Blog

Two pieces of paper

There are so many ways to get to know a new city when you move. You can drive yourself places, even when folks offer to pick you up. You can get a post office box and learn multiple routes to the same location. Or leave your car parked on the street and attract someone who smashes the window thinking a blanket in the backseat of a 12 year-old Toyota Corolla is hiding something valuable. It wasn’t but auto glass replacement services are in a part of town I had yet to visit. Fortunately, the service was fast, competitively priced, and, as I’ve observed, like so many businesses in Tacoma, conveniently located next to a coffee hut.

I’m not going to say I hate moving. I’m going to say it’s a challenge to my equanimity. Also, it reminds me of living through the aftermath of a tornado. When an F3 tornado blew through the college town where I once lived, my department colleagues and I were moved, along with three other departments, to a FEMA trailer for the final weeks of the semester. And the summer break. And the first several weeks of the fall term as windows and ceiling tiles and carpets were replaced throughout our building. Despite my ability to see the big picture and know that I was one of the fortunate ones, I found myself struggling to accomplish the simplest tasks as the feeling of a world turned upside pervaded every aspect of life, particularly in the FEMA trailer. Holding two pieces of paper with no greater desire than to find a way to keep them together, I could find staples but not a stapler, tape dispensers but no tape, binder clips but not paper clips. There were no small tasks, familiar routines, or easily fulfilled needs.

The memory of those weeks has been my near-constant companion in the wake of our recent move from West Central Illinois to the Pacific Northwest. I knew from previous moves what it feels like to try to learn names and faces, places and routes, as quickly as possible in order to connect with others, pick up the mail, and replace a smashed car window. But I’m a few weeks in and still feel as if I have either aged 10 years or returned to infancy—taking naps, going to bed early, and sleeping late. My brain is overloaded as, to quote Miss Carly Simon, “even the simple things become rough.”

After the tornado, my apartment building was condemned and I moved into the second bedroom in my mother’s apartment. I was grateful for her generosity but had no intention of staying a minute longer than necessary. I was excited when a nice apartment became available. But I made no move to move. This went on for several weeks. My mother and I finally realized that the disruptions caused by the tornado had taken a toll on me. Despite the shared bathroom and tiny bedroom, I was having a hard time leaving the safety and comfort of her loving presence. Living with her made at la east few aspects of my life simple, familiar, and easy. These many years later, I seek to be my own loving presence—kind, patient, and compassionate toward myself, and others, here in my new world.

Courageous waiting

I think of myself as a very patient person, far more patient than many people I know. I attribute it to a childhood spent waiting for others. Throughout first and second grade, each afternoon, I trudged from the elementary school to the high school, sat on the bench outside the principal’s office, and waited for my sister’s school day to end. Our house was across the street from the elementary school but my mother didn’t want me to be home alone. When my siblings weren’t available to watch me, I spent many a school holiday sitting quietly reading or doing homework at the clinics where my mother worked. Years later, as a teacher, I was a champion at wait time—that time after a question is asked and before anyone puts a hand in the air to answer it. I could sit for minutes smiling encouragingly and never betray the slightest impatience.

That’s why I’m dissatisfied with my current state of mind. I’m waiting for people I don’t know to make a decision that could have a bit impact on my life. Regardless of the outcome, I just want the waiting to end. To paraphrase the Pointer Sisters, I’m so impatient and I just can’t hide it. I’m about to lose my mind and I just don’t like it.

When I reflect back on my experiences teaching, I know I truly was comfortable waiting because I trusted the students and believed that most of them were thinking about the topic at hand and formulating their contribution to the conversation. My trust and patience were almost always rewarded. I also trusted myself. I was confident that no matter how the students responded I had the ability to address them skillfully and appropriately.

In a recent meditation talk, Tara Brach discussed courageous presence. She encouraged her listeners to notice what’s happening and allow it. I’m trying to do this by paying attention to my discomfort and anxiety with this waiting time. She also notes the importance of connecting to our feelings of vulnerability with interest and kindness. I realize that, in contrast to how I felt when teaching, I am afraid that I won’t know how to respond to the uncertain future. I’m trying to accept that without judging myself. Finally, Brach advised responding from our wisdom and from our heart. When I do that I observe that I’ve been through many big changes before and I’ve always found my way. It hasn’t always been easy but I’m still here—waiting and trusting myself.

Thanks, Mom

I noticed two women walking ahead of me into the yoga studio and once inside, I recognized my classmate Denise but not the other woman. Overhearing her conversation with the instructor, I decided she must be Denise’s daughter. One look at Denise and I knew I was right. She gazed at the woman with unabashed joy. I know that look. In the last twenty years of her life, I saw it on my mother’s face every time she introduced me to a neighbor or friend, and in her final years to every staff member at her independent living and later assisted living facility. She’d take hold of my hand, look at me and then at the other person and say, “This is my Mari.” Watching Denise beaming at her daughter the way my mother once beamed at me I felt a little dizzy and suddenly alone.

Like many mothers, mine was not the “Angel in the House;” no meek, passive, sympathetic woman. She was angry, thin-skinned and judgmental. Being treated with disrespect or unkindness made her furious but she also believed herself to be so deeply damaged that she deserved whatever pain life brought her way. I had an epiphany about her when I was a teenager. It dawned on me that what I had always seen as her towering anger was actually fear. For most of her life she felt overwhelmed and overmatched by her enormous responsibilities and she never believed her efforts were adequate. I was grateful for this insight because it lessened my anger towards her but it didn’t make it much easier to live with her. In my twenties my independence created much needed space but her relentless self-doubt, critical attitude, and anger about the past still created a toxic environment when I visited. I remember hoping that someday I would know her as a person not ruled by fear and insecurity.

One of the great joys of my life is that I did come to know her when her fears had greatly diminished. Her insecurity never left her but once it was no longer fueled by fear she was able to see her life more clearly and with gratitude. Her immense intellect, her fabulous sense of humor, her compassion all came to the foreground. My friends loved to talk with her about politics, her caregivers sought her out for advice and understanding, but I’m the person who benefited the most. No longer burdened by a harsh, judgmental attitude, she truly appreciated and admired me

Four years and one week ago my mother called me to her bedside, took my hands in hers, and said, “I adore you.” When she died several hours later, I knew the memory of this moment would sustain me even as it reminds me of what it means to lose the person who is your foundation. No one else will ever look at me as she did in that moment—love yes, but more than that a deep understanding of who I have become.

It is with immense gratitude that I tell the story of my relationship with my mother as one where two people allowed each other, and their relationship, to evolve.

Love and basketball

I’m not athletic, I didn’t grow up playing sports and yet, I know a lot about basketball. I’ve been to innumerable college games—women’s, men’s, Division I, Division III. I’ve attended both the women’s and the men’s Division I final four tournaments and I’ve seen so many games on television I’m convinced I could provide color commentary in the unlikely event that I was required to do so. Am I saying I like basketball? No. Truthfully, if I never saw another game I wouldn’t notice its absence from my life. However, my partner loves basketball plus I love my partner equals I watch a lot of basketball.

Spring was beginning to tease our senses last week when my partner came across the women’s Division I conference tournaments. Some were of more interest to her than others but several came and went on our television screen throughout the day. As we were making dinner she remarked on a particularly competitive game that was about to start. That’s when I remembered our discussion from the day before about saving the last two episodes of a show we’ve been streaming to watch that night. I didn’t say anything about it but I could feel a sulking presence enter the room.

As we ate dinner she remembered we were going to stream the show and said, “Oh, we can switch. We don’t have to watch this game.” This game was between two exceptional teams and the score was close. I was immediately aware of my impulse to play the martyr. “Oh no, that’s okay,” dismissing our previous plans and continuing to watch the game with her while silently recounting all the ways I give in to her preferences. Instead, I shrugged and said what was true, “These games only happen once a year. We can watch Newsroom tomorrow night.” Around halftime I took a break to work on a puzzle in the dining room but returned for dessert and the thrilling conclusion where the Stanford Cardinal surged and the Oregon Ducks faded. Order was restored as the Cardinal avenged the smack down the Ducks handed them earlier in the season. I may not care much about basketball but I can appreciate a good narrative arc.

Like everyone else, I have a “What about what I want?” self who is never happier than when tracking who gets what when and how often. I know I haven’t seen the last of her but in this moment when I saw her coming my way I let go of counting wins and losses.

A lot like me

Last week I read something a person I used to be close to wrote several months ago; something she probably thought I’d never see and it really hurt my feelings. Initially, I was also startled by it and kept trying to figure out why she wrote it. Then I progressed to thinking of the mean things I’d like to say to the writer and to others indirectly involved in the situation. My old habit of rehearsing conversations I’ll never have was in high gear and I had a keen desire to call two of my closest friends and tell them all about it.

When my partner came home from work I told her about it. She was surprised by what was written and she asked me a few questions. And that was strangely satisfying—having a calm discussion about the situation and my feelings. In fact, I was able to do something I’m pretty good at which is seeing a situation from the other person’s perspective. It’s a skill I suspect I developed as a child when I often felt caught between the competing narratives within my family. I thought a lot about the history of my relationship with the writer and how what she wrote fit into that story. It started to seem less like an effort to hurt me, especially since she probably thought I’d never read it, and more as an action consistent with who we are to each other now and how we see ourselves in relationship to the issue she wrote about. I also thought of moments in our relationship where she might have interpreted my behavior as hurtful. None of that took away my initial response to her writing but it created a calm space in which I live with it.

The next day at yoga the instructor (a fabulous substitute), asked us to start by running our hands over our arms and legs and torso sloughing off any negative feelings, anything we were holding on to. I thought of my hurt from the day before and happily sought to shed it. When I went home after class, I thought again about the urge I’d felt the day before to share my story with my friends. I realized I no longer felt that urge and that’s when I caught sight of a figure looking at me over her shoulder as she walked away from me. She was no more than the silhouette of a person who looks a lot like me. She didn’t say a word but I knew what she was thinking: “I thought we would be together forever.” I can understand why she feels that way. When someone hurts me she’s always been there to argue my case, to condemn the other person, to polish my version of events as I prepare to share the story with friends who also take my side, validating my anger and my pain. She saw that I was done with yesterday’s story and I had no need to work on it or share it further. I call on her less often these days and when I do it’s for shorter periods of time. To paraphrase Sara Gran, it seems that the days of memorializing everything that hurts are over.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

My mother’s best friend was born and raised in a brick house on a tree-lined street. At nineteen she married the widower next door and moved into his home where they raised five children. When she died, in her mid-60’s, she had never lived anywhere but those two houses. It’s hard for me to imagine a life lived within such a small geographic space. I’ve lived in four states and eight cities, held a dozen jobs, and found new friends, new favorite restaurants, and new paths to walk many times over.

I’d like to think that my ability to cope with major life changes means I’m a whiz at coping with the small changes of daily life. I’m not but I don’t think the problem is change.

Over a year ago, I started going to a yoga class two or three times a week. With few exceptions the same woman taught each of those classes and when she wasn’t able to be there, class was cancelled—when she went on vacation last winter, when she was sick over the summer, when ice made her driveway impassable a couple of weeks ago. So I was surprised when she announced that a substitute would teach last week’s classes while she was out of town. Of course, I was glad to be able to go to class now that my commitment to yoga borders on an obsession—a day without yoga is like well a day with a very tired, dragging butt. I no longer have to psyche myself up to go or reward myself for having gone. I still prefer the back row but don’t panic if I’m stuck up front. So why did I spend so much of the class taught by the substitute in a funk?

On the drive home l replayed the class in my head. At one point we were in forward fold and she asked us to move to a plank starting with our right leg. I stretched my right leg back and waited for her to direct us to move our left leg back. I waited and waited then noticed the women on either side of me were already in plank. The regular teacher goes from forward fold to a lunge, not a plank, and if she tells us to move one leg at a time she’ll then cue us to move the other leg. I recalled feeling uncertain moving from the forward fold to the lunge/plank and then feeling foolish for not moving to plank on my own. Those were my feelings—uncertain and foolish. But my thoughts were having a different experience. My thoughts were angry criticisms of the substitute. I was mad at her for not using the same verbal cues and strategies for moving from pose to pose as the regular instructor.

I was headed down a related path with my new computer. I was as excited as a five year old the night before her sixth birthday anticipating its arrival but once it got here I was scared and anxious. Unlike the yoga class, I wasn’t surprised by my feelings because with technology I often fear failing to understand instructions and am convinced I’m going to break it. I found myself doing a lot of deep breathing every time I had a new task to complete and was exhausted by the time I finished setting it up.

Paying close attention to these two experiences helped me see that change, in itself, is not the source of my discomfort. It comes when I resist what necessarily accompanies change—struggling to understand, being out of sync, getting lost. So instead of looking outward, looking for someone or something to blame, I am acknowledging my fear and anxiety then taking a deep breath and savoring the exhalation, the pleasure that comes from letting go.

Cinnamon toast

There’s a restaurant we love because it serves cinnamon toast that is vastly better than what we make at home. A friend recently sent us a gift box of spice blends to make dip or top sandwiches and one of them is cinnamon sugar. Right, it’s not a complicated combination but having it ready to sprinkle inspired me this week to try to get closer to the restaurant’s version.

I did not start the week expecting improved cinnamon toast to be the highpoint. According to my calendar, I was going to finish a blog post on Monday, go to yoga on Tuesday, welcome my brother for a visit on Wednesday that would include a trip to the food bank and meal preparation and service for the local community dinner on Thursday, an appointment in Iowa City on Friday, and meetings with clients throughout the week.

Instead, on Monday I spilled a glass of water that took out my laptop. Extreme cold and ice cancelled yoga, my brother’s visit, the food bank pick-up, the community dinner, and my trip to Iowa City. The only survivor was meeting with clients since most of those conversations happen over the phone. What had been a relatively busy week became three nearly empty days exacerbated by partner’s absence since her flight to a conference in Atlanta was merely delayed.

This quantity of unexpected free time is not my friend. Alone, trapped in the house by the weather, an infuriating news cycle, and a ruined computer put me in the cross hairs of those two voices I so often hear howling in my head.

Martha Beck calls these voices the dictator and the wild child. While the dictator second guesses our decisions, reminds us of past mistakes, and warns of looming catastrophes the wild child is the voice of pure need—helpless and overwhelmed. Most of us hear voices like this and either get carried away by their constant presence or try to silence them by shoving them down. Beck asks us, instead, to notice that in her totally inappropriate way, the dictator is trying to protect the wild child from harm and that the wild child is simply trying to get her needs met. Notice this, Beck encourages, and cultivate an attitude of loving-kindness toward them.

It’s great advice and I’ve made a lot of progress in seeing when these voices are working on me. One thing that’s helped is that I can picture them. My internal dictator is an imposing woman whose reproaches and protests are communicated at an operatic pitch. The voice of pure need looks like a dirty rag doll. She doesn’t talk she just wants.

This week the tyrant wanted to yell at me about killing my computer, criticize me for not being more productive with my unexpected free time, and lecture me about what I ate. All the while the voice of pure need kept trying to drown her out by turning up the television while searching the house for junk food.

As I work to accept that I am not my thoughts and therefore, that I am not either of these voices, a third entity that Beck calls “The Watcher,” the consciousness that sees and hears these two voices, gets stronger. Observing these two voices with an attitude of loving-kindness is a powerful antidote. When they get going, I acknowledge them and encourage them to take a nap. I see the opera singer stretching out on a beautiful red velvet chaise lounge while the dirty rag doll curls up in the corner with a blanket.

While a quiet mind is a beautiful thing and one I strive for both in meditation and throughout daily life sometimes I need to fill the space left by the silenced voices. I pay attention to how I feel in my body and what those physical feelings are telling me about my mental state. This week, I said, out loud, “I feel sick to my stomach. I feel scared because I made a mistake and it’s going to be an expensive one.” I reminded myself, “In this moment, I am not in danger and I have successfully managed difficult situations before. I know what to do.”

When I feel reluctant to take the time to use evidence of my own competence to speak the truth to myself. I think about the time and energy it takes to be afraid and to fall apart. That renews my commitment to acknowledging the voices and addressing them with compassion and facts.

When I replace the voices of criticism and fear with my essential voice, the one who knows what I’m capable of achieving I make room for clear thoughts like calling a friend who knows what about a wet laptop, for gratitude because I have the resources to replace a 10 year old computer, and for the time to practice making better cinnamon toast.