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Are Words Magic?

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Photo by Brendan Church on Unsplash

“I’m just doing what I want to do,” he said. “Don’t call it by any other name. I’m just doing what I want to do – and that’s all my mother ever did, too. Just what she wanted to do.”

-The World According to Garp (p155)

I’ve heard a lot about “identity” over the last…oh, man…twenty years?! The two things I’ve discovered and decided to stay with until I find evidence to the contrary are these:

  1. What you do is not who you are.
  2. How you feel is not who you are.

I will not “identify” as anything but a human being. My “tribe” is human, as far as I can tell. There are so many facets that make up who we are and even if you had the same interests and background as I do, the odds are we still wouldn’t see the world the same way. We’d still interpret events differently because we are different people.

What’s the danger of defining your “identity?” The moment you start thinking of yourself as one specific thing, as part of a group, you put yourself in a box. You limit yourself.

Christians don’t do this. Mothers don’t act like that. Introverts don’t like these things.

The statements can go on and on forever until we’re chasing our own tails trying to be what the consensus of descriptions say we are, but who we are is not any of one of these things or any combination of them.

A personal example? If a homeschooler is what I am, what happens when I am not anymore? What am I when my child expresses an interest in going to school, my child’s father doesn’t want to homeschool, or I just find myself unhappy homeschooling? Suddenly, I have to change who I am. My whole worldview has to be adjusted. “I am homeschooling my children right now,” gives me more flexibility.

Michelle, that’s just semantics. You’re nitpicking about word choices.

Am I?

In my opinion, words have magic in the strangest ways. Even when we think we know what we really mean when we personally use a word, the culture we live in, the meanings that other people in our social groups give things, tend to creep into our thinking.

It reminds me of a witch’s spell and magic incantations. Ancient cultures believed that words could do magic. From Pagan rites to the Bible’s Genesis, words are powerful. We think we are beyond all that superstitious nonsense, but maybe we’re wrong. Words are potent. They can change how we perceive the world.

We should use them wisely. Instead of naming your group or identity, just do what you want to do, what feels good to you, and be honest with the people around you.

I am Michelle, a human and I’m on a path of my very own.

What if I told you there is no “right” way?

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What if I told you…? I love those memes. It’s just so versatile. Searching for one, I found this one MOST profound.

But seriously. What if I told you there was no right way to do life?

It’s starting to become clear to me that there was no real plan all along. Anytime I made a specific long term plan, any time I said this is what I want my life to look like, it all fell apart or caused me so much pain and stress that I was forced to change direction. When I went for short term happiness, when I chose peace and quiet, the calm path of least resistance, I ended up right where I needed to be.

What if instead of creating expectations about how things should work out in the long run, we made the choice to be satisfied with most things just as they are? The old me, and part of me right now, would say that sounded lazy. If we lived like this nothing would ever get done. The me that I am today, the one that attempts to look back on things as clearly as possible, says I haven’t found that to be the case.

I’d like to say that I went to college after high school because I had a dream of being a Broadway stage designer and was working towards that goal. In reality, I was only doing what everyone else was doing and what the school counselors all said I should be doing. I chose the university because I just happened to tour it with my theater class, it had beautiful trees and old buildings. I applied and they accepted me. It was an expensive choice, one my husband and I both paid for the next 15 years, but it wasn’t a waste. I took away a lot of experience from those three semesters, even though I never finished the program.

I’d like to say I had a grand goal of a career at Knott’s and Disney. The reality is that I just found jobs and kept doing them. They were fun and exciting and, my mom was right, I didn’t want to keep doing them after I had kids and started getting older.

I’d like to say that I chose to be a stay at home mom and a homeschooler because I wanted to raise my kids right. The reality there? I was too tired and stressed to work at night and take care of kids during the day and my husband would rather have a peaceful home than a higher household income. I homeschooled because the public school in our area was terrible and we couldn’t afford private schools. I was already home so I chose the easier, cheaper route available at the time.

Everything I have ever done and had a successful outcome with was because I chose the less stressful, less tiring option. I accepted the reality of the situation I was in and made it work for me. And it has worked, right down to the basic tenets of our marriage.

So far, life has taught me that there is no preferred outcome other than letting it go and enjoy the ride. Do what you want to do. Let others do the same. There is no right way to live your life. There’s just your way.

An Old Analogy, Sure

Wool is an amazing thing. Thousands of tiny strands are woven into one long piece of yarn. Each fuzzy piece is brushed and lined up with others. As it’s twisted, each piece reaches out to the ones next to it and bonds to the next, and the next. It can go on forever if you kept feeding it.

Watching a video showing how wool yarn is made reminded me of this quote from Orson Wells, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”

Humanity just keeps stretching out over time like one long piece of yarn. Each new human is added to the spindle and it touches the lives next to it and the next, going on into the future. Only in fiction does a story start and end. We create it in our minds. This is the story of X and it starts here with this and ends here with that. It’s up to us whether or not the story has a happy ending.

Reality, or at least the reality that we perceive, doesn’t work that way. It’s continuous, never-starting and never-ending, a chicken or the egg thing. With every event that happens in this world we can ask, “What happened before that?” and “What happened after that?”

I used to believe my Grandmother’s story had a tragic ending until I zoomed out to see the bigger picture and found that her story never really ended at all.

My Grandma was the center of our family, the key to all our gatherings until suddenly she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Her health faded quickly and within a few months, she was gone. She was 70 years old. I don’t think any of had ever even begun to think she could be leaving us any time soon. It was a big shock to our whole family. A shock that, 15 years later, we’re all still recovering from in some way.

Did her story have a tragic end? Only if you end it there, but you’d be creating that ending, manufacturing it in your mind. In reality, her story is still being told. It’s being told in how her family reacted to her death and how her children and grandchildren adjusted without her physical presence. It’s still being told in family photos, holidays where we talk about her, and how we all, including her great-grandchildren, still feel the effects of her presence in our lives.

And if you zoom out, she is simply another small piece of wool in the yarn being spun, a thread in a tapestry that continues to be woven. We all are. We all die but no matter how far we zoom out, the picture never ends. No matter how far we zoom in, we keep seeing more of the details that make up our universe.

When things seem scary and overwhelming, I like to imagine zooming the lens out and make those things smaller, tiny details in an otherwise beautiful story. Suddenly, I’m not so worried.

My belief, my hope really, is that when we die, when we leave this physical world, we can zoom out even farther and see an even bigger, more glorious picture than we can imagine from this perspective.

Warning: Changes Are Ahead

What is the purpose of the yellow light at a traffic signal? There are two classic schools of thought, right?

“Go real fast!”
and
“Slow down!”

Honestly, though, the yellow light is a warning that a red light is imminent? What you do with that information depends on a lot of things; your personality, where you’re headed and why, how far from the light you are, etc.

The purpose of a yellow light is to warn you that things are about to change. It’s to prevent you from being surprised by a hard stop. If you’re paying attention, you won’t have to slam on the brakes at the last moment. If you’re close to the intersection, you’ll hurry up to get through and not be in the intersection when cross traffic gets there.

I think we get a yellow light in our lives from time to time as well. If we’re paying attention, we’ll get a warning that things are about to change suddenly and, hopefully, make some decisions based on our own needs and desires.

We meet people that change our lives for worse or for better. We get test results that make us think about the future and start plans. Our bodies slow down, ache and take longer to recover, making us realize that the ultimate red light may be just around the corner, prompting us to do the things we’ve wanted to do or say the things we need to say.

Don’t let the red light take you by surprise. Pay attention to your surroundings and the road ahead. See the warnings, not as a hindrance or a burden, but a reminder that we don’t have all the time in the world. Create the thing, go see the place, repair the relationship. There’s so much to do.

You Really Are the Master of Your Own Universe

You know how some toys are kind of boring if you just buy one part and so you keep buying accessories? The car, the clothes, the house, the spouse, the kids, the career. It just goes on and on.

There are video games like that too. Sure, you can download it and play for free, but you only get two levels and then you have to pay to upgrade. You play more but now you see that you have to buy a couple extras, charms that help you rack up the points and levels faster.

Humans aren’t like that at all. We’re a whole, functioning human being right from birth. All our accessories are built-in. Sure, we need a bit of extra care at first, but we learn and grow quickly with good support and before you know it, we’re out in the world on our own, doing our thing whatever that is.

But lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of people that look like they are searching for their missing piece. They wander from job to job, adventure to adventure, and relationship to relationship, never really getting anything from the experience and lamenting that the whole thing even happened while they transition to the next. They proclaim loudly that they won’t give up, they’ll find that career, place, or person that will complete them and make their lives better. That job wasn’t right for me. This place doesn’t have what I need. This person didn’t give me their all and left, so they suck.

What if I told you (lol) that you don’t need any of that to be complete? What if you have the power to stand on your own two feet, to control your own destiny?

You do.

Every time we start a new job, try out a new location or enter into a new relationship, we could be learning more about ourselves and the world around us. We could be using that information to make our lives more interesting and more comfortable for ourselves and those around us. It doesn’t matter what the job is or how long the relationship lasts. It doesn’t matter what kind of relationship you have: long or short term, purely sexual or platonic. It doesn’t matter if you buy a house and live there for ten years or rent out a basement and live there for three months. It doesn’t matter if you go to college right out of high school, wait until you’re 45, or ever go at all.

What does matter? It matters that we learn something about ourselves and that we connect with other humans in as many ways as possible, that we live every day no matter what’s going on.

The Stoics have a decent idea, “Memento Mori” Remember, we die. We don’t live forever and (as far as we know) we only have one life. We need to stop wasting time.

Nothing is a waste of time if you learn something from the experience. That one night stand you had with that hot babe you met? Not a waste of time if you enjoyed it and look back on the moment fondly. That two years you spent at an expensive university, only to drop out and work at an amusement park? Not a waste of time or money. You gained experience, you met people, and you had fun in ways you never knew existed. And money? You can always make more. Money was created to spend. And what about that “failed” marriage? Did it “fail” or did it just serve its purpose and now you’re both moving on to something else? That job you spent five years at and then switched careers gave you fresh insight about your abilities and a set of skills that you can use anywhere.

What exactly do we think we’re working toward? What are we stockpiling for the future? What will we do with all of this shit we’ve accumulated? We’ll die. That’s it. And all your stuff will be redistributed.

So why not stop working toward anything and just enjoy what you have? If you don’t like the job you are in, find another one. If you don’t like the area you live in, move. If you don’t like the relationship you’re in, move on. Stop collecting things and start experiencing things. If you have no friends or family to experience it with, do it alone! Maybe you’d find it more fun or fulfilling if you had someone to share it with? Then blog about it and post pictures on Instagram! Or start dating…anyone, right off OKCupid! Or join a club online or in person!

You are a complete package all by yourself. You don’t need anything to start living and experiencing the world around you. Just live, damn it! Why not?

We all walk around acting as if we are pawns in someone else’s game but we’re absolutely not. It’s your life. Do what you want with it.

You do have the power. You’re using it right now.

Reassurance IS Futile

resistance cactus

A cactus will grow with very little soil or water.

I heard Seth Godin say on a podcast recently, “Everyone has self-doubt” and “Reassurance is futile.” He also said that we don’t HAVE to hear criticism if we don’t want to and I’ve decided he’s completely right.

I have been crippled with self-doubt in the past. There are few things that I am truly confident about and writing is not one of them. I’m confident about my use of words and my grasp on English grammar and spelling but, expressing my opinion in public terrifies me. Do I really have anything to add to the conversation? Surely, it’s been said before. Am I sure I’m seeing clearly and have a right to say so?

My Dad and my husband are two of my loudest fans, but I’ve often thought that if I had just a few encouragers out there, a few less biased people with some positive feedback, some unsolicited reassurance, then I’d learn to put my self-doubt behind me. I’d be more confident. I know deep down that it’s just not true. I’ve had positive feedback and reassurance from several corners and the next day I’m just as doubtful about my message. He’s right. Reassurance is futile.

But you know what’s not futile, learning to stand on my own two feet. Accepting that I may make mistakes, I may not always be on top of things, and I have much to learn, but I still have my own perspective on this world and I have every right to tell it as I see it. I can put the self-doubt aside for a moment, write out what I want to say (even imperfectly or wrong), and post anyway.

For the critics? You may think I’m wrong. You may not like what I have to say. You may think I could say it in a better way or not bother to say it at all. And that’s ok. This message isn’t for you. You can move along and read something else.

For everyone else? Thanks for reading. I very much appreciate it.

You Can’t Just Dance Till You Drop

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Photo by Emmanuel on Unsplash

I know I’m dating myself here but my best friend and I used to go dancing every weekend and not the kind you’re thinking of. It was the 90’s and (to us) country music was the thing and clubs that catered to line dancing, two-steps, and waltzes were in abundance. There were three right in my neighborhood. We’d show up right as the place opened and stay until they played the last song.

Two single girls on the prowl for young men? Looking for love? Or at least someone to take us out to dinner once in a while, someone we didn’t meet at work, someone not involved in the entertainment business at all? Not really. In reality, all we were looking for was to dance all night long with someone that knew how and that was generally the older, mostly married men, that were mostly interested in the same thing. I’m not saying we didn’t find a little love along the way but it wasn’t the driving force behind the activity!

Every Friday night went the same way. We’d arrive early and head straight to the bar for a shot of whiskey and a beer each. I’d buy the first round and she’d buy the second, then we’d take our beers to a spot we had scoped out by the dance floor. The reason we arrived right as they opened and not later in the evening when the place really filled up? There were dance instructors out on the floor for the first hour! We were not great dancers, to say the least, and could use all the help we could get. Line dancing was great mostly because we didn’t need a partner and it gave us the chance to warm up without looking like wallflowers. The whiskey gave us courage, the line dancing gave us confidence, and within a few songs, we had partners lined up for two-steps, cowboy cha-cha’s, and waltzes.

The music built up faster and louder as the night progressed and quieted back down during the slow songs. Sometimes we were right at the top of the wave, dancing our hearts out when the music would change and we’d reluctantly exit the floor. It was a forced rest, an instilled break from the pace, that we used to our advantage, in the form of rest and bathroom breaks, and the bar’s since we tended to buy more drinks when the music slowed down. Besides, a slow dance with a strong partner was a great break in the evening too. You don’t want to break your stride completely, just change up the pace and rest a bit so that the night lasts longer.

By the last dance and closing time, we were always exhausted and happily played out. Like kids on their way home from Disneyland, we rode that high all week at work until the next weekend rolled around.

Those night club dancing days are long past but they came to mind over the last few weeks of holiday preparation and execution. As I rushed from one event to another, one completed shopping list, one more baking day, one more quick run to the grocery store, I realized how busy I had become. By the time Christmas was over I longed for a break in the music, for a slow song to come on and push me off the dance floor for a bathroom break and a cold beer. And then I got one.

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is notoriously slow. It’s that “nowhere” feeling that you’re not sure what to do with. This year I decided to use it to my advantage and relax a bit, but plans were inevitably made and the pace slackened a bit but did not slow to a crawl as I had hoped. I made a promise to myself to slow down again this week and I’ve already had to reluctantly say no to invitations, twice. I want to keep dancing, but my body says I need a break and without a good DJ to force the issue, I have to slow the beat myself or pay the consequences.

This coming year, I plan on making a more conscious effort to take those breaks from the dance floor. I plan on looking at my calendar and blocking off work times, play times, and nothing times. Those nothing times must remain sacred if I’m going to have more productive work and play times. I have built a habit of dancing until I drop, which may have been feasible when I was younger, but these days is getting harder and harder to maintain. Building in breaks, time to stay home and literally do nothing but relax with a good movie or a book, is something I have to do to maintain my health and stay productive. The old way of just working until I felt overwhelmed and then dumping everything, even the things I loved most, has never been healthy and it tends to ruin relationships. Time to build some new, more effective habits. Busy doesn’t mean productive. And taking a rest is not an option, it’s a mandate.

Without a good DJ, the music only gets louder and faster until the bar goes broke from lack of sales, exhaustion sets in, and everyone goes home early. Be your own DJ. Build your own volume and pace, bring it back down, build it up again, and know when it’s time shut it down and clean up for the next event.

Jump

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Photo by Blake Cheek on Unsplash

Sometimes we have to just do the thing that might ruin everything, the thing you might fail at, the thing that could change everything, just to see what happens.

That’s where the growth is.

And growth is what keeps us living.

A Grocery Clerk Can Change Your Outlook

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Photo by Arren Mills on Unsplash

“You have an interesting accent. Where are you from?” A conversation begins, enthusiastic exchanges, small family history tidbits, a flash of red hair and she’s gone.

Jogging up to an elderly man in a mobility cart, “Can I help you out with that, sir?” He looks at her abruptly, as if he needs the help, but softens, and smiles, “Sure, honey.” “You drive out and I’ll drive her back!” she chirps as she follows him out to the parking lot.

By the time it’s my turn at the register, she has returned. Grabbing groceries and putting them into reusable bags, she comments “Oh, I love these! So good!” I smile and laugh.

Does this woman have anything negative to say, ever? With all that energy, all those smiles, you’d think she were nineteen years old, the world before her, but she’s not. She looks to be about thirty, young but not a baby anymore, old enough to be worn down a bit like many of my neighbors. I wonder if she goes home from her shift at the grocery store happy and humming along, or does she collapse onto her couch in exhaustion. Is this her natural state, or is she putting on a show? All I know is that it is impossible to be sad or grumpy around her. I’ve seen a few people try and fail.

As she finishes up and runs to the next check stand to bag more groceries, I make a comment completely outside my own comfort zone. I feel compelled by her enthusiasm to speak up. “I just can’t help but smile and leave here in a better mood than the one I came in with when she’s here.”

The checker agrees, “Who? Joi? She’s amazing. We can’t help but be happy around her either. Feels like we’ll let her down if we do. You should tell our manager that! Oh, wait. He’s right here.” We stand and chat for a few seconds. It seems everyone that meets her, loves her. It must be nice.

As I’m heading out the door, she comes walking back in the store. I hear, “Hot out there?” It’s over 100 degrees in the desert parking lot. “It is!” she smiles, “but the wind is blowing nicely so it isn’t bad at all!”

I smile thinking about her as I start putting my groceries in the truck. And there she is again, chatting with an older woman, pushing her cart to her car.

Groceries loaded carefully in the back seat so that they don’t go sliding off the minute I turn a corner, I hope, cart returned to the corral, I climb in the front seat and start the truck. As it idles and the air-conditioning starts to cool off the interior, I take a deep breath and relax for just a moment, thinking about Joi and the joy she apparently carries.

It’s been a difficult day, not for any reason other than a bad mood, a dark cloud I just can’t seem to get out from under. It isn’t like anything is wrong, no crisis looms, it’s just…sadness. Watching her interact with the people around her, I feel chastised. Why can’t I be more like her? In a lot of ways, I am. I don’t usually tend toward the negative. I am generally good natured. But there is one thing very different, she’s not afraid to talk to people.

Several times, on this grocery trip and others, I’ve seen her notice and compliment people. She compliments the things people are wearing, shares her love of the things they buy, or asks where people are from. I notice those things, but I rarely engage people. Why? Because I’m afraid. What if I say the wrong thing? What if they don’t want to talk to me? I smile politely and nod to people, keeping even my positive comments and compliments, my joy, to myself.

Remembering the checker and the store manager’s reaction to Joi’s enthusiasm and openness, I straighten up in the front seat and resolve to be more like her from this moment on. Her honest love of people is infectious.

Shifting into gear, I remember…crud…I have a package to pick up at the post office. Should I get the groceries home before the milk spoils and then come back into town for the mail? Nah, I’m sure it will only add a minute to the drive home and I’ll save the gas of the extra drive.

I pull into the post office parking lot and run inside. Perfect. Next in line. While I wait a woman walks in behind me. The first thing I notice is the beautiful scarf over her head and around her neck. It reminds me of an Arabian princess, a flowing silk thing to keep the sun off her head. Now’s my chance to say something kind. On second glance, she is small and frail, her head is shaved close, and I hesitate. What if she doesn’t want that kind of attention? What if she thinks I’m weird for making such a comment about a stranger? I stay silent, get my package and leave.

 

Pick a Fear! Any Fear!

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Photo by Sergi Viladesau on Unsplash

A magician playing the game of “guess my card” is what I think of when I think to work on my fears.

I know. Everyone faces fear at some point in their lives. Some of us live with it daily. What mine? Ridiculous, to be completely honest. Generally, my mind is filled with “What if?” questions that can never be answered. The ones that everyone tells everyone else to ignore. I try to put them out of my head and live in the moment I’m in, but they creep back in again, along with wondering what would happen if we all paid a little more attention to the potential consequences of our actions instead. Wouldn’t it make the world just a little nicer? I mean, if other people paid more attention to what they were doing and how it could affect the people around them, maybe I wouldn’t have so much to worry about, damn it!

Sometimes I worry about the bigger things. Things like, am I raising my kids to be civilized and responsible adults? Will they grow up and be independent, decent people? If I make the choice to buy a new car, will I be able to afford it a year from now? Can I juggle my relationships in a way that makes us all happier and healthier people, or am I ruining the lives of those around me?

Then there are the silly things that I get stuck on. If I go to the grocery store today, will I just have to go again tomorrow? What if I start buying more things online? Am I bothering the person driving behind me with my slow-ass VW? Should I call my friend and bother her or let her come to me if she needs help? Should I stay or should I go now? …starts singing in her head…

It becomes overwhelming at times, but it passes pretty quickly. I’ve learned to take a break when I begin to feel the creeping sensation of anxiety. I sit alone and meditate or go for a long walk to clear my head. Talking about it helps too. Walking and spilling out all the bullshit ideas to someone who won’t take any of it too seriously and won’t tell me that I overthink things helps me more than anything else.

I can’t just shove it all aside and ignore it or quietly allow all the negativity to release into thin air. It’s just not helpful to me. Those things eventually float back down and attach themselves to my psyche like I’m a magnet for my ugliest thoughts. Not until I voice them do they begin to dissipate and dissolve. In my head and unspoken, they swirl around and build on each other like a snowball rolling downhill. Voiced into the world, these crappy ideas just can’t hold their shape and are crushed by the positive reality around them, vanquished.

So what can I do to create a safe space to release this negative energy without destroying those around me and ruining any sense of peace in my relationships? Two things. The first is to write it out. I type it out in my journal or open up a notebook and get a pen. Pen and paper is my preferred method. I draw pictures, spell out elaborate curse words in bold letters, express all the things I want to say to everyone I want to say it to in the worst ways, without regard for anyone’s feelings or well-being. These paper journals may terrify someone some day. I have plans to put them in a box with an explanation on the lid, so that if I die suddenly, no one will come across that ugliness and wonder what went wrong. This therapeutic writing helps a lot, most of the time. But sometimes I need more.

My second, and most favored, form of release is to walk and talk with a safe person. That’s usually my sweet husband. When I’m walking and talking the words and ideas aren’t nearly as harsh as when I write them. Something about the physical exertion helps tame them. I talk out all the things that weigh on me and he listens and walks beside me. Rarely does he try to fix it for me or express concern for my sanity. He just listens. And I feel lighter at every step. It feels much like a miracle. By the time we get back, my mood has improved, nothing seems so terrible and impossible anymore. We get a drink of water, relax into the couch or porch chairs, rest up a bit, and then continue with our day in peace.

How do you deal with fear? Do you release it into the wild? Suppress it? Reason it away? Or do you give into it and decide fear is there to warn you of danger and avoid what it is your fear most?

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