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.

A Bear Story

I did something I’ve never done before: I went hiking alone in Grizzly country.

I took my camera and, with no other hikers pushing me onward, my hike was pretty much doomed. Rather than hiking the 5 miles I’d planned, I spent about 3 hours loosing myself to photography without covering much ground.

At one point, I found myself panning with a flower that was whipping around in the wind, shooting a fly acting shockingly like a bee. I suddenly realized I’d been sitting there for more than 45 minutes.

That’s when I decided I needed to make some tracks. No sooner than I’d gotten some momentum going, I ran into a man hiking the opposite direction who told me he’d seen a grizzly about 10 minutes back on the trail (or 2 hours in photographer time).

I was both excited and worried. I was alone and had no bear spray. Neither condition is recommended in grizzly country. But, the man said the bear was far from the trail and distracted by the huckleberries that were in peak season.

I went on. Minutes later, I encountered a couple singing loudly. A sure sign of a bear sighting! Sure enough, they too had seen a grizzly a few minutes back. The moment they shared this information, I looked up and said, “Oh, look, there’s one now!” A grizzly had just crested the ridge above us and was headed in our general direction, although still 200 yards away.

I immediately did what any photographer does and grabbed the camera with my longest lens on it and started firing. Except, I was so excited I failed to read my meter and had to readjust and shoot again. As I fired off 3 more shots at good exposure (but with a heck of a lot more motion shake than usual), the bear started running towards us.
“And now he’s running towards us,” I said to the couple. The woman immediately asked her husband if the safety was off their bear spray can. I suggested we start backing up slowly.

The bear was closing the distance at a pace fast enough to scare the life out of anyone experiencing a grizzly running towards them for the first time.

We moved slowly for a few steps, and then more quickly, soon walking at a fast clip while glancing over our shoulders and talking loudly. When we passed trees that were between us and him, we lost sight of him (which was almost scarier).

We never saw him again. I suspect he was running towards a huckleberry bush that happened to be in our direction. However, it was scary enough that I decided to hike out with the couple and call it a day.

It took us 20 minutes to cover the distance that took me 3 hours on the way in.

My only regret is that I didn’t stay long enough to get a better shot.

Trust

Sometimes we need to trust ourselves. Sometimes we need to shut out what everyone else tells us and follow our own hearts. But other times, we have to accept that maybe our perception is dead wrong.

This is pretty terrifying really.

It’s hard to buck the system and decide no matter what anyone else says, you’re going to do the thing that makes you happy. For example, why do people who supposedly love us tell us not to follow our passion? I think it’s because they’re scared. Scared as much for themselves as for us.

Here’s an analogy: during my first marriage, my ex and I hadn’t been romantically involved for several months. I saw a romantic movie and when the couple started kissing passionately, I burst into tears. It was the pain of being reminded of what I was missing that made me cry. Having it thrown in my face broke the dam I’d built to keep all of that pain in check. Sometimes we’d rather believe something isn’t possible than to see someone else doing what we’ve dreamt of.

On the flip side, sometimes our perceptions are just wrong. Let’s take a wedding where we stress over details that no one else will notice or care about. Leading up to a wedding, many a bride (sorry to be sexist, but I have yet to meet a groom who felt similar stress about his wedding) will freak out about any one of a million minute details that no guest will ever notice.

The importance of details like how party favors are presented on the tables, the font of the invitation, or the subtle shade of blue that doesn’t quite match between the cake frosting and the napkins grow vastly out of proportion.

Yet, if you’re getting married, no one–NO ONE–cares if the blues are slightly different shades. What does matter is that you’re happy you’re getting married. That’s really the only detail you need to worry about: are you happy you’re getting married?

When we get into a state where things like matching shades of blue seem like life and death situations, we need to let go and trust in someone else’s judgment. But how do we tell the difference between when our own compass has been dropped vs when someone else’s advice is coming from their own fears?

Sometimes this is relatively easy. If we take a few deep breaths, there’s a place in most of our stomachs that will tell us that our best friend is right that the shades of blue are fine. Other times, it’s tough. Sometimes it takes a lot of soul searching to distinguish between whether what we believe is right or whether maybe, just maybe, we should accept someone else’s opinion.

Sometimes the opinions we hold with the most certainty are exactly where we need to listen to someone else. If only there were a simple test to determine when we’re off base.

Mesmerized


I was given an exercise: describe your life 10 years from now how you want it to be. It’s not the first time I’ve done this exercise. However, it has a slightly different twist this time.

I was asked to write less about what I would be doing and more about how I would be feeling.

I am not going to share my attempt at this exercise in this blog because it’s a bit more personal than I’m willing to share publicly. However, an interesting theme emerged. It was the theme of being “present,” “mindful,” “aware,” or whatever word means the most to you. That state where your brain isn’t off thinking a million miles an hour about a thousand different things but is right where you are physically, mesmerized with the present moment.

Mesmerized. Such a great word–feeling like you can’t look away, hypnotized. Being mesmerized by the present moment means no thoughts of yesterday or tomorrow distract us from what’s unfolding now.

Remember the feeling of getting so caught up in doing something that all else is forgotten? And I am not referring to computer games here. Rather, the feeling of being lost in creating something and suddenly something interrupting you and realizing hours have passed. Or perhaps the feeling of no time having passed at all but realizing you just hiked 7 miles. Or even just enjoying visiting with friends so much that you lose yourself in the conversation and suddenly discover 2 hours have gone by.

Interestingly, my relationship with time seems to have suffered greatly since starting my leave of absence from my day job. I lose track of it continually. Yet, it’s not quite the kind of loss of track of time I was shooting for. There’s the “I’m so engaged in what I’m doing I can’t keep track of time” kind of loss of time and then there’s the “I’m so distracted and disconnected from what’s going on around me I can’t keep track of time” kind of loss of time. I seem to lose more time to the latter case than the former.

Photography gives me hope. It’s the good kind of loss of time for me. It’s when I set aside whatever else is going on in my head and pay attention to reality.

Let’s think about this for a moment: I like photography because it’s one of the few times when I stop imagining things and live in reality. As crazy as this sounds, I’ve decided I’m not crazy at all. In fact, every time I talk to someone about a racing brain that jumps all over the place, this is among the most common of experiences. It’s the moments of quiet that seem to be more unusual.

Do we all walk around with a head full of voices about the past and the future distracting us from the present? The peaceful joy that comes with being fully present truly is mesmerizing, yet so hard to maintain.

Being Golden


Growing up, I was taught to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It seems simple enough. However, this rule can quickly turn an attempt at thoughtfulness into an act of egocentric selfishness.

For example, my aunt was compulsively punctual. Because she was also exceptionally nervous, continually worried about abandonment, and a complete freak to deal with when she was upset, my family went to great lengths never to be late picking her up under any circumstances.

In my aunt’s mind, making us wait even a second would be inconsiderate. At the same time, if she waited more than a few minutes, she would begin to think she was confused about what time we were picking her up and chaos would ensue. “On time” to my aunt meant about 10 minutes early. There was a 4-minute window in which you could safely arrive and retrieve my aunt without panic, chaos, guilt, or retribution: arriving 5-9 minutes early meant you had not waited on her and you were early enough to avoid triggering her panic. This resulted in many dangerous acts of driving.

All in the name of thoughtfulness.

From her I learned to watch myself. To watch when “doing unto others” takes that dangerous turn into “assuming others want what I want.” The hardest acts of thoughtfulness are when what feels thoughtful to someone else is completely different than what we would want. Removing ourselves from the equation and truly making it about the other person is actually quite a challenge.

I think of my grandfather who never wanted gifts and my mother’s desire to give a gift he would like. Every Christmas, she would give him something more and more practical trying to align her gift giving with what she thought he would enjoy. Every year she was disappointed by his reaction. In reality, what he wanted was no gifts but my mother couldn’t give up on her belief that the perfect gift would result in him expressing genuine gratitude.

As selfless and thoughtful as my mother was, here she wasn’t really being thoughtful–it was her own need for her father’s approval that drove her compulsion to find him the perfect gift rather than any need of his.

And this, in a nutshell, is the problem with the Golden Rule. If we apply it from the perspective of our own neurotic need for approval, appreciation, or even just confirmation of what we believe about ourselves (we’re giving, thoughtful people), we usually don’t really apply it at all.

In the end, we don’t want people to do unto us exactly the way they would want us to do unto them. Rather, we want people to know us, see us, understand us, and, as a way of acknowledging that they accept us as we are, do unto us as we would have them do unto us. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” really should come with many footnotes.

Babies and Bath Water

Many years ago, when more and more corporations were putting PCs on people’s desks, opening up access to email, the internet, and (egads!) even instant messaging, multi-tasking became a hot topic in large corporations.

A group of managers in my then-organization were sent to a training class. The class proved to them that no one is more efficient multi-tasking than performing tasks in a single-threaded fashion. This has been demonstrated over and over again in many studies since.

Yet multitasking is only increasing. We wonder aloud how we got to a place where multitasking on a smartphone has now become part of our basic social interactions. Remember when it was considered the epitome of rudeness to have a cell phone in a restaurant?

For me, multi-tasking socialization started in the work place where I often carried on multiple instant message conversations, worked on an email response, and “listened” to a conference call all at the same time.

But the behavior has carried over to my personal life in rather frightening ways. A laptop, iPhone, or iPad is always handy and my face is often pointed at one of them–my attention hopping from messages, emails, posts and often forgetting completely why I picked up a “device” in the first place.

One of the things I have said I love about photography is that it is a form of meditation. I set aside my distracting devices and focus my attention as well as my lens. When I look through the viewfinder, even more distractions are removed, limiting the view of the world to just the portion I include in my frame. The mind quiets, the chatter stops, texts go unanswered. For those moments, there is only me observing something fascinating and working to capture it.

But how to carry this focused attention over to personal relationships?

I tried an accidental experiment this weekend. I put my phone on the sleep setting, meaning it would not notify me with events from the virtual world. Then, I spent some time with my spouse. Friday night, we even went to dinner without our phones. It was a scary moment, but we managed to entertain ourselves by talking to each other.

What was interesting was how awkward it felt to know we were going to have a conversation with no access to Google. No photos to look at. No funny posts on Facebook to share. Just us talking off the tops of our heads like the internet didn’t exist. But at the end of the evening, we felt like we’d actually spent time together vs spent time in the same room.

That said, I am not about to get rid of the technology in my life. But it begs the question: if technology has contributed to new detrimental behaviors negatively impacting my relationships, productivity, and enjoyment of life, how does one extract the baby from the bathwater? It is possible to use the power of technology only for good?