For the past three long months, I have been living in a, well, difficult situation. The issue isn't with my (super cute, petite, affordable) casa, which consists of one large room sectioned out into four distinct living areas. The issue is with my neighbors. And the neighborhood. They are, to put it mildly, vibrating on a different frequency than mine. As an example, guess what their preferred music volume is? Loud (or extra-loud for some variation). Their preferred number of vehicles per household? As many as possible (and if you run out of room on the driveway, there is always the yard for extra parking). Household pets? Let's just say leashes, like yards and fences, seem to be optional. The first day I rode my bicycle down my new street, I was chased by a wide assortment of small and large snarling, slavering canines. Often when I return home, there is an unknown, collar-less, leash-less dog "guarding" my front gate...from me. I don't like any of this one bit, of course, and over the past three months I have expended a great deal of energy on silent and not-so-silent protests. I rage to myself when the neighbor's pit bull barks ceaselessly all night while his yardmate adds in a complimentary high-pitched whining howl. Occasionally I go outside and yell (here, I vary it between "shut UP!," "you stop!" and stuff I don't really want to type out here). Sometimes I write letters full of vague warnings attached to copies of local nuisance and noise control ordinances. These make me feel temporarily better...or sane...or at least distracted from the endless raging inner critic who simply cannot believe "these people." When none of that works, I call the cops. Again.
This is kind of an odd topic for a holiday month post, I realize. But recently my mom gave me a stack of old magazines and inside one I found an article about a man on death row who said he didn't do it. The magazine is dated 2004. But a quick internet search revealed that just this year, the man finally passed - from liver cancer, not from lethal injection - and just days before opening arguments would have started for his third appeal. He was on death row because he confessed to shooting four people and killing three of them at a bowling alley. But his confession - 3 days of police interrogation without witnesses or audio/video recording - could well have been forced, given how eager everyone was to find out who did this awful thing and put them away for good. As well, this man was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, which damaged his brain and liver, predisposed him for a life of drug addiction and left him with an IQ deemed borderline competent to be tried. Offered up for adoption by his birth mother, he quickly proved too much for his adoptive parents, who consigned him to an institution for electroshock therapy and heavy medication. When he got out of the institution, he promptly dropped out of school (in seventh grade) and that was that. This abandoned child and troubled youth was the same man who, right after he signed his name to his confession, asked his interrogating officers, "Can I go home now?" 35 years on death row later, everyone knew the answer to that question. But after that initial confession, he also never stopped claiming his innocence. Perhaps he found it was safer to do so when a set of bars separated him from his interrogators. My question as I read this sad, sad saga was simple: "Why would someone confess to a crime they didn't commit?"
I find myself pondering Don Miguel Ruiz, Sr.'s "four agreements" quite a lot lately. When I'm not talking about them (which is most of the time, since I work from home and my parrot, Pearl, has a pretty short attention span), I'm thinking about them. Sometimes I also read about them in the book by the same name, at least on the days when I'm not so tired at night I just fall into bed as-is. Oh, and I follow Ruiz on Instagram, which gives me a ready daily supply of reminders just in case. All this talking and thinking and reading and following is really helping me steer a steadier course when it comes to my relationships with others. For instance, "be impeccable with your word." This agreement reminds me that all I can do, and control, is my side of the street (as my mentor Lynn would say). I can't make other people be impeccable with their word, but I can be impeccable with mine and do what I say I'm going to do (and not say it if I am not planning to do it). And "always do your best." This one is an especial favorite because in the book, Ruiz goes on to state that your best might be better on one day than another. If asked, I can provide plenty of proof that he is correct about this.
Family. Holidays. Oh boy. For many of us, that particular combo is a tough one. Recently it occurred to me that the holidays typically bring a fresh full round of blog posts, articles and self help lists outlining ways to connect, re-connect or at least not kill fellow family members during the holidays. Why is this, I wonder? Why does the quantity of such posts increase so tangibly right around this time each year? And why don't we stress this way about connecting/re-connecting/not offing our friends during the holidays....or most friends anyway? If a friendship isn't working out, there is a recognized path to gain distance and, in time, even cease from relating altogether if that is what is best for both parties. No harm, no foul, it just didn't work out. But there seems to be no such path when it comes to family. Please understand, I'm not trying to say that separating from a friend, regardless of the reason, isn't difficult or devastating. I have often felt both in the wake of such separations, and some I still suffer about today, even though the time for suffering has technically long since passed. Rather, I'm just saying that, whether: a) we are full of reasons why we personally won't/can't possibly consider gathering together with our family for the holidays, or b) we are situated comfortably in the bosom of our family and railing at other family members who won't/can't join us, that drive to stay together seems to remain. The sense of separation combined with the feeling of "non-rightness" at such separation combined with the angst and anger and hope in the face of a separation - it haunts us whether we say we've come to terms with our choice about how close or far away to stay from our family or not. Or at least that is how it plays out in my family, and I see it in the families of some of my friends and colleagues. I also notice I hear more such stories during the holidays than at other times of year.
Many many years ago, I had a mentee who made it a daily habit to create what she called her "gratefuls list." It wasn't just her sincerity of intention that tugged at my heartstrings - it was the charming name she chose for her daily meditations on gratitude. So on this day, which many of us celebrate as a national day of thanksgiving, I thought I would share a selection from my own gratefuls list with you here in no particular order. I am grateful for:
I know if I was a reader (which I am) and saw a post titled "Making Friends With Math" (in progress here) I would surely want to read it right away, since in my 45 years to date I still haven't picked up a single clue for how to do this. But for Shrinivasa Ramanujan, the man about whom it has been said that, "every positive integer was one of [his] personal friends," being besties with numbers was apparently like breathing. After I recently watched the new film about his life, "The Man Who Knew Infinity," I told my boyfriend I didn't think I had any integers, positive or otherwise, who were even acquaintances. Sob. Ah well. I figured this must be the reason Ramanujan's mentor, G.H. Hardy, called their meeting and collaboration "the one truly romantic incident of my life." To meet, let alone have the talent to work with, a genius who told his mentor, "Sir, an equation has no meaning to me unless it expresses a thought of God"....well, that would have had to feel fairly romantic indeed. After receiving a desperate letter from Ramanujan, G.H. Hardy invited him to Cambridge University in England to research and publish on mathematics under his wing. While, as a Brahmin Hindu, he was not permitted to sail across the ocean from his home in Madras, India, to England, he went anyway - for the sake of math. And from the moment Ramanujan arrived, he continually pressed Hardy to let him publish, saying, "I don't want these ideas to die with me." It would seem he knew something besides math that no one else did. I say this because, by the age of 32 and scarcely one year after returning home to his wife in Madras, Ramanujan was dead.
When I was struggling to recover from my eating disorder (and depression, and anxiety, and low self-esteem, and codependency) I was pretty preoccupied. I also thought I pretty much had the worst life in the world. I couldn't imagine anyone who might be suffering more than me. I was sure that wasn't possible. But then I started to get better. And stronger. And suddenly I had more energy to look around me and notice that I wasn't the only one with a pretty full plate. In fact, my plate looked rather light and digestible next to some of the piled-high plates other people were carrying around. But I had to get to a certain baseline point of health and safety myself before I could spare the time or effort to see it wasn't just me against the world. It was me and everyone else against....well, ourselves, I guess. Not too long ago, a friend and I decided we needed a spontaneous afternoon out. We met up at a favorite local theater and bought tickets to watch a movie called "A Man Named Ove." We didn't know it was based on an international best-selling book, or that it had migrated all the way from Sweden to appear, in subtitles of course, on our big Texas screen. What we did know in short order was that it was a wonderful film. That is, it was wonderful if you like the kind of films that squish you right in that uncomfortable mid-point between laughing and crying....for two straight hours.
Recently a dear friend asked me a question. She said, "Do you have any tips about how to listen to your body?" I thought this was a great question and began eagerly to answer. And answer. And answer. And answer. Approximately 12 (or 200) minutes into my answer, I realized I might not be so sure how to answer her question after all. Here is why, and it is something that has always amazed me and likely always will. Taking care of a human body is an INCREDIBLY complex and time-consuming job. I mean, first of all, you have all these physical components to attend to - the organs, the skin, the bones, the muscles, etc. Then you have all of the emotions, which are linked to all of the hormones and endocrine system production (a system I can barely spell, let alone understand). And then there is the mind, or brain, or mind-brain, or brain-mind, and how that all works together with (or against) the physical body. Of course, there is also the spirit, the presence of which, which depending on whom you ask, is either a myth, a fact, or a matter for intense debate. Put all of this together and I'm shocked I have time to make rent each month, let alone take care of three other beings, each of whom has completely different physical-emotional-mental-spiritual systems from my own. It is just a tremendous amount of work. To make matters worse, each system is affected by the others. So, for instance, what I put in my body can change how balanced or healthy I am feeling in my mind. The thoughts I permit my mind to entertain can mess with or help my digestion. How I'm feeling emotionally can determine whether I make good or not-so-good food choices. And whether I'm following my spiritual practices (meditation, yoga, contemplation, reading, et al) has a direct impact on all the rest. What this adds up to is a whole lot of listening. A LOT. "Listening to your body" is listening on multiple levels to multiple entities all at the same time. The body might be saying "I'm hungry!" while the mind is saying "I'm confused!" and the emotions are saying "I'm depressed" and the spirit is giving the rest of them the silent treatment. Since my mind happens to love complexities of exactly this sort but the rest of me really hates them, my go-to strategy these days is to simplify and only listen to one voice. This one voice is my inner intuition, my gut instinct, my spirit, whatever you might want to call it (I like "intuition" best). So for me personally, listening to my body means listening to my intuition. This works for me because I've realized my intuition is kind of like a trained mediator who can do lots of detailed ongoing listening for me and then just give me the action item highlights in bullet point format. To do this, of course, I have to really be able to trust my intuition. And I have to be able to recognize its voice in and amidst or above or beneath all the others. Here is where trust and that ever-pesky issue of faith comes into play. Over the years, I have learned more about how to tell the difference between intuition's voice and other voices, such as the voice of guilt or shame, the voice of boredom or impatience, the voice of physical hunger or emotional hunger. For example, my intuition, unlike those other voices, doesn't usually give up easily. It keeps trying until at least part of the message gets through. My intuition also speaks reasonably and rationally. If there are lots of voices going on, its voice will be the small, still, sane-sounding one. Plus, if my intuition can't get through to me when I'm awake, it will just wait until I'm asleep and try again.
As I mentioned in a previous post, recently I moved to a new neighborhood. I'm still living in Houston, the city where I was born, so I am quite familiar with it in certain parts. But lately I've been discovering there are other parts that make me feel like this city and I have never met. Here's an example: in my new location, at least every other neighbor seems to have about two cars per person. The extra vehicles are stored either on the lawn, on the sidewalk in front of the house, or on the street. And when I say "stored," if you can visualize what a lawn would look like if it also contained multiple grass-covered parking spaces all the way up to the front door, that is basically what I am trying to describe. Whenever I see this, which is basically every time I leave or come back to my house, my brain immediately becomes consumed with trying to figure out "why." Why all the cars, why are all of them on the lawn, why do some of them never seem to move, why, why, why.... The same holds true for trash. And when I say "trash," I realize that my trash might be somebody else's spare parts, creative project, restoration-in-progress, et al. It could also be just trash. That is what it mostly looks like to me. When I see this, which happens with the same frequency as when I see the stored cars, my brain gets indignant. Frustrated. Angry. Sad. Depressed. All of the above and then some. Its questions are all about why would people do that, how much effort does it take to pick up (fast food bags, beer cans, plastic bags, washing machine parts, et al) and put them in the trash cans that are provided by and also emptied by the city each week, don't they care what they see when they come back home, don't they realize other people don't necessarily like that kind of landscaping, and so forth.... Here again, the questions keep coming but not the answers.
So it is the day before election day, and on my mind are.....walls. A few issues ago, Time magazine ran a brief article about walls, and all the different countries that have plans in the works to build one. On the hit list are: the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Israel, Hungary, Norway, Kenya and the Ukraine. And other articles show there are many, many more where these countries' walls came from, including my home country of the United States. Different countries are building their walls for different reasons. For some, it is to keep terrorists, militants and criminals out. For others, it is to keep out refugees and migrants. For still others, it is a mixture of both. That is 8 countries that are even now planning to build or actively building walls. Yet according to the WTTC (World Travel & Tourism Council), tourism-related travel accounts for an estimated nearly 10 percent of the world's gross national profit and one out of every 11 jobs planet-wide. So right now I'm scratching my head on multiple fronts. It would seem that the first free moment most of us get, we are chomping at the bit to visit different places, learn different cultures, meet new people, have new adventures in places other than where we live. At home, we are busy building walls to keep other people from doing the same. And yes, I realize it is more complicated than that. I also realize that terror and crime flowing across one's home country borders is never something to take with any less than total seriousness. I just wonder if building a wall is going to help. First of all, one well-placed legal or not-so-legal weapon and all that hard work, well, boom.