Thrill Junkies

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What do you need to feel alive?

The question came up for me this week because Hurricane Dorian just gave Charleston a light smack compared to what could have been. And even after that one night of worry as the winds howled, I was bouncing with joy when the day after was sunny and cool and just amazingly beautiful. It was like the day after you’ve been sick when food that turned your stomach yesterday tastes amazing today.

I’m not sure if the day was actually any more beautiful than the day before Hurricane Dorian, but facing down the nasty storm made the next day’s weather seem more precious.

That contrast – danger and then exhilaration – was on my mind I was reading an article about three climbers – and not just climbers, Alpiners. Alpine climbing is crazy stuff. Why would anyone do this? I have to admit, I’m an indoor house cat. The closest I get to outdoor sports is the occasional trail ride and, even then, the horse is doing all the work. I’m not even sure why I was reading an article about outdoor sports.

Except, spoiler alert. The three climbers don’t make it. And the article was really about why people challenge themselves to this kind of sport.

And that was why the article fascinated me. How close do we need to get to mortality to feel alive?

I have done sky-diving and been on a trapeze and even taken one airplane piloting lesson. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I did each of these activities after some kind of trauma. Sky diving came after a really bad patch in my marriage. The trapeze lesson and the airplane lesson came at different points in the illness that would ultimately kill my mother.

They jolted me out of the numb despair. They gave me the illusion that I could conquer the world, even if I couldn’t conquer death or sadness. But all of those things were safe risks. I had an experienced skydiver strapped to my back when I jumped out of the plane – well, okay, when he jumped because I was about to change my mind but the weight of his body just pulled me out of the plane. I had a harness on the trapeze and a net below me. The pilot who taught me had a license and I didn’t take off or land the plane, just took over the flying while we were in the air and tried to keep the plane level. The odds of actual death were pretty small.

Not like my one friend who fought in Vietnam. The hyper-vigilance, the knowledge that your next step could be your last…he hated it. It messed with his head. But I remember him telling me somewhat wistfully, “Helen, I’ve never felt so alive and I’ve never found anything since I got back that made me feel that alive.”

And that made me wonder. How do we feel alive without facing down death? Is being alive boring unless we risk losing our lives?

Some would say that the fear of death focuses your gaze on your surroundings with an intensity you can’t duplicate.

I know that I have read that mindfulness —  being really present in your life – is the key to enjoying every one of life’s moments. But is being a thrill junkie a shortcut to being present?

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Listen to the companion podcast, Keep it Juicy! 

 

The Math of Life

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“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

–Annie Dillard, author

Let’s talk about the math of life.

If you could mash all the similar stuff together, how long would you have spent driving or sleeping?

I used to live in northern Virginia, not far from the capital. I worked in DC. It was only 19 miles, but the commute used to take me an hour, easily. Sometimes an hour and a half. I moved away and I moved there, so that commute was only a small part of my career. But what if it wasn’t? If I started working at 21 – and that’s late for a lot of us – and I worked all the way until retirement at 65, that means two hours of commuting a day for 44 years, or 32,032 hours spent in my car, fuming at idiot drivers, mentally rehearsing excuses for being late to a meeting, and just being angry.

Say you sleep for 8 hours a night. Eight hours a night for seven days means 56 hours a week. That means 2912 hours a year. Now, let’s pretend you live until you’re 80. That means you will have slept 232,960 hours before the…well, the final sleep. That’s a lot of time not living.

How much time are you spending on pleasure?

Most of us schedule a vacation.

We block time out to go away, to goof off, to travel. But if we go away for a week or two, what happens the other 50 weeks of the year?

There are two things I love to do: dance and ride horses.

For years, I did neither.

Recently, I started going to a dance studio for weekly drop-in lessons. Sort of Bob Fosse style dancing. I am terrible. I know this when I glance in the mirror and see my own performance, just a beat behind the other dancers in the class. But I am exhilarated. I can not tell you how happy I feel when class is done, how present in my own body, how sexy.

And horseback riding?

It’s expensive. There aren’t any good stables closer than an hour away.

Can you hear the excuses?

Maybe I can’t afford the time or the money to ride every week. But every quarter? I can do that. That’s four hours of bliss I’m putting back on my calendar.

And you know what else I’m adding back onto my calendar?

Unscheduled play time. Remember that? Time to think, time to create, time to be. I don’t have an agenda for this time, I’m just going to include some unplanned time every week and the only rule is I can’t work.

Math has never been my strong point, but I’m going to try to make the math of life work for me instead of working for some mathematical equation that never adds up…you know the one…the one where you work 60 hours instead of 40 and still expect to have a full life with the rest of the hours.

Take out the almost 233,000 hours you need to sleep. And then add hours of pleasure.

Because, if “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” – I don’t want to spend my life miserable. Do you?

Listen to the companion podcast. 

Hourglass

 

 

Letting Her Back In

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People tell you that you should remove toxic people from your life.

But what if you’ve removed someone from your life not because they are toxic but because you were toxic when you were with them? And what if they want back in now?

I had a friend when I was in college.

When I met this friend my first night at the college dorm, I was blown away.  She was sophisticated and glamorous. Everything I hadn’t tried in high school, she had already done, and more. She made being bad seem like fun – kind of like those bad girls in the noir detective films. I was smitten.

We moved from the dorm into an apartment together. It was a big party. Until it wasn’t.

The stuff I thought was so sophisticated turned into adult-sized problems I just wasn’t mature enough to handle.

A few years passed. My friend married an older guy with a lot of money who seemed pretty decent, but the marriage didn’t last long. I found my own – not older — guy and we moved in together.

We weren’t super-close anymore, but we were still friends.

Until the time – the second time, actually – I got a call in the middle of the night from the cops. My number was the emergency number my friend carried. And she had overdosed – again. The cops wanted me to know what hospital she was going to be in – again.

When she was sober, I told her not to call me again. I told her I needed to save my own life and I just didn’t have anything left to give her.

Years went by and then, last month, there was a message in LinkedIn. She had kept track of me. She could understand if I didn’t want to connect, but she had always loved and admired me. How was I?

I let the message sit for days.

She seemed to be doing well, based on what she wrote me about her life. I was happy to hear that.

But did I want her back in my life?

I am left to wonder. If I don’t offer to repair the friendship, am I trying to punish her somehow for things that were completely out of her control? Am I protecting myself from future heartache in case she’s not as put together as her message made her sound? Am I afraid that her sadness might somehow smudge the happy-happy now I’ve created? And am I the person I thought I was if I just shut her out again?

I don’t have answers. I don’t want to hurt her. I just don’t want to hurt myself either.

Listen to the companion podcast. 

 

 

 

Touch

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Are you a touch-me-please or a touch-me-not?

Vice President Joe Biden has been in the news recently because he’s a handsy guy and he apparently smells women’s hair and some of the women are really uncomfortable with the whole thing.

And I have to say, the whole tenor of the news coverage leaves me…uncomfortable.

Full disclosure here. I’m a hugger.

Humans need touch. Babies who are left without cuddling fail to thrive. Scientists have studied hugs and they’ve found that hugs can affect your mood and your stress level in a positive way.

When you’ve had a tough time, hugs can heal when people just can’t find the right words. In fact, sometimes words do more damage because people say the wrong thing, or they try to fix the problem for you when all you want is empathy.

One immunologist says that our brains use physical experiences and objects as sort of memory anchors that affect us long into the future. They can be bad experiences, but the bonding ones – like hugs – affect us too.

Hugs can heal – but should we stop with all the hugging?

Of course, there are all kinds of reasons you might not like hugs. The hugger could be using the hug as a sort of power play—when the person doing the hugging is aggressive about it and uses  it to make the person being hugged feel powerless. Or maybe you’ve undergone a trauma. For someone who has been abused, a hug can feel like confinement.

So maybe we should never hug. Or maybe never hug in the workplace

Because my need to touch definitely does not trump your agency over your body. You are the boss of your body.

But touch is human. It’s an instinct we have from birth.

I don’t think you can penalize someone for that instinct.

And that brings me back to the whole Biden story.

Women who say they were uncomfortable with Biden’s handsy style – and he was handsy with everyone, by the way – men, women and children – have the right to be uncomfortable. For sure. But did they tell him? Or did they wince in silence and resent him all these years? If they told him and he continued…then yes, let’s condemn him. Or now that it’s been all over the news and he says he gets it…let’s see if he changes his behavior.

But I worry a little that, by framing these women as “victims,” we risk demonizing all human touch. And that risks isolating all of us on little islands of touch-me-not. Even if we desperately want or need that touch.

Listen to the companion podcast!

 

Human Touch

Space in Love

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But let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

 That’s the famous Khalil Gibran quote and you’ve probably heard it incorporated into LOTS of wedding ceremonies.

And as we get ready to celebrate Valentine’s Day, I have to wonder…what does that mean? What are spaces in your togetherness, and when is it too much space?

My mom and dad were married straight out of high school. They were married for more than 50 years and hardly ever spent a day apart. There was a brief time when dad did some sales calls on the road when I was really young, but by the time I was in college, they had started a business together and it was rare to find them apart. Weekly phone calls to the parents, it was just understood: one parent on each phone extension and nothing was ever a secret from the other one. It was always momanddad like it was one word, never mom…and…dad.

I kept trying to get them to do some things on their own, especially after I first heard that Khalil Gibran quote.

But my mom would just say, “There’s nobody I enjoy as much as I enjoy spending time with your dad, so why would I?”

When I married my husband, I married someone with very different interests. He likes photography, discipline, solitude. I like dancing, horseback riding, being pampered, and making dinner for friends. I do love spending time with him, but I would never ask him to go to a spa vacation with me. It would be excruciating for him, and worrying about him would ruin my own state of zen.

So, most years, I go without him.

The first year we did separate vacations, my mom was really worried. This was my second marriage and she was convinced I was going to screw this one up too…I mean…separate vacations?! People only do that when their marriage is in trouble! And then they have vacation flings that hammer the final nails into the marriage.

Well, no.

In fact, I would find that I came back from those vacations with a renewed appreciation for my husband. I missed him, but I would never have had the chance to miss him if he was with me every minute!

I mentioned earlier that my husband and I are very different. I can try and pretend that I care about the angle and light of endless photos of the same animal, but why? My husband is much happier without me, geeking out over camera equipment with his photographer friends. No need for me to be there.

And, dancing? Well, my husband has taken a few lessons with me, just because he’s that nice a guy. But when we go to the dance floor, he dances a few beats of a song and then gets bored. And, since songs are usually only an average of 2.5 minutes, that tells you just how much he hates dancing. But should I never dance again because my spousal dance partner won’t?

Now, my mom would have said, yes, I should never dance again. That we should develop hobbies that we both enjoy so that we can do them together. Behind that advice would be the secret fear my dance partner would somehow become more attractive to me than my own husband is.

Could happen, I suppose.

But that feeling that you need your partner to be your other half in everything? It’s not going to stop you from having an affair, if that’s what you’re set on doing.

Honoring the spaces in your togetherness depends on your maturity and your being complete all by yourself. Because that “you complete me” stuff you see in movies? It’s bullshit. Go get some space in your togetherness.

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Listen to the podcast

 

 

Everybody Lies

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Everybody lies.

That’s not me talking, that’s science.

I read an article by data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz about data he tracked on google searches. Now, you can lie to your friends and you can lie to a survey-taker – and people do, all the time. But you can’t lie to google. By your searches, ye shall know them.

So, way back in 1950, researchers asked people in Denver whether they voted, whether they gave to charity, and whether they had a library card. The researchers already had this data, so they knew the truth already. But guess what happened when they asked Denver folks about this stuff? You guessed it. They lied. They were WAY more smart, generous and involved in their survey answers than they were in real life.

And guess what. They’re still lying. Everyone is.

They lie about sex. Ask any researcher and they will tell you that the number of times people have sex is WAY less frequent than they boast about in surveys.

But even more chilling, they lie about things like prejudice. Seth looked at data from Google searches and aggregated them into some interesting conclusions about people.

Google reveals that people search for things like, “Why are black people rude?” and “Why are Jews – or Muslims – or lots of other races – evil?”

The researcher also says that Google tells us a bit about our attitudes on gender. Like the searches about boys had to do with whether someone’s kid was smart or not. The searches about young girls? They had to do with her appearance, like “Is my daughter overweight.”

Kind of depressing.

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Listen to the companion podcast

Strong but Safe

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In May 2018, I was honored to be part of a performance of the Charleston performance of, “Listen to Your Mother,” a live performance of essays about motherhood. 

You can read my essay below, or scroll to the end and see a video of my performance. It was a helluva show and I made some wonderful friends. Enjoy! 

“Are you going to be okay?”

My mother was on her deathbed and she wasn’t letting go until she made sure that her only child would be all right. Her dark eyes were sharp despite the pain, and lasered into mine.

A good daughter would offer reassurance. Mom had struggled for months and she was tired. A stronger daughter would ease her mind so that death could ease her body.

At that moment, I didn’t want to be strong. All I wanted was to push aside the monitors still strapped to her, and nestle under her soft arm, wailing and moaning and being weak. Mama, please don’t leave me.

Who will I be if I don’t see myself reflected in your eyes? How will I stand strong when I no longer have you as my soft place to fall?

My mother, my closest friend and biggest cheerleader, was dying. No, I wasn’t going to be okay. I probably would never be okay.

But that wasn’t what she needed to hear, and this moment was about her and her death, not me.

So, when she asked, “Are you going to be okay?” I answered, “Yes, Mama, I’ll be okay. You raised a strong one.”

And, she did, although I didn’t feel strong at the moment. She raised a strong one almost despite herself.

My mom lived in terror that something would happen to me. It was so important to her that I stay safe.

Her fears ranged from the traditional “stranger danger” to the repetition of mistakes she made. My mom married my dad quite young because she was pregnant with me. Up until she fell in love with my dad, she was a good Catholic girl from an Italian immigrant family, going to a Catholic high school. Sex – let alone pregnancy – before marriage was a sin and my presence in my mom’s womb caused grief for everyone my mom knew.

It didn’t matter that she and my dad married and would stay happily married for 53 years until Mom died. My mom was determined that I would never make the mistakes she made.

Sometimes, it meant that she overreacted a bit.

My announcement in 7th Grade that I was “going steady” with a boy – which meant only that we would hold hands and sit together at lunch – was met with screaming… and tears…and threats… and dire warnings unless I returned the cheap silver ring he had given me. Sobbing, my mother explained that spending time alone with a boy so young would lead to “urges”… and then giving in to those urges… and then sex and pregnancy and disgrace and destroyed potential.

It seemed a bit extreme, but I gave the ring back.

In college, when I went camping –not my thing, but my boyfriend at the time sure loved it – she sent news clippings about a crazed killer who had murdered young people in their tents.

It was just one of many dire warnings as my mother let me know that I was truly wonderful – but likely to be struck down by fate or drunken drivers or serial killers at any moment.

And, as I got older, I promised myself I wouldn’t be bound by my mother’s irrational fears.

Living in the city? Yep. Waiting for a bus on dark street corners after covering a meeting for the local paper? Sure, I was tough. Sex? AIDS wasn’t really a thing yet and the Pill was, so BIG yes.

I was fearless. And I wasn’t going to let my mom’s obsession with my safety affect my life.

And, when I had my own daughter one day? She was going to be fearless too.

Except, right before I got pregnant with my fearless daughter, there was a case in which a young girl was taken, just as her mother looked down to pack up their things after a Christmas party at their apartment complex. She looked up and her daughter was gone. And she would stay gone until her body was found, years later.

So, yes, my daughter would be fearless, but I would keep a better eye on her so she would also be safe.

And because I had taken so many risks in my life on the road to being strong, I could share with her the obstacles that might trip her up.

I would raise my daughter strong but safe.

Well, that’s what I thought I was doing.

Isn’t it funny how your children can become a mirror to reflect back to you a version of yourself you just don’t see?

My daughter is an adult. She has a wonderful job, a rich life, and boundless enthusiasm for one thing after another.

Recently, she decided to raise chickens. She has her own house, so it’s not like she’s going to be raising them in an apartment.

But I immediately started trying to clear the obstacles. Had she checked zoning in her city? Informed the neighbors? There are woods nearby and her yard isn’t fenced – what about the danger of coyotes?

Hard to imagine, I know, but she didn’t react well.

And, confident in my rightness, I laid out a list of all her enthusiasms over the years and how few she’d stuck with, and why listening to me would have saved her time.

This was by text, by the way. That’s how we seem to conduct all our arguments these days.

And, my daughter, in the most loving way possible considering how angry she was, sent back a text with a list of her own. All the times I had responded with dire warnings very much like my own mother had done.

Lost that extra 10 pounds? Great, but don’t expect the rest of the weight to come off as quickly because the last five pounds always hang on. Buying a house? Great, but don’t spend too much on decorating, because things are going to break and you’ll need money for that. Make more money than your photographer boyfriend? Fine, but one day he may come to resent the disparity — and you may as well — so be prepared for that.

My daughter told me: “You will say that you’re proud of me but honestly it doesn’t mean much because you turn around and question every decision I make. Not in a constructive way, in a limiting way, a way that takes away my feeling of autonomy. I’m simultaneously the light of your life, but incapable of making informed decisions, impulsive and foolhardy. It gives me whiplash.”

I, who prided myself on being fearless and optimistic, had become the Greek chorus of doom in my daughter’s life.

Even in the midst of the text argument, I had told my daughter that I loved her. Her response?

“I love you right back but my perception of you is that you are far more negative than you think you are.”

It rocked me.

All I wanted was my daughter to be safe. Why couldn’t she listen to me?

And then it hit me.

My daughter was ignoring my dire warnings, much like I used to roll my eyes at my own mother’s doom and gloom. My daughter wasn’t stupid and she wasn’t reckless, but she had assigned my drumbeat of fear the role of just background noise.

And, by raising a daughter who ignored me, I too had raised a strong one.

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