Mind, Matter & Hurricanes

This summer, a good friend of mine took me out for a day hike on the Appalachian Trail. The experience was somewhat challenging and totally exhilarating. In the midst of a very busy time in my life, I was reminded of how time spent outside was so good for my mind, body and soul. What normally takes effort – recalibrating the mind to a sustainable pace; broadening my perspective beyond my problems; connecting with something larger than myself – seems to occur naturally and without mental effort when out in nature. It’s like the physical challenge of navigating a natural environment helps reset my mind to what is healthy and natural and sustainable. Maybe that is because the environments we build tend to be unrealistic, unsustainable, and unhealthy…

Perhaps a counterintuitive idea to consider in light of recent events. Two major hurricanes devastated parts of the US, putting nature’s power on full display. People lost their homes and all of their belongings. Some are without food and water. Others lost their lives. Maybe what differs between physical challenges and the mental ones is that the physical challenges are straightforward. The line between life and death is clear. But when we delve into our minds, the line between life and death blurs. What aids in our wellbeing can be ignored. What kills us – mentally, emotionally, spiritually – does so slowly, and without notice at first. And by the time we do notice, we might be too numb to change anything. Or too deep in denial. Or too entrenched in what we have always done and perhaps will always do. To help someone devastated by a hurricane is much easier to navigate than to help a person who is overcome with anxiety or depression. Identifying excess in nature is not debated, while we rarely agree on how much is too much when it comes to our own excesses. Physical malnourishment is significantly easier to recognize and address than spiritual malnourishment. The mind cannot cover up signs of under eating. But the mind can be quite good at hiding the signs of a dying soul. As human beings we rise to the occasion in the wake of a natural disaster. And on a daily basis we cause great destruction to ourselves and others through our thoughts, attitudes, and opinions.

I know not everyone responds to nature as I do. And I don’t believe that being outside equals healthiness. But there is something about the natural world, however that might be experienced, that differs from the world we tend to create.  And that might be worth pondering for awhile. Maybe we have taken the expression “mind over matter” too far. In our admiration for the power of one’s mind, have we forgotten the limits and sometimes the destructiveness it also holds? I am beginning to see, deeply see, what it means to find the answer beyond my own self. The mind is a wonderful gift. And the mind has its limits. Finding that space where mind and matter intersect seems to be where I find my whole self.

Battling Time and Losing

My oldest child recently graduated from college. While collecting my thoughts on paper to share at the celebratory dinner, I thought a lot about time. Part of my toast included these words:

I somehow understood at a young age that there was something deeply profound about this thing we call time. Time marches on, whether we like it or not. It does not slow down and it does not speed up, but rather keeps a steady beat that can often feel monotonous. We are lulled into passivity until suddenly jolted awake when we realize that time has not been our friend. As a parent, this lesson is all the more profound. While I see this adult before me making decisions about career, love, and future, I wonder where my little boy went. I picture my towheaded companion who made me laugh often, impressed me with his questions, and trusted deeply. Memories flood my mind making it hard to breathe. Tears come easily. I feel as if I am trying to hold something so precious, essentially your childhood, and yet it slips through my fingers but doesn’t disappear. Is this a game and I am simply its pawn? Or is what I am trying to hold too sacred to be contained?

Time has stayed on my mind. In addition to looking back, I have looked ahead at some changes coming my way. Time will soon become significantly more structured. I will lose much of my flexibility and free time. Time is becoming an enemy as I anticipate the battle to get everything done while somehow managing to not lose myself in the process.

I love time when it merely marks the hour of the day, letting me know when I should wake or when to have a glass of wine. But I hate time when it acts as a stopwatch, forcing me into a race. Even as I type, my heart rate speeds up anticipating the effort it will take to defeat time. And I know I will lose. Time always wins. Always. Yet my mind keeps trying to come up with a new battle plan.

I wonder what the days would be like if I thought of time as a musical beat. I wonder what would happen to my stress if instead of seeing time as an enemy, I instead saw time as something with which to keep in step. I’ve learned this lesson regarding the seasons. While the end of winters can be difficult, I know to give the earth time to complete the cycle of death, dormancy, and cold so that spring might be all the more filled with new life. Equally the end of summers can be long. That last stretch of heat and humidity in late September is tedious after having tasted fall and its cool, crisp days. While I still might complain, I have learned that soon enough I will miss the heat and the strength of the sun in the winter days, just as I miss the cold and freshly fallen snow in the summer days.

Days will be long and things I want to do will not all get done. Yet time will bring another day. Maybe the question isn’t, “Did I get everything done?” but rather “Did I stay present and focused throughout my day?” If I can remain calm and breathe deeply, I have the ability to prioritize and decide. I have practiced this already as a mom. I was dedicated to being present and enjoying my kids. That is not to say they did not drive me crazy (they did) but I learned how to take care of myself so that I could also take care of them. I learned how to step back when I needed a break and when to step in so as to not miss something important. I need to not feel the compulsion to be superhuman but rather to be a good human. Time is not my judge and jury. My compulsion will still be to battle time. But I think it is time to stop fighting and simply to dance with it.

Do I Want You To Succeed?

 

This is an interesting question, if you give it some thought. Often I think the knee-jerk reaction is to say “Of course!” But when we stop and consider other factors, maybe deep down that’s not actually true. Think of someone who has hurt you. Or someone who you are a little jealous of. You appreciate his/her talents, but maybe he/she is just a bit more talented than you. So while you cheer them on publicly, quietly you are hoping for a little bit of a stumble that causes a dose of humility. There is the person who is seemingly smarter, more attractive, more successful, thinner, or has better stuff. There is the person who appears to have the perfect life, the best vacations, the largest 401k, or tremendous luck. You might enjoy that person and want to spend time with that person, but there is also just a hint of resentment too. And then there is the person who you keep helping, but seems to give very little in return. And you wonder if the relationship will ever feel equitable.

I was recently thinking about a person whom I like but have struggled with. I was questioning how much I would continue to invest in the relationship. And while in the midst of answering this very logical question of my time and energy, an entirely new question popped into my head like a poorly thrown bowling ball onto the lane. “Do I want you to succeed?” The answer, I knew almost intuitively, was “I don’t know.” Because the perceived right consequence is really what it is all about, isn’t it? Have you suffered enough? Have you paid the cost for your past behavior? Should you really be let off the hook and allowed to move forward?

Upon reflection I began to see how I would have the opportunity through our interactions to either help this person succeed, or through skeptical eyes wait for this person to fail. While I might not directly contribute to the person’s failure, I most certainly would not be contributing to the opportunity for success. I strongly advocate for the need of healthy boundaries so I am in no way suggesting we be doormats. But I realize that even with my boundaries in place, there is the opportunity to be kind and loving. Ultimately each of us is responsible for our own behavior. But there are people in our lives who help us to be our best selves, and there are people in our lives who make that more difficult. I want to be the former, and not the latter.

For our Ash Wednesday service at church, we read a buddhist meditation that has four parts. It is read in first person. Then it is reread thinking of a loved one. It is read a third time while thinking of those you encounter but don’t really know. Finally it is read while considering someone who has caused you suffering. Here are the words, using a second person pronoun:

May you be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.

May you be safe and free from injury.

May you be free from anger, afflictions, fear and anxiety.

 

May you learn to look at yourself with the eyes of understanding and love.

May you be able to recognize and touch the seeds of joy and happiness in yourself.

May you learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in yourself.

 

May you know how to nourish the seeds of joy in yourself every day.

May you be able to live fresh, solid, and free.

May you be free from attachment and aversion, but not indifferent.

The words are quite powerful as you go through them and consider the various people in your life. Sure, the words inspire as you ponder your self-image. And the sentiments are wonderful as you think of those you love. But what about the person behind the cash register who seems to take forever? What about the co-worker who relishes the opportunity to prove you wrong? And what about the person who has hurt you? Are you able to read and mean these words? I am not called to fix or even be in the life of that person. But the meditation calls me to wish for the person to succeed, and by that I mean to love and be loved, to find contentment and purpose and good mental health.

I will read these words and imagine those (yes, unfortunately there is more than one) I have some resentment towards. I will read them at first, probably not meaning a damn word. But as I have learned in the past, change occurs as a practice leads me away from one way of being and towards a better way of being. I will be more aware of how I might be impeding success for one, and how I might help success for another. And in doing so, regardless of the outcome, I hope to be a better person for doing so.

 

 

Killing God with Routine

A friend recently came across a study that showed routine significantly ages a person. The more one settles into routine, the less engaged the brain is. The less engaged the brain is, the slower the brain becomes. Sounds a lot like muscles. If you don’t use them, you lose them. The takeaway of the study was to continually seek ways to learn and grow. Step outside your comfort zone. Challenge yourself. These steps will help the brain not only stay engaged but continue to develop.

Religion is full of routine. We are told what to believe so we believe it. We are told what to do so we do it. We are told whom to love and whom to hate so we love and hate accordingly. This isn’t to say that routine is bad. Routine can provide an infrastructure to keep us plugged in. But when routine becomes the point, when we are no longer being challenged, when we can’t remember the last time our view of God changed, our faith has become solely routine.

The bible is full of movement. The movement is of God pursuing people, and people pursuing God. Sometimes movement is stillness. Sometimes movement is silence. Sometimes movement feels good. Sometimes movement hurts. But it is all movement nonetheless when it is about pursuing what is good, right, and true. The reason movement is critical to the process is because God cannot be contained in one mind, or in a set of creeds, or even in one religion. Truth is bigger than the construct of people because God is.

One can operate under the belief that it is up to him or her to make God real. Or one can operate under the belief that it is up to him or her to not get in God’s way. I used to fall in the first camp, believing I knew God well. But as I learned and listened and experienced more of God through my own pursuit and through the pursuits of others, my dogma became more of a rudder than my parameters. What I believe to be true helps me navigate, but it doesn’t prevent me from seeing God beyond what I think I know. In other words, I went from walking ahead of God to following God.

Yesterday I thought I was going to lose my dog. The belief could have caused me to act towards that end, bringing her to the vet to be euthanized. Or I could have ignored the possibility and just gone on with my day’s obligations. Instead I stayed home from work to be with her. I brought her water. I carried her outside to relieve herself. I laid next to her and shared my favorite memories with her. I wasn’t waiting for her to die. I just wanted to make sure that no matter what occurred, I was there by her side giving her whatever she needed. It was a difficult day but a good day. Thankfully she is still with us, lying by my side as I write.

When we think we know who or what God is, when we become stagnant in our pursuit of God and simply judge those who see God differently, we tend to act towards the outcome we expect. We might euthanize an opportunity prematurely, or miss the opportunity altogether. As a pastor of a church that values diversity of thought versus a shared statement of faith, I am sometimes questioned about my depth of faith. But as I journey with people, my experience continues to be seeing more of God and God at work among those who regularly step outside of their comfort, understanding, perspectives, than I do among those who have settled into a routine of faith. Maybe that will change when I get older.

The Perfect Dog: an epilogue

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The Perfect Dog struggled to stand up. I helped and held her while she found her footing. She stumbled outside. When I tried to slow her down, she would only move faster, stumbling all the more. We reached the back yard and I sat nearby. She promptly relieved herself. She then walked a few steps and stopped, staring off into nowhere. I wondered if confusion had set back in. I continued to watch. She stayed there for several minutes, not moving. Then it struck me. She wasn’t confused. The Perfect Dog was soaking up her surroundings. The wind was lightly blowing, bringing all kinds of scents to her. I could see her nose twitch like it was tapping out a melody. The trees rustled, as if to suggest birds and other wildlife were just beyond reach. Her ears moved to capture as many of those sounds as she could.  There The Perfect Dog stood. There the Perfect Dog stayed. She was still but alert. Did she know? She must. She stayed until her legs began to wobble. She wagged her tail a few times as if to say thank you, then slowly and happily headed back toward the house. What a moment to experience. My heart was bursting with pain and gratitude to be its witness.

~~~~~~~~~~

Days have past since that occurred. I got Lucy inside and settled down, and immediately wrote about what I had just seen. I didn’t know what kind of time I would have with her, but I knew what I had witnessed needed to be remembered. I had never seen her stand that still for that long in such an alert state. I couldn’t help but think she was taking this in – her yard, her life – while she still could.

My Perfect Dog has passed away. She had three days of struggling, some hours where death seemed imminent and some hours where she actually seemed to be feeling better. Part of my sitting with her included reading to her The Perfect Dog, parts 1, 2 and 3. More than once, she would lift her head and look at me as if to say, “Stop blubbering on so.” But I couldn’t help it. I wanted her to know how much I loved her. I couldn’t expect to adequately convey my love for her in words or in such a short period of time. It’s a cumulative thing. But the compulsion was there nonetheless. The compulsion to make sure, to be crystal clear, to avoid any regrets down the road because you recognize that each minute counts.

As difficult as it is, I think it’s a privilege to be with one’s pet for his or her last breath. While I’ve been through this several times, this is the first time I noticed the last physical breath. Maybe it’s because each breath of hers was labored and therefore obvious. But there it was – one breath she was with us, and then she was gone. I held my breath wondering if there would be one more, but I already knew the answer. She would not breathe again.

I still head to the pantry to feed her. I still go to the door to let her out or in. I still look for her, listen for her, wait for her. I imagine that will be the case for awhile. Fourteen years of these habits don’t die as quickly as the ones who inspired the habits do. Yet I find myself grateful for that. I like to think of her as often as I do, even when it makes me cry. I am thankful that for over 14 years she was happy and healthy, and for a mere three days she was not. What a tremendous gift that is. Thank you, Perfect Dog. I love you. To the moon and back and then some.

Run Like An Eight Year Old

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This is my mom’s house. I drive 500 miles to get here. I endure traffic from Baltimore, MD to nearly Richmond, VA. This trip I got a flat tire shortly before arriving, 7pm on Saturday when no shop is open. I finally made it to the house with a few groceries, and I simply wanted a hot shower and to go to bed. The water was cold. Thanks to a diagnosis over the phone from my husband, I learned that the fuse had tripped for the hot water heater. It was a long day. But you know what? I would do it all again. And I will, as soon as I can.

The house is small, as you can see. There really isn’t much to it. But the property has been a constant in my life for over 20 years. It is a place of respite, sanctuary, healing, centering. It is a place of joy and relaxation. It is a place that inspires and challenges me. It is a place where I can most clearly hear my voice. And that’s because when I walk past the house and into the expansive yard beyond, this is what I see:

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I have always loved the ocean. And I am so grateful to have a place where I can find myself again. Today I ran on the beach with my arms stretched out wide like an eight year old kid. My 14 year old labrador ran next to me like a puppy. I didn’t see anyone around, but I imagine if someone caught a glimpse of us, they would’ve had a chuckle. I ran with my face upward, laughing out loud, the sun shining and the wind blowing my hair. I ignored the voice in my head that told me I looked silly. I felt free and overflowing with unadulterated joy. I felt the weight of life slip off my shoulders as I ran and laughed and kicked the foam that the sea had left at my feet. My dog pranced and chased the foam and panted with her tongue hanging out of the side of her mouth. And it was magical. It was glorious. It was heavenly.

I take my life seriously. I take my responsibilities seriously. And I have seen things, experienced things, that have aged me. But sometimes I need to set those aside, just for a bit, and act like a kid. I need to forget the scars and limps that life has caused, and run like I don’t have a care in the world. For those 15 minutes, I didn’t have a care in the world. Just a beach to run on and a dog to accompany me. When it was done, my reality hadn’t changed a bit. But it felt somehow lighter. And that right there is the point. We can let life weigh us down, literally and figuratively, day after day after day. And it will unless we carve out time to run and laugh and play. We need to not take ourselves so seriously, at least for awhile.

Today I was reminded that I am but one small entity in the expansive universe. And I find that comforting. In fact that might be what is at the heart of a kid’s experience. She never forgets that she is small; she is surrounded by people who know more; she needs supervision. These are her daily realities. She’s okay with and even embraces them. She doesn’t let those things prevent her from experiencing things around her. But as she grows up, she realizes that she can control people’s perceptions by what she allows them to see. And so she chooses to let people see only parts of herself. She learns that life isn’t always fair. And so she allows resentment and bitterness to settle in, even just a little.  She dissects every word she hears looking for hidden meanings. She craves victory to prove her worth. And it is exhausting. Kids, however, have a much simpler inner dialogue. My moments of abandon help shed the layers of unwanted and unhelpful inner dialogue.

The challenge is how to run like an eight year old, or its equivalent, healthily, authentically, consistently. I have learned to lighten my grasp, to even let go at times. I saw how little I actually could control, and so I learned to accept it as much as I can. That learning creates some turmoil, because what you thought you could count on turns out to be less of a safety net and more of a safety blanket. It feels good holding onto, but it’s not going to break your fall. It is serious business when you realize what could happen, when you no longer feel protected from the periodic cruelty of life, when you begin to see the suffering that is going on all around you. I have worked on letting my guard down, to be more open and honest with what I think and feel. Perhaps these will only get me so far. Maybe what I need in taking the next step is to regularly reconnect with my eight year old self, and make peace with the 38+ years of living that have occurred between then and now.  It’s a paradox of sorts, to live with the wisdom of an old soul and the delight of a young child. And it’s going to take some time to get there because one gets in the way of the other.  But one also needs the other. Wisdom brings meaning, purpose and clarity. Childlikeness brings joy, lightness, and the ability to be fully present. There is something undeniably sweet about being a 46 year old running like an eight year old. You should give it a try.

 

“Move It, Lady!”

I was in a store pushing my cart behind someone else with his cart. We both came to a stop because a woman had her cart in the middle of the aisle, blocking traffic both ways. She was looking at the contents on the shelves and oblivious to our presence. The guy ahead of me stood there for awhile and waited. I do not know if he stood there patiently, content for her to take her time, or if he was becoming increasingly impatient. Based on his sighs which were increasingly getting louder, I think he was annoyed. But I found myself standing there thinking, this is easily fixed with a gentle “excuse me” to get her attention. I figured she would then move her cart to allow us (and others) to pass. Instead, he stood there becoming increasingly annoyed with a woman who had no idea she was being annoying. Just as I was about to say “excuse me” she noticed us and apologetically moved her cart out of the way.

I have had countless situations where I was quite aggravated by what I thought was stupidity or insensitivity on the part of a stranger. I was the one standing there annoyed and sighing loudly as if to say, “Move it!” or “Get in the back of the line!” or “No you can’t leave to get a loaf of bread while the cashier and I wait!” But one day I thought I would make a concerted effort to give others the benefit of the doubt.  I would remind myself that I didn’t know what the person might be dealing with. What if the guy with 17 items in the “12 items or less” line had just learned that he had cancer, and was too preoccupied to count the items in his cart? Not that I think every person who has done something seemingly thoughtless is suffering, but it did give me pause to be kinder when I decided to say something.

And so began my new social experiment. When someone acted in a way that seemed unfair and it was appropriate for me to speak up, I would. For example when a person cut in line, I would politely say “excuse me, the end of the line is over there.” To my surprise, I would often receive a response like, “I’m so sorry! I didn’t know!” Where I had often presumed willful disrespect, it was more often a case of misunderstanding. I have periodically gotten a scowl in return, indicating that the person knew exactly what he or she was doing. Since what I said did not include condemnation, the situation was easily resolvable for those who meant no harm. For those who actually were jerks, they rarely got confrontational because my tone lacked anger or annoyance, and I had the people around me on my side. I also found that my outings became much more enjoyable now that I was no longer judge and jury for public behavior.

I started to see how applicable this learning could be to the rest of my life. In the past, if someone said something hurtful, I would think about it, process it, and sometimes let it fester. I would condemn the person for hurting me, but rarely would I let that person know. What if, when something felt hurtful I spoke up? Not with condemnation that the hurt was intentional but rather to give the person the benefit of the doubt and simply articulate how it felt. What if I didn’t worry about whether I should be hurt or if the person meant to hurt me? What if I assumed the situation would be easily resolvable rather than believing I would be wise to sit with and process my hurt? It’s almost ridiculous how hard we work to make things way more complicated than they need to be.

This kind of authenticity is much easier said than done, particularly for those of us who haven’t practiced it much. When we get hurt, we want to protect ourselves, thus the go-away-and-stew-about-it technique. Speaking up can be risky.  But rather than seeing the articulating of our perspective or feelings as conflict, maybe instead we should say what we need to say and then listen in response. Not defensively or ready to argue, but to simply be present with the other person. Conflict will occasionally happen, but we don’t have to start a conversation with our fists up, ready for a fight.

Interesting how all of this began with a woman blocking the aisle.

The Perfect Dog: part 2

184001_10150094379129299_4124971_nAbout a year after we got our beloved Lucy, we traveled from Pennsylvania to Michigan. Jeremy had work where his extended family lived, so we packed up the car, Lucy included, and traveled 650 miles for our week away from home. Although his parents were in Arizona for the winter, we stayed at their house which was on a lake. While Jeremy worked, the kids and I enjoyed the beautiful setting. We walked and explored and relaxed. Ice was still on the surface of much of the lake, but we knew that it was thinning.  I repeatedly warned my eight year old son, Isaac, that he could not walk on the frozen lake because it might not be able to hold his weight.

A few days into our vacation, with Jeremy not vacationing but rather away and working, the kids and I ventured outside with Lucy. Isaac was looking for anything to pick up, throw, or pull apart.  Liv, who was not quite two, was by my side and barely able to walk with all the clothing I had on her to keep her warm.  While in the midst of our exploration, I heard a sound that didn’t register. I looked around and on the lake about 20 feet from shore was Lucy. The sound that I had heard was her paws navigating the ice as she slipped and jumped and played. As I opened my mouth to angrily call her back to shore, the ice broke and she went completely under water.  Her head came up and she placed her front paws on the ice’s edge.  She attempted to pull herself up, but couldn’t get her front legs high enough to pull her back legs out and onto the ice. The kids were silent. My mind raced.

Lucy attempted a second time, a third time, and a fourth time but failed.  With each attempt I could see ice breaking and her getting weaker. By this point I was using my most upbeat, I’m-not-freaking-out voice to call her. “Come on, girl! You can do it! Come on, Lucy! You got this! Come on now!” While yelling, I was also thinking, “My dog can NOT die with the kids here to watch.” Seriously. I clearly remember thinking that her drowning in that lake on that day was something I could not allow. I think this refusal to stand by and watch was my mind’s way of pushing me forward into action. I made a decision in that moment that I would do everything I could to get that dog out of the water alive. I was cognizant enough to know that I couldn’t put my life in danger, but there had to be more I could do.

And so I formulated my back up plan while I continued to call for her. I figured the water was maybe 5 to 6 feet deep where she was. I would send Isaac with Liv to the neighbor’s house to get help. Meanwhile I would run to the garage and grab some rope, tie one end to the fishing boat on the shore nearby with the other end tied around my waist. This would enable me to walk to her with some connection to shore. I had unsettling images in my head of her slipping under and beyond the ice’s opening and my trying to get her. I kept planning and calling for her and planning and calling for her while keeping an eye on my kids. Isaac was now calling her too while Liv silently watched by his side.

Lucy continued to try to get herself out of the water, but she was pausing longer in between tries. She wasn’t pulling herself up as high. I thought, “This is it. Either she gets it this time or she’s giving up.” I called her with every ounce of my being knowing that my next move would be a sprint to the garage while yelling instructions to Isaac to take Liv next door. And finally, miraculously, Lucy did it. She got her front paws far enough onto the ice that she was able to just barely get one back paw up as well. She scooted herself forward and eventually got the other back leg up. She crawled to the shore’s edge and collapsed once she reached us. We wrapped her in towels and I carried her to warmth. The kids were thrilled. I sat down and wept. All the emotion, the intensity, the fear, the near loss, the what if’s overwhelmed me and I shook uncontrollably as I cried.  My kids stared, unsure of why I was crying since Lucy was now safe.  I could see their alarm as I kept crying, but I couldn’t stop. I cried until I had nothing left.

When Jeremy returned later that day, we told him what happened. He scolded me for even considering going onto the lake to get her. But as I think back, I am quite sure that while I would not have done something stupid, I would have tried whatever was reasonably possible to get her safely back to shore. In this near tragedy, I learned that I am able to stay calm and be proactive in a crisis, and a complete wreck afterwards. I learned that miracles do happen. I learned that love can be painful, because even the thought of loss hurts like hell. I learned that my kids come first, but my pets are a close second. I learned that dogs need to be told to stay off the ice just as much as eight year olds do. And I learned that a good, hard, shoulder-shaking cry is cathartic. I was crazy mad at Lucy that day, but even still I’d have to say she’s the perfect dog.