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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?

I gave up experimenting with Dating Sites a really long time ago. As in years ago. Turns out, the Interweb isn’t quite done with me in that regard. I used to take it somewhat seriously, scrolling through pages of pictures and profiles – especially after hearing about Real Life Success Stories within my own circle of single, divorced or widowed female friends.

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But my own experience brought me  a lot of really lonely, sad men (as in clinically depressed); really angry men; really young men who had clear mommy issues; and men who seemed to be shopping for a woman exactly like they would a piece of furniture. None of this truly important stuff gets revealed in a person’s Profile – intentionally. I get it. But, seriously? The Truth is going to come out during the first meeting, so…why go through coffee, or drinks and dinner and strained conversation that has to end with an awkward handshake? No thank you.

Even though I’m no longer on any of these sites, the Internet Jackals have found, and have been circling me, regardless. I’m thinking that there must be an algorithm for my gender and age, education and marital status, so that what little is actually there in cyberspace flags me as “prey”. If the men now reaching out to me (via Twitter, lately) weren’t so immediately obvious in their gushing compliments in limited English (I’m referring to two apparently Eastern European “Engineers”, living and working on “oil rigs out in the Baltic” that latched on to me about two weeks apart), I might be more amused, than irritated.  

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But the typical inference that I must be vulnerable to, and desperate for over-the-top seduction ( really bad poetry, in some cases) makes me want to respond back with expletives. I want to take some kind of action to defend and protect myself from these Internet Lotharios (bottom line, wanting cash, I’m sure). Whatever that might be. I’m still spit-balling ideas at the moment, since I’m expanding (not shrinking) my Interweb Presence.

One of the last “social-networking” sites I visited really had me feeling hopeful. Its purpose was to connect people actively engaged in what used to be called New Age pursuits:  what we might refer to today as Conscious , or Mindful Living.  Unfortunately, this was and still is one of those sites – Readers might know of others – that, even though you delete your account, actually keeps your information in a vault somewhere in cyberspace. Every now and then unsuspecting former members might receive the message:  “Hello! Look Who Likes You!”

OG Romantic Icon, Olivier as Heathcliff

And so it was, (yesterday) that a completely fabricated ‘person’ was delivered to my Inbox. This time, the “Engineer” (how is this career a ‘thing’ now??) lived less than 20 miles from me (supposedly), instead of on a rig in the Baltic. I decided to read his ‘message’…which was an Ode to my picture (still visible, apparently) and profile (how the hell was he still seeing something I’d deleted ?). He ended his Ode by asking me to text him (a New York number, 2,500 miles away from where I live) so that we’d have a “private and intimate way of getting to know each other”.  Of course:  ‘private’ and ‘intimate’ – the stuff of romance novels.

Curiosity got the better of me. I’ll admit:   I wanted to know if this guy was a “Dimitri’ or an ‘Alek’, so I asked him to share his real name. As though my question had cast a magic spell, complete with fairy dust, the man, the profile, and the internet presence was gone in mere seconds. Feeling satisfied that I’d outed yet another scam, I decided that “Ma” (a pretty bizarre nickname, right?) was actually an AI bot. His photo was too ‘Perfect Man’:  like the enemy-android (in his chiseled-face human form) from the Terminator I film.

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The point of all of this thinking about fake Internet Lotharios and their motives is not to alarm myself or any Reader. It’s just a reminder of how complex the Interweb experience can be. Some people enjoy a good game of ‘cat and mouse’:  they expect such weirdness and deception  and resolve to have fun with it.(I’m thinking about all of the people on YouTube who’ve taken the time to record and then call back ‘fake’ debt-collectors in the hope of ‘besting’ them.) It’s one thing when you go seeking It – whatever that edgy Cyber Thrill is. But it’s another feeling entirely when It comes prowling for you, disguised as a human being.

Time for me to Level Up, once again:  revisit my Privacy settings and bolster my sense of humor. Aside from all of the really good things it can be, cyberspace is also an amusement park “ride” that’s not for the faint at heart. As the signs always say, Ride at Your Own Risk.

As I pass the standard “mid-life” markers, I find myself laughing more often, more ironically, and with more gusto. Laughing at myself, mostly. No, I don’t think it’s generic old-age loonies; instead I think it’s an accumulation of wisdom overheard in my younger days finally getting through to me. There’s a group of women that visit me, as memories, from time to time. I can still see their faces and hear their conversations on topics that were totally disconnected from my reality at the time. Not anymore. I’m remembering, and I’m listening more closely than ever.

While in college in my early twenties, I taught an aerobics class on weekends at a gym exclusively for women. The proprietress (“Ginny”) was a statuesque former beauty (you could still see it in her bones) somewhere in her seventies. She walked like a model, wore a silver bouffant wig, tons of bangles on her wrists, and kept a bottle of vodka in her personal locker. I liked her, a lot. Most of Ginny’s clients were well past middle age. Some of them were in their eighties. They were a different breed of gym-rat back in the day: always dressed in fashionable gym-wear and always in full makeup, perfumed and wearing jewelry. Perspiration was to be avoided.

These ladies eased-into their “workouts” by having coffee with Ginny when the gym opened, around 7 a.m. on Saturday. When I got there a little before 10, ready to teach my class, Ginny was in high spirits (Coffee Lace, as they say in the south, I always thought.) and usually welcomed me with a bangle-jangling hug and cloud of fragrance. During stretches, the women continued to talk amongst themselves non-stop. After about 20 minutes of low-impact Step, I’d guide them through a mild bit of circuit training. Through which they all talked. I don’t think anyone there (besides myself) ever broke a sweat. That wasn’t what this gym was about.

Menopause. Cheating husbands. Feeling ‘invisible’. Slowing metabolism and weight gain. Sagging body parts and wrinkled skin. It was pretty much the same loop every weekend, and fairly easy for me to tune-out. Not only did I tune them out, but I actually thought “What bizarre conversations they have, and what boring lives these women lead.” I had the total impertinence and smugness to think that their concerns could never in a million years be my own one day.

Turns out, as I laugh at myself these days, I do so in the company of these women — now long-gone, most of them. I remember the 85 year old who always washed her face in ice water and never used any other moisturizer than Crisco (I kid you not). Nowadays, almond, olive, apricot and other oils are “de-rigueur” for skin. Then there was the woman who told me that my metabolism would some day slow to a sluggish crawl; that I wouldn’t be able to snack on nachos at midnight without packing on the pounds. My, my — do tell. Finally, there was the woman who complained that becoming Invisible was the worst part of aging for any woman (she eventually became one of the Red Hat Ladies, which I didn’t “get” at the time, but now I do.)

No question that in Western culture we value youth above all things (next to celebrity and celebrity-athletes). But there’s a time period of ‘limbo’ for women — before our kids start joking about pushing us out in a canoe or leaving us on an ice floe — in which Invisibility is a definite problem. Doctors try to convince us that 20 pounds is ‘normal’ weight gain, post-menopause. The fashion industry follows suit by creating Mom Jeans with Tummy Panels to console us. Eye doctors tell us, “Get ready for cataracts — they’re inevitable!” With the aging process, apparently, comes a whole complement of things we’re to assume we must accept. To my thinking, this is the very definition of the Invisibility that my gym-lady was describing so long ago. “You’re a woman, you’re growing older, your body is going to hell but it’s really ok because no one cares, unless you can compete, which you obviously can’t.” Reinforcing this invisibility is the husband who trades his wife in for a model “with fewer miles on it”. Not just a cliché, but a common reality.

What’s a woman to do, when facing Invisibility? Start wearing a red hat, a crimson lip and leopard stilettos? Commit to a strict Paleo and prep for a 10k? Give up cocktails and chocolate? Resolve to find summer and winter-weights of sweatpants? All women will face versions of these questions, and more, as they age. Speaking as one well-into this phase, I can offer two pieces of advice: the first is that Invisibility has distinct advantages, and becoming older brings a certain wisdom and cunning that comes in really handy, when used correctly.

My second piece of advice is to know — or learn — what feels right to you (body weight, fitness level, diet, makeup — clothing- accessories) and jump on that, with all you’ve got. Challenge doctors, dentists, stylists, nutrition and fitness “experts” if or when their suggestions clash with your own inner knowing. Learn to flow with aging according to your own rhythm and sense of well-being. I don’t have a red hat, but I do have a very dramatic, femme fatale black cloche with an iridescent peacock feather perched jauntily on one side. I don’t wear it that often because, when I do, the ‘drama’ of the hat attracts a lot of attention and questions about where I bought it. Sometimes I enjoy that, but sometimes I enjoy being invisible.

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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.

I love poetry, and admire all poets:  established, fledgling, and even those who’ve yet to put  their feelings into words. Reading poetry, for me, evokes the same kinds of emotions I get from almost all artistic expressions:  I intuitively understand that the Artist is hoping to reach some deeper part of me. And I submit, willingly; enthusiastically; with relief.  Poetry is like an intimate conversation between the Poet and the Reader; but one that allows the Reader to step away, take time to process and absorb, then come back. As many times as is needed, or desired. Some poetry (much of it, really) is so poignant and eternal in its power that it can’t be felt or withstood by the human heart in just one ‘dose’. Instead, it begs to be read, over and over again, as time passes and our perspectives change.

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To some, classical poetry, prose, sonnets, etc. might seem way too “dated”. Awkward speech, elusive references – so difficult to access, and find meaning in. But, like music, painting, sculpture, photography, and almost any other artistic expression you can think of, poets have their own unique ways of connecting with our hearts and minds.

Think of it this way:  in our daily experience of living, many of us have intimate friends; as well as  acquaintances, work colleagues, and a bazillion ‘superficial’ connections. Only our intimate friends might hear our innermost thoughts and feelings. In times of great loneliness and despair – or during utter jubilation — the right poet can touch , and comfort your heart in ways that even a dear friend can’t.  A poem can ‘speak’ your exact emotions as you’re searching for the words; or, searching for the courage to express them. ( Enter the mega-million dollar industry of greeting cards).

Today I was reflecting on – and trying my best not to feel discouraged by – recent horrific episodes of gun violence in the United States, which now seem to happen on a daily basis here. Exhausted by the chatter ( so much Talk, so little Action) on social media, I turned to a poem. Brace yourselves, younger readers:  it was written in 1802.

The very first line, etched in the minds and hearts of all English Literature (my undergrad) students – is so applicable as to be heart-breaking, in the context of our seemingly disconnected – from what truly matters – collective State of Being. Although this poem was written to express the writer’s despair about the Industrial Revolution in the United States – a time of huge unrest and economic upheaval for the majority of citizens – it also aptly describes our 21st century conundrums and terrors in a bold, yet tender, and deeply prescient way:

“The World is too much with us; late and soon. Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. Little we see in Nature that is ours. We’ve given our hearts away…This sea that bares her bosom to the moon; the winds that will be howling at all hours, are gathered up now like sleeping flowers. For this, for everything, we are out of tune:  it moves us not.”

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William Wordsworth continues his lamenting in this poem. I’ve only included the lines that express my own feelings of helplessness on this day, contemplating the grief that survivors of two mass shootings, in 48 hours, must be feeling.

Poetry is a quiet place to turn, when the World is too loud, too oppressive, too chaotic. It’s also a gentle reminder to reflect:  have we laid to ‘waste our powers’ and ‘given our hearts away’ in certain aspects of Life? Are we so ‘out of tune’ with Nature that its beauty and grace pale, compared to so many distractions?

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Some might tell me, “Get over it; that’s how Life is!” They might scoff at the very idea of trying to make sense of senseless acts. Clearly, there is no “sense” in random acts of hate and cruelty; that’s not the point of my reflection today. More importantly,  since Wordsworth’s 1802 poem (and even much before that), there’s plenty of evidence that human beings haven’t yet ‘given our hearts away’ as a species. I’m focusing on that today, taking comfort in a very old poet’s thoughts; hoping they’ll be shared and felt in countless ways; in ways that make a difference, as we all continue searching for words.

poet Maya Angelou, 1929-2014

Organizational Psychology consultants and coaches don’t have an exclusive ‘lock’ on what makes individuals and groups successful in a work setting. OPs learn and train in a variety of disciplines, including systems theory and the huge and complex field of individual and group psychology. Their conclusions and ultimate practices are evidence-based:  what appears to be effective, according to research and evaluation.

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The concerns of most companies still revolve around The Bottom Line (profits), incorporating emergent needs such as  sustainability and global reach into the mix. Consultants and coaches (those who’re formally trained, by the way, not the Life Coach you might see advertising on YouTube) can analyze and create detailed recommendations relative to every aspect of an organization’s goals. But the human psychology behind success remains, at its core, really pretty simple. The research is clear:  people who are Happy generally feel and experience ‘success’ in their pursuits (personal or work related).  But people who may think of themselves as ‘successful’, or who may be regarded as such by others, are not always Happy. Readers may be thinking, Who Cares? Stay with me…

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The need to feel Happy is a fundamentally-human condition. It’s almost autonomic, in that we go about pursuing Happiness almost without thinking about it.  It’s certainly tied to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:  being happy for some might be as basic as a full belly and safe place to sleep; or, it might be the Corner Office and a boost in an already-six-figure income. Organizational Psychology researchers, however, have reason (and research to back it up) to believe that Happiness has slightly less to do with external conditions or outcomes and much more to do with our internal wellbeing.

If our basic needs for food, shelter, safety, and a sense of belongingness (there’s Maslow again) have been assured, Happiness – the pursuit of it – takes a very interesting turn. According to extensive research, three conclusions emerge:  1) Happiness begins in the human heart; 2) Happiness is not overly influenced by such factors as genetics or random events; and 3) Happiness appears to have a set-point, for the majority of people.

There’s very good news for those of us that struggle with negative emotions from time to time. Happiness, the kind I’m talking about here, is in large part the ability to balance positive and negative feelings or emotions. Going overboard in either direction isn’t helpful. Furthermore, negative emotions, as it turns out, actually strengthen happiness by providing contrast (again, as long as we don’t allow ourselves to get ‘stuck’ in gloom).

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One of the recent areas of Happiness study (targeting stress-related absenteesim) is Work-Life Balance. ‘Balance’ is unique to each individual. It’s something we strive for alone, in that we alone feel and understand our needs, our abilities and our limits, and our desires and aversions. The balance we achieve is up to us:  we flourish in it, or we suffer the adverse effects of neglecting our Inner World (mind, body, spirit). Short bursts of success (e.g., a winning lottery ticket) stimulate our happiness receptors, but are short-lived spikes).

Interestingly, the sense of inner balance that is the foundation of Happiness, turns out to have a “set-point”. A researcher by the name of Ed Diener developed a series of national (in the U.S.) and international studies of tens of thousands of people engaged in a wide variety of professions. Diener found that genuine Happiness is a sense of “subjective well-being”, not a response to external factors. Not only this, but, as we learn and grow through life’s experiences, Diener discovered that we encounter our own Happiness set-point:  the stage at which we often say to ourselves, “It’s time for a new experience (and new challenges)”.

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So if deep and long-lasting Happiness is really more about our internal well-being, and so much less about The Chase (fill in the blank:  job, money, material possessions, relationships), then what’s to do? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, since each and every one of us is engaged in our own Balancing Act. What I know for sure is that we can help one another along the way.  Heartfelt gestures, kind words of encouragement, and whatever version of Namaste (The Divine in Me Recognizes and Honors the Divine in You) suits our belief system grace both the giver and the receiver.

In 2017, when the city managers of Paris – the official “City of Love” —  went on a rampage against the 45 tons of Love Locks fastened to its historical Pont Des Arts, they were forced to do so. The sheer weight of the million-plus locks had finally caused a section of the bridge to collapse. Such was the mythic power, on a global scale, of this famous bridge:  Love, fulfilled; Love, unrequited; Love, lost; Love, yearned for. Desires and promises captured for eternity in the hearts of padlocks whose keys were then tossed into the river Seine.  

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In 2019, popular travel sites now offer suggestions for the most romantic locations (lakes, rivers, oceans – with the necessary bridges, fencing or gates or…) for the Love Lock-obsessed. As annoying and as silly as these notions might seem, they represent a very human desire to believe in wishes.  It’s more than wishing, really; the belief is in the power of unseen forces that feel magical, and that fulfill our need for a deeper, more ancient-feeling connection with those forces.

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Recent studies (one was published in early 2019, in the New York Times) show an uptick in public interest worldwide, in spiritual avenues that the majority of people probably wouldn’t refer to as ‘mainstream’. Wicca membership has increased, as have visits to astrology websites, and the use of psychics. Books and magazine articles that focus on Wellness topics have steadily grown in popularity since the 1990’s. Yoga, in all its forms, has experienced a surge in popularity. But Wellness is not the quite the same as believing in the power of spirit animals and planetary influences. Its not the same as believing in the power of a Love Lock, with the lovers’ initials etched into it, to be able to capture love forever. To slip into this realm means letting go of our need for reasons and rationales. It means re-connecting with our sense of Wonder.

A sense of Wonder is most often attributed to children, as in, To perceive something with child-like wonder. But what is that, exactly? We have memory of what it feels like, from childhood. We’re envious of those that still have it; we know that Life and living tend to extinguish it. But we also know that a sense of Wonder is real;  and, it’s one of the few things in our lives that feels authentic and un-fakeable (I think I just coined a new word, here – apologies, if necessary). I’ll define Wonder – here and now, anyway — as an acceptance of, and appreciation for what can’t be fully known or experienced with the mind. Wonder is felt. Wonder takes what we think we know can, or cannot be, and turns it on its head by presenting us with something awe-some.We don’t doubt it; we don’t need to prove it or convince anyone else that our sense of  Wonder’s valid.

This morning when I walked out my front door I checked, as I always do, the level of nectar in the hummingbird feeder to the left of the door. Surprised and delighted, I was in perfect time to catch a tiny, jet-black hummer sipping from the feeder. As if that wasn’t enough of a treat, the little thing then zoomed directly in front of my face at eye level, about 18 inches from my nose, and hovered there looking directly at me for a few seconds. Funny that I was just longing for something Wonder-ful, when it greeted me by almost touching my face.

Unlike the individual who interpreted the study (I mention above) as a sign that we’re all going completely Off The Rails  with our crystals and faeries, psychic readings and personalized Birth Charts, I think it’s completely ‘ok ‘to seek Wonder wherever we think we might find it. In the eyes of our faithful hound or mystical cat; in a flower; in the tarot cards; in a circle of wiccans giving thanks to the Great Forest and its sprites; in the power of a Love Lock to bind us forever.  Who cares? We embrace our Wonder wherever we find it and rejoice in not having to ask Why or How.

Like many people I know, I spend most of my waking hours In My Head. Thinking, planning, analyzing, problem-solving, and integrating all kinds of new information that’s interesting or useful (even some that isn’t, but hey – my mind needs baby-goat videos occasionally).

This month of July, however, I made a vow to myself that I’d give my Heart equal time, when it came to my own personal desires, and relative to my obligations to others. I didn’t realize, when I decided to act in a more heartfelt way toward my Self, how difficult it would be. If this was a diet I was trying to stick to, I’d have blown it daily since day-one:  allowing my ‘appetite’ for over-thinking all things to overrule my best intentions.

For example, why is it so hard to simply be kind to myself? Not criticize, or second-guess; do the things I enjoy first, and handle the chores later? I’ve gotten pretty good at sending loving thoughts to others who’re going through stressful times. But how often do I send my Self encouragement, or take the time to do little things (like wiggle my toes in the grass) that are nurturing? How often do I check-in with my Heart before making a decision that has the power to influence my happiness? My conclusion, as these questions popped up this month, is that my Mind has far too much power and control in my daily life. It’s a bit of a bully, really: louder and stronger than my quiet heart.

Yesterday I had a very strange and wonderful experience. Prepping for an upcoming medical procedure, I was told I needed an ultrasound of my heart. I’d had an EKG before – many years ago: the little black zigs and zags gave me no real awareness, or feeling of connection, to what my heart was doing or why (over-reacting to stress at the time). But yesterday’s ultrasound was a different experience altogether.

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As I lay on my side, feeling the sharp nose of the technician’s wand pushing hard under my left breast (I had to tell her to ‘chill’ with the pressure she was exerting), I began watching the screen of the machine that was giving me a startling look at my heart – in real time. OMG. There it was, beating Life through my body, in a firework crackle of red and blue bursts (the arterial and venous blood) according to a divine rhythm. I was completely transfixed by what I saw:  utterly fascinated by the beauty of it; the sheer perfection and wonder of a beating heart; my heart.

I immediately began thinking:  What have I been doing, to help this Center of My Physical Being? All of the “heart healthy” foods:  have I been eating enough? What about “heart-ache”? How silly I’ve been, to allow a single moment of sadness to toss my emotions and “break” my heart. Suddenly, the word Heartfelt took on new meaning, in my quest this month to think less, feel more. Watching the screen, actually seeing how steady and efficient it is, beating-away, despite my frequent disregard for it, my Heart became real in my Mind.

Yes, it’s a crucial physical organ; but it’s also the center – in a way that my Mind is not and could never be – of what keeps me balanced and in-tune with right action. Its beat quiets babies and animals with its reassuring grace. It hums with ease during tranquil moments, and trills with pleasure or with fear when feelings are intense. When — not if — I allow it to speak, my heart is never wrong.

“The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of… We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.” – Blaise Pascal.

Despite having been born into an environment that most people would consider ‘advantaged’ (white, middle-class, educated parents), I was a really young kid when major dysfunction in my household erupted. Happenings that were absolutely beyond my control created an atmosphere of fear, anxiety and insecurity. My life was upended numerous times, by the mental health issues of my mother, and the volatile and sometimes violent behavior of my father. My family unit became deeply fractured a long, long time ago; and some of its members still live in that deep, dark crevasse. I was able to climb out; in part, through my education and study of human development and psychology. But also as a result of an important realization and understanding that I grew into.

As I entered adulthood, I soon discovered the value – the extreme importance – of having Choices and Options in my life. No matter what came my way, as long as I had wiggle-room to consider possibilities – regardless of how dire the current circumstances – there was Hope. I got myself into some pretty sketchy situations during my growth years, but always had the ability to feel strengthened and even empowered by the fact that I could choose my path forward. Even when the choices were ‘bad’ , or ‘worse’, not feeling helpless and hopeless was something to be grateful for. I was, and I still am, so grateful.

 “Keep your doors open, and your options as plentiful as possible” was one of my messages to my son as he was becoming a man. (Happy to say that it’s ‘saved his bacon’ several times.) But the message is actually just a part of my larger goal of remaining flexible and resilient, despite setbacks and heartbreaks, large or small.

Recently I was thinking about this:   the vast difference between having, and not having, a ‘say’ in my daily existence. Truth be told, I’d much rather be able to steer my little boat confidently, when Life buffets it with gusty winds and gigantic waves. Sometimes, however – especially lately – the only option is to Hold On and Wait it Out.

Olha Darchuk, Artist

For a while now I’ve been on an adventure of both self-discovery and  re-invention. People and situations – along with my own self-limiting beliefs and behaviors – have begun to vanish along the way. It’s a little disconcerting. Sailing along (to continue my metaphor!) with a newfound sense of freedom , I’ve been losing my guideposts:  those familiar reminders (even if they’re negative, they’re still a kind of comfort) of my former life. One by one, a person or a situation drifts behind me and away, like passing through shoals that eventually, far out to sea, disappear altogether. Just the sky and the horizon, now.

Despite feeling liberated – which I do — there’s really no Option for me in this. I’ve accepted that I’ve had to move past my Past. To linger would have been pointless. More than this:  I would have stopped growing and stopped discovering my Self. I can think of just a few other times in life that were more painful than “staying”, when all signs, and my heart, told me it was time for a change of course. It might be a job; a relationship; a home I’ve lived in for decades. It might be something simple, like a precious memory that only brings sadness now and must be released. It might be something vague:  a subtle sensation that I’ve completed an important Phase and am ready to expand Who I Am, Where I’m Going, and What I’m Supposed to be Doing.

lds.org

There’s evidence all around me that I should be scared, or at least apprehensive, during Major Shifts and new adventures. The fact that the current unfolding seems to be happening, guided by an unseen Navigator, without my taking direct action most of the time, is sort of unnerving. Nevertheless, I don’t feel afraid – only excited. I’ve passed almost all the little buoys (I’m really stuck on this nautical theme, but it feels right!) marking Safe Waters. I can’t tell you how I know, or why I trust that I’m going in the right direction. But I’m looking at the nighttime sky now, and choosing to sail by the stars.

I’ve learned to practice — more and more as I relax into it — Gratitude, as part of my daily ritual:  thinking about and offering it – even for minor ‘pluses’ in a given day. Sometimes, in periods of off-the-charts stress, finding something to be happy about and grateful for – even something small – brings relief. It might be, that after a night of restless sleep worrying about an important choice I need to make, the neighbor across the street chooses to carpool, instead of firing up his Monster Truck at 4 a.m. (rattling my windows and catapulting me out of bed). Yes. Thank You.

One of the most amazing aspects of growing older and wiser (there are so many, really, but this one is Big) is the way that Perspective becomes one of the easiest life-skills to appreciate. The kind of Perspective I’m referring to here can only be gained (earned, actually), through time and experience on the planet. The highs and lows — celebrations and tragedies, successes and failures — allow me to understand what’s truly important, and what’s either a distraction, or totally meaningless in my experience.

By the time that penicillin was discovered in 1928, my grandmother had lost 6 of her siblings to bacterial infections that could have easily been treated with this medication. From her mid-30’s on, she had a belief in doctors and medicine that went far beyond rational. While pregnant with her first child, a doctor told her she was anemic. She agreed to be given oral doses of a liquid that made all of her teeth fall out and caused, so she later learned, her first daughter to be stillborn.

I’m definitely grateful for living in a time of so much advanced scientific information, technology and innovation in general. But lately I’ve also been thinking, adjusting my perspective, about how many innovations are a tricky balance of benefit and detriment.

A lot is being said (and studied) about the ways in which personal technology is impacting our lives. When Television came on the scene (our family’s first was a black and white model – hard to imagine, now), it was quickly decried as The Idiot Box, and The Boob Tube. The end of Reading; the end of Conversation; meals eaten on “tv trays” instead of at a table; and networks subtly shaping our buying and spending habits through advertising.

It’s an escalating addiction, Technology. The more I incorporate it into my life, the more my life seems to demand the latest versions of ‘whatever’;  so that Having is way better than Not Having. I get the big picture; I see the inevitable way that innovations will continue to improve our lives, but also make us more dependent on them (and less so, on one another).  I’m not exactly embracing it unilaterally (the way that my grandmother did the wisdom of the medical field); but I’m not rejecting it either. It’s an uneasy communion, for sure.

I’m at the age now where I can appreciate Knowing the Difference. Life before television; before the Internet, computers, smart phones, smart speakers and smart homes; virtual experiences that  might feel preferable to reality. We’re all transitioning – along with the technology of our time – and I am right there with those anticipating The Next Upgrade.

So, this  isn’t a dystopian rant. It’s an expression of extreme gratitude for Knowing the Difference, in the experiencing of Life. What it was before, and what it is now. “It’s all good,” we tell ourselves. Actually, it’s going to be exactly what we choose to make it:  Choice being the operative word. I’m feeling thankful, to have the ‘age’ and experience to know what the choices actually are, and how profoundly meaningful they will be.