The Walking Room of Requirement

It’s hard to write when you don’t even want to talk. I was surprised that it had been nearly three weeks since I’d written a blog post, despite the fact that they have seemed interminably long weeks. I’m here, because I’ve been inside my own head for too long and at some point, it makes it hard to be in the world.

canstockphoto2046365Instead of connecting with people, I’ve been reading, gardening, and walking. It’s made me more intolerant of small talk than I already was and I know that is not a good thing. I’m in the middle of reading The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It by Shawn Otto and The Age of Anxiety by W.H. Auden. At breakfast, I pour through the tiny print of the most recent issue of The Economist. At night, I’ve been reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

I decided a few weeks ago to concentrate on reading and fitness and to let everything else fall by the wayside. On the heels of a lengthy depression, movement has become the antidote. I’ve been walking, biking, and running every day. I’ve dropped some weight, which is a nice gift to my knees. But all the focus and grim determination means that I feel a bit brittle on the inside.

canstockphoto4799180In suburbia, even in the older neighborhoods, walking is one of the most solitary activities there is – no one is outdoors except in transition from house to car and vice versa. On the rare occasion when I pass a walker or biker on the sidewalk, my smile feels strange, the muscles unused for too long. I wonder if it looks as creepy as I imagine it does.

Walking serves as meditation. Thoughts are allowed to come and go as they please. No attachment to outcomes or items to be added to a list. It occurred to me that I’m at a point in my life where I don’t know what I need. That maybe this moment, this padding along the pavement is it for now.

At first all is dark and each walks alone. What they share is only the feeling of remoteness and desertion, of having marched for miles and miles, of having lost their bearings, of a restless urge to find water. Gradually for each in turn darkness begins to dissolve and their vision to take shape.

W.H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety

canstockphoto3578336Each time I return from a walk, I do not return the same as when I left. I remembered someone from long ago. I realized a feeling that I’d been ignoring. I saw where I’d been, like peeking into a series of rooms in a large building, to see if I was in the right place. Been there, never want to go there again, that was a nice visit, maybe the next one.

If I were to look for something specific, I would be thorough and systematic. I am the finder of things in our household. But walking means that I am the discoverer of things and that I have no control over what they might be.

“…it is a room that a person can only enter when they have real need of it. Sometimes it is there, and sometimes it is not, but when it appears, it is always equipped for the seeker’s needs.”

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

No great epiphany has hit me. I’m in a time of life of unknowing – who I am becoming, who I will be, what will happen. There are no plans, no driving forces working their will upon me. I’ve done it all before, sometimes repeatedly. Enough to know that letting go is the last frontier, that everything that has weighed me down, made me hold my breath, kept me on the sidelines, no longer carries weight.

I’ve realized that I can maintain my awareness in the world without getting caught in the cycling of outrage and lies. I can positively contribute without lying awake nights wondering how so much hatefulness can exist. I can look into the dark heart of humanity and still choose to embrace joy and love and kindness. I must keep walking until the shadows recede and the light warms my face.

In these hours and days of dual solitude on the river we hope to discover something quite different, to renew our affection for ourselves and the human kind in general by a temporary, legal separation from the mass. And in what other way is it possible for those not saints?

Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Walk No. 362: The Learning Curve

canstockphoto3085947It was a mild day for February in Minnesota yesterday. The sun was out and the birds were already doing their territorial and mating songs. After skimming the news for the day, I needed a walk. My mood was dark, as it usually is after taking in the shootings, the bloviating politicians, the wars and violations of human rights around the globe. As someone prone to depression, I have to fight the sense of desolation.

An alarm often goes off in my brain. Do something! Do something! I have that mentality of trying to fix, mediate, improve, or intervene, which leaves me a paralyzed, impotent ball of anger in the face of overwhelming and constant bad news. I thought about writing letters to Congress, refusing to buy certain products, running for local office, donating money to this cause or that. Bandages for my ego and drops in a bucket.

I walked further and thought about a paragraph by Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet. I smiled briefly to myself when I realized I was Rumi-nating. Again.

*****

canstockphoto9679624Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened.  Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading.  Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

 By Rumi, As translated by John Moyne and Coleman Barks

*****

Let the beauty we love be what we do. I have had that phrase in my head for a week. It breaks down easily for me in a personal context. I love nature, I grow things. I love reading, I write. I love music, I play. I love my family, I parent and nurture. But what does it mean for my role in the world, when suffering is ever-present?

I’ve been thinking about output – what we, as individuals, contribute with our thoughts, words and actions. In The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living by Russ Harris, he talks about the nature of our thoughts, many of which are negative, and that the real question we have to ask of them is not, are they true? But, are they helpful?

My brain has been in overdrive this week thinking about how Is it helpful? makes a fantastic barometer for so many things.

canstockphoto10717036I was at my daughter’s viola recital this week. Twenty kids went through short lesson pieces, while parents beamed. My daughter was allowed to do an advanced piece, since she had performance experience. But she faltered and stumbled. Her face turned red, but she kept going. Afterwards she shrugged and said, “Well, you have to fail sometimes.” She wasn’t defeated or being falsely humble. She was okay with her own truth. I was proud of her resiliency.

The girl next to her performed and when she sat down, her mother whispered, “You should have done a better bow to the audience.” She said to my daughter afterwards “Well, you certainly had the longest piece.” My brain was yelling HOW ARE THESE THINGS HELPFUL? The new barometer has yet to be tuned to subtlety.

People talk about being honest. They’re just being honest, to be frank, the truth is, not to be offensive, blah, blah, blah. First of all, any of those phrases tip me off that you’re likely going to insult me, lie your ass off or are about to say something incredibly ignorant. Lately, people have been praising Donald Trump as “telling like it is”, as if he were a wise soothsayer and not a narcissistic horseshit peddler.

canstockphoto6433663Sometimes, out of morbid curiosity, I’ll read online comments on news stories and feel terribly discouraged. This week was different. I read some horrid bigoted and sexist comments and thought “that was NOT helpful”. Admittedly, the voice in my head was sarcastic, but it did something. It neutralized the hate. It just didn’t have the same impact on me.

My brain takes me down a gloomy path, in the hopes of arriving at a useful conclusion. If, at any moment, my life can be cut short, how would I have wanted to spend the moments before? Worrying, fearful, angry, booing some hateful blowfish at a political rally? Writing angry responses to the wingnuts online? Or, would I prefer to focus on that which is helpful, that which is beautiful, that which adds value to the world?

I think about what some of these public figures have put out into the world, compared to 20 kids anxiously screeching away on their stringed instruments. I think about Trump’s opportunistic hatred and the kids’ nervous hope. I’d lay odds on those twenty kids with the potential for making beautiful music over a grown man reaping the temporary rewards of bigotry and ignorance.

As I wade through my brain swamp, I run through the what-ifs, the choices that I can make, the actions I can take, and I feel that surge of anger. But always and inevitably, I end up thinking about love and compassion.

There’s no arguing with those whose minds are closed. There’s no amount of hatred that can solve the problem of hatred. There’s no amount of aggression that will cure others of aggression. There’s no war to end all wars.

It’s a harder path to walk, deliberately choosing compassion over all the other options.

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My anger arises easily. The desire to strike out, to cut down, to rage against, is so heady, so momentarily fulfilling. But it leaves scars and ashes and the sense that I am a lesser person for it. And I know that is not helpful.

I read the news this morning and sighed. It was time for another walk. A mile sooner than yesterday, I reached the same conclusion – love outranks hate, creating is better than destruction, hope is better than despair. If I’m lucky, tomorrow I’ll figure it out before I reach the end of the driveway.

The Green Study’s Guide to Good Manners (or How Not to Get Eaten)

What? ! I was just suggesting you might need a weedwacker for those eyebrows.
What? ! I was just suggesting you might need a weedwacker for those eyebrows.

“My, grandma, what big teeth you have!” Seriously, Little Red Riding Hood, who taught you manners? She deserved to be eaten by the big bad wolf.

Of course, if manners determined who would or would not get eaten by carnivores, the overpopulation problem would become a thing of the past.

When, on this planet, did it become de rigeur to comment on people’s physical appearance in the course of daily life? I’ve been the object of as well as witness to this kind of discourse between humans. It usually earns the purveyor a death stare until they look away (I practice this with my cats, so I’m extraordinarily skilled).

Without knowing someone intimately, comments about appearance are decidedly rude. For self-conscious people, it is a torturous process to ruminate and work through someone’s thoughtless remark. I read enough feminist blogs to get why it’s not even complimentary to give someone positive kudos for how they look. It is generally an element we humans have little control over, especially when it comes to meeting cultural standards of attractiveness. One’s observations don’t always need to be verbalized.

We live in a world that now demands our input on everything. Call this number to vote for this singer, rate this movie, fill out a survey, review this book, down vote or like this. We’re being trained to view everything with a critical eye and that our opinions matter. It feels nice. Everybody wants to know what we think. Everybody wants a helpful comment or ten.

Well, everybody doesn’t. Don’t ask me if I lost weight. It’s creepy that you’ve been paying attention. Don’t tell me you’re jealous that I’m so skinny (this has never been said to me, but to friends). Don’t notice that I dyed my hair or that I’ve started plucking that one long black hair that used to grow out of my chin. Don’t ask when the baby’s due or if I’ve been working out. Don’t say “wow, you have really big feet” or “you have a lot of freckles” or “you need to put some meat on your bones” or “how did you get that scar?”

This kind of conversational banter is impolite and in some cases, offensive. Talk about the weather. Ask me what I’ve been reading. Tell me about your kids. Don’t be a troglodyte. These bodies are the vehicles that brung us, but they are not us and sometimes the things that you are bringing attention to are things about which we’re self-conscious and over which we have little control.

Social conduct has become a Lord of the Flies free-for-all in the name of independence and honesty. Oh don’t even go there. I don’t need your truthiness. It’s a bare minimum request to wish that humans act slightly less contemptible than what is knocking around in their heads. Here’s a few simple guidelines to remain borderline civilized:

  • Do not make comments on people’s physical appearance, unless solicited.
  • Do not assume you know anything about someone by how they’re dressed, their size, color, age, gender or by what they drive or where they live.
  • Don’t ask me how I’m voting, how much I make or if I am going to have any or more kids. I’ll volunteer that information if I want you to know it.
  • Stop revealing intimate details of your life in public on your cell phone. You’re talking louder than you think and we’re all totally grossed out by you.
  • Don’t use the phrase “those people” or qualify offensive statements. I’m not racist, but...
  • Don’t swear, harp on religion, politics or your latest diet in the company of relative strangers. Don’t launch into the men are or women are lazy screeds.
  • Don’t ask me if I take vitamins when I get sick. It’s an unregulated industry. If I sneeze in your face, you’re getting sick, vitamins or not.
  • Don’t sneeze in people’s faces.

Every day, I have to practice the following things, to varying degrees of success, in order not to devolve into a barbaric asshole:

  • Be mindful of the feelings and sensibilities of others.
  • Understand that everyone experiences and sees the world differently than you do.
  • Be kind to one’s self and to others.
  • Question knee jerk beliefs and thoughts.

Nobody gets eaten and the world gets mildly better.

This unsolicited opinion was inspired by Ross at Drinking Tips for Teens (“The Skinny on Skinny“) and Michelle at King of States! (“I’m a fat woman. Here’s what you should say when you see me at the gym.”). And by that human who was rude to me. She tasted like chicken.

“OMG I’m getting mugged NLMAO”: Moving Mindfully

This is the 3rd in a series of essays on the importance of self-defense and physical power. I am not an expert on self-defense, nor a physical fitness guru. I do not condone violence, but advocate taking whatever action or inaction is needed to survive potentially dangerous situations. Not every situation is defensible through physical force.

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Today’s post will be an exercise in the obvious for most people. Be aware of your surroundings and be able to move. This means moving mindfully and being ready to react.

Look Ma, No Hands! Or Eyes!

There is no question we are a distracted bunch of humans. Just doing a preliminary search on the internet under the terms “mugging and texting” brought up a spate of news stories around the country. This guy barely noticed that a large bear was heading his direction, and would not have been in a position to defend himself against a human assailant. This is a pretty obvious tip – watch where you are going. If you can’t see a potential attack, you can’t prevent or avoid it.

Technology is addictive – I find myself checking my phone at random times, barely even realizing that I’m doing it. I decided to draw a line in the sand. When I’m on the move, out in the open, unprotected – phone calls, emails and texts can wait. Not only will I be aware, but I’m not giving a would-be thief additional incentive of an easily attainable phone.

Pack Mule or Cheetah?

From the time I was a Girl Scout through time in the military, “be prepared” was emphasized. My backpack contained a full first aid kit, umbrella, books and notebooks in case I had free time, workout gear for over the lunch hour and gadgets aplenty. I was a walking FEMA preparedness trailer, without the actual trailer. Then there was the purse. If I made any purchases, there would be additional bags. Don’t even mention the 50,000 lbs of college textbooks.

Years later, after the birth of my daughter, there was the diaper bag, the stroller, the travel playpen, a bag of toys. Not to mention the helpless, wiggling child. My hands were full and I was completely hobbled. My defense at that moment would have been the fact that an assailant wouldn’t be able to move me and my entourage from Point A to Point B without a posse.

Travel light. Less to steal, less to slow you down. Take 15 minutes. Dump out the contents of your purse, laptop bag, back pack, diaper bag onto the table or counter. What have you NOT used in the last month? Repack your bag leaving those items out.

Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag…and Possibly Shoes

Look at your travel container. Is it necessary or would something smaller be sufficient? I have a personal bias against purses – they seem highly inefficient, distracting, over-packed and incapacitating. Some require that one hand will never be free or that you will walk lopsidedly trying to keep it on your shoulder. Some provide long straps that can be utilized as a weapon against you.

I travel with a small backpack and don’t pack anything in the outside pocket that thieves could easily remove. My hands are free. I leave all unnecessary items at home. Purchases are in one hand and can be easily dropped in the event of attack and/or pursuit.

Shoes. I don’t wear shoes I can’t run in, but that, again, is a personal preference. If you’re going to insist on traveling in flip-flops or heels or other faux footwear, be able to get them off fast or make adjustments so that you can.

Other miscellaneous distractions. Bras and underwear. Seriously! If you have to keep pulling up the straps or fidgeting with yourself, upgrade. Fidgeting is distracting for you, brings unwanted attention and impacts your posture and confidence. Money clips and wads of cash. Really? You just made yourself a target at that last store or restaurant you visited. No one’s impressed except for thieves. Use small amounts of accessible cash. Jewelry. Never mind the attraction of would-be thieves, dangly jewelry can impede escape and get caught by grabbing hands, causing pain and distraction at a time when you need to focus on defense.

This Thing’s Got Wheels

Two wheels. I cycle to the Y for workouts and have seen firsthand the aggressive nature of drivers in vehicles. In addition to cases where the driver of the vehicle was not paying attention or refusing to engage in basic safety by giving the cyclist room, there have been criminal attacks on cyclists as well. In all cases, the number one rule of cycling self-defense is that helmet. In terms of crime and accident prevention, the best tip I’ve seen yet, besides circumstances of travel (time of day and route), is to attach a horn that mimics car horns – loud and unmistakable.

Four wheels. When we bought our most recent car, the remote key would unlock all four doors. This is convenient when traveling with family, but most of my driving is done solo. I took the car into the dealer and had them change the settings so that only the driver’s door would unlock. It means one more step when we travel as a family, but much more secure when I’m alone.

Notice who or what is parked next to your vehicle. The common warning is about the van parked next to your driver’s side. I’ve never had this happen, but I’ve very wary in parking lots. I park farther away if only to give myself a clear visual vantage point of not being surrounded by other vehicles. I scan constantly en route and interrupt grocery loading by frequently looking around.

The idea that we’re going to jump into our cars and tear out of the parking lot often doesn’t happen. Lock your doors once you’re in. Check your mirrors. Take care of business quickly and get on your way.

Be Aware.

Lighten Up.

Be Able to Move Quickly.

Use Your Imagination: If you travel regular routes in the course of going to work or school, or running errands, imagine where criminals could attack. Where could you run? Would you be able to move quickly, dressed as you are or carrying what you normally carry? If you haven’t imagined what it would be like to be attacked, start now. A criminal can and has imagined it. You will react more quickly if you have mentally run through possible scenarios.