Monday, September 5, 2011

Lesson #9: Navigating the storm

"I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship."-- Louisa May Alcott

Two days before Irene was scheduled to make landfall on Long Island I was standing in my living room trying to figure out what I needed to take with me if I evacuated. Aside from important papers (like the deed to my house and insurance documentation) there was very little I felt I could live without and yet my house is filled with stuff.

In truth the contents of my house are not as meaningful to me as my house itself. I have a close relationship with my home, I think of myself as its’ guardian and caretaker. I try to keep it in good repair, and looking as good as it can. In return, I expect it to shelter me, and offer me refuge from all the storms of life. My house represents my ability to take care of myself and the by-product of many years of saving and hard work.

If my house could speak it would have reminded me that it has withstood a great many hurricanes in the 112 years it has been standing, even the big one in 1938 which wiped out so many homes and businesses in Greenport Village. It would have told me it knew how to weather a storm as I have learned from the multitude of blizzards we have endured together, some with winds gusting up to 40 miles per hours and once winds so strong it made my house sway. And it would have reminded me that even though I love it, a house is still an object, a thing, and if I were to lose it to a hurricane, I could rebuild it.

Thankfully Irene did not cause the damage on Long Island it was supposed to, it moved upstate instead and devastated the homes and livelihoods of so many farmers and families. They were not given the luxury I was given to take a moment to consider whether to stay or to go. The raging rivers crested and flooded before many people could get to dry land.

In the end, I decided to go. I took enough clothes for a week, a tote bag of documents, and a valuable ring I inherited from my Mom and Aunt. I took a backup of my hard drive which had all my writing and photos, about a thousand chargers for all my electronic equipment, and cash.

As I drove in the car to my brother’s house in Philadelphia I imagined how my life would be with just the contents in my trunk, instead of feeling sad, I felt lighter. All those boxes from my apartment in the city I have not opened since I moved were filled with things I had no attachments to, all those papers in a pile on my kitchen island, things I needed to follow-up on, didn’t seem so important anymore and all those clothes in my closet I sort through and obsess about whether to donate or to keep, just seem like silly distractions.

Perhaps it is a factor of being fifty, when you can see more honestly how futile it is to hold onto to anything too hard, especially objects. We try to make things stake our claim on this earth – that boat, car or house tells the world we exist. We were here. And yet all those things can be washed away in an instant.

The one thing we can count on, that is with us every step of the way, every moment of our journey is something we dismiss as not good enough, strong enough, worth enough. It is our spirit, our self. That is what gets us through.

Driving on the New Jersey turnpike I realized that everything I ever was, could be, or would be was inside me, not in a box, a bag, a carton or an envelope.

Everything else was just stuff.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Lesson #8: Recovery Road

Sitting in the car, heading home, on the Friday of my first week back at work after my surgery, I put my head in my hands and started to cry. I was exhausted both mentally and physically. I felt like I had just been through a week of boot camp. I had totally underestimated the amount of stamina I needed to get through one simple day of work. I was frustrated with myself for being tired. What was wrong with me? The surgery was over, I had rested at home for a week and worked from home for another, why wasn’t I one hundred percent?

At three weeks I still couldn’t chew very well, my lower lip was still (and is still) numb which made everything from speaking to eating to crying an effort. Everything felt like an adjustment -- from wearing a seatbelt to talking on the phone, to the clothes I could wear, to rinsing out toothpaste. I was overwhelmed and depressed.

It took me a while to realize the problem was not with my recovery – the problem was my expectation of what should happen.

I have a long history of ignoring what my body is trying to tell me. I have an arrogance about my will being able to drag my body along regardless of any illness or injury. I’m that person who never gets sick for a day, because I don’t let myself be sick. When I’m under the weather I tell myself to buck up, I deny the sniffles, ignore the sore throat and open the window to cool off from a fever. When I do finally succumb to illness it isn’t pretty. It takes me out for a week, lands me in the doctor’s office listening to a lecture about how close I had come to being hospitalized.

I guess at my core I believe I am useless if I am not contributing to society in some way. Clearly my sense of safety is predicated on being in the world, making a contribution, working until I drop. Being sick makes me feel like that wounded antelope you see in all those nature films that gets eaten by the lions. Who wants to be that guy?

Yet who wants to be the woman crying in the car at the train station because she has pushed herself too hard? Frankly, I’d almost prefer being the antelope.
It is hard to face your own limitations and to respect what you need to heal, I’m afraid it is even harder to continue to ignore the small still voice inside you that asks you to breathe, to listen and to honor the amazing vessel that enables us to live fully in the world.
I am lucky I have people in my life who remind me to slow down, and who are patient with me when I cancel plans because I am too tired.

I am now seven weeks out from the surgery and take great pleasure in sleeping on my left side again, and being able to turn my head without using my whole body. The sensitivity in my left back molar has returned, something that used to annoy me but I now take as a reminder that my nerves are slowly coming back to life. Worrying about what I still cannot do, takes the focus of what I can do again, chewing came back just in time for the best corn of the season and because it is often hard to talk when my lip is acting up I save my words for when it is really important (and honestly, I like the challenge of taking less and listening more.)

Yesterday, after being able to take my first long walk, it occurred to me that I had been looking at this whole recovery thing all wrong. Instead of thinking it was taking me away from my job, I realized it was my job to recover and it warranted my total and complete focus and priority.
I stopped wishing I could get back to my old self and made peace with this newer, modified version of me. With any bit of luck she won’t met that crying woman in the car anytime soon.

Lesson #7: Letting Go...

In early July I had a surgery to remove a tumor that was growing on my left jaw. The tumor was benign, the surgery, although delicate, was a success and had a side effect of some temporary paralysis in my face mostly in my lip and ear lobe. The hardest part of the recovery is dealing with limited mobility in my neck, some pain and the inability to eat most solid foods for a while. Still, as I keep reminding myself, it beats having a tumor growing out of your jaw.

Going through this experience has given me a profound respect and admiration of anyone who goes through life changing illness, accidents or surgeries. It takes a tremendous amount of fortitude to keep yourself focused on your health and well being when there are so many reasons to get distracted and depressed. I think of people I have known who had months of recovery after accidents and am newly impressed by their strength.

For me, the work began as soon as I discovered I would have to have surgery. Until I got a second opinion I was hoping I would be told it was just a big cyst that could be removed on my lunch hour in the doctor’s office. When I heard the exact same information from the second doctor, and saw the image of the tumor on the MRI I knew I would have to face my fear of surgery.

It is a lucky thing to say the last (and only time) I have been in the hospital before this was when I was five years old to have my tonsils out. Unfortunately, that experience traumatized me and influenced the way I feel about myself and being taken care of.

Forty five years is a long time to avoid facing a fear and as much as I would have liked to have gone ninety, it was not realistic for me the think I would never have to revisit those terrifying feelings of a five year old alone on a gurney without her parents to comfort or explain to her what was happening.

My anxiety over the surgery was palpable and it expressed itself in a spike in my blood pressure that was so high my doctor was concerned I would not be able to go through with it if we couldn’t normalize it. For anyone who has ever had anxiety, you know how hard it is to quell it when it is expressing itself physically like that.

Friends and family offered to be with me but everything they said upset me. While they were trying to help I only heard conditions. No matter what they said I felt like abandonment was inevitable. To avoid that feeling I had learned not to depend on anyone. I even asked the doctor if I could be released the day after surgery on my own as I didn’t want to ask anyone to pick me up.

Before I even had the surgery I was suffering and deep down I started to think this tumor was trying to teach me something. On my bad days I thought it was telling me I was alone and always would be and on better days I thought it was challenging me to test the waters again, to be willing to let go of many of my outdated beliefs. Maybe what was true when I was five did not have to be true at fifty.

The shift began when I made a decision I would do whatever it took not to be afraid of what was happening to me. I sought the counsel of everyone I could. I spoke to friends who had been through multiple surgeries, life threatening cancers, and long rehabilitations. I talked to my doctor about my anxiety and he helped me break it down practically, assured me I had made solid decisions about my care. I spoke to my therapist about the experience and my commitment to change how I felt. My yoga teacher offered kind words about surrender and acceptance.

And then, one night, in a class I take on Buddhism during a meditation I felt something inside me start to change. I saw that little girl at five and felt love and compassion for her fear but I also saw a five year old that survived and learned how to take care of herself. And instead of making me sad, that revelation made me happy. I learned how to be safe in world that didn’t always feel that safe. Until then, I had never seen that experience in that way. My memory was locked in the trauma not in the survival.

The truth I saw after that meditation was that my suffering was not coming from the surgery but from my inability to accept what was inevitable – whether or not I wanted it to happen – the surgery was unavoidable and I had to a choice to either resist it and suffer or accept it and trust
I would be okay.

It came down to a decision and a leap of faith. (And let’s face it, what else is there when facing the challenges of life?) Did I want to live in a world where I was abandoned and afraid or a world where I was loved and taken care of?

My friend Donna stayed with me in pre-op and although the surgery was delayed by three hours, my blood pressure was steady and normal. I did not need an anxiety medication. When asked how I wanted to go into the operating room I opted to walk-in and shake the hands of my surgical team before I lay down on the table. When the anesthesologist promised they would take good care of me, I believed her and thanked her.

I have accomplished many things in my life but nothing made me prouder than learning how to surrender to surgery and to the outcome. And nothing honored the memory of that frightened five year old Teri more than the fifty year old version walking in on her own, ready, willing and able to face the challenges ahead.

As crazy as it sounds, I had a moment just before I left for the hospital where I thanked that big round tumor growing out of my jaw, thanked it for being benign and for showing me how to let go of my fear and accept the love and kindness that was all around me.

Little did I know…there would be more lessons to learn as I recovered.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Lesson #6: You are NOT done Learning

It takes a long time to be good at something and most of the time that road is paved with quite a few potholes and bumps. Still, when we develop an expertise in anything, we forget what it took to get good.

I was good at my old job, very good at it. I was there for eighteen years and worked my way through the ranks, held a variety of positions, grew as the organization grew and had relationships with many people. There were few questions I didn’t know the answers to, and few problems I could not navigate my way through. I knew the best time to catch the subway to the office, the locations of the best lunch spots and the fastest way to get cross town. In short, I had become an expert at my work life.

And then I lost my job.

In a few short hours I went from being an expert to a complete and total novice. From the time I was sixteen I had never been without a job, had only taken one vacation longer than a week, and had listed “losing my job” on the top five things I never wanted to go through in my life. (Note to reader here, if you want to avoid something don’t make a list of what you are trying to avoid, the universe has a way of delivering all those items to you when you least expect it – which is why I no longer remember any of the other items on that list!)

On top of that I was about to experience the release of my first novel which I had been working on for over ten years and was thrilled beyond belief and also in the dark about what it would mean to me and how well it would do.

The first thing I realized was how invested I was in my routine, in my expertise at my life. Sure, it had gotten a little boring, and I was utterly miserable at my job. But it was familiar, it was safe, it was… my life.

It didn’t take me long to realize that the only mistake I had made all those years was thinking there were parts of my life I could partition off and think of as solid and unchangeable and that it was okay to stop learning and growing in one area if I was trying in another.

The problem is not that life is changing all the time, that every minute of every day something is shifting that will impact how our trains run, or what someone at work says, or how good that pork chop will taste at dinner. No the problem is that we EXPECT that everything will go as we wish it to, that our path will be clear, that each day will be without challenges. And, on some level, we think our learning is over, that the reward for hard work is stability. That being an expert in routine is living.

I am now at a job that allows me to bring the best of my abilities to task every day, but it is so new and the challenges so vast that at times I find myself stricken with doubt, and unable to answer questions off the top of my head. I have had to learn to say, “I don’t know but I will find out.” And in doing so I have discovered that my talent is not in knowing, it is in finding out.
I don’t have a straight path to work anymore, I gave up my apartment when I lost my job as I wasn’t sure if I would work in the city anymore. I’m not sure what I’m going to do about that yet but I have a good friend who shares her apartment with me whenever I need it. I know a few good places to go for lunch but I work in area that is changing all the time and is so far removed from my old work neighborhood that it feels like I work in a different city. I am not an expert in my routine anymore, not an expert at my job, or even in knowing how to run my life.

My novel has done well, and has opened up worlds to me, and connected with me many incredible writers and readers. I am working on my second novel. I worry it will not be as good, it won’t be what I want it to be. I struggle with the doubt and with an expectation I have that I should be feeling something different, I should be further along, should be through learning about writing? Free of doubt?

I see more clearly now that the learning is never over, that the only thing worth being an expert in is being open to change, open to where the day takes you, and trusting your worth is not in your knowledge, your looks or your talents, your worth is in your heart and what you bring to each new day.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Lesson # 5: The Right Words

I used to say my favorite three words to hear were, “You are right.” No matter what the circumstance or relationship, hearing I am right, used to give me great satisfaction. I didn’t care about the cost of being right or the benefit either. I needed to be acknowledged as the right one, the only one.

The problem with wanting to be right all the time is that you aren’t right, you are just you with your point of view, feelings and life experiences. There is not a universal truth committee reviewing all sides of every situation determining who the ultimate winner is…there is not one truth, there are many.

I learned this the hard way in my relationship with my sister and I lost a few years of time holding my ground and fighting for acknowledgement of my “rightness.” Even after my father died, after we had reconciled and worked through a lot of our issues, I could not give up my need to be right.

The turning point came a few years ago when a small incident became a large one and soon we were in conflict again and not speaking. The longer we were separated the harder it became for me to believe in the value of being right, and after realizing how much I had hurt her feelings, it didn’t seem important whether or not I had a point, it seemed stupid and petty.

It became clear to me I was giving up a vital connection to someone I loved to be right. And in wanting to be right I was choosing not to see my own culpability. I was choosing to be the righteous victim.

I remember the exact moment when everything changed for me. I was sitting in my living room listening to a bird singing and I felt a great sadness take over me. I wanted to speak to my sister. I wanted to be connected to her again more than I wanted to be right. I decided I would do whatever it took to make it right with her.

I started with an apology and I listened and acknowledged her hurt. I made room for her perspective and I worked at understanding her point of view. What struck me the most was when she said, “I knew why you were so mad, and I wasn’t upset with you for that, I just didn’t understand why you couldn’t see it from my perspective.”

I told her the truth. I told her that it was more important for me to be right than to understand.
“How’s that working for you?” she said. We both laughed.

The great gift she gave me that day was making room for my feelings, and acknowledging that I had a right to my anger and reaction. It was only fair for me to do the same for her and then, something incredible happened, I heard three words that have become my new favorites.

“I love you.”

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Lesson #4 - Go with your Gut

I can classify all the major turning points in my life into one of two categories. I either went with my gut or I ignored it, both choices taught me valuable lessons about trusting your instincts.

One of my earliest memories of having a strong gut reaction was the first time I walked into a classmate’s house as a freshman in high school. The house was dark, musty and had that warm smell of all the food that had been cooked in the last ten years. As soon as I crossed the threshold I got this overwhelming feeling that bad things were going on in the house and this friendship I had struck with this girl was not a good idea.

Of course, by that time, through rigorous indoctrination at school and at home, I had learned to doubt most of my feelings. Instead of accepting my reactions and responding accordingly I had developed a complex system of assessment which began with questioning why I was even having the feeling and usually ended with a harsh denial of the validity of it.

I told myself I was crazy and made up excuses whenever I was invited to her house.

I guess you know where this story is going…six months later my friend was hospitalized after having a nervous breakdown and after making harassing phone calls to the new girlfriend of the boy I liked posing as me. Her story, as it turned out was rife with abuse, secrets and darkness.

What ended up taking months for my head to figure gut knew in an instant.

When my gut has a good feeling, it is easier to go with it. Looking for apartments was easy as I let my brain take a break and trusted my instinct. Most of the time, I knew before opening a closet door or seeing the kitchen whether I would live there or not. When I saw a picture of my house, I knew that was where I was going to live before I stepped through the door. (And the house I bought was the ONLY house I ever looked at.)

Maybe it’s hard to believe that so many of our choices in life can be left up to our gut. How can it be more accurate than our logic which we have cultivated through education, self-help books and Oprah? How can it be right?

Even the location of our gut, somewhere in the belly region is a source of a lot of discomfort for us; let’s face it who really likes their stomach or abs. We are always trying to change it, to make it leaner, more defined, less soft and pliant, less, “gut like.”

As I get older, I question a great deal of the assumptions I have lived with most of my life. I don’t see much value in denying your feelings or measuring your right to have a reaction. I tire of the constant battle of the ego and/or brain over the gut and/or heart. I am interested in cultivating a life that relies more on my gut and less on my ego. After fifty years of having my back, I figure it might be time to let it take the lead.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Lesson #3: Feminist is NOT a Dirty Word

After an author event a few weeks ago where I spoke about the importance of women to give voice to their stories, a woman came up to me and said it was refreshing to hear someone speak who was an unapologetic Feminist. “I hope you’re not offended by that,” she said.

“Offended?” I said, “I’m flattered.”

No matter how bad the connotation of the word Feminist gets in our culture, you will never, ever hear me say I am not one. In fact, you will never hear me say that I have moved beyond Feminism, (honestly what is beyond the true equality of the sexes?) And please, don’t start with me about how being a feminist makes me a man-hater. I’ll just yawn in your face out of boredom. You want to tell me women have achieved as much as men in this country, this contienent, this world? Then I will seriously have to ask you to pick up a paper and read it every now and then.

The mere fact that feminism is a term men and women shy away from should be enough of an example of how bad things have gotten. It’s like saying the civil rights movement made everything okay for African Americans – oh wait, some people believe that too don’t they?

Feminism is a hot button topic for me. Consider yourself warned. It has been since I was a young girl. No matter what the world has tried to teach me, I fervently believe that I am second to no one and that I have an unalienable right to make the same amount of money for doing the same job as a man or a gorilla.

I do not believe that men and women are the same in the way they see the world, approach relationships, business or their feelings. I don’t want to make men more feminine or women more masculine. I want the same pay for the same job. Let me rephrase that, I DEMAND the same pay for the same job.

I want to live in a world where women and children are not repressed, are not trafficked, sold, abused, degraded, oppressed or killed simply because they are women.

I want to live in a world where girls are not bombarded endlessly with images and expectations of perfection which are not only impossible to achieve but not worth achieving. Feeling beautiful is the essence of beauty and any woman over thirty knows that doesn’t happen with the right mascara.

Being pleasing does not give you happiness, turning yourself into an object of adoration denies your own humanity – why are we asking our girls to do that?

The truth is women are assaulted, molested, raped and abused at alarming rates. When bodies are found in unmarked graves, chances are they will be the bodies of women, and most likely they will be women who worked in the sex trade and lived a few blocks away from any address anyone cared about.

Many of the plots of TV shows, bestselling novels and movies revolve around the mutilation and murder of women. As if all the pampering, makeup and primping we get from these so-called “women’s magazines” is just preparation for becoming an ideal corpse.

I am a feminist and will be one until the day I die – and if I have done my job right I will leave behind a new generation of feminists who know the fight is not over, it is just beginning.

Look, the math here is simple, take care of women, you take care of the world. That makes me a feminist – what does that make you?