Keeping the Beast at Bay

My friend Bridget has a mentor who says, “Being a person is hard.”  That seems truer the older I get. It takes rather more to just live one’s life than we ever understood in the early years and occasionally it feels like just too much to bear. And you can be sure if you are feeling that way so is nearly everyone you know. At church we pray in a circle either silently or out loud and I was surprised last week to hear the matriarch of a lovely, perfect-seeming family speak up asking God to help struggling family members. It seems everyone is going through something themselves or worried about the struggles of someone they love.

For me right now that means spending a lot of time figuring out why a break up from a man who very clearly was not right for me has left me so broken. The thing about removing something from the landscape of your life is that it creates space. This can be both good and bad. The space can allow other good things to come in and fill it up, but it can also just sit there being all space-like and empty. And empty space is not really my strong suit.

I have been studying meditation, which is to say trying very hard to get my busy brain and body to just STOP occasionally and be still for, say, 15 solid minutes, for the past 10 years. It was only when I went on retreat in Washington state last year that I had a mini-breakthrough and realized that I could, in fact, access a quiet and still place within me when I needed to. Also, that it was probably a very good idea to do so regularly, whether I actually WANTED to or not. And since then I have tried much harder to get myself on the cushion, although there are many days that “I’m too busy now I’ll do it right after______” wins out.

At the meditation retreat the leader told a story about being very low at one point and calling out “help!” and then laughing at herself and saying, “Who do you think you’re talking to?” To me the answer there was obvious; she was talking to God or the universe or the energy field or whatever she accepts as her higher power, some force outside of herself that provides comfort and help and guidance. But she is a Buddhist nun and does not believe in a higher power per se. She believes that everything we need exists right within us and all we need to do is access it, provide the space so the answers, the comfort, the helpful idea will emerge.

I have a book club friend who refers to herself as a “cafeteria Catholic”. No offense, but really what other kind could you BE?! There is so much clap trap, so much guilt-producing, you are pond scum stuff running around in Catholicism that you have to question the sanity of anyone who drinks the entire glass of Kool-Aid. So Liz goes through the line and selects the parts that she can live with: God—for sure, Jesus-yup, 10 commandments—probably, sex only to procreate—uh NO!, women as second-class church citizens—definitely not.

Well I am a cafeteria interfaith believer. I believe there is one God, that He is all about love, that he created us and wants the very best for us, but loves us enough to let us live our crazy little lives and mess up all over the place. Alyssa asked last night if I picture some “old man in the sky” and of course I do. I can’t help it. The image of God that resonates with me the most is that of loving parent and so I picture him in the image of a super kind dad, someplace between Fred Rogers and Ben Cartwright from Bonanza with a sprinkling of Robert Young from “Father Knows Best” and Bill Cosby before all the dirt came out. I like knowing he’s there. I like thinking he is so big he can watch out for me and the other 3 billion people here and all the ETs on other planets and galaxies too. And I believe he sent Jesus in a sincere but only marginally successful attempt to show us how to be humans. But I also love the meditation aspect of Buddhism and the moving meditation aspect of yoga. And I love the rituals and tribal affiliation of Judaism and, living where I do, have often longed to be part of all that. Most of all I believe that we are all worshiping, longing for, believing in the same God and that it doesn’t matter AT ALL how we get to him or her or it. There are people in my world, people I love very much, who simply cannot accept the concept of God. I respect their right to believe as they wish, but it does make my heart ache a bit to think of them living their lives without the comfort of knowing that at some point you really can just lay your troubles down and ask someone else to carry them for a while, so you can rest. Because doing that may get you through some storms. And life will send storms. That’s a given.

I nearly did a jig when a recent Sunday New York Times contained an article by an expert in happiness who debunked the whole “going inward” thing as the answer. She basically said meditation was great and had many health benefits, but that the real path to happiness consisted of having other people in your life. Interpersonal relationships have time and time again been shown in research studies to be the key to a happy, rewarding and longer life. Some people find that through work, others through volunteering and a few lucky ones through marriage and family life, but wherever you find them we all need PEOPLE. Cue the Barbara Streisand song.

So as I sit in my little post-break up funk, I am embarrassed to realize that I don’t miss John much at all. In fact, it is a relief to stop trying so hard to get the love and affection and attention from him that I craved. It is a relief to not have to rearrange my face upon every meeting with him so as not to look disappointed at how indifferent he seemed to my presence. It is a relief to spend time in my cozy wee house in front of the fire with a good book instead of in a Barco-lounger in his cold dark basement watching golf on TV. What I miss is having SOMEONE, feeling connected (however loosely) to someone who cares about the minutiae of your day, who might want to go to a movie Saturday night, who might hang around long enough to wipe off the drool when you get really old. But those are not sufficient reasons to make a life with the wrong partner. And while I consider the possibility of still perhaps finding the right one, I am taking comfort in the following:

  1. God. I know he exists. I know he loves me. I know I am never alone because he is always with me.
  2. Heaven. It may be stupid and childlike, but I have always believed in heaven and after visiting the psychic and hearing directly from my departed relatives I am more convinced than ever. I must be honest and say that there are days when I would rather be there than here because it sounds pretty great and Tom and my parents and some friends I love are already there making me a Welcome to Heaven sign, but I still have things to learn and some work to do before I go so for now I will just take comfort in knowing it is there waiting. And feeling the ongoing love of my personal angels, the people I hold so dear, a love that transcends time and space and death is a beautiful, comforting thing.
  3. Quiet. We live in a noisy world. A single friend just confessed that turning off the TV at night is the hardest part of her day because she relies on it for company. I ditched TV 5 years ago and was only this month tempted to get it back, so I could fill a couple empty mornings with Kelly and Ryan. But I know better. I know that if I can just embrace the quiet, spend time reading and writing and meditating, some clarity will break through. This would not happen while listening to celebrity interviews.
  4. Outreach. My mom always said the best way to beat your own blues was to do something nice for someone else. I now wonder if she might have been deeply depressed because she seemed to ALWAYS be doing something nice for someone else. I have set out to try to do one small thing every day that is not about me. Send a card to someone, drop off surprise flowers, take a hike with a sad friend, bring dinner to a neighbor having a health crisis, offer rides to another in the same boat. And I am pondering ways I can spend one of my free mornings volunteering with the homeless or refugees or kids—not sure exactly what yet, but something that takes me out of my own life and makes me appreciate it all at once.
  5. People. I don’t always like them, but I need them. I seem a little standoffish so most contact has to be self-generated, but I‘m ok with that. My book club is coming here next week, I offered to host poetry circle in December, I agreed to go to a meditation half day with a friend on Saturday. I am trying to be sure I am out in the world in some way every day—teaching, playing pickleball, meeting friends for lunch or coffee, going to church and staying in closer touch with my dearest loved ones who sometimes get neglected when life is full and rosy. An adult piano student made my day when she told me that coming to my house for her lesson was the highlight of her week. If I can really do that for someone just by teaching them to play the piano I am glad. And from the looks on the faces of the toddler moms when I explained that we would be on hiatus from music class until January, I know that they are getting something important out of those classes too—mostly a chance to get out of the house and commune with other moms, but I am so happy to be able to provide that connection, a respite from the tedium of being housebound with tiny people. And I have joined a Master Mind group sponsored by the piano method I teach where 10 of us basically listen to our individual challenges in teaching and life and help keep each other accountable to implement the changes we know will help. They are strangers, but exceptionally cool ones and being in their presence (even via Skype) always makes me feel better.

 

  1. Music. I get to spend my working hours with it, but that is different than having a personal connection. Today I found a list of 30 songs people on the website The Mighty say help them in low periods. Most of them were too loud and rocky for me, but I found a couple winners and downloaded them in my new Apple Music account. I am dragged kicking and screaming into all technological advances, but this thing is the bomb and my iPhone speakers are so good that listening to songs just on my phone works fine. And I have started spending more time at the piano, practicing old songs, learning some new ones and noodling around on compositions.

 

  1. Creativity. I am only now fully embracing the fact that I need to create stuff in order to be happy. It doesn’t much matter what it is. This week I made my second batch of waxed paper leaf collages because I could not resist the amazing leaves I passed on my walk. And a couple weeks ago I dug out the water colors because my stand of coleus was crying out to be painted! And there is poetry and blogging and composing ditties on piano and ukulele. All of those feed my soul and it deserves a little nourishment, even in sad times. Especially in sad times!

 

  1. Hope. A therapist once told me that what Franny needed most from me at a low point in her life was hope. She needed me to believe and clearly communicate that she would get better, that the dark days would pass, and she would find a bright and happy future. I told her I didn’t really have any hope to spare and she said, “Find some.” After John and I broke up I told a friend that I was now resigned to dying alone in a snow drift up north. She immediately squashed that idea with her own image of my future– meeting some great musician guy at the music studio her husband is planning to open. This quick exchange allowed me to reset my crystal ball, to inch the needle from despair toward hope. That’s something we can all do for others. Help them see past the fog and gloom to the sunshine just ahead. The greatest words ever spoken might be, “this too shall pass” because they are so true. This means that both the highs and lows are temporary, but that’s ok for it is what makes life so full and rich and interesting. You never really know what’s coming next.

 

So bring it on, life. I will cry a little more in my beer, but then will be about the business of living, doing the best I can to craft a life that leaves the world an inch or two better than when I interrupted my family’s viewing of a football game one Saturday in October 1954 by being born. I’m an inveterate planner, but I get that I’m not really in control. It will be fun to see what’s around the corner and down the road. We have to give two-word check-ins at the start of our Master Mind calls. Today mine would be SCARED and EXCITED.

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