More Than a Moment (aka: Overcoming our Shadow Selves)

 There is a bleakness that exists within the human spirit. It is something so terrible, that none of us like to acknowledge its existence. A cold, terrible nothingness that creeps inside us. The shadow side of our human nature.

The woman who badmouths people behind their backs says, “At least I’m not as bad as the one who mistreats other people outright.”

The man who mistreats other people outright says, “At least I’m not as bad as people who abuse pets.”

The woman who abuses pets says, “I’m not as bad as people who physically hurt other people.”

The man who beats his wife and children says, “At least I’m not as bad as a murderer.”

The man who murders one person says, “I’m not as bad as the man who murders multiple people.”

And we shrug our shoulders at our “lesser” badness, and feel better. If just for the moment.

We have only two real ways to keep the shadows from overtaking us. We give in in bits and pieces, accepting the part rather than the whole. Every time we make a choice to willingly harm another person, we are choosing to walk in the shadows. We choose to cheat, to skirt around the rule of law. We dangle temptation on a string. We aim our bitter self-hatred toward others, forcing our whipping boy to endure the fury and pain we feel for ourselves. We lash out at the weak in our cowardice, then laugh as they fall.

Because it makes us feel better. If just for the moment.

It trades our helpessness for power, if just for the moment. It hides the shadows, that terrible, creeping emptiness, in our darkness. But only for the moment.

But there is another way to keep it from overtaking us.

We fight.

We do not take the route of the cowardly, who give up and give in to their shadow self. Instead, we fill our lives with as much purpose and light as we can carry. We make the difficult choice to reach into the mire with both hands and help our fellow human beings. We share our bounty with those who have less. We seek out those who have become invisible, and we see them. We offer kindness and forgiveness, even to those who aim to do us wrong. We love.

And it does more than just make us feel better. It makes us better.

We fight the shadows with light, because light is the only weapon that can defeat them. It is not an easy route. We are all faced with moments of weakness, when it would be easier to give in. To slander. To do harm. To spread lies. To punish the weak simply because they are weaker to us. But to give in is to feed the shadows, until the emptiness grows and grows inside us.

I challenge you to examine your own spirit. What feeds you? What do you turn to to get you through the day? What lifts you, and breathes life into you? What gives you pause, and fills you with those moments when everything feels right, and you are in love with being alive? Are you fueled by your shadow self, seeking temporary ways to feel better? Or are you motivated by the light, seeking excellence, focused on becoming better?

 

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The Lady with the Chalk (aka: Heroes All Around Us)

Yesterday, my teens and I watched Unbreakable, a 2000 film by M. Night Shyamalan. It was such a good movie. Super, you might even say. Afterward, I couldn’t help but ask my kids, “How would you feel if you learned that one of your parents was actually a superhero?”

My 13 year-old replies, “If I found out that Dad was a superhero, then I’d be shocked. Like, what the heck? But if I found out that Mom was a superhero, then I’d be like, oh. Okay.” He shrugs. No big revelation there. My daughter nods in agreement.

This has been a long-running theme in our family. You see, no matter how much I try to dissuade them, my teens are convinced that I am either a). A superhero in disguise, b). A CIA operative, just like Sydney Bristow; or c). a super hacker. Or possibly a combination of all three.

“Please,” I say each time the topic comes up. “I am just an ordinary, cookie-baking mom who works in a cubicle at a tax agency.”

“Su-u-ure,” one of my kids will answer. “Perfect cover.”

I’m not sure what led my kids to believe that I am somthing greater than I appear to be. Maybe it’s my hopelessly INTJ prsonality. Maybe it’s my ability to run very fast (though nowhere near the prerequisite superhero speeds displayed by the Flash). Or maybe it’s my steady lack of close friendships. Superheroes know how difficult it can be to form attachments while keeping their true identities a secret.

It is flattering that my kids think so highly of me, I guess. But I would prefer that they look arond them to honor the real heroes that walk among us. No, not cape-wearing comic-book characters with extraordinary superpowers to fight gainst supervillains. I’m talking about the real people who help humankind with their courage, altuism, and sense of duty. Police officers, firefighters, soldiers. Teachers, surgeons, and even regular people, from time to time. The heroes who save lives, offer hope to those who have lost hope, pick up the lost and set them on the right path.

Not long ago, I encoutered one such real-life hero in my own neighborhood. While out for a run one day, I came across something that made me stop in my tracks. A large, colorful chalk design had transformed a section of the sidewalk into a work of art. “You are needed here and now,” the message read. My heart soared with the positive impact of those simple words. As I continued to run, that day and in days to come, I came across more of these beautiful, uplifting messages, as did my daughter, as did other people in our neighborhood. They brightened our day each time. They filled our sails with wind.

And then, one day, we happened to spot the woman who was responsible. She wasn’t wearing a cape or a super suit. She was an ordinary human being, anyone’s neighbor from Anywheretown. She probably didn’t even realize that the offerings she had left had such an enormous impact on the people in our neighborhood. In fact, she seemed surprised, and perhaps a little timid as I thanked her for making such a difference.

Can you imagine what our world would look like if each one of us strove to become a hero in our own small way? No, not a superhero. We don’t need X-Ray vision or Iron Man suits or the ability to fly to save lives, or to make someone’s life better. Maybe all we need is to care a little deeper. To show our compassion for those who are less than ourselves, rather than our disdain. To use the gifts we have been given to do good, rather than to do harm. To offer someone a genuine smile and encouraging words to give them a positive boost. Maybe all we need to save each other, to be something greater than we are, is a piece of chalk and the willingness to make the world a better place for the people around us.

 

Everything is Temporary (aka: Non-Attachment)

I know it’s ironic, but I’m rather attached to the Buddhist principle of non-attachment. The basic idea is that our attachments – to people, to things, to ambitions – lead to inevitable suffering. How to avoid suffering? Remain detached.


I don’t think this means that we should not bond with others, as bonding is necessary for healthy relationships with other human beings. Non-attachment is more like living in acceptance of the constant flux of life. People change. Children grow. Relationships change. Nothing stays exactly the same no matter how much we fight it. Instead of allowing ourselves to become too attached to how we think people should be, or how we want things to be, we can choose to remain open to the possibility that nothing is permanent.

Everything is temporary.

A few months ago, I made a foray into the strange and scary world of online dating. (Yes, I know. About time!) I bought a subscription to a well-known paid dating site, which presented me with a lot of nothing, a little meh, one maybe that turned quickly into a maybe-not, and then…POW! Just when I was ready to give up, I met my dream guy. Not kidding. This man was my ideal match in every possible way. So much so, that My coworkers, kids, and I jokingly referred to him as Mr. TGTBT (To Good to Be True). And as our online and cell phone encounters advanced to real-life get-togethers, I became more and more enamored with him. Aside from our incredibly long list of similarities, Mr. TGTBT was also kind, funny, attractive, and intelligent. And he was into me, too – wow! Needless to say, we both had a wonderful time whenever we were together.

Until we broke up this week.

So what happened? He was also dating another women he’d met on the same dating site, and chose her instead of me. Yeah. Ouch.

I cried, of course. It was painful to be rejected (again). But more than that, it was painful to realize that I will never get to spend time with him again. Painful to lose someone after finally letting down my walls and sharing so much of myself. Painful to say goodbye to someone who had quickly become a very important person to me.

But then, the tears subsided. Because I remembered. Remembered all I’ve been through, and all I’ve learned from past years of suffering. Remembered that the pain does not have to equal suffering. Remembered that I now know the secret to letting go is to never hold on in the first place.

And there it was – acceptance. It was not like I had ended a very real and meaningful, if short, relationship. It felt more like I had awoken from a very pleasant dream. One which I would be happy to return to, with him. But still, no more than a dream. Mr. TGTBT was just that. No person in real life can be that perfect for you. No real-life romance could be that sweet. And maybe in that dream world I had to let go of, he will go on to find happiness with the other woman, and the idea of him being happy makes me feel happy, even if he is not with me.

Well, mostly happy. I do have this constant knot in my stomach that makes it hard to eat. But like dreams, like friendships, like romance, like everything in life, that, too, is temporary.

So now, the Best Dream Ever has ended, and I return to real life, here in the Cave. Real life of challenging myself in my career, and raising teens, and discovering great new books to read, and eating healthy (once my appetite returns), and exercising, and writing stories, and learning, and growing. It is a peaceful kind of life, and content. None of the drama, insecurity, or angst that seem to go hand-in-hand with relationships. I’ve canceled my dating site membership and have no plans to ever date again. No, not due to bitterness, or the hurt of rejection. That’s not it at all. It’s this: after Mr. TGTBT, I know that it’s all downhill. No real life man will ever be able to measure up. And I have no desire to challenge that theory. Period.

Maybe I have managed to figure out the art of non-attachment, but I have not managed to figure out people. How is it that so many people can allow themselves to be vulnerable, to share so much with another human being, knowing that it will all be temporary? To know that an important person will fade away, still clutching the treasures you gave them, and then to go out and do it all over again with another person? And another? Doesn’t it seem pointless? Doesn’t it seem as fruitless as a wonderful dream, which too, will fade away like it never happened? Isn’t the pain unbearable, especially for those of you who choose to love deeply, to hold on tightly? What is the prize you win for suffering?

Crayons (a poem)

“Use the whole box of crayons,” he said.

So I spilled the box

and began to paint my life

Orange: cheerful days that glow

Green: for fragile things that grow

Silver: hard work, dollars earned

Blue: for love that’s not returned

Purple’s passion paves the road

Yellow’s laughter shares the load

Bright red flames for bridges burned

Blue is love that’s not returned.

Gray the silence lasts so long

White the empty, sterile song

Black the endings, lessons learned

Blue, the love that’s not returned.

Winner! (aka: My Parenting Trophy)

I did it! I won a trophy!

Not just any trophy, either. The Best Trophy Ever.

Finally, after years of driving my three kids around to their events and watching them earn gymnastics medals, soccer trophies, science team trophies, and scouting awards, I finally had my turn.

Okay fine. It’s not like I’ve never earned awards before. After all, I grew up at the beginning of the High-Self-Esteem-Trophies-For-Just-Showing-Up era, when every kid was a winner. Of course, the moment the coaches’ backs were turned, the “real” winners stole the conch and Piggy’s glasses, then danced around a bonfire. And those trophies? Their fate was to be crammed away in some cardboard box in the garage until Mom tried to push them off on her grown kids. (No thanks, Mom. I’d rather keep the memories).

But today was different. Today, on the day before the last day of school, I opened an envelope that my 11 year-old son handed me. Every sixth grader heading off to middle school next year wrote thank you letters to their parents — a tradition carried on through the years at his school. My kid, who isn’t usually the mushy, sentimental type, wrote a love note that brought tears to my eyes. My heart cartwheeled in happiness.

This was not just a letter. This was proof. Proof that my children think I’m pretty special. Proof that I haven’t been screwing up this parenting thing. Proof that the experiment is working. Hooray! Yahoo! This letter from my kid is my trophy. The only trophy I need. And I don’t know, maybe I will frame it and hang it in my closet. So anytime I feel like I’m failing in the mom role, I can read my son’s honest, loving words and be reminded.

Hey Mom. You’re doing just fine.
LoveLetter FromConnor

Onward! (aka: Your Amazing Journey)

lifes journey

Life is not just a journey.

It can be like a journey though. It starts when at last we leave the nest, empty-handed, fluttering our barely-tested wings. Life is not so new anymore, and yet, everything is fresh. Like babies, we toddle into the vast unknown, swiveling our heads to take in everything around us. Our hearts are open to love. We blaze with light, high on new ideas.

Onward!

journey toward sun

It doesn’t take long, though. Somewhere in those ten years, we forget the steps. Our wings droop, weary. Our lights burn lower now, a candle’s flicker, shocked by the splash of sudden responsibilities. In our hands, we carry sacks, heavy with disappointment. Sometimes, we stop in our tracks, compass spinning wildly. Maybe we retrace our steps, searching for the safety of the nest we left behind.

But there is no nest. Not anymore.

So on we continue. When we are lucky, we find others journeying in our direction. We take turns carrying the load for one another, emptying sacks with laughter, with words. Candles together, we shine, lighting the path ahead. We remember our wings. We soar.

candlelight people lights

But luck does not always last. Those moments will come. Our paths may split, companions scattered. What was once you is no longer you, but an empty hole that fills with salty rain and empties again. The light is snuffed, the darkness overwhelms. We want to stop, to curl into the darkness, wrap our wings around us and forget.

But there is this wonderful thing called time. You will hate that word, but you must trust it. Time will gently unfurl your wings, lift you from the darkness. Time will open your eyes to the good ways to be you once again. Time will reveal a great truth to you: life is not just a journey.

Life can be your very own novel. You are the protagonist, fresh ink on each new page. You can begin the dialogue, write the verse, and when you aren’t happy, you can change the plot.

Life can be your canvas. Sketch your plan. Add your own splashes of color where you can. Or better, make yourself the canvas. Trade your jeans for polka-dot skirts and wild, artsy jewelry. Grow the longest beard you’ve ever seen. Sculpt your form like clay, love your softness.

Some say that life is a spiral. You move onward and upward, but the climb brings you around to where you began. But now, you have grown, learned, hovering above the steps you once climbed.

No matter how you see it, there is one thing that remains unchanged. This is your one and only life. No matter where you are in the journey, no matter which page you’ve reached in your book, you have the power to choose what happens next. Who will you be when the sun rises next? Where will your next steps take you?
remember your wings and fly

I hope that your baggage will grow lighter as you travel. I hope that you remember your wings and fly.

I hope that time and love will seep into your cracks and heal your hurts. I hope that when you wander from your path, you will find your way back. I will be here, waiting for you, my fellow traveler. My candle is lit, ready to share my light when you need it.

May your journey be long and filled with great love.

Life (and Other Games)

board game pawns dice“Hey mom, can we play a board game?”

Groan. I looked at the eager, shining eyes of my 10yo and pasted on a cheery smile. “Oh boy, a board game! There’s nothing I’d like better.”

“Hooray!” My son bounced off to search for a board game. “Blokus?” he called. “Chutes and Ladders? The Game of Life? Ooh, I know, how about Dogopoly?”

Nooooooo! I wanted to scream. Anything but Dogopoly, which takes the world’s longest, most boring board game and makes it more boring by selling dogs instead of luxury properties. Luckily, our Dogopoly game had mysteriously disappeared, so our family (minus the older teen, who was superglued to the computer, lost in the World of Warcraft) settled down on the living room floor to play Scrabble Slam!

dogopoly_boardYes, it is necessary to write Scrabble Slam! with an exclamation point, to emphasize how fun! And exciting! And fast! This game is. For about three minutes. Then, of course, Mom wins while everyone else is still holding a fistful of cards. Because we all forgot rule number one of Family Game Night in our house – never play word games of any kind with Mom. Or strategy games. Or pretty much any game besides Life or Chutes and Ladders.

 

The strangest thing is that I used to be crazy about board games. When I was a kid, my brother, sister and I played them all the time, whenever we weren’t playing Atari games or little league sports. Pay Day, Clue, Connect Four, and yes, even the dreaded Monopoly used to seem so fun (even though my older sister used to alter the rules in her favor). But somewhere within the past several years, I lost my enthusiasm for board games. Especially games of chance, where it doesn’t matter how talented you are at anything, because any player can win or lose just by getting a lucky spin or landing on the wrong space. Maybe it feels too much like the real Game of Life.

But here’s the thing – even though I am no longer crazy about board games, I am super crazy about my kids. They are like a cup of awesome-sauce with sugar on top. And so, any trace of distaste I may feel for board games is overshadowed by my love for them. For them, I would happily roll dice and dole out fake money. I would pretend to suck at checkers and accidentally-on-purpose forget that I am holding a +4 Wild Card in my Uno deck. I would even – gulp! – play Dogopoly for a few hours, if that’s what they really wanted to do.

family_games_words

Because that’s what you do when you love someone. You jump into their world with them and play the game with your sunniest attitude, even if it’s not your thing. Game on!

classic board games