Thursday, February 5, 2015

Big Feet



"Life doesn't make any sense without interdependence. 
We need each other, and the sooner we learn that, 
the better for us all."

~Erik Erikson

Until I was three years old, I lived with my college aged parents in a two bedroom house the size of a postage stamp. The beauty of that house was that the front door was about twenty five yards away from the back door of my grandmother's house, where all things good in my small universe could be found. Four of my uncles and one aunt still lived at home. I was the first grandchild, the first niece, so I was pretty much constantly adored -- every need instantly fulfilled, every wish granted. It was a pretty darn good life until my parents decided to cut short my reign by moving to a bigger house15 miles away, and then, without asking my permission, having another baby. Really. What could they have been thinking? But that's for another post.

My uncles (who were teenagers and young adults at the time) doted on me. They teased me, they let me have candy before dinner, they carried me around and told me stories. When I was a little older, they made me root-beer floats and let me watch Star Trek with them. They played basketball. They wore black Converse high-tops when Converse high-tops were considered serious athletic shoes. Out in the world, they were reserved, a little shy. But in the bosom of home they were boisterous, ravenous, a source of constant entertainment for a little girl. My uncles took up a lot of space in my grandmother's little house. The air was charged with their energy and I was fueled by it, sometimes literally propelled by it.

Standing on my uncle Ronald's feet, my back to his body, my hands reaching up behind me to hold his hands, we would march around the house, my legs propelled by his, my hands held firmly in his grasp. I loved the sensation of moving under HIS steam, not mine. I relished being literally supported by this young man I adored and looked up to. When he stopped walking, I begged for more. And when he grew tired of this game, I sought out uncle Tom or Donald to pick up where Ronald left off. As I look back and try to name this experience, I think what I was feeling was connection, an understanding that I wasn't going to have to navigate this crazy, confusing world alone.

It's funny how easy it is to forget that though. On bad days -- like when I didn't get either of the two jobs I interviewed for even though I was absolutely brilliant -- I can so easily fold inward into self pity and sometimes even secretly enjoy my little pity party (not to mention the self-righteous party favor that comes with it). Good stuff! Really healthy. But the truth is I'm never alone. I've got a great family and I'm pretty darned good at making friends and finding community for myself. I've got a California King sized blanket of love to wrap up in. So when I'm too tired or scared to take another step on my own, all I have to do is look down. Usually I'm standing on someone's feet. All I have to do is reach up and take their hands.




Saturday, January 10, 2015

Worth A Thousand Words


"Ack!"

~ Bill the Cat


Many years ago, when I was a young woman, naively searching for the perfect man, a friend of mine brought Prince Charming back from Disneyland for me.  As is the case with many famous people, he was shorter in real life than he was on the screen. Actually, he was about four inches tall while down on one knee. And he was made of porcelain. I put him on my dresser. Now that Prince Charming lived in my bedroom 24/7, I could focus my energy on finding a partner who actually existed in the real world, someone with gifts and flaws and humanity. I could stop trying to find a man to "save" me. I had my Prince Charming. Now I could start looking for an equal partner. -- At least that was the theory behind my friend's small porcelain gift.

I'd like to say that Prince Charming changed my life, and that my relationships with men were all healthy and balanced partnerships from there on out. This would be a bit of an exaggeration ... Oh alright, it would be an outright lie! But Prince Charming WAS helpful. Ultimately, externalizing this emotional longing for the perfect man -- capturing him in a metaphor -- did help me to see how unrealistic and destructive this longing for a "prince" to come along and save me was.  

I was thinking about Prince Charming earlier this week when my boyfriend, Chuck (who is pretty darned close to Prince Charming in my book), reminded me how powerful images and metaphor are in dealing with our inner demons. I am an anxious person. With help from the miracle of modern pharmacology, self-awareness, and mindfulness, my anxiety is for the most part manageable. However, every now and then something will happen to cause my anxiety to spike to uncomfortable and potentially debilitating levels. I feel a little like a speed freak at these times, unable to focus on any but the most mindless task, my thoughts an omelette of fear, distortion, and self doubt. This level of anxiety also triggers one of my favorite defense mechanisms: Avoidance. I have a master's degree in avoidance! It's not a pretty picture, though I'm pretty good at hiding the inner turmoil from the outside world.

I needed an avatar for my anxiety this week, a way to externalize it and face it outside of myself. That's when I remembered Bill the Cat, from the Berkeley Breathed comicstrip, "Bloom County." Bill the Cat -- wild-eyed, disheveled and completely unhinged -- was my man, the perfect image of what my fight or flight anxiety felt like (and who I feared people would discover was the real me!). The best thing about Bill though is that he made me laugh. When I was feeling particularly anxious I would imagine peeling Bill the Cat off my chest or my back one claw at a time. He helped me to laugh at myself. And I don't know a better remedy for anxiety than that!

I carried around another image with me this week too, this one inspired by my friend, Sarah: Wonder Woman. Sarah told me that before a job interview she would get into Wonder Woman stance to get in touch with her inner strength and power. I LOVE that. So, while Bill the Cat clung to my chest, Wonder Woman became the wallpaper for my iphone. Every time I used my phone, I was greeted by the superhero of feminine power. And when I could throw Bill off of my chest for awhile, I would stand in Wonder Woman stance -- feet slightly apart, arms akimbo -- and feel my strength!

The stories we tell ourselves and the pictures we carry around in our heads have a powerful impact on our daily lives. We are the narrators of our own lives, which means we have a choice about how we respond to life events. We may not get to choose what happens to us, but we have choices about what our story will be. And the illustrations we choose for these stories? Well, you know what they say a picture is worth.





Sunday, January 4, 2015

26 Wishes




“May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you're wonderful, and don't forget to make some art -- write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.”

~ Neil Gaiman

Dear Friends and Family,


I didn't get it together to send a holiday card this year. Not that any of you are counting, but this is the third year I haven't gotten it together to send a holiday card. In January 2013 I actually ordered cards, but then I started thinking about leaving my marriage so sending out a family holiday card seemed just the tiniest bit inappropriate. In January of 2014, I took a super cute photo of my kids and my dog, but decided holiday cards were a luxury I should forgo in light of my limited finances. This year? Mostly it's inertia I'm embarrassed to admit. But, although I am too lazy and busy to mail a card, I am not without wishes for the coming year, wishes for my life and yours. So, in no particular order, in 2015 may we:


1. Get enough rest so that we're awake for our lives.
2. Read good books and talk about them with friends.
3. Eat good food, preferably around a table with family and good friends.
4. Walk in the woods and settle into the silence.
5. Walk on the beach and appreciate the magnitude of the ocean.
6. Hike in the mountains and experience awe and wonder.
7. Sing! -- around campfires, in churches, in backyards, along with the radio, fearlessly.
8. Face our fears and take risks.
9. Learn something new -- an instrument, a craft, a skill, about a person or period in history.
10. Make things -- homemade soup, fresh bread, stories, poems, art, whatever brings us pleasure.
11. Share ideas and have interesting conversations. Brainstorm.
12. Listen to music -- old favorites and something new and different.
13. Watch engaging movies with popcorn.
14. Invite friends out for coffee and conversation.
15. Send greeting cards to friends and family just because.
16. Make a new recipe and invite friends over to share it.
17. Spend time with our thoughts and dreams -- on long walks, writing in a journals, daydreaming.
18. Do something to make the world a little bit better -- take action on issues we care about.
19. Let go of things that aren't working for us anymore.
20. Do something joyful and spontaneous every now and then.
21. Tell the people we love that we love them -- regularly and often.
22. Listen more.
23. Say thank you a lot.
24. Help someone. Help a lot of someones. Ask for help when we need it.
25. Forgive -- other people and ourselves.
26. Ask ourselves often, what do I love. And therefore, how shall I live?


I feel optimistic about 2015. It is starting off on the right foot, with opportunities for growth right from the get go. Blessings friends. You enrich my life in big and small ways every day. Happy New Year!


With love and gratitude,
Charla

Monday, December 29, 2014

The International Space Station


If you think of feelings you have when you are awed by something - for example, knowing that elements in your body trace to exploded stars - I call that a spiritual reaction, speaking of awe and majesty, where words fail you.
~ Neil deGrasse Tyson


Last summer I was sitting around a campfire with family and good friends high in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. The kids were making s'mores and playing card games, all talking at once. The adults were sipping whiskey and telling tall tales of youthful exploits long since past. We watched the flickering yellow, orange and blue flames licking at the firewood, adjusting our chairs to keep the smoke from our eyes when the breeze shifted. 


We looked at the sky too. More than 7,000 feet above sea level on a moonless night, the stars were in abundance. Occasionally a plane would fly soundlessly overhead reminding us that, even in the starry heavens, civilization is never very far away. Someone pointed out satellites, which to my untrained eye were hard to distinguish from stars. Human fingerprints are on everything, aren't they?


And then -- because vast amounts of information are literally at our fingertips, even high in the Sierra -- one of us pulled out a smart phone and downloaded an app that maps when and where the International Space Station is visible from Earth.  To our delight, the ISS would be in view in the next half an hour. The app provided coordinates so we would know exactly which corner of the sky to focus our attention on, and informed us that the ISS travels at a speed of 5 miles per second -- 25 times faster than a 747, nine times the speed of a bullet!


A few minutes before viewing time, we grabbed our flashlights and left the warmth and light of the campfire to head down by the lake where it was darker. While we waited, we danced our flashlights across the lake, attracting bats as they darted above the water in search of their evening meal. A moment before the scheduled time, we grew quiet and focused our attention on a mountain ridge on the far side of the lake. 


Right on schedule a light ascended above the ridge, rising into the starry sky. It didn't look like much. If you didn't know what you were looking for, you might think it was an airplane or a satellite,   or you might not notice it at all. But we knew what we were looking for. We knew that there were people living and working on that small light in the distance. We knew that the ISS travels around the Earth in 92 minutes and is roughly the size of a football field. We watched the small light rise into the sky. It was only visible for a minute or two before it slowly faded out of sight, swallowed up by the darkness. 


We stood by the lake for a moment longer, awed by the stars and the mountains and the bats on the lake. We had just seen the International Space Station rise into the starry sky and then fade away into the night. We switched on our flashlights and walked back to camp, returning to our card games and companionship, our small community of love and friendship gathered around the flickering light of a campfire high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. And we knew that this too was worthy of awe.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Answering the Call




"We have no guarantee of victory, but if we don't try, we lose by default. 
What we can do is create possibility. 
And after all, lots of things seem impossible until they happen."

~ Katie Davis


Katie Davis had an epiphany after watching Al Gore's seminal film, "An Inconvenient Truth," with some German a few years ago. While discussing the movie, the conversation turned to Nazi Germany. How could ordinary German citizens who opposed the Nazis stand by and do nothing while innocent people were rounded up and killed? What did they say to their children when they asked, you knew this was happening? How come you didn't do anything?


It was at that moment that Katie had her epiphany. What if her own children grew up watching carbon emissions increase and the ice caps melt, polar bears go extinct, and the sea level rise? How would she answer them when they asked, you knew this was happening? How come you didn't do anything?


So Katie did something. She went to a training by Al Gore himself to become a presenter of his famous power point presentation on climate change. She began presenting at churches and community centers around Santa Barbara county. And it was while she was making the rounds sharing Al's slide show that she really heard her calling. She wanted to do more than educate. She wanted to be an activist. She was ready to tackle a local environmental issue head on.


Earlier this year, Katie quit her lucrative job with a local high tech company to devote herself to environmental activism. Specifically, she started working with a team of concerned citizens to draft an initiative for the November 2014 ballot to ban fracking in Santa Barbara county. She worked tirelessly -- collecting signatures, rallying volunteers, attending meetings and hearings. In three weeks, Katie and her team helped mobilize an army of volunteers to collect 16,000 signatures of registered voters which secured Measure P a spot on the November ballot. If passed, Measure P will ban the use of extreme oil extraction techniques, such as fracking, acidizing, and steam injection in Santa Barbara county.


Last week, while planning a worship service for the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara on the theme of sacrifice, I asked Katie about the sacrifices she has made for this cause:


Why did you quit your job and devote your time and energy to the issue of fracking?


I don't want my children to one day ask if -- I knew about what was happening, if I knew about climate change, why I didn't do something about it? I don't want to be asked how we let this happen.


Secondly, when I learned that Santa Barbara has it's own tarsands-like oil, some of the most carbon-intensive and polluting oil in the world and that thousands of wells are planned that will destroy our local area as well as contribute to the global problem, I felt I needed to join a movement to try to stop it.


We have no guarantee of victory, but if we don't try, we lose by default. What we can do is create possibility. And after all, lots of things seem impossible until they happen.


What are some of the sacrifices you are making to work on the Measure P campaign?


Sometimes I feel like I have sacrificed nothing. The journey is so interesting that I have gained far more than it has cost me. So far, I am doing fine. And if sometimes I am too busy or distracted to eat, the plus side is I actually got down to my pre-pregnancy weight for the first time!


Other times, I feel like I am risking everything -- financially I am not working and was so distracted I let our insurance lapse for a period of time; the oil companies could have sued those of us involved in drafting the Measure; they can and have slandered me personally and seek to demonize and publicly attack. The risk of public humiliation is hard for a private person to deal with. I put my marriage at risk due to the all-encompassing nature of running a campaign like this. I have to live with fear and anxiety knowing that over $5 million is being spent against us (that's over $25 per registered voter.) So sometimes I think I'm crazy for doing this.


On the other hand, we can't not do this. Seriously, we have to draw the line somewhere if we're going to live with ourselves. Apathy is our biggest enemy. If everyone who believes in this votes and gets others to do so, we'll win.
***


Katie has put her career, her reputation, and lots of time and energy on the line to fight for something she believes in. She does not stand to gain anything by the passage of Measure P. That is to say, she does not stand to gain anything that the rest of us won't also gain -- a county free of threats to our environment posed by fracking and other intensive oil extraction methods. The oil companies have poured millions of dollars into fighting measure P. They are trying to turn it into an issue about jobs and tax revenues, employing handsome firefighters in their ad campaigns to tug at our hearts. They are outright lying about the impacts of Measure P on oil production in Santa Barbara county, attempting to make it an issue about anything other than what it actually is -- a measure to protect the county from further environmental threats from the oil companies. Anyone remember the oil spill of 1969?


The oil companies want to protect their profits.
Katie wants to protect our children.


Who are you going to believe?


Please do your homework on this issue. For more information on what Measure P will and will NOT do, I urge you to visit www.voteyesonp.org.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Filed



"While something may come to an ending on the surface of time, 
its presence, meaning, and effect continue to be held and integrated into the eternal."

~ John O'Donohue


I filed for divorce a couple of weeks ago. I'm trying to do it without a lawyer. I completed the various legal documents with the help of a couple of classes with the county Law Facilitator and the 2014 edition of How To Do Your Own Divorce in California. When I finished, and finally screwed up my nerve, I went to the courthouse and handed the paperwork to a clerk who had an affect as flat as a freshly ironed shirt. I guess when divorce crosses your desk dozens of times a day you are no longer fazed by the enormity of it. You stop wondering what the "irreconcilable differences" were. You no longer fret about the children involved or consider who will get the wedding china. You stop thinking about the casualties. Instead, you make sure there are three copies of the petition and that the pages are two hole punched at the top. You line up the various stamps you will imprint in the appropriate boxes on the documents before you, and proceed with the dry, legal business of divorce.

My parents have each been divorced twice and married three times. My sister and my step sister have both been down this road. Divorce is not a novelty in my family. Still, handing over those weighty documents to the legal clerk was surreal. I had been so sure I would be the daughter whose marriage would last. But here I was, taking my place in line to begin a process my sisters and parents knew too well. The man I had married 18 years ago -- the same man who showed me a better way to peel garlic and taught me to appreciate the full range of Miles Davis' career, the man I had two beautiful children with -- was now reduced to a "respondent" on a legal summons. This was huge. I wasn't sure how I would feel when this day was over.

As it turned out, a comedy of errors ensued when I handed the forms to the clerk. I had checked one wrong box. I would not be able to file until it was corrected. I felt defeated and more than a little superstitious all of a sudden. Was fate was stepping in to block my way? The friend I had wisely brought along for moral support saw where I was going with this, grabbed my hand, and quickly lead me across the street to the library. After a frustrating search for an available computer, we finally found one that would let us access the internet for 15 minutes. We quickly located the form on line and started inputting the information from my original, taking care to check all the correct boxes. With minutes to spare, we sent the completed document to the library printing station.

At the printing station we waited for an available computer, conscious of the minutes ticking by. I had to pick up my son from school. Finally it was my turn. I logged on and pulled up my printing job. It would cost 80 cents to print. I didn't have any cash, but this is the digital age, right? Who carries cash? I whipped out my bank card and looked for the slot to insert it in the machine. ... No slot. Apparently library patrons do carry cash. I needed 80 cents in actual U.S. currency. My friend and I rummaged through pockets and purses, but found only pennies and lint. Again, I was tempted to look upon this as an omen, a force beyond my control trying to put a stop to this tom foolery. But my friend intervened again. A quick run to the ATM, a stop in a store to break a $20 bill, a sprint back to the library, and we were back in business. I printed out the form, tracked down a two hole punch, and stapled the appropriate pages together. I signed all three sets and we headed back to the courthouse.

We were lucky. There was no line and I was soon standing in front of the dead pan clerk again. I handed over my forms and held my breath as she checked through them. Without a word, she lined up her rubber stamps and began stamping various places on the forms. The last stamp was the biggest. It said "Filed" along with the date. It made a satisfying thump as she stamped each of the three copies: FILED, FILED, FILED. Without fanfare or words of encouragement (I don't even think she said, have a nice day), she handed me my copies and it was done. I had filed for divorce.

Remember how I said I wasn't sure what I would feel when this day was over? Well, what I felt was what writer and mindfulness meditation leader, Jon Kabat-Zinn, calls the full catastrophe. Sadness, loss, and guilt mingled with relief, hope, and joy; the whole ball of wax that makes up a life. What I felt deep in my bones at that moment was that, no matter how dry and precise those legal documents were, life is anything but dry and precise. It's sticky and tangled and messy, particularly at the intersection of endings and beginnings where grief and hope hold hands. And this is as it should be. We just need to remember to show up for it, to be willing to hold hands with both grief and joy simultaneously. We need only to follow poet Mary Oliver's instructions for living: "Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it."

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Facing the Beasts



"We're going on a bear hunt,
We're gonna catch a big one,
What a beautiful day,
We're not scared.
Oh oh!
Mud,
Thick, oozy mud.
We can't go over it,
We can't go under it,
We've gotta go throught it!
Squelch squelch, squelch squelch"

~ unknown

Awhile back I watched Benh Zeitlin's wonderful film, Beasts of the Southern Wild. In this fantasy, set in a mythical Luisiana bayou community, six-year old Hushpuppy's growing fears take the form of prehistoric beasts called aurochs. Gigantic boar-like creatures with long snouts and even longer tusks, the aurochs haunt Hushpuppy throughout the film until, in the end, she turns and faces them head on. Hushpuppy is one of the strongest female characters I've ever seen in a movie. She is imaginative, resourceful, fiercely loyal, determined, smart, and philosophical. If I weren't 45 years older than she is, I'd say I want to be like her when I grow up. ... What am I saying?! I STILL want to be like her when I grow up. I particularly want to tap into her courage when she stares down the beasts in her world, both real and fantastic. I've got a couple of beasts of my own in need of a good staring down.

I have to get a divorce. And I have to find a higher paying job. I've been separated for over a year and struggling financially for most of that time, so you'd think I might have figured this out by now. I guess I needed to go through a certain amount of grief and frustration before I could take action. But the time for action has most definitely arrived. And I am acting ... at roughly the pace of a two toed sloth, but I'm acting. Maybe I'm being hard on myself. This is hard stuff after all. But I think I've been relying a tad too heavily on two of my favorite defense mechanisms lately: Denial and avoidance. Evil twins, really, denial and avoidance are working in lock-step to distract me from turning and facing the beasts of divorce and job hunting.

I am of the if-I-just-ignore-it-maybe-it-will-go-away school of problem solving. For those of you who are wondering how this is working out for me, let's just say it's not the most efficient way to approach life's challenges. Every once in awhile it actually does work though which, like a random Las Vegas slot machine jackpot, only serves to reinforce this behavior. For instance, a couple of years ago my Toyota Sienna needed a new battery. I kept putting it off and even had to jump start the car a couple of times. Then, one sunny afternoon at the end of my work day, I was slammed into by a car running a stop sign. My Sienna was totaled. Sure, this left me with much bigger transportation problems, but I didn't have to deal with that pesky battery anymore. Problem solved! See how logical this approach is!

I took an online personality test today, just for fun. It rated me as 42% neurotic. I'm not exactly sure what that means, but I thought I was at least 75% neurotic so naturally I was relieved. But if I am a mere 42% neurotic on what is surely a scientifically reliable psychological test (I mean aren't these things spot on in determining what Disney character, dog breed, and ice cream flavor one is?), then why am I behaving so neurotically when dealing with divorce and job hunting? I know what I have to do. I can identify the next right step on both paths; I'm just having the tiniest bit of trouble actually taking those steps. I tentatively put a toe out, but can't quite get my footing.

Today I decided to write this blog post as a creative way to avoid doing anything concrete about the divorce and job search. I hoped that writing about it might help me understand my denial and avoidance a little better. And I think it has. Much of what was revealed in this process is not new information to me. I spent the better part of my twenties and thirties in psychotherapy and got a Master's degree in clinical psychology to boot. I'm happy to say that time and money did not go entirely to waste! I am on a first name basis with the demons that tend to hold me back and trip me up. But what this process has done is help me figure out how to move forward.

I've got a lot of people in my tribe, and many of them have been incredibly supportive and patient with me this past year. -- My dad, my mom, and my boyfriend, for instance, are all deserving of knighthood! -- But I think I need even more hand holding. It's hard to admit I can't do it all on my own, but it's time to screw up my nerve and ask for more help. I need to ask my people to assist with specific tasks that seem insurmountable to tackle alone, but probably not that hard with a little help. I need to invite friends over for coffee and problem solving. (I'll even bake cookies.) I need to brainstorm over a cold beer with a friend or five. I need pep talks, advice, and swift kicks in the butt now and then. I need to text or call someone every day to ask if I'm doing the right thing. Just for today. And if I'm not, I need to listen when they tell me. I need to have potlucks and happy hours to celebrate small victories and show my appreciation. And I need to remember every single day how lucky I am to have so many loving, patient, joyful people in my life.

I may be 42% neurotic, but I know I have a pretty darn good life. While I tend to rely too heavily on denial and avoidance, I also turn regularly to faith and gratitude. I have enormous faith that I will be able to face down and move past these beasts. And I have even more gratitude for the many people who will help me. Life is all about obstacles. You can't go over them; you can't go under them; you can't go around them. You have to go through them. But nobody ever said you have to go through them alone.