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.

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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

creativity, figuring it out, inspiration, psychology

How To Be Alone (borrowed from brain pickings/Maria Popova

This is a wonderful short film from Maria Popova’s blog, brain pickings, one of my favorite blogs. She consistently has intelligent essays on the literary life and great thinkers. I always  make time to read whatever Maria posts. Click on the link to the video. This could be a nice part of your coffee break today. 

How To Be Alone

by 

Dancing with yourself, how to talk to statues, and what squirrels have to do with love.

UPDATE: Now available as an illustrated book.

Modernity offers a curious paradox of connectedness and loneliness. Our perpetually networked selves cling to constant communication in an effort to avoid the deep-seated sense of loneliness we so dread. Somewhere along the way, we forget — or maybe never even learn — how to be alone, how to stay contented in our own company.

Poet and singer-songwriter Tanya Davis and filmmaker Andrea Dorfman address this forgotten art in How To Be Alone — a beautifully hand-illustrated, simply yet eloquently narrated visual poem full of all these things we so often need to tell ourselves and believe, yet so rarely do.

How To Be Alone (link)

You could be in an instant surrounded if you needed it. If your heart is bleeding, make the best of it. There is heat in freezing, be a testament.

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With respect and appreciation for Maria Popova’s blog, here is another link to brain pickings. This piece talks about Susan Sontag’s famous interview with Rolling Stone; Sontag talks about the misconnection of love and sex: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2014/01/14/love-and-sex/

Enjoy.

 

creativity, emotions, family, figuring it out, inspiration, psychology

it all needs to go away swiftly

Something just out of my reach has been bothering me. A couple of years ago during a 31-mile run as I was training for my first 50K, I got this little niggling pain in the back of my thigh. It wasn’t enough to stop but it was annoying and took a lot of the enjoyment out of it. At first I stopped and stretched, thinking I was cramping. It didn’t help. It felt like someone was poking an awl into the back of my leg, just enough to distract me.

What should have been for me a pleasant easy run was literally a pain in the ass. This notion is like that  poking an awl into my psyche. 

The brilliance of our minds is our ability to clarify vague thoughts by pulling from the river of words running through our brains. It is as if by plucking the right words out of this thought-river and assembling them in the right order we are given the gift of clarity. Take vague notions we can’t quite pinpoint and, with a little further thinking, aha! the clarity of our feeling is there. 

This is how I think. The river of disconnected words/thoughts flows fleetly through my mind. Occasionally, some get stuck in an eddy along the bank and draw my focus. Then they’re gone. A little niggling in my psyche. 

But I think now, finally, I’ve captured it. I am able to pluck enough words and put them together to build this thought and it has led me to my first quit as I move into the new year:

Why can’t we mourn our pasts like we mourn a good friend who passes? Why not say good-bye to troublesome ideas of our past just like a person who has gone to dust? 

I’ve spent close to a decade in angst over how I didn’t do things “right” in the past. I’ve lamented all the lame choices I made and all the things that went awry for me and all it has done has led my life to feel close to failure in the present. It’s time to treat the past like the passing of a friend with whom I was once close but no longer. 

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ famous treatise on mourning delineates five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elisabeth_Kübler-Ross)

Could we apply this concept of the stages of grief to our own pasts so that we might live better today?

I am way past denial but clearly not to acceptance. I have been angry at myself for poor, uneducated choices and I’ve negotiated with myself unsuccessfully to see my past in a different, less painful light.  The bargaining is an attempt to be gentler over not achieving a significant career, two failed marriages, and the challenges of being the right kind of father to my daughters. Sometimes I have been so weighed down by my notions that I’ve slid into depression. It got so bad at one point my my ex-wife recommended I go back onto medication.

But does this make sense for living moving forward?

My mom died of pancreatic cancer in 1982 and I spent 10 years moving through the various stages of grief, alternating between going forward and regressing. Eventually, I landed somewhere near acceptance and have lived that way ever since.

So why can’t I do the same with my grief over my past? Why can’t I see the past as simply a period in my life that ended? Why can’t I view it with some detachment as a part of me without defining who I am? Gordon Livingston said in his book Too Soon Old, Too Late SmartYou are what you do.

So isn’t what we do today more important than what we did in the past when we made the choices we did with the information at hand then?

Maybe a letter would work:

Dear past,

I’m writing to you to finally say good-bye. You meant a lot to me when you were my present. You are causing too much pain now and I think it’s time I moved on. You were once very important to me and will always be a part of me.

P.S. Please make room for Guilt. He’s coming to rest forever along with you.

Sincerely,

Me in the present

Or I could eulogize in tribute:

I’m here to speak about my past. To clearly see the past you have to understand its goodness and understand that it was also flawed, like each of us. It had shining moments of promise for the future and impacted people, as you all are here to celebrate the good of my past. But it was not perfect and its blemishes are as much a part of it. We can value the past for all that it represents for each of us while not forgetting its wrong choices, weakness and anger.

To say good-bye to the past is to honor its memory.

Or something like that.

I’ve learned enough about growth to know that focusing on the past makes it nearly impossible to live in the present, a much healthier endeavor. I won’t deny how important my past has been in creating who I am. No longer, however, will I dwell on all I feel I have done wrong.

It is time to stop criticizing myself for how I lived, thought and breathed in my past and allowing that to dictate how I live now. It is time I wrapped the past in a nice bow and buried it.  The past is passed. I quit that. 

emotions, family, figuring it out, psychology, relationships

have you passed through this night?

Sometimes my life feels like a metaphor.

I can’t help it. I look around and I am surrounded by metaphors, like discarded beer cans after a party (actually a simile, oops). A family drives by me in their minivan and I see the stories of  each mother, father and child, on a metaphorical highway of life. Someone picks up something in the grocery store and I see how one choice drives all other choices following in an “adjacent possible” chain going on forever.

Here is another: There are times when I am a taxi driver. My friends are different fares going to different destinations. Sometimes groups of friends get intermingled in my cab. One is going one direction, another couple going somewhere else. While this works on some days, other times it is simply a bad idea.

I’ve talked to people about the compartmentalization of our lives that occurs as we get older, get married,  have children, get divorced, move onto different jobs, even move to other cities. This also applies to friends, whom we seem to group: we have work friends, we have parents-of-kids-who-attend-school-with-our-kids-friends, we have neighbor-friends, we have friends who disappear for awhile after divorces and come back, we have friends from high school or college, we have friends-of-friends who become our own friends.

My wife and I are so attuned to this dynamic that when we got married we thought about how the mix of the friends we invited might create a chemistry for the entire group. And we lucked out. We rented a house on Lake Michigan where the entire wedding party stayed. The group blended so well it seems we have created another group: friends-who-went-to-our-wedding-friends. We’re talking about a reunion next summer at a beach house.

Sometimes it doesn’t work out so well.  Remember in high school chemistry when the teacher allowed us to mix different chemicals and then see what happened when we applied a little heat from a Bunsen burner?  Our chemistry lab smelled worse than rotten eggs for a week after one encounter I had with some substances I should not have blended.

I was thinking about this while my wife and I sat with a couple of good friends finishing off some drinks following my wife’s company Christmas party. It had been a lovely and lively evening and it seemed the perfect way to close out the night chatting with this couple to whom we had become close. But the chemistry  seemed to go “off” when another friend of ours joined our table. Things started well enough. But shortly, our new friend, I’ll call him Brent, started in on my wife and me about a conversation he observed previously at our house between my wife and my daughter. The conversation was about how creative my ex-wife is, how creative comparatively speaking I am, and how my daughter understands creativity. It was typical of the types of conversations we have with our kids.

The abrupt turn in this evening’s conversation suddenly felt odd as Brent, who appeared somehow agitated, characterized my wife’s questioning as disrespectful of both my ex and my daughter.

We work hard in our home to have honest, authentic discussions with our children about a vast number of topics. We challenge our children often to articulate and refine their thoughts. In this case my daughter was not offended and seemed to enjoy herself. But what Brent saw was my wife lobbing hand grenades at my daughter’s psyche. Though challenging for she and I to understand, Brent’s take was  interesting because it was entirely different than ours.

Idealogical debate, even spirited debate, can be  interesting and fun. Or feel like hell.

Idealogical debate, even spirited debate, can be interesting and fun. Or feel like hell. The mental and emotional dexterity required to see–and value–someone else’s strongly held views often can be a roller coaster ride. It’s easy to get hijacked by emotion, be offended and focus only on that. True friendships often require us to occasionally face uncomfortable differences of opinion.

As the conversation between Brent and my wife and I continued, I watched as the other couple withdrew. Our little gathering became an uncomfortable taxi ride. Different people headed different places. Perhaps fortified by a little alcohol, he obviously had some things on his mind and he hit us. While my wife challenged Brent’s assertions, I questioned his motives.  Our friendly couple looked into their empty highball glasses to see if there was a door out of the place.

Our little gathering became an uncomfortable taxi ride.

My purpose here is not to be cruel or condescending.  People who read me know I’m fascinated by relationships. I’m most interested in how this particular conversation influenced and was affected by the different relationships of the friends at the table.

It turned out Brent’s edginess was attributable to something I wrote in an inconsiderate departure. He was bothered by some things I said in that essay but it somehow became a conversation about my wife and I disrespecting my ex and my daughter.

Okay, so it’s fair that some things I wrote upset him. Any essayist worth reading will occasionally piss some people off.  I have reread it several times looking for what Brent said was wrong. I don’t agree. But even when I don’t understand another’s point of view or agree with them, I respect their genuineness in believing what they do. This especially goes for friends with whom I have history.

So things will play out some way. On this evening, with this particular group of friends, it felt like an uneasy, prickly taxi ride between strangers headed in different directions.

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Sometimes I read essays from bloggers I really like and I follow. They might be funny, quirky or particularly interesting. Some I might really admire for the quality of their writing. They inspire me to be better. Here is a link to someone I read often, Jonathan Fields: http://www.jonathanfields.com/hows-that-working-out/ He might resonate with you. Enjoy.