What’s in your wallet?

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19 years ago, at 7 am in a near blizzard, I got in my 9 year old Subaru Loyale, and drove 50 miles to bankruptcy court. My lawyer, whom I had met with once, several months prior, was supposed to meet me there.

He was an hour late, citing the weather. He got no sympathy from me. Even the trustee was unimpressed. He pointed out to him that I had come farther, and that I had been on time. I missed my scheduled time because of him, so I had to wait until the end of the regular schedule for my hearing.

I think the trustee felt sorry for me that my guy was such a loser, but that didn’t stop him from levying a $37,000 judgment against me. I had to borrow the money to pay the judgment from my parents, who had to take out a second mortgage on their house to get it. It was 3/4 of the total amount I owed. So much for starting over.

I paid my parents $500 per month for the next 7 years to repay that debt. They wouldn’t let me pay interest. I had a good job, and after a few years I was able to get a secured credit card, so was able to start rebuilding my credit. In 2009, I was able to get a loan to buy a house, and I felt like I was in the clear.

Then my dad died and I moved in with mom. Dad had been ill for a long time, and by the time he died, the house was in severe disrepair. Those repairs, along with the steep property tax owed for the next few years, forced me into credit card debt once again. Given my history, I didn’t make that choice lightly, but neither mom nor I had any savings, so I had no other recourse.

I had built good credit over the years, though, so 3 years ago my credit union offered me a high limit, low interest credit card that I used to transfer all my debt from the other high interest cards.

This past Saturday I made the last payment on that card. As I write this, I have no credit card debt. In fact, the only debt I have now is the mortgage on my little house, cuz last fall I paid off the car I bought 5 years ago. I don’t really consider my mortgage a debt, per se, cuz if I wasn’t making a house payment, I’d be paying rent, so to me it seems like the same thing.

No debt. I can hardly believe that’s true. I feel free in a way I haven’t since I left high school. Student debt that took 12 years to pay off, credit card debt, car payments on 6 or 7 cars over the years, the bankruptcy judgment, more credit card debt; owing someone something has been a constant in my adult life.

Owing, or being in debt is a powerful metaphor. Not only do I believe in karmic debt manifesting in this life, but I think psychologically I always felt I had to pay my way here because I didn’t really belong. As a child and then young adult, I felt that there was nothing here for me; that my presence on the planet was a mistake, and that I had to make up for what it took to sustain me.

I don’t feel that way now, thank goodness, so I’m hoping that my new found freedom from debt is permanent. The tide has turned. The money that was going to debt payment is now going into savings. After 20 years at Acme Health Services, I have a nice pension fund building. I’m hoping to refinance my house soon, and in a couple of years, transfer it to a reverse mortgage or sell it.

So I’ve kind of backed in to a good financial situation. I’m not rich, and I’m probably not ever going to be unless Publisher’s Clearinghouse is involved, but I feel good about my financial future in a way I never have before, and that’s a very good thing. On that day 19 years ago, I never would have imagined this day would come.

I found my way through the blizzard, and I can see my way forward clearly. It took 58 years, but I made it. Hallelujah!

 

 

Signposts

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Winston Churchill has been a hero of mine for quite a while. To me, he embodies the word “resilience,” and that’s something that has meant a lot to me over the years. My goal throughout all of my life, through some pretty rough stuff, has simply been to keep going. No matter what.

I didn’t want to. There have been plenty of times, deep in the cold morass of the blackest depression, especially, that I’ve thought of giving up. In the middle of bitter disappointment, abject failure, burning rejection, aching loss, I asked myself, “Why?”

Why keep going? What is this all for? What will change?

I didn’t give up, though, and it turns out the answer to all those questions is: ME.

Life hasn’t changed – it’s still hard, and will always be so, but I’ve changed. Turns out I’ve always been resilient, though I didn’t think of myself that way. When I look back at my life, though, I see it. I kept getting up. I took some pretty hard blows, but I got up every time and went on. Bruised and bleeding, for sure, but I got back on my feet and I went on. Every. Time. Sometimes I had help, sometimes I didn’t. Either way, I was the one who had to find the strength to go forward and I did.

As I’ve gotten older I find that I get up faster and that I see those difficult times differently. That’s what’s changed. I see the benefit, the opportunity for growth, quicker than I used to, and while I probably still don’t welcome hardship, I am able to embrace it more fully and faster than I used to. For that I’m deeply grateful.

Last weekend brought me to my knees, literally and figuratively. It pressed all the buttons, hard. In thinking about it now, though, I realize a couple of important shifts.

First, I didn’t get angry. Amazing, cuz that’s my first reaction to most everything unpleasant, typically. I didn’t this time, though cuz I didn’t take it personally. I joked about being punished for taking time off, but it really was a joke, not something I truly believed. It was all just stuff that happened, and I got that right away.

Second, I didn’t make more of it than it was. I did what needed to be done, for myself and then later, for my mom, which is normal. I’ve always been good in a crisis. Afterward, though, I didn’t obsess about it for days and days, and that’s new. It was nasty, and not something I hope to go through again anytime soon, but it’s over. Life goes on.

Resilience.

Never give up. Never, never, never, never. We all have the capacity – that resilience. All creatures are resilient, but for humans it’s different, in that we have a choice. You have to make it over and over.

Everyone I know goes through really rough stuff, again andagain; really gnarly rotten stuff. We all have our own curriculum here in Earth school, so the obstacles are different for all of us, but there are always obstacles, no matter who you are, or how in control you think you are. There is no way to do it “right” so that everything goes well for you. There just isn’t. There’s no point to that. We don’t learn from easy.

We don’t get stronger. We don’t get better, unless we’re challenged. That’s another thing unique to humans. That’s just the way it is. Getting angry, or bitter, or blaming someone else, or numbing out in some way is not helpful. Those are not ways of going on; they are ways of getting stuck.

Stand up. Dig deep and find your own resilience. It’s in there. Shake off the past. It’s over. Look ahead. Check in with yourself right now. Figure out what you need to do to keep going and do that thing, whatever it is. Take care of yourself and soothe your wounds. Reach out if you need help.

Then go on. Take a step, and then another,  and before you know you’re on to the next thing. The other thing – the past – that’s a part of you now, part of your life resume. It’s not all of you, though. You got through that. Pat yourself on the back. You did it!

There will be more, and you’ll do that, too. Cuz you just keep going. That’s all there is. There is no other way. No matter what. Through all of it – the highest highs and the lowest lows – all that this amazing human life has to offer.

Never give in – never, never, never, never. Thank you Mr. Churchill, for showing me the way.

All by myself

Capture

A week ago I was just beginning a 4-day weekend and I was really looking forward to it!  I had taken Friday off, for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that I hate Valentine’s Day, and Acme Health Services was closed on Monday, President’s Day in the US, so at this time last week I was reveling in the thought of 4 whole days unencumbered by plans of any kind. Yippee!

Thursday night I started to feel ucky, but I chalked it up to fatigue following 3 grueling weeks at work trying to finish a project, and went to bed early.

The first thing I did upon waking Friday morning was expel the entire contents of my digestive system in grand fashion in a matter of moments. It was intense. I was one sick puppy. I hardly ever get sick, but there was no denying that this was not a passing thing, no matter how much I wished for that to be true. I spent all of that day and most of Saturday in bed, not even considering getting up or ever putting anything solid in my mouth again.

By Sunday I was pretty good, though, so I kind of hung out around the house, reading mostly, and being careful about what I ate. I still had Monday, so though I was bummed about the weekend so far, I wasn’t devastated. I figured it wasn’t a total loss…yet.

The first thing mom said to me early Monday morning was, “I’m going to throw up.” So much for “the last day.” It was a long day, but she seemed pretty stabilized by the time I was ready to go to bed that night, so I went upstairs and slept until I heard a loud crash downstairs. I rushed down to find mom laying on the floor in the den, passed out cold. She had gotten up to go to the bathroom, got dizzy, and down she went.

She wasn’t able to walk very well when she came to, but working together we managed to get her back in bed, and settled in again, but leaving her to manage the bathroom on her own again was not an option, so I settled in on a chair nearby and dozed. I got a couple of hours sleep, but I was exhausted and I didn’t know how mom would be that next day, so I emailed my supervisor to let her know I wouldn’t be in to work on Tuesday.

Mom is nothing if not resilient, though, and throughout the next day she did very well, even ate a couple of tiny meals, and slept through the night (making it to the bathroom without incident every time) and I was able to return to work yesterday. Today she’s close to 100%. Very impressive for almost 88.

At any rate, I had a lot of downtime on Sunday and Monday and I was participating in an online summit for people who are (Myers-Briggs Type) INFJ and INFP, so I was able to catch up on a lot of the speakers I had missed over the week long event, and more importantly, I had time to process all of the information. As a result, I realized some important things about why I struggle so much in this situation with mom.

I tested as an INFJ about a year ago, and reading about the personality type helped me understand a lot of things about myself in a new light. That’s fodder for another post some time. What was important about this weekend was that in listening to some of the conversations with the speakers (who were all INF – introvert – types) I was given a nudge about something I hadn’t considered before, and that was my mother’s personality type and why our differences made it difficult for me on a day-to-day basis to live with her again.

I have said before that if you spent years going around the globe interviewing every single person on the planet, you would not be able to find two people more opposite in every way than me and my mother. People laugh when I say that, and that’s what I intend, but it’s really true. I’ve always understood that, but I didn’t really fully understand why, or in what specific ways we were so different.

Having said that, we have always connected very well in some ways, also, and that’s made it possible to continue our karmic dance together throughout my life, and especially now. What’s been difficult these past few years, I realized this weekend, is that I haven’t been able to do for myself the things I need to do to be sane and happy, because I’ve been trying to keep her happy, and in doing that, I lose out.

What makes her happy is interacting with people. She HATES to be alone. So, for the past couple of years, since she’s not able to leave the house, I’m her only source of interaction. I’m gone at work all day, so I try to limit the amount of time I’m away from home in the evenings or on weekends, and when I’m home, we’re together. ALWAYS.

On the weekends, I have a few hours in the morning alone before she gets up, but that’s it. Herein lies the crux of my problem, and this is what I realized this weekend in a way I hadn’t fully grasped before; at least what the consequences of that situation are:

I am hardly ever ALONE.

I only really value two things in life: solitude and freedom. True since I was a little tiny person. I was an only child, and I reveled in it. I was hardly ever lonely. I played up in my room, I read, I wrote stories, I sang. 50 years later it’s still true. I love to be alone. The things I like to do are solitary pursuits. I lived alone for 37+ years. I like to be with people, and sometimes I was lonely, but I had friends I did things with often enough. Even if I had to be alone and didn’t want to be, though, it was worth it. I always chose solitude over society, freedom over stasis.

ALWAYS. And I always will.

Now I have almost no solitude. I have swapped what I need to be whole and healthy for what my mother needs to be whole and healthy. I did it most of my young life and I’m doing it again now.  No wonder I’m utterly exhausted and feeling hopeless most of the time. The first 5 years I lived with mom she was more independent and so was I. It’s really only the last couple of years that this is an issue.

I don’t mind the care-giving role. That’s not it. I thought it was, but in really feeling about it, it’s not. I am a natural caregiver. I have filled that role in my family all my life and in reality I’m fine with it. I like to be of use. But the “no solitude” thing is another sack of cats, and I don’t know what I’m going to do about that. I don’t know if there is anything to be done. I think that train has left the station. Monday night made that pretty clear to me. It’s only going to get worse until she dies, and honestly, that could be years from now.

The most important thing I realized this weekend, though, was that this is my problem, not hers. It’s a choice I made at some point, and it’s not her fault that she’s wired differently than I am. It’s not her fault. She’s just living her life, taking care of herself in the best way she can. Asking for what she needs. It’s my choice to give that to her, and it’s not her fault, any more than it’s my fault that it’s hard for me. We just are who we are and who we are is not alike.

Okay, so now what?

Now I need to find a better way to make it alright for me. I have been trying to take care of myself – eating properly, exercise, meditation – but nothing seems like it’s enough. I keep stumbling, feeling like a failure, but now I know why, so I hope I’ll be able to walk a little straighter going forward. Now that I know exactly what the problem is, I can zero in on a solution, or at the very least accept that there is no solution, so I can stop feeling like I’m lacking all the time.

So the weekend was worthwhile, after all, though I would not have said that at any point before Wednesday. And honestly, I hope this weekend is better. Another “growth” weekend like the last one just might do me in!

 

In ourselves

It is not in the stars

One of my favorite parts of my job is doing the social media posts for Acme Health Services and our affiliate organizations, one of which is a hospice volunteer group. In that capacity, I spend a lot of time wandering around the web looking for content that might be meaningful to our followers. For the hospice page I search for articles about grief, of course, but also about all aspects of caregiving, cuz presumably the folks who follow us are probably now, or have been in the past, caregivers to a loved one.

As a caregiver myself these last 7 years, I find these articles useful as well. There are a lot of us out there: middle-aged people caring for elderly parents or other family members in some capacity, and there is a lot of good information about staying sane and healthy available on the internet, thankfully. I live in a small town in a relatively sparsely populated area, so it’s a real boon to be able to connect with folks in other places who are going through the same thing I am.

This week I stumbled across the blog of a woman about the same age as me who is living with and caring for her 80-something mother, who has dementia. We are different in that my mother is still pretty sharp. For that I’m grateful. My dad had dementia, and that was a difficult road to travel.

In many other ways, however, we are scarily alike. This blogger has never married, and never had children. She works full-time outside her home. Other than cats, this is essentially her first experience as a live-in,  day-to-day, hour-to-hour caregiver for another human being. Same for me – all of it – so the similarities in our current circumstances, and our lives in general, really struck me.

I encounter people all the time who are surprised that I’ve stuck with mom this long, or that I agreed to do this to begin with. Sometimes I’m amazed myself, but here I am, by choice, doing the best I can for mom and trying to take good care of myself along the way, every hour of every day. This has been my life for 7 years, and it will continue to be my life until one of us takes her last breath.

It’s been up and down, for sure, and I’ve struggled mightily at times. It hasn’t always been an uplifting story and it remains to be seen whether it’ll turn out to have a happy ending. Many times I’ve felt that I couldn’t go on, and yet I did, and I will, to the end, whatever and whenever that may be, for no other reason than it is the right thing to do.

This blogger put it this way: What else am I going to do? Yes! Exactly.

What else is there to do in a life that is more meaningful than offering another human being – especially a family member – the love and care every human being deserves when it’s needed? The first 50 years of my life I thought a lot about how I could live a meaningful life. What do I have to offer the world? Do I matter? Why am I here?

Now I know. I don’t think about any of that any more. This is what I have to offer. This is why I am here. As it turns out, a life-long failure at most everything by which society measures people, finally I know I belong here and I’m a success. I matter to my mother, and perhaps my story matters to someone else, as that blogger has validated my experience.

Really, what could I be doing right now that would matter more? What else could I have been doing in the last 7 years that would have transformed me in the way this experience has? I have been forced to become so much more than I was, even so much more than I thought I could be. I still have a long way to go, but I am a much better person than I was when I moved in here. Not only have I become responsible for the care of another human being – which is not something I ever wanted – but I have become responsible for myself in a way I never was before.

This has been a win for both of us. I have benefitted from this experience as least as much as my mother, and our relationship, which was turbulent for most of my life, has been repaired. That’s no small thing. The irony that she and I would be the two left standing in our family and would be required to rely on each other this much at the end is almost too much to be believed given our history, except that it’s exactly the way the universe works, and it’s clear to me now that it was always going to be this way. This was where we’ve been headed all along.

That’s about as close as I’ll come to believing in destiny. Really, it could have gone either way. I could have said “no” at any point, or I could have given into the resentment that rears its ugly head every now and again, especially when I compare my life to that of my friends. I still could – it ain’t over yet. The end could be tomorrow or it could be another 7 years. The future is uncertain.

For now, though, I’m resting in the knowledge that I’ve made it this far. That’s all. I’m grateful for that, and my wish for all of us on this caregiving journey is simply that we can rest easy knowing that we’re right where we need to be, and that we’re doing the best thing we could be doing at this time.

It matters.

Shadows on the wall

Treasure - Joseph Campbell

I came across this quote from Joseph Campbell a while ago and it struck me immediately. Yes! Of course. Life is hard. It’s not a bug; it’s a feature.

If you’re having a hard time, you’re not doing it wrong. It’s hard for everyone, even if it doesn’t seem like it. Most importantly, you’re ready for it, even if you don’t know it yet.

Humans are equipped for difficulty. We are outfitted for adversity by design with our big creative brains. We are hard-wired for problem-solving. We have the ability to think about the past, the present and the future; to remember and to anticipate. We can visualize our place in time and space.

We can control our thoughts. We can learn from mistakes. We are able to empathize with other creatures – to think beyond ourselves and our own needs. We can anticipate and avoid danger, and this has helped us survive as a species.

Somehow, however, we have become so averse to experiencing hardship and it’s accompanying emotional pain that we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s not supposed to happen. Worse, we believe that there’s something we can do or something we shouldn’t do, that will ensure a carefree life.

Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy!

But here’s the reality: That’s not the way life is, and it’s not how it is meant to be. It just is what it is. Up and down, good and bad. There’s nothing you can do, or anything you can stop doing to ensure a smooth journey through a joyous life. You can’t avoid experiencing the bad stuff. Full stop.

Every being on this planet experiences hardship.

Sadly, though, you can avoid dealing with the pain of those experiences and that’s what’s getting us in trouble now. Our big brains have solved the “life hurts” problem in the short term with all sorts of distractions – food, drugs, sex, social media – it doesn’t really matter what the distraction is as long as it pings the pleasure centers in our big brains, and gets those magic endorphins swimming around in there.

I say in the short term, because typically you can only employ these methods for a relatively brief time before they start contributing to the “life hurts” problem more than solving it, and that’s only if your distraction doesn’t kill you and/or something in your life that matters to you.

Honestly, our happy shiny/everything’s fine/I’m okay you’re okay/skating on the surface/ first world existence is killing us and the planet. Everything is not okay, and our belief that if we’re not “happy” all the time, and doing everything “perfectly” according to society’s whims we’re doing something wrong, is sad, dangerous, and just plain incorrect.

Give yourself a break. Life is hard, and if you get that and you’re facing it head on, then you are doing it right. Bad stuff happens, good stuff happens, and your reaction to both is what has the potential to make your life meaningful, to yourself, other people, and to the planet.

Instead of trying so hard to avoid stumbling, and avoiding the dark places, the problem we should set our big brains on solving is how we can better help each other go in after the treasure, holding hands, and reassuring one another. No more distractions. No more shadows on the wall. Let’s get real. In this year of perfect vision, let’s take the blinders off, and gently, kindly, help each other find our way through in the dark.

If your life is going smoothly right now and you’re having a blast, good for you! Enjoy this time. Regroup and recharge.

If you’re stumbling, do the best you can to keep going. You’re not alone. It doesn’t seem that way if you spend a lot of time on Facebook or Instagram or watching TV, but that’s all fiction. Rarely is real life depicted there. Hang out in the dark for a while until you come out with the treasure. It’s there, and you’ll find it if you look for it, rather than trying to distract yourself from the pain. Be brave.

Feel the pain, but don’t dwell on it. Listen for what it’s trying to tell you and then let it go. Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

You may need a guide to lead you through, or maybe just a helmet and some rope. Get what you need. Take care of yourself. Take sandwiches; you may be in there a while. Wear warm clothes. It’ll be scary, but don’t give into the fear. Find your way through, grab the treasure – the wisdom, the healing, the fundamental truth about yourself, and/or your life, the understanding, the ability to go on – and come back into the light.

We’re waiting for you with open arms.

 

Rolling along

Fluent

I have been working on developing a mindfulness meditation practice the past couple of years. I do as well with sitting regularly as I do with doing anything else regularly, which is to say, with varying success. But I keep trying, cuz it helps me and I think it’s important. Every day since January 1st I’ve been doing a series of guided meditations online. I do better with guided sessions and these have been really interesting.

The theme this first week has been setting intention. I like this better than goal-setting or resolutions, cuz it’s immediate, addressing how we feel right now, not in the future. It’s something to hang onto and check in with every moment, rather than thinking I’m working toward that thing or that some kind of pay-off is coming down the road. It’s now. Am I being true to my intention right now? In this immediate situation?

On day 4, the meditation included the question, “What is my life asking of me this year, and what quality must I cultivate to answer that call?” The words that floated to the surface immediately for me were:

Open.
Generous.
Committed.
Disciplined.
Patient.

I was surprised they came so easily, but I immediately understood how all those words applied to my situation at home with my mother, at work with a project I’m involved in and my co-workers in general, and with my friends.

And then the quality – what will make it possible for me to embody those intentions?

Trust.

Ack. Not my best thing. Not anyone’s best thing, is it? Nothing in my life, and I mean no thing has given me any indication that people can be trusted, even those who claim to love you and seemingly have your best interests at heart. Even if they don’t mean to, people will hurt you. Over and over again. I think most people over the age of 2 have trust issues and have good reason for them.

So I thought about it a lot, and I wrote about it in my journal, and all of a sudden it came to me. The trust that’s required is not in people, but in the process. The path. The river.

The flow.

Once again I come back to just being. Being the true me, with intention, and integrity.  True to my inherent spirit. Open, generous, committed, disciplined, and patient. Two of those are easy for me, the other three, uh…not so much, but they’re in there somewhere. And trust? 

The very hardest thing. But this isn’t pass or fail. There is no judgment. There is only what is, not what should be. I can either do it or I can’t, and either way I’m being true to my intention – it remains the same. As Yoda said, there is no try.

Being present in each situation, with each person, in each moment, one moment at a time. No small thing, that, but the idea is that it comes about in each moment. It’s not something I’m striving for or working toward; all that’s required is being. Being true to my nature, which is, I think, all of those things; they’re in me. Covered over by debris and not easy to see, but they’re still there.

Now, lest you think I’m being incredibly naive in thinking that everything’s going to be sunshine and light from now on and I’m going to just “be” my way into a perfect life, let me assure you that I have no such illusions. Quite the opposite, in fact. I think I’m going to get beat up pretty bad. That’s where the trust comes in. If it comes, I have to trust that pain is part of the process. Same with pleasure, by the way.

If I’m true to myself, true to my intentions, and trust that I’m on the right path, it’s all good. In each situation, we receive a reward or a lesson, and both are worth our time and attention. Each person offers us a mirror so that we may see ourselves more clearly.

Stay present in the moment and be. Am I open, generous, committed to, and patient with myself? That’s a good place to start. I can’t expect to give others what I don’t have. Do I trust myself? I’ve made a lot of mistakes, so that’s hard, but yes, I’m getting better at it. The important thing is that I trust the flow and where it’s leading, and keep moving forward.

And hope. In all things, hope for the best. It can’t hurt.

What is your life asking of you this year, and how will you answer that question?

 

The kindness of strangers

Mostly I have my hands full just trying to get done all I need to get done on any given day, but I also think about what good I can do in the world, and what my legacy will be. I live a very small life, and it seems to me most of the time that anything I am able to do wouldn’t make much of an impact. When I’m feeling low and the responsibility of my current life weighs heavy on my shoulders, I get discouraged about the future, and I feel powerless to change anything; certainly not any of the seemly intractable problems facing our world today. It’s easy to fall into that trap; after all, everywhere we look lately there is really bad news.

And then, something small happens, the jaws of the trap are pried open, and I’m reminded that anything is possible. Most importantly, I’m reminded that I can’t do it all myself, nor do I have to, but I can do more.

Monday winter reclaimed December in Michigan. We had warm temperatures and no rain or snow last week – no white Christmas (fine with me). Unusual, but not unheard of, and we all knew it would end. We got about 6″ of wet heavy snow on Monday, and the city plows were out working hard all day. It stopped snowing for a bit around 5 pm, so I decided to go out and clear out the driveway before the next round. I don’t have a snowblower, so I started working on the mountainous snow boulders blocking the end of the driveway – courtesy of the plows – with a shovel. When I tried to break up and move the first one, I knew I was going to be out there a long time.

Just after I started, however, a man in a maroon pickup pulled up and signaled for me to move out of the way. He dropped his plow and cleared all that big heavy stuff out of the mouth of the drive with a couple of swipes. I waved and smiled and mouthed THANK YOU! He smiled, nodded, and drove off. The whole thing took about 3 minutes.

Just that easy. I have no idea who he is. With that one kind act, in that short period of time, he changed my life. Suddenly, unexpectedly, what I thought was going to happen – an hour or more of hard physical labor in the cold and wet – didn’t happen. It changed in an instant from an anticipated difficult experience into something wonderful. Not only did he make something physically easier for me – spared my back and shoulders – but he lifted my spirits with that plow, and opened the world up to me again.

It’s easy to get cynical and to believe the worst about people and their motivations and actions. It’s easy to lose hope in the future and in our ability to solve problems or effect change. On the face of it, honestly, the future looks bleak. I get very discouraged sometimes.

That man reminded me that ultimately, one-on-one, it doesn’t matter who we are so much as what we are. I don’t know anything about that man except that he has a maroon truck and that he was kind. I don’t know his name, or where he lives, what he does for a living, what his political or spiritual beliefs are, what his sexual orientation is, where he’s from, or whether he is a cat or a dog person. What mattered yesterday was that he had the opportunity to be kind and he acted on it.

He made a difference.

It’s not the big things. It’s not doing the “right” things or what society tells us we should be doing. It’s not a bright shiny life on Instagram or Facebook. It’s not friends or “Likes” or the newest, latest, coolest. It’s not all happy, smiling and lovely. It’s not all gloom and doom, either. The world is complex, and so are human beings. There are no easy answers.

But sometimes it is simple. Ultimately, it’s not who we are that makes the difference, but what we are. I have a limited realm of influence and not a lot of money, but I can be kind. It’s a decision in any given minute. I can be kind to myself, to my mom, my co-workers, and to strangers if given the opportunity. That’s really the message of Christmas we take into this new year, this new decade:

Make room for the gift.

That’s the challenge. Open to others. If you are able, give them what they need.  Sometimes that’s something you can touch, sometimes it’s time, sometimes it’s just a smile.

Smile. Let someone know simply that you see them and that you wish them well.

I can do all that. I don’t always, sadly, but I can. I want to be better at it, so I have to keep practicing. You only see these opportunities if you are paying attention in the moment. That’s the key, and that’s what makes it hard. So hard. The future is exciting, and the past is comforting. The only thing that’s real and important, though, is now.

For me, this year, this decade: In each moment, do what you can, be what you can.

Thank you, sir.

 

Up on the watershed

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This is my favorite part of Christmas – after it’s over. I’m not the Grinch and that hasn’t always been true, but it’s been my general feeling for the last 15 years or so. Christmas Present was sort of disappointing and lonely, and the ghost of Christmas Past gets harder and harder to deal with. Kind of a sadistic s-o-b, isn’t he? I have enough trouble keeping all I feel in check these days. The upping of the ante Christmas brings is not welcome. I’m all in as it is.

So now we move on to the new year, and man, I am all about that. A fresh start, and my hope is that next year is going to be better than that just passed. If not, too bad and I’ll get through it, but at the beginning there is always that possibility, the potential that something will break loose and take me in another direction and it’ll be better than where I am currently, and that’s where I hang my hope. I’d even settle for just a better view of the road ahead, cuz I’m really not sure where I’m headed.

This week I’ve been reading alot and sleeping in and going for long walks and taking photos in the abnormally warm and sunny weather we’ve been having. I feel creative and open in a way I haven’t for a very long time. I feel like I’m back, though I couldn’t say exactly where I’ve been. Me, and yet not me, for several months now. Not depressed, not anything really – getting through the days as they came, hanging on hard to my ideas about who I am, who I want to be, and who I should be. Doing what was expected of me – meeting my responsibilities at work and at home, and taking care of my health.

I’ve come to think of this last year as rebuilding, or moving into a new house. You bring all the old meaningful stuff with you, leave all the crappy stuff in the dumpster, and set up in your new place. It’s different, but good, and your old stuff looks good in the new living room with the new stuff you bought cuz the house is bigger than the one you’ve been living in. It all goes together, and there’s room for all of it – all of you.

So this is me, maybe not back to an older version of me, but a new and improved version – incorporating the best parts of the old and adding some new. Willing to let go of the idea that I need to be a certain way at all; that I need to be what I used to be, which frankly was not that great, or who I think I’d like to be. I’m going to try to just be and see how that works out.

I’ve been envisioning myself hanging on to a branch above a raging river. Clutching it with all my strength, scared to let go and float away. My fingers are raw and bleeding, and my muscles ache with the effort. I have been so afraid to just let go and let the river carry me away, cuz I don’t know where I will end up and I’m not sure I won’t drown. I know how to swim, but the water is churning and seems dangerous. It probably is, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be okay.

So that’s what I’m telling myself now: Just keep swimming. Float when your arms and legs get tired. Trust the flow to take you where you need to go.

I have loved the Indigo Girls since I first heard them 30 years ago. Watershed is my favorite song:

Thought I knew my mind
Like the back of my hand
The gold and the rainbow
But nothing panned out as I planned
And they say only milk and honey’s
Gonna make your soul satisfied
Well I better learn how to swim
‘Cause the crossing is chilly and wide
Up on the watershed
Standing at the fork in the road
You can stand there and agonize
‘Til your agony’s your heaviest load
You’ll never fly as the crow flies
Get used to a country mile
When you’re learning to face
The path at your pace
Every choice is worth your while

© Emily Ann Saliers

It has meant alot to me, this song; from the first time I heard it I felt it had been written for me. And so now, again, here I am. Not so much learning to swim now, though, as trusting that I know how. It seems scary, but exhilarating, too.

So I guess you could say that my goal for the coming year is just to be. (How’s that for an oxymoron? Ha! My whole life the past few years is a study in contradiction.)  Let it be is my mantra, and it applies to myself as much as anything else. It has arisen out of my eat the Christmas cookies approach to life the past couple of weeks (still one week to go!). I didn’t realize how tightly I had been hanging on until I started to let go.

On we go, into the future, the unknown. No ghost to show us the way. That’s just a story. This is the real thing, and ultimately we have to find our own way through the past, the present and the future. Every choice is worth your while.

Equal Opportunity

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I believe this. I believe this is what people mean when they say “everything happens for a reason.” I’m not willing to speculate about whether things are “destined” to happen a certain way, but I definitely have come to believe that every “bad” or hurtful thing that happens in our lives can be used as an opportunity to grow – to encompass and process the experience, and in doing so to become a more peaceful, whole, and useful human.

You can think of these experiences as “tests,” but what’s at stake is much more than passing or failing. In fact, failure is usually more effective in teaching us whatever lesson is available. In my experience, getting to the place emotionally and mentally at which you are able to process the “lesson” can take a long time, but if you’re open to it, that I could have had a V-8 moment comes quicker each time.

Something happened at work a couple of weeks ago that really hit me where I live. I stumbled and fell hard for a couple of days after, and to some degree, I’m still reeling a bit.

Anything that angers you teaches you forgiveness and compassion.
Anything (in this case, anyone) that has power over you teaches you how to take your power back.

I’m trying to get to the “lesson learned” part of those sentences, but it hasn’t been easy, and I’m sorry to say I’m not quite to forgiveness and compassion yet, or figuring out how to get my power back. It’s not keeping me awake at night any more, and I have started processing it (which is why I’m writing about it – it helps), and that’s a step in the right direction, but it’s been a longer journey than I would hope for.

The difference between what we know to be true and what we feel about any situation can be vast and seemingly unable to be reconciled. I can tell myself all kinds of rational things about the dynamics at play in the situation, blah blah blah, but what I felt and still feel to some degree, is betrayed, disrespected, devalued, and lots of other “someone treated me badly” emotionally charged words. It happened. I didn’t imagine it, and I didn’t misunderstand. I didn’t see it coming, so that made it that much worse.

I haven’t had to see or speak to the person who…uh…gave me this opportunity to forgive…since the meeting in question, and now I’m out of the office for two weeks, so even though I have evolved from the younger and less wise version of myself who would have said exactly what I wanted to say at the time (almost never a good idea, right?), that’s a good thing.

I’m not still angry – oh man, was I angry – but I am still hurt. Bruised and achy in some places, and not ready to face another encounter – good or bad – just yet. She won’t apologize, cuz that’s not who she is. She’s young and in a powerful position and I’m sure she felt she was completely in the right in what she did and in the way she did it. That’s okay. I’m not in charge of her growth; only my own.

The knowledge that someday she will be in my shoes and that likely the same thing will happen to her brings me a little comfort, but not much, cuz actually I think it’s just really sad women of any age step on each other that way in order to get ahead. I think we all lose when we treat each other the way most men treat us. In telling me a story once about something that had happened to her in her own career, a former boss said, “She’s knocking herself and everybody else out trying to get to the top of the hill, and doesn’t yet realize there is no hill.”

Yep.

My challenge is to forgive her, for my own peace, and because I have to continue to work with her. Secondly, I either have to prove her wrong in her assessment of me (unlikely) or simply continue to be true to myself and my abilities and trust that it’ll all come right at some point. That second option is made simpler by the reality that I am going to retire in a few years, so I’m not interested in ascending the proverbial ladder or even maintaining my place on it anymore.

Even if it doesn’t work out all right, I realize I don’t care that much. My objective these days is really just to remain employed, and I don’t have any reason to believe that this situation endangers that objective. Continuing to collect my very comfortable salary serves my purposes now and as far as this job goes, beyond the value I find in the good work we do for the community we serve, that’s about all I’m interested in.

So rather than getting my power back, I just have to remember where it is (in here, not out there), and what that means to me. I work hard and I do the best I can always, and that won’t change. My day-to-day priorities and idea of who I am and what I have to offer the world have changed, however, and those changes have come into clearer focus as a result of this event.

So I can thank that young woman for that. She offered me a mirror in which I see myself and who I am now very clearly, and I like what I see, even if she doesn’t. I forgive her, cuz she doesn’t know any better, apparently, and I have compassion for her because someday she will. I know now not to trust her, and that’s probably a good thing going forward cuz she has proven herself unworthy of my trust, but it makes me sad, just the same. Finally, I would hope for some warning next time, but that’s rarely the way the universe works, so I just have to let that be.

I’ll continue to heal, and I hope to be ready for the next…uh…opportunity. It will come, for sure, because that is the way the universe works, and if we pay attention, we can benefit from these rocks in our path, even if they don’t seem helpful right away. I’m certain I’ll continue to stumble over them, but as long as I keep getting up again I’ll be okay –  bruised, but not broken, and still moving forward. That’s all that really matters, and it’s all I hope for these days.

Just keep moving forward.

In the Bleak Midwinter

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The light returns home
And illuminates the heart.
Candle burns bright.

The solstice holds deep meaning for me; much more than Christmas. The return of the light in winter has been a powerful metaphor for surviving depression for me since I was quite young. I was raised in the Episcopal church and the season of Advent has always appealed to me, too – the weekly lighting of the candles, and the anticipation of the return of the Light. The imagery continues to resonate with me, though I no longer attend services or believe most of the liturgy surrounding it.

Hanukkah – the Festival of Lights – appeals to me also, for the same reasons, though I’m not Jewish and I don’t know anyone who is. It’s also about overcoming oppression (darkness), represented by the lighting of the menorah candles each night.

It’s all so powerful, and no accident, I’m sure, in this otherwise desolate season.

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I have lived most of my life in Michigan, above the 45th parallel, and here we have a lot of winter and not much sunlight for most of the year. I love Spring and Summer cuz I love to be outside, especially on my bike, but also because I need color and sound, which are life for me. Unfortunately, those seasons are brief, and Winter’s quiet and dark monochrome days go on and on here. Each day without sunlight and warmth and color is a hammer blow to my fragile brain chemistry.

The imagery surrounding this season of the light – hope, warmth, life – returning is powerful to someone struggling in the darkness, metaphorical or otherwise. It’s all about hope and possibility and overcoming whatever it is in your life that has dimmed the light within you and requires renewal.

Happy Solstice, friends. The future looks brighter from here. 😉

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