Masterpiece

11817183_10206405009697407_8440405729264954038_nWhen love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece. — John Ruskin

I’ve been thinking about how we are each responsible for our own care.

So often, so many other things and people come first: boss, kids, spouse, parents, friends. We beat ourselves up for not hitting the mark, for not being everything we can to them, not realizing that we can’t even come near that (unrealistic) goal if our focus veers so very far away from ourselves.

We pay lip service to the “Take some me time” concept. But in general we put ourselves at the bottom of the to-do list. “Me” is the line item we let slide, the one that can wait.

We treat hearts, our minds, our bodies like a tin can or a paper bag: disposable, temporary, unimportant. We should treat ourselves like a masterpiece — fragile, rare, special — and care for ourselves in kind.

This takes two things: love and skill.

The first step is being kind to yourself.

Most people are used to being hard on themselves, noticing every flaw and every slip-up and then punishing themselves for it, over and over and over. They’re so willing to let other people pile on with their actions and comments — so willing to let other people’s issues cut to their quick. They eschew boundaries completely and leave themselves open to any hurt that might float their way, or they build a wall so tall and strong that nothing is getting in or out. They dismiss their feelings and opinions as worthless, not valuable. They work so hard to make others happy that there’s nothing left for them.

Being kind to yourself is a choice. You can decide to take care of yourself, to love yourself, to know yourself better. There are lots of ways to do it. Eating better. Exercise. Therapy. Meditation. Books. Music. Friends with a ready shoulder and ear. Taking real, quality time away from work and other responsibilities. Considering what you love and what makes you happy, and making it a priority to get more of that into your life. Making all of these things a priority — scheduling them in like you do everything else, all the meetings and errands and things that don’t matter nearly as much.

Then you need skill. Tools for creating the proper boundaries — ones that leave space around your protected center, your heart, but that are also porous, allowing you be open to other people, to life. Tools for identifying your emotions and learning how to engage with them and move through them instead of letting them control and hurt you. Tools for learning how to let go and believe that the universe has your back. Tools for learning to engage with yourself, the people around you, and the world, so that you can feel real joy and freedom.

The most important part? Engaging with yourself. That’s what we let ourselves look at the least, what we’re least practiced at.

It’s a huge responsibility, but we need to take it on if we want our experience here on earth to be as full and deep as it can be. And truth be told, shouldering it is not nearly as exhausting as avoiding it.

You don’t have to do it alone. There are people around you who love you and will be happy to remind you of it, who will tell you in minute detail exactly what’s amazing about you, whenever you need them to. (To that end, I highly recommend a regular Dharma Dinner.) All you need to do is reach out and ask.

All the work will be worth it. Feeling yourself transformed into a masterpiece is true bliss.

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Tennis in the Rain

My older daughter has been taking tennis lessons on Mondays at our town’s park district courts. The past few weeks, it’s been rainy, but her class still met both days. It’s not pouring, but it’s fairly wet out, misting perhaps. The teachers have squeegees to make the court drier, but there are still puddles, and the balls get pretty soaked. Granted, these are all 6- and 7-year-olds. They play with slightly larger than normal tennis balls, and they use a set-up net to practice their burgeoning shots. Also, it’s likely the tennis school people don’t want to have to schedule makeup classes if they can avoid it.

Still, it’s not easy playing tennis in the rain. When I’ve taken lessons in the past few years, a sprinkle or even just a wet court meant a cancellation. It’s true, playing a match with waterlogged balls and slippery puddles is frustrating, if not impossible, and also dangerous (twisted ankle, anyone?).

But watching the kids out there, getting wet and yelling with delight, reminded me of a warm summer day when I was about 15, hanging out with my best friend, Lorin, at some courts close to my house. We were both on our high school tennis team. We weren’t particularly awesome — there were maybe two other schools whose teams we could rival; with the rest we were lucky to win a match or two at a meet. But we always had fun. During practice we sang Madonna’s “Borderline” but changed it to “Baseline.” We all had nicknames (Scorin’ Lorin, Racy Tracy; I was also called Lefty or the unfortunate Guther, from Guth, my last name then).

On this particular summer day, it was gray and humid. The sky was about to open up any minute. When it did we were still on the court. It was one of those soakers, where suddenly your clothes are stuck to you, your hair is slicked across your face, and your socks are full of water. We could barely see or breathe. But we were laughing hysterically, still trying to hit. It got to the point where the ball would pop off your racket with a burst of water and land kerplop on the other side of the net, with no bounce left in it at all.

So no, we couldn’t play. But I will never, ever forget that day, and how good it felt to be out there in that warm rain, laughing with my best friend.

There are a lot of things that aren’t particularly practical but at the same time don’t hurt anyone and feel fantastic. Todd always tells the story of when he was around five and his mom let him and his siblings splash around in a big Honolulu fountain. They were having a great old time when a cop shooed them out. Why? It was against the rules to play in the fountain. Well, okay.

My girls like to blow bubbles in their milk through a straw. They can get a huge pile of bubbles going on the top of their cups, and it never spills over. Then they bite into it and giggle away. It makes Todd crazy. He usually tells them to stop, stop, stop! The other night I whispered to him, “Why can’t they blow bubbles in their milk?” He said he finds it annoying. Fair enough. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, is there?

Many rules are in place for good reasons. Order must be kept. But it seems like some are just there because if people break them, it makes other people uncomfortable, and they don’t like to feel uncomfortable. These are boundaries that are good to push, to test. Kids are great at doing that. Adults should do it more. It’s good for your heart, for your soul. And if you avoid it out of fear of breaking a rule or looking silly, you could miss something really memorable.


Slowing Down

There is a lot to be said for being deliberate. For making decisions from a calm, collected place. So many times we (or at least I) make the most critical choices from a place of panic and stress and heightened emotion, whether it’s warranted or not. But I’ve realized this: Aside from snap decisions made in an emergency, there’s next to nothing that can’t wait for you to gather yourself, consider, and then decide rationally.

I find that I can trust my instincts better if I first take some time to listen to them.

Most of the time when I just react, it turns out to be a mistake. We all have those moments etched in our mind, those situations we think back on and wish we’d waited — a day, an hour, even a second — before we acted a certain way or said a certain thing. There can be a lot of regret and guilt associated with reacting without thinking first.

My mother, a new widow, is feeling overwhelmed by all the things she’s had to do since my father passed away, only about six weeks ago. All the paperwork, thank-you notes, visits to the social security office. Then there are the larger decisions she has yet to make, actions she has yet to take, such as packing up his things, deciding whether she’ll move out of our house, deciding whether she’ll move out of the Chicago area. She can’t bring herself to go there yet, which I completely understand and support. She shouldn’t, yet. But I do keep reminding her that even the littler things (like the thank-you notes) don’t all need to happen right this minute.

Of course, the details keep her occupied, which obviously helps her right now, so there’s that. But to address that overwhelmed-ness a bit, at least, I always suggest to her that she slow down and take her time.

This is easier said than done, I realize. I used to be horrible at it. I was one big ball of reaction. It wasn’t always a total disaster, but I often felt like I hadn’t reacted in the best way I could, or the way I truly wanted to. It takes practice to take the time you need — and to let others know you need it, sometimes. It’s like learning to say no when you’re a “yes” girl. Ultimately, though, creating these boundaries for yourself gives you the space to make the choices that are right for you, and you’ll be more satisfied with the outcomes and even with your interactions.

This works on not completely critical moments too — on annoying little snafus, problems and disagreements that crop up in your daily activities. Recently a small setback in a project had me lying awake at night stressing out. I was trying to think of alternatives, and none of them seemed right. The issue wasn’t a big deal, but it was sort of the icing on a project I’d worked hard on and that I’m proud of. I wanted it to be great, not just good enough.

There wasn’t much I could do, so I didn’t really do anything but stew a bit — and then it all worked out. A friend’s brother had the solution, fixed the file, and just like that, the problem evaporated.

Sometimes, if you don’t do anything, obstacles just give up on their own.

It’s pretty great to think there’s power in slowing things down, in taking time and space. In actually doing nothing. If you enjoy being in control, you could actually look at this as a way of maintaining control, instead of feeling out of control in your premature reaction. By doing nothing, you are doing something.

It’s also a relief to realize you don’t have to instantly know the right answer or have the right comeback or have an inside line on exactly which action is right. I used to consider it my own personal failing that I couldn’t do that. But now I know I don’t have to. Really, that I shouldn’t.