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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!”

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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.

Without thinking about it, consider the word ‘Surrender’ and notice how it feels:  the associations and connotations of the word. Does ‘surrender’ feel calm, even blissful? Or, does it bring feelings and visions of being overcome:  powerless and defeated? Surrender definitely implies giving-in to something; the end of a struggle of some kind; relenting; relaxing resistance; allowing something else to transpire.

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Depending upon the opposing ‘forces’ that cause us to re-think our resistance, Surrender can in fact be heavenly. “Surrendering to Love,” for example. For many people, though, the idea of surrendering feels like giving-up; doing something that feels unnatural and maybe even scary. So it was when I began to release lifelong habits that no longer suit or serve me.

For most of my adult life I’ve been goal, and action-oriented. I was clear about my professional path early on, and driven to achieve in my accumulation of degrees, credentials, certificates and opportunities for advancement. A friend of mine recently remarked (we were discussing my doctoral program) “How ambitious you are! At your age!” My response – ignoring the urge to call-out ‘ageism’ by someone actually older than me – was casual:  “Oh, all I’m doing is just living life.” Right?  But then I began thinking about his words. It’s common for those closest to me to complain that I rarely “sit still” (not true); that I “over-do it” in the achievement realm (define, ‘over-doing it’, please). A teammate recently told me, “You do too much” (translation he confided: you make the rest of us look bad!).

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I began considering my action-oriented life and allowed alternatives to seep into my current ways of thinking. Is ‘taking action’ always necessary? Clearly not. Non-stop action, as I’m sure many Readers know, is, among other things, a recipe for exhaustion. With day-to-day interactions — if someone close to us does something really offensive and obviously meant to cause hurt, is immediate action required? Not always. But how does one, whose entire life has been about Doing, slow down and surrender to Not Doing? It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve discovered how amazing and wonderful it can be. I started by realizing that the word Surrender has super-powers, if we allow it to expand past negative moments in our memories (“Surrender your passport!” being one of the worst in mine:  our PanAm flight was forced down, into Iran, many years ago, passports seized).

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Surrendering to all that is beautiful, restful, nurturing and peaceful in Life means letting-go of control (an ongoing theme in my world). Surrendering to Whatever Is, and Will Be means that Trust becomes a guiding influence in Life. Trust: that one’s best efforts will be enough. Trust: that in the midst of chaos, there is Harmony (time spent in Nature and with animals is my proof). Action’s still a governing principle in my life and always will be; but I’ve reached a truce with Surrender by accepting that, at the end of the day, it’s On My Side.

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.

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.

I’ve never liked waiting. For anything. Today in a short line at my local pharmacy, there was only one cashier; and she was training an obvious new hire. OMG. I heard identical, patiently-repeated instructions in monotone from the head cashier, after each identical mistake the new person made. “Second checker, please!” I sent this command telepathically to store management, to no avail. Rather than whip out my phone (I’d already checked my mail and news feeds) my eyes began scanning shelves around me for what I might need, but didn’t know I needed – yet. The new hire was aware of the vibes being directed toward her from the restless people in line and was growing increasingly flustered. I considered a space-age-looking nicotine delivery ‘barnacle’ for the skin. I don’t even smoke, but the idea of a drug patch was tempting at that moment.

Waiting, big or small, means something or someone else is in control. Yes, I have an uneasy relationship with that word. I think I should have more of it; the Universe believes I should have less. You know how that goes, right? I get lots of lessons about ‘waiting’. But I’m not really talking about store lines here; or waiting at the train station or airport; or, to see my dentist or eye doctor. In these venues I’m able to distract myself while waiting: I almost always have something to read in my super-sized purse (which is usually carrying what I might need if stranded for two days).

No. The control I long for is over the big stuff. Putting Heartbreak behind me. Waiting for New Love. Getting past a significant Disappointment. Being able to Move to a new city, free of the obligations tying me to my current one. Waiting for that ‘shift’ in the heart and mind that gives instant relief: the signal that I’m over the hump of waiting for the vanishing-act of whatever hurt, frustration, or longing that’s taken control of my wellbeing.

Like most people, I’ve read a lot (and even absorbed some wisdom) about Perfect Timing. I’m referring to the philosophy that all things unfold in the time and manner that they should. In my heart I know this to be mostly true. (Try telling someone whose son just overdosed ‘All is As it Should Be’ – tough sell, that one.) But my brain is another matter. There’s a reason that I struck out on my own when I was 17. There’s a reason behind my career choices (allowing for so much autonomy). I know where I’m going and I want to be in charge of how and when I get there. Note:  I don’t want or need to control other people, just my immediate surroundings.

How did I get this way? The list is long, friends. Part of it is my personality, but much of it relates to the circumstances surrounding my early years. Not feeling able to trust that Those in Charge knew what they were doing. I had evidence. Even as a young kid. So, as soon as I could, I took action; I made changes; I grabbed control of my own journey-forward in emotional and material ways. The problem now is – well, it’s not really a problem anymore, since I stumbled on the solution recently. The problem was how to transition (comfortably) from Action to Receptivity.

Receptivity (not new in my knowledge, but in actual practice) is not the same thing as being passive. Receptivity is allowing, instead of resisting. It takes plenty of attention and engagement, as I’m finding out. Receptivity takes the ‘sting’ out of waiting for me, in that it allows me to see, feel and appreciate the small steps I’m taking – even when it feels like I’m standing still. Do I still fight the need to take action when Life’s just not moving fast enough in the direction I want it to go? Absolutely. ‘Action’ is what I’m used to; it’s always been my go-to strategy. But I’m going to give Receptivity some time – a month or so ? Or…maybe I won’t give it a timeline at all, but instead, see where it wants to take me.

It feels like years that I’ve been actively engaged in trying to figure myself out. Not with any lofty ‘enlightenment’ goal, necessarily; just trying to troubleshoot, problem solve, make sense of my choices and their consequences. Even now, I play the ‘what if’ game in my head:  second-guessing the paths I’ve taken and wondering how my life would have been different if…..I also wonder if all of this thinking is part of my overall problem. I feel comfortable blaming Socrates.

This still-revered Greek scholar and philosopher (born roughly 470 BCE – let that sink in for a minute) made the pronouncement, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” His statement was supposedly a very quiet utterance, made under painful and dramatic circumstances – perhaps why the local scribes took note and preserved those words forever.  Socrates was on trial for “impiety (although he was religious, he scorned state-sanctioned gods) and corruption of youth (minds and bodies, supposedly)”. Socrates was convicted and given a choice:  permanent exile, or death. Rather than be cut-off from the people and places that provided the flow of learning and wisdom that were as necessary to him as air to breathe, Socrates chose death (by drinking hemlock). To this day, a wide variety of organizations  still use variations of The Socratic Method:  a special kind of conversation and discussion that stimulates insightful thinking and  deep learning.

In my current stage of life I wonder how truly valuable the “examined” life is.  Having just written that, I also acknowledge what a ridiculous and banal affliction this might be considered by the many people struggling with survival in the Here and Now. Just a quick glance at my bookshelves exposes me as someone who has both the time and resources to invest in print and recordings from the Self Help genre.

This wasn’t always the case, however – my shelves being lined with so many options. When I was still a teenager, a dog-eared copy of the book “Be Here Now” (written by Ram Dass in 1971) was circulated among my friends. It’s still in print and popular. At the time, it was the only personal guidance book I’d come across that made sense:  the Present Moment is all there is. Any time at all spent in the Past is pointless:  misspent time and energy.

But why is it still so hard to not  look backwards occasionally? I believe it’s because – despite what Ram Dass, Eckhart Tolle, Abraham and others tell us – the unconscious mind is in fact a treasure trove of information that (for most of us, anyway) is still being processed in our daily lives. What happened Then still impacts our decisions Now. This is one of the reasons why dream therapy is often helpful:  things that get pushed down and away bubble up, regardless.

I do my best to live in the Now. I do practice Mindfulness (for me, that word is just shorthand for Slow the F— Down). But I also reflect on people and events from my past. I give myself permission to disobey the majority of books in my library. In other words, I don’t allow myself to wallow in nostalgia or regret. I do, however, take quick dips into those cool, deep and dark waters of my personal history when it feels right and necessary. (Typically, this is when I catch myself repeating a thought or behavior pattern that didn’t work then, and needs to be jettisoned now.) I’m fussy, though:  others don’t get to bring up my Past (they do so, at their peril!). My learning, from previous mistakes, is my personal responsibility and my personal domain:  it’s a sensitive and tender place that I visit in quiet moments and don’t need to dialogue about. Likewise, I don’t remind others of their past mistakes – large or small – as tempting as it may be at times. There are people out there who are paid to listen and to help, and, plenty of books to read.

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.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “You never get a second chance to create a positive first impression.” I’m sure that many, if not most of my Readers have experienced symptoms of anxiety prior to a high-stakes first meeting:  an interview; the first day on the job; a first meeting with any individual or group of people that – momentarily, anyway – hold important keys to our happiness. It’s a very human thing, to want to project the appearance of whatever the desired qualifications are. As long as the Image is not that far from Reality, all is well (depending upon the competition, of course!)

As women, sometimes we get a little carried away with the Image part. In fairness to myself and my Sisters, the scrutiny on us in many (most?) professions or industries is more intense – regardless of what the majority atmosphere (gender/s) may be. We’re not only aware of, but self-conscious about how we’re perceived by others. It’s important that those perceptions (and reactions from others) be in keeping with our professional goals, and also with how we see ourselves.

Unlike men, women (I’m speaking in the binary sense, here) are almost always in the process of balancing their sex with the demands and expectations of the job. How we wear our hair; how we use make-up to enhance our faces; how we dress and accessorize. More than a few times I was told by female mentors, “Never wear your hair down in a meeting!” (Who knew that long hair could be a professional saboteur?)  Any style or adornment that transmitted even a whiff of ‘sexy’ was considered either a transactional killer, or, it communicated the wrong kind of signal (I’m decorative, not functional; here to play, not to work). This balancing Act can be flat-out exhausting; but there’s evidence all around us that the Act is still expected, if not an explicitly stated requirement in many organizations.

One of the most image-conscious  jobs I had while climbing the professional ladder was working in a Communications Unit in a large Southern-California city. The director of the unit was a woman, “Carol”. This woman was always perfectly coiffed (hair bleached a dazzling platinum blonde, styled in a chin-length bob); her makeup was a perfect So-Cal tan, year-round; her suits (always a skirt and jacket) conservative. Carol always wore high heels, and always wore hot pink lipstick with matching pink nail color. I was the Editor of the Communications Unit and only saw Carol as she hustled to and from meetings, or when she wanted to meet over copy. Our conversations were cordial, but professional.

One day, however, we happened to be in the womens’ lounge at the same time. I don’t remember what I was wearing, but – being a writer at that point in my career, pretty much behind the scenes for most of the work day – it surely didn’t compare to Carol’s bright red suit and silk chemise. Feeling feisty, as she was touching up her make-up in the mirror, I commented on her appearance. Something left-handed and safe, like, “You’re always so put-together!” Carol turned to me, smiled indulgently, and simply said, “I’m so tired; I just don’t know how much longer I can do this.” Then she turned back to the mirror to blot her lipstick. She grabbed her huge handbag and exited the lounge. I was dying to know what she meant, but I had to wait until several days later – when I had some copy to give her – to casually bring up our previous conversation. (I framed it as, “Just wondering if you’re ok…?”) To summarize, Carol told me that, basically, her work image was all ‘show’, and not at all who she was “at home”. Image, she said, is Reality:  the reality being, How You Want to Be Perceived, not Who You Really Are.  Silly me, I thought smugly: my only ‘reality’ is who I am inside, regardless of what I’m wearing! Carol may as well have patted my head like the ‘innocent’ bumpkin she obviously thought I was. “You’ll see,” she said. And of course, I did see.

Recently I overheard a young female colleague (who works in male-dominated Finance) talking with another young woman about her image and how she deployed it in her work setting. No particular emphasis on clothing, accessories or make-up; no pressure to present aesthetic perfection. What she did, however, was telegraph her femaleness and sexuality by ‘batting her eyelashes’ (yes, she actually said this) and lowering her voice during a meeting with the male CFO, her immediate boss. I quickly realized that I needed to walk out of earshot, before my feminist hackles became obvious. But another colleague of mine, an older woman, had heard the same comment and was clearly fuming. I watched her walk toward the two younger women, pretty certain that I knew what was about to happen. Not feeling like sticking-around, I just whispered to myself, “You’ll see.”