Love is Patient. Love is Kind. (Dammit, I keep forgetting.)

In the Bible, specifically Corinthians I:13 (v. 4), the apostle Paul wrote that love is patient and love is kind. He said that if we give to the poor without love as our inspiration, or if we work hard only to brag about it, that we’re nothing more than a bunch of clanging gongs and background noise.

Love in this context is a noun; an affirmation with no excuses or conditions. Love isn’t “sometimes” patient when we’ve had a good night’s sleep. Love isn’t “once in a while” kind when the people to whom we choose to be kind are “worthy” (i.e. they dress OK, seem to be “trying,” speak our language, can potentially give us something in return…). Nope. That’s not the way Love works.

Paul, for all his faults, is spot on about Love, and his words still resonate with an old agnostic like me who often places conditions on Love in everyday encounters.

This is hardly a confession, and it won’t shock any of you, even if you’ve never met me, but I am not always patient and I am not always kind. I’m not the poster child for presence in those moments when patience and kindness are most warranted; those times when I’m tired, sad, late, frustrated, or just want to get home, take off my bra and watch Jeopardy.

Last Monday morning is a particularly good example of a day that had more than a few gems of moments in which I was presented with the choice of being patient and kind, or being jerk who makes strangers feel bad because they were in my way/slowing me down/not being considerate in the way in which I define considerate.

My first stop was the grocery store. I picked up four items and got into the express lane. The woman at the checkout was paying for her groceries with dimes and quarters. She laid them out on the conveyor belt one at a time. When she was done, the cashier picked up each coin, one at a time, and counted the amount in her head. This went on for 10 hours. OK, not really 10 hours, but isn’t it funny how a few minutes fly by when we’re listening to a favorite song or eating ice cream? I could feel my irritation building, and for a second I considered posting something on Facebook like, “OMG, who pays in change?” But pretty quickly that thought felt really, really shitty, and my phone stayed in my purse. The transaction ended, and the cashier handed the woman her receipt. “Thank you for being patient,” she said. The cashier smiled and said, “You’re welcome.”

Driving to my next destination, after encountering an unusual number of red lights (clearly karma was riding shotgun), a construction worker walked out in the middle of the street and stopped traffic. An electric company vehicle needed to pull out of a driveway so someone in a bronze Jeep could get out. I remembered something Buddhist nun Pema Chodron said years ago about traffic, and how it’s the perfect place to practice patience, love, and kindness. OK, I thought, the guy was just doing his job, and the person in the Jeep needed to go somewhere. Either of them could have been me or someone I know, but more broadly, they were fellow human beings. Neither of them deserved my angst. Score one for kindness and patience!

I hate it when I get proud and ahead of myself.

Next and last stop: Dollar General. Like the grocery store, there was an older lady first in line and an older man behind her. She was chatty, talking to the cashier about her dog and asking him about his dog. They talked and laughed as she slowly put her change back in her purse. Finally she moved to the side so the man behind her could pay for his few items. Soon they were all talking about dogs.

I won’t lie. I was irritated. I just wanted to buy a freaking $1.35 bag of ice and go home. When the man got his change, I talked over him and said to the cashier, “I just need a bag of ice, thanks.” Would it have killed me to wait five stupid seconds to let the man walk away from the checkout lane? No. It wouldn’t have. And I still feel bad about it three days later, so I’m using it as a lesson to me: I could have been more patient. I could have been more kind.

My mother, who is 86, told me that many of the shoppers at the grocery store she goes to always seem to be in a hurry, and some demonstrate their frustration of her slow walk, hearing aids, and near blindness in obvious, rude ways. To say that her story made me angry is an understatement, but I’ve been obvious and rude to someone else’s mother, father, sister, aunt, daughter, at times, too. 

So many of us think we’re being clever posting on Facebook or Twitter about our frustration with people we encounter, be it the grocery store or on the road; writing something about someone who doesn’t know how to use their debit card, or who pays in quarters, or who maybe had no one else to talk to during the day except for a cashier or their dog.

I am ashamed, as I should be. I need to remember something I’ve written here in this blog more than once, that no one purposely gets up in the morning thinking, How can I piss off Lynn today? And so I again challenge myself to be more loving by, instead of reacting, wondering what kind of shit the people I’m judging deal with every day in their life.

Love can be a lot harder to do than hate sometimes, but it feels a whole lot better inside.

I’m often nothing more than a lot of noise, but my goal is to one day be able to substitute my name for Love. “Lynn is patient. Lynn is kind.” I am sometimes, but I’m shooting for always. No excuses. No conditions.

“When we feel dread, when we feel discomfort of any kind, it can connect us at the heart with all the other people feeling dread and discomfort. We can pause and touch into dread. We can touch bitterness of rejection and the rawness of being slighted. Whether we are at home or in a public spot or caught in a traffic jam or walking into a movie, we can stop and look at the other people there and realize that in pain and in joy they are just like me. Just like me they don’t want to feel physical pain or insecurity or rejection. Just like me they want to feel respected and physically comfortable.” Pema Chodron

Advertisements

Navigating Fear

I learned to drive on the flat terrain of Minnesota, and developed a kind of invincibility about driving in winter weather. When I moved to western Pennsylvania in 1991, I acquired a somewhat healthy respect for the the hills and curves, but I was still that driver who thought that winter driving was more of a nuisance than a hazard. Spinning out of control on an icy US 322 in 2006 changed that pretty quickly, though.

I was driving home from work in a heavy snowfall in our old Dodge Caravan. My dog, Jake, was sprawled out in the back. Crawling down a hill, I hit a patch of ice which sent the van spinning around and around and around in circles until it finally stopped in the right lane, facing the wrong direction. I managed to turn around and park on the shoulder as cars swerved to avoid hitting me. A man pulled up behind me and came to my window to ask if I was OK. I could barely speak, and I was shaking horribly. He asked me where I was going. I told him I lived in Clarion, and he said, “Follow me. I’ll make sure you get there.” It was like he hooked a tow rope to my front bumper. I didn’t take my eyes off his back lights for 15 miles as he guided me slowly over hills, bridges, and ice patches, and delivered Jake and me to the town’s limits. He simply waved as I turned in the direction of home.

In the 12 winters since, I’ve become that driver I used to dread to get behind, the one driving 20 mph down a snow covered hill, the one I’d yell at from inside my car, “If you’re too afraid to drive, stay home!” I never considered that the person ahead of me had little choice but to be on the road, and that whatever the reason was, it was more important to them than their fear of driving in the snow.

Now I want to slap anyone who says to me, “You grew up in Minnesota! You should know how to drive in this stuff!” I know HOW to drive in the stuff. That’s not the issue. I am AFRAID to drive in the stuff. This isn’t like my fear of flying, where I can pop a Xanax, chase it down with a glass of wine, put on headphones and shut my eyes.

31647.jpeg
They’ve grown in 2 1/2 years!

A few days ago, on Christmas morning, I was in bed hanging on tight to my phone as I checked the road conditions from Daughter #1’s house, where I had spent the night, to Daughter #2’s house an hour away, where my four grandchildren were waiting anxiously to open presents. The route consists of five miles of back roads and 55 miles of interstate. There was a winter weather advisory in effect, and it had indeed snowed a few inches, and the wind was blowing 30-35 mph. My stomach was in a knot as I got ready to leave, but no one else seemed to anticipate or worry about the potentially hazardous road conditions (at least to the degree that I did). I don’t often give voice to my fear because it feels so…irrational, so I said nothing.

Until I got to Sheetz.

20171227_120043
Zuzu is 13 months old. While she looks like a Gremlin, she’s half French Bulldog, and a quarter each Pug and Jack Russell Terrier.

Sheetz offers free coffee on Christmas Day, and so per the tradition, my daughter and her husband, driving together in their vehicle, were going to stop there before getting on the interstate. I left a few minutes ahead of them, and, white-knuckled, drove in the direction of Sheetz with my little dog Zuzu in the back. The roads were slippery and snow covered. It was snowing, and the wind caught my Jeep every once in awhile and knocked it to the side or the middle of the road. Every mile I grew more anxious, and here’s what was going through my mind: I am letting everyone down. I am a big baby. I am pathetic. I am ashamed. It’s just a little snow! Snap out of it! When I finally pulled into Sheetz, I started to cry.

I called Daughter #1 and told her I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t drive any further. And like that kind man who guided me home that day I spun out of control, she told me to hang tight, they’d be there in a minute. When they pulled up alongside me, my son-in-law smiled and said, “Hey, there’s no crying on Christmas!” and my daughter said, “Get in the passenger’s seat. I’m driving.” I took a deep breath and reminded myself that it’s OK to be scared. It’s how I react to fear that can cause the bigger mess. A mindful moment is one breath of goodwill that can soften the conglomeration of feelings that seem to all mesh together into one tight ball.

When gripped with fear and the berating is knocking, may we all remember the words of the poet Pablo Neruda: “You start dying slowly / When you kill your self-esteem; / When you do not let others help you.”

 

It’s Like Riding a Bike

Who cries when they buy a bike?

Me.

20150720_165116

I cried when I bought this used southwestern-goldish-color 5-year-old Schwinn Voyageur 2 at a local bike shop on Monday. AND I cried when I got her home and hoisted her off the bike rack I bought (that cost more than she did) and the handlebar smacked me in the cheek. Happy tears/pain tears…either way, I now have a bike-friend again.

My previous bike-friend was a men’s Giant hybrid I called Bike. (Creative, I know.) We were together for 7 years. I knew all her idiosyncrasies. Bike gave me confidence. Strength. She helped me think. Bike made me feel less lonely and isolated after my divorce. We went on adventures to places I’d never gone alone before. She encouraged me to take chances.

The last time I rode Bike was in March 2013. I rode 3 miles on my favorite trail when my right knee gave out. It just…stopped working. I’ve had surgeries, I’ve had babies, and never have I felt the kind of pain I felt in my knee that morning. I was on crutches for a week, but when I felt better, I was afraid to ride again. Bike stayed perched in the garage, ready for another adventure, but I ignored her.

I moved in January 2014 and stored her in my boyfriend’s barn. But I was beginning to feel optimistic about riding again when I wrote “I Believe” on January 29, 2014. I was so sure that I would ride Bike again.

Four days later, Bike burned in a fire that destroyed the barn. Gone with Bike was a bike rack, helmet, lock, odometer, trail maps, tubes, tire levers, air pump, and the $5 and package of Kleenex I kept in the bag.

This is all that’s left of Bike.

bike

In spring 2014, I developed hip pain and I reasoned that was why I didn’t go biking. Truth was, I was mourning Bike and I didn’t have it in me to test drive a different bike. What if I failed? What if it hurt? What if I made a fool of myself? Bike would have told me to try anyway, but I couldn’t.

I had my hip replaced, which took away the reason I “couldn’t” ride. A local trail runs parallel to a road I frequently drive on and when I saw other people biking I got that twinge in my heart, that yearning to be them. Still, I wallowed in feeling cheated. My hip, my bike, poor me. It got to the point of ridiculous. It was a month ago when I went for a short walk on another beloved bike trail that I climbed out of the self-pity enough to ask, ‘What if?’

Like a person you love who dies, I believe Bike would want me to do what it was that made me happy. Given my propensity for adopting shelter pets, I went to the bike shop and test rode that somewhat beat up Schwinn. The minute I started pedaling, I felt free. I could see joy. It’s like I had a physical purpose again and a partner who would challenge me to take down that “I can’t” wall I’d built.

That evening, I practiced taking my bike on and off the new rack on the back of my Jeep. I researched local trails and decided on one not far from me. Tuesday morning, I drove to the trailhead, nervously watching my bike bob up and down on every bump in the road.

I felt like I was on a blind date. I tried to be cool by unloading my bike like I’d done it a thousand times. I attached my water bottle, loaded my bag, calculated my computer/odometer thingy, locked up the Jeep, only…when I got on my bike, I had no idea where I was going. I followed the signs, and after a stint on a road and a turn on to what the sign said was the trail, I rode slowly up a moderate incline. At the top, I saw this:

20150721_120239

Another steep grade…only steeper! Weeeee!!!! Yeah…but I’d have to come back up eventually.

20150721_115909

I negotiated briefly with my id and super ego and decided to give myself permission to walk my bike back up the incline rather than ride up, even if someone was watching. Judging. I hate that part. Defeated, I acknowledged that A) it’s been over two years since I’ve ridden a bike, and B) I’ve gained a new hip and a few pounds and I have not been exercising like I used to. My body’s in a different place and so humility was my best friend at that moment. Swallow it and move on.

The temperature was about 84 degrees and the humidity was at least 1000 percent and the trail was mostly exposed with very little shade. Plus, I’d selected to first ride the uphill part of the trail, but it was a little more uphill than I had bargained for. I got 1.5 miles in and decided it was best to turn around. I felt sad at first; betrayed, embarrassed. And then I stopped in this place and had a little talk with myself:

20150721_115622

“Lynn, here’s the deal. You have to push yourself slowly because you’re not in the same physical condition you were in two year ago. No, you won’t break any land speed or distance records, and you won’t be saying ‘passing left’ anytime soon. You’re starting from the bottom. You have no place to go but up.”

I had to think through the real reason that I love to ride a bike: it’s not for physical fitness as much for psychological fitness. I need to ride a bike. Without it the last few years, I’ve become more of a small self, an isolated self, an egoic transient wandering from fear to fear. I crave the movement, but moreover I crave the butterflies, the dragonflies and the indigo buntings, and swerving to avoid the chipmunks who skittishly venture out on the side of the trail. I crave the smell of the woods, the feel of the humidity clinging to my arms, the breeze that cools my skin. I need these things, and now, I am again part of them.

westpenn2

Today I went to a new trailhead. On the West Penn Trail I experienced that exhilarating fear of wild, of no one around, of a bear could come out of nowhere and I was completely alone. I rode without my headphones, listening to the air and staying hyper aware of my surroundings. I heard every bird and every crush of the limestone beneath my tires. Three miles in, I turned around, even though I ached to go another two miles. I knew my legs would question that choice on the way back, and I wanted to do what was best for all of me. I put in my ear phones and turned on “…some music to start my day…” “More Than A Feeling.” Great tune.

When I got back to my Jeep, I was totally high. So happy and sweaty. A man was securing his bike on his car’s bike rack and he offered to help me load mine. I declined, thanking him and telling him that I had to get used to doing this again. We talked about the trail for a few minutes and I was reminded of another reason I love biking. People on the trails are usually really nice people. I’ve missed that camaraderie of like-minded people. We are like ships in the night. “Good morning!” we say as we pass each other. “Passing left!” It’s like a secret handshake.

I’m still part of the fraternity/sorority of people who love bike trails, even though my thighs, arms and neck are asking me why. I just rub them and say, “You’ll get used to it.” I will press on because I am not the same person I was three days ago. I am my old biking self. I am the person I’ve missed for two years. My goldish-color bike isn’t Bike, but I think Bike would approve of her replacement.

I need to give a name to this oldish-new friend. “Salvager,” perhaps. God knows she’s gathered all that was missing, and has assembled the bits and pieces of my former self into a funky collage. We have places to go tomorrow and I’ll think more about her name, but she’s truly earned her status of BBFF (best biking friend forever).

Good Gravy

In the All Saints Episcopal parish cemetery on Pawleys Island, South Carolina, Dorothy M Elerbe is immortalized with the words: “She made good gravy.”

I’ve heard some pretty boneheaded things when someone dies. My “favorite” top two are: “God needed another voice in his choir” (barf!) and “He/she wouldn’t want you to be sad/cry” (liar, liar pants on fire!). Name ONE person on this planet who honestly doesn’t want to be mourned when they die? To know that there will be at least some small demonstrative expression of grief from those who care about them most?

I do! I want tears! Lots and lots of tears. I want Kleenex stock to go up slightly when I pass.

However, I know that to be worthy of another’s tears, I need to have made good gravy while I was alive.

Like many of us, I often spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about or acting upon things that don’t really mean a lot in the grand scheme. Given this truth, my tombstone would look something like this:

“She lost a lot of weight…a lot of times.”
“She intended to write a really good book.”
“She thought about volunteering.”
“She hated winter.”
“She rarely left the house without makeup on.”

Not exactly the kind of stuff that brings tears to people’s eyes.

As anyone who practices mindfulness or meditates or prayers for insight knows, “practice” comes with a price. An often sticky, uncomfortable price. It was recently – through being present with someone I love very much and listening to his words without thinking of my response as he was talking – that I became aware that I’ve been keeping spontaneous joy and love locked up tighter than gold at Fort Knox. Whether it’s been for the sake of pride or out of fear of vulnerability, I’ve become less trusting of my feelings and more influenced by chronic pain and what others think of me. I love those who are easy to love and don’t engage the tender parts of those who are difficult or those who could hurt me.

How simple it is to pick up and snuggle 18-month-old Audrey when she runs to me, or read to 3-year-old Mae while she sits on my lap. That stranger in line at the grocery store who is struggling to use her debit card? No love for you! Those far-away loved ones whose opinions or actions differ from mine? No compassion for you!

This isn’t to say I spend every day judging or waving my cane at the neighbor kids: “Get off my lawn, you little bastards!” But I could certainly use Dorothy M Elerbe’s gravy recipe to help me open up and love a little more than weight, makeup, intentions, or even “Downton Abbey.”

There’s a dry board on my refrigerator on which my niece used to write uplifting phrases. Before she moved back to Minnesota, she wrote: “Never give up on something you can’t go a day without thinking about.” I will to keep that there because it reminds me to stick with my novel. But above it, I am going to write, “She made good gravy.”

About Last Night…

There have been moments in my life when I’ve sensed the presence of a deceased loved one. While warm and bittersweet, I understand those feelings to be resurrected memories of the connection we had when they were alive; me consciously sating some need I perhaps hadn’t completely identified. I don’t believe those vague presences stem from a visit by their spirit.

That’s why I can’t explain what happened last night.

I often employ the “Just ignore it, it will go away” approach to healthcare. But after a months-long battle with hip pain – in which the last few days I’ve been barely able to walk – I finally mentioned it to my doctor. She ordered x-rays, and as I wait for the results, I’m living with limited mobility and a crap-ton of pain which makes me feel trapped, angry, alone, and scared, bordering on the edge of self-pity. And I hate self-pity, especially in the middle of the night.

Jim and I were at my house last night, and he fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. My bed tends to envelop us like a taco and I knew my hip would not be comfortable within such limited space, so I got up and limped to the spare room where I lay awake, playing Canasta on my phone.

After a few hours, I found a comfortable position on my side, facing the wall. Hugging the top of the body pillow I’d tucked between my legs, I started to fall asleep, but not before Jim walked in the room and – saying nothing – placed a hand on my shoulder and one on the back of my neck and kissed my head, just above my ear. I felt safe and loved and more than that, I wasn’t afraid anymore.

I woke up at 4 a.m. when again, Jim came in the room.

“Why aren’t you in bed?” he whispered. At some point while I was sleeping, I’d rolled over on to my back, and Jim sat down on the edge of the bed and stroked my hair

“I couldn’t get comfortable and I didn’t want to wake you,” I said softly.

“You can wake me up anytime.”

“I know. But you knew where I was. You came in around 1, remember? You kissed my head.”

“This is the first time I’ve been up,” he said. “I didn’t know you weren’t in bed until just now.”

“What do you mean?” I started to cry. “But I felt so safe. I was finally able to sleep. I thought it was you.”

“No, it wasn’t me.” He moved his hand to my leg, covered in three layers of blankets, and began rubbing the top of my hip. “But someone wanted you to know they cared.”

When I’d crawled into that spare bed, it didn’t occur to me to reach out to anyone – dead or alive. I was entirely alone, physically and mentally. I made no effort to meditate or pray. I was resigned to my fear and went through every scenario I could think of for how – or if – I would walk normally again. I assure you, I was in the throes of self-pity. My mind was all about me. I had no conscious thought to partner with a departed loved one or god or anyone else.

Whoever or whatever touched my shoulder and kissed my head knew better than me what I needed, and gave me the one thing I could not give myself: peace. And even skeptical me knows not to attempt to explain, justify, or otherwise dispute such a gift.

How about you? Have you experienced something like this before? Leave a comment if you’d like to share your story.

Help in the Middle Of Nowhere

Smicksburg  is one of the smallest incorporated boroughs in Pennsylvania. Population: 46. Forty-six “English,” that is. Surrounding the borough is a community of roughly 800 Amish.

If you live in western PA for more than 5 minutes, you grow used to seeing the Amish walking down the road, riding in their buggies, grocery shopping, working on construction sites, or manning vegetable or bakery stands at farm markets, even in the heart of Pittsburgh.

So I was in Smicksburg with the Irishman the other day, buying a birthday gift for my daughter (Smicksburg is known for its quaint shops and killer fudge). Driving the back roads home, we came across this pay phone in…quite literally…the middle of nowhere.

What seems random and a throw-back to 1982, this pay phone is a lifeline for the Amish community. It connects those in need of emergency assistance with the people who can help. It just seems out of place to those of us with cell phones and Wi-Fi.
There continue to be times in my weight-loss and weight-maintenance journey when I need help in the middle of what seems like nowhere. Those times when I feel shame or guilt or self-loathing. You know, the stuff you don’t want anyone to know about. I know I’m in the middle of nowhere when food seems like the answer or I can’t get past a plateau or I need help accepting my body as it is right now or when I just need someone to say, “Lynn, I believe in you” when I don’t.

I’m making this photo my screen saver to remind me that I am not alone. All I have to do is “call,” and my friends and community will be there. My mediation and exercise will sustain me.

What reminders do you keep handy to help you remember that you are not alone when you feel stranded in the middle of nowhere?

The Department of Happiness Has Reopened

I was all, “Look at me doing the advanced class!” last week at the Y, jogging vigorously in the pool and plunging Styrofoam dumbbells into the water, making figure eights. I was feeling the burn in my calves and the burn in my biceps and the…slippage. As in, the bottoms of my bathing suit were slowly creeping down my bum. I dropped the dumbbells and probably looked like I’d peed in the pool. I tried nonchalantly to pull up my bottoms, but my instructor noticed the barbells floating around me and mouthed, “Wardrobe malfunction?” My face turned a million shades of red, and the class, reading her lips, broke out in laughter.

Apparently the bathing suit string is essential. Who knew?

It had come out in the wash (the string) and I threw it in a drawer, like I do with hoodie strings that come out. Everyone knows what a pain in the butt it is to thread those things back through. But what doesn’t seem essential at the time has a way of making its lack of use known (sometimes with embarrassing consequences).

There’s been much talk since the government shut-down about what and who is “essential.” It’s gotten me thinking – especially since my bathing suit debacle – about what essentials I’ve “laid off,” essentials I need to…keep employed. And I’ve decided that the essential department I need to reopen in the government of Lynn is the Department of Happiness.

There are a lot of things that are essential in my life: eating right, exercising, relationships, love, “Call The Midwife,” “Downton Abbey,” the Pirates. But when I sort through the food and the gym and Netflix stuff, what is most essential to me is to be happy. And how I mean “happy” is that I don’t expect to have a smile on my face 24/7. What I want is to be happy with what is. What is now. This moment. This body. To notice what’s right in front of me and appreciate it for what it is. To read something I don’t agree with and not get all pissed off, or if I do, to read the words more objectively and reflect, not react.

Happiness isn’t all laughter and balloons and candles on a cake, nor is it limited to a perfect sunset or a first kiss. It’s seeing the rain outside and knowing you have to go out in it and that your hair will get all goofed up and yet…you can take in the disappointment that it might create. It’s that moment just before you drift off to sleep and the one you love kisses your shoulder, perhaps the first time the two of you have touched all day because of busyness or disagreements in between sleeps.

Choosing to be happy is a new concept for me, as is learning to be vulnerable. In a recent talk, Tara Brach asked listeners to reflect on these questions: “Do you experience happiness much? And when you’re feeling happiness or well-being, are you aware of it? Is it something you’re mindful of? And do you have a sense of what gives rise to happiness when it happens?  What is it between you and really being happy, being contented? Can you feel the life that’s right here in your body and sense nothing is wrong? Nothing is missing?”

The core teaching of the Buddha is that what we want most is to change the source of suffering, that we want what is to be different, whether it’s ourselves, our circumstances, our health, our parents, our lover, traffic, the price of gas. We think forward and forget now. We plan and we want. And there’s a place for those things! Goodness, without want and desire, we’d never get anywhere! But it’s where we place those things in our lives that matter. It’s in how we think about what we want to be different and how we crave things to be different.

2013 is the Chinese Year of the Snake. Until recently, it was mine as well. I’ve slithered through a lot of issues this year, circled a lot of decisions, and hissed at the changes and decisions I’ve had to make. I was happy only when happy presented itself. Now, instead of gracing me with its presence and throwing out crumbs of joy, happiness is a verb. It’s something I do, not something I wait for.

Happiness is as essential as the string that holds up my drawers in a pool. And, at times, as complicated and aggravating as threading that dang string through my drawers when it falls out. But still…

I choose presence. I choose awareness. I choose happy.

Vulnerable Much?

I’ve been listening to the audio version of Brene Brown’s book, “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead,” for the last few weeks. Halfway through the 7-disc book, I knew I had to have a hard copy. “Daring Greatly” is a book that screams, “Write in my margins, people! Highlight! Underline! Reread!”

Embracing vulnerability is a new concept for me. While I credit my training in mindfulness for helping me to not fall completely over my feet as I stumble my way through this new way of thinking and living, embracing what I usually ignore/avoid/run away from (fill in your own coping mechanism) is like stopping a freight train and then putting it in reverse.

When I look back at the times I’ve felt most vulnerable, many of them were appearance focused. When I was obese, I felt most vulnerable in a crowd of people who could – and sometimes probably did – judge me.

I can recall only a few times I didn’t let the vulnerability of obesity win. One was on a May day in 2001 when I gave out the Tony Fabri Memorial Scholarships at the Clarion High School auditorium in front of hundreds of teenagers – in my imagination, the worst audience of all when you’re feeling vulnerable. But Tony was a best friend to both of my daughters, and I loved him like a son. When he died, an entire community went into mourning, and my daughters’ lives changed forever.

When Tony’s parents asked me to present the scholarship awards, I was both honored and scared to death. But I kept in perspective what they were asking me to do: honor their son. They also asked if it would be OK if someone videotaped my presentation because they couldn’t bring themselves to attend. I didn’t hesitate to consent. I have a Ph.D. in grief. I know how caring for yourself while grieving means sometimes not touching the hot spots. Wait til they cool a bit, then lay your hands on them.

Fortunately for me, my weight was pretty much the only reason I felt vulnerable that day. I really don’t mind public speaking, at least when I’m prepared. Throw me out in front of a crowd with little or no warning and ask me to say something intelligent? I’m pretty sure I’d rather pass kidney stones. But that day, I was more than prepared. I was eager to talk about Tony and the legacy of his short-lived life. Only a few times did I worry about what people thought of my size, hidden as best as it could beneath a flowing top and long skirt.

What I’m seeing as I read “Daring Greatly” is that vulnerability is there, up front or in the background, from the moment I wake up until the moment I fall asleep. Sometimes it visits my dreams. Last night I dreamed Eddie Vedder was sitting on my kitchen counter. I asked him if he liked sautéed mushrooms and he said he loved them. I remember feeling tense. I used all my best lines trying to be cool and then I hyperventilated when I realized I only had vegetable oil and no butter in which to sauté the mushrooms. That’s when I woke up.

What the hell did I eat before going to bed?

Anyway, after waking from the Eddie Vedder dream, my vulnerability went straight to the morning activity on my mind: going to my first-ever aqua aerobics class. Not only would I be trying something new, I would be wearing a bathing suit in front of a dozen or more people. Yikes!

As I should have predicted, but didn’t trust, was that the outcome of my first excursion into aqua aerobics was the same as when I plow through most of my other vulnerable moments. It was worth it. I had fun, and I met people who wear bathing suits in public and don’t seem to mind. I also changed my attitude about aqua aerobics being easy (my arms are talking to me this morning about this) and I walked from the pool to the locker room with a little more belief in myself and with a little more love in my heart for who I am – vulnerable and imperfect, but usually hopeful.

I’m learning that being my own best friend is about opening up and being receptive to vulnerability, rather than caving in to my nemesis self who, in the face of a challenge, yells in my ear, “Oh please, please, PLEASE can we not think about this? Can we just pop popcorn and eat Hershey Kisses and watch the first season of ‘Mad Men’ for the third time? Please!?”

Every day we’re “out there,” whether we leave our homes or not. (The Internet is a breeding ground for vulnerability!) Vulnerability is present when we start a new job, go out on a first date, break up with someone, get fired, go to the doctor…. Heck, vulnerability’s present in a restaurant! I always feel bothersome when I ask a server, “Can you please hold the capers and bacon and add a few more tomatoes instead? Oh, and can I get the dressing on the side?”

Online or in person, our faces, our bodies, our personalities, our cars, our houses, our coffee order at Starbucks, our sandwich order at Sheetz, and even the books our children and grandchildren want to check out from the library (“Ummm…OK… ‘Captain Underpants and the Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People’ is fine! Yes! Just fine…ugh!”) make a statement about who we are, and in those moments, we’re open to judgment by the outside and the inside. That’s right. We judge our own vulnerabilities!

I know this isn’t rocket science and that many of you have already figured this out, but wow…. Clarity is creeping up on me like the spider that walked up my calf on Saturday while I scrubbed floors. Not wanting to kill it, I let it creep while I walked outside and set it free, all the while fighting the urge to sweep him away like he wasn’t real and move on with what I was doing. Sort of like the times when I feel most vulnerable and I want to crawl in a hole and shut my eyes and hope no one wants anything from me.

My audio copy of “Daring Greatly” is due back at my library on Friday. While I now own a hard copy, I was hoping to finish the book on CD. When I tried to renew it, I was told I couldn’t because someone else has reserved it. That’s OK. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one trying to stop the freight train and throw it in reverse.

My new anthem: Sara Bareilles “Brave”

"Things"

When I was packing to move to my apartment three years ago, my ex-husband and I divvied up the kitchen property and discovered that we had enough pots, pans, crock pots, utensils, glasses, coffee mugs, cookie sheets, and baking dishes for two kitchens. Of course, some things you don’t need two, three, or ten of, so he got the toaster and the bread maker and I got the immersion blender and food processor, but all in all, there was little either of us had to buy for each of us to have a more-than working kitchen.

Three weeks ago, Ron and Red (his dog) moved into the apartment next to mine. I’d mentioned that my daughter, Carlene, was having a garage sale and Ron asked if she was selling any pots and pans. No, I told him, but I’d ask around.

Friend Debbie said she didn’t have any to spare since the one and only set she owned was given to her by her mother for a wedding gift 29 years ago and they were still in perfect working order. My daughter, Cassie, didn’t have pots and pans to spare either, as her old set went to Carlene.

When I went to Carlene’s to help set up for the garage sale, she told me she’d rearranged her kitchen and showed me where she’d moved everything. While she received a lot of new kitchen items when she got married last year, she kept many of the items I’d given her over the years: loaf pans, Tupperware, a pizza stone, and dishes that I used when I was a kid living with my parents.

In my little pots-and-pans hunt, I was struck by the connections we have to our kitchen stuff, particularly how we acquired certain items. For instance, I inherited my Grandma Katinka’s lefse stick and roller when she passed. Her name is still imprinted in permanent marker on the stick. I use it every year when I make lefse, along with the ricer I bought specifically to rice boiled potatoes. I still have a smoke-colored Pyrex bowl that was once part of a set of four I received at my bridal shower when I got married 31 years ago. I don’t know what happened to the other three, but I still have the Black and Decker hand mixer I got at that shower, along with the Fannie Farmer cookbook my sister gave me. Cassie recently bought a new stand mixer and gave me back my stand mixer that had become a permanent fixture on her counter since Thanksgiving 2009 (Although she “graciously” allowed me to take it home for one day last year so I could make Christmas cookies. One day. No more.)

I won’t part with these and other things until: 1) I no longer have a kitchen or; 2) I am no longer breathing. Whichever comes first. At least…I won’t part with them intentionally.

I’m sure the folks in Colorado (and New Orleans and Mobile and New Jersey…et al) who lost their homes to flooding had lefse sticks and Fannie Farmer cookbooks and pots and pans they acquired in special, meaningful ways, too. I heard one woman from Boulder say in an interview that she’d lost “things,” and that (as she said quite graciously) she was just grateful to be alive.

Put into perspective, as this woman did, “things” are just that. Things. But losing things we love, rely on, or give us historical perspective can be painful. It’s OK to grieve the loss of the cookie molds you inherited from your great aunt because she cherished the Sundays when you’d go over to her house and make cookies with her; the cast iron pan your grandfather used to fry trout in during family camping trips; the Number Thirty Hamilton Beach malt mixer you bid on and won at your first country auction; the monogrammed apron your husband bought you when you “graduated” from a six-week Asian cooking class.

Can we live without these things? Of course. But “things” enhance our lives in many ways, and when we see people suffer their loss, it offers those of us who haven’t a chance to reflect on and appreciate our own impermanent, often ethereal things. We still have the good fortune of being able to touch, look at, and use them.

Is Grandma’s green depression-era measuring cup tucked away somewhere in a buffet collecting cobwebs…as mine was? Get it out! Use it the next time you’re measuring broth for soup. Do you save the “good dishes” for special occasions? Use them the next time you serve sloppy Joes! Dirty the fancy linens. They’ll wash up. Using them or passing them on to people who need them allows “things” to do what they were meant to do: enhance lives, and when they’re gone, to offer comfort in the memory of how they were used.

Ron found a set of pots and pans through a friend of a friend, and I know they are being used because sauteed garlic has a way of penetrating walls, and last week he gave me a jar of honey he recently pasteurized. “Things” have a way of keep giving…
—————————————————————————————————–
And speaking of “things,” Cassie’s Christmas give-back project is to host another “spinathon” and to seek donations and items for three Pittsburgh-area families in need of assistance due to declining health or financial issues. Last year, she and her daughter, Claire, raised over $3100 in money and donations for the Animal Rescue League. If you’re looking for a holiday “cause,” please consider reading Cassie’s blog, “Wishes,” for more information on how you can help. Thank you!

 

Into The Forest

It’s so humid you could uncork wine bottles with my hair. The sticky air is stacked in layers and feels like jelly on the skin. The breeze rolls around like a lead ball, banging into the stereo, the furniture, the dogs’s fur. Nothing dries all the way. The towels hanging in the bathroom are still damp from yesterday’s shower.

There’s a clump of glue on my forehead where I smacked it into the corner of my desk yesterday. Stitches or glue, the doctor asked. I washed my hair carefully this morning. Dried it patiently. But in this humidity, it doesn’t matter. My hair will do what it does. Curl.

This afternoon, I sat on a rock on the west bank of the Clarion River just north of Belltown, a place most tourists don’t know about. I ate chèvre blue cheese, 10-grain bread, marinated artichoke hearts, and pistachios, and drank Pinot noir from the bottle because I remembered a cork screw, but forgot a cup.

I’m going to a play tonight at a theater in the middle of Cook Forest. The theater is enclosed, but the outer wooden walls open like pocket doors, and during a performance it’s not uncommon for bats to fly in and eat mosquitoes above the audience.

I love this place. It’s where I do my best thinking. The first time I ever saw a black bear in the wild was in these woods. The first time I went canoeing and rode a bike after losing 150 pounds was here. My daughter was married on an overlook over the river.

I just checked into a motor lodge attached to a bar/restaurant. The place is encased in hemlocks. The smell of grease wafts through the walls every once in a while. But I’m sipping Chardonnay from a paper cup and I’m typing, propped up by ancient pillows that I leaned up against a wall from which I wiped away spider webs before lying down. I am thinking of my aunt, who only has a few months to live, and her daughter and her sisters whose hearts are aching. I’m thinking about the civilians in Syria, who breathed in toxic air and died. I’m thinking about my brother, who struggles to remember anything day to day. And I’m thinking about how lucky I am to be sitting on this bed with the anticipation of a night with bats and friends and stars I can’t see in the lights of Pittsburgh.

My brain is taking a big breath and melting into what I know to be true in this moment:  It is humid. And my hair is curly. And the world is uncertain and cruel and beautiful beyond comprehension.