I’m Going Out To Play…

You’ve probably heard the saying, “You don’t stop playing because you grow old, you grow old because you stop playing.”  I’ve also heard “playing” substituted with “laughing” and “dancing”, and even though it sounds a bit like it should be embroidered on a pillow or on a wall plaque at a Hallmark store, it’s true.  Think about it…how many of us have run across an old friend who used to be fun-loving and carefree, and found them to be much more serious and…well, grown up?  And how many of us have thought, “Geez, what happened to YOU?”  

To some degree, this is unavoidable in life…to quote another adage, “Getting older is mandatory, getting old is optional.”  Again, a phrase that’s a bit overused, but true nonetheless.  As we go through life, we take on responsibilities – careers, marriages and children; many of us go through difficult divorces, loss of loved ones, and health problems, just to name a few.  It’s certainly understandable why we get more serious as these things chip away at our happiness.

All the more reason we need to remember who we used to be.  We need to remember to LAUGH.  To find joy.  To go outside and play once in a while.  Throw a ball for the dog, play with our kids, ride our bikes, turn the music up a little too loud…think back to your childhood, to the things that brought you joy, and if it’s not too utterly ridiculous, physically impossible, or illegal, DO IT!  I recently discovered my “rediscovered joy”…a hula hoop.  Seriously.  It’s kinda crazy to think that a 41” plastic circle with pretty tape on it can bring me so much joy, but it does.

A few months ago, I saw a photo of an old acquaintance of mine, and I couldn’t believe my eyes.  She looked AMAZING.  She was never what I would have considered “overweight”, by any means.  But she’s a mom, and she had curves…curves that she earned by having children, and by being a woman approaching 40.  But this picture showed not only a fitter, leaner and more youthful version of my friend, but a HAPPIER version.  I confess, we hadn’t had a real conversation in years, but I had to contact her and ask what her secret was.  

Hula hooping.  Really?  I asked…but yes.  She had taken up hula hooping, learned to hoop dance, lost almost 50 pounds, and found herself.  We talked about what motivated her.  She said that as a stay-home mom, like me, she found herself watching her children play all day, but she herself rarely played, other than the occasional game of Candyland or something else that facilitated THEIR play.  One day, she ran across a video on YouTube of someone who was “hoop-dancing”, a relatively new phenomenon for people of all ages who want to get fit, or just have a little youthful fun.  It spoke to her, so she got a hoop and tried it out, and found that with some practice, she had some real talent.  She is now a professional hoop instructor, and performs regularly at workshops, festivals and camps all over the country.

If you’ve never witnessed the hoop-dancing phenomenon, it’s like a combination of yoga and Cirque de Soleil.  There are plenty of videos on YouTube of people practicing, teaching and performing hoop dancing, at all skill levels.  But the one unifying theme is that they are all having FUN.  They have found a playful form of exercise that not only loosens up their bodies, but loosens up their souls.  I truly believe this is a major theme missing from adulthood – most of us need to loosen up.  I know I do, most days.  Many professional hoopers will state in interviews that they find themselves within the art of hoop-dancing.  And it’s no wonder…the dance creates a zen-like state, where the dancer is so focused on the flow of movement that it becomes meditative.

I found a couple of good YouTube videos featuring hoop-dance…please check them out, if you’re interested.  They both feature a woman who goes by the name SaFire, and she’s amazing.  The first video showcases the more “zen” aspect of hoop dancing, and the real beauty of it…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IWXOosgyN2I

The second video shows SaFire at a performance…with three fire hoops in motion.  This one is more playful and energetic, and shows the edgier aspect of hoop-dancing.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VcthLhKIntA

I don’t know that I really aspire to perform, or to be anywhere near as skilled as this woman.  I’m pretty sure I never want to tackle flaming hoops.  I just wanted to do something that looks like a whole lot of fun.

So about three months ago, I took the plunge, and bought my first hoop.  I found a weighted hoop at a retail store, designed for weight loss. and started playing.  After a few frustrating failed attempts just to keep the thing up around my waist, it finally stayed up.  And I hooped for the first time in 30+ years…for about 30 seconds.  My next try, I kept it going a little longer, and before long, I was going for 15 minutes.  My heart rate was up, my core muscles were working and I was smiling.  I couldn’t remember the last time I’d truly enjoyed a cardio workout.

So I’m now officially addicted.  My first store-bought hoop is fine, but I’ve since discovered a whole world of handcrafted, custom-made hoops.  In addition to my first hoop, I also have a few handcrafted hoops, including a gorgeous fabric-wrapped hoop, a dance hoop (lightweight, smaller, and WAY beyond my skill set…but I can aspire to use it), and a pair of “minis” for arm hooping.  My goal is to use them for 15 minutes each day…not just because it’s a great workout (400-600 calories burned per hour), but because it reminds me of how to have fun, and to lighten up.  To revisit my inner child, and give her some play time.  I must face it…she REALLY needs to get out more, and this is a carefree way to let her shake out her hair and feel a little wild again.  The neighbors look at me strangely, but I don’t care.  Did I care when I was 10 years old?  Nah.  It isn’t about that.  Maybe they’re just jealous.  Maybe they should just come over and borrow one of my hoops.  And maybe they too should find their own youthful joy, and go out to play.

Hoops

The Roots of the Inner Peace Journey, a.k.a. Fledgling blogger on the loose

I am on a quest.  A very personal one, which is why I’m putting it on the internet.  To be honest, I realized today that I have been on this quest (journey, path road, call it what you wish), most of my adult life, albeit a rather backwards and sometimes circular one.  After years of peripheral contemplation, I have finally determined that I am on an inner peace quest.  But I also realize I have been going about it all wrong.

This realization came to me as a concrete thought this morning, after I read a brief introduction to a book about the Dalai Llama (the ultimate inner peace guru)…he was conversing with a psychologist about the nature of brain chemistry, and how it affects a person’s thoughts and actions.  It was the classic chicken-and-egg argument – the psychologist believed that brain chemistry creates the way a person thinks, and the Dalai Llama postulated the opposite: What if a person’s thoughts influences their brain chemistry, therefore creating the same circular and perpetuating cycle, but from the opposite perspective? The result would be the same, but the cause completely different.  The psychologist disagreed with the Dalai Llama, his only reason being that psychologists had always believed that it worked his way, therefore it must be fact.

?!?!

Of course, I have read accounts like this since grade school, back to history class when a person believed the world was flat because that’s what everyone else, including the brightest minds of the times, believed.  Same with the sun and stars revolving around the earth (the ultimate argument of self-importance). But today, this struck me in a highly personal way.  It affected me in a way that made me want to dig deeper into my own life, to see how many of these “it’s always been done this way” kinds of thoughts I was using out of habit, but it also created another link in a chain of recent “coincidences” that have made me start thinking hard about the way my own choices affect my life, and why, after years of declaring I am on a “journey toward inner peace”, I don’t seem to be getting any closer…in fact, quite the opposite in some ways.

I am 42 years old, and I have an almost 3-year-old son.  I have a wonderful husband who, with the exception of the typical Mars-Venus kinds of garbage that any marriage incurs, is a wonderful man who works hard and loves his family with his whole heart and soul. He supports and encourages my endeavors, although life is terribly busy and I generally have to carve out little niches of time to pursue them. We are also professional musicians and songwriters, which takes a lot of our time. He is self-employed, and has spent many years building a successful business, and is also the event coordinator for a local music festival.  All of these things, especially when combined with being parents of a toddler, means that free-time to read, go on journeys of self-discovery, and even to take a shower on a normal day, is a serious luxury.

But it’s necessary for my spiritual survival, so here I go with a little personal history.

Four years ago, after a long courtship with a small town that my husband and I fell in love with, I was offered a great job at an interior design firm (my field) in that small town.  We decided to make the big leap – leave the city, sell our house, and relocate our life.  It was supposed to be our version of the “American Dream”, but when we got here, everything went awry, at least for me.  My beloved father died unexpectedly.  The “dream job” was a horrible experience – the company was in overwhelming debt, and due to the housing crash of 2008, our client activity tanked.  Soon after I started working there, I became unexpectedly pregnant with our son, which was not unwelcome, but still a surprise. And then we found out that our “all-inclusive insurance policy” didn’t include maternity coverage, and every related expense would be out-of-pocket.  The company I worked for continued to founder, and I was laid off from my “dream job” when I was 5 months pregnant.  Our house in our former home-city then sat on the market for 18 months, putting even MORE financial pressure on us.

As I applied for every job I could think of, short of working at McDonald’s or Wal-Mart, I realized quickly that an art-based college degree in a small town was a liability that made me virtually unemployable, and the only job I was able to find was a low-paying job with no benefits at a local elementary school.  As fate’s sense of humor would have it, I LOVED this job. I got to work with at-risk kids, most of them from impoverished families, who needed boosts in math and reading, and I had the privilege of feeling like I had a hand in turning some young lives around. With this program, these kids received individualized attention that some of them had never received in their whole lives. But even THAT was stripped away when Indiana State Government decided to declare war on public education, and cut budgets to the bone.  So yet MORE heartbreak was waiting for me when I was laid off AGAIN, this time from a job I truly loved, and was the first source of true fulfillment I had experienced at a job in my entire professional life.  I reluctantly gave up my dreams of going back to school to get my education degree, as I felt that after all the effort and money spent, there would likely be no job for me here.

So fueled further by postpartum hormones, I fell into a crushing depression.  I had taken hit after hit since taking a leap that was designed to improve my life, and instead watched all I had previously worked and lived for be stripped away.  I wanted to move back to the city, but my husband had already immersed himself into the local community, and had no desire to leave.  Why would he?  HIS transition to small-town life had been comparatively seamless.  Mine, however, had been soul-crushing hell.

So how did this affect me?  Well, primarily, I ate. I have always been an emotional eater, and let me tell you, when an emotional eater’s life goes in the proverbial toilet, watch your fingers. The big turning point for me wasn’t waking up for the umpteenth day feeling like my life had no purpose…no.  It was when I had to be weighed at the emergency room one evening.  Our son had croup, and was in need of more care than we could give. So we took him to the emergency room, and in his state of being, he was not able to stand calmly on the scale for a weight-check, so I had to be weighed twice -once holding him, and once on by myself so they could determine his weight by calculating the difference. I had no illusions that I hadn’t gained weight throughout all I’d been through, but I was alarmed to see that my weight was only about 5 lbs less than it was the week before my son was born.  So I had ALL the pregnancy weight, but no baby.

And that was NOT okay with me.

I was ALWAYS the skinny girl in school…the one people would tease because I was so thin. I didn’t TRY to be thin – I ate pizza and burgers, french fries and Cokes, just like all the other kids.  But I was crazy-active, and just never gained weight.  And life was pretty good, so even when I did fall victim to emotional eating, very little damage was done..maybe 10 pounds once in a while, and it always came back off with a few trips to the gym and some healthy eating…hey, I lived in the city, where healthy food was easily and inexpensively found.  Also, since I had a good job, I generally relied “shopping therapy” instead of food when I had a bad day.  I looked at it this way: I may still be in a deep blue funk, but at least I looked svelte and sexy in the clothes I bought. And that alone can be a mood-booster.

But when I made those life-changed four years ago, or as I like to think of it, the day I put my life in a blender, all of that changed.  I lost my disposable income (so no more random shopping), my healthy eating options (YOU try to find tofu and edamame in a town of 12,000 people, an hour away from the nearest metropolitan area), and my free time (trips to the gym, with our schedule?  Forget about it.).  So “shopping/workout therapy” turned into “food therapy”. And with healthy food either at a premium price or the options simply nonexistent, I had to make do with less healthy options. Let’s just say I now fully understand why small-town obesity, especially in children and during depressed economic times, is such a problem.

Please stay with me here – this is NOT a whiner-blog where I sit here and bitch about everything that’s ever gone wrong in my life.  But I do feel that a certain amount of personal history is required here to explain exactly what has set me on this path. And as many people know, when you hit rock-bottom, when you feel like you have nothing left, the only place to go is up. And sometimes you get to redesign things a little on the way.

So here’s what I DO have:  I have a son who is the light of my life, a good marriage, a beautiful home, great pets. I am healthy (weight-gain aside, I am still not in the “obese” category, so that’s something), the bills are paid, pantry is stocked, and I get to stay home and be in charge of how my time is spent every day (well, with housekeeping and toddler-stuff enmeshed).  I still have music as a huge part of my life, even though I’m not writing many songs these days…my recent musical sphere of influence is based in children’s music, and it’s challenging to write an adult-friendly song when you have Barney singing in your head. I live in a beautiful town, full of some of the most amazing people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, and I am surrounded by nature.  I have found  new creative outlet – I am designing jewelry, and learning new ways of exploring that craft.  It’s not selling much yet, but it’s out there.  So even though in some ways I’m still reeling from the last four years, and still feel totally broke most of the time, when I put it all down on paper, it’s really a pretty good life.

So why do I still struggle with unhappiness and a quest for inner peace? I read an article recently that said focusing on literature and pastimes that are DESIGNED to make a person happy is actually countereffective…the person actually experiences UNhappiness instead, because they end up focusing more on what’s WRONG with their lives and they reasons they’re NOT happy, than on what they have in their lives that’s RIGHT.  As in, “If only I could lose 10 pounds/have a better job/find a better boyfriend/girlfriend…THEN I’d be happy.”  Damn, we humans are ridiculously complicated creatures. Sometimes I would gladly trade places with my cat…the most in-the-now, carefree creature ever created.  Anyway, the point of the article I read was to just do your best to be in the “now”, and embrace pastimes that you truly enjoy, not ones that are specifically designed for enjoyment.

Which brings me back around to the Dalai Llama.  When I read his thoughts on how psychologists have been putting the cart before the horse, it occurred to me that I have been doing the same thing.  I have been toying with the idea of meditation and inner peace for the past 20 years – surrounding myself with all the pertinent paraphernalia, including all the right books (most of which I have never read), meditation CDs (which have never seen the inside of my CD player), crystals and stones that bring good energy (that sit and beautifully catch the light on my windowsills), and even some Tibetan meditation bells (which hang on my side door, and tinkle beautifully each time a friend enters my home…so those bells do actually ring, but it occurs to me that I have found a creative way to get someone else to ring them FOR me).  So I have all the tools, but have taken none of the steps.  I surround myself with the STUFF that makes me feel enlightened for having it in my home, but day after day, there it sits.  All this doesn’t bring me inner peace any more than sitting in my garage makes me a car.

So this morning, I went around to my various bookshelves and book-stashing locations throughout the house, and collected MANY books on inner peace, Buddhism, happiness, meditation, yoga, vegetarianism as a means to care for one’s body as well as the planet, and came up with quite a haul…I found 23 books directly related to these topics. If I were to fringe out a little more, I would probably have found another 15 books.  These have been collected over the past 18 years or so, and I have packed them lovingly in boxes and moved them from dwelling to dwelling, proudly displaying them on my bookshelves for all my guests to see.  Hesitantly, I decided to take stock of how many of these I have actually read…and came up with an embarrassingly low number: I have read four of them.  I am not counting the ones I have browsed and read chapters from, but the ones I have read cover to cover. FOUR of them.  I should be ashamed…and I am.  Which, of course, is why I’m blogging about it.

I went on the initial “inner peace” journey with ambition and joy in my heart when I was a recent college graduate, when I still thought I was going to take the world by storm, and become that totally together, financially sound, independent earth mother type who had a fulfilling and important job yet still found time to be a gourmet cook, a kick-ass gardener with flowers, herbs and a sustainable vegetable garden that would be the envy of all the neighborhood, and in my spare time I would travel, and perform my music in cafes in the far corners of the world. Oh yeah, and I would have READ all 23 of those books, know how to meditate, and be the kind of person others wanted to be around because I had the inner peace thing SO down. I won’t waste time itemizing how much of this has actually happened, even though it wouldn’t take long.  Let’s just say I’m a pretty good cook, and my flower and herb gardens are healthy and awfully pretty.  And I did read four of the books. But most importantly, I still have AMBITION to do all these things.

In part, I realize now that I wanted some of these things for the wrong reasons…some of it I truly wanted for myself, but I also wanted OTHER people to see me in this way – the way I ultimately wanted to be.  It was an image I wanted to project…the cart before the horse.  My ambition is still that I want to be looked up to, but by a different audience…now I only truly care that my little boy sees me as smart, strong, balanced, and in possession of my inner peace.  Everyone with children knows how hard this is to pull off in front of your kids, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it.

My “inner peace” journey really took off when I was in my mid-20’s. I became close friends with the man who would later become my first husband…he’s one of the few people I’ve known in my life who truly has the inner peace thing down.  He’s free-spirited, happy-go-lucky, laughs out loud, loves freely and openly, knows the teachings of the Tao te Ching and actually lives them, and is fun-loving and gregarious.  All these are wonderful qualities in a man, especially if he’s not your husband (hence the divorce).  Without going into ANY unnecessary detail, let’s just say that these aspects make for a great “best friend”, someone to help you escape the rigors and doldrums of daily life, take spontaneous road-trips, and to be frivolous with, but when this person becomes your spouse, all that “fun” becomes “irresponsibility”.  But even though we weren’t a good fit as marital partners, I still love and respect him, and have an immense amount of admiration for the way he manages to live his life.  He’s the only person I’ve ever known who skipped high school one day to spontaneously take part in a peace march, because peace was just more important than sophomore math class that day.  Whatever our differences, my years of friendship with him has helped to fuel my journey, even though it’s been…well, delayed.

When my ex and I split, I did something very foolish…I chose to disassociate myself from everything that, in my opinion, had to do with him.  Not just with his physical presence, but with all the ideologies, lifestyle choices, even the books and music that, in my opinion, defined our relationship.  And in making that choice, I lost. I lost a LOT.  I wandered for many years, forgetting about all those things that, even though they were part of that time in my life, brought me immense joy.  And in that process of dissociation, I lost my joy.

I lost my joy.  I surrendered it, or I misplaced it, or gave it up…whatever happened, it was gone.  No one took it from me – I gave it up freely.  Now here I am, a stay-home mom with a wonderfully joyful and sweet little boy, and it occurs to me that the last thing in the world I want is for him to grow up thinking of me as a somber, unhappy person.  Because I’m NOT.  I just got lost along the way, and now here I am, taking active steps in getting it back.

There have been signs directing me on this path.  Even though I was loosely raised as a Christian, the roots of it have never fully taken.  My parents changed churches several times in my youth, every time church politics got in the way.  And anyone who’s ever been active in a church knows there are ALWAYS church politics, and they’re often disruptive and even contradictory to what one would think would be becoming of Christian behavior.  But history is fraught with such hypocrisy, and that’s a whole other can of worms.

In my young adulthood, somewhere along the way, I became playfully enamored with Buddhism. I read a few things here and there, and loved what I read, but never really pursued it, except with my credit card to purchase the aforementioned “tools” I thought I needed to help me on my way to enlightenment (once again, putting the cart before the horse). My first husband embraced many of the tenets of Buddhism, which I’m sure was part of what was so attractive about him…falling in love with the teacher, in essence, but not taking away much of the lesson.  And when we split, thus I split with Buddhism…until recently.  I have had the concept cross my path several times in recent weeks, and even had a big DUH moment a couple of days ago when I realized my sister-in-law is Buddhist.  She doesn’t wear it on her sleeve, so I don’t really assign her the title in my head. And a good friend in my former home-city is a Buddhist.  I started thinking about it, and realized I have quite a few Buddhist friends in my life…and they’re the happiest people I know.

Any Christians reading this may think I am being a turncoat.  Well, I’m probably going to push you even further over the edge when I tell you I do actually believe in one God…one creator, one spiritual force in the universe, and I believe that creator goes by many different names that have been assigned by different cultures around the world.  God, Buddha, Allah, Mohammed, etc. Other cultures have broken this creative spirit into many different elements, including Native Americans, Hindus, and even back so far as Greek mythology.  But again, this is a whole other can of worms.  I just can’t help noticing, in my particular experience, how similar the teachings of Buddha are to the teachings of Christ.  Just sayin’.  If I’m wrong, I’ll find out in the end, when all mysteries are revealed…or not.

Who knows?  I don’t.  But what I DO know is that I am living NOW, and that I am on a path. I have a lot to learn, and as I learn, I plan to blog, discuss, proselytize, and theorize.  If you’d like to come with me, keep reading.