It has been a challenging few weeks around here and I feel like I’m learning a lot about grief and emotional overwhelm. The first thing I’ve noticed is that they both feel very different to me as an adult than they did when I was a kid, but maybe that’s because I have a much stronger bedrock beneath my feet these days. Maybe knowing that the bills will get paid and there is someone to share the load of parenting and managing everyday things leaves me more space to just feel what I’m feeling. Or maybe being an adult means that I don’t have anyone telling me that my strong emotions make them uncomfortable or that I’m over-reacting, or if they do say that, I don’t give a shit.

My brother-in-law died quite suddenly at the beginning of July and even though I hadn’t seen him in several months, I was acutely aware of the loss. Like me, he married into Bubba’s family – a close-knit, fairly traditional clan – as someone who came from a very different background and family dynamic. We bonded over our “black-sheep-ness” and became allies early on. He was someone who always, always had my back, someone who was as sensitive and stubborn as I am, someone who always went to bat for the underdog. He was fiercely protective of me and my kids and Bubba’s sister and we had great fun together – often in the kitchen during family gatherings. Even in my grief, I marvel at the fact that our paths ever crossed, given the difference in our ages and the fact that he was Croatian, and I am grateful for the two decades I got to share with him on the planet.

A week or so later, I lost my beloved CB, my “mostly companion,” my shadow, my furry boyfriend. For more than a decade, he followed me through the house, prompted me to go for walks to clear my head, slept next to my side of the bed, scared strangers at the door, and cracked me up with his ridiculous dog antics. He was loyal and loving and when it came time to let him go, he sat with his head in my lap and trusted me implicitly. I still hear phantom toenail clicking along the hardwood floors and expect to see his smiling face at the door when I come home from the grocery store. Taking walks in the neighborhood without him is strange and disconcerting and I can’t bring myself to move his bed from its spot in the family room quite yet. I feel his presence in every room of my house and my grief is tempered by the absolute joy he brought to my life each and every day, by the years he was there to wake me up with positive energy.

Two days ago, my grandfather had a stroke and reminded everyone when he got to the hospital that he doesn’t want any lifesaving measures. He has lived a good, long life, outlived one of his children (my dad), two wives, and has struggled for a while to really feel as though he was thriving. He is my last remaining grandparent and my childhood memories of him are strong and clear. He is a gentle, funny man who was always ready to teach us something, whether it was a magic trick or how to use a belt sander. In my father’s last months, he was such a comfort and source of love for my dad and watching the two of them interact was incredibly healing for me.

Yesterday, a dear friend of mine lost her husband in a freak car accident. He leaves behind two teenage children and my lovely friend who has been a rock for me more than once. I am overwhelmed. And I am thankful that I have learned a thing or two about grieving – at least my process for grieving.

I have learned that while it is often incredibly helpful to have friends and family around, ultimately I have to grieve in my own time in my own way. I have learned that grief – like life – is not a linear process, but one that requires me to circle back around to what feels like the same spot over and over again, but that each time I come back around, I have a slightly different perspective, an ever-so-advanced understanding of what I’m feeling and how it fits into the larger picture.

When CB died, I was home alone for a few days. Someone advised me to “go do something – don’t stay in the quiet house – distraction is good,” and while I know they meant well, I know from experience that distraction only leads to protracted grief. I came up with a sort of formula that consisted of deep, unapologetic dives into sadness followed by a period of mindless activity like laundry or cleaning out the fridge followed by social interaction. By allowing myself to really feel what I was feeling without descending into it so far that I couldn’t get out, I was able to feel the edges of my sadness and honor them without letting them define me. I follow this pattern over and over again without placing any sort of expectation on how long it will take me to “finish,” and the simple act of accepting my own feelings, whatever they might be, is an exercise in trusting myself.

I have also learned that it is important to surround myself with people who understand that grief is not a quick and dirty, check off the boxes kind of process. I need to surround myself with people who don’t find my strong emotions uncomfortable or unpleasant because that means I either have to stifle my true feelings or I end up emotionally taking care of them. I actively seek those who are willing to sit with me during those deep dives without trying to fix or abbreviate or deny my feelings. These are often people who have really grieved themselves, and they ‘get it.’

While there is a tendency to throw my hands up in the air and ask Why? as the tragedies pile on, I have learned that that is simply a distraction tactic that doesn’t serve me in the end. It doesn’t matter why. I am in the midst of sadness and overwhelm and the only way out is through. There was a time in my life when I would have wished for a magic wand or a time machine to transport me through these days quickly and efficiently, but these days I am content to take the feelings as they come and do my best to find the revelations that often accompany them. It can be painful and often overwhelming, but it is all part of this glorious, messy, beautiful, painful, honest life I choose to live.

When the girls were little, I signed them up for a program at the local park where they could learn to ride ponies. They sat in a barn and learned about safety, donned bike helmets and boots, and climbed atop plastic step-stools to hoist themselves up into the saddle. Over a period of weeks, they learned to groom, feed, saddle, and ride these gentle creatures while I stood and snapped pictures on the other side of the fence. After each lesson, they were excited to tell me about the ponies’ names and temperaments and the things they had learned about how to interact with them. When brushing the ponies, they knew to pat their way around the hind end so that the animals always knew where they were, and if they were walking near the ponies but in a blindspot, they were taught to do an “elephant circle” so as to be out of reach of a well-placed kick should the pony get spooked.

One thing you should know about me is that I prefer patting my way around to making elephant circles. If there is an elephant in the vicinity, I am the person who will point it out. I will tell you about it, indicate exactly where it is, tug on your sleeve to alert you, and describe it in great detail. Even if you indicate that you are not interested in anything having to do with this great beast in your midst, it is unlikely that I will stop trying to talk about it. In fact, if I am particularly affected by the sight of this elephant and you actively try to turn my attention elsewhere, I am likely to take you by the hand and lead you to it, make you stroke its leathery flesh, lean in for a sniff and ask you to look it in the eye.

It is not a characteristic of mine that all people appreciate.
I understand.

The other thing you should know about me is that this characteristic is necessary for my survival.

Most of my childhood was spent hearing that crying was an unnecessary activity. That sadness and fear were altogether useless. That the preferred emotions were happiness or anger and anything else was “wallowing” or “self-pity.” From time to time there were entire herds of elephants living in my house that went unacknowledged. The adults perfected elephant circles as they went through their days, picking their way carefully through and around and underneath so as not to discuss any subject that might be uncomfortable. Living like this makes a person feel a little crazy. As a kid, I tried in vain to point out the elephants and was either ignored or reprimanded. I began to believe that I was the only one who saw them, that there was something wrong with me. Or that my ability to see them – my “sensitivity” (spoken with a sneer of derision) – was a fatal character flaw. I alternated between jumping up and down and pointing and cowering in my room wondering whether there was something seriously wrong with me. Eventually, I learned to avoid the rooms where they lived altogether and take cues from other people regarding which things were ok to speak of and which ones were not.

My tactics as an adult are quite the opposite. I have come to realize that, for me, ignoring the elephants is an exercise in self-destruction. To deny my feelings about any particular situation is to pretend that they don’t matter. So while I won’t ask you to see the elephant in the room the same way I do, or to experience the same emotions in response to it, don’t be surprised if I lead you to it and describe it in great detail so that you are forced to acknowledge that it exists. So that you might begin to understand why it is something that is important to me. So that at least we can agree on one thing – that I am not crazy. I apologize if this makes you uncomfortable, but I’ve learned that leaning into discomfort is the best way to define its edges and begin to loosen its hold on me.

I read somewhere a reminder that everything is simultaneously living and dying. And, of course I knew that, but we do our best to think otherwise, don’t we? We either work to ignore it or reverse it in almost every act we take. But the end is part of the beginning as much as green is born with shades of blue embedded in it.

And it made me wonder whether the best thing to do is simply to float along in full acknowledgment of this minute
 this moment  
 this adventure
Or should I work to give the living a little more advantage? Stretch out the living part a bit more? Use my energy to tip the scales?

It’s easy to go back and forth from camp to camp. So that’s what I do.

Sometimes I live in memory, stacking up joyful moments like gold bars, hoping that once the dying is done I will have this wall to lean back upon. And sometimes I realize that so much stacking means I’m not appreciating the living that is happening behind my back, and I set aside my blocks and turn around.

Spending time surrounded by the awareness that what is here now won’t be forever makes for a certain quality of awake-ness that is uncomfortable. It requires me to be mindful of emotional connection instead of physical action.

“I love you” versus “let me do this for you” or “let’s make new memories.”

It is also difficult to define the world in terms of Not-me. That is, to not process every potentiality and new situation with regard to what it requests and requires of me and how it makes me feel. I have to float back and see myself as one part of the whole and that both humbles me and reminds me that I am an important piece of the puzzle. That in any moment I can choose to turn my back, shore up the living, or accept my place and experience what is. Perhaps the beauty in that is that I do. I choose. Among the breath and the pulse and the movement and the slowing and the dying, I choose. And the more I can remember that it is all beautiful and glorious and a gift that I am here, part of it, for a while, the stronger I feel.

Saturday, Sunday, Monday I had hours for writing. The luxury of time meant that I woke early, poured coffee, sat at a rented desk and pounded the keyboard until I had 60 pages. Walks along the beach, more coffee, shuffling pages of memories and piecing things together.

Tuesday and Wednesday I was back in my normal life – driving, cooking, shopping, working at my ‘other’ job which doesn’t entail writing so much as networking and trying to hawk what I’ve already written. But this morning, I could see a way clear to more writing.

First, the tasks that launch the day – packing lunch, toasting bagels, walking the dog.

My mind drifts and swells. I marvel at how much of my writing happens while I smear cream cheese on the bagel, tug the dog along our familiar route, stand in the shower.

I pass dogwood tree after dogwood tree, loaded down with so many blossoms that I can’t see the leaves beneath them. I am struck by the sheer weight of beauty, how it weighs down the branches, the stems of peonies curving to rest the flowers on the sidewalk, their scent rising up to me. These plants with their short-lived bursts of shocking glory are my favorite. The ones with the less showy, compact blossoms that live on sturdy stems and branches barely merit a glance. What does that say about me?

There is a Frito-Lay truck parked along our route to school and I think about how, sometimes, I have an uncontrollable craving for potato chips. Not often, but when it comes it is intense. I imagine being the driver of that truck, pulling over to a quiet alley, climbing over the seat to get to the boxes and boxes, ripping open a bag and plucking one paper-thin chip out and then another and another. Wiping the grease on my pants.

We pass an apartment whose living room window frames a birdcage and I think, “Do people still keep birds as pets?” I remember my sister’s parakeets – one blue and one green. The biting, ammonia smell of their cage, the wooden swing, the way she had to put a blanket over it at night to keep them quiet. What would have happened if we had simply turned out all of the lamps and let the actual night take over? Would they have slept?

Everyone else is gone for the day but there are imprints everywhere. Stray shoes, crumbs on the counter, a favorite pencil on the kitchen table. I am alone to write but the end of the day calls. What’s for dinner? Are there towels clean? What time is my guitar lesson?

Warning: Rant coming in 3, 2, 1

There have been times in my life when I have been so f%*king DONE with our country’s convoluted system of healthcare that I wasn’t sure whether to cry, throw myself on the floor and pound my fists until they’re black and blue or scream bloody murder from the highest peak I can find.

I know lots of folks who can relate.

Seriously. Socialized medicine, folks. I mean it.

I know it won’t make everything easy-peasy, simple and clean, but it can’t make things worse.

When I went to college, I was determined to become a pediatrician. That’s all I had wanted to be since I was in elementary school and I could see it happening. I took organic chemistry, cell physiology, medical ethics classes. I struggled with some more than others, but I loved them all. My senior year, I studied for and took the ridiculously long MCAT and spent hundreds of dollars applying to medical schools and then decided to take a year off to work in the field before deciding whether to go ahead and go.

I ended up working for several years as a surgical assistant for a small group of doctors and I learned about the other side: the business of medicine. I hung out with the business manager and discovered how to tweak our diagnosis codes and pore through the (then) printed catalogs of allowed procedures to bill things so they would get paid for. When patients came in for emergency surgery, after the OR was scrubbed of blood and every last instrument was cleaned and put in the sterilizer, we convened for a quick meeting to determine just how to position the procedure to whichever insurance company might be involved so that we could have a higher chance of being paid. This not only determined which codes we used to bill, but it often meant that the doctor had to dictate his notes in a particular way so that, in case the insurance adjuster (not a physician or a nurse in most cases) asked for them, they would fully support the billing we submitted.

During those years, I discovered that if what I truly wanted to do was build relationships with patients that impacted their lives and their health, going to medical school was not the way to do it. As the surgical assistant, I spent more time with the patients than anyone – pre and post-op – and heard about the other things going on in their lives as I changed bandages and removed stitches. The doctors, while they may have liked to have more time to spend with patients, spent the majority of their time maximizing insurance payments by dictating notes, seeing a ridiculous number of patients per day, scheduling back-to-back surgeries to maximize OR usage, and occasionally getting on the phone with an insurance company who was refusing to pay for more than two scalpels or two hours of anesthesia to defend their choices.

Needless to say, I chose not to go to medical school.  And in the next several years, I spent time fighting with insurance companies for a physical therapy business, a dermatologist, and the state mental health division, not to mention myself and my family. I learned just how insurance companies make rules that increase their profits and narrow choices for their customers. I discovered that the high-level relationships that are made between drug companies and major hospital groups and insurers almost never benefit the health or wellness of a customer unless it happens to be in alignment with the bottom line of the companies involved.

A few weeks ago I called a doctor’s office for a family member to get diagnosis and procedure codes for an anticipated surgery. I then called the insurance company armed with information to ask whether these codes were considered covered procedures. After nearly an hour on the phone I came away with a vague answer that included information about the deductible and the potential coverage depending on a number of variables over which we have no control.  If the doctor is “in network” (he is), his services are covered at X%. If the hospital is “in network” (they are), their nursing and OR services are covered at X%, as long as it is a day-surgery. Overnight stays are covered at X-Y%. If the anesthesiologist is “in network” (we have no control over that and no way of knowing until the day of the surgery who that person might be), their services are covered at X%, but if that doctor is “out of network,” services are not covered at all. Not only that, but on “out of network” providers, the amount the patient pays is not applied to the deductible or the out-of-pocket maximums for the year (presumably because we had the audacity to go rogue – even though we have no choice in the matter). There are further decisions about OR supplies (one would think that those would be considered part of the surgery facility charge, but, no, it seems they are billed separately), so if the surgeon chooses a more expensive bandage or stitches, it is likely those won’t be covered at all.  I could go on, but you get the gist.

This morning, I phoned our dentist’s office to discuss a particularly high bill we received and after another hour of talking with them and the insurance company, I was told that Lola’s emergency dental procedure last summer while we were on vacation was not only not covered (out of network), but none of the $500 we paid for it were applied to our deductible (out of network). I calmly asked the representative,

“So, this was literally an emergency. As in, the plane touched down, we stopped at the pharmacy to get pain killers for our daughter, and as soon as we hit the hotel we asked the concierge to recommend a dentist who could see her ASAP (Saturday morning in Hawaii). First of all, does your insurance company have in-network providers in Hawaii? And if so, am I expected to call all of the islands to find one who happens to practice on the weekend and is willing to see my daughter? Is that a thing I should have done?”

“No. It’s not a thing,” he says.

“Explain that to me, please.”

“Was it a medical emergency? Because if it was, you should have run it through your medical claim instead of dental, and then it might have been covered even if it were out of network. But it wasn’t, and it’s too late now. It was processed as out of network and that’s how it’s going to stay. And, no, we don’t have any in-network providers in Hawaii.”

So, ultimately, it’s my fault that I didn’t sell it as a medical emergency? Or is it the dentists’ office fault? The dentist who got up on a Saturday morning and spent three and a half hours with Lola patiently tending to her and then calling us that night to make sure she was ok.

And why wasn’t my out of pocket amount applied to the deductible? Because we went rogue. Because we didn’t follow the rules. Because, if it had been, the insurance company (Premera Blue Cross, btw) would have been on the hook for all the rest of the follow up procedures that have taken place as a result of this situation in the last nine months. But they aren’t, because it all started with us needing dental care somewhere else in a hurry.  When I pointed this out to the representative this was his response:

“Well, you just really want to have your dental emergencies when you’re at home. That’s the best way to do it.”

Duly noted.

Socialized medicine, folks. Single payer. The same rules for everyone.

Health care (even dental care). It’s a basic need.

This is a response to Elizabeth’s comment on the previous post about sex as a commodity, and I will preface it by saying I wish I had a definitive answer. She asked how I would educate my sons about sex and rape culture if I had sons, and I think it is a particularly salient question. I thought about it in the context of my brothers and my dad, but my teenage years were a different time. Not that there wasn’t a hearty dose of misogyny and male entitlement, but it wasn’t talked about at all, and rarely was it ever challenged.

After puzzling on it for a bit, I went to a source I trust: Lola. As a 13-year old girl who is proficient in social media, steeped in girls’ empowerment, and has a strong, vocal opinion on social justice, I was interested in her ideas about how to talk to teenage boys about rape culture.  She started out by encouraging parents to watch this YouTube video about consent with their kids. All of them, boys and girls, starting at a pretty young age. It’s a pretty powerful analogy and points out just how absurd our ideas about sexual consent are.

I love this video because it doesn’t avoid the idea that a person’s consent status can change at any point. Yes, it is possible for someone to say “yes” and then change their mind, two or five or twenty-five minutes later. And no matter when it happens, it’s valid. I’ve talked to my kids about the concept of the Least Common Denominator (don’t let your eyes glaze over – this has nothing to do with math). That means that the person who is the least comfortable gets to make the rules. The lowest threshold for sexual intimacy is the trump card. So if I really want to have full sexual intercourse but my partner just really wants to make out on the couch, we stop there. Period.

The second point Lola said was important to share with teenage boys is that, even though they may not have personally done anything to make a girl feel uncomfortable, rape culture means that in many situations, we just are.  Even I, in my mid-40s and fairly fit, am always nervous when I get into an elevator with just one other person who is male. Always. That is rape culture. Rape culture is me not feeling comfortable getting into an Uber or a Lyft by myself with a male driver. Chances are, he is a nice guy who will pick me up and take me to the destination I requested without any detours, but rape culture means that I am acutely aware at all times that I lack power – and therefore physical autonomy – until I get out of the car.  And rape culture also means that I often suffer through comments on my physical appearance and speculation about what I might be going out to do (often with lewd body language) and don’t speak up because it might anger the driver and then I’m screwed. Lola said she would want boys to know that these kind of experiences happen daily to girls and women, even if they themselves aren’t perpetuating it. She wondered if they might be willing to imagine what it would be like to be constantly on guard, wondering if the next guy who spoke to you would try to do more than speak.

We ended up having a conversation about street harassment and she cracked me up when she said, “They should know that girls and women don’t get dressed in the morning so that they can go out and get comments on their appearance from total strangers. Ever. That’s not a thing.” Even if guys think it’s totally innocent or a compliment to tell someone how they look, it ultimately makes women and girls feel unsafe simply walking down the street.  This video is a powerful one because it is a small sampling of what many women experience on a daily basis as they go about their business. And the irony is, no matter how she was dressed, if she had been accompanied by a man her age or older, none of that would have happened.  Nobody would have commented on her appearance – some out of fear of the other man, and some out of respect for him. But none of them out of respect for her. And that is rape culture.

The fact is, as I wrote in my last post, in our culture sex is often about power, and those who are born with more power are the ones who often make the rules about sex. Frankly, the most impactful thing I’ve been able to do when I’m having a conversation about sex with my girls is to listen. I like to think that I’m fairly plugged in to pop culture, but I know that there is a lot that goes on that I don’t see. And I’ve discovered that if I listen without judgment, my kids actually first love to shock me with the tales of goings-on in their world, and then feel like they can dig a little deeper and think about how all of it makes them feel.  I have also discovered that talking about sex and sexuality in lots of different ways – commenting when we’re watching a TV show together or when I hear a story on NPR with them in the car, showing them a video like the ones in this post and watching for their reactions, or slipping this letter under someone’s bedroom door – gives us opportunities to continually explore and challenge the ideas we have about sex.

Elizabeth is right. Talking to our kids about sex is incredibly hard. Sometimes they get annoyed and don’t want to talk (or listen). Sometimes I’m not the best at explaining something or helping them understand where I’m coming from. Sometimes I’m not good at listening without judgment. But the most important thing I ever did for my girls was to let them know that I’m willing to keep trying. That they can come talk to me about hard things whenever they want to and that I will bring tough subjects up from time to time and ask them to indulge me. Because if we as parents don’t work to counter the basic themes about sex that our kids get from school and the mass media, nobody will.

Jon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town
The New England Prep School rape case
Peggy Orenstein’s latest book, Girls & Sex
Sex trafficking rates skyrocketing
The advertising phrase (and perhaps its most bedrock belief) “sex sells”

I could go on, but I think you’ll get the point. I’ve written here many times about rape culture and Sex Ed and I have very, very strong opinions, both as a sex assault survivor and as the mother of two daughters. But more than that, I am concerned for the way our entire culture treats the topic of sex because I think that from a very young age we are taught that sex is, first and foremost, a commodity, and secondly (sadly, a distant second for many, many people), an act of affection and/or love between individuals.

Long before most parents even consider broaching the subject of sex and sexuality with their children, they are bombarded by slick magazine ads, television shows, movies, and books that depict sex as a commodity, as something that we all ought to want and that we can buy our way into. There are many young people who are taught by older children or adults that their sexuality is something that can “buy” affection or special favors. Parents who prostitute their children are not only profiting financially, but they are teaching their children that sex has power and if you want money – or if you have it – you need only sell yourself. Many teenagers, both girls and boys, have a deep understanding of sexual favors – there are those who purchase social capital by giving blow jobs or hand jobs to others and those already in power who cement their status by receiving those favors.

Even if these kids do get “Sex Ed” in school, it is largely mechanical in scope, outlining anatomical features and talking about how pregnancy happens and how to avoid STDs. By the time they are adults, very few of them have an understanding of sex as something that is theirs to define – that they have every right to engage in it with an expectation of pleasure as opposed to some “reward.” Our American notion of “sex” is a very transactional one that is often one-sided. By the time we have the courage to really talk to our kids about sex (if we ever do), there is so much damage to undo that it feels overwhelming. And for children who learn early on, through abuse or sex trafficking, that sex is a tool, it is possible that their fundamental understanding of this act that is supposed to make their lives more whole has been forever damaged. How do you undo the notion that the person with more (power, control, money, status) has the right to obtain sex from the one with less when that is what you are shown in so many different ways over and over, nearly from the time you were born?

When girls are raised with the idea that their power lies in their ability to grant or withhold sex (the most egregious example of this I’ve heard of recently was Spike Lee’s latest movie Chi-Raq), it is damaging to their ability to see sex as something that is more intrinsically rewarding. When they are surrounded by images of women who are sexually provocative and who are praised for it (Kim Kardashian’s nude Instagram photos, anyone?), they are taught that sex is a tool, and that it ought to only look one way or it isn’t right.

When boys are raised with the notion that the more sex they have, the more masculine they are, it is equally damaging. Because, in our culture, they are born with more power at the outset, when they are presented with the idea that sex is a commodity, it isn’t much of a mental leap to imagine taking sex when they want it, simply because they can. When we set sex up to be about power, we can expect rape to follow along shortly. When business lunches are conducted in strip clubs and sex trafficking rates rise sharply during the Super Bowl, you can be sure that we have embraced sex as a commodity.

The question is, are we willing to live with the consequences of that or can we start talking to our young people about what else sex might be, instead?

Last Thursday, I gave myself permission to take a hot bath.
In the middle of the day. With piles of laundry yet to be washed, a dog that desperately
wanted a walk, and a dinner plan yet to be determined.  I ran a deep, hot bath, added a few
drops of lavender essential oil, lit a candle, and stepped in. 
The tub is set in the corner of the room with large windows
framing two sides, frosted below for privacy, and open to the sky on top.  Lying back, I could see a triangle of
roof with the downspout attached, a few bare tree branches, and grey sky.  We have enjoyed a lot of sunshine in
the last week and temperatures in the upper 50s, but today was grey with
spitting rain and that soft light that makes it impossible to tell what time of
day it is without consulting a clock. 
As I let my thoughts drift away a smile appeared on the
right side of my lips.  My nostrils
flared slightly and the left side of my mouth followed until I was positively
grinning.  For no reason. I hadn’t
just remembered something funny or sweet or thought about something exciting in
the near future.  I just
smiled. 
As I pondered this strange, unprompted grin, I recalled
something my nine-year-old said to me once. And I finally understood what she
meant. 
When she said it, we were leaving the hospital after having
just paid a visit to her favorite teacher.  Mrs. H had suffered a severe bout of pain and dizziness the
night before and was rushed to the ER and evaluated for a stroke.  She was disoriented and confused and,
at the time of our visit, still in some measure of discomfort.  And the doctors had no real answers.  Despite that, she was delighted to see
Lola and I walk in to her room and she immediately squeezed us both tightly and
began talking in her rushed, irreverent way.  The three of us were laughing within minutes and Lola
perched on the side of the hospital bed with Mrs. H’s arm draped over her.  We bounced from topic to topic, dipping
our toes in the waters of concern, but mostly skipping lightly around school,
pets, and things we were looking forward to.  When Mrs. H began to get tired, Lola and I left, promising
to check back later in the day.
As we walked down the hospital corridor, I began to feel a
bit melancholy.  I caught glimpses
of other patients, lying in bed asleep with mouths agape, struggling to get out
of bed, pushing IV poles down the hallway as they steadied themselves against a
nurse or a loved-one.  I thought
about Mrs. H and all she has meant to us and our family over the years and
found myself sending an urgent wish out to the Universe that she heal quickly
and completely.  I was lost in my
own thoughts until I felt Lola’s bouncing gait next to me and looked at her.
She was half-walking, half-skipping down the hall, bopping
her head from shoulder to shoulder and singing a little song under her
breath.  Her eyes twinkled with
mischief and she wore a huge grin.
“What are you so happy about, little one?” I asked, relieved.
I had originally resisted bringing her, worried that it might upset her to see
her beloved teacher sick or in pain.
Lola stopped mid-stride, cocked her head up at me in
confusion and let out a laugh.
“Mom. You don’t need any reason at all to be happy. You need
a reason to be sad or upset or angry, but you can be happy just because you’re
happy.” 
I laughed, too, thinking that it was such a “Lola” thing to
say. She truly believes it. She lives it.
It wasn’t until today in the bathtub that it sank in for
me.  As the smile crept across my
face, the first thought I had was, ‘what
are you smiling about?’
  The
answer that came to me first was, ‘Nothing.
And everything.

I don’t need a reason
to be happy.’

*This essay is one of several that originally appeared in BuddhaChick Life Magazine. As the magazine is no longer available, I am reposting it here so readers can find it. 
An active mind and time alone are not a good
combination for me.  Ironic, considering how much of my time I spend
alone, writing from home during the day (or not) and alone in the evenings as
often as not with my husband’s travel schedule.
I have known for a long time that going for
stretches without social interaction does something to me. It pushes me somehow
in ways that are uncomfortable.  And while I know that this discomfort is
a sign of something I need to examine more closely, my methods of examination
push me in to a darker place from time to time.  
I am very good at telling myself what I Should Be
Doing.  Years of being directed by my parents, a Marine Corps father and a
mother who was desperate to be in control of her own destiny, to go here and do this and prioritize that
taught me that inactivity was to be avoided.  It also taught me that
service to others and their priorities was of paramount importance.  So I
often find myself struggling to prioritize tasks in such a way that it becomes
eminently clear which things deserve doing first, second, and on down the line.
 Struggling because there is no way to do that. There is no universally
accepted rubric that says this book review is more important than that load of
laundry or taking the dog for a walk as he whines and follows me from room to
room.  
I tend to give precedence to those things that
serve others – laundry, cooking, shopping for household necessities,
straightening up – and push off others that seem more nebulous.  I have,
over the years, figured out that the dog only really needs to be
walked every other day (please don’t tell Cesar Milan), that if I make it to
yoga or the gym twice a week I am really doing well, and that I can crank out a
good book review in an hour.  
I know that the best thing I can do is banish
“Shoulds” from my vocabulary.  And I’ve come a long way in that
regard.  But I became aware today that I do it in so many other ways, I’m
not sure I’ve really come as far as I thought.  Every time I catch that
inner voice berating myself for wanting to do something more than
another thing that is probably more productive or helpful, I am
“shoulding” myself.  If I have the urge to lie down on the couch
and take a cozy nap with the cat instead of folding that load of laundry or
going to get Bubba’s contact lens solution, the nap is vetoed even before it
was fully realized as an option in my mind.  If, instead of reorganizing
that closet of Lola’s that disgorges random items every time you open the door,
I would rather sit down and read for an hour (who wouldn’t?), I hear this
sweet, condescending voice in my head that says, “You can read on your own
time, dear. That closet isn’t getting any cleaner while you sit there, and
you’ll feel guilty the whole time you’re on the couch, so you won’t focus on
the story, anyway.”  
I have even become so sophisticated at this
little game that the notion of spending an entire day rewriting a chapter of
the book I’m currently working on becomes physically repugnant.  Not
because I don’t want to write, but because I have so thoroughly convinced
myself that my writing serves nobody but myself (at least until I sell
something), that every word I type is a piece of laundry left unfolded or six
steps fewer with the dog this afternoon.  I have associated things that
give me joy with guilt and feelings of laziness in an effort to convince myself
to be more productive in the service of others.  
The truth is, I spend more time performing mental
calculations in an effort to decide how to structure my day than I do actually
performing the acts themselves.  It is as though I envision some stern
judge and jury I will face at the end of the day as I justify the things I
decided to spend time on.  And for what? There is no gold star that goes
on my permanent record.  There is no jail time for dishes left undone.
 From time to time there is an extremely hyper retriever in my face if I
neglected to walk him, and almost always there is remorse that I didn’t write more
(or at all) today.
So the question remains, what am I avoiding by
continuing to deny myself the freedom to choose things that please me each and
every day?  What would happen if, for some portion of every day I sat down
and did something that speaks to my soul? Something whose only purpose is to
make me happy?  As I write this and envision myself doing it, the
grounded, heavy feeling in my core is enough to convince me that I’ve been
looking at this the wrong way.  The simple act of imagining that I have
given myself permission to indulge my desires regardless of what anyone else
may think warms me from the inside out.  Calms me. Settles me.  

That is not to say that the notion of
implementing it doesn’t frighten me a bit.  It is counter to everything I
was taught and every example set for me by adults in my life.  But if I
close the door on that chatter and sit in the space and stillness of the other
imagining it feels possible.  

*This essay is one of several that originally appeared in BuddhaChick Life Magazine. As the magazine is no longer available, I have reposted it here so that readers can find it. 
I love yoga. Not only for the sweating, quiet
determination, sore muscles and peace I gain from it, but because it is where I
hear that strong, inner voice most clearly. Without fail, as soon as I let my
guard down and begin my physical practice, words come to my head. Simple words
that don’t necessarily strike me as being important at the time, but they
resonate for days afterward. Last week’s epiphany was no exception. It didn’t
knock me over with a shout inside my head or jolt me into instant clarity. It
fell like a raindrop in a deep pool. It was quiet, melted into my brain without
a trace, and rippled. And rippled. And rippled.
What would this look like if it didn’t come from
a place of fear?
Throughout the week I continued to examine that
thought. Throughout the week I found myself amazed at how often my reactions
originate in fear and how fear is responsible for outlining the space in which
I act. When I recognize the source for what it is and consciously move from
fear to acceptance or love, everything changes. I can feel a shift in my body
as I relax into groundedness and space. My mind becomes open and possibilities
expand forward. The walls around begin to dissolve.
When I operate from a place of fear, my options
are restricted and I begin to make connections that aren’t necessarily related.
If this happens, next comes this and then it swells into that and…Oh, No!
Spiraling anxiety as the fear feeds on the tightly coiled energy inside my body
and brain and I’m locked inside with it.
When my responses originate from love or
acceptance or groundedness there are no boundaries. In fact, once I make that
subtle course change, I no longer feel the need to drive any agenda. Whereas
with fear, I’m compelled to either stick to the course my anxiety has laid out
or fight to alter it in some way, when I let go of fear, I am more likely to
sit back and see where things go next. I don’t need to act within any
particular moment to make something happen or prevent it from happening. I am
able to temper my responses and, very often, the next step reveals itself or
negates any action on my part at all.
In the last several days I have been able to
watch myself and come to realize just how often angry or frustrated or anxious
feelings arise from my fears. When Eve and Lola begin bickering, it is my fear
that leads me to snap at them to “knock it off!” When I send out yet
another email to a prospective agent or publisher, it is fear that drives me to
downplay my own writing abilities or the importance of this book project to me.
When I get annoyed at being interrupted while I’m mentally planning my day, it
is because I am afraid that I’ll lose the thread of thought and somehow
“fail” to do all of the things I’ve convinced myself I ought to do in
order to be the best mother/writer/wife/friend.

When I sit back and ask myself the question,
“What would this look like if it weren’t coming from a place of
fear?” I am astonished at the possibilities. What if I trust my own
abilities as a mother/writer/wife/friend and simply act out of love and the
understanding that I have enough. I am good enough. There is an abundance of
love/compassion/intelligence/patience/money/whatever I need. When I source my
feelings and thoughts and actions from that well, life looks pretty damned
amazing.

*This essay is one of several that originally appeared in BuddhaChick Life Magazine. As the magazine is no longer available, I have reposted it here so that readers can find it.