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

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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.

Equinox

I wrote a really long, rambling post of over 800 words and decided it would be easier to just start over.
Here are the pertinent points: my staycation is ending. My 6-month leave is starting. So is my new role of working on my husband’s business and balancing that with my other pursuits like photography and getting myself from adequately healthy to ridiculously healthy.

I immediately feel the need to go on a rant about how long I’ve had a job, been self-supporting, yada yada yada. Basically, the need to justify slowing down, even if only temporarily, as if I have to prove I am deserving of this time.

I have suggested to friends that we should all stop cleaning our houses when we’re visiting each other. Then, we would all just be accepted as we are, clean house or dirty, and we wouldn’t drive each other to keep wasting time pretending that we’re neat nuts for people who are supposed to care more about us than about the cleanliness of our homes.

I suggest we do the same when it comes to using over-work as a way of saying we’re important. Let’s just drop the judgmental tones and patronizing comments about people doing things for fun. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there’s plenty of research that suggests people who play more are also more creative problem solvers and more effective and efficient at work (and healthier). So, let’s start bragging about making play a priority instead.

The next time someone says, “Oh, I don’t have time to do x,” let’s remind one another that we all have time to do what we choose. Sometimes we’re willing to make the choices to prioritize that time and sometimes we’re not.

In the end, we only get one lifetime (at least in this form, depending on what you believe) to create meaning. A universal truth I keep reminding myself of is that people never regret not spending more time at work at the end of their lives. People regret not laughing more, crying more, playing more, connecting with loved ones more.

So, here I go into the next stage of my journey. Perfectly timed with the spring equinox. What better metaphor than spring to begin anew? I might have liked having 13 weeks of winter to rest and recuperate from the past 30 years, but I suspect not. After all, it can be hard work getting rest.

Socks and Sandals

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I’ve allocated for myself two weeks of vacation before I start working on Coop Guitars. I have decided to spend this time taking care of myself by doing only what I feel like doing.
Today, I felt like riding my bike to a yoga class a 20 minute ride away. So, I rode my bike 20 minutes across town and took that yoga class at 10:30 in the morning–a time I’ve never been free to go to yoga class before.
I breathed through the class with the presence of mind I always want in yoga class but rarely achieve.
As I rode my bike back across town, climbing a hill into a head wind on surprisingly fatigued legs, I wanted the traffic light mid-way up the hill to turn green. I was determined it was going to change. And it did! But it changed to a left turn arrow and I was going straight.
Had I trusted the strength of my will to control traffic lights less, I might have unclipped a shoe from my pedals. Instead, I crashed to the ground in one of those humiliating moments I have become all too accustomed to. On the plus side, I have gotten pretty skilled at falling. I managed to fall slowly enough to only scrape one knee slightly.
This just goes to prove you can’t always get what you want. Not even when you’re on a vacation to do only what you please.
I popped up quickly, hoping to avoid alarming any drivers who were probably wondering how on earth I managed to fall in the first place. I pedaled home surprisingly non-plussed. After all, it was a moment and it was gone.
I returned home to a quiet dog who had been home alone for 2 full hours. This is a new record. My husband returned for lunch at the same time. We sat on the floor with our ecstatic dog running in circles, flopping himself over periodically on top of us, and giving us stinky dog kisses whenever we didn’t move fast enough. We laughed at his antics and sheer joy that we had returned safely.
Then, I felt like walking the dog. I slipped my Chacos over my socks. I felt like wearing socks with my sandals. I walked around the park for the 2nd time today feeling my feet in my socks, warm and comfy. I listened to the frogs singing of spring. I looked for the Flicker calling loudly in a dead tree. I watched a turtle swimming slowly through the wetland. I saw a friend and chatted with her about the joy of walking in socks and sandals.
Then, I made myself a smoothie. Full of goodness–local honey, whey protein, frozen organic berries, turmeric, cinnamon, black pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg. Then, I decided I felt like writing a post on a day when I don’t write posts anymore.
It’s funny what can feel like an adventure.

A New Year

Here we are.  A new year.  Another marker of the passage of time.  So, taking stock of some of my 2013 high/low lights:

I experienced complete and utter presence in the moment repeatedly while learning how to handle birds of prey.  I also began to understand how much more I have to learn.

I sat silently with my husband on a cliff in South Cumberland State Park and listened to the wind blowing through the pine trees, experiencing the simple joy of knowing that the wind, the trees, the rocks, my husband, and I were all connected in that moment.

I listened to a troubled friend with an open heart and felt their pain with empathy and without judgment.  More frequently, I fell back to my old habit of listening, judging, and trying to fix.

I spent an afternoon visiting with my bestie that was so relaxing, we both fell asleep and napped.  There was a time in my life when I would have thought that was a bad thing, but sleep is the ultimate vulnerability.  To be with someone and feel so calm and so at ease that I can sleep in her presence now seems like an amazing gift.

I stopped in places I had never seen while on a road trip with Tisen.  I paused in my constant push to get somewhere faster to stop and see what was a few miles from the highway, discovering bison, quiet fishing lakes, and a historical village.

I took a walk through a historic plaza in the middle of Madrid on a sunny day in February  and feasted on local fare at a tiny restaurant with 6 tables, served with the warmth of family by the couple who owned the place.  I experienced food made with love and hospitality.

I deepened my knowledge and appreciation of photography, pushing myself to a place where I feel comfortable that I know what I don’t know and I know what I want to work on next.  What I appreciate the most is that it truly is all about the journey–there’s a new discovery every time I look through the lens.

I lost sight of some of the things that are of the greatest importance to my health and well-being.  I injured my back in the spring and stopped rowing and riding, only to re-injure my back when I started again weeks later.  I haven’t been on my bike in months.  Eating has become something that happens when someone hands me food or I’m so hungry I feel nauseous.  I not eating well and I am not eating enough.  I also stopped finding time to meditate.  All of this has added up to sleepless nights, frenetic energy, anxiety, and physical discomfort.

So, I guess I know what my goals for 2014 are:  more moments fully experienced.  Less time trying to do more.  More time recharging myself.  I guess that means it’s time to stop writing and go to bed.

Missing Summer

It dawned on me today that it’s August.  Kids are getting ready to go back to school just as I am noticing it’s summer.

This summer, I have spent sitting.  I’ve done a little math.  I figured I’ve spent an average of 80 hours a week sitting in front of a computer, 45 hour sleeping, 7 hours walking the dog(s), 1 hour doing yoga, 14 hours eating (mostly more sitting), 3 hours socializing (yet more sitting), 3 hours shooting, 4 hours working with birds, and the remaining 11 hours doing mundane tasks like getting ready in the morning, driving places, grocery shopping, dog washing, dog feeding, taking the dog to the vet, making coffee, and doing household chores.

That’s not exactly how I might have planned my summer.

I think back to the summers of my childhood when they seemed to stretch on forever.  I remember running around in the neighborhood with my friends playing whatever game we could come up with much of the day.  If I wouldn’t have been an avid reader, I probably would have spent the entire day outside.  When friends weren’t available, I took my books outside and read in our treehouse or in a make-shift tent made of blankets hung over our swing set.

There were chores and, when I was old enough, a job.  But my first job was mowing lawns–even that felt like a fun outdoor activity once I got started.  I used to love the smell of fresh cut grass and the look of a neatly trimmed lawn.  All of it spoke of summer to me.

It’s funny that we grow up thinking we will have summers forever.  Summers with less responsibility, fewer deadlines, and an open schedule.  Summers where the biggest worry is that we’ll be bored.  Do kids still have summers like that?  I miss them.

I miss the feeling of sleeping in on a weekday, rising to an empty house with a stocked fridge.  Meandering through the day without a single thing planned, required, or demanded.

I suppose the whole summer wasn’t like that.  There was a week of camp.  Days I had to do things.  But I looked forward to those days because the freedom of the unplanned days was sometimes overwhelming.

I entered this summer without acknowledging it.  I didn’t just spend it sitting; like walking past a lost penny, I didn’t pick it up to spend it at all.  I didn’t notice the longest day of the year.  I didn’t catch any fireflies.  I didn’t spend a single night gazing at the stars.  I didn’t take a moment to sit in the shade on a hot sunny day, feeling the breeze and thinking life is good.  It seems like a summer wasted.

Bad Habits

I don't know why, but big puffy clouds make me happy

I don’t know why, but big puffy clouds make me happy

I expect to collapse into a deep sleep from which I cannot be awakened at any moment.  Between long days for my day job and several personal projects, sleep seems to be the thing that’s not fitting into my schedule.  Oh, and healthy meals.  Oh, yeah, and working out.  How long can a human survive on limited sleep, limited nutrition, and way too much time sitting?

More importantly, how do bad health habits affect photographic skills?

This is my list of what I have observed in how my photography habits have changed:

  1. I have less time to shoot.  Therefore, I shoot what presents itself.  Sometimes what presents itself isn’t all that interesting.  I shoot it anyway because I don’t have time to go find something more interesting.
  2. I have less imagination.  There have been many times I have had a lot of fun shooting uninteresting subjects and made them more interesting by choosing to treat them differently.  With a muddled mind full of unfinished to-do’s, I seem to be stuck in landscape mode.  I guess when we are stressed, we tend to fall back to where we are most comfortable.

    The same clouds as above as they begin to break up

    The same clouds as above as they begin to break up

  3. I take fewer images.  Instead of shooting every possible angle with different exposures and trying different focal lengths, etc, I take a couple of angels less than a half dozen times and call it done.  This would be a good thing if it were because I was taking my time and carefully deciding what I wanted.  But it’s more like I am not seeing all the possibilities and don’t have the energy to create a bunch of shots I have to go through later.
  4. I minimize the time I spend on post-processing.  If I have 3 similar images, I spend less than 2 minutes adjusting the first and then I stamp the same settings on the rest.  Unless there is something really amiss, I call it done.
  5. I don’t plan my shoots or my shots.  When I am experiencing less stress, I think about images I’d like to get.  I think about where I can go to get them.  I think of techniques I’d like to improve and give myself assignments to work on them.  Now, I am grabbing what I can get.
  6. I don’t work on new skills.  Normally, I find at least a couple of hours a week to read about something related to improving my photos or go to a workshop or watch one online.  Those hours have been consumed.  Perhaps this is why I am having a shortage of ideas?

Now that I have enumerated the ways in which I am neglecting my development (that would be funnier if I were a film photographer), the only question is whether it’s better to keep shooting or whether I’m just picking up bad photography habits in addition to bad life habits.

I cannot recall having ever seen a cloud quite like this one

I cannot recall having ever seen a cloud quite like this one