Who’s Driving The Bus?

I’ve had something come up in a LOT of conversations lately – both professional and social, so I get this sense that maybe, just maybe it would be a good thing to talk about.

blur-book-girl-373465And because you know I like to make everything about me, I’m going to start with a story. I’ve been a little low in the last month (mentioned it a few times, I know, experimenting with vulnerable transparency – how am I doing?). There have been days when it just feels like a cloud in the sky – a partly to mostly sunny day. I’m still doing most of my things – maybe a little less social, maybe a little more tired, a little more inclined to pick up a book than have a conversation – you know kind of cloudy. Other days have been this swell mix of medical woes and misery that have been full on incapacitating storm conditions – like when all the power is out and you can’t leave the neighborhood, except without the nice part where you discover that taking a break from social media is a good thing.

Storm conditions when it is very clear that none of the things you planned yesterday are going to happen, and you can’t really remember what they were anyway. The ones you kind of remember seem stupid and you feel too sick to do anything about something that seems stupid. Yeah, like that. You’re down to one flashlight with batteries and into the canned goods. THAT kind of bad day.

Mercifully, it seems that both the physical and the emotional aspects of the storm are easing, and that has been an incremental kind of thing, each day finding one more battery, remembering the granola bar I hid for emergencies, reconnecting with one really good thing I wanted to do and feeling its importance deeply. And as I make this transition, I wonder about the difference between these two states. Some of it was purely physical. I won’t go into details, but it seems that everything that bothers me in a low-level chronic kind of way decided to show up at once at higher-levels. It’s been really fun. And the physical stuff certainly fed the emotional component. It’s hard to stay optimistic when your body is basically giving you the finger (and yes, that’s an intended pun for those familiar with my arthritic hands). It’s hard not to let your whole outlook be determined by your physical reality. And so, I gave up the keys.

A few weeks ago I decided to let my discomfort, my frustration, my pain, and my pessimism drive the bus. “I quit. Here you go. You do it. This is too hard. I’m too tired and I feel like I’m losing this battle, so I forfeit. You drive.”

This was not a conscious decision. And let me be clear. I’m not just talking about surrendering to feeling bad, because I think that’s necessary. I think all of those feelings need to be felt, honored, seen, heard – all of it. But that’s not the same thing as letting them drive.

In her book Big Magic, Liz Gilbert describes how fear can totally inhibit the creative process. Her remedy is to imagine that fear has a seat in the car of your process, but it does not get to drive. Others have expanded on this idea. A 5th grade art teacher worked with her students to create a painted chair that holds all of the fear while they do their work. I have a chair in my office that is designated the fear chair. I send fear there when I have something big and important that I really want to get done. She doesn’t have to leave the room. I hear her. I know she’s there, but she doesn’t get to make the decisions because if she does, I won’t do any of the amazing things that I am here to do.

We can all agree, I think, that fear is something that we sometimes need to put in a chair. What I think we’re not as clear on is the difference between putting something in a chair and stuffing it way down deep (think passenger seat instead of glove box). What I think we’re not as clear on is the kind of route that holding two disparate feelings and opinions sometimes requires. I also just don’t think we pay attention to what part of us is holding the keys. They just get tossed around willy-nilly like a hot potato and whoever has them when it’s time to move, well, that determines what happens next.

abandoned-automobile-broken-53161For me this month it was disappointment, discouragement, general darkness. For so many others it’s fear. And fear drives that car in some really strange ways. Fear can decided to just park it because it’s a big world out there. Fear can decide to give us lots of reasons to do sub-par work so we can blame our lack of progress on something other than finding out if we’re really up to the task. Fear can make us worry so much about what’s coming down the road that we miss seeing the horses running in the field right next to us. Fear is a shitty driver. Disappointment, discouragement, and general darkness really aren’t so great either.

We can have all of those feelings. We can feel them, honor them, notice them, respect them, have conversations with them. We can allow them to inhabit us, feel them in our bodies, notice what they are. We can do all of these things without letting them drive. When we feel them in the quiet, when we honor them but don’t make them all of us, don’t make them everything, we can hear that at any given moment, there is more, maybe a small still voice, maybe just a deep breath waiting to be taken. There is more and the way clear, the road forward will be there, the route will unfold. We don’t need to let fear drive just so we have somewhere to go.

XO,

julia

The Secret to Belonging

Thirty-one years ago I was deep in the throes of a big decision. I was in the middle of choosing where to go to college. My father was REALLY REALLY excited about the fact that I was getting ready for this step, I suspect at least in part because I was the last of four that he had promised financial support for; his light at the end of the financial obligation tunnel. As part of his excitement, a journey was planned. We would take a tour of some of the top contenders for my attendance. He and my stepmom would drive me all over the place so I could see some of these places in person rather than just rely on the glossy pics (in brochure form because there were no websites yet – WHAT?!).

Dad’s excitement was through the roof. The poor man wanted to see me excited about college so badly. He also wanted to return himself, something I thought he was joking about but I now know he actually did desire and was just waiting to need to make a little less money. We hopped in the car, bags packed for a several day sojourn. I don’t remember how we chose the places we would actually visit in person. I do know that we decided we would visit a great aunt as part of the trip and that at some point her location became part of the calculus, but I’m sure it wasn’t the only factor.

activity-adventure-blur-297642A route was planned. Bags were packed. We hopped in an early model SUV and headed out for the great unknown, Dad’s enthusiasm erupting in pronouncements about the wonders of fast food (he was serious) and the joy of the open road. Looking back now I think it sounds really fun. But I was 17, and he was driving me crazy. I solemnly donned the headphones attached to a Discman that Dad had thoughtfully brought along (it played CDs and you could take it with you – gently). Barbara Streisand’s Broadway album stood between me and the barrage of excitement.

We visited schools. We visited private schools (women in pearls and skirts on Monday morning, no I’m not making that up). We visited public schools (SO big, so many people). We drove past the school in NYC that I wanted to see and Dad pointed at the jersey wall with graffiti all over it: “There it is. There’s New York; isn’t it beautiful?” Not his finest moment, but understandable given a whole separate story that is for another time. We toured campuses and asked questions (at least he did). I just kept feeling my way through. “Nope, I don’t feel right here. Nope, not here either. I wouldn’t fit in here. I clearly don’t belong there.” The whole trip was pretty disheartening for me, but allowed Dad to choose his preferred school.

After that trip I was invited to visit a small liberal arts college for a weekend. I would stay in a dorm with a host student, get to see campus life through her experience, really get the feel for the place. I excitedly signed up for the weekend. And when I went to this school, this historic institution that espoused all of my values AND was a great school for music on top of everything else, I looked around and thought: “I think I could fit in here.” And then I kept looking around. And over the weekend a sense of unease developed. I noticed that here at this liberal bastion, there was an overwhelming sameness. It was a sameness that I enjoyed more, but a sameness nonetheless. I joked when I got home that I just KNEW someone had penny loafers in their closet that they were too afraid to wear.

All of this searching for a place where I could belong ended up with me feeling pretty sure there was no place that I could belong. Ultimately the choice about college had a lot more to do with my father than with me. And I sort of spreadsheeted my way through it rather than feeling that I knew where I wanted or needed to be.

The truth was that what I was seeking so desperately was a place where I felt accepted, a place where I felt like I belonged. I wanted to fit in and still be myself AND (because I am complex) I wanted to know that I could change and STILL fit in and be myself. I was looking for some kind of super flexible wildly accommodating Nirvana as an education experience. I had a great college experience, but it wasn’t that. And more importantly it didn’t teach me the thing that I most needed to know then and for many years after.

I didn’t know that I would never find a place that felt like belonging until I allowed it. I would never find a place where I believed I fit in until I was able to know and accept the parts of me that felt so ill-suited for so many corners of my world. I would never find a group of people in which everything I thought or did or said would be okay – like ever – and that that would be alright because I could still know I was okay. I just kept looking for the right room to be in instead of just deciding I was already right wherever I was.

backlit-dawn-foggy-697243It was a mistake I made in other arenas, and I suspect I still do it from time to time, forgetting that I really am okay, pretty wonderful in fact, regardless of my reception in a particular space – digital or otherwise. I start to seek out that external validation, that confirmation, the folks who seem most like me. And that’s okay. It’s good to have a home to return to when we are weary and depleted, a place to fill our cups so we can take all of the best of who we are out into those larger spaces so we can be the lighthouses for everyone who’s still out there searching for the right place.

If that’s you, if you keep opening doors, trying to find that room, I want to tell you something.

You are okay.

You are enough.

You are, in fact, quite miraculous.

And I love you.

XO,

j

When We Start to Fall

Last night we watched an episode of Planet Earth II with the kids. If you’ve not seen it, I highly recommend. It’s a series by the BBC, narrated by David Attenborough, and has some incredible footage of animals doing their thing. Really stunning.

Last night’s episode on mountains featured a group of Nubian ibex. I’m going to go with ibex as the plural of ibex because I can’t bear to say ibexes. I hope I’m right because I really should be. In any event, the point is not about the word, the point is about the animal.

Juvenile_Nubian_ibex_(50822)The sequence showed how these ibex live at altitudes of about 8,000 feet on cliffs that offer little in the way of easy travel. They are safe from predators at those heights, but need to descend to get water, and that’s where things get hairy, especially for the ibex kids. We were on the edge of our seats watching a red fox stalk the ibex kids as they nervously and inexpertly navigated the craggy cliff face. If they moved to safer ground they were at risk of being caught by the fox. Climbing further up moved them away from the water that was their goal and from the parents in the herd who waited for them on the bottom (a little Mom judging there on my part I confess).

The ibex kids ran just far enough for safety and then found themselves cornered in a spot where the next ledge down was 30 feet below and the fox was working his way up to them. And they began to slip, lose their footing. We were all holding our breath (except for my son who had his fingers in his ears, his eyes closed and was chanting: “Tell me when it’s over. Tell me when it’s over.”).

And then you know what those ibex kids did? Are you ready for it? Just as they were starting to slip and it looked as though death was certain in one way or another… they leapt. They jumped right into that 30 foot space and flew down to the ground. They were so young that they likely hadn’t used their ibex jumping skills yet, but on this day, they got the lesson swiftly. They felt themselves falling. They felt themselves in peril. They were terrified (the noises made this clear), so they turned to instinct and they jumped.

And they made it!!! We all cheered as they jumped again and again and evaded the fox and caught up with the herd. Go baby ibex!!!

It got me to thinking about the amount of time I’ve spent on those rocks. When I’ve backed myself into a corner through inexperience or uncertainty and I look around only to find that it seems all of my possible roads are full of peril. I look around and see only impossibility. I look around and become paralyzed, bleating and wishing for a wiser human to save me. Paralyzed by my fear. Paralyzed by my perception of inexperience. Paralyzed by all of the what ifs. So much time and suffering on those rocks.

And then I think about the times I leapt.

Twelve years ago Scot and I were on year 6 of our “infertility journey.” I almost threw up in my mouth saying that. We seem to think if we attach “journey” to words describing a shitty time in our lives it will be less awful. That may work for some people – not so much for me. At any rate, we had pretty much given up because our previous attempts had been so heartbreaking and, in one instance, nearly lethal (that’s a story for another day).

We were considering adoption (everyone referred to this as “just,” as in why don’t you “just” adopt – as though that is a small thing, again a story for another day) and we were also wondering just being the aunt and uncle who travel a lot and give great gifts. And it made for a great story. Even now, that’s a life story I can get down with. But I didn’t really buy it. I wanted to be a Mom, and I wanted to have kids with Scot. The struggle that we went through to make that happen was dreadful. And one New Year’s Eve, when I’d had too much to drink and was sitting with a trusted friend, I told her I was standing on the rocks. I confessed that my great travel and gift-giving plan wasn’t working for my heart. I admitted what I really wanted and cried because it seemed impossible.

And she said the thing that my own instinct was no longer able to say: “What if you just try one more time?” We talked about a doctor she had heard of, a miracle worker. To be honest, I’m not sure exactly how things went after that, because it’s all a bit of a blur and it is a blur because I leapt. I stopped letting my fear STOP ME and put myself in the hands of the miracle worker. I put all of my learning into action and made the rest of my life work along with this final attempt. I minimized my stress. I even changed jobs in order to do that. I did the whole thing.

In this case, my leap got me the result I wanted, twice over. I have 11 year old twins who are most definitely my and my husband’s kids. But the point here isn’t really that my dream came true. Because this dream, of being parents, has perils of its own as so many of you know.

child-costume-fairy-127968The point about the leap is that it ended the self-imposed torture of standing on the rocks and trembling in indecision. Even if our final attempt had failed, I think I would have felt better having finally gone to the miracle worker people were talking about. I would have felt like I had given it my all and that I needed to check in to see if there was a new dream I could sink my teeth into. It was the sitting on that rock that was so, so terrible. And my guts knew I wasn’t ready to give up, which would have been a perfectly acceptable choice really – a leap of it’s own in releasing that desire in favor of building something new.

So I guess I’m just wondering how sure your footing is these days. Do you feel yourself slipping? Do you feel like you’re on the rock? What would a leap look like for you? I’d love to help you fly.

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Sometimes You Need a Little Distance

Years ago I was teaching at a charter school in Washington, DC. The school was struggling with some powerful challenges and I was not very good at keeping my head down and focusing solely on my own business. As a result, the stress was really taking its toll. I was beginning to have physical symptoms from my stress and was averaging about 5 hours of sleep per night.

The lack of good sleep just made my inability to manage my stress worse, increased my reliance on caffeine to wake up and wine to slow down, which interfered with my sleep. It was a vicious cycle. I began to have heart palpitations from the stress. And then my fertility doctor said something that really shook me: “There is no way you will get pregnant like this. You’re going to have to change something.”

When the problem is unsolvableI was completely freaked out. We had been trying to have children for almost 7 years and had identified this as our very LAST attempt. If this didn’t work (there was also adoption paperwork in progress), we said, we would just be the aunt and uncle who traveled a lot and gave great gifts (it was a really good plan). We really wanted to be parents. And I was incapable of seeing or thinking a way out of my problem.

I was talking it over with my Dad one day, as I often did, and he asked if there wasn’t some way I could continue to work, but just not be quite so involved, if I couldn’t have a little more distance between me and my students, between me and the administration, between me and the neighborhood violence (he only knew about some of that and would have had other things to say had he known about all of it), between me and the world so that I could continue to teach without it bleeding into everything else. I’m pretty sure I rolled my eyes at him (we were on the phone) and said: “Yeah, Dad, I’m great at that.”

As is so often the case, the wisdom we get from our elders (maybe especially from our parents) takes a while to really sink in. It has to marinate, and we have to hear it from at least 12 other sources, with three of them being deemed infinitely more in touch with our circumstances. I heard it. I read it. I saw it in action, this “getting a little distance” idea. It turns out that, as has all too often been the case, my Dad was exactly right. I DID just need a little distance. I needed a little distance from all of it.

I needed to be able to be involved in a pursuit and not be consumed by it. I needed to be able to experience mishaps and mistakes made by other professionals and not feel the need to address it at the systemic level EVERY TIME with FERVOR and OUTRAGE. I needed to be able to be aware of my students’ academic and personal struggles and not stay awake all night wondering if they’d made it home safely or if their parent had returned or if they would show up to school the next day. I needed to be able to interact with the world without reacting to it ALL OF THE TIME. I needed a little distance. At the time I got the distance I needed mentally and physically by leaving my job. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made.

Since then, I’ve learned how to get a little distance without changing my circumstances. It took a long time. Some of it was maturing and mellowing, but the majority of it was a concerted effort on my part to learn to manage my mind a bit, to be able to watch how I think and how I feel, to feel compassion for myself when I was struggling and hurting, but to not be consumed by that experience. I learned how to do that, but I still struggle. I still have to remind myself that the things that I think and feel are leaves floating by on a stream and I can just allow them and then choose how to act rather than reacting. I still have to remind myself that I am in charge in there.

I wonder, when I think about this skill set that I’ve developed, how the last twenty years might have been different had I gotten on that lesson a little sooner. I sift through decisions that I might have made differently, not with regret, but with curiosity, as though I’m watching a movie and smiling a little at the inexperience of the heroine.

Distance Doesn't Mean ColdnessWhat’s done is done, as they say. What I know for sure is that the decisions that I’ve made since I’ve been able to get a little distance have all felt wholly different, deeply satisfying. I feared that if I wasn’t so reactive it would mean my heart wasn’t in it, but I think I had it backwards. When I’m not so reactive, my chattering monkey brain gets sidelined and makes room for my heart, for the core of me that’s connected to the core of all of you, the stillness and the peace that lives in the knowledge that we are all but a part and that each moment is ours to witness. When I get a little distance, I can choose peace and love and integrity. And boy does that feel good. Thanks Dad. I miss you.