My Body is a Jerk

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Sometimes you can cast about for a New Year’s resolution. And sometimes, one walks up and slaps you upside the head.

For the past few months, I have been battling annoying but not fatal illnesses. Food poisoning. Kidney infection. Strep throat. Back spasm. My body has been kind of a jerk to me.

And I am so grateful.

I lived most of last year inside my head.

Lots going on there! Freelance writing assignments, this blog, figuring out how to create a podcast as I was launching it, getting accepted to a writers’ retreat and then realizing that (ulp!) I have to actually finish my novel’s first draft so I have more than the paltry beginning pages that got me accepted.

Not to mention the endless worrying about a year that seems to have more than its share of disasters, both natural and man-made. I watched the news like a woman obsessed; I was slowly creating my own personal disaster.

It happened gradually. A few yoga classes sacrificed because I wanted to finish something. Refusals when my husband invited me to walk the dogs – it was too hot, too cold, it got in the way of a deadline. Add in a heavy travel schedule with its indignities, canned airplane air, and timezone juggling.

Soon, all that fevered mental activity started reaching tentacles into my body. A couple of restless nights. A headache in the morning. Weight gain. Little taps from my body on the shoulder of my heedless mind. Hey, remember me?

Ignored.

And so, an ill-advised hot dog at O’Hare led to violent illness. Sure, I lost some of that weight – the hard way – but I also lost out on a trip to visit my daughter and see the house that would become her very first. Because there was no way I could sit for an entire flight without being sick.

Still, my husband and daughter Face-timed me as they walked the house and it was almost as good as being there. And I did have more deadlines, so I just put my head down and kept going. Mind over matter or, in this case, over body.

And then, a cramping in my lower back that the trainer couldn’t roll out.

“Usually you have problems on the left side. Weird that it’s on the right this time,” he said.

Yeah, weird, because it wound up being my kidneys and no amount of stretching was going to fix that. Still, Thanksgiving was coming up and a trip to Los Angeles to see my in-laws. And if I couldn’t drink as much because of the antibiotics, and if family photos show me looking unattractive and puffy…well, no time to worry about that, and that’s what Photoshop is for.

And then, Christmas loomed. I couldn’t find the holiday spirit anywhere. We bought a tree, but only because my husband – usually a champion Grinch – suggested it. He put up lights. I threw some ornaments onto the tree, not even bothering to get down all the boxes from the attic.

I couldn’t put my finger on the problem.

Christmas day was going to be quiet for us, with the real celebration a few days later when we joined my daughter at my ex’s house in D.C. But a quiet Christmas was hardly the problem since we’ve switched off hosting every other year since my daughter was 2.

Other years have certainly been harder. Four years ago was my first Christmas without my mom. Last year, the first without my dad.

So, where was my spirit this year? I tried submerging myself in the Hallmark Channel’s sappy Christmas movies. No joy.

I wasn’t sad, I was just…not happy.

Feeling resigned to a “meh” Christmas rather than a “merry” one, I was reading the paper when I felt that dry, cotton feeling in my throat. Uh-oh. I know this one.

Sure enough, by morning, my throat was on fire, my voice a painful squeak, and I was shivering from fevered chills. Strep throat. Flat on my back or curled tightly fetal to stay warm. Too exhausted to read or watch television, I slept for 24 hours.

There was no more living in my head. My jerk of a body demanded attention. Hey, you remember me NOW?!

And when the days of isolation and pain passed, I woke up with the kind of pre-alarm energy I used to. My body felt so much lighter – as well it should, after fasting for a few days. But it also felt good. Not just an absence of pain, but really good.

And that, finally, was what my body had been trying to tell me all along. You can’t just ignore one whole part of you. I know this. I even preach this. But I forgot that shoveling food into your body – even artisan, farm-to-table food – without savoring it, and sitting at your computer all day – even writing some of your best work – without remembering your body’s needs, is ignoring one whole side of the foundation. It’s going to topple.

Apparently my body wasn’t quite done – a nasty rash in reaction to the antibiotics and a killer back spasm in reaction to long drives and freezing weather accompanied the turn-of-year champagne.

So, that resolution? BALANCE. Give my jerk body equal time with the frenetic squirrel in my head. Because, if I don’t? My body is enough of a jerk to hold me hostage until I get myself back in balance.

Balance

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Foul

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Reading coverage of a recent baseball game, I thought about America’s pastime.

No, not baseball.

I’m talking about the reflexive grabbing of our phones to take photos of everything happening around us.

At this particular baseball game, a Yankees game, a foul ball whipped into the stands at 105 miles an hour and stopped only after a shattering hit directly into the face of a little girl.

The baseball player who swung the bat was in tears. The fans surrounding the little girl can be seen in poses of shock and horror, many reaching out to help. All except one. This guy has his phone up, aimed at the injured girl. Recording, one can only assume. Snapping photos maybe.

He is not a reporter. Maybe he is a nice guy who just happened to have his phone up recording the game and swung it around without thinking. Maybe he’s one of those guys killing wildlife by dragging it from its habitat and pestering it literally to death in the name of a selfie.

I don’t know.

But, just like all of you, I stared at the reporter’s photo of the scene in horror.

Except, I was looking at the guy with the phone.

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Be Still

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In the pre-dawn hours, the thunder snarled right above my roof. One of my dogs trembled and burrowed into my side. A particularly loud clap began with a boom and ended with a sizzle, and then my bedroom was suddenly darker than dark.

The power had gone out, taking with it the glowing alarm clock numerals, the lights on the box next to the television that does magic I can’t explain, the nightlights aimed low for our aging dog’s nighttime navigation.

And, with the darkness, a silence so thick it felt like another blanket on this summer night. Between the cracks and grumbles of thunder, it seemed as though even nature had paused to listen; no night birds, no wind to ring the chimes outside my bedroom window, no errant yowl of a night creature. Just silence.

Gradually, I could see the darker outlines of my two dogs, of the frame of the closet door. And, as my eyes adjusted to the black around me, my ears too adjusted. I heard the restless shifting of the frightened dog on the covers next to me. I heard the undisturbed breathing of my husband, seemingly able to sleep through the storm. And I heard my own breath, a lullaby of steady rhythm.

Sights too often overshadowed by electronics, and sounds too often drowned out by hums and clicks of our everynight life.

In an essay about the book called, “The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere,” author Pico Iyer is quoted as advocating for, “sitting still as a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it.”

So last night, between thunderbooms, I fell back in love.

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Leave the Gun AND the Cannoli – Grab a Book

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We are all so very angry today.

If you’re not for us, you’re a-gin’ us.

We are all so righteous and we are angry that the “other” cannot concede our obviously correct point of view that we spew vitriol on social media and to our friends.

Stupid President (either the current or the past, depending on where you stand). Stupid Congress. Stupid Bigot, Stupid Racist, Stupid Sexist, and Stupid Snowflake Liberal.

The truth is, we are as unable to see others’ truth, as they are to see ours.

This kind of anger and frustration leads some to pick up a pen, others to pick up a gun.

The solution might be to read a good book.

A 2006 study cited in a recent Wall Street Journal article says that psychologists in Toronto found a connection between reading fiction and being more sensitive to others.

For people who read fiction (and it seems that it had to be fiction) that transported them – the kind of transport that jolts you when the book ends and you find yourself back in your room – there was an increased ability to see the world through others’ eyes.

Another study three years later reproduced the study but stripped away variables like age, gender, stress or loneliness, and English fluency. They found that fiction readers had higher levels of empathy (and, interestingly, better social networks in real life).

A later study in 2013 refined the findings down to genre – literary fiction that requires the reader to figure out characters’ motivations using more subtle cues had the most empathy. It seems that trying to figure out what the flawed protagonist is going to do next is good practice for trying to read our fellow humans.

A much-loved quote from the movie, “The Godfather,” is to “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” While I love pastries, we might all be better off if we “Leave the gun AND the cannoli. Pick up a book.”

 

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Grateful Enough? Thanks!

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Every morning, I try to meditate. I don’t actually meditate every morning, but I’ve read that it helps, so I try.

Part of that meditation is an accounting of the things I’m grateful for, because I’ve read that helps, too. Helps with what, exactly? Well, helps to make me the calm, accepting person I always wanted to be. There’s a whole industry around gratitude journals.

Gratitude is a good thing, right?

Because the opposite of gratitude is entitlement, i.e. “Why should I be grateful? I deserve this!” I worked hard to be sure my daughter never felt that way, and she couldn’t even play with toys she received until she’d written a thank-you note to the sender. I am suspicious of people who don’t write thank-you notes. When I was hiring, it was the people who wrote thank-you emails or, even better, notes, after interviews whom I favored.

But now, the scientists who study such things say that some people aren’t wired to be thankful. The ones who are the most independent feel like being grateful means they owe a debt of gratitude, and they are profoundly uncomfortable with owing anybody anything.

I get that, because I will go to extreme lengths to return a book or a loan. I have not run for office because I can not stand the thought of asking for money. It’s funny, when I did public relations for causes, I could easily ask for support for the good cause, but asking for myself? Just can’t.

Gratitude interventions – like the popular gratitude journals — don’t work for everyone, despite the marketing, according to the psychologists. Not everyone benefits from forcing gratitude.

But gratitude is still important, even if we’re not wired for it. The psychologist in the story about the gratitude research says that he would, “worry that people who are uncomfortable with gratitude and with receiving gifts may be undermining their interpersonal relationships.”

So, how do we balance the importance of gratitude with the need to be independent and strong?

Maybe we ought to share some of that gratitude with ourselves. For example, “I am so grateful to be published, because a lot of talented people are not. But I am also grateful for my own talent and perseverance that led to my being published.”

Maybe the secret is giving credit where it is due, not with arrogance, but not with false modesty either.

Oh, and thank you for reading to the end. I’m grateful.

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Breathe

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(Editors Note: This appeared originally as a blog in Skirt Charleston magazine)

The symbol for oxygen is O2.

I like to think of it as “Oh, to…” as in, “Oh, to be able to stop and take a breath!”

It sounds ridiculous to forget to breathe. You don’t have to think about it. Breathing is just natural.

But sometimes, I need to remind myself.

There was always a moment, when I got home from work, that my daughter would want to launch into the rapid-fire recap of her day. From an early age, I taught her…just wait.

Let Mama breathe.

Give Mama that bubble of time, just five or maybe 10 minutes, when I could shuck the stress from the day like an ugly snakeskin. Silence. Breathe. Let my chest rise as I pull in air. Loudly exhale out, letting the shoulders sink.

And then, the “How was your day” could start.

This is the reason you put on your own oxygen mask before turning to your child in the next airplane seat. Because you have to be able to breathe if you want to have anything at all to give someone who depends on you.

The day could be full of the slings and arrows of nasty clients, jealous coworkers, kamikaze commuters. And the nights could be off-the-rails races to fit in dinner, bath, storytime, dogwalking, meaningful conversation, and the occasional – okay, more than occasional – glass of wine.

But for just a few minutes, I could breathe. In. Out.

Later in life, I attended a challenge course. We had to climb a 30-foot telephone pole, stand atop a platform at the top that was no bigger than a personal pan pizza, and then leap into space.

Of course, the whole time, we were harnessed in, safety lines monitored by the seasoned challenge leaders.

But it didn’t feel safe. Once you crested the telephone pole, there was no place to put your hands. You had to stand, 30 feet up and balance on a pole that – how did I not notice this before? – swayed ever so slightly in the wind.

From below, came encouragement from the rest of the class.

“You can do it!”

And then, the leader, well-versed in the sudden cowardice and panic I felt: “Breathe, Helen! Slow breaths, now! Just breathe.”

Just breathe. In. Out.

Not quite bravery as I sucked air like a starving man, but at least the panic receded.

I looked around at the beautiful sage-green mountains, laid out before me. I pushed down on my trembling thighs and straightened from the frightened crouch. Slowly, but I straightened until I was standing.

And I breathed. In. Out.

Oh, yeah. Now I remember. Breathe.

 

Cool to Be Kind?

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Maybe it’s the election cycle; the politicians seem to be taking that whole “bully pulpit” thing literally.

Or maybe it goes back to Alice Roosevelt Longworth who said the quote later attributed to sharp-witted writer Dorothy Parker: “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”

Whatever the origins, it’s no longer cool to be kind. It’s more important to be clever.

Listening to the political ads, you might think that it’s all about survival of the fittest, and being fit means being unkind. Is it instinctive?

You might think so, except for some recent rodent studies.

We all have seen the wordless sympathy dogs can display when we’re down in the dumps or sick. With a soulful gaze and a head on our lap, dogs offer comfort.

But apparently, this instinct for kindness goes all the way down to rodent life.

A recent study at Emory University found that prairie voles would console one another through grooming, especially if they were from the same family. The study looked at the voles’ brain chemistry and found that fellow voles in distress caused the release of the same chemical – oxytocin – that is related to maternal nurturing and social bonding.

So if our more complex brains are similarly hard-wired for compassion, why do so many resort to bullying? Does that feel better than being kind?

Not if you believe the authors of the book, “On Kindness,” psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor.

They argue that kindness has become our forbidden pleasure.

“In one sense kindness is always hazardous because it is based on a susceptibility to others, a capacity to identify with their pleasures and sufferings. Putting oneself in someone else’s shoes, as the saying goes, can be very uncomfortable. But if the pleasures of kindness — like all the greatest human pleasures — are inherently perilous, they are nonetheless some of the most satisfying we possess.

[…]

In giving up on kindness — and especially our own acts of kindness — we deprive ourselves of a pleasure that is fundamental to our sense of well-being.”

I’m not one for self-deprivation. So, at the risk of no longer looking cool, I think I’m going to try a little more kindness. It may not get the laughs at parties, but I’m not sure that kind of laughter is the best medicine anyway.

Be Kind