Come Back

 

There have been two experiences in my entire life which have lent themselves to a still brain, and one of those two is having a tattoo done. I’ve heard about the endorphins released by the pain of a tattoo, some people getting some sort of high off of it, giddy and manic, but I had the opposite result.

It’s like I’m the queen of paradoxical effects.

The other experience, incidentally, is NOT sex. In fact, I’m a terrible partner because my brain is anywhere EXCEPT in the moment, which really doesn’t make it different from any other of my every day moments.

Focus, like everything else for me, is a work in progress, I guess. 

For my first tattoo, an unwitting gift from my parents for my fortieth birthday (“A tattoo?! I thought you were buying yourself a freezer!” also, “Thanks Mom and Dad!”) I had chosen a feminine derivative of the Fool card from the Gilded Tarot deck, illustrated by Ciro Marchetti.  and I wanted her big. Very big. As if she were to begin a back piece that would be a story.

 Which is kinda what I have planned.  Bandage fluff and all: 

 

I had put it off for so long because I was/am still kinda deathly afraid of needles.  As the hour grew closer, my anxiety level soared to the point that I thought I was going to stop breathing; I even had a designated driver. But I sat. And sat. And sat and sat and sat.

Four and a half sitting hours.

After the initial “What the shit? Everybody lied! This does so hurt; what the hell am I doing? I want to get the eff-ewe-see-kay out of here now!” my brain did the most wonderful thing ever:

It lay still.

It was QUIET. Or at least it whispered rather than screamed.

Sure, the occasional bubble of thought showed up, but I had this feeling of just watching it float right on by. I was detached, merely an observer–a non-fidgety, non-leg-shaking observer.

It was glorious.

 I had the thought that I might be able to achieve that state once more without wearing half a week’s salary. Eureka! I’d just meditate. Just. I’d just meditate, as if it were that easy. 

I tried as long as I could; I was so very, very frustrated.  So, I practiced like maybe three times.  Four times, tops. 

Fast forward about four years later, and I tried again. As part of this life 2.0 concept, I started meditating again, and I’ve been at it for nearly five months now. So, yay.

I have not found enlightenment—even after nearly 150 days!!— nor have I found the secret of life. I still can’t manage to ignore the mosquitoes or the dogs barking at the sun on the porch or a car driving by five miles away.

But I have discovered two magic words:

Come back.

 

Two syllables, almost elegant in their simplicity.

I know that we are not our thoughts; we are the thinkers who have those thoughts. Many–if not all–of them are habits, not really all that different from sleeping late—no more and no less than habit. We just tend to identify with our thoughts more than other habits.

We are not our thoughts any more than we are not the act of tying our shoes.

 I had a moment of frustration—just one moment in a long line of moments of frustration where meditation is concerned—and one of those not-so-fleeting thoughts was that meditation—at least for me with my very-monkey-mind, is in essence the art of starting over. Since starting over is my superpower, maybe I’ve gotten the gist of it after all.

I will inhale, attempting to quiet my mind, but I’ll have a thought, and that thought becomes seven becomes forty-nine: 

talking me down the road and over the river and through the woods and to grandmother’s house–dashing through the snow to the Fight Club but no one is supposed to talk about Fight Club, that’s because it’s located in Wakanda and Walter White is the government agent trying to help T’Challa and Kevin Smith has taken the Iron Fist—thank GOD—so Loras the Knight of Flowers will finally, finally shut up about his freaking Chi but I haven’t had a really good po-boy this year have I even had a bad one? Man would I love a half-shrimp and half-oyster po-boy—you always have to get it half-and-half because most of the time, the oysters aren’t cooked right, and at least you’ll have half a shrimp po-boy.

 So there’s that.

It takes me a bit to realize that my thoughts have run away with me again.

 And then I exhale. I’m certain I’ve been holding my breath this entire time and, for the merest moment, I am able to inhale without the run-on-sentence-from-hell attaching itself to my breath. But as soon as my lungs push that breath out, my mind is off running again.

But I then I inhale again, starting the process all over again.

But then one time, NOT at band camp, something happened. Some part of me or the mosquito that’s biting me or the breeze whispers “Come back.”

That’s it. Just “come back.”

And lo and behold, I did, my mind settling for two heartbeats, a single moment had stretched just one heartbeat longer.  Perhaps more importantly, I didn’t have to wait to exhale to find attention for my breathing again.

It’s only for a moment and then my brain is off again, but that moment is real.

 

 

The Art of Not-So-Successful Meditation

My brain is almost NEVER still.

I can’t even drink with any significance; once the booze is in, my filters are thrown to the wind, and everyone within a fifty mile radius knows exactly how much my brain isn’t still.  Also, how strong my filters are when I’m not intoxicated. 

For the past several months, I have been trying to meditate, trying being the operative word. See above.

In the process of attempting to become more focused, I chose to attempt meditation. Many, many times. These days, it is often before the sun comes up. On this particular day, the rooster ‘cross the woods had yet to crow, and I was attempting to focus on my breath.

I swear, I think I stop breathing when I try to do this. Or I breathe too much, and between the “in” and the “out,” I find myself thinking about something that happened the day before, what I wanted for dinner, when I could rent Deadpool 2  from Redbox, if my diva dog had stolen another shoe, how my parents were, thoughts of a friend I hadn’t seen in far too long, how I could use a piece of chocolate right now

Anything but the breath.   

Remember this scene from Eat, Pray, Love

 

That is so me. Nearly five months later, and that’s still SO me. 

 I had read in the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying that one should keep her eyes open during meditation: eyes pointed up if she needed to avoid falling asleep, eyes pointed downward if she needed less stimulation.

 My mind, as per its usual Talledega, raced, turning on two wheels as it made the corner.  I chose down…

…only to see a single winged ant, one of the myriad of bugs that are drawn to the porch light in the darkness. A three ringed binder, full of scribbles, doodles, and whatchamacallits lay open, awaiting my next burst of weird thoughts. I watched as the ant landed and began traveling the paper as if it were a prairie. Leisurely in its exploration, it strolled along, pausing, its bent antennae twitching. Apparently, it was weighing its options.

 Dare it go toward the blue and red flower doodles, or would this courageous adventurer keep to the notebook lines?

It chose neither, as it turned out. 

It walked along, its legs giving a jaunty jerk (think Jiminy Cricket), reaching the edge of the notebook paper. It stopped. And waited. And waited some more. After what seemed to be ten minutes (more likely to be 10 seconds) it took a u-turn and headed in the direction from which it had just come. So much for meditation. The insect kept going until it hit an invisible wall at the edge of the paper once again. As I hummed Foreigner’s “Feels Like the First Time,” (REALLY. So much for meditation) I watched as it turned, barely pausing at all, and began retracing its steps. Again and again it strolled along the edge of the notebook paper, stopping only to turn around and continue walking to the other edge.  

I felt like I was witnessing something private, something that made me some sort of Peeping Tom, but I couldn’t stop watching this one-ant parade. I couldn’t end my fascination with its repetition of patterns, again and again. It continued this route until it chose differently, veering from its established routine and climbing aboard the center metal ring.

What I know about ants I could probably fit in a teaspoon with room to spare, but I did know that this little thing had wings. Why didn’t it just fly away? It clearly wanted to leave the paper, but it wouldn’t go over the edge. Was it scared? Did its eyes see a vast cliff that was in reality only two or three times its length?

Why didn’t it just use its damn wings and fly to where it wanted to go?

It was so easy for me, with distance and vision that saw the “big picture” (or at least the whole notebook), to find a solution to its problem. 

I found myself pondering how many times had I come up against something that seemed so impossible and I just wouldn’t step over the edge into a waiting  world of possibility. I wondered if there were a big cosmic “Me” watching, also puzzled, thinking that the little “me”  had the solution but I just refused to use it. That from “Me’s” perspective, the fall wasn’t nearly as dangerous as it appeared to be to “me.”

The whole scene reminded me of a quote by Rumi: 

I set the alarm, and tried again. This time, I kept my eyes closed. 

The ant was gone when I opened them. 

Three Questions to Ask When We’re Ready to Give Up

While having an above ground pool has been one of the most beneficial purchases I have ever made, keeping it clean can be a pain. I’ve taken steps to make it easier, such as installing a salt water pump and a sand filter (both highly, highly recommended), but with all of the rain we get, there is always, always trash, whether it’s the billion, billion bugs that have suicided in my pool or the leaves that have thrown themselves down in either mourning or suttee-by-water.

Sometimes there is sediment. Sometimes there is a lot of sediment. 

After two attempts at obtaining decent pool vaccuums, I’ve given up. The first one was a rechargeable one (through a USB no less. Who the hell thought that was a good idea?) that exploded in the pool. Literally. It burst outward. The second was  hose-powered and too heavy for me,  so now I take a broom, sweep the walls and floor, skim what I can out, and leave the rest for the filter.

The first time I tried it, however, after nearly a week of constant rain, the water was clear, but it looked like my pool had a brown bottom. (I know there’s a joke in there, but I’ll put it aside for the moment). I got in with the broom and started sweeping. All the junk and sediment rose, and it looked horrible, like I would never get it clean. I would skim some of it out, and the filter would clean some more. When I checked the next day, again, the water appeared clear but there was junk at the bottom and I had to do it all over again. In fact, it took me almost a week of doing it every day to get it really clean.

 

Just as there is no magic pill for cleaning a pool, there is no magic pill for life. 

 

There’s no magic pill for justice, either, or for peace, or  for learning how to play the guitar or write, or even for weight loss, despite all the advertisements to the contrary.

There isn’t a magic switch, either, its position either granting light or withdrawing it. There is no magic barn, one of those places that we can be locked into until we’ve settled our differences—even if our differences are within ourselves.

To settle differences, to fix what we may perceive as broken, to learn a skill, to lay down our baggage–all of those things take work. Sometimes it’s damn hard work. It’s not a straight line, and it often includes those backward-looking steps.

 This is one of my favorite memes from Facebook:

Sometimes succeeding at something looks nothing like we expected.

When attempting to improve anything about ourselves or our world, we must act, but we must do so with a deep patience. We need to understand that if this attempt doesn’t work, or that attempt doesn’t work doesn’t mean that we should stop working.

Some work means that things appear worse before they are better. Like an abscess, somethings must be drained before they can heal.

And that can be painful. Very painful. But we can’t heal until we are rid of that infection. 

When we first commit to the work of improving ourselves or our world, we may face opposition or resistance. In fact, we’ll probably face a LOT of opposition or resistance. I’ve found that those two things appear almost immediately to challenge my commitment.

Whether it’s overwhelming odds, critics, or physical barriers or doubt or fear or lack of funds or lack of support, resistance is almost a surety. 

How do we know if that resistance is a sign that we should stop? How do we know when we’re actually doing something–even if the results are not visible yet–and we’re simply beating our heads against a wall? 

We can ask ourselves three things: 

 

 1. What are our motives?

             Why do we want to do this work to which we have committed?  What is its purpose? What do we hope to                              accomplish by doing it?  What is its overall benefit?

 2. What would things be like if we didn’t do this work?

            What would our life be like if we didn’t do it? Better, worse, or the same? Would the world improve without              our  effort?  Would we be satisfied if we didn’t do it?

 3. Should I involve others in this decision?*

            This one has a really big asterisk by it–or at least as big as I can make it for now. Normally, this is a no-                          brainer  for me: for the most part, I’d recommend not asking for advice. I’ve found I tend to ask advice from                          people  who, while they mean well, just don’t get me or get what I’m about.  If you have a friend or friends with                    whom you seem to jingle along the same jangle, then you might want to ask them because  they might make                          good  sounding boards. 

              But…

             If we are working on improving the world, one of the best first steps we can take (doubt or no doubt) is to ask the                  people we’re directly trying to help if what we would like to do is what they actually need. Or, better yet, ask them                what would most benefit them. This strategy is called People-Centered Development.  

 

In the thick of things, sometimes it’s difficult for us to know when to press on and when to change tactics, direction, or even entire plans.  By being really honest with ourselves and searching for deep-down answers to those three questions, we can get at least a glimpse of how we should proceed. 

 

 

My Grandmother’s Hands

My grandmother loved through her hands.

Where my grandfather’s hands were as rough and calloused as the work he did, my grandmother’s were as soft as the fine thread of her crochet.

She loved through her hands. Through laying her fragile, gnarled, and blue-veined hand over mine. Through the hours and hours of crocheting, an afghan with my school colors, a framed piece of filet crochet spelling my name and year of high school graduation. Through table runners and potholders, curtains and baby clothes. Through the peas and beans they would shell as we sat on the porch, talking about goings-on, as we worked our way through my grandfather’s garden harvest. 

 

 

My grandmother’s hands made the best pancakes the world has ever known,  golden and brown in all the right places. I watched as the butter sizzled and batter bubbled “just right.” Her hands could flip them with no drop wasted.

They made gumbo and peeled the shrimp for them. We’d converge upon her kitchen, draping ourselves where we could to share company and food. They made liver, and we would flee. 

Her hands baked pecan and pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving and Christmas, almost always making a lemon meringue especially for my father. It was—and still is, I think—his favorite.

They made candy at Christmas and cheese dip at New Year’s. I didn’t know until I was in my 20’s that “MeeMaw’s cheese dip,” also the best in the world, was made by other people. It was called Rotel dip and appeared at a work pot luck.

I was aghast.

I wondered how she and my grandfather were married for so long, more than 60 years. I once watched her as she crocheted, the television blaring and my grandfather blaring along with it. When he left the room, those hands reached up and turned on her hearing aid.

Those hands touched her face next to her brilliant blue eyes as they shone, brightening at the sight of my niece and nephew. Those hands cradled them as infants, waved to and played with them as toddlers, and, with the cooperation of her arms, hugged them fiercely as children. 

My grandmother loved through her hands.

She tried to teach me how to crotchet once; but I couldn’t seem to master the art. I made a single-stitch not-so afghani afghan once–king-sized–and sighed in satisfaction that I had accomplished so daunting a task.  True, the stitches ran like a drunk man rototilling a garden: all weaves and bobs and without a single even stitch between them.  

But I finished it, thanks to those hands and her patience. 

She had tried to teach me how to make pralines as well, but I didn’t have the experience to know how to add this ingredient “until it looked just right,” or stir it until it “felt just right.” Small wonder; her hands had been making them for longer than I had been alive.   

I made my first unsupervised batch of pralines this week. The smell of them transported me, and I was back in her tiny, blue-tiled kitchen, watching her hands as they poured the chopped pecans into the heavy gray pot, as they held the wooden spoon. I remembered the brown bubbles popping as the kitchen filled with the scents of our Southern Christmas: pecan pralines and my grandmother. I didn’t know the “just right,” part of it, but they were almost as shiny and beautiful as hers were.   
This picture was taken at my grandmother’s 93rd birthday and captures the beauty and essence of three of the strongest women I  know. All three of them have loved through their hands. 

While my grandmother passed some time ago, the legacy of those hands is immortal.  

The Dream, the Doubt, and the Dance

One of the first things I realized when I really began my work toward Life 2.0 was that I wasn’t really doing any work toward that dream life I wanted. I have a full-time job, but it isn’t my passion.

My dream life consisted of supporting myself through writing, forging a truly creative life, traveling, enjoying better health, having a positive impact upon the world, and maybe, I don’t know, even being somewhat financially stable. This wasn’t all of the dream, but it was a really good start.

I wanted to have work—and not just a job—that made me want to jump out of bed in the morning, jitterbugging with joy the morning (or afternoon as my dream would have it), ready to accomplish great things. I wanted to be excited to be up and about in the world.

But I lacked integrity.

One of the Mirriam-Webster definitions of integrity is “being whole or undivided.”  The truth is, I was divided. I said I wanted that sort of life, but my actions weren’t supporting that sort of life. They lacked integrity.

That’s the opposite of integrity: when our intentions and our actions are not aligned.

Something—many things—needed to change. Rather than tackle everything at once and ensure neural short-circuiting and guaranteed failure, I decided to attack the problem—the problem being my lack of integrity in this sense—in stages.

First of all, I accepted the fact that I couldn’t live the life I wanted to have right now, not completely, but I could—if I really wanted to do so—live a smaller version of that life right now. A microcosm of a life. So I went back to the first part of what I wanted my life to look like:

#1 Supporting myself as a writer. 

I had to face some harsh truths.

First, I couldn’t support myself through writing if I lacked focus. I have about 1000 things started and nothing finished, and that just wouldn’t cut it if I wanted to move forward. I had the habit (and, ahem, still do, but to a lesser extent) of starting and stopping nearly every little thing that floated through my head. While I had picked up some odd jobs here and there, those opportunities came about mostly by chance. They weren’t a product of my actively and mindfully working toward that goal. My odd jobs couldn’t pay the water bill reliably, much less a house payment.

My first goal was to wake up early. I had many near-misses until I finally got to the point of waking up with more time than just the minutes required to run through the shower, throw on some (semi) clean clothes, and make it to work. This was probably in February of this year (2018). Give or take.

A few months later, I had established a somewhat usual routine of waking up early. Let me stress that I am SO not a morning person, but my job has had me on a day schedule for almost a decade now. It’s quiet and dark and allowed me to get some work in—or at least dawdle—before heading to my job. So, my first goal of waking up early, fairly usually was a semi-success.

Too bad I spent the time reading headline news. And playing Candy Crush.

And I stumbled, losing focus. I was floating, some ethereal, nondescript goal somewhere out in front of me. Somewhere. At some point in the future. Something. 

It took me a few months to come back around and begin moving forward.   Sure, I was waking up early but not really accomplishing much else.  So, time to set another goal, this time actually with a definable goal. Thumbing through the Michael Hyatt book, I realized I had lost sight of any sort of plan, regardless how gossamer they might have been. 

As I said in my welcome post,  I have grand vision but I screw up a lot. Many, many of those screw ups are because I have the tendency to be crippled by doubt and fear. But I’m also really clumsy. And I drop shit. A lot. And stumble. Also a lot.

But anyway.

I have the tendency to start things and not finish them. Sometimes I think it’s because I unconsciously fear what would happen if I finished them.

What if no one read it? Or liked it? What if a LOT of people liked it?

I think that second one is actually my fear. If people liked it, there would be expectation, triggering another round of the fear and doubt. But sometimes I think it’s because I get bored. Easily. I want to learn everything; I want to read everything and write everything. But that is not realistic. At all.

So in order to tackle some of those doubts and fears, I began dealing with my emotional fucksticks, or as Michael Hyatt called it, the emotional domain. I needed to get out of my own way and chill with the fear and doubt and boredom. I needed to find a simple thing, a simple habit, that would yield positive results.  So I started working with affirmations.  

They sound silly, but, I figure if you repeat something often enough, sooner or later, it will become true. After all, we’ve seen a LOT of that in the past two or so years.  

 My first affirmation was “I love myself.”

This sounded ridiculous to my ears. It STILL sounds ridiculous, nearly four months later. It was painful, absolutely painful, to say at first. At my first “I,” my Adam’s apple grew how Sea-Monkeys were supposed to grow.  I was pretty sure it was the size of the Epcot Center, and the words would get stuck, unable to navigate around the giant golf ball. I lost my voice, quite literally.

As the sun begin to peek its head through the trees, I spent forever analyzing the mimosa leaves backlit by sunshine. I watched as the flies cannoballed into my coffee. I wondered if they would stay away if I did the Truffle Shuffle.

I am super-duper good at resisting. Through distraction (Hellooo Doctor Who, it’s been so long) to reading, to eating even. I can always find some method to avoid anything.

Maybe that’s my third superpower.

But I stuck with the decision to dance with affirmations.  After a while, the sound of it out loud was still ridiculous, but at least I wasn’t choking to death. The process of beginning affirmations was not like a rom-com when the guy wakes up (isn’t it almost always a guy?) realizing that he’s loved the girl all along. There was no magic moment, no singular moment (so far, anyway) that I’ve yelled, “Woo-hoo! I love myself and feel confident and grand, and able to take on whatever life throws at me.  So, come at me bro!” 

No. Nothing like that.

But I continued. I still continue, although the affirmations have been changed up a bit at the beginning of a new month.  I kept at it despite seeing no evidence whatsoever that it was doing any good at all.  Because I know that I know that I know that by repeating something often enough, it becomes believable, even if it’s not objectively true. 

Case in point: the idea that Barack Obama was born in Kenya.  Or that vaccines cause autism.  In both cases, there was a single source of the original premise and everything following was based on a false premise.   There was proof that both statements were false: an actual birth certificate (and not the fabricated one) in the first case; several studies which could not reproduce the results of the original study and retractions from both the author of the first study and the journal in which it was published.

But the beliefs grew and grew and one day grew up to be a beanstalk that reached the clouds. 

Or something. 

Even if the premise of the affirmation is not objectively true in the beginning (and then again, why would we need to convince ourselves of something if we already believed it?) it can become true for all intents and purposes, because affirmations don’t necessarily change things objectively, at least I don’t think so. Affirmations tend to change how we subjectively see things, which changes things in a sense. 

If I say a billion, billion times, “I have more money than Scrooge McDuck,” it won’t simply become true because I said it a bunch of times. I mean, it’s not very likely to drop from a balloon over my head at any given moment. But saying something to that effect can change the way I see money and lead to potential ideas to generate income.  

Because “I love myself” is subjective, it’s measured indirectly by actions that stem from that love rather than measured objectively by having more than or less than money than Scrooge McDuck. I don’t even know how much money Scrooge McDuck has, but apparently someone tried to figure it out.

So I kept at them, making tally marks on my paper for each time I repeated the phrase.  And after a couple of months, small, barely noticeable things started happening. 

In fact, clueless as I was and so prepared for nothing to change, I didn’t even notice then until far after the fact.  I didn’t even realize things were a-changin’ until after they had already changed. 

Like saying “No,” occasionally to unreasonable requests.  Or caring less for what people thought of me. Or finding more things for which to be grateful.  Or pushing past what had been perceived limits.  Or losing  weight without particularly trying to do so. 

Little things. Subtle things. 

I began wondering in an abstract way what I deserved in this life. Did I deserve to be a writer? Did I deserve a better job? Did I deserve a vacation, something I hadn’t done for 8 years (or more) when I took off a Friday and a Monday and took a road trip to Atlanta? I didn’t have answers to them, but I was asking, which was more than I was doing four months ago when I started. 

It’s a sort of beginning, anyway. 

Random Only Semi-Weird Shit

 

I was first introduced to affirmations while leading a book group many years ago at a Unity church. The group discussion was on Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life, a book I don’t think I read a single word of before I began leading the group.  In addition to learning mediation skills, I learned that you don’t have to buy into a whole ideology to pluck the good things from it: discernment is key.  Some of Hay’s statements were a little woo-woo for me, but I did find some things that helped with assertiveness, compassion, and dealing with grief.  You can find 101 of her affirmations here.