When Life Gets Out of Control

After some informal inquiries with many of my friends and acquaintances it would seem the consensus is… August suuuucked. In a time which is supposed to be of leisure and good weather – and in the past has meant birthdays and anniversaries and vacations for me –  for the first time in my life, I was barely hanging on.

I experienced a mass exodus of people from my life; some were tangential, some close friends, some romantic interests. But each week in August, just like the crashing waves against cliff sides came a fresh, powerful and unstoppable blow of loss. And each week, I sank deeper into the darkest of lonelinesses.

I remember sitting in the sunshine on my back deck – where I have sat in so many moments of pain and joy over the years – and being taken over by a shaking terror. This scared me most of all. I was so utterly confused (a state I do not function in well) and I was so utterly alone (another state I do not function in well) and I was asking, no begging, whomever or whatever listens in times like these… what have I done to deserve this pain?  Where did I go wrong? What is this life for anyway when I have no control over anything?!?

I have a tendency to blame myself when my life isn’t looking the way I think it should. And yes, it’s about control and believing that I am the captain of my ship. While this has its benefits in building the life you want and creating opportunity, it offers no solace when, as they say, shit happens.

Because that’s what August was mostly about… shit. just. happening. And I had little or no control over anything.

We can, however, control how we react – at least that is what I’m told –  and I’m a little ashamed to report that I did not react well a lot of the time. I was petulant, demanding, angry and blaming. I rattled off harsh texts, I wailed in agony and anger, I no longer wanted to care about anything or anyone. I shut myself off. Not my finest moments.

But at the end of the day, or the end of August, I slowly began to find my way back to myself. There were some days when I didn’t leave two rooms of my home. I read, I listened to music, I contemplated and meditated and sank so deep into my core just to get a foothold on one hour of my day. Other days, I went to yoga and made concerted efforts to focus on just one breath at a time. Because I have learned that when life feels like nothing but crashing waves over your head – one deep breath is the only thing to make you believe you’re not drowning. I did a lot of that… breathing and focusing.

If August had me hanging on for dear life, September has been me reconciling the losses and my actions. I realized a few important things about myself, others and this life.

Nothing in this world stays the same; not a rock, not a tree a continent or culture. It sounds a bit trite and obvious to say, but we fight against this idea on a daily basis. The comfy, cozy softness of tradition and continuity is like that warm fire waiting for you when it’s dark and cold and wet. We crave to be engulfed by the knowing and dependable glow of sunshine in August, of our lifelong friends, of the bonds of family and the relaxing familiarity and predictability of routines we know all too well. These are lovely and useful tools for setting the foundations of joy in our lives and helping us to understand what’s truly important.

But people can get really bent out of shape when you suggest a change in the status quo. Change is largely seen as an enemy, a forbearance of awful things to come, a harbinger of uncertainty and unknown entities.

And the comfort of well-worn dirt paths helps us forget that the crashing waves aren’t just there to lull us to sleep; they are powerful enough to reshape the solid ground on which we stand. And just under that surface are undertows at work. And just because we bury ourselves in the things which keep us dry and warm doesn’t mean these other parts of life don’t exist and won’t come to wreak havoc on us one day. Because nothing in this world stays the same, not a rock, not a tree a continent or culture. Not you, not me, not friendships and family. Time runs roughshod over all things both dark and lovely.

And when the waves overtake you, like they did me in August, so much of life becomes the simple act of hanging on, of coping and finding space to take one breath at a time as your head slips below the surface. And I know now that how we behave in these moments does not define us, but it can teach us if we take time to learn, if we refuse to bury our heads in the sand and we continue to assert ourselves as the captains of our ships.

We are simple humans attempting to reconcile a reality which is largely hidden from our understanding. Our simple minds have us clinging to the safety of land and simple ideas and illusions of permanence because the chaos of change is beyond our comprehension and largely, beyond our control. And that feeling can bring on a shaking terror.

But change doesn’t have to be bad. New ideas do not have to be rejected. Boundaries and relationships can be redrawn and it doesn’t spell doom. And judging ourselves too harshly for our humanity is an exercise in futility. It’s like judging a tree for losing its leaves.

It takes time and patience and stillness, but the reshaping of rock from the constant crashing of waves is a beautiful thing.

Reshaping of Rocks

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On Settling My Mind and Letting Things Be

Where have I been? Better question, or maybe a statement, where I have I not been.

I’ve been riding my bike by the ocean. I spent the fourth of July exactly how it should be spent, with friends on a boat. I treated my parents and my brother’s family to a nice vacation in the Cascade mountains. I blew my kids’ mind with a moped ride. I stifled my gag reflex and took a picture with my ex husband at Kindergarten graduation. I watched my son be inspired with his first taste of BMX racing. I went to an ironic art show about penises. I saw the sun set and a full moon rise at the same time while on the Pacific ocean. I smoked cigarettes with a very sad man on his back porch while comparing divorce war stories which were so different and yet eerily similar. I adopted two kittens. I had long, hopeful, but sad phone conversations with a friend in another state from long ago who was in the hospital for six weeks with an infected leg and trying to stay clean off meth. Sadly, he was in so much more pain than physical and he’s lost now. I met some amazing women at a blogging conference across the country and sang Rick Springfield while sober. I’ve carried on a lively texting relationship with a man who lives in a neighboring state who might just be my doppelgänger. We have never met but sometimes he reads my mind and we finish each other’s sentences. Go figure, he’s a writer and editor. You’ve never seen such grammatically correct texting which, by the way, is a turn on. I’ve grown an accidental garden of cucumbers. I took a fiction class and wrote my first short story in a year. I penned an anonymous sex article for an online zine which shall remain nameless. I met another really nice boy who I liked a lot. He wined and dined me with smoked salmon and white wine in plastic stemmed cups on a mountain trail. I lost that boy out of fear – his, not mine. But that’s not to say I haven’t been afraid.Where I've been

My fear, though, is right here on this page. I’ve been writing, but not much publicly. I’m bursting with stories, but I can’t get them out. It’s an achy, itchy sort of pain. I start, stop, then ignore, and live to tell more stories squashing the regret for the ones I neglected to get out which now seem stale.

But I can’t complain. I have no right. My life is pretty good now. Which on one hand, seems strange because the hole left by the explosion of my divorce is still hallowed ground. But it’s no longer smoking. And some things are much harder now. Like bills and missing my children. But overall, I still can’t complain. In fact, often times, I look around and can’t believe how stupidly contented I feel in spite of all that I have survived in the last six years with law suits, career moves, divorce and babies.

There are many reasons I feel content in the aftermath of such destruction, but the one that comes to mind is that I’ve settled my mind. For six years the space between my ears was its own battlefield. A constant stream of impossible choices: stay, go, fight, stand down, run, hide, pull out the big guns. And while in some areas, the battle rages on, I have managed to find peace. And that peace has come not by laying down my arms, but by accepting what has come to be.

Why? That is the question I have asked more times than my self-diagnosed ADD would allow me to count. Why did this happen? Why is this my life when I made so many good choices? Why can some people see themselves clearly and others die in search of? Why is addiction such a bitch? Why is it so damn hard to communicate when there are over a million words in the English language with an infinite amount of combinations? Why is love not enough? Why?

And I suppose the peace I have found is not in the answers to these questions – it is accepting that there are no answers. There has been one phenomenal shift in my life which I may never stop writing about and that is… nothing exists in this world without its opposite. There is no definition of light that doesn’t include dark. There is no truth without the lie. The full moon can rise at the same time the sun sets over the ocean. Both exist even when you can’t see them. Especially when you can’t see them.

And so I live with the hallowed ground and the hostile ex husband and the fear of writing and the contented joy of my wild garden and I let it all just be. I fight when I have to, I sit when I need to, I tend the fire inside which aches and itches and might burst any day. I keep asking questions and practice accepting the lack of answers. And with that, I have built a pretty good life.

So that’s where I’ve been. Living. Not perfectly. Not without mistakes and messes and missing pieces, but just letting it all be.

Also, regarding my absence from this space, a couple of months ago I was rattled by the power of what I do here by a few urgent messages from readers. One message, in particular, which I’ve neglected to answer, but the gist of which was… how? How do you live with the pain and uncertainty? How do you let go? How do you face the unimaginable?

I’m not entirely certain, Andrea, but I’ve come to understand that by expanding my view while narrowing my focus was crucial. I came to a point where I included all possibilities and explanations for the fucked up reasons life is fucked up, and yet, I held fast to my own, core truth. Now, I leave nothing out of the realm of possibility, but accept my own limitations. And I hold on. Often, for dear life. And I breathe. And now I know that one can haul around an excruciating amount of pain when you know that joy is riding shotgun. Nothing exists without its opposite and everything is, as always… temporary. Good luck. 

Yin and yang Kittens

My yin and yang expressed in kittens. (Also known as, Alex, left and Benjamin, right.)

A Sorta Movie Review of “Home”: May Be Spoilers

Today was a bad day. The last few days I’ve been having an email battle with my ex over (what else?) money. It’s ALWAYS about money. My ex makes more money than 99% of Americans and he will dicker with me over $90 for our daughter’s gymnastics. It’s exhausting, and honestly, makes me so angry I can’t think, or should I say, I can’t NOT think. And so with all this thinking, I had a pretty bad day.

I got behind on work while I fixated on the issue of money this morning. As if the email battle wasn’t enough, I talked to mortgage lenders about my impending home refinance. So far, my mortgage will be going UP at least $200 a month. Then, I read articles about cutting the food budget. After that, I came thisclose to dismissing my attorney because I just CANNOT pay one more ginormous bill. Then, because I hate myself, I emailed my accountant to get an update on my taxes which promises a hefty bill in one week due to being self-employed. By the end of this, I wanted to run away. Very literally just put on my running shoes and keep going… forever. (If my ex is reading this he’s doing it with a smile in his face.)

Even though my work went unfinished, I still had to pick up my preschooler by 1pm. He always bring a smile to my face. However, in light of the unfinished work, he played on his iPad until I got a handle on my work. Then, I managed to collect all the used batteries and CFL light bulbs from my house and take them to a hazardous waste collection at Home Depot. I HAD to. I knew it was probably going to be the most productive thing I’d do all day.

Then, I picked up my Kindergartener from the bus. Another smile in my life. And when we got home all she wanted to do was play Minecraft on her iPad, and I had no energy to fight her, so I didn’t. And I got to finish more work.

Then, I made dinner. I say I “made” dinner, but what I really did was will myself to assemble food onto a plate and not cry into it. After that, I needed a change of scenery, but I didn’t want to spend any money, so I talked the kids into seeing a movie with me at a junky theater where I still had a gift card. And when your dates are 3 feet tall or shorter, your options are limited. We saw Disney’s new Pixar movie, “Home.”

Chances are, with a Pixar kid-flick you’re going to get some sort of deep, uplifting message wrapped up in a cute, funny narrative. It was just what I needed and “Home” did not disappoint.

Home3Basically, adorably squishy aliens called “Boov” invade Earth and evacuate all the humans to Humanville which resides in Australia. One, feisty little girl named “Tip” was left behind in New York City while her single mother was taken in the original round-up. At the same time, there is a misfit Boov named “O” who is running from all the other Boovs because he’s done yet another “bad” thing. He accidentally sent a party Evite “reply all” to the whole universe, which in 48 hours will reach their enemy, the Gorg, and alert them to their new planetarian home, which the Gorg will promptly destroy. Calamity ensues.

The Boovs are hopelessly clueless to human nature. By invading the planet, they think they’re doing humans a favor. The Boov do not have friends or families. They look out for only themselves. They do not engage in laughter or dancing or “fun,” and they can’t understand why humans do. Their most redeeming quality, so they believe, is that they are masters at running away and averting danger. Today, I was a Boov.

Tip and O cross paths and Tip convinces O to help her find her mom. This is when the journey and trials begins. At first they are not friends, O is selfish, and just wants to avoid being “eliminated,” while Tip is angry at the Boov for taking her mom. But trial after trial, trust is built between them. Tip teaches O how to be brave and how not to be selfish. Then, there is one poignant montage where they tell each other their fears. Both of them are the same: loneliness. Perhaps loneliness is an organic, not just human affliction? Anywho, just after this montage it shows O lovingly taking care of Tip while she sleeps because now he understands — now, he has a real friend.

Damn. Isn’t that just how this world works? It isn’t until you are brave enough to be vulnerable that you earn real friends? I have not been brave Home2lately. I’ve been pushing people away. Some days, it feels easier to be alone rather than love one more person who can hurt you.

So, Tip eventually finds her mom in a series of scenes which are set to emotional music and the tears flowed down my face like rain as my 3 year old twirled my hair in his fingers on my lap. God, I have never known the meaning or power of love until I had kids. Mother-Love brings me to my emotional knees every time… even in animated Pixar.

Well, O is eventually redeemed and proved the hero when he discovers what their enemy, the Gorg really want from the Boov. It turns out that the Boov’s fearful leader, Captain Smek, ran cowardly away from a meeting with the last remaining Gorg many years ago.  In running away, he inadvertently stole the next generation of Gorg which resided in a nondescript rock; a rock which Captain Smek festooned to a talisman and called it the shusher because he hit Boovs over the head with it and said “shush.”

As it turns out, all along the Gorg never wanted to destroy the Boov, they just wanted a rock that contained the next generation of Gorg. In other words, the Gorg’s entire family.

When O explains this to Tip, he repeats a phrase he said to her in the beginning when he was trying to understand her emotions. He couldn’t understand why she was so angry even though she cried like she was sad. He coined the phrase, sad-mad. And as it turns out, the Gorg was just sad-mad, too.

Sad-mad. That’s me. That’s who I’ve been my whole life. I’m a nondescript rock on the outside, bubbling with life you can’t see on the inside. Instead of opening myself up and showing the world all my great stuff, I harden walls and get mad. I push people away, sometimes hitting them over the head saying “shush” until I’m this lonely, lonely thing. If you read this blog, you might disagree with me considering the amount of vulnerability I display here. But this is the only place I do it. To a computer screen. To (mostly) faceless people. If you meet me in in real life and mention my writing I will immediately and expertly change the subject. This public, digital forum is strangely too personal for real life.

The sad-mad

Anyway, being called out by a Pixar movie put me in a state. I was not sad-mad, I was just sad. I came home and put my kids to bed. I lay with my son first. My thoughts went elsewhere, to scary things, and I struggled to bring them back to his eyelashes. How they blinked slowly. How they half-way opened, then shut, then opened again. I began to cry. I put my head close to his and whispered, “I love you.” He wrapped his arm around my head and said, “me too.” Then one of my tears dropped into his ear and he said, “gross mom!” and put a blanket over his ear to protect it. I laughed because it was funny and ironic.

Then, I lay with my daughter and we talked about sad-mad. She asked me if I’ve ever been sad-mad. Usually, I gloss over the truth about her dad and me because I want to protect her, but inspired by the message of being vulnerable I said yes, I have. She asked me when, and I told her the truth. I was sad-mad over the fact that daddy and I couldn’t stay together. Suddenly, her body tightened and she put her hand to her face. I could tell she was touching her eye. My daughter is stoic. She rarely cries. I felt her face, it was dry. She said, “I’m not crying, Mom. My eyes just watered a little bit.”

My heart shattered into a million pieces right then and there. She hides her tears but I KNOW, because I’m her mother, that our volatile divorce weighs heavy on her little 5 year old heart. Then I told her that it’s okay to cry. That I cry about it sometimes, and it’s okay. I told her I wished she cried more just to let it all out. She asked me why I was crying, because by this time, I was holding back sobs, something I never do in front of them – my sadness is an unfair burden. I told her it was for the same reasons her eyes watered. And that it was okay. I was okay. She was okay. And everyone was going to be okay. We talked about a few other things about her daddy and me, and she seemed relieved. Then she said, “Okay, what now?” as if she was ready to move on to the next subject which might delay her bedtime. And I laughed because how funny and ironic.

She’s right. Okay, what now?

This Too Shall Pass

This Too Shall PassI’ve been thinking a lot about time. I suppose fall does that to me. With all the leaves falling and the ground decaying under my feet. It’s Mother Nature’s most in-your-face reminder that time marches on, things change, release, fall away. And I suppose I feel like being grounded too.

I want my feet stuck deep in the mud. Each year the feeling is the same. The ache for grounding, the need for coziness, the desire to cook hearty meals and wear fuzzy socks. I just want to feel warm and safe and stuck into something solid. No more bouncing around like a beach ball on the waves, just stuck flat to the pavement like a wet leaf.

I start looking forward to all the yearly rituals of the holiday season. The Halloween decorations, the Thanksgiving meal, the Christmas, Christmas, Christmas EVERYTHING. These things are my annual touch stones; my measuring sticks of how far we’ve come as a family, how much deeper our roots have burrowed, how much wider our life has become. It’s reassuring and sad in equal measures.

There are these moments when I’m wearing my rain boots, my hood pulled up, my hands shoved deep in my pockets and yet the sun is still shining hard. In those moments I think everything is going to be okay. We are all going to be just fine. I can rest my weary mind for a moment and know that everything will be okay, not perfect, just okay. The okayest. Moments, just minutes at a time when I hear my children laughing or feel them breathing on my neck while rain pelts our windows and I know — there is nothing more I need to do in just that moment.

But those moments fade. The worry returns. And I am bouncing once again on waves of discontent.

Something I read recently by Pema Chondron keeps ringing in my ears. It’s about the “hot loneliness” inside. In Louis CK’s viral video on his rant against cell phones and social media he calls it, “the forever empty… that place where you know it’s all for nothing and you’re all alone.” I’ve been aware of that place lately. That ocean of loneliness inside. I’m feeling its presence more than ever and noticing all the things I do to keep it at bay: social media, the internet, busy-ness, cleaning, eating, obsessing. All this just to look away from the hot loneliness that I know is there rolling inside me. An ocean of forever empty.

I’m trying to sit with that feeling more and more. Breathe through it without feeling sea sick. I can only remind myself of something I have heard my whole life and yet have never really understood until now, “This too shall pass.”

And then all over again I ache for the solid ground. More roots. More boots stuck deep in the mud and my kids racing down the street with red cheeks and buckets shaped like pumpkins. The ritual. The release. The reminders that everything  is alright. Good, even.

Taming the Wild Thoughts

This past weekend I was solo-parenting from Friday until Tuesday because my husband went to a destination bachelor party. I didn’t dread this. Nor did I mind. But come Thursday of this week – after the solo pool trips, the solo grocery trips, the solo bedtimes and the work, work, WORK… I was D.O.N.E. I reached some imaginary limit of excessive labor and I just wanted to sit down and read something or write something because I wanted to, not because I had to. And I wanted to do it without hearing one single “MOMMY!”

When my husband came home from the gym on Thursday I promptly locked myself in my office after giving him that look that said, “You better give me a wide berth or this shit’s gonna get real,” with an extra eyebrow lift that said, “and I ain’t even playin’ because you owe me.” I had a wine glass in one hand and my other arm was curled around a half bottle of sparkling wine like a favorite blankie.

Then I got into my office, alone, with my wine, and what did I do? … I worked. Because, of course. What is wrong with me?

By the time I had to go to bed I hadn’t had a chance to calm my thoughts. My mind was still reeling with all the work, all the chores, the what if’s and all the things that still needed to be done.  There was a bushel of unfinished thoughts in my brain that were now rolling around like thorned tumble weeds headed for trouble. I was restless. Even after the wine I was jittery which is why I could never be an alcoholic because my thoughts are too powerful for fermented grapes.

When my thoughts circle the bowl like this it takes herculean efforts to get back to a calm place. A place that doesn’t feel like my world is lit match laying next to a growing pool of gasoline. And if it’s bedtime, forget about it. I’ll be listening to my husband snore for an hour before my body even begins to think about sleep.

I am lucky to have six best friends. Six amazing women who have my back, love me, accept me, know me better than I know myself. I count these ladies among the greatest blessings and when I start feeling anxious and restless like this, I try to count my blessings to fall asleep instead of sheep.

One of those dear friends, my oldest friend, sent me a handmade booklet she photo-copied and bound. It’s a simple little flip book made of paper, tape and a plastic bind. It fits in the palm of my hand. On one side of the page is one of these errant tumble weed thoughts.  A circle the bowl, light the match, pour the gasoline thought.  Things like, “I’m so tired. I can’t do anything right. Why can’t I figure this out? I’m never going to be good enough.” On the other side, is a corresponding verse of scripture to counteract that thought. Genius, right?

This dear, wonderful friend who knows me so well, sent this to me in the mail a couple of weeks ago. I set it aside as I wasn’t feeling particularly in need of such a rudimentary tool to get me through the day.

But that night, I was there. That place where only something homemade will do. Something rudimentary and simple and easy to understand. Something given to me by someone I love, who loves me, to remind me that I am always loved.. Have you ever just needed something like that?

So I pulled out the little homemade book and I read it front to back. Page by page I picked up those tumble weeds and I put them back in the barrel. Page by page I gently blew out the match and poured kitty litter on the gasoline because that’s how you soak up gasoline right?

I fell asleep with it in the palm of my hand which amazes me even now. But I guess I shouldn’t be amazed. Because that’s where we all are — right?

IMAG3252

He looks pretty discontent,

Because he looks pretty discontent.

Practice Does Not Make Perfect

The kids’ toys have invaded every room of my house and it’s making me little crazy. Right now, there are three rooms in desperate need of painting, a brigade of dandelions invading my garden, and stacks of papers that have built up over a dreary, rainy season. I sigh heavily each time I look at them. For the last week I have been slightly obsessed with getting my home organized. Call it Spring cleaning, or whatever, but it has suddenly become of paramount importance that each these issues be rectified and a semblance of order restored to my living space before I can think of doing anything else.

In the last week I have been on a singular mission to create a playroom in a spare bedroom and reclaim my living room as “adult space.” I have made trips to IKEA, Target and Goodwill for donations. I have searched for more than an hour online for the just-so-perfect-paper-organizing-charging-station (which I have yet to find). If I’m being honest, I can think of hardly anything else until this project is complete. I know when I get so focused on one task that there is something larger, deeper at play, and this new zeal for cleaning and purging is no exception.

For four months I have been walking a razor’s edge. I’ve been balancing knives on a high wire and holding my breath 1000 feet under water. I’ve felt the heaviness of the unknown resting on my chest while dragging the past behind me strapped to my neck like a noose. It has been a long, hard winter for all the relationships in my life.

But today, like the tulips and daffodils that are pushing their yellow petals toward the sun from the previously frozen ground (a miracle each time) there has been a transition toward the light in my own life. Some friends have emerged as life preservers. Some family relations have been clarified, deconstructed, ready to build anew, perhaps in a healthier way. Most importantly, my marriage has shifted onto more solid ground and it too is rebuilding with a stronger foundation than ever before. At this moment everything feels like a miracle, from the flowers to my faith.

It’s been awhile since I’ve felt this assured about the future and my sole motivation to organize my home is my way of trying to hold onto that feeling; gain control of it, slap a fresh coat of paint on it and force it to stick around for a while. I believe this much is true.

I have learned a great deal about myself and relationships in the past four months by means of therapy, reading and introspection. In the midst of it, I have swung from one side of the sanity pendulum to the other, sometimes in the very same day. I know more about who I am, a knowledge that came at a high price. I have confronted my anger, my anxiety, my ideas about marriage and family, motherhood and faith. My convictions have never been stronger or more flexible and neither has my body as a direct result of deepening my yoga practice. All of these are good things that have helped me grow, and yet, my compulsions remain.

life is a practiceThis is the lesson standing out to me on this clear, crisp Spring day–that like my yoga practice, life is never mastered. Life is a continuing practice because there is no such thing as perfection. Perfection is an illusion we portray to keep the deeper, larger things at arm’s length; to avoid eye-contact with the ugliness and unexpectedness that lays on the periphery of every thing we hold close.

As deep as my tendencies for obsessions and compulsions run, somewhere else deep, lies the knowledge that there is no promise of ever getting it right, of having it all, of writing the perfect blog post, bending into the epitomous expression of downward dog or even another clear, crisp Spring day.

Even though I want to finish this post so that I can paint trim, I will remind myself in the midst of it that there is no such thing as the just-so-perfect-paper-organizing-charging-station (believed me, I’ve looked) or seemless, knick-free walls that do not hold with them the immediate threat of a toddler’s permanent marker adornments… or relationships without the promise of future disappointments.

My recent quest to organize my house is about me, once again, fighting this reality. In the light of this more hopeful, brighter place in my life, I am already starting to fear of the unknown, the chaotic, the foreboding season I just left, one that I know will come again because… such is life. My need to categorize my papers is me trying to hold onto something instead of slipping into the flow of life, of letting everything be “perfect” the way it is and trusting that everything is already as it should be… a miracle.

But the good news is that life is a practice, and part of that practice is reminding myself again and again that there is no such thing as the perfectly organized playroom and clutterless countertops. They do not exist.

If I have learned anything over the last four months, it is that life is unpredictable and precarious and the only thing we have is the present moment, whatever that beautiful mess might be, and miraculously that it is always enough. I know now that there is no such things as the perfect marriage, the perfect mother, the perfect life… that we are all just practicing at doing our best each day. Something we should learn to be more forgiving with, for, to, of.

I have changed the way I think about these things, and that new thought takes practice too. Instead of saying I am a writer, I say, I practice writing; same goes for yoga. I also practice being wife, a mother and a daughter. I practice patience and gratitude and staying present. Always practicing, never perfecting because I have also learned you can never master anything in life. (Much to my love-of-lists-and-checked-boxes dismay.)

But perhaps with diligence of effort, commitment to the cause, and a willingness to be vulnerable and take risks, I’ll get better at all of them? Maybe?

I don’t believe happiness, serenity and forgiveness comes naturally for anyone. Life is difficult and testing for even the most enlightened and faithful among us. But I believe the more we commit to practicing gratitude, being present, forgiving and loving thy neighbor, the less harsh the winters may seem.

My tendencies are for control and perfection and certainty, but today, on this rainy, shiny, Spring-filled day, with its Chartreuse leaves twisting in the wind and bright tulips unfurling to the sunshine, I know that practice does not make perfect, but I am CERTAIN it will make good enough.

Because there is no such thing as a garden without weeds, relationships without falter, children without messes… and would we ever want it any other way?

The Beauty of Surrender

Today, I went to a second yoga session on my trip to Nicaragua. It will likely be my last here as we leave for home in a couple of days. It has been an illuminating, exciting and utterly exhausting trip. Caring for two toddlers is a lot of work in perfect conditions with all the tools in place like diaper pales, level sidewalks and regulatory high chairs with seat belts. All things for which I have a new appreciation. Doing all of the same day-to-day tasks here in the remote Third World without these luxuries has been a challenge for sure. A challenge that has stretched my coping abilities to their max.

I’ve yelled at my children more than I would like. I’ve been short with my husband for no reason. I have been too tired to enjoy some of the fun things because there’s just so much damn work to be done everyday. I’m not proud of it, but even on vacation surrounded by immense beauty I can be pissed off.

I needed yoga today to bring me back to myself. To remind me of the important things.

The wind was whipping my hair in the open-air studio. My dingy, borrowed mat flipped up on the edges from time to time. The pigeons congregated and cooed somewhere above me while the sounds of small-town Nicaragua swirled around me in cries, hollers, motors and horns. Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” was part of the soundtrack to the practice and somewhere around “…with every breath we drew a hallelujah” I let it all go and I sank into the beautiful space of surrender.

Surrender is beautiful, isn’t it? When we fall on our knees and crumple from the strain of life? When we’re brave enough to admit that we don’t have it all together, that we struggle, that we need help, that even on vacation in paradise we can get pissed off? When we stretch out our arms or join our hands in prayer asking, often begging for love, for peace, for a moment of grace in a hectic world–it is nothing short of a beauty-filled miracle. It’s something that doesn’t come naturally to a controlling, anxiety-ridden, yeller… like me.

But it came. It came with the strength of a thousand wind storms.

I was in the zone, or in yoga speak, “on my edge” in every pose. My leg went up in wheel. I held crow. I got closer to a head stand than ever before and I stretched farther and deeper than usual… I chatuaronga’d the shit out of that mat. The hour and a half felt like mere moments in time. I was in my breath. I was humbled yet confident; filled with a strong weakness that transformed me from one inhalation to the next. I have been in many yoga classes in the last 10 years but this one will stay with me forever. It shifted me–left an indelible impression on my soul.

The teacher said, “Every breath brings an opportunity for change.” Like a gong this struck a chord deep inside. She is right. With every breath, I can change. With every minute, I can be better– I can come back to myself and all I have to do is surrender… “with every breath a hallelujah.”

What’s Wrong with Being Unhappy?

I read an article a couple of weeks ago that won’t stop buzzing around in my brain like an irritating house fly. I feel the urge to pick at it like a ripe scab; take it apart, exam its premise and file it under nonsense. Every time I feel this way, I know there’s a part of my unexamined-self begging me to take a closer look, because me and my unexamined-self, we have this thing. Like a secret affair I have a desire to expose it; make it known to myself and then the world because when that happens, I know I’m one step closer to being free from it. This unexamined-self is also known as my Ego.

The article was published on the New York Times Opinionator Blog and is titled, “America the Anxious.” It’s about happiness and the American obsession with finding it, having it and keeping it. Anxiety is something I suffer from regularly and finding happiness is something I struggle with constantly so it piqued my interest immediately.

I am forever analyzing my mood, my hormones, my general state of being. It’s exhausting, really, but staying mentally aware of what I’m thinking and feeling is the only way I have found to not to live unconsciously. And to live unconsciously means to let my Ego and its merry gang of thugs (i.e. laziness, insomnia, anger, over-indulging on anything) be in control of my life. If there’s one thing I hate more than anxiety, it’s letting my unconscious Ego in the driver’s seat. It also makes for shitty writing.

The article makes some valid assertions about the American obsession with finding happiness. The author, Ruth Whippman, is a British native living in the United States; California, to be exact which might just be the mecca of hedonistic culture with Seattle (my current city) running a close third just behind Portland, Oregon. Whippman says,

“The British are generally uncomfortable around the subject [happiness], and as a rule, don’t subscribe to the happy-ever-after. It’s not that we don’t want to be happy, it just seems somehow embarrassing to discuss it, and demeaning to chase it, like calling someone moments after a first date to ask them if they like you.”

She goes on to describe the difference between British Mommy Blogs and American ones. We Americans are all like, “Hey, you’re doing a great job, we’re in this together sister, join the drum circle, kum-ba-yah!” The British Mommy Blogs are packed with more “despair and feces” with some variation of, “this is rubbish.”

My maternal grandmother was British. My grandparents met while my grandfather was stationed in England during WWII. They married and when it was time for him to come home to a small Midwestern town in the United States; she came too, leaving her entire family and her known world behind at the impossibly young age of 19. She started a new life in a foreign land, with a man 12 years her senior whom she barely knew. She didn’t know a single soul in her new town, either. Needless to say, they didn’t have email or Skype or even the capability of frequent phone calls. I can’t help but imagine she was desperately lonely sometimes; because that’s exactly what I would have felt.

If she was, there is no tangential evidence to prove it. She didn’t talk about those things. One time I asked her if she ever got drunk and she said, “Once, on a train. I didn’t like it.” That was the end of the story. She didn’t elaborate on personal matters or stories and certainly not with her brazen, self-absorbed, Americanized grand-daughter. She died when I was 23. For most of my life she just sat in the corner, stoically making comments on the weather and the color of things. I didn’t get her at all.

I didn’t get her because I have always been obsessed with my internal world, especially as an American, middle-class teenager, and apparently, I still am. It’s because we Americans have it so good. Most of us have warm homes, good food, loving families and enough money to fulfill our most essential needs. We have given up worrying about those things and have moved on to a preoccupation with mental and emotional fulfillment in every part of our lives. If you’re not happy all the time, then you’re not living life correctly. Whippman observes:

“Happiness in America has become the overachiever’s ultimate trophy. A vicious trump card, it outranks professional achievement and social success, family, friendship and even love. Its invocation can deftly minimize others’ achievements (“Well, I suppose she has the perfect job and a gorgeous husband, but is she really happy?”) and take the shine off our own.”

Today, current wisdom says that we need to “be in the moment.” We need to surround ourselves with daily affirmations and practice positive thinking. “Just Do It!” Take a quick glance at Facebook and you know what I mean. I’m not knocking “being present” or positivity. Those strategies, along with gratitude, have been the most effective methods to curb my perpetual, low-grade anxiety. But sometimes, they just don’t work. No matter how zen I try to make myself, I don’t feel miraculously, instantaneously whole again. It takes time, and a lot of beating myself up and then picking myself up.

This article hints at how narcissistic the tendency of chasing perpetual happiness can be. My personal belief in taking responsibility for your own happiness and creating the life you desire is exactly why I wanted to dismiss the whole thing. Me? Narcissistic? Incapable of constant happiness? Sha-right. Watch me. (And by watch me, I mean  watch me fail miserably, on this blog, in the public domain.)

But I can’t deny it. Sometimes, I am. It’s frequently about me and my current internal state of affairs and that state isn’t always pretty. I have a self-titled blog for goodness sake wherein two of my main topics are anxiety and fear. And still I’m all, Hey! Look at me! I’m writing about emotional stuff! I’m so self-actualized. Yay. Me. Me. Me.

This article also bothers me on some unconscious level because it counters my own practiced mental state of constant emotional vigilance. It looks at me sideways like my grandmother might have done intimating that I just need to chill-the-f*ck-out. Stop being so self-absorbed. You’re not a failure if you feel like shit today, Shannon. Stop wasting your time worrying about the state of your happiness and just learn to deal with what life is giving you… even if it’s rubbish.

It makes me think that maybe I’m putting too much emphasis on my vision board and “living my best life” or “finding the silver-lining.” Maybe I just need to ratchet down the pressure and take a page from my grandmother’s play book. Sometimes the weather or the color of my new sweater is better commentary than being carried away by the direction my emotional wind is blowing.

It’s life. You make choices. They won’t always be good ones but you’ll learn to deal. Sometimes it’s rubbish. Sometimes it’s not.

And when it’s not… when the spirits are high, the hormones are level and the happiness is flowing like a quaint summer-time stream, there’s no need to fetishize that either. No need to encapsulate the good moment; hoard it, write sonnets about its every texture, taste and color and then post it to Facebook. Maybe it’s just a simple as saying, I had a good day. I liked it. End of story.

Maybe that’s the kind of freedom I’m really looking for?

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

Easily Forgotten, Remembered Always

Image credit- aswirly.com

It was just before midnight on that muggy August night.

My windows were down. I took the winding back roads so that I could take my time, turn the radio up, and remember the feeling of the hot wind of my hometown one last time. The back of my year-old SUV contained all the belongings from two years of a desk job. On the seat next to me, a fruit salsa I made for my own going-away party. I was warm from all the things, the air, the love, the beer.

Life was good– an all-time high in fact. The next day was my last day of work for a month. Hours after I would walk out the door one last time, I would be on plane headed toward a month-long adventure that included a mountain wedding, Tahiti, a cross-country road trip, and a new home in a new city with the man I’d been dating for a year.

Floating through those pitch-black back roads, I chose Stevie Nicks to serenade me. A contented smile was scrawled across my face from the simultaneous satisfaction of a job well done and an awesome new chapter just beginning–a rare, transcendent, perfect moment.

I was almost home. One turn into the subdivision and another into my parent’s driveway and I would be there. As I prepared to make that familiar turn an unfamiliar rabbit-shaped missile shot over the hill in front of me. It was the single most paradoxical moment in my life. Never before or since have I free-falled so fast from one state of emotion to another.

If I close my eyes I can still see it under the orange glow of the street lights; steely grey, rabid, wild-eyed. It was coming for me and I knew it. It covered a football field’s distance in less than three seconds. I would learn later that the rate of impact was 86 mph.

I had time for two things; gripping the wheel a little tighter and the realization that my life was about to change forever.

In the time it took me to blink there were shards of metal, glass, plastic, fluid and fruit salsa all around me. I heard the unworldly sound of all these things breaking at once. I was no longer facing the direction I thought I was going; home, work, an airplane. I was facing a darkened road, my car horn stuck in a permanent state of panic and Stevie still singing about Silver Springs in her signature gravel.

My lungs filled with the acrid smoke of the airbags which had slammed into my chest like a 20lb medicine ball dropped from two stories up. My seatbelt had cut deep into my collar-bone and across my lap and in a moment of sheer panic, I suffocated on all of it. My mouth was open, but no sound came.

Then I knew had to get out, but I couldn’t remember how.

Soon, adrenaline became my copilot. It brought air back to my lungs and thought into my brain and I jumped from the critically injured vehicle that was screaming at me in its own kind of pain. In those brief seconds the rabbit had made an erratic turn which slammed its driver’s side into the front of my much larger SUV’s passenger’s side. There was no longer a floor board, only twisted metal and a tan fabric seat smeared with fruit salsa next to me.

The moment my feet touched pavement I felt a sudden and unmistakable weakness in my left leg. It was only a weakness, because adrenaline was in charge and it says that the pain comes later.

I looked to the rabbit sitting there motionless, smoking. It too, was turned toward a direction it hadn’t planned on going. I started to go to it but something about the way the driver’s side was pushed all the way over to the passenger’s side stopped me.

I thought I was brave. There have been many times in my life when I have done brave things. But something distinct cowered inside of me at that sight. It wasn’t adrenaline, it was something else–instinct maybe–that told me not to go. It told me that I would never forget what I would see because forgetting is my survival instinct.

The rest of the night came to me in camera flashes.

FLASH! I am prostrate on the grass, the sky above me is ablaze with urgent lights. My mother is holding my right hand, my father is holding my left. I feel the methodical and hurried rhythm of cold scissors up my leg cutting away my pants.

FLASH! It is just me and an EMT in the back of an ambulance. I am prostrate still. I hear, “blood pressure dropping, heading to a different hospital.”

FLASH! Prostrate on the x-ray table, I am told. “Dead–too disfigured to know the approximate age.”

FLASH! “Miss, have you had anything to drink?”

FLASH! “Hold still, this will only take a second.”

FLASH! “Miss, we’re going to need to take your blood alcohol level.”

FLASH! “You’re free to go.”

Really? Was I really?

I woke the next morning to find out that the disfigured person in the other car was a 22-year-old kid named Andy. He took his father’s sports car without permission and had been wasted on more than one drug. He went to my school. People loved him.

The next day, I didn’t go to work and I didn’t leave on an airplane. But leaving on the airplane was the only thing I wanted to do so I rescheduled my flight for the very next day. I left with my crutches, pain-killers and even more baggage than I had planned on taking. The more distance I could put between myself and those skid marks–the more radically I could change my view–the quicker I could forget.

Because forgetfulness is the best of all coping mechanisms and I use it for all the tragedies in my life.

It’s not that I pretend things haven’t happened. I know they have. Every time I go back to my parent’s house I am reminded of this one by the make-shift memorial two turns from their driveway. But I have developed a calcification process for bad memories and it operates on an involuntary, instinctual level. I harden my true-to-life tragedies and then push them away, outside of myself–into orbit.

If a memory is triggered, for a split-second I will see the event as though it happened to someone else. I see it as though it was not a part of my own life and I am hearing it for the first time. Then I have that strange, surreal, surprised moment when I realize that it actually did happen to me.

This happens every time.

But like the orbital path of the moon commands the tides of the Earth, these things affect an ebb and flow inside of me, too. A silent river flows just below my awareness; an ever-present force brimming with the reality of life’s impermanence and inherent fragility. A reminder that there are no promises in well-made plans and in less than three seconds you can be facing a darker road.

This reality river, it shapes me. It constantly cuts new paths and wears out old ones. Like all rivers, from time to time it floods. Sometimes the rain comes from something in my own life, but more often than not, it is the stories of others that breach my banks; an abducted child, a terminal diagnosis, a freak accident, a tornado.

Like the diligent beaver that I am, I maintain my dams. I stack up everything I own (and some of what I don’t) to shore myself up against what I know will come anyway, inevitably, always–a sadness brought on by things I cannot control and do not understand.

When these times come, I retreat inside myself and onto my raft made of words and I float. I lie prostrate looking at all the things in my orbit, including Andy, and I remind myself that I am that, and they are me, and we are One, and only then do the calmer waters prevail.