Last weekend I went to visit my mom for the first time since she moved to a memory care facility. It’s been a long time coming and while I felt good about this particular place, it was also good to visit a few times over a few days to really absorb the feel of the place, the vibe of the caregivers, understand how it all works.

The first time I went, my dear friend Susan came with me. We’ve known each other for almost 40 years and she and Mom were friends for a couple decades, so having her there felt really natural.

Without oversharing, I will say that the first ten minutes or so were hard. There were some difficult things to witness and if you’ve ever spent time with a loved one who has Alzheimer’s, you might understand. Knowing this woman who was so independent and capable for most of my life, it is sometimes hard to acknowledge all that she has lost, how reliant she is on others to care for her.

Susan and I sat at her kitchen counter the following morning, talking about it over coffee, and I was reminded of how strong the pull is to DO something when we feel that way. And then, almost immediately, I was reminded of how grateful I am that I’ve cultivated the ability to not respond to that compulsion in the moment.

If you’re like me, you grew up being taught that any time you felt scared or uncertain or really sad, that was a call to action; that the thing to do was to assess the situation and put a plan in place to both alleviate those feelings and prevent them from happening again. Over time, I got really good at doing that – I became a control freak. I prided myself on my ability to anticipate potential disasters and keep them from occurring, mitigate the possibility that I would be blindsided.

When things happened that I couldn’t have predicted, I allowed myself a brief moment of intense emotion (flashes of anger, a crying jag, a mini panic attack), steeled myself, and moved on.

Eventually, that did several things:

  • fed the false notion that I am in control (and thus, that when disaster does strike, it’s because I am not smart enough to accurately predict or prevent it), 
  • turned me in to a DOING person instead of a FEELING person (which reduced my ability to empathize with others and to feel the full range of emotions human beings are designed to feel), 
  • exhausted my reserves because I was racing around putting out fires all the time – the vast majority of which weren’t mine to put out, 
  • reinforced the idea that it’s perfectly normal to avoid feeling certain emotions that are uncomfortable (and thus, justified that glass of wine or piece of cake or other unhealthy coping mechanism I utilized when I ran out of ideas about how to eliminate sadness/fear/anger),
  • put me at the center of the situation, as though my feelings were the most important consideration.
I became an alternately frantic and depleted half-person who was ultimately incredibly unhappy, despite all of my efforts to the contrary. 
But as I sat with Mom the other night, I reminded myself that difficult feelings do not compel me to act. Just because something is hard to witness doesn’t mean I have to DO anything about it. [Obviously, there are exceptions. If someone is in physical pain or imminent danger – yup, I’m diving in if I can.] And if I can ground myself in that moment enough to just acknowledge that what I’m experiencing is really hard and I’d rather not be feeling it, it helps me to focus my efforts. It may be that an hour or more later I will decide that there’s something I can do that will help – but those acts are purposeful, effective, and efficient. The way I used to handle things like that was scattershot – come up with all of the things I could do to cover any potentiality, make lists, call people, insert myself into the situation to “fix” things so that they wouldn’t make me uncomfortable. 
For the record, Susan didn’t like this conversation at all, and I totally get it. There is something seductive about knowing that we can effect change in any situation, especially ones that make us sad or scared or angry. And often we can be in control. For a while. Until we wear out. For me, learning to sit with painful feelings was a survival mechanism. I wouldn’t have lasted long at the pace I was going if I continued to think that I had to address every unpleasant situation I found myself in. I can say that my life isn’t any easier now, but I’m a heck of a lot happier and I believe that the things I choose to do are making a much bigger difference than before. 
Image: Low row of bricks alongside a sidewalk

On the sidewalk in North Chicago, just outside a large, upscale grocery store, Lola and I walked past a woman about my age building this brick wall. She was likely homeless, had a disposable plastic shopping bag filled with her own homemade mortar – newspaper bits, water, mud and other things only she knows – and was bent over stacking bricks and patting the mortar. Nobody challenged her, and she spoke to no one.

The next day as I walked to the El station, she was nowhere to be found, but I noted her progress and wondered whether she’d be back or if she ran out of materials or energy or drive to do more. I wondered whether she was trying to wall someone out or someone in, or if she was making herself a place to sit up off of the ground, or if she was simply creating, making something with her hands that made her feel productive.

I like to think it is the latter.

Even after all the therapy and reading and journaling and work I’ve done to counteract the cultural and familial narratives I’ve ingested for the last 47 years, it takes effort to remember that not everything I do has to make sense to anyone else. It doesn’t have to garner a paycheck or be in service to some bigger societal machine. It can simply be me using the materials I have available to me to create, to follow my heart and instincts and do what I do best and love most.

Lola, Eve and I spent the last week in Chicago, exploring, walking, shopping, and moving Eve in to her freshman dorm room. It was, by turns, uplifting, gut-wrenching, exhausting, and hilarious. These two sisters have their own secret language such that they can read each other’s emotions and rush in like a bubbling spring of water to fill in the holes, buoy the other, amplify the laughter. They know when to be quiet, when to lighten the mood with a carefully placed insult, when to link arms and raise an eyebrow to show support. It is an absolute pleasure to witness. So many times in the last week, I sat across a table from them or followed a few steps behind on the sidewalk and felt my heart swell at my good fortune. I get to be part of this.

We complained about the humidity (it was really gross – Pacific Northwesterners aren’t built for that much warm moisture), people-watched, got makeovers at Bloomingdale’s on a whim. We sat on a beach at Lake Michigan and marveled as a swarm of dragonflies swooped around in a cluster, creating their own mini-hurricane near the shore. We laughed and ate and filled an entire shopping cart at Target with hangers and laundry soap and bedding and school supplies.

I had one on one time with each of them; watching Glee with Eve late in to the night, sprawled on the couch, talking about nothing and everything. Lola and I hit five thrift stores in one day and ate tacos in the sunshine, simultaneously wishing we were home and dreading saying goodbye to her sister.

By the time the two of us settled in to our seats on the plane for the trip home, we linked arms, tipped our heads onto each others’ shoulders, and sobbed. One of the three legs of our stool wasn’t coming home with us.

Upon our return home from Chicago, I was a little lost. To be honest, I still am. I know there are essays to be written and sold. I need to continue sending out my memoir manuscript if it is ever going to be published. I have an agent interested in seeing a book proposal for a manuscript I wrote years ago, so I could work on that. None of those things pay much, if anything. Neither does mothering. I’m a bit paralyzed – do I look for a job that does pay? What can I do that’s valuable and useful? What do I enjoy doing? What can I stand doing that pays?

There’s something in me that says to wait. Just give myself time to roll with this new phase – settle in to having one less chick in the nest and use my energy to support both my girls through this transition. I don’t often think about modern technology – even as much as I use it – but I am tremendously grateful for the ability to text my girls. It means that I can offer advice and insight no matter where I am, so that when Eve feels a tiny bit homesick or has a question about returning textbooks she purchased for a class she dropped, I’m ‘there.’ Because what I know is that I am a good mom, and relying on my strengths in that area feels good to all of us. The fact that the girls know they can ask me anything, anytime, and I’ll want to answer, jump at the chance to engage with them – that is immeasurably important to me. It is a constant for all of us, a reminder that we are a team and while the characteristics of our connections might change over time, the fact that there’s a connection there is a given. I don’t support them because I have to. There is no sense of duty there. I am truly overjoyed to be their travel companion, sounding board, keeper of memories. I am using the bricks and mortar I have at my disposal to create something, and it may not look like much, but it is strong.

When I get caught up in the “but you’re not making any money” narrative in my head, I have to remember that I’m ok right now, that I do my best work when the work I’m doing is something I love and something I’m good at. And right now, the things I love most of all are mothering and writing. In that order. Today, that’s good enough. Better than good enough. It’s great. Amazing. Phenomenal.

Naturvetenskap 1

I am a storyteller and I have been my whole life. I carry them inside me, work on them, figure out the best way to share them. But sometimes the stories get heavy. Before I ever put anything on the page, the words and feelings chase each other around and around inside, making connections and trying to fit the puzzle pieces together. When I sit too long with the stories, they start to burn and I know it’s time to walk or go pull weeds. Somehow, being outside helps the sentences flow and combine in ways they can’t when I am indoors.

The stories of the last year and a half are heavier than many that have gone before, and I’m finding that walking takes on a new urgency for me and it also requires a focus I haven’t been forced to have before. These days, I have to walk farther away from home and immerse myself in places that are new and expansive in order to divorce myself from the circling thoughts and feelings. I have found an open space surrounded by trees where few people go and at least once a week I walk there and sit and untether the words from each other, and also from my head and heart. Sitting in this place just breathing helps to re-string it all in a way that offers clarity.

I am learning that there is a sort of chemical reaction taking place as I assimilate the stories and try to keep my heart and my head on the same level. Most days, the two are at war, fighting for supremacy, which sometimes means wild swings from sadness to anger. My brain can only witness so much grief before it burns it off with anger, like alcohol in a skillet. My heart is simultaneously relieved of its burden and seduced by the beautiful flames, but the anger is also expansive and  at some point I realize it is taking up too much space in my head. The sadness dissipated, but the stories are still there and they are all about other people. I imagine a large section of my brain colonized by the stories of others, the actions of others, the words of others, and I am impatient to evict them.

When I was in college, the days I spent in the Chemistry lab were some of my favorites. The cool, cave-like room with its expanse of concrete worktops and glass beakers and pipettes and orderly rhythms gave me a stillness and a focus. There were rules, a set of steps to be taken, and all that was asked of me was to do one thing at a time and remain curious – observe and report. Even if I knew what I was supposed to be creating, somehow the cascading chemical reactions along the way were always enchanting – sometimes it was a smell or a particular color flame that I hadn’t expected. Witnessing the magic kept me from getting caught up in the story or the sequence. I had my instructions. Observe and report. Remain curious.

 

I never know where inspiration will come from, but in general, it is spurred by conversations with people I don’t know as well as I thought I did. And for that, I am tremendously grateful.

I have been part of a book club for about four years that is composed of women who look an awful lot like me – upper middle class, white, most of us have children who are teenagers. Most are married (some for the second time), and about half work a traditional job. And yet, the disparate backgrounds and thought processes are interesting enough that we have some pretty deep conversations. I have to say, there have been some tense moments (for me, anyway, who is incapable of staying quiet when I think there is something privileged or provocative or unacknowledged), but they’ve generally been talked through, and all are sparked by books we’ve read.

Many of the books are ones I wouldn’t have picked up in the first place and I love that, too. There have been a few over the years that I couldn’t bring myself to finish (one that I didn’t even bother to start), but for the most part, I dive in with curiosity and look forward to the conversations we have. And nearly always, I am left with lots to think about in the ensuing days. Our last meeting was a week ago and I’m still chewing on one small exchange that happened around PTSD and when I think about something for that long, it usually means the only way I can process it is to write about it.

We read The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah which contains themes of domestic violence and PTSD (albeit largely unacknowledged – only alluded to) throughout.  At one point during our discussion, I referenced this post from a few weeks ago in an effort to talk about the way my brain worked to prepare myself for potential catastrophe when I was a kid and one of the other women chimed in, “From who?”

I stopped talking and turned to look at her.

“From who? Who were you afraid of?”

In the moment, I answered truthfully and moved on to make my point, but it is that exchange that has been stuck in a crevice of my brain for nearly a week now and I feel the need to elaborate on my original answer.

Here’s what I know about PTSD (in my case – I won’t generalize to other people’s experiences): it’s not rational, and it doesn’t limit itself to one trigger. If, as a kid, I was afraid of one particular person, anytime I encountered another person who had similar characteristics, my nervous system went into overdrive and sent me to fight/flight. So while I may have started out worrying about one person harming me, as soon as I went out in to the wider world, I saw potential disaster in all sorts of places that other people wouldn’t normally see it. I was, quite literally, prepared to duck and run at any time. I saw danger everywhere for years. This is how PTSD compromised my ability to function in my daily life – by keeping me on a hair trigger whether it made sense to other people or not.

Here’s another thing I know about PTSD; repeated exposure to triggers won’t give me the sense that I’m safe. This is not like experiments scientists are doing with food allergies where small doses over long periods of time gradually help the immune system become accustomed to ingesting the item and end up being ok with it. Repeated exposure to triggers only made me develop more armor which I spent a lot of time and money with therapists trying to dismantle. The way I overcame most of my PTSD was to have small repeated exposure to safe spaces, to people who didn’t violate or harm or scare me. With a lot of effort and mindfulness, I was gradually able to change the narrative in my brain, but it didn’t just happen. It took work.

If you love someone who has PTSD, please don’t explain to them why they shouldn’t be scared or anticipate disaster. Please don’t trigger them and later say, “See? I didn’t hit you. I just yelled. You were over-reacting.” A trigger sets off a biochemical chain reaction that completely obliterates language. By the time I realize you haven’t hit me, I’ve already felt the fear in every corner of my brain and body and it’s too late for you to convince me that I shouldn’t be scared. I already was. It happened. And that’s one more example in my brain of why it’s not safe to be around you – whether you hit me or not.

I realize that PTSD is unfathomable to people who don’t have it but the more we can try to understand what triggers our loved ones with PTSD, the more we can avoid those incidents that send them in to a frenzy of survival mode behavior. Just because we can’t understand someone else’s reaction to something doesn’t make it unimportant or irrelevant or over-reaction. PTSD starts with one trigger but our brains are so good at generalizing and so worried about keeping us safe that we can expand the list of triggers to include things that others think are nuts. If you love someone with PTSD, the best thing you can do is learn what triggers them and avoid doing those things as you continually remind them that you are safe and loving.

(For the record, I was dismayed that the book we read didn’t explore the idea that one of the main characters was clearly struggling with PTSD. There was a missed opportunity there, in my opinion, to make him a much more 3-dimensional character. )

Two things: I don’t like the way anger feels in my body but I am discovering how to help it leave, and for me, nature is an integral part of that process.

When anger comes it is seductive and as a human being and a storyteller, my wont is to engage my mind and immediately begin to weave words around it and harness its power.

But that red hot ball burrows its way in to me and sometimes hunkers down to stay a while and it sends out tendrils, armies, missionaries. It burns.

So what I’ve learned is that anger has to reside in my body sometimes, but I don’t have to help it stay any longer. I don’t have to soften the space where it hangs out, change the sheets and offer fresh towels. I only have to acknowledge it, nod my head at it, and keep it from connecting with my stories. My stories are meant to heal, to illuminate, to open understanding, and anger sucks the life out of them and makes them hard and mean. Even if it feels powerful and purposeful. That is the seduction.

A wise friend once told me that it’s important to help move anger through my body – that movement makes it hard for the hot twist of resentment to stay. And so I walk in nature. I disconnect from my head and ground myself deep in my belly. I run a cord from my sacrum to the earth and I breathe and I move, and gradually I feel lighter. Noticing the trees and moss and meandering streams reminds me that movement and coexistence, community and cooperation, connection and distinction are my sweet spot. I cannot make my priorities anyone else’s priorities. I cannot predict or prescribe what will happen when I speak my truth. But I can invite the anger to leave and fill myself up with possibility and light and let the ripples move through me out into the world.

The thing about mindfulness for me is that it lets me have more access to my emotions. It’s not only that I give myself the opportunity to breathe when I feel something strongly and tune in to the stories I’m telling myself (either in an effort to quash the feelings or to turn them into something else). It’s that when I am really mindful, I let the emotions show up as they are, whenever they choose to show up. And as hard as it is to trust that they’ll come and then go (as long as I don’t spin tales about them that take me off into another place), they always do, and the more I practice that, the easier it becomes.

It’s not easy.
I said “easier.”

Because what I’m discovering is that all of this means that my emotions are much closer to the surface in any given day and sometimes that’s a little uncomfortable for people around me. Sometimes that means that without any notice at all, I get tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. Sometimes it means that I dance through the kitchen at the mere sight of sun streaming through the windows on a Tuesday morning.

Today, I was struck by a wave of unexpected sadness and I watched as my brain struggled to turn it to anger almost immediately. I was driving Lola somewhere and part of my brain said, Stop it! Don’t let her see you cry. You don’t want to make her worry about you or feel bad. And my brain’s response was to start crafting reasons why this sadness was the fault of someone else, why I would be entirely justified in getting angry, and I even began imagining potential conversations to that end.

Wow.

For a split second, that worked. I felt anger rise in me and I no longer had the urge to cry. But when I realized what I was doing, I let go of the story and waited. It was remarkable to me that the sadness didn’t return right away – how easy it had been for me to push it away.

After I dropped Lola off at her destination, I spent the rest of the drive home experimenting. I played with conjuring up the sadness again (even though it had been unexpected, I was perfectly clear on why it came up when it did) and watching as my brain fought to make it go away with anger. It took effort to stick with the original emotion and let it flow.

What I’m discovering is that dropping the stories I am constantly telling myself about what I should do or be or think or say makes my life much simpler. I am more able to move through my days in the moment and experience whatever comes as it does. I have always been the kind of person who feels things deeply – who has very high highs and very low lows – but this is a different phenomenon. This feels cleaner somehow. My emotions are very close to the surface, very accessible, and they don’t hold as much sway over me as they once did. Without the stories weighing them down or the struggle to be allowed to show up (because I’m not trying to ignore them or make them come back later, when it’s more appropriate), they are simply there. It’s a lighter, easier feeling than I’ve ever had before and even if it means that I might start crying at the drop of a hat, I’m welcoming it.

I am reading the most fascinating book right now and it is spurring all sorts of wonderings in my mind. The book is “The Values of Belonging” by Carol L. Flinders and every paragraph is an opening and a widening and a deepening of understanding.

The Values of Belonging breaks new ground by examining human value systems from the perspective of how we live, not our gender. “There is a way of being in the world that recoils from aggressiveness, cunning, and greed,” writes bestselling author Carol Lee Flinders. This way of being arose out of the relationships our hunter-gatherer ancestors had with the natural world, one another, and Spirit — relationships that are most acutely understood in terms of trust, inclusion, and mutual reciprocity. This society’s core values, which include intimate connection with the land, empathetic relationship with animals, self-restraint, balance, expressiveness, generosity, egalitarianism, playfulness, and nonviolent conflict resolution, are what Flinders calls the “values of Belonging.”

She contrasts the “values of belonging” with the “values of enterprise” that came about when humans began cultivating the land and domesticating animals. She speaks of how profoundly this affected the way we saw our place in the world – changing us from believing we were one integral part of something bigger to a culture of ownership, of dominion, of power.

I have pages of notes and sketches. I dream about it.

It has prompted me to start asking questions about Enough.
What is Enough?
What can I take part in without owning it?
Do I need to own things? Do I need to control them?

Part of the trouble with owning things is that, if we ascribe a certain level of value to them, we then start to fear losing them. And when we’re afraid of losing something, we often begin to believe that its value is greater than it once was. Then, we see anyone or anything that could potentially take those things away from us as a threat and this further severs us from a culture of belonging. Or, it means that we’ve created a new set of things to which we think we belong (and which belong to us) – inanimate objects or scraps of land, or even people, but this kind of belonging is ownership, not connection.

So many of the things that plague us today stem from a loss of connection. Depression and anxiety, relational aggression, climate change. These are all things that came about because of our desire to have, own, be in control of – these cultural values that make us believe we are safe and important. And they are tearing us apart. Owning land and cultivating it, drawing lines around “our” borders and rejecting those who we perceive to be a threat, these things might serve the short term purpose of feeding us and protecting us, but they are anathema to our long-term survival because no matter how hard we might try, we will never be separated from the natural world and each other. We are all intimately intertwined and, in fact, it is our biological imperative to live that way. Our brains are hard-wired to respond to connection by releasing hormones when we cuddle an animal, nurture our young, give or receive a hug. It is why, when we offer help to another person, we feel good about ourselves and when we walk in the woods our nervous systems calm down.

So how much is Enough?
How can we begin to return to each other and the natural world?
Can we integrate the values of belonging with the values of enterprise without destroying ourselves?

I hope so. I haven’t finished the book yet, but for now, I am asking the questions and spending time noticing how I feel when I imagine more connection and less dominion.

The last year or so has been a challenging one. I am getting a divorce after 23 years and there is a lot to learn, and even more to un-learn; about the world, about myself, about relationships. I have been thinking a lot about “groundwork” and how I believed for a long time in a paradigm that said if I worked hard and diligently and laid a solid ground beneath my feet, at some point I could rest easy and revel in that. It’s that same story we hear in the West about getting to retirement or busting our asses in high school so that we can get in to a good college or killing ourselves in college so that we can land a good job and … rest.

I am un-learning.

I am reminded that people who embody their purpose and their passion, who trust their instincts and intuition and forge a path from that, centered in it, steeped in it, are the people who most inspire me. These people don’t lead with fear, they live with it, walk with it until it falls away. It is, at most, an occasional companion on their journey, not the engine that drives their motion.

I wanted, at some point, to stop living moment by moment, breathing deeply and re-centering myself. I wanted to have built a solid path already so that I wouldn’t have to keep laying one cobblestone at a time, breathing always, focused always. I wanted there to be some magical point in time when I would have laid enough “groundwork” that the path would simply be there, shining and solid before me, so that all I had to do was step out and follow it with ease.

As I say that out loud, I realize that the only way that can happen is if I go backwards. The path in front of me hasn’t been laid yet. It can only be laid by me.

Some days, I want to lie down on the path I’ve already made, at the place where the last cobblestone is set before dropping off into Earth, and rest. And I think that’s ok. Rest is ok. This is hard work, laying your own path, staying grounded in who you are and being true to your own deepest pull.

If I am to forge my own way, I have to keep building one stone at a time. I have to keep asking, ‘is this who I am?’ I have to believe that what lies behind me is only important because it is how I got here. It is not worth going back to.

So while I don’t know exactly where I am going, I know that I am getting there one brick at a time and I also know that each brick is laid with care and determination. The point is not to get “Somewhere” or to “Finish” or even to look back and show how far I’ve come. The work is the point. The daily inquiry – what is most important and true today? what is the highest and best expression of my Self? what is the next right step?

If I embody those things, the work is centering and grounding and I am grateful for it.

Suddenly, I have no more longing for a clear path ahead. I know that what I’m creating is its own purpose, and that gives me joy. And I know that all around me is an abundance of materials and support, reverence and love, and that if I can remember that I am part of something bigger that sustains me and to which I am responsible, in the moments when I falter, I am held firmly.

It feels surreal.

I realize that I say that so often now. That I experience things that I have a hard time accepting for one reason or another.

The fact that my mom doesn’t know who I am; that feels surreal. As though in some parallel existence my real mother exists and she is still able to take the train up to visit me, sit and talk to me at the kitchen table about how crazy it is that my oldest daughter is a senior in high school. And so every time I see her sitting in her living room, watching Bonanza reruns and asking me over and over again where I live, who I am, why I’m there, it is as though I’ve been cast in some absurd play without ever having auditioned.

The fact that my oldest child is a high school senior is also surreal. Is it possible that I’m old enough for that? That she is?  Even though it feels like I’ve been a mother forever – it almost feels like I’ve never NOT been a mother –  it couldn’t possibly be accurate that Eve is almost 18, that this year we will visit and apply to colleges, that next year we will move her in.

I haven’t imagined these moments, I guess. Maybe that’s what it is. I haven’t sat and wondered what it might feel like to be without a mother or to be without my daughter. Is it that, because I can’t picture myself here, because I haven’t turned these scenes around and around in my head, tried them on for size, pulled them off and tweaked them a little bit and put them back on that I am having trouble believing they’re real?

I don’t ever remember feeling like anything was surreal as a kid. I don’t really remember imagining how things would turn out, though. Maybe as a kid the world seemed so unpredictable, so full of possibility or so fully out of my control that I couldn’t begin to compare reality to what I had expected. Even as things happened that were unexpected or unwelcome, as a kid, I simply accepted what came and tried to figure out how to respond. Ignore? Run for cover? Adapt and move forward?

I wonder if it has something to do with the way the child brain works – that it is concrete and so just takes what comes. Adolescents develop the ability for abstract thought, and as we age, we also begin to believe that we can control things in our lives. Maybe “imagination” is the wrong word. Children have spectacular imaginations that are often unbounded by any sort of reality. But as we get older, the kinds of things we imagine center more around ourselves and our desires and our expectations. So maybe surrealism comes as a result of life looking significantly different than my expectations – especially when what I’m presented with is difficult emotionally or something I wouldn’t have chosen to spend time thinking about or planning for.

The seduction of the surreal is that it doesn’t beckon me to spend much time there. At least not in these two scenarios. I am not fully present when I experience these things because I don’t truly want to be there, so perhaps it’s a trick of my mind that is trying to tell me I can deny it by labeling it that way.

There have been other moments in my life that feel similarly dream-like that were exhilarating and pleasant, and while they had the same qualities, those were moments that I bathed in, savored, chose to fully experience. Several years ago, Lola and I paraglided off the top of a mountain in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The ride lasted about 15 minutes and from the second we strapped in and started listening to the instructions, I felt as though I were outside myself. As the wind caught the parasail and lifted my feet off the side of the mountain I pulled my consciousness back inside, tethered it, and focused on each breath in an effort to capture the experience as deeply as I could. I knew it was going to be over before I was ready, and I was determined to pay attention. I will never regret doing that because it remains one of the most amazing things I’ve ever had the good fortune to do and I’m thrilled that I really took the time to be there while it was happening.

Maybe I need to do the same during other times when I feel as though I’m out of my element. As painful as it is, choosing to be fully present with my daughter and my mom during these moments that I couldn’t have imagined or prepared myself for emotionally could mean the difference between simply enduring them and finding some grace in them.

Are you a person who sees the glass as half full or half empty? I like this exercise in perspective, because it’s an easy way to remind ourselves that we always have a choice. But I’ve recently begun to evolve my thoughts on this common allegory.

It started when I saw a meme (I know, memes. Ugh. But sometimes…) that said: It doesn’t matter whether the glass is half full or half empty. Remember, the glass is refillable. 

I was struck by how easy it is to get trapped into the idea that there are only two ways to see that glass. So often, we convince ourselves that there are only opposing ideas – black or white, right or wrong. We are all familiar with the sayings that begin with “there are two kinds of people: those who….” I liked the notion that the glass was refillable. I adopted it. I wrote it down. I told my kids about it.

To be certain, there are times when we want to fill that glass up higher, and when it makes sense to do so. When one of my daughters does poorly on an exam or school project, I want to remind her that there is always time to do better, that she can move beyond this difficult moment and learn from it and grow. She can be sad that the glass seems half empty, acknowledge it, and then make an effort to create a different scenario next time.

But yesterday, while my mind was wandering, I bumped up against the limitations of that metaphor. I am someone who struggles with control-freakishness but I have learned to use mindfulness to  lower my anxiety levels and my need to fix things. I realized that thinking about the glass as refillable moves me away from acceptance and creates the often false assumption that whatever situation I find myself in has to be changed in order to be tenable. I don’t want to lose the power of being in the moment with the glass as it is because I really believe that, often, this is where the magic of growth and learning come from. When we quickly try to move beyond our disappointment or discomfort with the current situation we find ourselves in (ie. racing to fill up that glass), we aren’t giving ourselves the opportunity to practice acceptance and really honor our experience in the present moment. Beyond that, there are unfortunately some things that can’t be altered or ‘fixed,’ and then what do we do with the glass?

My mom has Alzheimer’s and, as these things go, she is in need of constant care taking. That glass isn’t refillable. There is no way to reverse or fix what is happening. But, that doesn’t mean that I have to choose between seeing the glass as half full or half empty. Truthfully, it is both at the same time. It is half full and half empty. Yes, she unable to be independent and take care of her daily needs. AND, she has an incredibly loving husband who cares for her with love and affection and works hard to make sure that she is safe and comfortable. For now, that is the metaphor I want to embrace – the simultaneous existence of lack and abundance and their very reliance on each other in order to exist.