Friday, January 3, 2020

An Anniversary - The 40/40 List FIVE Years Later

Vintage birth announcement

Today I turn 45. I am middle-aged. It's ridiculous to consider. It's also such a gift, a privilege to be able to add more years to this life.

I finally arrived! TWO weeks after my due date.

As the weeks and days have ticked by to this day, I've thought a lot about who I am now, and about all of the versions of me that have brought me to this point. I'm still slim, but not thin-skinned. I feel my introverted tendencies more acutely as I raise a strong-willed extrovert. I still love reading, and keep finding ways to read faster to consume more information. I am even more interested in telling stories, so I study how to do it. I am curious, but have a lack of it when it comes to what people think of me. I trust myself, and really like the woman I have become. I feel good in my skin and love the decision to whack off my hair three years ago. I love my own company and crave it more and more. I'm not afraid of being alone, and the abject loneliness of a few years ago has dissipated. I am grateful that I set out to date myself in the early months after my divorce and came to know myself and like myself in new ways for the first time in my life.

Of the things that are most different about me, it is my ability to metabolize fear. I lived nearly 40 years paralyzed by it. I stayed firmly within the confines of what kept me safe and sound—or at least what I perceived as such.

My Grandpa taught me to step over the wires that electrified the rides at the State Fair. I watched other people step on them and nothing happened to them. Protecting us from danger—perceived and real threats alike—was his love language. So I followed his advice and stuck to what seemed safe. I was the child who also didn't like Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham because if ham was green, something was WRONG with it, and we SHOULD NOT BE EATING IT. You see where I'm going with this? I took reasonable precautions to their outer limits. I went overboard on being safe and I didn't risk anything—not adventure or healthy risk. I stayed at jobs too long. I didn't travel to places I wanted to see. I stayed in relationships past their expiration dates. My sense of safety became inverted.

And then I felt things shift. I was getting divorced and turning 40 and the way I'd always done things didn't seem to be working anymore. I took the advice of a twenty-something and made a list of things to do in celebration of my birthday. It turns out that list changed my life.

I tackled the list like a military operation, or so one friend observed. I put things on that list that scared me. I also used the list to inspire, stretch, and teach me. All of that happened. That list was like throwing a rock into the lake of my life and watching the ripples widen. I am still feeling the effects of disturbing the waters of my life.

Malcolm Gladwell explained in his book David and Goliath – Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants that during the Blitz in World War II, Londoners didn't behave as the government expected them to. After the war, a Canadian psychiatrist named J. T. MacCurdy studied reactions to the unrelenting bombings and described his findings in a book titled The Structures of Morale. MacCurdy wrote:

We are all of us not merely liable to fear, we are also prone to be afraid of being afraid, and the conquering of fear produces exhilaration....When we have been afraid that we may panic in an air-raid, and, when it has happened, we have exhibited to others nothing but a calm exterior and we are now safe, the contrast between the previous apprehension and the present relief and feeling of security promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage.”

As I think of my life at 45, MacCurdy's words resonate. I haven't been through the Blitz, but I have navigated emotional disturbances that felt explosive. In the years before my divorce and my 40th birthday, I was paralyzed by my fear of being fearful. Working my way through my 40/40 knocked all of that loose. I didn't become fearless. I was afraid and proceeded forward with my fears in tow. And then I looked around and noted that I was still standing. That I had survived whatever dangerous, scary thing I had imagined was coming after me. The more I tested the waters of my own courage, the braver and sturdier I became.  

I flung myself off the platform swinging on the trapeze. I pushed my skinny frame toward the finish line of my first race. I challenged old stories I came to believe as truth. I baked fancy desserts, and didn't set the kitchen aflame. The list was my life. I was burning away the old stuff that no longer served me and cleared the path to head out on new adventures.

I have become familiar with the exhilaration too, and it feels GOOD.

As I celebrate the ups and downs of this precious life, I am living proof that “the present relief and feeling of security promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage.”

Five years. There was a time when I was so frightened not knowing what would come next. Now I welcome the unknown and know I am up for every challenge that life throws my way.

Here's to the next five and five and on and on!

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Looking back and welcoming what's to come

Happy New Year! It feels good to open a fresh document empty except for the curiosity of what will fill its pages in the coming 365 days. I didn't fully embody my word of the year, enchantment, quite as I might have hoped. My bent toward practicality kept enchantment at bay more than I had hoped and yet I have no regrets about the aspiration to be enchanted. It nudged me closer to this year's word: savor. I look forward to the ways that I can embody this new word.

A friend reminded me that “We are not always 100 per cent.” It was his way of comforting me as I lamented the inability to “get over” something that keeps tripping me up. His phrase has been a mantra this year and a source of self-soothing.

My home began transforming into the space I have always dreamt of it being: a safe place for friends and strangers who need it. It didn't require new furniture or a fresh coat of paint to achieve that status. Only an open heart and the willingness to say yes when the needs arose. Four months later, a friendship is forged that I am excited to nurture and cultivate for months and years to come. It also hosts bi-monthly Girl Scout meetings, and it has recharged my emotional reserves to hear the chatter of twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls who delight in each other's company and work toward their goals together.

The middle school years are proving to be difficult for pre-teen and mother alike. I've been heartbroken at times feeling inadequate in my role as her shepherd through this rough terrain. But since I've begun to see every aspect of life as a practice rather than an expectation of getting things right all the time, I've found space to learn from my missteps, room to breathe, practice patience, and try again.

I continue to feel a sense of wholeness and health that is new—not only post-divorce, but new in all my nearly 45 years. I am confronted by things that have caused me difficulty or consternation, and I am actually grateful when those moments arise because I demonstrate how differently and competently I handle them now. I see how healing from past hurts and feelings of being misunderstood allow me to respond from such a different place than before. I have watched myself initiate difficult conversations that previously seemed impossible. I would freeze and stay in a place of resentment and indignation. Now, I take a breath when the opportunity presents itself, and speak what is true for me with kindness and self-respect. I have seen relationships transform and my life feels lighter and happier.

There is a difference between responding and reacting, and in the new year and new decade before me, I am committed to responding. I have turned so many corners for the better that I see that I am back where I started, but at a new elevation with the benefit of life experience, hindsight, and the love and support of many who have loved me to this new place.

I am loosening my grip on my stubborn approach to paying off credit card debt. Being white-knuckled about anything is an exhausting, counterproductive strategy. We are going to travel more, pay attention to opportunities to say yes when life opens new doors, and respect the moments when saying no is a sacred choice.

I fine-tuned my ability to conserve and expend energy like a banker spends and saves money. I understand how time is currency, and I want to spend it well. I have recognized how my work life has become deeply stressful, and with awareness, I discovered that rest and sabbaths of many kinds were the best way to combat it. By the end of the year, I was able to grant myself these respites with very little guilt. I endeavor to do more of the same in the new year and even go so far as to find ways to eliminate the crushing stress altogether.

Time in my garden reinforced how it—and I—are works in progress, and I am thrilled by the ways I am blossoming along with my crops of zinnias and sunflowers. This season, I tried planting seeds in different places in my yard and was initially underwhelmed. Only two stalks of sunflowers grew and my zinnias sprouted but initially stopped before any blooms came. I learned the importance of knowing how much sun an area gets and was satisfied that no zinnias this year were a small price to pay for understanding that they required much more sun for future crops. I put too many sunflower seeds in the same hole in the ground—another mistake I made that taught me to see this garden as a source of adventure. I feel lucky I got the two stalks I got. But then a month later than expected and a few weeks after I'd considered pulling the zinnia-less plants, nearly two dozen zinnias blossomed after all, which taught me a bigger lesson: that all living things grow in their own time and to not rush the process. I've always considered myself a late-bloomer, but I'm now considering the possibility that I am actually blooming exactly on time—for me.

Welcome 2020! I am excited by what adventures and blossoms await me in this New Year.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Writing Prompt: I am thinking...

Here's another Natalie Goldberg writing prompt. These prompts aren't really intended to be shared, per se, so I'm letting it be what it is with little editing or explanation. The direction of this prompt was to fill in the blank and when ideas slowed, to simply write the words I am thinking again and again. The point is to keep putting words and sentences on the page or screen, and on this day in July, I accomplished that. I'm also remaining accountable to myself by posting weekly to this blog. Without further ado.

I'm thinking of how nice it is that I shared a favorite band's concert with my daughter. I'm thinking of how sometimes she talks too much, and I have to remember she's a little girl, and I need to be a net to catch all her words.

I'm thinking about for as much as I want to be touched, it's by an adult I want to be touched. She put her sweet little hand on my back as the band played and I wanted to move away. I am thinking that it was such a nurturing gesture, and I worry about what it does to her to nurture her mother. What I've witnessed of the nurturing of mothers by daughters hasn't always been for the best.

Perhaps my daughter's nurture stems from my own, and that I should be grateful for rather than resistant to, but still what I really want is a man's hand on my lower back feeling his body close as I sway to the music.

I am thinking about how I'd never heard the cello part of their band sound so strong and complement the other parts of the music as well as last night. I am thinking of how Scott seemed of sound mind and when he's in the zone how good the music is. I am thinking of Seth and his tenderness. The tenderness that gets expressed to the fans, but also flows through lyrics and sentiments. Maybe he brings the softness and his brother brings the grit.

I am thinking of the songs I love on albums that I've never seen live. I am thinking about the mirror ball and what sparkle it added to my favorite song, Laundry Room.

I am thinking a lot about how different I feel these days than I did four years ago. It didn't feel like it at the time, but in retrospect I can see how fragile I was. I was stronger then than I'd been in a long while, which only goes to show how much of a whispery shell I had become. Today I am made of steel. I am sturdy and unwavering. I know my mind and I follow my gut. When I am uncertain, I stay still until the certain answer or next right move surfaces. Only then do I act.

This feels like a superpower, this sturdiness. I am so much better able to protect my heart. Protecting my heart and moving in my own self-interest comes naturally now. I feel less needy. I don't feel dependent on others to validate or hold me up. A dear couple's leaving town when they did required me to rely on myself and trust that I didn't need other adults to prop me up. I wouldn't have known that until their absence required it of me. Feeling distant from another friend doesn't feel personal like it might have years ago. She's in a different season of life. I feel like my independence from her is a way to honor her. Like, Look at me, you helped me get to this point! I don't need to rely on you as I once did. I can hear your voice in my head when I need it, and the marvelous thing is that I don't need that kind of support so keenly any more, and when I do, I know how to give it to myself. That is a gift she gave me.

I am thinking of how with time I am able to rebuild a friendship that stands alone, that does not require someone else's interference. It is my sturdiness that makes this possible, and also maturity and has added layers to my thin-skinned nature. I take so few things personally today. I still feel my feelings, but I know they are fleeting and that the other stuff isn't about me, and does not need to be metabolized as such.

I am thinking of how great it is to grow older and wiser. What a privilege that is.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Writing Prompt: I am looking at...

In my pursuit to read and clear out a particular pile of books in 2019, I stumbled on a book of writing prompts specifically for the writer who wants to delve into memoir. The book is Old Friend from Far Away by Natalie Goldberg. She is the author of Writing Down the Bones, a seminal how-to for writers.


A few years back I tried to work my way through the prompts, but just didn't have the discipline and the stamina for the truth-telling that this book of prompts encourages. But on this go-round, well, honestly, I'm a better writer, a more confident woman approaching this craft. The following is another stream of consciousness piece I mined from my Page-a-Day 2019 archive. I've done a bit of editing, but not too much.

I am looking at a room that is my haven. Once filled with disappointment, sadness, and impotent possibilities for partnership, this room now brings comfort and joy and quiet. I am looking at a wall with a menagerie of memories. A plate that once hung on my grandma's bathroom wall, that with its muted colors and pastoral scene conjures her home for me visually and viscerally. I am looking at the paper tree surrounded by memories written in my early-20s handwriting—a gift I gave her as a celebration of what she'd meant to me through my life. A Christmas gift from a college student on a budget. I am looking at the magnetic board that used to hang in my teenage room in my parents' house. It displays magnets and wisps of paper that urge me on this creative journey.

Taped to a frame that covers the matted photos of two separate trips to Europe is a torn out magazine page with a tiny cabin and an awning covering the only window to the left of its door. I look at this and envision a future writing space. And I know that even if I don't get it in real life that looking at it as I write and even when I don't write, creates space in me. Creates the adventurous spirit I need to pursue this craft-love of mine. For the sake of the pursuit, with no attachment to a particular outcome.

I am looking at the race bibs hanging on my wall. A reminder that I have done hard things physically and not only survived, but thrived. I don't need to look at anything other than my flat belly with milk white stretch marks to remember my most physical, demanding feat: growing and giving birth to my daughter.

I am looking at the baskets on my floor. My handiwork as a high-schooler who took up basket weaving at a sports camp. Those baskets now hold some of my most treasured possessions: letters from friends and family through the years. The letters I prize the most are in a box on the top of a dresser I bought to conjure the woman who wrote those letters. The same woman who owned the plate in the bathroom and put her hands to her mouth when she was surprised and delighted, like when I gave her that homemade gift of memories.

I am looking at every item in this room knowing how I have carefully curated it. I have been the Director of Important Items in this museum of my life. Everything I look at has a story. And if it doesn't, it does not stay around for very long.

The longer I look at all these things the longer I know that I can also let them go if and when the time comes. Like if moving to abroad gets to be more than a dream, or if a tornado blew through this town. What I appreciate about having curated these things so definitively and early in my life is that they are not crowded out by things that do not matter. My eyes do not have to search for long to rest on something I love or for a story that these items tell.

This room brings me peace where it used to bring angst or resentment. It hosts sabbath, love, desire. It makes me feel whole where I used to feel halved and then quartered. It tells me that I could live in a tiny home and not feel diminished.

I am looking at the Pottery Barn quilt that rested on my daughter's big-girl bed when her daddy took her out of her crib and she wouldn't go back in. It rests on my bed now.

An item's story can change too. I'm looking at the truth of that. 

I am looking at the ceiling fan working at its highest speed. Employed so that the air conditioning can take a break and therefore give my wallet a break. The ceiling fan that delighted my infant better than any mobile toy dangled above her face.

My heart sees that baby's smile and it melts me still. All these years later.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Security vs. Adventure

For a few days of my daily writing practice, I found a quote and reacted to it. Here's a sample.

In exchange for the promise of security, many people put a barrier between themselves and the adventures in consciousness that could put a whole new light on their personal lives.” - June Singer

This quote perfectly describes the person I used to be. Feeling secure was so important. Probably because in an emotional sense, I rarely felt secure. The 40/40 list cracked this mindset wide open. (Imagine it. The insights and epiphanies that resulted from that list four years ago are still showing up and reverberating in my life!)

I didn't feel secure on the trapeze or on ice skates, but through that year-long celebration of trying new things and taking risks, I built a core of inner strength that I could rely on in those moments. I was able to question my comfort zones and risk something new. Each time I did, I found that I was capable. I could trust that I could care for myself and meet my own needs.

On the trapeze, I was very clear about my limitations, and I didn't push myself past what felt reasonably safe. On the first attempt off the platform, I landed on my neck wrong. I felt an odd sensation that I knew I needed to pay attention to. The whole experience was outside my comfort zone, so saying no to an advanced routine felt like the right thing. That experience was so physically taxing, and I was in the best shape of my life. I can't imagine if I'd tried to do the trapeze earlier in the year!

Historically, I have indeed put so many barriers between myself and adventure. The 40/40 list helped me ask the question, “What would it hurt if I tried this?” It turns out, most of the time it didn't hurt. The experiences showed me what I was actually made of—resilience, courage, and persistence.

Those months crossing off items on the list were a training ground for learning that security in most cases is an illusion. I have become more comfortable out of my comfort zone. Like on the Sunday morning when I realized I had a low tire and was giving the sermon at church that morning. I *kinda* needed to be there. I barely registered fear or frustration regarding the inconvenient timing. I knew what needed to be done, and I proceeded. I knew I could ask for help, and when I did, I got more help than I needed.

Later, the mechanic called to confirm the tire needed to be replaced, and I'd have to add another $85 to the credit card—something that was all too familiar in recent years. I simply expressed gratitude that I hadn't ignored the problem or wished it away and that I had a credit card that could fill in the gap where there wasn't cash to meet the need.

Now sensing adventure and staying open-hearted in the midst of frustration or fear, I am more relaxed and capable of what needs to happen. I am holding on to everything with such a lighter grasp and the universe is rewarding me.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Memory mining at the bottom of a drawer

When I began 2019 with a renewed daily writing practice, I didn't have a particular outcome in mind. I simply wanted to show up to write every day. The daily practice has ebbed and flowed this year, but I feel good about what has come forth. The next few months will be chaotic at best, so to ease the stress of posting a blog per week, I'm working ahead. I've re-read through the 72 pages of writing I have amassed this year, and am mining a few pieces as stand alone essays to post when my schedule or energy levels don't allow something brand new. Today's piece was my daily writing on January 21.

Mighty Girl and I watched our first episode of the new Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, a reality show on Netflix that highlights the Japanese woman's approach to decluttering and sparking joy in one's life. I liked that she comes into the home, talks to homeowners about her approach, and offers them a vision for how to process through the mess without doing the work for them. Unlike most other shows, there is not a team who swoops in, cleans it up, and reveals the Tada! moment. This show documents the family doing the work, and I am convinced this show has the building blocks of making lasting change because the people have to do the hard work of digging themselves out of the mess of stuff they made. In both episodes I've watched, the couples say something to the effect of, I don't want to live the way I did anymore. I'm not going to make these same mistakes and messes again.

After the first episode, I was inspired to tackle one of the drawers in my kitchen that is often hard to open because it's holding too many things. I was pretty sure that I had a few things in there that I am not using and could let go of. In true KonMari style, I emptied out the entire drawer and started sifting through it. A few things went straight in the trash, and then I started a pile of other things I was sure I could let go of.

I also removed the organizers, washed them, and washed out the crumbs in the drawer. I have two ice cream scoops. We don't eat enough ice cream to necessitate two scoops. As I stood at the sink and washed the organizers I had a flash of dejà vu. I thought back to the early days of living in this house as a young newlywed and homeowner. I would come home, turn on the TV and watch reality shows on BBCAmerica. I remember how bright the living room looked at that time of day when the sun poured in the front windows. They had not yet been covered with a film to block the sun because the tree in the front yard hadn't yet been struck by lightning. I used to scoop strawberry ice cream onto a cone with the older of the two ice cream scoops now on my kitchen island waiting to be decluttered.

This memory was almost visceral. It's been so long since I've thought of that time of life. I had a momentary sense of grief. Such a long time ago, and so much pain had yet to occur. I was no longer living in an apartment. I was married and in a house. Ticking my way through a list that connoted adulthood.

The early pains of my particular marriage hadn't registered as the problem it already was or how difficult it was to become. I still lived in the hopes that these things were changeable. That I had not actually made a major mistake. It was remarkable that all of this memory and emotion could be ushered in by simply deciding to declutter a drawer in my kitchen.

I am living proof why this exercise can be so difficult for people. I have had a lot of practice, so I'm undaunted by the memory resurfacing. I am grateful for it. Those strawberry ice cream cones and watching BBC America alone after work are happy memories for me. They felt indulgent and self-caring in a way that was still very new and foreign to me. They were the stepping stones of what I would need a whole lot more of in the years to come.

I feel grateful that my mess is contained in a drawer here and there, not in a pile of clothes stacked higher than I am tall in my spare bedroom as was the case for one couple on the show. I am grateful that some memories surfacing no longer shut me down or impede my progress. I am grateful for the opportunity to test the waters of minimalism and know that for me, it is the best way to live. Lighter, unencumbered with arms and heart and head wide open to experience the world without having to gather the stuff along with it. When something new comes in, I find it so helpful to look for something to let go of as a natural part of the stuff equation.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Seeds and stuff

I've documented for the past few weeks that the going has been tough.

I'm pleased to write that I feel the tiniest bit of reprieve this week. This is the first moment I've had in nearly a week to catch my breath, to have a few moments to myself, and to take stock. I talked myself out of going to the grocery after work. It was drizzly and cold, and I'd forgotten my reusable bags. Those were reasons enough to drive straight home. I made chicken and noodles for dinner and enough for two leftover meals. While that was happening, I did dishes and laundry.

My daughter had asked if we could roast the pumpkin seeds from the pumpkin she carved last night. I told her I would do it later. Doing these domestic tasks had an unwinding effect on me, and though I was tired, I was determined to get more done including cleaning the gunk off the seeds and roasting them.

I ate and folded laundry while the seeds roasted in the oven. I added more time for the seeds to roast and tidied up around my house more. I checked on the seeds and finally decided they had achieved what the recipe called golden.

As I pulled the two baking dishes from the oven, I felt a surge of pride. How far I have come! Simple tasks used to feel like too much. For years I have lived in various vice grips of stress and complicated dynamics, which utterly exhausted me. These scenarios became normalized to such a degree that I didn't register the exhaustion. On some level, I knew I was climbing uphill both ways. But from day-to-day, I simply kept one foot in front of another and hoped that one day it wouldn't be so hard.

Today, I am able to see that what seemed impossible or improbable is finally happening. In working hard to heal and to create healthier spaces for myself, I find that daily living is no longer the slog it has been in the past. I am delighted that something like roasting pumpkin seeds for my daughter would gift me with this flash of insight.

My daughter and I have been lamenting the difficult situations we find ourselves simultaneously in lately. One evening I told her, “We're both struggling. How about each day we look for one good thing that we see, do, or have done to us that is a bit of sunshine?” I wasn't sure how this would go over, but so far we've discussed our good things each evening—always prompted by her. I hate that she's struggling. I hate that I'm distracted by my stresses and that's dulled my ability to support her. But that's life. What I am happy about is that in the midst of all of this, I've been able to demonstrate in real time how to navigate tricky situations. I'm even more grateful that she's so receptive to what I have to offer.

I'm excited to surprise her with these roasted seeds when I go trick or treating with her. It really is true that what we look for, we will find. Tricks or treats. I choose to look for the treats. Happy Halloween!