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.

Photo from The Guardian
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jul/07/democracy-vouchers-seattle-politics-low-income-homeless#img-2

It’s been a while since I posted anything even remotely political here – likely due to the daily onslaught of information a la the Drumpf shitshow. Generally, when I post something in response to the political goings-on, it is after much thought and reflection, because often these things are murky and I like to have a clear head when I write about my positions. With the fast and furious, continual chocolates-on-a-conveyer-belt (think I Love Lucy) nature of our current administration, it has been nearly impossible for me to clear my head long enough to say anything coherent. I know I’m not alone.

However, one issue that keeps coming up in my world is the $15/hour minimum wage conversation. It was passed in Washington state, is being pushed in other states, was recently passed in British Columbia, has been analyzed by several university studies, and is hotly debated even as a national standard. I’ve read the news coverage of the studies, observed debates online, listened to folks talk about it on NPR, and am having a really hard time not being cynical about all of this.

For me, what it comes down to is humanity. (Ok, most everything comes down to that for me.) The simple fact is, even though some places have passed minimum wage legislation, there is nobody that I know of who works a minimum wage job and is currently being paid $15/hour. All of these measures are “phased in” over a period of time. And to be clear, $15/hour is NOT A LIVING WAGE in most places. $15/hour for a 40-hour week means that you are making $600 a week before taxes. That means that you’re making less than $30,000 a year before taxes. Depending on how many people are in your household (would have to be five or more), that doesn’t even qualify you for Medicaid without extenuating circumstances because the federal poverty level for 2017 for a family of four is $28,200.

So, the places that are passing these minimum wage bills are generally the ones where the standard of living is higher (ie. Seattle), which makes sense, given that if you want to live in Seattle and you’re making $15/hour, your entire paycheck will go toward your rent. But since you don’t hit the federal poverty level, you don’t qualify for SNAP benefits, so I hope you like the taste of carpet, because that’s all you’ll be able to eat. Unless you work in a restaurant and you can nick some food there.

But, oops, remember, that these laws are being phased in. So if you’re working a minimum wage job in Seattle right now, you aren’t making $15/hour yet.

So. Yeah. Humanity.
One of the most vehement arguments against the $15/hour minimum wage I’ve seen in my liberal enclave of Seattle comes from small business owners like restaurateurs and hipster shop owners. They “can’t afford” to pay folks that much and stay in business.

Go out of business.
I mean it. That might sound harsh, but if you can’t afford to pay the people who work for you, the people in your own damn community, the people who are the face of your American dream, enough money so that they can live with a roof over their heads, know where their next meal is coming from (and it’s not the trash can), and get to work without a 90-minute bus ride, you don’t have a solid business plan and you should probably go back to the drawing board.

Businesses are not more important than people.
Just because you have a great idea for a small business that you think hipsters in Seattle will flock to doesn’t mean you deserve to be in business. It should be part of your business plan to analyze whether you can pay your workers enough to live on, and offer them paid leave and health insurance. If you can’t, find a place that’s cheaper to set up shop so you can or go back to your day job. I have a dream, too. Lots of them. But if I am going to build those dreams on the backs of people whose lives depend on Medicaid funding and SNAP benefits (in this administration? Oy), then I’m living with blinders on. Big, white privilege blinders.

The studies that say that the $15/hour minimum wage will “hurt the economy,” are putting businesses before humans. They are putting some nebulous, unpredictable “economy” before humans. Are we really a country that is so concerned with an idealized, unsustainable, continually growing pile of money that we are willing to let the people who work in entry-level and service jobs live on the streets? If we continue to argue that these kinds of policies will hurt businesses while we cut social services, that is exactly what we are saying. And in Seattle, it is what we’re living. There are recent studies showing that the majority of people living on the streets are those who were working in low-wage jobs, with families, who simply couldn’t afford to pay their rent – either because of some unforeseen medical catastrophe or by some slow attrition of their ability to pay their bills despite working at least one full time job.

I am not an economist (thank God!), and I appreciate that this is a complicated issue in some ways. But in the way that is most important, it is not complicated at all. If we care about our fellow human beings, we will find a way to make sure that they are taken care of. Period. We will lead with our morality and common humanity and figure out a way to make it work. That is how all dreams are made. Follow the dream and work out the details as you go.

I am a lover of words, a lover of conversation, someone who is incredibly interested in learning new things. And I often do my learning via story, as many of us do. I am also a story teller, a person who revels in teasing out the details and painting a picture and explaining (over-explaining, “selling past the close,” as my husband says sometimes) in order for others to understand.

And so when my words are misconstrued, I get frustrated.
When my stories are interrupted, because the listener thinks they already know what I’m saying, or they’ve formed some opinion that is counter to mine, I get even more frustrated.

When I watch the interruption be compounded by other voices piling on, interrupting other speakers, or further taking my comments away from where I would have had them go, I often go in to defensive mode and try to swing it all back to where I started.  Unfortunately, that is where I lose the purpose of the dialogue and make things worse.

Listening is a difficult thing to do, especially when we have been taught that we show our intelligence by challenging others’ versions of things, by demonstrating our knowledge and talking, talking, talking. So much of what we do as human beings is try to convince others that our viewpoint is the best, the most accurate, the “right” one. Often, we get so attached to our own perspective that we take it personally when someone doesn’t agree with us, isn’t awestruck by the story we’ve told that illustrates why our reality is so much more valid than the one they presented.

As I get older, I am beginning to think that intelligence doesn’t lie anywhere near the realm of talking. When we rush to interrupt someone else and inject our own version of things, we aren’t showing our cleverness, we are demonstrating our need to be heard rather than a desire to learn.

It is difficult, but I think that the people who are the most intelligent are those who are quiet, who listen with a clear mind and ask thoughtful, clarifying questions. When someone else is talking to us, they are attempting to explain something that we don’t already know, that we may not have experienced. If we are to truly engage in a mutually satisfying exchange, it is imperative that we seek to understand, not race to respond.

This is especially hard to do in group settings. Often, the need to prove ourselves takes over and we first engage in body language that is assertive (eye rolling, head shaking, leaning in and opening our mouths in anticipation of ‘our turn,’) and then label (“that’s racist,” “that’s wrong,”) or use superlatives like always/never, or make it personal (“that’s not my experience; here’s something I did/said/saw that proves your experience is invalid/inaccurate/wrong”). We are bolstered by others in the group whose body language seems to support us and once we make it personal or begin exaggerating with superlatives, the conversation becomes less about learning and more about picking whose side you will be on. It is nearly impossible for anyone to leave a conversation like that without feeling as though they’ve had to choose between two very different ideas. It is also nearly impossible for either of the proponents of those ideas to learn from the other. They’ve effectively set themselves up to react emotionally and defend their position to the death because it is now personal. Their very ego is tied up in the outcome. If my position is “better,” I am a smart person. If my position “loses,” I am a stupid person.

Unfortunately, I don’t often recognize that this is what is happening in the moment. Generally, all I feel is a sense of unease and frustration and then an overwhelming urge to defend myself, prove myself. It is not until later that I can ask myself the question, Why did that bother me so much? Why can’t I let it go? Generally, it is because I feel misunderstood and what I wanted more than anything was to be heard and understood. It wasn’t about being Right or Wrong, it was about an exchange of ideas. The thing is, when I am listened to in that way – when people can pause a moment after I’m done speaking and then ask questions to clarify (vs. questions designed to challenge) – I am more likely to solicit ideas from them because we both want the same thing – to learn something we didn’t already know.

I am amazed at the habitual way we have conversations, even with those we call friends and family, who we trust. I know that showing up in this way is critical to strengthening relationships and that it is hard work and takes a lot of practice. I am sometimes upset that I need to work so hard at it, but I also hope that if others in my life are also striving to get better at really listening, maybe we can all reinforce each others’ efforts.

By Kurt Baty – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

I know that, and yet, there is still something so appealing about believing that the world is black and white, that things are either good or bad, and so are people. It is both efficient in terms of time (I can decide whom or what to invest my energy in and when to walk away) and emotionally satisfying (no agonizing over the minutiae, just make a judgment and move on).

And it’s rarely true. In fact, I’m pretty sure the only things that are black and white are those two crayons in the box. (Don’t get me wrong: there are some things that, in my mind, are Absolutely Wrong and I will continue to acknowledge the nuances within, and still condemn the behavior.)

I am a social-justice-minded person. I have strong values and strong opinions and I love fighting for space for those without it, hearing new voices, expanding my view of the world. And sometimes, I read about something in the news and let the ethical warrior side of me take over. I re-post things and sign petitions and vow to boycott companies and sometimes, that feels like the exact right thing to do in terms of aligning my behavior with my values. But sometimes I get conflicted.

Like when scandals come up involving giant companies like Uber. While I went along with the suggestions to delete the app from my phone and vow to use other rideshare companies when the news came out about the CEO’s reprehensible behavior and choices that don’t support my values, I was still a little worried. Mostly because I thought about the drivers – the vast majority of whom I’ve ridden with that are pleasant and professional and friendly. The drivers who are working in this flexible gig-economy world because they have other jobs and obligations that don’t fit in with an 8-5 job. Maybe they’re going to school or parenting or taking care of their aging parents. Perhaps they don’t speak English well enough yet to get another type of job or this is the thing they’re doing while they train for a better job. Maybe they’re retired and on a fixed income and this is the way they put aside a little money in case of emergency. Doesn’t my boycotting the company they work for impact them more than it impacts the CEO, at least percentage-wise? He’s already a millionaire. Maybe losing some revenue will affect his company’s bottom line a bit and perhaps his ego will take a big blow, but for the driver who depends on every paycheck, I may be creating more hardship for them than their employer does.

Two weeks ago, I saw a message on a Facebook group I’m part of (a FB group that is all about supporting and empowering women), asking if anyone would be interested in joining a day-long women’s empowerment and employment event to provide a breakout session workshop. They were specifically looking for content that centered around wellness and well-being and self care. I was hooked.  After a few emails, I realized that the event was being put on for women who are Uber drivers in Seattle and I admit to having a twinge of discomfort. Digging a little deeper, I discovered that this event centered around helping these women, who are mostly part-time drivers, understand the gig economy a little better and enabling them to find other ways to get into it to support themselves. Uber’s partner for this event is a local organization called Tabor 100, an “association of entrepreneurs and business advocates who are committed to economic power, educational excellence and social equality for African-Americans and the community at large.”

Whoa.

I signed up. Other breakout sessions included one that helped women envision their own paths as entrepreneurs or career growth, one dedicated entirely to self-care, and another that helped women learn to manage and grow their wealth. They provided a beautiful continental breakfast, a full lunch, free headshots by professional photographers, and the opportunity to get your business certified with the Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises. Oh, and childcare. Full. Day. Childcare. For free.

This day was truly about empowering women to be part of the sharing economy in a way that works for them, with a ton of information about the opportunities that are out there as well as tips and tricks to more fully engage in those opportunities. My workshop centered on using mindfulness to ground yourself in your values, create personal boundaries, and find joy everywhere you go.

I vowed to go in with an open mind and I came out with a full heart. This is the kind of company (at least the Seattle version of it) that I can say I’m proud to have been associated with, even for just one day. This was not some gimmick to show the world that Uber is a friendly company and win back shareholders. I don’t even know that it was widely publicized. This was an honest attempt to acknowledge the employees of this company, remind them how important they are, and help lift them up.

So, it’s complicated. I reinstalled my app because I hope to see some of these women on the road soon and get to know them a little better.

Expectations may be one of the biggest roots of all suffering. And yet…

Is it possible to be human and not have expectations? Can we really move through life without having some subconscious idea of where we’re going and what it might look like when we get there?

I have been thinking a lot about expectations lately. My life does not look like I expected it to when I was a kid. It doesn’t look like I expected it to when I was in college, or as a young adult, or even two years ago. My children are not doing the things I expected them to be doing, nor is my mom. Ultimately, that is both pleasant and sad. There are things going on in my life that are devastating and others that are so amazing and wonderful that I am grateful over and over again in any given week.

A big part of grief, I think, is letting go of that picture I had in my mind, realizing that life is not going to be the way I thought it was, and recognizing how much I rested in it, relied on it, planned for it and trusted it. I find it amazing how often I lend some weight and solidity to my expectations, even though they are merely schemes cooked up in my brain with no substance whatsoever. I can believe a certain thing so unquestioningly that I build entire systems on top of it and then spend overwhelming reserves of time and energy reworking those systems when the bedrock beneath them turns out to have been sand.

But in order to move forward, expectations are a requirement, aren’t they? Or am I confusing expectations with goals? Perhaps that’s it. Maybe I need to be more mindful of the difference between desire and assumption. Just because much of my life does go according to plan is not a reason to lull myself into thinking that all of it will. And it’s true that often, when things fall apart, I have some pretty amazing experiences that help me grow and become a better person, simultaneously, I’m holding expectations for other parts of my life.

Maybe it’s impossible to not assume that there will be certain givens in my life. Maybe, without those mental mirages, I wouldn’t ever bother to get out of bed. Maybe, as long as I can continue to recover from the loss of expectation, grieve for it and learn from it, it’s not a bad thing. Maybe this is just the way it’s designed to be. Our human brains crave coherence, predictability, structure. We want a story that makes sense, puzzles with all the pieces contained in the box. Most of us would choose a safe, complete scenario over one whose ending is altogether uncertain, and so we are built for expectations. And while I know the Buddhists say the trick is to not get too attached to them, that is sometimes a tall order (especially when we’ve crafted those stories in our minds so well we don’t even recognize them for what they are – stories). Maybe accepting the fact that we’re going to get attached to some of them and learning how to breathe and get curious and remain flexible when they fall apart is a more realistic plan. At least for me.

My friend and coach, Kris, posted something on her Facebook page yesterday that gave me pause. I watched it again this morning before taking the dogs for a walk and let it filter through my brain as we sidestepped puddles and admired the fat cherry blossoms and smelled the daphne perfuming the air.

Kris was talking about inspiration and how, sometimes, we sit and wait for inspiration to push us to action, and as we wait, we are frustrated and discontent. She wondered whether it is the discontent that is actually the source of inspiration, that if we take that first step toward action, the path will open up and we will begin to feel the motivation to continue. What if the frustration is the sense that there is a difference between what we say we want and what we are doing to get there, and that is actually the driving force, but our desire to wait for a clear sign to begin keeps us from doing anything?

Well, yeah, when you put it that way.

I have been feeling stuck a lot lately and as I walked and ruminated on Kris’ words, it struck me that I have been using that stuck feeling as an excuse not to change some things in my life that I can actually control.

I have long felt that I rely on wine and chocolate as crutches to make myself feel better, but since I am not overweight and I never get drunk, I haven’t sensed a reason to change my behavior.

But here’s the thing: when I indulge in those things in the evening, the narrative that goes through my head sounds a little something like this – I deserve this. It’s been a long day. Or – It’s a pretty small vice and I don’t do it every night. 


More often than not, the next morning, I shake my head at myself, wishing I hadn’t had that extra piece of Easter candy (damn you, Cadbury mini-eggs!), and sometimes I even go so far as to come downstairs and throw the remainder of the bag away. And I wonder what message I’m sending to my girls when they see me with a glass of wine almost every night.

The incongruence between what I say I want – to be mindful of food as fuel, to be active and physically healthy – and how I act is grating. And this shows up in other places in my life, too. I see in my Facebook groups that there are other writers who are getting their freelance work published once a week and I feel guilty – I should be out there hustling more work that is visible because the memoir I’m working on won’t see the light of day for a year or more.

Often, the way for me to get clarity on things like this is to let my mind create a picture, and this morning was no exception. I imagined myself standing on a beautiful beach, dazzled by all the little, shiny things dotting the sand. There are rocks polished by the surf, fully intact shells, smooth pieces of driftwood. I walk along and gather the ones that are the most intriguing to me, filling my hands and pockets and not really thinking about what I’ll do with them or where I will put them. I’ll figure that out later. Right now, they are a tangible sign of what I have – like publishing credits or a wine cellar that’s full. I feel the land beneath my feet and I am grounded. This is real. I can walk like this forever, back and forth.

But eventually, my hands are full and I’ve walked the length of the beach. And I realize that what I really want is to be out there, in the ocean, floating, being lifted and held and open to possibilities. When I’m in the water, that’s my inspiration, my true passion, my purpose. It is where I can be fully supported and I’m able to really get some perspective. When I float in the water, I can look back at all of the glittery gifts on the beach in their entirety and really discern which ones speak to me. I don’t have to gather armfuls of things just because they are lovely, I can truly choose the things that are congruent with the big picture of who I am and what I truly want. And I can come back in to the beach at any time, but when I remember that the floating, the be-ing is where I am most grounded, that it is here where I draw my inspiration, the beach seems like a place for occasional visits, not someplace to dwell and get caught up in the doing and the gathering.

As a person who has struggled with anxiety and depression
throughout her life, perhaps choosing a career as a writer wasn’t the best way
to go. Writers, especially freelance writers, experience far more rejection
than the average person.
Fortunately, during some intense research I was doing on
adolescence and brain development, I discovered several studies on the power of
gratitude. When I was really wrestling with darkness, mornings were the most
challenging time for me. I woke up, opening one eye at a time to gauge whether
that semi-truck of pain and longing was heading for me before I swung my feet
out of bed onto the floor. Often, before I could get both eyes open, my mind
would begin to race and my heart would pound as I anticipated what the day had
in store for me. After reading about the way gratitude shifts our thinking
patterns and affects our brain chemistry, I decided to start each day with a
short list of things for which I was truly grateful. I envisioned it as a sort
of shield against that truck hurtling toward me.
In the beginning, it was often hard to come up with a list;
not because I don’t have many, many blessings in my life, but because I have an
innate tendency to qualify them. As soon as I think of one, I either compare it
to someone else and feel guilty that, say, my kids are healthy and I have a
friend whose kids aren’t – which effectively soils the gratitude – or it feels
trite and petty, like being grateful that I have enough money to pay my bills.
Even in my gratitude practice, I found myself wanting – either for more ‘pure’
things like love (which feels a little too nebulous sometimes, to be honest) or
for deep, profound items on my list that really resonated in my bones. I am
nothing if not stubborn, though, and motivated by the fervent desire to keep my
depression and anxiety at bay, I kept going despite the sometimes pathetic
nature of my lists. Every day, I thought that maybe tomorrow I could come up
with something beyond gratitude for my soft, warm bed, my kids, and my husband to
be grateful for.
When my teenage daughter was struggling with anxiety upon
starting high school, I encouraged her to start a gratitude practice to see if
it could help her. Every night before bed, I would text her three things for
which I was grateful and she would text me back right before falling asleep. My
hope was that if the last thoughts she had every day were ones that filled her
up rather than dragging her down, perhaps she would wake up with optimism for
the coming day instead of dread. Her lists began much as mine had. She was
grateful for a full belly and a soft pillow and a roof over her head. But over
time, she was able to open up and recall specific things that had happened
during the day that were positive – a friendly smile in the cafeteria, being
picked by a classmate to partner on a project because she is so organized, to
appreciating a trusting relationship with a special teacher. Her perspective
shifted over a period of weeks and she went from finding excuses to stay in bed
to getting up and tackling each new day and its challenges with a feeling of
competence and groundedness.
Over time, my definition of gratitude has developed and I’ve
come to understand what it is about this practice that has been so effective
for me. In the beginning, I often attempted to come up with things by starting
with, “at least I’m not….” What I discovered is that 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 situation could be
worse such as, “neither of my kids is terminally ill and I’m not homeless,”),
I’m not really being grateful. That’s just another way my anxiety is telling me
my life could run off the rails at some point, so I should really be cautious.
Instead of helping me feel calm and centered, it is really reminding me that
one or more of those things could potentially happen and, for now, I’m just
dodging a bullet.
If I am making a mental note of the number of “good” things
in my life as compared to the number of “bad” things, that is also not helpful
gratitude. Weighing them against each other in a sort of balance sheet is not a
positive step. The fact is, both things exist simultaneously (and are often
intertwined with each other) in my life and in my mind, but gratitude is about
the ones I consciously choose to pay attention to. It doesn’t make the
challenges and difficulties in my life disappear, it simply allows me to notice
that there are many positive things in my life, too.
The human brain is wired to look for deficiencies, expect
sabotage, and find the things that need ‘fixing.’ This isn’t always a bad 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
won’t notice the things that are absolutely right and lovely in the world all
around me. I might notice the pile of unfolded laundry lying on the couch, but
I can also choose to see that the dishes are all clean and the dog is fed and
happily snoozing in his bed and an essay I was working on this morning is coming
along nicely.
I am loathe to imply that gratitude is a complicated thing,
though, because when I am in the zone, it truly isn’t. When I am really tuned
in to the goodness and abundance in my life, the list of things for which I am
grateful grows quickly and easily. For me, the key to gratitude is to simplify
things. When I am frustrated and irritable, the best thing for me to do is stop
and look around. I see my computer and I am grateful for the ability to write
and connect with people who are important to me online. I catch sight of a
glass of water on the counter and appreciate 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. When I can
keep myself from trying to create stories or context, I can find simple, pure
gratitude and suddenly, there is more air in the room.

Knowing that every time I actively look for things that are
right in my life means I am activating the parts of my brain that produce
serotonin and dopamine gives me hope. When I started that gratitude practice
all those years ago out of desperation, I was beginning a process of rewiring
my brain to more easily find happiness. Sticking with it, I realized that it
does become easier over time to recognize and appreciate simple things that
give me joy. While I still struggle with anxiety (and rejection), I am more
able to see it as a part of this messy, glorious life I am living instead of
letting it keep me from getting out of bed in the morning.

I can’t believe that it’s been over a month since I wrote here. Life is so full and so still, all at the same time. My daughters are continuing their inexorable shift to adulthood, the summer sun is giving way to brilliant oranges and reds in the trees while the light dims ever faster, and the house is quiet without my mostly-companion, CB. It is as though the days are pregnant with possibility and I can’t yet predict the due date. I have a completed first draft of my memoir sitting on my desktop, notes from a fellow writer scribbled in the margins. There are emails from folks interested in my other work waiting for responses I can’t bring myself to write quite yet. I voted by absentee ballot nearly two weeks ago and have sat in limbo since then, waiting for the moment someone will tally up my choices with the rest. There have been meetings about college applications for Eve and practice sessions for Lola’s upcoming band gig and it feels like the things on the calendar are both racing toward me and sitting out in the future like some hologram I can’t quite feel the edges of.

Some days, as I walk the streets of my neighborhood, I think that this must be what it feels like to float in a sensory deprivation tank. I know that there are things outside, but in this moment, I can only prepare and ruminate because it’s not quite time. I don’t feel a sense of angst or frustration about it, just an uneasy stillness. I have to remind myself that it will all unfold eventually and remaining open to the possibility and grounded at my core are the two healthiest things I can do.

When I was in junior high, we used to pass notes to each other in class – elaborately folded, origami-like things that would bloom open when you pulled a tab. The cleverness of the design was as satisfying as the note’s contents, and we had half a dozen different ways to put them together. I had a friend who was incredibly talented at folding a simple sheet of notebook paper adorned with a drawing that would show one thing when it was folded and another when it lay flat on the desk. I marveled at her skill but could not reproduce it. Trying to imagine the sequence of creases and the 3-dimensional shape of the paper was beyond my ability. I copied my friends and was able to master perhaps two of the special patterns and contented myself with crafting a funny or sweet message inside.

I feel a little like that now – unable to decipher exactly how things are wrapped up and packaged, and I am reminded that it has never been one of my strengths. Instead of picking at it or pushing myself to learn how to do it, I choose to wait until it unfolds and see what is contained within. Then, knowing that one of the things I do best is to add content, I will set about doing my part.

Sometimes I have revelations that are laughable. Things that I feel like I ought to have known or accepted years ago, but have only just recently sunk into my bones and opened my heart and mind up just a little bit more.

I had a boyfriend in high school that marked a huge turning point for me – a shift in the way I saw myself and the world. I think that’s not unusual. I know many women who made choices that were seemingly unlike their previous personality; a “rebel phase,” you could call it for some of us. It wasn’t a bad relationship, but it ended badly and it went on longer than I was comfortable with and for many years afterward, my impression of the entire time we were together was colored by sadness and resentment that I had wasted so much time.  Over the decade afterward, I moved on, boldly and purposefully, and determined to never repeat the kinds of mistakes I made during that time. As I moved forward, my characterization of my ex became softer and more understanding. I began to take responsibility for my mis-steps and the ways in which I contributed to the unhealthy dynamic of our relationship – at least in my own head. We had no contact until one day several years ago when I got a Facebook friend request from him.

I declined it without hesitation.

A week later, there it was again. This time, I looked at his profile, curious to see what his life was like, and what I discovered was that many of our mutual high school friends were connected to him online. My sister was his Facebook friend.

I declined the request again.

A few days later I got a message from him asking why I was declining the requests. He was incredulous that I hadn’t moved on, forgiven, gotten perspective on how young and stupid we had been. And the thing is, I had done all of those things. And I still didn’t want to be his Facebook friend. I think I dashed off some message to the effect that I had no hard feelings toward him, but that my life has changed significantly and I am only interested in relationships that offer positive energy. I imagined the eye-roll when he read it. Hell, I probably even rolled my eyes at myself when I wrote it, but it was enough to stop the requests.

In the last several years, I have occasionally seen his comments on my friends’ pages and thought not much of it.

Today, I saw something that my sister posted that reminded me of their friendship all those years ago – a shared love of skateboarding and punk rock music and aspirations for a particular lifestyle, none of which I had in common with them. And that’s where the revelation came in. While I never begrudged any of my friends or family for not banishing him from their lives when I did (and I did, albeit in a very sloppy way), I never really considered what he may have meant to them. I didn’t think about it. I never entertained thoughts of what he might have represented for my sister or another friend, what role he played in their lives, and how important it might have been. And as I sat and thought about it, I was struck by the notion that each of us means something unique to the people in our lives. The person he was with me is not the person he was with his skater-friends or his co-workers or his mother. All these years, I’ve been seeing him only through the context of my relationship with him and, while that was an important step in my own personal development because it taught me to define personal boundaries and honor them to keep myself safe, it is not the extent of the person he is. In terms of my personal relationship with him, it’s fine for me to see him through that lens, but in terms of a definition of who he is as a person, it’s unfair.

I know he meant a great deal to a lot of people I care for and it occurred to me that the more I can see each and every person I encounter through that lens, the better. Simply knowing, in my bones, that we all are so much more complex than we seem offers me an opportunity to open to compassion and understanding. If I can remember that everyone has the capacity for love and caring and likely offers that to someone in their own life, that each individual is important to someone else, I can begin to put less stock in my impression and allow them more space to show me those things.

I was in no position to do any of that in high school, to be certain. I was also incapable of seeing myself as a whole, complicated person, if I’m being honest. But the realization that different people can mean very different things to the people in their lives finally sunk in today and I think it has given me a higher perspective from which to see the world.

“Our goal is to have kind consideration for all sentient beings every moment forever.” Katagiri Roshi