Saturday, December 3, 2016

There's No Such Thing as "Self-Help"

I moved to a new neighborhood in September, across from the middle school football field and on a street filled with modest ranchers built in the 70s.  I didn’t know anyone and I live alone.  The first Saturday I was there I heard really loud singing coming from across my backyard fence -  old school stuff, some guy mowing his lawn and crooning Motown.  Cautiously (crazy person?) I walked over there and saw a smiling guy with headphones, belting it out like it was his job, which it clearly was not.  He saw me, pulled off his earbuds and a huge grin lit up his face.
            Turns out Chris and his wife Paula came to Colorado from New Orleans after Katrina, where they had lost everything.  If you know anything about New Orleans, you know they love their dang music.  Chris and Paula just love to sing and dance.  He gave me his phone number, told me to call whenever I needed something.  Chris works for UPS and Paula is in retail.  They are good people.  So when I had a big package to ship I texted Chris about the nearest UPS store and before I could breathe he was rolling up in the big brown truck.
         “Yo Miss Phyllis!” he whistled as he hopped out in his little brown pants, “I’ll take your package.  Give it here.”
            You know how it is when you move to a new place.  I didn’t know where anything was and spent a lot of time GPS-ing the simplest things.  So grateful for his generous spirit, I happily handed him the package.
            “Listen Miss Phyllis,” he said gravely but beaming, “You got people.”
          His neighbor love stopped me in my tracks. Brand new to this town, pretty solitary, and finding my way those three words were a balm to my soul: You are not alone. We are all in this together. 
            I got people.
          We can’t do anything alone.  When I wake up on a Colorado morning and I hear the heater humming away, I know people have made that happen, along with the lights, the food in my pantry, and the car in my driveway.  Where would I be without everybody else?  Cold, in the dark, hungry and walking everywhere.  Nothing works or happens without all our people.
            A few years ago after a bilateral mastectomy for breast cancer, I woke up to see my three brothers standing around the bed.
            “Hey Phyl,” my adorable brother Dom said, “Did you have the surgery or not?  Hard to tell.”
            They are my people, along with my two sisters, three sons, their amazing wives and kids. My bio-tribe is loud, loving, and fiercely devoted to each other and the rest of my tribe, though unrelated by blood are bound to me by big fat Philly love. Through cancer, I learned that we never heal alone.  I mean, my struggles with the loss of body parts was internal and had to be processed through my own singular filter but I healed in community, as we all do.  Group healing works.  Ask any social worker, therapist, AA member, or tribe of any kind.  There’s no such thing as “self-help.”  It’s “us-help” all the way. I mean, sure, you have to suffer through some things alone but shared pain lessens the anguish every dang time.
            As a young woman I feared dependency (just like old people do) and was strident, self-reliant, and basically disdainful of those who needed help.  As my college buddy therapist lovingly pointed out, I wasn’t “independent” I was “counter-dependent.”  If it looked or smelled like “needy” I was kickboxing my way out of it – whatever “it” was: a relationship, a task, a feeling, or a thought.  In my terror to avoid looking weak I became sort of a crazed female lone wolf.  As I get older I yield to the logic of community.
            This is pretty poignant at a time when our whole country and certainly our society seems sick.  We haven’t listened closely enough to each other and as a result our politics have gone catawampus.   It makes me sad to see more divisiveness come out of this:  fighting and recall efforts, and more partisan bullshit.  We are in this pickle because everyone built their little silo of need or belief and that was that.  Like a dear friend of mine said, “I lived in a progressive bubble.  I had no idea so many people were suffering.”
            Time to burst all bubbles, tear down all silos, and flush assumptions, beliefs, and fears down the loo.  We all want to be happy, healthy and free. The only way out is through, helping each other out of this morass by really listening without judgment and condemnation.  When tragedy strikes a family, community, or country all barriers dissipate and it’s just human hearts helping.  United we stand; divided we have already fallen.
            So now when I roam a bookstore (what’s left of them) and I see someone ardently paging through a book in the Self Help section I want to go up to her (it’s usually a her), put my arm on her shoulder and say Come one, honey.  We’re all in this together.  I want to tell her there are no experts or gurus or “teachers,” there’s only us together, muddling through, sharing stories of what works and what doesn’t, holding on to each other after a bad diagnosis or another failed relationship. Put the book down, honey, and give me a hug.
            You got people.

Friday, September 16, 2016

We're Burning Daylight

      When I worked on a ranch in The Middle of Nowhere Colorado the cowboys taught me lots worth knowing:  they taught me to watch the sky all the time, because mountain storms in the summer are biblical and the wind and hail come over the ridge like a big gleeful boogieman, ready to knock you flat.  If you’re feet aren’t okay, the day’s going to put a big hurting on you, and hot or cold, something around the neck will make you feel better.  Life and death are all over the ranch, strewn about in front of you like popcorn on a movie theater floor.  So the lessons are in-your-face and endless, but mostly what the cowboys taught me was this:  there is no time left.  If you don’t do it now, it may never happen at all.
If I was hemming and hawing, fussing with tack or worrying about being hungry while we were out pushing 700 head of cattle over endless miles of rocky high desert pasture they would school me right up.  Here I was, some 50-something girl from back East knowing a little less than nothing about anything, holding them back from getting ‘er done.  It didn’t matter that I lacked any kind of skill except the ability to ride a horse (and barely that, given the yahoo pace of Western riding, compared to the button-down civility of my meager English training).  I had a pulse and I showed up sober.  Those are the job requirements of a ranch hand.  Nobody gave a rat’s ass that I had been a lawyer.  Ranching doesn’t just level the playing field, it burns it right out from under you.  So I learned to shut up, early and often, but on the occasion when I absolutely had to jump off my horse and go pee, some surly crank would push his hat back, settle his hands atop the saddle horn and spit some chaw.
“We’re burnin’ daylight, Philly girl,” he’d say, “Come on.”
Burning daylight.  It’s going to be dark soon and then what?  Dark was about the only thing that could stop a cowboy from getting work done, so waiting for some city girl to get her biological need wrapped up was a waste of precious time.  Ranchers and cowboys had a whole different view of time.  You get up at “dark thirty” and there’s no such thing as “lunch time” or appointments, meetings, or schedules.  The sky opens up, a truck breaks down, some horse is suddenly lame and all hell breaks loose.  When my rancher boss – a fabulous amazing woman who’s still like a sister – told me that such and such a task would take “about two hours” I learned to multiply that by three.  Shit always happened.  Always.  There was not a whole lot of margin for error, so burning daylight was a rather big sin.
Well, what the hell.  There is no time left.  We are all burning daylight, every day. We’re born, we blink, and it’s over. The poet Ezra Pound said -  Life slips by like a field mouse, not shaking the grass.  Why would we waste one precious moment here on earth any more than a cowboy would waste a lick of light?  If you’re living someone else’s life, putting on the skin of a good girl when you want to be a rock star or working in daddy’s business when you just want to go to Nepal remember, this is not a dress rehearsal.  We have (Mary Oliver) this one wild and precious life.  Working on a ranch showed me in living color that we have only today, only this hour (to fix that fence, gather the herd, get the hay…).  There was a steady urgency about everything, working always with the heat at your back.
That heat is mortality, of course, which is guaran-damn- teed as the cowboys would say.  It’s almost funny that death is the one true absolute about life, and yet we go about our business as if the days are limitless and our visit here without end.  For some reason – some cockamamie teenage angst no doubt – I made a decision in high school to live every day like it was my last.  It dawned on me that I was pretty much chum on the human food chain – a small female, grist for the mill of violence I guess. But as a result of that conscious choice my life has been hugely adventurous.  I’m living outside the lines, while most people find a way to color inside them.  I cannot rest from travel, Tennyson said, I will drink life to the lees.
My restless spirit has been harshly judged by lots of well-meaning people who were scared and urged me to slow down and “settle down” and find one thing (job, husband, house) and stick with it. And there are those who just plain don’t like me because I never let the grass grow under my feet.  I’m the annoying one who always says why can’t we do this when slack-jawed suits say oh, we tried that before?  Meetings and committees make me want to take my heart out with a spoon.  We’re burning daylight, folks.  People need help, there are words to be written, mountains to climb, songs I have to hear, vistas I need to see.  The heat is at my back, and many times I have jumped with no net. So far, so really really good.
Visionaries tell us that you should always start at the end.  Picture where you want to end up and then figure out how to get there.  Well, we all end up dead so why not listen to folks right at that precipice, see what it looks like from the edge of the inevitable end?  A hospice companion in Australia named Bronnie Ware wrote a little book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.  She catalogued the stories people told her from the deathbed, and shaped her life around their wisdom.  According to her experience, do you know what the number one regret of the dying is?  I wish I had led my authentic life, and not the life other people wanted me to lead.

            If you wait until the cows come home (which is whenever they dang feel like it) to live your authentic life, you will blink, be old, and left holding the bag of regrets.  Whatever transformation needs to happen inside and out, it can start – slowly but surely – right now.  And once you make the commitment to bring your gifts and true self to the world (everyone’s in the closet in some way), books you need to read will fall off the shelf, people will show up out of nowhere to give you great advice, the money will find its way to you, and the path will open wide and bright.  Tomorrow may or may not come, and the precious heat at your back is our old friend The Grim Reaper, laughing a little bit as he taps you on the shoulder, reminding you gently that we’re burning daylight.

Friday, August 5, 2016

A BODY IN MOTION: Confessions of a 60 year-old Athlete

Sixty is sixty.  A third grader can tell you that sixty is not forty.  Think we could just honor that reality?  At sixty I can tell you I’m still the kid I was at six – climbing trees, rolling around in the grass and dying to play basketball in the driveway with my brothers, even though they cheat.  Yes, there’s a zero now after the “six” so I’ve had to modify a few things but I still check out trees for good climbing branches, and I’m a barefoot broad for sure.
From childbirth to breast cancer, my body has taught me everything worth knowing.  Some people learn by reading books; I learn by heaving up yesterday’s lunch after a six mile run.  When my first son was born I was furious at my body for betraying me with the kind of pain you see in horror flicks.  A cocky runner and strong 24 year-old, I was humbled when nature put a vice around my belly and said See here, Philly girl, you’re not such a big shot after all. 
Four decades later when cancer showed up I was a lot less cocky.  I gave up my breast tissue for peace of mind, and even threw a going away party for my boobs –  a Ta Ta to My Ta Tas Party – grateful for the fact that they served me so well for so long.  The first time I went for a run after my bilateral mastectomy I was like Wow!  This is easy!  Girl athletes know that breasts can get in the way.
At 60, no matter how fat or skinny you are, you’re sort of shaped like a vending machine.  From my extensive research I found that you become a rectangle so that men stop being interested in having sex with you.  Apparently, the primitive male brain seeks a waist to mate with and if you’re a rectangle, they’re not interested which certainly frees up a lot of time. In my case, my best friend – who grew up on a farm in Iowa and never minces words – tells me that from the side I look like “a pack of mayonnaise from Wendy’s.”  No breasts, no ass, clothes now sort of fall off me, which would have been a boon in my sexual heyday but now is just sort of funny.  I love and honor the pack of mayonnaise I am, and every step my sweet and sturdy feet take every day.
Aside from humility, my body has taught me invaluable life lessons that guide my thoughts and action in the world.  Believe me, there are plenty of times I wish I could have learned this by watching a movie but I’m a knucklehead.  I learn through my body, often via a world of pain.  If you stay tuned in as you run, ski, ride horses or backpack you’ll learn crucial lessons. But stay put and learn from a 60-year-old body in motion: 

1.Watch Your Step:  Everything is fraught with peril, so best to put one foot in front of the other carefully.  I won’t inflict the “mindfulness” rap on you but take it from one who has stumbled while climbing a 13,000-foot mountain pass with a 40-pound backpack.  It pays to pay attention;
2.  Be Protective of Those Below You: When you’re higher up – on a ski slope or in an organization – it’s your job to watch out for people below you.  Period.  
3.   Pay Attention to Pain: It’s trying to tell you something.  
4. When You’re Tired and You Don’t Wanna, Do it Anyway  
5.  Control Your Speed: If you’re out of control – on the ski slope, the bike or in life in general – you endanger yourself and others. 
6. Trust the Horse:  Or the Force.  There are times we’re just riding some big thing and we have to have faith that whatever it is, it will take care of us.
7.   Improvise, Adapt and Overcome:  Marines, athletes, and old people.
8.  Keep Moving:  Ever forward, girlfriend.  Eye on the prize.  When you’re on a horse or a bike that’s climbing up a gnarly pass, lean forward.  Always forward.
9. Wherever You Look is Where You’ll End Up:  This is the most important lesson of a body in motion.  Where your vision is, you’ll go too, so if you’re skiing through trees and you look at a tree you’ll end up kissing it, and not in a good way.  Same thing on a bike or a horse.  On a skinny, rocky single track if you stare at an obstacle your bike will crash into it.  Horses can actually sense your “sit bones” (a/k/a ass) and your body follows your eyes so if you’re looking all over the place, the horse will take you all over the place, which is not what you want when you’ve got a 1100 pound animal between your legs. Look beyond and not at the obstacle.
10.  Be Grateful Every Step

I watched a YouTube video the other day where women were asked to describe their body in one word.  It was profoundly sad to hear what they had to say:  ugly, fat, awful, mediocre, embarrassing.  There was a clip of a husband sort of yelling at his wife – “Come on! It’s time to go!” and she so hates her body she’s paralyzed in front of the mirror, unable to go out in public. 

Holey moly, sisters.  That’s so sad.  I just want to hug you with my skinny breast-less body (my heart is that much closer now, to the world).  I guarantee you there’s a talent in you waiting to shine. Being ashamed of your body just clouds your light so love, love, love that amazing bag of bones that gets you from A to B.  Take it from a pack of mayonnaise, don’t miss one second of being alive and just keep moving forward, eye on the prize.