Sunday, April 29, 2012

Easy to Unhook

Affirmation:  I embrace the concept of being "easy to unhook."

In Ecuador,in the home of my nuera, my daughter-in-law, there is not a TV in the living area.  In fact, I've visited several of their relative's homes and none of them have a TV in the main living area.  I know that there are homes in many parts of the world that cannot afford a TV so that's the least of their issues and I know there are some homes in the United States who also keep their living areas TV free.  A couple of my friends actually have this practice but when I visit Ecuador I have the privilege of staying with my consuegra, my daughter-in-law's mother sometimes for extended periods. Perhaps the simple fact that they have a word for the mother or father of their son or daughter's in-law is an example of how different their culture is than ours.

Our home is not TV free.  We have managed to keep the TV out of the bedroom but it has a strong presence in our kitchen.  When the families that I have met in Ecuador gather their main activity is conversation.  I was lucky enough to be invited to the home of one of the aunts for Fanesca.  We were away from the city and her family was gathering for a traditional Ecuadorean feast.  It's celebrated after Easter (Semana Santa.)  In the past, all the farmers would come together after they harvested their grains, which normally occurred after Easter. It was explained to me that different farmers grew different types of grains and so each family would contribute to the fanesca, the potato type soup.  It also contained many different types of beans.  The celebration I attended had a fruit salad as its first course.  In Ecuador the variety of fruit is amazing.  I was told there are 40 different types of bananas.  After the fruit came the soup. When the fanesca was served I was amazed that they had enough dishes and glasses to serve everyone, no paper or plastic. The accoutrements for the soup included empanadas, pickled vegetables, hard boiled eggs and some sort of fish that looked like flaked tuna but tasted much saltier.  You decided if you wanted all or some of the sides to put into your soup.  I tried them all but I had been forewarned about eating too much of the grain-bean entree because visitors didn't necessarily digest the soup easily.  After the soup came birthday cake and ice cream.  I knew I could digest that just fine.

At the aunt's home there were three buildings.  The first was the home of her son and his family.  Then, there was her home.  It was a simple stone building with 1 bedroom.  There is no heat or air conditioning.  If it's cold, you close the windows; if it's hot, you open them.  The third building was the family gathering space.  The day I visited, there were around 30 people, all ages.  When we arrived I, a complete stranger, was kissed by everyone there who could walk. If someone was chatting with another or sitting down or running around playing, their activity came to a halt and they came over to greet us. 

We were there about 4 hours.  We talked and then we talked some more.  Most of the adults made an effort to come over and sit with me and let me share some of my visit in my halting, stumbling Spanish.  The really good news was how many of them are fluent in English.  I also watched.  The children even the teenagers either ran around playing outside or just gathered and talked.  There wasn't any type of electronic gadgets being used by anyone.  Although many of the adults had cell phones, few of them paid any attention to them.  I wondered if the existence of the cell phone was the beginning of the demise of this delightful "unhooked" tradition. 

Everywhere we went during my visit it was the same.  Warm greetings from all and people who seemed to value time and connecting to each other more than what was going on somewhere else or what was coming next.  Most evenings at home with my host family, we sat and talked or my daughter-in-law spent hours helping me with my Spanish.  One evening we sat and played cards, four of us including one of the teenage granddaughters.  It was delightful.

I had been thinking of redoing my living room to include one of those big screen TVs that they show in all the commercials.  We have a TV but it's behind a cabinet and it's seldom used.  After my Ecuadorian experience I'm wondering if I shouldn't remove it and the kitchen TV and try life "unhooked." I wonder if our family gatherings would include more talking or if everyone would simply go off to find their personal way of connecting somewhere else.  My eldest daughter and her husband and his boys are good at being present to family and friends.  I wonder if it's a personality trait, a cultural trait or if it's something that can be learned?  I wonder if our American culture will allow us to "unhook?"  I actually find myself worrying about us loosing the art of visiting and communicating. 

The cartoon Wally was a satire about what will happen to us in the future if we don't make an effort to change.  The people of earth were now living on a space ship because they had wrecked the earth.  Their arms and legs no longer functioned because they had floating recliners and in front of them they had floating monitors and that's how they communicated.  They weren't even aware of the people next to them until this rogue robot appeared and kept upsetting everything. 

I know our monitors and chairs are not floating yet but have you watched people on the streets or in the airports or at parties?  How many times have you been talking with someone when their cell phone rang and they answered it, like you're not even there or  like this person calling is more important than you or like the caller will never call back or not leave a message?  Once again I am being called to stay present to the moment and to the people I am with.  My daughter-in-law describes my son, a computer programmer, as someone who is "easy to unhook." He doesn't even take his phone with him when he plays golf.  I think that's great!

There's my goal, I want to be "unhooked." Actually, I'm pretty good at it. The issue, and that's a whole other story, is that I want my whole family to be unhooked and I know I am not in charge of changing anyone except myself.  I think if I suggested removing the TV from the kitchen, some in my family would revolt.  Maybe I could just cover it with a towel and try doing without for a week or two.  I'm also considering putting a basket by the front door in which people can drop their gadgets.  Do you think anyone would come visit us anymore?  What if I promised to still feed them?  What if I promised they could retrieve them at any time as long as they used them outside the house, like most public places do with cigarettes.  I can see it now, most of my family standing on the front steps or in the driveway until I call "dinner is served!"

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Outward Bounds

Affirmation: I embrace stepping outside of my comfort zone.  

I'm a huge fan of the TV show Dancing with the Stars. I've been a fan since the very beginning. I jokingly say it's because there's no sex, violence or foul language. I can watch it with my grandchildren or my mother. How many shows are out there that meet those qualifications? I also love to dance.

On the show, about a dozen celebrities learn to dance different ballroom dances with a professional dancer. They get to wear these sparkly, colorful, fun costumes and learn a new dance or two each week until the final week when one of the couples is declared the champion for that season and they get the famed Mirrorball Trophy. It's such fun to see the people progress. I find it very inspirational. Sometimes there are celebrities who have serious disabilities but they don't let that stop them. In 2011 TJ Martinez won the title. He was a wounded Iraq war veteran with serious burns to his whole body, including his face. He actually lost an ear in the explosion. Did that keep him from giving it his all? When I watched him dance and saw the joy that emanated from his whole being, I completely forgot about his disfigurement. I obviously wasn't the only one because he was that year's champion.  

On the show, about a dozen celebrities learn to dance different ballroom dances with a professional dancer. They get to wear these sparkly, colorful, fun costumes and learn a new dance or two each week until the final week when one of the couples is declared the champion for that season and they get the famed Mirrorball Trophy. It's such fun to see the people progress. I find it very inspirational. Sometimes there are celebrities who have serious disabilities but they don't let that stop them. In 2011 TJ Martinez won the title. He was a wounded Iraq war veteran with serious burns to his whole body, including his face. He actually lost an ear in the explosion. Did that keep him from giving it his all? When I watched him dance and saw the joy that emanated from his whole being, I completely forgot about his disfigurement. I obviously wasn't the only one because he was that year's champion.

Sherri Shephard, from the TV program The View was one of the contestants this year, 2012. She was determined to do well. She wasn't a little lady and I could only imagine how mentally and physically challenging it was for her to learn those dances. She really wanted to win. She was traveling between the show she regularly hosts in NY City and the Dancing show in Los Angeles. It must have been a grueling schedule. I know she had all the advantages that money can provide but it doesn't lessen the hard work she had to put forth. She was eliminated in week four. She cried and cried. But, before they could say goodbye, she had something she wanted to share with the viewers. “If you don’t go towards the thing you fear, you won’t be able to say you lived.” She went on to say that you should run towards that thing you fear because what you'll find on the other side, is simply amazing.
I mentioned to several of my friends that I was somewhat afraid of my upcoming trip to South America. One of them said, “Oh, Jean, that's great! Because when you come home, you'll feel so good about what you've done.” I know she's right. Her comment gave me a sense of optimism and excitement, instead of dread and anxiety.

My husband and I did an Outward Bound in 2000. We spent 5 days canoeing through the Everglades. Now, I want to share that I am a city girl. I was raised in Queens, New York. Our home was on Grand Central Parkway. I mean, right on it. I was riding the buses and the trains by myself by the time I was 10. The “country” was the property fenced in around the hospitals that bordered our three block neighborhood. And now, I've been invited by my husband (born in Brooklyn) to go on an Outward Bound. He was on the Outward Bound board and thought this was a good idea. I got a tape about the Everglades. There were snakes and alligators, not to mention other creepy crawly things. But this was the year after I finished treatment for breast cancer and I figured if I could go through that, I could probably canoe through the swamps. I invited a friend to go with us and she was shocked, “What is the purpose of this excursion?” Well, if you needed to ask that, I figured you really didn't need to come along.

So, we went. We brought along our son who was in his twenties and our teenage daughter. The good news when we arrived was that we weren't going to be in the swamp, we were canoeing through the Thousand Islands. Whew!! On our first night we had to create an island. We took boards from the bottom of the canoes and lashed them together on top of the canoes. This was our “home” for the night. My first night to ever sleep outside, outside under a sky that had more stars than I had ever seen before. I learned a lot during those days. I learned that my daughter was an amazing person. She never complained. She just did whatever was needed, my son too. My husband was as kind and gracious in the wild as he is in civilization and I learned that I could be an indian or a chief. I could both follow and lead, whatever was required. And, I learned that I could survive in a situation I never even imagined. Now, when Sandy and I find ourselves doing something that's challenging, outside of our comfort zones, we refer to it as an “outward bound experience.” It's funny how often we find ourselves in that kind of a position. The purpose of going outside of your comfort zone it to empower you, that's the purpose. Life is challenging, there's no two ways about it. The only way to bolster your confidence is to do those things that frighted you, “to run towards them” as Sherri said. You not only receive the gift of empowerment, many times you find joy and fulfillment from making your way to a whole new place.

Fear is a debilitating disease. I believe we make more decisions based on fear than any other reason. It needs to be recognized and overcome. There's a wonderful tale about a guru who treks all over the land, sharing his wisdom and compassion. One day, he decides to return home. When he walks into his house, he is met by several huge ferocious monsters. They are drooling and their fangs are bared. He looks at them and asks, “Why are you here? What is it that you need?” and half of them disappear. He then asks the others, “Why are you here? Is there something I can do for you?” and they disappear, all except one. He is the biggest and the most frightening of all of them. He is growling and hissing and drooling but the guru is calm. He goes up to the monster and he puts his head into his mouth and with that, the monster evaporates.

This is the challenge; to face our fears with love and compassion, to put our heads into the monsters of life. Sometimes we get to choose our outward bounds and sometimes they are thrust upon us but if we have faced those events that take us out of ourselves and we've survived, we will be as prepared as possible for those events that we never even imagined.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

You Only Live Once

Affirmation: Because I am open and accepting, I am invited by family and friends to join them in fun experiences.

YOLO! YOLO! YOLO! My teenage granddaughter chanted when I told her I'd go to scuba diving lessons with her. It's so great having most of my family close by, especially my grandchildren. My granddaughter is a beautiful “child” inside and out. I'm very proud of her and of her mother's consistent guidance and influence. It's fun and educational to have someone her age in my life.
“What does YOLO mean?” I asked. I was told it's an acronym forYou Only Live Once. This is not the first time she has brought me the gift of a new word or concept. She keeps me “in the loop” of current events and modern happenings. It's certainly not essential to my well being but it's nice to have some knowledge of present day fads.“Grandma, would you go into a shark cage? “Sure,” I replied, “as long as it's not in the water.” “You got me!” she smiled, and then we discussed small steps towards her goal of swimming with the sharks, “Maybeyou should learn how to scuba dive first,” I said. “OK, will you go with me and learn too?” 

Well, I'm somewhat claustrophobic I must admit. I remember being in a tiny crowded elevator going up to the top of the Empire State Building and not being able to catch my breath. So, the thought of being strapped into a scuba suit and plunged into water is not very appealing. But, I've just been invited by my teenage granddaughter to join her on a great adventure. What would you say? “Sure,” I replied and that's when she chanted "YOLO! YOLO! YOLO!” She went on to explain that it comes from a rap song done by someone named Drake and that I wouldn't like the rest of the song. (I'll take her word that's probably true.) But, I love my new acronym and I love her.
I was also invited by my favorite (and only) daughter-in-law to go with her to see her family in Ecuador. I have many reasons for not wanting to be in a third world country where the economy is unstable and I don't speak the language but I love the idea of immersing myself in the Spanish language and culture and I love my daughter-in-law. So, I said “yes” to that invitation too.

I met a group of women many years ago all of whom were widows. They had traveled to the United States from Europe. They informed me they never turned down an invitation. “If you stop saying yes, people will stop inviting you and life can become very lonely.” I listened and made up my mind right then and there that I wasn't going to wait until I was a widow to accept the generous invitations of friends and family to join them in fun events.
I know we need to be discerning about our choices. We don't want to be human “doings.” We want to weigh and carefully choose our options but if you're not open to the invitations you might find there aren't that many choices out there for you. I'm speaking here about healthy choices, not about choosing activities that are detrimental to your well being. I'm not speaking about saying “yes” to anything offered, like drugs or alcohol or other unhealthy activities. I'm talking about making your world smaller and smaller by letting fear or laziness or judgement keep you from trying new things, meeting new people and having new experiences. I have had so many experiences where I was hesitant to say say yes but did and had some of the best times of my life.

The family was once invited to a friend's lake house for a weekend and I didn’t want to go. The thought about the amount of work it would take for me to prepare for the trip almost exhausted me before I even began. You’d think I would have already learned it’s all about the journey, not the destination. It’s about enjoying the moment, not trying to predict the future or ruminating over the past. But, I knew, I truly knew I would need to pack, buy food for ten people for 3 days, pick up the grandchildren and my mother and do all the driving for almost two hours. Then, I’d have to unpack the car and make the beds, cook dinner and then try to sleep in a strange bed in a strange place, not to mention balancing all the personalities: four grandchildren ranging in age from 11 to 16, and my mom who was in her late 80s at the time and Sandy, my husband, who hates the water or at least has a much greater respect for its dangers than I.

For heaven’s sakes, at the time I was 63 years old. I should have known by then what I wanted to do and didn’t want to do, what would make me happy and what wouldn’t. Just say “No thanks, I don’t want to do that.” I have friends that wouldn’t even consider taking on such an outing, but the invitation had come from some very dear friends and we don’t get a lot of invitations to spend time in someone else’s lake home. In fact, we’ve never gotten an invitation like this before. “Come” they said, “bring the whole family.” I felt an obligation to accept their generous offer.

I did it all, all the preparation. It wasn’t nearly as daunting as I’d imagined. We arrived right after sunset. I walked out onto the deck and there was the full moon, so big it looked artificial. My heart and soul soared and tears filled my eyes and for the next two days, I had moments of the most exquisite joy. I felt like I was on drugs, the drugs of life. I was living life to the very fullest. It brought to my mind the poem: Life said , “Come to the edge.” And I said, “No, I’m afraid. I’m weary.” And, life demanded, “Come to the edge!” and so I went and life pushed me and I flew!
My husband, friends, and grandchildren windsurfed, kayaked, laughed and played. My mother laughed and overcame her fear of riding in a speedboat for the first time. She was made to feel special and she loved being with everyone. Me? I was filled to the brim with gratitude and joy!
When I lived in Cincinnati I met some amazing people, people who became life long friends but I also met a lot of people who kept their world as small as possible. I remember a native of Cincinnati telling me they had new neighbors. When I asked if they had gone to meet them, she told me “no” she didn't have room in her life for any more people. Oh my! I was truly floored. It never entered my mind to close the door on the possibility of meeting someone new, someone who could become a wonderful new friend.
One year my then six year old grandson went to away camp. He was so excited about going. I asked him why he was so excited and what he was most looking forward to. He told me he was excited about his new best friend. As far as I knew, he didn't know anyone else who was going to this camp. I asked him, “What new best friend?” “The one I'm going to make.”

That's how I want to live life. I want to believe because I am open and accepting, my new best friend is out there waiting for me to meet, or that new adventure is out there waiting for me to experience. My granddaughter is right, Drake (whoever he is) is right. YOLO! YOLO! YOLO! This is it! This is our once in a life time opportunity. Don't let it pass you by. Say “yes.” Yes to life, yes to new experiences. Yes, yes, yes!!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Keeping Out of the Cave of Phantoms

Affirmation:  When I stay focused on the present moment, my life is richer and less stressful.

A trip looms in the future, a trip to another continent, a third world country.  I know how lucky I am to have this opportunity and I am excited about it but if I am I not vigilant I walk into the “cave of phantoms” and it is both dark and frightening.  

I am no stranger to fear and anxiety.  I can clearly remember the first time it raised its ugly head and entered into my life.  I was an older student returning to UNC to do a Masters in Social Work.  I have never considered myself to be a gifted student.  My accomplishments come more from a gift of perseverance and perhaps even the naive assumption that I can do anything if I decide to do it and stick to it.  So, I took a bunch of baby steps to arrive in this Master’s program.  

My first step was to sign up for a GRE review course.  Other than the fee, there was nothing intimidating about it.  I was simply going to see what I might learn.  It was fun.  So, I thought, “I’ll take the exam.  Why not?”  And, to my amazement I did pretty well.  “Well, I might as well apply to a program.”  I had a dear friend who had just gotten her MSW and the subject was of great interest to me.  I filled in the application for the part time program and within a short period of time, I was accepted.  I later learned they had hundreds of applications.  They accepted 23 people and I was one of them.  There I sat that first day with 22 other people all of whom seemed to have been in the field before.  I had been a math major and a teacher.  What was I doing here?  But, I believed God had a plan for me.  I didn’t have a clue what it was but I was willing to be His/Her tool and it appeared a door had opened and I chose to step through.  It took me five years to complete the degree but I did it.

But, being back in school with all the tests, assignments and internships (62 credit hours) and final exams, took its toll on me.  I would have days when I felt like I’d had ten cups of coffee but I hadn’t.  I’d awaken shaking inside and all my tools that I’d developed over the years didn’t seem to help in anyway.  I actually experienced several anxiety attacks but lucky for me, I was studying exactly what I was dealing with and so I could easily diagnose myself and get help.  Since then, anxiety had visited me on (and luckily) off many times.  I see it.  I know it but so often, I can do nothing to alleviate it except to know, it will pass.  Then, I saw a television commercial about the end of the world.  

The rumor is the world is ending (again) when the Mayan calendar ends, December 21, 2012.  The commercial was for retirement insurance and it pointed out that if the world was ending as predicted, you didn’t need insurance but just in case it isn’t, you might want to still be prepared.  

I fully recognize that I am mortal.  Besides being a cancer survivor and being an active part of both the Duke Cancer Patient Support and the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Advisory Boards, I was a Hospice patient care volunteer and did my first MSW internship with Hospice of Wake County.  I lost my father when I was 36 and all of these factors have combined to create in me a heightened sense of awareness that I may be only one breath away from the next life.  I try to keep that thought with me at all times for both myself and for my loved ones. 

So, when the insurance commercial came on it really made an impact on me.  I don’t know why perhaps it was simply the way it was portrayed; it was whimsical and silly but it also presented a very real possibility.  We are spinning through space on one of billions of planets among billions of solar systems.  We’ve all seen the disaster movies about comets hitting the earth, or the sun getting too close or too far or our axis slightly tilting and sending us all floating into outer space.  It’s true.  Any day now, the planet could implode or even more likely, we could die in a car crash or some other common accident. 

If you ever get a chance, go to the Newseum in Washington, DC.  It is six floors of everything pertaining to the news as it was and as we now know it.  It’s filled with fascinating exhibits and interactive experiences.  On the main floor is the antennas from the top of the south building of the World Trade Center and on the wall are the front pages of all the major newspapers announcing the events of September 11, 2001.  There’s a reminder that we don’t have a clue what’s facing us from moment to moment, no less far out into the future. 

The Buddhist tells us to “imagine the glass broken.”  He reminds us that life as we know it is fragile and temporary.  It’s not morbid.  It brings us a greater realization of the preciousness of what we have.  We need to treasure it.

Now, whenever anxiety arises I think only of the present moment.  I completely let go of the unknown or perhaps dreaded future.  Why should I be anxious or worry about something that may never take place.  Not that I will necessarily die and my future will end but I can only plan for whatever it is I want to happen, after that my future, my days are in the hands of God.  I haven’t got a clue what they will bring and because of that thought, I find myself at peace.  The anxiety seeps away.  I recall Shakespeare, “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”  Yes, I may be here for another 30 years or more.  The world may last for centuries to come but none of that is any concern of mine.  The future is just that, a world unknown and I will not allow myself to be afraid of the phantoms I may never meet.