Changing lanes

The way I figure it, I spent about 200 24-hour days in traffic on State Route 520 from Seattle to Redmond and back over the course of 10 years. This commute bore the distinction of taking me across the longest floating bridge on Earth twice a day.

You see a lot when you spend that kind of time in the car. Little things, like the fact that someone glued a bottle of aspirin to the jersey wall between the east- and west-bound lanes. The way a road-striping crew painted a fresh yellow line all the way up to—and then beyond—a dead raccoon on the side of the highway. And a guy dressed as the grim reaper, standing silently at an intersection.

These things were entertaining, but one of my experiences became a metaphor that has helped me ever since.

During my commute, I was often frustrated to find myself in a lane that had come to a dead stop, while traffic moved briskly and efficiently in the next lane over. Eventually, I learned that I couldn’t switch to the lane I wanted to be in unless the traffic in my own lane began to move as well.

I learned that you can’t change lanes unless you’re moving.

The economy brought me to a halt, and I saw nothing but brake lights. This was especially frustrating because people were sailing by unscathed in the next lane over.

It took a while, but the lane I’m in has begun to move. It’s less than ideal. It’s nowhere near where I’ve been or where I want to be. But as I pick up speed, I also pick up the ability to make choices.

At some point, I’ll be able to change lanes. Or I’ll realize that the one I’m in now turned out to be the right one after all.

I’ve fallen, and it takes a village to get me up

While Adrian and I were at an orchard party yesterday, I missed a step and took a header onto concrete. I lay there taking inventory, trying to figure out what body part hurt worst, and people rushed to my aid. I sat up and determined that my right foot had suffered the worst damage. A reflexologist immediately grabbed my ears and applied pressure in spots that help with pain. An emergency physician checked out my ankle, assured me that it wasn’t broken, and prevented a trip to the hospital. The host of the party brought an ace bandage and the physician’s wife, an emergency nurse, wrapped my foot in it. A neighbor brought arnica ointment and tablets, and I’m not exactly sure where the ibuprofen and a Ziploc bag full of ice came from. People helped me walk to a lawn-type recliner that they had placed in the sun for me (I was in shock and shaking), and they made me elevate my ankle and put ice on it.

As I lay on the recliner, I thought about the fact that we were completely out of hay, our goats had nothing to eat, and that I would be unable to go to the feed store after the party to get a couple bales of hay as I had planned. When I mentioned this, a woman I’d never met said that she needed to get a couple bales of hay for her goats, too, and offered to pick some up for me and bring them to our house. (Even here on rural Whidbey Island, it’s rare to be at a party with someone who also has goats, much less someone who has also run out of hay and was also headed to the feed store to get exactly the same thing you were planning to get after the party.)

My fall could’ve been an accident, carelessness, or dumb luck, but if this experience had a message in it, I wanted to hear it. I had literally missed a step. Might that be a metaphor for missing a step in real life? Had I overlooked something? Or maybe I just need to slow down.

Today, I thought of the friends, acquaintances, and strangers who had cared for me and how completely and instantaneously supported I felt. Tears came to my eyes, and I realized that that was the message: shit will happen, but you will get through it with the help of your community.

My foot hurts, but I can walk, and I have learned that I don’t always have to walk alone.

Snakes, rocks, and hard places

When I look back on my life, I have often known when it was time to move on because I felt squeezed out of a particular situation. This is how I imagine a snake feels when it needs to shed. I imagine things start feeling constrictive, uncomfortable, irritating, and itchy. At that point, a snake will actually seek out a rock or a hard place and brush its body against it to tear its skin. Then it’ll work at the tear until it’s big enough, find something to catch the skin on, and wriggle out shiny and new.

Snakes shed so they can grow, and because they grow throughout their lives, they shed their skin until they die. I think we shed so that we can grow, too. Today, I realized that I have felt the constriction, discomfort, irritation, and itchiness of a situation that no longer fits. It is time to move on–to wriggle out of this situation so I can emerge into a new one.

If snakes were to look in mirrors (and I’m sure fashionable snakes do), they would see in their reflection everything they will eventually shed. What they shed is their outward appearance, their physical identity, the way they and others recognize themselves in the world. When I have faced sheddings in the past, I have found it impossible to imagine who I’d be without my old skin. Who would I be if I left corporate life to become a parent? Who would I be if I got divorced and raised my son on my own? Yet the skin no longer fit, and I knew it had to come off.

For me, the worst part of shedding is the sense of spiritual disconnection I feel. Before a snake sheds, it is virtually blind for a period of time, because the skin over its eyes becomes cloudy. This I understand, because I have felt blind in terms of my source of inner guidance lately.

A situation that was known and comfortable has become constrictive and irritating. I feel blind to my inner guidance, and am instinctively seeking out rocks and hard places that will help me tear open an escape hatch in this old skin. Seems like a bad thing, but is it? I feel confusion, grief, and a sense of loss around losing something that was known and comfortable. And this spot between the rock and the hard place is painful. But who am I becoming? Freed of my old skin, what possibilities and adventures await me?

Making peace with fear

Lately, I have been thinking of emotions as messengers. I’ve welcomed many of them–even negative ones.  So far, fear is the only messenger that I’ve wanted to kill. It’s the emotion that I’ve had the most difficulty sitting with and listening to. And as luck would have it, it has been pulling up a chair at my kitchen table often, lately.

What?!” I say impatiently. “Why do you keep coming back?”

“I have a gift for you,” Fear replies.

“A gift? From you?”

“Yes. I will sit here until you respond to me.”

“Well, I’m talking to you. Isn’t that enough?”

“No, you must act.”

I am not in the mood to engage in a dialog with Fear. But I want him out of my kitchen in the worst way, so I decide to humor him and think about all the ways I could act.

“OK,” I say. “I guess I could run away from what I fear.”

“True,” Fear says. “You could literally abandon it, or you could withdraw from it emotionally.”

“I could get drunk.”

“You wouldn’t feel the fear so much then. You could also engage in activities that distract you from what you fear.”

“I could deny that what I fear exists,” I say.

“True. But are those your only choices?”

“No,” I say. “I could attack what I fear.”

“How would you do that?”

“I’d come up with ideas for overcoming what I fear and decide which idea is best.”

“And then?”

“Then I’d implement my idea.”

“How does that make you feel?”

“A little more empowered. I feel less like a victim of fate. By taking matters in hand, I feel more like I’m the master of my own destiny.”

“Are those the ony feelings that come up for you?”

“No. I like brainstorming, coming up with new ideas, and solving problems. It makes me feel creative.”

“That,” says Fear, “Is my gift to you.” He pushes back his chair and gets up to leave.

“Wait,” I say. “Would you like some coffee?”

Afraid Creative

The illustrations, by Kris Wiltse, are from the “Afraid,” “Empowered,” and “Creative” cards, which are part of the Mixed Emotions card deck.

What is home?

Home is a feeling of comfort, rightness, and belonging. It’s a relationship that’s fulfilling, a job that you love, an activity that brings you joy, an environment that makes your heart sing.

Home is your purpose in life, your mission, your raison d’etre.

It’s not a place–it’s a feeling. There are many people who think they know where your home is. Parents, clergypeople, gurus, experts, and other authority figures are eager to tell you how to get there. But the truth is, you’re the only one who knows.

“But I don’t know,” you might say.

Actually, you do. All the information you need is inside you: your emotions will guide you home, and they’ll help you recognize it once you get there.

This blog augments a card deck called Mixed Emotions. Here, Petra Martin, the deck’s creator, writes about the role that emotions have played in her own life.

Why I trust my heart

My friend Marc committed suicide last September, leaving behind twin 11-year-old sons. I hated him for that, and yet felt compassion for the anquish that led him to end his own life. As I sat there at his memorial service, looking at the backs of his sons’ heads, I thought, how do you explain this to children?

I rememberd a seminar that I attended some time ago. One of the participants told the speaker that she was afraid that her mother, who suffered from depression, would commit suicide. The speaker said, “Every death is suicide.”

I’ve been thinking about that statement ever since. What the speaker meant was that we all have far more control over the circumstances of our lives and deaths than we realize. Of course, that presupposes several things–namely that:

  • Our souls/spirits are eternal
  • We have a “higher self” (Creator, Source, God, Guardian angel, Guide–what you call it doesn’t matter)
  • We came into this world with an agenda
  • We are have the power to be, do, or have whatever we want

UnsureEven though these things are all part of my belief system, the “every death is suicide” statement came as a surprise to me. I’ve lost quite a few people that I cared about. Too many of them were young and three died at their own hands. If all their deaths were “suicides” it means that none of their deaths were accidental, tragic, or premature. None of them were victims, because the way they died was part of the agenda they set before they were born.

I have found comfort in that.

The story I’m writing for Marc’s sons illustrates what I have come to believe–namely that emotions are the way we receive guidance from our higher selves. The way it works is extremely simple: When we feel good, we’re on the right track and when we don’t feel good we’re not. That is why I trust my heart. And that is why I call emotions the GPS for life’s journey.

The illustration, by Kris Wiltse, is from the “Unsure” card, which is part of the Mixed Emotions card deck.

The road not taken

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

From “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

So often, when we come to a fork in the road, our hearts want to take us in one direction, and our heads want to take us in another. It’s been at least a decade since I last allowed my head to rule my heart. That lesson was so profoundly expensive, that I’ve followed my heart pretty faithfully ever since.

Head vs. Heart sign

Now that I’ve gotten to that place–which feels incredibly right to me–it makes me sad to witness heart vs. head battles in which someone’s head wins. Our heart’s desire is simple: all it wants is happiness. To see someone reason him- or herself out of happiness seems utterly contradictory to me.

In my own life, I’ve watched it happen with two men that I loved. When we were together, their hearts–childlike and innocent–simply said, “I love you. I respect and admRoad sign with Head and Heart pointing in the same directionire you. You bring out the best in me, and I like who I am when we’re together.” But when we were apart, their minds processed logistics, statistics, circumstances, and situations–calculating geographical distances, drive times, livelihoods, pensions, and parenting.

Their heart vs. mind battles were epic, and all I could do was hope that they would ultimately choose the road that led to me. But in the end, they did not.

Does following my heart mean that my head isn’t involved in my life’s journey? No, not at all. Following my heart simply means that I trust it to point me in the direction of happiness. Then my head figures out how to get from here to there.

If I put both my heart and mind into something, does it guarantee success? No. But I don’t ask as many “What
if . . .?” questions, or struggle with as many “If only . . .” regrets. When I put both my heart and mind into something, I know I’ve given it my all, and if an endeavor fails, it’s easier to chalk it up to experience and move on.

(I miss you, Chris.)

I lost my heart to Jack–and found my soul

I got to spend some time with my “other man” yesterday–my friend’s 15-month-old son, Jack. I met within an hour or two after he was born and have felt connected to him ever since–connected enough to want to be at Children’s Hospital in Seattle when he had surgery for sagittal synostosis at five months of age.

Yesterday, Jack and I visited the goats and chickens and watched his elder brother play with my son, but we really hit our stride when we went inside, sat on the couch and started looking at board books. Then we moved to the dining room table, where he sat on my lap for a long time, eating cereal out of a bag. There is nothing quite like the feeling of a relaxed and contented toddler on your lap.

The Jack-is-my-guru moment came later, when I kissed him on the cheek. He leaned toward me and presented his face again, so I kissed it. Again, and I kissed it, and again, and again. It moves me when children do that–they are so confident in their lovability that they fully expect to be adored.

At 15 months old, Jack is of no “use” whatsoever. He cannot “earn” someone’s love by behaving well, doing his chores, or getting good grades. Jack just is and that is enough. He knows that is enough.

Jack
Jack

I don’t know how old I was when I concluded that being was no longer enough to warrant my mother’s love. At a very young age, I began doing things that I hoped would make me lovable–specifically the things that made her happy. Right or wrong, the math in my young brain went something like this:

mom + happy = Petra is loved
mom – happy = Petra is unloved

My life depended on my mother’s love, so I read every facial expression, anticipated her needs, and met them–often before she asked. I resolved to become whoever she would love–and lost myself entirely in the process. I would not begin to reclaim myself until I was 28 years old, and at 47, I’m still working at it.

I am trying to remember what I hope Jack will never forget: that being who I am is all it takes to be worthy of love.

Who I am is enough.

Loving (platonic)

Kris Wiltse’s illustrations for one of two “Loving” cards from the Mixed Emotions card deck.

House cats as role models

When our cats give me a sleepy-eyed squint as I pass them throughout the day, I think, “I want to be just like you.” They are so happy. So content. They have such utter faith that their needs will be met, and unlike dogs, they don’t seem to think they have to do anything to earn that.

Me? I’m a dog. A therapist once told me, “You seem to think you need to earn your keep in the universe.” She was right. I don’t know where it comes from. Want me to fetch the ball? OK. Want me to sit? I’m on it. Want me to roll over? Play dead? No problem. Just love me!

Our cats, on the other hand, fully expect us to please and love them. And the funny thing is, we do.

There is much about the religion that I was raised in that I no longer embrace, but the following quote, which is attributed to Jesus, still has me thinking:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Matthew 6:25-34

This is apparently the creed that my cats live by. It works for them. Could it work for me?

Curious Trusting

Kris Wiltse’s illustrations for the “Curious” and “Trusting” cards from the Mixed Emotions card deck.

When the shoe doesn’t fit

My mother raised us on German fairy tales, so we heard the original Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella while we were growing up. In its gruesomeness, it has become a perfect metaphor for some of my life experiences. You can read the original version of Cinderella yourself, but for me, the pivotal point comes when the prince arrived at Cinderella’s house to see if the golden shoe that his beloved left behind fit any of the young women who lived there.

The older stepsister took the shoe into another room to try it on, but it was too small for her. Her mother handed her a knife and said, “Cut off your toe. When you’re queen you won’t have to go on foot anymore.” So the daughter cut off her toe. The prince rode away with her, but as they passed the grave of Cinderella’s mother,  a couple of pigeons cried:

Rook di goo, rook di goo!
There’s blood in the shoe.
The shoe is too tight,
This bride is not right!

The prince returned to Cinderella’s house and asked the second stepsister to try on the shoe. It didn’t fit her either, so her mother gave her a knife, and said, “Cut a piece off your heel. When you’re queen you won’t have to go on foot anymore.” So her daughter cut off part of her heel. The gullible prince fell for the trick again, and rode into the sunset with the second stepsister. However, the pigeons on the grave of Cinderella’s mother cried:

Rook di goo, rook di goo!
There’s blood in the shoe.
The shoe is too tight,
This bride is not right!

The prince returned to Cinderella’s house, insisted that she try on the shoe, and you know the rest: The shoe fit, and they lived happily ever after.

Like the stepsisters, I could not fit into the golden shoe of Christianity. And, like them, I was encouraged to cut off parts of myself to make it fit. The fact that I can’t bring myself to do it reduces my mother to tears, because only those who fit into the golden shoe go to heaven and she wants me to be there with her.

Although I refused to cut off parts of myself for Jesus, I have done it for the sake of relationships without even being aware of it. It was only after the relationship ended that I realized how much of myself I had pruned away. How much sense does that make? If your partner doesn’t fit, remove parts of yourself until he or she does? I am embarrassed to say I have done that, but I think we all have.

Unfulfilled

Kris Wiltse’s illustrations for the “Unfulfilled” card from the Mixed Emotions card deck.