Archive for February, 2012|Monthly archive page

Beautiful moments (Things that make me better)

The other afternoon I made myself a pot of tea.

I was intending to sit down and watch some episodes of the latest TV series I’ve picked up, and it was a gray, chilly afternoon, so the idea of a warm drink was very welcome. I made my tea, set the pot on the stand by my couch, poured the first cup, and went back to the kitchen for a minute. When I came back, I got stopped in my tracks.

My couch sits by my front windows, and there was a tiny peek of sun for once. The mug of tea I had poured was still steaming hot, and the steam rose up into the sunlight, ethereal, insubstantial, and beautiful. It was a tiny thing that struck me deeply, and I stood there for a minute, just absorbing the loveliness of it.

I’ve been noticing something recently as I move around in my daily life. Every now and then, something totally ordinary will catch me out, and I will be absolutely struck by the beauty in it. Little things, a color or shape or smell or taste. They get my attention, and if I stop and really look, there’s something they touch, something deep and internal and almost tangible, something I can’t really get words around. I wish I could, because oh, what words they would be. It is like a sense of utter satisfaction and rightness, it fosters peace in my spirit, it makes me smile. These tiny, beautiful moments.

There’s a definite correlation between the kind of day I’m having (rather, the kind of mood I’m having) and the noticing of these peeks of glory in the everyday. If I’m generally happy, I uncover more of them. If I’m depressed, I don’t find them at all, and if I do, it’s hard to really stop and feel the beauty. I don’t know which one comes first — if the mood fosters the seeing, or if the seeing fosters the mood. I suspect it can go either way, though. If that’s the case, the place to focus is on the side I can directly affect: I can choose to look for these tiny, beautiful moments, whether or not I’m in a pleasant mood. I think they’re connected to the idea of mindfulness, that wisdom taught in many philosopies from many ages, urging us to be fully aware of what’s in the present moment, really alive and awake in the world we’re standing in. I think this is where real life lives, in the noticing and appreciating what is happening. I think it’s not about just waiting for these beautiful moments to cross our paths, I think we can go looking for them. I think, if I wanted to, I could find one right now, while I’m sitting at my keyboard in the space where I work. If I just opened my eyes and looked, I don’t think I’d be disappointed.

This idea of seeing and being fully aware of what’s real is so vital for me, who lives so far inside my head for so much of the time. You can’t live an entire life inside the brain. That’s not what humans are. I have to come out and experience the world, and the beautiful moments I find are reminders for me, reminders and gateways into really living.

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Hungry

Funny how things have to go away in order for us to appreciate them.  Even small things.

I felt cruddy for most of today, part of which meant that I couldn’t eat without risk of being sick to my stomach.  I felt myself weak and shaky from lack of food, felt the “oh no you don’t” message from my belly when I tried to nibble, felt confused about how to fix it, from pain and weakness.  Real blarrgh territory.  It’s not nice when food is a need and an obstacle all at once (and I’m guessing most everyone reading this has had a similar blarrgh day or two).

My body is feeling better tonight, and I finally thought of something it’ll like.  Nothing fancy, just a baked potato with some cheese.  Basic, filling food, and it makes me sigh with pleasure to have it.  Tonight I have my appetite back, and eating is good.

Things that make me better

I was doing well. I really thought I was. Through January, with the help of some new methods of organization and a friend acting as a coach (which is a story I need to tell sometime), I felt like I was getting on top of things. Getting stuff done, moving forward. I was positive, I was actually happy a good bit of the time.

I think I got ambitious, not helped by a really busy couple of weeks. They were busy with good things, good people, hard and productive thinking, but at the end of them, I was completely zonked. There was a day when I really didn’t do anything except sit and stare at whatever my eyes landed on. Ever since, I’ve been struggling to get back to that place of happy positivity and productiveness. I’ve had a couple of really hard, bleak days in the last two weeks, have lost nearly all my sense of schedule and purpose, and am fighting bitterly with discouragement. I thought I was moving forward,, and now it seems like I’m nowhere.

Sigh.

I prayed about it this morning, writing out my worries and disillusionment in my scribbeldy notebook. I asked God for insight, because I really do want to stop having these depressed patches, to be productive, and even maybe happy sometimes. There’s a reason I’m desperate for that going forward feeling. For me, mental and emotional health really means going forward, in lots of different ways. I need to experience progress and change. Even in my hobbies; there’s a reason I really enjoy making things. Because you start, and progress, and then there’s an end. I need to feel the progress and to have actually, honest-to-goodness finishes sometimes.

It’s just that change in life is not easy to see, a lot of the time. Change in myself is really hard to see, and it never, ever happens fast enough to suit me. If I can’t see that things are changing, I just lose hope. I lose hope way too fast. I think nothing is happening at all.

Big life stuff is never going to happen fast enough to suit me, and I can’t expect that to change in order to make me happier. So I have to find other ways to be happy and hopeful. Maybe there are ways I haven’t found yet of showing myself regular progress, or maybe I’ve got ways to do that at hand already and I’m not making use of them (it occurs to me that I have a long series of scribbeldy notebooks, and a lot of what I scribble about in them is whatever I’m currently struggling with — but it’s extremely rare for me to go back and read any of the past ones, to see that maybe I’m not fighting with the same things anymore).

There are other things I can do too, though, not things that make for obvious progress but things that just make me better. Sometimes happier, sometimes calmer or stronger, sometimes more faithful to what I believe. I didn’t always know how to do this for myself, and I’ve come a long way in having a list of such things to do. Where I often fall down is in remembering to put them to use. But it’s early days. I haven’t known all of these things for long. I haven’t actually put them into a concrete list until now.

Getting enough sleep
Eating regularly
Drinking lots of water
Exercising
Reading
Prayer
Writing in my notebook
Writing for publication
Staying in touch with people
Thinking about someone else, especially to help them
Really stopping to absorb details and moments in life
Facing down something scary
Listening to the right music at the right time
Singing
Dancing, moving, inhabiting my body

This is my list. It might not be complete — I hope it actually isn’t, in that I keep discovering things to put on it. But this is a base of things that really help me stay on an even keel.

To help myself understand the value of them, I’m going to write a series of posts about them. In explaining for other people why these things help me, I’ll help myself sink the awareness of them more deeply into my own mind — and maybe I’ll give some other people ideas for what they can do to make themselves better.

The Essential Energies: Balance

At the beginning of the year my taiji class shifted back to Fu-style taiji, returning to a form we’ve studied within the past couple of years and introducing a few very useful, but quite strange exercises. I think some of the class had encountered them before, but they are all new to me: waist-sieving, four-corner kicking (which has been compared to a bizarre cross of taiji with irish jig), and waist rotation.

That last one begins with assuming a horse stance, arms raised as though hugging a big rubber ball. (If you go to this link and scroll down to the picture titled “Sifu Wong practicing the Three-Circle Stance,” that’ll give you a fair idea of what I’m talking about.) Then you start to rotate the upper body from the waist: lean forward, then to the side, back, other side, and front again, describing a big circle with your upper body. The waist doesn’t twist, the body always faces forward, just leaning in different directions. Only the upper body moves. The legs and hips hold still, supporting the movement.

(Whew, this stuff is hard to describe in words. At least I’m not talking about the four-corner kicking one. I’m afraid “Irish taiji jig” is all you’re going to get from me, use your imagination.)

This movement was a little weird when we started, but I didn’t think it was too bad. Horse stance is nice and stable.

And then we changed to bow stance. Then sit stance, then empty stance, and then one-legged stance. Try to imagine doing this: standing on one leg, and rotating the upper body in that big circular movement. Or in a little circular movement. Or any kind of circle or movement at all, without losing your balance. There have been times in my life when I thought the standing-on-one-leg part was hard enough on its own, thank you very much.

Those times, however, were all before I started studying taiji, because taiji has taught me a lot about keeping my balance. Keeping the body relaxed, not trying to be stiff and still, sitting back a little bit to lower my center of gravity, using my core and the big muscles in my legs (or in one leg) for stability. But maybe most of all, learning what to think about and what not to think about.

When you stand on one leg, it’s natural to think about the leg that’s off the floor. One foot is dangling, and feet don’t normally dangle. It draws the attention, but it’s exactly the wrong place to put your attention.

In order to keep balance, I’ve learned, the thing to think about is the leg you’re standing on. Think about where your strength and stability come from. Never mind about the dangling foot, it’s fine. Let it mind itself for a bit. When you think about the leg that isn’t helping you balance, you shift yourself out of balance. Think about the leg that’s supporting you, and your balance automatically improves. Putting your mind on what keeps you stable helps the body to be stable.

Brilliant, brilliant metaphor. Because taiji isn’t the only practice which needs balance. Sometimes life feels like a high-wire act, with all the circus lions on the loose and prowling down below. Except never worry about those, because your wire is fraying. Except never worry about that, because the frame holding it all up is on fire.

What on earth do you look at, when everything is going crazy? What do you put your attention on? Chances are, the thing you’ll want to focus on is the craziness. It’s so compelling, it’s hard to focus anywhere else. But it’s exactly the wrong place.

The place to put your attention first is on what makes you feel stable. Whatever that is for you, whatever habits or routines or practices or people make you feel stable and strong, focus on those first and keep coming back to them as often as you can. If you can stay connected with your own center of balance, the craziness won’t tip you over. You can develop the ability to move with it, to use it, maybe even to direct it.

Don’t focus on the leg that gets knocked out from under you, focus on the leg you’re still standing on. Because you are still standing.

Thoughts from a notebook (2/16/2012 edition)

Quoted from my notebook, written this morning:

“Back again. This week is all topsy-turvy, with such a hard depressive turn at the beginning of it, and following after last week which was topsy-turvy too. I go back farther, and remember how busy the period before that was, and wonder if that busyness and loss of energy and overextension have anything to do with today [being topsy-turvy]; if I could have gotten back on an even kilter sooner, or if this is just how it was always going to be.

I thought, late last night or very early this morning, if my worst problem is not that I’m so bad at schedule and routine, but that I think of my relation to them as badness. How much regularity is actually good for me? If I could just accept my off days and depressive spells and weird schedule swings as they come, would it help me be less stressed and anxious overall? Would I find my way back to useful regularity sooner?”

Tantrum

What a week.

I had been doing so well through January with my decision to love myself, and I took a couple of big, practical steps in doing so, things that took a fair degree of work and bravery, and it made such a big difference.  For a while there, I felt really happy, actively happy and hopeful about life.

I never notice when those moments sneak away.  Somehow I forget the things that make me joyful, and life just gets ordinary.  Then I forget the things that make life good, and I get scared and hopeless.  I can so quickly spiral away into blackness.

I skidded into the beginning of this week desperate for a break, after too much hard thinking and interaction with people all the previous week; I went too far and stopped doing all the basic things that take care of me and keep me on an even keel.  By yesterday I was angry and despondent at the same time, snarling at my friends in my head and wanting to punch things, wanting life to just be better, already, for my problems to just BE FIXED. It’s been long enough, and I’m sick of it all, dammit.

I spent the evening sniping at God.  Where the hell are you, and why aren’t you making it better?  You call this provision?  Then why do I feel so awful?  Why do I not have a job yet, why don’t you tell me what you want me to do about school, why is this life so damn pointless?

(Yes, actually, I do swear at God sometimes.  Shocked?  He isn’t.  He’s heard it all before.  Which is not to say it’s right or proper or good; just real.  This is an honest story, not a pretty one.)

Sniping doesn’t get much of an answer, because it doesn’t deserve one.  I got all the answer I needed yesterday before bed, a powerful internal reminder of what God’s love for me cost.  Jesus bled for my sake.  He suffered for my sake, every kind of pain.  Physical, emotional, and spiritual.  All of that, so that I could be part of God’s family — so that I could stand in the presence of God Almighty, snarling at him in my unhappiness.

I went to bed thinking about that, chastened.

Today I got up with a much quieter spirit.  I haven’t done much today, but I have started taking care of myself again, doing all the basic things that slid away for a while.  I did a little housework.  And I sat with my notebook and pen, writing prayers.  I apologized to God.  I hated myself for a while.  I thought about how little right I have to sit in his presence at all, but how I’m here anyway, by his choice and redeeming work.  When I throw tantrums now, I throw them in the presence of my Father, and he hears both what I say and what I don’t say, the pains and fears underneath my horrible words and accusations.  He hears and absorbs the words and the pain, and keeps loving me straight through.  Even when I’m kicking him and howling that he doesn’t really care about me.

I filled ten pages of my notebook, with sadness and remorse and quiet pondering, with a lot of deliberate thankfulness, with reminding myself how good life is, how good my God is, how well I’m taken care of in so many ways.  With the beginnings of hope and looking forward again.

I thought I needed answers, but I really needed love.  I had to remind myself to be hopeful, patient, and thankful, those things that enable me to sit with my Father and find peace.  I needed my Abba.  I needed my Daddy.

Arguments

I don’t like arguing.  I really don’t.  My mind is always bent toward reconciling and unifying, and my heart detests conflict.  Arguments don’t satisfy any part of me.

It is difficult sometimes that the ideas I think about most deeply and want to explore are ones that seem inevitably to go toward conflict.  The big, hard questions about who we are as human people and why we are here engender so many arguments, so much conflict.  So many opinions and opinions about opinions.

It’s tempting to just be rational about faith, and many people stick there, and it leads to even more arguments.  Because we can’t be rational about faith, or anyway we can’t be merely rational about it.  I think the deepest beliefs inside most human people are made on emotional and relational bases, and many never pull those out to examine or evaluate them rationally.  It’s a hard, scary thing to do.  So much easier not to, and the culture I live inside is full of distractions to make it easier.

I read and briefly talked in a conversation a couple of weeks ago about people-origins, why people are the way they are.  It baffles me that I’ve got good friends, really smart people, who look at humanity and don’t see intention and design.  I find the idea that we are here by chance incomprehensible.  I see and experience the principles of design, in my own hands — and so many of my good friends do the same, and go even deeper in exploring and working with those principles, but do not draw them out to the conclusions that I reach.  That the most complicated objects require the utmost skill, design and intention; that I myself am an object in the world, far more complex than any human-made thing around me, and so I am either the product of a much higher level of design and intention, or else the principle must at some point utterly reverse itself.  To me this is thoroughly rational and clear; why isn’t it just obvious to everyone?

Am I right, in my “thoroughly rational” conclusion?  I dunno.  Does my heart trump my brain?  Would I be able to tell if it did?

Are they wrong, my very smart friends who disagree with me about origins and principles, faith and reason and reasons?  Where do all of their diverse beliefs come from, all of their individual experiences of family and friends and reading and teaching and living and hurting?  What do I really know, in the face of any of it?

I don’t like arguments.  I hate disagreement.  It’s a strange thing, that so many people who love and support me in writing stuff, utterly disagree with so much that I believe.  I find that to be very, very strange, and hard to reconcile. Because I hate arguing, but I cannot honestly say every belief is equal.  I don’t think that’s true.  I do say every human has their own right to choose what to believe.  But I don’t think every possible such choice is equal.

If I think it matters, does it behoove me to talk and write about that?  Even when so often, I feel like I’m swimming upstream?  Even when it courts the disagreement that I hate?

If I believe something is important, but I refuse (consciously or not) to talk about it, at what point must I recognize that I’m just plain acting cowardly?

I really hate arguments.

A coward’s dilemma

This week I went to visit a seminary I really like.  I think it could be a good place to join.

I hoped visiting in person again would help me discover if I really am meant to pursue more education.  But I don’t find myself any clearer in my mind or feelings.  I’m just as ambivalent as ever.

The fact here (and it’s an ugly fact) is that I don’t want the responsibility of making the choice.  It’s a big, hard decision with a lot of practical ramifications, and I want to know ahead of time how it will turn out.  I want to know if I’m supposed to do it or not, and I want someone else to make that determination.  I don’t want to assume the risk alone.  I don’t want to assume the risk at all.

What does God think of this seminary idea?  He’s the only one with real authority over me at this stage to say yes or no.  But I don’t hear him saying anything at all.

Do I really believe in that “I will never leave you or forsake you” nonsense he wrote into his book?  If it really stretched far enough to cover the possible screwing-up of big, hard decisions, would that finally give me the freedom to move?

Little-girl me thought that screwing up meant losing love and approval.  Can grown-up me be brave enough to risk it?  In the hope that she was wrong?

Carrying your cross (daily)

Last week my friend Lisa wrote some thoughtful things about what it means to “carry your cross,” from Mark 8:34.  I agree with her (and recommend you go read what she says, it’s worth it).  But I had a niggle.  It felt like something was missing.

I finally tracked it down to Luke’s gospel.  Matthew and Mark both read “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  (Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34)  But Luke says they must “take up their cross daily and follow me.”  (Luke 9:23, emphasis mine.)  That word “daily” changes things.  What is Luke getting at that Matthew and Mark aren’t?

I’m thinking about it this way:  Jesus himself only carried a literal, actual cross on one day of his life.  By no means did he carry a real cross daily, nor ask anyone else to.  On every other day of his life and ministry, Jesus’ “cross” was as metaphorical as it is for any of us.  It was the deliberate choice to serve God instead of suit himself, whatever it took.  A day-by-day consideration of what his Father wanted him to do, and what he needed to give up in order to do it.  Look again at his whole statement:

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”

Deny themselves.  This is the nature of the daily “cross” for us, and using the cross as a metaphor makes it clear how hard it can be.  There are days on which the denial of self will mean death — death of hopes or dreams.  Death of identity.  Death of relationships.  Death of plans.  It means we must be willing to face the incontrovertible end of things we hold important, up to and including the loss of our own lives.  For some people, on a handful of very terrible days, that will be the real choice and cost of following Jesus.

Jesus draws a hard, hard picture of discipleship.  Yet he doesn't ask anything of us which he didn't also face, and he asks it of us for the same reasons he faced it — to pay a high price, in order to receive a great reward.

It helps me a little to remember that when Jesus carried a real cross, he didn't carry it all by himself.  On that very terrible day, someone else stepped in when Jesus fell and hauled his cross when he couldn't.  We have to be willing to carry our crosses, we have to do it, but when we fall down (and sooner or later, we always fall down) we won’t be left on our own.  Jesus will step in to carry our impossible crosses, and sometimes I think he just picks us up and carries us along too.

Facefull of cat

“I love them dearly, but catlessness is an attractive prospect sometimes. She’s started sleeping on my head, quite literally. If I move, she takes more pillow; when I turn over, I get a facefull of cat.”

My Ravelry community was discussing cats, as happens fairly often (there’s a high percentage of cat owners among them).  My friend Sarah said the above, in the middle of a post about how her cats are getting more vocal and demanding in their elder years.

It made me stop and think hard.  I know how much Sarah loves her family, which includes her cats, and likewise for all the other people who also chatted about their pet annoyances (not only cats, other animals have their own foibles and difficulties).  It seems to me there’s a strong, practical metaphor for love here, the limits of one’s love.  Because in order to engage in any kind of relationship involving love, eventually you’re going to have a “facefull of” something.

Want pets?  They’re not at all shy about their demands, mostly.  At some point you’re going to end up with a facefull of fur, or mess, or inconvenience, or expense.  At different points, you’ll have facefulls of all of them.

Want kids?  I’ve watched my brothers both start to raise kids, from the sideline as a goofy aunt.  Kids and their needs are always in your face, if you’re a good parent.  They’re not shy either about demanding stuff.

Want a spouse?  Want a facefull of someone else really deeply inside your business?  Want a facefull of someone when you just don’t want to deal with anyone?  That goes the same for any kind of really close relationship.  If you want a really dear friendship or partnership of any kind, at some point you’re going to have a facefull of something unpleasant, something you really don’t want to deal with in the moment it comes.

Even doing some kinds of work — hard work, good work, work intended to create or redeem.  Great work is always up in your face, if it’s really great work.  You’re not the one in charge, especially not of creative work.  You’re there to serve, sunshine.  You’re there to do the hard parts, so a new thing can come into being.  That only happens out of love.

There are redeeming parts to all of these situations, or else they would never happen.  Love is (apparently) worth it, for those people willing to put up with having facefulls of stuff.  But the compensations don’t negate the unpleasant parts.  Maybe they make up for them; maybe, sometimes, a real love can even transform the unpleasant things, turn them into something one can find joy in, if not happiness.  But you can’t have that on the way in.  At the beginning, you’re just going to be confronted with facefulls of stuff you don’t want.  So it becomes a real limiter on love, a hard and practical one.  Whatever you’re willing to deal with having a facefull of, that’s what you can come to love.

I haven’t finished thinking about this yet, neither the general principle or the personal implications.  Because, of course, it’s personal.  Do I want to love and be loved?  Then what am I willing to have a facefull of?