Monday, October 19, 2020

Freedom

Fall has come like the click of a camera. All of a sudden the leaves have changed. The air is cool and I want to eat soup. This morning I woke up well before sunrise. As I drank my coffee and stared out into my back patio, I found myself thinking back to last year at this time. In October of last year I had just sold my business. I was experiencing a new kind of freedom for the first time in almost twenty years. I was unencumbered by work and energized to have more time and space in my life. 

It took me a while to really feel that freedom in my bones, to not check my email several times a day, to shake the feeling that I had something to do even when I didn't. By January, I noticed that I felt different. My weekends really felt like weekends. Instead of keeping a running list of tasks I had to complete, I was imagining projects I dreamed of doing. I was lighter in all ways.

And then in February Coronavirus hit. My immediate response was fear. We're all going to die! My next response was relief. I didn't have to figure out how to run a business in this new, unknown mayhem of our world. And then guilt. I had sold my business to a dear friend and loyal employee and now it was her problem. Suddenly I didn't feel so free anymore. 

And now we are nine months into Coronavirus and I am reflecting on the very concept of freedom. I am not free in the way I once felt free. None of us is. We are more more limited in where we go, who we see, what activities we do, than ever in our lives. But those very limits, it seems, offer me a sense of freedom. A freedom from.

As I rounded the corner from the stress of running a business into Corona times, I fell almost immediately into this new tiny world of my home and my immediate family. I go to the grocery store; I see a handful of friends, mostly one-on-one, very occasionally;  and I volunteer at the senior center once a week making hot lunches for delivery. But other than that I am at home. My world has become very small. 

This new, small world offers me a freedom from obligations that I didn't even register felt like obligations before. I am free from the responsibility of planning trips to see family, from organizing activities to fill the school breaks. I am free from rsvp-ing to dinner parties or planning them myself. I am free from coffee dates and school events and block parties and neighborhood meetings. There are clear moments when I miss those things. Yesterday I had an all-day ache to just talk to a friend in person, to hang out and drink a glass of wine and eat almonds and olives at one of our kitchen tables.

But the overall feeling I have in one of calm. The simplicity of my life is clear and present. Nine months into this new way, I can feel this simplicity in my body. It's the feeling I had when I was girl, spending time at my grandmother's cottage on Pelican Lake. Nothing to do. Nowhere to be. No one to become. This feeling is my constant companion these days. The call of obligation and expectation is only a whisper of my past; I can hardly remember living that way. 

That feeling leaves me more regularly now, as we near the most important election in our history. I find myself in a panic. My chest tightens and my ears get hot. I feel a swell of blood behind my eyebrows. I am petrified. This morning when I woke up I went into our living room and meditated. As I rested in stillness, periodically looking out the window at the sky starting to lighten, I imagined our world feeling this way. I imagined a calm flooding over Trump and Biden and Pelosi and Putin and Johnson and all the world leaders. I visualized this calm washing over my family and friends and neighbors and community. I envisioned it and I prayed for it.

I am grateful to have this period in my life where I am aware and present to this feeling of calm I have now. I hope that, when things in our world change again, when the expectations and obligations of my life become bigger and louder, I will be able to touch back into this feeling and experience it the way I am now. 




Thursday, October 1, 2020

Who Am I?

When I was in India a few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Arunachala, a small mountain in the Tamil Nadu region of Southern India. The plan was to visit the mountain early in the day, but my friend Suchana and I had missed a connecting flight in Dubai and my luggage had also been lost so, between the lost time from our missed connection and the hours spent trying to track down my bag, we were many hours late. By the time we arrived from Chennai to Arunachala to embark on our mini-trek, it was already late afternoon. But we still wanted to visit the mountain. Our guide, Saran, took me, Suchana, and the three friends who'd arrived a few days prior to the base of the mountain. It was still light when we started our journey, but, by the time we were back down it was pitch black. I remember squinting to keep sight of my friend Sonja's white clothing to stay on course.

At the beginning of our trek Saran told us to internally chant the mantra, "Who Am I?" 

"Not with the hope of getting an answer," Saran encouraged, "but rather to simply open up to that question."


Those few hours in the pitch black were disorienting and, at times, scary. There were all kinds of animal and people sounds and no lights to guide us. I recited the mantra, "Who Am I?" over and over. It calmed me and kept me focused. Had I released the mantra and invited a specific answer to the query, I would have become distracted and disorganized. I might have lost my way in the dark, fallen, or injured myself in some way.

But I got down the mountain. We had a cup of chai and went home to sleep. Though my luggage had been lost and I'd spent several hours wandering around in the dark, I felt calm and happy. The next morning, my luggage still nowhere to be found, I donned a pair of borrowed disposable underwear and continued on with my day.

Since I sold my business exactly one year ago, I have been on a similar journey. When I left that almost twenty-year commitment, I gave myself permission to be open, to inquire of myself, "Who Am I?" I'm a seeker, maybe too much so at times. That question, "Who Am I?" is a blessing and a curse for me. The other day while contemplating my professional future with my partner Nancy, I said that I dreamed of teaching Yoga Nidra meditation full-time. But then, as quickly as I voiced the dream, I said, "But who am I to be able to do that?"

That inner voice that spoke back to me was not one of curiosity or openness, it was one of criticism and restriction. The irony wasn't lost on me. As soon as I heard my inner critic say, "Who am I?", I heard Saran's voice adding on top of it, in a more gentle, loving voice, "Who Am I?" It is a tiny difference in inflection, but a monumental shift in perspective. The former, "Who am I?" is a finite question, one that commands a definitive answer. The latter, "Who Am I?" is a question that provides ongoing, ever-changing self-reflection and contemplation. It invites the possibility to change and grow and discover. 

So, as I acknowledge this one-year anniversary of making a big life change, I am reminded of the importance of staying open to, "Who Am I?" instead of bogged down by "Who am I?" It means being unsure, walking through the dark sometimes. Especially now, when so much is unknown--our county is socially and politically in shambles, the Coronavirus is a mystery that continues to challenge us in almost all realms of our lives, and our very earth is screaming for help. How can I know who I am right now, much less tomorrow? How can any of us? 

The mantra, "Who Am I?", gives me hope. Today I might feel devastated by online school challenges. But tomorrow I might feel grateful for a laughter-filled family dinner. The world is always changing. The people around me are always changing, and so am I. I'm grateful for the memory of that nighttime trek with Saran and my friends. As I, along so many of you, struggle through these very uncertain times, I can rest in the wisdom that we don't have to know all the answers. We just have to keep asking the right questions. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

LJs Free Online Shopping

A few weeks ago I started adding the phrase, "with Corona on top" when talking about hard things. Anything challenging--- sickness, unemployment, divorce, depression-- are all so much harder "with Corona on top." It was meant to be kind of funny, a nod to how much we endure, a testament to our collective resilience.  And then the fires came and I stopped using that phrase. I had no words for this new experience. "__________ with Corona and unbreathable air on top" wasn't funny or clever. It was just painful.

So, like I do when I am at a loss for how I feel, I wrote. I imagined becoming like an enormous stand-alone bellows, pulling in all my strength and patience, tapping my reserves, harnessing it all, and then infusing that strength and patience into my little world, revitalizing myself and my family. And it worked. I felt better, more stable, like I could, even though I thought I couldn't, ride this new topping in my life. I wouldn't fall into the hole of despair. I would keep on going. 

But despite best laid plans, into despair I did indeed fall. On Friday my friend Jamie and I had made a plan to take our daughters hiking. It was the last day before school started full-time and we wanted to get into nature and reconnect with ourselves and each other. And, since we can't be inside together, these outdoor excursions are one of the important ways we can facilitate social time for our kids. But the smoke was too bad and we couldn't hike. And we couldn't hunker down in one of our houses and watch a movie. We abandoned the idea of spending the day together and I sat in my boat of despair, moaning and whining all morning long. 

Then we got the idea to meet at the Goodwill Bins. This is the thing my daughter Lucia will always say yes to, even if it means going with her weird mother. So we met at the bins, spent a socially distanced hour, then returned home where we double-washed all our clothes. That night we had a Zoom fashion show where we tried on all of our items. We laughed and laughed.  I was surprised by how spontaneously the day turned from miserable to magnificent.

Each time Lucia and I go to the Bins the agreement is that we will unload some of the clothes in our closets to make room for these new treasures. I have a lot of treasures and it didn't feel right to just send them back to Goodwill so I came up with the idea of creating an online platform to offer these items to my friends (and their friends) for free. Lucia set me up an Instagram account. Jamie quickly and enthusiastically joined the project and LJsfreeonlineshopping was born. I spent hours over the weekend in my little basement office posting items and funny descriptions. I made special LJs labels and packaged each "sold" item. Then I delivered the items to friends who'd claimed these treasures. 

One definition of resilience is "the ability to recover readily from illness, depression, adversity, or the like; buoyancy." These days of quarantine, social distancing, radically changed daily habits and patterns topped with imminent threat to our environment and to so many lives in our region, have charged us all with the task of digging deeper, finding ways to be okay in the midst of all of it. We are being called to be SUPER RESILIENT.

At the beginning of that Friday when Jamie and I recognized that we couldn't go hiking and we couldn't watch a movie together, I was in despair. I was angry and bitter and resentful. I let myself go there.  But some little part of me knew that I couldn't stay there. I had to find a crack of light in that dark box. And I did. I see this happening all around me, everyday. People are figuring this out, each in their own way.  And, with each experience of one of us finding a glimmer of light, even just a little bit, even for a moment, our collective resilience is being fortified. When you are in the despair, as we all are sometimes, it's okay to let yourself be there. You're not alone and you won't be there forever.  

Monday, September 7, 2020

Like a Big Old Tree


Conflict sucks. It's scary to have a different opinion, to feel alone and insecure, to worry about sounding stupid. I wonder how people like Ruth Bader Ginsburg manage. Ginsburg is in a perpetual state of contemplating dissenting opinions. At the end of the contemplation, she must make her one true judgement. She has to be sure. I envy the confidence, clarity and certainty that is required of people like Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Lisa Damour, the author of two life-saving books on female adolescent development, says that we can teach our girls about conflict by explaining that, generally, there are three types of conflict management-- the bulldozers, the doormats, and the doormats with spikes. Damour says that, like most humans, girls are not great at conflict. Most people avoid conflict because we worry about being too vulnerable or being judged or standing out. So instead of rooting down and finding solid ground before entering into conflict, we tend to unconsciously fall into one or more of those three categories. 

What we want to strive for instead, says Damour, is to be more like pillars. A pillar stands up for herself without stepping on anyone else (bulldozer), lying down and avoiding the conflict (doormat) or through passive-aggressive techniques (doormat with spikes). In my own conflict self-analysis, I have deduced that I manage conflict using all three of those dysfunctional techniques with different people, in different situations.

But I want to be a pillar. I want to stand tall without sublimating my needs, causing destruction or playing games. I get what Damour is saying about the pillar, but in my mind, I think of the pillar as more of a big old tree; I envision an ancient, weathered Oak tree on a well-travelled city street. Children climb on it, windstorms ravage it, birds and squirrels build their homes in it, lightning might even strike it. But the tree, deeply rooted in the earth, stands tall, enduring the weather and the traffic, the animal life and the humanity. Over years and decades and centuries the tree might shift, settling at an angle from an earthquake or a tornado. The tree might loose a few big branches, but the grounding is always there. I think of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as this magnificent tree. She's been at it for a long time, fielding the elements as they come, in the face of it all, still standing up for the truth without bulldozing, lying down or using dirty tricks.

The other day my friend Molly told me the story of her neighbor clandestinely chopping down a grand old tree. The tree, an exceptional tree, as it is called in tree-lover's vernacular, enveloped a large corner of Molly's yard. She loved that tree. It was part of her home, part of her family. As the neighbors cut down the tree, Molly cried. When she described her experience watching the unconscious destruction of this tree, I could feel her agony. Though there was no bulldozer, there might as well have been. To not honor that tree, to negate the hundred-plus years of hard work and enduring presence of that tree, is to step all over it. Now, where that exceptional tree used to stand, shading and protecting Molly's yard with familiar loving branches, there is a big empty space.

It takes time, nourishment, sunlight, love and respect to grow into an exceptional tree. And it takes experience, insight and patience to become a pillar in the face of conflict. The destruction of the tree that bordered Molly's yard feels emblematic of the culture of conflict in our country right now. Instead of being trees--big, exceptional, firmly routed trees standing side by side, enduring the different elements as they come-- the polarized political sides are chopping each other down, leaving big empty spaces instead of creating a beautiful growing forest. 

Conflict, whether between teenage girls or political parties, can be looked at the same way. Wherever there are two different brains there will be two different opinions. It's not difference that is the problem, it's the absence of pillars (or trees). That big tree in Molly's yard was strong. It endured decades of external conflict from the weather and disease and animals, but she stayed alive, firmly rooted in her role as a tree. That tree would still be a tree if someone hadn't bulldozed her down. Had the neighbors made a different choice, there might even be a sapling growing beside her. 

I wonder if it's possible to work towards this-- towards creating a forest of trees (or pillars).  As we continue to evolve, hopefully into a more kind and gentle humanity, I dream of this possibility. It seems like a fantasy, that two drastically different opinions could stand side by side, like a Douglas Fir and Big Leaf Maple; that conflict could result in a reaction other than a bulldozer, a doormat or a doormat with spikes. But I have to believe that it's possible. I want it for myself. I want it for my teenage daughter. And I want it for the world.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Hope Lives in Our Memories

A few nights ago Nancy and I were sitting on our porch. We were looking down the hill at the lake and in the far distance, past the I-90 bridge, we could see the peaks of Mount Baker. I was sitting on our comfy outdoor couch and our view was beautiful and expansive, but I felt out of body, uncomfortable. I told Nancy that I feel, almost all the time, like I am on a long plane ride in a very uncomfortable middle seat. If I move I can feel comfortable, but the feeling lasts only for a moment and then I'm back in the squished, contorted position, unable to recline, unable to relax. For brief moments I can find peace and joy and relief, but before too long I go back to despair and worry and longing.

Before this pandemic I worried, but not constantly. Though I might not have been able to recognize it, I felt a general sense of peace. This feeling of imminent fear, of hyper-vigilance that I have now, was not with me all the time. I could recline. I could relax. I wasn't waiting for an unexpected surge or siege to hit at any moment. The very acknowledgment of this loss of peace fills me with grief. I don't want this feeling, this interminable cramped plane trip feeling. 

As I contemplated the feeling of emotional discomfort that I (and so many people I know) am experiencing right now, I became aware of my very black and white thinking with regard to this pandemic-- if the pandemic is over I will be comfortable; if the pandemic is here I will be in distress. I have no frame of reference for a reality such as we are living in right now.  

There are places in the world where the daily struggle is so much more profound than I could ever imagine. Thinking about this helps me. This perpetual dis-ease so many of us are experiencing right now is not new for millions of people. People in war-torn countries or extreme poverty or exploitive or abusive situations experience this feeling every day. What do they do? They find ways to get through it, one day at a time. They live with the struggle because they have to. Right now we are riding a wave that we, as individuals cannot stop. I cannot change the course of this pandemic. No matter how hard I work, I cannot change it. This helplessness is where my greatest discomfort lives. 

I began to think about other times in my life that I've been uncomfortable or in distress. Recently I was on a very long, arduous hike. The way up was exhausting and scary and the way down was jarring and practically wrecked my knees. At the end of that hike I was so happy! The struggle was over and I could sit in the car and drink long gulps of water. I could sink into a feeling of accomplishment and relief. There would be no more hiking that day and I could rest.

Or when I gave birth and was in labor for close to two days. When my midwife forbade me from getting horizontal and made me walk the stairs and the streets to get the baby moving. When she had me doing triangle pose to open my hips at the thirty-sixth hour of my endless labor. At the end of it all Lucia was born. The struggle was over and I was filled with lightness and joy.

But this pandemic is long and it is universal. It's not about me climbing a mountain or moving through the stages of childbirth. It's about billions of people working together to contain this virus. It's about leaders supporting communities and businesses and people to have enough food and housing and money to do the right thing. The little drops in the bucket that I add to the cause-- wearing a mask, social distancing, limiting contacts, not flying, even my work as a contact tracer-- feel meaningless in the face of this vastly expansive virus. So I sit in the middle ground, helpless, comfortable and safe for moments on my porch, but filled with fear and doubt when I think about the hugeness of this pandemic for even two minutes.

This is uncomfortable. This is insane. I want out. I want off this plane. But I don't get to choose that option. None of us does. So what is the answer? What is my answer? I once heard someone say, "hope lives in our memories." I've found this to be true. I think about what I know from the much smaller struggles in my life. When I look back at these painful, uncomfortable times to recall what got me through, here's what I remember: I had faith that the experience (the mountain, the labor, the breakup....) would end eventually;  I trusted my own strength and ability to endure the pain and discomfort. Remembering connects me to my resilience and gives me hope that this pandemic won't last forever. We really will get off this plane one day.

Friday, August 7, 2020

A World of Service

I regularly walk along a narrow path next to Lake Washington. It is a well-traveled path for both runners and walkers. With Coronavirus there is an unspoken agreement among most of us to step off of the path when walking towards an oncoming walker or runner. Usually there is some eye-contact and one person steps up the hill so there is the requisite six-feet of space. 

A few weeks ago I was walking with my earbuds in. I was talking to my friend Jenna and I was on a very narrow stretch of path when I heard a loud "GOOOO!" at the back of my head. It was a woman running, fast, shouting at me to get out of her way. I was shocked, jolted, and afraid. I decompressed with Jenna who'd heard the woman's insane yelling but the experience stuck with me. The unnecessary act of aggression revisited me several times like a flashback.

Then last week I was walking my dog on Lake Washington Boulevard, a popularly traveled street that is now temporarily closed to cars. There are tons of bikers, walkers, skaters, scooters and strollers on Lake Washington Boulevard these days; it feels like some kind of exotic boardwalk and I love it. On this particular day a little boy was riding his bike onto Lake Washington Boulevard from a side street when a super speedy bike racer was approaching this boy's entrance point. The speed biker had to move out of the boy's path, reducing his speed quite a bit. As the speed biker passed the boy, he yelled, "MORON!" 

"What the hell?!!!" I thought to myself and impulsively yelled to the boy, "You're not a moron. He's a moron?" I didn't want that poor kid to think that there was anything normal about what that grown man-baby had done. 

These experiences are so upsetting because they are micro-reminders of the selfishness and individualistic nature that has pervaded our nation. We need a complete overhaul, some way to step back and reinvest in community, in collective consciousness and kindness. As I contemplate the absence of goodness in my city and country, I am also preparing to send my fifteen-year-old back to school--to a system that will be thrown together online, a system that may or may not teach the kids anything, to a system that I fear will suck the passion for learning right out of their spongey, curious brains.

What if, instead of throwing our kids into a pieced together online system that sets everyone up for failure--kids, teachers, administrators and parents-- we did something totally different? What if we deemed the 2020-21 school year "The Year of Service?" It could be like Roosevelt's New Deal-- we'd enlist all of our kids, from elementary through college in service projects. Instead of going through the motions of learning something half-way, we would, as a society, teach all of our students the value of community,  contribution, and service.

The elementary school kids could write letters to isolated elderly people and plant community gardens. The middle and high school kids could clean the streets and pull invasive species from our parks, work at the food banks, tutor younger kids and build tiny houses. Kids of driving age could deliver meals to people and shuttle supplies to different projects. College-aged kids could help with all of that and take this project to the next level--documenting it, analyzing data, writing reports. Teachers would be the coordinators of the projects. Parents with time could assist. And at the end of the school year everyone will have learned something new. Everyone will have had the experience of helping, contributing, being a part of something amazing. Doesn't that sound better than a year of half-assing school?

I know it's just a fantasy, but what if we could make it happen? If you share this dream, if you want to make it happen too, spread the word. Share the idea. Let's do something different. Let's bring back kindness and community. Let's teach it in school and see what happens.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Looking Inward

Parenting a teenager in the time of Coronavirus is a constant exercise in getting your ass kicked. Like most teenagers, my daughter Lucia wants to be free, liberated from my clutches, but the quarantine and social distancing parameters make that hard. I can feel her need for space all the time. I'm forever trying to find ways to engage positively. Last week I read the idea of making a papier mâché piñata Coronavirus cell in the New York Times. I thought this would be a fun activity to do together and broached the idea yesterday morning.

"Hey, Lu," I chirped as she emerged from her basement bedroom, "do you want to do a project with me today?"
"Unnhhhh," she moaned, "What is it?"
"A Coronavirus piñata!" I replied with the enthusiasm my little brother used to have about going to Chucky Cheese.
"Sure," she said, placating me, but within a few minutes she'd made plans with a friend to ride bikes to the pier.

I went ahead and set up my piñata supplies on the picnic table in our sunny front yard. To make the virus I would need three full coats of papier mâché, and time for each of the coats to fully dry between coats. I was grateful for the sunny day and the coats dried in about an hour. Between coats I gardened, folded laundry and hand-painted twist ties with red paint that I would apply once the virus was fully dried and spray painted.

My idea was to fill my Coronavirus piñata with goodies and bash the shit out of it. I've recently taken a temporary job as a contact tracer for COVID-19 and I'm all too aware of how the numbers in our city and country are soaring. Making the piñata occupied my energy creatively and the activity served the purpose of giving me something concrete to start and finish. I've noticed in this time of great unknowns, starting and completing a singular task is hugely satisfying and calming. While I couldn't put my daughter in a bubble and protect her from this pandemic-infested world, I could focus my energy on making a piñata instead of worrying. The time spent making the piñata gave me the sense, albeit fleeting, that I had some control over something.

Our lawn sits above the sidewalk and I can see down to Lake Washington from our yard. I spent the day watching people parking and carrying rafts, paddle boards, kayaks and inner tubes down to the water. I saw and heard throngs of people enjoying the sun and the water.

We're struggling to bash this coronavirus. In this country of free will and infinite choices we are having a hard time being uncomfortable, limiting ourselves to the degree that we need to to quell this beast. As I sat on the picnic bench dipping newspaper strips into flour-water-glue, worrying about my own daughter getting enough social distance on the pier she was sunbathing at, I worried too about the people racing down to crowd the beaches. Many wore masks but many didn't.

What do we do? It's not just the teens that are struggling, resisting the imperative to limit our contact with others. It's counterintuitive in the summer, the precious three months of our year when Northwesterners can roam freely without a rain jacket. We're all experiencing a loss and that's painful. We don't have good tools for moving through grief and loss. But we're all in it right now and there's nothing wrong with any of us. This is just the way it is right now.  I don't have the answer for moving through this grief and loss,  but I know what's worked for me.

In my grief I've had to turn inwards, to ask myself what will nourish me. I've had to find a new way to engage myself. One week it was making masks. Another was taking an online course. Another was job hunting. One week was creating an outside space where we could invite people over to socialize. Yesterday was making a Coronavirus piñata.There's always writing, taking long walks, writing letters and spending time with my family. I remember in my mid-twenties when my dad died, I was in a swirl of grief and I didn't know how to settle. I was closer to Lucia's age; I didn't have the inclination  to look inward. I was focused on what I'd lost, what wasn't there anymore and I was seeking, trying to find connection outside. I'm a quarter of a century older now and I've learned how to look inward from my grief.

When Lucia got home from the pier, we ate a delicious dinner together on our little outside patio. Nancy had made a smorgasbord of summer delights and it felt like a regular summer night. We talked about our days and enjoyed the last moments of the sun. Later on in the evening Lucia and I had a mini-battle about my strictness and my worry.  She wants more freedom and I'm trying to create a bubble. It's easy for me to look inwards because I'm fifty. If I were fifteen I'd be doing exactly what she's doing, trying to bust out. We're both evolving, limping along as we figure out how to navigate adolescence in the time of Coronavirus. I know there will be lots of bumps in the road and lots of beautiful moments too. I can't wait to bust the Coronavirus together. I'm pretty sure that will be fun for both of us.

Freedom

Fall has come like the click of a camera. All of a sudden the leaves have changed. The air is cool and I want to eat soup. This morning I wo...