In The Middle

The longer I live, the more beautiful life becomes.” – Frank Lloyd Wright

A little while ago my 6-year-old daughter went to a friend’s house to watch a movie. When she came home that night and for the couple weeks afterwards, she was so much more solicitous of me. “Mom, do you want a glass of water?” or “I’m sorry you banged your hand.” So I dug deeper into the storyline of the Netflix family movie Over the Moon. Not surprisingly, it’s about a little girl whose mom died from cancer.

I don’t want my kids operating from a space of worry about me. But I was fascinated about the noticeable change of behavior. It suggested how much our awareness is influenced by our focus.

So I was listening carefully when I heard author Susan Cain describe the research of Dr. Laura Carstensen on Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast. Dr. Carstensen is a professor of psychology at Stanford specializing in the psychology of older people. Here’s Susan Cain’s description of the research:

“[The] elderly tend to be happier and more full of gratitude, more invested in depth relationships, more prone to states of well-being. She has linked all of that with the fact… not as we might think that we get older and have acquired all this wisdom from the years we’ve lived. It has nothing to do with that, it only has to do with the fact that when you are older you have a sense of life’s fragility. You know it’s coming to an end.

“Younger people who for other reasons are in fragile situations [also exhibit this]. She studied students in Hong Kong who were worried about Chinese rule at the end of the 20th century. They have the exact same psychological profile as older people did. Because the constant was the fragility.”

Susan Cain describing the research of Dr. Laura Carstensen

Since at 52-years-old I’m closer to the middle of my life (hopefully) rather than the end, it begs the question of how to cultivate an appreciation for relationships, health and the good times. Especially to enjoy them without the sense of fragility that I understand but don’t quite viscerally get yet.

This made me ponder the nature of the middle and I realize I couldn’t name a middle of something that I really savored – the middle of the day, the middle of a meal, the middle of a relationship, the middle of a project, the middle of my body. (That is, other than being in the middle of my children, as shown in the featured photo.) Especially when it comes to projects (and maybe even days), I’m always in a rush to get to the end so that I can celebrate and then start a new one.

Someone wisely pointed out that we can’t remember things we don’t pay attention to. So I’ve started taking a brief pause in the middle of the day to just notice how things are going. It’s a small practice that I hope will help me appreciate the middle of my life more.

I was thinking about what to say to my daughter about the movie and death when one night she said, “I’d be kinda sad to die but also a little interested. I have to see the way the rest of my life works out and I’d miss you. But it’ll probably be your turn first.” And then all the solicitousness was gone. Which is fine. I want my kids’ memories and mine to be defined by not what we worry about but what we pay attention to.

What about you? Do you rush right past the middle or do you have a way to mark the middle of a journey?

Twenty-Five Words or Less

Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” – Harriet Tubman

I was intrigued by a question in one of my meditation books, Listening to Your Life by Frederick Buechner. “If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in twenty-five words or less?”

I came up with two versions.

Life is a never-ending raffle. Curiosity buys you tickets. Love enables you to turn them in. And, most importantly — you have to be present to win.

OR

Thank you. You have shown up, laughed with me, made me think, kept me company when it was dark. But that’s not why I love you. I love you because you are amazing.

What would you say?

Swimming In the Deep

The inner life of any great thing will be incomprehensible to me until I develop and deepen an inner life of my own.” – Parker J. Palmer

This weekend my friend Eric told me a story about a course that he took in college. He went to one of the Claremont Colleges in the mid-1980’s and this sounds like something that might have only been possible in that place and time.

The course was called Mind, Culture and Sports and it was held at the professor’s house, usually with drinks served and the professor encouraged everyone to take it pass/fail. The course content varied greatly – one week it might be a study of how hard it was to hit a baseball and the next week it was about meditation.

One weekend their field trip for this class was to spend a night at a Buddhist monastery. With great interest I asked how that went and Eric replied that he was terrible at mediation. Apparently the monk kept coming by to (gently) correct his posture. But, Eric brightened considerably when he reported that he was great at “sweep the path,” the chore he was assigned at the monastery.

It made me reflect on what we get out of our experiences. I’d have probably missed the whole point of a meditation retreat when I was 19 years old as well. But in contrast, can I name what I get out of meditation now?

If I didn’t meditate, I’d spend the day operating from my to-do list and getting a great deal done but swimming on the surface of the lake where the conditions of the weather affect the choppiness of the water a great deal.

By meditating, it feels like I spend at least a few minutes submerged in the deep. It’s where the quiet allows me both to read about and hear the bigger forces at work – the thread of the Divine in my life, find the echo of Love and Beauty in what I’m doing and touch the feeling of Peace that pervades regardless of the surface conditions.

I was also in college and about 19 years old, the same age as Eric when he took his college course, when someone who was trying to recruit students for the Church of Scientology stopped me on University Avenue and asked me “What about your life do you not want anyone to know?” At age 19, I was still blissfully naïve, untroubled and pretty uncomplicated. Perplexed by the question, I replied, “Nothing?”

Now, 33 years later, I’d answer a lot more assuredly “Nothing. Because after all those years I spent thrashing about on the surface, I’m finally submerged in the deep.”

(featured photo by Pexels)

Secrets

Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard.” – Anne Sexton

This week when we are returning from holiday breaks always reminds me of one of the wackiest stories from when I was in business with two partners and we had almost 20 employees. On the Monday after New Years Day in 2008, I was in the office when the office manager came in to say that we hadn’t heard from our program manager, JE, since the Christmas party two weeks prior.

JE didn’t work for me but in a small company, I certainly knew him. I liked him too. He was smart, quiet and diligent about getting his work done. He’d left Microsoft six months before to come work for us and except for one scheduled break in late October, he’d always shown up. It wasn’t unusual for our folks to work from home, especially over the holidays but not answering emails and phone calls was definitely odd.

Since my two business partners to whom JE did report were in Mexico on a hang gliding trip, I jumped in to help. Thinking that maybe we could find his girlfriend’s name and call her to check in, I googled his name. The top result was a memo from the United Stated Department of Justice dated in October of the previous year (the same days of his scheduled absence) that read something like this:

“<JE’s full name>, 27, of <city>, WA was sentenced to six month in prison for his role as the leader of a software pirating group. He will be reporting to <low security prison> on January 1, 2008.”

Well, that explained why we couldn’t get ahold of him! When we finally talked with his girlfriend, she said that JE would be disappointed to know we’d found out because he didn’t want to let us down.

Of course, had he quit before he went to prison, we would have never looked for him!! Granted he had bigger things to worry about in the 8 weeks between sentencing and reporting to the facility but as a logical young man, it seemed obvious that if you don’t want people to look for you, you need to break up with them first.

I think of this often when someone is carrying a secret. It is an immense burden that sometimes precludes thinking and acting rationally. And often the secret itself prevents the carrier from finding the tools to heal – because developing any depth is dangerous, lest it unearth the core of what they are carrying. The secret has a life of its own that requires it to stay buried and drains a lot of energy to support itself.

At the time of my life when this happened, I had a secret too. I was unhappy in my marriage and way of life and I was diligently trying to keep that a secret, mostly from myself. I drank too much wine and then smoked cigarettes when I drank as a way to numb myself from feeling what was really going on.

Thinking back now, I realize that I was forcing myself daily to keep walking down a path that didn’t feel right. I was in a relationship that wasn’t supportive of me, I was in a business partnership with a charismatic that was making me crazy and I had developed no spiritual depth with which I could heal these wounds. All these secrets were a prison in their own way.

As it turned out, I kept my misery under wraps for another year after JE went to prison. Then the charismatic business partner told me of my husband’s infidelities and it all blew apart – the business and my marriage. Finally, no one had any secrets left and I could begin to heal. With nothing left buried, it was finally safe to develop some spiritual depth that carried me out of my prison. I can only hope that JE was able to heal once his secret was out as well.

(featured image from Pexels)

Cracked Open

Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.” – unknown

Yesterday I canceled all my work meetings and stayed home with my toddler who needed one more day of recovery from a cold. It was a hard thing to do. Like generations of parents before me, I found it difficult to put aside all the urgency my own life to support someone else when needed and not according to plan.

It was also the right thing to do. As my dad often said, “If it’s the hard thing to do, it’s probably the right thing to do.”

Sometime in the middle of the day, pinned down with a sleeping kid on my lap, frustrated the illusion of predictability in life being shattered yet again, time slowed enough for me to notice his heart beat. Once I felt that, then tuned in to his breathing and the weight and warmth of him, I was overcome with the sensation of the deepest meditation. That feeling that there is no doubt there is a Universal center that we all belong to and can reach. A sacred place of timelessness and love. The Divine heartbeat.

It never fails to surprise me that beneath my narrative is a rich and deep experience. Like a nut, when I crack open the hard exterior of my perspective, I am always rewarded but the meaty contents within. At the end of the day, my son felt better and I, surprisingly, found myself rested and restored even though not a single thing on my to-do list was done.

(featured image from Pexels)

Growing and Blooming

What we love, others will love and we will show them how.” – Wordsworth

When I was 22-years-old and moving into my first post-college rental, my dad helped me find some used furniture. Some people he knew where moving into a retirement community so we looked at the items they were getting rid of and bought a kitchen table, two chairs and a Christmas cactus. I donated the table and chairs when I bought my first house a few years later but the Christmas cactus has been with me now for 30 years.

It was my first proof that I could keep something other than myself alive. Now I look at that cactus and see it as a reminder of my most important lessons.

It blooms beautifully once a year and then sheds all those flowers as it prepares for its next feat. It’s best to shed the past so you can work towards the next thing.

The cactus does not appear to be doing anything for 50 weeks but then bursts with color for 2 weeks. Most of our work happens on the inside.

Every now and then it’s drooped in the soil it is in and needs to be repotted as its roots grow deeper. We need some new perspective/work/material from time to time in order to stay vivid.

Sometimes it blooms closer to Thanksgiving rather than Christmas. As you get older, you learn to care less about expectations and more about flourishing in the way that works for you.

The growth on the side nearest the light blooms first but eventually, the darker side blooms too. If you water all of yourself, both your bright side and the shadow side will bear fruit.

 Although it’s a cactus, it has no prickly parts. It’s possible to live a long and beautiful life without thorns to protect you.

This weekend I came across my son picking up the dropped flowers with some tweezers and putting them on the stand. It made me think of my most important work. Trying to create a calm, loving space in which others treat things with kindness.

Let It Flow

The cure for anything is salt water – sweat, tears or the sea.” – Isak Dinesen

I’ve been listening to an On Being podcast where host Krista Tippett interviews humorist and story-teller Kevin Kling. He told the story about the moment that tears came after a terrible motorcycle accident. His wife had come to the hospital and brought him an apple. At first he refused to eat it because he had no taste at all since the accident but she insisted. He bit into the apple and it was the moment his taste came back to him. The juicy sweetness brought with it all this gratitude for being alive and he started crying. Tears, he insisted, are a great way to clean out the body’s toxins. And for anyone who can’t cry, he said that’s what sports movies are for.

It reminded me of my young daughter who once told me in a moment of pulling herself together, “I kept my eyes from dripping.” And on the other end of the spectrum, my dear father who’s eyes would leak so easily in his older years. I’m intrigued by all the work we do when we are young to gain composure and then at some point realize that we carry so much, we have to just let it go. Or let it flow, whichever is most apt.

Kevin Kling also described having three different phases of prayers in his life. When he was a kid, he prayed to get things. When we was a young adult, he prayed to get out of things (like the time he stowed away on a boat). Now, after the accident, all his prayers are of thankfulness.

I think about my own inflection points and the most recent is having kids. Before I had them, even as I was pregnant with my first, I worried about what everyone else would think and I assumed it was a story that I was not able to find a husband and so had to do it alone in my 40’s. Now that I’ve had them, I’m too smitten with them and too busy to worry about that. But what I notice most is that each period of growth has brought a new vibration so that it does change what I pray, think and talk about. I’m slowly discovering life seems to be as deep as I make it and the more I wade in, the richer it gets.