Holiday Overload

xmastree2Christmas is such an oppressive holiday. I’m a typical non-believer of Protestant heritage meaning I have always celebrated Christmas in a secular way, with little attention to the bible story behind all the hoopla. I can only imagine what it must be like for people who don’t care to celebrate Christmas, and yet are inundated like the rest of us by the ever-increasing crapification of December 25. From Santa hats on flight attendants, cashiers and dogs to the gaudy plastic trees that invade every store, restaurant, bank and office, to the foam reindeer antlers on SUVs-a favorite in my town-it’s inescapable. A mall I unfortunately had to visit over the weekend boasted of their “100 foot tall, white fir with more than 15,000 lights and 10,000 festive ornaments that came from the beautiful landscape of McLeod, California in the Mt. Shasta region to the Americana Mall here in Glendale.”

When I was single in the 1990s I used to ignore Christmas completely. Instead of traveling back to the east coast to be with my family, I opted to save my money, which was scarce, and spend the day alone. While the whole world seemed to be raising glasses and feasting, I would go to the beach with a little picnic, or take a few granola bars on a hike, and enjoy solitude on the quietest day of the year. Christmas is the one day when almost all business shuts down and there is very little traffic. The streets are quiet. I savored those holidays and the message of Christmas that is nearly always forgotten in the hubbub of celebration: Peace.

The holidays bring up a lot for all of us. Nostalgia for the magic we remember as children is often mixed up with sadness and longing for people we miss. When someone is grieving the holidays are stark reminder of who is gone. Oddly, I don’t remember the first Christmas after my mother died. I must have blocked it out. But I know that for many years Christmas was a holiday I wanted nothing to do with.

Now that I have my own family I can no longer get away with ignoring Christmas. We have a tree and there will be presents and stockings and this year I even bought a little paper mache nativity scene from India for our mantel. I thought it would be nice to connect to the original story of Christmas: The tale of a young couple and a baby who travel a long way to find peace amidst a lot of chaos and strife.

The Downswing

beachdrawingSome weeks are harder than others. There is no obvious cause for my funk of the past week but I suspect a combination of events, from the personal to the cosmic, both in and out of my control. I knew I was sliding when I caught myself feeling jealous of other people’s wins, condemning myself as lazy and losing my grip on the scratchy rope of faith I was clinging to.

For me, the challenge of December is to avoid letting the hectic energy of holiday preparations get in the way of enjoying a delicious sip of wine with friends or the excitement of decorating with my kids. And this year I have a few extracurricular responsibilities to add to the end-of-year mayhem so time is in short supply, as is my ability to stay focused on the present.

There are other factors I could blame for the recent slump. This time of year brings more socializing and interactions. Seeing family over the holidays is always fun and interesting but it can be hard too. Even just running into an old friend or an ex seems more likely and those moments can dredge up old stories that sting.

“Am I really uptight?” I asked my husband after seeing an ex-friend who used to say I was. A five second encounter had ignited the old worry and I got sucked right into believing it.

He gave me a wary look, cautiously dipping into the murky waters of my insecurities. “You’re not all that uptight but you’re rigid about some things,” he said with a chuckle, making sure to keep things light. “Sometimes you seem overly concerned with what other people think, and that could be your problem.” He raised an eyebrow at me.

Worrying about how I am seen or judged is an old unhelpful crutch. It comes from not trusting in myself or the world and allows me to play small. It can make me a little afraid, a bit timid, and sometimes reluctant to push myself. When I’m like that, people can feel it. Insecurity feeds on itself and breeds distrust. It’s obviously better to own my imperfect myself and not bother with people’s opinions, but it’s not always easy.

The best remedy I know for my slumps is taking stock. Whatever my mood, and whatever my faults are, in the end I’m just a typical human, trying to control the haphazard stacking of circumstances that I call my life. And it’s ridiculous how easy it is to forget where I am, how far I’ve come and how great life is. I know I’m a broken record but this is the point I always come back to on my long journey around the turntable. Life is good. It’s made up of seemingly insignificant moments strung together. And if I focus on the future, or the past, faults or regrets, all the  little colorful beads of NOW fall through the cracks.

 

Being There

IMG_6982 My kids are old enough now to be full of their own ideas, opinions and experiences, many of which surprise me on a daily basis. Yesterday as we were up north visiting family for the holiday my twelve year old daughter asked if we could go for a walk, just the two of us.

“Something on your mind?” I asked, checking to see if I’d missed an awkward interaction with a relative.

“No I just want to be alone with you,” she said with a sunny smile.

We walked up over the rolling hills that surround her grandparents home and yelled through the wind about life and school, anxieties and hopes. We talked about the year we lived in Vermont and I learned a bit more about how negative her school experience there had been. She was only in fifth grade that year and unable to articulate much of what happened to her while it was going on. We’d had many bedtime discussions after which I told myself it was normal middle school stuff.

Kids are resilient, we say and in some ways it’s true. Kids are good at pretending they are fine, mostly because they often don’t possess the tools to tell us otherwise. We adults are often guilty of pretending we’re fine when we’re not which is how kids learn to do the same. In either case, pretending we’re fine and reminding ourselves that “kids are resilient” are really just a way of avoiding talking about what’s going on. I knew my daughter was suffering that year and I remember trying to get her to tell me what exactly the kids at school were doing that was making her not want to get on the bus every morning. I wanted to be able to fix something that wasn’t fixable. There was no alternative to the local public school and I wasn’t excited about the prospect of home schooling so of course I wanted to believe that a) I could help her or b) that it wasn’t that bad.

She was being bullied and excluded in ways that were so subtle, the kids doing it would never get in trouble. It wasn’t personal. She was just an outsider in a very small town. But for a fifth grader there is no way to take exclusion in stride. All they want is to fit in and there was no chance of that. Her only defense was to learn, over time, that she, not one of her classmates, was in control of her happiness. It was the hardest year of her life and yet she’s the first to admit it made her a stronger person.

Growing up is hard work and the middle school years are full of difficulties. There are many lessons to learn but it’s hard to get to the upside of a trauma if you’re busy ignoring it. It’s certainly easier for kids and adults to pretend things are fine when they aren’t, but our habits of downplaying what our kids are going through because we can’t stand the idea of them suffering doesn’t help them learn from their experiences.

I’m not sure there was more I could have done in Vermont for my daughter. But I do wish I had forced a few more conversations about it, if only to help her understand that I knew how hard it was and that I was there. I hate seeing kids who are going through a rough time in their lives surrounded by adults who assume less attention to the issue is better. I prefer to acknowledge what is happening even when I can’t do anything about it. It may be awkward and the kids themselves may not like the attention to their pain. But at least I’m showing them that it’s better to acknowledge it. We can’t always fix their problems or make them hurt less. But at the very least we should be able to say, “I know this sucks, but I’m here.” When we do that, they have a better chance of doing more than just surviving.

Fiction: Surrender

darkblack“It’s a relief to feel cold again,” she says joining the group, and everyone nods and smiles.

“What a long summer that was,” someone says as she crowds herself in near the window at end of the table.

“Never ending,” says another.

She shivers in her shorts and boots and too thin sweater, not ready to dress for fall quite yet, distrustful of the new weather patterns and glances at the others. Everyone in long sleeves and little booties. She tries and fails to control the shaking in her jaw and arms. It’s not just the cold. It happens all the time in groups and sometimes people notice but mostly they don’t. Her sister always did.

It’s her first time at the new cafe everyone is talking about and she notices the high ceiling of the warehouse structure but all painted white making it clean and light and airy. The group of mothers are trying to organize yet another fundraiser for yet another school and she’s already bored.

She interprets the shaking as some unknown force that wants to come out but can’t. In this case, she thinks, it’s the desire to say ‘Fuck this shit” to all the moms at the table, drinking their coffee, eating their toast, the latest trend in between meal snacks. Toast with peanut butter. Toast with avocado. Really? That’s the snack I make when there’s nothing else and you want me to pay seven bucks for sheer presentation? A sprig of lavender?

She is so tired of helping. Helping the kids, helping her husband, helping the school, the neighborhood, the people who are starving, even the earth has added itself to the list of things she has to try and DO something about. All she wants is to go home, get under the covers, and surrender. Let the shaking take over and let out a torrent of screams and howls, yelling at no one in particular. She imagines a coven of maternal ancestors, all beckoning her to run away, to give up on the chores and her life as a set of legs under a heavy table of others’ needs and run free on the gravel which will tear open her feet. They call her to lick the blood off the rocks and be free, like they are, looking down on it all.
She sees them in the other moms faces too. The long lines of history and genes and that got us into these roles as saviors. Save the dolphins! Save the school! Save the arts! But just a few generations back, there wasn’t this need to do it all with a smile, in high heels and lipstick, which is the part she hates.

She stands up.

“I’m sorry. I have to go,” she says, her voice and hands shaking.

They all look up at her, blank faced.

She gets in her car and screams.

Breathe and Relax

runnerI’ve been reading a book called Chi Running by Danny Dryer and it’s changing the way I feel and move in my body. I’ve been practicing it every time I run, and I’m finding my runs are a whole new experience that is bleeding into the way I sit, stand and walk.

Chi running is all about using more of your energy and less of your muscle power to propel yourself. To do it is very simple: Align your body, focus and relax. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Alignment means retraining the way the body moves and rests. Focus is a challenge for me as my mind likes to bounce around, especially when I run. And then there’s relaxing. For me, this is the hardest part. In Chi Running you are actually supposed to relax your muscles while using them. It’s hard but it just takes practice. I find myself working on it all the time. Reminding my shoulders to relax as I type. Relaxing my legs when I drive or stand still. Relaxing my hands when I draw. It’s one of those things that doesn’t really get easier. It starts to become habitual, but I can always relax more.

It’s a little like stretching or yoga. The more you do it the further there is to go.

Chi Running is really cool. I’m not there yet, but the idea is that the better you get at staying aligned and relaxed as you run, the more effortless it is. People who do it say they can run longer and faster without trying harder. They promise “injury-free” running which I hope is possible. All I want is to be able to keep running in my old age, and they say that’s the whole point. Even though I am a real beginner, I have noticed that I’m not as tired after I run, my muscles aren’t as stiff and I have no soreness in my hips or knees, two places I was constantly having pain after working out.

Another important part is breathing. The book talks about exhaling fully so that your lungs can fill up with fresh air every time you inhale. When you’re running, that’s important. You have to get oxygen to your muscles. The first time I tried exhaling fully while I ran, I felt much better. Stronger. It was such a revelation. Not only did I feel like I had more stamina, I also felt I was getting rid of stale energy that had accumulated in my lungs.

Lungs are known reservoirs of sadness. If we don’t allow ourselves to feel sad it often catches up with us in our lungs. I am a case in point when I consider the years I suffered from chronic depression and bronchitis at the same time. Now I practice deep breathing on a regular basis, but I somehow managed to ignore my breath when I was running. Dryer advises breathing out for two steps and in for one which gives my run a waltzing tempo that is fun.

I’m definitely no pro at the whole Chi Running thing but I am pretty excited about how it has changed my life already. I am standing taller and checking in with myself much more frequently to remind myself to relax. It’s  amazing how simple it is to breathe and relax and yet how hard it is to change how I do it. But when I pay attention to both, it slows me down, grounds me, and allows me the space to remember how lucky I am, and how good it feels to move fast.

 

The Five Minute Garden

swing

The last week or two has been all about getting things done. It’s amazing how productive I can be when I’m not struggling to write a book.

And it’s interesting to think about the things I typically put off and the things I usually take care of right away. Until recently I had trouble prioritizing physical exercise, but now, if it’s a running day, the word “run” is literally at the top of my list. Writing is also a priority. I don’t actually “make time” to write anymore. It’s just what I do whenever I can so it happens, at least a little, every day. The tasks I avoid are usually things like switching insurance plans or organizing paperwork or getting things together for our taxes.  I loathe dealing with bureaucracy and paying bills does not excite me at all. And then there are the “Shoulds”: items that are perpetually transferred from one to do list to the next because I don’t really have to get them done (but I think I should). Organizing my pictures and putting together photo albums for instance. Taking the computer in to find out why it’s so slow or clearing the excess baggage off my phone.

My poor garden has been suffering from being on the back burner a long time. It’s that area of my life that I habitually complain about but don’t actually do much with. I complain we don’t spend enough time outside, that we don’t have the right furniture, that the landscaping needs an overhaul and that I don’t have a good place to grow vegetables. Clearly there are solutions to such first world problems, but I seem to prefer complaining over doing in this area of my life. Until now.

A few weeks ago I started meditating on my relationship to the back yard because I knew there was a reason I was struggling with it. I love being outside. I love working with plants, digging in the dirt and planting. But I also have resistance to it. Fears and feelings of inadequacy. Not dissimilar to the reasons I used to avoid exercise.

I realized I was ready to change and I made a list of everything I wanted to do. 1. Spend more time outside. 2. Grow more herbs and vegetables. 3. Plant two desert trees. 4. Make a birdbath. 5. Fill in some areas that look a little sparse. 6. Make more comfortable places to lounge and relax, including a spot just for the kids on top of our storage container. 7. Build a fire pit.

It seemed like a long list and I decided the best way to approach it was five minutes a day. If I could get out there daily, working incrementally, I would eventually get it all done. And the best part was, spending five minutes a day in the yard took care of the first item on my list.

Five minutes turned into hours pretty quickly. As soon as I started buying plants I got excited and realized I could plant a vegetable garden in containers that can be moved around instead of trying to figure out a spot that will get the most sun year round. I didn’t have an organized list of tasks, I just did what I felt like doing and pretty soon my backyard was transformed. The deck is filled with plants which make it much more inviting, there’s a new houseplant in the dining room, I have the two Palo Verde trees on the way and the new herb garden is planted. There are two places for the birds to get water and a sweet little birdhouse I acquired at a silent auction.

I am so pleased with my yard. I have spent more time out there over the past few weeks than I did all spring and I have enjoyed every minute. My kids are following me outside, wanting to do their part. Next on my list is their cool deck.

It’s not just what I have done that changed the backyard. It’s really my attitude that shifted. Instead of letting myself feel depressed by my back yard being somehow unsatisfactory, I am letting it inspire me to grow more. I think that’s really why we have “yards” in the first place. To have a little piece of nature to cultivate and enjoy and remind us what’s good every day. I’m really not sure why I would want that part of my life to be a drag on my energy instead of a boost, but for a long time that’s what I did. I know I grew up listening to my parents complain about yard work and of having “black thumbs”. I think a lot of people feel that way. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from gardening over the years, it’s that you have to start somewhere, it’s all trial and error, and plants, like everything else, die sometimes. But that should never stop us from planting new seeds.

 

 

 

Another Book

MSCover2

I’m having a very interesting week of contrasts. For the last few days I’ve been riding a wave of energy from the completion of my manuscript. It is now in the final (at least for now) stage of fixing typos and making minor adjustments here and there to characters and fixing little continuity issues. At this point it’s really a fun process because I’m so close to turning this story into a real book. The wave of excitement from finishing is making me highly productive. I’ve been taking care of everything, including changing my name back, fixing the car, putting time into the landscape around our house, applying to schools…the list of things I’ve been avoiding that I am now on top of goes on. I’ve been having wonderful conversations about my book with friends and family who are reading it and that too is giving me a tremendous boost.

My book is about a young girl whose mother has cancer. Even though it’s my story, I don’t have a lot of emotional investment in it anymore, I suspect because writing the book has forced me to revisit and examine those old feelings microscopically, and that has drained them of their power and immediacy. It’s not that I don’t care about the story. I care immensely and the more I talk about it the more important and relevant it seems. But as people who know me read it, and are moved by it, it’s as if they are absorbing the feelings I left in those pages. They don’t hit me anymore; as if they’re no longer mine.

This week I’ve also been a mess. I’ve had bad news about friends and family members diagnosed with rare conditions and common cancers. Articles in the news about cancer treatment and patients’ rights to choose death have been everywhere lately, especially since Brittany Maynard brought our collective focus to the idea of choosing to die. Today I stood weeping in my husband’s arms thinking of people who I know are suffering.

I was standing in the shower when it occurred to me that the worst thing about life is death.

We are all so afraid of it, not just our own demise but of losing our family members because we know how hard it is. We’re afraid of our own death because we’re frightened of anything unknown. Death is the ultimate unknowable, and yet it’s everywhere, it’s close, and it happens all the time. As I get older, and the people I’ve known all my life get older too, it’s obvious I’m going to have to get used to saying good-bye. Somehow I expect myself to be good at it by now, especially having written two books about dealing with death, but it really doesn’t get easier. It just gets more familiar.

I am so proud of the work I am doing. This past weekend my friend Lauren King and I led a grief-centered meditation group that was truly amazing. It was such an honor to create a space for people to come and talk about their experiences and to lead them to meditate on their grief. Allowing ourselves to become intimate with our feelings is the best way I know to gain a healthy distance from them. But even then, when death or the promise of it comes around, I am floored once again.

Name/Game Change

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I’ve been suffering from a split identity ever since I decided to complicate my name.

I was born Ann Badger Faison. That’s the name that is printed in gold on the bible I received at my naming ceremony when I was small. My Dad likes to add a IV at the end because technically I am the fourth person with that exact name in my lineage. Women don’t usually have the opportunity to add roman numerals to their names because–well it’s pretty obvious to me but I’ve had to explain this so many times I know it’s not something many people think about–we have traditionally given up our surnames when we marry. So to have the same first, middle and last name as another female in an American family, she has to be your aunt. Which means, a name like mine is pretty rare.

I was always proud of my name, including the roman numerals though they are not officially part of it. There were some years in childhood when I was a little embarrassed about my middle name but once I got past wanting something prettier like Madelaine or Christina, I decided Badger was kind of cool. No I’m not named for the animal though I hear they are ruthless when they get in a fight with a possum. It’s a family name and I’ve always liked the sound of it. And it starts with bad, which for me is good.

When I got married, late in the game, I made the very poor choice to hyphenate my last name. At the time it seemed logical: Keep the name everyone knows me by and add the name I will share with the rest of my family. An older cousin who had done it advised me,“You don’t want to have a different last name than your kids when they’re going through school.” I imagined my child, injured during the day and a faceless administrator not being able to identify me as the parent. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that most people would be able to manage the discrepancy perfectly well.

So after the ceremony I went to the trouble of legally changing my name to Ann Faison-Muller, dropping Badger which would have made it too long for any kind of bureaucratic form-filling. What a mistake.

I thought Faison was hard. It’s not as hard as my friend J whose last name is twelve letters and impossible to pronounce without a tutorial but when I say Faison over the phone no one knows how to spell it and when I spell it out, no one knows how to say it. Now add a hyphen and Muller at the end and it takes five minutes just to verbally answer the first question of the medical form, school application, bank loan, etc. I tired of those conversations early on and started to drop the Faison. I was slowly becoming Ann Muller. It was easier to say, easier to spell, easier to identify me as part of the family. We were all Mullers. Easy. But there were two problems with it. One, I’m Ann Faison-Muller on my ID and credit cards which means I have to bounce back and forth. And I was still using Ann Faison professionally, with my friends and in social media realms. That means that to the mechanic, I’m Ann Muller. At the hairdresser, it’s Ann Faison. Doctors know me as Ann Faison-Muller but the dentist has me as Ann Faison. Now imagine me, with my terrible memory, calling any of the above for an appointment and the time it takes for the receptionist to find me in the system because I can’t remember which of my three identities they have on file.

Honestly, it’s not just the inconvenience. It really is my identity at stake. Yes I am three things: Mother. Wife. Artist. But in truth I am one thing. I am Artist/Wife/Mother. Or Mother/Artist/Wife. It’s really all one thing.

I was starting to miss my old name. As I get older and my kids grow and I feel more and more secure in my marriage I realize I can be Ann Faison and still be their mother and his wife. I also miss using my middle name. My brother did not name his daughter after me so I am the last of the Ann Badger Faisons. This week I took the plunge. I filled out a form, perhaps the last as Ann Faison-Muller, to change my name back. I’m thinking this time, I’ll make the IV official.

 

Subtle Growth

bluefeather

I found this stunning turquoise feather on the trail this week and thought of my friend L. She had been very excited to find a lovely brown one of a similar size in my yard the day before. I snapped the above picture and put the feather in my pocket. When I got back to my car and texted the image to her she asked, “Did you pick it up?” “Heck yea!” I answered, which reminded me to pull it out of my pocket but it was already gone.

I wasn’t sad about losing the little gem. I had picked it up out of habit more than desire. I used to pick up feathers all the time, often thinking they were signs or gifts. Weightless indicators I was on the right path or doing something right. They probably were. But the little turquoise feather didn’t strike me that way at all. I saw it as a happy coincidence. Some pretty little bird dropped it and I happened to see it before it floated away.

I still pick up really special feathers. Just this summer I found a loon feather that thrilled me. Like eagle or hawk feathers, loon feathers are large and unusually patterned. They carry the majesty of the birds that shed them and I feel I’m bestowed some magic powers when one is laid across my path. But the sky is full of birds and the streets and roads are littered with their cast offs if you look carefully. I still get excited about a nice crow feather because of its deep black sheen and any feather with a pattern or bit of color is always nice to find. I use turkey feathers for smudging with sage and I have a few special feathers around the altar where I meditate, but I really don’t need any more feathers.

I’m guessing the little turquoise feather belonged to a parrot. Parrots don’t belong in southern California any more than I do, but like me they found their way here years ago and have chosen to stay. In my time I’ve learned that Los Angeles is not the promised land, but it is a damn good place to work on yourself. Today I had another incredible massage to help with the shoulder that is slowly, stubbornly coming out of its habitual lock up. As my friend worked on it, connecting the tight muscles to other tight muscles in my legs, hips, spine and jaw, I let myself imagine the tightness leaving. I’ve been going at it from all directions, using yoga, Pilates, my regular breathing meditation, something called TRE, and a lot of writing to help move it all through. And it’s happening. Slowly but surely, things are changing deep in my muscles and bones. Right now I’m still in it. In the change. In the work. In the process of letting it drop, like another feather from my wing.

 

True Grit

open mouth

Illustration by Oscar Romero

The older I get (now that I’m fifty I can say that) the more I realize I will probably never outrun or outgrow my “issues,” which is a very unsatisfactory word for personal problems that never seem to go away. What would a better word be? They’re not my demons or personality traits, although they are related to those. I’m talking about the gristle that all my struggles seem to boil down to. The tough tendon that I just can’t chew through and ends up on the side of the plate, staring back up at me, ugly and colorless.

One might think that after decades of working on them I would have made progress, beat them somehow or at least figured them out. I actually have made a lot of progress but sometimes, when a button gets pushed or something happens to highlight the fact that I’m still wrestling with the same ol’ sh*t, that’s hard to remember. It’s like being surprised by my period. By now I should know better and expect that certain people or situations trip me up, but no. My issues creep up like some cartoon spy in a black cape, familiar strangers who I have known since I can remember.

If you asked me to name it I’d say my biggest, most life-long die-hard issue is my need to speak up and be heard. Doesn’t sound that big, I know, but it can be. When I was a kid, I had trouble breaking into the conversation at the dinner table. I was the youngest and I would often raise my hand when no one seemed able to hear my verbal attempts to be noticed. Someone, usually Mom, would say, “Yes Annie?” and all eyes would fall on me and the important point I wanted to make would vanish like so much steam off my plate. My lower lip would tremble from the pressure of their stares, which had the unfortunate effect of making my siblings giggle and my parents try to stifle their own amusement. It’s hard not to laugh at your kids sometimes but when it was happening to me it made me furious! “I feel like a monkey!!” I yelled out of frustration on one occasion and boy, I never lived that one down.

So it’s always been there, this frustration around communication and speaking up. Even though it has always been there, it certainly hasn’t stopped me from making an effort to express myself. In fact it has been the motivating force behind most of my work. It has hampered me as much as it has been the guiding force, which is really pretty cool.

Once, a long time ago, I stood in the rain in some woods feeling sorry for myself and I actually complained to the trees that I hated my issues and wanted to trade them for something else. When I wiped my tears and looked up there was a deer just a few feet away staring right at me. I stared back at her for what seemed like a long time and in that space that deer pulled me out of the hole I was in. I realized my problems were not that bad.

Ever since then I’ve made an effort to make friends with my issues, whatever I perceive them to be. Sometimes it’s that I’m too uptight. Sometimes I think it’s an inferiority complex. Sometimes it’s that I have trouble telling the truth. But today, and most days, I’m convinced it’s this problem of feeling I need to speak up.

So whenever there is some kind of energetic shift, an increase in my self-awareness that makes me feel as if something in me has changed, this issue of speaking up usually lightens. I notice that I’m telling people what I really think and being listened to. It’s a great feeling to know I’m making progress and makes me feel that my life is not some meaningless moment in the grand scheme of things. If I’m changing that means we can all change, and that gives me hope.