Seeking My Best Self

trying to make sense of my life – and lose some weight

Thoughts on the Eve of a New Year

glasses

Another year has passed. Of course, seasons and years are artificial constructs – they don’t truly exist, except in our minds. Still, they provide a way for us to divide the expanse of time into digestible chunks. At the end of this chunk we call 2015, I find myself reflecting back on a year of heartbreak and breakthrough.

The breakthrough began when I finally went to counseling. Yes. Me. I know I’ve ranted (for decades) about the voodoo that is psychology and huffed self-importantly as I denigrated the soft social ‘sciences’ (usually including the air quotes.) Dubious or not, I finally tired of repeating certain life patterns and found a competent counselor.

07atiyeh 48webOn my first visit, I did my best not to roll my eyes when she wanted to start with my childhood. Hello. I’m almost 60. How relevant could my childhood be? I’m WAY past blaming Mommy for my choices. Then I found myself blubbering like a baby as we discovered that my deep-seated abandonment complex came not from my husband’s suicide in 2002, not from my mother’s remarriage in 1961 (she spent two whole days alone with my step-dad before fetching me to share the rest of their honeymoon) but from my bio-dad’s abrupt departure when I was a toddler. It turns out, understanding origins really can help.

cherie bio pic 2016I learned that there isn’t a bad Cherie and a good Cherie. That the good Cherie isn’t the ‘real’ Cherie, but that I come as an entire package and until I learn to embrace my whole self, I can’t be happy. So I let bad Cherie out of the dungeon. I felt sorry for those around me, because bad Cherie – ahem, because I – can be snippy and abrupt, quick to let others know when they’ve tread on my toes, and impatient with rudeness and incompetence.

Imagine my surprise when a friend told me I’m actually easier to be around. “You’re more light-hearted,” he said. “You seem calmer, even in the midst of small crises.” He’s right. I do feel calmer. I’m glad to know my outside matches my inside.

My self-improvement crusade included losing fifteen pounds (ten to go), having a regular yoga practice, daily prayer/meditation, and regularly indulging hobbies, including playing my piano, guitars, and ukulele. I haven’t opened my clarinet case yet, and I’m sure my neighbors are grateful. I’m clearer on my life and on my goals. And at the very end of the year, I met someone. More on that (I hope) in posts to come.

My heartbreak is for our nation. Police treatment of people of color in our country has been beyond shameful – it looks a lot like deliberate genocide. The response of our court system to the police murders is even more horrifying. It appears they’ve totally misinterpreted the statement, “Justice is blind.”

grandkidsI fear for my grandchildren, who could be shot dead on a playground for playing with toys that white children may use with impunity. I fear for my son-in-law – a teacher, a tri-athlete – who runs daily. My daughter said she worries every time he goes out. She should. Apparently, no judge would prosecute the police officer who killed him for the crime of jogging while black, which means it’s open season on people of color.

grandma and gidu scanThe Syrian refugee crisis hits just as close to home, because my grandparents emigrated from Syria in the early years of last century. The rhetoric of some in our country toward the refugees scares me. Their concerns have nothing to do with national security, it’s merely an excuse to hate and to attack anyone who looks different from the white ‘norm’. I am outraged at those who dare use the name Christian while spouting such ignorance and hatred. I am frustrated because I don’t know what to do about it.

I don’t know what to do about ANY of it. The injustice. The bigotry. The deliberate choice to hate. What I do know is that I cannot respond with hatred. In the midst of it all, I am called to love. To embrace those who are hurting. To embrace those who do the hurting. To embrace myself. All of myself – the hurting and the hurter, because I am both. Our country is both. Hating will not lead to healing. We can only love ourselves into wholeness.

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Love Poetry

loveRomantic love is a messy, dangerous, painful and glorious thing. There are no guarantees, yet we yearn for it.

Lately, I’ve taken to writing poetry. Most of it is spiritual in nature, but occasionally, a passionate poem breaks through. Though I would posit that love poems are just as spiritual as the more celestial ones. The sacred is present in our entire lives, including romantic love, perhaps ESPECIALLY romantic love. How else are we so transported, but through the passion of love?

The first poem was written for my good friends Sydney & Michael. College sweethearts, their paths diverged. Forty years later, they found one another again. Two days ago, they were married. Love triumphs!

Improbable Love

We wait
impatiently
imperfectly
impossibly
for ‘the one’
to grow and become
the one
for us.

We wait
impatiently
imperfectly
impossibly
to grow and become
‘the one’
for another.

How does love ever bloom
in the midst
of all this
improbability?
And yet,
the miracle happens.

I’m so glad it’s happened for you.

The next poem was inspired by a passage from the great book of poetry known as the Psalms. This came from contemplating Psalm 36:5 – 9.

Impatient Love

Outside my window,
autumn rains loosen leaves
and chase away
summer’s dust.

Yet a torrid breeze
whispers past my ear
bringing promises
of midnight sun encounters.

My head turns.
Almost
I can smell the zest
of a lover’s fervid skin.

Where are you?
my pounding heart taps
in lovesick code
Where are you?

I know your essence,
though not your face –
I knew you before
there was a before.

Your shadow lies long upon my path
from behind time’s fluttering veil.
So close.
So familiar.

Hurry.
I’m breathless for you.

Any other closet poets out there? I dare you to share. 🙂

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It was about Loving Myself

artist: Agnes CecileIt’s been two months since I last posted.

Why? OK, I’ll admit it: I was a coward. I didn’t want to write until I knew if what I was doing was going to yield results.

Remember my last post, where I talked about my relationship with food? How it was becoming a stand-in for everything? Well, after that realization, I decided that food and I needed to break up for a while.

Bur how exactly does one DO that? It’s not like a difficult interpersonal relationship. Or alcohol. Or gambling. Difficult as ‘walking away’ from those things can be, they aren’t ultimately life-threatening (usually.) Food is different. It’s like breathing. How could I sever a relationship with something that is necessary for my continued existence?

The solution came from a client (I have the most amazing clients!) I met Tandi about five years ago, and I’ve photographed her at least annually ever since. She’s petite, spirited, and beautiful inside and out. When she visited me this February, she mentioned in passing that she used to be heavy.

“What?” I exclaimed. “No way. You’ve been thin since I’ve known you.”

“Don’t you remember?” she replied. “I first came to you to celebrate my weight loss.” Then she showed me *before* photos. She was right. She’d lost a lot of weight. And she’s kept it off.

“What’s your secret?” I asked. She told me. “OK, I’m in,” I said.

I started what I dubbed My New Life on March 4.

The food I ate was plain. Very nourishing, but unexciting. And there was no satisfaction to be found in preparation, either, because I merely opened a packet and reconstituted it with water. Unappealing as this sounds, it was exactly what I needed. You see, it allowed me to disconnect eating and pleasure, so that food became sustenance, not fulfillment.

I didn’t *just* go on a diet. I started seeing a counselor and dealt with some long standing emotional questions. I immersed myself in Lenten spiritual activities. I reprogrammed my brain: instead of relying on food, I found joy and fulfillment through writing, photographing, sewing, playing and listening to music. In walking and yoga. In meditation and prayer. I even learned to crochet.

As I attended to my entire person – body, mind and soul – the weight came off. As of today, I’ve lost fourteen pounds.

Turns out, it wasn’t about weight loss. It was about attending to my needs. About listening to my body. To my heart. To my soul. It was about loving myself.

It still is.

PS: Tandi is an excellent health coach. Find her on Facebook: Tandi Graff

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Farewell, Little Girl

sweetaphiSeven years ago, I read Marley, a tale about the world’s worst dog. The next thing I knew, I was at the Humane Society, looking at dogs. “I’d like one smaller than a border collie,” I said. “One that’s 4-5 years old.” I reasoned that an older dog would already be trained, an activity I was loathe to take on. The one thing I DIDN’T want was a puppy.

They brought me a lab mix. ‘Lizzie’ was a bit larger than a border collie. “She’s two years old.” Huh. A little bigger and a little younger than I wanted.

She’d been on the streets for a while. She was captured in Bend and brought to the Humane Society in Salem, because her chances of adoption were better here.

She was obviously well trained. Lizzie sat when I said ‘sit’. She extended her hand for ‘shake’. She knew ‘fetch’. She was gentle. She laid her head in my lap, and looked up at me with her beautiful brown eyes. I was smitten.

“We aren’t calling her Lizzie,” announced my son when I brought her home. “We’re going to call her Aphrodite, the goddess of luh-huv.” Aphrodite it was – a fitting name, because she was a lover. She craved attention, and we were happy to provide it.

Aphi was a little dog trapped in a big dog’s body – she would have loved to climb in my lap and curl up. She occasionally tried, and I had to discourage her. “No, Aphi, you’re too big,” I would say. So she’d lay her huge head in my lap and look at me with mournful eyes.

Aphrodite was an escape artist. We built new gates after we found her clinging to the top of an ivy concrete wall adjacent to our home. She found all the weak places in our six-foot fence. She annoyed all our neighbors by running in their yards. She annoyed me with her propensity for finding deer poop and rolling in it.

She was SO energetic. Every day, I took her to the (fenced) playground next door, where she tore around like a crazy woman – er, dog. I’d had her about a month when it struck me. She wasn’t running, she was galomphing. Like a puppy. Not only that, but I’d swear she was getting larger! I called my friend, Neil, who’d been a strong advocate for adopting Aphi.”Neil, is Aphi getting BIGGER?” I demanded.

“Well,” he replied in a sheepish voice, “I didn’t want to SAY anything…”

I took her to a dog-expert friend. She looked Aphi over. “Oh, Cherie, this dog isn’t even a year old!”

Like it or not, I had a puppy.

Over the next four years, she was the delight of my life. Yes, she was big (and got bigger) but that meant I could take walks after dark. I could hike in the park. I could go many places because my Aphrodite was there to protect me.

Life changed in those years. I started traveling more and more. I had less time to walk her, and our small back yard didn’t provide enough bounding room. I realized I was not providing her the quality of life she deserved.

Enter the Haugens. My friends had an eight-and-a-half acre property outside of Salem, one Aphi loved to visit and run around. Would they? Could they?

They could. Aphi became part of their family. She was a willing 4H project for their son, Lars. The property wasn’t fenced, so Aphi occasionally visited the local school yard, bounding up and barking her big-chested woof! But the children and the police (mostly) understood, and Neil & Miriam did their best to keep her from wandering.

Last month, Bryan & I joined the Haugens on ‘the farm’, as we call it.Their big house seemed empty after their older children left, so we rented the lower level and had a joyful reunion with Aphi. Introduced her to our new puppy, Tali, a (tiny) poodle mix.Tali immediately asserted dominance over Aphi, insisting that she lay down so he could leap on her head and be king of the mountain. She loved it. He loved it.  I envisioned years of happy romping.

But a week ago, I went upstairs to find Neil in distress. “Something’s wrong with Aphi,” he said. “I’m taking her to the vet.”

I looked at my girl. She was breathing hard and noisily.

The verdict was congestive heart failure, possibly caused by a bacterial infection. They treated the infection, and for a couple of days, all seemed well. But yesterday, the labored breathing returned. She refused to eat. The verdict from the vet: there was nothing more to be done.

So we spent last night and this morning saying our goodbyes, as Aphi lay on her side and panted. It would have been cruel to wait any longer, so we loaded her in the car. The rest of the family took her for her last ride. I stayed home with Tali, because I couldn’t bear to watch her very last breath. I’m waiting here, to help put her to rest next to Synch and Katie, two other beloved family doggies.

Those two lived to ripe old ages, well past fifteen. Aphi was only eight. It doesn’t seem fair. She was gentle, beautiful, loving. She – and we – deserved a longer stay.

Her short life reminds me to slow down and enjoy the NOW. I have a bad habit of not being ‘present’. Instead, I gaze about three steps ahead or ruminate about ideas/plans or (more rarely – I’ve gotten much better about this) poke old memories.

Today, though, I think I’ll give myself permission – for a short while – to freely roam about in Aphi memories. Be at peace, little girl.

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The Appointment

The Appointment*

What if, on the first sunny day,
on your way to work, a colorful bird
sweeps in front of you down a 
street you’ve never heard of.

You might pause and smile,
a sweet beginning to your day.

Or you might step into that street
and realize there are many ways to work.

You might sense the bird knows some-
thing you don’t and wander after.

You might hesitate when the bird
turns down an alley. For now
there is tension: Is what the
bird knows worth being late?

You might go another block or two,
thinking you can have it both ways.
But soon you arrive at the edge
of all your plans.

The bird circles back for you
and you must decide which
appointment you were
born to keep.

— Mark Nepo  (from Seven Thousand Ways to Listen)

I’m surprised at  how many people think the life of a full-time artist is purely idyllic. In their minds, we do nothing but sit around all day, paintbrush, camera or keyboard in hand, allowing the sweet breeze of creative inspiration to carry us along as money pours in the door. (Though they do think, privately, that we charge a bit *too* much for our painting, print or poem.)

An acquaintance once said, “It’s like being retired, isn’t it? You only work when you want to.” Well, yes. As long as I want to work long hours. LONG hours. I’m a one-woman shop, the cash flow is variable, and it’s hard! I’ll admit, we artists sometimes spend sleepless nights worrying about the basics of life – housing, health insurance, food. Things my acquaintance, with her government job, doesn’t experience or understand.

The solution is obvious, right? Go get a *real* job. Practically speaking, no one should choose art as a profession. And that’s why most talented people do take other paths, consigning their artistic expressions to hobby status. I applaud them. I often envy them. In fact, I used to BE them.

For years, I worked in corporate America. Lucrative professional positions. Job security and great benefits. But then my husband died. I was torn from my comfortable world, torn from myself. When I finally found my way back and stuffed myself into the hole that was me, I must have crawled in backwards, because things looked very different. I tried to go back to what I’d been, but the path – and the person – was gone.

So here I am.

I’m an artist because I can’t not be. It’s the only song in my ears. I’ve kept the appointment I was meant to keep, and my life is filled with love and beauty.  

But it’s NOT like being retired.

* My thanks to  fellow artist, Cher Odum, for sharing the poem. It explains we few – we eccentric few – we eccentric, inspired weird few.

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The Grace of Grandma Betz

hanna grandmaThis has been a death-filled two weeks. It started when my friend, Cher, had to make the choice to put down darling Mo, a fifteen year-old chihuahua, her constant companion through joy and travail. Next was my friend David’s cat, also fifteen. Then Ryan’s ancient kitty (Guess how old?) Then Neil & Miriam’s  gentle Katie, a – you guessed it – fifteen year-old Chow. (Interesting that most of my closest friends were in ‘pet acquisition’ mode a decade and a half ago.)

Death hit closer to home yesterday, not a pet, but a beloved grandparent – Hanna’s grandma. Hanna and my son Nicholas’ wedding is less than two weeks away. In a time that should filled with nothing but anticipatory joy, death has elbowed in.

That’s not fair. I’m still a momma bear at heart, and I want to step between my children and the dark interloper, hold my hands up and say, “No! You will not bring sorrow here!”

But I can’t do that. No one can. We can’t shield each other from the pain of a loved one’s passing. In fact, we shouldn’t, because grief reminds us that we love and have been loved. It reminds us that we matter, that our lives – and the lives of those we mourn – have meaning.

Hanna’s grandma lived an optimistic, active life, even in the face of cancer. She remained positive and determined, winning round after round. But when it became clear she would not prevail in the last skirmish, she acquiesced with grace. She modeled how to live courageously and die well. It’s what we all hope for – to live fully and die peacefully.

These recent encounters with mortality remind me that I have only one go-round in this configuration of space/time. I want to live it with gusto, like Hanna’s grandma. I want to experience it with exuberant joy, like our beloved pets.

It’s what drives me to personal improvement. It’s not so that the surface looks prettier – though I’m shallow enough to consider that a significant bonus. No, as I float through this amorphous cloud called ‘being’, I want the physical strength and spiritual wisdom to appreciate it fully. Because then maybe, just maybe, I’ll have the grace of Grandma Betz when it’s time to let it go.

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