Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Summer Day

My sunflowers!

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
~ Mary Oliver

“So, what do you do?”

I’ve never really liked that question. Even in my “un-sick” years, this question has always carried a sort of responsibility that made me uncomfortable. Even in those years when I loved what I was doing, when I was at “the top of my game”, when asked this question I felt the need to make the answer sound good. I had my spiel. What I did was a bit complicated to explain, so my sales pitch carried with it just the right amount of verbiage to make it understandable, yet sound like I had arrived. I always envied those who could get it over with in three words. “I’m a doctor.” “I’m the President.” I’m fairly certain my own personal baggage in regards to feeling not educated enough played a pretty strong role in my career quantephobia, but I do believe it’s a question that makes even a brain surgeon a bit edgy. It feels like a “set-up” question. We all have our preconceived notions (albeit more a reflection of our media sources than actual reality!) about the various professions. So there arises in us something in between a defensive guarding and the upholding of ego. For me, as I look back now, I think it was a little bit of both.

Why do we ask this question? And why do we ask it so quickly? If I think to what my conversations are like with people I have just been introduced to, I would say that it gets asked within the first five minutes, almost without fail. If we are truly trying to get to know someone, is asking them what they do for a living really one of the top questions? It makes me feel like I’m in the beginning stages of Milton Bradley’s Guess Who. Have kids, don’t have kids? Have a house, don’t have a house? Went to college, didn’t go to college? Married, not married? And the questions continue until we tuck one another tightly into convenient roles in our minds. Okay, it’s not always that bad. And I don’t mean to sound cynical, but just think about it for a bit. Why do we do what we do? Why do we ask what we ask? Why do we think what we think? It’s good to stop and “think about the thinker” sometimes. Like Socrates says, “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Why?

When I woke up this morning, for whatever reason, I felt extremely unsatisfied. This happens sometimes. What am I doing with my life? I’ve gotten much better at not letting this little demon have a voice in my head, but there are just those days. I think we all have them, but for the chronically ill, disabled, it’s a haunting question mixed with a heavy dose of grief and guilt. It sneaks into my mind when I least expect it. Especially when I’m tired or more sick than usual. And especially during the winter when I am more home bound. Its companions - judgement and comparison - usually tag along. Actually, when I think about it, they arrive first, quietly through the back door.

Gratitude is much friendlier visitor! 
I don’t think that this is what it’s all about. Life, I mean. When Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”, I don’t think she’s asking what our career choice is. I really don’t. I think it’s bigger than that. I think it’s much less tangible than that. I think it has far more to do with the size of our hearts than with the size of our bank accounts or the houses we live in. Discontentment is a relentless debt collector. As long as we continue to borrow our self esteem from others (or other things), discontentment will keep knocking at our door.

I had another lovely conversation with my health psychologist at the U of MN last week. I’ve been seeing her for the past four years and I have yet to walk out of her office without having become a stronger women for it. We were talking about our desire as human beings to find solid ground. We love security. The problem being that security is only an illusion, and that the key is being able to love the shakiness of it all. To learn to live with un-solid ground, for in fact, nothing stays the same. The essence of life itself being change. That got me thinking about my need for answers. Answers are the solid ground we hope to find. Whether it be in regards to ourselves or in regards to others. Answers give us the illusion of control. Can you see the problem here? The minute we think we own something, it’s loss creates a tremendous amount of suffering for us! From something as insignificant as “I finally spent a lot of money on sunglasses and now they’re gone!’ to “I thought I knew who you were and now you’re gone!”

I’m not saying that the key to life is to live so unaffected that we become numb. Quite the opposite! I just think that we are missing the boat if we think the answers are what bring us happiness. Think of all the great scientists and inventors throughout time. What inspired them? Think of all the great painters standing in front of blank canvases. It was the questions of what could be that moved that first stroke, that mixed that first color, that began that first journey. These days of unknowing, these spaces we desperately want to fill with something, can be beautiful, beautiful days. Don’t think for one second  that they are moments stuck in time. All things change. This moment you and I are in is moving us somewhere. The manner in which we move with it will greatly impact the direction we go. Rilke could not say it any more gracefully,
Towards all that is unsolved in your heart
Be patient
Try to love the questions
Do not seek the answers
which cannot be given
you would not be able to live them
Live everything
Live the questions now
you will then gradually,
without noticing it,
Live into the answers
Some distant day.
             ~Rilke

I think that when asked, “What is it that you do?”, I’m going to work at making my response a verb instead of a noun. I suppose, to get it over with, I’ll still have to say something like, “I’m currently disabled”, because, well, I currently am. But this disability has given me a tremendous opportunity. The opportunity to slow down, to learn every day how to “let go” and how to live beautifully on shaky ground.

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?


Today I opened my door and walked out...


Green surrounded me.

Bee-ing okay with things just as they are. 

Thankful for another sunrise.

Laughing at the volunteer maple tree in my flower garden.

Enjoying the unconditional love of my four legged friend. 

Peace,



Monday, August 4, 2014

Wild Abandon


Today, when responding to the recent "flurry" of events associated with Toni Bernhard's publishing of my piece in her Psychology Today column, I used the terms "wild abandon" when describing how I felt when I originally wrote the article. Having just received notice (after months of being harassed) that my long term disability company had been taking video surveillance of me, I was frantically spinning in circles with energy. And it wasn't good energy. Feelings of anger, fear, violation, shame, panic, judgement, humiliation, mortification...were so intense I found it difficult to even breathe. It was the kind of news that if not for a nearby chair, would simply drop you to your knees. 

It's been almost a month now since that letter came in the mail; about twenty-five days and just as many emotions. In those first days, one minute I would think I have the whole equanimity thing figured out (if it turns out good, I'm okay and if it turns out bad, I'm okay...) and the next I would feel paralyzed by the stories spiraling in my head. Many nights completely unable to sleep. "How can they truly know how sick I am and how this disease affects me if they only video tape me outside?? I only go outside on good days! How do they know by looking at me how many times I have thrown up or if I have been unable to leave the bathroom due to unexpected diarrhea? How do you see cognitive disfunction or migraine on a video screen? Where are they every evening when I feel so ill that taking my medication and falling asleep is my only reprieve? Yes, I drove myself to that doctor appointment, but what about the thirty or more that I was unable to drive myself to this past winter? Maybe I shouldn't drive anymore. Maybe I shouldn't get the mail. Maybe I shouldn't water my flowers on a good day. Maybe I shouldn't go out to eat with my family..." It's been a crazy roller-coaster ride and it takes a tremendous amount of mental work to make it stop. 

But this is what I have figured out about myself throughout this whole ordeal thus far. And believe me, I'm still a work in progress. 

1. I don't believe I randomly picked the words "wild abandon" out of thin air (like I felt I did) this morning when describing my frantic writing episode after receiving that letter. It was wild abandon. There were no rules when I wrote. In fact, when I did it, I had actually planned on using it as a journaling exercise to try and rid myself of the physical side effects I was feeling from the panic I was experiencing. Definitely wild. No one's looking kind of wild. A complete lack of inhibition or restraint kind of wild. 

2. If you look in the dictionary under abandon, the first definition reads something like this, "to give up completely (a course of action, a practice, or a way of thinking), discontinue". That is exactly what I needed. It's what my body was begging for. For that horrible sensation to be gone. I didn't want it any more. And for some reason, I felt that if I just let my fingertips go on the keyboard I could somehow find a way to release things. To let it go. To give it up. I didn't care what I was typing or who was going to potentially read it or if I would somehow let my viewers down. I had simply had enough

3. The second definition, although similar to the first, says, "to cease to support, take interest in or look after; desert. Leave empty or uninhabited, without intending to return". To me, this means that not only am I giving up something, I'm not planning on taking it back. And by doing so, at least in my situation, I am leaving this "thing" empty and definitely uninhabited by me. I am putting my foot down and refusing to allow this situation to take up any more space within me - or I within it! 

4. The third definition is where I am at now. It's the very thing I talked to my health psychologist about during our time together today. For me, it's almost a byproduct of the first two; "to allow oneself to indulge in (a desire or impulse)". The minute I hit the "Post" button on my blog account there began an immediate change in my internal circumstances. At that very moment I was done being scared. (Not that fear hasn't returned at times, but with much, much less ferocity!) This was the first moment I truly felt the presence of equanimity. Once I let go, once I no longer let these "things"(fear, anger, my long term disability insurance, whatever is making me miserable) have power over me, or in me, or in my future plans... my world felt bigger. It wasn't really a change in my circumstances, but more a shift in how I was looking at them. I allowed myself to indulge in a desire or impulse. And my desire was to let this all go. Quite a task for a control junkie like me!

The picture at the top of this post is that of an abandon house in Kensett, Iowa. It stands (barely) just down the road from the Izaak Walton League where my grandfather was the president for many years. I was so fortunate to be there recently for an old-time family reunion, which is when this picture was taken by my husband. Years ago, when I was healthier, I walked down the railroad track about a mile or so and carefully made my way through the old front door, which now no longer resides on it's hinges. If you've ever done such a thing, there's a feeling that goes along with it. That feeling can range anywhere from a sort of "spookiness" to a grand sense of days gone by. It's fun to look at light switches and wallpaper and envision what it used to be like way back when. But for me, the minute I walk into an old abandoned house I have this intense feeling of Holiness. Like I'm stepping on sacred ground. Outside the door, old abandoned house. Inside the door...a home. Where the rooms and walls are filled with stories of life and death and everything in between. Just like those stories and the people that lived them turned this old abandoned house into a home, so, too, do our stories turn you and I from flesh and bone into compassionate, spirit-filled beings, beautiful and holy.

Peace,






   
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