Most of us have talked about wanting to do or achieve certain things in our lifetime – learn to speak Spanish, remodel the house, write a book of poems, volunteer for a humanitarian cause, take a trip to India, etc. There’s also often a sense of what needs to happen first to make that possible – quit my job, earn six figures, retire, get married, etc. – some future point in time when the stars will align perfectly to facilitate the doing of the thing we claim is important. In the psychotherapy world we call this “destination addiction.”
My “thing” was to be regularly playing our beautiful Mason & Hamlin grand piano with ease and competence. Early in our marriage my husband and I had been fortunate enough to buy the piano for a small sum after it made its way here, supposedly from a castle in Ireland. It was a magical event!
I used to take lessons, and MaryJoyce, my teacher, would exclaim about my large hands and how I was perfectly equipped to play Franz Liszt. It seemed that the piano and I were meant to be a team. Sadly, a few years later, MaryJoyce died and I was so pregnant that it was uncomfortable to sit at the bench, especially now with no accountability to anyone who could witness my musical strivings and ability. So, I stopped playing, and there the sad, majestic piano still sits, unused, reminding me daily of my unfulfilled “commitment.” I look at it regularly with longing from my desk in the “piano room” (which also functions as my home office). I’m reminded daily of my “piano folly.”
I now realize that playing the piano competently has been a sweet story I’ve told myself – a lovely idea, without any renewed infrastructure or resources to back it up, especially since I’ve been taking guitar lessons this last year, honoring a precious gift my family gave me long ago. With my full time private practice and the other realities of my life there aren’t enough hours in the day to dedicate myself right now to both instruments. So, realizing that we make choices in life about where to put our energy and time, I’ve accepted that for now, playing Franz Liszt with facility is part of my “piano folly.” Unlike my commitment to play the guitar, I’ve not hired a teacher, dug up the sheet music, or scheduled in regular tunings and the time to play the piano. A passion without a plan to make room for it, is just a dream.
So, if you’ve also dreamed about doing or achieving certain things in your life, make sure you avoid self delusion, (“piano folly”), by creating some accountability, first to someone else who will take you seriously and hold you to your dream when you get discouraged, but most importantly, accountability to yourself – an action plan, tools, markers of stagnation or change, so you make your dream come alive.
In my case, it’s not the end of the road for the piano and me. When I’m ready to fully commit with not just longing, but with action, Mason & Hamlin and I will make lovely music again together.
This guy, Tucker, is one of the 4-legged loves of my life. In previous posts I’ve written about how through our daily romps in the woods around my land and walks around the neighborhood he reminds me about what’s most important in life, especially as I veer off into thoughts about my unanswered emails, calls, bills needing attention, etc. (Refer to “Its’ All About the Ball!”)
I share him with our next door neighbors Peggy and Dave who inherited him, not having had an agenda or a wish for such a demanding, messy creature. They love Tucker but Dave isn’t a dog guy. So our arrangement works. I don’t have a dog of my own, so Tucker is it. He lives at Peggy and Dave’s, but his heart lives with me.
Here’s the thing: Tucker at 7 years old has terminal cancer. Six months after surgery to remove a huge malignant mass on his thyroid the cancer is back. After a subsequent evaluation, the vet gave him about 7 months to live. My challenge is how to manage the pain of witnessing his imminent suffering and probably losing him not long from now, without wasting precious time we have together today – time for joy and much fun. It’s a mind screw and a heartbreak – right now he has minor symptoms – some weakness in his legs and some coughing, but other than that he still acts like an exuberant toddler, full of sweetness, innocence and life.
“Staying present” means being in the moment without preoccupation about the past or the future. Some Eastern spiritual practices say that when you’re anxious you’re not here now, but in some possible or anticipated future, and when you’re sad you’re living in the past, grieving some loss or disappointment. So, the challenge is to be here for the present moment, savoring and amplifying it. The present moment is usually just fine if we don’t mess it up with our thoughts. For me with Tucker the present moment is about enjoying his current vitality and playfulness, savoring the shared sights and smells of Autumn without obsessing about it probably being his last one. (And by the way, research has indicated that people who practice savoring and amplifying positive experiences have more happy neural pathways which show up on brain scans)!
If you are in a situation like this with a similar challenge, make room for your sadness and honor it when it visits you. But, so your sadness doesn’t drown out all else, when you’ve given your sadness its’ due, change the channel in your brain through the practice of noticing the specialness of this present moment, take a mental snapshot, then save it as a treasure to place in your treasure box of memories for the future. Pay attention to what is right in front of you and appreciate its meaning to you. You will be present for your life which will feel much fuller, and in the future you’ll be thankful for that!
I’ve been making lots of lemonade in the last few days. On Friday I had knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus, (which happened on the second day of a two week trip to Slovenia and Croatia – another lemonade story)! So here you see me trapped in an easy chair with the big, swollen knee, with only trips to the bathroom labelled as “walks.” The highlight of my day was watching our shared Lab, Tucker, chewing on a Kong on the blanket in front of me a few hours ago. Big doin’s!
So what do you do when you get a bunch of lemons? Make lemonade! – in my case, finding a way to reframe my entrapment into something meaningful, productive and hopefully fun. I spent a whole day tending to my “Google Business” site, beefing up my Psychology Today listing, at last funding my EasyPark USA account, watching the White House debacle of sociopaths and narcissists in action, cleaning out my email box, watching more criminals on TV, and reading my new “What Dogs Think” magazine. Not working out, not doing dishes, not Christmas shopping, not cooking or cleaning, not trimming garden beds, etc., etc. Just relaxing!
In psych lingo we’d call this very good “reframing.” Taking a less than stellar situation and “finding the silver lining”, “making lemonade out of lemons”, “looking through rose colored glasses,” to rattle off just a few metaphors for finding optimism and advantage in a negative situation. It’s an important skill all of us must hone to not let life make us crazy. In Buddhist ideology it would be related to the challenge of “letting go of expectation,” “acceptance,” and “cultivating stillness” as we strive to experience more peace of mind and presence in the moment. In Western thinking it would be about resilience and dealing more effectively with disappointments and mishaps, not becoming bitter and dark when life deals us difficult or aggravating blows.
So, whenever lemons have been dumped on you, find a way to make some really sweet lemonade, and you’ll get through it more peaceably with some learning and grace.
Now, back to all the criminals running the government……
Most of us are familiar with the “January Effect” – people armed with New Year’s resolutions to live cleaner: workout regularly, be more organized, eat more healthfully and lose weight, drink less, be more productive and waste less time, etc., etc.
Years ago when I belonged to Gold’s Gym we “regulars” would see swarms of well-intentioned people in January jamming up the machines, crowding the classes, full of optimism, only to almost entirely clear out by late February or March. The self-righteous eye rolls or chuckles among the “regulars” would be palpable. After observing it yearly I ultimately decided that this phenomenon might not be so much about laziness, lack of commitment or disorganization, but maybe more about a lack of permission – a lack of giving oneself permission to honor the need for down time, rest, hanging out, or sometimes people’s lack of permission to look at themselves with honesty about what’s really important to them. Had the resolutions to work out rigorously four times a week taken into account what was realistic in the context of people’s sleep habits, infrastructure to take that personal time, need for solitude or need for rest? Often not – coming to the gym frequently sounded good on paper, but had these people given themselves permission to look realistically at all these other factors that could undermine them? I think not.
I met with several couples in my practice after the holidays who talked with surprise and delight about having had a wonderful time with each other and with their kids during the holidays – for some, the first time in years! It wasn’t because they packed more activities in or were “good.” They didn’t go to every festival or capitalize on every possible day to ski or ice skate. They didn’t go to every party. They didn’t jump start their New Year’s resolutions. Instead they gave themselves permission to do less, to relax more, sleep more, hang out more, go offline, and not compete with their friends or neighbors to be the most social, or have the best holiday decorations, or the most elaborate rituals. They had given themselves permission to be honest with themselves about how much was enough, and how much might be too much. They tuned into themselves and their children rather than the hype around them, and it made all the difference in the world.
So, if as you read this you feel some apprehension about becoming a sloth if you practice tuning into your needs for rest and relaxation, take a deep breath and just try it for awhile. You may very well discover that when you legitimize downtime you won’t ultimately be less productive or social or happy. You may just discover a quieter, “slower” aspect of yourself, creating more peace of mind. You may even get to the gym with sufficient regularity after January!