A Life in Motion

I spend a lot of my day in motion–cleaning, cooking, carting–basically, careening from one moment to the next. It’s a perpetual cycle of ups and downs, back and forths, over here, to over there, go, go, gone. On the surface, there isn’t much to show for all this movement except mud-tracked floors, upturned shoes in a heap, and crumbs from everything you could possibly imagine–good Lord the crumbs! For all the work I do you’d think things would be cleaner.

I’m finding a lot of contradiction in my life right now and this reality is leaving me frustrated. For instance, I spend a lot of mental energy wishing for more time alone, but if offered, there’s no where else I’d rather be. I spend a fair amount of time covered in food, sweat and children, wanting it all to be a little easier and maybe a little slower, but at the same time, infinitely grateful that my children need me so much; hoping that I’ll always remember their weight resting on my chest or the smell of their sticky breath in my face. I frequently lament the never-ending dirt, but there is something so sweet about washing tiny, impossibly flexible hands that makes my heart sigh.

These busy years of my life with two toddlers, my only choice is to move. I swing from one side of my day to the other, from busyness to boredom; burdens to beauty. I feel like I’m riding a pendulum, never still, in perpetual back and forth. The higher and harder something rotates to one side of my life; my angst, my fear, my doubt–the faster, easier and higher it rotates back to the opposite of it– my faith, my bliss, my calm.

One thing is always certain, I have never been more exhausted.

Laundry, wiping sticky counter tops, preparing pb&j sandwiches for the frillionth time, these things make up the bulk of what I do in this stage of life and yet they have nothing to do with the reasons I became a mother. I have come to realize that this is an unfair, frustrating reality. That these monotonous things are the motions I must go through to find the ultimate purpose at the core–the active toddler in just the right mood to cuddle, the perpetually dirty, easily edible, baby fingers–or my favorite–experiencing a whole new world through their eyes.

This menial, often overwhelming tedium that I must endure is what allows me to swing back to the other side of this life– the glorious, random moments. There simply is no amount of money or fame that could pull me away from this life because the more hands I wash, the less likely I am to forget how they feel inside mine and I know enough about life that one day will pray for that simple, priceless memory.

There is so much work that goes into each day, and yet on the other side of the pendulum, there is so much joy smashed right up along side it. But I also know that it takes a conscious effort to realize that joy.

It’s easy to believe that the tasks, the labor, the work is where we spend most of  our time and energy because it’s the hardest part and easiest to explain. It’s simple to complain about the endless paperwork, the commute, the mess, incessant whining and tantrums that come with more ferocity than ever. These things are universally understood and will illicit loads of sympathies and commiseration.

What’s harder is making a conscious effort to notice and express the other things.

There is no simplistic way to explain how the telepathic connection with your 3-year-old works… or feels. It’s impossible to quantify the invisible bonds that tether you to your children with just one look. Bonds built through familiarity, dependability, proximity and all the many repetitive acts that go into each day. People might think you weird should you stop to wax poetically about the way your one-year-old studied a rolly-polly bug this afternoon. Those are the subtleties. The subtleties that are often forgotten as you swing through your day from one chore to the next. I have a feeling that it’s these subtleties that will come barreling at me when I send them off to college. And although they often allude me, it’s why I must strive harder to take note of them– to attempt to make them equal in strength (if less in quantity) to all the other mundanity of my days.

I think there’s an important lesson in this life that involves learning how to balance these swings, or at least acknowledge them. To make the methodical cleaning of toilets, mildewed swimsuits and fingerprints on every glass surface (or long day at work dealing with the public or a jerk boss) be as equal in strength to the wondrous awe of watching the sunlight hit your baby’s hair revealing the colors of your own for the first time. (Or, let’s face it, what you think the color of your own might be.)

And perhaps it’s not something as precise as an equation to be equaled, or pendulum to be steadied, but instead, something more natural, arcane even; more like a gravitational, orbital path. Because if it’s an orbit, that means there is a core; something with a pull so strong it can both swallow, and save us. It’s gotta be the whole reason for this Life in Motion; the force behind the pull in opposite directions, around and around.

Something I must try less and less to fight and more and more to slip inside of; make peace with.

Yes… a spinning, orbiting, rotating, paradoxical life of happiness and discord in equal strengths, if not measures, but always surrounding the same white-hot center. A burning, beating heart of reason and purpose. The only thing that matters anyway… always.

“A light came and kindled a flame in the depth of my soul. A light so radiant that the sun orbits around it like a butterfly.” ~Rumi


The Undertoad

There’s this great detail in the novel, The World According to Garp by John Irving that describes a misunderstanding of the word “undertow” by the protagonist’s (Garp’s) toddler son. When Garp explains to the boy the qualities and potential dangers of an ocean undertow, the boy thinks his dad says underTOAD. Garp and his wife find their son’s description to be a poignant one, and from that moment on it becomes a part of their marital language. If either one is feeling a particular sort of sadness they will say, “I feel the Undertoad coming again.”

As I write this I am sitting in my parent’s living room on a week-long visit to the place I grew up; a place where all my closest, life-long friends still live. These visits are intense, emotional affairs. It’s always a mad dash to make up for the many months apart, and the ones to follow, by cramming in as many tears as possible (whether from laughter or pain) into the span of a few days. It’s the best form of therapy I know. On this trip in particular, it feels as though the pain-tears are winning. It feels like the Undertoad is here and pulling many of my friends out to sea.

It is with the intimacy of face-to-face conversation that the true nature and depth of the Undertoads are revealed. A couple of friends are struggling with addictions in the family. Another one’s teenage daughter has pushed her away indefinitely. Another is having a hard time paying bills and still another is losing their parent to cancer. I am always surprised at how much I don’t know considering how close we are, and how long many have suffered in relative silence. Lately, it appears that it’s only when someone is already too tired to fight the currents and are lost, that we realize how far they’ve been carried off shore and how close they are to divorce, rehab or worse.

I am often overwhelmed at the depth of pain that is drifting just below the surface when I come home, my own included. We are all so busy in our daily lives, many of us with small children, others with full-time jobs, things that have limited our communication to Facebook and text messages. I love technology for this reason, it’s ease of keeping up, but I also hate it for the very same reason. I hate it because Facebook is like watching someone’s highlight reel. It’s pictures of toes in the sand, clever quips and backdoor brags when really, just off camera, there’s always an Undertoad. It makes sense really. Who wants to be depressing and dramatic on Facebook for everyone to see? Most people are too proud, me included. But ever so often I catch a genuine, desperate plea for help or condolence followed by outpouring of love and support. To me, that’s a nod to our collective Undertoads and the fact that we’re all willing to throw a life-vest to fellow drifter.

Call me grandiose or idealistic but it has been my secret aspiration to fix the whole world (or at least the people I love).  I used to dream about winning the lottery and dolling it out to my friends and family just to watch many of their stresses vanish in an instant… if only for an instant.

But lately, via my own Undertoad, I am realizing that this is a pointless aspiration; that I will never be able to fix the whole world because I can’t even fix me. It is all at once a suffocating, hole-of-a-thought, and also, one ringed with blue-sky freedom. You see, I know that people (including me) will always suffer and I will always feel a tremendous amount of pain because of it. But my only job, my measly, simple, non-grandiose gesture is to be with them, in that moment and share and shed as many tears in laughter and pain as possible… and then pray.

That’s it. No fixing, just loving and praying.

I do wish I lived closer. I still wish I could fix every problem. I wish that people would actually call before they are pulled under and out to sea; before they are already too tired to help themselves; before they are so far out that the only option is a foreign shore. There’s no need to suffer alone because we’re all in this ocean together. Despite what Facebook says it’s not all beaches and sunshine.

I also wish we would all acknowledge the Undertoad more often because my idealistic heart would swim into dangerous waters for you… and I also know there are enough life-vests to go around. All you have to do is ask.

Welcome to the Victimhood

I hate the word victim. To me, it evokes feelings of helplessness, weakness, passivity–of being life’s doormat. All of these things stand in antithesis to how I see myself. I consider myself someone who takes control of their life. Someone who takes responsibility and makes choices to change things that aren’t working instead of blaming someone else because it’s easier or convenient.  That mentality has been one of my greatest strengths and from it, I have been awarded many gifts.

However, any strength taken to the extreme becomes a weakness and thus, this is also mine.

I knew intuitively that I was being set up for firing long before it happened. There was no indication of this based on my performance. I had no history of behavior issues or personality clashes. In fact, I earned promotions and accolades along the way. Even with my history, I could feel something bad was happening although I wouldn’t admit it. I wouldn’t admit it because I was doing everything I was supposed to be doing.

It all came to a head one Friday afternoon in March when my boss and I had a misunderstanding about a customer complaint. Customer complaints were normal from time to time and on a graded curve, I had relatively few. But in the months prior, small infractions (or perceived infractions) had been blown up to epic proportions so I knew this was not going to end well. His boss got involved and suddenly I was scheduled for a conference call with HR on Monday morning. That wine-soaked weekend was one of the longest and most anxiety-fraught of my life. I struggled mightily with the decision I had to make and I sought nearly everyone’s council. I had to make a decision that ran in counter to my character. I had to stand up and tell someone that I was a victim.

Before all this happened, I tried like mad to “fix” everything because that is what I believed was my responsibility. I kissed a little ass (which I hate), I said and wrote things I didn’t mean — things that betrayed who I believed myself to be. I did these things because I was the captain of my ship and only I could right it.

It took many months of soul-searching and self-flagellation before I finally realized the truth. I, Shannon Lell, was a victim of life’s circumstances.  I was a victim of arrogant, ignorant authority figures. I was a victimized woman in a man’s business world. I was (allegedly) a victim of sexual harassment and sexual discrimination. I. Was. A. Victim.

A part of me still shrivels typing that and this is why is also my weakness.

My need to not be life’s victim has led to my need to be in control of life. I get edgy when I don’t know the variables. I feel anxious when I am the mercy of life’s many switchbacks. When bad things happen, I blame myself. I arrogantly believe I can change every situation if I can just change me. This need for control, this ferocity of constant self-improvement has blinded me to one of life’s greatest realities and that is, we are never in control.

Sometimes things just happen and there is nothing we can do to change that. Sometimes, people treat us badly and it’s not up to us to change them, ignore them, OR kiss their ass. Sometimes, you will be a victim of life’s circumstances and it doesn’t mean you didn’t try hard enough, failed to do something, or wasn’t good enough.

And even though I went through all that, this position is where I find myself today, feeling like only I can right my life’s ship. My tendencies for control run deep. My anxieties about becoming the perfect master of my destiny are still causing me sleeplessness. If only I can find the missing variable, I can sail off on easy waters.

Although I am still learning this lesson, I will say that I am leagues ahead of where I was two years ago. My knee-jerk reaction is still to absorb the blame, change myself again and/or kiss a little butt to make it all better. But now I’m doing something else with my knees, and it involves less jerking and more standing.

With all that I have been through in this 34 year crucible of life, marriage and motherhood, I am more certain than ever that something else is in control. That control is the illusion of an insane mind and try as I might, there are some things I simply cannot fix on my own, nor was I meant to. That my only job is only to listen with an open heart and mind to what is happening in this moment, not yesterday, not tomorrow, just right now. It is a difficult one for me which is why I’m still learning it.

Of course I still strive to change what I can change, learn from my mistakes, work harder and be a better–no– the best person I can be. I still try not to let my life’s circumstances affect my ability to be happy or successful. I still run from the label of victim. But now I also know that bad things will always happen to good people for seemingly no reason and it doesn’t mean they deserve it or didn’t try hard enough or weren’t good enough. Now, I am more certain of who I am and what I want and no matter what happens, I will be okay– that it will always be okay. I suppose that’s called Faith.

I bought this the other day. I think it’s supposed to be a Christmas ornament but it hangs on a knob on my kitchen. It reminds me of the lightness of life–of the fragility in form and strength in function that is a simple feather. It reminds me of what I aspire to be which is, “…like a feather on the breath of God.” ~Saint Hildegard of Bingen