When I am struggling, I frequently find myself gifted with exactly the idea I need to help me step back, take a breath, and reframe. It always feels like a miraculous bit of synchronicity. When it happens I remember to have faith in myself, faith in the vagaries of life. I remember I can make choices, whatever the situation.
Photo by NASA on Unsplash
It happened this morning, unexpectedly, in a post I read by an astrologist I follow. This astrologist is unlike any I’ve ever read before. To begin with he’s intelligent, but not in a grifter, let-me-manipulate-you sort of way. His interpretation of astrology is interesting and provocative. I don’t read him to find out what color to wear today, but because his lens is so fascinating.
This morning began at 4:00 a.m. Which is better than yesterday morning, which began at 3:00 a.m. with me hunched over in bed scribbling yet another list. Really important stuff that had to be recorded at three in the morning. For example:
E birthday card for friend (We share the same birthday this week; clearly this was an urgent reminder.)
request time off (formally, I mean. My absence is already covered by a teammate. But I might forget I have to travel to Colorado to put my mom in a memory care unit next week, and if I don’t properly request time off in our software system the sky will fall, I’ll be fired, I’ll give my director and friend (see above) extra work and she’ll hate me, I won’t get paid …)
tape measure (We are visiting the facility we hope to check Mom into before going to her house. How will we know what furnishings to bring for her? How will we know how much wall space there is? Clearly, I need to pack a tape measure, carry it on the bus, on the hotel shuttle, on the plane, in the rental car. There are no tape measures in Colorado.)
soap dish (We have an informal lost and found at the rehab pool facility where I work. Mostly what gets found are toiletries in the locker room and showers; these are rarely claimed. I need a soap dish, and one is sitting in our lost and found waiting to be retrieved. If no one comes to get it, I want that soap dish. A very important detail that must not be forgotten, as plastic soap dishes are rare and valuable. Soap dish or sleep? … obviously, soap dish is more important.)
waterproof mattress cover (Mom’s new room will not accommodate a queen bed, which is the only size she has. We have a twin bed for her, but she’ll need new sheets and bedding. I mustn’t forget to get a couple of waterproof mattress covers …)
But where was I?
Oh, right, the astrologer’s post about Mars and planets and friction.
Friction. Pressure. Oh, boy.
I confess I didn’t read the whole article with much attention, mostly because I don’t have much focused attention right now for anything, but this caught my eye:
Mars Positive: Courage and willpower applied consciously towards a specific goal.
Mars Negative: Impatience and misapplied force.
Misapplied force, anyone? I had to laugh.
At that point it was time to get up and make breakfast, so I put the laptop aside. While I cooked, washed my face, cleaned out the cat boxes, and watched the cold dawn light I thought about friction. Pressure. Birth. Transformation. I thought about polished rocks and pearls. I thought about diamonds and fossils and geologic forces and time. I thought about youth and plasticity and vitality, followed by old age, desiccation, brittle bones, weariness, atrophy.
Photo by Josh Howard on Unsplash
Friction can produce fire — cleansing, regenerative, alchemical fire.
I remembered life is full of friction and grit. Experience can smooth our edges, soften our rigidities and certainties, blur our idealism and mellow our arrogance.
I remembered, in short, I can choose to avoid and resist friction (and mostly I do), but sometimes the only way out is through.
This is one of those times. A camel-through-the-eye-of-the-needle time. A time when the right thing to do is the thing I most want to avoid doing. A time when I want to argue with reality. A time when I have chosen and am now resigned to everything that choice entails.
In exactly a week from the minutes I sit writing this draft I’ll be on a plane heading to Colorado to do an unthinkable thing: meet my brother and one of my sons and transition my mother to a locked memory care unit in a place she’s never been before with people she doesn’t know (not that it matters, as she no longer remembers the places or the people she has known) before getting on another plane to come back to my life in Maine.
Even as I write it, it doesn’t seem real.
I wish it wasn’t real.
For the first time this morning, though, while the new day dawned and the cats and I ate our respective breakfasts, I thought about the other side of this narrow tunnel, this birth canal. There will be another side. There always is. What is happening to me, and to the rest of my family? What is happening, locked away, invisible, irretrievable, in Mom’s experience? I’ve done hospice work, and I’ve witnessed how mysterious and beautiful the end of life can be. This event ripples out into the rest of my family system, sanding, smoothing, transforming. Friction is change. Pressure reshapes us. Can I relax, just a little? Can I let it happen the way it needs to? Can I be satisfied I’ve made the choices and decisions I’ve needed to and let my feelings wash me where they will? Can I surrender to the cars, the buses, the hotel shuttles, the planes, the journey, in fact?
Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash
Could I set aside soap dishes and birthday cards, payroll issues, tape measures, waterproof mattress covers; the potential for delays, bad weather, mechanical breakdowns, crowds, jammed traffic, overstimulation, viruses, and the general unpredictability of life and people and trust there will be sleep, there will be food, there will be a bathroom, there will be a minute to sit down, there will be help, there will be tears, and I will figure out how to print my boarding pass at a kiosk in the airport?
Well, I could try, at least. I’m willing to try.
There is friction, and friction is magical.
I’m publishing two weekends in a row right after I said I was moving to biweekly posting. But then the trip to Colorado was upon me, which is the weekend I’m scheduled to publish. So I’ll write again on the other side of all this friction. Maybe by then I’ll be a pearl. Or write pearls of wisdom?
What’s the biggest source of friction in your life? What is it shaping you into?
What wakes you up at 3:00 in the morning?
Do you avoid friction or welcome it?
What helps you lubricate life’s friction?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.
In the Tarot, there’s a card called The Tower. It’s traditionally illustrated with a tower falling. The meaning of the card is destruction, chaos, danger, crisis, and unforeseen change. And liberation.
By K Mitch Hodge on Unsplash
Some years ago, in the months before I moved from Colorado to Maine, my life unraveled in several painful ways. During those months, I pulled The Tower card from my Tarot deck (78 cards) time after time, though I always shuffle and cut the deck thoroughly before I draw cards. I couldn’t get away from it.
It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. I felt for a time as though my life would never be anything else. I would never escape the falling tower. I didn’t think much about the liberation part, because when our lives are toppling we don’t think about anything except surviving the collapse.
I had a crate of odds and ends of wood from building a privacy fence and a deck. I pulled it out of my shed and built a tower on a table on the covered deck outside my front door. I hadn’t played with blocks since my children were young. The chunks of wood were in all kinds of odd shapes, and building the tallest tower possible was an absorbing task.
When my tower was finished, I left it standing for a few hours or a day or so, enjoying it as I went about my life and in and out of my little log cabin. Then, when the time was right and I needed an outlet for my fear and frustration, I would knock it down. Hard. Loudly. I would obliterate it, sending the pieces of wood flying, sweeping the tabletop clear. It was a practice of surrender. If the tower was inevitably going to fall, I wouldn’t try to prop it up. I’d create a glorious, earth-shaking, no-holds-barred collapse. I wouldn’t look away or pretend it wasn’t happening or try to escape or soften the situation. I would face my fear.
After a while I built it again.
I did that for months. I built and knocked down more than 100 towers while I pulled the card over and over again.
I had a dream a couple of weeks ago about wandering through a field of rubble from a fallen tower. In spite of the destruction, it was a peaceful, sunny, summer landscape. I felt no sense of dread or doom. There had obviously been a violent and frightening collapse, but it was over now, and all was serene. I found some scattered objects amongst the stone rubble. Some things were intact, but others were smashed to pieces. I was thinking about sorting through the wreckage and salvaging material for a new tower and a new life.
I wasn’t scared. I was peaceful.
I was starting again. I’ve done that before. The fear and anxiety, the feeling of oncoming disaster, were past. The worst had happened and now I was on the other side of it.
I was excited about piecing together a new tower.
When I woke, I thought, “That damn tower!” and smiled to myself.
We are now working with a fifth contract for the sale of this property. That’s right. Number 5. Gas has more than doubled from last year’s price. The cat food shortage goes on and on. Prices for everything are skyrocketing. I just received our power bill, which has doubled from last month, though our usage is slightly less. We are on the edge of war, thanks to Russia.
I remember this feeling of the tower falling.
Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash
But I also remember the liberation on the other side. I remember starting afresh. I remember taking a long journey into health and healing, into creativity, into an entirely new life. In some ways, for the last seven years I’ve been working in a field of rubble, carefully salvaging and sorting the usable from the discards. I’ve thought long and hard about the kind of life I want to build now, and about my needs and resources.
I’m not on the other side yet. One of these days I will be, and I feel that day coming closer, though I don’t know how or when. I lie awake on windy nights and wonder if, metaphorically speaking, the wind will knock down the tower. Or will the rain take it down in the end? Or a spring ice storm? Or a completely unlooked-for earthquake, fire, or flood?
Or will it gently collapse, stone by stone, falling quietly into ruin around me?
Whatever happens, there will be debris and rubble. Some material will be salvageable.
I will start, as I have before, with what I have, with what remains, with myself.
When my last tower fell, I learned two important things. One is that a home, no matter how beloved, is not a life. It cannot keep me safe, happy, and secure for the rest of my days. It cannot substitute for my connections, contribution, or self-love. The place I live does not define me.
The second is that I am not my things. My security, identity, memories, strength, courage, and creativity do not reside in objects around me, the clothes I wear, the furniture I use, or the dishes I eat off of.
Many people new to the Tarot fear The Tower card. Few of us welcome destruction, chaos, danger, crisis and unforeseen change. However, change does come. Towers do fall. And once the terror and tumult have passed, we find ourselves in a new world with a chance to make a fresh start.
We might not have wanted to be liberated from anything. Or, on the other hand, we may have longed for liberation. In any case, we are suddenly dropped into a different life. The tower fell. We take some time for recovery.
Seligman suggests enduring or baseline happiness (as opposed to momentary) has much to do with our thoughts and feelings about our past, present, and future. He spends some time going over research about what comes first, our thoughts or feelings, but I won’t go into that here. What I know is thoughts are not feelings and feelings are not thoughts, and my understanding of the science is they’re so intimately connected neurologically and chemically we’re not yet sure which comes first or exactly how they influence each other.
As I age, I understand my past better and better. I like to think part of this is my own increasing wisdom and compassion. When we’re young, it’s easy to be judgmental, rigid, and unforgiving. It takes time and experience to gain perspective and accumulate our own history of injustices committed; not-so-great choices; and unthinking, unintended cruelties. If we are aging with grace and learning as we go, we also learn about patterns of behavior in ourselves and others. We figure out it was never all about us and the adults in our childish lives were not gods, but ordinary people.
The past is past, but our memories endure, and we’re all shaped in significant and sometimes painful ways by our childhoods. Some of us live in the past, repeating dysfunctional patterns and unable to move on. We believe our past experience determines our future experience. We know nothing will ever work out for us because we believe it never has. We’re hopelessly cursed, or doomed, or oppressed.
However, research clearly indicates our past does not determine our future, and Seligman proposes changing the way we think about our past can increase our present enduring state of happiness in powerful ways.
This is not easy work. In my own experience it’s a practice rather than a destination. It requires courage, strength, and determination to excavate our past, along with a good dose of honesty. It stretches our compassion. We must put aside our tendency to play the victim and take on some responsibility. I did not embark on this sort of work in order to be happy. I did it out of a desire to understand myself, others, and my experience; I wanted to heal. I also wanted peace, which is a defined component of happiness.
Shaking off the belief that our past necessarily determines our future, along with developing gratitude and forgiveness, are key in changing the way we think about our past. Seligman doesn’t write about acceptance, but for me it’s an additional important piece.
Gratitude. Forgiveness. Acceptance.
Looking back through these lenses is challenging, to say the least. Some of us look back on long years of pain and some at a few significant events, but if we are unhappy about our past it feels impossible to approach it with gratitude, forgiveness or acceptance, let alone all three. And we don’t have to, if we don’t care about being happy or healing or moving on.
I do care about those things, and I can attest to the relief of thinking about the past with gratitude for teachers and lessons learned rather than bitterness and anger. Forgiveness, though challenging, softens my tendency to curl up into a hard shell and never come out again. At the end of the day, others don’t victimize us and life is not against us. Life happens to us, and to other people, and we all churn around together, bumping into one another, sometimes with a kiss and sometimes with a knife. Life is chaotic and messy.
For me, acceptance is closely linked with forgiveness. Things happen. We all make choices. Most of us are doing the best we can most of the time. To be human is to be imperfect. If we cannot accept ourselves and others for the complex, inconsistent, occasional hot messes we are, we are choosing to be chronically unhappy and dissatisfied, not only with life in general, but with ourselves.
The hardest work of all, for me, has been applying gratitude, forgiveness and acceptance to myself. I suspect a lot of people can relate to this. Underneath my hurt and anger with others about parts of my history are rage and abuse towards myself. As I heal that, my grievances with others have fallen away.
When I think about my past and learn how it influences my level of enduring happiness, I feel satisfied with how much work I’ve done and how far I’ve come. My goal at the time wasn’t happiness, exactly, but healing is healing, and I’m happier walking around with scars than I was with open wounds. I’m certainly much happier now than I’ve ever been before, which means I’m more peaceful, and peace was one of my goals.
The best part about working with our past is we have all the power. We know where we’ve been and what our experience was. We can make choices about how we think about our history. We can refocus and reframe. We can consider our memories from the viewpoint of others who influenced us instead of just our own. We can forgive ourselves for what we did, what we said and who we were, and in doing so we can forgive others.
The past is over, but its influence is not gone. We can choose what that influence will be on our present and future. Will we let it drag us down and hold us back or make it part of the wind beneath our wings?
I have a friend at work who, in the moment of an unexpected event, says, “This is happening!” as he copes on the fly. The phrase (and my friend) makes me smile, and it keeps running through my head as our world changes.
We’re all affected, and we’re all saturated with news, statistics, opinions, thoughts, predictions and our own feelings about current events. We’re all sick of the subject (no pun intended), but it’s hard to talk about anything else.
The headlines are grim. The maps are grim. The future is uncertain. I’m writing this on Saturday, March 15. What will Monday bring? Where will we be on Thursday, when I publish this?
Last week I wrote about making choices, and discerning between the places we have power and the places we don’t. It was a timely post.
We can choose to see our current situation as an opportunity.
Before you start throwing rotten food at me, understand I’m in no way minimizing our stress, anxiety, fear or loss. I’m very concerned, more for others than myself, but for myself, too. I don’t want to get sick and die. I haven’t finished my books yet, for one thing.
On the other hand, I admit to a sort of horrified fascination when it feels like everything is falling apart, either for me, personally, or on a larger scale. Chaos, in my experience, is filled with possibility, with sudden shifts and changes, with unexpected twists and outcomes. When we surf the edge of chaos, we’re in terra incognita, and anything might happen.
We’ve all been hearing about restrictions, limitations, cancellations, curfews, lockdowns, and other draconian measures as the pandemic sweeps across the globe. It’s not a good time to travel, have elective surgery, spend money frivolously, run out of toilet paper, or do a thousand other things.
It is a good time for … what?
I work in a hospital rehab center in a nonessential position. We currently have 30 confirmed cases of Coronavirus in Maine. I suspect there are actually many hundreds of cases by now, but testing is limited up here, so it’s hard to say. The hospital has put protocols in place, and we are now closed to the public and serving rehab patients only. I’m an hourly worker, so if (when) we shut down the rehab center, I won’t get paid.
My partner is at high risk due to his age and health history.
Just like everyone else, I’m anxious about how fast things are happening and what might happen next, and I have the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that says we’re freewheeling, out of control. ‘Normal’ is MIA.
I always have my eye on power dynamics. We could make a long list of everything we can’t control right now, all that’s not in our power.
But what about what we can control? What is in our power? Again, I think of my post last week, and how many of us honestly feel we don’t have time to engage with what matters most to us in our normal lives. But now we’re living not-so-normal lives, and we may spend some time doing that.
In my own life, when it’s all fallen down and I find myself wandering through the rubble, I’ve always found transformation. Pain, grief, tears, terror, yes, all of those. And transformation.
We each have the power to reach out to loved ones. We can’t choose who gets sick or who recovers, but we can communicate with the people we care about heartfully and honestly. It’s easy to lose touch, or interact superficially on social media and call it good. It’s easy to drift apart and become disconnected. Quarantine, isolation and lockdown are opportunities to strengthen connections.
Don’t forget it’s spring. We can choose to enjoy the return of the birds, the lengthening days, the sunshine, and the abundance of new growth and life around us. We can take a walk. We can make it a daily habit.
We have an opportunity to enjoy creativity. Listen to music. Read a book. You have time now, all you TLDR (too long, didn’t read) people! We can forget the toilet paper and buy ourselves a new box of crayons or some finger paints. Here’s our chance to nurture our creativity. If we’re in quarantine or lockdown we have time to play. No more excuses. Creative folks are reaching out to others in all kinds of nontraditional and beautiful ways right now.
Have I mentioned it’s spring? It’s a great time to clean and declutter our homes. Not only can we make daily cleaning of all surfaces we touch easier right now, we can lighten up our lives and homes for the future. Let’s open the windows and let the sun come in. Let’s get rid of the stuff that doesn’t matter. Let’s clean our cars, our phones, our keyboards.
While we’re out walking, we can wave to our neighbors. We can smile. We’re all scared and worried. This is where our power is — with the people around us. We can check up on neighbors. If we’re at less risk than an elderly friend or neighbor, we can offer to run errands for them when we have to go out. We can find a dog to walk. We can practice social distancing and still connect with and care for those around us. We’re all in this together.
We can do ourselves and our immune systems a favor and rest. Relax. Laugh. When was the last time we checked in with ourselves? Are we happy? Are our needs being met? Are we pleased with the shape of our lives? We can take naps, or sleep in. We can exercise, eat good food, drink lots of water. We can challenge an addiction or a time-wasting habit. If not now, when?
When did we last give our intellect a fun thing to do? We could explore something that interests us, learn a new skill, play with critical thinking. We could exercise our brains. We could take on a daunting project we’ve been procrastinating about.
How’s our spiritual life? It’s a great time for prayer, ritual, or to begin a meditation practice. We could create a daily gratitude practice and focus on that instead of fear and anxiety.
Resilience equals survival. Resilient people make conscious choices about how they use their resources, especially in the face of unexpected disaster. We’re faced with a lot of unknowns right now, but let’s not obsess over the unknowable, including the future. Our power lies in our ability to choose in the present moment and let the rest go.
We know how to work, spend money, distract and be busy. Life is about more. Now we have an opportunity to simply be with the moment, with the world as it is, and with ourselves. Let’s remember how to live. Part of living is the necessity to come to terms with death.
Take good care, everybody. Love yourself and your people. Stay with your power and surrender the rest. We’ll get through this.
What if you thought of it as the Jews consider the Sabbath— the most sacred of times? Cease from travel. Cease from buying and selling. Give up, just for now, on trying to make the world different than it is. Sing. Pray. Touch only those to whom you commit your life. Centre down.
And when your body has become still, reach out with your heart. Know that we are connected in ways that are terrifying and beautiful. (You could hardly deny it now.) Know that our lives are in one another’s hands. (Surely, that has come clear.) Do not reach out your hands. Reach out your heart. Reach out your words. Reach out all the tendrils of compassion that move, invisibly, where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love— for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, so long as we all shall live.
Autumn’s smoke and flame are with us again in central Maine. The land’s lush summer garments fray and fade, withering into dusty, brittle rags of leaf, flower and stem.
More than a dozen apple trees grow on our 26 acres, everything from small, hard green apples too sour for anything but cider to large, sweet, white-fleshed beauties, fragrant and delicious.
The first frost or two brings my favorite eating apples to the peak of perfection, and last weekend we knew it was time to harvest if we wanted any of the fruit. A friend, with three children in tow, participated in a nature walk at a nearby lake and came to sit in the sun with a picnic lunch and pick apples.
A crisp, sunny autumn day, three eager children and apple picking. I can’t think of a more perfect way to spend a gorgeous day.
Apple picking, as anyone knows who’s done it, is about so much more than selecting the most perfectly waxed, polished, shaped and colored specimens from a grocery store pyramid and putting them in a cart.
Apple picking is about muddy shoes and knees and floppy hats. It’s the smell of tick and mosquito spray, rotting fruit and browning ferns; the texture of twig, bark, raspberry cane, moss, and the waist-high brittle, dry aster blossoms.
Apple picking is a lesson in sharing. Many creatures enjoy autumn’s bounty. Birds peck at the fruit. The deer take bites out of windfalls. Worms leave telltale dark tunnels. Wasps burrow head first into the flesh, ecstatic and writhing.
We don’t know how old any of our trees are, but their gnarled and disheveled condition suggests they’re quite old. Many have hollow trunks and a great deal of dead wood. The one we picked from is lying almost on its side, half uprooted, the base and uncovered root ball couched in moss. Crawling under the tree, carefully avoiding wasps, nettles, poison ivy and other hazards, one finds a damp, low-ceilinged shelter, roofed by the tree’s branches and floored in muddy ground. This particular tree grows over a spring; doubtless the reason why it fell in the first place. The deer have lain in this sheltered place. Their scat is everywhere, and I see their prints in the mud and the smooth hollows where they’ve lain together on the ground.
Apples thump softly around me as the children enthusiastically wield the apple picker, an old mop handle on which is attached a cloth bag suspended from toothy jaws that pull high apples off their branches. The ripe fruit falls easily with a nudge.
Apple picking is wonderful therapy for those of us recovering from perfectionism. Each piece of fruit is uniquely shaped and blotched with color, ranging from pale green to pink. Some are patched with brown, rough areas. Some are speckled with green spots. Windfalls bruise and split, an invitation to insect plunder. Heavy with juice, sitting comfortably in the palm of one’s hand, each is a lovely, individual thing rather than a clone lined up with other clones in neat rows for display.
As the children pass the apple picker around and bag the fruit, we adults talk casually of apple pie, applesauce, apple butter and drying. I remember the ache in my right hand from processing pounds of apples when I lived in Colorado and had children to feed. In the fall, my food dehydrator was on for days, four trays stacked with plums, apples and pears I picked from trees and used for homemade granola, trail mix, fruit leather and hot cereal.
For days I have been watching golden leaves loosen and fall. Fall, for me, is always a meditation on loss and surrender. On my hands and knees under the tree, retrieving windfalls, the smell of damp earth, rotting fruit and drying leaves and bracken in my nostrils, the sound of the children murmuring and laughing and my friend and partner talking, I feel a pang of grief about what I have lost. My own small boys, firm-bodied, grubby, loving, hilarious, maddening and mischievous; the big-hearted, foolish yellow lab who helped me raise them, seem for a moment to be there, with me.
Then, just as quickly, they’re gone, vanished back into the past, and I feel slightly ashamed of my nostalgia and wipe away a tear before anyone sees. After all, I know children grow up and faithful, foolish dogs can’t live forever. My grief is followed then by a pang of gratitude for what has been, what is this day, and possibilities and adventures in the future.
Fall is a time to think about harvest, both the harvest that keeps our hands, tools and dehydrators busy and the harvest of our hearts and minds. The leaves that made the summer green are falling now, in a final glorious display. The nights lengthen, temperatures and humidity drop, and soon we’ll bring the outdoor furniture cushions and houseplants in from the front porch for the winter.
I do not count the blessings of my personal harvest. I feel them. The wordless embrace of friends. The weight of a child in my lap. Laughter. The exchange of support, affection, information, and a really good book. Deep sleep. A healthy, active body. The muscular rhythm of walking, swimming, dancing and exercise. A small group of children learning to swim, blowing bubbles, coughing, grinning, giggling, splashing and spluttering, like so many wriggling otters, joyful and triumphant as they master floating, kicking, and rhythmic breathing. The opportunity to be of service, to make a contribution to others, to share resource.
I’m equally grateful for what has been lost, though my gratitude mingles with grief. Every autumn, the trees guide me in the work of letting go, of surrender, of faith and trust in the natural cycle of life and season. This year, I’ve released objects, clothing, financial commitments, noise, clutter, destructive patterns of behavior, and, painfully, some illusions.
Without all this stuff, the true shape of myself and my life begins to emerge, and I’m less apologetic and more confident. A deep well of creativity bubbles in the center of my experience, cool and clear and clean, moss and stone and the scent of water.
While the horses strain at the harrow in a darkening field, I pour red wine over lentils in an iron kettle. The full moon rising beyond the farm graveyard is as round as a well, and the cold autumn wind has the taste of distant water.