In high school, I had a friend Sue P., who always stepped into her home on her right foot — through the threshold on the same foot. And I was jealous of her ritual. Her magical thinking seemed exceedingly sophisticated. I admired her commitment to it.
What are my quirky rituals? Do I even have any? Of course, I do. We all do. Commuting via citibike to work? Or earlier in the morning, coffee with my journal, alone at the kitchen table. Yes, I have that comforting ritual.
I’ve been thinking about rituals and the purpose they serve. I believe they somehow connect us to the divine.
And these rituals, like bedtime prayers and journaling and making art and maybe even chatting on the phone with my mother every day now, keep us sane and connected.
I’ve been reading Eric Booth’s Tending the Perennials, lent to me by Lindsay. And we talk about the book as we walk the dogs — a ritual.
Booth writes about his pilgrimage into the woods for a week. Alone. Naked. He sets himself the task of writing or thinking of one thousand things for which he is grateful.
And today, when I started my day with journaling, I wrote about the things for which I’m grateful: It started like this: my nose the sun peeking through the clouds my parents, my darlings the New York Times homes full of light travel to Italy, esp. that memory of riding through the wet streets on the back of a Vespa jigsaw puzzle pieces homemade quiche social media for good Deb’s generosity hearing aids home
And there is more. There is always more. At least one thousand good things more. It is a comfort to simply keep a ritual for which to remember gratitude.
Last night Chris and I attended a fun JCC Parkinson’s Holiday Party. After rounds of singing and before the raffle, music therapist Barbara Yahr, and Parksinson’s docs Alessandro DiRocco and Rebecca Gilbert spoke about ways to successfully grow older with the disease.
Here are four take-aways — and these apply to everyone:
1. Get more social. Apathy is a real problem for people with Parkinson’s (and thus, their families), because the dopamine, the reward mechanism in the brain, dwindles. To combat this, make sure that you’re getting out and continuing to wire new neuron pathways through interesting conversations and activities. Change your routine. Don’t do what you’ve always done.
2. Eat well. Best foods for Parkinson’s? They really don’t know. Someone from the audience recommended non-inflammatory foods, but the doctors on the panel could not confirm that this was the optimal diet. There was some consensus that the Mediterranean Diet works well for everyone as we age.
3. Be active. What’s the best kind of exercise? The one that you do! If you have Parkinson’s, exercising for 45 minutes six days a week will likely stave off the steady decline.
4. Make a joyful noise. Music helps. Anecdotally, Yahr spoke about the magical powers of music — a way to communicate when speaking fails. And the docs emphasized that any way of making or participating in artistic endeavors — fine arts of performance arts — is good for the brain.
So, as the moderator of the panel and Chris’s great friend and brilliant teacher Caroline Kohles summed it all up: “Keep a beginners’ mind.”
Keep growing mentally because the brain, at any age, has neuroplasticity. Instead of a fixed mindset, a growth mindset, built on a foundation of persistence, hard work and optimism, provides maximum health benefits.
So some cowards want me to be afraid. But I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to take up their fear. I’m going to keep loving people. I’m going to keep loving strangers even. Just because some idiots want me to be afraid, doesn’t mean that I have to. If fear is contagious, then so is kindness and hope. Sometimes hope is a harder mountain to climb, but I like a challenge.
I know it’s natural to catch the contagion of fear. It’s human. I may feel the fear but I won’t let it poison me.
I’ve been here before. After 9/11, I felt the collective fear. At that time, I’d wake in the morning and wonder if it was all a bad dream. Or I’d lay there and just wish that years would pass quickly so that the tragedy would be only a mild ache instead of a a pervasive pain.
And yesterday, I felt that poisoning pain again.
Still. I’m not buying fear. Instead, I’m buying the instinctive hope of the people who rushed to help. I’m buying the hugs and calls of loved ones checking in on each other.
I will always remember the line, blocks and blocks long, of people who wanted to donate blood to Red Cross after 9/11. Millions more people wanted to help than hurt one another.
Healing, like creating, is hard work. It takes a minute to destroy and years to rebuild. Still, I’d rather be in the business of rebuilding: lives, loves, hope.
Living with someone who’s chronically ill, I live with fear and worry. Parkinson’s Disease has challenged my husband, affected his posture, his walking and more. But I’m not going to let Parkinson’s win either. I’m not going to let a fairly inevitable trajectory of decline ruin my hope for him or for my family. Not today. I have hope today that from the ashes come some sort of new life and some inevitable spring.
I am going to hug my darlings close, write, teach, try to make my small corner of the world a little better than I found it. That’s what I’m doing today. And then tomorrow, I’m going to get up and do it all over again.
Just in time for the holidays, there are two awesome new films about mental illness.
I just saw Silver Linings Playbook and The Master. Both of these films show the journey from destructive madness to precarious sanity. The films show the impossible internal tide as Pat, Bradley Cooper, and Freddy, Joaquin Phoenix, descend (ascend) into their altered states and try to get back to life again.
The movies made me wonder about something I read a long time from Carl Jung. I am paraphrasing, but the idea from Jung, is that: Maybe it’s not these individuals who are mad, but their societies are insane.
Maybe madness is the only sane response to an insane society. Coping is hard enough in life, without the stigma and consequences of mental illness, brought on by intense stress or some biological deficiency.
Both lead actors in these films chew up the scenery. Oddly, during a few intense moments in Silver Linings, the director cuts away from the Bradley Cooper character, a manic-depressive, to get the reaction shots of Jennifer Lawrence (from The Hunger Games).
The title of Silver Linings refers to the benefits of positive thinking to overcome difficulties. I am fan of optimism. Here are my other take-aways from Silver Linings.
Dancing and running help heal obsessive minds
Beat craziness with more craziness
Two messed-up people can make a sane thing
Find the silver lining in every crazy moment
Mental illness runs in families
Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams are incredible in The Master. There is never a cutting away from their faces during intense scenes. If anything, the close-ups just get closer. Tormented minds reveal themselves through dialogue and action. Actions have consequences.
Here are my take-aways from The Master
Every one serves someone (the master?). (Did Bob Dylan say this too?)
Post-traumatic stress disorder is real, especially for wartime survivors
Communal living is healing (and destructive)
We may be better than we think we are
Don’t give up on love
Talk therapy works (hypnotherapy too?)
Overcoming mental illness is no joke, although, turns out, these two films depict the efforts to overcome mental illness as entertaining and compelling.
After the characters of Freddy and Pat slide into their dysfunctional moments, they seem always at war with themselves, trying to reign in their destructive sides and crawl back to lives with family or community. They look for a state of grace. Or at least, they seek connection with others and a state of normalcy. Balance eludes them.
Just in time for Christmas and New Year’s, you can see these movies and contemplate having more compassion for your family members who may have diseases or mental illnesses.
Even though I loved these films, I hope to see a mainstream movie about a woman with a mental illness, preferably depression, which is far more common in women than men.
In the newly-released Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln denies her depression. Her mental illness is only viewed as an impediment to her emotional closeness to her family. For women in films, like Mary played by Sally Field, relationships matter most. For men, it is the journey to wholeness. But surely, Mary’s depression could be a fascinating feature-length film, not just a subplot in Lincoln’s life.
Maybe I’ll write more about Lincoln later. I just saw it yesterday and am still reeling from those performances and the immersion in a time of history when men and women fought to knit the country together rather than to pull it apart. To unite us.
I bike to work and do Pilates twice a week at lunchtime in my workplace. Sometimes I feel that I should have nobler fitness goals. This is why I love this blog post by Nick Crocker about Finding Exercise in Life’s Margins at Harvard Business Review.
Weaving exercise and intentional movement into the fabric of my life feels way more possible (though less sexy) than training for a triathlon.
I let our family gym membership lapse because I just wasn’t going. And I felt guilty — for not going, for the expense, for the lack of family pool time. I felt I was a fitness failure. But I wasn’t. Just because exercise is easy — like slowing down on my bike past the flower gardens in Riverside Park — doesn’t mean it’s not valuable.
You don’t have to hate exercise in order to get fit, feel good, or even lose weight. (The same goes for time at work — you don’t have to hate it.) Why not love what you do? I love playing tennis. Consistency is more important than breaking a personal record.
Personal brag: my son just won an athletic award this week. He was a triathlete — competing in three varsity sports as a 9th grader. But of one of the sports, track, he said he lacks passion. I say, Fine, drop it, if you like. Just keep moving.
Drop your gym membership too. Just stay active.
Weave fitness into every day. A little moving regularly is way better than a lot of fitness once in a while.
How do you psych yourself up to go for a run? I tell myself, “Come on, girl. You can do it.” I talk to my body like it were a beloved family horse. “Yes, get moving, Ole Paint. Get out of your easy chair.” (I know that’s a mixed metaphor: horses don’t sit in easy chairs! Hey, it’s my blog. Write your own blog and mix up your own metaphors!)
There are a million reasons NOT to run. Here are a few:
1. My feet hurt.
2. I am slow.
3. No one else is running. (Everyone else is going out for breakfast, in fact.)
And here’s why:
1. It will feel good when you’re done.
2. You will see some new things.
3. You will model fitness for your kids.
4. When you’re done, you can have a big breakfast.
Maybe I’ll go wake up one of my kids and see if they want to go with me.
I am writing this from a rocking chair on the porch. The kids and I are on a four-day trip to Siesta Key, Florida. It is our third day and inertia has set in. After a few days of vacay, especially in a warm clime, inertia always sets in. I must beat back inertia as if it were a horse sitting in an easy chair. (That’s a horrible image. But there you have it. As I’ve said, inertia has set in and I am mentally lazy, can’t come up with a better image. I could, if I really tried. But I have to go running.)
My fitness app says an hour of Pilates burns 336 calories. I find that hard to believe. It doesn’t seem like I’m doing that much.
Yesterday, at our lunch time work out Jenn said, “You all seem so down, like I’m torturing you,” when we were doing the hundred.
Hey, who has a smile on their face on Monday at noon, trying to hold the plank position? I said, “On Thursday, we’ll be less downcast.”
Also, it cracks me up that we work out in a small conference room right next to the cafeteria kitchen. Constantly in class, we hear the servers and the cooks yelling directives at each other, usually they say, “I need more waffle fries. More fried chicken.” But yesterday, I heard, “I need more broccoli.”
During exercise class, I am often thinking about lunch and so, always open to suggestion, I thought, “Yes, I need more broccoli too.”
Even though I’m not always happy during exercise class, I am always happy when I’m done with exercise class. Then I can eat guilt-free, (broccoli not waffle fries).
I especially like when I am done with yoga class. That’s when we bow to each other and say, “Namaste.”
Up in the Adirondacks, Sunday morning, I was sipping coffee before my family woke up. I was crabby because I’d have to rally the troops, pack up, leave the country, return to the city, get ready for the week ahead. Even writing in my journal didn’t work the usual magic of lifting my mood.
So I went for a run. I watched the fitness app on my phone, noticing that I was still unable to run faster than a 13-minute mile. Yes, I was in the slow lane; my feet hurt. And I couldn’t get enough breath. I tired easily.
I ran for five minutes, then walked for a minute. Then did that again. The first part of the run was easy. I passed the school house. Then it was wet so I looped around the Cold Spring Road instead of going down to the Stable Inn. I began the walk up the rough-hewn stone steps to the Big House. That’s when I saw this upturned tree.
Un-be-liev-able! It took my breath away.
If some special effects geek tried to recreate this 10-foot circumference of a sideways forest floor, it would cost millions of dollars and people would never believe it. But nature did this outstanding damage free of charge. Nature is whack, doing crazy shit. Hurricane Irene must’ve tore up this part of the woods as she tore through Vermont and the Adirondacks a month ago.
I gave up running, walked up the steps back to the house, packed and woke the darlings. I wasn’t crabby any more.
For some reason the extraordinary sight of the upturned tree calmed me down.
Today people are contemplating Steve Jobs’ death. And I’m remembering the upturned tree.
We all will die. I will die. I am small. Whether my death comes by cancer like Steven Jobs, by hurricane like the forest floor, or my personal preference, by old age, I will die. Running away from my troubles on a dreary Sunday morning made me remember that. And it humbled me and made me less crabby.
At the end of yoga class today, when the lights were turned off and the meditative music was turned on, my mind did not automatically rest. I found myself composing Facebook status updates, mulling over possible writing topics, questioning my kids’ afterschool activities, on and on.
Today, in addition to the sound of slamming lunch trays in the adjacent cafeteria, I was also distracted by a baby crying right outside our class.
Jen, my teacher, said, “Breathe and repeat the word, ‘Inhale’ on your inhale and ‘Exhale’ on your exhale. This will help you block out the noise.”
At first, I didn’t mind the sound of the baby’s cry. Not too much. Until after a while. Then it was really irritating. Inhale. Exhale. Breathe. “Will someone feed that child? Give her a binky!” Iwanted to yell.
The good thing about hearing a baby cry is that eventually the crying stops. Sweet relief. Thank you Jesus!
And eventually, my manic mind stopped fretting too. For a minute at the end of yoga, I drifted. Got silent. Like the baby, I descended into a place of contentment. It was really nice.
I forgave myself and everyone for everything. I felt only love for the whole wide world, even, and especially, that crying baby.