Touchstones


Last year around this time, I was deep in the fatigue of post-Hurricane Irma. I’m sure anyone touched by Irma felt that way. The days of ever-changing landfall predictions; storm-shuttering the house; stocking up on food and batteries; buying gas for the generator and looking for it afterward in long gas lines; witnessing a magnificent but sobering display of natural fury as wind ripped trees from the ground and rain raged against the house — all of it was exhausting.

Our neighborhood was wonderful, though. We rode with each other, checking phone apps for gas stations with gas. We grocery shopped and bought each other food and other supplies. We shared what we had. But in the true darkness that comes with nights spent without any hint of artificial light, with only the drone of the generators giving witness that others shared my world, I had time to think about what really spoke to my spirit and how far I strayed from what mattered in my desire to “get ahead.”

By the time the power came back on, I felt cast away and unmoored. I needed a respite from the heat and humidity and the place where “bundling up” meant pulling on a pair of long pants and a heavy sweater on those few-and-far-between forty-eight degree nights. I yearned for snow and a visit to real winter, the favorite season of my childhood. I missed my sister and needed a visit with her, in snow country. 

But I don’t like to travel as much as I once did and I really, really don’t like to fly. I have these attacks of anxiety-that-borders-on-panic. Once, while flying, I felt the intense need to keep the plane in flight by sheer willpower. This time was different. I calmed down a few days before my departure, unafraid and looking forward to the reconnections.

The first flight into Atlanta ended okay, despite the plane bouncing once and skidding a little to the left. No reason to panic, right? The connecting flight into Cincinnati lifted off the runway, just minutes ahead of the storm that dropped nine inches of snow in the city and surrounding parts of northern Georgia. Temperatures in the twenties greeted me in Ohio, not a snowflake in sight but a heart still believing it would snow that weekend.

Snow has always been my personal touchstone, the one thing that brings me back to the most elemental child who still resides within me but is often left to play by herself in the corner while the adult me pursues other activities. Maybe snow-love was deposited into my mitochondrial DNA the night I was born:  a wild night, I was told, with wind and sleet-that-turned-to-snow challenging my dad’s driving skills as he took my laboring mother to the hospital. Maybe its purity somehow re-ignites hope in my soul or somehow reassures me of the world’s goodness.

Going out to dinner that first evening didn’t quite pan out because one of my sister’s dogs injured her eye bad enough to force an emergency trip to the vet in temperatures that had dropped into the teens. The wee one had to spend the night and my sister was told to pick her up the following morning.

A few lazy snowflakes drifted down as we prepared to go to the vet the next morning. I felt a rising joy. By the time we reached the vet’s office, snow coated the grass and swirled across roads already dusted by it, blown by a fiercely cold wind. As we drove down the winding roads toward the river, the snow still blew, more gently but no less beautiful and exciting than its wild counterpart on the hill. The snow, the blue light of a wintery day, and wreaths hanging on the perimeter fence around my sister’s house, dusted by snow, were perfect backdrops to my sister’s warm house. While we waited to make sure the dog navigated well with her Elizabethan collar, my sister and I talked, read magazines, and laughed over projects that we could do but would never get around to.

During this quiet time I realized my sister is another of my touchstones. We not only share our mitochondrial DNA, we share a lifetime of experiences and those experiences bind us together despite our different personalities, life paths, and trajectories. Those experiences help us hold similar values and share a heritage replete with memories. And as I get older, I am so grateful for her and the refuge she provides me when I most need connection and a reaffirmation of me.

Snowy days with my sister.  Two touchstones I experience in real time as well as in memory; the things that keep my heart happy and soul nourished.  And this year, we’ll be heading off for an adventure in Nashville.  

In November.

I hope it snows.

Another New Year!

    For many years, the New Year presented another opportunity to make a resolution and forget all about it weeks later; choosing a word of the year and then forgetting the word itself; and a bunch of other things destined for the internal scrap pile. But over the last several years, I’ve realized a tendency to look at things more globally.  What would I want an entire year to look like? And what would it take to make it that way?

    I called 2016 “The Gift of a Year.” I gave myself an entire year to explore, internally and externally. I read a great deal (from paleontology to poetry), hired a business mentor to create a project that I decided to shelve for the time-being (since I didn’t feel the timing was right and details weren’t quite nailed down); moved away from a very toxic work environment into one that would simply prove itself to be a slightly less toxic work environment. I began carrying a small notebook with me (Best thing!) in order to jot down sentences and thoughts that percolated up on my early Saturday morning “dates” with myself at First Watch. (I now know most of the staff well enough at each location that they have coffee waiting for me and my order put in.) I gave myself some space and grace to deal with a great deal (think ginormous) of baggage from years of dealing with my father-in-law and a lingering sense of having to prove myself in a male-dominated world. And, as a result, ultimately realized resolutions come in their own time

    Last year, 2017, became “The Year of Watchfulness and Listening.”  Watching and listening require presence-in-the moment, as well as a storing up of things learned so I could benefit from them at a future point of “present.” What I learned throughout the year seemed random:  a lesson here, a lesson there, all seemingly unconnected until October brought one great, big “POW.” An incident so small that it shouldn’t have mattered. Except that it did. One small atom of incident meeting up with a number of atoms of vulnerability, then nuclear explosion inside. Fortunately, I remembered what cognitive therapy had taught me years ago and I was able to use those tools to untangle the knots, smooth the threads, and see the messages:  “I will not be silent” was the first. “I will not empower men as my go-to response,” the second. I felt bruised and battered when the explosion happened; as the year concluded, I felt nothing short of grounded, girded, and moving forward. I’m here to tell you that good really can come from bad.

    So now 2018 has landed. This year has two themes, one of which is so personal and new and vulnerable that I’m not sharing it just yet. It is just too fragile to risk being placed into the world.  It needs a little age and has to be held close for its sake and my own, at least for now. The second theme, though, is “The Year of Recognition.”  It’s my year of recognizing the worth of each person, each place, and each thing in the world. It’s about making the way a little better for anyone I meet and anything I contact. The goal isn’t complicated:  a hello and smile; sitting with someone who is in pain and needs an ear; paying for someone’s order in the line at Dunkin’ Donuts; dropping off cookies or biscuits to the homeless person on the street corner; complimenting someone’s tattoo or dress or tie; composting; planting flowers for the bees and creating shelter for the wild ones. It doesn’t have to cost a lot - maybe not even at all - but the rewards are huge, both to the giver and the receiver. It really is about realizing we are all sister and brother species after all, in a world we all share, and recognizing we all have something inside of us worthy of recognition and celebration.

    I hope you’ll join me in my attempts at recognition. I’m so grateful you are here to share this with. Happy New Year.

A First Foray Into Politics

     Let me tell you that this is a post about politics. But not the type we’ve become accustomed to, where the writer starts on one side of a debate and preaches either a liberal or conservative platform. I hope to present something different:  a view of politics as seen through my personal history and value system. The seed of this post began when I heard the following exchange between two of my co-workers.

     “I vote a single issue:  pro-life. I don’t care what else a candidate stands for.”

     “Let me understand this,” the other said. “You’d vote for some guy who would grope your daughter or granddaughter? And then joke around about it?”

     In my job, we’re not supposed to talk about politics at work, given the nature of the work we do. But this short snippet of conversation was enough to get me thinking.

     I know my co-workers well enough to know that when the one uses “pro-life,” she really means “anti-abortion.” Just within the last few decades, the whole concept of being pro-life has been constricted to that single definition, so much so it demands an opposing position, which is equally constricted:  pro-choice.

     In my mind, when considered from the perspective of an entire life, being “pro-life” means just that:  in favor of an entire life, not just the one which hasn't been born into the world. "Pro-life" when seen over the course of a full life, seems more liberal (more social programs, more government services) while being for “pro-choice” more conservative (less government, more personal choices). For me, “pro-life” is layered with meaning. It covers everything from summer food programs for kids, Meals-on-Wheels, the Harry Chapin Food Bank, and the homeless shelters (among many others). It means caring for the elderly, work for the unemployed, and - dare I say it? - healthcare that’s available to all, especially those who cannot afford to pay for it.

     How we got to the point where things got so convoluted is beyond the scope of a single blog post. But the commonly used meaning of “pro-life” has become a rallying cry - and a very narrow one at that - specifically against abortion rather than a cry on behalf of all aspects of life. It tries to reel people into a single arena, dupe us into buying into that tiny definition, and strip us of our personal values and morality while replacing them with a group morality. It’s gutted the values of Christianity, Judaism, and the Religion of Islam - the mandates to feed the poor, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit those in prison - and contorted the discussion in such a way that to vote against abortion is to also vote against these other great mandates of our faith traditions. This “group” morality makes an issue black or white when, in reality, it’s an issue of such breadth and depth that it defies a single definition. 

     How have we come to allow ourselves to be so duped?

     It’s dangerous, this going down too-narrow pathways in our politics (and even our lives, for that matter); of ignoring the varied and rich diversity of intersecting pathways; of buying into “Only this way is the right way.” There’s a certain deadliness that comes into play when we lose our capacity to know when we are being duped and, worse still, suspecting that we’re being duped but not able to articulate the whys and wherefores or knowing that we are and continuing to cling to the dishonesty anyway. It’s a deadly game when we stop thinking for ourselves and considering things from different angles. 

     We have to allow others to travel their own paths without forcing them to follow a single one. We have to stop handing over our good sense to charlatans and racketeers, all in the name of something they’ve chosen to define as “pro-life.”

The Learning Doesn't Stop

    I’m currently among a group of people who are working the online program called “Daring Greatly” offered by Brene Brown. This first week we’re focusing on our values (among other things). In the process, I’ve discovered something about my interactions with a particularly toxic person who has since died but left fossilized tentacles of poison behind.

    A bit of backstory. Most all of the interactions we had with each other ended in disagreements. He was a particular type of brutal:  one who kept things changing and so shaken up that those who dared to disagree with or disobey him always found themselves on shifting sands and coming away with the sense they somehow “lost’ the fight. In reality, those of us who disagreed and disobeyed didn’t actually lose the fight; we lost his approval and acceptance largely because he couldn’t own any portion of the role he played in pushing away his family. And it took me, in particular, a long time to realize I never would get his approval.

    For so many years, I carried this sense of never being good enough for him and the extended family he belonged to. I so often felt frustrated he couldn’t “see” what he was doing. (He could; he just didn’t admit it, as I discovered later.) And he never gave me credit for anything good unless it was about cooking and even then, only provided a very back-handed compliment.

    “I don’t care what anyone says about Anne, she can really bake.”

    That’s as close as he ever came to validating any portion of me. In fact, he accused me of f’ing up a member of his family.

    I don’t intend this backstory to vent or marginalize him as a person. Only to use it as a backdrop for a few lessons I learned very recently, lessons I’d like to share in the hope of easing someone else’s way. It’s only now, this week, that I’ve come to a very different viewpoint about my worth and how to handle the lessons provided me through this man.

    I’ve come to realize that every time I spoke my truth to him, I displayed vulnerability and great moral courage. I stood up for people over money, gratitude over scarcity, giving over taking, loving over hating. The problem, though, was that both my inner sense of insecurity and my deep desire to fit in led me to the conclusion something was “wrong” with me. That I wasn’t good enough, wealthy enough, whatever-enough to earn passage into his sanctum and permission to sit at the table.

    It was again this week, when I shared this realization of my moral courage along with the sense of never being enough that I received this gem of insight from a coworker many years my junior.

    “Mama,” she said, using her nickname for me, “you did exactly what you had to do at the time in order to learn what you had to learn and to teach the people affected by him what they needed to learn at that time, too.”

    This triggered some really deep digging for me, so much so I wrote the following in my journal:

    “…Intellectually, I knew I was enough but I never took it to the next level of ‘Where, in my life, am I allowing others’ opinions affect my view of myself?’ And then to an even deeper level of looking at specific instances, breaking them down to separate components and addressing each component. Then, taking it [still deeper] to the deepest part that required the greatest amount of work:  taking the learning and applying it to every day life, as a practice. …”

    So I learned a second lesson this week:  it’s not enough to intellectualize something. I have to take things down to the deepest level possible, squeeze every bit of learning from them, and then practice what I’ve learned in every day life. I’m realizing, again, that making spiritual work - from writing to reading to doodling in my art journal - a daily practice is my equivalent of daily prayer. Centering. Focusing. Caring. Listening. All with a sense of gratitude and self-worthiness. From my spirituality flows the courage and honesty, the integrity and sense that we are all important and have so much to offer.

    And as a daily evening practice, I go to “church” - night time walks under the glow of Moon, lifting my face to the Wind and smiling as I watch my dogs enjoy the night as much as I do - as a way of unwinding, smoothing the ragged edges of the day, and relaxing into Spirit.

    My wish for you is that you come to realize your incredible worth, find ways to your truest self, and live from that part of you as a daily practice.

    Be of good spirits.

Creative Courage

I just looked up the definition of “courage” and all but one definition stated something to the effect that courage means having the mental or moral strength to stand up for something in the face of pain, fear, or danger.

Over the last week or two, I’ve come to understand courage as applying to all aspects of life and how we live it. We all have pain, emotional or otherwise, we have to deal with and fears that rise up or descend upon us when we least expect them. Which brings me to thinking about the place courage - or being courageous - holds in our creative processes.

Sometimes we suspect our creative projects will bring pain, either in the form of memories or as something we’re dealing with on a more immediate basis. And, as humans and creatives, we don’t like pain. We will often do whatever we have to do to avoid it. Remember, our bodies are imbued with pain avoidance and fear responses as a means of self-preservation but we needn’t always give into the avoidance or fear. Some of us still manage to create, plowing through the fear, knowing full well what we paint or write or sew or express will, in some way, bring pain.

I think creative courage means stepping out of our comfort zones and into those areas which cause a certain amount of pain. We don’t have to be fearless when our natural fear response steps in and revs up. What we have to do is to move through fear and feel the pain in order to come out on the other side.

Sometimes creative courage is more about stepping away from a project in order to get to one that’s truer to a dream we hold. But what often accompanies that is a feeling of failure:  Why did I start this project and now don’t have the resolve to finish it? But maybe it’s not about resolve at all. Maybe it’s more about not being stopped or deterred in the face of the pain that comes when we categorize something as a “failure.”

Or maybe, when we step away from a project we’ve spent a lot of time developing, we feel we've wasted our time. But maybe it’s really more about seeing the original project as an avenue to the truer project. Maybe it’s about looking at the project and realizing the time invested in it isn’t wasted at all, because we always learn from attempts we make in any direction when pursuing creative projects. A few weeks ago, I stepped away from my most current project, giving myself some time for reflection about it because the deeper I got into the project itself, the more it felt less my own. The deeper I went into my reflection of it, the more I recognized my project started bringing a certain amount of anxiety and spiritual dissatisfaction rather than joy and a sense of “rightness.” Within these few weeks, I realized the project - as it had been going along - became less and less the one I envisioned. 

Initially, I thought “Oh, no. Now I’m right back to square one.”  But that’s not true at all. All the things I learned while developing the project are now being channeled into a project that has more to do with my own vision.

I’ve realized creative courage means taking the steps to start a project, regardless of fear and in spite of the pain. But it’s also about taking the steps away from a project, if needed and regardless of time invested, and starting over in order to drill down even deeper into what’s true for me.

I’m wishing you courage to take the steps needed to start, or stop, or restart any project, in the hopes of it becoming aligned with the truest “you” imaginable.