Tuesday, December 18, 2018

When it's hard to get into the spirit

My nephew Finn's amazing Recycled Christmas Bulb wall hanging. 

Every year, a couple of weeks before Christmas, my sister Laura hosts a gingerbread house-making party for our family. My siblings and their kids and usually a family friend or two or three fill Laura's house. We bring food (heavy on all the carbs) and candy (for gingerbread house decorating) to share. The girls' cousins (now 13 strong, ranging in age from 6 months to 23 years old) race around in various states of over-sugared glee (the younger-than-12 set anyway). The older ones vie for baby cuddles and crack immature jokes with their equally immature aunts. 

Laura's oldest kids festoon the house with snowflakes and paper chains and various Christmasy festoonery. It's noisy with laughter and pattering feet and conversation. It smells piney and gingerbready (Laura makes all the houses from scratch!) and it's all warm and toasty. By the end of the party the floor around the dining room table is covered in icing and crushed bits of peppermint and M&Ms. 

It is one of the most anticipated days of the year in our household. Why? Because cousins! Candy! Presents! And Candy and Cousins! 

At one point during this year's party, I'd retreated upstairs in search of a peaceful spot to nurse Annie. We'd settled in, when I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. "Oh, I'm sorry!" my 12-year-old nephew said when he spotted me. "I was just looking for someplace quiet."

I swiveled the office chair I was on so that my back was to him.

"You're not bothering me," I told him, figuring he'd make a hasty retreat from the awkward horrors of a breastfeeding aunt. 

Annie and I returned to our business. 

It was quiet again for a couple minutes.

Then I was surprised to hear a voice.

"It's hard to get into the spirit."

I looked over my shoulder. There was my nephew, sitting on the top step, looking pensive and withdrawn.Not quite sure how to proceed. I wanted to know more, but thought he might spook easily. What with him being a sixth grade boy and me being a lamish 37-year-old minivan driving mom type.

"Like, hard to get into the holiday spirit?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said. 

"This time of year can be tough," I responded. "Because sometimes you feel like it should be more than it is."

"Yeah," he said again. And then he elaborated. How a couple years ago, making gingerbread houses was fun. But now he wasn't into it. How he didn't go trick-or-treating this year, even though some of his friends went. How he just wasn't into the things he had been into. 

Man, did my heart break for this kid. 

I remembered this place. Walking that tight wire between childhood and adulthood and feeling so wobbly and gawky. So lost.

Twelve, 13, 14. Middle school. I thought I'd left that place behind (twice now!) but it keeps popping up. 

I feel as if there are several camps in middle school.

There are the kids who embrace getting older. Overnight, they start caring about fashion and makeup. They seem to know about music and pop culture and memes.

There are kids who seem to walk the line gracefully- neither leaping head first into adulthood or wallowing in immaturity. 

Then there are the kids who cling desperately to childhood. Or maybe they're not even desperately clinging. Maybe they didn't even realize they were supposed to change until it was abundantly apparent that everyone else seemed to be changing.

With my "Animaniacs" T-shirt, a rubber frog named Newton and a Tic-Tac Box named Bob in my pocket, you can guess which kid I was. 

It was like I knew, I knew, life would never be like it was before. The silliness. The earnestness. The innocence. It was all going to evaporate into an after school special haze of gossip, crushes, fights and/or threats of fights, substance abuse and drama. Drama. DRAMA.

I wanted none of it (with the exception, of course, of crushes which had to resemble every Disney movie I'd ever seen. Basically, some mild flirtation, a romantic song and maybe (maybe!) a chaste kiss). 

My nephew's not like me though. He engages in casual conversation with adults. He has a easy sort of worldliness about him that is probably 80 percent B.S. right now but contains traces of the man he'll become. 

He told me he feels like he's at a place where he's figuring out who he is as a person.

While that is exactly what every middle schooler is doing to some degree or another, I'm all but certain I had no awareness about my own journey of self-discovery. It just felt as if everyone else was moving on to mysterious teenagery things and I was left behind.

When you're 12 and 13 and 14, identity seems to be associated with a bunch of external labels. Whether you're popular or a jock or a theater kid or a student journalist (a title reserved only for those at the uppermost echelons of the social hierarchy, obviously). When you are in school, it felt super important to have a series of words to use to describe who you are as a person. 

Actually, as adults it's the same really. Except now it's called branding which makes it feel like it's more important. But let's be honest, today's #mommyblogger was yesterday's emo/goth kid. (And probably mommy blogging is an out of date reference... Because those people are so yesterday. Maybe it should be true crime podcaster? What are the cool kids doing these days? See! I still have no idea!) 

The Advent of social media bios have made this identity thing feel even more important. We all must be ready to deliver an elevator pitch of our innermost selves at any given moment. As if the words foodie, nomad, lifestyle influencer, wife, mom, teacher, coupon lover, feminist, crafter, dog lover, et. al. get to the bottom of who we are as individuals. It's so much pressure. And I'm just as guilty as succumbing to this pressure as anyone else. Remember how excited I was when I finally decided to call myself a writer, like, five minutes ago? Like the designation changed anything about who I was as a human being. Ahh, but it all felt so important!

I just finished reading "A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose" by Eckhart Tolle. I came across it somewhat randomly. I was reading an interview with RuPaul in Entertainment Weekly in which he was asked the question, "What book have you read over and over again throughout your life?" (Great question! Not that you asked, but "Where the Red Fern Grows".)

RuPaul answered:

"Because I’ve read it so many times, I listen to Eckhart Tolle’s "A New Earth" on audio book every night before I go to bed. I fall asleep to it, so it goes into my subconscious…. It’s life-changing and it helps you understand who you are and what you’re doing on this planet, and it also allows you to forgive other people, usually because other people are working out of their egos and fears. It gives you an opportunity to forgive."

RuPaul seems to be a person who is true to himself- and so probably a person worth listening to. Also, the idea of knowing what I'm doing on this planet and finding more opportunities for forgiveness both seemed like really good reasons to read the book.

So I did.

Tolle writes about how our egos are bossy and insistent that we define ourselves by what we have and what we do and is in a tireless search for affirmation and self-fulfillment. This fruitless quest leads to things like anxiety, depression, anger and jealousy. It damages our relationships with ourselves and each other and fails to helps us find the inner peace we're really after. Our sense of self is really an illusion, he writes. A story we tell ourselves over and over based on our memories and thoughts. 

At least that's how I read it. Tolle says the only way to move to a higher state of consciousness is to quiet our egos and live in the present moment. That our truest self is the person we already are right at this moment. 

Basically, if "A New Earth" was required reading in middle school where self awareness really starts to take shape, humans could probably avoid a lot of angst, crappy behavior and dumb fashion choices. 

On the other hand, life's a journey, right? Why should deny our youth their years of suffering? "Little Miss Sunshine" taught me that.

I told my nephew he already was the person he needed to be. A realization I've only just recently had for myself, but one I wished I known earlier in life. I'm fairly certain this  flew right over my nephew's head. And that's just fine. Because there's really no way to go through the weeds but going through the weeds and there's a lot to be learned when you're entrenched. 

My nephew talked about about how he himself wasn't popular, but that he was friendly with popular kids. He wondered how his little brother, who'd be joining him in middle school next year, would handle it. Would he be shocked about the fights? That there were kids who were using and dealing drugs? 

He talked about a kid he'd been friends with a couple years ago who'd drifted away since he started high school. He talked about his best friend and how he knew their friendship was important. How it was good they had each other to lean on and talk about "stuff" with. 

Stuff. That vague little word that encompasses all the emotions. All the craziness. All the small things. And all the big things, too, that are hard to put words to. 

I'm glad he has a buddy to talk about stuff with, too.

Because growing up ain't easy. Going from one year looking forward to gluing candy canes and gummy bears to a cookie house to the next just wanting some peace and quiet is confusing. Mourning the loss of that specific joy that comes with being a child at Christmas. Wondering whether you'll feel it again.

"You'll find the joy again," I told him. "It's just different when you're older."

"Like when you have kids?" he asked.

Sure, getting to relive your childhood through your own children is pretty sweet. But I'm not sure that's quite what I meant.

And maybe it has nothing to do with being older. Maybe it just has to do with being present, no matter what age you are.

That is to say, there's the potential to find as much joy in a Tuesday afternoon, as there is on Christmas. That is to say, joy is a constant. It's at our fingertips. It's in this breath. It's at the tip of your tongue always, I think. But. But! You can only see it if you're willing. Is "willing" even the right word? Maybe if you're open to it? Ugh. That's not quite right either. 

Joy isn't the lights or the gifts or the gingerbread houses. It's never the things. It's that moment of awareness about them.

I don't know that people experience more joy during the holiday season. Actually, despite the frenzy of lights, glitter, songs and sweet things, people often seem to feel less joyful this time of year. Or else we're more acutely aware of how we don't feel the holiday spirit we're supposed to be feeling.

But if you can't see the joy on a nondescript Tuesday- in the crows strutting to the peanuts you left for them on the front lawn. In your baby poking her little pink tongue out at you. In the giggles as your kids finally start getting the "grownup" jokes during your annual viewing of "Elf." If you don't see the joy right this instant. If it's something that will only come when the cookies are all made and the presents are all wrapped and you have the perfect ugly sweater and just the right recipe for eggnog- than it's futile to start looking in the noise of mid-December. Because you're looking in the wrong place. Or you're looking in the right place, which is to say right now, but you're wearing a pair of gray-tinted glasses. Your ego whispering in your ear, "is this it? Is this all there is?" 

This is it, folks. This right now. 

“Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance,” Tolle writes. 

If you need perspective on the significance or insignificance of the rest of the stuff- I recommend picking up a copy of "Astrophysics for People in a Hurry." 

“There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on any beach, more stars than seconds have passed since Earth formed, more stars than words and sounds ever uttered by all the humans who ever lived,” writes Neil deGrasse Tyson.

From a cosmological perspective, the fact that you still haven't found a gift for your kid's piano teacher really isn't a big deal. 

We are these wee things in this vast, vast place.

Tiny. But still made of the stuff of stars expelled at the Big Bang and inextricably connected to one another.

“Every cup that passes through a single person and eventually rejoins the world’s water supply holds enough molecules to mix 1,500 of them into every other cup of water in the world. No way around it: some of the water you just drank passed through the kidneys of Socrates, Genghis Khan, and Joan of Arc. 

How about air? Also vital. A single breathful draws in more air molecules than there are breathfuls of air in Earth’s entire atmosphere. That means some of the air you just breathed passed through the lungs of Napoleon, Beethoven, Lincoln, and Billy the Kid.” 

Here is where I find joy. 

Adorable branch snowman made by my crafty nephew Finn.

It is hard to get into the spirit of season, because we've been lead to believe the spirit of the season has to do with wish fulfillment and a checked off to-do list. It has to look a certain way. Be filled with certain things. Include certain people. That happiness is wholly dependent on external elements falling into place. 

I gotta say, I'm not buying it. As I write I'm surrounded by four little girls singing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" in their screamy-est voices. They are, apparently, bursting with the Christmas spirit. Oddly enough, their intensity, their stretched-taut anticipation of Christmas has not made the season any cheerier for me. I can do without listening to "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" for the 833rd time this week. It's not so much fun hearing Lily lament about whether Santa will deposit an American Girl Doll and a ginormous Harry Potter Lego set under the tree this year (spoiler alert: there will be disappointment come Christmas morning because, reality). They are just so loud right now. All. The. Time.

"Do less," I find myself telling them. Even though I know at their age I was exactly the same.

I feel like I just went off on a complain-y sort of tangent. Which kinda means I'm not following my own advice to find calm in the present moment.

You know, serenity now.

Right now.

It's tough to do all the time. 

I know this. My sister Laura (hostess of the aforementioned Gingerbread party) is drowning in stress. She has five kids at home (and a few more not at home). She drives a school bus full time, bringing the younger four along with her, which means they all have to be up and ready to go at 5:30 in the morning. Every morning. She's perpetually exhausted. And also perpetually worried about how ends will be met every month. And that's wording it gently. She burden she bears on her tired back is massive. 

When she texts me in a panic, I generally respond by telling her to breathe and reminding her that life won't be this way forever. Your basic mental triage. 

But there are days when that can only go so far. And the reality confronting her can't be remedied by trying to stay in the moment. 

She was in this place recently, in a tailspin. She wanted none of my reminders to breathe. None of my reassurances that whatever she was confronting at that moment would be resolved. So instead, I told her that I knew it was easier to reign in spiraling emotions when you feel a sense of security and are able to find quiet moments in your day. 

I know that in periods of my life when I've felt frayed and overwhelmed, trying to stay present felt almost impossible. 

So yeah, even though it's free and effective and it takes no more effort than pushing away all those racing thoughts about the crappy decisions you made decades ago and the looming crises you'll have to solve tomorrow, I know there are times when finding the joy of the moment is a luxury.

Certainly, reflecting on it in long rambling blog posts is a luxury.

I get bossy and self-righteous about life sometimes.
Especially, apparently to despondent nephews and stressed out sisters.

Laura and I came to an agreement recently. That when we were concerned about the other person, we'd simply pray for peace. That if it's answered, that prayer should solve whatever was ailing her in the exact right way. 

Anyway, you feel like you're falling short of the type of person you want to be right now and/or if the spirit of the season is evading you as it does so many people this time of year, you're not alone. Remember first and foremost you're already all the you, you need to be in this universe. And second, if you're willing and able, take note of your breathing in and out (I mean, you're gonna be breathing anyway... mine as well get more out of it ...) and give that little glowing spirit already inside of you a squeeze. 

Repeat as needed.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Racing toward and embracing stillness

Photo courtesy of Don DeBold/Flickr

I took the dog and the baby for a walk the other day. The sun was out and the wind not as bitter as it had been earlier in the week. 

Annie is my main conversation partner during the day- and while she can be quite chatty, there are points during the day where I crave more conversation than screeches, squeals and grunts. When I'm walking, I often remedy this by listening to a podcast- This American Life, Serial, RadioLab, TED Radio Hour- that sort of thing. That day I found an OnBeing interview with journalist and writer Pico Iyer on "The Urgency of Slowing Down," the title of which kind of makes me laugh because I feel as if my hours with Annie crawl by with not much done. But because we're in the thick of parenthood- two elementary-aged kids and an infant- time hasn't actually ebbed. The quiet hours of a school day might creep along, but the days and the weeks and the months sprint by. Life feels both urgent and slow. 

The conversation offered reminders about the power of stillness and quiet and reflection. 

Affirmation that spiritual growth is not only possible, but inevitable doing the rote work of caring for a newborn. Annie, like Lily and Jovie before her, demands I'm present. That I'm in each moment with her. She's fussiest when I'm distracted by my phone or books or tidying this and that. Happiest when our eyes are locked, acknowledging the candle glow of each other's souls. 

On a day when she seems bored with me, annoyed by the walls of our house, itchy in her skin, I tuck her into her carrier and we head outside. She quiets right away when we leave the mechanical din of the house behind for the outdoors. Even if the sounds outside our front door aren't as pastoral as I'd hope. There's always an airplane taking off. Always a chainsaw or a siren in the distance. Always a dog barking (let's be honest, often it's my own dog). It's imperfect. 

But it's where we are, so it's also where we must be. 

To get past the fact that I'm not hiking on a barely trodden trail in some untouched wilderness, I try to name as many sounds as I can. The plane and the chainsaw and the dog, of course, but also the chattering birds, the crackling leaves, the jangle of the dog's collar, my footsteps, the wind and the sound of our breathing. These sounds layered together create its own symphony and helps me stay present.

Which is the whole point of spiritual retreat anyway.

In the interview, Iyer shares about the regular visits he's made to a Benedictine hermitage- though he's neither Catholic nor a hermit– over the past 24 years. He says his time there steadies him when the world feels so tumultuous.  

“The point of gathering stillness is not to enrich the sanctuary or the mountaintop, but to bring that calm into the motion, the commotion of the world,” he writes.

God I love this idea. 

Lately, I've felt as if I do so little. I mean, aside from the small matter of rearing small humans. I've jettisoned so many of the things I used to do with such fury and devotion- freelancing, subbing, yoga, writing. For years I was so busy. 

And now ... now it's just so different. My brain has retreated in a way. I feel a bit hermit like. Like the person I thought I was has dissolved into someone else. And I'm just too tired to parse who that new someone is. And maybe that's for the best right now. I'm still only getting sleep in two or three hour stretches (Yes, I know. It's shocking. Shouldn't Annie be sleeping through the night by now? Ha! tell her that. And no, I don't want to discuss sleep-training methods. Unless, you're offering a room at the Marriott while you move in to coach my kid through crying it out. We're muddling through thankyouverymuch. One day I'll sleep again.) 

The point is, I'm just going to go ahead and live the days that are in front of me the way they are. I'll do this and trust that life will shift as it needs to, when it needs to. 

Trusting this is a challenge. Because looming in front of me is having to return to work in some way or fashion- whether it's freelancing again or finding a more traditional officey sort of job or something in between. I've been shoving the prospect of job hunting into a corner in order to preserve my sanity and the sweetness of my days with Annie. And also because it's not clear to me what my next move should be. 

My resume over the last eight or so years is ... what's the word ... eclectic. I've blogged about everything from office furniture to animal prosthetics. Interviewed social media influencers on topics ranging from travel to architecture to Big Data and managed various social media accounts for various small businesses. Created a few of WordPress sites nonprofits and friends. I also moonlighted as a farmhand and worked weddings. And then I was a substitute teacher for a little bit. There's no real career path here. And I guess that wasn't really the point- I pitched in to help ends meet. I need to do that again and I just feel as if I'm back at square one. Almost 37 and still no idea what I should be doing with my life. 

I'm trying not to let panic set in. 

I keep recalling this conversation I had back in college. I was working at an airport bookstore and my 12th grade government teacher stopped in on his way to... somewhere. We got to talking and he told me he had no idea wha the wanted to do with his life. Mr. Prowell will never realize what a gift this was to me- this anxious 20-something kid who couldn't quite picture the rest of her life. I'd always just assumed all adults had their shit figured out. The jobs they were doing were the jobs they were destined to do. Not so apparently. As it turns out, Mr. Prowell did not necessarily feel it was his destiny to teach AP Government. And looking back on how obnoxious I was in his class, I can't say I blame him. My one and only tattoo is this tiny speck of graphite on my wrist. I got it when I overreacted to some shenanigans of the kid in front of me and flailed my arms backward into my friend's pencil. I also remembered us singing Home Simpson's "Mr. Plow" song to him at various times (but instead of Mr. Plow, we sang Mr. Prowell... so clever.) 

Is it any wonder he wanted to pursue other ventures? 

Is it too much to ask that I find something that is satisfying, offers a reasonable work-life balance and is allows me to justify the time away from my kids in a way that feels comfortable to me? (I feel the need to note here, as I have before, that this is not at all in the slightest a commentary on working moms versus stay-at-home moms versus the moms in between and who does it better or worse and who loves their children more or less and who wins the prize for the most amazing mother/woman/human person in the universe. In my book you're all Wonder Woman fighting through the grind in a world that insists you do all the things and insists you can have it all without actually doing much at all to accommodate any of it. Be true to your heart and love your sisters in arms is all I'm saying. End rant). 

Where were we? 

Unreasonable expectations?

See, this is why I chase stillness. Because the alternative is facing the cacophony of bullshit in my brain. And really, I just want to cuddle Annie and be the one to pick up my kids at the end of their school day.

Lily told me I should open a restaurant in our back yard. This actually made me laugh out loud because Lily, a notoriously choosy eater, dislikes most of my cooking unless it features pasta and cheese in some sort of combination. She told me she'd help cook the food, but she wouldn't eat it.

I told her it was a fine idea, except I was pretty sure we'd be skirting some HOA rules in order to open the Back Yard Cafe (her name suggestion). I mean, if I'm not even allowed to keep a cow in the yard, I'm pretty sure an eatery is off the table. 

Right now I'm gathering stillness in a way. Which seems odd to write in the thick of newborndom, but there you have it. I'm gathering the stillness that I'll bring down from the mountain when it's time. And that seems just as important as all the other doing that I've neglected. I won't live in this bubble forever. But it's where I am for now.

Gathering stillness. And praying daily that whatever comes next will be what's best for my family. 

On that walk the other day, the interview I was listening to cut off abruptly. I looked at my phone to turn it back on. 

"Connection lost," it said. 

I put the phone in my coat pocket and laughed at the irony. 

Looking ahead, I watched as a heron landed in the creek. I listened to the geese honking to each other on the pond. I felt the sun on my face and smelled the warm, sweet smell of leaves decaying. 

Connection lost? Hardly.

This is the perfect present. 

When life speeds up again, as it inevitably will, I know I'll have this calm to bring into the commotion.