evolution, not resolution

Although my graduate research was all about the specific words we use, and what that means about us, I went to graduate school to study something entirely different — why some people survive terrible trauma and others don’t. Like most research psychologists, my research was me-search. I’d fought so very hard to change everything that was familiar, everything I’d grown up with so I wouldn’t cause the same trauma to my children, and while I believed that a lot of people fight just that hard, some make it and some don’t. The research was too close to me though, too personal, and too difficult to do with the required level of dispassion.

But I may as well have a PhD in the psychology of change, because I think it’s one of my real areas of expertise. I know a huge swath of the literature but I have also spent so much of my inner energy and strength and mind and heart on it.

I’m thinking about this as January 1 approaches, because I know so many people are thinking about their New Year’s Resolutions — most of which, I’d wager, are physical/health-related. That includes losing weight, getting in shape, quitting drinking or smoking, eating better, incorporating exercise into their lives, things like that. Weight loss and getting in shape have been on my list most years of my life, though they aren’t this year.

It’s been 183 days, now, since I started my life-change project, and I’ve been about 90-95% successful. I’m still doing yoga at least once a day, twice when it’s possible — seven days a week. (Except on vacation, when it just didn’t fit so possibly.) I’m still eating primarily a vegetarian diet. If I’m eating at someone else’s house I eat what they prepare, and gratefully; I just eat as well as I can given what they have lovingly made for me. But when it’s my choosing, it’s all vegetarian and not all that much of it. I’m still meditating every day. I’m on day 4 of a 40-day meditation project (“I am Grace of God,” Kia Miller on YogaGlo). I’m still doing one thing at a time. I still spend the bulk of my time in silence, which I find so nourishing it’s hard to describe.

how about right now, in this moment? WHY NOT?
how about right now, in this moment? WHY NOT?

I think a lot about why these changes have slipped into my life so fully — why they’re no longer “changes” but are instead just who I am and what I do. There was one big difference in the way it all started this time, so I share this with you in case it’s helpful. Instead of picking a time in the future — “Monday,” “January 1,” “the day I go back to work,” “the day my vacation begins” — I just started in the moment I decided to do it. It was late in the afternoon, but I didn’t even wait to start first thing the next morning. I think one reason this was powerful was that I didn’t sabotage myself in advance, or set it up only to find some reason it wouldn’t work. In the past, starting at some point in the future usually led me into a frenzy of doing before the date came. So I’d eat a whole lot, let’s say, because on January 1 I couldn’t do that any more.

This time, I was writing about it at ~4pm-ish and just started doing the things I wanted to do. I turned off the television and just wrote, doing that one thing. I downloaded a free yoga app to my phone and did 20 minutes of yoga (a lot for me then, left me sweaty and panting). I scrambled around in my refrigerator and pantry and made the healthiest meal I could. Was any of it perfect on that day? Oh, no. My meal was not. My yoga session was not. The silence felt weird. Was any of it perfect the next day? Oh, no. It took me a couple of weeks to find the pieces I needed, but I found them while I was doing it, while I was changing my life.

If you read the “Dear Sugar” column that Cheryl Strayed used to write in The Rumpus, maybe you read the column about a woman’s fear of changing her life mid-life “before it’s too late.” I just love these sentences Strayed wrote about change:

“Real change happens on the level of the gesture. It’s one person doing one thing differently than he or she did before. It’s the man who opts not to invite his abusive mother to his wedding; the woman who decides to spend her Saturday mornings in a drawing class instead of scrubbing the toilets at home; the writer who won’t allow himself to be devoured by his envy; the parent who takes a deep breath instead of throwing a plate. It’s you and me standing naked before our lovers, even if it makes us feel kind of squirmy in a bad way when we do. The work is there. It’s our task. Doing it will give us strength and clarity. It will bring us closer to who we hope to be.”

And that’s so right, even if the real change is just losing weight. Turning off the television. Adding exercise. Whatever it is, the change happens at the gesture.

And guess what, when you revert to the old familiar, all is not lost! Again, it’s about the gesture. So when you have a day of eating like a maniac and lying on the couch watching absolute crap on TV and also flipping through your phone or iPad and having a glass of wine before — and maybe during, and maybe after — dinner and screw it, the weather is crummy so you’re not going to go out for a walk and you just don’t feel like even doing five minutes of yoga, screw it, and there are some Christmas cookies that need to be eaten before they go stale…. you can just return. All is not lost, that was then and life is imperfect and so you brush your teeth carefully before turning in. You get out your very best lotion and put it gently on your face. Massage some into your chunky thighs, with a bit of love. You take care of yourself, not the best day maybe, not the way you want to be taking care of yourself, but now you are taking care. Now you are. So you drink a glass of water, you take some deep breaths — maybe you stretch your body, and you get a good night of sleep. You don’t have to wait for the next “Monday,” or “first of the month,” or “bathing suit season,” or anything at all. Change happens in the small gesture. Evolution, not resolution.

hello, gorgeous!

Well hello, year 2014! It’s so very nice to meet you, you have no idea. There were many years of my life that were so bleak you were just a dream, you there in the 21st century. Many years I never dreamed I’d see you, and you are more beautiful than I thought you might be.

clean-slateLet’s start off clean, why not. It’s entirely arbitrary, deciding to do anything at all on January 1 just because it is January 1, but why not? Just because it’s arbitrary doesn’t mean we can’t do it. Clean slates for all, I hope; the only slate I can clean is my own, so here I go.

Instead of resolutions, how about intentions? There will be two words I’ll think hard about this year, one for me and my own life, and one for my life extended out into the world.

STABLE — there’s no rule that says I can’t have this word two years in a row! You could even argue that it’s quite stable of me to stick with stability. Last year I really needed stability in my lived life; I started the year a stranger in a familiar town, with all new stuff in a new rented house, and with no sense of what my new life would be like. After the rollercoaster of 2012, with Marc’s 6-month hellish treatment and Oaxaca and Myanmar and then all the losses in the last 2.5 months of that year, stability just meant quiet and space to find my feet, find the ground, and put my feet on the ground. For 2014, though, I’ll be thinking of stability for my inner life, so I take it all more easily, stay connected to myself with less effort, remain calm inside myself if life swirls around me.

So 2013 was about external stability, and 2014 will be about internal stability. To help myself with that, I’ll want to focus on breathing and meditation, and on regular exercise. I’ll want to keep eating as well as I have learned to eat so I’m not riled up or crashing. Steady as she goes, that will be me. It’s hard to find inner quiet, sometimes, so I imagine I will be writing about the effort.

KINDNESS — the other word I want to keep in the forefront of my mind for 2014 as a way of making my world/the world a little bit better. This is also an inside job because the place I am most often unkind is in my thoughts, and those thoughts make it hard to connect, they agitate me, they show up in small ways even if I am trying not to express them. (If you could only hear my mind when I’m in traffic, or at HEB….ooh, boy.)

Kindness doesn’t just show up in thoughts and words, obviously — there are small kindnesses I can do, surely, opportunities to make someone else’s day a little better, to make a burden a little lighter, to lift troubles for just a minute. The benefit for me will be to get me outside myself, to help me see the world a little more easily. A great kindness is to really see someone, to give them your full attention, to really listen, and I want to do more of that. There is a lot of writing and thinking about kindness, and some brilliant people think it’s the only religion that matters. I want to be better at it, so I will practice.

I’m sure, knowing me, that I’ll write about both of these things here throughout the year. As I think about these things and work on them, I’ll probably be reading and studying and trying little exercises, stuff like that. I’ll be collecting them in one place . . . see the new item in the menu bar, above? Right next to About the Queen? That’ll stay up all year, and will be the repository of Good Stuff. Check it out now and then.

Whatever your thoughts are for the coming year, I hope you can let go of old stuff you’ve been dragging around, as I also hope to do, and I hope the coming year is kind to us all. It won’t always be, of course, and when it’s not, I hope we find each other and help each other through.

Happy new year!

so touched by the human condition (+)

I was watching a PBS show called “On Story,” where entertainment creators talk about their process. The particular episode I watched was about making comedy work, so it was writers of Seinfeld and Freaks & Geeks and Curb Your Enthusiasm talking about how they made their stories work, and what worked of the stories their writers brought. Inevitably, they said, what worked were the concepts that were from someone’s real life. And then Alec Berg, a writer for Seinfeld, said that even in the emergency room, there’s someone trying to make a joke, trying to make the situation lighter. And that just touched me so much. Because it’s what we do, isn’t it? Someone tries to help, someone tries so hard to remind the suffering people of other things, to distract them. And isn’t that so dear? Too many times there is little or nothing to do to help someone, and we all know the agony we feel when we face that, our inability to help. So our hearts reach out, we do these little things, these tiny little connections, because we long to ease another’s suffering. 

None of us gets out of this alive. We suffer. Terrible things happen to us, and we try so damn hard. We slip and fall, trouble finds us when we’re minding our own business, we betray ourselves, we do shameful things out of our own pain, we have dread secrets we hope no one discovers. But we try, so hard. We want good things for ourselves, we want good things for other people. We think we’re not such good people, but really we are.

And story shows us who we are, even if it’s stretched out pretty far. I’ve always thought that Tolkein’s trilogy was really the story of Sam’s faithfulness, his loyalty to Frodo, come what may. The beauty of that part of the story always reaches me, no matter how many times I read the books. The Wizard of Oz, about our deep misunderstanding of ourselves, that we go in search of what we had all along; we think we’re stupid so we want diplomas, but we were always smart, all along. (OK, that was kind of personal there.) We’re not here for very long; we appear and disappear, and flail our way through this life trying to make our stand, leave our mark, express ourselves — and isn’t that the tenderest thing there is? How can you feel anything but tender toward us?

There are terrible people — this isn’t to deny that there are terrible people. There are people who scheme, and who just want to stir up trouble, and people who have no conscience or qualms about destroying others. That’s true too, of course. But in a way doesn’t that make the rest even more precious?

I’ve got a bunch of stuff to share, some links and a poem, so hop to it:

And finally, Temma sent me this poem that someone shared in her poetry group meeting last night. She knew what it would mean to me, and to be honest, it’s so hard for me to read because it breaks my broken heart so so much. But it’s so true, so I save it here, and share it in case you like it too.

Time Does Not Bring Relief: You All Have Lied (Edna St Vincent Millay)

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied  

Who told me time would ease me of my pain!  

I miss him in the weeping of the rain;  

I want him at the shrinking of the tide;

The old snows melt from every mountain-side,  

And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;  

But last year’s bitter loving must remain

Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.  

There are a hundred places where I fear  

To go,—so with his memory they brim.  

And entering with relief some quiet place  

Where never fell his foot or shone his face  

I say, “There is no memory of him here!”  

And so stand stricken, so remembering him.

Happy Thursday y’all. Be really good to someone today.

good thing of the day: blue skies! beautiful, beautiful blue skies, never to be taken for granted — and days of rain help me remember that.