Building a Better Me, Part II

IMG_1317I realize Building a Better Me is wrong. Not what I wrote, but how I named it. I am not challenging myself to be better (although there’s always room for improvement). I’m re-structuring my life in order to return to the joys that define me.

So how’s that working out? I’m about fourteen days into the journey.

The habit I am in the process of releasing is that of hearing the alarm, reaching for my iPad and then staying in bed for another twenty minutes reading the news. This habit is not helpful on two levels. The first is that the habit steals time. The alarm chirps at 6:00 AM for a reason. On a deeper level, waking up and immediately turning to the headlines – which are rarely good – sets an energetic tone to the morning that is unhelpful. In these last fourteen days I have given in to habit once. I chose to stay put.

I am cultivating three new habits.

The first is to not feel bad when I choose to stay put.

The second is this: when the alarm rings I stand, I stretch, I kiss Ben good morning and sip my coffee. And then I sit down and write. I’ve made a promise to myself to put down 500 words a day. Sometimes the words end up as blog posts. Sometimes they end up filed away in some dark corner of cyberspace, never to be seen again.

The other habit is this: keeping a planner. The amount of money I have spent over the years on journals, diaries and planners that have promised to change my life would probably feed me for a year. And yet, even when I consider my past experience with planners, I am attempting, yet again, to use one. These calendars that ask us to define our goals and ambitions have an unsettling effect on me. I feel set me for failure and yet, here I am, giving it another go.

My new planner, so far, is different. Or maybe I’m different.

I can’t over-think this. It doesn’t matter if it’s the planner or if it’s me. What is important is that here I am, wrapping up five hundred words (give or take an adjective or two) for the fourteenth day in a row (cue balloons and streamers). Yesterday I submitted a short creative non-fiction piece to a small writing competition for the first time in about five years.

Heady days, indeed.

We’ll see where I’m at in another two weeks. So far, making room for my creative heart’s desire has made every facet of my life shine a little brighter.

And now, while I get ready for my first client, it’s time to see what the world got up to while I was sleeping.


Leave Behind a Residue Ash of Happiness

fullsizeoutput_3eAll this week I’ve been attempting to reclaim time lost. Yes, there have been some Maddow Moments. And, yes, some screen time spent on Solitaire. But overall I feel as if I’ve moved nearer to the woman I remember being sixteen months ago.

Of course, time cannot be reclaimed. I know that. The best we can do is move forward with the belief that our actions reflect our values; with the hope that we are contributing something positive not to the world – that would be too high a hope – but to our lives and to the lives of the people we meet while walking our path. We want to extend love to our biological family and our chosen family, kindness to the lip-pierced and leathered man looking for a seat on the train, patience to the young mother struggling to make ends meet as a cashier at the local CVS.

Yesterday I was walking the literal path I take to Samyama – dodging traffic while I jaywalk and leaning cold into the morning waiting for the improbably long traffic light to go green on Bryant. Somewhere on Colorado Avenue I began to ponder what it is about the world that tricks us into giving up our gifts.

This is what I mean: Along the way to being a responsible member of society we stumble into some other version of ourselves. We set aside our reckless enthusiasm for life and march forward convinced we’ll return to our unique interpretation of joy at the first opportunity. On the precipice of adulthood, we look out at the wonderful world but take too seriously the advice to “choose something practical.”

But what if the contribution we are meant to bring to the world is the joy we abandoned? How can we hope to leave a residue ash of happiness behind when we leave our body if we forget how to be happy while still in it?

I’m not suggesting that we do anything different except remember those things we did not before we knew better but when we knew better. Bring those things back into our lives. Touch base and honor that person, that old friend who played guitar and sang at the top of her lungs, splashed paint on raw canvas and walked for hours lost in the woods.


Breaking Bad

I’ve grown accustomed to avoiding what matters in order to remain dull by existing in a malaise of repetition. But habits can be broken.

Yesterday was the first day of the Build a Better Me project. I successfully avoided time sucking activities that kept me from moving toward the values and activities that are important to me. Most importantly, I didn’t lose three hours of my life obsessed by the MSNBC Chris, Rachel, Lawrence trifecta, thereby easing my obsession with the sorrow that is the current state of our government (part of the BBMP is staying true to and not hedging on my beliefs/opinions and communicating them honestly – but not offensively – when appropriate).

Of course – Monday was only one 24-hour period. There’s the whole rest of my life to consider. Baby steps, right? Yet according to statistics life expectancy in the US has dropped for the second year in a row. That means the whole ‘rest of my life’ amounts to two decades, give or take a few months. Which is the sort of realization I didn’t want to consider so early on a Tuesday morning. Then again, they say that daily contemplation of one’s death is the key to happiness.

 

A commentator to Practically Twisted shared this prescription for working Ayurvedically with habits. I’ve known people for whom going ‘cold turkey’ was the only route to success – my mother quit her heavy dependence on alcohol cold turkey. But for most of us, the calculated but gentle transition Ayurveda suggests may be the more compassionate approach.

After all, when we set the goal of running a marathon we don’t begin our training with a 26.2 mile run. We begin slowly and build our endurance. Yesterday was good but I know I can expect some days where I might feel energetically depleted and temporarily fall back into the stupefied somnambulance that has been my life for the past sixteen months. That’s ok. The benefits of living according to my values for the next two decades will be all the impetus I need to brush off any setback. This is a spiritual marathon, not a jog around the block.


Building a Better Me

rsTUx8ifQBWRDyXc9SJ1zwWhen The Counter restaurant chain first began to remodel the building on California Avenue, they had a banner to announce their arrival which read, Build a Better Burger.

Unlike the dozens of restaurants on the long thoroughfare outside my window that have opened, closed and morphed into new and doomed eateries, The Counter is still thriving. Most in my neighborhood will remember the gourmet hotdog restaurant that opened and closed faster than you can say ‘kielbasa’. They offered choices, too, but the options were off-putting and the posh wieners were priced higher than what most sane individuals would pay for a quick bite. Ten years on, however, The Counter remains packed with people for loud weekday lunches, after work suppers and jammed with hungry families every weekend. It turns out that, given a multitude of reasonably priced choices, any combination of patty, bun and condiment actually CAN be a better burger.

The choices we’re offered and the price we have to pay are the keys, right? In food and in life. When we remind ourselves that no matter where we are in life we have spiritually affordable options, living transforms from a dull, soggy bun to something scrumptious.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with ‘two-all-beef-patties-special-sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickle-onion on a sesame seed bun’ – but it’s easy to fall into a rut. What if I want to try a veggie burger, hold the onion or special sauce, on a toasted ciabatta?

I’m pretty sure my life is wonderful. But I can’t be absolutely certain because most of it moves by me without my being aware. I’ve fallen into the mucky rut of too much screen time. Not screen time like this, when I’m engaged in something that offers my life meaning. I’m thinking of screen time that includes my news addiction, my mindless scrolling through Facebook posts and the countless games of solitaire I play on the iPad before bed (which, I might add, really screws with the quality of my sleep).

It’s time to try something different. It’s time to build a better me.

We’re force-fed an onslaught of images – especially on social media – that make us feel ‘less-than’. I want to be clear: my plan to Build a Better Mimm has nothing to do with the notion that I’m not good enough. If anything, it’s the opposite. I am good enough. Good enough to have a life that feeds my soul. So are you. We are all good enough. But sometimes our gorgeous heart-light is dulled by less-than satisfying habits that don’t support the values we want to honor. Our habits divert us away from the choices our heart wants to make. The choices that keep us true to who we are. Our ‘heart-choices’ aren’t always the comfortable ones, but they undoubtedly keep us on the path that gives life meaning.

These ideas rose up for me because of the connection I feel and the inspiration I receive from the individuals I work with both through the Dharma Path Teacher Training program at Samyama Yoga Center and the clients who have become friends through the Artfully Twisted program I share with pain clinics in the Bay Area.

In both these groups we’ve worked to discover our values – those things that give our lives meaning. There is a critical connection between what we value and how we care for ourselves. Over the last fourteen months my preoccupation with the news and the escape I found through mesmerizing social media scrolls and smothering gaming habits created a disconnect. I lost touch with my values and was left feeling numb. Incomplete. A little like a bun-less burger left alone on a plate and under the heat lamp just a minute too long.

I bet I’m not alone.

Do you remember what you value? What has heart and meaning? The things you lost over the past year but know, if you find them, you’ll feel whole again?


The Strike

pall-mall_trans_NvBQzQNjv4BqzyQdcCpPOOS38rrQ0wuMX6qLSLVZhK3e2pU3liKIgNIIsn’t it funny how just when we are beginning to believe that our feelings or thoughts will remain the same forever, they change like the direction of the wind? How does that happen? Is it the food we eat? An unexpected smile from a stranger? A happy memory that floats to the surface or a dream that sweetens and soothes our subconscious? Maybe it’s the perfect yoga practice or a soothing few moments of quiet meditation.

All I know is that there has been a welcome shift. I have too many good things piled on my plate to spend time in the stinky muck of overcooked wallow.

I didn’t find it easy to write my last post’s pity fest. To be honest, I haven’t found writing easy at all. The world is overwhelmed and overwhelming. Stepping away from a writing practice was my way of holding space for others to tell more important stories.

But all stories are important. Even the small stories because they are the stories that bring us together. They are the stories we’ve all experienced.

When I was a girl – I may have still been in elementary school – my mother decided to go on strike. She set up camp on the orange Levitt Brothers sofa in our living room with our black and white television console, the afghan my great aunt had crocheted and the coffee table pulled close. My mother piled the coffee table high with supplies including several good novels, a few packs of Pall Malls, a ceramic ash tray and her ever-present plastic mug of black percolated coffee. She was never without that mug. It was white with a turquoise rim. The inside of the mug was stained dirty brown by endless cups of Maxwell House and so, from time to time, she would scrub it clean with Ajax.

My mother’s strike lasted at least a week and possibly two. During this time she refused to cook or clean.

My sister and I were old enough to walk ourselves to the bus stop in the morning and to heat up a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup at night and in all honesty our mother probably roused herself enough to make certain her children remained alive. It’s possible, too, that Margaret and I enjoyed the brief respite from rules and order.

What I remember most about my mother’s strike is coming home from school in the afternoon and seeing her stretched out on the couch watching Mike Douglas.

I also remember the cold silence that rose above the sound of the television and that made me walk through the house as though I was walking on shards of shattered ice.

As a girl I didn’t understand the anger between my parents or why my mother might want to teach us the lesson of what our lives might be like without her. But now, looking back, I think she believed there was no outlet for her unhappiness and no cure for her invisibility except for that orange Levitt Brothers sofa, her stack of books, a lukewarm cup of coffee to go along with her smoldering Pall Mall and Mike Douglas in the afternoon.

This is the point in the story where I am supposed to describe the lesson we all learned from my mother’s strike. The thing is, the strike ended and nobody noticed. I came home from school on a sticky afternoon and my mother was in the kitchen, once again resigned to standing over the stove with a spoon in one hand and cigarette in the other, exhaling a cloud of grey over the evening’s meal.

We didn’t know then what we know now. Maybe that is the lesson.

 

 


Satellites, Stars and the Stories We Tell

IMG_0451The last thing I remember is whale watching in May. And then it was September. That’s how quickly summer passed.

Ben and I were on a mission late last spring. We’d been working long hours and needed some time together. We needed an adventure. Until May I’d never been whale watching (don’t tell anyone but I’ve never been to Yosemite, either). We chose a 4-hour excursion with a company in Santa Cruz over an 8-hour journey out to the Farallon Islands.

Our morning began on a positive note with our first sighting just moments after leaving the dock. It was also our last sighting. I rode the waves for the next two hundred and twenty minutes with an ever-optimistic dramamine induced smile on my face while Ben tried his best to pretend he wasn’t miserable.

Back on dry land we warmed our chilly, wind-beaten bones with steaming clam chowder in a bread bowl and washed our dashed expectations down with beer.

And then, as I mentioned, it was September.

I learned a lesson that May morning about putting too much hope on circumstances well out of my control. That lesson stayed with me for one hundred and six days.

My excitement for August’s total solar eclipse began four years ago from the side of a road in Queensland, Australia about two seconds after totality signaled its end with a diamond flash of white light. Last year, after studying eclipse maps and weather patterns, Ben and I booked our hotel on the Nebraska plains and ordered our dark glasses. They were top of the line glasses. No cardboard frames for us.
But when fate intervened with an offer too good to be true we canceled our plans and chose to stay home. I was fine. Ben and I made the decision together and, besides, we’d share a partial eclipse from our little porch.

It’s true that when everyone I know headed to Oregon I began to feel the pang of regret.

But I was fine.

About ten days before the moon was due to pass in front of the sun Amazon sent me an urgent email. Our fancy glasses were worthless. That couldn’t be right. How could Amazon sell such a dangerously faulty product? Besides, I’d already worn them to look at the sun and didn’t go blind. But one test with my iPhone flashlight app proved them right. The glasses were tossed.

No problem. We’d build pinhole viewers. I was fine.

On the morning of the eclipse, it was cloudy in Palo Alto. The only image we managed to see was a multitude of fuzzy crescents through the holes of a kitchen colander.

I was inconsolable. Ridiculously inconsolable. Thinking about it now still makes me cry.

I learned a lesson that day about putting too much hope on circumstances well out of my control.

And then it was September.

I’ll admit it. Summer sort of sucked. I didn’t write. I didn’t see a whale breech. I didn’t get to share the spiritual high that totality invokes in the middle of a Nebraska wheat field with my beloved. And if my next sentence is all about how much worse the summer was for a whole bunch of other people in the world then I am completely invalidating my experience.

And where’s the lesson in that?

The lesson is here: life is not the story we write for ourselves in our head. Life is something else. Life is out there waiting. Life is out there being weird and unpredictable and funny and full of sorrow. Life is right now. This moment.

Our yoga practice asks us to be mindful. Teaches us to be present. When it’s September 2017 and I’m already making plans for the April 8, 2024 total solar eclipse in Syracuse, New York it’s obvious that I’m missing something.

I’m missing the lessons yoga teaches. I’m missing life.


Duty Bound

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Researching for a novel I was writing.

Eight months is a long time. It’s two hundred and forty days, give or take. That’s how long it has been since I abandoned my writing practice. My photography? I abandoned that when I packed up my darkroom and sold my printer in 1994. Then, and now, I had my reasons. Life was busy. Work was all consuming. It still is.

When does our sense of commitment to a job and to others supersede abandoning the touchstone that speaks to our heart? When did I trade my creative life for a life of duty?

My work as a yoga teacher and program director at Samyama Yoga Center brings a sense of immense personal accomplishment. My work with chronic pain patients, most recently as someone who offers training to yoga teachers new to working with this demographic, fills me with joy.

But along the way I’ve lost my balance. These activities – these wonderful things that bring food to my plate and keep a roof over my head – have become all consuming. So while I have enough creature comforts to keep me fed, clothed and sheltered my soul feels raw for the lacking.

I crave a wholesome life. I crave a life that supports my happily charging forth duty bound into the fray and a life that is blessed with the time to hold my emotional heart in my hands.

This dilemma is not unique to me and I am grateful that this simple idea of finding balance and that honoring my creative heart is my biggest problem. All in all, I am a very lucky woman.

Still, it feels good to be back.