I arrived at yoga 15 minutes before class was scheduled to begin and set
up my mat in the front row.  I
wasn’t sure how many people would arrive for class and, while I don’t
necessarily like being in the front, I know the instructor and she would tease
me if she came in and saw that I intentionally chose to be further back. 
            The
room was warm and there was one other woman at the far end of the front
row.  I settled in, cross-legged,
to close my eyes and clear my mind. 
I didn’t expect it to be an easy job. We were just coming off of a long
Thanksgiving weekend and I felt catapulted in to the holiday season.  With only six days to go before my
daughter’s birthday, I had yet to purchase her gift.  Once her special day was over, I anticipated a mad dash of
shopping, decorating, cooking and traveling until January 2nd.  In the meantime, we were looking
forward to a move in the late Spring which meant fixing up our house to put it
on the market.  Add to that all of
the “normal” things on my weekly schedule and my mind resembled a plasma static
electricity ball when I closed my eyes. 
You know, the ones that make your hair stand on end when you put your
palms to the glass? 
            I
sat for a minute, warring with myself about whether or not I ought to even be
attempting this. Maybe the best thing to do would be to get up and go get some
of the things crossed off of my list instead of indulging in a 90-minute yoga
class.  No, I would look silly
walking out now and the instructor would surely catch me leaving.  Perhaps I should sit and address some
of the items in my head right now – devise the menu for my daughter’s birthday
party or make a mental list of which things I can likely get done today.  I felt my anxiety level ratchet up a
notch.   What I needed to do
was to sit with my anxiety. Just experience without judgment.  Acknowledge my discomfort and not try
to solve anything.
            The
teacher entered the room and welcomed us all.  I steeled myself for the beginning of class, knowing that
once I started it was like strapping in to an amusement park ride – I was here
for the duration. Especially in the front row.  She asked us to close our eyes and do our best to stay
within the confines of our mats. No, stay
here
, yelled my mind. This is what is
really real. These things need to be done. This is real life.
            “That
means not looking at your neighbor’s practice or thinking about what is for
lunch. Just truly arrive on your own mat and be here. Simply here,” Mary gently
reminded us. 
            At
that moment I realized that being here in this moment, anxieties and all, was
what was truly Real. Those expectations either existed in the past or the
future, which really means not at all. 
The only place to be was here, on my mat, in my body and my mind.  I know that yoga and meditation offer
me peace and solace as well as strength and a sense of achievement.  Despite that, I often trick myself into
thinking that activity and busyness are more valuable. More “real.”  Because I can get instant gratification
when I cross something off of my list, it feels like an accomplishment. The
benefits I get from stopping, slowing down, and being deliberate and planful
about my actions and thoughts are much less tangible.  But if I think about it, I can always add more tasks to my
list. That conveyor belt is never-ending. 
The act of coming back to myself, grounding my actions and thoughts in
this moment right now, wherever I am, feels solid and constant. It may not be
“progress” in that sense, but without a stable base from which to act, that
conveyor belt will drop into the abyss.
            As
always, by the time Mary had led the class through our second set of sun
salutations, my mind and body were firmly on my mat.  Halfway through class, I realized the static electricity had
completely dissipated and the realization that now is enough carried me through
the rest of the 90 minutes. 

            Whether
or not I actually cross everything off of my to-do list doesn’t seem to matter
anymore. For now, I am reminded that Now is Reality and everything else will
follow. 

*This is one of several essays that originally appeared in BuddhaChick Life Magazine. As the magazine is no longer available, I’ve reposted them here so that readers can find them. 
“What do you do?” 
Such a standard question, whether we meet someone on an airplane or find
ourselves at a child’s Back-to-School Night or at a dinner party for our
partner.  Such a simple question
and so loaded. 
“I’m a writer and a mother of two.” That is my standard
answer, but it feels so inadequate. 
I am a product of my upbringing, a survivor of sexual abuse, a child of
divorce.  For years I looked
forward to becoming an adult so that I could free myself from my parents and
become less defined by them and their hold on me.  I looked forward to exploring the world and looking at
things in a new light and making decisions that would shape my future.  I wanted to fully blossom into the
person I was meant to be.
What I neglected to realize was that all of the ingrained
identity stories would come with me, packed snugly in whatever vessel I chose
to carry as I made my way in the world. 
Any decision I made hearkened back to the lessons I had learned, the
overarching messages I had heard over and over again, and the things I told
myself in an effort to make sense of the way my life was as a child.  No matter how “free” I thought I was,
making decisions I knew my parents would disapprove of or choosing things because
they were so vastly different from the choices they would have made, the fact
is that I was still shaped by my experiences with them.
Never did this realization hit me harder than the day I
found out I was going to have a baby. 
I was going to be a mother. And I vowed to make good, healthy choices. I
vowed to make decisions with more self-awareness than my parents had.  I vowed to be different.  And still, those notions of who I was
and wanted to be stemmed from the stories I told myself about where I came
from.
Several years ago, I bumped up against these stories in a
hard way.  For most of my life,
they had been the levees on either side of my life path. Always present,
bounding my idea of who I was and leading me in a certain direction.  I moved forward, unquestioning,
frustrated by the limitations, but never truly understanding that these
boundaries were of my own making.
Today, as I meditated, a voice came to me that reminded me
of my own evolution. And I began to count the years that I have been things
other than what I grew up with. 
Eighteen years married to a loving, supportive man. Twelve years as the
mother of an energetic, open-hearted daughter.  Thirty years a writer. 
Three years a yoga practitioner. 
And for most of this time, I have been padding the scales on the other
side.  Thirty-two years a survivor
of sexual abuse. Thirty years a child of divorce.  Yes.  But those
things are no more indicative of who I am than the things toward which I am moving
and striving.  And their hold is
beginning to expire. The statute of limitations is running out.
I have heard that for every traumatic or negative thing that
happens to us as humans, it takes five positive experiences to counteract it.
Evolutionarily, that was important so that we would remember the harmful,
frightening things and not repeat them or put ourselves in danger.  When I think about it that way, I
realize that I have had so many more positive moments in my life that I chose
to live out within the boundaries of the “Who I Am” levee than it took to
actually construct those walls in the first place.  I am allowed to evolve. I am allowed to grow and add to the
list of “who I am.” I am allowed to strive for more and let those unhappy
definitions fall to the bottom where they belong.  There is no forgetting or negating the impact they had on
the person I am becoming, but there is also no reason to let them limit who I
can become.  Or who I am
today. 

Lao Tzu said, “When I let go of who I am, I become what I
might be.”  In giving myself
permission to expand the definition of who I am, I can begin to move past the
things that I have limited myself to for so many years.  When the levee walls fall away, the
possibilities are endless.
*This is one of several essays that appeared in the magazine BuddhaChick Life. As the magazine is no longer available, I’ve posted these here for readers to find.

I am someone who used to be prone to depression. I say “used to be” because it has been a long time since I really felt that deep, penetrating sense of darkness, and I’d like to think I’m cured. If that’s even a thing.

After coming out of the last dark hole without the help of pharmaceuticals, I was simultaneously thrilled that it was possible (for me) and waiting for the slapdown because I had gotten too cocky. Too big for my britches. Thought I was above it all. As if depression were some spiteful older relative who was setting me up to watch me fall, laughing in the corner as I celebrated because he knew he had the power to pull the rug out from under me.

I remember being afraid to even hear the word “depression” for fear that that combination of letters could trigger another episode. I couldn’t read about someone else’s struggle with it, nor could I watch a television show or movie that featured any characters who were depressed. It seemed contagious, like my emergence from the darkness was the result of the fact that I had simply forgotten it was part of me – a limb I was ignoring but would soon rediscover and have to deal with. Seeing someone else with the same thing would inevitably draw my attention to it and dump me right back into that deep hole.

But it turns out that depression doesn’t work that way. And on some level, I always knew that, but when you are still feeling tender from the last blow, it isn’t much of a stretch to believe that the next one is right around the corner. And so I cowered. But eventually I came out of my hiding place and started to think that maybe this time I could be ok for a while. Or longer.

And it’s been a long time. And I’m grateful.

But this week I discovered Furiously Happy, a book about depression and what it means to fully embrace the craziest, most wildly happy things in life. And I am remembering that, while gratitude is great, it is somewhere near the middle of the rise (and fall) of the roller coaster, but happiness like Lawson writes about, that is at the top, with the amazing views and the stomach-dropping adrenaline and the involuntary grin that spreads so wide you think your face will split like an overripe watermelon. And while it is probably way overused, that phrase “feel all the feels” comes to mind, with the emphasis on the ALL part.

Sometimes, when I am acutely aware of my status as a responsible adult, I hold back from laughing out loud when I see something ridiculous. I put all my energy into anticipating who will be hungry when and do we have healthy snacks in the house. I pay attention to the road and the pedestrians because I have a new driver in the car who is watching me (or not, it’s sometimes hard to tell). I look for the lessons – and, believe me, during this crazy election cycle there are plenty of lessons. Sometimes I forget that adulting and irreverence are not mutually exclusive.

Last week I was really sick. That kind of sick where you really can’t make yourself get up off of the couch and every time you try you fall over again. I mostly slept for two days. But then, even when I wasn’t tired anymore, I discovered that I couldn’t just bounce back, that emptying the dishwasher was enough to physically exhaust me and I had to go sit on the couch. The problem with this is that I normally don’t sit around much. Unless I am reading a really great book, I can’t sit still for very long and I certainly can’t watch more than one TV show at a time without getting up to do something else. So being forced to sit around was painfully boring and I started getting a little weird.  At one point I found myself looking at all of the emojis on my phone and texted them to Lola.

Because who uses a circular saw blade emoji*? Or maybe it is supposed to be a free-floating gear? In any case, who created that and why? And what about the bamboo one with the little star-like thing and the red flag/leaf coming off of it? What the hell is that supposed to symbolize? I spent a long time looking at all of the stock emojis available, imagining what prompted their creation, and bugging Lola who was busy in her room doing homework. She was amused for a while, but quickly ran out of patience with me. I think her final text went something like: Oh, God, Mom! You need to find something to do.


The point of this was that it was useless and fun and goofy and that’s something I haven’t been in a while (well, I hope I’m never useless). And it rocked. And it reminded me that I can crack that door of irreverence open whenever I want to – not just when I’m deliriously sick – and that it is restorative. And since then, I smile whenever I think of something funny, even when I’m the only one around. Like this morning when I drove by a guy walking his pug (who, incidentally, looked exactly like the human version of his own dog) who thought he was alone and mimicked his dog’s whole-body-shake-the-pouring-rain-off-of-me maneuver and stuck his tongue out at him. I laughed out loud. Or when I heard a song in my head as I stepped out of the shower and instead of trying to banish it or ignore it, I decided to dance to it. By myself. In the bathroom. And that dance move was the first one I’ve done in a while.

My poor kids. I think I’m going to start being weird a little more often. It’s pretty fun.

*I just looked up that emoji on my phone because I was going to post a picture of it here and I think it’s supposed to be a gear, but in my defense, that is still a fairly obscure thing to have on one’s phone. There is also a table clamp one which is beyond ridiculous because, really? And, as someone who doesn’t often use emojis because, well, I’m 44 years old, both of them are now in my “frequently used” emojis that pop up whenever I text someone. So I’m going to start using them both to see if I can confuse people and make them wonder what the hell I mean by that. Because that’s fun, right?

I know from fear.

I grew up an anxious, perfectionistic little kid, afraid of new things and new people and situations I couldn’t control.

I spent the first years of my parenting life terrified that I was doing everything wrong, that my children would get terribly sick or my husband would leave us.

I know from fear. And my life began to turn around the day I decided I would no longer be ruled by it. It wasn’t a sudden thing, just a gradual dawning that I had a choice to make, and once I recognized that I had been choosing scarcity and fear for most of my life (all the while wondering why happiness and contentment weren’t showing up at the door), it was pretty profound.

I have been watching with amusement the growing concern over the Zika virus “outbreak” and, until yesterday, was mildly confused. Yesterday, NPR broke a story about the World Health Organization saying that this virus had “explosive, pandemic potential” and it was all over my Facebook page. Really? This virus that most people never even know they have because it causes mild cold-like symptoms is all of a sudden something we are cautioned to freak out about? Yes, I understand that it has major implications for women who are pregnant, although as of yet, there is no causative connection that has been established. And I get that, in many countries where there are no options to control whether or not you get pregnant, this is a conundrum.  Wow. Nothing like stirring up fear of something that is likely to not really cause any problems for the vast majority of us.

This morning, NPR had one of their correspondents in Iowa interview Republican voters regarding last night’s GOP debate and I was struck again by how the front-runners have stoked the fears of people in order to gain votes. Over and over again, I heard people talk about terrorism, ISIS, and the fear that, if a Democrat were elected to the presidency, their guns would be taken away and they would be left altogether defenseless against “meth addicts in my front yard with guns.” Huh? In Iowa? Is there some sort of terrorist cell network in Iowa that I don’t know about? Are there lots of armed, methamphetamine-addicted folks running around at night burglarizing towns in Iowa?

A little later, on the Tavis Smiley show, there was a political analyst who was talking about the odd phenomenon that is Donald Trump and when Tavis asked him about the “best way to fight Trump,” his answer was, “I’m curious why you’re focusing on fighting Trump and not supporting Hillary.”

Yes. Not that I’m a Hillary supporter. To be honest, I am pretty firmly in Sanders camp, but that’s not something that we need to discuss here.


I was reminded of the knowledge that what we fight against grows in power, if only because we are giving it our energy. The key is to direct our energy toward the thing we desire, not against the thing we are afraid of. That is not to say that there aren’t things to fear in life, but if we take a step back and really think about it, what are the odds that any one of us in this country is likely to be touched by terrorism, contract the Zika virus, or be shot by a meth-addicted robber? We are more likely to suffer slowly from income inequality, domestic violence, and pollution. And in the meantime, when we let our daily activities and choices be dictated by fear of things we won’t likely ever encounter, we are wasting our energy. When we make the choice to rail against the things we are afraid of (most of which will never come to pass, and even if they did, we have almost no control over them, anyway) instead of creating space for the things we do want to see in our lives, everyone is hurt.

The main difference I see between focusing on hope and focusing on fear is that one of them is actually more frightening than the other one. When we focus on what we’re afraid of and put our eggs in the Trump/Cruz/Rubio basket, we are actually less afraid because we think we’re following people who can control or prevent what we’re scared of. When we focus on hope, we are putting ourselves out there in a way that is vulnerable, with the knowledge that it will take some effort on our part to make it happen, and that responsibility is often much more frightening than sitting back and letting someone else do it. But ultimately, that is what this country was built on – groups of people who were committed to working for a better collective future for us all, and that is where I will continue to put my energy. Here’s hoping there are lots more people out there that feel the same way.  Fear is a strong motivator, but it doesn’t ultimately get a damn thing done that is good for all of us.

It is really tempting to go back to “engineering smallness.” There is a voice on my shoulder that says that nobody would blame me for giving up, moving on, throwing my hands in the air and telling the world that I tried with a wry shrug. That voice says that it is all just too hard to figure out, that the reward isn’t guaranteed, and it might not turn out to be worth the work. In the rubric of our current culture, I need to cut my losses, stop the bleeding, and get moving.

Deep within, somewhere, is the longing to write, to get back to creating, to find the spark that sets the words free and lets them tumble out of me with abandon. It is a yearning for balance, a call to feed my own desires and tell the stories that are trapped inside of me. The voice on my shoulder calls that out as indulgent, selfish, more useless blather that won’t be realized, just like the other two projects I’ve started and nearly finished.

What is it about the path that I’ve chosen that leads me to this place again and again? The quiet, self-propelled churning that makes something I want to share with the world and eventually brings me to a gate that must be opened by someone else. The book I write that never finds a publisher or agent. The work I do that must be taught by someone else. I know that there is some larger lesson here, that I can’t keep piling up what I’ve worked on and believed in for so long without some outlet, some way to get it out into the world.

But maybe that’s the lesson. That it is out there and that has to be enough. Even if it is out there in a small way, for only a handful of people to see, that is enough. Maybe it’s my ego that tells me that I have to get paid for this work in order for it to be valuable. Maybe it’s my ego that says that I have to have sold X number of copies for it to be successful. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the simple act of creating it is enough. Maybe having had the time to do it in the way I did it was the point.

There is this tension between creating and making a difference. I write because I have to, because it is who I am, because I can’t NOT write. Not to make a difference in the world. But I have had a small taste of making a difference and it is intoxicating. I have heard those who say my words have touched them, and somewhere along the way I got the idea that that was my purpose, that I am meant to do this work in order to make a difference in the world. I have even gone so far as to believe that if I can’t live out my purpose, my work is no good, it is meaningless, as is the time I took to do it. Sometimes it is hard to discern between desire and expectation. It is so hard to un-knot the act of creation from the product itself, from the question of what it will do or can do or should do.

And so I spend time soliciting people’s attention and interest – looking for those who are interested in what I’ve created, and in the beginning it is wonderful. I like to talk about my passion, to share it with others, to connect with people who are passionate about the same things. But at some point when I become tied up in what the outcome will look like, I begin to feel defeated. When my fate rests on whether or not someone else likes my work enough to buy it and I get caught up in the minutia of how best to package it and whether I can replicate it or if it is good enough, I have lost my center. I wonder if I will ever find the sweet spot, or if there even is one.

I woke up this morning with a resolve to let go for a while, to let things un-knot themselves, to leave it up to the Universe and I’m trying. It’s surprisingly hard work to “let go.” It requires me to float in a state of limbo, to constantly redirect my thoughts away from imagining what could be and organizing toward that. It means that my usually long to-do list gets tucked away out of sight and I have to find other ways to occupy myself and be alone with my thoughts.  I have no doubt that it will all become clear at some point – it always has before. I know that just because I’m uncertain and a little bit scared, it doesn’t mean that I will always feel this way. I trust that I will look back on this one day and shake my head and be grateful that it passed.  And I suspect that I will find myself here again in the future. Frankly, it is that which has me the most agitated – the notion that if I don’t learn whatever lesson I’m supposed to be learning this time, I’m destined to do this again (and, if you hadn’t gotten the message, it’s not a comfortable place to be, so I don’t relish the prospect of being here again). But if I’ve learned anything from life, it is that things only get harder when I fight them. And, if I’m determined to live my values and practice courage, I won’t go back to being safe and engineering smallness, I will just sit quietly and wait and hold on to who I know I am at my core.

I am taking an online class taught by Brene Brown for the next two months, and if you’re a faithful reader of this blog, you know already that she is one of my sheroes. I love her no-nonsense style of talking that cuts right to the meat of any issue, and I find her endlessly quotable.  

So prepare yourself, because I predict many blog posts will come from this experience as I have epiphanies big and small, thanks to her words.
This week’s lesson was based on the first chapter of her book, Daring Greatly and it delved into the topic of courage. One of the things that she said struck me like a hammer to the thumb, reverberating into my consciousness and making me really think.  She told us that, for much of her life, she consciously “engineered smallness” into everything she did. While she may have had big dreams, she purposely did things in small, safe ways that would mitigate her level of risk because she didn’t want to get hurt or look like a fool or fall flat on her face.  
It takes a lot of courage to step out of that mindset, and some people never do. I think it’s akin to flying under the radar. You’re still technically flying, but you are really looking to not get noticed because you don’t want to get shot down. But the irony there is that you end up becoming resentful and unfulfilled.  I know, because I’ve done it that way for decades.
I, too, have engineered smallness into my life, dreaming large and taking baby steps, all within my comfort zone. Wishing that my work and my passion might “get discovered” one day, but without putting it out there for the world to see, what are the odds of that? It isn’t often that I send my writing to big outlets because I am both worried that I will be ignored or rejected, but also because, if they do publish it, how will I feel when the trolls come out and say horrible, horrible things about me (because they will)? 
It sounds trite, but all of those old adages are true:
Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
No pain, no gain.
If you don’t take the leap, you’ll never know whether you can fly.

I was happy for a while, living a safe life. Until I wasn’t. There was a time when safety was more important to me than courage, but I’ve changed. And while I am under no illusion that courage won’t be painful from time to time, I am willing to suffer the blows that come with living my values, if only so that I can say I did. It doesn’t make me feel very good about myself to live a life that doesn’t align with my values, and even if I get hurt or laughed at, I’d rather say I tried. 
It occurred to me this morning that the people I most revere are people who live with courage and demonstrate it in important ways.  The people who engineer smallness, who live in fear and advocate shrinking down, who shy away from the real work because it’s hard – those are not people I am interested in. It is the people who acknowledge that there are scary, challenging things out there and still forge ahead who have my respect. Those who choose the easy fights (ahem, every GOP presidential candidate) and criticize without ever really putting on the armor and risking something important? I’m not a fan. I’d rather align myself with folks who dig deeply, who feel strongly, who rise to the level of courage and risk personal disaster.  May I be one of them. Here’s to engineering greatness in my own life. 

The gifts just keep coming. I have read every book by Brene Brown at least once and I’ve compiled pages and pages of handwritten notes, written down quotes, and had some of the most fascinating conversations thanks to her work. Her TED talks inspire me endlessly and often, when I go back and re-read parts of her books, I discover things I hadn’t noticed before.  She is definitely on the short list of women whose work impact my life every day, who have changed how I parent and learn and make my way through the world. (It’s a pretty awesome list, including the likes of Gloria Steinem and Maya Angelou).

My most recent revelation thanks to her latest book, Rising Strong, comes as a result of digging a little deeper into the layers of my life. In one part of the book she writes about people who identify themselves as ‘helpers,’ and notes that the trap of using that label to build yourself up is that it becomes hard to be the one who asks for help. I underlined that passage and made notes on a separate piece of paper because that message resonated so deeply with me. For most of my life, I found control and self-worth because I was able to help other people, lift them up and provide emotional and logistical support. Well, to be honest, I didn’t often provide emotional support until I was a lot older. “Fixing” things was a great way for me to feel as though I was being useful and helpful and it kept me from having to feel the pain of others, to truly empathize.

I was in my thirties before I learned about the concept of holding space for others. It took a lot of practice and a willingness to sit with discomfort for me to not immediately leap to problem-solving and balm-offering when I saw loved ones suffering. I am still practicing acknowledging and sitting with a stranger’s pain without rising to the challenge of making things better in some physical, tangible way. Dr. Brown is absolutely right when she says that tying my own self-worth to the fact that I’m a helper means that if I need help, my self-worth takes a big hit.

I will admit, however, to some amount of patting myself on the back when I absorbed that portion of the book. About ten years ago I slammed up against a wall of depression that stopped me in my tracks and if I was going to be able to move forward, literally continue to exist on the face of the planet, I had to start asking for help. It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t easy, but I was lucky to have some pretty tremendous people in my life who were willing to support me. I swallowed my pride shame (I think they might be the same thing, or at least two sides of the same coin) and accepted childcare, meals, help around the house. I learned to get better at saying no to helping others in every single situation where I was asked to help and, over time, I began to warm to the idea that I was not an island. So when I read her words about letting yourself be vulnerable enough to ask for help and accept it, I nodded my head and congratulated myself on having learned to do that.

I should have known better. (Remember the pride/shame thing?)

The universe has a way of smacking me upside the head when I’m feeling a little too smug.

Literally one day after I scratched my notes on yellow lined paper, I was tested. I was feeling good, preparing to get away with Bubba for a long weekend of fun, and I got a phone call that rocked me, that threw me right back into the space I had spent so many years cultivating. I was needed. My problem-solving skills, my particular calm-in-a-crisis, my physical presence was requested, nee, necessary. I spent several hours on the phone working out logistics, asking other people for help and trying to design an airtight plan so that I could keep my plans with Bubba. And while this is my space, my forte, my wheelhouse, I couldn’t help but lose it once everything was in place and things were going to be okay.

What is this about? I wondered. I had averted disaster, well, helped to avert it. Well, asked for help to avert it. Wasn’t this what I was feeling good about yesterday? My ability to ask for help so that I don’t shoulder the burden alone? That’s the goal, right? I had done it. Why was I feeling so awful?

Most of my personal revelations come about when I walk the dog. This one was no exception. It hit me so hard I’m surprised I didn’t fall over. I am pretty sure I made some sort of whimpering noise when it hit me, but I did manage to stay on my feet and I don’t think the dog even noticed.

I have gotten good at asking for logistical help. That much is true.
What I haven’t yet learned how to do is to ask for or accept help holding my pain. I have no idea how to open up and let my pain out into the world so that I don’t have to keep it all myself. I am good at writing about it (distance, anyone?) and sharing my story, but if I am in the room with someone and I am really hurting, I don’t know how to accept empathy without feeling shame.

More work to do.

I have a gratitude practice. Sort of. It used to be a lot more robust, when it was a matter of life or death (I mean that honestly, by the way; there was a point in time when digging deep and listing off a few, measly things for which I was grateful kept me tethered to the planet when nothing else would). But now that I don’t “need” it, it doesn’t happen every day.

It is definitely one of the top things in my toolbox, though. One of the first that is pulled out when I’m feeling cranky or overwhelmed or just plain sad. And I know it’s been a while when the first few things I run though mentally as things to be grateful for start with, “at least I’m not….” If I am comparing my life to someone else’s, as in, “at least I’m not part of this oppressed group or that oppressed group” or thinking about all the ways my current situation could be worse, such as, “neither of my kids is suffering from some horrible illness and I’m not homeless,” I’m not really being grateful. Even though those are things to be happy about, the fact that I am conjuring up ways that my life could run off the rails taints the whole process. Instead of helping me to feel calm and centered, it is a simple reminder that at some point, one or more of those things could potentially happen and for now, I’m just dodging a bullet.

If I am also making a mental note of the number of “good” things in my life as they compare to the number of “bad” ones, that is not gratitude. It is not helpful to weigh them against each other, ticking off one thing for which I am grateful in response to each thing that drags me down. They are not figures on a balance sheet. They both exist simultaneously in my life and in my mind, but gratitude is about the ones I choose to pay attention to, where I decide to place my focus in any given moment. It doesn’t make the other things disappear, it simply allows me to notice that there are positive things in my life.

When the girls were little and I quit my job to stay at home with them full time, I quickly learned that the only way to gauge my level of tangible activity during the day was to note the absence of certain things. If the laundry was folded and put away, the dishes were washed and put away, the floors were devoid of dirt and debris, I had been productive. This was completely opposed to any system of determining productivity I had ever been a part of in my work life – there you were rewarded based on the things you created and they were present. It was incredibly frustrating to me to realize that outsiders would come into my house and only notice if I hadn’t done something – if there were piles of laundry and dirty dishes and hungry children. For me, gratitude is like that. For most of my day, I go about things only noticing the items that need to be ‘fixed’ or that don’t meet my expectations. This is not always a negative thing – often I am happy to know that there is something I can do to make things better. But unless I take the time to really engage in a gratitude practice, I rarely note the things that are just absolutely right in my world all around me.

I am loathe to imply that gratitude is a complicated thing, because when I’m in the zone, it really isn’t. When I am feeling it, when I am really tuned in to the goodness and abundance in my life, it is simple and pure and I am hard pressed to stop finding things for which I am grateful. In fact, for me, the key to actual gratitude is to simplify things.  When I am frustrated and irritable, the best thing for me to do is to stop and look around. I see my computer and I am grateful for the ability to write and to connect with people who are important to me online. I catch sight of a glass of water on the counter and am grateful for clean water and a cupboard full of dishes. I note my sunglasses on the table next to me and close my eyes and thank goodness that I can so often feel the warm sun on my back. There is no context, no attempt to think beyond any of these things, just simple gratitude, and when I can find that place in my day, I suddenly feel as though there is more air in the room.

I have been thinking a lot about expectations lately and how often we see them as concrete scenarios that drive our actions and emotions.

It started with watching my girls this summer, observing times when they would hatch plans with friends over text, going so far as to figure out movie times and counting their cash on hand and solidify the details only to be foiled by me when I reminded them that I’m not available to drive or they were already obligated to a babysitting job or day of camp. Oh, the disappointment and frustration that ensued! Often, I was the target of anger for simply pointing out that they hadn’t thought through the whole thing or asked the right people for input.

Then last week, Bernie Sanders came to Seattle for a few events and I watched the rage unfold on social media as he was preempted by two activists addressing the crowd about the Black Lives Matter  movement. Despite your personal feelings about the tactics or the movement or Sanders’ presidential bid, I am curious about how much of the anger and frustration was as a result of the expectation of the crowd that they would hear Sanders speak. I suspect that, had the two women been on the program, people would have received them warmly and openly, but since they had stood outside in the hot (for Seattle) sun waiting for hours to hear Sanders and then were disappointed, many of them reacted poorly to the fact that he left without speaking more than to the message of the activists.

I think that, generally, there are three kinds of expectations we have, positive, neutral, and negative.  Positive expectations represent our hopes – calculating the hours on our paycheck in order to know whether we’ll have the money to purchase the thing we really want, killing it on a job interview, giving birth to a healthy baby. They can be big or small, but these are the ones that really slay us when they don’t come true. Negative expectations represent our fears, and instead of disappointing us when they don’t come true, I think they often keep us from taking the kind of leaps that will help us grow or push boundaries that maybe need to be pushed. On more than one occasion, I have had to talk myself into approaching someone and asking for something that I think I deserve because my expectation is that I will be laughed at or turned down simply because I am not male.

Neutral expectations are those that are typically placed on us from the outside, either our family or friend groups or culture and, often, they aren’t expressed specifically but we internalize them all the same. It can be a strong feeling that our parents expect us to do well in school and get into college, that as young women or men (because of our gender identity) we will act and speak and dress a certain way, but it can also be our way of placing expectations on other people – that because someone looks a certain way, they will act in accordance with our expectations.

As I was puzzling through this train of thought, I saw this headline:
JURY SELECTED IN NEW HAMPSHIRE PREP SCHOOL RAPE TRIAL
When I clicked through and read the very short article, I experienced such a toxic stew of feelings – sadness, anger, disappointment, fear – and I wondered about the accused and whether the culture in which boys about to graduate attempt to ‘score’ with younger female students” (specifically, that they ‘take the virginity of a freshman girl,’ sets up an expectation that this behavior is normal – even desirable. In no way does this excuse or justify his behavior (this aspiring DIVINITY student), but could it be one more example of ways in which we human beings trick ourselves into believing that expectations almost always equal reality? That they somehow ought to come to fruition or that there is nothing we can do about it? 


It is terrifically hard to walk through a day without having any sort of expectations. But I wonder what would happen if I practiced noticing them and challenging them a little? What if, the next time I assume something positive is going to happen, I take a minute and acknowledge that things could go horribly awry and pledge to be flexible if they do? Or what if the next time there is a negative expectation, I ask myself where that comes from and what might happen if I dismantle that notion? I’m getting to the place where I think that all of those external expectations ought to be challenged and dissected so that I can decide whether they limit me or raise me up. 

First of all, I think that the way we generally talk about the entire concept of “work-life balance” misses the mark. All too often, I hear it spoken of as though it is a fixed point, something to achieve and then rest in. As I creep ever-closer to middle age, I am cognizant of the fact that assessing the time and energy I put forward into different areas of my life is an ongoing process. Before I was married, there were certain goals and values that drove how I spent my time. After marriage, they shifted. When Bubba and I bought our first house, they shifted again. Having kids threw a huge wrench into how I saw the minutes of every day, and now that they are older and more independent, I am re-evaluating again. There is no such thing as a fixed target to shoot for.

When I left my paying job to stay at home with my kids, there was this assumption that I had no “work,” and to be completely honest, I bought into that idea for way too long. The fact is, because of my inability to compartmentalize the different aspects of my life, what really happened was that my work became my life. That is, everything mothering and household-running was so important and so pressing that I did it 99% of the time, but because I didn’t consider it my job, I didn’t fully acknowledge that I had ceased doing so many of the things I enjoyed doing before that I considered my “life.” I had allowed everything to bleed together and become one which meant that I had very little that was just mine.  Because very few others recognized what I was spending the majority of my time doing as “work,” it was hard to justify my frustrations with this dynamic, which made me all the more unhappy.

Prior to having children, I had lots of ideas about the kind of work I wanted to do, things I might find meaningful and worth spending 40+ hours a week doing. I wanted to enjoy my work, but I also wanted to be able to fully enjoy those other parts of my life like working in the yard and hiking with Bubba and having dinner with friends. As soon as I quit to stay home and the hours of “work” were not  clearly delineated, the shift was monumental. When I was at my office, I couldn’t empty the dishwasher or fold a load of laundry or fix the bathroom toilet because I wasn’t physically at home to do it. Now, suddenly, at home, it felt as though I were cheating if I chose to sit on the couch and read instead of doing any of those things because my home and my children had become my work and it was staring me in the face all the time.

Over the past fifteen years, my level of freedom from parenting and household work has ebbed and flowed, and I have had the opportunity to make choices over and over again about what other kind of meaningful work I can do – paid or not. I have obviously chosen writing as one of those things, but I have also found volunteer positions with organizations I want to support. I have come to understand that the most important question I can ask when I consider doing any kind of work is not “do I have time for this?” but “how will this feed me?” If I choose to spend my time engaged in activities that align with my passions and interests, even if they are intense and challenging, I know from experience that I will ultimately end up feeling energized and sated. There will be times when that work means I won’t cook dinner from scratch for the family or the dog won’t get his customary three to four walks a day or the laundry will pile up, and that’s okay. The freedom to schedule my own time, to float between different types of work is something for which I am immensely grateful. Being the primary parent to my kids means that my work is often a reaction to something else – hunger, dirt, transportation needs – and it is generally satisfying, if only until the next meal or pile of laundry or basketball game. Having the ability to engage in other work that is proactive and creative is something that feeds me in a different way, and that is just as important. My work and my life are very closely intertwined and it is often hard to see where one leaves off and the other begins, but I’m not sure that it is important to discern those boundaries.  Knowing that there are some tasks I will engage in that I really don’t enjoy is okay as long as they are part of the bigger picture and the larger goals I have. For me, the trick is to make sure that I am mindful of the tasks that ignite a fire in my belly and I find a way to do them with regularity. Often, emptying the dishwasher again can feel like a slog, but if I’m doing it because I know I will be able to sit down and write or read or go to a meeting without wishing I’d done it, I have more mental freedom to fully engage with what I’m doing.

The typical way that we talk about work-life balance sets up a dynamic where the two are pitted against each other in some surreal tug-of-war where one necessarily ends up losing and the other winning, at least for a while. But the fact is, if we are actively choosing to spend time not working for pay (at least not full-time) and staying home with our children, the most important thing is not to parse out bits of time for “work” and “life” but to recognize that within this setup, we can actively choose to engage in things that we find fulfilling and interesting. When we do that, we are enhancing our lives and, by extension, our children’s lives because what they end up with is a happy, energized parent. This notion of some elusive “balance” between the energy we put into working and the energy we get from living is wholly false. If we are lucky, the two overlap in a Venn Diagram that allows us to find compensation and purpose and a sense of enjoyment without guilt. And as our children grow up and become more independent, we will have given ourselves the gift of meaningful work that we can continue to engage in more and more.

Bubba and I have recently begun having conversations about what our life will look like in five years when Eve and Lola are both gone to college. At that point, it will be important for both of us to have some shared purpose and some individual interests. If we apply this particular way of looking at “balance,” and are able to identify the things that we enjoy doing together and apart, and fully support the others’ need to engage in both, perhaps the shift to this new lifestyle will be smoother. (Not that I won’t cry a big, ugly cry when my last one moves out, but, hey, it’s a start…)