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.

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.

Ratatouille pie

I glanced through the recipe eager to try an alternative to yet another pot of ratatouille. I could see there were a lot of steps but I enjoy chopping vegetables and I’ve succeeded at piecrust before. I planned it for Sunday but I hadn’t accounted for chilling the pie dough. Finally, on Tuesday I had enough time.

Make the pie dough, chill it for an hour, chop eggplant, onion, zucchini, and cherry tomatoes and marinate them with garlic cloves in olive oil, thyme, and rosemary. Roll out the dough, wrangle it into the pie pan and chill for another 30 minutes then cook it with pie weights for 15 minutes, then without pie weights for another ten. Turn the oven up to 400 and roast the onion and tomatoes on one cookie sheet for 35 minutes and the zucchini, eggplant, and garlic on another for 45. Mix grated cheese, an egg, and mayonnaise in a bowl.

At this point, I’d been in the kitchen for most of the afternoon. As I reached the final stage of the recipe, my partner came home from work. A charming and sunny woman she was full of entertaining stories about her day. She had gathered more produce from our garden and was working around me to get it cleaned and put away. As she talked, I filled the now cooled piecrust with the roasted vegetables, spooned the egg, cheese, mayo mixture on top, turned the oven down to 375 and put the pie in the oven to cook for 30 minutes. We both thought it looked delicious as we left the kitchen to continue our conversation in the living room.

When I went to check on it about 20 minutes later, I was surprised to see that while the cheese mixture had melted, it didn’t look as though it, or the piecrust had cooked. As I tried to figure out if this was how it was supposed to look I glanced up to see that the oven, though still warm from par baking the pie crust and roasting vegetables, was off. Confused, my first thought was that my partner had turned it off but in the next moment I realized it was my fault. When you change the temperature on our oven, you hit the stop button, enter the new temperature, and then hit start. I did the first two steps but not the third. I let out a loud expletive. My partner said, “What’s wrong?” I said, “I forgot to turn the oven back on.” She laughed.

I’m happy to report that I did not shout at her for finding my afternoon’s wasted labor funny. However, I’m unhappy to report that my equanimity was shattered. I turned the oven to 375, pressed start, and walked upstairs. I sat on the bed screaming (quietly to myself) about all that ruined effort and if not ruined then certainly not the dish featured in the New York Times. I wanted to blame my partner for her distracting stories but I knew I had committed two of the cardinal sins of my mother’s house: Carelessness and wasted food.

The truest, deepest feeling I had in that moment was: There is no room for error in my life. I will always be thwarted in reaching my desires because I’m always going to make a mistake that ruins all the effort that preceded that mistake. The universe is just waiting for me to screw up so it can say, “You’re not good enough to get what you want. Even if all you want is to try out a new recipe.”

I stayed there for several minutes before I took three deep breaths. In the space of those breaths I was able to remember something important. I was never making the pie described in the recipe. The recipe didn’t call for a half wheat half white flour crust. I’d changed cheeses, skipped the olives, and sautéed the zucchini instead of roasting it because I already had a grated a bag of it to use up.

What had I wanted if not the original recipe? I’d wanted to spend an afternoon making pie dough, chopping vegetables, and managing the complications of a new recipe. The pleasure of making something with my own hands, using the vegetables from our garden, creating something I knew my partner would enjoy—all of that was real. The only thing that was going to ruin what I had done was my willingness to give my happiness away to the illusion that I am not allowed to make mistakes.

I wish I’d taken a picture of it. It looked nothing like the quiche I made a few years ago that’s pictured above but it tasted just as good.

 

When are you most intolerant of your humanness, your fallibility?

Bag of rocks

In a lovely coincidence this happened on Independence Day. After a quick run to the store my partner and I cruised the local car dealerships since we could do so without being approached by salespeople. I drove up and down the aisles and she jumped out here and there to check sticker prices. At one point, as we chatted away, I paused mid-thought, and she filled in the rest. I hate this. Normally, I’d let out an exasperated sigh or snap, “Stop interrupting me!”* But neither of those things happened this time because a thought entered my head: “I’m not going to snap at her anymore when she does that.” And the next thing that happened was a feeling of relief, like I’d pulled a big rock out of the bag of rocks on my back and put it down. And the next thing that happened was my ego cried out in anguish, “What’s going to be left of me if I put this rock down? What about all of my other rocks? Who am I without my rocks?”

I’m not kidding. At that moment I believed that part of what makes me who I am is that I react with anger when I think my partner has interrupted me. Yes, I did laugh out loud at that thought.

I’ve regretted snapping before and promised myself to do better, be patient, learn to overlook it. But that response was inadequate as evidenced by the fact that I never stopped snapping. Those previous efforts were founded on the assumption that the story I told myself about my partner’s behavior had some foundation in reality. The story was: She never listens to me. That story fit neatly with my previous experiences (aka: bag of rocks). The youngest of six, raised in an often chaotic and noisy household, I could hardly get a word in edgewise. There are times when my partner doesn’t listen. But never listens? No, that’s empirically untrue. It turns out that every instance of her starting to speak before I finish speaking is not someone I love ignoring me or telling me to stop talking.

How is it that I finally noticed this truth? Practice. I spend a little time each day reading something, sometimes just a couple of pages, that challenges me to pay attention to how my mind works. And, my meditation practice is getting stronger. In recent days I’ve been asking myself, when uncomfortable feelings arise, “Am I going to throw away my happiness in this moment over this?” I take a deep breath, I let the feelings pass through, I deal with whatever needs to be dealt with, and then I let it go.

Or to paraphrase my hero Michael Singer, I am living my life rather than living my mind.

 

What practices are you using to watch your mind at work?

What’s in your bag of rocks? Which ones are you ready to put down?

 

*Communication nerds, like me, say that overlaps and interruptions are the same thing—two people speaking simultaneously. The difference is that overlapping speech is perceived as accidental for example, when one speaker apologizes and stops speaking in order to allow the other person to continue. Overlaps can also be perceived as cooperative speech where two people, often people who are close, finish each other’s sentences. In contrast, interruptions are perceived as an effort to stop the speaker from continuing.

Being there

We traveled for 24 days. We were gone so long that the days ran together and the routines of home were completely displaced. The opportunity to travel is such a gift—the planning, the preparation, and being there–that I always forget that it also includes discomfort and stress. Tummy trouble, a lumpy bed, changes affecting sleep patterns, and very little time alone. Constantly surrounded by unfamiliar sights and sounds and customs, at the end of each day I feel both exhilarated and exhausted.

In a depleted state, I am vulnerable to an old habit of mind: judgment. Initially my thoughts are overwhelmingly positive—beautiful churches, interesting museums, and wondrous natural beauty. But as time passes, and the stresses mount, negative judgments increase. I’ve often joked that my life’s ambition is to learn to say, “Pay attention,” “Keep moving,” and “Single file,” in all the world’s languages.

“Come on, it’s a narrow two-lane bridge with even narrower sidewalks. Must you stroll arm-in-arm even if that means I have to step into oncoming traffic? Single file please!”

“I know you are entranced by the tile work in the palace but there are 200 people waiting in line to see it. Keep moving!”

“Yes, it’s delightful to visit one of the world’s great cities but the streets are packed and everyone’s maneuvering around you as you stand there talking on your phone. Pay attention!”

I can tell myself that fatigue induces impatience and impatience results in a sour view of humanity. But that’s not the whole story. To the extent that I am fixated on other people, I must ask myself, “What in me is disturbed by their behavior?” I see that they are taking their time, walking aimlessly, looking relaxed and at ease. In contrast, particularly during international travel, I’m constantly on guard, fearful of making mistakes, of embarrassing myself. Watching other tourists makes me more self-conscious and my ego fights back with negative judgments.

When I finally grew sick of that crabby voice in my head, I tried to counter it. Each time my eyes settled other people I identified something positive about them. But it was still all about judging. I finally remembered my favorite practice: non-judging awareness. I don’t want to use my energy to make irrelevant, inane, mindless assessments of the world around me. But as a client once wisely asked, “What am I supposed to do with my brain?”

Observe, observe, observe. Describe, describe, describe. And avoid using evaluative language. What a relief! The world was so much more interesting. Out walking in the swirling crowds I just noticed people. Naming their features—balding, tall, green shorts, I felt like a crime novelist providing descriptions of characters. I started asking myself, “What’s that person distinctive feature? One that can’t be easily changed?” You know, in case they had to go on the lam. We were in small enough places that I often saw the same people later and recognized them because I’d so closely observed them. I also brought this practice to art and architecture, museums and cultural attractions. I realized how limited and superficial my assessments had been. “Yeah, yeah, another beautiful church” which is so dismissive, was replaced with, “I notice that almost all of the iconography in this church is of female figures.” As I paid more attention to guides than to the behavior of other people in the group, I asked more questions. I wasn’t trying to become a bigger nerd than I already am. I was trying to eliminate toxic negativity and shallow positivity.

I can go to the most interesting places, learn things that sharpen my understanding of the complexity of the world we share, meet kind, funny, clever people from all over the world. But I have to take myself along for the ride and that turns out to be the biggest challenge. With each and every thought I can either defend myself against my own discomfort and anxiety or open myself to the present moment and just be there taking it all in.

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.

Piece by piece

I begin to let go of the belief that martyrdom is essential to my self-esteem.

The community dinner I work with offers a vegetarian option at each meal and I’ve taken responsibility for choosing it, shopping for it, and preparing it. However, after taking on new responsibilities with the organization, I wanted to unload this obligation. Each year the local college assigns a student to work with us, and our current student loves to cook so I asked her if she would take over. She agreed to do it and I was SO pleased with myself for letting this responsibility go. Then life intervened. Sherry’s class schedule changed limiting her hours at the kitchen, another volunteer told me our kitchen manager wouldn’t buy some of the ingredients Sherry requested, and then she got sick before one meal and couldn’t be there at all. I nearly careened over the edge this week when the she sent me a quiche recipe, one she didn’t think she would be available to prepare, and the ingredient list seemed poor to me (pro-tip: plain yogurt is much better in quiche than heavy cream). Feeling aggravated and fed-up, I was on the verge of sending a text to the kitchen manager telling her I would go back to making the vegetarian option from now one when a tiny voice inside me said, “Stay out of it.”

I put my phone down but I struggled to quiet my mind. My impulse was to frame this situation as beyond my control and as the fault of those around me. After stewing about it I moved on to the question, “How did I end up right back in the middle of the vegetarian option?” and I see that I did it piece by piece. For instance, I’m the primary liaison between the kitchen and the college program that sends us a student. Sherry, appropriately, assumes I’m the person she should talk to about scheduling problems. I didn’t take myself out of that loop. Also, I assume, despite some counter-evidence, that the other dinner prep volunteers don’t want to take responsibility for the vegetarian option. I also assume that if they do take it on they won’t do it the way I think it should be done.

Piece by piece I give myself away. “It’s okay, I’ll do it this time.” “Yes, I’ll listen to your concerns rather than urge you to talk to the person who is the source of those concerns.” “No, I appreciate your offer but I’ll take care of it.” One decision at a time I hand pieces of myself over until I feel as if there’s nothing left of me. I tell myself as it’s happening that I’m patient and accommodating, that I put others’ or the organization’s needs before my own. I use that reasoning as evidence that I’m a good person. And when I feel as if there are no pieces of me left I am angry and blame others and I feel justified because, after all, I’ve been accommodating and patient and selfless.

As I learn to watch myself, to see my habits of thought as an object of curiosity, I gain freedom. And I learn to identify the actions that will keep me free—being direct about my limits, trusting others when they say they’ll take care of something, accepting that they won’t do things the way I would. Above all, I begin to let go of the belief that martyrdom is essential to my self-esteem.