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.

One meal at a time

When a local group met to talk about food insecurity the regional food bank director shared research showing there are 500,000 missed meals in our county each year. The political leader in the room asked one question, “How do food pantries and meal programs avoid duplication, you know, the same people getting served over and over?” The guy from the food bank was infinitely polite in his response but it boiled down to this: Folks, with a gap of 500,000 meals you are a very long way from needing to worry about duplication.

When I think about the meal gap program from the view of 500,000 missed meals I feel overwhelmed and doubt the impact of the free community dinner where I volunteer. We serve about 250 meals a month and give away food that provides another 250 meals. When the need is so much greater, how can I value what we do?

I thought about this when I was rereading Michael Singer’s Untethered Soul this week. When Singer writes about the ultimate experience of spiritual growth he describes it as identifying more with the “flow of pure energy” than with the physical or psychological realm. He goes on to say that identifying more with Spirit does not happen by “reaching for Spirit, but by letting go of the rest.” I can scare myself a little wondering who I will be if I succeed in letting go of the rest.

But just as it’s too soon for my community to worry about duplicating food services, it is too soon for me to worry about who I will become when I identify only with the flow of pure energy.

Yet, neither situation is a cause for despair nor is either one helped by despair. The meal gap is a complex issue related to jobs, schools, and public policy. It is also a simple issue. My organization and others like it provide food to the people right in front of us and we are always looking for more ways to provide more meals. As individuals and small organizations we will burnout if we only focus on the 500,000 missed meals. Instead we have to value every meal we provide, every bag of groceries someone takes home, and every time we bring awareness to the scope and the face of food insecurity in our community.

My journey toward spiritual growth is also complex as my history, community, and culture all pose challenges to it. It is also simple. Or it can be unless the only experience value is the endpoint—identifying with the flow of pure energy 24-7. That view tells me I am always failing. Instead, I choose to focus on what’s right in front of me: the limiting beliefs, the tired stories, and the old habits of hurt that rise up each day. Each time I let go of one of those beliefs, or stories, or habits, in that moment, I feel the flow of pure energy.

When do you question the impact you’re having in your world?

How do you focus on what you can do in the present to address a problem that seems overwhelming in its scope?

Shutting down

A teacher stands at the blackboard rapidly working through the material. As she finishes she turns to the class and says, “Now you do it.” Wide-eyed and baffled I don’t have the faintest idea what she’s done or how to reproduce it. Using the distributive property, multiplying integers, factoring polynomials, third grade, seventh grade, tenth grade as my classmates busily followed instructions stomach clenched and near tears I fell further and further behind. A single thought in my head: I don’t get it, I’ll never get it.

Those same feelings came rushing back last week in beginners’ tai chi. Like a math class, movement classes set to music that require me to follow and reproduce the movements of the instructor are way outside my comfort zone. I did reasonably well with the first four movements, sort of like addition and subtraction, but the next four were all long division and fractions for me. If I concentrated on the hand movements, which were key to the transitions, I lost track of the footwork. If I focused on the footwork my hands and arms were out of sync and trying to manage both at once was comical but not funny. I kept waiting for it all to fall into place.

After many repetitions I noticed my insides were tightly clenched, my breathing was shallow, and right on cue, there was the thought: I don’t get it. I’ll never get it. And I noticed something else: it’s really hard to concentrate with that thought in my head. It’s hard to distinguish important information from irrelevant information. It’s hard to do anything but fight the urge to flee. As a kid my response was to shut down emotionally and intellectually. In course after I course I would reach a point where I just gave up. As an adult I am able to be curious about my reaction.

And here’s the value of my daily, mind calming practices—almost as soon as I realized I was shutting down, I was able to move to the witness seat and breathe through those feelings rather than get caught up in them. I made the choice to acknowledge them and keep moving rather than shove them away and tell myself that this was an unimportant situation, not worth the stress and strain I was feeling. That’s a habit I don’t love. Whether the stakes are high or low, when I’m not good at something and I’m overwhelmed by self-doubt, I shut down and walk away. Change comes from moving to the witness seat in every difficult situation regardless of the stakes.

When do you notice that you shut down?

When do you feel that you don’t get it, that you’ll never get it?

What practices help you remain present to yourself?

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?