HEEDING THE WATCHMAN’S RATTLE

WorryThe Age of Worry by John Mayer (click to play)

Worry is a thief

marauding, it robs the peace

from jaded mind

the joy from outstretched heart

the sleep from fitful nights

despoiling middling intentions

permeating consciousness infiltrating

the spiraled web of thoughts

hopelessly tangled

Granted, worry

is a giver benevolently

bestowing frown lines

panic attacks     bleeding ulcers

but mostly worry

takes, pillaging

the depths of vulnerability pouncing

upon the underbelly exposed

it wipes the shine

off determined sparkle

the twinkle from beseeching eyes

the gleam from wistful smile

leaving debris of smoldering

angst that slowly blankets

a silky ashen coat

silently smothered

Worry is a companion

unwelcome, always

lurking round murky corners

whispering unsettled barbs

haunting dream fragments

mirthless misery gnawing away

the semblance of serenity seeps

until the insidious poison is transfused

displacing, replacing

with realities inside the realm

comfortable calm within control

firmly grasped

——————————-

By the dawn’s early light one morning in January 1991, Operation Desert Storm was fully blown and my third baby was in full bloom. Two bouncing toddlers clamored up my legs while I clutched the positive pregnancy stick. My tremendous joy was tempered by Good Morning America’s news report that the U.S. was now at war with Iraq because Saddam Hussein refused to remove his troops from Kuwait. With tears streaming down my face – slightly hormonal and obviously overwhelmed – I just wanted to scoop up my babies, grab my pregnant belly and run for the Malibu Canyon hills to bury my head in the proverbial sand. How could I bring another child into a world that seemed destined for global war? Mercifully the Persian Gulf War ended a few months later with “only” 148 American casualties, although the fighting killed a great many Iraqis, caused immense grief for many families, and unraveled a tangle of worry for ordinary citizens like myself.

A year later, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to trundle my babies off to the canyons again or cower in a closet, trapped as we were in the war zone of Los Angeles. An African-American named Rodney King was subjected to police brutality in LA, which led to a controversial tipping-point trial. When the four police officers were acquitted, brutal riots ensued. The 1992 LA Riots lasted for six days, killed 53 people, injured over two thousand, and caused over one billion dollars in property damage. Meanwhile, my plans to meet my husband in Seattle for his father’s sixtieth birthday bash were dashed – I was sick with worry, immobilized at the thought of battling my way to LAX and leaving our three little ones behind. The riots were confined to Los Angeles, but there was such a fine line between civilization and utter chaos that the despair spread deep into the suburbs until the National Guard was called in to quell the rioting.

Consummate worrying. Perhaps it’s a mothers’ curse – I honestly don’t remember worrying much until the responsibilities of parenthood set in, although that might just be selective memory. It could be a persnickety Virgo trait, brought on when our perfect scenario is shattered. Or most likely it’s just the way some of us are wired, fretting over any little thing. Really though – is there anyone out there who isn’t a worrier? Frankly, I’m worried that worry is just a human condition, something that every person with a pulse is subject to on a regular basis. And with good reason – there is much to stress about in this perilously complicated world.

Many times I worry about ridiculous things, things that have been said and done, come and gone, long forgotten, things that my better half would say “Let go already!” Things like stewing over the tomato-laden meal I recently served to my friend and her fiancé – two weeks after she told me that they hate tomatoes. How could I be so inconsiderate and forget such an obvious distaste? What kind of a friend am I? This type of worry really isn’t a big concern – more like a nagging hangnail that you just want to rip away, until you do and then you’ve really turned it into a bloody mess. Just let these hang, already.

Often I worry about things that need to be done, that endless to-do list, bills to be paid, errands to be run, people to be called, chapters to be written. This relentless litany is relatively easy to tune out by constructing my millionth to-do list and tackling it head-on, one to-do at a time. Chanting my mantra It will all get done allays this variety of consternation, no sweat… as long as I employ my dubious self-discipline.

Frequently I worry about the twists of fate that are beyond our control, the freak accidents that can’t be anticipated, the natural disasters that strike at random, the unexpected calamities that change lives forever. There was truly nothing I could have done to prevent those “There has been an accident” phone calls that I received a few times in my life. All I can do about this kind of anxiety is to say a lot of prayers and have a lot of faith that God and the guardian angels are paying attention…. and brace myself for the next call I hope never comes.

But most of all, I worry about The Big Picture, the overwhelming larger-than-life worries that dominate the news reports and headlines, that affect all of mankind and the very fate of our planet. You know what I’m talking about – ad naseum – unmanageable governments, precarious economics, growing unemployment, global warming, water shortages, widespread starvation, health crises, social injustices, gun control, senseless crimes, rampant terrorism, endless wars. What’s a simple-minded, just-wanna-be-happy-in-suburbia gal to do with this sort of distress?

Stay informed. Read. Digest bite-sized bits of information and leave the rest on the serving platter lest we overeat and vomit a bucket of worry. I recently discovered an amazing socio-biologist named Rebecca Costa who wrote The Watchman’s Rattle. In this intriguing book, she breaks down emerging trends and how they relate to human evolution, and she confronts our most pressing global issues in palatable portions. But Costa is no whiny worrier projecting the demise of civilization; rather, she offers insights and solutions that provoke big thoughts and inspire major change. Her well-researched evidence presents a vision that is hopeful and keeps my squirrelly worrying in check.

Heeding Costa’s rattle, I feel certain that there is more we can do than worry – we can overcome the daunting worries that threaten our very existence. Basically, our mental evolution hasn’t kept up with our technological evolution. The Watchman says that we have reached our cognitive threshold, and in order to break through that threshold and keep up with the growing complexities, we need to develop our insight. According to Costa, “… insight acts like normal problem-solving on steroids: It’s a lightning-fast, all-inclusive, powerful cognitive process that we are born with. Insight is not ‘weird science’ or some mystical experience but rather a naturally occurring physical function in every human brain.” It’s kind of like a spontaneous thought burst. Neuroscience research has made so many exciting discoveries about the power of our brains, but in the scheme of the Big Picture, I feel so inadequate and powerless to do anything worthwhile about the troubling issues. I certainly don’t have the knowledge to solve things like the carbon emissions debacle, but my brilliant engineering friend who is passionate about the environment is working on that very problem and just may have the breakthrough insight to a solution one day. Although collaboration among experts is a key factor in the Watchman’s analysis, there are things that each of us “ordinary” individuals can do to foster the breakthrough insights that will help humanity keep up with the increasingly complex conundrums of our information-overloaded world.

~ Promote advocacy instead of opposition. Opposition creates gridlock, while advocacy leads to solutions. Rather than negatively rejecting others’ ideas, let’s positively offer suggestions to collaborate on.

~ Condition our minds as well as our bodies. We all know how important physical fitness is to our well-being, but scientists have also discovered the incredible importance of brain fitness. It’s not enough to acquire knowledge – we need to be able to apply that knowledge to problem-solving. And it’s not enough to do a daily crossword puzzle – we need to challenge our minds in a wide variety of ways, just like we crosstrain our bodies. Play brain games, work while standing at a desk, use one new vocabulary word a day, go for a walk on uneven surfaces (surprisingly cognitively stimulating), learn a new dance, brush your teeth left-handed, do a Sudoku puzzle instead of a crossword puzzle, take a yoga class on paddle boards like some of my friends recently did, or pick up a foreign language like my friend is doing so she can speak with her future in-laws from Spain. Wow, just the acquisition of Spanish in-laws is enough to hyper-stimulate any American mother’s brain!

~ Fuel the neurotransmitters of our brains with high-octane amino acids, antioxidents, dopamine, vitamins, and Omega-3 fatty acids. Power down salmon, blueberries, green tea, walnuts, dark chocolate, B-complex and potassium multi-vitamins… and lots of water.

~ Sleep. For someone who used to pride herself on surviving with five hours of sleep a night, I have become a broken-record advocate for a solid eight hours. It’s the only chance our minds have to organize and make sense out of the myriad of experiences in our lives.

~ Curb our personal complexities. In a world filled with too many choices, too many cool things, and too much information, let’s streamline our lives to create time and space to think with focus and intent. Instead of buying more products, adding more goals, and increasing our commitments, let’s follow Willie Wonka’s advice and just “Stop the boat!” We need to make time for our minds to rest, daydream, and simply be present in the moment. The unconscious mind is a lot more powerful than our conscious mind… that’s where great epiphanies come from.

I finished reading The Watchman’s Rattle on a sunny Sunday afternoon, feeling hopeful about humanity’s ability to think our way out of the gridlock of problems we face. I also felt determined to stop worrying so much and start conditioning my brain to insight-ready fitness. But a funny thing happened later that night. I stayed up until 2:00 am finishing a gripping new novel about the Indian hunting grounds and oil fields of Texas called The Son by Philipp Meyer. This saga about a family dynasty spanning five generations gets my vote for a Pulitzer Prize, and I simply couldn’t put it down even though I was heading into the jungle of sleep deprivation. As I let my mind roam and range across the American plains, I suddenly had an epiphany. One of the family matriarchs bemoaned her spoiled children’s lack of purpose in life, and these words jumped out at me: “Of course you wanted your children to have it better than you had. But at what point was it not better at all? People needed something to worry about or they would destroy themselves…”

How pointless would life be without worry? It’s a very good thing that we care enough about people and issues to worry our brains. Worry itself just may push us over the cognitive threshold, as long as we don’t become immobilized with fear and gridlock. So go ahead and worry… and then clear the deck to a clean slate. I’m busy worrying my way to a buffed-out brain!

“Chance favors the prepared mind.”

~ Louis Pasteur

For more stimulating thoughts, check out these interesting brain-teasing websites:

vibrantBrains.com  ~  a health club for your brain

sharpbrains.com  ~  a wealth of information about brain science and keeping your mind sharp

keepyourbrainalive.com  ~  neurobics circuit training

lumosity.com  ~  scientific brain training games

positscience.com  ~  more brain training exercises

niftyafterfifty.com  ~  brain fitness for the AARP gang

scilearn.com  ~  software programs to build literacy and brain power in students

RATS AND OTHER SCOUNDRELS

WilburBless the Beasts and the Children by Shirley Bassey (click to play song)

“What a night! Never have I seen such leavings! Everything well ripened, seasoned with the passage of time and the heat of the day. Oh it was rich, my friends. Rich!” crowed Templeton the Rat to his buddies Wilbur and Charlotte of the Web.

Scavengers and all, we are the keepers and protectors of this abundant planet, for without the spoils of land, air, vegetation and wildlife, we humans would cease to exist. It is a daunting responsibility, utterly overwhelming in fact, and one is inclined to throw hands up in desperate surrender. But still I try, to live at peace with my little patch of the world, to preserve nature in my own backyard that is intermingled with the wild side of life. From the day we took ownership of our property in the Bay Area, we have battled the forces of nature, seeking common ground on which we can all live together in harmonious bliss. I try to make like Albert Einstein “Our task must be to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty” and like Sitting Bull “Every seed is awakened and so has all animal life. It is through this mysterious power that we too have our being and we therefore yield to our neighbors, even our animal neighbors, the same right as ourselves, to inhabit this land.” But it’s my bad that these well-intentioned ideals are a constant source of frustration as a homeowner, gardener, and nature lover.

A meandering creek nestles up one side of our yard while oak-studded hills anchor the back. Wild life abounds. Moles and gophers tunnel under our garden beds, gnawing through tree roots and sucking down flowers as they go. Raccoons peel back the lawn, searching for midnight grubby snacks. Squirrels race around the tree branches, tearing up leaves, scarfing down berries, and generally leaving a mess in their wake. Birds insist on nesting above the outdoor speakers tucked under the eaves (despite our best efforts with wire mesh barriers), yielding their droppings on patio and furniture. Deer graze through our shrubbery, nipping off the choicest buds and blossoms. We have learned to live with all of these confounded critters and sometimes even beat them at their own games with humane tricks. But I simply can’t live with the rascally rats, and just when we think we’ve gotten the best of them, they weasel their way back into the game.

In the land of make-believe, I’ve always had a fondness for little rodents. Stuart Little, The Three Blind Mice, Templeton, Angellina Ballerina, Tom’s friend Jerry, Mickey and Minnie, Mighty Mouse, American Tale’s Fivel, Ratatouille, and the most bodaciously gnarly rodent of all: the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ sensai Splinter. If all rats were as cool as Master Splinter, I could sit in cross-legged lotus position among God’s creatures all day long.  But that’s about as far as my affinity for rodents goes. My only touchy-feely rodent interaction was decades ago with my friend’s three pet rats. As “sweet” as she claimed they were, I always got a bad case of the heeby-jeebies around them and could barely bring myself to lay a loving finger on them. So when we moved into our house “in the country” twenty-two years ago, you can imagine my chagrined surprise to find a little family already occupying our new home.

The first sign of our country mice tenants were innocuous little pellets in the kitchen cabinets. “If a man aspires towards a righteous life, his first act of abstinence is from injury to animals.” Sorry Mr. Einstein, but I just can’t be righteous with rodents in my house. After I finished having a freak-out tantrum, I scrubbed down everything and set out a series of mouse traps like that old childhood board game. The traps were relatively effective, and we had our first up-close-and-personal mouse encounter the very next morning. One of the snap traps caught a mouse by the tail, but the wily little critter had squirmed his way under the kitchen pantry door and was trying to pry the trap off his tail. When I came downstairs for breakfast with my babies toddling behind, we were greeted by a frantic mouse staring up at us, caught in his daring escape act. He really began to scramble when my little warrior son grabbed his Peter Pan sword to wage a battle with “The Rat King” a la The Nutcracker. Fearing that Mac’s parrying moves would actually aid the mouse in his escape, I grabbed a sticky mouse pad from my maze of traps and threw it on the ground in front of the rat king. The poor little fellow promptly flailed himself upon the pad like it was a life raft. There he stuck, peering up at us in a quiet frenzy, with the realization that he was now truly trapped. We solemnly ate our breakfast cereal, watching the mouse become irreparably glued to the pad with each little move. I quickly made an appointment with the Orkin Man for 2:00, packed the kids up for a day in the park, and fled the scene of the crime. That afternoon Mr. Orkin introduced us to the more humane “hotel traps” where the mice check in and can’t check out, which effectively evicted our unwanted tenants with minimal trauma.

If we thought that was the end of our problems with little squatters, we were sorely mistaken. In fact, my husband nearly suffered a panic attack at the hands of a furry scallywag. One early morning on his way to work, Tony entered the dark garage and hit the opener. The light clicked on as the garage door chain roared into motion, startling a large roof rat that was resting in the rafters. The sharp-toothed rodent hurled himself to safety – straight at Tony in a daring airborne attack. Armed with his gym bag, my rat-fearing warrior deflected the attack with his makeshift shield, and the rat fell to the floor in a tumbled heap. As the rat’s claws scrittered the ground around Tony’s feet trying to gain traction like some silly cartoon character, my fearsome giant-of-a-husband did a desperate little tap dance to avoid the dreaded beast. Somehow Tony braved his way to the shelter of his car, only to discover that his windows were rolled down. He drove to work with the nagging paranoia that rats were preparing a sneak attack from the back seat, and he called me the moment he reached his office refuge to inform me that he would not be coming home until I had a date with Mr. Orkin once again. You can be sure the garage was properly booby-trapped before dinner time.

Since then it’s been a fairly blissful, rodent-free time in our lives, aside from the occasional poor rat who tries to make his home under our house. But recently I had the gnawing feeling that we were under siege again… this time in the vegetable garden that Haley and I have toiled in for months. It began with the disappearance of a few nearly-ripe cucumbers and zucchinis. What the devil? But when I discovered a half-eaten spaghetti squash, I knew it was time for warfare once again. Out came the snap traps – no more humane Ghandi-esque live-and-let-live ideals. We worked too hard to lose our entire crop. I set the traps up high enough to spare the noses and paws of our beloved golden pups and was vindicated when we caught our first rat a couple of days later. My perverse glee was dashed the next day when we killed a sweet little bird in one of the traps. I don’t mind killing a rat, but an innocent albeit messy bird was just too cruel. It was time to get creative like real farmers. Scarecrows? Owls! After researching the subject, I learned that barn owls are an environmentally-friendly circle-of-life kind of way to help even the score and balance the prolific rodent population with the rest of the animal kingdom. I found a great website  http://www.owlpages.com/links.php?cat=Owls-Nest+Boxes  that sells barn owl nest boxes, determined the prime placement for three of these birdhouses, and made plans to install them to attract these most excellent rat catchers.

Ah, but rats aren’t the only scoundrels in the animal world. One morning when my daughter was outside enjoying her coffee over a textbook, she noticed our golden retriever Eddie nonchalantly meandering along the path to the Back Forty veggie garden. Sly as a detective, Haley gave Eddie just enough time to get into whatever mischief he had in mind, and then she crept into the guesthouse to spy on him out the back window. And there he was, that furry yellow-faced rascal, nibbling away on a perfectly ripe zucchini. Sometimes the real culprits are our own best friends. With a few adjustments like some sturdy fencing and netting, we have peace in the garden once again. But since all is fair in love and war, I still intend to install a couple of barn owl houses for good measure. You just never can trust those rats and scoundrels.

THE FINE ART OF CREATING DIVERSIONS

IMG_3177Lost In My Mind by Head and the Heart (click to play song)

Procrastination… the very word immobilizes. Or perhaps it simply ignites creativity, diverting attention from the task at hand. As incorrigible jamjobbers, we procrastinators attempt to cram a little bit of everything into each day, enjoying the interesting activities and avoiding the difficult chores. Perhaps because of the belief – however misguided – that our best work is done under pressure, we take the tedious jobs down to the wire. And quite possibly some of us have a slight perfectionist neurosis that begets the intense need to establish the ideal setting in which to do our work – before any work can be done. Dillydalliers like myself possess the annoyingly delightful talent for devising captivating distractions.

Most of the disturbances that sidetrack my writing career are self-inflicted. It helps to remind this procrastinating author that Ernest Hemingway sequestered himself in a dank little hole in the wall when he had all of Paris beckoning, and J.K. Rowling began the Harry Potter saga in relative poverty. On the flipside, I am envious of my writing friend who has been living a lovely, inspired life in Provence (sunflowersandshutters.com). Yet even she admits to struggles in finding time to write, just as I do languishing away here in suburbia. The message is obvious: it’s not about the place or the setting… it’s
about the driving force. All that is needed is the dream, the motivation, and the stick-to-it-ness to accomplish our goals, be they writing a novel, fabricating the next great invention, assembling family photos for posterity, or solving the global warming dilemma. There is good deal of discipline involved in this JOB of writing, and the procrastinator in me is disturbed by my lack of focus, feeling like a dusty little moth banging around the lampshades in the dark, seeking that flicker of light to settle upon. It’s time for an intervention Five-Step Procrastinator’s Program to save my job as a writer.

Step 1 – Change the way of thinking about writing from a fun diversion to a vital constant. This alone could take years to crystallize. They say it takes 21 days to become entrenched in a habit, but this regimen could be a never-ending challenge in my book of life.

Step 2 – Determine the time commitment to writing. Knowing this project requires at least three hours a day is one thing, but finding and making the time that fits my lifestyle is tricky. Hearing about authors who have written their novels in the wee hours of the morning, the darkness of the night, or after a full day of work, I am shamed that I can’t seem to carve out three measly hours in a bright shiny day. At the risk of sounding like a shallow slacker, I will not divulge the frivolous time constraints of my daily routine. Suffice it to say that mornings are busy and afternoons are less creative. And I am trying to practice what I preach to get that full eight hours of sleep (reference The Cure post), so those sublime midnight hours are not an option. After much consideration, I decided to split the difference by click-clacking away in seclusion for the first ninety minutes of my day and then jumping back into it for ninety minutes mid-afternoon. I can roll with that compromise, and it seemed to be chugging along just dandy until my little train derailed several months ago.

IMG_2942Step 3 – Set up the workspace. I’m a bit of a neat freak – clutter frazzles my mind – and yet my desk in the command center of the house often becomes a dumping ground, fraught with a myriad of distractions. The backseat of my car would be a more suitable place to pen that novel, even amidst the dog hairs, canvas grocery sacks, and go-backs. Just lock me away in a windowless gray box and let the colors of my mind light up the walls and fill the blank pages of my imaginary book. Eureka – my son’s bedroom has been in a state of flux since he left for college seven years ago. What better place to contain my own transitions? Before Mac moved out, he painted the walls a soothing shade of gray-blue at my request. Then we hauled out his beat-up sticker-encrusted desk that bore the brunt of his homework angst and brought in a large square waist-high project table, big enough to organize a hodgepodge of undertakings. Mac’s room morphed into The Project Room when it became apparent that my fiercely independent son would never move back home, and I filled his shelves with my paraphernalia. A few months ago I rearranged the photos in the room, clearing the entire wall behind the project table for grandiose plans: the timeline for my novel, the visual organization of my plot and subplots, the backdrop for my characters’ development. Lofty, yes. But here is where the persnickety procrastinator rears her wily head. I can’t just stick things on the lofty wall. And I don’t want just any old bulletin board. No, I have to re-create the swell wine cork wall featured in Sunset magazine and Pinterest (yet another captivating distraction). Oh, and I can’t possibly concentrate on writing with that pile of boxes under the table, which contain my half-finished scrapbook of last summer’s European family vacation. Oh for gods sakes. Projects are undermining the life of my book.

Step 4 – Prioritize activities and make time for the top of the list on down. In addition to being a neat freak, I’m a bit of an organization nut with a love of calendars and to-do lists, admittedly sometimes spending more time organizing than actually doing. This should be the easiest step of all – a matter of scheduling my days, plugging in the writing first and fitting in everything else around it. To be sure, I will pencil in plenty of time interlaced with the writing to share morning coffee and evening wine with Tony, watch Downton Abby with Haley, phone converse with Mac on his way home from work, live vicariously through my college coed Sammi, hike with my dogs, get lost reading books, tend to my sprawling garden, hone my struggling golf game, recharge body and soul with yoga, volunteer my services, and make merry with friends and family. Mercy. There may not be any time remaining for the necessary chores, but my priorities are certainly aligned.

Step 5 – Be accountable. Until I reach that author’s state of nirvana with an agent and a publisher hounding me for my manuscript when the deadline has past, there is no boss to dispense a performance review, no time clock to punch. It is entirely up to me, myself and my dodgy self-discipline. Perhaps Coach Haertl needs to blow the whistle on me when I run afoul of the game rules. Or I could employ a couple of time management apps like macfreedom.com that would lock me out of the internet for a specified block of time to prevent cyber distractions. Better yet, I have found that the least intrusive solution is simply to set a timer to remind me to stick to the program. Since I tend to get thoroughly immersed in a project and lose all track of time, the chirping crickets and Tibetan gongs gently prod me on to the next diversion on the daily agenda.

Fortunately, most procrastinating distractions are of our own making. When Tony and I agreed to open our outdoor home for the local fundraising Garden Tour in May, I buried myself alive with gardening chores for the five weeks beforehand, with nary a written word much less a blog or chapter penned. By the time the Garden Tour was successfully finished, I was eager for a lockdown at my writing desk.

But every once in a while those unexpected twists of fate occur that divert us from our best-laid plans. Two days after the Garden Tour, our son was in a dreadful car accident in Mobile, Alabama – 771 miles away from his Chicago home and 1,991 miles away from our home. We flew him back here after six days in the hospital for what became a two-month recuperation. This twist-of-fate diversion effectively immobilized my writing endeavors as my priorities list drastically shuffled into survival mode. Caregiving and nurturing my son, I was saturated – near drowning – with gratitude. The predominant item on my to-do list was simply making the most of this blessing-in-disguise by spending every precious moment with him, knowing that the writing career could wait while my son finally moved home, if only to temporarily convalesce in The Project Room. At any given moment, a rousing game of gin rummy with Mac was my #1 to-do.

Take heart, fellow jamjobbers. Procrastination is merely the fluidly shifting act of prioritizing.

 

TAKE OFF THE SUPERHERO CAPE

SuperheroesSuperman’s Song by Crash Test Dummies

Superheroes are not perfect. Despite their special powers and amazing talents, they are not invincible. They typically have experienced a tragedy or traumatic event that haunts and compels them to be overachieving do-gooders, like Batman witnessing his parents being murdered in a dark alley. Although they almost always come out on top, infallibility lurks, like Achilles’ heel and Superman’s kryptonite. Who wants to be a superhero, anyway? That’s about as desirable as being president of the United States or an undercover secret agent, super as they are. Like many youngsters, my son wanted to be a superhero for a good part of his early childhood. He idolized Robin Hood, the Ghostbusters, Spider Man, Power Rangers, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Actually, Robin Hood wasn’t really a superhero – he was just a charming rascal with a merry band of buddies backing him up. Come to think of it, the Turtles don’t fit the superhero mold either since their special powers are dubious, but they did undergo the tragedy of being slimed by radioactive goo to become noble albeit goofy crime-fighters. By the time Mac was eight years old, he had determined that being a superhero was a heavy burden to bear, so he morphed into an athlete and all too soon into a rock ‘n roller. He learned very quickly that life is too short to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders and has proceeded to have an awful lot of fun while accomplishing his realistic goals and being true to himself.

There’s a fair number of people who have the superhero mentality and perform marvelous feats. I admire them tremendously but have little desire to be great and powerful like them. Since living in a state of overall happiness is one of my special talents, I am generally content with my relatively unremarkable achievements. It’s important for me to feel like I’m making the world a better place, but I can accomplish that on a miniscule scale instead of globally, a la superhero status. Once in a while, however, something triggers a nagging feeling of inadequacy in my heart. It almost always happens when comparisons are made, if only in my own mind.

A few days ago I submitted an essay for the annual Notes & Words writing contest. Last year’s contest sponsored by Children Hospital asked for essays about raising children with medical and physical challenges. Since our family has been blassed with extreme good fortune in that department, I knew my essay didn’t stand a chance because of its lighthearted nature – besides the fact that it really wasn’t very good. This year’s contest is sponsored by Nothing But the Truth Publishing,  spawned from the beautifully supportive organization called A Band of Wives (abandofwives.com). The essay topic is transitions, so at least I stand a better chance since my life in general has been a series of metamorphoses. We were asked to submit a short biography along with our entry, so I dutifully attached a breezy synopsis. All was well until I ordered last year’s anthology Nothing But The Truth So Help Me God and began to read. Actually, it wasn’t the essays that got to me – it was the authors’ bios. They were all such accomplished women with glowing credentials that I couldn’t possibly hold a candle to illuminate my paltry resume bright enough. It’s a good thing that I didn’t read those bios earlier or I may never have submitted an entry to the contest. It floored me. Here I am, a confident, well-adjusted 52-year-old with nothing to prove, cringing with embarrassment over my lack of splashy accolades. I had to reiterate the words of my wise doctor saying that in her homeland of Russia, raising happy children who become productive citizens is considered the greatest feat. Well at least I have that shining claim to my name.

As I was battling those nasty self-worth demons with my less-than-super powers, I stopped flipping through the bios and began to read the essays in the anthology. The opening entry entitled Overwhelmed, Overworked, and Over It! was written by a life coach who inspires women to take off the Superwoman cape and stop running themselves ragged. It felt like she was speaking directly to me as I read, “…make choices that make you happy, not choices that make you crazy. Tell the world, ‘No, I can’t do, be and have it all the way society has defined it all, but I will make choices… without apology or guilt… I won’t rely on someone else’s measure to tell me when I have done enough or accumulated enough.'” I wanted to jump up and hug Christine Arylo for reminding me that I have always chosen to do the things that make me happiest, even if they are not glamorous, flashy, or amazing.

The most important thing for all of us to abide by is simply to live our own best authentic lives, irregardless of others’ opinions or even what we think we should be doing. We need to teach our children that they can do anything but they don’t have to do everything… and then we need to follow that advice ourselves. To be sure, the world needs a few superheroes, but it needs a whole lot of Clark Kents – happy, healthy everyday heroes who are living a balanced, sustainable life with their ordinary powers.

THE CURE: A SHOWER, A LIST, AND A BOWL OF CEREAL

“Or in the night, imagining some fear

How easy is a bush supposed a bear!”

~ A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Shakespeare

Lion at NIght

Journey to Peace – from Liquid Mind

It began as a typical night in Dreamland: I cozied up in bed at 11 pm and drifted through my book until my eyes sailed off to the Land of Nod. My dreamy ship wrecked at 2:30 am as Bella barked at some imaginary bushy bear, rousting me to the shores of Wide Awake. As I struggled to push off back to Nod, my mind seized upon an encounter that evening, my latest faux pas. I had passed by a group of acquaintances seated at a table in a restaurant, stopping to say hello. I proceeded to introduce them to my companion, calling one of them by the wrong name. Choke. I quickly tried to cover my gaffe with a humorous story about another recent foot-in-mouth episode, which prompted good-natured laughs from my acquaintances. I glided off, mollified that my witty repartee smoothly deflected my slip. But in the murky nighttime hours, I replayed the scene and viewed myself as forgetful and shallow. Not only did I bloop the greetings, but I neglected to show any interest in their lives. That frivolous little incident became a fierce bear of a blunder in the middle of the night. I finally shook that off, only to find my whirring little mind plotting the week’s activities, hoping I would remember the trivial details in the morning. From there I got tangled up in a bramble of worries… my friend’s daughter is being stalked in her peaceful little college town… pray she’s safe… how safe is my own daughter walking around at night in the big city suburbs… and what about my son in homicide-ridden Chicago…? The night-prowling grizzlies transformed into wooly mammoths before my unblinking eyes in the shadows of my bedroom, and I finally escaped to the well-lit safety of my kitchen for a bowl of Special K to chase away those bears.

Dreams and nightmares collide in the deepest hour of the night, conjuring up the most dreadful beast of all – a sleepless night. Every faux pas rewinds on a continual loop, taunting us with what we could have, should have, said and done. Fears, worries and sorrows take on looming lives of their own in the dark of a sleepless night. Little wonder that sleep deprivation is used as a form of prisoner torture.  A body can survive for about fourteen days without food, but keep it awake for ten days and it will perish. Without sleep, you may yearn for your body to perish as depression kicks in. Pure torment.  If misery loves company, this is one big cellblock.  Millions of us, an estimated 70 million it is reported, find ourselves wallowing in our own little nighttime prison cell.  Every out-of-work or overworked employee, stressed-out student, fretful billpayer, strung-out entrepreneur, lovesick romantic, pain-ridden sufferer, hormonal victim, grief-struck mourner, tired new parent or parent-of-teens knows full well the angst. Wake up and rejoice if you are not a part of this pitiful mass of humanity twisting and turning in our beds.

So what are we sleepless writhers to do? First and foremost, we must recognize the value of a good night’s slumber. For years I prided myself on my ability to energize with just five hours of sleep night after night. So tough and resilient, so I thought. There were simply far too many must-do’s on my list to waste precious time sleeping.  Ignorantly, I was deluding myself that I could accomplish it all in those extra three hours of wakefulness. It took me decades to figure out that my productivity of sixteen hours on a full night’s sleep far outweighed the inefficiency of my nineteen-hour days. Rather than avoiding sleep as a waste of valuable time, I have learned to cherish it as a well-deserved luxury and a necessity to an active, healthy lifestyle. Besides, life is just lovelier with deep and dreamy hibernation, each and every night.

Much has been made about the detriments of sleep deprivation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that insufficient sleep is a public health epidemic. We should all know by now that lack of sleep causes:

~ Motor vehicle accidents because of the inability to concentrate and diminished motor skills

~ Workplace disasters due to poor decision-making and difficulties handling stress

~ Relationship troubles on account of a lack of libido, impatience, and mood swings

~ A multitude of health problems including depression, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and immune deficiencies

So now let’s make something about the amazing science of sleep. As medical expert Eve Van Cauter of the University of Chicago said, “Lack of sleep disrupts every physiologic function in the body. We have nothing in our biology that allows us to adapt to this behavior.”

~ The brain recharges and reorganizes itself during sleep, which is critical for learning and memory.

~ The body conserves energy and releases vital hormones during sleep that enables cells to repair themselves, encourages growth, and provides optimal functioning of organs.

~ In resting mode, the body releases chemicals like seratonin to curb depression, as well as hormones like ghrelin & leptin which regulate appetite and melatonin which suppresses the growth of tumors.

~ Sleep decreases a body’s stress hormones which helps prevent heart disease, and it lowers inflammation which boosts the body’s major restorative functions.

Enough said, but saying doesn’t necessarily make it so. How then to make elusive sleep happen?

A bowl of cereal

A rambling list

A dark shower

There you have it – my secret to a peaceful night’s sleep. Oh, we can talk about the magic of fuzzy socks & eye masks, meditation tapes & sleep music, herbal cocktails with lavender & chamomile, and supplements like melatonin & magnesium. We can reiterate the do’s and don’ts, like avoiding large meals & caffeine & alcohol before bed, following a bedtime ritual, shunning the techno overload of blue light before bedtime, and exercising during the day but not close to bedtime, unless of course it’s the amorous sort of exercise.  Those are all tricks to falling asleep. But when the cursed middle-of-the-night insomnia attacks, there is only one panacea that is tried-and-true in my life.

Cereal, list, shower – in that order, post haste. You must not waste time flopping around the mattress trying to fall back to sleep – that only adds to the aggravation. Get up, don a comfy robe and fuzzy socks, creep to the kitchen, turn on a dim light, and fix yourself a bowl of cereal. My choice is always Special K with almond milk and sliced bananas, but it wasn’t until recently that  I learned why the cereal thing is so effective. Dairy foods – along with bananas, nuts, seeds, honey, and eggs – help your body to release tryptophan, which we all know is a sleep inducer. Moreover, carbohydrates – like cereal and bread – complement the benefits of dairy by enhancing the production of tryptophan. Eureka! – what a validating factoid that explains the unconscious wisdom of my midnight compulsion.

While you’re lounging by candlelight with a bellyful of sleep nutrients, make an extensive list of all your worries and to-do’s. Just get it all out. My daughters have called me late-night from college more than a few times when everything seemed so miserable and hopeless, those little shrubs growing into monstrous saguaro cacti, spiny arms grappling with my girls. I finally sent them “Worry Journals” with the order to write down all those dark-induced, sleep-depriving stresses. Seeing everything spread out on paper may make it all seem manageable or perhaps even trivial, but at the very least it’s a way to vent the angst and morph those terrifying bears into pesky little rodents.

Once you have filled up your belly and dumped out your head, slink to the bathroom and take a warm shower in the dark, preferably with lavender soap and a loofa. Slather on lavender lotion, and immediately curl up in bed. Blissful slumber will surely follow. And if all else fails, just think of those millions of other tired souls out there making the same sleep-starved wish upon the same bright star… and feel like an essential part of the collective whole. Everything will feel lighter in the morning, I promise. Sweet dreams, darlings!

Daytime Lion

“A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures for anything.” 

~ Irish Proverb

 

A LITTLE SERVICE, PLEASE!

 

Habitat HouseLet’s Make a Better World by The Blind Boys of Alabama (click to play)

Hey, what’s going on in this bustling establishment? I’m pushing the fork around my plate, and there’s nothing to bite into. My plate is usually heaped full of all sorts of yummy tidbits, but now I’m scrounging for any little morsel to fill me up. And where the heck is everyone? It’s suddenly so quiet around here the walls are talking to me, faintly ringing the bells of Christmas Past. Restless post-holiday starvation… how can I get a little service in this joint, anyway?

Like a wooden dreidel, my top has been spinning so wildly that it’s fallen to the ground in a dizzy heap. That’s not surprising – I always seem to put my stamp on the holidays with a spectacular fall. But this year was different – something was missing in the seasonal tumble. Oh it was a marvelous Christmas season, to be sure, filled with love and cheer and the best intentions. We decked the halls, trimmed the trees, made lots of merry, spread oodles of goodwill, rejoiced in the peaceful glow, and savored every joyous twinkle. I even capped off Christmas Eve with a great spill – in front of the whole family in the kitchen, heading straight for the open oven, saved only by my knight-in-shining-armor’s quick hands. Voilà, that gave the family a little lore to laugh about for many holiday dinners to come.

No, the thing I’m missing, craving – starving for, in fact – is service please. The walls of my humble establishment have been taunting me with the service of Christmas Pasts. Caroling at the retirement homes with my Girl Scout troop back when I was a kid. Collecting toys for the kids in the Phoenix barrios with my church youth group as a teen. Raising money and gathering canned food for families in need with my children’s scout troops. Passing out holiday hams and turkeys with our National Charity League friends. Playing Santa’s elf as a holiday shopper with parents in need. Making and filling stockings for children in the shelters. Wrapping and delivering gifts around the East Bay. Adopt-a-family year-after-year. Where was the charitable elf in me hiding out this year? I spread a lot of Christmas cheer, but I didn’t lift one golden-ringed finger of service to anyone in need. How did that happen? No wonder I feel so deprived!

It has become abundantly clear that in order to be truly happy and fulfilled, I need to be of service. I’ve also figured out that it’s pretty easy to give service as a member of an organization where opportunities abound. The real challenge is creating those service opportunities as a lone elf outside of the bustling workshop. The other real challenge is keeping the charitable holiday spirit radiating throughout the year, when those in need are often most desperate.

In this cruel and senseless world, there is actually an amazing supply of service inspiration. The best part of Brian Williams’ NBC Nightly News is the closing piece Making a Difference each evening that highlights the brilliantly simple things caring folks do out of sheer goodwill, far beyond the holiday season. How about the Danville mother who has made over 500 “superhero” capes for children with life-threatening illnesses through her Kiss the Toad Creations? Or the Fruit Picker Squadron that goes around gathering excess fruit from neighborhood trees for the local food bank? Or the thousands of people who made paper snowflakes to greet the students of Sandy Hook upon their return to school? How easy is that? There is no need for any of us to sit around with empty plates waiting for service when there are so many delicacies just waiting to be devoured if we would only help ourselves.

Service is empowering and leads us on unimaginable adventures. One day several years ago, my daughter and I joined a couple friends to help build a home in Oakland with Habitat for Humanity. We thought we’d be doing some painting, maybe hammering a few nails, but we ended up scrabbling over a 30-foot roof and scaling 3-story scaffolding with big sheets of plywood to nail into the siding. We knew nothing about construction and weren’t particularly comfortable with heights, which made our volunteer efforts that much more rewarding – we gained more in confidence than we gave with our hard day’s work.

It’s quite common to be immobilized by the lack of a cause that we are passionate about or by our desire to do something big and important, our life’s calling. But in the scheme of real life, it’s the little things that make the most difference. I am endlessly inspired by my dear friend who is simply “Everybody’s Best Friend”. She makes a great effort to stay in contact with all of her friends, particularly when they are going through a painful divorce, need someone to accompany them to chemo treatments, or move to a smaller home when their husband dies. I am also inspired by three creative young women I know who joined Ann Curry’s “26 Acts of Kindness” movement to honor the 26 people who lost their lives in the Sandy Hook tragedy (sistersforsmiles.wordpress.com). Their daily kindnesses are as simple as picking up the carts in the grocery store parking lot or visiting their old neighbors to show they still care about them. What a simplistically awesome concept. After 26 days of consciously thinking about charitable acts, the habit of benevolence should be firmly embedded in our psyche. Imagine the world 26 days from now if everyone took on this kindness challenge. World peace, abundant food, no fiscal cliffs… dreamers taking action to manifest profound harmony.

My reverie finds me back in my quiet little establishment that is sorely lacking in service. Well, I can’t sit around waiting for someone to fill my plate. Better start banging the cupboard doors, clanging some pots and pans, rummaging through the pantry, and rustling up some grub. There’s a whole world out there waiting to be fed, and there’s no better place to start than in our own little corners. As noble as it is to feed the world, it’s crucial that we nourish our community. It may not be as splashy and exotic as traveling to Africa to save the starving children, but there’s a whole lot of need right here on our doorsteps. At any rate, it’s far less daunting to start with one little plate before we bust out the big ol’ pot.

iVolunteer.org

volunteermatch.org

volunteerinfo.org

givespot.com

 

POWER WITHOUT AMBITION

Let It Go by Tim McGraw (click to play)

If Barry Zito was a storybook, he would be The Secret of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman. Remember this children’s tale that I read to my kids years ago? It’s the story of a boy who learns to deal with a bully by letting go and facing the fear by harnessing his power. The wise old Socrates teaches him how to gain confidence on the path of least resistance. He advises his young student to bend with the wind like a sapling tree. “Never resist someone’s force – use it. If they pull, you push. If they push, you pull. “   I would lay heavy odds that Barry Zito has read the adult version of this book, The Way of the Peaceful Warrior. It challenges our Western beliefs of masculine power and success, tapping into power not by forcing our will as we are wont to do but simply by letting go. Socrates teaches the value of being conscious over being smart and strength in spirit over physical strength.

Baseball players are notoriously superstitious, but Barry is beyond. His idiosyncrasies and offbeat personality led to nicknames like Captain Quirk and Planet Zito. He plays the guitar, practices yoga, follows Zen, meditates before games, and now embraces Christianity. Zito made his major league debut in 2000 and played for seven seasons with the Oakland A’s, earning the coveted Cy Young Award in the 2002 season, making three all-star teams, and never missing a scheduled start. After the 2006 season, he signed with the San Francisco Giants in the most expensive pitching contract in history at the time… and then he majorly tanked. His struggles were epic during his first five seasons as a Giant, and his riches to ridicule to redemption story is the stuff legends are made of.  After being shunned from the Giants’ 2010 World Series roster, Barry simply put his head down and dug in. He accepted that decision with dignity, never withering in self-pity or giving up to take the money and run. He surprised everyone with a 15-8 win-loss record this season and then went on to shock the cover off the baseball with his post-season mystical comeback. Zito started and pitched 7+ shutout innings in crucial Game 5 of the National League pennant race against the St. Louis Cardinals, magically shifting the Giants momentum and propelling them on their way to the championship. As the starting pitcher in Game 1 of the World Series against the Detroit Tigers, Zito allowed just one earned run in 5+ innings pitched and took the brilliant win for San Francisco. On top of that, he knocked an RBI base hit to left field in the fourth inning, a pitcher’s fluke even for the regular season. Zito was philosophical about his resurrection, simply saying,  “A lot of learning goes on in life. The lows can be low. I’ve made a lot of adjustments. Sometimes you just have to take your lashings; it’s for a reason.”

Even if you’re not a baseball fan, you’ve got to appreciate the way that the San Francisco Giants won the 2012 World Series.  This team embodied the concept of Team Spirit. It began with manager Bruce Boche “Service trumps self interest.”  That philosophy was embraced by each and every Giant around the horn, from pitcher Madison Bumgarner  “Everybody picking everybody up – that’s what’s special about our team”  to closer Sergio Romo  “There’s no personal time to shine – that’s not what we’re seeking”  to MVP catcher Buster Posey  “It just felt good to contribute.”  For the players on this team, their ambitions were for the greater good of the team.

Captain Quirk’s storybook legend reminds me of the lessons that keep dogging me in my yoga practice. One of my favorite teachers inspires us to tap into our personal power, but to do so without ambition. Ambition is defined as an earnest desire for achievement or distinction, such as honor, fame or wealth, along with the willingness to strive for that desire. Ambition is a good thing, but the real power is all about the reason for the desire. Selfish reasons for personal gain are far less noble than striving for the greater good.  Sometimes I try so hard to make something happen and it feels like I’m spinning my wheels. When I’m struggling to strike a perfect yoga pose, it feels forced and shaky. But the moment I just relax and enjoy the pose – however imperfect it may be – is when the real power is achieved. Yesterday another wise teacher espoused the concept that neutrality is underrated.  Neutrality is actually a powerful place to be, and she encouraged us to stop reaching, stop resisting. Just slide into the pose – nice and easy – without striving for perfection. And suddenly my feet were floating in the air, with a quiet power devoid of the falling-flat-on-my-face fear.

What is the secret to effortless trying?

~ Focus on the goal with a peaceful heart and a quiet mind, nary a forceful notion.

~ Enjoy the process and visualize smooth transitions along the way.

~ If it feels like we’re headbanging a wall, it might be time to stop and re-evaluate our ambitions to find the true power resting behind the wall.

~ Translate our personal ambitions to the greater good, and the power is unlimited.

~ And as Socrates bluntly told his peaceful warrior, “If a railroad train is coming your way, for godsakes get off the tracks!”

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