Friday, March 30, 2012

Out of Helplessness

I have always been drawn to philosophies and spiritual teachings that emphasize the importance of balance in our lives. Striving for personal equanimity makes perfect sense to me. We should be industrious, but also know when to relax. We should exercise our bodies as well as our minds. We should seek balance between art and science, giving and taking, our heads and our hearts. The Aristotelian ideal of finding the golden mean – the desirable middle between two extremes – is enormously compelling to me.
            Because I’m lousy at it.
            I can swing between moments of euphoria and total despondency within seconds. Just like my eight-year-old, Murphy. One minute he’s declaring that his new light-up YoYo is “the best invention ever” and the next he’s crumpled on the floor, the broken toy in his hand, howling, “Why? Why? Why?”
            Yes, apparently I have the emotional maturity of an eight-year-old. A couple of Christmases ago, my father asked the whole family to close our eyes and hold hands around the table while we listened to a gorgeous aria that he loved. After a minute or two of reverent, head bowing around the pot roast, I got antsy and felt trapped. I started to giggle and then to sputter and cough when I tried to rein it in. Afterwards, in the kitchen, my mother said through a clenched jaw that she wasn’t surprised at my behavior: “We all know what you’re like Brett.” And she was right. Everyone who knows me knows how hopeless I am at marshalling my emotions.
So how is it that someone like me has made it through the last couple of years? 
After the economic crash, my husband’s and my income has dwindled down to a quarter of what it was. Which meant that we had to drain all of our accounts. We are in the process of declaring bankruptcy, losing our health insurance, and struggling daily to create a sense of normalcy for our two sons. Last summer when the IRS put a lien on our checking account, freezing any remaining money we had, I screamed at my husband that I hated him and I wanted a divorce.
Our economic woes, by the way, are not solely his fault. We both have under-earned and mismanaged our money. But I don’t want to talk about economic foolishness right now. Even though I can. I’m an expert. What I want to talk about is helplessness – that feeling that we cannot control anything, not even the basics, and that we cannot prevent a catastrophe from slamming us into oblivion. How do you prevail over the debilitating feeling of helplessness? And if you’re someone like me, who gets knocked around by their own emotions on a regular day, how do you uncurl yourself from the metaphoric ball you have pulled yourself into under the covers?
First, you start at the bottom. Since you are there anyway. You remind yourself of what actually DOES work in your life. You’re not going to divorce your husband because despite the stress of the past few years, he still makes you laugh, is a good kisser, and loves you even though he, like your mother, “knows what you’re like.” Your kids are healthy and happy. You enjoy your work (in this case, you’re a writer) and your friends still like you even though they, too, know what you’re like.
Once you’ve remembered that some of your life has worked out pretty damned nicely, you start to make choices. Because I have come to believe that the road from feeling helpless to resourceful, even happy, is made one choice at a time.
When I found myself at my lowest point, I first had to choose to choose. You see, feeling helpless can be very comforting, even luxurious. After all, no one requires anything from someone who is truly helpless. No one asks a newborn to make dinner. There is an abdication of responsibility in adult helplessness that I found deeply attractive and kind of sexy. At times, I had felt like the French Lieutenant’s woman, staring out to sea – the wind flapping my long cape around -- waiting patiently, sexily, for someone to save me.  Most of the time, however, feeling helpless was simply boring.
So, for me, there was a point when it became untenable. Unsustainable. And I didn’t have a long cape. What I did have were children who needed me and a marriage that required tending. So the first choice I made was to actually start making choices – which lead to choosing to eat better, exercise, and get more sleep. That made me feel a little more capable, but not that much more. Because nothing had fundamentally shifted. My financial situation certainly hadn’t. The only difference I could point to was being able to fit back into my skinny jeans.
It was clear that what needed to change was my mindset. Surely, if I were a happier, I would be more adept at handling life’s challenges. So I started small and simply. I decided to consciously fill my life with things that I enjoyed and I endeavored to let go of things that made me miserable. Knowing that on a pragmatic level, I couldn’t just let go of paying bills, for example. Which definitely made me miserable. But you get the point.
When I thought about what made me happy, the list was quite long and very doable. “Breathing” was at the top. I really like to breathe and so I decided to do a lot of breathing in pretty places. In fact, I decided to slow down in a number of ways. Which may sound like helplessness, but is quite the opposite. This was not inertia, but focus. It was attention.
What, I wonder, are the little joys that you could double up on? Or triple up on?
As long as it’s not vodka. It might be worth considering.
During this period of time, I also thought about joyful activities that had somehow dropped away when I was pulled into the tide of helplessness. One of those had been reading novels. Somewhere along the line, I had forgotten to read.
I also reclaimed the joy of crying. In my darkest days, I started to believe that if I cried, I might never stop. But you do stop. In fact, in my experience, you stop much faster if you fully invest. Once I started crying again, I felt better. More connected and, strangely enough, more able to feel joy. Sounds a lot like balance. (If you need more crying in your life, I highly recommend seeing bad romantic comedies in the middle of the day. Almost no one is in the theater and you can bawl your eyes out. Anything starring Drew Barrymore or Sarah Jessica Parker will do the trick.)
And while you’re in the business of choosing to fill up on activities that make you happy, you might choose to let go of some stuff too. I let go of a couple of unsupportive friendships, which was painful but necessary. But I also tried to let go of complaining and blaming. That was even harder. Because complaining can be fun and it’s a group sport.
And blaming had to go because blaming is the battle song of helplessness.
Let me pause here to say that there were days when I was more successful at making these choices than others. But on the days when I slipped up, choosing to forgive myself was awfully powerful.
And here is an almost counterintuitive choice that I made in the midst of making all kinds of choices: When I felt at my worst. When I was spent and felt that I had nothing left to give. I decided to give more.
A friend of mine is a runner and he once told me that when he feels tired and is convinced that he can’t go on, he runs harder. He runs faster. And it gives him more energy to finish his run.
I believe that it’s the same with giving. When you’ve got nothing, give more. It feels good. It connects you to the world. And you find that you have more than you thought you did. Call a friend who is having a hard time. Volunteer. Help someone carry their groceries up the steps. Giving made me feel resourceful. Which is the opposite of helpless.
Your choices might be very different than mine. I know that mine don’t tend to be pragmatic in a worldly sense. And, to that end, my outward circumstances haven’t shifted that dramatically. But I don’t feel helpless anymore. In fact, I feel quite capable. And I certainly feel more balanced than I have in the past – either in good times or in bad. Because making active choices means consciousness. It means refusing to wait passively for fate or an intemperate god to put up a roadblock or toss you a bone.
And what I have discovered is that all of my choices fall under the umbrella of the big question I ask myself every morning when I wake up.
Which is, “Am I going to keep lying here or am I going to get up and participate?”
Mary Oliver ends one of her famous poems like this:

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
If I have made of my life something particular, and real
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
Or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

So for me, the choice – the big choice – is always whether to continue lying on that bed or to get up and walk out the door. To be a part of the world and not just a visitor.
So far, the decision has been easy. Easier than I would have thought.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Grace in the ICU

             I spent last week looking for grace in the ICU. I flew out to Denver to sit with my friend, Sarah, while her husband was in critical care following an aortic aneurism. A lot of praying happens in ICU but many of those prayers go unanswered or aren’t answered the way that was hoped. As I sat next to my terrified friend – terrified myself – I listened to a woman beg her father to let her mother go from life support. Across the hall, a woman wailed with anguish when given bad news about her mother. When Sarah was told that her husband’s heart had stopped, I held her shaking body, heaving with grief. Later, when her husband rallied, I felt relief, not grace.
My own definition of grace has changed throughout the years. When I was in my twenties, I thought that I had confirmed the existence of God in a New York City parking lot. Staring out over the rows of cars I allowed myself to imagine a godless world and I felt immediately bereft. The thought was so unbearable that I re-embraced my former God within seconds, and that was that.  It was the spiritual equivalent to finding lost keys – “Oh there He is. Right where I left Him. Good. Life can go on like normal now.” At the time, I thought my parking lot reclamation of God was a moment of revelation and grace. Today I consider it simply a return to habit. A return to what was comfortable. I don’t think that grace is chicken soup for the soul.
            Now that I’m older, I believe that grace reveals more often to those who are open to it and to those who actively seek it. I have been inspired by friends who look for it through mindfulness and practice. They experience it all the time. The past two years have been very difficult ones for my family and me. As a result, I have had to train myself to wake up every morning and choose hope over despair and grace over cynicism. Sometimes I don’t succeed and I find myself sniping at Pat that we’re huge failures who will never dig ourselves out of our financial mess. Last summer, the IRS put a lien on our bank accounts and I screamed at him, “I hate you. I want a divorce.” Clearly, it wasn’t going to be a good day for grace and me.
            But on the days that I manage to actively choose it, I find grace everywhere. Most notably at my dinner table when Pat and I listen to our sons tell stories about their day and the sky outside our living room window turns orange as the sun sinks behind the mountains. This is grace for me, pure and simple. Food and laughter and beauty and love. And Stevie Wonder playing in the background. It is those moments when I am not looking back or looking forward. When I am consciously in the room, connected to everyone there and to the world outside.
            I have also, by the way, experienced moments of grace and connection when I am completely alone. I recently decided that I was going to learn how to poach an egg and I failed for several days in a row. Then one unremarkable morning, I succeeded and felt completely in tune with the universe. Practice and consciousness had brought me there. That and a capful of white vinegar.
            I did finally find grace in the ICU last week -- it wasn’t when Sarah’s husband got his mortal reprieve, although that kind of soaring hope is oxygen for the soul --and I had to look for it. I was sitting in a chair watching my Sarah stroke Rob’s hair. “I love you so, so much,” she said to him. I breathed deep and loosened my fingers that had curled into fists. I felt the back of the chair supporting me. I listened to Sarah say over and over again, “I love you so, so much.” I breathed again and then there was grace. For a moment I felt no separation from Sarah and Rob. In fact, there was no separation between me and the chair and the sun streaming through the window. There was no future and no past.
Just this. 

** Much love and many prayers to Sarah and Rob. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Free Lunch (Part 2)

After having lunch with my old high school chum and finding out that I was wrong about every prediction I made about her, I came home to process it all with Pat:

            “She cured AIDS and now she’s going to cure cancer,” I tell Pat, after putting Spence to bed.
            “I thought she was a softball player,” he says.
            “No.  That was what I predicted.  I predicted that she played softball on the weekends.  But she doesn’t.  On weekends, she flies to D.C. to fuck a judge.” 
            “Are you leaving something out?” Pat says. 
            Pat accuses me of leaving out huge gaps of information when I tell a story.  I disagree.  My brain just works differently than his.  He has a brain that can’t leap over things.  My brain jumps around, but in a logical fashion.  The things I leave out are the connectors – vital to Pat’s understanding of any narrative.  Connectors are boring.  They slow me down.  Connectors prevent me from leaping over the left lobe, grabbing a thought, and winding up with an epiphany. 
            “She’s a lobbyist who works in DC sometimes and her boyfriend is a judge,” I say.  The edge in my voice is a sure sign of my annoyance at having to slow down.  Now I have to stop and give information.  This isn’t what I want to talk about.
            “Ah,” says Pat, “I thought she was gay.”
            “Obviously not.  Since she has a boyfriend.”
            Pat gives me a look I know well.  He’s deciding how much further he wants to go with this.  He can tell I’m annoyed about something and he’s hoping it has nothing to do with him. 
            I flop on the couch, look out our smudged window, and sigh, “I have done absolutely nothing with my life.”
            Pat responds with a non-committal, “Ah.”
            The window needs to be cleaned.  I only notice it at this time of day, when the setting sun hits it at the right angle. 
“I can’t even clean my windows,” I say.  “I’ve lived here two years and I’ve cleaned them only once.”
“I see,” says Pat dubiously.  I know he doesn’t see.  I know he wants to ask what dirty windows have to do with having achieved nothing in my life. 
“Do you think I’m completely self-centered?” I ask.
Pat doesn’t answer. Time passes.  I hear the traffic outside and the drip of our leaky faucet in the bathroom.  I listen to the drip, drip, drip – as if it’s marking time.  All the time I’ve wasted.  Drip, drip, drip.  Time leaking through the loose seal of my best intentions.  Drip, drip, drip.
Pat’s chair squeaks.  I had forgotten, in the vortex of time wasted, that he was here. 
“I don’t think you’re any more self-involved than anyone else,” he says carefully.
“Oh God,” I say, “That means ‘yes’.  You think I’m completely self-involved.” 
Pat pushes his chair away from the desk, “I didn’t say that.  This is what you do.  You twist what I say.  I send the words out…” He mimes words floating out of his mouth, “and then you twist them.”  He grabs the invisible words with his fists and twists them, like he’s unscrewing something. 
“OK.  OK,” I say. “Everyone’s self-involved.  But shouldn’t I want to be a better person than that?”
“So far, I’ve got that better people cure cancer and have clean windows,” he says.
“I should be doing something,” I say, jumping off the couch.  “I should be making something, giving time to a shelter.  I should adopt someone”
“Great,” says Pat, “Go do it. If it’s adopting we may need more of a conference.”
I pace, “I should call a soup kitchen.”
“If this means so much to you, why haven’t you done it before?”
“You remember.  I’d make a phone call or go to a meeting and then, something would get in the way. I’d get a job.  Or, hell, I’d leave the country.  I could never stay focused.”  I drop to the couch again.  “Most of the time, I just forgot.  I’d get all geared up and then I’d forget.”
“You’d forget to save the world?”
“Right,” I say, feeling the familiar creep of defeat seeping into my bones.
Pat scoots his desk chair back up the computer and turns on the monitor again, “Sounds like you’ve got a ton of stuff to get through before you save the world.”
I hate Pat.