I prefer a dry heat

In summer, while waiting for me to pick her up, my mother often sat on the front terrace of her apartment building with Doris a woman in her late 90’s with a sharp mind and tongue to match. Indianapolis gets really hot in the summer and when people walking past them commented, unfavorably, on the heat, Doris would snap, “Well it’s summer isn’t it?”

Of course I never mentioned it to Doris, but after living in Minnesota for more than 10 years, I found Indianapolis summers brutally hot and uncomfortable. * Then one late spring day as I brooded about life, I thought of Doris and her acceptance of reality. I decided to make a small gesture toward acceptance by giving up my habit of complaining about the summer weather. I thought this minor but frequent act might be functioning as a gateway to finding fault with the world around me and I wanted to know what would happen if I closed it.

Days passed and the heat intensified but I knew enough about mindfulness that it wasn’t that hard to catch myself starting down the, “God, it’s hot” path. I often turned my attention to admiration and appreciation of the beautiful flowerbeds that filled my neighborhood and the campus where I worked.

What I hadn’t considered before making this commitment was, other people. At home and at work, with close friends and strangers, everyone seemed to use the weather as a form of greeting. In graduate school I studied something called conversation analysis, which studies the patterns and mechanics of interpersonal dialogue. One clear observation is that we don’t reject another person’s opening gambit easily; agreement is the norm. As an individual, I tend toward being agreeable anyway so when people said, “Don’t you just hate this muggy weather?” I was in a jam. I didn’t want to snap at them as Doris would have or go all goody-two shoes on them, “I think it’s a lovely day.” I didn’t want to keep my commitment to myself by making someone else feel disconfirmed. I settled for chuckling and saying, something like, “Oh but wasn’t it a glorious spring?” No one ever seemed offended and often people smiled or nodded in agreement. Fortunately, it had been a glorious spring.

It was a particularly long, hot summer giving me countless opportunities to turn away from the familiar habit of mindless negativity, turn toward accepting reality as it is, and sometimes even bringing others along for the ride.

*Of course, it wasn’t so much the heat as the humidity. Sorry, just had to get that in here.

 

What, if any, common aspects of daily life do you find yourself complaining about—weather, traffic, long lines?

What do you think will happen if you redirect your attention away from those negative thoughts? How do you think other will react if you stop making negative comments about those things?

 

 

Moving and storage

Less than a week after they moved into their beautiful new home I arrived for a weekend visit with my friends C and J. That first evening we enjoyed a delicious supper prepared by J then spent the better part of the next two days opening boxes, removing each item, and finding its proper place. C and J kept telling me I was a great friend for helping them and I accept their praise. However, it’s their behavior I find a true testament to friendship because I can’t imagine allowing anyone to watch my partner and me unpack our possessions. I know C and J love me but now I know they also trust me.

Although our efforts concentrated on the kitchen the things we unpacked were more than tools for meal preparation. There were gifts and inheritances; there were items that resolved a problem and others that remain a point of contention. I was in awe of their ability to lovingly recall the stories, connections, and meanings associated with these objects yet still get everything put away in the gorgeous new blue cupboards or let it go.

In addition to putting things away, C and J were also figuring out how to live in their new ranch style house, which has almost nothing in common with the farmhouse they just sold. For instance, the simple act of entering their home has been totally upended. In the old house they entered through the front door, put coats in the closet to the right, put bags and keys on the hall table in front of them, and removed their shoes placing them to the left of the table. In the new house they enter from the garage and the coat closet wall, rather than door, is to their immediate right. There’s no good place for a table where keys and bags can be dropped and the entire entry area is visible from the living room thus the challenge of dumping stuff but wanting all to remain neat and tidy.

As I watched them confront the challenge of transferring a necessary routine into a new space I thought about how deep our need is for a few taken-for-granted assumptions about how we function in the world. I wondered if craving the ability to put my keys down without deliberate thought, sure in the knowledge that I won’t spend 20 minute searching for them later, is a failure of mindfulness. Our habits, like our possessions, have a story, connections, meaning. Some are gifts, others we inherit. Mindfulness means staying alert to routines that have so hardened we can’t bear to let them go. They will surely cause me more suffering than struggling to find my keys once in awhile.

Order my days and my deeds

I like hanging out with me a lot more when I’m not being a jerk to myself.

My mother let me quit Girl Scouts in fourth grade because she knew my troop didn’t have the vitality of the troop my sister had loved so well. She was right but I wanted out because I chafed under the obligation of those weekly meetings. It’s not that I had urgent business elsewhere on Mondays at 3:30. I just craved the freedom to do as I pleased at least until my mother got home from work.

I’ve spent my life resisting and resenting entanglements, personal and professional that control my time too closely. They make my soul itch.

When my partner said she was going to Bulgaria for two and a half weeks, did I anticipate 17 luxurious days of 24 hour a day freedom? In fact, what I said a few days before her departure was, “You know, I fall a part a little when you’re gone.” She nodded knowingly.

Laura’s had several extended solo journeys during our 18 years together. Although I knew I would miss her, I anticipated each one with some glee at the prospect of so much unfettered time. I thought about all the things I’d do once free of our shared routine. And I can look back at each of those experiences and recall how miserable I was for most of her absence.

For the first day or so I would stay up late reading, watch shows she doesn’t care for, bake frozen pizza for dinner. But I couldn’t enjoy myself for very long. My wheedling ego started using words like “self-indulgent” to describe my behavior. Feeling not free but adrift I craved escape from the self-criticism and sank into behavior that made me feel worse. I spent hours in front of the television but barely watched it as I read the news and played games on my phone. Every unfamiliar creak and squeak in the house sent my mind whirling with fear and I slept badly. I thought about the projects I wanted to work on but failed to even get started. I let dishes and laundry pile up then scrambled before Laura came home to limit the evidence of sloth. Not because I feared her criticism but because I didn’t want a witness to my shame.

It’s been a few years since Laura’s last long trip and I’m happy to report that my ongoing work at being present and practicing self-acceptance has been beneficial. Telling her that I fall apart was something I’d never done before. It helped to say it out loud and without judgment toward myself for experiencing it or toward her for taking the trip.

Approaching her departure date, I did not make grand plans but I did say yes to opportunities despite the risk to my sense of freedom. My brother made a short visit, I went to meetings about the community kitchen and two coaching webinars, and friends in Minnesota invited me to visit for a weekend. That still left a lot of unstructured time. Over the first weekend, when an ice storm cancelled the few plans I had, I decided to lean into the prospect of two days alone to work on my phone/news/games habit. For 24 of those hours I put the phone down (often in a room where I was not). I’ve watched plenty of television and I finished my taxes and kept up with my blog. I’ve done laundry, managed a plumbing problem, and hit a really high score on my favorite app. I eat fruits and vegetables most days but I’ve also baked more than one frozen pizza.

I’ve felt productive and energized. I’ve also felt lonely and sad. I accept all of these moments for what they are—moments that will pass. And it turns out that no matter how I spend my time I like hanging out with me a lot more when I’m not being a jerk to myself.

The only moment I have

Here in the middle of the Midwest it is neither winter nor spring. The days are a little longer and tiny green shoots are scattered throughout our garden beds, and as the temperature rises my shoulders start to loosen after weeks of hunching against the cold. But it isn’t all mild days and flowers rising. The sky is often overcast, sunny days feature biting winds, and those tender green shoots are probably going to get buried under several inches of snow before the month is over.

Although I’m a native Midwesterner, it was the 15 years I spent in Minnesota that made this season of contrasts my least favorite. On a warmish day my spirits lift and I convince myself that spring has arrived. When snow falls a few days later I feel like a fool. But I’m not much of a learner on this topic so for weeks I experience this cycle of hope and disappointment. In Minnesota it lasted until May.

My mother had a friend who snarled at people who complained about hot days in July. “It’s summer isn’t it?” she’d bark at them. One hot and muggy summer I decided to take the implication of her admonishment seriously and vowed I would not complain about the heat. When I noticed my mind moving in that direction I batted the thought away. The challenge I hadn’t anticipated was how often others would complain to me about the heat. Talking about the weather is such a simple way to make contact. But it’s also a great example of routine negativity disguised as interpersonal connection. I didn’t want to snap at people or correct them so I found myself developing a host of responses that featured a big smile and something along the lines of “Oh, but we’ll miss these days come January.” Or, “Yes, but wasn’t it a glorious spring?” I was chipper enough that people didn’t appear to feel scolded as those who encountered my mom’s friend probably did. The one thing I didn’t manage to do, the thing I’m working hard on now, is simple appreciation for what is.

My challenge during these days between seasons is that a warmish day sends me hurtling into the future where the daffodils are out and the days are predictably mild. Right now, this moment, the sky is clear, the sun is urging the flowers to rise, the temperature is below freezing, and the furnace is working just fine. This moment, I remind myself, with all of its contradictions, is the only one I have.