PSA: I’m going to tell you the story of how I found my way back to myself from brokenness, so you may want to wait until you have a minute. Especially after you get to the end, when you’re likely going to want to stand up, walk to a different room, and put your phone in a drawer.
You may even want to slam the drawer theatrically, as if flushing a spider down the toilet in front of a fearful child who then thinks you’re a hero. Or a murderer, I guess; depends what type of kid you have these days, or rather what type of parent you are. Well—and this is important—so let me be crystal clear: I judge myself as a parent the way I respond to a barkeep asking what kind of tequila I want near the end of the night. My standard reply: not your best, and not your worst. And I’m okay with that.
I digress. And, because it’s me, this story may meander. Hopefully you like a windy ride—not unlike life.
Problem statement first: I’m worried about people. I really am. I’m worried about my kids. I’m worried about your kids. I’m worried about what we’ve done already and what we will do if we keep doing what we’re doing. Yes, I’m talking about politics, and yes, I’m talking about the environment. But it’s far bigger than that.
I’m talking about action without intention. I’m talking about phoning it in. I’m guilty of it, and I’d bet you are too. What I speak of is insidious, hiding around every corner like cat’s paws: the frenetic, anxious, lonely busyness that has come to define modern adulthood.
We seem to have everything and yet we want nothing. We are humans doing and not humans being. We have forgotten how to engage our senses—our greatest gifts—entirely. They are so often under the evil spell of the constant blue-light showgirl in our pocket.
Now, I’m not a paranoid hysterical back-to-the-land zealot whose children only ever eat kale, craft, and watch PBS. I’m more of an ‘everything in moderation including moderation’ kind of gal. I have no sense whatsoever that all is lost. On the contrary, I know—beyond a shadow of a doubt—that we can right this ship. I’m convinced of this because I’ve righted my own ship, fairly recently.
This is a condensed documentation of my journey back to Belonging and Presence, capital B and C, and maybe even to JOY. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t as hard as I thought, and I believe in the very seat of my soul that there is nothing more important. After all, your very health and wellness depend upon it. Don’t worry; this has nothing to do with religion. But I will admit it’s been a spiritual journey. What I offer you here, dear reader, is a Spirit Rehabilitation Guide.
When I was a growing up, “Life’s Little Instruction Book” by H. Jackson Brown—the first edition, with the red plaid cover—was in the reading basket in our mudroom bathroom. I think I read it almost every day. That book was to me what I think the Bible must be to some people. Come to think of it, H. Jackson Brown may be the closest thing to God I’ve ever known.
It’s full of proverbs: ‘Never give up on a dream just because of the length of time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway.’ ‘Remember that a minute of anger denies you sixty seconds of happiness.’ ‘Remember that silence is sometimes the best answer.’ ‘Spend your time and energy creating, not criticizing.’
And perhaps my favorite of all:
‘Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something and has lost something. People take different roads seeking fulfillment and happiness. Just because they’re not on your road doesn’t mean they’ve gotten lost.’
Isn’t that just empathy in a nutshell. Preach, Mr. Brown!
Looking back, I remember saving those pearls of wisdom in the deep pockets of my mind, and later copying them into my journal. I remember thinking that I’d learned a thing or two already and that perhaps this oyster could make her own pearls. I remember first recognizing the need to write.
Each thing I write begins on paper, long-hand. Sometimes it’s notes and sometimes it’s full essays. This does not make me holier-than thou, or even really old-school. What it means to me is that I am chasing my dream in the only way I know how—by returning to how I first fell in love with it.
And this, my friends, is the introduction to my own ‘Little Instruction’ Spirit Guide, which I prefer to think of as a series of invitations—maybe even permission slips.
The invitation is simple: I invite you to find your way back to presence. I’ve tried to give it a nice framework. The invitations are to commit: Commit to your body, commit to your mind, and commit to compassion.
Step 1: Balance
Think back to when you first loved exercise. I’d bet it was as a child, and you didn’t even call it exercise because all you wanted is to run and play and feel the wind in your face and drop breathless to the ground giggling. And how, heart pumping and limbs warm, you laid upon the ground and rested, delighting at the sheer gravity of Mother Earth, who—as a dear friend gifted me recently—gives us unconditional support that we neither have ever nor will ever have to earn. Just sit with that for a second.
Exercise is critical, but so is diet. I eat healthy food that I want 90% of the time. That works for me, but I know better than to dictate diet to anyone else. The best thing I can say on the subject is nourish yourself.
Step 2: Mindfulness
Think back to the first time you met your best friend, or your beloved pet, or Your Person. Remember how you noticed everything? How everything was new and you couldn’t memorize them fast enough and thought for sure you’d never stop wanting to study them and learn their innermost thoughts. I remember the blue fuzzy dice around the rear-view mirror of college soulmate’s old red BMW bouncing as we drove through covered bridges on country roads outside of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania; I remember the first time I pet the perfectly pale, soft A-is-for-anarchist marking at the valley of our kitty’s spine; I remember the way Danny’s long lashes used to bump up against the lenses of cheap gas station sunglasses, and how we laughed about it on the way to the first Bonnaroo as he rejected them one after another, and how I felt both lost and finally found in his gold-brown eyes, the color of beer bottles in the sun.
And don’t even get me started my own children. Instead think of yours. The shape of their infant lips. The first time they giggled and clapped when you came to their crib. The feel of their feverish foreheads on your breastbone while they sniffled, surrendering to babyness if only until the antibiotics kicked in. Remember when they learned to pump on a swing and how you welcomed the overdue independence at the same time feeling tender that another need or desire had moved to the column of things they could do themselves.
And finally, remember yourself. Who were you, at the beginning? Before you veered off your path toward who someone told you to be, or who you thought you should be. What did you love? What were your idiosyncrasies? What really Rang Your Bell?
As for me, I loved walking in nature and talking with people. I loved saying what I think and asking people what they think. I loved finding out not just the what but the why and the how. I loved a great quote, a period film, and harmonizing with other voices. I loved, above all, connecting with people, and caring for their tender hearts with words. There is still nothing better in life to me than a great, deep conversation with someone you want to know better—be it stranger, a new friend, a parent, or a partner.
But a several years back, during a disorienting postpartum, post back-to-work winter, I realized that I was going through the motions. It took me more than a little soul searching to realize that I had forgotten what I loved—what my answer-without-thinking responses would be. In hindsight, I think I was used just so used to smoothing my rough edges—my neediness, my intensity, my relentless urge to give voice to my observations. I lived in fear of exposing myself, maybe even of being myself. I defaulted to a watered-down version of myself, and it dulled my view, like fuzzy vision before glasses.
When you are hiding, you cannot be present. When you are not present, it’s easy to hide; they are two sides of the same worthless coin. But that was what was in my purse and I kept moving. Always in motion, never at rest, lest someone uncover the fraud.
Thankfully, like all strenuous exertion, it’s just not sustainable long-term. Your body starts to break down: sickness, injury, hangovers. You become exhausted and yet often can’t sleep. You feel lonely and irritable nearly all the time. Nothing you do passes the Deathbed Test. Step 3, next up.
Step 3: Kindness and Compassion, brought to you by The Deathbed Test
As you may suspect, The Deathbed Test was born out of the death of my father, who identified—too late—what life is all about. I will never in a thousand lifetimes forget when he said to me, on his literal deathbed, “I did it all wrong, E-beth. Please, do it differently.” Deep breath to let that sink in.
The way I have described The Deathbed Test to my husband is, “I don’t think anyone on their deathbed every says, ‘I wish I had spent more time hollering at my family to get in the car to make it to ski school on time’. But I bet a lot of people would say, I wish I spent more time singing loudly in the car with my kids when they were little on the way to ski school.’”
Simply put, The Deathbed Test is a litmus test that packs an immediate perspective punch. It’s a mindset, triggered by a question. Actually, it may be a couple of questions. But it may be helpful if you practice GRACE first.
Ground yourself. Inhabit the physical space around you.
Relax. Drop your tongue and release your belly.
Air. Breathe deeply.
Center on a value, like patience.
Embody that value.
Now, consider the moment you’re in:
- What’s really at stake here? i.e., how much does this matter in the great grand scheme of life?
- Is my approach or attitude serving me or not? i.e., what’s my level of anxiety / shame, and is that playing a role here?
- Am I a promoter or a detractor of kindness and compassion? i.e., helpful or hurtful?
- If I accept what is happening—if I give up resisting it—how would I feel? Chances are, you’d feel relieved, and better able to address the situation with determination and good humor.
- And finally, if I were on my deathbed, how much would this matter? Would I be proud of how I acted, or would I regret how enmeshed I became in something trivial or how flustered I got with someone I loved?
Attitude is everything, and we all decide our own vibe.
Now, I’m nowhere near perfect, and from time to time I still really sweat the small stuff and get stressed out; I too bicker at my husband and speak sharply to my kids. But I don’t do it often, and not nearly as often as I used to.
And every day, I practice curiosity, gratitude for the world’s beauty and all of its wonders, and compassion in the way I engage with others. The good news is that while this takes effort, the dividends actualize almost immediately in the form of serenity, ease, energy and focus.
In summary, this is an offering; I felt pulled to take action on my worries for the world. So I hold up my story as a beacon to cast light down a path for others to travel down if they so choose.
I care for my body with food and exercise. In truth I could be much better about sleep. I go to therapy regularly. I am proud to say that I have a therapist for myself and one for my marriage, as well as a move-the-body squad of females across the country that seem to call if they even sense I’m walking toward the Bat Signal. You know who you are and I love you. Please, folks, get the help you need.
I take a writing class with people I love and respect and am learning from. I chew through books. But it was discovering mindfulness and meditation that turned a giant page—maybe even closed a book and opened a new one—in my life.
Mediation led me back to myself. It taught me to be still; it taught me to sit with bad feelings; it taught me that I am not my thoughts; it taught me to be my best friend. It has comforted and quelled my loneliness. It has quieted the pinball machine of my mind. It has been nothing less than miraculous. Ten minutes a day to change your life. Is there even a question?
And remember, we never have time. We make time. The way I see it, we are given a chance—many chances—to honor our time here by living with intention. If we do so, we will have realized, while still here and with time left, who and what really matters. How lucky are we? I think realizing this good fortune is the meaning of life. We get to live each moment as if we chose it. Godspeed you back to yourself.
The Beth List: 10-Steps to No Regrets
Honor Your Body (1-3), Heal Your Mind (4-6), and Spread Compassion (7-10)
- Wake up and ask your body what it craves, and then do that exercise for at least 30 minutes. Mine is different every day. Move your body. To sweat is to reset.
- Drink at least three times as much water—or LaCroix (guilty)—as you think is enough.
- Commit to your health—maintenance and prevention. Get curious about how you feel and why.
- Experience art in any and all forms. Go to the theater, go to the movies, and go to concerts. Read fiction and poetry. Art saves people every day.
- Meditate. It is the single greatest factor that has changed my life. Be still and know. It begins with mindfulness, which teaches you to let that shit go.
- Devote to a purely creative pursuit at least once a week. Every child is a creator, and every adult was once a child. I read recently that a creative adult is a child who has survived. Amen.
- Practice radical self-love. If you tend toward the insubordinate, as I do, this will resonate. Self-love is truly one of the most radical things we can do in this world.
- Make eye contact, all day, every day, as much as possible, but especially to the 20 people you interact with most on a daily basis. See them. Hold them in high regard. Listen with your whole self.
- Speak to strangers with openness and truth. Cut through the noise. We are all humans who are essentially the same on the inside. What we all want at our core is love and belonging.
Be kind. Spread gratitude. Give every moment the Deathbed Test, and pass with flying colors.