 a.m. – Write stuff or stare blankly at screen. Check Twitter feed and email. Write some words, erase some words.
7a.m.-8 a.m. – Get ready for work. Eat oatmeal and fruit to avoid stomach problems later. Take probiotics, calcium, multi-vitamin and fish oil. Wash face and eyes with at least two different specialized products to minimize redness and prevent plugged oil glands. Put warm compresses on eyes to mitigate dry eye syndrome and prevent cysts from forming on eyelids. Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize. Apply makeup in artful ways to look like I’m not wearing makeup.
8:30 a.m.12 p.m. – Work
12 p.m.-1 p.m. – Run or walk to counteract poor circulation in legs to restore feeling and warm up a little. Eat lunch.
1 p.m.-5 p.m. — Work
5:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. – Husband and I prepare meals, share chauffeuring duties, clean, prepare lunches, help with homework, and put laundry away.
8:30-9:30 p.m. – Work if something left unfinished, blog, or have sauna to warm up again. Shitty circulation. Thanks a lot, Dad, for that genetic legacy.
9:30-10 p.m. – Listen to IBS hypnotherapy tapes to keep stomach problems from worsening. Thanks a lot, Mom, for the trick stomach. Repeat face washing/moisturizing routine. Turn humidifier on to help with the dry eye thing. Deal with the dog’s resentment and new-found disappointment in me for purchasing and using said humidifier.
How do you let things go without giving up? That’s the question. Seeing the humour in things is one way and heading off to the hairdresser for touch-ups is another.
I rocketed through two books that can be described as On the Road meets partially-scrutable eastern mystic meets mild midlife crisis. The epiphanies weren’t enormous, probably because the soul in question wasn’t in need of saving, and that’s precisely why I loved these books.
Breakfast with Buddha and Lunch with Buddha are fictional works by Roland Merullo, but not so fictional. In interviews Merullo has mentioned some similarities that he has with his likable, loving, impatient and quasi-gluttonous protagonist, Otto Ringling. They share a love of family, food and road trips. Merullo’s familiarity with Buddhism and ecumenical mysticism stems from his own 30-year meditation practice and study. Volya Rinpoche is the guru of Otto’s kooky, palm-reading sister Cecelia and his traveling companion for the drive from a New York City suburb to North Dakota to settle the Ringling family farm.
In the first book, Otto’s children are soon to head off to college. He’s still deeply in love with this wife of 20-something years, but the death of his parents in a car accident months before has left him unsettled. He decides to drive to North Dakota to settle the family estate instead of flying in order to accommodate his aerophobic sister. When he arrives at her modest apartment, she introduces him to her crimson-robed guru and announces that she’s giving half her inheritance to her spiritual advisor to open a meditation centre in North Dakota and sends him in her stead. Otto smells a con, but polite to a fault, he agrees to give this Rinpoche a lift.
Otto is determined to teach Volya Rinpoche about America and so, along the way they stop at quintessential American tourist sites. Shortly into the journey, it becomes clear that this is an opportunity to see the country and the world through each other’s eyes. In the end, it’s Otto who gets the lift. In the second book, Lunch with Buddha, it’s a trip of a different sort.
These books have stayed with me long after reading them. It was a delight to be spared a redemptive tale. As a society we celebrate edge cases–people who: lose several hundred pounds; find success after cleaning up their drug habits; or start a speaking tour after finishing their jail terms for murder. True, these cases make compelling dramas, and they win my admiration, but I can also feel resentment bubbling up. (Hey, I never said I was a good Buddhist.)
To pull yourself up from falling so far is a feat worthy of recognition. It’s like doing a set of psychological chin-ups every day–and I can’t even do one of the literal ones, so I can only imagine. My resentment rears its head because these extreme cases can be a pressure for everyone. If “they” can make dramatic changes and turn their lives around, why can’t I: climb out of a rut, run a marathon, write a book, or quit my job and start that forest canopy aerial tour business I always dreamed of?
And here’s where I can get ugly. I resent the pressure to stop what I’m doing to give a standing ovation to people who have finally stopped fucking things up for themselves and everyone around them. As in, “Hello! Welcome to Grownup Land!”
People like Otto (people like most of us) put one foot in front of the other, show up when we’re supposed to, and support and encourage the ones we love, even on days when we don’t feel like it. Sometimes we get a little stuck, a little resentful, suffer from a case of the Is-This-It blues, and the feeling that life is passing us by.
Otto learns how meditation can slow things down and help him see the beauty in everything–that is, when he finds space between yearning for his next meal and the desire to run away from himself. While reading these books, I kept thinking of the fable of the tortoise and the hare. In the end, tortoise doesn’t win the race; he wins the life.
During a recent serious post-dinner discussion, I was speculating about our dog Maggie’s perspective on life with humans. My younger daughter was paying very close attention to my ruminations on this important issue and produced this cartoon:
Is declaring a new birthday for yourself a sign of narcissism? Probably.
My husband finds this idea perplexing, but as I get older his state of perplexment deepens.
“Why would you create a new birthday?” he asked.
“Simple. I’m sick of sharing my birthday with you, Joan, and The Resurrection,” I explained.
Historically, few of my friends are available to take me out to dinner because of their other birthday commitments and Easter. I’m not that available either. My husband’s and my birthdays are two days apart, so we do the two-for-one birthday thing and I feel like I’m supposed to defer to him about how to celebrate.
Not anymore! I cooked up this new birthday in conversation with my motley Britannia crew in November. Little goes on in January besides Christmas recovery, I reasoned. A get-together during this dark, cold month was good for the soul. After the second glass of wine, the deal was sealed.
When my favourite, local folk-rock duo was booked at the New Edinburgh Pub on my new birthday, it was clear that the fates were smiling on me.
This duo is called the Dead Prophets of Western Canada and they’re the husbands of two of my galpals. I tend to confuse their band name with the Dead Poets Society–a consistent mistake that I blame on a symptom of perimenopause–Loss of nouns. I’ve resorted to calling them Glad because it’s the perfect fusion of their first names (Brad and Glen) and sums up how they make me feel when I listen to them play.
We danced, even though it’s not cool to dance in pubs. It was my birthday, dammit! But when the guys got the whole pub to sing Happy Birthday to me and then Sue presented me with a birthday cake that she baked for me, I cried. It was a fake birthday, but it involved real tears of gratitude.
My husband was incredulous and so was I, but I should have expected the fuss, given our friends’ historical thoughtfulness and appreciation for the absurd.
“This is what happens when you set realizable goals and have supportive friends,” I told him, as we drove home in our packed minivan. I was euphoric and humbled.
Here are the Dead Prophets of Western Canada performing one of their original pieces, I am me. Have a listen; you’ll be Glad you did: