Why Life isn’t Like a Snoozing Cat

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Doesn’t it seem sometimes that life has too many challenges? I know I give a green-eyed glare of envy at those whose days seem smooth and effortless, and I think, wouldn’t that be lovely?

Well, maybe not so much.

Without minor keys and a few discords, music would be as vapid as the stuff they play in elevators and dental offices. If our days slid along as comfortable as a snoozing cat, how would we develop our character muscles?

Maybe I’ve been watching too much “Call the Midwife,” but I find an analogy in the way newborns begin to breathe. It’s the very stress of that tumultuous trip through the birth canal where baby is squeezed to heck by those powerful uterine contractions, that massages the amniotic fluid out of baby’s lungs, preparing her for an easy transition to breathing air. Babies born by c-section, as our granddaughter was last spring, are more likely to need their airways suctioned. I still remember watching a nurse pummel our newborn granddaughter’s back because hours after birth her breathing was still heavy with mucous.

I suspect that some of the struggles we encounter in our non-infant lives end up, in the long run, helping us as well. I’m not saying that hard times are part of some master plan, perhaps anymore than the hardship of labor was until Eve ate that apple. But since we have them, they do seem to give us something besides pain.

I think, for instance, of Helen Keller. If she hadn’t, as a toddler, been so ill that she became blind and deaf, what might she have been? Perhaps just another pretty little Alabama girl, coddled by her parents into a pretty little young lady whose future might have revolved around dressing pretty, acting pretty, and marrying well so she could raise a pretty little Alabama girl of her own.

Instead, she struggled: to find language, to discover that words have meaning, to make a place for herself in a world hardly catering to the blind and deaf. And so she became the Keller of fame: Radcliffe College grad, author, lecturer, strong woman of character. Surely the very challenges she was dealt made her what she became.

It’s a reason not to hover too closely over our children’s lives, perhaps. We need to let them stumble a bit, so they know they can right themselves.  For example, last week our daughter got caught in Detroit when a lengthy de-icing of one plane made her miss another. She handled the surprise overnight stay with grace and courage, with only a few texts and calls home. Not that I’d wish the experience on her, but now she knows what to do next time she gets stuck somewhere, and more importantly, knows she can handle it.

There’s a balance, of course. As a young teen, I got stranded in DC one evening when whatever bus or train supposed to get me home had issues. Unlike my daughter, I didn’t have the option of contacting my parents for support, emotional or otherwise. I was on my own, and I knew it,  and though I learned, once again, that I could handle things on my own, I was also confirmed in my belief that the world was a harsh and unsafe place to be.

As I said, there’s a balance: let our offspring cope with challenges, but if possible, tailor our involvement according to their ages and abilities.

But let’s not eliminate the challenges altogether. It seems that our struggles do more than just etch lines in our faces.

Have you seen any benefits from challenges you’ve faced?

 

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Waking up to the Light

 

The last couple of weeks, my husband and I have been living in time past. Not wallowing in nostalgia, I hasten to add. No, we’ve been experimenting with something new: keeping our schedule to the now-expired Daylight Savings Time instead of switching with the rest of the country back to Standard.

Like most of the state of Arizona and Hawaii, which refuse to use Daylight Savings, we are creating our own little culture of time. Though unlike those two, we’re not doing it because we have an abundance of sunlight, but because we’re trying to grab every little bit we can get.

An odd thing to do, perhaps, but it seems to be a pattern for us, living lives society has moved on from. Though I’ve been intrigued recently to notice that society seems to be shifting back to some places we never left.

Which is another story for another time.

It’s hard, being slightly out-of-step. The time thing nearly did me in. If I wanted to wake up at my usual 5:30, my old 5:30, that is, was I getting up at new 4:30, new 6:30 or plain old new 5:30? Yes, I know all about “Spring Forward” and “Fall Back,” but those terms generally send me into a mental tongue-tie. Am I falling back, or is it just my clock? And if the latter, where am I?

It helped that my husband put an extra clock over our stove clock, with one set to Daylight Savings and the other to Standard.  I just had to remember which was which, and not to get addled when NPR announced their time.img_2615

What helped more was realizing I was now living in the time zone my son and his family inhabit: just think Eastern. Which was fine until I set out to doctors’ appointments in a nearby city in the Eastern Time Zone. My routine was to think of those as being an hour earlier than they really were, so I’d arrive at the correct time. But was I leaving an hour earlier current real time or my real time, and if the latter, what time was it really going to be when I arrived there, when the city was already an hour later?

I told you I was confused. I wonder how it is for those Arizonians who don’t switch.

My salvation has been our pets. They don’t care about clock time; it’s stomach hour that matters. Never mind that one cat’s stomach tells him that any hour is good for supper and the more often the better, I can count on the fact that they expect breakfast soon after six and supper twelve hours later. That’s Daylight Savings Time. It doesn’t matter that my phone and the rest of the country says I can sleep in.

All this confusion does have a purpose: my husband can arrive home from work while it’s still daylight and get out to the woods or garden, which he needs. And I get just a few minutes more of light, which seasonally-affected me really needs.

How do you chase the light these darkening winter days?

 

Chasing the Sun

Remember the great solar eclipse of 2017? To me, as remarkable as the sight in the sky was the sight of the crowds of people staring up at it. For a few hours, we pushed aside work stress and political mess and looked up into the heavens.

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On a fraction of the scale, that’s what I saw at the coast last week. Every morning,  stalwart bands of people of all ages stopped whatever else they were doing (mostly sleeping, I imagine) and gathered along the beach to watch the sun come up. The sunrises were glorious, but the knowledge that so many other humans were paying homage to them was uplifting, too.

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We are so used to controlling everything around us that it’s got to be healthy to stop every so often to recognize the forces in the universe we can’t control. What time the sun actually slips over the horizon, for instance. Modern-me, I caught myself glancing at my phone to check what time the weather app said the sun was supposed to come up. I even felt a burst of impatience when I thought it was taking just a little too long to meet the electronically-promised deadline.

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I also realized after a day or two of pre-dawn walks along the shore that I didn’t really have to walk east as far and fast as I could go: my efforts weren’t going to make the sun appear any faster. I’d see the dawn just as quickly if instead of hurrying far down the beach, I plunked down in front of our condo with a mug of coffee.

You might wonder why, on vacation, get up before six instead of sleeping in. There’s just something about trying to catch the moment when that tiny orange ball appears. There’s also the reality that once it does, it’s a only a short time before that lovely, sought-after phenomenon becomes a nemesis: blazing, eye-straining, skin-blistering light and heat which no amount of sunscreen, hats, and umbrellas can control, nature once again proving that it can’t so easily be tamed.

And if we needed any more proof of that, we’re watching Hurricane Michael as it barrels towards the Gulf Coast right about where we were last week. I’m remembering the miles of cars lined up on the interstate, Bonnaroo-style, waiting to turn off onto the state highway that heads south to the coast. All those months of planning and preparation to get there, and– so much for fall break. So much for our assumption that the natural world will be just where we want it to be, as we want it to be, when we want it to be.

We don’t run the world, and isn’t that a good thing.

Meanwhile, to those in the hurricane’s path, I’m thinking about you today.

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His Eye is On the Seagull

img_26742We’re down on the white sandy beaches of the Gulf Coast for a couple of days, and this morning’s watch-the-sunrise-walk and swim brought me right back to the old question:

What’s with this prayer thing, anyway?

The complex we’re staying in has a fifty-yard outdoor pool, and being a compulsive lap swimmer, I’m getting out to it before the opening bell to get some swimming in before the ankle-biters and raft-shriekers throng in. For two mornings in a row now, I’ve had the place to myself, with the exception of two women who stand in the shallow end and chat together. This quiet time is an amazing gift, given that down here, it still feels like high summer, and there are more than enough families with rafts, noodles, high-pitched shriekers and splashers who take over the pool later on in the day.

So I started wondering: have I gotten this blessing of empty pool because the little no-neck-monsters are still eating their Fruit Loops and watching cartoons? That is, has it been sheer, delightful coincidence? Or– is the Almighty actually arranging it so that of the hundreds of people staying in this complex, not a single one looks down from their balcony at the shimmering blue water below and and decides the pool is irresistible?

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The question made me think of a conversation I had last week with a friend whose 90-something year-old mother is doing well after a long cancer surgery, despite going into it with cardiac issues and cautions from the surgeon. My friend, not herself a church-goer, said she knows it was because of all the many prayers her mother’s friends had offered up. It’s just like the end of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” she said, referring to the scene where hundreds of prayers for Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey waft upwards to what Angel Clarence calls the Chief.

Well, ok, but what then do you say to all the people whose surgeries don’t go well? Were their prayers just not strong enough? Was God too busy tending to global affairs to listen? Was–horrible thought–God making an executive decision? “You over there, you’re good to go. You in the corner, sorry, not this time.”

This is not a new question. Not of mine and certainly not of others. I think it whenever someone says, “we had a safe trip. God was really watching out for us.”  Which immediately brings up the antithesis: if we have a fender bender on the way home or hit a logjam on 24,  does that mean God wasn’t looking after us, and if not, why not?

I’ve talked to enough priests and theologians to understand that there’s no one perfectly-phrased prayer, no magic incantation that’s going to make the difference between which prayer is answered and which isn’t.

I’ve also often heard the belief that ‘whatever happens is all part of a master plan.’ Which to me leads us uneasily back to the notion of God as Executive giving some the green light and others the back door.  Anyway, I’m not entirely sure that an empty pool for my sole benefit is part of a grand divine scheme.

Then there’s the vaguer, ‘Prayer is for us as much as God because it puts us in closer intimacy with God.’ That’s nice, but it kind of begs the question.

 

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So this is a post without a conclusion. Because I don’t have one. Just the question, which I imagine I’ll still be ruminating on tomorrow morning, whether the pool is empty for me or not:

Why are some prayers answered, and not others?

Because “His Eye is On the Sparrow,” yes, but we all know that some of them are still getting munched on by hawks.

 

The Secondary Trauma of Doubt

I’m not talking about my doubt here. I’m talking about yours. Which in the sad circular way of emotional/psychological dynamics, can easily become mine.

Doubt that what I experienced was real, that is. Doubt that it matters enough to talk about it. Doubt that the healing process of dealing with what happened is fundamental to emotional wholeness. Trauma survivors already tend to question and second-guess themselves constantly: “what did I do wrong?/ what’s wrong with me that this happened?”, riffs on the “it was my fault” so common with battered wives. How much easier to yield to the powerful and popular attitudes of “it was a long time ago; the past is past; just let it go; aren’t you over that yet?” of those who have no experience–or understanding–of trauma.

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Fear of not being believed is almost as traumatizing as whatever happened in the first place. Being doubted shoves the survivor further into isolation, when already one of the hardest parts about being a trauma survivor is the loneliness of the condition. Not only do you already carry the guilt and shame that “something must have been wrong with me that this happened,” which is the norm for victims of physical, sexual, emotional or psychological violence, you regularly face, if you are able to go public with your experience, the doubt, disbelief and, almost as lethal, minimization of it by those around you. It’s usually easier to say nothing, which means you continue on with a life where you live one way on the surface and a whole different reality inside. Which means you continue to feel different; estranged; less than.

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Just as you did when you were a victim.

Is it any wonder survivors don’t speak openly about their experiences, even with those closest to them? Let alone speak specifically against the abuser, let alone do that in a public way.

All reasons it galls me, the doubt we’re hearing from those who are convinced the allegations against Judge Kavanaugh are fabrications because they are only now being brought forward.

Who in their right mind wants to go through the public trashing given to those who, to steal a saying of the Quakers, “speak truth to power?”

It takes more courage than you can imagine to open up about abuse of whatever kind. Survivors are extremely good at sensing the thoughts and feelings of those they interact with. For those who endured extended childhood trauma, for instance, safety and sometimes survival depended on reading every mood shift of the adults around them.  The least hint of a negative response in a listener–boredom, indifference, disbelief, rejection–and communication shuts down. Survivors expect rejection, and with good reason. Again, it’s no wonder that so many choose never to tell anyone about what happened. It’s also completely normal, so to speak, that decades would go by before speaking out. It can take that long to attain sufficient trust in a world that before proved nothing but threat or terror.

I’m sure people are tired of hearing about abuse, harassment, assault. Imagine living with the scars of the above for a lifetime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Something For Nothing

Steaming over something or other with a little politics thrown in, I took myself for a walk up our long gravel drive the other day. Might as well get some exercise if you’re going to be in a fuming frame of mind.

So the gift I found at the end of the drive caught me totally by surprise.

We moderns don’t believe it’s possible that we’ll ever get something for nothing. We’re too well schooled in the ways Facebook and other “free” internet sites make millions of dollars out of us.

And yet–

Consider the humble persimmon. I had to, when right there on the road in front of my foot were four perfect little gems.

img_2621They hadn’t been there the hour before when I took our dog out for a walk. They had just dropped and weren’t yet squashed by a car or claimed by the hordes of birds and raccoons who wait for them every fall.

If you’re not from the rural South, you may be unfamiliar with the persimmon. Just think tiny mango, in a gentle red-orange instead of green.  They don’t fall till they’re completely ripe: completely squishy, that is, and if they’re not, you don’t want to bite into one.  Unless you like your mouth puckering up with an astringency beyond description.

The persimmon is the poor man’s mango, a fruit I didn’t taste until I was well past middle age. When I was a kid, fruit meant red delicious apples and canned fruit cocktail. Unless we were visiting my North Carolina grandparents in early fall. There we ate muscadine grapes warm off the vine and picked gnarled, sweet-tart apples from a hunchbacked tree behind the garden.

Now that our small-town groceries carry mangoes, I’ve had a few, and last week our neighbor brought us back several from her farm in Florida.

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They’re huge, approaching the size of one of those souvenir mini-footballs.  Soft as butter, sweeter than honey: after one bite, I wondered who needs ice cream when there’s fruit like that?

(Scratch that thought: everyone needs ice cream.)

But mangoes, muscadines, and apples have to be tended by someone. Pruned, sprayed, you name it. The persimmon just–grows. At least that one does. I certainly didn’t plant it. I don’t do anything to tend it. And I sure didn’t climb the fifty feet or so to harvest it. I simply gathered what fell to me.

In short, I didn’t do anything to earn it, but I walked back to the house with a handful of soft, warm fruit. Where it struck me: isn’t that a lot like life? We didn’t do anything to deserve it. We certainly didn’t earn it. And yet–here we are. We’ve been given something–a whole universe of it, in fact–for nothing.

That’s a nice counterweight to this week.

 

 

The Sunday Afternoon Blahs

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What is it about Sunday afternoons? For many of us they’re a kind of melancholy time, a limbo between the earlier anticipation that the mere mention of ”weekend” brought and the rush of the work week to come.

Saturdays have a kind of energy about them: to-do-lists abound, and finishing them seems completely feasible, with the weekend stretching out ahead like a glimmering white-sand beach.

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Saturday night still feels like weekend, even for those of us who are decades beyond the “party!” that the night once meant. Sunday morning means church or other ritual for many and has its own rhythm until lunch. Which is when–wham! Sunday afternoon hits.

Blah.

Sometimes I think we still associate the time with schooldays, when it was so often the moment of reckoning for that long-procrastinated paper.

But really, I think the melancholy has a deeper root. Many of us aren’t good with times of transition. Work: we get it. Play: ok. But the grey space in-between? It can make us fidgety.

Not to mention the notion of sabbath rest. The idea that no matter what religion we have, or none, there’s a day set aside when we remember that we’re not in charge of the world. Which we hate to admit will go on functioning just fine if we take a little time off from running it. We’re not good with that idea.We prefer to believe our every act is so indispensable it’s essential we push on with work no matter what, charging ahead to fill every minute with tasks achieved and lists checked off.

It’s easier in some ways to treat Sunday like just another week-workday, or imitate those organized folk who skim past the afternoon altogether: they may be home from the office, but every moment is filled with prep for the week ahead.

I know that given the hectic pace of many people’s lives, Sunday afternoon leisure may not even be an option. But if it is, can we accept those quiet hours? Allow ourselves, with no distractions, to face ourselves and what we are? plain old human beings, that is,  not human doings?

How do you do Sunday afternoons?