Monday, May 31, 2010

When in Rome... or Livorno.

The night before my father's funeral, we had a meaningful gathering of family and friends.  Knowing Daddy didn't much care for the traditional wake or memorial service we opted for a "celebration of life."  Still sad, but also really wonderful.  It was especially nice to hear the stories of my dad from people who knew him as a little boy and a young man; times before I was even a twinkle in his eye.

That night I shared a modified version of a post I wrote last year about ten things I learned from my dad, plus a few other special moments and personal thoughts.

One of my sister's childhood friends described a few of her feelings and memories in a letter which was read aloud.  It included a time she ran into my dad and me whilst traveling in Rome, Italy.  Such a happy coincidence and welcome connection when she was missing home so much.

I remember it like it was 1994.  (It was.)  I heard someone calling, "Charlene!  Charlene!"  Of course I didn't turn.  Nobody would be calling for me in the middle of Rome.   I was recently divorced at the time and didn't even have many friends in the U.S., let alone Italy.

The voice got closer, "Charlene!  Charlene!"  Against the odds, there was my sister's dear friend whom we hadn't seen in years.   Small world indeed!

That story made me think of another one from that same trip.   My dad and I were on holiday in Italy, just the two of us.  We mainly stayed in Florence but ventured to other places via train, as we had done to Rome the day we ran into our dear family friend. 

These excursions were always fun for a couple of reasons we didn't expect.  One was that the "information" clerks at the train station seemed hell bent on only confirming or denying info already had from other sources, not providing it when it was actually needed.

I'm sure the language barrier exacerbated this perception.  My dad actually spoke "very good" Italian.  However, he was also slightly hard of hearing.  (This was before the good hearing aids.)

Thanks to four years of Latin and a knack for languages, I can understand enough Italian words to be dangerous, but can't hold a conversation thanks to my poor accent and total lack of grammatical understanding.

Therefore, my dad would ask a question in Italian and receive a reply in Italian. Knowing he didn't hear it completely, I would say (more loudly) to my dad what I thought the clerk had said, and then my dad would reply back in Italian or ask another question.  And so it went.

Luckily my dad was never one to get his feathers ruffled. He almost seemed to enjoy the game of "which track has our train" when we couldn't get a straight answer out of anyone.  Or perhaps more fairly, they couldn't get us to understand.

On one occasion, my dad and I had spent the day in Pisa and boarded our train back to Florence.  After a few minutes, someone came around to collect our tickets. 

Quite casually, he looked at our tickets and said something to the effect of, "Your tickets are for Florence, but you are going to Livorno." 

My father asked him (in Italian) to repeat what he had said.  He did and then walked away to the next passengers without another word.  No further translation was needed.  I started to panic.  We should have been going back to Florence.  Our hotel was there. That was the plan. Florence = right direction.  Livorno = wrong direction.  I had no idea how far it was but we were clearly stuck on a train going the wrong way. 

My dad simply took off his jacket, gave an easy shrug and said unconcerned,
"Well, I guess we're going to Livorno.  Ya know what?  I've never been to Livorno before."  

He had this really cute way of raising his eyebrows and making his eyes wide which I can't avoid imitating as I recall him saying the words.  Probably my favorite of his many facial expressions, even at the very end when verbal communication took too much energy.

Anyway, we had barely settled in for the "adventure" when the train came to a full stop at a nearby station. 

"LIVORNO!" the conductor announced.

"Well, that didn't take very long," my dad remarked in his easy way as he gathered his things.  "Let's go little kid."
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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Remembering to Tip My Hat

When I think about how "balanced" my life is, it's really not about the great juggling act (home, kids, work, etc.)    Stuff just has to get done.  Some days are better than others, but I do my best to let go of the idea that I could ever be perfect at all things in my external world and also be 100% happy and healthy.

If you get nothing else from my blog, my greatest wish is to share the perspective that true life balance is internal.  That you must take care of yourself or else the balls in the great juggling act are sure to fall.  And it won't be pretty.

All that said, I'm in "practicing what you preach can be a real biotch" mode yet again.  I guess it's understandable on some level, but my dad's death has definitely rocked my core.   My inner balance is in a state of vertigo.  I confess.

Even on a good day, I fight the tendency to spend too much time in my own head.   Lately, it's harder than usual; my head spinning with so many thoughts and memories.   Constant flashes and gut reactions brought on by any number of little things throughout the day.  Now I know why they call them "triggers."  One photo or momento or word can make me feel like I was just shot in the gut by a Glock 31. 

Even as I am writing this, a letter comes from the funeral home with print-outs of all the condolence messages written for my family on their website and a letter to Hospice about the donations being made to them in lieu of flowers.  *sniff*

I might see a toothpick five minutes from now and have the same reaction.  (When we cleaned out my dad's closet, we found a toothpick in every pocket in his wardrobe.  The man had great teeth.  All his own, even at the age of eighty)

It can become very easy for me to go from one quick gut reaction to being completely lost in the pain.  Utterly, completely swept away in sadness. My emotions kicking and screaming in an internal tempest of obsessive thought.

Even if you've never experienced this Pandora's box, you can imagine that it's completely exhausting after a while. 

As an alternative... and so I can actually function, I'm working hard to to keep in mind something I learned from Eckhart Tolle.

The feelings are going to happen.  I have to be kind to myself and accept that this is a normal part of grieving for a man that I loved so much.   Everyone assures me that the sadness will evolve into something else more comforting. 

I'm just not there yet.

However, I can actually choose not to get swept out to a sea of despair by an obsessive undertow (or as my dad used to call it when we were kids, the "undertoad"). 

Instead, I can acknowledge each thought/feeling, accept them as real and normal and then... move on.  Rinse.  Repeat as needed.

Easier said than done but this is where Eckhart Tolle's great wisdom comes in.   Tolle advises “tipping your hat” to the emotion, as you would someone passing on the street.  Say, “Hello feeling. I see you. Goodbye.”   Look at it in the eye and then continue walking by without a backward glance.

Being a very visual person, another image which helps me is that I'm walking down the street and come upon a huge dark hole.    I can choose to dive in or just "tip my hat" and walk around it. 

Trust me when I tell you've I've spent a LOT of time in that stinkin' hole over the past couple of months. 

I'm kinda ready to start walking around it (with said "tip of hat" of course vs. attempting to ignore.)  I'll imagine that the hole gets smaller and smaller, slowly repaired by the helping hands of time.

In my heart, I know the street will never look the same.  But I need to keep walking....

Thanks,
Charlene


PHOTO CREDIT:  Blog article about the painter, Bob Ross (though there is no specific credit given to this painting)
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Friday, May 14, 2010

Parenting Outside the Comfort Zone

One of the things I talk about in my life balance workshops is that moving ourselves from the comfort zone to the growth zone is imperative to experiencing a truly rewarding life on earth.  You know the saying: "If you always did whatcha always done, you'll always get whatcha always got." 

Yet it has occurred to me that when we become parents, we are bestowed a similar responsibility for other humans as well. 

As the mom five year old Spiderman and a ten year old Miss M., I'm sure I've been guilty of being more on the overprotective side. I try to be aware and fight some of the urges, but it’s just so darn hard sometimes. I have it on good personal authority that suffering sucks. How can I not want to be the “pain bouncer” for that crazy club which is a child’s life?

On some level, I'm sure I have some innate need to give my children a sense of safety which I didn’t perceive in my own youth.   I feel responsible for their “zones” and can’t help myself from erring on the side of “comfort.”   Most of my friends would readily admit to doing the same thing.

The natural instinct I share with most other parents I know today is to want to keep our children happy, healthy and safe. How can that be wrong?

Comfort good.  Pain bad.  We protect them. However it’s a natural instinct which can be easily exacerbated by our own experiences and insecurities.

There’s a great scene in the movie “Finding Nemo.” Marlin (the overprotective widower Dad) tells Dory (the new friend who is Pooh-like due to short-term memory loss), “I promised Nemo that I would never let anything happen to him!”

Dory replies, “Well that’s an odd thing to promise. If nothing ever happened to him, well…then nothing would ever happen to him.”
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To a great extent I am the independent, resilient person I am today because I successfully conquered adversity throughout my life, starting at a very early age.

Okay, so all that said....

My original plan as I was thinking about writing this post was to next discuss the relevant meaning of the Olympic Creed: "The most important thing...is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle..."

Next, I would provide much sage advice about how we can increase our kids’ capacity by increasing their confidence. How they need to both succeed and fail to achieve confidence. And how we increase our own capacity by increasing our confidence in them.

But ya know, I’m really just here trying to figure out how to DO what I believe theoretically is right. I am fully aware that I don't have all the answers myself.

For example, where is the line between protecting and overprotecting?

Until I figure it all out – and just in case I don’t – I have a Therapy Jar in the kitchen into which I deposit a dollar every time I think I may have gotten it wrong. There’s a good chance that the Therapy Jar may someday exceed the College Fund.

Sadly, I can't promise my children that they will never be scared or feel pain.  But I can promise them that I will do my best, that I will be there for them and that they always have a "comfort zone" ready and waiting in my arms.

And I promise that I will tell them I love them…every single day… forever and ever and always.
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Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Wrinkle in Time

Holding onto a life raft of memories in a tidal wave of sadness, I just finished re-reading one of my childhood favorites.  It's a book called A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle.

A central concept in the story is the tesseract -- a phenomenon where one is able (in the book) to move from points in space and time to others through a fifth dimension.

Picture a straight line. Maybe a piece of string with a bead on each of the far sides. Then bend the string (creating in essence, a “wrinkle") and bring the two beads close together.    Multiply that by numerous dimensions and there's your tesseract. 

I'm thinking now that my life over the past couple of months must have involved a tesseract. (Okay, I know WIT is fiction but just humor me.)  

I say "months" but somewhere in there are weeks...and hours...and years.  Total time warp.

It feels so recent that my dad was in reasonable health, playing with my kids, enjoying tasty meals, telling and laughing at the same old jokes, going for walks, learning Spanish, watching movies... loving, living.  And then “the diagnosis.” And then, gone.

There's so much I can write about this and I'm sure I will.  Little pieces at a time.  I'll try to keep my perfectionism at bay, knowing fully that there is no "right way."   You may have to bear with me a little bit.

There is a theory that when a person is dying, their life flashes before their eyes.  Watching my dad's process, I am certain that he actually did "re-live" his life in dreams and visions during his final days.

What I had no warning of is that watching a loved one die creates a similar experience.  Over the past few weeks, I've spent countless hours being mentally/emotionally transported to various points in time throughout my childhood, then to recently when my dad when he was sick and scared... and then back to happier times in my memory.  It's a wild ride, I have to tell ya.

Time has passed in ways I cannot fathom. Where did April go??  Has it already been more than a week since he died?  Count the days. He really is gone. Sharp pain.

In another instant, I have a vivid recollection of a recent conversation.  His voice in my head as real as if he's standing next to me.  Hope.  I look at the phone with a momentary thought that if I dial his number, he'll surely pick up.  

The wrinkle in time folds and unfolds in unexpected ways.  Precious, fleeting, unpredictable time.

It's probably not necessary but I'll indulge the central theme here of "life balance" and put a finer point to it...

People often use "no time" as an excuse not to do things, especially when it comes to taking care of themselves.   For example... I know I should exercise more but I don't have the time... I know I should eat healthier but I don't have the time. Meditate - no time. Read more books - no time. Go back to school - no time. Get organized - no time. Be more romantic - no time.

If you're reading this, you have the time.  Whatever that thing is that you've been "meaning to do"... no more excuses.  Do it.  Just push play.

Because someday -- and you have no idea when that day will be -- you truly won't have the time. 

And then it will be too late.
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