Word of the Day

My first thought as I wake up these days is “What’s the word of the day, God?”

It’s been an interesting practice because I often get words I didn’t anticipate but, as the day wears on, turn out to be just right.

Quiet.

Patience.

Presence.

On this gorgeous fall day I woke up in the majestic Yosemite, a trip I take twice a year with a group of women who are my personal and professional mentors. Women who at once make me laugh and cry, who will always tell me the truth, who will always honor my truth, who lift me up to the light with pride in the knowing that they are as a part of me as anyone else I know.

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And, like all other mornings, I woke up this morning with my question, “So, God, what’s the word today?”

Mediate.

I have been working almost two years on meditation. I go in spurts, sometimes every day but often not. Lately, I haven’t meditated at all. It wasn’t a surprise, this word, because I know in my heart it’s what I should be doing. Like writing. Like exercising. Things I know to be at the core of my soul and things I resist with great intensity.

I’ve known for many years about resistance, but I thought it a passive thing that existed in the form of excuses and complaints that masked fears I knew were there but could not quite explain. This weekend, however, I’ve come to a whole new understanding of Resistance.

A couple months back I heard an interview with author Steven Pressfield about his book called The War of Art. I only heard bits and pieces of the whole interview, but what I did hear stirred me deeply. I ordered the book right when I got home.

It sat on my desk ever since.

Then early Thursday morning I started packing for this weekend. I usually bring three or four books with me on this trip; this time, though, I thought I’d only bring one (because that’s all I usually read anyway).

I looked from my book shelf to my desk at this book, sticking out from under a pile of papers yet to be dealt with, papers with lists of ideas and partial outlines and articles—all the writing I want to be doing but am not yet doing. This stack of papers with the book at the bottom sat on my desk under a picture of a woman running, exercise I want to do but am not yet doing, next to a candle I light when I mediate, something I want to do but am doing no longer.

A theme, you say? I agree.

That’s the book I want, I thought. As I pushed the papers aside to grab the book, I knocked over the unlit candle with the rough edge; it caught the picture of the woman running and tore it. I did not see that as a domino until now, three days later, writing this story as I sit in a bed in Yosemite with the window open and the river running by me not twenty yards away.

Why now? I was obedient to the word God gave me: Meditate, the first action word in the weeks of words that have come. Before I got to this bed by the window to write, I spent the afternoon in the warm sun of this most Divine place doing just what I was told to do.

But three days ago standing in front of my desk with the book in my hand I swore at the knocked over candle and the mess of papers and the torn picture. Then I stuffed the book in my bag and put the bag by the door because I was late for work.

When I got to work my friend, also my boss, also a woman on this trip, uncharacteristically approached me in the office about writing. She said she was ready to publish her book and asked me to help her do it. Honored, we chatted briefly and I mentioned, pretty much off-topic and definitely unprompted, that I was waiting to publish the memoir I’ve written because it didn’t yet feel quite right.

“That’s Resistance. You need to read The War of Art.”

Are you kidding me?

So I’m here writing this story, having finished The War of Art an hour ago and having finished meditating down by the river just minutes ago. I’m writing because out of my mediation came one word.

Write.

Interestingly enough, I initially went down to the river not to meditate, but because these women I love are so damned loud this weekend I just couldn’t stand to be in the house one minute longer. We’ve been coming here for sixteen years and never in those sixteen years have I been down by the water. I even had to ask how to get down there.

“Um, the stairs?”

There’s stairs?

The main floor of the house sits up high with an expansive deck that looks over gorgeous rocks and flowing water. I sit out on that deck quite a bit, especially when the weather is as perfectly calm and warm and beautiful as it is today. But because these women I love are so loud this weekend, the deck was not far enough away. And, come to find out, there’s a set of stairs that will take me right down where I want to be.

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Meditate.

It hit me as I got to the bottom of the stairs, the stairs that were always there waiting to bring me down here, stairs that I had never known existed.

Right, today’s word is meditate. So off I went on a walking meditation to contemplate this entity called Resistance. According to Pressfield, I need to call on the angels to help me wage war against this very active source of energy by virtue of hard-ass work. In return for my openness to the words that come not from me but through me, the angels will reward me not only with inspiration, but also with the sustenance that comes to me only through writing. It calms me. It fuels me. It nourishes me.  In order to earn those things I have to be a professional and to be a professional I have to work like a professional.

Interestingly enough, the question of how did not surface. Instead, a knowing came to town. A knowing that these concepts are ones I’ve innately understood from the beginning but instead of acting on them I’ve allowed Resistance to take charge. For the last two years I’ve been an amateur writer. I’ve also been an amateur athlete and an amateur meditator. Three things that I know will turn the volume up on my life, things that will make the birdsong more clear and the sky more blue, I’ve left those things to the whim of Resistance. I’ve grappled and lashed and cried and yelled because I knew what I had to do but for some reason I just couldn’t do it.

Then, in recent weeks, I got quiet. I didn’t meditate or write or exercise, but I did stop fighting. I realized all that lashing was doing nothing but locking me into unhappiness even harder. Like struggling with the finger trap you get out of a child’s vending machine, only when you stop fighting can you truly be free.

In recent weeks I’ve started to say out loud that this is my last year in a traditional classroom. More surprising, I’m saying out loud “I don’t know” when people ask what’s next and I calmly add, “but I know something just right is out there waiting for me.”

What kind of triple-type-A person have I become? I’m a planner and a doer and a go-damn-getter. Recently, though, I haven’t been. I’ve been doing things like asking God what my word is for the day and, instead of panicking about the ridiculous amount of things I have to do in any given day, I just trust there will always be enough time to get them done. I’ve been floating like a leaf in the river, slow and steady, the back of my head cool and light with my ears just below the surface so I can hear the calming water pull me along ever so gently, ever so gently, ever so gently.

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When I stopped walking I found myself on the river’s edge. My eyes adjusted and my gaze landed on a place where the calm, slow water starts to pick up in this spot as it slides still gently but with more speed through the rocks. A blue-gray squirrel with a tail longer and fluffier than any I’ve ever seen bounced from rock to rock across the river and up the bank as I realized that God brought me here to look back and see my path. God brought me here to look forward and see my direction.

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God brought me here.

And here is just right.

Honoring My Gift

I haven’t written in months. I haven’t walked in months either, in large part because when I walk the words come and in order to keep the words at bay I can’t walk. I don’t have time to write, I’m busy in an (ass-kicking) job. I have two kids. I have a husband and 9 pets and 20-something indoor plants, not to mention a house with two yards to keep up. I can’t walk because I can’t write because I’m too damned busy.

Unfortunately, I can’t not. Because as Brené Brown told me this week (she told millions, really, but in my mind I’d like to think she was really just talking to me), creativity stifled is not benign. It metastasizes and becomes the foundation for frustration or rage or depression. Or, chronic pain. And anxiety. And weight gain.

I’ll be damned if Brené Brown didn’t just shine a light onto the fact that pent up energy plus stifled creativity, for me, equals chronic pain and anxiety and weight gain. Ten years I’ve been chasing the core of my physical issue and there it is.

Dammit.

Although I had a brief respite from the “I’m too busy to write” line of thinking when I was so desperately broken all I could do was write (and walk), the fact is I’ve been too busy to write since I started teaching eighteen years ago. And I really got too busy when my first son was born eleven years ago, just about the time the pain started and just about the time I started to make excuses for why I could not create beauty–for myself, for my marriage, for anything besides my children and my work. And just as Brené said, all that inherent creativity did not lay benign; it metastasized into my left ear and now, years later, my whole left side practically folds in on itself, often in pain. My creative center draws me ever inward as if to say, “Listen to me. Make time.”

Tony Bennett tells a story about a time in his youth when he drank too much and what snapped him out of it, saving his life and his career, is when someone told him he was “sinning against (his) gifts.” To an Italian-Catholic, especially one who is somber and thoughtful, not much more needs to be said. My health and my most powerful means of expression, not to speak of my extended family and friends who I barely see because I’m just so damned busy with work—I’m sinning against all these gifts.

Sadly, I wasn’t even conscious of it until Thursday when I got word that my childhood friend lost her husband to cancer. Forty years old and a widow, living across the country with three young boys and no husband to help her raise them into men–my friend lost her husband and I did the only thing I know how to do: I wrote her a letter.

And as I wrote that letter God said something like, “Really F***-face? No time?”

I thought of Tony Bennett and replied, “I’m not even mad you are calling me a F***-face. I know you are saying it with Love. And you’re right. You’re so right.”

Somewhere in the writing of that letter, in releasing the heavy emotion around the tragedy that is the loss of her husband and writing on behalf of our friends about how deeply saddened we were about it, I realized exactly why Tony Bennett stopped drinking and started singing. If he didn’t, he would knowingly sin against his gifts. It’s one thing to do it and not realize it, but the moment you realize it, the game has to be over. My friend lost the love of her life; he can’t live his gifts anymore; she’s so heartbroken she won’t be able to for a really long time. But me? I can live my gifts. I can honor them and nurture them. And I can start right now.

The question is, what took me so damned long to realize it?

My work with students is important. It is valued and valuable. They smile with me every day. We hug when one of us feels down. At least once a week they clap for me, all of them, all together, clapping for me because of something I taught them. And now I’m also working at my school in a wider-reaching capacity, helping teachers who want to more effectively reach their students. Most are receptive and grateful, appreciating our time together and the efforts I’m making to serve. I do important work. I work diligently and thoughtfully.

Frankly, I work my ass off. And, in giving everything to my work and reserving none for self-care, or marital care, or familial care, I’m sinning against my gifts.

But, the fact is, working hard at my job is just another excuse. Really, I could hide anywhere: in my children, in my husband, in my community. What I’m hiding from is not just my gifts, but also the ability to express my real art: The art of vulnerability.

I am not a literary artist. I’m have not studied the craft and have not developed a particularly advanced vocabulary. I am often way too verbose and likely write in such a way that makes my English teacher friends and colleagues cringe. I am not an artist of or with the written word; I am an artist of the heart. I feel deeply, know intuitively, and express vulnerably. I articulate, for some anyway, what they feel but don’t quite know how to express. And when I do it, I am vulnerable. In fact, when I do, I Dare Greatly.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

–Theodore Roosevelt

When I walk along the water on my dirt path with my squirrel-seeking dog, those “daring greatly” insights come. Every time. My body is nourished and my heart opens and the words come, the words I have to say out loud even if people cringe or laugh or mock. They come every time. Sometimes they are about love, sometimes they are about my children, sometimes they are about teaching…whatever the lesson of the day is, the words always come.

And sometimes, more often than not, that scares me. In those moments my heart is so open and the light is so bright that I end up face-to-face with my vulnerability and it rocks me. My greatest gift is my willingness to be vulnerable and to say what’s in my heart, nay-sayers be damned. However, the more fearful I become of my own vulnerability, the more time I put between vulnerability and myself. When that happens I may be protected from the nay-sayers but the fact remains I’m hiding from a gift God has given me.

And that, my friends, is when I really sin against the gift.

I now realize that in order to nurture my gift, I have to be willing to live in the uncertainty of my gift. I have to stand in my art of vulnerability. I have to Dare Greatly. And that scares me. But if I don’t do it, if I continue to hide in my excuses, I will waste this precious life I’ve been given and I’m just not willing to do that anymore.

I say, here and now, that this day marks the concerted effort to Dare Greatly every day. Even when it’s hard. Even when I’m afraid. Because others can’t and I must. I’ve been given a gift and I want to honor it with the openness and light and attention its due.

Brené Brown, like it or not, you are now my role model. I blaze my own trail wearing the shoes you helped me find.

And that, God, is what I call honoring my gift. I trust you’ll have my back. And if you have to call me F***-face in the future, I hope it’s over some other mistake and not the fact I’m repeating this one.

Vulnerability, here I am.

(photo taken from The Budda’s Face, which I found as I was struggling with writing this post and turned to Facebook for distraction. It was in my news feed along with the quote by Pema Chodron, “Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” A sign, if I ever saw one.)

It’s Possible

 

At a particularly low point a few years back my husband gave me a book called The Power of the Possible.  I hadn’t said that I wanted it; in fact I hadn’t said I wanted anything. In the knowingness of two people who share a home and a family, however, he knew. He didn’t know what I needed, but he knew I needed something.

“Here,” he said, “I thought you’d like this.”

I looked at him confused. Then irritated. Then grateful. As he took our boys outside to play I sat in my own muck and read this book for about an hour before I found myself wondering, What if, through the lessons of the impossible, I found the possible?

The book was a good read and it gave me some important perspective, but it wasn’t the book, itself, that changed things for me; it was his gesture. It never is the thing that gives us the perspective we need, the permission we crave, the revelation we long for…what gives us those gifts is the feeling we get from experiencing what we really do want: to be seen and understood, valued and taken care of. In short, to be loved.

Even better than the feeling of being loved is the feeling we get from looking into the eyes of another and giving that gift to them. The boomerang effect of giving love and receiving love, giving love and receiving love…Those moments, those intimate moments however brief they may be, change everything.

If that’s the case, I wonder what would happen if we started worrying less about what we don’t have and start giving more of what we do. What if we all did one extra something that served that greater good just one more time every day? What if we smiled at someone passing us on the street, if we picked up the can from the gutter, if we paused at feet of a dog waiting dutifully for its owner for no other reason than to pat his head and say hello? If each of us did one more thing each and every day, what could it do?

It could heal the world.

The laws of nature and humanity are screaming at us to pay attention, only we’re so overwhelmed that instead of facing their lessons with courage, we’re turning away in fear. In no time are people (and the environment) more honest than when they are in desperate pain and right now the glare of truth feels like just too much to face.

However, ask any alcoholic how running away from her pain is working out. Ask any downtrodden spouse in a miserable marriage how avoiding the important conversations is working out. Ask any worker stifled by a job he hates but still living in fear of losing that job how things are working out. When a mirror is put in front of any of those people—indeed when a mirror is put in front of any of us—we can plainly see that escape and avoidance and hiding in fear does nothing but exacerbate that pain that is already haunting us.

So why not throw off deception in favor of truth? Why don’t we face the realities of our individual and collective lives and figure out how to create solutions to what ails us?

Because we’re afraid it’s impossible, that’s why.

Guess what? We’re wrong. Perhaps it’s my trade as a teacher; perhaps it’s my nature as a sensitive and spiritual woman; perhaps it’s just the streak of stubbornness that comes with my culture. Whatever it is, I know the truth. We need to turn to our fears with courage, grace, and integrity, and say two words.

It’s possible.

And from there, all things really are.

 

 

 

Mastering the Art of Growing Up

I had a rare night at home tonight, alone. I don’t honestly know if I’ve ever been in this house alone at night before. I’m thinking not. Eight years we’ve lived here and not one single night here, in my home, alone.

My boys are out with my husband at their Godparents’ annual Christmas party. I’ve been fighting a cold for, I don’t know, two months, and on my first day of winter vacation it finally decided to arrive. Something about the mind allowing the body to relax into itself—it’s a beautiful thing until the germs that have been haunting the doorway for weeks finally get the key to let themselves in. So tonight, I’m home. Tonight, I’m alone.

What better to do on an evening with no men in the house—most especially my house where, save me, there are only men in the house—than to watch a movie? It took me several minutes to search through options on the Wii (thank you, Netflix, for being the one saving grace about that bad boy); why couldn’t I decide what to watch?

Why? Because I had no one to consider except myself and that, my friends, is another thing I haven’t done in over eight years.

Settling for a silly romance that seemed cute, I was suddenly overcome by the need to check the list of options just one more time. Julie and Julia, I thought, I feel like I need to choose you instead.

What a delightful surprise to find this movie an utterly joyful look into the kind of love we all hope to set up camp and live in forever. The fact that it was about two strong women who felt a little lost rang true to me as well, most especially when these two capable albeit floundering women found true success, their life’s purpose if you will, in writing a book. The two hours I spent with that movie in my home with my dog on one side and my cat on the other wrapped in a soft blanket with a plate of homemade sweet potato fries was quite possibly the greatest gift I’ve given myself in a really long time.

At movie’s end I folded clothes, turned off lights, and moved upstairs to bring my sweet little evening to a close. As I sorted out piles of clothes on my boys’ beds I thought, how lucky am I to be sick and still feel so wonderful inside? I took my gratitude to the closet to hang up their school clothes and found my bliss interrupted by the annoyance of one particular shirt that refused to stay on the hanger.

I hung it up once, it fell; I picked it up with out thinking and hung it again, again it fell.

“What the hell?” I griped aloud. Again I hung it and again it fell. Exasperated by the shirt and the hanger and most especially at myself for allowing my mood to be ruined by the ridiculous notion of a shirt that wouldn’t stay on the hanger…and then, it struck me.

My son’s clothes are too big for little hangers.

He’s five, my young one, five years old and experiencing all of the greatness that five has to offer: kindergarten, soccer, kick ball with first graders (who are quite impressed, he tells me with a puffed out chest, that a guy as little as him has such a big kick.) My little Tommy with kind brown eyes and one gorgeous smile, the nutball in the holiday singing program who looked like a cherub in his white button down shirt and blue striped tie until he made such crazy faces in between songs that the audience couldn’t hold back their chuckles. My baby isn’t a baby anymore. I knew it, but maybe I didn’t want to believe it. The hangers, however, don’t have judgment about his growing up one way or the other: when the clothes are too big, they simply don’t work anymore.

And then the thought went further. I think that’s where I am, too. I’ve grown out of my job and no matter how safe I feel in the comfort that I’m doing well, each and every day I fall off the hanger. No matter how many times I try to hang myself back up the reality is it’s a practice in unending frustration because this job simply doesn’t fit me any better than the baby hangers fit Tommy’s big boy clothes. At one time it was a perfect match. No matter how much I want that still to be the case, for my baby or me, life has another plan for both of us.

It’s time to admit to myself my baby is growing up; it’s time to admit to myself that I am too.

Copyright 2011 • NicoleLusianiElliott.com • All Rights Reserved

Deal Changer

 You know when you have a pair of jeans you love and wear all the time, but one day they just don’t fit quite right? You keep wearing them because, after all, they are your favorite pair; however, every week that goes by they feel more and more strange. One day you pull on those jeans and you ask yourself, “Why am I wearing these? I don’t even like them anymore.” My bet is, you put them on anyway.

I have these jeans, this shirt, this job, this hair clip, this set of sheets, this chair, this car, these eating habits…the list of things I have that no longer “fit” is very long.

In contrast, a year ago I cut off my hair and donated it to make wigs for children with cancer; this may not seem like a big deal to you, but if your hair was as important to you and (pathetically) your identity as mine was to me, you’d know what a challenge it was. After that I signed up and trained for a half marathon. If that wasn’t enough, I actually ran the damn thing which was completely unlike me–let me repeat COMPLETELY UNLIKE ME. I think my loved ones were convinced I was losing my mind. My mom even asked if I was having a mid-life crisis.

Curiously enough, I never felt more in my right mind. Neither fear nor complacency was ruling my life, I was. Sadly, I have faltered since then. Hence the jeans and the shirt and the job….

I realized today it’s time again for a deal-changer. I could move my furniture around the house, I could go running, I could do any number of things that would be refreshing but not quite deal-changing. It strikes me that I must do something that scares me if I’m really going to shake up my life. What scares me most (beyond the usual fear of any number of tragic events) is saying something I’m going to do and then not being able to close the deal. I’m a chronic achiever and compulsively responsible to my word; for me to say out loud what I really want for my life is extraordinarily risky. In short, it’s exactly what I need to do.

So, here I go.

-I want a happy, healthy, spiritual, evolving, confident, courageous, compassionate, wise, and generous self.

-I want to actively participate in raising happy, healthy, spiritual, evolving, confident, courageous, compassionate, wise and generous children.

-I want to love my husband with abandon and know he loves me in the same way.

-I want to develop mature, trusted, meaningful friendships with people I admire.

-I want to write a regular magazine column for a respected magazine, something the caliber of O Magazine (Ah hell, I’ll just admit it, I want to write for O magazine).

-I want to publish WildflowersA.C.T., and What Can they Teach Us? for a wide, smart, and savvy readership who demand my publisher bring more of my books to market.

-I want to share my knowledge and experience with appreciative audiences large and small, who overwhelmingly call for my return.

-I want to have a financial abundance that leaves significant room for retirement, college funds, a kitchen remodel, hardwood floors, quality area rugs, a wrought-iron banister, beautiful linens, family vacations, an Acura MDX, professional hair care, and charitable contributions that make a difference in the world.

There, I said it. I want it all.

Maybe next time I’ll have the courage to say I will have it all, too.

Copyright 2011 • NicoleLusianiElliott.com • All Rights Reserved