Inviting Life

I am troubled by the dialog (or lack thereof) in our country. Never have there been so many topics off-the-table when chatting with people I love but who see politics quite differently than I do. Even a conversation about fanatic football fans becoming violent quickly turned to a divisive political statement the other day. There is no middle ground. No rational discourse. Only sides—each believing the other side is idiotic and delusional. It’s depressing.

Yet, as soon as I indulged in complete hopelessness, a miracle happened in my front yard. My friend and native-plant expert, Chet, created an amazing “habitat garden” (as I have dubbed it) in our tiny patch of a front yard. It includes an even tinier decorative pond. Surrounded by overgrown sweet coneflower, butterfly weed, bee balm, and dozens of other plants I have to ask Chet to remind me what they’re called, this tiny bowl of water surrounded by stacked rocks carefully placed to create a space for birds to wade in and bathe, somehow attracted a frog.

It is an amazing mystery to me. There are no sources of water that I know of for at least a mile from our house. We live in an urban residential neighborhood near the peak of a steep hill surrounded by many other hills—in fact, it’s an area that was once called “Hill City.” I know very little about frogs, but I didn’t think a water-loving frog would be in the neighborhood.

Did it get air-lifted by a bird? Perhaps a bird that drank out of someone else’s pond and swallowed a tiny frog egg that it deposited in our pond? And from that bird visit came a tadpole that we somehow never saw that grew into a full-grown Green Frog that just one day appeared among the rocks surrounding our pond? I think of Occam’s Razor and find my explanation doesn’t really pass the test. Is the appearance of a frog in our front yard that complicated?

What strikes me is that we built it and they came. We built a space and brought in life forms that would invite more life forms. And more life forms showed up. I have been introduced to tiny, orange aphids that seem to live harmlessly on our yucca plants, beautiful orange and black bugs called “milkweed bugs” that appeared as mysteriously as the frog, more types of bees than I knew existed who seem addicted to the bee balm, and, of course, the butterflies that have found our patch of wilderness in the midst of mowed lawns an oasis.

There is something god-like about having a patch of land that has been transformed into an oasis for wildlife. It’s as if life truly can be created by molding clay. I look for my frog eagerly every morning and every evening. I giggle each time I find him or her sitting on the rock ledge around the pond. Today, I discovered a smaller frog sitting on the rock ledge. I don’t know if my frog invited a friend over or if he somehow managed to reproduce without a second frog around. Or, perhaps another bird delivered another fertilized egg that grew into a tadpole in my pond without me noticing? Occam would not be proud.

I cannot stop wandering over to the window that overlooks the pond. There sits a symbol of hope I never imagined. The concept that by merely inviting life makes it show up is so joyful, so hopeful, so inspiring. I wonder if inviting love in the midst of divisive times works just as well?

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Gender and Stomach Flips

I am struggling with what it means in 2017 to be a woman in America.

It wasn’t all the men being accused of (and/or admitting to) sexual misconduct of late that was the tipping point for me (although they certainly contributed). It was a random series of events that caused me to end up sitting through a continuing legal education requirement with an attorney-friend that motivated me to finally sit down at the computer and write.

I was surrounded by about 50 attorneys in a 1-hour class on legal ethics. (Were you aware that attorneys have ethics?) The question was raised regarding the case of Mark Giannini, a Memphis businessman who was accused of raping a woman. Giannini’s defense attorney made the following statement during his closing argument: “People can be very good at lying. Women can be especially good at it because they’re the weaker sex.”

From the Tennessee professional rules of conduct for attorneys, this is an excerpt from rule 8.4:  “It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to . . . (d) engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.” In the comments to the rules (which are meant to explain the intention of the rules), it says, “[3] A lawyer who, in the course of representing a client, knowingly manifests, by words or conduct, bias or prejudice based on race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation, or socio-economic status violates paragraph (d) when such actions are prejudicial to the administration of justice.” (You can look these up here: http://www.tba.org/info/tennessee-rules-of-professional-conduct).

Yet, in this room of about 50 attorneys, there was a great deal of skepticism that the defense attorney had violated this rule. What struck me most painfully was the moment when the presenter said, “What if his comment would have been about race?”

I imagined that quote again. I imagined it saying: People can be very good at lying. African Americans can be especially good at it because they’re the weaker race. My gut did a flip. The kind of flip that your gut does when the core of your being is reacting to something you know innately is horribly, horribly wrong. I imagined that quote revised one more time to say: People can be very good at lying. Jews can be especially good at it because they’re the weaker race. My gut flipped again.

I’m glad my gut flips when I think about people having such ridiculous, prejudiced beliefs based on someone’s race and/or religion. What I found so disturbing was that my gut DIDN’T do the same flip on the actual quote. Intellectually, I was outraged. But in my belly, the true test of what I really feel, I remained calm. Why? Why would the core of my being feel OK with being accused of being better at lying? Or, of belonging to the “weaker” sex?

I have given some thought to this question. One thing that occurs to me is that in the 2 alternate examples, I cannot be a victim of this thinking as I am neither African American nor Jewish. Is it the innate sense of duty to protect the rights of others that causes my gut to flip? But if that is the case, shouldn’t my gut still flip for the sake of all women? Do I not have the same duty to protect women regardless of the fact that I am one? What scares me the most is the possibility that deep down in my unconscious feelings I feel helpless to protect my own gender.

Is it possible that what I really feel is that it’s every woman for herself? I believe in supporting other women. I believe that women must band together in the face of prejudice and fight it together. I believe in the strength of numbers. Yet, every election, I watch women doing things I cannot explain nor comprehend. In the face of our president being exposed as a self-described grabber of women’s genitalia, I saw women “friends” post things on Facebook like, “boys will be boys.” This is consistent with my personal experience in life–I have found gender to be an unreliable predictor of who will be the biggest supporters of women.

Perhaps then it is a prejudice of a different sort to be emotionally aghast at the thought of someone saying something so offensive about minorities to which I do not belong. To assume that they need me to be aghast. Ultimately to view these categories of people as a whole, homogenous category rather than unique individuals who can also fend for themselves as individuals.

Or, is it possible that our culture is so permeated with subtle messages of misogyny that we rarely notice or, when we do, it seems so normal that people feel compelled to defend such behavior?

I do not have great insight as to why this is. But I am not alone in my gut doing a bigger flip over race than over women. The implication to me is that we, as a culture, are less able to protect women from sexism than we are to protect other groups from other forms of prejudice. And you know what? We really suck at protecting other groups. Where does this leave women?

 

Being 50

Well, here I am. 50 years old whether I want to claim it or not. My life turned upside down in the past couple of  years–losses I don’t care to recount. But I think a half century on this earth gives me the right to give unsolicited advice. So here it goes:

1) Do things that you suck at and that scare you. Do them until you suck a little less and are a little less scared. If you get more scared, stop.

2) Protect your body. It heals slower and hurts more as you age.  Doing things like swimming 4+ rapids in whitewater or a 180 degree flip on mountain bike with pedals attached to your feet aren’t as easy to recover from as they were when you were 20. But find ways to do the things that scare you without permanently damaging your body.

3) Love large. Love unconditionally. Let go of pettiness and complaint. When you hear yourself complaining, stop. At 50, you’ve been around long enough to know that life is good and complaining is a waste of energy.

4) Let go of judgment. This might be the same as #3 because complaining is a sure sign of judgment. Listening and observing with an open heart is far ​more productive than judging.

5) Do not confuse discretion and integrity with judgment. It’s OK to say misogyny is wrong. Racism is wrong. Anything, really, that judges people collectively is wrong. It’s OK to be angry when people are mistreated, misjudged, denied their human rights. In fact, it’s not just OK, it’s imperative.

6) Forgive and accept your own limitations. This is a good time to realize there are some things about you that aren’t rational and never will be. For example, I will always feel like a 50-foot woman whenI am next to a guy who is the same height as me. It’s a misperceptions on my part. But it’s time to stop feeling bad about it and accept it as a preference.

7) Prioritize what matters most. For me, I have to be outside. I have learned that my fundamental happiness and ability to experience joy are dependent on being outdoors as often as possible.  For you, it might be spending time with your children or grandchildren. Whatever it is, make time for it.

8) Believe. Believe that those dreams you thought you would have fulfilled by the time you were 30 are still possible. Believe that your whole life is in front of you. That you can still do and/be what you imagined for yourself.

9) Take action or let go. Sometimes we cling to ideas of ourselves or things we think we *should* do. Letting go of the person we will never be or the actions we will never take frees out energy to focus on what we can and will do.

10) Do yoga. There is nothing quite like yoga to teach being in the present moment. It’s the most powerful lesson there is–after all, we only actually have the present. Breathing, moving, feeling–yoga reminds us that we are alive in a way that carries over throughout the day and reminds us that all we really have is now.

I could go on. But I’m 50 and I need more sleep than I used to.

Remembering Gratitude

I wasn’t going to write a gratitude list this year. I’m too busy, too many important things to do, just no time. But, I have learned and re-learned a thousand times that the things I hear myself saying I don’t have time for are sometimes the most important things I need to make time for. Sometimes I don’t have time because I am keeping myself busy so I don’t have to face the hard things.

This has been a tough year. They happen from time to time. This has not, by far, been the hardest year of my life. But it’s not been one where things to be grateful for jump immediately to mind.

The loss of my dear friend, G, tops the list of things that prevent me from wanting to think about gratitude. But, it is actually G who inspires this exercise for me this year. In fact, very shortly before she was suddenly and shockingly taken from us, she decided would create a gratitude blog. We talked many times about the importance of developing a gratitude practice. And we discussed the biggest challenge of practicing gratitude: being grateful for the things that hurt the most.

I don’t know how to be grateful for the loss of someone I love. I can’t even get close enough to the loss to really look at it. Often, in the few quiet moments that happen between sliding into bed and sleep, it occurs to me that this latest wound needs the dressing changed. When I manage to get close to attending to it, the smell turns my stomach. I cannot find the courage to rip off the tape. I turn into a simpering fool, paralyzed by the fear of gangrenous, maggot-infested flesh that surely lies beneath the neglected bandage.

I suspect this wound is really just a reopening of an age-old wound that has never formed a scar. It is the pain of loss.

The past year was what seemed like a long series of losses, some more paralyzing than others: the loss of my canine companion; the loss of belief in myself when I wasn’t able to help my husband with his business; the loss of my own identity in taking time off from my corporate career; the loss of income; the loss of financial security for me and my small family; the loss of faith in good health and self-determination when my 70 year-old yoga instructor (who also does triathlons’s and century bike rides) had hernia surgery that resulted in a near-death struggle for survival over several months; the partial and temporary loss of my own mind from a concussion from a biking accident; the loss of my amateur status in photography that brought with it business management overhead that I wasn’t fully prepared for; the loss of feeling like we lived in a safe community when a shooting that reached international news occurred just a couple miles down the road; the loss of my freedom when my leave of absence ended; the loss of my Friday morning yoga class that I’ve depended on for sanity for nearly 4 years; the loss of easy access to our first friends in Chattanooga when they decided to move to Florida; the loss of yet another pillar in my support network when another friend moved to D.C.; the list goes on. Of course, the unexpected and difficult to understand death of my closest friend was by far the most staggering loss this year. It is still not real to me even though I sit on her couch as I write this.

See how easy it is for me to feel sorry for myself? Even the decision to shoot professionally, something I’ve worked towards for many years, has become a loss. The sense of loss can be every bit as infectious as a good laugh.

This is, in a nutshell, why my gratitude list must be a priority for me. And why it needs to be a daily practice, not an annual one.

In fact, Forbes listed 7 positive benefits of gratitude different studies have demonstrated ranging from improved physical health to improved sleep in an article run last year for Thanksgiving. You can read the article here: http://www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2014/11/23/7-scientifically-proven-benefits-of-gratitude-that-will-motivate-you-to-give-thanks-year-round/

In the end, we develop habits. As Charles Reade is oft paraphrased (this is the version I first saw on an elementary school cafeteria wall in 2002):

Mind your thoughts for they become your words;

Mind your words for they become your actions;

Mind your actions for they become your habits;

Mind your habits for they become your character;

Mind your character for it becomes your destiny.

Our brains are relatively easy to train into patterns of thought. If we take in our experiences and make them losses, they are losses. But we can just as easily learn to take in these same experiences as reasons for gratitude. The point is to choose to create a destiny that is not full of regret and and an overwhelming sense of loss.

And so, in honor of G, I make my list this evening. I am grateful for:

  • Having loved so dearly that the loss knocked me down, stopped my heart, filled me with endless longing and yet having found the courage to love so dearly again.
  • Having learned (and continuing to learn) from wise friends who come with many points of view and experiences.
  • Having had a glimpse of what dementia feels like so that I may be more compassionate, patient, and empathetic with those who suffer from any form of mental confusion.
  • Experiencing the strength and grace of practicing yoga and knowing that I can remain flexible and strong for decades to come.
  • Having met caring people who have welcomed me into their lives in both big and small ways and made me feel like I am part of a community–both locally and afar.
  • Having taken the risk and time to explore the possibility of what my husband and I could and could not do together rather than wondering what might have been.
  • The opportunity to return to a job that gives me a sense of security and provides for my (even smaller) family.
  • The ability to continue to pursue photography and to push my limits in a part of my brain that isn’t always exercised.
  • Having been published in a major magazine.
  • Being inspired to start the Serious Women series which has re-awakened my creative spirit as well as inspired me in new ways as I learned more about the women I was shooting.
  • My iPhone and Facebook, which make it possible to incorporate keeping in touch with distant friends in fractions of minutes in even the busiest of days.
  • For being able to see my family for important events in their lives as well as ordinary visits even though we are geographically dispersed.
  • For Euchre.
  • And, for my friends in Chattanooga who haven’t abandoned me even though I have sorely neglected them.
  • I am grateful for having had 3 years with my boy, Tisen. 3 years during which I was the star of every day for him and that reminded me to try to be the person my dog believed me to be (as the bumper sticker goes).
  • I am grateful for having been able to ease Tisen out of the world gently. And for a vet who was willing to come in for this somber purpose on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. For a husband who is the kind of man who cried shamelessly over the loss of a dog who loved me like no one else and who often guarded me jealously—even from the same husband who was there for him to the very end.
  • I am grateful that G remained a central part of my life even after we moved to Chattanooga. I am grateful that we were both able to use technology to keep in touch, often in random and hilarious ways—that we were able to bridge space and time.
  • I am grateful that G inspired me to write this list (and the many, many other ways in which she continues to inspire me) and that I took the time to write it. I am grateful that my life is so full of lessons, opportunities, love, and surprises. I am grateful that I continue to muddle my way through the curve balls.
  • I am grateful for maggots—they can cleanse wounds thoroughly and without disgust.

“If you want to be happy, notice that you are.” -Georgia Crosby, 1957-2015

Saying Goodbye

What to say? I want to pull grief around me like a robe and parade around in it. To make the death of my beautiful friend all about me. I want to curl up in a ball and wail into the wind–to listen to the sound of my agony blowing back at me. I want to wallow.

But that is not what “besties” do. Besties do laundry, wash dishes, restock the toilet paper, and hold hands. And try desperately to think of something eloquent to say about the tragic and ridiculous loss of someone held dear.

I did not manage eloquence, but I did come up with something to say at her memorial service. Something I hoped would honor and represent Georgia. I’ve had a few requests to post what I said at the service. So, here it is:

All of you know how kind and giving Georgia was. But I don’t know how many of you knew that being kind and giving was part of Georgia’s own form of activism.

Georgia believed that the smallest acts of kindness could add up to big changes. She took action to create positive changes every day. Besides the charitable causes Georgia supported, there are countless stories of both people and animals she has helped. But she also tackled her internal self—seeking to continually improve herself as a human being so that she might be even better equipped to effect positive change. She did this both through constantly learning and through spiritual growth.

Let me share with you advice from the Dalai Lama Georgia recently passed onto me:

“Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can.”

I would like to invite all of you to honor Georgia by choosing one small thing every day that will make a positive impact. Whether it’s as simple as picking up a piece of trash in the parking lot, recycling a bottle, or giving an empathetic smile to a surly grocery store clerk who’s having a really bad day, take on these tasks with loving and kind thoughts rather than resentment and anger. I suspect if we do this, we will discover what Georgia already knew—we get the greatest joy by giving to others.

Just one final thought from Georgia. This is something she shared with me when I was struggling. She thought she was quoting someone very wise. After much searching for the author, I determined that she was right—Georgia was the author of these words of wisdom—they came from her own heart. They are:

“If you want to be happy, notice that you are.”

Georgia could see the happiness in me, in you, in the world. I think Georgia would want to remind us all right now that we each have a precious human life. Not to waste it. To give each other kindness and to remember to notice our own joy.

I Handed Away My Heart

I handed away my heart. It happened accidentally—I meant to hold something back. A little lifeline to reality: my dog would only be in my life for a few short years.

But now my heart is breaking. Each crack created by a change in my dog as the tumor in his brain grows. Each time he runs into something, each time he stumbles and falls, each time he looks blankly at a favorite toy and leaves it behind, I feel a new tear.

We are both disintegrating—I in my chest and he in his head.

I am so honored to be loved by this dog. A dog who came to us as a foster dog from the local shelter. They had nursed him for 2 months after his previous humans had tried to starve him to death on purpose.

How could I not have given this boy my whole heart? He loved me. He had no reason to trust a human ever again, but he claimed me as his and went all-in. He has been my constant shadow, convinced I was not safe in the world without him by my side.

How could I withhold any part of my heart when my heart was all he asked for? My heart and squeaky toys. My boy gave me, and his squeaky toys, unconditional love in a way that only a dog can.

A dog reaches into that soft and squishy place that reminds us what is most important in life—-tapping into the essence of our humanity. A dog gives us the hope we are better people than we thought we were and inspires us to be better still.

To be entrusted with another being’s happiness and his very life reminds me I am powerful, tender, needed, loved. My responsibility to him requires me to be patient, kind, gentle, forgiving. And somehow, it’s easy to be patient, kind, gentle, and forgiving when the smallest smile makes a dog’s tail wag. Dogs are masters of positive reinforcement.

But I’d forgotten what a tricky thing it is to keep your heart safe. After all, it’s been 6 years since I last lost a dog. That’s the trouble with dogs. You think you’ve prepared yourself for the shortness of their lives. You think you’re going to be just fine. And then the day comes when you are faced with the reality that the end is near. That’s when you realize you’ve handed away your heart. Even if accidentally.

Playing Housewife (or, I’d Rather Be Camping)

If “zen” is used (casually) to refer to a state of mind where you experience life as it is vs through the thoughts you have about your experiences, I have to wonder if being a housewife/husband is the fastest path to achieving a state of zen.

After all, I’ve heard stories of how zen masters teach achieving enlightenment by doing repetitive, unappreciated tasks that will only be undone and need to be done again.

One of the things I have been working on intensely is learning to leave behind my Type-A habits, be fully present, and really experience my life instead of missing what’s happening because I’m busy worrying about an imagined past or future.

I have run head-on into the most stubborn part of my Type-A traits recently. Having extended my leave of absence from my day job for another 6 months, there are some new developments in our lives:
We must re-learn how to carefully evaluate our spending decisions if we’re going to stick to the financial plan we made when I started my leave (personal leave comes with no pay).
This means one or both of us must cook more.
My husband is working long hours on his feet all day, so the cooking is falling to me.

Any of you who have read my blog for any length of time or who know me personally are probably aware of just how much I like to cook.

This is the crux of what I dislike about cooking (or any household chore): it’s a lot of effort for something that gets completely undone in only moments and then must be done all over again only to be undone once more. You are never done. You can never check it off your to-do list.

The incredible inefficiency of going in a continual circle makes me batty–it’s going backwards. I have an obsession with efficient, forward progression. It is my most Type-A tendency. Almost paradoxically, I would rather sit on the couch doing nothing than invest time and energy in a task that will have to be repeated–I become a Type-B when contemplating such a task!

There is nothing I struggle with more than going backwards.

So far, I have tried to counter this feeling by cooking in bulk. By making large quantities of soup, I have the satisfaction of seeing neat containers in the freezer and fridge waiting for us for days.

But as the supply dwindles, I find my old resentment bubbling up again. I question whether we would be better off just going back to eating out–couldn’t that time cooking be better spent growing the business than saving a few dollars?

I would love to hear from someone who genuinely enjoys cooking for their loved ones and how they get satisfaction from such a task. I’ve heard there are such people in the world, but I suspect it’s one of those legends like Big Foot.