28 February 2010

Lesson #9: Remember to look up (around) once in a while.

I've heard this in a couple of incarnations.  Let's reflect....

All different ways of getting at the same thing: stop... appreciate the small things.

A few weeks ago, I was late for work.  I was stuck in traffic.  It was gray and rainy.  I wanted coffee, not to be staring at someone's bumper for thirty minutes.  By chance, I looked up at the sky, maybe waiting for the low-flying bird with a digestive tract questionable enough to complete the morning, when I saw something pretty cool.

No, not a bird.

The clouds sort of pulled apart in the wind, kind of like a cotton ball does when you tug at either end.  The sun shone through the little rip in the clouds, and made a rainbow.  A good one - with distinct colors and everything.

Because I glanced up, I got to see it.  (Because traffic was stopped, I didn't violate Lesson #5.  Besides, this was in Red Car.)  I love seeing rainbows.  I'm not sure why, but they make me smile.  And I remember, that moment just changed the rest of the day.  I realized I could be angry about the traffic... but that it gave me a moment to see something I would otherwise have missed.

I'm trying to use little things, like touchstones, to bring me back when I get too caught up in life.  I might be sliding down the road in slush and snow, but when I finally get where I'm going, at least the snow is pretty to look at on the trees.  Every morning I can see the Hanover Street bridge from the ramp onto MLK, and every morning it looks a little different.. from the light, the weather, the water, any number of things.  It's pretty.  

So, since lesson #9, I try to pay attention to the world around me, because, all in all, it's pretty freaking cool.  

Lesson #8: Your family will always love you.

Or, as a wise lady once said to me... "Your friends are still going to be your friends."

A favorite author of mine, Richard Bach, has two quotes I really do love.  They're from Illusions, a book I read in high school, and have bought more than half a dozen times.  Why?  Because it affected me so much that I have given it as a gift, several times, to important people in my life, people who may have needed to read it then, too.

Here they are:
"The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other's life. Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof."
"Your friends will know you better in the first minute you meet than your acquaintances will know you in a thousand years."

Why these quotes?  No, I'm not using blogger to bash my family.  I am, however, saying that family often includes people who aren't related to you at all.  These people will stand by you, and love you, and be your friends/family, even when you mess up.  And I don't mean in an avoidance/enabler sort of way... I mean they still love you because they know who you are, and because they care about you.

If you screw up, will they tell you?  You betchya

They might even say 'Told you so.'  But most of them won't.

I remember when I was a really young kid, I was playing around with the dishes in the sink. (Maybe I was rinsing them.  Probably I was just messing around)  I started playing with a can that had been opened and emptied.  I distinctly remember my mom saying "don't play with that, it's sharp."  I distinctly remember thinking "hah, whatever. No it's not."  Then I split my finger open on the edge of the lid.  Totally had that one coming.

There are a lot of stories like that, actually, where I didn't listen to Mom's advice and ended up getting hurt.  Hm.

Anyway, over the last ten years, I've come to realize that family is very important to me.  It's played a role in my closest relationships.  I am extremely grateful for the wonderful, special people in my life, some of which are related to me, some of which are not.  I'm glad to share interests with them, spend time with them, and know them.  I'm also glad that they tell me when I'm being an idiot, since sometimes I can't see it.  There's nothing like the honest perspective of a friend... or Mom... when life throws a curveball or two and I forget to duck.

Lesson #7: What I want is not always what I need.

I hate this one.  It's such a bubble-burster.

Alright.  So we all have fantasies.  They could be as mundane as having Chik-Fil-A when I most crave it - Gah! Sunday again! - to wanting to be an astronaut. A novelist.  The president.  The President of Astronaut Novelists.  With zombies.  You know what I mean.  There are stranger fantasies -- if you need proof, pay attention to the gift exchange at next years 'Dirty Santa' Holiday party.

However, I am beginning to realize that most fantasies are good because that's all they are.  Fantasies.  They're attractive because they don't exist.  They give our mind the chance to ask the question 'What if?', and I think, deep down, most human minds really like that question.

I realize there are exceptions.  I also realize that there is a difference between a fantasy and a goal.  So let me borrow some wisdom and put it a different way:
"There" is no better than "here". When your "there" has become a "here," you will simply obtain another "there" that will again look better than "here." -- Cherie Carter-Scott, from Life is a game, these are the rules. 
 In other words, the grass is always greener on the other side.

So what has that meant for me?  I mean, this is a pretty basic lesson.  There's a song about it in The Little Mermaid. But despite this font of crustaceany wisdom, I've found that I've still had a few moments of awakening (aka clarity, or something like it) where I've had to realize the thing on my own.

For this lesson, I've learned that I need to look at my motives, look at what I want, and ask myself why I want it.  Will this thing/event/decision/etc... help me along my path?  Will this make me happy?  Will this create happiness for the people around me or the people involved?  Am I pursuing this because of ego?  love?  denial?  dependence?  challenge?   What will happen if I choose not to pursue it?  Do I need it?

This is a lot of thinking for the Hershey bar that's sitting in my fridge, but hopefully you get what I mean.

I heard an interesting statement today, that said people in our lives appear because of who we are, at the time.  I think the point she was making was that we draw people to us based on our circumstances, what we want out of life.  However, I think we also draw people to us because of what we need.  People come into our lives for a reason, usually to teach us something.  Sometimes we learn.  Sometimes we don't, and we have to repeat the lesson.  But I think that by paying closer attention to the people that are in my life, and by treating my motivations honestly, I will get a much better idea of what I need out of the present moment than by simply listening to the urge that says: "Want!"

I totally heard Cookie Monster in the voice-over for that word, by the way.

Finally, I want to consider one more variation on this lesson, and talk about Commitment.  Let's go back to Cherie Carter-Scott (this was, by and large, a pretty good book).
"Commitment means devoting yourself to something or someone and staying with it -- no matter what. . . . If you have this lesson in your life path, it will show up as an inability to make choices or to stick to choices already made."
 I have a lesson coming up that discusses follow-through, but I want to mention commitment in terms of want versus need.  I have not always been able to make choices in my life, at times from fear of closing off too many options, at others because the choice was difficult, or too broad.  Part of this stems from not identifying what I need out of life, versus what I want.  When looking at choices, I can't get too caught up in the 'what if'?   Risk/reward analysis plays a role in the decision making process, yes.  But when it's difficult to make a decision, or any decision, or when I ignore the decision I need to make because it's at odds with what I want... that's a problem.  Now (and this is in-progress) I'm trying to identify what I need, and stay with that, fully embracing those roles or aspects of my life until their complete.  Hopefully, with a more honest view of what I need, I'll be able to accurately assess the 'wants' and bring them more closely in line with the needs.

27 February 2010

Lesson #6: Pay attention to food.

Food is important.  I already mentioned how it supports my body in Lesson #1. But food is important, at least to me, for a whole lot of other reasons.

  • Food is seasonal -- though we've kind of stretched this, as a culture supported by Agribusiness, types of produce, different recipes, etc are in some way seasonal.  Nothing puts me in a mindset for summer like a fresh tomato, that really tastes like a tomato.  The smell of pumpkin pie or roasted squash screams fall.  It's an adventure, to go to the farmer's market only sort of knowing what I'll be able to find. 
  • Community in meals -- sharing food is very natural to me.  I get together regularly with some of my best friends for pot-luck style dinners.  Often, when I want to bake, I bring the extra in to work.  I was lucky enough to grow up in a household where we had regular family dinners, fairly often.
  • It's fun to cook -- I love the experience of trying new flavors.  I love to cook.  I love to turn up the radio, sing, dance around the kitchen, and cook.  On a bad day, it's soup.  This is a pretty good release.
  • I can express myself -- The things I choose to cook, and how I cook them, say something about who I am.  It's a chance to be creative.  And then there's the actual act of changing something, making something that wasn't there before.  That's pretty cool.
  • There is intimacy in sharing food with someone --  Not necessarily THAT way. There must be a reason why going out to dinner is such a popular date event/celebration.  Of all the close relationships I've had, whether they ended well or poorly, I remember certain meals we shared.  It was nice cooking for that special person, making something I thought they'd like. 
  • Food is engaging -- it involves every sense - sight, sound, taste, touch, and of course, smell.
  • Food is a touchstone -- I have family or personal traditions that involve certain foods or drinks.  I love when the holidays come around, and I see those favorites on the table.  It just adds to the feeling that the time is special.
I think many people would agree with one or more items on the list.  But I think, as a culture, we tend to treat food as a requirement, or a commodity, a band-aid, or even an enemy.  We eat meals out of paper sacks, or meals that contain, in one sitting, all the calories we need for the day.  We focus on diets that can be extreme, from calorie restriction to those suspect 'cleanse' drinks in the vitamin aisle that make me angry.  We villify food, and link it to body image, which results in tons of problems in terms of eating disorders.  We shovel away potato chips, or worse, munch on conventionally-grown apples without thinking about where they came from or how they were grown.

Don't get me wrong.  I love chips.  I eat junk, because I'm 27, going on 28, and I know I still can.  I don't always buy organic, because frankly, it can be expensive.  But I try to think about it.  I try to buy healthier items when I can, buy local, seasonal, etc.  Going to the Farmer's Market is cool, even if I still have to go to the grocery store to get the things I need.  Last time I was there, the dude at one tent introduced me to some new greens I'd never tried, let me taste them, and told me how to cook them.  I enjoyed talking to the farmer.  And I found out where my bag of greens came from.

So, as I've made lifestyle changes to help my body do the activities I want to do, I've thought more about my food.  I try to cook more at home, because I enjoy it, and because I can control what goes into the meal.  I pay attention to how much I'm eating, and when I'm full.  I try to balance my occasional foray into Five Guys Burger And Fries with a healthier meal at lunch, and plenty of water.  I read about cooking and new ingredients, and challenge myself to try new things.  And eating has become, most nights, a mindful experience, something I can enjoy.  I haven't quite gotten to the point where I turn the TV off when I'm eating... but.. well.. let's not get too crazy.  At least it's usually set to the Food Network.

How do you share food with the people in your life?  Does it play a role in your traditions?  Do you ever try to buy local, or organic -- and do you think it makes a difference?

Lesson #5: There will always be the jerk in the yellow car. Sometimes it will be me.

When my Fit was being fixed post-Christmas-Accident/Trauma, I got a rental car.  It was still getting fixed, so I got another one.  It went in and out of the shop while the shop fixed all the things they missed or didn't fix right the first time, so I kept trading it for new cars.  Then the dude at the rental shop told me that really, his predecessor should have just honestly assessed the car and totaled it.  Sigh.

But one 'fun' thing about the experience was that I got to drive a bunch of different vehicles.  One was a snazzy, two-door sports car, in bright, retina-melting yellow.  If I pretended (and ignored that it was the wrong make/model), it was like driving Bumblebee.  This was also fun, because I typically drive very practical cars, and a two-door sedan is (based on my daily needs) not so much.

Plus, I've always been a little leery of flashy cars.  Often the people behind the wheel of flashy cars are driving much faster than I am.  They're weaving in front of or behind my car, darting across three lanes of traffic, into the shoulder, then back again.  They're deciding at the last possible second that they really do need to take exit 21B, and everyone needs to get out of their way.  In the two-wheel version, these are the people that dart between cars at traffic lights, and obey red lights when it's convenient for them.  I hit my brakes and shake my fist at them.  They probably fuel their vehicles with a 93-octane blend of gasoline and ground-up puppies.

So I had my highly-visible sports car, and I had an objective: get from downtown Baltimore to northern Baltimore county, on a route I've never driven, at 6:00pm.  With a time limit, because the seminar started at 7.  And whoops, I got stuck at the lab, and ended up leaving at 6:25. Grrr.

Go, Bumblebee, go!

I've learned to be a safe(r) driver over the years, believe it or not.  I did fine driving in NYC, and in Boston, and usually I'm OK in the city.  But there are still some things that I prefer to avoid.  Driving new routes, where the streets are not always clearly marked (thanks Baltimore) at night, is one of them.  Places where lanes change - in that, some hours they're turn only, or inbound, and some hours they're not - are another thing that irritate me, mostly because I learned to drive in the suburbs, where streets stay exactly as they're meant to be and the signage is consistent. And I really don't like driving down MLK Blvd in the dark, at what's still rush hour.

Yes, I am aware I sound like an old woman.  Moving on.

There I am.  The lane that was through has suddenly become turn only, according to the light-up sign.  I really don't want to turn, it'll put me way out of my way.  So I look, see a space just big enough for Bumblebee, and scootch out.  Quickly.  There was no danger.

Of course, there was still a few horns.  Because it was rush hour.  And people were already angry.

And all of a sudden I felt self-conscious.  I was aware that I was driving like a jerk, and that people had seen it.  And because I was in this bright yellow car, I was easy to spot, and they could point, and say 'what a jerk', only with different words.  I know, because I've been the one doing the pointing and the saying.

I was not just an annoying rush hour driver.  I had become the jerk in the yellow car.

So really, this lesson was about perspective.  Despite any belief that people are good, sometimes people are jerks.  That's their choice.  Sometimes I'll be a jerk, because of something I say or how I act, maybe even without realizing it.  So I need to be patient, and hope that other people are patient with me when the time comes.  At the very least, I should pay attention to what I'm doing, to minimize the chances for jerk-ness.

And then scootch forward.  Go Bumblebee, go!

Lesson #4: Before you knew me, you were someone else.

We are who we are, usually for a reason.  We're shaped by our experiences, by the people who've touched us, the role-models we choose, the traumas and celebrations that make up our personal timeline.  Maybe this is part genetics.  It's definitely part family and friends, past intimate relationships, and past successes and failures.  These defining moments, big or small, contribute to our responses to life's challenges and successes today.

At times, I have forgotten this.  Especially when someone is close to me.

Think about the last time you had a disagreement with someone, got angry with them.  Or maybe they made a decision that you didn't understand, or one that hurt you, or came as a blindside.  Maybe the relationship fell apart, or they acted in a harmful way.  At one point, you may have asked the question: "What were they thinking?"  or "How could they do that?"  Or you could be focused on a problem, with the very realistic thought of "Well, I want ____, don't you?"

And even if you ask them, you might not get the proper answer.  They might not know.  They might say they know, and not even realize they're ignoring their little voice (see Lesson #10).

I'm not saying that I should rationalize the behavior of other people.  In fact, depending on how this blog goes, I may have a lesson about NOT doing that.  But I should understand that the people in my life, whether they are there for a few minutes or for years and years, come with a depth and breadth of experience that, most likely, I will not fully understand.  So when I think about our relationship, and try to make sense of what is going on, I've learned that I need to stop.

Take a step back.

Understand that the issue may be far more than a 1:1 deal.  Get that they're making their decisions with a whole lot of reasons in mind, their own set of priorities and goals.

And then proceed.

This might not solve the problem.  Every altercation has two sides, and the only one I can really deal with is my own.  But understanding that relationships involve, in some way, everyone in the other person's history, might prevent a knee-jerk reaction, the natural instinct to make the issue all about me.  It might even change the questions I ask.  And certainly, it will remind me that the same is true on my end - my reasons for reaction to someone or something are a direct result of my own experience, or the things I still carry around.  It teaches me the importance of letting go what needs to be let go, and keeping close the things that are good to remember.  And it keeps me from focusing too much on myself, which has happened more often than I like to admit.

Lesson #3: Do good works.

I miss service-learning.

You know, the 'x' number of hours you needed to graduate high school?  That was a pretty big part of my education.  We had requirements for all 4 years of middle school (4, since mine went 5-8), in high school, for NHS, for confirmation group, and even in college, when I participated in and then later taught Honors 100, a college acclimation course.  I didn't always like the requirement, or the projects.  I was one of those busy kids with fifty million activities going on, so sometimes the service projects were just one more thing to do.  A couple of years, I managed to get service credit for things I was already doing, like volunteer child care - it wasn't cheating, but it wasn't really in the spirit of the program.  In some instances, the project itself wasn't something I was really excited about, either because it pushed my comfort zones, or because I didn't find it that exciting.  Without a doubt, my favorite activity was Habitat for Humanity because:

  1. I got to play with power tools.
  2. I learned some cool stuff - I helped build a frame for a wall.  A wall!  It wasn't there when we started, it was when we finished.
  3. We worked side-by-side with the homeowners, and got to hear their plans for the house, and what it meant to them.
  4. It was physical activity, and outdoors.
  5. Did I mention the power tools?
I was a fan.  (As an aside, if you're interested in this sort of opportunity, I encourage you to check out a Habitat near you, or if you live in my area, participate in a program like Rebuild Howard County)  But once the requirement went away, poof! So did the time.  I found other ways to fill it, and volunteered only when organizations I was already a part of needed it. (Helping at Ride for Kids with the local motorcycle club was probably a close second, in terms of enjoyment, to Habitat)

I've realized now that I miss it.  Why?  Well, first of all, volunteering made me feel pretty good - maybe a selfish thing to focus on, but still legitimate.  Helping other people helped me feel connected to my community.  I liked working with other volunteers toward a common goal, and I really enjoyed events where I could see the reactions of the people we were helping.  Even the activities I didn't enjoy, the ones that made me uncomfortable, were good, because sometimes comfort zones need to be pushed, unconscious bias needs to be revealed and removed.  And, finally, it was a great way to do something that I sometimes forget to do: be nice to people.

Enter Project Nice, and Project Nice 2.0/Project Super Nice.  I would like to say that I know some amazing people.  One of them is Erinn, the moving force behind these projects.  She undertook, on her own, a month-long campaign of Niceness, and wrote about it.  It was such a great thing that she brought it back a month later, and invited friends to play along.  I'm not going to write about my experiences here.... because I still need to write them up and send them to her... but what I do need to say is that seeing her consciously be nice to people has really affected how I look around my world, on good days and bad.

We're (or at least I was) taught from an early age, and in religious education when I was growing up, to Do Good Works.  Sometimes this means volunteering.  Sometimes it means giving to your church, or to charities. Sometimes, it feels like you're supposed to be changing the world.  What I like about something like Project Nice is it focuses on things, sometimes big, sometimes little, always manageable, that we can do just to make life a little more special for someone else.  Giving money is great.  Supporting a cause is great.  But how often do we just stop and smile at someone?  Help someone with their groceries?  Write a note thanking someone for doing their job, or a little better than their job, or just for being special and existing, right alongside us, trying to get by?  There have been times where people have done the same for me: they've complimented my shoes, or asked me a question about something I was doing, or just stopped me and asked me to smile when I was having a bad day, and it showed on my face.  I can't really put into words how much this has meant, on certain days.
Participating in Project Nice 2.0 hasn't been too easy for me, mostly because of timing.  It's taught me that being nice, in some ways, means different things based on where we are in life.  There are days when I'm going to be down, where I want to curl into myself and tell the world to go away, or when I want to just plow through what I have to do, get it over with, and move on.  I might be angry, with or without reason, or distracted.  To be perfectly realistic, I'm probably not going to do Mother-Theresa-Worthy works on those days.  I hate to be selfish, but it's the truth.  We can only do as much as we can, on a given day.

But what I can do is smile at a stranger.  I can notice when someone seems to be having a hard time, and offer to help with something small.  I can listen, when someone needs to talk.  Or tell them what I like about them, or what a great job they're doing.  Doing these small things might help them through, and it's definitely helped me.  It's reminded me that there's a world beyond my problems, that there are other people ricocheting through life just like me, and smoothing the way for them pulls me out of my own bad place, and helps me find perspective.  Sure, I can only do as much as I can today, but what I can do makes a big difference.

I'm looking forward to finishing my tasks for Project Nice 2.0.  I'm glad I got to participate in this project, it's been very cool.  And I'm looking forward to some new opportunities to volunteer at my community - because it is important to be connected, and to give back to other people who need it.

Do you volunteer?  Is there an activity you've really enjoyed?  What was something a stranger has done for you, that's been really nice?

26 February 2010

Lesson #2: I need to believe in something.

Some of these lessons are still in-progress.  That's ok.  This is one of them.

I mean this lesson precisely as it sounds.  I do not mean to be more specific.  I do not mean 'I need to believe in God' or 'I need to believe in miracles' or 'I need to believe in discount pizza night at Trattoria'.  This is not because I hate, or don't believe in, God, miracles, or Trattoria.  This is because the lesson is just this: I need to believe in something.

There is an element of belief in learning.  The act of learning is in itself an act of belief or faith (though faith and belief are not really the same thing): I have faith the person or resource teaching me is correct; I have faith that I can process the information and assess its truth; I have faith that I can apply it accurately at a later date.  Maybe I tried something because I believed in my ability to do it, or that the people around me would help, or because I knew I could get right back up if I fell.  Either way, there is an element of trust/faith/belief, in many of the things I do.

Belief has been very difficult for me.  I've struggled with the same issues of spirituality that many people do.  There are times where I don't believe other people, which often reflects my own limitations, rather than theirs.  But I've come to understand that belief has a place in the soul, and the psyche -- or at least, in mine.  When it's gone, and it's just me in there, I feel a void.  I feel alone.  I can coast like that, while things are going fine, but when the bottom falls out, that's when I feel it the lack of belief the most.  It's like I've fallen down a hole, and I'm sitting there, knowing I can't climb back up, and knowing that there's no one topside to throw me a rope (or a sandwich).

I'm not saying that finding religion is the answer to this.  Having beliefs, and even having faith, are different from participating in an organized religion.  Sometimes they go together, sometimes they don't.  I have yet to figure out if I can hammer this one out on my own, or if I need a community.  I'll try both.

What I am saying, is that I need something.  If God is one of the answers to this, that's great.  But there are others, and none of them are exclusive.  I need to believe in the goodness of other people.  I need to believe in myself, and the choices I make.  I need to believe that the world will continue on, no matter what happens in my little corner, because that actually helps me to keep perspective.

I recently had a discussion on a similar topic as this with an acquaintance.  He brought up the point that, when you rely on the people around you or a community to help define your faith, you can in turn be influenced by them.  To a point he's right.  There will be a lesson about this.  But I want to shift gears from the people to the act of belief itself: belief cannot be blind.

What?  That's the definition, you say?  Well, faith is sort of blind, in the way that it's the opposite of knowing.  But belief should not be blind.  I need to know what my beliefs are, and why.  I need to understand how they fit in the world, with other people's, both those I know and those who are strangers.  I need to be able to examine my beliefs, understand what it means to incorporate them into my life, and decide if that is a change I can and will make.  If I'm doing this... if I'm an active participant in the beliefs that are a part of my life.. I'm being mindful of the things that drive me, of the parameters that make up my own personal universe.  I'm not necessarily subject to the influence or pressure of others who may think differently -- in fact, I'm in a better position to effectively explain, defend, or even adjust what I believe (carefully), as I go through life learning from others and growing as a person.

Let me try to illustrate the point.  I want to believe in the inherent goodness of people.  It makes me feel better as a person, and I also find when I have this mindset, I treat others better.  I don't judge as quickly.  I accept their actions as just that, and don't try to read in alternative motives.  In turn, they respond more positively toward me.  It's a productive cycle.  Or at least, it is when I get it to work.  Sometimes I forget.

However, and this might be a shocker... people are not always honest or straightforward, or even 'good'.  If I am aware of this, and maintain an ability to evaluate their actions, I can be more objective.  I hope and believe that they are honest with me, but when the facts show otherwise, I can see it and adjust how I choose to interact with them.  I am actively participating in my belief, instead of sitting back following it without question.

I could also turn this the other way, to keep myself honest.  For example, I want to believe in the goodness of people, but I am treating So-and-So in a way that does not reflect that.  I could sit back and rest on my fuzzy, warm confidence that my belief makes me a good person... or I could be mindful of how I'm acting, and see it's in a way that does not reflect that belief.

This is not a great example, but I'm not really up for hammering out the issue of spirituality over Blogger. At least, not today.  I just know that I need to bring something into that space, where belief should live, to be a healthier, more balanced person.  The coolest thing about this lesson?  I may never really come to a solid, unshakable answer.  But belief, or faith, is something I could study and grow into for the rest of my life, and I would still be happy.

And then Monday comes around, and I can get discount Trattoria pizza.  Score.

Lesson #1: I have a body.

At first, this is not a startling revelation.  Go back in time with me.  Further.  Further.  A little more.  Ok, you're a baby.

Have you ever watched a baby?  Regardless of how you feel about them, they're amazing.  Everything is new.  There's a sense of wonder at that.  You can sit and watch a child flail around, with little sense that the hand waving in front of his face is actually attached to his arm, is something that's a part of him, under control.  We learn, through habit, new connections in the brain, etc, that we in fact have a body, that it's (mostly) under our control, that it's ours.  It is, in fact, the only thing that is truly ours, for the entirety of our lives.

Fast forward to now.  Look at your hands.  Make a face.  Wiggle your toes.  This is your body, and it's amazing.  It's complicated.  This moment of self examination should just further prove the first point.  You have a body.  Knowing that you have a body, however, is only part of this lesson.  The other part is learning to live with it.  There are people who struggle with this their entire lives.

There are also philosophies, old beliefs thought out by people that are smarter and more spiritual than I, that the body doesn't matter.  It will pass.  They might be right.  I'm not really interested in addressing that, nor am I educated enough to evaluate them intelligently, so this mention is about all they get.

I read a wonderful thing the other day, in a book by Anne Lamott, Grace (eventually).  She quotes a priest-friend of hers as saying that while we have a body, we are our souls.  Her reason for citing this is different than mine is, here, but I think this is a great quote.  What it says to me is that what makes us special, what makes us "us", is that spark, that chaos between our ears and in our hearts that is our mind, motivation, the full range of our feelings and experiences.  Who we are lies on the inside, not in the mirror, or what other people see.  For me, accepting this meant I worried less about conventional beauty, what I 'should' look like.  Even if I were to conform to conventional standards, I could never stay there.  I age.  I may get injured.  I may encounter disease, or hardship, or both.  My body now is not the same as it was at 17, and it will be different at 37, 57, and 87. I am not defined by what I look like, but by who I am (and what I do - spoiler alert! This is a future lesson).

Over the last few years, I've discovered that I'm living in the body that I am supposed to have.  So what does this mean?  I'm not as fit as I have been.  I was in way better shape in high school.  I'm not as young as I was.  I should probably start wearing some makeup, I should moisturize, whatever.  Sometimes it will feel like my body will betray me -- that blemish the morning of a first date, a jiggle here, an ache there.  There are things that my body will not be able to do.  But for the first time, I really feel comfortable in my skin.

Sometimes, when I haven't been in the pool for a while, I have to take a moment to readjust.  I've been a swimmer for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of jumping into the water.  But when I haven't been swimming, getting back in feels awkward.  I remember what the stroke should feel like, but it's off, it's just not happening.  I have to take a time out.  I stand at the end of the lane, I stretch my arms out, and I float.  I float face down, and then face up.  I practice pushing my head and chest down, and then my hips.  I kick, I turn, I move my hands.  I take my time, and feel the water, learn the cause-effect of movement, the way I need to balance to feel comfortable.

Then I swim.  And it starts to feel better.

I need those moments, where I regain my center, and get comfortable.  There are enough challenges in life that I can't go through also fighting with myself.  So when I start to freak out, or feel self-conscious, or wish I was something different, I just stand at the end of the lane, float on my stomach for a while, and find my balance again.

Accepting my body, being comfortable in it, also means accepting obligations.  Your body is like your family, in it for the long haul (more on that later): you can stuff it with junk, lay on the couch, sit around, or abuse it in countless ways, and it'll be there.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, you can harm your body with too much of a good thing.  There have been periods of my life where I have pushed my body as far as I could, through exercise, caffeine, lack of sleep, just to see what I could do.  I felt like a NASCAR driver, pushing for one more lap, even though I knew the tires were going... but I was going to make it work, because I was in charge.  Either way chances are, you're not going to be comfortable.  So what are these obligations?  They include:
  • Giving your body what it needs to thrive -- good food/enough food, proper sleep, and exercise.
  • Not knowingly placing yourself at risk for physical harm -- don't put yourself in danger
  • Paying attention to your body's needs -- feel ill?  don't walk it off, get it checked out.  Note: this is not the same as automatically medicating.
  • Accepting your body as it changes -- aging, illness, many of these things are beyond our control. Adjust.
  • Appreciate other bodies like you appreciate you're own -- mind out of the gutter, people.  This is just one incarnation of the golden rule. Celebrate the uniqueness and specialness of others, just as you yourself are unique and special.
  • Never ask your body to do more than it can handle -- you'll know, when you do.
  • Never let your body go idle -- challenge it with new experiences, push your comfort zone.
That's what I've got.

How do you feel in your body?  Have you always felt that way?  If you've faced challenges, how have you moved on?  What obligations do you feel toward your body?

25 February 2010

So... what is this thing?

It happens sooner or later.  Once a year, actually.  A birthday.  Mine, to get to the point.

I've been lucky enough (young enough?) that this simple, universal truth has never really bothered me.  There are birthdays that I remember anticipating.  You know, that magic day when you finally get to write your age with two digits (yay!), the year you become a teenager (there was none of this tween nonsense back then), the year I signed the paperwork for my motorcycle (and then promptly had a drink).  And there were some towards which I held ambivalence: what really happens when you turn 19?  Who cares?  It's the most anti-climactic birthday ever.

The only one I remember dreading was my 6th birthday.  Because that meant I wasn't allowed to go in the kiddie pool anymore.  I had issues with change back then.

So this is good.  Birthdays should be celebrated, years should be remembered.  The coolest thing about growing older is that, now, I'm all the ages I ever was, at once.  Every experience has built upon the next and made me an entirely different person.  There's this wealth of knowledge to draw from, earned through hard work, patience, sweat, mistakes, tears, and laughter (though sometimes I miss the mark and forget to use it).  At master's practice one day, we swam 100s for Reg's birthday.  Apparently, at each one, he recounted something that had happened to him that year.  That's awesome, a great way to celebrate the events that make us who we are (or who we aren't.)

I've been thinking a lot about birthdays, probably more than someone still under 30 should.  But I'll be honest.  It's been a hard year, a learning year.  I've felt incredible happiness, and really harsh loss.  I count my blessings every day, and work through the mistakes.  When I think of all the years, one hard one out of 28 is pretty good.  When I think that I'm about a third of the way through my life (as predicted by life expectancy for the average US female in 2010), sometimes I wish I'd made a little more progress toward sorting things out.

But I have learned some great lessons, and that's what this one-time, limited-edition blog is about.  Between today, and my birthday, I'll be posting the things I've learned, one for each year I've been around.  There is no plan, just the FAQ on the sidebar to the right.  Right now, I have no idea precisely what I'll be writing for each of them.  But in the end, there will be 28.  And cake.

I'm pretty psyched about the cake.