All the way around again

IMG-7869This past year, I discovered the joys of coffee in bed on my weekend mornings. In fact I started this blog post during my last coffee in bed session of 2017. It feels luxurious and lazy – two things I don’t think anyone would ever accuse me of being, which assuages any Yankee guilt I feel about the chores that await. In the personal and political chaos of 2017, I’m grateful for this new ritual. I use the time to read, write, or just watch the damn (albeit cute) House Sparrows in the privet outside.  

I think I like doing this so much because I had one of those years where I had to catch my breath over and over again. Probably not unlike yours, maybe worse in some ways, maybe better in others. I am now six months out from a breakup that should have been simple, but complicated my life in ways I could not have foreseen. It dredged up every last fear I have about trusting people, but I am working on it, and moving on. Then, in November, a dear friend parted this earth way too soon, leaving me – and so many people I love dearly – aching, and stunned.

With the year closing out, I am, like many of you, looking back, taking stock, and counting blessings.

Gratitude is a practice that is based in comparison. It may seem a morbid thing to do, but when things go badly, it helps to remind ourselves how much worse it could have been. It can work like the switch on a flashlight, forcing us to shine a light on our relative good luck. Sheryl Sandberg calls it the “gratitude for what’s left”, and it can offer perspective when things seem too much to bear.

I have done this, and I know my year could have been worse, and I am truly grateful for what is left.

The worst part of this year was watching people use this concept to dismiss each other’s experiences. I got a small dose of this in my personal life, but more so when I paid attention to the news. The term “snowflake” was flung around far too much. The lack of empathy was heart wrenching to witness.

In the best case scenario, people want to convince you that things weren’t really “that bad” or “could have been worse”, out of love, because they genuinely want us to be happy. In the worst case, it’s because our suffering is an affront to their happiness, or a threat to their fantasies about this country. 

But perspective and gratitude don’t make pain disappear – they are more like dressings for our wounds, not a miraculous tincture that seals them up. Healing takes so much more than that – like empathy, self-care, and time.

I know the whole gratitude thing can seem like some cult-ish fad, or a pollyannaish thing to do. I’m not saying it cures all, and I certainly don’t want to oversimplify. I speak from my own experience though, and how it helped me heal from a panic disorder 7 years ago.

I took up a practice of gratitude back then, alongside therapy, exercise, meditation, and yes, some Xanax too. If I’m honest, writing a list of things I was grateful for seemed silly, and no match for a disorder that felt like it might literally kill me at times. I was overwhelmed by bitterness about the factors that brought on the disorder, and felt grateful for nothing, but I was willing to try. 

So I started with the basics – like sidewalks. I walked 4-6 miles a day back then, because it was the only time I felt some reprieve from my racing heart and mind. Sidewalks made that safer, and easier, so, on the list it went. It took a few weeks, but I eventually realized that taking stock of the basics made sense, and was a good starting point. Over time, it helped chip away at the lies that anxiety tells, and it gave me real ground to stand on while I continued the work that eventually lead to recovery.

My point being: I have experienced the power of its practice. But I sometimes forget. I sometimes fumble around in the darkness, especially in years like 2017. And even though January 1st is an arbitrary date that holds no significance in astronomy or nature, I find the symbolism a new year difficult to resist. And what’s wrong anyhow, with taking time to reflect on what has transpired? Or with moving forward with hope and well wishes in our hearts, for ourselves and everyone around us?

And while I’ve shared this quote before, in another New Years’ post I think, I’ll share it again because it says it better than I can:

“…onward full-tilt we go, pitched and wrecked and absurdly resolute, driven in spite of everything to make good on a new shore. To be hopeful, to embrace one possibility after another–that is surely the basic instinct…Crying out: High tide! Time to move out into the glorious debris. Time to take this life for what it is.”
― Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson

And then I’ll just leave you with one more thing – something a dear friend sent me on Saturday, while I was enjoying my second-to-last coffee in bed of 2017. This is the same friend who I spent last Christmas with while her world fell apart, and she too had a rough year, but is doing much better. It was so thoughtful of her, and so perfectly timed. 

If I have learned anything this year, it is that I won’t ever be ready for what life throws at me.
I won’t have the right words when it counts;
I won’t know what to choose when fate itself is staring at me down.
But now I know I don’t always need to have the right answer.

I’ve learned I can go on waiting for something,
sustained by hope and nothing more — or I can put it aside and shrug my shoulders.
Bravely accept the fact that I can’t keep my heart safe anymore than I can stop love from taking everything from me.

I have learned to stop saying yes when I don’t mean it — to live as authentically as I know how.
To allow the tips of my fingers to skirt the darkness, as long as I remember to keep my eyes fixed on the light.
And as one door opens and another closes, I will move forward with the knowledge that unlike so many others, I have another year ahead of me — another shot at making it all the way around the sun,
And a chance to get it right this time round.

-Lang Leav

I’m grateful we all have another “shot at making it all the way around the sun”, and wish you all love and peace in the year ahead.

More food, less pain,

Most Wonderful Time?

My bluebird of happiness ornament

As hard as I try, I can never entirely avoid a good cry or two during the holiday season. I call it the “Christmas Cry”, and I had a couple good ones this year. December stirs up a lot of emotion for me, and I know I’m not crazy for, or alone in this in the slightest. I don’t like the pressure to be anything other than what I am, or to feel anything other than what I feel. And I’m terrible at pretending otherwise.

Christmas is this huge deal to a lot of people, and it’s built up for weeks-and-weeks-and-oh-the-shopping-and-the-gifts-and-the-parties-and-the-cookies-and-the-blah-and-the-blah. It’s a little too much for this low-key introvert. Every time I hear that carol that starts with “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…”  all I can think is “Geeze, the pressure…”.

I’m no Grinch though. I adore the real tree I have – the one I get every year from The Maher Garden Center. Each ornament has meaning, and I love unpacking them and hanging them. I love the lights around Newport, strung all over trees and boats and storefronts. I love the food, and the wine, and the time shared with friends and family. I love making cocoa and watching “Elf” and, please don’t judge, “Love Actually” (though that triggered an early Christmas Cry this year.) I even like some of the music.

In the past few days, I decided to put aside a few hours alone for myself on this Christmas day.

When people asked me what I was doing today, I didn’t expect the looks of pity I received when I mentioned the plan for some solitude. I guess that sounded sad to some people. But the truth is I really just needed a long walk, and a nap, and to rest after a busy couple of weeks.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by the looks, since this holiday is engineered for moms and dads with kids. But me? I’m childless (by choice), and single (by fate) at  forty. And while I’m comfortable with my life, I’ll admit that it’s tough not to feel a little sting about it, now and then, and especially at Christmas.

But I’m not the slightest bit lonely or sad today, save for missing my dad a little. I spent Christmas eve and part of this morning with the family I was born in to – 5 brothers and 2 sisters, my mom, some nephews (lost count, 5?), one awesome niece, and a few in-laws. They are all strong, unique, smart and, well, totally annoying people. But they crack me up endlessly, and I am so grateful for them.

And then I have the family I chose – friends, who know my every quirk and flaw, every strength and weakness – who’ve held me in their arms and hearts through very tough times, and who keep me laughing every day. I’ll be spending time with some of them tonight, and some of them tomorrow night, which means that the only Christmas Cry-ing I’ll be doing is laughing until I cry.

I am obviously counting my blessings here. And that is a holiday tradition I am totally fine with.

Peace and love to you all.

And of course, more food, less pain,
xoxo -L



Gratitude, and Biscuits

On my walk today, I listened to a dharma talk by Tara Brach, as I usually do each Sunday. The talks are given (and recorded) every Wednesday, at a Universalist church in Maryland, and are offered, free of charge, on her website.

This week’s talk, given on Thanksgiving eve, was titled “Gratitude & Generosity”. In it, she spoke of how being grateful is essential to happiness – something I learned when I was at my unhappiest, during a very difficult transitional period in my life a couple of years ago. It was desperate time of anxiety and situational depression for me, so I took up two daily practices: meditation and gratitude. I did these with a blind faith that they would help. I went through the motions, not sure it would make a dent. Fake it ’till you make it, and all that. 

Both practices saved me. 

I’ve let them go a little, since times aren’t so tough anymore. The meditation happens a few times a week, but the gratitude still happens daily. Before I fall asleep each night, I thank my stars for a few things. Sometimes it’s the things we take for granted, like clean drinking water, and sidewalks, and streetlamps.  Other times it’s the bigger things, like the love of my friends, my good health, and my full life.

Tonight I’ll give thanks for the following story, which Brach shared in her Thanksgiving Eve talk. She used it to illustrate the importance of being open to what is here and now, and as an invitation to quiet down the “shoulds” in our minds. For me, a gratitude practice helps with both of these things. It’s tough to wish you were somewhere else in your life, or someone else, when you shift the focus to what is already perfect and amazing right now. 

And damn if cooking analogies don’t get me every time! This one had me smiling ear to ear, and tearing up as I walked on the Cliff Walk today. It is from The Complete Tassajara Cookbook, by Edward Espe Brown, an American who is a Soto Zen Buddhist priest, and who also happens to be an amazing chef.

Making the Perfect Biscuit
     When I first started cooking at Tassajara, I had a problem: I couldn’t get my biscuits to come out right. I’d follow the recipe and try variations: milk or water, eggs or no eggs, but nothing worked. I had in mind the “perfect” buiscuit, and these just didn’t measure up. After several failures, I finally got to thinking “Right, compared to what?”
Growing up I had “made” two kinds of biscuits: one was from Bisquik, and the other was from Pillsbury. For the Bisquik biscuits, you added milk to the mix and then blobbed the dough in spoonfuls onto the pan – you didn’t even need to roll them out. The biscuits from Pillsbury came in a kind of cardboard can. You rapped the can on a corner of the counter, and it popped open. Then you twisted the can open more, put the premade biscuits on a pan, and baked them. I really liked those Pillsbury biscuits. Isn’t that what biscuits should taste like? Mine just weren’t coming out the way they were supposed to.
It’s wonderful and amazing the ideas we get about what biscuits should taste like, or what life should look like. Compared to what? Canned biscuits from Pillsbury? Leave it to Beaver? And then we often forget where the idea came from or that we even have the idea. Those (perfectly good) biscuits just aren’t “right.”
People who ate my biscuits could be extolling their virtues, eating one after the another, but for me they were not “right.” Finally one day that shifting-into-place occurred, an awakening: not “right”: compared to what? Oh, no! I’ve been trying to make Pillsbury biscuits! Then that exquisite moment of actually tasting my biscuits without comparing them to some (previously hidden) standard: wheaty, flaky, buttery, sunny, earthy, here. Inconceivably delicious, incomparably alive, present, vibrant. In fact, much more satisfying than any memory, much more delicious than any concept. 
Those moments – when you realize your life as it is is just fine, thank you – can be so stunning and liberating. Only the insidious comparison to a beautifully prepared, beautifully packaged product makes it seem insufficient. The effort to produce a life with no dirty bowls, no messy feelings, no depression, no anger is bound to fail – and be endlessly frustrating.
There are a few more paragraphs that follow, but you get the idea here. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
And I hope your Thanksgiving left you feeling grateful. And that every other day of the year does as well.
More Food, Less Pain,

Sunday Walks & Dharma Talks

In an effort to feel better about a week with too much food and too little exercise, I went for a 7 mile walk on the Cliff Walk this afternoon, here in Newport. I’m sure I’m still on the surplus side of calories, but I do feel better physically and mentally than I have in days. 
In addition to walking a lot during the week, I usually do a long walk alone on the Cliff Walk every Sunday. I started this tradition in the fall of 2010, when I needed solitude and time to reflect as much as a I needed water and food to survive. Somehow that autumn, through one of life’s graces, I found the weekly audio dharma talks of Tara Brach, and started listening to them on these Sunday walks. 
Dr. Brach is a clinical psychologist and a teacher of Buddhist meditation. She gives these weekly talks to an audience of 250 students at the Insight Meditation Community of Washington (DC) a place she founded in 1998. She teaches lessons on mindfulness (vipassana) meditation practice, and emphasizes the importance of compassion for the self and others. Her talent as a speaker is beyond impressive. She could probably make a speech about cardboard boxes interesting and moving. She knows how to hold your interest with humorous but apropos anecdotes and jokes. She can also, a moment later, bring you to tears with the profundity of her message through the use of a quote, or a poem, or a true story. 
You don’t have to be student of Buddhism or meditation to get something from her weekly dharma talks. She’s not preachy, or trying to convert you, just hoping to inspire, and share the benefits of mindfulness as a practice in your daily life. I’ve gone to teachings given by Tibetan monks and learned all sorts of interesting albeit complicated things about Buddhism, but I’ve never left these classes with the feeling of inspiration that I have when I’m done listening to one of Dr. Brach’s talks.
The view from my spot, the day after Hurricane Irene, Summer 2011

On the Cliff Walk, I’ve found this perfect spot for meditating. This outcropping of rocks has a spot at it’s edge that has this bowl scooped out that is just the right size for my bum to fit into. When I sit here, the angle of the seat is just right, and sets my spine upright into the perfect position for meditation. Today, thanks to another 60 degree day in November, I was able to sit here for a 20 minute break in my walk and listen to the talk on gratitude that Dr. Brach gave earlier this week. Between the weather, the view and the abundance of great food that I shared with friends and family this week, I probably didn’t need to be reminded to be appreciative of it all. But still, I listened, like I do every Sunday, and finished my walk with a grateful heart.

More Food (well, maybe less for now), Less Pain, 

What I’m Thankful For

I started writing a ridiculous post in my head last night about turkeys and bald eagles (don’t ask), but then I became inspired by all the status updates of thanks-giving on Facebook. In total seriousness, developing a practice of gratitude is something that pulled me through the difficulties of the past year. So, in an effort to give thanks to my friends, who I am feeling especially grateful for this year, I offer them (and you) the true story of Thanksgiving, 2010:

Last November was probably the lowest point of my post-break-up year. Yes, six months had gone by since the split, but the first holiday season without him was upon me, and I was lost. With the help of some good friends, a trip to England was planned out so that we would fly out of the country on Thanksgiving day. But the situational depression and anxiety I was suffering from got the best of me, and I had an intense panic attack as I was packing my suitcase that morning.

Rosa Rugosa in November

I called my therapist, and, with her guidance, chose not to go on the trip. I know: it seems insane. But I knew there would be more anxiety and panic on the tightly booked trip, and I couldn’t bear the idea of being a burden to the good friends I was travelling with. They’d carried me through so much already. And though I knew my decision would test our friendship, I also knew that they would have a better time without me balled up in the backseat of the car on the M5, crying and popping Xanax. I stayed, and prayed they’d someday forgive me.

I found refuge in the company of another friend, who was also going through a difficult time. We curled up on couches and cried together for quite a while, then did our best to look like we hadn’t. We joined some very gracious and open armed friends for a Thanksgiving meal. They didn’t ask me why my face was red and puffy, or why I cancelled my trip. They just put an extra setting on the table for me, and fed me, and made me laugh when I didn’t think it was possible to.

It’s not a day I am proud of, or happy to revisit. But it’s important to me to look back. Yes, I was a disastrous mess of tears and panic, but all around me were friends with tissues, and calming words. And food. And wine. And forgiveness. And laughter. Looking back at that day reminds me of the support I’m so fortunate to have, and the gratitude I feel about this is way beyond measure.

More Food, Less Pain,