Category Archives: Family Bonds

All the Same

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Most of us have an interesting uncle. I’ve been thinking a lot about mine lately. Intelligent, quirky, hermited, disheveled. He walks a lot. He adored his wife, followed by a devastating divorce he never quite got over. He idolized his mother, quit a high-powered career to care for her for eight years. He leaves handwritten notes, staked with sticks and sellotape beside her grave.

He doesn’t spend holidays with family. In fact, we rarely see him despite his proximity. It’s always by accident and it’s been over 15 years for most of us. He doesn’t have an e-mail address. I’m not sure he has an answering machine. He volunteers at soup kitchens on holidays from what I hear.

He’s not hard to make fun of. He’s hard to relate to. It seems he gave up on life in general — and its core components of accomplishment, romance and connection — when his mother died. (If you believe the core components in life are limited to such.)

Who Talks to the Isolated?

He rarely speaks to anyone I know. For years, he even refused contact from his brothers, each within a short drive. But he always had a soft spot for my mother, and my mother, barring a few clashes, always reserved a soft spot for him.

My mom wouldn’t have classified herself as an intellectual. She was the epitome of extravert. A former beauty queen, she dressed to the nines, carried herself with a simultaneous softness and class. On the surface, she and my uncle had little in common at all.

But my mom related to the world on a completely different level. She saw similarities, not differences. She empathized where she had no experience. She could connect with virtually everyone. The only people who eluded her compassion were bullies of some sort. She wept for victims, stood up for the disenfranchised, opened our home to the homeless, brought laughter to the chronically depressed, encouraged the continual basketcases. She cheered at the worst criminals captured and sentenced, then wept again for their victims, for their mothers, mourned their executions.

And she understood emotional pain. She felt her life story was one of transcending tragedy. She believed the way through was to feel and heal.

Yesterday morning, I thought a lot about my parents. For long-time Christians of the arguably most judgmental denomination, they were astoundingly accepting. My mother taught me early this same trait. “Hurt people hurt people,” she’d say. “They just need an inner healing.”

Just Say Yes

After school one day, a tall, model-thin upperclassman chatted me up and offered me hard drugs I declined. Her mom had lupus. I came home and recounted the story, expecting my mom to validate my “just say no” behavior. She reprimanded me instead. “You’re missing the point. Invite her over,” she said. I did. She accepted.

My mom didn’t have a heart-to-heart with her about coke. She didn’t preach to her about religion. She didn’t ask her about her mom. She complimented her, told her self-effacing funny stories, cooked her food, sent her home with more. Invited her over again. And again. I befriended her, listened to her life with the same nonjudgment. She stopped doing drugs on her own accord. She started doing well in school.

I can’t remember her name. I have no idea where or who she is today. I don’t know if her mom ever beat the lupus, or if she buried her only parent after high school. I don’t know why she improved her life during that year. I don’t know if any of the kindness we showed her helped.

But I know that for that single year, she could always catch a ride to my house. I know she relaxed, had fun, maybe escaped a little. I know she swore up a storm and my mom never blinked. She just saw a girl going through it. A girl with beautiful dark hair. A person with defenses. A person with, like most people with walls, some pain they’re defending against re-injury.

No Comparison

And that’s how she saw my uncle, too. “It doesn’t matter what it is,” she’d always explain. She’d lost a child of nearly three, died suddenly in her arms. She’d lost two brothers before the age of five. She survived a terminal disease in her 30s. Barely. She survived war-time, bombs and virtually every abuse imaginable. It makes sense why she would hold compassion for such things.

But what always simultaneously bewildered me, she didn’t stop there. Grieving for your dog six months later? You get a plant on your doorstep on the anniversary. Lost your job? Expect a weekly card with handwritten encouragement. Can’t get past a decades-old divorce? She got it; she’d listen. People would always say to her, “There’s no pain like losing a child.” Strangely, though she was one of the few people I knew at the time with that experience, she’d disagree. Because it didn’t matter what it was.

“For some,” she’d say, “it’s a divorce. For others, the worst pain they feel is when their kids are alcoholics. For others, it’s the pet. It’s all equal.”

Through the Pain to the Good

I’ve been thinking about my interesting uncle for a while. I’ve thought about calling him. We never do. There could be some benefits; maybe he knows some historical detail about our family, maybe he might share a memory about my dad. But the odds aren’t good. He’s not totally linear and they were fairly estranged. These really aren’t my reasons.

I just keep thinking of my mom seeing through his awkwardness to the pain, through the pain to the good. The deep bond he held for his mom, the loyalty, the intelligence, the straightforwardness, the reverence for yesterday, the sensitivity, the soul. And I keep finding myself astounded he responded to her, in an era of life where he responded to virtually no one else, not even blood relatives.

I get it a little. I see through the sticks and sellotape missives, the technology aversion, the isolation, the strangeness. It doesn’t matter what it is or when it was, at least to me. I’d just like to hear him, to maybe help him feel understood, offer a connection, card, validation, kindness, laughter.

Diary of a Strange Woman

We spend so much of our thoughts focusing on normal, right, ideal, functional. We bring expectations. We operate in judgments, then defend their existence as “healthy,” “right,” “balanced,” “positive,” or even “enlightened.” We want to define our values, and once we’ve defined them, we stick with them. We want to surround ourselves with those who share our lifestyles, hobbies, views, status levels, philosophies, circles. We like the winners. We seek the good times, we want the laughter. We’re human and we want to be happy.

But there’s this strange woman whose face I’ve seen all day long in my mind’s eye. She went to funerals for people she didn’t know, when she intuited they’d be empty ones. She worked with AIDS patients when it was still considered dangerous. She invited her teenage daughter’s drug-pusher to come eat with us. She invited the mentally ill to our house after church to our mortification. She packed an extra lunch every night for the divorced dad working on our roof for weeks.

She had a strong sense of justice, but couldn’t care less about rules. She saw wounded and healed instead of degrees of “healthy.” She was unapologetically herself, and she expected you to be — equally unapologetically — yourself at all times.

Boxless Perceptions

Tonight, it struck me. I don’t care who doesn’t get this grief. I’m not sure I even care who gets me, at this point. No one wants this, any more than they want the divorce, the dead dog, the alcoholism, the eating disorder, the drug habit. But, despite my fumbling steps sometimes, I’ve got this belief that we can heal through the tragedies, make good on them, let them transform us, give it out when they do. Even to the aggravating. Even to the self sabotaging. Even to the misfits.

There are no misfits if there’s no box to fit in. There’s no anger without judgment. There’s no self sabotage when there’s no societal ideal. When we check our judgments, we check our aggravations. We open ourselves to the value of living beyond the components or measures of our lives. We begin to inhabit an openness that compassion dwells in and kindness spills out of. Onto your favorite uncle. Onto your interesting one, the same.

Eyes Like Neon Signs

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“…And it’s bad to have eyes like neon signs,
Flashing, ‘Open. Open. Open. Open. Open.
Open all the time.'” (Ani Difranco)

On the other hand, stay closed for too long and you can emotionally rust.

Sometimes openness leaves you more open to rejection.

I spent most of my years before high school as a fairly closed person. In my early teens, I met someone I finally felt I could unravel myself for. Unfortunately, I wasn’t such a good judge of character at 14 years old. Strangely — and fortunately enough — I was a fairly good judge of the spiritual, emotional and abstract. I still recall an incredibly conscious moment sitting in my bedroom, teenage angst oozing from my recent betrayal and first, fresh heartbreak. I had a single thought:

“I could go back to being shy and quiet. Or I could just stay open.”

Choosing Openness

It was an incredibly conscious moment, in part, because I was literally in the middle of the first self-aware moments of emotional pain of a level (and type) I’d never known before. Yet, part of me somehow instinctually knew I was at a crossroads. And, two decades later, I’m here to testify to the transformative power of love. It doesn’t have to be lasting, genuine or even sincere. Sometimes, the transformation itself doesn’t even fully occur until it’s gone. Sometimes, the way we respond to heartbreak, or to loss, becomes not only a vital part of the story — but defines the changes we make.

After tasting openness and connection, I made that choice to “stay open.” I was, perhaps, in my college years, one of the more open people you might have met — probably to a fault, if you feel like faulting such things. Honesty on this level was new, refreshing, simplifying. I’d spent a long time hiding flaws, on behalf of myself or other people. Over time, I’ve tempered this openness to a degree, largely because I’ve seen how it can be in my best interest (and that of others, sometimes) not to opt for full disclosure. With those I love most, though, I still come pretty close.

When Openness Backfires

Recently, this openness backfired. A confidence led to its betrayal, judgment of myself, gossip about me, and three-way drama. My boyfriend asked about the minor estrangement that ensued, and noticed myself deflate as I stammered out an explanation over breakfast. Later, he asked me why I opened up to this particular person in this way. “You handed her a loaded gun,” he explained.

Sometimes, openness backfires in this way. It goes with the territory, I suppose. Sometimes you find yourself misunderstood or judged. It’s true; the less you share, the less ammunition anyone has to use against you. Perhaps that’s why shyness and social anxiety so often go hand in hand — words you don’t say, things you don’t share, gatherings you don’t attend can’t be the setting for judgment or rejection.

Lighting Back Up

Putting It Out There for Others

We’re all traveling, looking for somewhere to go.

My mother was perhaps the most open person I have ever met in my life. She was quirky, comfortable in her own skin, and loved other people almost as much as she loved giving to them. She put herself out there, to strangers, friends, and acquaintances, most of the time, bringing inspiration, laughter, insight and healing. Sometimes, though, she found herself met with harsh judgment. In those moments, particularly when others judged her intentions or meanings, with eyes red and puffy from her hurt feelings, she’d say, “You know, I’m a very misunderstood person.” In those moments, she’d tell herself she ought not to “share these things.” In those moments, though a devout extravert, she’d often announce, “I’m off people!”

But, somehow, a day or two later, she’d be stopping in the supermarket to comfort someone. She’d be telling a friend a hysterical, self-effacing story about herself to help them feel better about their own similar mistakes. She’d be saying the things we’re so frightened to admit, the problems we pretend we don’t have, the truths she’d reached by addressing the world with a tender, accessible heart. And, often, she glowed like that neon open sign — offering that accessibility to others who may be looking for somewhere warm to go.

The Garden of Grieving

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Hearts take some time to grow back, too.

Goodness can only stay underground for so long.

When my mother died, among other things I did to feel better, I planted a garden in redwood planters on my backyard porch. Grief often brings growth, but growth happens gradually, sometimes at a subtle rate. A first-time gardener, I remember the initial frustration of waiting to see results, faced every day with empty redwood boxes. I remember my eventual giddiness when the colors and textures of plants seemed to appear overnight.

The Double Blessing of Listening to Yourself

Sometimes, particularly in the wake of trauma or death, we ignore our impulses that gravitate us towards healing. I remember second-guessing myself at the garden supply store, thinking about the folly of “retail therapy” as I browsed gardening supplies. I remember wandering the labyrinth of outdoor plants and trees, aching, wondering if this small act would even begin to touch the pain inside me. My self-doubting led me to a point of indecision, until I was simply standing amid manufactured waterfalls, bags of soil and foliage, feeling stunned and motionless. A woman walked up to me and asked if she could help. I somehow stammered out my mission, adding that my mother had just died.

An extraordinary thing happened. She began to open up, telling me about the loss of her own mother with tears in her own eyes. She confirmed that gardening would help me heal; she let me know that even at an age greater than mine by decades, this loss was still palpable and real. I packed up the back of my companion’s pickup truck with seeds, bulbs and supplies, and headed home to figure it all out.

Waiting for Life to Become Visible Again

The journey back to health felt as slow as the time it took the flowers to pop up, but I found the healing journey was mirrored by the art of the urban garden. First-time gardeners require some faith — both in themselves and in the natural process of growth. Waiting for bulbs to spring pushed my patience, and just as I was wondering if I’d bought defective ones, they started to shoot up. Similarly, the healing, the goodness, the recovery of — and perhaps, the deepening of — joy tried my patience, too. Now, here, a mere seven years later, I find myself a bit overwhelmed, impatient, brainstorming ways to feel better. I’m still talking myself out of them too much. I’m occasionally, on days like today, stymied amid options that seem too slow and futile to work.

Human Bodies, Empty Chairs

Struggling to love the tangible when those you love are intangible now.

The Central Challenge of Grief

When we’re overwhelmed with large challenges and obstacles, we often remind ourselves that “we have our health.” When we’re frustrated with our relationships, we meet inquiries as to our well-being with phrases like, “I’m still alive!” and “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Life, the act of breathing and being, the presence of existence, epitomizes the hopeful state. We see death, naturally, as our only real foe, the only real force to which we are truly powerless.

Death From Another Viewpoint

Measurements of growth change depending on how you bend.

Perhaps this is why grief is so overwhelming. We find ourselves embattled with the oldest, strongest foe of humanity. We give over days, weeks, and even years of our own most precious commodity — time  — to attempt to get back to the simple, hopeful act of living ourselves. We learn that we can’t always control everything, that we can’t always protect ourselves or others, and that even the most precious connections in this world are, at best, temporary. It’s more than most of us can entertain too well in a philosophical conversation; it’s more than most of us can tolerate imagining about those we love. And, unfortunately, it’s exactly what we all must endure in some form, at some point in time. And, it’s quite frankly, simultaneously too much for one mind and completely livable, survivable, and tolerable by any one person.

Coming Full Circle

I wish I could start a garden again. I miss the feel of my hands in the soil, the reassurance of each shoot peeking out. The somehow-karmic return of life and joy at my own hands and care. The return of balance between control and chance, the balance of beauty on its arrival. In my initial impatience to see signs of life that spring, I kept planting more, some half-grown, some in seed form. Perhaps that’s the way through this grief right now. Perhaps as I find myself planting the nascent seeds of living  — following these impulses towards healing  — I’ll have to recover a little faith in the process. Maybe I’ll eventually see that karmic rebound happen, circling back the blend of outreaches and self-care into something beautiful, something moving upwards.

Loving Yourself, No Restrictions Apply

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Like many little kids, I made “love coupons” for my parents as creative gifts on occasion. Lately, I’ve been noticing a shift in my thinking towards “gifting” people I love with certain actions. My brain has been so trained to sort behaviors into “good” and “bad,” that often, necessary change can feel vilifying.

Acknowledging Different Communication Styles Without Judgment

For instance, I’m a talker by nature, some mix of introspection and extroversion, and I came from a family forged by an attorney and a stewardess/nurse. The result is something akin to the classic “big Italian family around the table” cliche, though we shared neither that heritage, nor regular meals, nor large numbers. We interrupt. We ask questions, often before the last one is fully answered. We tell stories we’ve lived, heard and retold a hundred times. We laugh a lot. We’re excited to talk to one another. Our religious background means we’re often seeking meaning, our perfectionist side means we’re often advocating the “right” way to do things, and our debate-nature means we’re always challenging what we know and what we’re told. We often dive into conflict, and resolve it just as easily.

There’s a draw to this style of communication, but it can overwhelm those who may be more pensive and introverted by nature. In particular, my boyfriend often feels this imbalance in our communication, and rightfully so. To be perpetually interrupted can look like disregard, devaluing or disrespect. To be talked at can often feel as though your partner in conversation is more interested in expression than exchange. When he first broached this topic, I felt offended. The choices were clear and black-and-white: either I stopped talking and changed my natural way of expression (labeling it as “bad”), or he had to change his style to match mine (labeling mine as “good”). Coming from a church background where personality tests were popular, and personal traits were analyzed and often looked down upon, this judgment felt natural. However, he tried to explain to me that all he was seeking was more balance; that he loved these traits about me, and acknowledged our differing styles, but simply wanted to strive to meet in the middle a bit more — no judgment necessary.

The Gift of Sharing and Silence

This time, as the subject resurfaced, I tried a different mode of thought. What if there was nothing wrong with the louder, more rapid communication style of mine? What if I simply gave him the gift of communication towards me? What if I gave him the gift of silent moments between us sometimes?

When my dad fell ill, I worried about the strain prolonged crises can cause in a new relationship. I asked an older associate for advice at the outset. She recommended making time, even if only for an evening, to both do fun things and not talk about the crisis at hand. Anyone who has ever caretaken, loved or seen a relative through an illness knows this can be difficult to do, with emergency medical situations, financial repercussions, emotional complications and logistical burdens — which is precisely what made the notion a gift as well, both to my boyfriend and our relationship. I didn’t give it perfectly, or as often as I would have liked, but it was something positive I could do, without needing to judge its presence or absence.

Redeemable Love

A few days ago, I decided to revive the old “love coupon” idea. I can’t change overnight, but I want my boyfriend to experience more equal-time in our conversations. I began with coupons for 20 minutes of uninterrupted expression, an “interview” where I could ask and just let him answer, and a silent, shared space of time. I found the more I made, the more I wanted to make, and eventually the small packet of slips included backrubs, cooking and the like. It’s a way of being mindful before you’re in a moment, too, presenting a pause and a shift where needed and desired.

Exercise: Making Self-Love Coupons

In keeping with my recent focus on giving to myself, as well, I made a short stack of “love coupons” from me to me. You might want to try this exercise as well, particularly if you don’t tend to give yourself much leeway to relax, pamper yourself or attend to your needs. In a transactional society, sometimes currency of some sort can provide a justification for receiving. If you find yourself needing some self love, try creating these love coupons for yourself.

  1. Get a single sheet of typing paper and fold it in half twice, lengthwise and width-wise.
  2. Fold the sheet in both directions to ensure creases, then pull apart to detach into fourths.
  3. Fold each quarter in half again, crease and detach, to create little coupon slips.
  4. Draw a symbol of the gift you are giving yourself in the middle of the piece of paper.
  5. Add “amounts” in the corners, such as 10 minutes or one time.
  6. Write the gift explicitly in a phrase, such as, “One hot cup of tea while I read the paper.”
  7. Clip the coupons together with a paperclip.

Here are some ideas for gifts that you can give to yourself in your “self-love coupons”:

  • A hot bath, with your phone powered down or out of reach.
  • One opportunity to “Just Say No” to a request from someone else.
  • 20 minutes of reading for pleasure.
  • 10 minutes of stretching or yoga poses.
  • 30-minute  “Get Out of Jail Free” card to absolve you of judgment on anything.
  • 5 minutes of dancing around your house to music.
  • An hour of drawing anything with crayons, markers or pencils.
  • 30 minutes of watching a TV rerun while doing something positive for your body (a face mask, drinking water, self-massage with lotion).
  • An on-demand afternoon nap.

Ask yourself what gifts can you give to yourself. They don’t have to be necessities, earned, prioritized or justified. By nature, they are simply freebies, discounts from the price of a daily grind. They’re also wonderful promotional tools, ways to get your psyche to become increasingly aware of all you have to offer, all you have in store.

Imaginary Paths

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Present-centered awareness remains the exception for me, still, instead of the rule. Growing up, I witnessed two polar ways of handling the emotions that bother us — the head-on tackle (sometimes exhausting, but insight-producing) and avoidance (where emotional needs seeped out in less-than-healthy ways). As a result, I’m often erring on the side of emotional confrontation — with others and myself. If I analyze enough — and piece the puzzles of my reactions, thoughts and feelings together — I should be able to understand and heal core issues. In general, when things do click into place, progress is generally more immediate in nature as the mental obstacles fall away.

Forcing the Pieces Together

The downside of this direct approach, however, is that sometimes the “clicking” won’t come. I find myself circling an issue, believing that with enough attention and effort, insight will come. One of the things that has struck me about being present is that insight seems more organic. Others have told me as much — that by simply being and living, insight arises, largely by virtue of releasing judgments and paying closer attention to experience. Despite the fact this notion makes little sense in my paradigm, I’ve begun to notice this dynamic taking place.

Reaction vs. Anticipation

I’m often trying to analyze anxiety (a recurrent struggle for me). Anxiety by nature confounds us, and quite often, its paralytic force leaves us unsure of its origins. I view it as a reaction to a notion or event, and am constantly trying to discern the source so I can logically talk myself down from the worry ledge. Today, it struck me that anxiety may not qualify as a reaction at all, in the purest sense. Instead, it’s anticipation of an event that has not occurred. How can we react if there has been no action? In those moments, I’m walking an emotional path of a fictitious place. Something about this notion felt profound. Just as I could never write a review of a hotel I’ve never stayed at, there’s little sense in breaking down a reaction to a thing I’ve never experienced.

Maybe the larger point is simply to recognize that the source of fear has not occurred; it’s tomorrow’s weather, it’s an undiscovered country, it’s a potential romance (or heartbreak) with someone you’ve never kissed, it’s a job you’ve never experienced your first day at. Fear of these things and their inherent negative possibilities may be natural, but it’s difficult to defend the positivity of an experience you’ve never had. As a result, sometimes our attempts at talking ourselves out of anxiety become less than effective, because we have no compelling evidence to counter the fear yet.

Trading Knowing for Noticing

Roughly 18 months ago, my father received an unexpected, terminal diagnosis that numbered his months to live. He seemed fine at the time, and we did all of the things that come naturally to such a situation — educated ourselves, saw specialists, cried, feared, made plans and contingency plans, and tried to relax. I’ve thought a lot recently about Christmas Eve, asking my (then new) boyfriend how to get through a holiday without that anxiety rocking me. “Just look at him,” he said, and that’s what I did. For that day, I immersed myself in being near my dad, holding his hand, talking to him, and being with my family. He was okay and every imaginary path was simply a possibility.

For all the living we did between then and the following fall, there was no way we could have imagined what would have occurred. We had no idea that his prognosis would ultimately improve, beginning a near-unbelievable decline in bodily markers that indicated disease. We didn’t know that he would live, symptom-free, for that next year. We had no way of knowing that weeks after this improved and symptom-free state, he would have a freak accident while shopping in our hometown, indirectly activating the disease. We had no way of anticipating brain surgery (neither expected nor related to his condition), a medically induced coma he would never quite come out of, our that by Thanksgiving, his chair would be empty.

But we also had no way of knowing that he would speak to each of us in the hospital before things got bad. We had no way of knowing he would stir for three days, allowing each of the three of us kids to experience a little more of him before we lost him. We had no way of knowing that we would gather, laughing, crying, playing guitar and singing, the day he left us. We had no way of knowing a light rain would fall outside the hospital as we hugged goodbye. We had yet to experience the joy of holidays spent together in his absence, the growth that even a few months could bring thereafter, and the breakthroughs we would make as a result. I had no way of anticipating creating this blog, typing this post, or doing laundry in anticipation of a weekend coastal trip I’m about to take. The future did not exist back then. In the same way, the future does not exist now.

Letting Life Exhibit the Evidence

Whether we battle anxiety disorders or not, we’re all looking to avoid pain. The needle itself is always less emotionally painful than the wince before the shot. Anticipation can be the most wonderful thing in the world, or the most terrible thing, but it will never, ever be the equal of experience. Perhaps that’s why experience can so powerfully bring insight. Sometimes the healing comes when you least expect it. Sometimes you wake up and realize you’re no longer crying. Sometimes you wake up and realize you suddenly are. Some forms of healing come through mere experience, just as some wounds do as well. All we can do is allow it to happen, try not to run, and try not to live an event that is merely one of a myriad of possibilities. Sometimes you just have to look at something to recognize this is your reality, this is your job right now. Few of us are professional psychics. We don’t need to be. Our job is instead, to do the living, not the prediction, to be the evidence for or against the fortune cookie, horoscope, weather report, or prognosis.

Each Dot in the Sparkle and Span

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“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”   (Galileo)

I went to a Superbowl party this weekend where no one watched a minute of football, opting for games (of the board variety) instead. We stopped to watch commercials. I found myself largely un-present for much of the party, thinking about my father (a football fan who always loved to watch the game with my brother), my late mother (as the girls talked about theirs) and my underdeveloped life (in comparison to our wonderful, newly-engaged-with-newly-remodeled-house hosts and the couple holding their newborn across the game table).

What You Miss When You’re Actively Missing

This crash-in of wistful desire (for parents, family, the past, the future) took me away from the experience around me. I wanted deep connection and family. It didn’t strike me that I had two members of my extended family in that living room, my best friend and my boyfriend, both of whom were there the day my dad died. I barely registered the gorgeous, hilarious and caring guy I am learning to build a life with — a beautiful life that currently involves our life as a couple (and singles). I neglected to recognize how wonderful it was that we could use game pieces without our hands busy with babies, the fact i could have a few drinks without worrying about breastfeeding, or the fun fact that we have two apartments instead of one house. I was so busy missing things, and feeling like things were missing, that I missed most of what was in front of me.

Spur-less Science, Lots of Religion

I did loosen up throughout the day, as evidenced by my boyfriend saying his favorite two points in the party where a glorious game win of his (mopping the floor with the rest of us) and when I finally laughed. My favorite point was the reason for my laughter. During a game of Cranium, all teams were miming “evolution.” My charades attempt involved palms outlining an earth, small bursts of my hand (“God placing the stars”), fingers crossed in a “no” sign, and then puffing my cheeks out and pulling my ears to signify “monkey.” After my boyfriend’s baffled attempt at figuring that one out, he inquired and I explained. Another guest (British and baby-laden) immediately surmised, “That’s how you show ‘evolution’? You must be from Texas.”

Though I was born and raised in the Bay Area in a professional family with Ivy-League alumni, and though I no longer ascribe to the 7-day creation story I illustrated, I understood his point. For years, I braced myself in ignorance, guarding against any scientific knowledge of the world’s inception, largely because I deeply suspected it made sense. To believe in evolution was to lose belief in God. Even after that belief waned, evolution still seemed a threat to my view of my family, my own brain and so much I’d known. Finally, several years ago, I decided just what Galileo did — that any God worth having wouldn’t ask me to check my brains at the door. I still feel grossly undereducated on the topic, but I’m learning. In fact, my boyfriend and I spent many of our early dates (and some of my more recent favorites) stargazing as I offered up as many questions about the universe as the innumerable lights we witnessed.

Getting Pastoral on You

The nightsky still fills me with awe and wonder. David apparently felt some of twinge of this when he wrote in the Psalms:

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him?

I love the romantic notion of the stars as the handiwork of God almost as much as I love the notion of such a God minding man. Christians interpret this verse to essentially demonstrate the personal and immeasurable depth of God’s care. Now that mindfulness has taken on a slightly new meaning for me, I stop at the word. What does it mean when God is “mindful” of man? A favorite pastime of American pastors is to use “original Hebrew” or “original Greek” to augment the meaning of scripture. Often, this involves essentially locating a word in Strong’s Concordance, cross-referencing and getting theological with the definitions. Very rarely does the pastor himself actually know the original language first-hand.

I studied Ancient Greek in college, but by no means was at the top of my classes. As far as Hebrew goes, I’m clueless, so I’m essentially “pulling a pastor” here. But according to Strong’s, “mindful” here can mean remembrance, “bringing to mind,” celebration, confession, consideration, praise, record or invoke. Essentially:

After you made this universe…………………

  • ……………. you remember man.
  • ……………. you think of man.
  • ……………. you celebrate man.
  • ……………. you speak man.
  • ……………. you praise man.
  • ……………. you invoke man.
  • ……………. you record man.

Playing With Magnetic Hebrew Definitions

Now, granted, in context, this word probably has a single viable definition — one that I’m guessing comes closest to “consider.” But since I’m not sure I still qualify as a “believer,” and since I’m meditating on this now, I’m stopping for a moment to consider these notions. Beyond the ability of a deity to esteem and personalize mankind amid the stunning universe’s other components, I find these concepts intriguing. God stopping, perhaps out of affection, to remember man, despite its inferiority. God celebrating man alongside supernovas, planets and every piece of cosmos. God feeling proud of man, the overlooked B-side, in the affectionate way an artist only could, potentially more than the Billboard hit single everyone wants to hear at the concert.

Equally intriguing, God invoking man, as man offers invocation to God at so many religious services, inviting, opening up channels, and compelling His presence. The master of the universe imploring us to His space instead of the other way around. God recording man, putting us into words, scratching us into a cosmic desk so that even as we ourselves may eventually grow extinct, there may be evidence, a sharply angled, “HUMANS WERE HERE. ’12.”

Be Ye Mindful of One Another

Many Christians would find those statements heretical at best, but I love them. What if we were mindful of each other in the same way? So much of what I’ve read about mindfulness seems focused on the physical, the inanimate, the somatic. In some cases, the psychological, the transient emotional, the facts of obstacles and solutions. Sometimes, even the philosophical, the abstract. But how often do we forget, as I did at the Superbowl party, to be mindful of the people sitting right beside us?

What if we engaged with them in this type of mindfulness? What if we found each other our best, most heart-rendingly stunning accomplishment? What if after a big “win,” we simply took a second to quite literally think of someone we loved, and let that moment of consciousness be part of our winning experience? What if we saw the person next to us on the bus as one of life’s potentially skipped-over, underrated tracks?

Consider What Considering Could Do

I know if I could do this, I would have probably been laughing more than once at the Superbowl party. I would probably be content to lay in the gorgeous arms of a man who delights me in every way, every day, rather than tossing and turning about our future. I would likely find myself stopping to listen more, just for the sake of hearing someone out. I’ll never create a universe, and maybe no one ever did. But we create our own universes. And sometimes, it’s not the sparkle and span of what we create, it’s the moment we let it a bit of it into our psyches, our field of vision, our memories, and our hearts.

Music Mini Mix: For Tough Days

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Sometimes you have a really rough day. The toughest ones usually involve things going wrong, things that make us feel we have little control, tough interactions with others, or things we muck up ourselves. In that vein, today was an incredible mix of all of the foregoing. I found myself dealing with grief, fears about aging and progress, a relationship issue gone awry, attempts to connect with family that backfired and oversights in business. At this point, nearly 1:30 in the morning, I feel like throwing in the towel — or rather, throwing a towel over my head.

Songs for the End of a Bad Day

Because music can sometimes say the things we can’t, here’s a end-of-a-long-day mini mix to help soothe my soul — and hopefully, yours.

  1. Jim’s Big Ego – After the Tornado
    Opening with the simple, poignant truth that “bad things happen to the kindest people,” this slow, contemplative song offers an empathetic journey through self-doubt, exhaustion and grief.
  2. Paul Simon – Think Too Much (b)
    Sometimes, all the thinking in the world doesn’t offer much resolution. At times, we can only take the advice of this song, compromise and give up the day to rest.
  3. Missy Higgins – Nightminds
    Some of us are deep thinkers, some deep feelers, and some days tend to cave in particularly during the exhaustion of the evening hours. This song offers compassionate camaraderie, and an invitation to “lay it all down” to find peace during the night hours.
  4. Leslie (Sam) Philips – Reflecting Light
    Philips garnered critical acclaim from all corners, though she never gained much of a following, even in her current secular career as “Sam Philips.” This song offers the reassurance that even during the “mean times” when we’ve “worn out the world,” we can still reflect light.
  5. Jackson C. Frank – Blues Run the Game
    Misery loves company, and sometimes “Blues” are all we got. Jackson C. Frank, folksinger and foremost expert in bad luck and bad days gives us the imagery of crapping out just about everywhere in this beautiful folk song.

Becoming Shameless

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Some of us experience more shame than others. Where guilt is personal, shame is public. Like guilt, it requires judgment, but it also requires a sense of status quo. It’s a way of enforcing social norms, so by nature it requires them to be established. We may feel guilt over a stack of dirty dishes, but we can feel ashamed when we consider outside reactions to our own housekeeping lapses. In many cases, we imagine these reactions. In some cases, critical people stand by as enforcers of shame. In many cases, it’s needless, harmful and damaging both to our truest actions and our self-image.

Is Shame Valuable for You Right Now?

For a long time, I’ve carried a belief in the value of shame. After all, if I have a shortcoming, or if I cannot measure up to the status quo, or fit into a box neatly designed for most, don’t I deserve to feel lesser-than, embarrassed, or flawed? We live in a society where we often classify shame as fair retribution (Donald Trump’s infamous “Board Room” firings during the Apprentice as a televised example). It’s not uncommon for sentencing hearings to be prefaced by justified and public shaming of the defendant. We carry a belief that shame keeps people in line. For some, avoidance of shame may serve as a motivator; for others, it may serve to lower motivation as it lowers self esteem. Shame also keeps us trapped in the same, rigid lines of thought that focus on terms like, “normal,” “everyone else,” and “if anyone knew.”

What If You Were A-OK?

It's True. So Now What?

Take it from a local graffiti artist with great penmanship.

We take circumstances that make us unhappy in the present and add a lasting, penetrating layer of unhappiness when we embrace shame. The dishes become an identity issue. Suffering abuse becomes a secret. Renting, dating, staying home with the kids or working part-time become potential embarrassments, indicators of failure and reservoirs of pressure and pain — proof we cannot keep up with the norm, proof we are subpar. What if dirty dishes couldn’t be a character flaw? What if renting simply meant dwelling? What if work choices or circumstances were simply descriptions of what we did with our time? What if you were already wonderful, regardless of what you do or do not do, or what you have or do not have?

Society doesn’t like this shameless viewpoint. American society, in particular, needs to protect the notions of SuperMom, “The Woman Who Has It All,” puritanical work ethics, and the belief in the American Dream. If you’re not keeping up with the Joneses, you’re not trying hard enough. What if we saw value everywhere, in every state? What would you accomplish if you weren’t scampering to avoid shame?

Release Yourself From Shame

Today, shame crept up on me twice already. Once, as I found myself behind at work. Next, as I heard a family member wave off my career frustration and suggest if I followed a prescribed route well enough, I would be happy. I’m choosing not to attach my identity to either one. The work needs to be done, errands need to be run, and I still need to figure out my next career steps, but I don’t need to feel awful about myself in the process. Unfortunately, it seems deliveries don’t move faster with inverse proportion to how badly I feel. Inner clarity becomes further muddled when I feel ashamed of its existence. The dishes do not care if we do them every moment or never. They remain washed or unwashed, whoever we are, whatever we’ve done.

This is hard for me at the moment. Here’s where the Hug Trip starts, I guess. I’m going to simply move to the next thing. Maybe I should feel some requisite repentance, but I’m simply moving forward. I’m reminding myself that worth is intrinsic, not earned. The thought is uncomfortable and I’m afraid to let go of it. But let’s see what happens when I do.