In the online Red Cross Lifeguard Course, there’s a segment titled “When Things Don’t Go As Planned.” Every time I come across it, I smile.
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Yes, indeedy. Because things often don’t go as planned.
Learning, in a real or virtual classroom, from text or videos or slideshows or YouTube, is necessarily simplified. The situations are controlled. Even the blood looks like cherry-flavored candy.
As a blogger, I ruminate, explore, define, proceed logically, and research. I’ve touched on so many different topics over the years here on Harvesting Stones. I’ve examined needs and boundaries, reciprocity and connection, contribution and authenticity.
However, this kind of intellectual exercise, learning at a remove, is not where the real mastery is.
The mastery comes when we put it all into action in real life. And real life is unbelievably messy. Real life is a loose cannon on a rolling deck. Real life does not go as planned.
We are occasionally plunged into chaos, into complicated experiences involving a lot of feelings and requiring all our skills. Our predictable routines and schedules turn inside out. We are not able to care for ourselves or anybody else as usual. We become exhausted. Our personal demons crawl out of our subconscious attics and cellars and play with us. Our physical weaknesses take advantage of our stress. We lose track of our power. We lose track of ourselves.
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I would avoid such times if I could. I believe most of us would. Few people enjoy living in a maelstrom. The thing is, the maelstrom holds gifts, insights and growth we would never realize if we always lived serene, well-controlled lives.
I’m writing this on Wednesday morning. A week ago today, less than 24 hours before closing on the house we’re selling and the house we’re buying, closing was cancelled. Well, “extended.” I’m not sure there’s a difference, but my hope is pretty frayed right now, so I’m inclined to be pessimistic.
I thought I had been living in chaos before that abrupt last-minute change of plans, but those far-off days seem like a cake walk compared to what the last seven days have been like for me.
When our lives fall apart in painful ways, part of the stress of it is the rest of the world goes right on without giving us space and time to process, remember our resilience, and get back on our feet. I still needed to figure out how to get the car in to get the studded snows changed. I still have bills to pay. I still have a job. I still need to search the stores for cat food. I still have family birthdays to remember. The bed still needs to be made, the dishes washed, the laundry done. I want to remain consistent in my writing.
Autoimmune disease is highly opportunistic. I have not had this amount of stress since I moved to Maine seven years ago, and within a few hours of the cancelled closings my back went into spasm, which means I need all the love, rest, and care I can give myself right now, in the middle of the shit show. My body would feel better if we could close and get this move over with. And I can’t possibly move with this level of pain.
Meanwhile, the world turns. I feel guilty about my struggle when I know people in Ukraine are losing their homes, lives, loved ones, and perhaps their country. I tell myself I’m being dramatic, I’m whining, I never deserved for things to work out in the first place, etc., etc.
I told you about the personal demons crawling out, right?
So what do we do during times like these? How do we get through them? How do I turn the concepts of letting go, courage, detachment from outcomes, and emotional intelligence into tools to help myself? It’s all so clear, logical, and neat on the page/screen. I believe every word I write. It’s all organized and categorized.
When things don’t go as planned, nothing is neat, organized, or categorized. We can’t think well. Our feelings sweep us from fear to fury to despair and back again.
In my old dance group, we used to say when you feel overwhelmed, dance small.
Dancing small is focusing on breathing in and out. It’s making small movements. It’s wrapping your arms around yourself, facing a wall or a corner, closing your eyes, and concentrating on the floor under your feet. It’s deliberately sinking into yourself and letting everything and everyone else go as best you can. It might be the healing release of tears.
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This strategy doesn’t make the chaos go away, but it does give us a small resting place within the chaos. It allows us to find and hold onto ourselves. It gives us a tiny bit of power. It allows a little space for rational thought, for us to remind ourselves of what’s true:
This week, though in many ways painful and difficult, has also provided me with valuable practical experience in using some of my newer skills. It’s given me a chance to stay in my own power, always a worthy practice. I’ve had an epiphany about a longstanding destructive pattern in my relationships which has emotionally freed me in significant ways. Paradoxically, the current chaos has brought me clarity.
I’ve also been touched and humbled by the support I’ve received from friends and other members of my community. I am not alone.
Most of all, it’s given me a chance to deal with my feelings. It occurs to me the word “stress” is misleading. I don’t need to deal with my stress. My feelings need attention. They need to be named, welcomed, fully experienced, and released, no matter if they’re in my head, heart, or back. Managing my feelings will take care of my stress and my physical discomfort.
By the time you read this, things will have changed. Perhaps we’ll have a new closing date. Perhaps I’ll have decided to make a different plan. Perhaps we’ll still be in limbo, but it will be a different day in limbo. Today, we’ve taken my car in to get the tires changed, so that’s something taken care of. At some point, the muscles in my back will unclench and I’ll move freely again and be able to resume exercise.
Meanwhile, frogs boom, chuckle, and peep in the pond. The birds are busy and the spring dawn chorus gladdens each morning. The phoebe has returned and hunts from the barn roof. Rain falls and the sun shines. The mud is gradually drying up. I will feed the cats, play with them, clean their boxes. I’ll go to work, teach swim lessons, wipe down the locker rooms, read the pool chemicals, guard lives, answer the phone. I’ll feed myself, drink cups of tea, rest, write, read, and sleep. Time will pass. Days will pass.
It will all pass, the things that go as planned, and the things that don’t.
Unless the sky falls (again), we will be moving in less than a week. It’s hard to believe. In fact, it’s impossible to believe, but that’s okay. Today is real, and I know what I need to do right now. The future can take care of itself.
As I moved around the kitchen early this morning, feeding (and tripping over) the cats, making breakfast, heating water for tea, watching the sky lighten, it occurred to me the last seven years in this old farmhouse have taught me a magnificent lesson.
Maine Farmhouse and Barn
When I moved to Maine, I had a solid idea about what I was moving into, a whole set of expectations and dreams, none of which turned out to be real.
The loss of my fantasies was heartbreaking and took me years to process. During that time, I started this blog and later remodeled it, finished my first book, wrote my second, and began my third, started publishing my fiction serially on Substack, put everything I’ve learned about emotional intelligence into action, grew deep roots in my community, found a great job I love, and became part of a second family.
At the same time, I experienced disempowerment in terms of my living space and physical surroundings. Never before have I lived in a place where I had so little power to respond to my needs and preferences, and never have I been so overwhelmed with maintenance tasks I could not take care of.
Because of my emotional intelligence training, my disempowerment was visible to me, and I was able to turn towards what I did have power over, again and again, until it became second nature. It didn’t feel good, but it was invaluable practice at managing my own power, at recognizing my own power.
Always before in my life, I’ve had plans and projects, things I wanted to buy, walls I wanted to paint, the ability to rearrange furniture, make repairs, have new shelves built, and discard what was no longer useful. Such activity gave me a great deal of pleasure and was thoroughly distracting. It was never finished, so I stayed firmly focused on externals.
In this house, that distraction has been unavailable. To stand in my own power has been to stand still with myself, to work internally, to feel my feelings, create, stretch, grow, learn, explore. It’s been lonely. It’s been uncomfortable. It’s been transformative. It’s been internal, invisible, and has nothing to do with a shiny presentation.
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Most of us would acknowledge real change and healing come from the inside, not from the surface. But understanding that intellectually is not the same as spending years living it. I would never have voluntarily given up the power to manage my surroundings. When I realized it was happening I had a choice to make, and I chose to explore this new, unexpected territory.
That choice is one of the best I’ve ever made.
I have learned a dream home, a dream wardrobe, a dream body, a dream library, is not a life. What others see of me and my possessions and home is not me. My presentation has nothing to do with my state of health, presence, and groundedness.
Our new home is old, though not as old as this farm, and it needs some work. Sure, it needs new exterior paint and other cosmetic help, but that’s not where I’ll start. Those changes are fun and everyone can see and appreciate them, but the invisible, internal issues like plumbing, wiring, and insulation are what will really make a difference to my experience living there.
The looks of the new house are not what matters. It’s the life we create inside it that matters.
The color of my hair doesn’t matter. It’s what’s inside my head that matters.
The clothes I wear don’t matter. It’s the health and peace in my body that matter.
Attaining perfection (and perfect control) of my space is not what matters. It’s the ability to manage my thoughts and feelings, maintain integrity, and live well that matter.
In these last few days of packing, sorting, and endless tasks and details, at every step I’m thinking about what I learned and how grateful I am for the lesson. I didn’t choose to learn it. I wouldn’t have volunteered to learn it. I was forced into it, tricked into it, even.
But that’s not important. My life has consistently taken me exactly where I need to go, in spite of how much I whine and complain about some of the places I’ve been. Now, just ahead, is a whole new chapter.
I wonder what I will learn.
(Next weekend we’re moving, so you won’t see a post here from me. I’ll be back in two weeks!)
I’m doing it again. Dissenting. Doubting. Questioning the status quo. Looking for new or buried information.
Thinking critically, in other words.
I know unthinking conformity is convenient, but I’ve always been an inconvenient sort of person.
This time it’s about diet, and fat, and cholesterol.
I’ve written several posts on this subject before. Here’s the first one.
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I know it’s all wrong to eat meat and animal fat and stay away from plant-based food of any kind, but it solved my health problems.
I’ve had a lot of bad experience with doctors. For much of my life, I’ve been completely intimidated by doctors or anyone else in authority, especially men. I’m not afraid of blood draws and exams, but unable to speak up for myself, ask questions, or dare to fail to please in any way. Which means in and out of the office as fast as possible, making no fuss, not speaking except to answer questions succinctly, never disagreeing, and thanking the doctor extravagantly for their time and trouble, even if (especially if) I felt completely unseen, unheard and unsupported.
(Oh, and desperately minimizing any problems I do have so as not to be a whiner or come across as drug- or attention-seeking. Because it’s bad to need help.)
In short, fawning from the beginning of the appointment to the end.
This experience has meant I avoid health care, aside from well-woman exams and an occasional emergency visit for antibiotics or an injury.
When I have been to the doctor for things like chronic pain, insomnia, depression, and anxiety, I’ve been offered medication rather than information. I don’t want to take long-term medication. I want someone to help me understand what the underlying problem is, not slap a band-aid on it. That means I want to exchange information, which takes time, and ask questions. I want to be given resources and options.
Here in Maine I’ve found a health care provider I like and respect. She’s intelligent, personable, and doesn’t make me feel as though I’m nothing but a nuisance. With her help, I’ve caught up on all appropriate scans, screens, and tests. It’s nice to feel empowered to take care of my own health.
However, part of screenings and tests for women my age have to do with identifying risks for cardiovascular disease, and according to current standards of care I am at risk, solely because of my diet and cholesterol panel.
Current guidelines and standards are built on the longstanding lipid hypothesis, which states diets high in animal fats lead to atherosclerosis, which leads to heart disease. Other, equally longstanding evidence-based data from around the world over a span of decades suggests the opposite, not only that cholesterol is not an indicator of heart disease, but it’s actually protective against it, especially for women. Many doctors, Ph.Ds, and biochemists believe the lipid hypothesis is false and based on a severely flawed original study, which means all the current guidelines (diet and nutrition recommendations and pharmacology to reduce cholesterol) and standards of care built upon it are ineffective, at best. This is validated by staggering and rising rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems in the American public since the lipid hypothesis began to change diet and nutrition guidelines, food production, and medical care in the 1950s.
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However, the lipid hypothesis is enormously lucrative for Big Ag, Big Pharma, and food producers, and those entities have frightening wealth and political power, more than enough to successfully stifle any funding for unbiased studies, silence independent scientists researching diet, fat, and cholesterol, and corrupt or bury any data that does not support the lipid hypothesis.
I am not getting my information from Facebook or conspiracy theories. I’ve spent years researching and reading, both in books and online, about diet, fat, and cholesterol. I don’t take the position that current cardiovascular guidelines are wrong, but neither am I convinced they’re right. I don’t know, and I know I don’t know, but the evidence tells me there’s plenty of room for doubt. My experience tells me a high-fat, low-to-no-carb diet is the key to my own health.
I want to have a discussion about it with my healthcare provider. I want to talk about studies. I want to ask questions. I want to be allowed to have doubts and concerns. I want to weigh my overall excellent health and function against numbers that may or may not have much to do with heart disease. I want to share links and be given suggestions for research.
I want to consider the possibility that current standards of care are based on a hypothesis that is incorrect.
I scheduled a phone call to discuss some of my test results. My provider expressed her concern about one particular result and thanked me for an email I had sent her, containing several links and information sources I find useful and interesting.
She was polite. I was polite. But our previously warm and friendly connection had vanished. I don’t believe she read anything I sent. I asked a couple of questions about studies and different ways to assess cholesterol panel results, but she dismissed it all. Flat. Businesslike. Professional.
It was a disappointingly brief conversation. I was clear about what I would and would not do. We came up with a plan. We hung up.
I spent the rest of the day feeling like an extremely anxious, difficult, bad child, waiting for catastrophe because I Failed To Please.
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All healthcare workers are under the gun these days. I work in a hospital myself, and come in for my share of politically-motivated bullshit regarding COVID. Healthcare providers are understandably exhausted, burned out, and defensive. I’m probably just one more patient influenced by some crazy ideology on the web, as far as my provider is concerned. She has a standard of care to adhere to that’s clean, clear, and congruent with the organization’s policies and procedures, which are congruent with the American Heart Association and all the other powerful medical organizations’ guidelines. She doesn’t have the time or energy to debate with patients about vaccines, dietary fat and cholesterol, or anything else.
But what if current cardiovascular preventive care is based on bad data? What if the truth has been buried under politics and capitalism for decades? What if I feel in the best health of my life because I am in the best health of my life, and nothing’s wrong, nothing needs fixing?
I don’t want to suffer from heart disease, cancer, or other health problems any more than anyone else does. I value my good health and work hard to eat right and stay fit. I want to learn about my own metabolism and physiology. I don’t want pharmacological fixes for issues that might not even be real problems.
I feel sad and frustrated and very alone. I’m feel as though I’m being punished for being a sceptic, and researching and thinking for myself. I’m back in the familiar pattern of asking questions and having people shut down, or withdraw and withhold.
I suppose at the end of the day we all wind up with ourselves and the best choices we can make with the information and resources we have. I know what the right thing is to do for myself at this point. I might get new information. Things might change. I might make a mistake, or be wrong, and suffer consequences. I’m prepared for all that. Things change. I can change with them.
This time I’m not blaming myself for the way I feel. This time I’m seriously considering the possibility that I’m not broken, but our healthcare system is. I’ll continue to take responsibility for my own health and well-being. I’ll continue to read and research as new data and studies become available for review. I’ll continue to doubt, dissent, question, and seek information.
I cannot blindly follow an organization, a system, or a set of expectations and rules from anyone. Data can be and is misinterpreted. It can be frankly corrupted by politics and capitalism. Much of what I’ve learned in my life I’ve had to unlearn and replace with something more effective. I’ve never been able to understand why we are so resistant to being wrong. How can we ever learn if we can’t be wrong? How can we ever go forward and build on our experience and observations? How can we ever hope to improve anything?
So here I am, skeptical again, and paying the price for it. But I’m going to stay on my side and continue to support my healthcare choices, even if I can’t find professional support. I’m not going to fawn, or let my fear chose for me, or apologize for who I am. I’m going to exercise my power to say yes and no, think critically, and advocate for myself, regardless of the expectations of others.
In Controlling People by Patricia Evans, I read about group control connections. She compares and contrasts healthy groups with unhealthy ones.
As social beings who need connection, humans form many kinds of groups: family, tribal, cultural, religious, political, formal, and informal.
Healthy groups, according to Evans, bond together for, not against, others. In this type of group, members are open to information exchange, questions, and learning, not only among group members, but with other groups. Healthy groups support their members and do not work to harm others. Such groups are dynamic, flexible, and consistent. Group members build trust, respect, and integrity. They communicate clearly. They don’t pretend they can define others. They don’t need to win and be right and they understand the value of diversity. They seek to share power. They understand interconnection. Unhealthy groups bond together against another person or group. They are not open to information, questions, or learning. Unhealthy groups pretend they can define others. They make up derogatory labels and apply them liberally. Unhealthy groups generate sweeping generalizations, contemptuous memes, and disinformation. The bond in these groups is based on an agreement, sometimes spoken and sometimes not, to act against authentic persons to sustain an illusion the group is invested in. Such groups employ coercive tactics like silencing, scapegoating, deplatforming, and tribal shaming. They employ black-and-white, either/or thinking. They seek power over others, and these groups are often led by an authoritarian leader who rigidly controls group activities and expects absolute obedience.
Discerning the difference between these two groups is tricky. Individuals and groups don’t necessarily state their agendas honestly. An organization or group may say their purpose is to work for equal rights (healthy) when in fact they seek to disempower others in an effort to increase the power of the in-group (unhealthy).
Working for equal power, or a more level playing field, is entirely different from the intention to grab more power at the expense of others.
A key to assessing the true purpose and health of any individual or group is consistency, and judging consistency requires close observation and time. A disconnect between words and actions is a visible red flag.
Another key is the position of power a group or individual takes. Not their stated position, but their active position. A group working for equal rights and power, or working to support a disadvantaged or threatened group against power predators, is not a hate group. Calling it so doesn’t make it so.
An individual or group operating out of integrity will be consistent in their words and actions over time. Integrity doesn’t mean perfection in expression or action. It means the individual or group are honest and thoughtful about their purpose and goals and endeavor to focus their actions in effective ways that serve the whole, not just their own interests.
The ability to judge the difference between healthy and unhealthy groups has never been more important. Many people are swept up in unhealthy groups because they’re starving for connection and don’t have the skills to assess the situation. Leaders of unhealthy groups are often charismatic, glib, attractive liars and manipulators, seductive wolves looking for sheep. They do not share power.
Such people are invariably inconsistent in their words and actions, and a close look reveals it. Ideology supported by coercion and gaslighting is dangerous.
If we seek loyalty, trust, respect, creditability, and to positively influence others, we must demonstrate consistency. If we seek to contribute ideas, art, or material products to the marketplace, we must be consistent.
If we seek to be part of healthy groups and connections, and we believe in equal rights, opportunity, and justice for all, we have a responsibility to maintain integrity and consistency, and demand it from others. Ours is not the only story. Ours are not the only needs. Our personal power is not the only power that matters.
When inspiration struck and I set out to build a new website for my blog and other writing, I assumed the process would move quickly. I could hardly wait to see the vision in my head become reality. I’m a happy and motivated independent learner and felt certain I could fumble with the design software and master it without much trouble, the way I did when I created Our Daily Crime.
The software for Our Daily Crime is nearly ten years old now, a tech dinosaur. The new software requires a whole new level of skill.
I needed help. Scheduling a meeting with a professional took time. Then we had to reschedule due to a conflict. More time. I turned my attention to other things and practiced patience (not very successfully!).
In the meantime, we’ve hired a new team member at work to join us in lifeguarding, teaching, and working with patrons and patients in the pools. He’s older than I am, and he’s working hard on refining his swimming skills and learning new techniques. We’re giving him all the support and practice we can.
I admire adults who want to learn new skills. We’ve just begun to teach private swim lessons again after the pandemic, and I have two adult students. When I asked one of them what her goals were for her lessons, she said, “Not to drown,” which made me laugh.
I did eventually meet with my web designer using Zoom, and I spent an intense hour and a half taking notes, asking questions, and watching her use the design software. Since then, I’ve spent several hours working with it, and gradually I’m gaining mastery and shaping the website I dreamed of. I’m elated. Can’t wait to share it with you!
As a lifelong learner and teacher, I notice how varied our learning experience can be.
Context matters. I was wretched during my public school years. My goals were to achieve good grades to meet the expectations of my family and graduate. Any pleasure in the learning itself, for its own sake, suffocated under the long nightmare of those years. Graduation meant nothing to me, and I would have ignored it if I’d been allowed. My reward was surviving.
College was no better. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t belong there. Once again, I went through the motions of pleasing others and living up to expectations, two hellish years of depression, social isolation, and suicidal ideation before I dropped out.
I still wince when I think of the money wasted.
Somehow the joy of learning has been distorted into competition, capitalism, and perfectionism. Everyone doesn’t have equal access to education and educational tools. Many people don’t complete high school, let alone higher education. We don’t talk about education in terms of enhancing our lives and making ourselves bigger. We talk about getting a good job, making a lot of money (or not), and school loans. Capitalism defines success.
Worst of all, if we happen to be interested in literature, writing, religion, music, theater, philosophy – liberal arts, in other words – we’re steered away from those interests because “they” say we can’t earn a living pursuing them. I’ve got news for you. You can’t make a living as a librarian or medical transcriptionist, either.
Apparently, education is not valuable unless it leads to making a certain amount of money.
On the other hand, many learners in our communities are in it for the fun of learning something new. Their goals are about real life, as opposed to the construct of consumerism. They don’t want to drown. They want to do a job they’ve never done before and so learn new skills. They want to use technology as a tool to support their passion. Adult learners know learning enhances life. They’re not coerced into learning; they seek it out.
It’s a lot easier and more fun to teach someone who wants to learn than it is someone who’s having learning thrust upon them.
Adult learners have lived long enough to know how to learn. Not how to compete, how to cheat, how to work the system, how to manipulate good grades and references, and how to create their own personal perfectionistic demons, but how to learn. Adult learners also know something about how they best learn, and are able to communicate their needs and goals.
Learning requires time, patience and practice. It takes courage to seek new skills. It’s messy. We make mistakes, flounder, and fail. Good adult learners persist anyway, pursuing their creativity or passion, satisfying their curiosity and desire for mastery.
I’ve had the good fortune to know and work with wonderful teachers who have inspired, encouraged, and challenged me. I’ve also known destructive teachers who permanently damaged my trust, confidence, and sense of self-worth. The difference between them, I’m convinced, has nothing to do with their level of education or training, but rather with their power management. Good teachers seek to empower their students. Destructive teachers not only refuse to share their power, they actively disempower their students.
Healthy communities support learning and teaching, not necessarily as a formal process, but as a natural one. As a teacher, I know my students give me at least as much as I give them. Teaching and learning are collaborative, a sharing of power. To teach is to learn. To learn is to teach. Passing on my love of swimming doesn’t change the world, but it’s a contribution I can make joyfully.
Everyone succeeds when we teach and learn together.