The G-List

Sophie is a cosmic vibration. Elfin, fierce, loving… primed equally to start a belly laugh that will have you crying and gasping for breath or a righteous battle if she smells a bully and an underdog. She’s a blur of energy, constantly in motion.

Sophie, like me, has been searching for something for a long time now. A better way to live, a better way to handle the karma we’ve been born into. We’re both on a quest to leave our toxic beginnings behind us and use those hardships as the nucleus of change instead of permission for thoughtless behavior and failed relationships. She lives and learns every day to channel her energy and anger into loving kindness toward herself and the world.   It has been a gift to watch her grow.

Several years ago Sophie asked friends Kathy, Dee and me to join her in sharing three things we are grateful for via email every day.   This gratitude list (now shorthanded to the “G-List” as we laughingly call ourselves the “G-Chicks”) has persevered for more than two years now.   Even when life gets hectic and a few days go by without the list, one of us will pick it up again and keep it going. The entries usually have two parts; the “what” or “whom” followed by the “why” as we remind ourselves why it is important.

I kept a gratitude journal sporadically up until then, a solo effort, after reading Martin E.P. Seligman’s book, Authentic Happiness while getting my master’s degree in psychology a few years ago. The field of positive psychology has so much to offer beyond traditional psychology. One attempts to help you to be less sad and the other gives you tools to be more happy -to find contentment in life.  Keeping a gratitude journal is a basic tenant of positive psychology and a huge impetus in turning around negative thinking. Sharing the G-List with friends makes it a habit with accountability.

When I was struggling with the recent events in my life, the G-List helped turn things around for me.  How can one complain about the flaws in a temporary rental home when so many sleep on city streets?   How can one complain about having to downsize belongings when every day we see people who escape violence in war zones with only the clothes on their backs? How can one complain about a respectful parting of ways when so many suffer through divorces that are churning with anger and sometimes violence?

The G-List encourages us to consider life in a different way. We are, as midlife insomniacs, sometimes grateful for what little sleep we did get at night instead of being upset that we’re not fully rested -again.  We are grateful that, while weather may cancel long awaited plans, no one was injured in the storm and we can still get our mom to dialysis.  We are grateful as a big ugly car repair looms that we (ouch) have the resources to pay for it. We are grateful to see new doors opening instead of bathing in bitterness about things we cannot control.

So after wallowing for a little while in a sea of self-pity after my divorce, my G-List entries begin to reflect some positive changes in thinking. I am grateful for my health because it allows me to do the things I love to do. I am grateful for my friends and my children because they make my life sweet and complete.

While not a wealthy woman in financial terms, I am grateful to be able to live contentedly with abbastanza, Italian for “enough.” Being happy with less allows me to take on work because I love it, not because I need it. I am grateful for the G-List because it confirms every day that I am wealthy in a million more important ways. And I am grateful for Sophie, our whirling dervish, who in her determination to thrive has helped the rest of us live that much better.

The End of Everything

Music is shuffling through the headphones as I make a half-hearted effort to dislodge the dust and dog hair from the crappy carpeting in the rental. Upbeat songs for running are interspersed with Christmas music, an odd klezmer download, beginning Italian lessons, classical and new age stuff that I don’t even remember recording.   My brain registers slight annoyance at the random selections but it’s not worth fixing. I’m not really listening.

It’s been more than a week since the crushing moment in the attorney’s office and I’m not feeling any better. Still lost.   Still trying to make sense of how and why the bottom has fallen out of a life that was once so promising by conventional standards. How did I find myself single parenting once again, underemployed and lacking a permanent address?  Today I understand better that my lawyer didn’t mean anything personal when he summed up my not-complicated estate planning by saying “you’ve got nothing.” Still, those words sadly summarized the state of things and I am stuck feeling very, very sorry for myself.   Cue the tiny violin and the slide trombone. Waaa waaa waaaaaaa.

The music selection changes and a new song begins.   The repeated lyric passes once, twice, three times. The fourth time I finally hear it. It’s a Bob Schneider song.

“It’s not the end of everything, it’s just the end of everything you know.”

I have a mother who believes in Meant To Be to the degree that if a parking space opens, it’s some star-based entity cosmically looking out for her.   I don’t believe in destiny for things mundane but there are bumper sticker moments like this one that swoop down and provide a karmic slap upside the head.

It’s not the end of everything, it’s just the end of everything I know.   Maybe not having anything is just right, right now.   No responsibilities, no future plans, nowhere I have to be. Maybe I can work with this.  My chest opens, the heaviness begins to lift.  I sing the chorus out loud for the rest of the song and imagine again the long waaaaaa waaaaaaa of the pity party trombone.  This time I laugh at myself and shake it out of my head.

A new refrain.  It’s time to get over yourself.  Time to be grateful for what you have.   Time to be open to new possibilities.   Time to begin again.

And just like that the funk lifts.   I switch off the vacuum and wind the headphones into their case. My lab. Rain, tail happily beating the air behind him, comes running with his oversized tennis ball stuffed into his mouth. The sun is shining. Let’s play.

Moments of Clarity

“You’ve got nothing.”

I am sitting in the office of my attorney, an older, proper southern gentleman who speaks his mind. He doesn’t mince words and usually offers his counsel only after a long ruminating pause. From past experience I know it is best not to chatter to fill the space between his pronouncements.   So I sit quietly, staring alternately at the ceiling and at a painting of former Republican presidents anachronistically gathered together at a table, playing cards. It reminds me of the classic dogs playing poker scene.

I am here to get a new will drafted. My divorce is final and our house has been sold. My last child has turned 18. The multi-paged document that outlined the ultimate disbursement of our prior lives is no longer necessary.   What he meant was that I needed only a few pages of straightforward legalese at this point in my life.   What I heard was more literal.   My stomach flipped and I had to force myself to take a slow, deep breath.

If my sweet and romantic Italian moment of clarity was a high point, this was truly a low. Harsh, painful, clear.   What my adept attorney saw as a simplification of circumstances was translated by my stressed and emotional brain as a statement of pity and a judgment on how I had failed. I tried so hard to build a contented life, a happy home, a loving family.  The beautiful house was gone along with my flower-filled garden which had always provided therapy during difficult times. Many of my things had been sold or given away in order to move into small rental while I sorted out my life. My children had grown. My marriage had dissolved. In very real terms, he was right. I had nothing.

Google “moment of clarity” and similar stories appear from the lives of others.   It’s different for everyone. Sometimes it occurs after one hits an extreme low point and there is seemingly nowhere to go. Sometimes it is inspired by something observed in the trials of another, the death of a loved one, or by a hearing about someone’s similar experiences.   It can be a wonderful moment or rock bottom difficult.

My moments of clarity tend to arrive in two distinct phases. There is the moment when reality breaks through the distractions and the moment when the path ahead becomes clear however difficult or blessed that may be.   Sometimes this happens simultaneously. Sometimes the first event doesn’t lead quickly or directly to the second. This time the wave that had knocked me into the sand would hold me under the water for a long while.

Stunned and shaking, I slowly wrote out the check for legal services, walked down the elegant stairs to the lobby and got behind the wheel of my car.   Anxiety and sorrow tend to gather in my mid-section and it took a few minutes of focused breathing to uncoil from this modified fetal position and become upright enough to drive. That night was sorrowful and sleepless with a million “what if’s” bouncing through my tired brain. How had it come to this? The sadness was overwhelming and suffocating.   What was I supposed to do with this moment of clarity? I was drowning.   I had nothing.IMG_0262

Begin Again

The moon is already out and full on a late summer evening in Terni, Italy.   We are on our way, by bus, to see a Russian ballet company perform Swan Lake in an ancient, open-air amphitheater down town.   The light is that golden, hazy color that gives everything a magical, surreal glow. The day has begun transitioning and the marvelous glow is already edged by twilight. I press my face and hands to the windows. I want to breathe it in and keep it with me for as long as possible.

The sense of excitement we all feel is palpable on the bus with everyone pointing out the windows and commenting on some aspect of this new experience. Due to the performance, the downtown traffic is thick with cars. Pedestrians are weaving their way towards the front gates, holding hands, laughing and embracing one another. The Italian women are gorgeous in their seriously high heels and form fitting eveningwear. The men are decked out in similarly grand fashion.   In Italy, creating a bella figura is a cultural given. You can wear what you want in your home but when you go out, you make a beautiful figure, dressed to impress, looking sharp for yourself as much as for your fellow citizens.

I have come to Italy to attend an art school in Umbria. I don’t consider myself an artist – far from it- but after leaving an intense corporate job have taken a sort of sabbatical to try to rest, recover and figure out the future.   This school, La Romita, is for people at all skill levels. The teachers are from my hometown so I am comfortable that I won’t further embarrass myself as a rank beginner with instructors I haven’t met. Plus it’s an adventure. Every day we are bussed to a new little town. One can sit and paint plein air style or, as I opted to do with my friend John, explore the village by foot and take photos to paint from later. We return to the school in the afternoons for studio time in the old chapel that now serves as an art room.   At night we eat family style, drink table wine by the liter, rehash the day and watch short videos about the next day’s sights.

This trip to the ballet was not on the original schedule but we are able to take advantage of a free night.   Our driver, the very sweet and sexy Luciano, has had the ladies swooning for the past week and when he parks the bus, stands attentively at the door to help each of us to descend.   Ever the observer, I like to sit in the back of the bus and so, am always the last to alight.   As I step down onto the pavement, I am still holding Luciano’s hand when I teasingly ask him if he is coming with us.   His English is not good and my Italian is non-existent but I think he understands what I have said.

Many, many cultural and gender stereotypes come crashing down at that moment, but I am blissfully unaware of them all until much later.   I am assuming he, like many American men, are happier with a beer and a ball game than with the ballet. I am assuming that he is ready to dump the whole lot of us flirting, aging, giggling American women, roll his eyes and head to a quiet place to wait while the ballet takes place.   I am assuming that in two seconds this goofy class clown will be on her way to catch up with the group, laughing pleasantly at a shared joke with a nice man and in the same general condition that I was when I took that last step off of the bus.

Instead, he hesitates a moment and looks at me until I make eye contact. He is still holding my hand.   While my intent was to kid around lightheartedly, he has taken my invitation seriously and is touched. He explains that he can’t come with us, that he has to find a parking place and wait with the bus. He tells me how much he appreciates the thought.   He takes my other hand, looks deeply into my eyes and thanks me again in his wonderfully accented English.   And then, he leans forward, undoubtedly to buss my cheek but I move awkwardly and somehow the kiss lands just south of my jaw on the pulse point of my neck.

I’m still not sure why everything changed in that moment. Perhaps my senses were already heightened by the exploration of a new culture.   Maybe it had something to do with re-learning how to “see” as I was surrounded by so many incredible artists and works of art. Whatever the trigger, there was an overwhelming aura of clarity and sensory awareness. Life had been so insulating in its comforting sameness for so many years. The curtain had parted. I didn’t know I was sleeping until I was fully, passionately, shockingly, wide-awake.   Life began again.

16,000 Days

It’s the house dream again. For weeks this dream has repeated itself in the early morning hours. As usual, the building, one that resembles nothing in my actual life, is unfurnished and mid-renovation. In the dream I feel a little frustration because I am anxious for this house to be finished. As I walk from room to room, the walls and floors shift slowly like those in a funhouse. Holes open to gaping dark places. Windows, doors and dividers aren’t where I expect them to be. Hallways don’t lead to logical places. I awaken more bewildered than frightened, feeling a little like I had just missed the White Rabbit and Mad Hatter who were about to join me for some tea.

The dream dictionary reminds me that a house in a dream is usually a stand-in for one’s self. A crazy house theme can indicate working through challenges to fundamental belief systems and experiencing personal change. An abandoned, broken down house may mean a move to the future, self-improvement, a need to find a new way.

Well, duh.   No surprise that this dream state so closely aligns with reality.   Because I have, figuratively and literally, ripped off the tape, opened wide the battered cardboard box of my life, turned it upside down and shaken the contents onto the floor.   Now, staring down at this pile of stuff that represents more that half a century of hoarding, it’s time to sort through and figure out which few things will make the cut and which will be boxed back up and sent packing. Exhilarating, profound, anxiety-producing and just flat out scary.

As a wellness coach, I sometimes used an exercise with clients that involved taking their probable lifespan and calculating how many days they might expect ahead of them. It’s a bit of ice-water-in-the-face therapy: a shock to the system that helps to remind us how important it is to live in the present and make the most of every day we have left on this earth.   I’ve been reading about Linda Leaming’s experiences as an American in Bhutan. She writes that the Bhutanese don’t shy away from thoughts of death, but indeed welcome them. The constant reality that things are impermanent, everything changes, there is always a beginning and an end, helps them to stay in the moment and put life’s challenges in perspective.   Leaming writes that rather than being depressing, it is liberating and joyful to think about life as related to death. I’m starting to understand what she means.

All of this informs the choices I am making now. 16,000 days is what I calculated, optimistic and grateful for the long-lived women in my family, as my potential time left on this planet.   No promises, of course, since none of us has a crystal ball. That’s sort of the point of all this. I want to live my life, however long it will be, so that when my turn to move on arrives, I will find comfort in the knowledge that not a single day was wasted.

I hope the words on this site offer some comfort, support, guidance, laughter and maybe even ideas for adventure to those of you who are making the same discoveries.   Not a fan of narcissistic naval gazing, I promise to share what I am learning along with the experiences of others and whatever helpful resources are revealed along the way.

Oh, one more thing. This is not about “re-invention.” It’s much more fundamental than that. It is a re-imagining, a re-deciding, a re-introduction and a re-examination of, well, everything. It is the cultivation of courage to face the unfamiliar with eyes, arms and heart wide open. It is permission to slow down, be present, be ok, screw things up, learn from mistakes, find joy and have fun.

Day 15,999 begins now.