Category Archives: Mindfulness

What’s real, what’s true, what’s on repeat?

I buy it with good intentions, but good intentions don’t preserve lettuce. It usually dies in my refrigerator crisper.

For years I ate a salad almost every day. Every. Day. Trust me, if you do that – or eat anything every day (except maybe chocolate, cheese, and bread) – you’ll get bored.

I ate salad almost every day because I told myself it was good for me, and physically speaking, it is good when you consider salad at its basic nutritional level, sans all the stuff that makes it really good like croutons and ranch dressing, or if you’re in western Pennsylvania, french fries. But I also ate a salad almost every day because I told myself that if I didn’t put salad on repeat, I would gain a whole bunch of weight and show the world what an impulsive, undisciplined person I was.

Because of other people. Yeah…that’s a reason to eat salad every day.

What is real and what we tell ourselves is real are often different things, and often not true. Undergirding what we think is real is usually fear, which is NOT fun to admit, let alone deal with. It’s easier to blame circumstances or other people for our actions, reactions, and go-to coping mechanisms. In the case of eating salad every day, what was real had nothing to do with outward appearances and everything to do with my fear of losing control of my body, and then if (and I did) gain weight, having to love myself as I am, and then living inside that loved body in public (and in private).

I’m better with the whole loving-my-body-as-it-is, and I won’t go back to eating a salad every day in support of what I know now isn’t real or true, but sometimes I still act from within that false reality of “If I eat a salad, I am (somehow) a better person.”

Weight is an easy target. But often our feelings about our weight masks more wide spread beliefs of what we inherently believe is real but not true.

Tara Brach talks of this often.  There is so much false reality in the world, our respective countries, our backyards, and our lives. Individually and collectively, when we cling to and act on what we think is real – whether it’s our political, religious, or medical beliefs (I’m referring specifically to vaccinations), or ideas and opinions of other people based on their race, sexual orientation, or gender identification – we expose our fears. For instance, it is not possible to hate or even casually disregard someone who doesn’t pray or look like you, or to take advantage of or purposely hurt someone without being afraid, to the core, of losing something, be it self or national identity, power, or fate (either here or after death).

What does this have to do with eating a salad? There is so much injustice all around, from the self-inflicted and personal to the universal. I am in the world, and so are you. Our personal concerns and belief systems, no matter how big or small, mingle and coalesce with the world, and they affect the world in a micro and macro way. It makes sense, and is necessary, to take a personal inventory and contemplate what we think is real to discover if it merely supports an ideology born of fear or if it is true.

Here’s an example, something I experienced and wrote in my personal journal prior to my hip replacement in July.

I woke up this morning feeling deeply sad and frustrated. I’d had a horrible dream and it took me a few minutes after I woke up to realize it wasn’t real. It set the tone for the morning.

 After breakfast, I put laundry in the wash, loaded dishes in the dishwasher, and started vacuuming. My left hip kept threatening to toss my ass on the floor with every step. When I needed to change attachments to vacuum the bathroom floor, I couldn’t disconnect one of the hoses. I tried, failed, and cursed, tried, failed, and cursed before I threw myself against the wall and cried. I thought I was crying because I couldn’t change the hose and because my hip hurt, but they were just the catalyst. In and of themselves, hip pain and vacuum attachment failures wouldn’t make me cry. Make me angry, yes. But I felt empty, and an even larger emptiness rose up; an indescribable loneliness.

 I took a deep breath and did a brief inquiry, ala my years of meditation training, and I think I figured out that I was crying because I couldn’t stop thinking about how last night I witnessed a tender moment between an adult daughter and her mother. A simple thing, really. The daughter and mother were talking and laughing with each other in that familiar way parents and children do when they like each other as people and love each other as family. It’s an intimacy that the outside world isn’t meant to understand or intrude upon. As I cried, I realized that what was really true in my head and causing the tears was not the hip pain and the vacuum snafu. That stuff was real. What was true was I missed my daughters and was frustrated that I didn’t live closer, and – and this is the hardest one to admit – sad that I didn’t have that same kind of intimacy with my own mother.”

Parsing out all that shit was hard, but in the end it was worth it. The things I put on repeat – the “you shoulds,” the “how could yous,” the “WTF were you thinkings,” the “why are you crying now???” – deserve my attention! And your own WTFs deserve your thinking, too! I really believe that.

Take inventory. Ask yourself: What is real? What is true? What do I put on repeat?

The world feels like it’s turned upside down, and there are times when getting inside myself seems selfish. But if we don’t get inside ourselves and figure it out, who will? No one, that’s who.

Now go eat a salad. Or not. All I ask is that you question why you do what you do on repeat when it feels…wonky.

 

Judgy McJudger Chooses the Carrot over the Whip

“We cannot judge ourselves into improvement. It doesn’t work.” Tara Brach

Yesterday, I did something I don’t usually do, mostly because I forget it’s the better, kinder thing. I made a pact with myself that if I vacuumed the house, made the bed, and cleaned the toilet, that I would reward myself by starting a new book (Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner).

Normally I say to myself, “Get off your lazy ass and get your chores done!” But I’m tired of being mean to myself, or rather, I’m tired of judgement being my go-to threat when I want to accomplish something. I would certainly never say that to a friend!

Judging is so…shallow and lazy. No real thought goes into judging. Over and over I know this is true because after all these years as a mom, grandma, partner, employer, and employee, I know that I get a lot more cooperation when I dangle a carrot instead of a whip.

So why doesn’t that rule automatically apply to me? Especially now. You’d think I would defer to a more kind approach since I’m only one month post-hip replacement surgery. I’m definitely on the mend, and yet my first thoughts on my recovery are usually more negative than positive. For instance, I can’t walk too far or too fast. I am still on a 90-degree restriction, meaning I can’t bend over very far or shave my legs past my knees. I can’t sit in a chair or in a car for longer than an hour without pain around the incision.

But what I can do is: Walk without a cane most days, and with zero hip joint pain. I wouldn’t be able to outrun a bear if it crossed my yard (which they do sometimes), but I couldn’t before either, so there you go. I have a grabber if I drop something, and I’ve mastered the golf ball pick-up move.

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Obviously, that is NOT me.

I can drive myself to physical therapy and to the grocery store to pick up my online grocery order. And for a week I’ve been riding the recumbent bike at home and at physical therapy for 10 minutes at a time, which is 10 minutes longer than I have the last 18 months.

Rather than buck, kick, and wish things were different or would hurry up and heal already, I decided yesterday that, since I have to put my feet up during the day anyway, I would use that to my advantage and reward my accomplishments. Also, I never thought I’d miss vacuuming or cleaning the toilet, but it felt really good to be self-sufficient again and contribute to the household chores. A positive reward in and of itself! Jim still has to do the laundry since the washer and dryer are in the basement and the stairs are uneven, but I admit that’s one chore I’m not anxious to resume, and I positively embrace that point of view!

Judging is a hard habit to break, but I’m consciously trying to be on Team Lynn and to see the half-full glass.

What about you? As I asked on my Zen Bag Lady Facebook page, do you reward yourself for completing ordinary tasks? Please leave a comment here or join us on FB!

 

 

 

Pain Is NOT an Identity

Physical pain is something most of us don’t like to talk about in public, or even among friends and family. I mean, seriously, who wants to be that person? Most people wouldn’t believe you anyway if you told them you hurt pretty much all the time, and it’s not easy to brace against the look that says, “Really? It’s probably all in your head.” When we’re asked, “How are you?” we politely reply, “Fine! And you?”

But pain can be scary, especially when its origins are unknown or sketchy, or the cure daunting, and when we carry that burden privately, holed up in our head, pain can make us feel isolated and emotionally weak. We might think we’re being brave by sucking it up and continuing to do the things that make us hurt, like it’s an act of defiance, but really it’s an act of denial. We take the Advil and the Tylenol and the prescriptions, and almost always we adapt, usually without realizing how and to what extent.

Now that I’m on the other side of hip replacement surgery, I recognize how I consciously and unconsciously coped with the pain, and how pain became my identity. I was someone who limped and sat around a lot. I planned my days by how many times I would have to move because standing, walking, and climbing stairs sucked equally and took a great deal of gritting my teeth to do. I stopped doing things I loved, like going to flea markets and perusing antique malls. Jim got the mail most days, even though our mailbox is only 40 feet from the house, up a slight incline. When we’d talk about going on vacation (hell, even going out for breakfast!), to me it felt like a pipe dream, something I used to do. I couldn’t think beyond the pain because it had taken over my life, and I had let it.

I also ate for comfort. My food intake was pathetic. Salads? Nope, because making one meant standing for longer than a few minutes. I’d throw a piece of lettuce and a slice of tomato on a cheese sandwich and call it a day. Fruit? Once in a while I’d slice a banana on top of a bowl of Cheerios. Most fruit and lettuce went to the crisper to die. White bread was more calming than whole wheat, Hershey’s Kisses more sympathetic than an apple.

Now that the hip pain is gone, I look at my world with a bit more hope. But I also realize how deeply embedded those adaptive habits are and how loud that voice is that still tells me I can’t. Therefore, I want to – consciously and in good faith – change the message and the habits.

  1. I want to listen to what’s going on in my body with joy and expectation that this new hip will allow me to move again without fear. When it would be easier to lay around, I will remind myself that it’s OK to move. To get up on that country road I live on and walk a little. Take the dog along, or call my neighbor and have her meet me halfway to her house a few tenths of a mile from mine. Who cares what I look like with a cane and T.E.D. hose? (Confession: I had to do some positive self talk this morning to get motivated to go to the grocery store wearing shorts, my T.E.D hose, and my sensible slip-on shoes. As I walked through the store, I realized that no one but me gave a damn what I was wearing, and it was a humbling and good lesson.)

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    First order of business once I don’t have to wear these anymore: a good shave and a pedi (in that order).

  2. I want to be more mindful of my food intake. Not that I will return to my militant ways from 2005 to 2012ish, but instead, I want to engage with food in a more balanced way. To see it as all things healthy and comforting. More vegetables, fewer nachos. That kind of thing.
  3. I also want to work on changing how I respond to pain in relation to other people. I noticed that in the last 18 months, I often compared my physical pain with someone else’s pain and pain circumstances, especially those that I perceived were worse than mine. I would then demote my experience to insignificant/not-so-bad, even though it impacted every facet of my life. But my pain is my pain, and it’s possible to acknowledge and sympathize with the pain others experience, while also acknowledging that what I feel is significant to my life.
  4. Also, there’s no need to feel guilty for reaching out to a friend to say, “Today is not a good day. I hurt. I needed to say that out loud.” I say this because today I reread something I wrote in 2014, the last time I had a hip replacement, that helped me remember that we really do need people, and that people need us to need them.
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Family therapy a few hours after surgery. The grandbabies brought me a pink sloth and a blanket that says “Namaste and Cuddle”. 

Pain is a suck fest, no doubt, but we’re better off acknowledging it, especially to ourselves and those closest to us. It’s the only way to be aware of our responses and our coping mechanisms. There’s nothing wrong with a good cry, a woe-is-me moment with a friend, or a slice of carrot cake when we’re mindful of why.

Pain is not an identity. It might be a part of our life, but it’s not who we are.

 

 

 

 

There Is Always an Otherwise

It’s early afternoon, and I write this propped up in my bed, listening to it rain…again…with my little dog Zuzu curled up at my side. Next to her is my tablet, in case I want to read or watch a show; my latest journal, which has some angry entries of late; my phone; and the strap I use to stretch my leg muscles, IT band, and hip flexors.

When I started writing this, I was reminded of a poem I saved from a teaching demonstration I gave in a grad class once, and I want to share it with you. It will help explain the rest of this post.

WHEN I COULD WALK

By Katherine M. Clarke

 After Edward Hirsch, “The Sweetness”

The times my failing body and I could walk 
come back to me now: strolls by the Charles River, 
ambles through Harvard Square…

Magnolias waved and buskers’ antics
delighted our summer nights, companions 
as we roamed and wandered.

Remember the bags of groceries muscled
from porch, to countertop, to cupboards? 
We made a dinner, we made a life.

Wasn’t that us sliding into a bath, slipping 
into fresh sheets, moving as we wanted, 
with whom we wanted, when we wanted?

They come back to me now, dear body of mine, 
the times when I could walk and loved you more.

I got about 90 minutes of sleep last night. Thanks to Dr. Google, at about 2 a.m. I learned I probably have a pinched nerve in my left hip. Twelve hours later, I fear sciatica has set in as well.

Surely we all know someone (yourself, perhaps) who suffers from no-turning-back physical pain or deficiency; the kind that will be around – in some form or other – the rest of their/our days. It is with all of us in mind that I write with empathy, sympathy, and – even – joy (or at the very least, acknowledgment) that we’re still breathing, one breath at a time.

When I turned 55 ten months ago, I was super OK with it, unlike when I turned 30, which I realize now, my response was ridiculous. I should have celebrated instead of getting drunk and getting a half-assed, unfinished tattoo of a dolphin because it reminded me of my high school boyfriend, who got a dolphin tattoo when he was in the Navy. What? But 30-year-old me, and most likely 30-year-old you, couldn’t possibly (thank god) know what life would be like at 55, and so we went with whatever flow was going on in our brains at the time, and my flow was having a bit of a meltdown. So be it.

These days, I’m less concerned with filling in that tattoo as I am putting my Humpty Dumpty body into some reasonable semblance of reliability. Last night, as waves of nerve pain snaked through my hip at 3- to 5-minute intervals, keeping me awake, I shifted from anxiety (thank you Ativan), to denial, to meditation. I concentrated on my breathing and told my thoughts that I’d think them later. For the most part that alleviated my fear, which was what dominated my monkey night mind. Can any of us claim to be rational in the middle of the night?

One of the more difficult things about grad school wasn’t the sometimes obscure reading, research, or writing papers. It was getting around campus on two bad knees, a bum hip, and a back in need of titanium rods and screws. Now, a year after graduating, and countless attempts at physical therapy, yoga, and trying to be “normal,” my body has slipped away from my control. A cane completes the leg that limps, 50 percent what it used to be. I sometimes let myself wish for my 48-year-old body. (I don’t think I’d know what to do with my 30-year-old body again!) When I was 48, I knew I wasn’t invincible. I sensed that my body and I were on the cusp of the inevitable, but still we had our adventures. I took advantage of my body because I knew it wouldn’t last long.

Last night, I wrote in my journal: “Do I want to live to 100? Meh…no. I’m OK dying ‘young’ish – sooner if pain will be constantly in the picture.” That neither alarmed or surprised me. I assure you I’m not suicidal. But the older I get, the more willing I am to face my fears. I don’t have to like them, and I don’t like how my body has betrayed me, but I want to live with them, live in this body, with as much peace as I can.

And so, from this perch on my bed, with my dog still beside me, I share another poem, one of my favorites, by Jane Kenyon, called “Otherwise.” In all of our lives, there is always an otherwise.

Otherwise

By Jane Kenyon

I got out of bed

on two strong legs.

It might have been

otherwise. I ate

cereal, sweet

milk, ripe, flawless

peach. It might

have been otherwise.

I took the dog uphill

to the birch wood.

All morning I did

the work I love.

At noon I lay down

with my mate. It might

have been otherwise.

We ate dinner together

at a table with silver

candlesticks. It might

have been otherwise.

I slept in a bed

in a room with paintings

on the walls, and

planned another day

just like this day.

But one day, I know,

it will be otherwise.

 

 

 

 

Thin Places

How this happened, I don’t know, but I’d never heard of “thin places” before this morning. (And I’m not talking about skinny.)

I was listening to Nikki Mirghafori’s weekly Happy Hour guided meditation. The topic was thin places. As she was explaining what it is, I started to tear up, realizing that I was in a thin place several weeks ago without realizing it. Too restless to finish the meditation, I decided to write about thin places instead. Meet the divine at my computer, so to speak.

Lacy Clark Ellman from A Sacred Journey blog defines it this way: “A thin place is a term used for millennia to describe a place in time where the space between heaven and Earth grows thin and the sacred and the secular seem to meet. The term comes from…Celtic spirituality and the Celtic Christians, who were deeply connected to the natural world and considered every aspect of life to be infused with the presence of the Divine, even (or perhaps, especially) the ordinary elements of everyday life.”

When I saw my friend Julia in early February, I sat next to her bed, holding her hand and talking with her about our grandchildren. (Julia is my daughter Cassie’s mother-in-law.) With only a short time left to live, Julia was consciously aware that she was in that thin place between Earth and the eternal world, and by holding my hand, so, too, was I. She said she was going to meet Jesus. She was certain. I said I was sure she would, but inside I was angry at Jesus.

Is it possible to encounter the divine with awe and anger?

Thin places inspire intimacy with the divine, but we have to be willing and open to the encounter. Perhaps I need to finish the meditation I abandoned this morning and feel what there is to feel; to enter the memory of that thin place and consider the certainty of Julia’s conviction that the divine was ever present as she lay dying.

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Julia with two of our shared granddaughters, Mae and Claire, Thanksgiving 2018.

Clinging and Distraction

Have you ever thought about someone you haven’t seen in ages, and then a few days later you see them somewhere, like the grocery store?

This morning I listened to (checked Twitter) a dharma talk that I didn’t realize would address an issue I’ve been dealing with the last several days. (Checked email. Googled “dharma talk definition.”) (A dharma talk is like a sermon given on some aspect of Buddhism by a Buddhist teacher.)

The title was “Letting Go.” Gil Fronsdal, one of my favorite dharma teachers, asked the questions, What do we cling to? What non-helpful, non-beneficial thoughts and actions can we let go of? (Made the bed.) He wasn’t talking about things, per se (Googled Marie Kondo. Her approach to tidying things is very Buddhist-like.).

Suffering happens when we have a tight grip on ideas that “limit our ability to be wise, to see, to maneuver freely in the world,” and that freedom from those limiting thoughts and actions comes only when we intentionally let go.

In December I committed, again, to writing the book I’ve been saying for years that I would finish. Despite the self-doubt and (checked the news) questioning my ability (answered a text), I’m finally doing it.

 (Emailed my daughter.) Listening to the talk, I thought about how I cling to negative thoughts about my writing, and how my tendency is, while writing, to distract myself (responded to a Facebook message), like I hope the writing will write itself while I’m doing something else. Gil suggested that when we identify what we want to let go of, that we let go into the clinging itself and ask, What’s going on with that feeling? Where are those actions coming from?

Here’s what I came up with: I cling to the fear of failure, and staying present and writing through the clinging is not easy. Ouch! Keep going! And I soothe myself by thinking that if I fail, it will be a familiar feeling and it won’t hurt as bad. I’m afraid that if I put myself out there again, my voice will be ignored, or worse, it will be like talking into an empty barrel. (This is too much. Texted a friend). And I deal with these thoughts through distraction.

As you can see, in just seven paragraphs, I left the process of writing this blog nine times! Even more times if you include the times Jim called, and the dog needed to go out, and I adjusted the electric heaters because we have to conserve gas because the gas line is frozen, and I was hungry and made a sandwich, and I was in the mood for a cup of tea.

The distractions I invent are even worse writing the book. I walk away and distract for hours and days at a time.

But here I am, near the end of this blog, back from the distractions to finish. I will get this blog on my site today (paused…reached for my phone, didn’t pick it up, didn’t give in to the desire to leave), because this is a really important topic, and I want to talk to you about it. Not about my clinging, but yours. You don’t have to get personal, but what do you cling to? What do you want to let go of so you can be more wise and move more freely in this world? Leave a comment. I promise I won’t read it as a distraction mechanism.

If you’re interested in listening to the Letting Go talk, you can click here for the link, or watch the video. What Gil says about grief and depression starting at minute 30 is especially interesting. If you get that far, let me know what you think. I’ll be blogging about it soon and would love your input.

 

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

By Lynn M. Haraldson

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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

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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:

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“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.

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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.”