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.

Quicksand

Last Monday, my course veered undetectably by me. Until the moment my body slammed to the ground–rudely snapped against a boardwalk much like a rag doll without consideration of human bones, ligaments, tendons, organs, and blood–I thought I was simply out riding my bike.

A simple swerve to the right–or was it to the left?–over mist-covered algae growing on a wood boardwalk changed the course of my wheels, my day, and perhaps even my life. The loss of traction was immediate. There was no skid, no slow motion fall, no time to realize I was under attack by the forces of physics that remain as undeniable as death and taxes. I found myself on the ground, shocked.

A tiny version of myself stepped outside my body and tried to make a video of all it could see, but my tiny self’s view was obstructed by the giant helmet on my banged-up head, the bars and shafts that made up my bicycle, my Gulliver-sized legs, and the shadows cast by all. Yet my tiny self was amazed to watch my big self rise up to a seated position and do its best to be sociable with a woman who had stopped to help.

Smiling, making a joke even, denying any serious injury. Above all else, protecting self by refusing to admit any vulnerability to a stranger–even a lone mother walking her infant in a stroller.

All pain was pushed aside. The knot of confusion was barely hinted at in the statement, “I hit my head.” I stood. I walked. She rolled my bike along. I sat on a bench, she parked my bike next to me, assured me she would be back shortly to check on me and disappeared both visually and in my memory until hours later when I suspected I’d dreamt her. Then, later still, the video my tiny self made was unlocked from some deep archive and returned to my big self for viewing.

Yet, I remembered I had a phone. I remembered where it was. I remembered the password to unlock it. I remembered how to call my husband. I asked him to come and get me. My tiny self was fully back onboard with my big self at this point–there was no video for me to return to later.

I still cannot recall the conversation with my husband. Nor can I recall the quarter-mile walk I undertook to meet him at the nearest street–I had fallen on a pedestrian-only portion of the Tennessee Riverwalk.

What I do recall is a moment of utter panic. Of being uncertain that I was going in the right direction, uncertain of where I was, uncertain as to what was happening. I choked down an urge to sob. I gave up crying long ago, after my mother’s funeral. My mother was the only person I ever knew with a healthy respect for a stranger’s tears–the only person I knew who was comfortable to just allow them. For everyone else, they are at least a source of discomfort if not disgust.

I keep mine close. Occasionally, I allow moisture in deep empathy for someone else’s pain. But if you see a tear for my own pain, it’s either a once in a decade occurrence or you’re someone I trust with my life.

To be standing on a street corner lost and confused and blubbering would be the most vulnerable I’ve ever felt in my life. Standing on a street corner lost and confused was close enough. I swallowed hard, choked once, blinked away any tear that had dared to form, and recalled my phone.

I scoured my muddled mind for a memory of having spoken to my husband recently. A vague impression of having had a conversation formed much like a shape bubbling up briefly from under quicksand, then sinking and disappearing again. I wanted to reach for the memory, but feared grabbing it would mire me in muck so deep I might not surface again. I let it go.

I dialed my husband again. The words that came were, “Are you coming to get me? I’m so confused.” And I choked back a sob for a second time.

He talked to me from that moment until he arrived to pick me up. His voice my lifeline through the quicksand of my mind. Then, he scooped me safely into our van where a wet muzzle reached from behind my seat to check on me, reminding me my boys will protect me and care for me when I will let them. It’s the letting them that’s always the hardest part.

In the ER, I learned I had a concussion. Nothing dangerous or permanent, just scary. I was sent home to heal with instructions not to watch TV, use any electronic devices with a screen, or read any non-fiction. Thankfully, I was allowed to sleep.

I thought I would be fine in 2 days. I was not. The more I learn, the more I realize this isn’t something you recover from at the same rate as the 24-hour flu.

I’ve also learned that bike helmets don’t offer much protection against concussions. I’ve found one that promises a novel design technology called MIPS that’s supposed to have slightly better protection than traditional bike helmets against concussions. At $219, it seems pricey. When I get the ER bill, it will seem like a bargain if it works.

I will heal and I will ride again. But the experience of temporary dementia haunts me. I find myself wondering if more than my tires veered.

Highline Trail

Not much time to write this weekend, but thought I’d throw up a gallery of images from the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park. This is one of the most popular trails, offering sweeping vistas and a nice variety of wildlife. Of course, even the popular trails really aren’t that crowded in peak season once you get a mile or so from the trailhead.

It was a lovely hike and, unlike the day before (see “A Bear Story”), I was accompanied by 3 lovely ladies, one of whom is an ER nurse, so I was feeling much safer. 🙂