I was at the chiropractor’s office the other day praising the massage therapist in her office.

“It was so different than any massage I’ve ever had before. Generally, I get deep tissue work done and I feel beaten up and bruised for days afterward, but this was gentle and soothing and I nearly fell asleep more than once.”

“Mmm, hmm. She’s really good.” My chiropractor is less of a “rack’m and crack’m” and more of a manual therapist, using traction and gravity to stretch things back so that my body rights itself more often than not. That said, she won’t hesitate to manipulate my spine if it needs it and I absolutely LOVE having my neck cracked by her.

“I was toying with the idea of asking her to push a little harder, because I grew up with the ‘no pain, no gain’ ethic and I felt a little guilty that it just felt good and relaxing.  I wondered if I ought to be hurting more.”

The doctor stopped and let out a small laugh.

“You know, part of the reason she is so good is because she really listens to your tissues with her fingers. She pushes just hard enough until there is some resistance and then she works to gently increase blood flow and loosen that area up.  If there is a lot of resistance and she digs in, all she is likely to do is aggravate that area and make it more swollen and tight.”

Dramatic, theatrical pause (mine – I’m sure this only happened in my head, but sometimes just before someone says something particularly impactful to me I remember that there was a momentous second before they said it).

“There is such a thing as a ‘therapeutic window’ for everything.  If the receiver isn’t ready to receive the therapy, it won’t be helpful.”

That sentence rang in my head like church bells for days to come.

When I was struggling with depression, I had to get to a place where I was ready to hear what my therapist was saying to me.

I couldn’t possibly have forgiven my father or my molester until I was at a place in my life where that was a possibility.

I remember my high school physics teacher introducing the notion of dead space to us one day. He talked about how everything is made up of atoms and how there is a lot of space between these charged particles and they are only held together by their electrical charges (I’m simplifying greatly, so if you’re a physical scientist, don’t get upset with this rudimentary description).  We explored the notion of crystalline structures and atomic structures and chemical formulas and he blew my mind when he said I could simply pass my hand through my desktop if the atoms just all lined up correctly.  It took a long time to even begin to wrap my head around that one, and I’m not certain I have, to be completely honest.

If we just wait for the right time for things to align themselves, we can make an enormous impact by taking advantage of that window.  By learning to recognize when someone is receptive to our message we can be more certain that our input will have the intended effect.  For many years now I have wondered how many times I will have to ask my girls to do the same thing before they change their behavior.  I looked for some magical number – 1,000? 2,500? 15,000? Whatever it took, I was willing to do it so long as it resulted in my desired outcome.  But what if it isn’t a repetition but a receptivity principle?  What if I’m wasting my breath (and anger and frustration and eye-rolling) by bouncing my words off of a brick wall? What if I simply wait until I can see they are ready to hear my message and say it once?

The idea that simply talking louder or pounding my fist for emphasis or adding tears to the mix isn’t likely to change anything is a revelation.  I know inherently that my chiropractor was right.  There is a therapeutic window for everything and my window isn’t the same as anyone else’s, but if I push harder and harder in an attempt to get my agenda across, all I’m likely to do is aggravate the situation more.  I know that lecturing Eve when she’s already mad or embarrassed about something only serves to make her dig her heels in stubbornly.  I have observed that when I can hold my tongue and wait until she comes to me in contrition or asking for help, I have a much larger impact on the situation.

I can’t promise I’ll remember this principle every time I am desperate to impart some wisdom, but hopefully I can keep the image of this window in my head to prompt me to at least ask the question, “Is this person ready to hear what I want to say?”

Anyone who knew me during the first 35 years of my life would probably describe me as “Type A.” A perfectionist, in love with control and order and predictability.  Far from being disturbed by that sort of characterization, I embraced it fully. I was in love with the concept of controlling my own destiny and often (quietly) railed against those who might stand in my way as I traveled down the neat and tidy path of my life as I envisioned it.

On the other hand, folks who have met me in the past few years might not agree.  I like to think that I have seen the error of my ways, addressed the driving forces behind my drastic need to control the parameters of my life and the lives of my children, and become much more accepting of the world and my place in it.  I am capable of letting go of worries about how others might see me and not nearly so frantic about working, working, working to prove my worth and avoiding all potential difficulties.

That said, I still have a bit of a mental struggle between “being” and “doing.” I have a meditation practice that has served me well over the past several years and often at the first sign of trouble, my instinct tells me to slow down and check in with my gut. To be still and quiet and breathe instead of mobilizing for action to mitigate damage.  And yet, often as I am working to ‘be,’ I carry ‘what to do’ in the back of my mind like a pebble in my shoe. It is not front and center, sharp enough to make me stop and shake it out, but it’s only a matter of time before I get annoyed and stop to examine it.  Even as I am simply experiencing the discomfort of a particular situation, working to not judge it and panic, I am acknowledging somewhere in my head that soon I will have to do something about this situation and this state of suspension is finite. Perhaps the most mundane, and certainly the most recent example of this in my life follows:

Last week I was suffering with shoulder and neck pain, popping Advil like black jellybeans on Easter Sunday, and wondering when I might find the time to go see my chiropractor. It was a particularly busy week for the girls, Bubba was in Europe on business, and I had a million projects to tackle, so my time was limited.  After two nights of migraines, I gave in and made an appointment for Sunday at noon, knowing that Eve had made plans with a girlfriend and I may have to cancel.  I put it to the back of my mind on Friday night with a little mental post-it that I had to cancel by Saturday at noon if I was going to.

Saturday morning, Eve’s friend still hadn’t called with the details of their plans. By Saturday afternoon, I had decided I would try to push the issue a little and let Eve know that I could either take her to her friend’s house early on Sunday or for a couple of hours after my appointment in the afternoon.  I was still unsure whether Lola would accompany me to the chiropractor or not, and I was a little uneasy as to how it would all turn out, but I resisted the impulse to actively problem-solve.

Within five minutes of Eve texting her friend an inquiry about details, our home phone rang and it was a friend of Lola’s, inviting her over to hang out for a few hours on Sunday. Within the next few minutes, Eve’s friend texted back saying earlier was better for her and we should bring her in the morning. Problem solved.

On Sunday, what I got was a fabulous chiropractor appointment with a skilled practitioner who made me feel almost instantly better and a quiet house for three hours while I worked on a writing project I haven’t been able to tackle yet this week.

But what I really got was the reminder that while sitting with uncertainty (no matter how small) does not necessarily translate to action, it often results in less action being needed.  If I had scrambled around trying to make arrangements for Lola or scheduling Eve’s time with her friend, I would have used up precious energy for no real reason. What ‘being’ did for me was allow time for some of the details in the Universe to shift and provide a clear path for all of us. Had I pre-emptively cancelled my appointment so as to avoid the cancellation fee, I would have ended up frustrated that both kids were away and my neck still hurt.

Over the years I have noted the positive affects of not-doing again and again (this, by the way, is much different than procrastination, although I often convince myself that it is not and justify my procrastination by saying that I was simply waiting for ‘things to work themselves out’). I am coming to trust in the partnership between being and doing, the yin and yang of them in relationship to each other, the notion that there is a time and a place for each and neither ought to be forced.  In my life, anyway, the more I can initially sit with a new situation and not succumb to that siren call to “Act now!” the less effort I end up expending to find a workable solution that feels right.  Beyond the weekly, mundane examples like the chiropractor appointment, there are many more monumental issues I have experienced in my life in which this principle is astoundingly applicable. Perhaps my new mantra ought to be, “When in doubt, do nothing for a little while. Just to see how things unfold.” You never know – I may not have to do anything at all, and that is certainly cause for celebration.

I was asked today how I think my daughters’ school views failure and I cringed.  I hate that word. It is so full of rot and worms and gut-wrenching stink.  The first thing I did was to reframe the conversation in terms of mistakes, and then I dug in deeper.

I don’t know where we as a society got the notion that mistakes aren’t allowed, or at least that only mistakes of a certain type are allowed.  I remember teachers handing papers back to me with a final grade written on them in red ink at the top and feeling either defeated or elated depending on the score (which I rapidly translated from a number score to a letter grade in my head, don’t you know).  I remember accepting that this was the way it was. You get one chance to take that test or write that essay and the grade you get is the grade you get.  But that isn’t real life, is it?  And it certainly isn’t a reasonable expectation. I think if we asked, no parent or school official or teacher would say that they expect their students to come in, sit through a lecture, absorb everything the teacher says, and perform perfectly on an exam. Desire? Yes. Expect? No. Schools are for learning, and learning simply can’t happen without missteps.

Last year, Eve had a math teacher who expected the girls to turn in corrections on their math homework.  If it was clear to him that they hadn’t quite understood or mastered the content by the looks of their math papers, he would return them to the girls and ask them to rework the problems they had answered incorrectly.  He offered to stay in at lunch or after school to pore over the papers with students who just hadn’t quite figured it out yet because his goal was that each of his students truly learn the material he was teaching. He didn’t have a bell curve he was working toward.  He wasn’t compelled by some external drive to “get through” a certain amount of material. He wanted these girls to understand what he was teaching and he lived it every day.

How often do we get “corrections” in life? Everywhere, I’d say.  Just because I try out a new recipe one night and it bombs, my family doesn’t ‘fire’ me from cooking anymore.  I’m not branded a failure in the kitchen and asked not to return.  Life is about reworking problems, looking back to see where we went wrong and making it a little better next time.  Unfortunately, I think we don’t offer our kids that much slack at school.  So many students are frantic to turn in perfect papers that they stay up all night tweaking every last detail or resort to buying someone else’s work to turn in. They take round after round of pre-SAT tests in order to increase their scores as much as possible before applying to colleges.  They give up on themselves if they can’t master a particular subject, or if they can’t master school itself.  We are doing them a disservice if we continue to send them the message that there is only one way to learn and if they don’t figure it out, they’re doomed.

One of the biggest reasons I love the school my daughters attend is that the teachers embrace mistakes. They expect mistakes. They encourage the girls to step outside of their comfort zone and try things they are afraid of just to see what happens.  Yes, they have high academic standards, but those standards revolve around comprehension and utilization of the material they are taught, not regurgitating memorized material on a test or being at the top of the bell curve.  Their teachers believe that one of the biggest components of learning is not knowing. I mean, honestly, isn’t that the only prerequisite for learning? That you don’t already know?  In this equation, effort and resilience are the most important traits a student can have, and given that those characteristics are vital to the rest of their lives as well, don’t we want to instill them in our kids instead of some completely unattainable ideal of perfection?

Ahh, control. The word has meant many different things to me in my life.  As a young child, I fantasized about having some, any at all.  I equated control with power and freedom.  As a teen, I was certain I was in control of my life – manipulating my parents carefully with my words and actions to convince them that I was mature and responsible and could be trusted.  I had been hurt badly, betrayed by friends and family, and was determined to set myself up in a tower of my own making that would ensure I was never hurt like that again.

As a young adult, I had to admit that I was most certainly NOT in control of much, living hand-to-mouth as I worked two or three jobs to survive my college years, making some really bad choices (like falling prey to the nice folks who sat at the Visa table in my school’s common area) and suffering the consequences.  I struggled to rein in the world, eventually limiting my scope to a pretty small radius so that I could begin to find the way back to mastery.  Once I felt solidly on my feet again, I started to widen my range, only to lose it again when I had children.

It has taken me many cycles of loss and lockdown to discover that my life is happier when I let go of the need for control.  Consider:

Infants have no control over anything. Their bodies twitch and move without their input. And they accept that, they don’t know anything else.  Sure, they get hungry and cry for help, or they need a fresh diaper and cry for help, but they are accepting of the fact that they need others to survive.  When they aren’t crying for help, infants are absorbing. They are being. They are taking in everything around them, not attempting to control it or change it, just existing within it.

Again, when we get to the most advanced years of our lives, we have little control.  Many of us lose our motor skills, some of us lose our cognitive skills, and we all end up relying on others to help us.  There is no regaining the illusion of control that we had throughout most of our lives, there is no pill we can take to restore our muscle and brain function to what it once was (although I’m certain there are many, many millions of dollars spent working on finding one).  Some of the happiest people I know are those who have the least amount of control in their lives.

Michael A. Singer writes in his book, The Untethered Soul,

“We think we’re supposed to figure out how life should be and then make it that way….How did we come up with the notion that life is not okay just the way it is…?”

Later he expands on that notion,

“You’re either trying to figure out how to keep things from happening or your trying to figure out what to do because they did happen. You’re fighting with creation.”

Yup, that about sums up the vast majority of my life (and energy expenditure) to this point.  When I look at individuals who are not hell-bent on changing the external world or walling off their internal experience to fit their notion of what would make life pleasant, I see people who are happy. People with lives that actually are pleasant.  People whose energies are spent moving forward with things that are meaningful to them as opposed to defending themselves from the potential harm they could encounter.

Slowly but surely I am beginning to understand that my attempts to be in control of my own life amount to holding myself hostage.  I end up limiting my ability to experience the entire range of things I might see and do and feel because I am afraid that I might not be able to mitigate the effect of those experiences on me.    And in the end, the world I might create if I were in control would only contain the things I have encountered up until now and what a boring place that would be.  It would likely also be pretty lonely, given that a world where I never get hurt is probably a world without other sentient beings.  So while I’m not looking forward to having my heart broken or losing my physical abilities or memory, I’m not willing to trade my relationships or the wonder of new discoveries for absolute control, either.  I guess I’m going to have to keep working on being okay with pain and vulnerability. Damn.

My word of the day.


But it didn’t start out that way.  I awoke in the darkness for the fourth day in a row cursing Daylight Savings Time and the way it thrusts me back into a cycle of waking before the sun just when my mood has begun to lift.  I awoke to another day of Bubba in a different state altogether, missing his solid presence next to mine in bed and calculating the hours until the airplane’s wheels touch down in this city with him inside.

And then I got to kiss my girls awake.  Both of them, teenage-years-be-damned.  I got to lean over Lola’s warm, round cheeks that won’t lose their plumpness for another year perhaps and brush my lips across them, murmuring to her that it is time to get up.  I headed upstairs to stumble over books and underwear strewn across Eve’s floor, making my way to a precarious perch on the side of her bed and press my lips firmly on her forehead, oily with hormones and sleep.  I am so blessed.

We all did what we do, packing lunches, gathering homework and water bottles, steaming milk, walking the dog around the block, sliding in to the car for the short ride to school.

As soon as the girls shut the car doors, I flipped on NPR (they can’t stand to listen to it in the morning whereas I consider it breakfast) and heard that a Senate committee has approved an assault weapons ban that will now head to a full vote.  I listened to a story about the rape case in Ohio and another about the scores of individuals perhaps wrongly convicted because of tainted or fabricated evidence in a Massachusetts lab.  And I wondered…

What if we are all doing the things we are supposed to be doing right now?
What if humanity is pushing along at precisely the pace it needs to be?

I don’t mean to say that there isn’t injustice or incredible suffering in the world for so many people.
I don’t mean to imply that I don’t care about all of it.

But when I look around I see so much beauty and love. I truly feel an emergence of a better place, better working conditions for so many, more equality for individuals who have historically been disenfranchised, more awareness of our collective connection to each other.  And we couldn’t have that without all that has gone before.  We can only work at a certain pace to effect change and I believe that there is a building of energy and will like a tide coming in to sweep the beach. And just like a tide, it will retreat and build again and again.

I see people all over working to make their own lives better and to improve the lives of others and I am buoyed.  It is only by accepting the place where we find ourselves that we can hope to move forward.  Alicia wrote on her blog about some of the real challenges she faces in her everyday life with a special needs daughter, and she wrote about it with equanimity.  She wasn’t railing against her daughter or whatever “god” or “fate” set her up to have the unique behaviors she has, she was simply accepting, sitting back and looking at her own life with clear eyes.  I know so many other parents who do that every day – ElizabethCarrieMichelle.  They absolutely have to marshal their strength to fight for things from time to time. They are all amazing advocates for their children and tremendously committed to finding resources and pushing for change and I am in awe of them all.  But they can’t be effective unless they first understand who they are fighting for. And that takes equanimity.  The ability to look at your life for what it is and find the beauty mixed in with the difficulty. The ability to seek the eye of the tornado and sit there while all swirls around you, knowing that it simply can’t be any different than it is right now, but it will most certainly be different over time.

Today I am finding solace and peace in knowing that the world is what it is right now because that’s where it is supposed to be.  Progress comes on the heels of many feet marching together for the long haul, but we can’t walk if we don’t recognize the ground we’re standing on.


One of the saddest words I think I ever learned is “until.”

Last week I sat on an airplane, one row behind a father and his two sons, ages 5 and 4, and listened to their excited chatter. Neither of the boys had ever been on a plane before and they couldn’t wait for this lumbering giant to reach the end of the runway and whisper up and off the ground.  Both of them squealed in tandem at the slight lift under the plane’s wheels and the younger one hollered, “We’re flying!” as his dad shushed him and looked around apologetically to everyone else on board.

Across the aisle from me was a young couple with a nine-month old. The baby’s mother sat down, handed the little girl to her father and pulled out a giant container of disinfecting wipes. She apologized to the stranger (Bubba) sitting next to her as she swiped down every surface within reach of the baby – the armrests, seat belt buckles, backs of the seat in front of her, everyone’s trays (inside and out), the wall and window next to them.  I smiled and closed my eyes, imagining the days filled with splashing in the pool, digging in the sand, slathering sunscreen on over and over and trying to keep her hat on.  I remembered those days of fighting for naps in a hotel room and falling in to bed at night, the TV too low for us to even hear it lest we wake our kids up, too tired for sex, the bathtub full of grit and wet swimsuits.

I was always waiting “until”
            my kids were old enough to modulate their own voices for the comfort of others around them
            they could bathe themselves and fall asleep without rocking or pleading
            the girls could entertain themselves on an airplane

Listening to those squeals of joy I realized how much “until” kept me from the now, stunted the joy of today, gave me hope for “until” but didn’t let me revel in the moment.

“Until” is never satisfied, never still, never accepting or grateful or full of equanimity.

I can so clearly remember the myriad times I thought to myself, “I can’t wait until…” as I looked at other families longingly.  I know I didn’t speed up time, but I do know that I missed fully appreciating some of the moments of exploration and the dawning of new understandings as they happened for my girls because I was focused on getting past this stage (whatever it was).

Maybe after today I can hear myself thinking those words and stop.  Maybe I can breathe instead and look around – take stock of where I am and how grateful I am to be here. Now.

I had the opportunity to spend a day watching my nieces over the holiday break. Eve, Lola and I arrived ready to entertain two incredibly active four-year-olds for a few hours while their parents headed to the science center for the King Tut exhibit.  I was excited to share my homemade play-dough recipe with them, adding essential oils and food coloring to make it even better.  Since we don’t live near these lovely little fairies, I don’t often get to exercise my toddler-parenting chops and Eve and Lola have far outgrown needing me to design their entertainment.

We had a ball, breaking out all sorts of non-traditional tools like frosting tips and turkey timers and the girls loved playing with grapefruit and cinnamon-scented dough.  They were little angels, sharing all of the colors and giggling at each others’ creations, and Eve and Lola were the sweetest big cousins, letting them experiment and stepping in to help whenever asked.

We took a break for cornbread with honey and then decided to go for a walk since the sun was shining for a short while.  Lola designed a scavenger hunt list of things we needed to look for on our stroll and when the little ones got chilly we sneaked into a corner cafe for a cup of hot cocoa to warm up.  Nobody got cranky or cried. Nobody spilled their cocoa or whined for more.  It was idyllic.

When we got back to the house, one of the girls wanted to resume playing with the dough and the other one dragged Eve off to play hide and seek.  I merely supervised until the girls wanted me to chase them.  Each toddler had a “big girl” to protect her so that when I got close to catching one of them, they were swooped to safety by either Eve or Lola.  We ran around the house for fifteen minutes or so and then Lola got distracted by the doorbell.  Without her protector, one of the girls got truly frightened as I jogged after her and she dashed under the table, crying.  I felt horrible, remembering how fully immersed children can get in imaginary games and assured her I wouldn’t “get” her.  Fortunately, Lola returned to save her from the monster and all was well within minutes.

We played a board game together and took some silly photos, but I couldn’t shake the picture in my mind of the stark fear on my poor niece’s face.  I wondered idly whether she would remember it vividly when she looked back on our day together.

There was no mention of the incident over the next few days (or upon her parents’ return), and I found myself hoping she erased it from her memory altogether.  Reflecting on my own childhood memories, I wonder how many frightening things I filed away that may have been so inconsequential.  I am reminded of the wholly subjective nature of memory often – all it takes is a conversation with my siblings to see that we each remember certain events in a radically different way.  My memories of that day will be fond because I was afforded an opportunity to interact with my nieces in a way I don’t often get to and we did things together that were vastly different from the kinds of things they normally do.  I also got to see Eve and Lola in a very different light than I normally do; as big-girl role models and caring cousins.  But what if the fear my niece felt was powerful enough to imprint a stronger memory in her brain than the pleasure of the scavenger hunt and the play-dough?  What if the cafe and the games don’t measure up to the raw emotion she felt as I chased her? I can’t argue with her memory or the way she felt any more than someone from my past could change what I believe happened on any particular day in my life.  It is said that memories are influenced by emotion and I can attest to the fact that I am more prone to recall incidents I have imbued with negative emotions than those that simply left me feeling content or peaceful.  Perhaps the trick is to place some sort of emphasis or exclamation point on the pleasant memories and, over time, they will come to weigh as much as the unhappy ones.

I also think it is helpful to exercise our attention to the positive in our lives.  I know that when I started my daily gratitude practice, over time I was more likely to notice things in my daily life that I was grateful for.  From the beginning of time, fear was a tool we used to keep us alive, but now that I no longer have to worry about being eaten by a saber-tooth tiger while I’m out for a walk, I can choose to notice the sunshine on my face and the pattern the ice crystals make in the puddle on the sidewalk and reflect on how at ease I feel.  I can revel in the taking of a clear, deep breath after a week of coughing and sniffling or savor the way my tea tastes when it has steeped to just the right strength.

I don’t want to manipulate my nieces’ impressions of our day together, nor am I concerned that either of them was affected by the momentary fear during our game.  I am simply grateful that I was given the chance to see them (and my daughters) through a different lens for a few hours and to have gotten the reminder that I can choose which memories to accent in my own mind.

On Friday I was inconsolable for much of the day, my grief only giving way to let flashes of anger and indignance in as I posted sharp calls for gun control and increased funding for mental health on my Facebook page.  Mostly, though, I sobbed.

At some point, I knew I had to turn off the radio and move forward, however slowly, and so when I picked Eve and Lola up from school, I decided I was done for a bit.  We talked about the Newtown school shooting until Lola plugged her ears and begged us to stop and then we all huddled together in a shaky hug and agreed to let it sit for a while.

The weekend was full of affection and family time.  We didn’t turn on the news at all – radio or TV – and instead went to see The Hobbit and baked holiday treats to share with family.  I checked Facebook and my email very sparingly and only once or twice asked myself whether I was avoiding something I ought to be paying attention to.  I didn’t answer myself.

Despite a friend’s suggestion to watch President Obama’s speech at the interfaith service held on Sunday, I skipped it.  I am not sure whether I was afraid it would crack me wide open again or if there was something else at work but this morning I feel as though I know how I can best frame all of this for myself.  At least for now.

I started a gratitude practice about a year ago in an effort to ward off depression.  When I was really wrestling with darkness, mornings were the most challenging time for me.  I often woke up with only one eye at a time so I could gauge whether that semi truck of pain and longing was heading for me before I put my feet on the floor.  A friend suggested that before I open my eyes, I start a list of things for which I am truly grateful. A sort of shield against that truck hurtling my way.  I figured it couldn’t hurt.

In the beginning it was 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 my friend’s 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 feel too nebulous to me to be grateful for sometimes), or for deep, profound items on my list.  I am nothing if not stubborn, though, and motivated to keep the depression at bay, and so, pathetic as my lists could be sometimes, I kept going. I hoped that maybe tomorrow I would come up with something beyond my kids, my husband, and my health to be grateful for.

I have, to be sure, developed my understanding of gratitude over the past year, but this morning I came to a much greater sense of how to incorporate it into my life.  Since I began this practice, I have seen gratitude as a balance sheet, a yin and yang where the black never bleeds into the white.  Where the two sides are separate and I can choose to exist in either one world or the other at any given time.  Where even if I saw something on that ugly side of the page that felt overwhelming like the Newtown shooting I could quickly jump to the other side and say to myself, “My kids are healthy and safe at their school right now. I am so grateful for that.”

This morning things got a little muddy.  Because the fact is, I do exist in both of those realities simultaneously and I don’t want to compare the two things.  I came to realize that I can be knee-deep in the muck that is my sadness and grief about the events of last Friday and still find beauty in the world.  The two things simply are.  One does not cancel the other out.  One does not mitigate the effects of the other.  One does not explain or deny the other. They both simply are.  And I can be in both at the same time and have both utter desolation and an appreciation for the gifts I experience without judging.

When my father was dying and we both knew it,  we were devastated.  We could sit together and acknowledge that we wouldn’t likely have much time left together and still find joy in silly things like stories about my girls’ antics or watching a football game.  It wasn’t about forgetting or denying that he was dying, it was about recognizing that and allowing it and sitting with it as we found love and companionship.

I think, too, it is about acknowledging my particular place.  That I can be a force for love and light in the world when I remember to do so. And that there will be times I am fully flawed and I spew anger or create chaos, but that both the dark and the light exist within me, not in discrete spaces sealed off from each other, but swirled together in a vast, cosmic mud puddle where I will sometimes squish into the muck and other times splash with joy.  And I am but a small reflection of the world in which I reside that also contains both of these elements.  In this way, choosing to honor those things for which I am grateful is not a denial or refusal to look at the things I find painful or ugly, but an acceptance that they are as real and as valid as the other.  Today, that makes the beauty a little messier, but no less wonderful.

I finished my Christmas shopping yesterday.  And before you stop reading and curse me, letting phrases like, “F*&^ you!” and “well, la tee dah” fly, I want to take you on a thought journey.  Please. Indulge me.

It all began with an afternoon latte and a friend who was talking about a business class she once took. Never mind that the entire notion of her taking a business class shook me nearly out of my seat – she was a theater arts major with a beautiful singing voice and I have known her for more than half our lives. I didn’t have the presence of mind to stop her narrative to ask, WTF? You? Took a business class?  She is a fast talker – my father used to call those of us who love to talk ‘motormouth’ – and she blithely continued on before I could stop her. Good thing. Because she started talking about something called manageable chunks. Not prioritizing or triaging or anything that places importance on one set of tasks or ideas over another, but manageable chunks. And it occurred to me that this is a vanilla enough phrase that it can mean many things to many different people.  And that is precisely why I liked it.

You see, for me, editing my latest book review was not manageable yesterday. Neither was phoning my naturopath’s bookkeeper and then the insurance company and then the administrator of my HSA to talk about why my deductible has not yet been met even though it is nearly the end of the year.  Even less manageable for me would have been sitting down to crunch numbers on the landscape project Bubba and I are toying with doing.  Manageable? Shopping. Driving to some cute local stores to look at stocking stuffers and purchase a book or two to round out my holiday gift lists.  Coming home and hauling all of the wrapping paper and ribbons out of storage and staging a Santa’s elves helper area for the girls to fully immerse themselves in – that was manageable. Yesterday. I’m not saying it would be next Tuesday.  Or any other day. But yesterday, that was the one piece of my To-Do List that I felt I could tackle with the mindset, energy and ability I had.

And then, as the girls and I sat swapping scissors for tape for ribbon and doing our best to make all of the packages pretty despite the black fur that was sticking to everything (we were wrapping in front of the fireplace which is where the dog and the cat do most of their lounging), I saw it on the news.  A lone, masked man entered a busy shopping mall in Portland, Oregon yesterday and began shooting randomly, killing two people and wounding a 15-year old girl before killing himself.  I have been in that mall many times.  My sister used to work there.  My friend Carrie took her son to see Santa there 24 hours prior to this horrible incident.  I was struck still.  No thoughts, very little breath, no movement.  No emotion, even, for a moment in the beginning.  And then I was sad and then grateful that more people weren’t injured. And then I wondered who this poor man was and why he felt as though he had to do something like this. And then I was still again because I have no answers. And that is where I stayed (mentally) until now.

Logically, I know I don’t have all the answers. Viscerally, I disagree entirely.  Logically, I don’t even want to have all the answers. God forbid someone call me up one day and say, “Kari? Good, you’re there. I’m taking a break for a bit and I need you to mind the Universe until I come back, okay? Thanks.”  I would wet myself.  I would stutter and sputter and perhaps vomit.  Because that, my friends, is a lot of responsibility.

But sometimes I fantasize that whomever that person is that is in charge will call and ask me for one piece of the puzzle.  That I can eloquently and articulately present my argument for, say, organic foods or holistic health care or safer environmental practices and leave them saying, “Damn! You’re good! Of course we will implement that right away. We are so glad we asked you. Can we keep your number in case we have other questions?”

Often I rail at the powers-that-be who must surely possess the wisdom that I have and, yet, are not doing a damn thing about it to change some of the major things that bother me: poverty, environmental degradation, and human rights abuses, to name a few.

And before you think you know where I’m going with this (manageable chunks) I will throw you for a bit of a loop.  Because it occurred to me that every moment of every day there are things being done.  Things that I don’t even know about or understand and didn’t set in motion.  And while they may not entirely cancel out or eradicate the things that make me gnash my teeth in anger or frustration, they constitute motion.  It occurred to me that, even as I notice a new crack in my index finger – a result of the eczema I deal with every year at this time – my body is working to repair some other damage or create some new cell somewhere else that I can’t see.  So maybe I can give my finger a leg up by slathering some cream on it and trying to keep it out of hot water and mitigate some of the work my body has to do so it can use it elsewhere.

I am surely part of the solution, but only part.  And I can only operate within the boundaries of what I know as Truth (remember this post?) and do the rest of the Universe the enormous favor of not challenging every damn little thing it says or does.  Because I don’t have all the answers. And I can’t see the whole picture, but I do know that everywhere, simultaneously, throughout this vast wondrous place we live in, healing is happening at the same time as harm.  And I believe with a very strong conviction that as long as I stick to my manageable chunks, progress is being made.

Ironically, admitting that I don’t have the answers is a little, teensy bit freeing.  While the Teacher’s Pet in me is right now kicking my shins furiously and sticking out her tongue, it is a huge load off to accept the fact that perhaps I don’t have to go out there and fix things all the time.  And it is an even bigger revelation that part of the reason I have avoided certain people and situations in my life is because I felt as though I was expected to provide some solution that I honestly did not have in me.  While I generally chalked those avoidances up to less enlightened things like, “She’s a total freaking mess and it’s not my responsibility” or simply, “He’s an ass,” it turns out that what I was really avoiding was the fear of acknowledging the simple truth that I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO IN THIS INSTANCE.  Once I face that fear and shove it out of the way, there is room for compassion – both for myself in all my ignorance and for the other person who must be feeling really shitty right now.  Having spent most of my life trying to convince everyone that I was mature/intelligent/capable enough to handle anything, it’s a little bit of a turnaround to suddenly realize I’m not any of those things.  I suspect it will take practice. Lots of practice.  And faith that somewhere, someone has a few of the answers I don’t have and still others have their particular pieces of the puzzle, and me? I have my manageable chunks and my not-so-manageable chunks and I have a few answers. Just not all of ’em.

I guess, technically, it’s pre-holiday, too, considering that Christmas is coming up, but Thanksgiving and Christmas always sort of lump together in my mind and heart like one long slow hill up to the top of this rickety roller coaster that dumps me down a thrilling dive to Christmas, up another little dip and down again on New Year’s.  I wonder when or if I will ever see these holidays as different.  My image of them has been shaped by the school calendar, anticipating the break from routine just as much as the actual decorating and annual Nutcracker viewing and rip-and-tear on the morning of the 25th.

I had my annual physical today and was grateful for so many things.  The doctor who comes in and doesn’t touch me for at least 20 minutes as she asks me how I’m doing and what’s going on in my life. The fact that she remembers the stories I told her of stress and my husband’s health history and my writing three months ago when I was there.  The enormous, green vein nestled in the crook of my left elbow (antecubital fossa – that’s forever my favorite anatomy term) that is easily visible to any lab tech and gives up blood without rolling or closing down or even making a squeak.  I was enormously grateful to Bubba for being in town to get the girls ready and off to school so I could schedule my physical first thing in the morning and not have to go without coffee or food for too long.  Tremendously grateful for health insurance that allows me to make this annual pilgrimage to keep tabs on my health.

I am having so much fun shopping for the kids in the family this year. I always do, but forget about it throughout the year. Even if some of them won’t be with me when they open them, I delight in finding goofy little things that conjure up memories or that one special item I know they can’t get where they are. I used to start shopping in August because I thought I was supposed to get a jump on the holidays, but I always ended up with a closet full of gifts, too many to give each person, embarrassed by the amount of money I had spent.  I shifted to making lists  of possible ideas starting in August, but quickly realized that stressed me out more than anything – making sure the items would still be available when I was ready to buy them. When we shifted to drawing names for adults so that each of us only bought for one other person, I began to get back into the joy of finding that one special gift.  We still buy gifts for all the kids, though, and that is my favorite part.  Like most things, I’m much more sanguine about that these days, picking up things as I come across them in my daily errands or leafing through catalogs in the evenings.

A few years ago I started making anti-gift lists for Eve and Lola in an effort to avoid the things we either had too many of or simply didn’t want in the house. Barbie dolls, Polly Pocket, anything pink (in Lola’s case)….I may have added a few things to that list that weren’t preapproved by the girls but I figure that’s my prerogative as the mom.  This year, I happened to mention to my sister-in-law that if she got Eve gift cards to either Hollister or Abercrombie (which she put high on her list of desires), she could get me a corresponding gift by offering to take her shopping there for me.  I hate both of those stores for so many reasons.  I have a girlfriend who calls them both “the naked boy store” because the shopping bags have black and white photos of half-naked boy-men on them with their jeans pulled down to show their hip bones.  There are posters of these boys throughout the store – not that you can see them very well because the stores are so dimly lit that I have been known to mortify Eve by pulling out my phone to shine it on a price tag or two.  There is an overwhelming stench of perfume, so much so that within five minutes of being inside, I can taste it in the back of my throat and begin hacking like a cat with a hairball.  There is never anyone at the locked dressing rooms which means someone has to go hunting for help. At first, I offered to stand in line while Eve went, but that generally resulted in her becoming distracted by other items she wanted to try on and inevitably I stood there for 15 minutes before she finally came back and said she was too shy to ask anyone.  There is only ever one person behind the checkout counter, with five or six other employees scattered throughout the store folding clothes and putting them back on racks.  This means that I stand in line while Eve wanders to look for other things and then I have to step out of line while she goes to try “just one more thing” on. I may have spewed all of this frustration to my SIL. I may have been a little vehement about it.  I may have just put the kibosh on any gift cards from either of those stores. Depends on how badly she wants to be the celebrity aunt. Or how much wine she has before shopping…