"Habits change into character." – Ovid

Beginning a couple of years ago, I have tried to start every day the same way. On waking, before I even sit up, I set an intention for myself (be calm, be kind, be productive, be present, be funny, etc.). Then I either meditate on that intention or I pray. The prayer is always the same. I ask for help in meeting my daily intention. I ask for healing for a list of people whom I know are dealing with illness. I ask for continued blessings and protection of all my families. I ask for comfort and blessings on all those whom I know are grieving some loss or another.

I haven’t managed the routine every day — in fact there have been occasional long gaps when other less helpful habits have intruded — but I have done it more days than not. I write it down as “IMP” in my calendar — Intention Meditation/Prayer. Just to be clear, the intention can be as broad as “Get it together,” especially after a disappointing previous day. The meditation is often just talking myself down and away from some rash action or discussion I’m tempted to initiate. The prayer is often abbreviated, and if I’m still tired when I wake up, I’ll forget whole groups of people for whom I wanted to pray. I’m not trying to pass myself off as St. Suzanne here, believe me. This isn’t a post on piety. It’s a post on “habit.”

I find that, after years of trying to maintain some good habits and jettison some bad ones, I am more obsessed with “habits” here in early 2020 than I have ever been. In fact, one of the first books I began reading this year is entitled Atomic Habits by James Clear. I think Mr. Clear would agree with the Ovid quote above, based on what I’ve read. So far, I’ve found the book interesting, helpful, specific, and sane. But in order to employ Mr. Clear’s suggested methods, or anyone else’s for that matter when it comes to changing your life by changing your habits, the key must be mindfulness.

Mindfulness can change your reality. Look, I’m no expert on “being present.” You’ve heard the phrase monkey mind? My mind is the Koko of monkey minds, but I do believe in intention. I’ve never understood the phrase, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” I just don’t believe it. I get that it means your intentions must translate into action, but actions ought to at least start with good intentions. Otherwise, they’re the product of randomness or, worse, thoughtlessness.

Last week, I ran my first half marathon. My daughter asked me almost a year ago if I would run the race with her, and for some reason I still can’t grasp, I said yes. Before this past year, I wouldn’t have considered myself a runner. I have run some 5Ks and I run for exercise, but nothing serious. In training for this half marathon, I was serious, mostly because I was terrified of failure or catastrophic injury, but I was serious and mindful. I employed the habits of a runner for months, and somewhere along the way I became a runner.

Similarly, has my “IMP” habit changed my character from, well, me to some beatific zen-radiant all-mother? Nope. But while I can’t say I’m a person who always starts my day thinking of others, I can say I’m a person who wants to always start her day thinking of others. By employing a couple specific habits with that desire in mind, I bet I get a little bit closer to becoming a person who does always start her day thinking of others. Then I can tackle the habits that will lead me to becoming more helpful to those people.

Intention has always been important to my spirit. One of the things I hate most is to realize that I have unintentionally hurt someone. I’ve done so much of that. I still cringe when thinking of things I have said or done, even as a child, not trying to hurt anyone, but that were hurtful to someone nonetheless. I’m sure I still do it more than I know, and that makes me terribly sad. I struggle to forgive myself for those unintentional wounds I inflict. To be so thoughtless and careless with another person’s feelings truly bothers me. It is ridiculous, I know, that I can forgive myself more easily for intentionally insulting or hurting someone! At least in those instances I have been present and responsible for whatever energy I was sending out into the world.

And that’s the gist of all this, isn’t it? Asking myself, What are you intentionally gifting to the world today? and wondering What are you unintentionally signaling? seems like a good small first step to accomplishing so many things, including establishing some character-building habits.

Who do you want to be?

Thanks for reading.

Hindsight is 2020, Right?

Happy New Year, y’all. Yes, I’m still here. But I’ve been elsewhere and otherwise occupied for a longer while than I intended. I’ve been on a kind of sabbatical, I guess. We’ll call it “a sabbatical” because that sounds official, although I don’t know that I garnered much rest, and the only new skill I might have acquired for purposes of writing was fostering a deeper, more seething method of creative fermentation. Well, one hopes it will prove to be creative. Too much seething can make for a bitter brew. Time will tell. Check back in a couple of weeks and we’ll see if I am creating or sitting on the couch ruining the touchscreen TV remote with Dorito dust-stained fingers. But I digress. Naturally. Those of you who know me personally know how I like to remark that my life is just one long interruption of itself. But before I go too far astray …

I come here today to ponder “hindsight.” Hindsight is defined as recognizing the realities, potential issues, and details etc. of an event that has already passed or a decision that has already been made. The saying goes that hindsight is 20/20 because presumably we already know everything. But do we? Is your hindsight 20/20? If we are to learn from our mistakes and missteps, it must be. Yet, how many of us really examine the past event or decision from all angles required and in the depth required to have 20/20 vision truly? I will sometimes consider a decision made or an action not taken, assume the outcome would have been different (better) had I done something differently and then I move on. I. Move. On. I often fail to move through. I don’t always sit with my actions or decisions, place them back in the context of circumstances with which I was dealing, and really ferret out whether there might have been a different outcome or whether that difference might have mattered. If our hindsight really was 20/20, would we continue to be haunted by the same mistakes, failures, annoyances, bad habits, flawed decision-making? Maybe. Then what good is having 20/20 vision if we aren’t going to do anything with it?

We’ve talked about this before as it relates to writing poetry. The poet has a willingness to move through painful things in order to examine and reflect on them instead of moving on from them as quickly as possible. Poets are odd that way and are more willing to take on the emotional burden of negative experiences (perhaps, not more “willing,” just less able to avoid it); but they also are able to experience and share the full deep well of joy, so it works out. The thing is, poet or not, everyone must move through things in order to learn, to heal, to breathe again. Yes, yes — some things are not worth all that time and effort; move ON from some things. Learning to tell the difference is also a skill.

It is the year 2020. It’s just too on the nose to ignore. I think in order for my vision of what is ahead to be better, my hindsight really does need to be better. 2020 will be a year of change for me and, perhaps for the first time, the notion of change doesn’t scare me. The idea of moving on from things that have proven unhelpful exhilarates me. Some of my “sabbatical” was spent stewing in the cauldron of a recipe that just hasn’t been working for me. I started changing the recipe by adding new ingredients without really thinking about it much, until I did think about it. Intentionality is another good attribute, yes? Forget the recipe metaphor. Remember this: the decisions you make matter. But you aren’t in charge of everything. You are buffeted by circumstances and other people’s decisions and actions and weather and the entire universe of things you cannot control. And yet you have so much power. You are a free agent. Claim your agency.

All the while I have been contemplating 2020, the concept of “change” has been a siren call. So I guess we’ll be doing some things differently around here. I’ll be making good use of hindsight because that’s where I’ll find my baseline. It won’t always be pretty, but past mistakes are only millstones for people who want to avoid change, who will accept the lie that “it’s too late” or “there’s no hope” in order to justify their refusal to claim their own agency. I refuse to do that anymore. I invite you to consider “change,” to get comfortable with the notion of it, and to remember that small changes can make big differences, like the difference between a hug and a handshake, or the difference between choosing to create or ruining the touchscreen TV remote with Dorito dust-stained fingers. FWIW, eating Doritos and watching TV during the day would also be a change for me, but not the kind I’m looking forward to experiencing. In conclusion, now seems like the appropriate time to offer this bit of well-worn advice just for laughs: Make lasting changes! I love oxymorons. Meet you back here soon. SBL

Wherein I almost (almost) quit writing poetry forever. Or, alternatively, “Thank you, Arthur Chu.”

Toodles, Poetry! And Humankind?

Some weeks ago, it occurred to me that I have no place in the world of poetry anymore.

I have spent much of the last year devoted to finishing a first draft of a lengthy historical novel. I have continued to interact with my beloved poetry group, but I cannot say I truly was interacting with my own poetry. When the question “Should you still be writing poetry?” arose from the depths of my subconscious, my first instinct was to tamp it down, and hard, but it just wouldn’t go away.

I’ve taken extended vacations away from “poetry world” before and I’ve also been frustrated at times with all aspects of what we call “poetry,” from writing to revising to submitting to publishing, etc., but this time felt different.  So I decided to look that persistent little query in the eye and, behold, I watched as it morphed into, “WHY should you (or ANYONE) continue to write poetry?” Wait. What? Me or ANYONE? Oh, no, I thought. So it’s not, “I have no place in the world of poetry,” it’s “poetry has no place in the world.” Hang it up, Natasha Tretheway. As brilliant and brutally beautiful as your work is, it’s no use. Have I really started to buy into the “Poetry is dead” tripe? Ugh, I thought. Am I nihilist? Has Game of Thrones done this to me? Of course poetry is dead! EVERYone’s dead except the assholes! Damn you, George R.R. Martin!

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If You Are My Friend, And You Are a Man, You’ll Read This

The confluence of the death of Maya Angelou, a strong woman with a strong voice, just the kind of woman we need now, and the Elliot Rodger rampage brought on by his hatred of women (yes, as well as his mental illness), has prompted me to take an afternoon and write this out to you, my male friends.  Because this tragedy could give us opportunities to talk about so many important things, like reasonable gun control, the state of mental health care in this country, and/or the disgusting epidemic of celebrating infamy in our culture (the Kardashianization of America, if you will), I encourage you to think about those things, and discuss them amongst yourselves.  However, let me be clear:  I’m going to use this space to talk about the way women are treated in this culture.  Before you go all “Not ALL men” on me, or make fun of the social media phenomenon of #YESAllWomen, just go read some of these “manosphere ideas” *  and tell me whether you’d feel comfortable being thought of and discussed this way.  I’m thought of this way, as is my daughter, and my mother, and all the women I know, by men just like those quoted in that last linked article, and those sites that Rodger frequented.  Now tell me you don’t know any men who think of women that way.  If you say you don’t, you’re either very lucky or very lying.  I’ve known some men who think like Elliot Rodger thought.  Plenty, in fact.  Now let me tell you a story.

The first time I visited New York City, I was 22 years old.  I went with some friends from law school.  We were at a bar early one evening before dinner.  One of my friends and I went to the restroom, and walking back through the crowded bar to rejoin our friends, someone behind me grabbed my hair, and jerked me back hard, at the same time, demanding loudly, “Where the f**k have you been?”  Clearly, this was a case of mistaken identity and I feel terrible for the girl for whom he mistook me and the kind of life she must have been living, but I got up on my tiptoes and yelled right into his face, “Who the f**k are you?”  I continued to harangue him until my friend, in fear for my safety, pulled me away.  And do you know what he did?  He pretended not to hear me, or see me.  No apology.  No acknowledgement of the battery he had just committed.  Couldn’t be bothered.  If that had happened to you, would you be okay with it?

That’s just one story about how some men feel that the public sphere is theirs alone, and that women are just objects in that sphere; objects that also belong to them.  And it’s not even my earliest such story, by a long shot.  Nor is it my most recent such story.  Nor is it the worst.  And here’s the thing.  I never know when the next story is going to happen.  Of course, none of us know what fresh hell the future holds, but I’m talking about a very real, specific unease with which I’ve had some experience, just like all women.   I may have one of these experiences the next time I go to the grocery store.  After all, it’s happened there before.  My real experiences being treated like I am  chattel span the gamut from merely annoying to truly frightening.  Have you ever been leered at unapologetically, stared at from head to toe in public by someone you’d never seen before?  Someone physically larger than you?  Someone accompanied by someone else, also physically larger than you, also staring?  Have you ever watched while someone stared at your 17-year-old daughter that way?

Have you ever been called a “whore” or a “bitch” by a complete stranger?  How about by someone you know?  Have you ever been called a “feminazi” because you spoke up for something you believed in?  Have you ever been told you couldn’t participate in some activity because “you’re a girl?”  Have you ever been made to feel that your sex life/attractiveness/physical appearance was fair game for public discussion, dissection, and, ultimately, judgement?

Have you ever worried about whether someone was going to slip something into your daughter’s drink?  How about your son’s drink or your own?  I’m guessing not so much.  Do you ever feel uneasy when you have to pull off the highway to refuel when it’s late?

Look, I’m not paranoid.  I don’t live in fear.  But I do live in reality.  We live in a society where there are such things as “rape drugs” and rape jokes and rape threats as “jokes.”  We live in a so-called democracy where a woman can be paid a lower salary for the same work as her male counterpart, and it barely registers as unfair.  We elect male politicians (and complicit female politicians) who think a woman’s birth control and contraceptive health is more their business than hers and her doctor’s.   The whole issue is more complex than I can attempt to parse here, and there’s so much to consider when we start to talk about gender issues, but the point I hope I am making is that most, if not all, my women friends will recognize themselves in one of the above scenarios.  And that’s just not okay.

So, if you are my friend, and you are a man, I thank you for not being part of the problem.  But will you also stand with me and all the women I love and be part of the solution?

 

*You can go to the original sources, just as I did, but you’ll have to find your own way – I’m not going to drive more traffic to such sites.