Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Weather

For most of my adult life and really for most of my teen years, I have suffered from cyclical depression. Most of that time I thought of it as my fault, something wrong with me, something bad. And most of that time I was taken away with it, like an empty bottle floating on a tumultuous sea. For the first time, I am able to observe it with some clarity. It’s not any easier. In fact, this bout of depression feels even more frustrating than ever before because I thought I’d “beaten” it. But it’s here.

Depression is a very physical phenomenon for me. It’s like my body is suddenly filled with sand and I’m swimming through molasses. Everything is more exhausting. Everything is louder. Everyone is more difficult. The smallest things become great obstacles. I sleep a lot and never feel fully awake or alert or clear. I’m sluggish and tired and dread doing things I usually love - like socializing or talking. I stop looking forward to things.

At least I know, at this point in my life, that it’s not permanent. I know it will cycle. Just a couple weeks ago I was telling my friend how great life is, how happy I am. Work has been great and rewarding. I know that in my head. But right now it feels incredibly difficult. I can’t concentrate. I lose track of things. I’m exhausted by the process. I forget what I’m working on. It’s frustrating. I still have the same amount of things to do, but doing them takes more energy, takes longer and doesn’t feel as satisfying. It’s all in my head. Yet, I’m doing all the same things. And I’m keeping up with all the things I do to get myself out of the funk. I’m exercising, staying on my routine, trying to eat healthy, not have too much caffeine, etc., etc., etc.. But the dark heavy mind cloud is still there. I wake with a sense of dread.

I am trying not to be too hard on myself and others. I am trying to remember that everyone else didn’t change and become more annoying. It feels like they have. And I know my mood affects everyone, so they probably are reacting to me. But it’s me who has changed. Deep breath.

Perhaps because I expected to feel great now that it’s Spring, it feels even more depressing that I don’t. Perhaps because I keep thinking, “It’ll be better when...” and then it keeps being hard. Things keep coming up that make it hard. The winter with all the snow and snow days and struggling to keep up while kids are home and cooped up. And now Maya’s injury. And next it will be something else. No one has been sick for awhile. And allergy season is coming. We’re never in the clear for smooth sailing. That’s NORMAL. So why do I keep thinking that circumstances will change to make me better??

I read this today:

“There was an empirical study that found that people who have the tendency to use more self-referential terms (I, me, myself) tend to have more health problems and earlier deaths. These people have more involvement with the self. Being self-absorbed has an immense effect of narrowing one’s focus and blurring one’s vision. It is like being pressed down by a heavy load. If, on the other hand, you think more about others’ well-being, it immediately makes you feel more expansive, liberated and free. Problems which before may have seemed enormous would then seem more manageable.” - His Holiness The Dalai Lama


That made me remember the practice of tonglen. It is a method of connecting with suffering and for overcoming fear by awakening compassion for others. It is turning the tables on what we want to do (feel bad for ourselves) and instead take on the suffering of others. We think of everyone in the world who feels the same way and hope that they find freedom and peace.

“So on the spot you can do tonglen for all the people who are just like you, for everyone who wishes to be compassionate but instead is afraid, for everyone who wishes to be brave but instead is a coward.

Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us.

Use what seems like poison as medicine. Use your personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.” - Pema Chodron

Here is a short meditation I just did to help open this up. You may want to try it.

And for you, my friends, may you, today, find more space and light within. And may you be freed from suffering through compassion.

“You are the sky. Everything else - it’s just the weather.”
- Pema Chodron

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Giving Up

I didn’t grow up in a liturgical church. In fact, I was raised non-denominational. They were Protestants who were very protestant of liturgical practices. There was no recitation of prayers. Because all of the men were ordained ministers we had different speakers every week. Communion was done with various types of bread and juice. We certainly did not practice Lent.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I first decided to give something up for Lent. The deprivation still rings in my mind as having a profound effect on my faith. It heightened my awareness. It made me literally think of Jesus all throughout the day. I enjoyed the discipline.

Now, as a humanist and intermittent non-theist, the practice of Lent has a different focus for me.

The winter has taken its toll on my well-being. I am sluggish and struggling to find motivation. I am weak with desire. All my stores of willpower and stamina have become soft like stored apples.

But, the Spring is coming. The days are getting longer. And now is the time to initiate change. Now is the time to set things in motion. Deprivation is a good way to bring an edge to existence and sharpen awareness.

Maya and I have decided to give up sweets. She’s giving up candy. I’m giving up sugar altogether. And we decided that, whenever we crave the sugar or candy we are going to take that time, like the chiming of a meditation gong, to bring awareness to our breath, think about others and initiate gratitude.

Today is Ash Wednesday. Ashes to ashes. It’s also the day I am going out with my friends to say goodbye to my friends boobs. They have been trying to kill her, so we are celebrating their removal and her future health. It’s painful, the loss that’s coming. And her battle is a reminder that life is a terminal state. We don’t get out of it alive. Today is the day we have.

I’d like to say I’m going into this day with a centered, clear-eyed focus. But I’m not. I’m tired. My head hurts, and I’m grumpy. Fortunately, I’m going to crave sugar. It’s going to give me many opportunities to practice letting go. I’m going to be totally aware today. I’m going to just be filled with all kinds of gratitude. Well, there’s going to be a sharp edge to my day anyway.

The word Lent comes from the Old English lencten which meant Spring and the Western Germanic langa-tinaz which meant “long days.” So, here’s hoping that my cold, hard attitude will soften in these long days and grow tiny green shoots of joy.

Jesus was giving up his life at the end of his forty days of deprivation. He struggled with letting it go. No one wants to take on the difficulties life brings. We rage against them. But in the end Jesus offered a eukharistia, a thanksgiving. He was thankful.

I am raging against the struggles of those around me. I am raging against the terminality of life. I am raging against my own ineptitude. But I am hoping that this 40 day period will bring me one step closer to eukharistia. I am hoping that the vacuum created by deprivation will leave room to be filled up with gratitude.

I’ll start with today.

Monday, February 17, 2014


I’ve been sluggish. And a little selfish. And drinking just a little more often than is good for me. I’ve been giving into my desires regularly and without resistance. I’ve been twirling my hair and picking my fingers, old habits I had been working to abolish. I’ve put on more weight than I’d like.

I’m trying really hard not to shame myself or feel bad or say all the "shoulds." But there is a nagging within. There is a nagging that wakes me in the night. A guy at the gym said the other day,

“I don’t do anything enough except worry about not doing enough.”


The nagging comes from a place of RIGHT and WRONG. I can’t seem to let go of that lingering concept of SIN. I hold on to the idea that there is a good and I am not doing it. I judge myself. I judge others. I long to feel peace and esteem and a sense of approval. But from what?

I wrestle with the idea of a personal god. It just doesn’t ring true for me. There is something greater - be it the force of energy in the universe or some kind of love that connects mankind. If there is a god - I definitely cannot get behind the idea that s/he would condemn most of mankind to eternity in hell. That’s why I’ve found a home in the UU church. The UU church originated in the belief in universal salvation. As Thomas Starr King said,

“The Universalists believe that God is too good to damn humanity, while the Unitarians believe that humanity is too good to be damned by God.”

[If you want a taste of what this means, listen to this sermon. It’s moving.]

And today, their first principle echoes this: The inherent worth and dignity of every person. Inherent. That means something that is permanent, essential and characteristic. Love, grace, dignity and worth - inherent. They are part of us from the get. We don’t do anything to get them. We didn’t do anything not to get them. Now that feels true to me.

But there’s a difference between knowing something is true and living that truth in your life. We naturally go back to the dark. For me the dark is judgment, shame, a fear of being outside, turned away and lost to love. For me the dark is the way I grew up - the Christian doctrine I was raised to believe. There are the believers and the non-believers. You’re either IN or you’re OUT. It’s a very exclusive idea of god, and it makes me ache with the sorrow of where that leads - to judgement, to thinking others are wrong in their pursuit of truth, to self-righteousness. It’s largely the reason I quit going to Reston Bible Church. I was rumpled. They were clean pressed.

So, last night I lay awake wrestling with my inner self. I was grateful when my alarm went off - not because I’m so excited about doing pushups (I loathe pushups) but because going to the gym means fortifying myself with the strength of others. It’s where I am accepted, rumples and all. The group of women I work out with are there to get strong - not to look perfect. They are there to support each other physically but also emotionally. And tonight I get to go meet with another group of women who will hear me, really hear me, when we check in at our inreach meeting.

We all have conversion stories. We all have life-changing moments when we understand a truth that we never understood before, when we see the light.

Here’s my conversion story. Here’s where the scales fell off my eyes.

I arrived late, and someone said, “I’m so glad you’re here.”

To me, this sums up universal love, community and what it is I seek from the people in my life and what I seek to give. This acceptance and welcoming is what was missing from the culture of my upbringing and what I’ve had missing all these years. I’ve had friends who have loved me, indeed, but going to these places with people I would not otherwise have known or sought out, people who are different than me in age, orientation, ethnicity, and lifestyle, this is where I find the structure of community.

They are humans searching for truth, rumpled and irregular. And it’s like looking into a mirror and seeing inherent love shining back at me.

I’ve been struggling to find a better motivator than “you’re doing it wrong.” I’ve been trying to find a way to both love myself and push myself toward greater health, generosity, forgiveness, strength and fruitfulness. Instead of coming from a place a scarcity (fill myself with whatever I can get because I am lacking), I want to come at life from a place of abundance, fueled by gratitude. But shame sneaks in and makes me selfish.

And that’s when I go to my people. That’s when I need a reminder that I’ve got worth and dignity and love and grace and beauty and salvation and holiness and abundance all right there already.

Inherent. Inherent. Inherent.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

In Between

Mid-January. Rainy. A little fatter than a month ago. A little colder. Still not quite back in the routine. But done with the holidays. Still eating too much candy. But exercising again.

I’m in between.

Life is made up of these spaces. There’s nothing particular happening. There’s nothing particular to look forward to yet. There’s no particular rhythm.

And it’s so easy to stay just get stuck on good enough. Yesterday in yoga she set the intention as being kind to ourselves. It’s a great principle. But what if being kind to ourselves involves some tough love? What if doing the best thing is pushing a little harder? How do we know the right balance?

I got some stellar time with my fabulous niece last week. I stayed up way, way too late and ate way, way too many truffles, but it was spectacular. She’s radiant in her brokenness. She hasn’t quite gotten it, but she’s close. She’s almost on the cusp of realizing that she’s amazing as she is. I wish I’d figured it out at her age. And I mean even with all the selfishness and the sometimes meanness and the bad decisions. I can see it. I can see how who she is has made the rest of the family deal with things or be things they might not have been or done. It feels like badness when you’re the one who’s the troublemaker. It feels like you’re always sinking ships. I know. I’ve sunk a few. But sometimes ships need to sink for people to learn how to make them better.

I decided, all of a sudden, a few months ago, to just stop worrying about my body. I know it sounds impossible. But somehow, with all these people around me fighting for their lives it just suddenly made sense that worrying about being perfect and having some idea of a perfect body and striving for that was just a total and complete waste of my time on this blue dot. It seemed like I looked down and realized I was carrying fistfuls of sand around for no reason. I’d been clinging to it like my life depended on it. And I just suddenly saw it. This is fucking sand!!! What the hell have I been doing?

So, we know perfection is a stupid goal. We know whatever we decide is perfect is probably just our idea of what we think others will think is perfect. We kind of know that all along. But we ache with desire to be it and live with dissatisfaction that we’re not there.

In my conversation with my niece we were talking about guilt and the desire to do what is right and living with the anxiety of not knowing. What is the right path? Which is the best way? What am I supposed to do?

And we just end up in-between.

But, that is also a choice.

And, you know what, it is also the right choice.
I go through periods of sadness over that “road not taken” when I hear about friends working in the arts or see a great play or a moving sculpture. I get creativity pangs. And then I beat myself up and feel fatalistic about the future and my wasted life, etc., etc.

But Marco reminds me that if I hadn’t dropped out of college and gotten a random job and been living my life fast and loose I wouldn’t have met him or hung out with him every day or ended up living with him and ended up falling in love and getting married and building this amazing life. If I’d gotten my art self together I would be probably living half-broke somewhere without him and without this house and without these three people. Or I’d be super-rich, highly successful and sought after the world over. Which would be cool, but it would not be as cool as what have here.

Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” is often seen as having the message of taking “the road less taken,” and making people think that the point is to go your own way and that there is a “right” way to go and that the right way to go is forging ahead on that less-taken path. But the truth is, “both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black.” The truth is that Frost just made a damn choice, knowing he would never get to make the same choice again, and making the choice was what made all the difference. Either way would have been right.

So, here I am, in the in-between place, feeling guilty about being sort of stagnant. Here I am trying to motivate myself to feel more driven, push harder, do more. I’m deceiving myself into thinking that there is a right path to choose.

But sometimes, when you’re in between poses, when you’ve been down on the ground doing lunges and then you stand up, you get lightheaded. And sometimes you have to come up slowly. Sometimes you have to take deep breaths. Sometimes the transitions don’t come so easily and you sway a little and maybe even fall down. Sometimes you are so tired from no sleep and weird schedules and too much work and people you love being sick and winter darkening your spirit. And you just have to inch your way along.

Oh I see both paths, but I’m just going to sit right down in these leaves and maybe cry a little and maybe take a nap and maybe kick a tree or maybe yell. Or just take some deep breaths and be okay with this place. And then I’ll get off my duff. And my poem will say that resting made all the difference.


Saturday, December 21, 2013

Tight Spots

Life is just a series of tight spots.

It feels like we will make it out eventually. We think, "If this were different..." but the truth is...something is always askew.

It feels so unfair from our little corner of consciousness. I shouldn't have to be crammed in this car with these fighting kids for 8 hours. I deserve peace and quiet. I deserve romance and kindness and a thin body and more money and a nice easy time.

Why, at this point in human history have we not gotten it that life is hard and has sharp corners and stubbed toes and paper cuts and lengthy colds - not to mention AIDS and malaria and cancer. And winter. Why do we fight it?

I am reading the Divergent series right now. It's completely unrealistic - a 16 yr old girl saving humanity - she is constantly fuguring her way out of tight spots. It's not great literature. It's certainly not the speculative brilliance of Atwood, but it's a fun, quick read. And it's got me realizing - my life is pretty unrealistic too.

There are so many crazy, dramatic events happening that it almost feels fake. How can we be facing this work crisis while we also face this family crisis while we've been so sick? How can so many people I know have cancer at one time? How can so many be facing their marriages ending? That can't be! If I were a character in a novel I was reading I would say, "Yeah, right! She's got all of this happening?"

But that's just it. Life is absolutely ridiculous. And there is no right path that leads away from pain and chaos and into fields of gold.

So, here we are, driving out to our own chaos and absurdity. We are on this train we can't stop. And I can whine. I have been whining. Or I can just say, "This character, Heather, is in a tight spot! What will she do now?" And maybe, like when you're reading a book and you just know what they should do, I will listen to the reader. Or maybe I will drink heavily. Or maybe I will cry.

Or maybe all three.

Hopefully I can laugh. That silly Heather is always getting herself into these situations. That crazy Heather always turns to food and alcohol and friends. When will she get it together? When will she learn to be calm in the midst of it?  When will she stop fighting?

Stay tuned to find out!

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