Sunday, February 18, 2018

When It Gets "Walmart Level Crazy" in Our Household

Mara here:

I'm going to preface my story by stating that it really isn't about Walmart. We happened to be in a Walmart when the event took place which is why the name has stuck, but it's not a criticism of Walmart.

In fact, I've only ever been to Walmart a couple of times in my life. We don't have one near our house, so it's not where I go for stuff.

Anyway, for those of you who've read the blog regularly, you know that it's been a little frustrating around our house for the past couple of weeks. Things that have seemed fairly straightforward have been annoyingly complicated.

An example of this was the process of trying to get a letter of recommendation from my daughter's school counselor for a summer program she's applying to.

For a little bit of background, my daughter goes to a public school. My husband, Brad, and I are big believers in public education, so we have had our daughter attend public school instead of going the private school route that many of our fellow parents have opted for.

That said, Malia's school is large. It has around 3,000 students, and is, of course, underfunded and understaffed.

Malia happens to be advanced academically, so we are fortunate that many of her classes are small to normal sized. The few classes she has taken that were categorized as "general education" such as Health (which is mandatory for all high school kids) were overwhelmingly crowded, with 45-50 kids in the classroom.

So, 3,000 kids and a counseling staff of around 5 or 6. We're not positive how many counselors there are exactly, but it's not very many. You can imagine where this is going.

In January, after the winter break, Malia submitted her request for a letter of recommendation to her counselor. They ask that you give them at least three weeks notice for requests like this, so we waited. Three weeks passed. Four weeks passed. Five weeks passed. So now, my daughter—who is wonderful in many ways—but could not be called patient, is panicking.

There's a very specific summer program at Columbia University she is interested in attending, and she cannot have her application considered for acceptance without this letter of recommendation. It's not helping the situation that Columbia has been emailing her every day to "remind" her that her application is incomplete.

Added to this is the fact that Columbia's summer programs are based on rolling admission. This means the programs fill up as the applications are received—the completed applications, that is. So the program Malia wants to attend could be closed before her application even gets considered.

So, here we are. Malia has tried to get in touch with her counselor several times with no response, so she asked me to help. Generally, I don't get involved in school issues for Malia because I believe it's important for her to be able to handle things on her own as much as possible.

But it's a huge high school and, let's face it, the administration is not going to respond to a student the same way they will to a parent. So I started by emailing. No reply. I then happened to be at the school dropping something off and stopped by the counseling office. The counselor wasn't available, so I left a handwritten note. No reply. I left a voice mail. I sent a second email. I left a second voice mail. No reply. I sent a third email. I left a third voicemail.

No reply.

Okay, I try to be understanding, but I have my limits. One evening, Malia was getting very upset about her still incomplete application and she said, "Well what if she just never answers you and she just never sends the letter?"

Getting irritated with the situation and my daughter who tends to dwell on the worst case scenario, I answered, "If she doesn't answer me, I will start emailing the Principals and the Vice-Principals."

"But what if she just doesn't do it?" Malia moaned.

"If I have to, I will email and call and leave voicemails for the entire administrative staff until someone gets back to me. I will go to the school and sit outside the Dean's Office until someone tells me how to get this stupid letter. Trust me, it will get done."

Suddenly, Brad shouted out, "Is there anyone, anywhere, at any Walmart who knows if there's a trampoline?"

Malia looked completely confused, but I burst out laughing.

This is Brad's cue to me that I am starting to get a little intense and crazy—Walmart level crazy.

Our "Walmart level crazy" story stems from an experience over a decade ago when we were trying to buy a trampoline for Malia. I wanted a very specific size trampoline, and no stores had it except Walmart. I had checked online to make sure that the Walmart we were going to had it in stock. I think I might have even called to double check. I am generally very thorough.

So of course we show up and we find the aisle where the trampolines are and the place where the 8 foot trampolines should be, and it's empty.

Grrrrr.

So I asked one of the Walmart employees about whether or not they had more trampolines in the back?

I got a relatively blank stare back and something along the lines of "Well, there aren't anymore here," pointing at the empty space.

I could see there weren't any on the shelf. That wasn't what I was asking.

I asked another employee. The answer was "I don't know."

I'm pretty sure I then asked to speak to a manager, who seemed to not understand what I was asking for, and was totally unfamiliar with the concept of calling another Walmart store to see if there were any in stock there.

Apparently, before we left the store, I was walking up and down the aisles shouting, "Is there anyone, anywhere, at any Walmart who knows if there are any trampolines in stock?" 

And there you have it: Walmart level crazy.

So that's the story. And now when Brad can sense that I'm getting a little bit too worked up, he starts shouting, "Is there anyone, anywhere, at any Walmart who knows if there's a trampoline?"

My getting worked up is not my best moment, but after more than 20 years of marriage, we have discovered our ways of dealing with our less than perfect behaviors.

Fortunately, with the help of persistent calling and a $20 gift card to Starbucks, the letter of recommendation from the counselor has been successfully submitted. More Walmart level crazy was averted.

So I asked my mom, who is pretty level-headed, if she has ever lost her temper.

Can you remember a time when you lost your temper and got "Walmart level crazy"?

Okay. This is crazy (although not Walmart level crazy) but, although I can remember plenty of times when I've been cranky and irritable, I can't remember ever losing my temper in the sense of yelling and screaming. Maybe not being able to remember some things as I get older isn't such a bad thing! 

Okay, so when you find yourself getting cranky and irritable, how do you calm yourself down?

This is a question I can definitely tackle.

First off, the challenge for me (and I'd imagine everyone) is that I can't do anything to make things better when I'm cranky or out of sorts until I become aware that it's happening, and sometimes that kind of mood is so all-encompassing that I don't take those few seconds pause to realize, "Wow, I'm really cranky right now."

Becoming aware like this is what I think of as a mindfulness moment. Once I have that moment, the first thing I do is to take three "mindful" breaths, meaning that three times, I simply breath in and breath out while paying attention to the physical sensation of my breath wherever I feel it the most in my body. Doing this connects me with my body and this in itself makes me a bit more calm.

Then I say to myself, "Okay, you're cranky. People get cranky. It comes and goes. Just be nice to yourself while it's hanging around and maybe see if there's something enjoyable you can do until your mood improves." In other words, I go straight to my ace in the hole: self-compassion, which simply means being nice to myself when things are tough. So that's the second thing I do—recognize that everyone gets irritated at times, so there's no reason to get down on myself for it.

Usually these two things are all I need to do to feel better—maybe not "happy better" but at least I'm calmer and not as cranky or otherwise irritated. 

Sometimes, though, the cranky mood persists even after I've tried these two things. When that happens, I take refuge in the universal law of impermanence. By that I mean that I know I won't stay cranky forever. Yes, perhaps today is just going to be a bad mood day, but it I know it won't last indefinitely. In my books, I call this "weather practice" and describe how to use it and write about how moods are as unpredictable as the weather and how they also come and go like the weather. Doing this definitely makes me feel calm, even if it's a cranky calm!

So that's my strategy for calming myself down when I'm cranky or irritable or otherwise in a bad mood.

A final note. I'm not around other people a lot, but when I am, I'd add to my answer that, having recognized that I'm cranky or otherwise irritated, I try not to inflict it on those around me. I recall having said to your Dad in the past, "Sorry, but I'm in a really bad mood so maybe we should do separate things."

I hope everyone has some strategies to help survive everything from a simple bad mood to a full-blown loss of temper. My best to everyone. Toni






Sunday, February 11, 2018

Close My Eyes and Leap

Mara here. 

The title of this piece comes from the song "Defying Gravity" that the character Elphaba sings in the musical Wicked: "It's time to trust my instincts, close my eyes and leap!"

And although there's no parallel between my life and Elphaba's fictional one in Wicked, right now I feel as if things are out of control.

Not crazy out of control. Just a little out of control. These past couple of weeks have felt very unpredictable. If you've read this blog for any amount of time, you'll know I'm not a fan of the unpredictable. I like my schedules and my routines. 
But I feel as if every day recently has brought something unexpected.

Each day, plans are getting shuffled around because something happened. The street in front of our house is getting repaved, so we can't park because it's blocked off. And, randomly, plans that were settled have had to be cancelled. In addition, things have broken. They've been fixed, but for more money than expected. Things have been lost. There have been disappointments and unusual conflicts.

Nothing catastrophic, but just annoying. Just inconvenient enough to throw me off.

And I know that's how life is. Life is unexpected.

Maybe it's not that things are actually more out of control than usual, but for whatever reason, I am feeling like it's harder for me to cope right now. 

I realized this morning that I had to let go of the stress that was being caused by my fear of something unexpected happening. I was trying at night to sleep while still in the grips of frustration from the previous day, and I was waking up already worried something unexpected was going to happen in the day ahead of me.

This, my friends, is a losing strategy. I think we all know that. But it had been building up slowly and I found myself in the middle of it before I even realized what was happening.

And then I heard the lyric from the Wicked song in my head. And I actually physically closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and saw myself taking a step forward in my mind into darkness—into the unknown. It wasn't even something I realized I was doing.

But I was letting go.

No matter how hard I try, I can't control how the day is going to unfold. And waking up in a panic each morning, worried that things will not go the way I want them to isn't helping me.

So I have decided to just close my eyes and leap into each day. I am going to just let things happen and I am going to try and not tell myself things shouldn't be happening that way. And when feelings of stress well up inside me, I am going to try and remember that I decided to let go of those feelings. Those feelings don't belong to me anymore.

Because the reality is that so far nothing has happened that I, or we as a family, haven't been able to deal with. In fact, we've proven ourselves to be pretty resilient so far.

So I'm letting go. I'm going to close my eyes and leap forward—trusting my instincts and assuming things will work out.

And if they don't, well, I guess I'll have to find a different song to hear inside my head.

(PS: Last night after I'd written this, my husband came home after a long and stressful day of work and asked if I knew that the water was on in the front yard. It turned out that the water valve to our hose in the front yard was broken, so there was water running and we couldn't turn it off. And so, my husband, good guy that he is, ran over to home depot at 9 p.m. to get a new valve which he fortunately knew how to install. See? Just weird unexpected things. So I'm closing my eyes. I'm breathing. Tomorrow will be another day.)

I know everyone goes through periods where they feel more unsettled than others. I asked my mom what the Buddhist lesson is that tries to help people feel more calm and steady.

Toni here. I feel like writing a letter to my daughter, so here goes.

Dear Mara,

As you know, I usually loved being asked about Buddhism. The Buddha's teachings have been incredibly helpful to me for over 25 years now. Were I to answer your question, I'd launch into an explanation of his teachings on the inevitability of uncertainty and unpredictability, and how our desire to control what happens in our lives adds to our stress levels and keeps us from feeling calm and steady.

But I'm not going to launch into that that because your piece is so poignant and full of wisdom that all I'm going to do is close my eyes and leap with you. 

I love you very much,
Your mom






Sunday, February 4, 2018

Random Acts of Kindness

Mara here:

It's Girl Scout cookie season. Today, my daughter brought home a bag of cookies, which was good timing because I feel like I've earned them.

I did a good deed yesterday.

Trust me, I don't do good deeds very often. And it's not because I don't like being helpful to people, but I'm a private person. I'm not a particularly outgoing person. I'm not the neighbor who knows all of the other neighbors.

And for the most part, people in L.A. live in their own little bubbles. We drive ourselves around, do our stuff, keep ourselves to ourselves.

But yesterday, I was at Ralphs, my nearby grocery store, and there was a woman in front of me loading her items onto the counter as she was being checked out. She seemed flustered. She'd already had to run back into the aisles quickly to get a replacement box of pasta that she discovered was open as she was taking items out of her cart. And then the checker noticed that one of the bottles of beer was leaking, so someone had to go and get her a replacement for that.

So her transaction was taking longer than it normally would for someone with only a few items. The line of waiting customers behind her was growing.

And then her credit card wouldn't work.

She swiped it. Nothing happened. She tried a different credit card and nothing happened.

I could tell she was feeling bad about holding up the line. I could tell she was feeling the stares of the people behind her, wondering why she wasn't finished checking out. I was in no hurry so I wasn't bothered, but people behind me were getting restless.

And then the cashier realized that it was the entire credit card system in the store that wasn't working. Nobody's credit card was going to work.

The woman looked absolutely crestfallen.

The checker asked if she had cash, and she didn't. The checker asked if she had any checks, and she didn't. The checker asked if she banked at Wells Fargo because it had ATM machines in the store. The woman didn't bank with Wells Fargo.

People in all the lines at the store were realizing that the credit card machines were not working and there was an uneasy murmur growing.

I was watching all of this play out. Fortunately for me, I pay with cash because I'm not great at keeping track of my credit card balances. So I wasn't worried about the machines. But clearly most of the other customers were not happy.

Normally, I don't get involved in what's going on with the other people at the store. There are a lot of strange people in L.A. and I don't want to find myself in the middle of unnecessary drama. (You'd be amazed at how much drama there can be at the Ralphs in North Hollywood.)

On the other hand, there's still that part of me that believes we live in a community. And there have been those times when I needed help and people stepped up and helped me—not because it was an emergency or because my life needed to be saved—but simply because it was a nice thing to do.

So I took a breath and decided to see if I could help. I asked this poor flustered woman if she had a Venmo account?

If you don't know what Venmo is, it's an app for a smartphone that allows people to easily transfer money to each other. Money can easily be transferred from one bank account to another instantaneously.

There are a lot of people over the age of 30 who don't know what Venmo is, but this woman had an account!

So I proposed that I pay for her groceries with cash and then she could Venmo me the amount. When I made the offer, the cashier stared silently at me with a puzzled look. The woman, who was still trying to get the credit card machine to read one of her cards, was surprised—unsure whether my offer was real. And if my offer was real, she was probably having the same internal debate I'd just had of "Do I really want to get involved with this unknown person?"

Finally, I smiled and said, "Really, it's not a problem" and pulled out the cash to pay the cashier for the woman's groceries. The cashier reluctantly took the money, looking over at the woman, wondering what her response would be and then back at me to confirm that I was serious.

And then suddenly the woman was smiling and pulling out her phone. She asked what my Venmo username was and looked up my account. We confirmed it was the right one (the one with a picture of my dog Pidu), and she sent me the money. She stayed until I received the confirmation that I had received her payment, and then after she thanked me about a hundred times, she was on her way with her groceries.

When I stepped up to pay for my own groceries, the cashier looked at me with a puzzled face and asked me what I did for a living. I answered that I was a photographer, and she responded with a quiet, "Oh."

I'm not sure what that had to do with anything, but I think she perhaps thought my profession would explain why I decided to help a stranger.

Because it is, sadly, unusual to see strangers doing nice things for each other these days.

But it felt nice to have been able to help someone. There wasn't even charity involved in my action. Venmo is reliable and fast. The money was transferred into my Venmo account instantly and into my bank account by that afternoon.

What I really loved was that it was spontaneous. It was random. And it wasn't an emergency. It wasn't about being heroic. It just felt good to be able to make someone's day a little easier. And it was nice knowing that in the moment, my instinct was to be kind. I wanted to help. And it reminded me of the many, many times people have randomly been kind to me.

So I walked out of the store feeling as if I had done my good deed for the day and that I deserved a Girl Scout badge for Grocery Store Venmo Rescue. Okay, there's no badge for that, and I was only a Girl Scout for a few months in fourth grade. But I think I am going to definitely treat myself to a few Girl Scout cookies!

I asked my mom if she remembers a time when someone was unexpectedly kind to her. Here's what she said:

I can think of many times when strangers were kind to me. I hope it's not a dying "art." Here's a one memory that's still vivid in my mind. 

Many years ago, I was driving around on country roads outside our town with my dog in the back seat and my camera ready, so I could try take pictures of birds. I decided to to turn my car around and, in doing so, drove onto a shoulder that was so muddy, the car got stuck. Wheels spinning stuck. And this was before cell phones. 

So there I was, on a deserted road and with a car that wouldn't move. I looked all around me and there wasn't a house in sight, so I stood by the side of the road, waving at the occasional car that passed, but no one stopped. 

Then I saw these two big burly men in a pick-up truck with a huge gun rack on the top driving toward me. I didn't wave at them to stop because I was a bit afraid of them. They passed me, stopped, backed up, and asked if I needed help. I told them I was stuck. They immediately got out of the truck and, getting their boots and pant legs covered with mud, pushed my car back onto the road. 

A random act of kindness and a demerit for me for stereotyping people!


***

We'd love to hear about memories you have of strangers being kind to you, and whether you've ever been able to help someone in an unexpected way?







Sunday, January 28, 2018

Not Our Usual Post!

Hello dear readers. Toni here.

Well, Mara wrote a wonderful piece for all of you today and then I came along to read it over in the "draft" window of our blog and managed to delete the whole thing. We don't have a back-up (that won't happen again) and there isn't time for Mara to rewrite it, partly because she and Brad and Malia are hosting some of his family for the weekend.

I felt terrible about what I did, but Mara kept telling me it was no big deal, and I've take her kind words to heart. So instead of our regular post, I'm going to describe three of the 220 pieces I've written for Psychology Today over the past seven years. Each of these is special to me. You can read them by clicking on the titles.

The first piece, "My Other Mother: Being Raised by 'The Maid'" tells the story of Iola who lived with my family while I was growing up. It's one of my favorite pieces, partly because of how much love I feel for Iola and also because it could be a little short story. Yes, it tells a story...a story of love, heartbreak, and forgiveness. 

The second piece is called "Four Qualities of Mind that Alleviate Suffering." It's one of the first pieces I wrote for Psychology Today back in 2011 and has turned out to be very popular, with over 230,000 page views. It's special to me for two reasons. First, it features my friend and mentor, Sylvia Boorstein (and even has a picture of her in it!). Second, the qualities of mind it discusses are the heart of my own spiritual practice: kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. The more I cultivate these qualities of mind, the more peace and joy I feel in my life. It's a challenge at times, but it's my personal path in life. Not surprisingly, these four show up in all my books and I'm expanding on them in the new edition of my first book, How to Be Sick, which will be released this Fall.

Lastly, because it's movie award season, I'm including a piece from two years ago called "Oscar Winners about the Physically and Mentally Disabled." This piece contains short commentaries from me on 12 terrific movies that realistically depict people with disabilities. I grew up in Los Angeles and have always loved the movies. My family was best friends with another family whose husband was the attorney for many famous movie stars of the day, including Burt Lancaster, Yul Brynner, and Gregory Peck. As a result, I was sometimes allowed on sets during filming. I've been enchanted by movies ever since. I hope you've seen some those that are in my piece.

***

Stay tuned for Mara's return next week!






Sunday, January 21, 2018

Sometimes Doing Nothing is the Best Thing to Do

Mara here:

I woke up with all kinds of ambitious plans this morning. I was going to wash the dog, clean out my closet, and maybe do some photography marketing. I had many ideas of how to get a lot of things checked off my "To Do" list today.

I'm stuck in the house because we are having a repairman come and, of course, that means they've given me a four hour window for when they will possibly show up. So I'm home...waiting.

But, again, it seemed like a good opportunity to do some things I've been putting off.

But I don't want to.

Things have been hectic since the holidays. My daughter was out of school and then got sick, and my husband was home, so there was no routine. In addition, we've had people visiting; it's just felt chaotic for a long time.

But today, it's quiet. Brad is at work, Malia is at school, and I'm home. Alone. And I'm loving it.

And since I can't leave the house, I didn't commit to doing anything, including errands.

But my inner voice is telling me I should be doing things. It's telling me that my dad is about to visit so I need to get bedding washed and I should be cleaning the floors and I should be cleaning out the garage and everything could use dusting.

But I really don't want to.

And you know what? I'm not going to.

A decade ago it wouldn't have even been a question to me. I would have already checked a dozen things off my list, and it's only 10:00 a.m. But I'm older now, and somehow I've figured out that I don't have to create panic where none exists.

I can just sit here. I can just read a book. I can stare out the window if I want to.

If my dad shows up and the house is a little dirtier than I want it to be, everything will be ok. If the garage doesn't get cleaned out for another few months, everything will be ok. If the baskets of towels don't get folded until tomorrow, everything will be ok.

I have the luxury, for today, to not do anything. And so I'm going to take advantage of it. And I'm not going to worry about not doing things.

It feels amazing to realize that it's all okay. It feels like progress in the ongoing struggle I have with myself to make everything perfect.

There are plenty of days when there are things that really do need to get done. And, of course, when that's the case, I make sure things get taken care of.

But for today, I'm not going to worry about getting things done. If I decide to wash the dog, I'll wash the dog. But I won't tell myself I have to wash the dog. See the difference?

There have been so many times in my life when I haven't allowed myself the freedom to simply not do things, so it's a huge victory that I can now recognize that I do have options. It makes life feel less heavy.

And when I give myself the freedom to take a day to relax and clear my mind, then the next day, when things do have to be done, I feel less stressed. I feel less resentful. I am able to take care of what needs to be done with a little less anxiety 

When I say I'm doing nothing, it never means I actually do nothing. But it means if I want to sit and watch cat videos for a while, I will. Or I can browse through amazon.com for books. Or I'll do something random, like knit for a while. In other words, I do things that don't need to be done. I do things simply because I enjoy doing them. There's no goal to the activity. 

The nothingness means, for me, that it's not something I am telling myself must be done. It's not on a list. It's not something I'm doing for anyone else but for me—because I want to.

Here are some questions I asked my mom about "doing nothing."


Was there ever a time when you felt the way I did when I was younger—that you constantly had to be doing productive things?

Absolutely. There was a time when I was driven to always be doing something productive. Getting chronically ill took care of that! In that sense, I guess it's been a blessing. Being forced to curtail my activities so severely, I learned the joy of doing nothing. You mentioned in an earlier piece that I'm working on a second edition of my first book, How to Be Sick. Well, your subject is timely because I added a new practice that I call "Doing Nothing." I'm so glad you've discovered the value of this, Mara.

Do you ever give yourself "Do Nothing" days?

I don't give myself "Do Nothing" days but, as I write about in this practice I mentioned, I do try to remember to stop once or twice a day and take 5-10 minutes to do nothing. It's restful and refreshing. And, when I do this, I also notice places in my body where my muscles have tensed up but I hadn't been aware of it, so I consciously relax that area. (For example, when I'm "doing nothing," I often notice that my shoulders are hunched up toward my neck and I realize that that's why I'm feeling stiff and in pain in that area; when I relax the muscles, my shoulders sometimes fall a good 2-3 inches and I can feel the pain and tension leaving that area.). "Doing nothing" seems to naturally allow me to check in with my body and relax it.

Another thing I like to do is what I call "Not Thinking." Here's a piece I wrote about this for Psychology Today: "Give Your Mind a Rest: Practice Not-Thinking." I hope everyone will try it!


What do you like to do when you have a day where you really don't have anything on your "To Do" list that must be done?

I can't remember a day when I've had absolutely nothing on my "To Do" list but, like you, sometimes I ignore that list except for something that is related to health or safety.

I do have days though with hardly anything I have to do and, when I that happens, I like to listen to audiobooks, crochet, embroider, and, if the weather is nice, sit out in back and throw the ball for my dog. I hope I have a few days like that coming up soon!


***

So what about you? Can you allow yourself to do nothing? And if you can do nothing? What's your favorite nothing thing to do?



Sunday, January 14, 2018

Is Rain a Treat or an Annoyance for You?

Mara here:

It's been raining for a couple of days and, in Southern California, rain is always welcomed.

Don't get me wrong, it's problematic in many ways. People in Los Angeles do not know how to drive in the rain. The roads get dangerously slick from built up oil, yet people refuse to slow down to accommodate the slippery roads.

There also seems to be no functioning water drainage in most of the city, so after about a minute of rain all the intersections are flooded in at least a foot of water.

But we need the rain. And after the awful fires we recently had, we desperately needed the rain to clear away the residual ash that covered everything. (Unfortunately, it's also led to deadly mudslides in some of the fire zones.)

That said, the fact is: rain makes me happy. I love rain. I love cloudy weather. I love the mysterious dark tinge to the skies. I love the smell of the moist air. I love the feel of raindrops. I love way the filtered light changes the colors of the trees and the flowers. I love the cool temperature.

Yes, I love rainy weather.

But some people hate it. Some people want only sunshine. Some people love to feel the heat. For some people, cloudy skies make them depressed, or rain means that they won't be able to do whatever outside activity they had planned.

I suppose because I've lived in California most of my life, I have the luxury to love the rain. We don't get it that often, so it's not something that regularly disrupts our lives.

And for the that same reason, rain has always been a special treat to me. I'm sure if I lived in an area where it rained a lot I wouldn't find it as charming. I will admit that trying to load a cart full of groceries into my car in the rain is not a treat. And having to bring the garbage cans up from the curb in the rain is not a treat. And getting mail and packages that are soggy and sometimes damaged is not a treat.

But, for me, jogging in the rain is a treat. And being curled up in bed, listening to the sounds of the raindrops tapping against the window is a treat. And seeing flowers covered in raindrops is a treat. And being able to throw on a fluffy sweater and pull on my rain boots is a treat.

For me, the rain is soothing; it's calming. In fact, even though I know the science of weather and why it rains, I can't help but feel that water (or snow for the few times I've experienced it) falling from the sky is a miracle.

Again, before you roll your eyes at me because I sound ridiculous, remember it only rains a couple of times a year where I live. Mostly we're plagued with drought. And, although the sunny skies of Southern California are beautiful and make things easy, it does start to feel monotonous after a while. All the days feel the same.

But rain feels so different. And because it's something different for our area, it always reminds me that life isn't the same for very long. And it's not predictable. And even when the rain is inconvenient, it's a reminder that I don't control the world around me. So I try to sit back and enjoy it.

And when I'm particularly lucky and have nothing imperative planned on a day that it's raining, the rain gives me an excuse to treat myself to a couple of hours curled up in a comforter to watch a movie, cozy in bed. In those moments, I appreciate the warmth and protection of my house. I open the blinds so I can see the rain as it hits the magnolia tree outside my window. The cats often keep me company, fascinated by the drops of water as they trickle down the window.

Toni here:

Once again, my answer to the question posed in the title of this piece has been affected by being chronically ill and mostly housebound for over 16 years. Before that, rain was a necessary annoyance to me. Now I love it. My days are so much the same that rain is a special treat—just like it is for Mara—even though we get more rain in northern California than she does in southern California.

If I'm not too sick on a rainy day, I'll even bundle up and take an umbrella into the backyard, sit in a chair and throw the ball for my dog (using one of those Chuck-Its). I never would have done that when I was healthy! But now, I love the sound of the rain on the umbrella and, like Mara, I love the smell of the moist air, and the dark sky and the way the rain changes the colors of the trees in my yard. It may sound silly, but sitting out in back in the rain is like going to a movie for me!

So what about you? Do you love the rain like Mara and I do? Or do you prefer the sun?


Picture of Mara trying to jog across a rain flooded intersection near her house.



Sunday, January 7, 2018

When Old Things Become New Again

Mara here:

It's 2018. Honestly, it still feels like 2017. I'm not sure when the transition happens, but at some point I settle into the idea of it being a new year. I'm not there yet.

During the holidays, everyone in my immediate family had some time off. My daughter had three weeks off school, and my husband, who works for Sony Pictures Entertainment, had the week off between Christmas and New Year's.

Holiday breaks are always a weird combination of chaos and quiet. Schedules and routines get disrupted and there's the hustle and bustle of family visits and holiday obligations. But there's also time for people to do things they don't have time to do when there's work and school.

For my husband, his normal "extra time" activity is reading. But he's also rediscovered video games. We've had various game systems over the years, but they generally sat unused. More recently, he's been playing again with more regularity. I think he's enjoying the total distraction that the games provide.

Over the break from school, my daughter rediscovered Harry Potter. She read all the books when she was in elementary school, but was never a huge fan of the series. This past week, HBO showed a back-to-back marathon of all the movies, and she spent the day in bed watching them and is now re-reading the books. It's been a nice way for her relax and recover from her very stressful academic schedule. And it's fun to see her appreciate the creativity of the Harry Potter world and the relationships in the stories in a new way now that she's older.

For me, I've gone back to ballet class. Returning to dance after several years of not taking any classes—not even exercise classes—has been physically and mentally challenging.

For most of my life, I've taken dance classes regularly. At times, I danced for up to eight hours a day. From the time Malia was two up until the time she was twelve, I took ballet 4-5 times a week, and even popped into a jazz class or a hip hop class for fun. And when I didn't dance as much, I'd stayed active at a gym or by jogging outside. 

But then, as happens with life, everything got very busy.

My daughter's travel schedule associated with her acting made any kind of regular exercise routine difficult. And for me, routine is important. I need routines for exercise and also just for getting through my daily life. I need the familiarity of knowing what to expect. So the years of traveling with schedules that were very unpredictable shredded my nerves. 

When her acting commitments no longer required traveling, mentally I struggled to regain a sense routine for myself. I had gained a lot of weight and just couldn't push myself to start moving again. I was mentally and physically stagnant. Finally, about a year ago, I started jogging again. I was determined at least to build up some stamina and be a little more active.

I was also regularly teaching ballet, even though I wasn't doing much dancing myself. I'd give short demonstrations or illustrate marking exercises, which sort of felt like dancing, but wasn't really. But that time in the dance room, watching the students and making corrections, kept me connected to dance just enough for me to not feel as if I was completely missing out.

But about six months ago, I stopped teaching. After a couple months of not being connected to dance at all, I realized how much I missed it. I missed the feel of the dance room. I missed the music. I missed the dancing.

So I thought about going back to class.

Then I dismissed that thought.

But the thought would keep popping back into my head. I would try to push it away, but I couldn't get rid of it.

So finally, about a month ago, I worked up the courage to go to a ballet class. I'm in my 40s now, and returning to a dance class after almost three years of not taking any classes turned out to be an interesting experience!

For starters, I'm taking the class in Los Angeles at one of the "hippest" dance studios in the city. What this means is that I am in class with a lot of young, hip, kids. Honestly, they look like babies with really long legs.

You might wonder why it would be hard to take a ballet class since it hadn't been that long since I'd been teaching it regularly. The thing is, teaching a dance class is very different from taking one. You can teach a dance class without moving much. I generally demonstrate more than a lot of teachers, but it's still not anything like taking a 90 minutes class full out. That's why you always see the stereotypical "old crone" ballet teacher, walking around hitting kids with their canes.

Teaching dance is about being able to communicate corrections. It's about being able to see movement and explain to dancers how to create it. Teachers who can also demonstrate what they're talking about are great. But it's not necessary. There are lots of teachers, like me, who because of age and injury, find it hard to dance.

And the age thing is no joke. Let's just say my body is not the same body it was 15 years ago—which was the last time I returned to dancing after an extended break.

This time, returning to dance, I'm realizing that I don't think I will ever get back to the same level of skill I think of myself as having. I used to always think, "I'll get back into shape," meaning back to the shape I was previously. 

I have no such expectation now.

Various injuries have permanently limited some of my range of motion. And mentally, I'm just not as ambitious as I used to be. Being one of the best in the room used to be very important to me. Now, I just enjoy the experience of the class. I love dancing and I enjoy working on the things I know I need to work on.

But I know I'll never be the same bouncy 20 year old I once was.

I'm sure I could work hard for multiple hours a day for weeks and months and years and get myself back into very good shape. But it would be very good shape for a 40+ year old who doesn't have ambition anymore to be a dancer for anyone but herself.

And there's no reason for me to do that to myself. I'm not planning on dancing professionally again. I don't have anything to prove to anyone.

So I'm rediscovering ballet class. In many ways I'm trying to approach it as if I'm starting new. Because the reasons I'm dancing and the enjoyment I get from taking class are all new.

It's a nice way to start a new year. It's been a nice reminder that pleasures don't always come from "new" things. It's good to remember that there are many different ways we can interpret our experiences.

Here are some questions I asked my mom about rediscovering old pleasures.

I'm sure you've had a lot of experience rediscovering how to enjoy things now that your life is more limited by illness. Can you provide some examples of how you were able to experience things in a new way?

Sometimes circumstances force us to take up activities that we put aside years ago. For me, those circumstances have been becoming mostly housebound by chronic illness. It led me to take up several activities I'd engaged in years ago when I was home, raising you and your brother—before I went to law school and then became a teacher and spent most of my days outside the house.

For example, I rediscovered crochet and also embroidery. And I have, as you mentioned, experienced them in a new way and that's made them fresh for me. For example, instead of following instructions, I've taken to working "freeform" as it's called. I'll post a picture at the end of the blog of one of my freeform embroideries. It's been a great creative outlet for me!

Do you have advice for people who are interested in renewing their enjoyment in activities they've lost pleasure in?

Yes, I'd advise doing what I've done—try doing the activity in a new way. It's not hard to find new ways to do things because there's an incredible amount of information on the internet. I've learned so much just by watching YouTube videos on embroidery, fabric art, and freeform crochet. I don't copy what I find but other people's work and instructions become the inspiration for trying something in a new way.



An undersea scene by Toni