All the Zero Days

Hike Your Own Hike

(A letter to my teenage son, who stays up far too late on his phone because his suicidal friends reach out to him for a listening ear, and who will be leaving home for a week of co-ed music camp with his girlfriend this summer)

Some might say it’s just a trite trail axiom. Others might say it’s a way of life, or the only way to live.

I would say we don’t get much say in the matter. It’s not like we can hike someone else’s hike through life, as much as we might sometimes want to. Certainly no one else can walk our walk for us, although every once in a while someone else might be kind enough to help us carry our burdens for a stretch while we continue trudging along, slowly putting one foot in front of the other.

But ultimately, only you can hike your hike. Only you can live your life. No one else can do it for you. You get no choice in the matter.

Being told we have no choice pisses us off. Anger is a normal biological response to a stimuli, meant to fuel our desire to act in our own best interest and survive. When we get angry enough, we fight. But anger is a mask for fear, so sometimes, we flight. In our own best interest, we run away.

Sometimes, we do both.

That, I think, is what causes suicide. The fear we experience when we’re told we have no choice about the cards we’ve been dealt toxically mixes with the rage that fuels our desire to take action, to rebel. We throw down our hand in disgust, and refuse to play. “I do, too, fucking have a choice, and I choose to fucking end it!” And in an act of great paradox, we win the argument and lose the war.

Obviously there’s a lot more to suicide than that. There’s also the immeasurable burden of emotional or physical pain that one carries, often (but not always) amplified by chemical dependency, biochemical disorders, abuse, or trauma. The desire for relief outweighs even the strongest instinct to survive if the pain, even if brief, is intense enough.

Fear tells us the pain won’t ever stop. If the pain does stop, fear tells us it will be back, that it will keep coming back, that it will get worse, that it will kill us.

That we have no choice.

Fuck that, we say. Pain can’t kill me if I do the job first. To someone in pain, this makes all the sense in the world. So in a moment of simultaneous fight and flight, we end it.

I have a friend living with terminal cancer. Living with, not dying of; the words we use matter. He fights the cancer, hard. He carries pain that most of us can’t even fathom. I would have given up long ago. I don’t know how he keeps going, knowing that eventually the cancer will win.

Except here’s the thing. It’s not really the cancer that’s terminal. It’s life. The cancer will lose and die when my friend’s earthly body dies. The cancer will contribute to its own demise by continuing to spread and take over its host. But it’s not cancer that’s terminal, it’s life itself; we all die, whether we have cancer or heart disease or diabetes or addiction or happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or live a perfectly chaste and continent existence for more than a century. With death, as with life, we have no say in the matter.

But like cancer, we may be contributing to our own demise.

And that is a choice.

So it stands to reason – if how we choose to live can impact how we die, then how we choose to live can impact how we live, as well.

We can choose how we hike our own hike.

Hike your own hike means making choices in your own best interest, even if they are not the choices others would have you make. So first and foremost, make choices in your own best interest, not someone else’s. But keep in mind that cancer, acting out of unbridled self-interest, is contributing to its own demise.

Hiking your own hike means making choices knowing you will have to live with those choices, and with their consequences, and that sometimes your choices will be ineffective and flat out wrong, and the consequences will hurt and could do great harm. But choosing not to choose and habitually allowing others to make choices for you is also doing yourself harm. Do not purposely choose to do harm to yourself or others; that is not in your best interest.

Choose to give yourself adequate time to consider what actually is in your best interest. The easy choice is often not the best. The hard choice is just as often not the best, either. Learn to discern by giving yourself permission to make mistakes. If you have to make the same mistake more than once, forgive yourself and accept that many lessons take repetition to achieve mastery. Practice, however, does not make perfect. Practice makes better, until you are consistently doing your best. And that is something of which you can be proud, even if you are not perfect.

Remember that life is still terminal even when you consistently make the best choices. In those moments when the burdens of regret and shame from your mistakes and failures feel heavy, remember those feelings are the privilege of the living. The honors student killed in the car accident, the man in his 30s whose heart unexpectedly stopped beating, the mom in her 40s who went to bed, had a brain aneurysm and never woke up, the music teacher who lost her life while riding her bike no longer have the luxury of carrying the burden that comes with the gift of making choices. So choose to write the song, or eat the chocolate cake, or sleep late, or climb the mountain.

Choose the job that pays less but gives you the time to hike your own hike. Call in late to work and put the phone on mute, and take the time to write the love letter to your child. Be grateful every time you pay for the roof over your head even if you can’t afford to buy a new car. Remember that you can only hike your own hike with help from a higher power, which most often comes in the form of other people, even people we don’t like, sometimes people we detest. No one hikes alone, even if we hike solo; at the very least someone else made the boots we wear.

Don’t use “learning” as a justification for knowingly making a mistake. Don’t deliberately make the choice that leads to regret or shame. Growth and strength come from the discipline of making effective choices repeatedly. Progress comes from choosing to walk, and choosing to rest, each when the time is right. Listen to your gut, especially in that rare (and it is rare) instance when you don’t have time for deliberation and discernment. Listen to your heart, because that’s where your higher power lives, and where that power will speak to you. If you have time, ask other people to share their experience so you can learn from their mistakes rather than making your own. In this way you avoid picking up the burden of shame while helping to lessen theirs.

And if someone (for example, your well-intentioned mother) gives you advice for which you did not ask, consider that perhaps the shame and regret of their choices is heavy, and it’s their way of trying to set it down. Let them. Take a good look at what it is that burdens them. You don’t have to pick up what they set down before you. Like you, they are hiking their own hike. Let them.

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Family On Friday, Uncategorized

First Family Vacation, Check

Last week, I took my kids on our first family vacation. This probably comes as a surprise to most everyone; after all, I’ve been a parent for 13 years, and you’ve seen me post pictures of my travels with the kids for the last eight years I’ve been on Facebook. Some of those photos were even taken at Disney World! How could this possibly be our first family vacation?

Well, for starters, I don’t count the Disney trip in 2013 as a “vacation.” I was traveling with my three kids and two parents in one minivan for 10 days without even one hour of solitude (even sleeping)! It was an amazing voyage filled with highs, lows, and everything in between. Also, it was made financially possible by the generosity of my parents, so, no, I don’t count the Disney trip.

But what about the other travels? Believe it or not, I’ve never had all three kids with me on any of our overnights in D.C. or Yorktown or camping. The only exception to this was a weekend beach trip five years ago, and again, my mom and dad footed the bill and provided the additional adult presence necessary for taking three young kids anywhere more than an hour or two.

Surely, you say, I must have gone on a vacation when I was married, right? Not really. Our extended families were all local, so we didn’t have to go far to visit anyone. We did mostly day trips. The only time my ex and I went away from home for more than one night was a long weekend when we left our then two children with grandparents. And when our son was four years old we took a train ride to D.C. to see the zoo and stayed overnight. Those little trips don’t, in my mind, “qualify” as a legitimate vacation.

I could probably fill whole journals with my explanations and excuses for not taking family vacations. When I was married I was pretty sure it was because my ex was some kind of workaholic who couldn’t leave his job at home for more than a day without freaking out. It turns out if I point a finger at someone else, it leaves three pointing back at me; I’m just as much a workaholic as he ever was. In recent years as a single mom, my excuses boil down to lack of money, lack of time, and lack of confidence at being able to handle three kids alone away from the familiar.

It embarrasses me to write this, but there are times I’ve felt like a complete failure as a parent because of my inability, whatever the reason, to give my children a proper family vacation. Social media hasn’t helped. My friends and even my brother have taken their families to some pretty exotic locales, including Thailand, Key West, Maine, and places in South America that I can’t pronounce. The ex took them on a Disney cruise last year. Not that I’m comparing myself to you, but . . . yeah, I’m comparing myself, and I come up short.

I haven’t just been comparing myself to you. I’ve been comparing myself to my parents. The family in which I grew up travelled to Pennsylvania for a week to visit grandparents at least twice a year, and we almost always made visits to historic side trips like Gettysburg and D.C. and even New York one year. We took occasional “big” trips to Florida and California, and we went to Disney World two times, Disneyland one time, and the beach for a week pretty much every year from the time I was a tween until I graduated from high school. To me, this is what normal “modest” families did, and this has been my expectation for myself.

(I realize the last several paragraphs of whining should be followed with the hashtag #firstworldproblems. If you’ve made it this far, you’re a real friend, and I thank you for putting up with me.)

This year I made a commitment to take my kids somewhere. I considered renting a beach condo for a week (too expensive), taking us camping (too hot and buggy and stressful), taking us to a luxury resort for a short stay (too little appreciation for the finer things). One friend offered her river house, but I didn’t want to impose a specific time, as there was only one week I could easily take off work. So, I opted for the most “basic” vacation I could fathom – a two night stay in a cheap hotel in Williamsburg with side trips to Virginia Beach, Colonial Williamsburg, and Water Country.

2016-08-03 19.09.23

Although there was a little sunburn on all our shoulders, there were no meltdowns and everyone had a good time. I felt gratitude at being able to financially provide a good time for everyone. I had a 13-year-old son who could keep an eye on his littlest sister while me and the daredevil redhead took in a more adventurous waterslide. My three mild-mannered kids didn’t want to do anything at the water park except float in the lazy river and the wave pool, so it was actually pretty relaxing. The boy caught Pokemon everywhere we went, and we were lucky enough to get a room with a king-sized bed and a sleeper sofa, so no one had to sleep on the floor.

As I was driving home, it occurred to me we don’t have to be gone for a week to feel like we’ve been gone for a week. Although I still very much want to take my kids for a relaxing week at a big beach house one day, I’m no longer feeling guilty that I can’t take them for a week to Florida amusement park heaven. Our brief time away from the break-neck pace of summer day camps and evening dance classes put the whole vacation thing in perspective for me. My parents may have given me trips to Pennsylvania, but it was out of necessity (visiting grandparents); my kids get to have a relationship with their grandparents every day. My parents may have rented beach condos, but not until we were teenagers; before that, our experience with the beach was limited to long weekends and modest hotels planned around times when my dad had to go to Virginia Beach for work. Our pilgrimages to Florida and California were not just trips to expensive theme parks, but marathon visits with the many uncles, aunts, and cousins who lived along the route there; I now have Facebook to stay in daily contact with distant relatives. My ex may be able to take the kids on Disney cruises, but I get to wake up to their faces almost every morning.

Rather than focus on the glass half empty, as I’m inclined to do when I compare myself to others, I now see the glass as more than half full, and I realize how lucky I am. In preparing to write this reflection, I thought of a famous quote from Mother Teresa: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

As a mother, especially a single mother, I need to remember it’s the small things I do with great love that will make a difference for our family. They usually don’t ask for big things anyway. It’s my big ego that insists on setting unattainable goals.

Uncategorized

Pardon Me

This morning I woke up thinking about turkey. Not the one I’m going to eat in a few hours. Two turkeys, to be precise, who go by the names “Honest” and “Abe.” While driving home last night I had the privilege of hearing the President of the United States pardon these two birds and spare them from the fate of their brethren. It is a heartwarming American tradition, albeit relatively new; I was surprised to google it and learn George H. W. Bush started doing this in 1989.

But the American tradition of pardoning, of showing mercy, goes back farther. We rebuilt Japan after dropping the bomb, and we rebuilt Europe after victory there in World War II; today, former enemies are now some of our strongest allies.

Recently I went to Appomattox, where General Lee surrendered to General Grant, signaling the end of the brutal civil war that had brother fighting against brother. It was important to President Lincoln that the confederates be shown mercy, as long as they promised not to take up arms against the Union. Grant honored his commander’s intent, not only issuing pardons to each soldier, but including in the terms that each confederate could keep their personal side arms and horse if they had one, so they could get home safely. Reportedly, when the confederate officers and soldiers surrendered their arms and battle flags, it took a solemn four hours, and both sides wept at the gravity of it all, and the weight that was lifted. I can hardly think of a more humbling experience to witness.

Lincoln’s phrase “with charity toward all and malice toward none” is the essence of a beautiful American tradition. When I read and hear stories in the current news cycle, I wonder if young people simply missed learning about the moment that healed a war-torn nation. Many community organizers today are peddling resentment like carpetbaggers, while the communities themselves are poisoned by this sham medicine with a shiny label and a catchy hashtag, justifying violence and hatred. The reaction to this is just as sickening – anger and fear warp into genuine bigotry where at one time a live and let live attitude sufficed.

On this Thanksgiving, I am saddened that my country is once again torn by civil war. I feel angry that I can’t share an opinion without fear of being verbally pummeled by half my friends, whom I respect, love, and with whom I don’t always agree. I feel fearful that we’ve lost the humility required to live peacefully despite our differences. But when I feel angry and sad, I turn to gratitude. I look for the good, and the helpers. I look to my God to help me see what is true, and I don’t fashion the truth into a weapon; I use it as a torch to keep me warm and light my path. If it lights a way for others, all the better.

Thanksgiving is the ultimate expression of humility. An entire nation pauses in our collective lives to acknowledge God as source of all blessings. It has been this way since the first Thanksgiving in 1619 at Berkeley Plantation just a few miles down the road from where I live, and in Plymouth with the pilgrims. George Washington issued a Thansgiving proclamation, and Lincoln codified it. It is the quintessential American spiritual holy day, and one we need more than ever.

May we pardon each other this Thanksgiving. May we offer clemency to those we dislike. May we be compassionate to those who, in their hurting, hurt others. May we forgive before apology is offered. May we hold no malice, and withhold no charity. May we know Who gives us life, and be grateful. May we know that we, too, are forever pardoned, maybe not by our fellows, but always by our Father.

Musical Meditations

Lessons Learned

A few weeks ago a friend posted a sad picture on his Facebook wall. It seems his Jewish neighbor was the victim of a hateful, racist act. Someone had broken their beautiful ceramic mezuzah and had stolen the scroll it housed. I’m not Jewish, nor do I fully understand what the traditions mean, but I was moved by my friend’s desire to repair it, and also by the responses of some of his other friends. One of them cited a tradition in Japan called “kintsugi” which is when a cracked piece of pottery is repaired with gold to highlight the cracks. Another talked about the Japanese concept of “wabi sabi” which celebrates the beauty of imperfection and use.

In the wake of some recent heartbreaks (and let’s face it, the world is full of stories that will break our hearts), my thoughts have returned again and again to that mezuzah and the idea of repairing the cracks in our hearts with gold leaf. That’s the essence of what my blog, Holey Heart, is about (https://holeyheart.com/about/). I had no idea the Japanese actually have a cool word for it!

(If I ever get a tattoo, maybe it will be the Japanese characters for “wabi sabi,” just below my belly button, where the skin that was stretched out by three human beings will never again be taut.)

There’s a song I came across a few years ago called “Lessons Learned,” originally recorded by Kristen Chenoweth. There’s a line in the refrain that goes, “I’m thankful for every break in my heart/I’m grateful for every scar.” I think that’s perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learned in the past decade – gratitude, not for the easy stuff, but the hard stuff.

I’ve written before about my bouts of depression, and I’ve discovered only two tactics to get me out of that mire – making a gratitude list, and praising God. That is the gold that binds the cracks back together to make me a useful vessel for God’s will once again. Every time I’m hurt, or hurt myself, I crack again. And in some ways, the older I get and the more God uses me, the more fragile I become. There’s a lot more gold binding the pieces together these days. I like to imagine that by the time my trip on earth is done, I’ll be more gold than pottery; a jar of clay that is made more of heaven than earth because I’ve allowed myself to be useful.

There’s another line from that song I especially like: “All the things that break you are all the things that make you strong.” How often have I mistook that word “strong” to mean “invincible?” Strong is about enduring in spite of the difficulties. Every hole in my heart has offered an opportunity for my God to fill it with something even better.

Today I’m grateful for the lows that have shattered me, because they have allowed God to piece me back together. I’m grateful for the loves that I’ve lost, because they have stretched my heart to a greater capacity to hold even more of God’s love. I’m grateful for every mistake that wasn’t really a mistake because I learned something.

Holey Heart

“Shortcuts” To Acceptance

We all have “tools” in our toolbox for dealing with circumstances which confuse us, scare us, or cause us pain. Some of us get angry and lash out. Some of us retreat and isolate ourselves. My tool of choice is to analyze.

It used to be that in order to accept an unpleasant reality, I had to first understand it, thoroughly. What were the circumstances that lead us to this place? What makes the people I love behave the way they do? Is there a family history of dysfunction? Why do I react even when I know it won’t help? I needed to be certain there was nothing I could do to change the unacceptable.

This tendency is ingrained in me. It’s even in my name. My initials are “C. Y.” Say it out loud. See why. It would seem my purpose in life is to get to the bottom of things.

There are some wonderful gifts that accompany this trait. It can help me to see the big picture and the details simultaneously when I’m working in a project. It cultivates compassion for people who hurt me because I want to understand what motivates them. It has also helped me develop a heightened sense of self-awareness, honesty and integrity.

But even the most useful tools can be used as weapons. Not everyone appreciates my ability to analyze a situation inside and out, especially if I’m analyzing them! I’ve irritated other people, and I’ve also prolonged my own pain by refusing to accept until I fully understood.

Ultimately, my obsession with understanding why is just an unsuccessful attempt at controlling the uncontrollable and postponing the only action that will give me peace – accepting people just as they are. Myself included.

When I’m tempted to analyze people and situations, I’ve had to learn to use a new tool. It’s a very simple statement of faith and trust – “More will be revealed.” It’s my shortcut to acceptance.

This weekend’s Gospel starts with Jesus telling the Apostles, “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.” It’s Christ’s way of saying, “More will be revealed.”

God has indeed revealed to me the “why” of my many troubling habits, but not all at once and only when I was ready to bear it.

St. Paul’s letter to the Romans today sheds light on one of my other shortcuts to acceptance – gratitude. Only he doesn’t use that word; he uses the word “boast.”

“We even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint.”

It is easy to make a gratitude list of all the blessings in my life, all the reasons I shouldn’t feel sorry for myself. But personally, that doesn’t do me much good when I’ve over analyzed and come up with nothing to “fix” the circumstances I don’t want to accept.

However, when I do as Paul does and realize that even my afflictions have gifts hidden in them, I can find that gratitude and accept what I cannot change with a lot more grace. In fact, I am motivated to plunge deeper into the life I’m given to find those gifts. That is hope, and it has never failed to disappoint.

Tending the Temple

Grateful For Pain

It’s that time of year when many of us begin a conscious daily practice of being thankful. I have lots of Facebook friends who use November as a time to post a status update about one thing for which they are thankful each day of the month.

Gratitude can be such a wonderful antidote to the negativity that can trap me and keep me stuck. But some things are just too negative to ignore. Sometimes pain is too painful for even gratitude lists to fix.

The other day a friend of mine posted something like, “It finally happened! I was able to put something from my ‘why life sucks’ list onto my gratitude list!”

First of all, I had never considered I could make an anti-gratitude list. And for me at least, this is probably not a good idea. But the concept that things could move from that list to another is a very hopeful, healing thought.

Today I have a huge gratitude list. My “anti-gratitudes” are minor in the grand scheme if things. But there is one that is really bothering me right now. I am in awful pain. I have a pinched nerve in my shoulder and it hurts like hell.

It’s 5:00 in the morning, I can’t sleep, and I’m asking myself, is it possible to be grateful for this pain?

Nothing forces me to stay in the present moment like physical pain. I generally can’t numb it or ignore it by thinking about the past or worrying about the future – I’ve tried! Nope, pain forces me to live in the uncomfortable here and now. It demands my attention.

And God and serenity cannot be found in the past or the future – only this present moment. Pain brings me to the place where God is. Where healing is. Where love is. Here and now.

Pain has also brought me to a place where I am useful. I would not be writing at 5:00 in the morning if I were not in pain right now, trust me!

Pain also helps me develop compassion for other people in pain. Generally I have a very low tolerance for pain, whether it’s mine or someone else’s. I numb it in myself and avoid it in others. But in meditating on this pain, I also think of other people who are suffering, and I now know a small piece of what they are going through.

I am grateful to be centered in the present moment. I am grateful to be useful. I am grateful for understanding. I am grateful for the gift of pain.

If what we resist persists, perhaps the path to healing is embracing the pain, whatever it is, and finding gratitude for it.

Tending the Temple

The Sunlight of Gratitude

I used to suffer from depression. Most of the time it was a mild, low-grade depression that simply sapped me of energy and joy. 80% cloudy, with occasional showers and occasional sun peeking through the clouds. Or maybe a better way to describe it is a morning fog that didn’t always lift. Fog is a good analogy, because I truly was walking around in a fog, unable to see the beauty and joy right in front of me.

My depression lifted a few years ago, mostly because I willed it away. I know this is not possible for everyone who suffers from depression. For many, many people it is a biological and chemical issue that has absolutely nothing to do with will power. I’ve had that kind of depression too, following the births of two of my three children, so I understand the powerlessness that we can have over our minds and spirits. But my low-grade blahs were not chemical. They were a choice. They were a place that I could go and feel safe. I know that sounds a little strange, but when I was in the fog, it was totally acceptable to sit still and do nothing. I didn’t need to summon the courage to take chances or to face fears. It was justifiable to wait until the fog lifted. And wait. And wait. And wait.

Eventually I got tired of waiting, and thanks to a very heated argument with my spouse in which he accused me of using my depression as a crutch, I had the motivation to walk out of the fog. I knew he was right the moment he said it, and I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. I slowly began to make changes, and I’m happy to report that I’ve been depression-free for about two years, except for a few moments when the fog rolls back in.

I believe occasional fog is completely normal and natural. But in my case, I know there will always be a sick part of me that wants to stay in that fog, because it’s safe. This morning was one of those mornings. The circumstances of my life today are filled with hope for the future. Some exciting career prospects, absolutely wonderful clients, healthy and happy children, and a social life I used to dream about having. But enjoying and pursuing these things takes courage. It requires facing fears and letting go of them. So when a little fog rolled in this morning, it was a very natural response for me to welcome it.

Thankfully there is more “healthy” than “unhealthy” in me right now. Alarm bells went off, and deep in my gut I did not want to be depressed. I wanted sunlight to burn off the fog.

The best source of sunlight that I’ve found is gratitude.

Perhaps you’ve heard of making a gratitude list when you’re feeling ill at ease. Perhaps you’ve rolled your eyes or groaned. Perhaps you didn’t believe it would work. Perhaps you felt resentful of the idea. I’ve had all those responses to the idea of being grateful, but none of that crap made me feel any better.

This morning it occurred to me to make a gratitude list. What a great idea, I thought! I’m brilliant! I didn’t even have to be told to do it, I just came up with it on my own! Boy, was my ego stoked!

A word to the wise . . . you actually have to make the gratitude list, not just think about making a gratitude list, in order for it to work. You can’t think yourself into right action; you have to act your way into right thinking. Yes, really!

So I sat down and started. I filled the whole page with random things for which I’m grateful. And the fog in my heart has lifted.

It really does work. I dare you to try it.

Musical Meditations

Blessings

It was 1 am, early Saturday morning and I’d been up for more than 24 hours with my sick dog. I let Jake outside for yet another round of soiling himself, another round of wiping his back end when he came in. Maybe it was the sleep deprivation, maybe the sappy movies I’d been watching while keeping my eye on him through the evening. Maybe it was the fresh air. I cried hard as I walked him around the block. I cried not because I was worried about my dog, but because of all the times I wasn’t worried about my dog. I cried because it seems to me the only time I let myself get close to anything or anyone is in that moment that I think I might be losing them. I cried mostly because I can feel so close to God in the hard times and struggles, but not so much when things are going well. I cried because I don’t know how to turn to God unless I’m pain, and I really don’t want to live a life of pain just to feel close to Him.

I heard Laura Story’s song Blessings this afternoon and I’m reminded that if struggle is what brings me closer to God, I can be grateful for the struggle.

As I typed this, I turned and looked a picture on my wall that my daughter Tori made. It’s a picture of me (you can tell because I have curly hair, brown eyes, and I’m wearing my favorite color, orange). I am standing in the midst of storm clouds, rain drops and lightning all around, yet Tori gave me a big smile. Down at the bottom it says, “I am thankful for Mom.” Perhaps there are reasons beyond my understanding that I feel closest to God in the midst of the storm. Maybe it’s not all about me.