Dare to Be Grateful

My mom, sister, and I are in the midst of a 52-week gratitude challenge. Each week, we’re assigned an area of focus and send responses to each other via email. The 52 topics are:

We’re now 11 weeks in and all agree that this exercise is offering a much needed boost to our wellbeing. For me, the best part is the requirement that we focus 100% on gratitude. As I consider my weekly responses, I have to halt the impulse to add disclaimers or counter-arguments, and each time I shed the negativity to shine a light solely on the positive, it’s like I’ve applied a magical, healing elixir to my beleaguered mind.

So far, my favorite week has been #8 – Express gratitude to 3 people. It provided an excellent reminder of something I’ve learned before (that people love it when they’re told, in a candid and genuine manner, how much we appreciate them) but have never managed to bring into regular practice. Unfortunately, I think this is true for most of us. Expressing gratitude to the folks in our lives, while important and uplifting, is rarely done.

Several years ago, I listened to a colleague as he spoke at length about how much he loved and valued the mother of his four children. When he finished, I asked if he’d ever shared that feedback with her, and he shook his head, admitting, “We mostly just argue about the kids.” I suggested that, the next time they were alone, he tell her everything he’d told me. “It’s nice to hear how much you admire her,” I said, “but I’m not the one who needs to hear it.” He agreed and said he’d talk to her. I hope he did.

Although it can feel a bit awkward to express gratitude in person, it really doesn’t matter how it’s done. I sent my week 8 accolades via text and email, and not one recipient complained. Instead, I was told I’d brought tears to their eyes, made their day, and reminded them to take the time to appreciate their loved ones. In short, expressing gratitude is a win-win. Since good feelings get passed along just like bad ones do, sharing positivity provides a chance to shift the scales, creating ripple effects of joy rather than misery.

As individuals, we have very little control in this world, but we can choose how we think, react, and communicate. My goals for 2020 are to focus on the positive, immerse my thoughts in thankfulness, and get more comfortable with letting people know how much they mean to me.

Wishing you all a happy (and grateful) New Year.

Going Through Hell

When I spoke to a client a few months back, she was “goin’ thru it,” as my husband tends to say when life falls apart. Her kid was in a medical crisis that had caused her to miss exams and fail a class, thus screwing both her financial aid situation and pending post-graduation employment. It was one of those painful phone calls during which, as a counselor, I couldn’t offer much besides: “I am so sorry,” “That’s just awful,” and, “Don’t forget to breathe.”

I talked to her again last week, and when I asked how school was going, she replied, “Great! Graduation’s tomorrow!” She’d gotten an emergency loan, powered through the last semester, had a good job lined up, and all was well with her kiddo’s health. She sounded fantastic.

This conversational juxtaposition reminded me of something my uncle said throughout his many years of cancer treatment: “When you’re going through Hell, don’t stop. Keep going!” In a similar vein, I recently saw a sign that read: Rearrange the letters in depression, and you get “I pressed on.” Sure, it’s kinda hokey, and I don’t know how much weight should be put on the significance of rearranging letters (“live” rearranged makes “evil,” after all), but I still appreciate the sentiment. Sometimes hokey can be helpful.

I need to hold onto those valuable lessons during this season, aka “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (a Christmas song often referenced with pronounced sarcasm). As we all know, this time of year can be less than wonderful. It can mean horrendous traffic, long lines, crowds, financial stress, family drama, travel nightmares, and general impatience/crankiness. And for many, it’s a time fraught with anxiety, sadness, and anger.

Perhaps the best thing we can do to muddle through the next couple weeks is act as one another’s cheerleaders. The next time I see someone red-faced and bug-eyed with distress, I’ll try offering a kindly wave and smile of encouragement. Hopefully they’ll hear the message behind the gestures: “Looks like you’re goin’ thru it, friend, but don’t stop ~ keep going! And don’t forget to breathe!”

Why Is My Phone So Boring?

Everywhere I go, people are gazing fixedly at their phones. It doesn’t matter if they’re out to eat with loved ones or at a summit facing the most beautiful view in the universe or touring an exhibit of priceless, never-before-seen artifacts – phones remain the focus of their attention.

Given most people’s level of interest, I must admit I’m disappointed in my phone. Once in a while I pick it up and command, “Distract me!” but it just sits there, inert. I log onto social media and declare, “Entertain me!” but my interest soon wanes. I consider clicking on news sites, but then I come to my senses. In the end, my phone and I simply stare at one another, both seeming to wonder what all the fuss is about.

Perhaps my phone is mad at me because it knows I’ve never liked phones. Many years ago, in a choking fog of resentment, I finally got my first cell phone, and I would turn it on only to make calls and turn it off as soon as they ended. My voicemail greeting was: “This is my cell phone, and it’s usually off, so please don’t leave a message. If you need to reach me, call my land line at…” But people don’t listen, so I still received voicemails, usually retrieved several days after they were left. The best ones came from my friend Carolina, who said I used my cell phone the same way her octogenarian grandfather used his. All of her voicemails started with: “Hola, Grandpa!”

So maybe that’s the answer: my phone doesn’t like me because I don’t like phones, and therefore it insists on being boring. Or maybe it’s heard me describe it as a not-so-smart phone, and that hurt its phoney little feelings. Whatever the reason, it seems phone fascination is not for me. But that’s okay. Everyone’s different. I don’t understand most people’s attachment to their phones, and most people don’t understand my obsession with mushroom photo shoots.

A Psychic Return

While Big Brother needn’t try too hard these days, having outsourced his position to a publicly oversharing citizenry, I’m still pretty confident my handy tech gadgets are spying on me. This past week, though, I had an experience that made me wonder if cyber surveillance has upped its game, moving beyond the old school techniques of watching and listening and into a far more invasive realm.

I do a lot of walking – 3 to 4 miles on an average day and closer to 10 if I plan an epic adventure or happen to get lost. Because I walk so much, good shoes are imperative, and my current pair is problematic, with too-wide treads that trap rocks and other bits of detritus. Several weeks back, after endless scrolling through online shoe sites, I thought I’d found the perfect replacement pair – similar to the current ones, but with narrower treads. I made the purchase and received notice they’d arrive in 3-5 days.

They didn’t. About a week later, I got an email saying the order was delayed. The message featured a picture of the shoes, and when I looked at it closely, I realized IT WAS THE EXACT SAME PAIR I ALREADY HAVE. Apparently I’d scrolled through so many photos during the online hunt that my power of observation went kaplooie. Bummed, I realized that when the shoes finally did arrive, I’d have to send them right back.

Weeks passed. I received another email saying there was still a delay but the shoes were totally going to arrive at some point in my life. Again, I grumbled at the screen and thought, Whoop-dee-doo, then I can return them. I didn’t hear anything else from the company until a few days ago when an email arrived stating that my return had been received and my refund processed. Baffled, I checked my bank account to find that yes, indeed, I’d gotten my money back for the shoes that never arrived.

As I’ve already said, I realize technology is observing us 24/7. But monitoring my thoughts?! Come on, now. Even in our current, weird-beyond-belief world, that seems like a bit of an overstep.

The Power of Isolation

In my youth, chilling temperatures and changing leaves brought about a rise in anxiety, as autumn’s approach meant a return to school, and I was never a fan. For the past six years, however, autumn has meant a warm remembrance of my time on Orcas Island, providing an opportune time to tumble down a rabbit hole of memories.

The other day, I revisited writings from my three-month stint on Orcas, reliving my adaptation to island life, the pain of editing, and the need to find free activities, as well as two significant turning points: when I began to lose my mind and when I fell in love with a dead man (I have a hunch those two are related).

The time I spent on Orcas was the most creatively productive of my life. This may be because I didn’t see boredom as an option. I imagine this is true for many writers. How can one be bored when there are stories to tell, worlds to create, and characters to bring to life? Any moment spent languishing in a state of ennui is a wasted opportunity. And on Orcas, such a thing was simply not possible. The natural environs, teeming with life and beauty, would not allow it.

Come winter, though, it was time to return to the mainland and commune with other humans. My mind is far too full of fantasy to stay in isolation for long. If I had remained on Orcas past the three-month mark, my grip on reality may have floated away entirely.

This could have been my new best friend. She does seem awfully sweet.

I Have Magical Powers (Except Not Really)

The commute to one of my jobs features a junction that is, at the best of times, a calamitous convergence of chaos. Three roadways join to become four lanes, and those lanes then divide into three exits. If drivers would relax and use the half mile of road to find a safe, appropriate time to merge into their respective lanes, all would be well, but of course, that’s not what happens. People either drive like they’ve been shot out of a canon or choose a more leisurely speed, like 5 miles per hour, which leads to a hair-raising, brake-slamming, white knuckle experience for all.

While I attempted to navigate this Junction of Doom last week, I got caught in a typical predicament: the driver in front of me hit the brakes every few seconds while a man in a pickup truck hugged my bumper so closely that I could make out every feature on his stupid face. Tailgating infuriates me, as it is unnecessarily dangerous to the point of potential lethality, and if you read my last post, you already know that, at present, rage is my sole remaining emotion. Therefore, it didn’t take long for me to glare in the rearview mirror and roar, “GET OFF MY ASS!”

Just like that, the truck fell back about five car lengths. I gloried in the joyful change of circumstances before thinking, Whoa. How the hell did that happen? Do I have newfound magical powers? Or is it just a coincidence? I then glanced around at my four open windows and realized that the driver, having been an inch from my bumper, had definitely heard my stern warning/bloodcurdling scream and made the prudent choice to take it to heart.

I chalk up that incident as my greatest victory of the week. Also, I now believe there should be a loudspeaker affixed to the roof of my car so I may impart other gems of wisdom to my fellow drivers (e.g., Stop texting! Get off Instagram! Use your goddamn turn signals!).

Emotional Flatline

Back in May, I started a new medication intended to eliminate chronic pain. Since I’d dealt with this pain for over 30 years, its exit from my life was so elating that it took some time to notice the drug’s unfortunate side effects, the most pressing of which has been the eradication of my emotions (or rather my positive/productive emotions, as blistering rage seems to be doing just fine). Other feelings, however – like joy, anticipation, curiosity, and determination – were apparently lined up and executed one by one.

My sister was first to point out the change. During a visit in early August, she mentioned that I seemed pretty bummed, which was strange since summer is usually my “happy time.” She also reminded me that I could talk to her about whatever was going on. The problem was that I had no idea what was going on, but I did know that talking about myself had gotten progressively difficult, as if I needed to reach down my throat to pull up the words. It still feels that way – like I’ve swallowed everything I need to say, and it’s all stuck down in my gut.

On the rare occasion that emotions do reveal themselves, they’re severely delayed. Last week, I found out that my dad had to have an emergency heart procedure, and I handled the news like a 1940s lobotomy patient. However, a couple of days after his (successful, thank goodness) surgery, I looked up to see my old dog gazing out the window and burst into tears.

The sob-fest wasn’t truly for Jasper, of course, as cute as he is. It was all about Dad, aging, mortality, loss, love, and fear. The disconnect was easy enough to detect – this isn’t my first rodeo when it comes to emotional derailment – and since I am savvy in that department, I’ve had many years to develop endurance strategies for times like this.

Rule Number One = DON’T ADD TO THE PROBLEM. While in a bout of depression during my first year of college, I took a class called Evil in the 20th Century. Essentially, I read about the Holocaust and Khmer Rouge for a full month. Here’s what I learned: if you feel like shit, don’t immerse yourself in horror. Do positive things. Along those lines, while I’m in this state of emotional death, I’ve decided to expand my vocabulary (I even have flashcards), read lots of books, walk a ton, and take edX classes (current: Humanity and Nature in Chinese Thought). Ideally, when I emerge from this place, I’ll find myself physically healthy and a little bit smarter.

A few months from now, the drug will be out of my system. The emotional wellspring will refill, the words will flow from my gut back to my throat, and I will awaken at last to feel something more than: 😐 In a dull, understated way, I look forward to that time.

Mass Reflections

Though I moved from Massachusetts 22 years ago, a recent interaction brought me straight back to my home state with sudden, unexpected clarity. I was listening to a couple of friends – one from New Mexico and the other from Texas – describe the cliques in their respective high schools. They soon realized that, in both regions, students who’d listened to country music and dressed like cowboys/girls (cowpeople?) had been referred to as “shit-kickers.” Intrigued by this discovery of shared nomenclature, my friends turned to me and asked what those kids had been called in my hometown. I thought for a moment, then replied, “He was called Billy.” In response to their confused looks, I added, “We just had the one.”

Poor Billy moved from Texas to Eastern Massachusetts at the beginning of high school, and he could not possibly have stood out more with his oversized cowboy hat, tight blue jeans, and giant silver belt buckle with the obscure warning: Don’t Mess with Texas. (I remember reading it and thinking, What the hell does that even mean?) Looking back, I must admit we made Billy’s transition to his new hometown pretty miserable, as Bay Staters (or Massholes, as we are aptly nicknamed) have little tolerance for anything “country.” [Case in point: last week, I heard from a childhood friend who’s raising her kids in Eastern Mass. As she lamented being the parent of a teenager, she offered this evidence of her daughter’s current, unacceptable behavior: “The other day I found myself outside her bedroom, pounding on the door and yelling, ‘We do not listen to country music in this house!’“]

A while back, I saw an episode of The Good Place in which Bad Janet insulted somebody (paraphrased: “Why don’t you shove it up your butt, you fat dink?”) and another rep from the Bad Place gave her a high-five. As I watched their interaction, I thought, Hmm. The Bad Place might be Massachusetts. Because that was a key element to social interactions during my formative years: whoever could deliver the most cutting insults got the biggest laughs and heartiest pats on the back. Mind you, these insults weren’t reserved for enemies. They were also for loved ones. We all (with the exception of poor Billy, bless his heart) honed our social skills by practicing the formulation and delivery of wicked burns with the most razor sharp cruelty possible.

It wasn’t until I moved out of Massachusetts that I learned not everyone relates to others in this way. For example, it turns out it’s not common practice to flip the bird to anyone who toots the horn while driving past me. Who knew? Also, it’s apparently not cool to burst out laughing when someone falls down, then proceed to tell that person what a clumsy idiot he or she is. Believe me, it took several years for my communication norms to be deprogrammed. I still need to tamp them down on a daily basis. And I am eternally thankful my thoughts aren’t audible, so every stranger who walks by with a smile and asks, “How are you?” won’t hear the response: “None of your business, asshole.”

To conclude, I’ll leave you with a couple of fun facts that I just learned:

(1) The word Masshole was added to the Oxford English Dictionary on June 24, 2015, and

(2) Hot mess, fo’ shizzle, and stanky were added that very same day.

I Lack Maturity

Many years back, I wrote a blog post in which I detailed the grossest things I’ve done in my life (up to that point, at least. I’m sure I’ve outdone myself since then). While I figured the post would be read by my usual audience of ten, it has proven to be the most widely-read of anything I’ve ever written, with several thousand views. Yikes.

This post will be of a similar vein, in that it’s confession-based, but rather than relaying a lifetime of disgusting acts, it will focus on my struggle to access the maturity one expects from an adult – the very same lack of maturity that leads me to pull over, crying with laughter, to capture a sign like this:

Dear Dirty Church: That is none of your business.

…or this:

😆😆😆😆😆😆😆😆😆😆😆😆😆

Chronic maturity-deficiency has had an impact on my professional life, as well. I would detail all of the inappropriate comments I’ve made as a counselor over the past 20 years, but I think that would take the rest of my life. Instead, I’ll stick to one particularly telling story.

This happened about ten years ago when I was living in Oregon and worked as an advocate for students at a workforce development program. A new student saw the Oakland Raiders sticker on my car and decided it would be a good idea to come to my office to tell me: “The Raiders suck! Go, Ravens!”

[Side note: Because I don’t live at the bottom of a well, I realize the Raiders suck. I’ve known this for a long time. When people say, “Boo, Raiders!” it just seems redundant. Yeah, no shit. Boo, Raiders. They’re awful. But they’ve been my team since the 1900s and their sticker’s on my car, so there it is. Until I get a new car, they’re my team, and seeing as I have no money, that’s gonna be a while.]

Hence, an NFL-based rivalry began between that student and me. And here’s the story of the day it ended.

Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, the staff at this program would gather in closed offices for case management meetings. Unless they had to be present at a specific meeting, students knew not to disturb staff during these times, because really important things were being discussed, like (if students were present) long-term life goals and short-term action steps, or (if students were not present) staff members’ drunken escapades, funny pet stories, and recipe exchanges.

On this particular Tuesday or Thursday, the Raven fan had been acting like a little shit all day, likely because the Ravens had won and Raiders had lost the previous weekend. (What a surprise.) And because I found myself with about 8 minutes of free time before case management began, I decided to pay him back for being a self-righteous butthead.

I don’t know anything about photo editing software, but I do know about Google Images, copy machines, scissors, and tape, so I did a search for “dead raven,” found a photo of a raven smooshed in the middle of a road, and printed it out. I then printed an image of the Raiders’ shield, cut it out, cut a slice through the raven’s back, stuck the shield through the slice, and taped it into place. Finally, I made two copies of my beautiful, finished image: a Raider shield murdering a raven.

I took one of the copies, folded it into quarters, and handed it to the Raven fan’s English teacher. I asked her to give it to him when silent reading commenced, knowing that I would be closed in my office at that time.

About five minutes into my first case management meeting, the Raven fan burst into the office, brandishing my brilliant piece of art. “This is so messed up!” he yelled.

“We’re in case management,” I informed him as my colleagues’ eyes grew large with confusion and concern. “You need to leave.” Tearing the page in two, he shot me a furious glare and wheeled around, but before he could cross the threshold, I added, “Oh, I did want you to see one thing.” I pointed at the wall behind my desk, where I’d tacked up the second copy. “Now you can stare straight at this every time we meet!”

The Raven fan spluttered in the open doorway for a moment, then cried, “I can’t believe you’re my therapist!” before he shot out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

Winning, folks. Winning.

The moral of the story? The worse your team is, the more adeptly you should hone your low-tech photo editing skills.

Also, always make copies of your work.

Lost My Mojo, Yo

I haven’t been writing. The act of typing those words made me feel a bit sick, but I guess self-reflection is important, even (or perhaps particularly) when it induces nausea.

Writers are supposed to write, ideally every day. I haven’t done that for weeks. My discipline has been derailed. It’s not for a lack of projects or ideas. I’m awash in those, yet I haven’t opened an in-progress manuscript since…okay, I just checked. June 3rd. 🙄 Ugh.

When I ask myself why this is happening, plenty of excuses stand at the ready. The world is a mess, so I can’t focus. My job involves too much computer time, so when I’m off the clock, I don’t want to stare at a screen. Doubts about why I write at all tug at my gut, poking my insecurities. What’s the point? It’s a waste of time. Find something useful to do.

Of course, it’s pretty shitty to be stuck in this place. I’m disappointed in myself. I fear that I’ve fallen too far off course to self-correct. I consider my unfinished work, cringing at the thought that it will remain that way.

Sometimes, when I’m in a rut like this, I engage in a mental exercise I call Be Your Own Client. If I were counseling myself right now, I imagine I’d say: “Accept the slump. It’s okay. It’s not permanent. If the inspiration to write isn’t there, do other things to support your writer self. Read. Go outside, explore, make discoveries. Spend time with loved ones. At some point, you’ll write again. It’s inevitable. The need to write is at your core. That hasn’t changed, and it won’t. So give yourself a break.”

Okay, that actually helped. I suppose a longtime counseling career has its benefits.