A quiet refrain: why wasting time matters

This morning I had some thoughts about boredom. I’m reading a book by a Buddhist nun, as one does, and in it she speaks of the need to refrain. Refraining is the first step on the path of mindfulness. She says this:

“Refraining–not habitually acting out impulsively–has something to do with giving up entertainment mentality. Through refraining, we see there is something between the arising of the craving–or the lonliness or the aggresion or whatever it might be–and whatever action we take as a result. There is something there in us that we don’t want to experience, and we never do experience, because we’re so quick to act.”

Hi, I’m Dana, and I’m a habitual numb-er and self-distract-er.

This is something I have become more mindful of lately, my penchant for distraction. Honestly, I think it’s something we all do without really thinking about it – which is why it’s habitual. For myself, this happens for at least two reasons. The first is that we live in a productivity driven culture. Empty time is an anathema. In fact, we are consistently guilty of double-booking, over-scheduling and undervaluing rest and relaxation. Ask the next ten people you know how they are and at least six of them will respond with “busy.”

We check our phones when we wait in line.
If we’re out to eat, the news and at least one sporting event plays in the background.
Most world events that happened more than twelve hours ago are barely relevant.

We are as tuned in, turned on, active and informed as any people have ever been anywhere. It makes us feel so terribly important to be so.

We fill time because culture expects it. If we aren’t producing something, we are wasting time. We’ve elevated busy to a status symbol. I’m not pointing fingers. I am very much talking about me.

Lately though, I’m trying to shift my focus by refraining for a moment in the margin, that space between what I am doing now and what I intend to do next. I pause. I consider. And sometimes, if the thing I’m reaching for will only distract from the present, I let it go.  I experience boredom in grocery lines. Sometimes I even eat a meal with no noise and no book. Just me and food. I don’t even invite the monkey brain (sometimes she shows up anyway).

The second reason I think we fill our time so completely is because we are afraid to who we might find in the silence. As a whole, I don’t believe we like ourselves very much. Whether it’s society telling us we don’t measure up to the latest trending standard, or religious institutions convincing us of inherent evil, we just don’t experience in a very self-compassionate existence. The more consciously I create margin in my life, the more I hear the self-destructive messages the world sends us echoing around in my head. I think it’s killing us; I know it was killing me.

When I make space in time, in my head, in my soul, I can replace those toxic messages with something real and valuable and loving. I can finally hear other, more beautiful but less clamorous messages writ on my soul in a deeper, quieter language, the one the world tries so hard to drown out.

I’m thinking about all of these things in relation to my summer break. Honestly, I’ve tried to convince myself it’s a selfish, lazy, foolish endeavor. A waste of time. But that isn’t the truest message, it’s simply the loudest. It’s the message the gods of productivity and self-loathing would have me believe. The true message is that my soul is created by love, to love and for love. My worth is based not in what I produce, but because of whose I am. I don’t have to fill time to matter.  I don’t have to be afraid of what I will find inside of myself, and I don’t have to prove it to anyone by working hard. Even if I’m bored, uncertain and unproductive, there is beauty and worth to experience.

I will refrain, and in that space, find peace.

Walking through Anxiety; Getting through when I cant get over

Several weeks ago, I shared part of my story in the main session of Celebrate Recovery. After I finished, someone came up to me and said, I’m so glad to hear you’re over everything now. My heart kind of stopped a little, and I gently said, I’m not over it. It gets better, but I’m not over it. Some things we don’t get over. We simply get through them and come out the other side different. Then we have to learn who we are all over again. That’s what I’m doing now. I thought about this interaction yesterday after yet another little attack from my friend, anxiety.

That makes two specific incidents in a weekish, after a month or more of no sign of anxiety at all. At first, it made me angry. I mean, I thought I was over it! But then I remembered this exchange and I considered what I knew about each episode. Both centered around areas where I still do not feel safe, where I probably am not going to be safe, but which I cannot entirely avoid either. Life is like that sometimes. Sometimes we have to look the shark in the mouth. Sometimes the best, safest, most important thing to do is to get as far away from the situation as possible. I’ve done that too, but in this specific instance, it isn’t called for.

If what I said about getting through a thing is true (and I believe it is) then I am on the right track. Some days I get through it better than others. Some days, I have to go places I would rather not, whether physically or mentally. For awhile, even that thought gave me anxiety. But now, I can assess a situation and realize it’s more likely that I will walk through it healthfully than anxiously. This is a win, a really, really big win.

But sometimes, well sometimes anxiety is going to be there. It’s going to grab me and choke me and tell me everyone is out to get me. But it happens infrequently enough that I am now saying What the actual junk! rather than Here we go again!  Friends, that is a win in my book. When anxiety is the outlier in my response pattern towards stressful situations, I am healing. I’ll take that.

And even though, yes, I had some episodes recently, they were just that, episodes. Instead of anxiety sending me home to climb into my bed and numb myself on netflix. I breathed (thank you meditation), stopping to examine the triggers.  I even identified what set me off rather than just triggering for no apparent reason. Then I was able to ride it out and have an otherwise normal day.

All of these things are very good things. Very, very, good things.

Maybe I had to shut out the world for several days, step outside for a few moments, stop and breathe on the corner a little while, but it’s getting better. I can’t remember the time I spent a whole day with the stone of anxiety sitting in my gut, pushing bile up my throat. I’m not retreating to bed to block out the world. I’m getting through it, making steps to come out the other side of this changed, with scars and new ways of understanding a place I once considered safe, a place I will never be able to just avoid.

Maybe I’m not going to get over this, and that’s ok.  But I am going to get through it. And I already like the person I’m learning to be on the other side. Take that.


Happy Birthday to the Man who loves

This morning I went to Kroger, early, before-early-service early. I had a few last minute things to grab for tonight’s special birthday dinner. While I was there it seemed every third person had to stop me and make sure I wished my Hunky happy birthday for them. People I didn’t even know asked me to pass on their well wishes.  Generally, I don’t enjoy shopping, but today’s trip made me smile and then laugh. I guarantee my Hunky hasn’t told anyone today is his birthday, and yet still people know and send their love.

That’s the kind of man I married. He makes people feel seen, heard and loved. Without agenda, he simply, genuinely cares about people, all people, everywhere. We’ve been married for two decades, and I see it everywhere we go. I’m married to a man whose heart is big enough to embrace the entire world, and isn’t afraid for people to know it.

When we spend a day in public, my girls play a game where they keep count of the people who stop for a hug or a hand shake or just to share a few words. Craig never forgets a name, or a face, or a story. Perhaps it’s the last one that’s the most important. He takes the time to hear someone’s story and he remembers the details.

It’s not just people “out there” either. Here at home, he sees, he hears, he remembers. Details and events that have long left my working memory he recalls in perfect detail. But he never uses these things against us, or to prove a point. Instead he uses them to elevate, to reflect and to constantly remind us how much we are loved. He loves in a way that makes people want to be around him simply to be reminded of our inherent worth.

When we left Florida, we weren’t allowed the opportunity to say goodbye to anyone. But once our severance period ended, a dear friend opened her home for a sort of long awaited farewell party. Most of that night is a blur to me now, but what I will never forget is that people literally LITERALLY filled every room and then out onto the porch, down the walk way and lined the sidewalk down the street, waiting, for a very long time, for their turn to receive a Craig hug. For hours and hours he hugged and listened and loved and cried.

For all my life, I will never forget what it is like to see in such a concentrated way how it affects everyone around you to be a person who loves well and fully.

If you’ve read any part of the last hundred days of writing, you know I’m a big, floundering, messed up human. I’m not certain that will ever change. But what balances me out is being deeply known and passionately loved. How true it is that kind of love covers over a multitude of sins. It certainly does for me.

Happy birthday to my love, my heart of hearts. The world is absolutely a better more beautiful place with you in it. I hope you never doubt that. And never forget your meaner, less forgiving half is more than happy to take on anyone who says otherwise.

Learning to let go; releasing resentment and control

This summer, it’s shaping up to be wet and muggy. Honestly, I hoped to be elsewhere by now. I’ve made no bones about how I feel about a deep south summer; they stink. (I promise this whole post is NOT a rant about summer.) But last night as I was journaling, when I answered the “What do you need let go of today?” question, I said, I need to let go of resentment over being here for summer.

I have to tell, staring at your honest unfiltered words on paper is a terribly humbling experience most days.

Friends, how much energy am I wasting over being pissed at summer for…well…being summer and for my lack of control over it? So much, apparently.

Which got me to thinking, how widespread is this issue for me? I expend so much concern and frustration over things I do not now, nor will I ever, have the power to influence or change. Global things like the weather, intimate things like failed relationships, family things like what if something bad happens to someone I love.

Yesterday, I shared about uncertainty, which seems to have unleashed a chain-reaction of insight. Not only do I try to distract myself from the discomfort of uncertainty, I actively try to reverse it. It’s like I’m bailing with a teacup after my rowboat was hit by a freighter. So much effort expended with less than zero possibility of affecting the outcome.

Maybe it’s obvious to everyone but me that this is why I really needed a period of hibernation. I can’t escape the daily deluge of crap that seems to threaten the existence of the entire planet. Most of which, I cannot control.  Raging against everything has depleted me utterly.

I must learn to let go.

Now I wish I could expound upon how I will go about all this letting go (a minimalist shouldn’t struggle with this so much, you would think). Unfortunately, I’m not sure how it will look. But I have to do this for my own well-being. I’m beginning to realize these internal seismic tremors aren’t just spiritual. They signal shifts that occur across every aspect of my life: relational, physical, emotional and spiritual. I can’t dismantle one and leave the others intact. Everyone’s along for the ride.

Fortunately, I believe in the saying, when the student is ready, the teacher appears. Having experienced this before, I believe I am already learning to let go, even before I knew why I was learning. Meditation, journaling, withdrawing from harmful places and situations are all tools of release. Even when I didn’t know why I needed them, I was practicing them.

So here I am, ready to tolerate summer (hey, it’s a stretch to ask me to embrace it), and lean into being exactly where I am for one more sweaty season. Even if it isn’t comfortable, it can still be very, very good. And I can learn to let go of what is not, without trying to fix it.

Leaning into Uncertainty: accepting the gift of this moment

If you were to look in my journal – a fate I’d not wish on anyone – you would see a frequent refrain. I wish I knew what is next. Nearly every day in some form or another, I express this desire to know, to know what’s next, to not feel so uncertain about…well, almost everything. What I have a tendency to forget, in fact what we as a culture try to whitewash continually, is the fact that there is very little that is certain. Cars crash. Parents age. Cancers grow. Jobs disappear. The list goes on and on. Although we invest our money and purchase life, car, health, dental, vision and pet insurance, we are still not immune catastrophe. Or at the very least, discomfort.

This kind of talk makes me the hit of every party.

I believe it’s this sense of uncertainty that is weighing so heavily on my soul lately. I’ve shared over the last couple months of writing that I am in a season of endings. While ending can be emotionally fraught, they are a natural part of life. We must have endings in order to have beginnings, but we resist the former and embrace the latter. Maybe it’s because of the emotions associated with endings: fear, anger, sorrow. Even the best ending is seldom entirely joyful. I have even protested myself that I am not sad about these endings, but when I say this, I am not being entirely true to myself. I am sad. But sorrow itself takes so many forms, the warmth of nostalgia, the darkness of grief, bitter tang of regret. Sadness is not the enemy we have been taught to believe.

It may be that I have mistakenly tried to distract myself from uncertainty by anticipating what’s next. Anticipation is one of my favorite emotions, allowing me to experience a wonderful thing many times before it occurs. This seems a much more enjoyable process than allowing a season of endings to take it’s allotted time. I pretend I have control by trying to force events, emotions, probability. Constantly erecting barricades of expectation only to be crushed beneath them when they crumble. In this way, I am my own worst enemy.

Withdrawing a bit from all the voices of the outside world, lovely and unlovely, is a way for me to ground myself in the present. Whether I feel joy or sorrow, whether or not I know what’s next, I can live this moment. I may not know what’s coming next, but I can decide what I will bring to the moment I inhabit. When I fight against uncertainty, I bring a combative, controlling presence. But when I embrace the unknown I bring peace both within and without. How can I resist conflict in the world when I create conflict within myself?

I can’t.

My task right now is to be present. Excruciatingly, vulnerably, joyously present. This moment and who I choose to be in it is the only certainty I get. Learning to accept this, to embrace  this miracle of now is the path I walk today. Whether the path is beautiful or wretched is entirely up to me.

Things falling apart is kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together and they fall apart, again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen. Room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy. -Pema Chodren

Hibernation Zone: When I can’t get no satisfaction

One of the things I love about our annual family trips to the beach is how very isolated we are. We stay offline, barely even taking phone calls or texts. We sometimes stay outdoors from sun-up to sundown. It’s like living in a safe, gentle bubble with only the wind and  the waves and one million books to keep us company. It really is my favorite time of year. This year I seem to be particularly anxious for it to arrive, I think it’s the hibernation factor. I feel the need to unplug (ironic, I know, as I say this online).

This week I’ve been particularly edgy (not that you’d notice- wink, wink). The political atmosphere is very hard for me to escape. I can’t find the balance between informed and sane. Actually, it’s sanity I truly struggle to find. It’s bleeding into all the areas of my life. I can’t, in good conscience, completely shut down, but even being informed leaves me feeling enraged and powerless.

Honestly, my general attitude about everything is dissatisfaction.

So what do I do when I’m cranky, and snappy and generally dissatisfied? I’m giving into my urge for hibernation.

It’s a long, holiday weekend so I won’t be torturing myself with guilt over pulling out of the information cyclone for awhile. Hopefully the fire hose wanes to a trickle for a week or so.  Either way, I won’t be around to see it. No news, no email, no social media. At least until I get grip on this mood.

I’m not leaving the house. I might love to be home slightly more than a normal person should. It’s not so much about the house, just the home part. Give me a day on the back deck with the dogs and some food and a stack of good books and I am a happy girl. Today I shopped for groceries for one billion years so now I get to hide away from the world until the food runs out again.

I plan to read until my eyeballs fall out, run until my lungs make me stop, meditate, listen to good music, smooch on my Hunky, and generally find my happy again. I know it’s in there. It just needs to wake up from hibernation. I’m coaxing it out with all my best moves.


Self-awareness to the Rescue: Recovery and Growth

Basically, yesterday was a wash, creatively speaking.

The good news is that self-awareness changes so much about how I process days like yesterday. I understand that I often fall prey to my own castles of expectation. I also don’t transition quickly. Basically I sabotaged myself by expecting too much, too quickly. I didn’t allow time for decompression and transition in my mental processes. Throw in a bout of anxiety and some car repair, and I simply didn’t have the resources to bounce back.

Working through a 12-step recovery program hasn’t always been easy or fun. It’s very difficult to honestly take inventory of my shortcomings and failures. But if I do it with balance and self-love, inventory reveals so much about my personality and patterns of behavior. I can actively work to change behavior patterns, but personality is a bit stickier. Rather than try to change my personality, I am learning how to work better within it. Being an introvert and an HSP (highly sensitive personality – read more here and here) aren’t liabilities until I don’t respect my boundaries. Then I begin to frazzle, fray and eventually, fall apart.

I know these things about myself now, but that doesn’t mean I always make the best choices. Occasionally, I even have days like yesterday where my personality protests for no discernible reason. Even though it’s frustrating, at least now I can say, I understand the problem. I may not completely understand what triggered the breakdown, but self-awareness means I can work through the cycle more quickly and effectively than before.

It’s interesting to me that we live in a culture that is steeped in education, success and progress, but we generally spend very little time learning to understand ourselves. It wasn’t until I was in therapy that anyone really encouraged me to listen to my very own soul. In fact, being immersed in a religious environment, I learned not to trust my inner voice at all.  I believed I hold little of inherent value and I shouldn’t love or trust emotions or internal desires. My own terrible, wretched flesh was my enemy.

I don’t believe these things any more, but I am not immune to falling back into unhealthy thought patterns. When my emotions are high or my physical self needs food or rest, I have to remember that taking care of myself, listening to my inner voice, is ultimately the most unselfish thing I can do. Self-care makes me a better human, which benefits everyone around me. Self-awareness makes me a better steward of my own soul.

Yesterday was an aberration, a blip in a pattern of healthier and more self-compassionate behaviors and choices I continue to learn. Today, I can continue to beat myself up for being entirely human, or I can move forward with the choices I know make me a better human. And I can say thank you to everyone who saw me yesterday and choose to love me anyway, still.

This recovery thing? It’s working for me. One day at a time; one moment at a time.

Cranky when Writing: when Creativity runs dry

I’m cranky about writing today. It’s true.

It only took 84 days for me to run out of words but I feel all dried up of creativity. Which is, of course, tinged with irony since it is the first day of my creative sabbath. Perhaps I’m frozen by possibility again? It still happens from time to time.

I had a little anxiety moment on my run this morning. Those triggers can go off unexpectedly. I can’t live with my guard up all the time, but boy when those things hit you with your guard down, they can drop you before you know it. I’ve been shoo-ing that demon out all day now.

Also I’d rather be reading. Some days all I want to do is curl up with a book and lose myself. Maybe I just think losing myself is preferable to living with myself on an angsty sort of day.  At least the van has working AC again.

Here’s the thing, we all get to have an off day, whatever the reason. The days we hide in the bedroom with cups of tea and grump for no-good-reason. It happens. I used to fight harder against it, but struggling only binds me more tightly. If I just let myself be prickly awhile, eventually I come out the other side.  I do feel kind of sorry for Hunky, though, while it’s going on. He’s sort of collateral damage.

Maybe that’s the lesson for me today. We get grumpy and prickly and blah sometimes, and that’s how it is. Instead of beating ourselves up over it, “shoulding ourselves to death” my friend would say, we can just lean in. Everything is temporary. This too shall pass.

So what you can know about my first day of creativity is that I am literally counting words as I type to meet my minimum requirement. I letting go of perfection and saying this is good enough. And tomorrow is another day. For better or worse, I’ve done what I could do.

Reading Scripture Sideways: a new take on a very old book

I’ve been slowly, as in snail’s pace slowly, working my way through Rob Bell’s latest book, What is the Bible. I actually want to read it like the pages are on fire and I have to finish before it consumes them. I want to gorge myself on the clever, gentle, insightful ways of considering an ancient library. Scripture. I used to love it. Even now the word feels so weighty and mysterious when it sits on my tongue. I believe that’s because it is  weighty and mysterious, wrapped in thousands of layers of meaning and interpretation. Yes, I used to love scripture. I was so much more certain of everything then. Now, honestly, I’m afraid of the Bible, and that fear is holding me back from enjoying not only Rob Bell’s book, but scripture itself.

I know what you’re thinking: here comes the crazy again. It’s true. I have all the issues when it comes to church and church business. But through all this great big hairy church mess, somehow, I never believed that God lost her faith in me. Even when I stumble and flail and fall and swear, even when I push her away like an over tired toddler, she loves me still. She’s been faithful in every way and for that I am so deeply and powerfully grateful.

Religious institutions have not been so merciful or forgiving in my experience. Now I’m what old cowboys refer to as ‘gun shy.‘ Churchy words and situations make me anxious. I seldom measure up to expectations, and when I do it’s because I’m not being true to myself. And then there’s the Bible, the weapon most often used against me in religious altercations (also known as rebuking, church discipline and spiritual authority).

It’s true, I’ve used the Bible as a weapon myself, back in the days when together we were infallible. I can accept that about myself even if I don’t like it very much. Had I known how quickly that weapon would turn on me, I might have thumped more gently, perhaps not at all. For as long as I can remember, we’ve elevated scripture with superlatives: inerrant, inspired, ineffable. Words so high, I cannot attain them. I’ve learned to defend it, uphold it, revere it and memorize it, as though tongues of fire straight from Heaven itself licked words upon papyrus scrolls with nary a misprint or mystery in the process.

What I didn’t learn was how slippery millenia old stories of the Divine become as they slip through time. Or how entirely human the men and women who recorded the stories really are. Sometimes a very human agenda superimposes itself over a very divine story. I didn’t learn context, or layers or culture. Truth may be eternal, but the expression of Truth isn’t so easy to nail down in concisely neat terms once and for all.

So I’ve floundered.

My experience of God doesn’t fit so neatly on the pages as it used to. It keeps sliding off, bursting out, growing bigger than the neat little boxes I learned about. The God of my deconstruction is endlessly forgiving, but God out of the box can get you excommunicated (or perhaps even crucified).

I’ve avoided wrestling with scripture for fear it will disappoint me. It has a lot to live up to when you look at it as the very word of God. But recently, I’ve started to see it a bit differently. Jesus, Himself, is the very word of God, and to date, He hasn’t failed me. I think for me it’s time to let the words of the Bible be what they truly are – a very human attempt to describe a very indescribable God.

An immutable, inerrant Word of God is far too dangerous in the hands of someone like me. But a human attempt to unravel the Universal Christ in ways we can understand and embody, with all the mistakes and course correction that entails? That might just be the right fit for a heretic like me. And if it isn’t, I have a God who’s waiting to fill in the gaps. Because that’s the kind of God she is.

Creative Sabbath: the evolution of the Month of No

Tomorrow is my last obligation until September.* How crazy is this? July and August stretch out ahead of me with only possibility to fill them (and a vacation…oh, how ready I am to feel sand between my toes again). I’m trying to decide how I will handle such a windfall of days. This is too miraculous a gift to squander, not when there are so many things I want to play, try and do. Shelves of books await. Empty drawing pads beckon. Words sit on the tips of my fingers waiting to emerge from the keyboard. Miles wait for me to run. Sabbath awaits for certain, but I think it will be a creative sabbath as opposed to one strictly devoted to rest.

I never realized how much of myself I poured into education until my young ladies enrolled in college. The last school year was a big wad of transition for all of us. Them to having someone besides their Mom as teacher, and me to being merely a support system. Most days my biggest responsibility towards education is a pep talk.

It took much longer than I imagined to decompress from that. I spent quite a few hours simply sitting, resting, not planning or  really doing much of anything except the basic necessities a household requires. I don’t regret that time. That Sabbath was well-earned and well spent.

Then December and January rolled around, uncovering some old scars and creating some new wounds that required attention. I will take any person to the mat who says spiritual/ emotional work takes place only in the head and heart. Real, deep work in the depths of ourselves is a whole body endeavor. Some days, I dropped into bed completely exhausted. I tackled emotions the way surfers ride high seas, and my body told the story. Each day felt like a minefield of triggers. The only thing to do was eat well, sleep enough, and make sure I had soft places to land.

I’m still doing this work, but it’s less critical now. There’s room for other things, and now that I’ve restored some faith in myself, my creativity is beginning to peek out again.  I plan and plot and purge everyday, so much so that I have room now to refill (figuratively only, I am not refilling my house with stuff I don’t need). I might even take naps!

What I do know about myself is that I have to make a loose plan for my weeks and days. I have Olympic level frittering powers. You may recall my last birthday where I spent roughly eight hours in a hammock. While rest and restoration will be part of this gift of time, it won’t be the primary focus. Productivity will also not play a major roll. I may gold medal in frittering, but I silver in busy work. It looks good but it doesn’t really provide any personal growth. I want to use this time to grow. This Sabbath is about creativity, learning to play, learning to fail and not label myself a failure.

What I would love is to look back on these months and say, these days changed everything. But those are some high expectations so what I truly want is to look back and say, I’ve changed for the better. I’m happier, healthier, more open and loving. If I have something to show for it, wonderful, but if the only changes are those that take place within my heart and soul, even better.

When is the last time you took time for yourself? What’s stopping you?

*Obviously, I still have obligations. I have a husband and dogs and a family. What I don’t have for the nest two months are outside obligations, ministry responsibilities, appointments or projects.

**I called June my Month-of-No. This creative Sabbath has evolved from that idea.