The Daring Life

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Moments ago I was packing my carry-on for my flight (just hours away now) to Montreal, then Casablanca and beyond, when a long-ago memory flashed in my mind. I was a little girl, with friends at a community swimming pool, being goaded into climbing the high-dive:  about 10 meters, or 33 feet above the pool’s surface. Most of my friends were excellent swimmers and divers, but I wasn’t. Nevertheless, I climbed the metal ladder to the diving platform. My friends below laughed, pointed, not believing I’d go through with it. On the platform I was completely terrified. My internal organs felt like jelly – which I was sure they actually would be, once I hit the water. The audience below, now, also included most of the kids and parents at the pool that day.

All my life, as I think about it now, I’ve been taking ‘dares’ to do what others said I was incapable of:  too young, too old, too weak (read, a female). Or, what others said was too risky (read, ‘stupid’). Why, I wonder, have I always embraced fresh dares enthusiastically ? Those patterns were set as a child. Motherless at age 11 and living in a full household of males, I quickly realized that I was going to have to toughen up, fast. Being the baby (read ‘runt’) of the family didn’t endear me to my male tribe in terms of protection. I was expected to fight my own fights – literally.

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One day at school that same year, a boy at school – a very big, heavy kid in my class about three times my weight – started talking trash about me. With the recent death of my mother, my father had gone into complete shock. Ever the little trooper, I dressed myself and made my own breakfast before school. Most of the time, nothing I decided to throw on that day matched, or was even appropriate for the weather. Who cared? I had bigger concerns on my mind.

So this boy started talking and I set him straight with some smart talk of my own. He backed off, but later on that day, I was playing with friends in my neighborhood and he – for some reason – was there. He approached me, pushed me to the ground and then…sat on me. Laughing. His weight made me feel like a bug being squashed. I, of course, was screaming and cursing like a banshee, scratching and trying to bite (he eventually let me go). On that exact day, at that exact moment, I realized that fear was not going to squash my spirit – ever. Despite the odds, despite the risks, I was going to ensure that every single day would involve something just a little bit out of my comfort zone.

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In one of Deepak Choprah’s books (I can’t remember which one), he urges us to “Look to this day:  it is the very life of Life”. My trip to Morocco will be new territory for me. Making the dive from 33 feet above the water was a game-changer for me. Making sure the school bully got his come-uppence after “teaching the little skinny girl a lesson” ? That was just pure, sweet icing on the cake.

A Softer Light

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As I travel about my city running errands, I notice what many people also see – so many businesses laying out change-of-season reminders, enticing us to buy the decorations that help everyone enjoy the seasons and holidays more fully. That’s the idea, anyway. Not that we need reminding that, here in the Northern Hemisphere, kids have gone back to school, the weather is (or soon will be) changing, days growing darker much earlier. It’s definitely a change I believe we all intuit. For some, the feeling heralds a slow slog to Holiday times they’d really rather leap-frog over entirely. For others, the frenzied Holiday season can’t come soon enough.

As I go into a craft store for a few sewing items, I hurry past the Styrofoam pumpkins, pre-made wreaths and  heavily-scented piles of pine cones. Not that I’m a grumpy “Bah, to the holidays !” type of person. I just don’t want to be rushed into changes before I’m ready.

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It varies from year to year, but I always notice that as our summer season winds down, the light coming through the trees in my yard changes. It becomes softer. Maybe not as cool as I would like it to be (this is California), but definitely a different color and intensity. Buttery and diffuse. The shadows in my yard have a different slant to them somehow. They’ve grown longer and their edges are blurred.

I enjoy living in a place where I can see these subtle differences slowly coming. From the leaves on my Pistache tree blending from green to gold, to the giant Live Oak leaning over my bedroom shedding its acorns that sound like small, hard bombs as they hit the roof.  (A crack on the head from one of those really hurts.)

The new season ushers in changes in me, which is why I like the process to be leisurely and peaceful. I just had my birthday. I’m taking stock of ‘where I am’ in terms of Living My Best Life. Whether or not I’ve written down the goals I’ve had for myself throughout the year (which I measure by birthday-to-birthday, not December 31 to January 1), I know in my heart where I stand. I look at the half-finished redo of my rose garden (it suddenly got too hot and I lost interest). I look at the recipes I’ve torn out of magazines but never tried (as I opted for one-skillet meals while finishing my dissertation).

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The lists of projects that seemed exciting in late winter and early spring were over-taken by complicated personal relationships and family members needing so much more from me this year —  for some reason. As the days grow shorter, I feel quieter in my soul. I feel “ok” with what I did, and didn’t accomplish in My Year. I look forward to the cooler, darker fall and winter months as a time of rest, integration, and renewal. I ease into this time, sensing that it’s meant to be slowly savored, just as the tasty morsels of lovingly-prepared food delights, as well as nourishes. All of the Distractions that hover nearby will need to wait just a bit, while I watch the bright yellow finches scuffling at the feeder, to fatten themselves up for winter, charming me with their odd little voices

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The Back Door

Why do people lie? (Rhetorical question, bear with me.)

“I never got your project in my email.”  Yeah, I think you did; I requested a Read Receipt.

“My wife has no clue because I’m such a good actor, but I am so checked out of our marriage.” Trust me:  on some level, she knows.

“Í didn’t eat the last (fill in the blank).” Ok, so it’s you, me and the cat. Has he learned how to open the ‘fridge?

When my son was still a toddler, he thought that by covering his own eyes, he’d be invisible to everyone else in the family. So if he wanted to “hide”, he’d just put his little hands up in front of his face, like the game of peek-a-boo we play with babies. A cloak of immunity (he loved to pull all of the clean linen out of the closet and spread it around the hallway) from discovery and accountability.

Today I was reflecting – as I’m sneaking up on another birth day this month – on the many wonderful ways that age brings not only wisdom of self-knowledge, but common sense. This week, however, I was confronted by both the first and second statements above, made by people who are actually older than I am. So, denial and obfuscation – let’s just call it what it is, dishonesty – is obviously not the sole territory of the young and foolish. Anyone looking for a back door, an escape clause or hatch, a way to be invisible can deploy lying. Lies can be big or small, but they’re all about avoiding exposure. But ‘exposure’ to what? I thought back, to that feeling…

The first professional job I had in my first career (Education) was a high school teacher. I was thrilled to have the job, but apprehensive about being so close in age to my students (I was only 23, and they were between 16 – 18 years old). Despite having graduated from college and having several credentials “under my belt”, I feared being called-out as a fraud. What did that mean? To me, it meant being appraised, and found lacking. Knowledge; poise; maturity; skill:  missing from my repertoire.

I survived my first year of teaching, but learned some hard lessons about being truthful and humble (I told my students I had more experience than I actually did at the time). They learned otherwise.

Why do we lie, or, my favorite, not tell the whole truth in certain situations? As I noted above, this is really a question that most of us know the answer to:  to avoid the nasty consequences we know are coming if we tell the truth about ‘whatever’. The problem with lying, however (unless there’s some kind of pathology in operation), is twofold:  first, the lie seeps into our beliefs about ourselves and almost always causes even more fear and self-doubt; and second, lies tend to proliferate because they become easier to tell.

The man who told me about his clueless wife is totally depressed and wakes exhausted, most mornings at 3 a.m. The woman who told me she didn’t receive my project (despite my receipt that she’d at least opened my email) is developing a growing reputation as a “flake”.

I’m not holding myself above anyone who has lied, or attempted to avoid being exposed by saying nothing or providing only a partial truth. I’m just thinking about what this feels like in our hearts:  when we engage in deception, or when we become aware that we’re on the receiving end of a lie. It doesn’t feel good. It always comes out, in one way or another. The dis-ease of lying is corrosive. How much better to come from a place of Truth, shout or whisper your Mea Culpa, and ask for forgiveness?

When You’ve Painted Yourself Into a Corner…

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There’s a time-worn idiom in the English language that I’ve always loved (English Lit. undergrad, I love all forms of word-play). This idiom is a verbal visual of someone painting a floor (I guess that was common, back in the day of rough-hewn floors) ‘blindly’, not realizing that his back’s against a wall: no way to leave the scene without stepping on wet paint and ruining the floor.

“Painting oneself into a corner” means, You did this to yourself; a blind move; a stupid move. The kind of move we all make in our lives – some of us many times over. The actual mistake can be harsh words that can’t be taken back; it can be bluff and nonsense about our skills; it’s very often a lie told that is sure to be discovered as a lie. Finding yourself in a corner, with no way to back-out unnoticed (without paint on your shoes and having to re-do the floor) is embarrassing on many levels:  it’s feeling exposed and foolish. For a minute, it’s hard to know just what to do. Then, the urge to get out of that corner becomes critical and there’s just no choice. You’re going to leave a mess, and be stuck with paint on the soles of your shoes.

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As human beings, we all say and do things that are ignorant, or that reveal our “tunnel vision” toward a situation. Our ego gets in the way and the resulting ‘corner’ we find ourselves in escapes our attention until it’s too late. Then, we  immediately feel the absurdity and humiliation of our predicament. (Anyone who’s ever embellished their resumé and then been asked about a particular aspect of it during an interview has lived through this idiom.) It’s clear to everyone watching or participating what’s happened. It’s usually pretty clear, also, what needs to happen next. But this is what’s so very hard for most of us (unless we’re toddlers, then it’s totally easy-peasy denial).

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Acknowledging that the predicament we’re in is of our own making, and reconciling this within ourselves is awkward. Even though making mistakes and ‘owning’ them is part of Life’s process of learning and growing, self-forgiveness — especially with a harsh Inner Critic –requires reflection and peace-making. But that’s only Part I. Part II is the way in which the person or people we’ve hurt or deceived react.

I had the opportunity today to watch and listen to someone – an older family member – realize he’d ‘painted himself into a corner’ — with snarky words aimed at a much younger relative who in no way deserved them. Within a matter of moments it was clear to me that – at his mature age (almost 70 years old) – the older man was still nurturing an ancient wound ; a grudge, to be exact; and had no way to explain (or back out from a painted-in corner with any dignity) his misplaced anger.

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What needed to happen right then?  “I’m sorry” would have been really good — perhaps even preventing the need for any further explanation. And what was the response from the other ‘side’? Sadly, but wonderfully, even though an apology never came, the recipient of the nasty words responded with grace by not acknowledging the misplaced anger. The younger man left the older man in his ‘corner’. Like a few people I’ve known in my life, I’m guessing he’ll stay in that corner until the garish red paint he splashed all over the floor with his words dries completely, and he can slink away. Even when Grace is extended, sometimes people don’t recognize it, or don’t feel they deserve it.

The Truth is, we all deserve Grace. We can wait, and hope it comes somehow, or, we can summon the courage in ourselves to ask for it.

Leave Hate Alone

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I can still remember the day my teenaged son screamed “I hate you!”:  three words that totally gut-punched me and shut down the argument we were having about his extremely poor choices (for the record, the kind that threaten life and limb). I was standing my ground, holding firm, sticking to the tenets of Tough Love. Until those three words eviscerated me. Feeling almost mortally wounded, I retreated. I’ve never forgotten how that felt.

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Whether we’re on the receiving end of Hate, or delivering Hate, the result is the same, as far as our bodies are concerned. In his book, “The Biology of Belief”, Dr. Bruce Lipton talks about the mind-body connection and the changes brought-about on a cellular level by negative emotions (giving or receiving). Lipton’s not the first (and won’t be the last) to connect the dots between human emotion and overall well-being.

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Anger – whether it’s impulsive, or becomes a lifestyle – is particularly harmful in the way it slowly corrodes our delicate internal systems. Lipton’s studies are too fascinating, too important, and much too data-detailed  (he’s a scientist, first and foremost) to summarize here. Instead, I’ll just share that Lipton’s one of my main Go-To’s,  when I’m struggling to understand hateful people.  

Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004) is another ‘giant’ in this area. Although she’s probably best known for her theory of The Five Stages of Grief, what I often — especially lately, here in the United States– “consult” (in my own head, anyway!) with her on is this:   when it comes to human emotions, there are really only two:  Love, and Fear.

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We know a lot about Love:  what it feels like, what it can do in our lives and in the World; how our bodies ‘float’ when we engage in pure acts of love toward other people, animals, Nature and our own Planet Earth. There’s no mistaking authentic Love. Even the superficial, media-created (think: films and TV) versions of ‘Love’– often cheesy and formulaic – can still be charming and sweet in their attempt to ‘copycat’ the Real Thing. What is harder to get a handle on is Fear, because it wears a few disguises: Hate being one of them  (Kübler-Ross, by the way, adds ‘anxiety’ and ‘guilt’ as other “masks” worn by Fear).

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When I consider the times in my life that I’ve encountered Hate, of course it’s always been a hateful person or hateful people:  animals don’t hate. That may seem like an idiotic observation, but I mention animals to make a distinction between what happens when Fear dons the mask of Aggression, versus when it shows itself as Hate. Fear can cause animals and people to feel threatened and go into offensive-mode.

But Hate is entirely different:  hate is a choice. Hate takes the normal survival-instinct of Fear and shoots one thousand volts of aggressive current through the body so that ‘fending off a predator’ is no longer the primary goal:  mental, emotional and even physical annihilation is.  And great suffering is a desirable part of the process.

How do we cope with hateful people? Is there a way of reaching their hearts, soothing their fears, disarming their need to inflict pain? I can only speak from experience and share what I know about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of this thinking. In my own family relationships, I came to the conclusion that, sometimes – regrettably — Fear appears more powerful than Love.

actor Malcolm McDowell as the despot Caligula

The Roman emperor Caligula, known for his extreme sadism and brutality, is supposed to have said, “I don’t care if [the People] love me, so long as they fear me!”  Some people, it seems to me, would much rather be feared than loved. Instilling fear in others equates with power, for these types. When powerful people (who have the ability to influence your happiness, sense of safety, stability and general welfare) decide to mobilize their own insecurities in hate-filled ‘attacks’, there’s really no reaching them.

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Kübler-Ross says that Love and Fear are mutually-exclusive:  they can’t co-exist at the same time. We must always – therefore – choose to operate from one or the other. In countering Hate, it seems to me that the only strategy is to acknowledge (actively, demonstrably) that Love is the better option. But since Hate is in full-body armor in our World today, Love must shield itself also, while remaining fully ‘present’ and steadfast, in a genuine struggle for Survival. It really doesn’t matter to me if you’d prefer to call Love’s armor God, the Universe, Allah, Jehovah, Divine Spirit, Gaia, or something else. As long as we stand together under one of Love’s many names, I’m with you.

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