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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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Western astrologers claim that, in addition to the traditional calendar’s New Year (on or about the first day of January), each of us has a personal New Year. Just because it’s mine and uniquely tailored to me, I automatically want to believe in the power of something called my Solar Return. In fact, the more I read about it, the more I believe that a Personal New Year’s celebration makes much more sense than a random date marked by bleary-eyed hangovers and half-hearted resolutions made on 31 December. My Personal New Year is less than one week from today. When it arrives, all the major planets will have scooted back into the same alignment they were in, when Time announces the exact hour and minute of my birth.

Solar Returns, according to astrology, are supposed to be a time when we look back and marvel (shrug, cry, cheer, exhale with relief) at all that’s transpired by virtue of our Personal Work. We take stock of the high and low points we’ve had; we try to integrate the lessons-learned (so as to avoid making the same mistakes), and consider how well we kept to our goals for ourselves, our relationships, our work, our families and our life’s purpose. But the very best part of a personal New Year is the fresh opportunity it presents:  to set new intentions for the coming year; to dream, hope and anticipate with renewed energy.

There’ve been many ‘intangibles’ in my life experience that I fully believe have had meaning and purpose, providing clues of some larger plan.  Experiences that have felt magical and inexplicable, contradicting my tendency toward skepticism, analysis and the need for empirical proof in just about every aspect of daily living. Readers might be able to relate:   when intuition provides happy hunches, or grave warnings; when the urge to call a family member yields the information that s/he was in dire need of comfort; missing a horrific car crash by mere seconds, hearing a voice that says, “Move to the other lane – NOW!” I certainly hope I’m just one of many who’ve trusted completely what really can’t be explained.

There are definitely times when Life seems frustratingly, even excruciatingly random. It’s those moments when disillusionment and cynicism feel like the only normal or rational response to unbearable challenges. Which is why, I think, that when I’m given a ‘gift’ from an unseen hand – a chance to believe in something much bigger than my little circle of human existence – I reach for it, without hesitation. With gusto.

I don’t fully understand the science behind a solar return  and personal new year, but I’m loving the idea of a cosmic party in my honor. I’ll always embrace a chance to begin with a clean slate, with the learning and tools gained through stellar moments, missteps, and total flubs, from the past year. Anything that inspires hope, offers inspiration and gives reason for celebration. I’m so ready:  one year older’s a small price to pay for such a gift.

[All images courtesy gettyimages.com]

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One of my aunts passed away recently at age 89. Up until her last week of life, Aunt Helen somehow found the energy to saddle-up one of her nine horses and ride her acreage. Her horse-related injuries included several broken bones and a few concussions over the years. According to family lore, this was because Helen wasn’t fussy about breed, conformation or habits:  mostly she just came across a horse that needed rescuing and adopted it. She had some beautiful animals. Some, as I learned, with seriously bad habits.

I only saw my Aunt Helen once a year as a child, when we made the drive across the U.S. from the west to the east. Whether or not I asked for it, “going riding” was always a ‘thing’. I dreaded it. My first experience was with a horse she called “Dancer” (apt, considering what this animal did when you tried to board him). After Dancer, I always tried to eyeball and ask for a slow, heavy mare for my mount.  But Helen chose according to which horse “needed” riding; a bit of a ‘giveaway’ about what was to come. So it was that I learned about, and had the full-on experience of, a Barn-Sour horse.

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“Barn Sour” has since become part of my personal lexicon. I may not use it in polite conversation, but I’m definitely thinking about its meaning in certain situations with friends and family, when I listen to them talk about their attitudes and experiences related to growing older.

So this particular day on Helen’s farm  (I must’ve been about 9 or 10), a beautiful, crisp autumn in late November, my aunt had saddled up a new horse she’d just gotten:  for free, I’m guessing. Not fully understanding horses, my experience with them being pretty limited, I was still able to sense the horse’s hesitation as I climbed into the saddle. He was a jet black gelding whose eyes told me “I’m so not into this.” Nevertheless, I and two other riders (more cousins) started out down the country road bordering Helen’s property. We’d ridden for maybe 30 minutes when suddenly my horse stopped so abruptly that I was pitched forward in the saddle. Satisfied that I was almost unseated, the horse then spun on his back legs (visualize a quarter horse’s lightning-quick moves when the rider’s roping a steer), a complete 180 degrees, and shot forward ( away from the other horses) at a full gallop. Totally stunned, I’d dropped the reins and instinctively grabbed the pommel of the saddle.

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The horse ran like its tail was on fire. Ripping high speed through the forest (the shortest route it had calculated, in its deranged mind), we seemed to reach the barn where its stall was in a matter of seconds. As soon as the horse was in eyesight of the barn, he came to a dead-stop. I leaped out of the saddle and looked at him. You know what I was thinking, even as a kid. But his eyes were calm; he wasn’t even breathing hard.

My Aunt Helen came out of her house when she saw me and the horse. I had twigs in my hair and scratches on my face, but she had a good, long laugh. “Barn Sour”:  A horse, for whatever his or her reasons, panics when it gets too far from the space that represents comfort, familiarity, food and safety. If given the smallest chance, it’ll bee-line it back to where it really wants to be.

Sometimes people can become Barn Sour as they get older. Travel may sound like a good idea. Plans are made, tickets are purchased, then excuses are made for why they “can’t really leave” after all. Those reasons might be legit:  an elderly parent suddenly needs care. But many people become so emotionally tied to personal ‘spaces’ and routines that it becomes impossible for them to venture beyond the orbit of familiarity.

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I catch myself, now and then, thinking about the Risk involved with any new situation or adventure. I’m aware that, as time passes, the World itself presents more Risk. And as I think about all of the places I could go, and the things I could try, I admit to myself that I’m absolutely vulnerable to becoming Barn Sour:  there are just too many enticing comforts, and diversions right here, in my comfy little space. And so many very accomodating industries want to keep me feeling that way:  unlimited streaming of anything, food delivered to my door; even Peloton Digital agrees I should stay home. But will I?

As I write this, I only have a few more hours before total insanity takes over the city where I live. Here in California, aside from the excitement of a major earthquake (6.4) and numerous (150 and counting) aftershocks today, it’s also The Fourth of July. This particular holiday has been evolving (in my opinion) into a ‘celebration’ far beyond my childhood memories of sparklers and a few firecrackers smuggled in from our numerous trips south of the border. When I use the word ‘insanity’, that’s exactly what I mean. Firecrackers must feel too tame to most people, because my neighbors are now exploding small bits of dynamite (they used to be called M-80’s, still totally illegal). I’m sure the mega -Whistling Petes can be heard on other planets. And now, in our nation’s capital, we have tanks and other military bravado as part of The Fourth.  It doesn’t feel like Independence Day to me…unless, of course, the reference is to the dystopian Tom Cruise film that’s all about surviving an alien apocalypse.

‘Independence’ is a double-edged sword, and so open-to-interpretation. When I was out and about today (I’m usually a Mole Person on holidays, preferring to avoid crowds and traffic), I had an encounter that sent me into a Reflection about the meaning of ‘independence’ in my own life.  I’d gone in search of a couple of travel items (replacing a ratty luggage-tag and zipper-less ear bud pouch) and was waiting to be called by “The next available sales person”. Whenever waiting in a line, I like to observe and admire people, just going about their daily lives. I’d already noticed the young man (maybe, late 20’s) who called me to his check-out line: handsome, with dark curls framing his delicate features;  I imagined he was also a dancer, or an artist, in his real life. He looked bored, unhappy; captive? While I waited for him to scan my stuff, I made small talk:  “So, do you have a fun 4th of July ‘something’ to look forward to tonight?”

You know that thing that a salesperson does…the way their face reacts when someone takes the time to engage in conversation ? Surprise. Eye contact. She sees me. So cool. But, meeting my eyes he said, “No, I don’t really get into holidays.” I nodded and affirmed that, oddly enough, neither did I. But then this young guy went on:  “I don’t even like my own birthday.” That caught my attention and I said, with what I hoped was a gentle smile, “But, you’re old enough now, surely, that you can celebrate it –or not?” The young man said, “No, I don’t really have a choice. It’s my grandmother; she always has to have a cake and give me presents. I don’t want any of it.” Sometimes random strangers hand you ‘gold’:  they share a tiny glimpse into their lives and their most tender places. I wanted to hear more, but of course, “Next customer” was behind me.

Becoming independent – earning the right to Do What You Want To Do —  is considered an ‘adult’ rite of passage. Growing older and wiser is assumed to be the pinnacle of this ‘freedom’. But I’ve learned, over the years that – young or older – it’s actually difficult, or at least tricky, to act on self-interests while keeping yourself in-reach of others. Unless you choose to embrace a Hermit lifestyle (ok with me, I get it! ), there are instances where ‘independent’ can also feel like a lonely existence. Ironically, getting stuck in unfulfilling relationships or situations can also feel lonely. Maybe even more so.

I’m in a space now where I have more independence and freedom than I’ve ever enjoyed in my adult life. My “roots” are my small family, but they themselves are a fluid bunch. Many people around me, in fact, seem to be in the midst of personal changes that are both internal and external (changing jobs, partners, living spaces, lifestyles). Independence of mind, body and spirit is clearly a driver these days. Being able to say, “No birthday, and no cake!” without offending others seems like a small thing, but that’s where it begins. Being able to say “No”, instead of “Yes”, if you’re not feeling it, is not always an easy thing. But without those little assertions of Self in small, or big, impactful moments, others can’t possibly know where we stand, or what we stand for.

Yesterday I was out running errands – not the fun kind, but out doing ‘essentials’. I had Sirius on as a distraction. The politics of these days are nothing, if not ‘distracting’! Anyway, it took me almost two hours to finish up what I had to do, and in that time, in between pundits discussing the spin-cycle we’re in until at least 2020, I noticed a different kind of insistent messaging assaulting my brain.

When I was fresh out of college and not yet employed as the teacher I would soon become, I took a summer job working as a sales rep for a rock station (I feel old, just saying that). I actually did pretty well in the role, and was fascinated by my learning about how station ratings are dependent upon ratios of advertisements and music; the difference between “drive time” and “quitting time” ( we called it Happy Hour); and how messaging that is repeated so often as to be crazy-making, is actually extremely effective in shaping consumer behavior (purchase habits).

Back to my errands. The advertisement that stuck in my mind (good work, Sirius) repeated itself three times in less than two hours, which is a lot, for a 60-second ad. It featured a female voice-over and the message was half-praise, half warning, which is a super- effective advert tactic. The lead-in was, “Good news:  you’re taking such good care of your body that it’s going to outlast your brain!” (My own paraphrasing, by the way, but the overall gist is accurate). Being the visual person I am, I saw myself on a tennis court, strong and fit…not realizing that I don’t play tennis until a ball smacked me in the head. As you would expect, the message was designed to make me feel that I needed to forget about my errands and make a beeline for the nearest pharmacy before my brain did any more deteriorating.

I wouldn’t give these commericals any thought at all, if there wasn’t such a proliferation of them. They all begin with, “Research shows…”, which many people I’m sure are tempted to accept as Truth. Brain health, bone health, gut health, stability issues, digestive issues. I can hear and see that companies are creating and marketing products, based on the fact that people are living longer and better lives; and this fact needs to be addressed, they think, with medication. “If you don’t have it yet, you’re in line for it, trust us.”

 Back when certain congressional hearings dominated an entire news day, I had the television on in the background while I did some writing and housework. Nearly every “break” was punctuated by an advert for a medicine thought to be needed by “older adults”. By the end of the day, not only was I saturated and disgusted by the hearings, but I realized that the product messaging had invaded my brain and I found myself actually thinking…Is all this s*** (the symptoms and actual ailments) inevitable??

I’m trailblazing here, and maybe I’m alone, but I don’t think so. I don’t take medication and don’t like taking it even when I absolutely have to. I exercise every day and try to do the hydration and clean-food things. The last time I saw my doctor (whom I truly love), he laughed as he said, “It’s a good thing I’m retiring – people like you are about to put me out of business!” (A compliment to my age and relative health). I thought so. We are a healthier group, mid-life, than ever before. But companies know that this has us feeling just a wee bit insecure, as in, “I wonder how long I can make this last?”

My answer to that question is this:  it’ll last a helluva lot longer if we don’t pay attention to the Reaper brain-washing from media. I can’t totally avoid hearing the ads, without giving up the media services I enjoy; but I can, and do, talk back to them. In my opinion, we all should.

Without over-thinking it, ask yourself, “How often, in the course of a single day, do I suppress or “filter” who I really am, what I really think, and what I really want, in favor keeping some kind of harmony in my life?” It could be at home, with family, or in the workplace that you downplay your own ideas, opinions and wishes; it could be a stifling of something so personal to you, like your voice, makeup choices or sense of style.  It could be, out in the world you’re wildly assertive, but in your relationship with yourself, you really don’t approve or accept that who you are is worthy of all of the good things in Life.

 It doesn’t matter what age you are:  if you’re engaged at all in social media or exposed to media messaging of any kind, one of the dominant themes these days (it’s actually a resurgent theme from a few decades ago) is that it’s totally “ok” to Be Yourself. In fact, if you have school age children or grandchildren, you know that being referred to as “fake” is one of the most common and devastating insults to be on the receiving end of. If young children, even in elementary school, are chastising one another for being – intentionally or not – the child’s version of inauthentic or even duplicitous, that tells us a lot about our current culture. So: if authenticity’s not only acceptable, but an expectation for ourselves and others, why does being authentic feel like so much effort? Part of the answer is that learning to be and stay “true to yourself” goes against our DNA. We’ve absorbed a life lesson that’s been clobbering people since we first became social animals, and the fear of being ostracized was legit: being expelled from the protection of the tribe could mean certain death. But we’ve evolved, of course; so much so that we can choose our tribe, and – to a large extent – control much of the personal exposure we have to the larger society of potential critics. Still:  why do the comments and opinions of other people – whether close to us, or coming from cyberspace – get under our skins and make us feel insecure? Why does our sense of being approved of, accepted, (Liked, Followed) sometimes seem more of a determinant of our actions and Life Path than our own inner guidance system?

“Just Do You” is actually a contradiction for us:  a cute little catch-phrase dressed up as thoughtful gift that’s meant to empower in our modern times. But, as anyone who’s exposed a tattoo or piercing in the workplace and gotten negative feedback knows, self-expression is more of an ideal, than a practice consistently sanctioned by society. We’re naturally wary, when we’re on our way to a big interview and a colleague says, “Just be yourself !” We know what’s expected, and we doubt our ability to deliver that, in the process of sharing who we really are, what we know, and what we can do.

Recent events in various newsfeeds (I’m referring to several women currently in the political spotlight) highlight just how hard it is, especially for women, to find and hold on to that place within ourselves that allows for and promotes authenticity. Among other difficulties, we’re constantly being judged by others by our “surface” attributes:  every detail about how we look, how we speak, and what we wear. On a deeper level, projecting strong viewpoints and behaving outside of established norms will usually earn derision of the most personal kind.

Is there a “happy medium”, then,  between retreating into a shell of our own making – letting others dictate our thoughts, feelings and actions — and living a life that is authentic, powerful and fulfilling, but puts us in regular confrontation with others? Older, wiser women know that part of the answer to this question is to stop caring so much about what other people think, while in the pursuit of personal happiness. The way to develop this strength is to take an honest look at your current situation and evaluate for yourself what needs to change, based on what your heart wants. It takes courage to be who you really are;  you might find that people close to you become upset or confused by your changes. You don’t need anyone’s permission (except your own) or approval, before you act on what feels so natural to you.  In fact, the only difficulty you may have is deciding what  (and who) you really want, for the kind of life that really is best for you. Trust me on this:  that’s actually the fun part.