emotions, family, figuring it out, health and wellness, relationships

they move on tracks of never-ending light

“Things change all the time, so why do people make such a philosophical to-do that things are constantly in transition?”  — Twyla Tharp

I often walk in different worlds. Since my divorce nearly five years ago and my remarriage, I am a member of three families. It’s awkward sometimes.

There is this family blended from kids from my previous marriage and my new wife’s kids. Then there is this family in which I live most of the time which consists of my wife and I and her two kids. Thirdly, there is the family of my three daughters and me, the one most familiar and the one that feels the most upended by my divorce. This latter family is the one that causes the most discomfort because it serves as a constant reminder of my limits and failures. It is also the one for which I have to deal with my ex-wife, who hates me.

I would not have guessed five years after the fact that crossing to a happier, more fulfilling life would be so burdened by the difficulties of this transition for my three daughters and for me.

I have always felt as if the ground upon which I built my life was never too solid…Never quite settled. Never feeling the full comfort of ritual set down and repeated over time.

In fact, I have always felt as if the ground upon which I built my life was never too solid, like the sand above the water on a beach.  I try to walk or run, but I lose my footing as the sand slides away and I nearly fall.  Never quite settled. Never feeling the full comfort of ritual set down and repeated over time.

My parents forgot my 17th birthday. My mom had been sick with migraines or sinus headaches–a precursor to the more significant and deadly battle she would lose to pancreatic cancer just four years later–and my dad was inexplicably down too. At the last minute my mom emerged from thin the eir darkened bedroom with a credit card, telling me to go get the adidas tennis shirt and shorts I  coveted. I drove the hour to the tennis shop clutching that credit card and eagerly bought the shirt and shorts. I bought myself some socks for good measure too. In the moment, I focused more on the gifts I was buying myself than on the fact that my parents had forgotten my birthday. Years later I realized how deeply I buried this hurt. Kids don’t expect their parents to forget their birthdays.  

Later, after my mom died, well after the doctor grossly underestimated her complaints about the pain in her abdomen, I felt shitty about being angry at my parents for forgetting my birthday. My guilt over my pettiness when my dad lost his best friend and my poor mom succumbed to cancer stayed over the years.

It’s as if the three of us, my dad, my sister and I, retreated to our own private place, all living in the same house but ultimately leading separate lives. There were suddenly no rituals. The rituals we had as a family died with my mom.

It was a transition yet again–from complete family to something resembling a family but not quite whole. It’s as if the three of us, my dad, my sister and I, retreated to our own private place, all living in the same house but ultimately leading separate lives. There were suddenly no rituals. The rituals we had as a family died with my mom.

After mom’s death, I breezed through job after job. City after city became like a playground for me. When I got tired of the kids on my playground, I quit. I chose a new city and a new playground and a new job. I switched careers several times as I sought the perfect fit, hoping to fill a hole left by a deeply held sense of abandonment. People become adults at 21. Not true, at least for me. I was still immature at 21 when Mom died and for many years after. How I lived throughout my 20’s and into my 30″s was surely anything but maturity.

Before I knew it I was married and divorced and living with another woman who eventually would become my second wife.

I operated on an immature emotional plane. When I got uncomfortable, rather than discover what was motivating me, I moved to get rid of the discomfort.  I expected my wife to take care of me emotionally and when she didn’t, I transferred all of my emotional needs to my daughters. At first, this was okay. I could be a great dad and get all of my emotional needs from my kids.  Meanwhile, my relationship with my wife and my marriage crumbled.

I was somewhere approaching 50 before I matured. That’s one long adolescence. My second divorce–another difficult transition–gave me my biggest “aha” moment. Almost like turning pages in a book, I looked at parts of my life and my decisions and realized so much had been about how I responded to discomfort and fear.  I realized I needed to change. I needed to grow up.

We can not stay where we are. Ever. Life is a continual flow whether we realize it or not. Everything is always moving forward. I  didn’t understand that until now.

Our kids don’t stay kids for long. They need parents to be adults if they are to grow as well. Because I’ve seen it in myself, I recognize immaturity and it astounds me how many people walk around with baggage from their childhood.

Our kids don’t stay kids for long. They need parents to be adults if they are to grow well. Because I’ve seen it in myself, I recognize immaturity and it astounds me how many people walk around with baggage from their childhood. It colors everything we do with our kids as well as how we interact in our careers and with friends and our closest relationships. Recognizing my immaturity has been especially helpful in finally building deeply respectful and fulfilling relationships today.

Yet I am amazed at how often I slide into habitually immature thinking. The pause is the greatest tool in my backpack when this happens.

I’ve learned to  recognize transitions by stopping for a moment and breathing. Breathing reactivates the parts of our brains that give us logic. It allows our intuition to meld with right thinking, as the Buddhists might say. Without taking that breath, without pausing to slow things down, I react as a kid rather than respond as an adult

I’ve learned that life is about discovering and refining who we are–our wants and hopes and fears. We are always in transition. I used to think that transitions meant something was wrong, that the world was off kilter and I needed to right things again so that I felt comfortable. It fascinates me that I have been so fearful of transitions when I am even more fascinated by the concept of the adjacent possible. The adjacent possible is all the potential outcomes that might follow depending on which choice we make when faced with a particular obstacle or challenge. We cannot know all the potential great things that might happen yet because we have not yet passed through the door right in front of us. Think how different your life might be if even one choice in the past you made differently. It is both tantalizing and scary, because for most of us uncertainty is uncomfortable.

“A lot of people resist transition and therefore never allow themselves to enjoy who they are. Embrace the change, no matter what it is; once you do, you can learn about the new world you’re in and take advantage of it.” –Nikki Giovanni

We expect certain things in life to be constant. The sun rises everyday. The four seasons pass. We run out of milk. And our parents stay married.

Imagine how divorce must have felt for my daughters and for my new wife’s kids. We expect certain things in life to be constant. The sun rises everyday. The four seasons pass. We run out of milk. And our parents stay married.

When one of the constants in our lives proves not to be, we are in transition. I did a lousy job preparing my kids for life and helping them through the transition from mom and dad being together to mom and dad being together with someone else. I had a hard enough time handling me. My poor daughters had to do a lot themselves.

There is, however, hope. My youngest sees the upside of the divorce–that she will be better equipped to handle rough patches in her life and possibly to avoid some of the things that led to my divorce. Maybe she and her sisters will be able to leave adolescence much earlier than I. At the right time and intact. They all show signs of doing a better job than I did.

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The title of this essay is borrowed from a song by the post-rock group This Will Destroy You. They are currently on tour and recorded a live album from one of their concerts in Reykjavic, Iceland. Here is their page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/thiswilldestroyyou

This Will Destroy You is one of a couple post-rock bands in which I find great joy in listening along with Explosions in the Sky, God is an Astronaut, Signal Hill, Mogwai, Hammock, Tristeza. Thanks always to my friend Keefer to sharing his headphones  so long ago and turning me onto post-rock.

emotions, family, figuring it out, health and wellness, inspiration, psychology, relationships

raining world champion

“I’m a good man, with a good heart, had a tough time, got a rough start. But I finally learned to let it go…I’m hoping, knowing somehow, my shadow days are over.” – John Mayer, Shadow Days

John Mayer played this morning on iTunes. Though there are plenty of lyrics in Shadow Days, I found myself focusing on just a few, particularly the line, “I’m hoping, knowing somehow, my shadow days are over now.” 

On the car ride to school the other day, my 11-year-old daughter said how my divorce from her mom would make her a more aware person. If she were to go through similar hard times with some future husband, she would know better how to move through them. She said experiences like the divorce help teach her how unexpected turns are part of life and knowing how to deal with them is important.

This exchange is exactly what a parent in a divorce hopes for. The growth from my youngest daughter shows that our children can weather the shit parents do in their quests to find happiness and maintain identities, especially when a marriage ends.

I told her I was enormously proud of her. That is precisely why I have come to value difficulties. We can’t stop them from occurring. All experiences are life. It is we who label them “bad” or “good.” My daughter’s observations reminded me of this.

I told her I was enormously proud of her. This is precisely why I have come to value difficulties. IMG_0991We can’t stop them from occurring. All experiences are life. It is we who label them “bad” or “good.” My daughter’s observations reminded me of this.

She said she had noticed that both her mom and I seemed happier now than when we were married to each other. In fact, she went on that both of us seemed better now than at any time in the five-year transition from married and unhappy to these new lives we lead today. It’s been a messy road and my daughter’s sense that things have turned out okay was a revelation.

She said, “You seem better now because before you were chunkier and had long hair and were sad. Now you are thin and fit and you seem much better with (my wife). And Mom seems happier with (her boyfriend) too.”

Her comments felt like an affirmation of something I have noticed over the past year or so: I am emerging from my own dark time–my own shadow days–of difficulty, anger, immense hurt and guilt.

It hasn’t been that I haven’t felt sadness occasionally, even the kind that sometimes stopped me in my tracks (and I’ve written about it here). Who doesn’t ever experience emotional pain, disappointment and epic failure in their lives?  I have tried to be philosophical about it most of the time but sometimes life has felt endlessly and relentlessly difficult. A big bag of doodoo.

But imagine for a moment that it is possible to actually lollygag through life, bouncing like a butterfly from one great experience after another, never shedding a tear, in a fairy tale world where nothing bad ever happens. Doesn’t it make sense that butterfly person’s happiness would be muted eventually because only good experiences would be the norm? This butterfly person wouldn’t know the difference between one experience or another because everything would be felt as equally happy.

Without failure, how can someone know success? Without disappointment, how could someone know joy? Without tears, how could there be sunshine?  The sameness of every experience would have to lead to despair. 

My youngest daughter’s sense that bad things are as normal a part of life as good made me do some reframing of my own. I’m certain good things happened in my childhood and throughout my adult life. But if you were to ask me, I would not characterize my life until now as happy. Most of my memories as a child are of sad times, hurt, disappointment. And as an adult, I tend to see my past as failure, missteps, things not turning out. In fact, I was like a butterfly of despair–I only knew bad experiences.

The work of reframing I have done over the past couple of years has led me to view life with more balance. 

Experiences are just experiences. How we choose to frame them determines our happiness…It’s as if all the work I’ve done to become more present, to understand more clearly and to move forward..has essentially done what I’ve hoped for.

Today, it feels like I am becoming whole. This awareness–that experiences are just experiences and how we choose to frame them determines our happiness–has been hard-won. It’s as if all the work I’ve done to become more present, to understand more clearly and to move forward–all the books I’ve read and the therapy sessions and the late night conversations with my wife, Elin–has essentially done what I’ve hoped for. Almost without notice, all this effort to improve has incrementally made me better, more able to choose happiness over sadness.

My long period of shadow days, years in the making and years ending, appears to have passed. My awareness allows me to see, like my daughter, that bad events are temporary and not always caused by me. I can take a healthy amount of responsibility and let go. My bad experiences have even helped me grow. They have allowed me to be better equipped to see happiness or peace as a choice.

I can choose love.

I can choose to feel happy. Alive. Special. Talented.

I can choose to feel badly about something I did and then move on. I can acknowledge my responsibility and feel guilty and then forgive myself for being flawed.

This might be automatic for some; it has been anything but for me.

“It sucks to be honest and it hurts to be real. But it’s nice to make some love I can finally feel.  Hard times let me be.”

My shadow days are over.

 ###

creativity, emotions, figuring it out, health and wellness, inspiration, psychology, relationships, working

a three-legged workhorse

There are 38 pairs of shoes on the floor of my closet.

Thirty-eight. For two feet. 

I’ve known for a long time that I had a lot of shoes. But it wasn’t really a problem until I came across Joshua Fields Millburn. With his best friend, Ryan Nicodemus, he wrote Everything That Remains, part memoir, part manifesto of a journey from excess to minimalism. 

ETR_20001-500x800

 

They didn’t start the minimalism movement. But the pair have joined the movement which they journal at their website, theminimalists.com. They currently are on a book tour promoting Everything That Remains.

Through Millburn I learned minimalism is not simply living as a hobo out of a backpack, having one pair of jeans, one white shirt and a toothbrush, washing dishes in one restaurant after another on a cross-country quest to find oneself.

Millburn writes: “There’s nothing wrong with shopping at IKEA, just as there’s nothing wrong with owning a couch or a television or any of this stuff. The real problem is me. The real problem is that for the last decade–the last three decades–I haven’t questioned my unchecked consumption.”

He continues: “But our pacifiers can pacify us for only so long. Desire always begets more desire. And thus the American Dream is a misnomer, a broken shiny thing, like a new car without an engine. There is blood on the flag, our blood, and in today’s world of achieving and earning and endlessly striving for more, the American Dream really just seems to imply that we are fat and in debt, discontented and empty, every man an island, leaving a void we attempt to fill with more stuff.”

I have 60 pairs of running socks.

Millburn’s explanation of how he relieved himself of most of his possessions in order to find consciousness–and peace–has worked its way deep into my psyche. Thanks to Joshua Fields Millburn I realize I, too, have too much stuff.

Millburn’s explanation of how he relieved himself of most of his possessions in order to find consciousness–and peace–has worked its way deep into my psyche. Thanks to Joshua Fields Millburn, I realize I, too, have too much stuff.

 Now, I run.  A lot. More than half of my shoes are for running, which, last I checked, wears shoes out. And, for those who aren’t familiar with the shoe-collecting habits of runners, I’m certain my little cache is nothing compared to some of my runner friends. I would even say paltry in comparison.

I bet Fields had more than 38 pairs of shoes once.

The numbers themselves are not so much the problem as the way we acquire what we acquire–the shoes and clothing and furniture and electronics and cars and houses. We look at what is missing in our lives most often in terms of things. Then we compare what we have to what others have and, inevitably, feel like shit because that woman or man has more. This is what Millburn and Nicodemus are saying.

I have 1,507 songs in my iTunes library.

Millburn lost both his mom (to cancer) and his wife (to divorce) in the same month. He  looked around at his losses and at his six-figure job and his expensive too-big house and IKEA purchased adornments and realized that instead of being fulfilled, he was bankrupt emotionally.

Everything That Remains has become a manifesto for me in my quest for authenticity and originality, which are really labels for my mission to find meaning in life. I’m not in the same place as Millburn was and I’m lucky for that. Yet his struggle to measure the loss of his mother and his wife as well as come to terms with what was truly important in his life also led me to look around at all the things I have and, more important, how they came to be mine.

I have 24 dress shirts.

Through my troubles the past several years with my divorce and raising my kids and on-again, off-again descent toward depression, I started measuring my life by the experiences and relationships instead of possessions.

My reaction since reading Everything has been a dramatic shift further in that direction bound to make some people uncomfortable and make me look a little silly. For example, it’s not like she stands at the door, like they do at Costco, monitoring everything that goes out to the parking lot, but I wonder if Elin, my wife, is getting concerned about the garbage bags full of things I have been donating to the Salvation Army lately.

Here is a recent conversation:

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Counting all my stuff,” I said.

“Why?”

“I have too much.”

I have seven running jackets and six pairs of running tights.

The real benefit of this examination is, eventually, you wind up with the stuff you really want and when you buy new stuff it also is stuff you really want or need. No more mindlessly spending $100 at Target because, well, that’s just what everyone does.

Pursuing minimalism takes courage for this very reason. Adopting a minimalist mindset is tantamount to becoming deliberate about who we actually are and what we want our lives to be about.

In reading Everything, I have learned to ask, as Millburn suggests, “how will buying this make my life better?” before buying anything. It’s made it easier to stop buying things just because I have a $20,000 credit limit and I can.

I have 13 coats in the downstairs closet.

Minimalism is a way to appreciate the process of earning and acquiring things to make our lives better by complementing them. Rather than being owned by our possessions and building our debts to acquire more, it is a way of consciously approaching our lives.

On this, Millburn writes: “And so we tend to hang onto things–jobs, relationships, material possessions–in an effort to feel secure. But many of the things we cling to in search of security actually drain the satisfaction from our lives, leaving us discontented and overwhelmed.”

Just counted: Eight sweaters and eight sweatshirts.

Take, for example, how we pursue finding work. Often, he says, “We hold onto jobs we dislike because we believe there’s security in a paycheck.”

Pursuing minimalism takes courage for this very reason. Adopting a minimalist mindset is tantamount to becoming deliberate about who we actually are and what we want our lives to be about. And that’s scary, for if we are not these jobs we do and these relationships we have and these possessions, then what are we?  Consciousness requires self-awareness about some of our deepest questions. It demands commitment to staying with who we are and who we want to be, even when that is inconvenient or uncomfortable. Most of us don’t do very well with uncertainty.

Security, or the lack thereof, was a real problem for my ex-wife. It made taking leaps of faith on potential work a real problem for her, and ultimately, for the two of us as a couple.

“We hold onto stuff we don’t need,” Millburn says, “just in case we might need it down the road in some nonexistent, more secure future. If such accoutrements are flooding our lives with discontent, they are not secure.”

Twenty-nine t-shirts are in my dresser drawer.

“In fact the opposite is true. Discontent is uncertainty. And uncertainty is insecurity,” he says. “Hence, if you are not happy with your situation, no matter how comfortable it is, you won’t ever feel secure.”

A normal reaction to the unease of uncertainty might be a quick trip to Amazon.com or the mall to buy back security.  Thanks to Joshua Fields Millburn, my sense that contentment is not found in what we own so much as how we experience our lives has been reinforced: whom we surround ourselves with, in what relationships we choose to invest and, along the way, the things we invite into our lives to complement rather than drain them.

I have at least 87 books.

This approach is not going to be always easy. But searching for originality and authenticity, having awareness that there is a different way, is exciting. Part of my mission in honoring these two ideals is deliberately deciding what I want in my life. I will choose whether something I want adds value. And if I not, I’ll let the next guy buy it.

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If you are interested, here is the Youtube trailer for the Everything That Remains book tour

figuring it out, health and wellness, inspiration, relationships

welcome, ghosts

A million years ago I had a poster on the wall of my bedroom. ImageIt read, “The race is not always to the swiftest but to those who keep on running.” It pictured a runner alone on a long stretch of country road.

This poster carried me through innumerable training runs and races when I was younger. It is long gone but its message played in my head today as I plodded through another oh-so-short run.

Complications from knee surgery last December to repair a torn meniscus in my right knee sidelined me for the entire winter. And played with my head.

The weather, cool and slightly damp, with just a scent of warmth and birds singing, was ideal and it was heartening to feel the pavement underfoot again. Nevertheless, here’s me this morning: “Whose crappy, inefficient stride is this?” “Whose lungs are these gasping for air?” “Whose damn lame legs are these?”

I sucked air greedily, more like a patient in an iron lung than a fit runner. Think Darth Vader with a Mr. Microphone.

As I run I picture the guy in the poster and wonder what he thinks, how fast he is running, what are his goals. Was he once swifter and more fit, as I was, or is he in his prime, squeezing out every ounce of potential in his legs to run faster in his next race? Or, as the message says, is he simply happy just to be running?

I know I am taking little but significant steps everyday to regain the leg strength and lung capacity I lost from the surgical complications. But I realize there is something deeper, more yearning; I want to revive the image I’ve had of myself ever since I first put that runner poster on my bedroom wall way back when. It’s this: I am unstoppable.

Comparisons to others are deadly, I know, even comparing ourselves to what once were doesn’t serve us. Running has been such a constant, reliable companion for the past 30 years it is difficult territory for me to address this endeavor afresh. Even while I try to accept where I am, I reach to find the form that once came naturally but now feels so foreign.
We runners often think of ourselves as invincible, especially regarding certain kinds of health issues. Those are for other, less fit, more vulnerable types who don’t run. But the health challenges of the past year have proven that even the tens of thousands of miles in my fitness bank afford me no guarantees.

It’s a little like when you hadn’t seen your grandparents in years and when they came to visit and wanted to kiss you and hug you. It creeped you out, thinking, “Who are these people?” But after a little while, it all became natural.

I love running and I am grateful to have some really big health challenges behind me. Who knows, a couple more months of running and all will feel right again. Life is a long race, and it’s time again for me to embrace the truth found on a simple poster I used to live by miles and miles ago.