On and Off

In order to take something on, you have to give something up. There really is only so much time in the day. What with going to work and having to sleep, you sometimes have to learn to multitask in order to have time to do what you really want to do. Sometimes by giving something up you actually gain a lot more.

A few years ago my husband and I had to make a lot of sacrifices because the roof, water heater, and A/C unit all needed replacing. We didn’t have anywhere near that kind of money saved up. We had to get a second mortgage, which would mean having to pay an extra $200 a month to the bank. So little things went away first. The home phone service was cancelled in favor of our cell phones. Then we dropped cable TV. Oh, and there went the weekly sushi dinners. Everything adds up. $5 a day for fancy coffee doesn’t seem like much, but in a year that is nearly $2000. Even my car got axed. We had a Mini Cooper, and it was $438 a month. Wowzers. When I think about how much money we spent on that car alone I’m a little embarrassed. So we traded it in for a car that was half the price.

There was a weird advantage to doing this. It caused us to reassess what mattered and what was important. In a way it was good that everything broke at the same time – it meant that we got all the big stuff over with. It will be many years before anything major breaks. But then there was something even better. The second mortgage was for a fixed amount. We couldn’t get exactly the amount we needed – we had to get a little more. It turned out that we had enough money to build the screened porch we’ve always wanted. That porch has been a nice addition to the house and a way to enjoy each other’s company in a new way because there are no electronic devices out there competing for our time.

Another sacrifice ended up creating much more. I wanted to start going to the Y, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to afford it. I had eaten lunch out every day when I went to work. It was a great way to escape work. That break was enough to convince my head that it wasn’t an 8 hour day or a 10 hour day. It was like having two part-time days. But that was a lot of money that was being spent. So I committed to eating a healthy frozen dinner at least three times a week.

I was very resistant to this because I thought I needed that escape. But then I realized that I had more time to read. And then I started bringing jewelry projects to work on. Both of these were fun, and gave my mind a break. Then I noticed that it was a really pretty day outside, and there is a walking path just outside the break room door. So I went on a walk. I now go on a walk for 20 minutes every day before lunch. It is a sacrifice, but it is also a gain. People are noticing how much weight I’ve lost. I feel better. I sleep better. And the slight exercise is like a little vacation for my head in the same way that leaving for lunch was. It turns out that I gained all this extra time because I didn’t have to drive to and from the restaurant. In losing something I thought I wanted, I gained so much more. I’ve taken this lesson with me. When I’m faced with something new that I’m resistant to, I’m trying to see if it creates a better opportunity that I hadn’t noticed before.

Sometimes the thing you have to give up is time. My Dad constantly talked about his Beethoven book. Throughout my life he said he was writing a book on Beethoven. He loved everything about that composer, and found great solace in listening to his work over and over. I lost track of the times I’d found him lying in his recliner, earphones on, eyes closed. But when Dad died, there was no trace of a manuscript to be found. I had hoped that I could piece it together and create the book for him, but it was all in his head. This taught me not to wait. You can talk about your dreams and goals all you want, but you have to give them form sometimes. You have to take time to make them real.

I’d like to write more in this blog. But there is only so much time in the day. So something has to go. Currently I’m giving up writing in my journal in the morning. If I write my thoughts on the computer instead of in a journal, I can then shuffle them around so they make more sense. I can add in or delete sentences that work. I think that perhaps what I say in my journal and what I say here will be different things. I’ll have to see if this works. I might need that private voice. I might need that morning exercise. It is all a work in progress.

To find more time and more peace of mind I stopped reading the news a few years ago. I thought that was going to be a hard thing to give up, but I’ve realized since that I don’t really want to read the news that is offered. The “news” really means “bad news”. Have you noticed that every time you go to the news on the Google page, the only thing it tells you is about some new war or somebody dying? Have you noticed that it is gossip about celebrities that you get from the MSN page? Have you noticed that it is all Chicken Little stuff from the Yahoo page? You’d think the solar flares would have wiped us all back to the stone age by now, with all the times that they say they are going to interrupt cell phone and internet activity. So I get my news from friends and Facebook, which is itself another time-suck and is going to require a lot of discipline. I’m still trying to figure out a proper balance with that.

Sometimes the only way I can get anything done is to do the important, must-do things first. Sometimes figuring what those things out is the hard part. And sometimes part of my problem is that what I think is important isn’t important at all. Sometimes I’ve done things that way for so long that I don’t even remember why I’ve done it that way, and it has lost all its significance. Sometimes having to give something up is really freeing. Sometimes a loss is really a blessing in disguise.

Fear of feelings

People are afraid of having feelings. I don’t really know if this is something that is true just for the western world or for humanity in general. But it seems we have gone out of our way to create walls for ourselves as a protection against feelings.

Really our battle seems to be with “bad” feelings. We are afraid of experiencing anything other than joy. But perhaps it is that very fear and the resulting behavior that causes the true pain.

Food is sometimes the cause and the cure of pain. I know several people who feel such anxiety about not having food when they are hungry that they constantly eat. These people don’t live in poverty. They don’t live in areas that are “food deserts.” They have easy access to any food they want at any time of the day or night. So what is the source of that fear? For some, the stated reason is that they don’t want to feel hungry. Hunger pangs are the surface reason. Waiting just ten minutes past a regular lunch time causes great anxiety. These are not people with a medical need to maintain proper blood sugar. There is something else going on.

I think that something else is a fear of feeling in general. We aren’t taught how to deal with our feelings so we stuff them deep down inside (literally) rather than letting them out. Feel bad? Have some “comfort food.” The bad thing is that just like with any other addiction a new problem is created. Your old problem is still there and you now have something else to contend with.

You may feel guilty for having eaten the entire bag of cookies. So you eat more. And then you feel not only mentally bad that you have no self control but you may also feel physically bad. You may start to gain weight. Then come all the subsequent feelings with that problem. Your knees hurt. You have a hard time bending. You get out of breath more easily. You start to feel trapped in your own body.

Then it becomes a really big problem with really big issues. You have slid further into the hole. Your “fix” is just digging you deeper. When presented with the way out it is normal to dig in, and with heels or forks it is the same. People want a quick fix to their problems. Perhaps this is just the American way. There are no repercussions. Eat whatever you want and then take a pill or have surgery.

The Y is a better choice than liposuction. Eating more vegetables and less fried foods is a better choice than a diet pill. In both instances you do many positive things. You get rid of the symptom of the flab. You also get healthier inside. Your muscles get stronger and you have more energy. You start to feel better mentally because you can see that you are losing weight but also you are burning off stress.

I know from personal experience that it is totally normal to not want to do the right thing. I remember when I first started to get healthy that I resented every carrot and every minute of exercise. Like a small child I wanted to just yell “NO!” every time I was confronted with the better choice. And I remember that every time I lost 5 pounds I wanted to celebrate by eating a brownie or four.

It is easier to eat yourself to death rather than face your feelings. It is easier to let the other person have their way and for you to remain silent and passive. It is easier, yes, but don’t do it. It is hard to make this change. But it is your life that you are saving. It is important. You are important. Your feelings and opinions matter. It is very hard to feel emotions when you haven’t allowed yourself to feel them for a long time. It is painful, and that pain often manifests itself in the gut. That feeling isn’t hunger for food. It is hunger – but hunger for self-awareness. It is the feeling of you waking up to yourself. It is OK to feel that. You won’t starve. Feel that feeling and then try something different, since what you have been trying all your life hasn’t worked.
Go for a walk. Write in your journal. Paint. Dance. Sing. Do something, anything that makes you feel really alive and happy. It is important to get those feelings out. It may look weird. It may not come out right the first time. That is OK. That is normal. Keep it up.

I remember seeing a child who was very frustrated and crying. He was loud. He was not happy. Things weren’t going his way. He had gotten to the foot-stomping and hand-swinging part. His parents told him to “Use your words.” What if you don’t have words? What if part of your frustration is that you don’t know how to say what is upsetting you? I think it is a good idea to learn different ways to communicate. There is a program where I live called the “Healing Arts Project” that teaches mental-health consumers how to paint. One of the clients said that “Art lets me say the things I haven’t got words for.” I think there is a lot of truth in that.

What you have to express is important. You are here because you are needed. You are giving the world a huge blessing if you share yourself and your talents. Go forth, and feel.

Saying “No” as a full sentence.

If you can’t say no, it isn’t a healthy relationship.

I once knew someone who lived near a town I was going to visit. He was a friend on Facebook, so when I mentioned that I was about to go on a road trip there, he quickly sent me a message wondering if I wanted to meet up. I didn’t really want to make a detour and I honestly didn’t want to see him. I used the fact that it was my husband’s birthday trip as an excuse. (Perhaps one day I’ll address the issue of simply not being honest and flat out saying No.)

He didn’t take it well. He thought I was very rude. I remember that I’d even considered temporarily blocking him on Facebook during the trip so that he wouldn’t get updates on where we were and what we were doing. I thought there was a good chance that he just might show up at a restaurant we were eating at.

I now realize this is not the sign of a friendship. And while I’m writing this I realize that my feeling was fear. And that I should be honest and admit that I’m talking about my brother.

We never were close, and it took me years to realize that he was psychologically abusive. There is some advantage I think to being physically abused. There are bruises. You know you have been hit. But when you are psychologically abused it is a lot harder to notice the damage. Thus the abuse continues.

The abuser can continue to work on you. Day by day the manipulation continues. The lesson of how to act is reinforced. “If you want me to be happy, you will do things my way.” This is very similar to the sentence that begins with the words “Don’t you think…” Anybody who starts a sentence with those words doesn’t care what you think. They are telling you what they think and they think that you should share their
opinion.

My Mom used to say that if two people agreed all the time, one was unnecessary. I’m slowly starting to understand this.

I realized finally that if my brother was anybody other than my brother I would have dropped him years ago. He wasn’t a friend. He was only nice to me if I did things his way. I was becoming unnecessary. I was starting to not even exist. I don’t even remember when he stopped calling me by name. He referred to me as “Sister.” Just a title. A place holder. Not even my name.

When I asserted myself and said that I didn’t like how I was being treated he backed off a little. For a few months things almost were normal, or what passes for normal. Then, slowly he would begin pushing me. We fell into the old dance again so easily, with him leading and me getting my toes stepped on.

I’ve read that the kindest way to kill a lobster is to put it in a pot of warm water and slowly raise the temperature. The lobster never even knows what is happening and just calmly and quietly goes to sleep. No screaming. No flailing about. That beautiful carapace, that armor, does him no good.

I was that lobster. I was dying and I didn’t even put up a fight. When I stood up for myself again his response was “How come you always want things your way?” If “my way” means being treated in a respectful manner, then yes, I do want things my way. I finally realized that I was ok with never talking to him again. That was a very hard place to reach. When I finally walked away I believe I started to understand what abused wives feel like when they escape from their battering husbands.

How did I get to this point? How did I grow from being the dutiful little sister, the Southern raised, Christian girl into a person who stood up for herself? All of my upbringing taught me to be submissive, subservient, subtracted. I was a minus. I didn’t exist. My opinion didn’t matter. I suspect this is normal for many women.

I started reading. Books are my lifeline, my bridge. I first read “Difficult Conversations.” That was hard. It was about facing the problem head on and learning how to talk with people and how to express your own viewpoint. At the same time I was taking a class about dialogue as opposed to debate. This was a very painful time. It was as if I was breaking myself into new pieces so I could rearrange myself into a whole new person, a person of peace.

I then went to the classics. “Codependent No More” and then “Boundaries.” I even read a dog-training manual. They all said the same thing. You have to start from a position of self. You have to know what you like and what you don’t like. You need to be aware of what kind of behavior you were willing to accept and what wasn’t OK. And you had to be
consistent. You had to use “I statements” and say how you felt. Well, the dog training manual didn’t say that last part. But it did talk about being calm and assertive.

Being assertive isn’t the same as being domineering. Saying “No” as a full sentence (Thanks to Anne Lamott for those words) is not a bad thing. In fact, learning that can save your life. At the very least, it can stop you from disappearing.

Palm Sunday “Crucify him!”

Holy Week is the busiest season in the church year. In the week before Easter you can really get into the highs and lows of this pivotal time in Christ’s life. Participating helps you understand His sacrifice and love in a way you just can’t get by just reading the Gospels.

Something I liked about the Episcopal church is that it is participatory. Even on a regular Sunday you are engaged in the worship experience. I believe this is a warm up for the rest of the week. One of the dismissals said by the deacon or priest at the end of the service is “Let us go forth into the world rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.” Another is “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” This isn’t just to let you know it is time to go eat doughnuts
and drink coffee. This is a call to action. Go forth. Tell other people that God is real, that He loves us. And then put that love into action.

Part of understanding that sacrifice and love is to be found in Holy Week. It starts the week before Easter on Palm Sunday. Normally the Gospel is read by the deacon or priest. On this Sunday it is read by the congregation. Everybody has a part. There are large parts and small parts but all are important. The hardest line is this –
“Crucify him!” We all say that. This is our savior, our Lord we are talking about. This is us condemning Jesus to death. This is us choosing Barabbas, a murderer, over Jesus, whose only crime was to heal and raise people from the dead. With these words we choose death over life.

How often do we do this? How often do we choose the murderer over the savior? How often do we choose to go with the crowd rather than listen to that “still small voice” that Elijah heard in the midst of the storm? Every time we choose the ways of the world over the ways of God we are choosing death over life. Every time we do this we are rejecting the sacrifice and the love of God.

How do we do this? Every time we talk about someone behind their back we are bearing false witness. Every time we talk down to someone we are not loving them as ourselves. Every time we rely on our own abilities rather than trusting God we are not showing God the love He deserves.

I once read an interesting story in a book called “Crazy Love” by Francis Chan. He told a story about his grandmother and how she wouldn’t go to see popular movies. She was concerned that Jesus might come while she was there and catch her wasting time. Now, I’m not saying that you can’t watch a Godzilla film. But I am saying that it is a good idea to be mindful of your time. This life has no reset button. These bodies are limited and fragile. How you spend your days is how you spend your life. Are you spending them mindfully or mindlessly? How much time do you spend building up the kingdom?

I admit that I’m not very good at it. Sometimes I don’t know how to be helpful. Sometimes I’m very selfish and I don’t want to donate my money or time. And then sometimes I remember that it isn’t my money. It isn’t my time. Every moment I have is a gift from God. My ability to work is also a gift. When I see it that way I feel pretty bad about how stingy I can be.

Then I remember that even my stinginess is forgiven. My petty hoarding of “my” money and “my” time is forgiven. And I could stop right there and bask in that amazing, unwarranted, eternal gift, but I think that more is expected of me. I think that more is expected of us. I think we are called to make Christ visible. We are to take that gift and pay it forward.

The Greeks have a belief that it is good to entertain strangers with sweet desserts. They follow the idea that they might be entertaining angels unawares. What if we saw everybody that way? What if we saw everybody as the child of God that they are? Then we would truly be following the commandments to show love.

Yoga Sestina

Stuck in the center of your garden is a wooden staff.
Perched nearby in the shade is a mossy stone frog.
His head is shaped like a neat triangle
and the afternoon brings a visiting pigeon.
Open the rain slicked wooden gate
to the garden and in will stride a warrior.

Your stone faced warrior
needs no weapons, no staff
to open her heart`s gate.
Within her rests a frog
that can fly higher than any pigeon
found in any city triangle.

Who needs city squares when you have a triangle?
Three equal sides is enough for a warrior
who does battle with slate grey pigeons
and wields a pen like a staff.
That ancient forgotten stone frog
will soon be hopping out of that torii gate.

Sometimes it isn’t a doorway so much as a gate
that is shaped with three sides, a square triangle.
Through it can stride a monk, a poet, or a frog.
It is much harder if you are a warrior. 
Sometimes you get tripped by your staff.
Drop it and fly free like a pigeon.

Nothing is freer than a pigeon.
They can roost on any gate.
They work for nobody, they are not staff
in any business triangle.
Strutting their freedom, they are Zen warriors
and are rarely eaten, unlike the frog.

Fancy restaurants serve frog.
Only desperate people eat pigeon.
You are that warrior.
You are standing at the gate.
Within this holy triangle
lies the secret of the staff.

Frog, you are standing before a gate. 

Like a pigeon, you are above any trinity, any triangle.

You are awake, warrior, where is your staff?

I’m angry. There. I’ve said it.

I’m getting tired of people telling me that I am angry. They also tell me that “frustrated” equals “angry”. I’d like to think with an English degree I could use better words than “angry.” “Angry” is such an ugly word. So gauche. So Jerry Springer white trash. Nobody wants to be “angry.” It doesn’t have any style. OK, sometimes I’m upset or unhappy that things aren’t going the way I think they should. Does that make me “angry”? My husband says that I get angry at him. This is really embarrassing. Is “embarrassing” yet another word for “angry?”

Am I not justified in my anger? Am I not allowed to be upset/frustrated/unhappy that things don’t go the way I think they should? Am I not allowed to be upset about how life doesn’t go as I plan?

Is telling me I’m “angry” another way to control me? Is it the new term for what I heard in my high school and college years – “You think too much.” Boyfriends who said that were dismissed quickly.

My spiritual director thinks I should say I’m angry. My pastoral care teachers think this too. Funny, I feel OK. Pretty good, until some authority figure thinks I should think I’m angry. Right now the thing that makes me angry is people thinking I’m angry.

I get frustrated when folks won’t try to help themselves. I see my obese coworkers who are pre-diabetic sneaking cupcakes from the break room. They have noticed all the work I have done to get better (I used to be 200 pounds). They comment frequently about how they wish they could get in shape. Then they sit and read all of their lunch while there is a great walking path right outside the break room door. Every hindrance they name I can find a solution for but then they come up with another excuse. I get frustrated with them. Does this mean I’m angry? Is “angry” the same as getting upset with someone who says they want to get better but refuses to take action? Is it “angry” to note that the American way says to do whatever you want, and then take a pill later? No work required.

Perhaps “anger” is tied to attachment. The world is not like how I think it should be. It isn’t that someone has something I think is mine. Part if it is that they aren’t doing things the way I think they should. They put don’t put stuff back where it came from, so I can’t find it when I need it. They have their music on too high so it annoys me. Is “annoyed” another word for “angry?”

Maybe I am angry. Maybe I should say so. I’m angry when people don’t do what they say they are going to do. I’m angry when I have to return something that isn’t what I ordered. I’m angry when a transaction shows up on my credit card bill that I didn’t expect. I’m angry when people expect me to pay for their laziness. I’m angry when I find something that I bought and lost, only to have bought another one. I’m angry when people refuse to take care of their health and then seem surprised that they get sick. I’m angry when people fritter away their lives on meaningless things.

Perhaps my anger is the reason I write. Perhaps my anger spurs me on to try to make changes within myself and within the world. Maybe there is a lot of power in being angry. Sometimes anger can be transformative. Sometimes it is the fuel that makes change happen.

I remember a story of a horrible, tragic car accident. The wife was pregnant and had gone into labor early. Her husband was out of town on a business trip. She didn’t have a babysitter for their young son, so he was in the car as well as she drove to the hospital. There was an accident. Only the young son survived, but he was badly hurt. When the father was able to get to see his son, he was numb. His entire family had been reshaped in an instant. His hopes and dreams for the future had crumbled away. It was days later that he changed and started to be angry. The chaplain thought this was an excellent sign – that then he could begin to accept his loss and go on. I remember this surprised me. “Anger” is good?

Perhaps “anger” is related to grief. Therapists tell us that anger is one of the stages of grief – but perhaps anger itself can teach us about grief. Perhaps anger points to a sense of loss, of not-right-ness. Perhaps knowing that can give us a sense of those situations that need attention. I think anger is the opposite of complacency. I think anger can be used as a force to change unjust situations.

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was angry. He was angry that people were being treated badly simply because of the color of their skin. His anger helped lead a movement of nonviolent resistance that fostered change. If he hadn’t been angry, he would have simply accepted things the way they were and let them be. People would still be separate and not equal under the law. Jesus got angry at all the hypocrisy he saw – about how the letter of the law was being followed but not the spirit.

Maybe it is a good idea to get in touch with your anger. Maybe anger is a useful tool. Maybe I should stop being embarrassed by my anger and just start naming it for what it is. And then I should learn how to focus it and direct it so it can be used as a force for change.

Process, not Product.

I had a nice discussion with friends last night about creativity and how important it is to not edit at the beginning of the project. Put down a rough outline or a sketch. Then fill in. Then edit. If you edit at the start you will never get your project built. Yes, a strong foundation is good. But the best part is that writing, music, beading, painting – whatever art – isn’t a building. You can rearrange it, especially if you are creating in a digital format.

If you think too much about the end you will never get past the beginning – and you may never start. Rarely do my creations end up the way I expected. Over twenty years of jewelry making has taught me that, and I’m learning it is true about writing as well. Even if I have the beads, once I put them together they look different. This texture doesn’t look right with this color. Or I don’t have the skill to connect them the way that I want. I’ve learned to do it anyway with what I have. Work on it. Just keep going forward. The process is more important than the product.

What you make this week will (probably) look stupid to you in a month. That is OK. You are a different person a month later. Don’t rip your creation apart. Make something else. If you rip it apart and try to remake it, you are just making the same thing over and over. Make something new. That way you are adding, not subtracting. You will constantly be growing and changing and developing. Each time you create you are learning more about the medium and about yourself. Each time you create you are growing.

I’ve learned it is OK to revisit a theme. Whether you are creating with beads, words, or musical notes, themes come up and need to be worked on. It is fine to revisit that theme and give it a different treatment. Perhaps this time you will find the “right” way to express that idea. Or not. That is OK too. Keep working and pushing and trying. Grow forward, not back.

I suspect creating is a lot like having a child. You don’t know how it is going to look or act or be once it comes out. It isn’t about controlling the creation – it is about being part of it, and letting it develop naturally through you. Part of the delight (or frustration) with being a creative person is that the result surprises you. It ends up how it ends up. Rarely when you are creating do you get to “have it your way”, in spite of what Burger King says. The way your creation ends up is the way it either needs to be, or it is the best you can do right now. The more you practice your craft, the better you will get. It is helpful to think of each attempt as a stepping stone, not a stumbling block.

Perhaps I’m trying to be a midwife to your creativity. Don’t fight it. Let it happen. Don’t push too soon. Breathe.

Everybody has to start somewhere. Mozart didn’t create amazing music right from the start, right? OK. Maybe he did. That’s why we call him a child prodigy. But the fact that we have a special word for it means it is unusual. I seem to remember that he had a LOT of music lessons, though. The only difference between you and the expert is a lot of time and work. Get going! Make stuff!