Sunday, January 29, 2012

Putting Myself At the Top of The List

I remember the first time I heard the term "self-care." From a psychologist, naturally. I remember being flummoxed, thinking "Huh. Now what does that mean?"

I shudder to think how not care-ful I used to be (sometimes still can be) with myself. I was the high emperor of powering through, staying up all night, forgetting to eat until I was ready to collapse. I was my own slavedriver, poised above the sled yelling mush! mush! Faster into the night!

I see now some of what it was about. It was about saying yes to everybody so that they would love and approve of and be pleased with me. It was about asking for permission to be alive, to exist. It was about having no clue who I was. It was about the Cinderella thing, and the martyr thing, and a general lack of control and/or self-worth.

I remember that the psychologist wouldn't pin down for me exactly what taking care of oneself meant. As always, I was looking for someone else to give me the rules to follow. Eventually I figured out that it's tricky, because it means different things to different people, and even different things to the same person depending on the situation, the day, the hour.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Snowy Ramble

There is still something special about waking up on the morning of the first snowfall of the year. You can sense it even before you know exactly what it is. A sleepy, muffled quality that isn't usually there. In the place of the usual mishmash of dead leaves and patio furniture that is in the backyard, there was a gentle, even coating of snow.

Out in the street, there is an air of festivity and out-of-the-ordinariness. The snow has forced us to change our routines a little, to get out and shovel the walks, to dig the snow boots from the back of the closet. People have to pick their way like chickens across the crusty ice patches.  Bundled in big coats and adorned with a great variety of hats and scarves, there is an air of slight ridiculousness to the people in the street. If there is a way to look stern and business-like in a winter hat I have yet to see it.

There's an extra air of excitement. People can't quite forget what it was like when they were kids, when it was all about the sledding and hot chocolate and a day off from school. 

Maybe what I love about a snowy day is a forced variation in routine. Whatever you thought you were going to do, you might have to adjust to fit the circumstances. Cars are forced to drive more slowly down the unplowed streets. Biking's out of the picture. The library is closed today, a handwritten sign taped hastily to the glass doors. Redbeard and I decided not to go to the party tonight, we will stay in and cook dinner and share a blanket, hunker and hibernate.

This afternoon Redbeard and I strolled to the Woodlands, a cemetery that used to be a rich man's estate. It's always a place of quietness and solitude and trees in the midst of the bustling concrete jungle, and even more so on a snowy afternoon. I find it calming and sharpening to walk among the tombstones and monuments. All those calls to rest, slumber, peace, eternity.

It's good to remember every so often that we're headed into the ground, too, eventually. May our lives be precious and long.

Every once in a while you remember to tune in to the beautiful stew of everything all around you: the rasp of shovels, the cold air sharp on your face, the rasp of a snow shovel on the sidewalk. 

On the way home Redbeard and I parted ways, he to the wine store and I to the warmth of home. I walked the last few blocks by myself.

On the corner of 45th and Osage an older couple stood on the corner taking pictures of each other with a digital camera. They seemed to be in a state of amusement and delight. As I passed by, they asked me to take a picture of the two of them together. They spoke with an accent I couldn't place.

I took the picture, wondering what exactly it was they were so joyfully documenting. What's so special about two people together on an average street corner in Philly, a house, a bush, a light coating of snow?

Everything, I guess. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Midnight in the Garden of Grad and School

Lately I have to keep polishing up the vision I have for my future, because it's been taking beatings on the way to getting there. I have to keep summoning up the image of that life of lightness and pizazz, travel and adventure, and helping people! Molding young minds! With liberty and good lives for all!

I have to keep reminding myself because in order to get there, there is a lot of paperwork to fill out. Fees to pay. Phone calls to make. Files to dig out. Records to request.

And my god, it's boring! It's deadening! It's urgent. It has to be done. You show them you can navigate endless labyrinths of bureaucratic poison ivy, do what's asked, service with a smile, and when all is said and done they smile back at you, give you a pat on the back and a wine and cheese reception and a bill for $40,000. They put it on your permanent record.

All we can do is hope that elsewhere there is a different, less boring and sensible record being etched. It lists the ways we reached out and and connected to each other, the phone call you placed on a cold January day waiting for the school bus to come and deliver the child. The friendly, dependable voice.

We can only hope there is a transcript somewhere of the kinds of people we were, in the ways for which there is no measurement and no record. Our arms around our best friend. A piece of trash nobody saw us pick up and throw away. Midnight cookie runs to the all-night pharmacy, the aisles of fluorescent glow harsh and unreal and outside of time. Belly laughs, belly rubs, bellyaching we've done around a a cheap cafeteria table somewhere with like-minded commiserators.

Somewhere out there records are being etched in a quiet, cosmic, butterfly-wings kind of way, and all the accolades and grades and the papers and forms amount to a pile of ash.  And people who cared about something, stood for something, gave a shit about someone, took a moment to listen not because it's their job but because they believe that's what human beings should do to other human beings-- even if they never get recognized, never get a red cent, die in a state of anonymity, poverty, namelessness...

I have to believe somewhere there is a tally of humble, unrecognized acts of love, connection, sacrifice, courage, inspiration, generosity.  Maybe on a piling of a dock on a lake somewhere we can't get to.  And that people live on not as the subject of a letter of reference or an average of numbers but as a total unique indescribable anomaly, like a moment that will never be repeated, the time you stood there with all your friends in the breathless 3-D, staring up at the curves of a night sky oozing stars from every pore.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Pressing the Reset Button

Last night I sat down and had a talk with myself. As my earlier blog entry attests, it had been a rather brutal week. I let an urgent deadline at work send me off the deep end. The worst part was not the external obligations but the internal racket - - a firestorm of fear-mongering, nay-saying, and pessimism. I put myself in a jail of my own making.

Luckily, last night, I decided to break out. Thanks in part to a post at another blog that reminded me to watch how I talk to myself, buster, I decided to take back control!

I did a post-mortem and attempted to figure out how I could prevent the same kind of self-inflicted torture this week. Here are the minutes from the meeting with myself:

1. Don't forget the thing about the airplanes.  I.e., course correction. A friend told me that although it looks like airplanes are flying in a straight line, they are actually constantly making slight, side-to-side course corrections the entire time they are flying. People can do that too, with goal being the the course corrections become smaller with time.

2. Leechblock: Use it in good health. When the urge to procrastinate is strong, you have to outsmart yourself - this tool lets you be your own time-suck police by imposing limits on when you can visit which web sites. It requires a certain amount of self-knowledge to enter the right information, of course, and it's still no good unless you have...

3. A commitment to an outcome. The most important difference between last week and this week is that I've had it up to here with all the mealy-mouthed whining. I am strong! I've survived and come out on top after all kinds of crap. I know what it takes. It's time to get real and do what I know to do.

Now that I got clear about what I do (and don't) want out of my working/waking life, it's up to me to make it happen. And so far: progress. I meditated, I was productive, I bought 2 skirts and 2 tops at the thrift store's 50% off sale, I wrestled the floor-laundry into being closet-laundry. I even managed a tiny, microscopic jog.

I think the take-home here is about taking ownership of your own life. In a small way, it's about being the hero of your own story. Acting upon your environment instead of being acted upon. Turning from object to subject of the sentence. Mountains, journeys, soaring eagles, wolverines. All that stuff.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Not The Boss of Me

I've been struggling lately. I've been stuck in quicksand.

The issue is a looming, high-pressure deadline at work. Maybe the real issue is that I've allowed it to totally consume me. I've been overwhelmed, and rather than summoning the plucky, cheerful determination to attack the thing one step at a time, something in me has been sending the whole operation to a screeching halt. My subconscious has been calling in a strike - shut 'er down! - and it's been presenting as procrastination, avoidance, general overall grumpiness and depression. I just want to cower in my bed with the covers over my head.

And, like quicksand, the more I struggle to extricate myself, the deeper I sink. I try to give myself a pep talk but it turns into an internal tirade. You should be better at this by now! Better at what? Life. Work. Not getting overwhelmed and depressed. Not hiding under the covers.

I've tried all sorts of things to try to lift myself out of this mire. Some have worked better than others. Some have worked basically not at all. Here are my observations:

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Good Life Win!

The reason I like the idea of aiming for a good life, rather than pursuing a merely happy life, is that a good life leaves room for complexity, depth, richness of flavors. It allows for those things that, while not happy, are still beautiful or good. It makes room for the reality that things can be profoundly unhappy without losing the thread of a good, solid, beautiful life. Emotions like grief and anxiety can still be a part of it. It's about what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls the full catastrophe -- the whole earthly package of joy, pain, and everything in-between.

So yesterday, even though I got some troubling news about a family member, Redbeard and I proceeded as planned to our belated Christmas celebration, which consisted of a hike and dinner out.

Something about being out among the seasons, the sun rising and setting, things shaped not by human time but geologic time - mountains, rivers, streams - helps me relocate the perspective it's so easy for me to lose. Something about the way trees spring up, fight to grow, and outlast us makes me think that there's a logic to all of this, a bigger storyline than I can see by myself way down here in the field.

I am helped by remembering to enjoy one moment at a time. I am easily overwhelmed by my own ambitions. I want to see the world! Experience everything! Eat, drink, absorb it all right now! I want to see all my plans coalesce by yesterday. I hate that I will never be able to experience everything, everywhere ever.

It helps me to remember that I always have access to here and now. I may not be able to experience everything, but that's no reason not to experience what's right in front of me right now.

And often what's right in front of me can be downright spectacular, if I care to pay attention...

I'm reminded of a beautiful essay I read here, called The Summer of Our Content, by Forrest Church a Unitarian minister who talks about wanting what you have.

He writes about "deep and due appreciation for things we do have, things we would miss so desperately were they to be suddenly taken from us." Health, people, our senses, love.

For me, even though this is easy enough to understand intellectually, it took experiences of illness and loss to get get it. I remember the grandiose promises I made to the powers that be when I was in pain from ulcerative colitis, how if it would only start working right again I would truly honor my body, feed it only whole foods, live a wholesome life of exercise and vitamins, etc. etc,

I can't say I followed through particularly judiciously with that, and now that I feel fine again it's easy to take for granted the miracle of worry-free digestion taking place on a daily basis in my body. But sometimes I am still able to sit back in wonderment. (For example, Redbeard and I had our minds blown at Morimoto yesterday, where thanks to a Christmas gift certificate we were able to realize our long-time dream of dining at the establishment of our favorite Iron Chef.)

River of time, slipping away.

And then of course there was the skull-shattering loss this year of my cousin Alfred. I haven't even begun to reconcile that one. But among the many volumes of feelings I had about it, one was a feeling almost of desperation, to live and enjoy and appreciate and do as much as I can, while I can, and to do stuff I care about, not let my my time slip away unintentionally. I don't want to look up one day and find that I accidentally didn't do what I wanted in life because I got distracted by an article about Sarah Palin's hairstylist.

That's why yesterday was a great victory for me. It might've looked like just a walk in the woods, but to me it was an afternoon spent doing something that I would actually be glad to say that I did when my number gets called. 

The weather was mild and sunny. The air smelled mossy and damp. I love the woods in winter when views open up and the trees are naked and spindly. They always look like uplifted arms to me.

And yourself, fellow traveler? What aren't you taking for granted today?

Friday, January 6, 2012

Life Is Not A Magazine. It's A Good Thing!

A couple years ago I was going through a bit of a hellacious period. Inspired by a book about interior design, and also probably something I read by Martha Beck, and also an issue of Country Living that I found at a thrift shop, I started what Pirate Redbeard now refers to as "doing my pictures."

Basically I leaf through magazines and catalogs, cut out the pictures that please me for obvious and/or inexplicable reasons, and glue them into a big-ass spiral-bound sketchbook. It was unusual back then for me to do something that had such a lack of clear, definable purpose. I just kind of liked it. I couldn't explain why I was doing it, and for such a goal-oriented, results-driven efficiency slave, that was a weird feeling. But some wise people who have their lives reasonably together encouraged me to keep doing it just because I liked it and who cares, so I did.

I've been doing it when I feel like it for two or three years. What I have now is an unwieldy book full of pictures of like, people jumping into lakes and wearing vests and riding around on old-fashionedy bikes. Lots of stationary and rusty doorknobs and "distressed wood" and fresh produce and pets and big, fluffy comforters on big fluffy beds. And tents and trees and people doing yoga and carrying around picnic baskets with baguettes sticking out of them, smiling those smiles that say "We're shooting this fall catalog in mid-August and I'm trying to make it look like I'm having a festive, fun time with my baguette but actually it's like 1000 degrees and I'm wearing a toggle coat!"

Anyway... I see that what I was doing back then, from the dis-comfort of my dingy rodent-infested apartment above a laundromat, or as I like to think of it, the Lair of Despair, was trying to build a road map, a way out, a point on the horizon to aim toward, my own personal star of Bethlehem.
Seriously people, go to Montana.

And I've made some major progress since then: I own hiking boots now. I live in a big, beautiful apartment with hardwood floors instead of carpeting like that of an elementary school library. It has Victorian-times flourishes like skeleton keys and decorative glass windows. I went camping in western Montana (which by the way if you've never been is one of those places people go to to take pictures of to put in magazines, and you should totally go there). I got a big, fluffy, ivory colored duvet to snuggle under. I [attempted to] garden last summer. I own gardening clogs! They make little fart sounds when my feet get sweaty!

But and's a down day.

To enumerate: First of all, January = gross. I'm mainlining carbs. Piles of dirty laundry cross-fertilizing with the clean laundry. The work that I'm currently doing to pay the bills is boring and annoying and work-y. And even as I take steps toward my bigger and better things career-wise (i.e. apply to grad school), I can't help but be struck by the contrast between the vision for my life that I write about in my application essays ("omg Ima do a million things that I'm awesome and perfect for and it's going to be PERFECT") and, you know, my actual life.

Now, being the mood-management ninja that I am, I have mastered the use of earth-shatteringly innovative stress-management techniques such as "go for a walk" and "complain to your boyfriend." These did help, and a friendly cat did come up to me and nuzzle my leg on the walk, and they probably did prevent a more massive plunge into the darkness.

But, they also didn't stop me from projecting all sorts of pessimistic thoughts into the future, about what a cold and ugly winter it's going to be, how all I'm going to have time to do is work work work, there are no more good holidays until May, how many more gigantic stacks of BS I'm going to have to hurdle in order to get to (god willing) grad school, how I work sooooo hard and have it sooooo rough,  I barely remember what pleasure is anymore, blah blah self-pitycakes, as Sars might say.

Luckily, when I get like this, eventually somewhere in my brain a wire gets tripped and I'll recall things like how my grandparents fled their country of origin through war-torn Europe with only the clothes on their backs and within months of being in the refugee camp they managed to get a theatre troupe going despite not having any materials and having to make elegant Shakespearian costumes out of, literally, burlap sacks.  And I'm willing to entertain the idea that, fine, maybe I don't have it the roughest ever on the face of the planet. And maybe I should suck it up and do something about my situation.

I pulled out my big book of pictures and leafed through it, an activity that usually leaves me feeling kind of warm and fuzzy and inspired and soothed. Except... this time, it didn't!

It was having the opposite effect. It made me feel MORE depressed.

Because my life is so NOT like a magazine. My pictures are all fresh-baked pies and claw-foot tubs and bonfires and monogrammed canvas storage containers and a cup of tea by an artfully placed hard-backed book...

Compare that to my daily life, which lately is more to the tune of microwave popcorn packets and  clumps of kitty litter and picking up prescriptions and cursing at ATM machines and jumping up and down to stay warm while the gas pumps and squinting hunchbacked over a computer screen.

As I flipped through the pictures, I began to feel overwhelmed. How will I ever manage to make my life look like a magazine? Farmer's market veggies are so expensive. Our kitchen is so tiny and so frequently filled with dirty dishes. And when's the last time I've even seen a canoe, much less a hot air balloon? There is so much work to be done! Pictures to be hung! Beaches to prance on! Dressers to decoupage! I must make a list! I must hurry!

But as I gazed at all these pictures I've amassed, I remembered what attracted me to them in the first place. The reason I like these images of pretty rooms and delicious foods and soft blankets and people in windbreakers climbing mountains is because they're not about lists and demands and impossibly high expectations. They're all about being comfortable. Enjoying the scenery. Appreciating a nice soft blanket. Breathing the fresh air, eating the fresh food, sitting on a cushy chair. Sensory input. Simple pleasures. The moment.

I don't know why it is that it's so hard to remember this seemingly simple, ages-old idea of slowing down and enjoying the ride. I don't know why it's so hard to accept that every hour of every day doesn't have to be a rugged, earth-shattering, chakra-aligning, backwoods spiritual epiphany adventure.

As many a wiseperson has indicated, there is no "there" to get to. This is it. And frankly, "it" is a mixed bag.

And it's OK!

Come to think of it, even though a good chunk of my day was a computer-hunched hair-tearing suckfest, there was also that other part where Redbeard and I lay down on our backs on the grass on the well-manicured lawn of the University of the Sciences, and breathed in the unseasonably temperate air, and looked up at the clouds.

It was right out of a magazine.

Monday, January 2, 2012

This Year, Resolve Not To Improve So Much

I’ve practiced self-improvement as a full-contact sport for about as long as I’ve been sentient. Since early adolescence I’ve surrounded myself with to-do lists and schedules, workout regimes, goal-setting schemes. I've tabulated recipes of habits, activities, routines that I can add, subtract, and multiply so that I might finally be able to achieve that elusive condition of…what exactly?

Perfection? Completion? Nirvana?
The truth is, I am a junkie for achievements, accomplishments, and approval. Pirate Redbeard sometimes teases me about being a praiseaholic. And it’s kind of true. Because as long as it’s external approval that feeds that inner void, all I ever get is a temporary fix, only to crave more when the buzz wears off.
But 2011 has, in fact, provided me with some pretty big, wonderfully liberating paradigm shifts. Increasingly, I’ve been able to get off the approval-junkie treadmill. How, you ask?

The short answer is therapy. The slightly longer answer is:
1. Changing how I think about “enoughness.” My lust for gold stars is related to a pesky deep-seated belief I accidentally acquired that I am somehow not enough as I am. Only after pulling off this next impossible feat will I finally, at long last, be "enough”…except that it’s never enough. There’s always another mountain beyond the one I just climbed. So, it helps if I can:

2. Embrace continual change. This is one of those obvious-sounding ones that is easy to understand intellectually but way harder to actually live with. Sure, sure, the only constant is change, I’ve heard it a thousand times, got it, let’s move on…until I lose my wallet and suddenly it’s like “DEAR GOD WHY? WHY ME? ALL IS DARKNESS."
It helps (sort of) just to understand that as long as we’re living, there’s going to be new problems, new adventures, losses and gains, experiments of questionable utility, wrong turns, soaring victories and catastrophic failures. Maybe it’s possible with time to learn to approach these dignity, acceptance, and grace…
Oooooooor maybe not. Maybe for the rest of life every new bump in the road will be accompanied with a Greek chorus of wailing, teeth-gnashing, hair-rending, self-pity, and bleak, bleak despair.

And you know what? I’m OK with that. Because I’m all about:

3. Accepting imperfection. It’s cool! We humans are deeply flawed.That's like, the definition of human. Google wabi-sabi - imperfection has beauty! Besides, this whole idea of "being enough" is extremely relative. Next time I start to verbally abuse myself for not rushing to the chance to whistle while I work at a tedious and/or unpleasant task as cartoon birds land on my shoulders...maybe I can keep it in perspective by asking myself a few questions:

-Are you a serial murder?
-Have you kicked any puppies lately?
-Have you acted on any of the jealous rage fantasies?
-Are you a fugitive from the law?
-Are you, at this moment, flagrantly violating some deeply-held tenet of your personal moral code?

No? Great! 

Maybe, for now, that's enough. 

What about you, Gentle Reader? Where are you going to cut yourself some freakin' slack this year?