I’ve moved! Well, I still live in Colorado but my blog has moved to my new website, http://www.writingunleashed.net. I hope you’ll follow me over, resubscribe and explore my writing classes.
A year and a half ago, I earned my black belt in To Shin Do, a martial art based on the Japanese Ninja arts. I was introduced by my kids who dragged me onto the mat despite huge reluctance on my part. Six years later, I was still somehow a bit surprised to find myself with a black belt tied around my waist. But I stuck with it because I learned a lot. A lot about self defense but also a lot about life.
Training can be intense and requires long term dedication. It’s a path you walk over the long haul. Achieving the Shodan rank (1st degree black belt) is obviously a big deal. It’s often also a stopping point for people. It was for me—because the idea of getting on the path for 2nd degree seemed daunting and long but also because I wanted to explore some other things in more depth—namely yoga and meditation. And I thought I was done with the To Shin Do path.
Turns out I was wrong. While I enjoyed the other things I dipped into, there was a depth of learning and insight I wasn’t finding. And so I decided it was time to return to the dojo.
I’m reluctant even now to say whether I’m committing to Nidan—2nd degree black belt. But I’ve stepped back onto the path. It’s a long one—two years minimum. Even though Nidan is the next destination, what really matters is the journey, the steps and learning along the way.
In this martial art, the study from 1st to 2nd degree is all about, as one of my training partners puts it, “it goes wrong but you don’t.” On the mat, it’s the deliberate study of what happens when your first defense against an attack doesn’t work. It’s about staying in the fight, about recovering, about persevering, about gathering your wits when things are going downhill. About tolerating the discomfort of uncertain outcomes, about moving through it. It’s about staying in the moment, about dealing with what is right here and now whether you like here and now or not.
They say when they student is ready, the teacher will come. I find this to be true over and over again in my life. I seem to be coming back to the mat at the very time I need these lessons. In recent months, I’ve started to see the tyranny of perfectionism in myself.
For whatever reason, the strategy I developed as a kid was to be “good” and not make mistakes. That can be productive to some degree, leading to motivation and success. But it also has the downside of avoidance of things that might lead to failure. Or it can lead to so much shame over mistakes it’s hard to learn from them. Avoiding risk means lack of growth and limiting oneself. I have just started to understand how this has limited me personally and how my fear of failure translates into fear of failure for my kids, thereby limiting the risks they’re willing to take because I’m afraid for them to take them. My anxiety over perfection becomes theirs. And so it is that I open myself to the deliberate and conscious study of my own relationship to failure.
We all make mistakes, right? The reality is IT WILL GO WRONG. No baby learns to walk without falling down and we don’t expect her to. We drop balls and plates. We forget meetings. We say the wrong thing. We yell at our kids or our spouse. The entire scientific method is based on trial and error, experimentation. We can learn as much from what goes “wrong” as what goes “right.” And yet somewhere along the way, though I could give lip service to the value of mistakes, I started to have trouble allowing them for myself . . . . and my kids . . . and others in my life.
It feels terrifying to me sometimes, to do something wrong. And now I’m thrusting myself into it-goes-wrong-by-design. The beauty of the dojo mat is that it is a tiny microcosm of life. It’s place I can study my responses and reactions, where I can, in small doses, notice what it feels like to have it go “wrong,” to see what feelings come up. Do I freeze, panic, distance myself, give up, get frustrated, want to quit? Yes, all of those things at various times. In tiny doses, I have the chance to try it again, study what happened, slow it down, speed it up, ask my coach or my training partner what they are observing from the outside.
As I move through life, taking on new work and new experiences where inevitably things will go wrong, where I will feel confused and incompetent and uncertain, I pull on the lessons I learn on the mat to illuminate life off of it.
Below are the comments I made at my step-father’s memorial service on October 21, 2017. He died on August 21, 2017 only several weeks after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Somehow a tradition developed in our family around Fatherly Advice. The three of us would gather around Jack’s arm chair or bed, he’d push his glasses down onto his nose, and with both humor and seriousness, he’d lower his voice, tell us he could see our lives from the roof of Union Station or some other such promontory, and proceed to advise us. His advice ranged from exactly what we should know about someone before we had intimate relations with them (this included but was not limited to knowing someone and his family well enough to know his mother’s maiden name) and, of course, included birth control recommendations, to being annoyingly reminded on countless car trips that it took three signals from your body about the need to urinate before your body was serious. To explain: the first time your body says to you, “I have to go,” is what Jack considered the 1st signal. Wait and the feeling will fade. At some point, your body will once again raise it’s hand and say, “I still have to go.” 2nd signal. Wait and this feeling will again fade. Your body will, for a 3rd time, announce it’s need to use the bathroom, the so called 3rd signal. This time it’s serious. So whenever one of us announced we had to use the bathroom, we learned to announce whether it was the 1st, 2nd or 3rd signal otherwise he’d ask us. I do not, by the way, recommend you start doing this to your spouse or children. I will also tell you I spent many dinner hours learning the entirety of the digestive system from one end to the other—as well as many other bodily systems, as you might be able to imagine.
When I arrived to be with him just prior to his death, I told him I was there for more Fatherly Advice. By that time, he was having moments of lucidity but mostly was quiet with his eyes closed. He opened his eyes, looked at me, and told me I already had it all. I took this in two ways. One, that he had already passed all of his advice on to me. But even more than that, I understood him to be saying I already had everything I needed.
But advice isn’t always passed on with just words. And I learned about life from the way he lived his last days.
After his diagnosis with cancer, his illness progressed rapidly and there was little time to take it all in. Despite the rapid pace of things, he was clear about how he wanted things to proceed and what sorts of interventions he did and did not want. It was the sort of clarity I know you all saw from him in life whether his relationship with you was as doctor, friend, or family.
His ability to be calm in fraught situations is something you definitely want in a doctor though I must confess I didn’t always comforting. After graduating from college, I came home for six months to live and work as Jack’s office assistant. One afternoon I was assisting him with a procedure in his office. At one point, things became concerning. The only way I knew this was by his becoming more and more methodical, precise and eerily calm. If calm can be scary, in that moment, it was. The only thing I could think was, Oh, shit, we need a doctor.
I saw this same sort of calm as he lived his final days. There was no hemming and hawing. He looked this thing in the eye, made his decisions about how he was going to proceed and did.
And he maintained his sense of humor up until the very end. Just one example of many—we called his high school girlfriend, a person he had maintained a friendship with over the years, and told her we were going to hold the phone up to his ear to let her speak to him. By this point, he was not often responsive to us but was having a moment of more alertness. We told him it was his old friend and that we were going to let her speak to him. He opened his eyes, held his hand up for a moment, peered around at us all hovered over the bed, gave a tiny grin with one side of his mouth and said, How do I look? We, of course, assured him he was as handsome as ever, which he was.
So his final fatherly advice was in the way he lived those final days—with his usual clarity, resolve, calm and great humor.
I had my car in for service recently and asked for a loaner hoping I’d be fortunate enough to get the bright red VW Beetle. I was in luck!
I got to zip around in it feeling sassy and sporty for twenty-four hours—not long enough. One afternoon I was going out and my husband suggested I take the dog who loves nothing more than to go on a ride. But one of the stipulations of the loaner is no pets. So I told my husband, “Nope. Can’t. No pets.”
“Take my car then,” he said.
“No way! I’ve got limited time with The Bug.”
“Oh.” I think he was a little disappointed his car didn’t live up.
I dragged my feet for as long as possible before picking up my car and handing the Beetle over.
“I have an idea,” I told my service advisor. “I’ll pay for the repairs then you keep my car and I’ll keep the Beetle.”
He laughed but he didn’t go for it. He went outside and pulled my car up to the curb. Admittedly it had new oil and brakes and tires and had been washed and vacuumed. But it didn’t live up.
You see, my car is a VW Routan. A mom mobile. A minivan. Although infinitely reliable and practical, reliable and practical is just a little depressing right now. When I hopped into the Bug, I had a new lease on life. I felt sparky, jaunty. I imagined myself skipping down the driveway in a sassy little skirt, kicking my heels up, throwing my head back and laughing, zipping around town with the windows down and Jimmy Buffett playing, not a care in the world.
I know. All this from a loaner car, right?
It made me a feel a little bit ungrateful. I mean, I have a perfectly nice car that meets all my needs. My practical needs. But at this moment, as mom of two teenagers and person with all the normal worries of a mom, wife and person, who wants practical? Practical suddenly feels dull and dark gray (the color of my car incidentally) and, well, boring.
This says to me—what? That life needs a little spicing up? Maybe it can’t be with a new bright red car but with what? What’s the metaphorical red VW Bug that I can add to my life? What will bring zip and shine and excitement? What will bring relief to the practical, the reasonable, the level-headed steady mom-ness that has been made so unappealing by this bright red car in my life?
My husband says I can get a new car when our 14 y/o graduates and I think wow! great. He’s graduating from 8th grade! “From high school,” he says. I pretend to be disappointed but I knew what he meant. And honestly, I know a new car isn’t what I want or need. But what DO I need?
Sometimes I wonder what in the HELL we were thinking, adopting a 3rd dog and a rescue at that. He’s a bit of a sweet disaster. His separation anxiety is desperate to the point he watches Adam work or plants himself directly between Adam and the path to the truck to make sure he doesn’t get left behind. Lately he’s been sitting or sleeping in the back of the car in the driveway. For hours.
When we do leave him at home uncrated, he creates a small mess each time. He started out by hauling Adam’s clothes and shoes out of the bathroom into the bedroom or living room. Never damaging anything, just leaving a little note of his fear and discontent.
More recently he’s taken to counter surfing to register his displeasure. I’ve been returning home to scenes like a bag of cereal, plastic wear, a cloth grocery sac, and a coffee mug (!?) on the living room floor.
His desperation to go along is sweet if a bit over the top. Touch keys or purse and he starts Fred Flintston-ing his feet on the wood floor to beat us downstairs to the door leading out the the garage. Being left behind, even with one of us here, is hard for him especially if it’s Adam leaving him.
You know how people have emotional support animals? Well, Buddy has an emotional support person—Adam. Adam was the first one of us to meet him and they fell for each other immediately. I think Buddy recognizes Adam as his savior.
So what WERE we thinking, adopting a third dog? For the first time in almost thirty years we were without a lab. And that was a mistake. Our other dogs are great and we love them. But major elements of lab-ish-ness were missing from our lives. We needed a loyal, smart-but-dopey, underfoot, big headed, snuggling lab.
His less attractive habits often leave me shaking my head and questioning our sanity and judgement. But then I look at his face. He sits and looks up at me, brown eyes shining out of his black fur. He looks at me as if to say, thank you so much for taking me out of that place. Thank you so much for saving me. Thank you so much for kindly tolerating my anxiety and fear. Thank you for loving me.
I wonder how anyone could turn down a face like that. Certainly we couldn’t.
And we’re all a little bit damaged, right? We all have our times when we feel like laying on the floor with our loved one’s clothes just because their scent comforts us. Times when life becomes a bit too much and we want to swipe everything off the kitchen counter in a little moment of desperation.
Oh, we probably don’t do it but that doesn’t mean we don’t feel like it. What we do is hold it inside and then later yell at the kids or snap at our spouse. Or cry in the shower before splashing water on our face and then marching on like it’s all okay. Only sometimes it isn’t okay and we need to find a way to give voice to our fear, our frustration, our anxiety, our sadness.
Hopefully we all have someone who looks at the mess we’ve created and, rather than reprimand us, recognizes our distress and helps us find a better way.
So that’s why. Because he needs us. And we need him.
(This essay also appears on Sodapup.com’s tumblr blog.)
Hand over mouth, eyes searching to make sure no one unsafe is within ear shot, she leans toward us conspiratorially. And then she makes a wild confession. My reaction is one of relief. Phew! I’m not the only one.
“Sometimes I run my dishwasher when it’s only half full!” She looks like the admission might result in her being struck dead by a bolt of lightning.
As is often the case, one admission leads to another. Here we were, a group of smart, environmentally conscious and generally aware moms admitting our deepest darkest environmental sins.
“I use plastic bags in my trash can.”
“I drive around with plastic bags in my car, hoping to come across a grocery store that still recycles them. I finally lose it and throw them in the trash.”
“I use non-biodegradable bags to pick up dog poop.”
“I use Ziplock bags and then throw them away instead of reusing them.”
As we stand talking, I diagnose this as a not-yet-recognized syndrome: eco-guilt.
Living in Boulder, CO
It doesn’t help that I live in Boulder, CO, one of the Green Capitals of the US. Don’t get me wrong–I’m proud of my community where there are tons of year-round bike commuters (even in the snow!), public transportation, curbside recycling and composting, lots of green buildings, a Prius on every block, abundant solar panels, and an overall commitment to doing right by this earth of ours.
I walk along the beach with deliberate steps, peering at the ground. My eyes scan sand, rocks, seaweed, shells. Small waves lap the shore. A line clinks against a mast. I step, look ahead, step, look right, look ahead, step, look left. The shadow of a seagull passes overhead. I feel sun on the back of my neck, see a glint, pause, reach down. Nope. Just a rock.
White—good. Green or brown—better. Blue or red or yellow or orange—heart stopping.
I am looking for sea glass. It’s a love, a passion. No, an obsession. I have jars of it at home, collected over the years on various beaches but there’s never enough. Every beach, every day, holds the possibility of more. And still, finding the next piece is like finding the first. There’s a thrill, a jump of my heart, a smugness, a satisfaction at the discovery of yet another piece. I reach down, pick it up and close it into my fist.
And it’s good, the hunting, the looking. It’s relaxing and exciting. Until. I see someone else walking down the beach with a clenched hand or carrying a bag or a cup. My heart jumps, beats faster. I feel an edge of panic, a splash of indignation. I draw a sharp breath, clench my jaw. Because I want to know, need to know, what they are collecting. Sea shells, heart shaped rocks, skipping rocks? Fine. Sea glass? Not fine. No, they should STEP AWAY FROM THE SEA GLASS.
I amble over, make small talk, act friendly. Hmmm, what are you collecting? If it isn’t sea glass, I like them, they are a friend. Sea glass? A tightness in my throat. They are foe. I want to know if they’ve found anything good. If not, I (shamefully) feel gleeful. If so, I feel ugly envy. I smile at them either way but, in the second case, it is false.
Later, I walk the beach with my twelve year-old niece. When we both come upon a piece of glass at the same time, I concede and let her have it but this is more painful than I care to admit. I do this with some grace (if with internally gritted teeth) but it’s a relatively non-coveted white/clear piece. Giving up a brown or green piece would make me cringe. And honestly, I might have acted shamefully if we both happened upon the coveted blue, yellow or red at the same time. Luckily my mettle isn’t tested.
If we both tripped upon a gold piece lying on the beach, it would be easier for me to cede it to her than it would be to allow her to have a piece of red or pink sea glass. An entire bathtub full of pieces of sea glass would not be enough to satisfy me. I like to look at them, sort them, pour them thru my fingers. There is something about their burnished, tumbled surface and edges that makes me want to touch them, look at them and hunt for more of them.
People do crazy things for objects that have far more actual value. But I, I might take someone to the mat over a piece of red sea glass.