Author Archives: Patton Stephens
We returned recently from a family trip to India. And upon return, I noticed more. I saw my warm, golden living room walls and remembered the strokes of love that, one by one, covered them. And the corner shelf so intentionally placed to hold the words of the wise ones, as if to say, “Practice living these words here.”
I saw the sparkles in the black granite of the kitchen counters and felt connected to the earth that birthed these slabs of beauty that help hold the preparation and sharing of our daily bread. And the solid arms of the wooden deck with their invitation to linger by the trickling of the pond’s small waterfall.
And in the garden, the shiny, dangling green bell pepper, standing in wait to offer us its bounty. And the deep purple front porch that matches perfectly one of the bricks in the brick collage that colors our home, and the flashy black-eyed Susans pointing at us with their bright yellow rays that unabashedly beam their “Welcome home!”
I know that part of my noticing upon arrival at home was due to the contrast of our home to some of what I had just seen abroad: collapsed buildings serving as improvised “homes,” piles of trash, and so many basic human needs going unmet.
But what strikes me also is the space inside of me that opens up upon return—my renewed ability to see things in a fresh light simply because I have not seen them for a while, and also because I am seeing them through a lens shaped by new life experiences. There is a magic about that, and I’m reminded that quantum physics holds that how my world appears is largely a product of how I look at it. And upon return, things seem just fresh enough to provide the prompt I need to release my habitual ways of seeing and choose new ways.
I know it is one of my responsibilities, as a human being, to find ways of maintaining this discipline of “seeing anew,” and in midlife, I need more help with this than before! I can so easily get stuck in my old ways.
So even though going away involves the hassles of buying tickets, prepping the house sitter, closing down the home office, and that awful night of packing, it is one way of holding the discipline of seeing anew that I truly enjoy. Particularly when considered in the context of the container of wonder that is available upon return.
With the onset of summer, I’m reminded that try as we might to have it otherwise, life really wants to have its way with us. I know this seemingly goes against all we’ve learned about setting goals, putting together an action plan, and building a resume of accomplishments—and I agree that these are important. But the muggy pull of life that shows up at the onset of summer always reminds me, in the midst of my various trajectories of plans, that it is good to build in some flexibility and responsiveness.
Take last week, for example. Both of my kids were home from school, ready to enjoy and shape their first week at home after a long school year. “I’m going to give the cats a bath today,” my son announced Monday morning. “I’ve been wanting to do this for years, and on my first free summer day, I’m going to do it!” And my daughter, who had been planning to redo her room, including painting the walls, selecting new or redoing old furniture, and doing a HUGE amount of cleanup added, “These next two weeks are the main times I have to get my room done, before camp and traveling to India. So, I need some help, Mom.”
And while my children are old enough to take the lead on many activities, I am old enough to know that them taking the lead means me keeping an alert sideline view that involves asking questions, suggesting planning steps, being interrupted with requests for a hand, and driving them around to their relevant destinations. To the pet store to get tearless cat shampoo, for example; to the paint store to select a red (!) paint for the bedroom walls; to IKEA to select a platform bed (even though I swore I would never buy another IKEA product after all the kitchen chairs we purchased there broke); and—you get the picture.
All these details to find an alive way to say that last week’s onset of summer brought its predictable change in routine and a reminder for me: When it is possible to flex and expand my sense of what I thought was going to happen (during a given moment, day, or week), then it is an opening for all involved. For me and my ability to let go and be in the process; for my children (or my staff or coworkers or friends) who are trying to forge a fresh way of working or relating; and for the universal life energy that needs to be allowed to unfold rather than forced into a preset container of expectations.
I’m not sure about doing this in midlife: Is it more difficult, more complex, or more natural? Perhaps if nothing else, it is more necessary given all the changes that midlife brings our way.
What do you think, fellow midlifers?
I recently made a trip to the Pacific Northwest to see friends and attend a workshop on Whidbey Island off the coast of Washington State. The workshop and our housing was located on the property of The Whidbey Institute, http://www.whidbeyinstitute.org/, 70 secluded, historic acres of forest in an extraordinary bioregion devoted to cultivating leadership and community on behalf of Earth, Spirit, and the Human Future. This land was so beautiful and green, and infused with such stillness, that upon opening the car door and stepping out (this was my first visit to this part of the country), I had the distinct sensation of my breath being taken away. A friend recently wrote a poem about The Whidbey Institute and to describe its green he used the line, “This is the deep green before [green] had a name.”
It was within this container of beauty and stillness that my friends and I attended a workshop on “How to Create a Beautiful Mind,” with David Whyte, British poet, author, and speaker with whom we also did a walking tour in the Lake District of England last year.
One of the ideas David spoke about was viewing life as an “apprenticeship for learning to give it all away.” He reminded us that our final act in life will be to give everything away—our mental attachments, our worldly possessions, and with most finality, our physical bodies—and that this could be a devastatingly abrupt experience, or one that, perhaps, we approach with some measure of grace and readiness.
And that is where the apprenticeship comes in. During an apprenticeship we practice a skill or craft, with the goal of developing greater mastery in it over time. So in the apprenticeship of “giving it all away,” the craft we practice is making choices in our daily lives that resonate with the vibration of “giving it away,” instead of with one of its many opposite vibrations, such as holding back with fear, or lingering in resentment, or allowing past events to cloud over the present moment and its possibility.
For me, this apprenticeship has become more difficult in midlife. As my body ages and I become more aware of my own mortality, I see more clearly how fleeting and vulnerable my physical existence is. And with this sense of vulnerability, I am more cautious with physical activities and how I use my body. But along with this sense of physical or external vulnerability, I also feel a parallel pull to constrict internally and, at times, hold more tightly the interior aspects of my life. Quite the opposite, I’m afraid, of making choices that help build an internal mastery in “letting go.”
And so, dear apprenticeship, I hear you calling. Whether it be dragging my tired body to the back yard during the last few minutes of daylight to plant the vegetable plants I bought so they won’t die in those small containers; or finding the will to say “I love you” more often to my husband—and infuse it with fresh meaning; or reaching out to a sibling with whom relations have become strained; or sitting with an elderly relative who has little to give in return (at least on the surface of things); or allowing the “teenagerness” of my daughter to be what it is without trying to make it something different or more in line with my preferences.
These are some of the ways that I can choose to practice “giving it all away” today.
I just returned from a visit with my best friends from college. We get together every year or two, and get caught up over slow, lingering meals (you must visit Hugos in Houston to try the Classic Mojito); indulge in hot stone pedicures and manicures (my fingernails, with their bright pink polish, now look more like my grandmother’s than my own); and hold late night talk sessions that truly are reminiscent of the strange sleeping hours of our college days gone by. And as much as we enjoy being together, making it happen takes planning and money and saying “no” to many other things that could demand our time and attention during the appointed weekend. We are all mothers—need I say more?
But we keep up the ritual of getting together and I’m betting that its solidity gets stronger as the years pass. I can’t speak for the other three of the foursome, but for me, the more I come to realize how shifting and impermanent the “forms” of life are—the jobs that will change, the crises that will resolve, the houses that will decline, and (most certainly) the bodies that will age—the more I value some of life’s less concrete but more lasting forms, like friendship.
And since Midlife has a reputation for being rough—what with all its tendencies toward self-doubt and life reevaluation, and how suddenly and potently the related feelings sometimes storm in and take over—having strong friendships during Midlife is essential in my book. Friendships that help see us through the rough spots, and more importantly, to see the Midlife Shine just beneath (and sometimes as a result of) the rough.
So with this post, I cheer again our foursome (albeit without the fondly remembered Mojito in hand) and our vulnerable but open Midlife hearts.
I have begun, in partnership with a dear friend and fellow “midlifer,” the practice of “Giving things over to God.” This is a bit radical for us—and I must say up front, so I don’t scare off any readers—“God” can refer to almost anything in the context of how we are using it. God could be the mountains and their aura, or Changing Woman, a Goddess from the Native American tradition, or one of the enlightened teachers such as Jesus or Buddha, or the energy of life one sometimes experiences when walking near a creek.
As long as the connotation of “God” is to the “sacred otherness of life”—the way of putting it that I gratefully adopted from David Whyte, poet, author, and walking tour guide extraordinaire. http://www.davidwhyte.com/
It is a good thing that my friend and I are learning to surrender some of our illusions about how much control we actually have over things, and I don’t think we could have gotten here before midlife.
To get to this particular place of “letting go,” we had to have a certain amount and type of experience under our belts, including and in particular, I suspect, the experience of witnessing changes in our bodies that make us feel more physically vulnerable, and in a certain way, more limited. This mix of life experience and awareness of vulnerability seems to reach a threshold during midlife that allows and perhaps encourages more surrender and the active acceptance of what was previously a thought kept in the back of the mind: “I cannot make things happen and I can’t be the one who masters and moves all.”
And as is usually the case, life is presenting me many opportunities to practice our new philosophy. Spring, so ripe with all its possibility, is often a very busy time for me, what with new sports leagues starting up, local creek cleanups being held, school fund raisers and science fairs on the calendar, and spring break vacations to be planned and taken (on top of the regular professional and family work). I find spring up there with the winter holidays in terms of being stressful, and if I am not careful, spring takes on a feeling of “let’s get through this,” and more tension and less presence runs through my words and actions.
What better time then, than spring, to hand things over to the “sacred otherness of life?” To do what I can to get organized and make plans, and then allow things to unfold.
And by whatever name we call it, I know that the “sacred otherness” sprung yellow daffodils in my yard last week, and is budding pink apple and cherry blossoms all over town, things that neither my will nor my trying could ever have achieved.
I am still wondering if I can truly claim the space and give this particular gift to myself. Even though it is on my calendar and I’ve shared my plans with my husband, Raj, I still notice some doubts flashing their lights underneath the surface of my “decision.” The gift requires, after all, about 6 hours of my time, which could be spent on professional or family work, or on other things on my “list” that are “approved” as worthy of my time and energy.
But allowing myself the gift of silence? Silence to the tune of several hours at a silent retreat center tucked away in a wooded area, not hard to get to, but just far enough from highways and computers and chores. Is this a gift that my inner wisdom has the right to wrap up and offer to me?
From the vantage point of standing more steady and tall on the grounds of midlife, I say, “Yes!”
For many years now, I have longed to spend some time in silence during the season of Lent, a six-week period that usually includes the first day of spring. I’ve felt that this time of silence would set the context for the renewal that can organically happen in spring if given the right nourishment and the opportunity to manifest itself.
And now that I am older, I want this renewal more. I see more clearly its value, even if it requires a time investment—and even in the midst of the lingering voice that whispers, “What about….?”
It’s decided, then. Here’s to silence as a way of raising my midlife voice.
Our children have attended the Oneness Family School for the last seven years. Oneness is a Montessori-based school that includes in its holistic curriculum not only academic training, but also components that develop the child’s emotional health, social responsibility, ethics, and global awareness. And its teaching approach is built around the idea that fostering happiness and self-confidence in each child is the key to building a foundation for long-term success in learning.
We have loved this school so much! Oneness has provided our children a wonderful foundation and we, as a family, have thrived in the space of its loving and respectful walls. But we are approaching the last few months of our time there (our son finished his final year in June of 2010, and our daughter will in June of 2011), so we are starting to feel the onset of the “endings” and “letting go” that will necessarily and naturally be part of the process of moving from this small, nurturing school into the quite large local public school system.
“This is the last time we’ll experience Festival of Lights,” I shared with my husband, Raj, during the candle-lit program in December which featured each class in costume and presentation of a culture, religion, philosophy, or work of literature they had studied that had in some way showed how the “light” is all around us, in many forms. “I know, it’s sad,” Raj replied to my shared thought. “But we can always come back even after she leaves the school.” “Yeah, I guess that’s true,” I said.
Even so, I can’t help but see and feel the “endings:” “This is the last time we will have a birthday party that is involves primarily her Oneness friends,” and with excitement, “I have only three more months of driving left!” because when she leaves Oneness, she will be able to take the school bus.
In reflection upon this transition, I recognize that midlife is marked by endings in a more pronounced way than some other life phases, particularly as it relates to raising children. It is, for some of us, during midlife when our children transition from middle to high school and even more noticeably pull away: “Mom, don’t talk to me while we are at the school dinner!” Or, “Dad, you are so embarrassing, please.” And they are capable of and need to do more things on their own, which changes the parenting demands in midlife, perhaps more noticeably than in earlier transitions.
I’m certain that this particular experience of midlife endings and letting go will unfold in a reasonably good way – and that’s good enough for me on these less than clear-cut life issues! And I am happy to have a few more months in the care of Oneness as we sort it all through.
Here is a poem to wrap up this post:
We linger in the doorway, knowing that stepping
through means moving beyond.
Beyond the walls that for years have honored
us and past the windows that let in a hopeful
light and away from the arms that wrapped
around our uncertainties.
And I am thankful that there is space for our lingering.
Others patiently squeeze by in their comings
and goings, knowing that when the time is right,
we will step through and walk with heads raised high
toward the “next “ that is waiting to be embraced.
Much to no one’s surprise, “The King’s Speech” recently won the Best Picture Award for 2010. I saw this movie with a girl friend (here’s to the girls’ night out!), and was so taken by its power and impact. As you likely know, “The King’s Speech” portrays the struggle of Britain’s King George VI to overcome his long-standing stammer, a speech difficulty in which one speaks with involuntary breaks and pauses and sometimes with spasmodic repetitions of syllables or sounds.
For days after seeing it, I kept thinking about the movie (and I don’t think this was solely due to the fact that the good-looking and talented Colin Firth played King George!). I even spent one of my planned few minutes by our neighborhood creek sitting in the parking lot instead of getting out and among the trees and sounds of the water, which are usually a huge draw for me. Instead, I stayed in the car thinking about the movie a bit and relishing the scenes that were still flashing across my mind:
The King stricken with embarrassment when asked to speak for the Royal Family at public events; or the King brought to tears when he realized just what would be required of him after he was unexpectedly and abruptly crowned; or him sharing with his speech therapist, after much hesitation, stifling and painful memories from his childhood; and finally, his prideful swagger as he walked out of the recording room after his first nearly stammer-less speech.
The movie vividly and honestly depicted the King’s struggles to move beyond what he had always been, a self-questioning and timid person with a stammer, and grow into what was possible for him to be, a confident and assertive leader who uses his voice as a key tool to bring people together. It was, in fact, necessary for him to evolve in this way to fulfill his role as newly crowned King just as Great Britain declared war against Hitler.
The call to re-emerge in one way or another is frequent in midlife. By then, our “old ways” are usually tired out and quite often very ineffective—except, perhaps, in keeping us stuck! These old ways no longer have the fuel of youthful denial, naivety, or perceived invulnerability to keep them alive.
By the end of the movie, I came to love the sound of the King’s voice, and perhaps it was the lingering sound of his voice that kept me from getting out of my car in the park. But even more than the sound, I appreciated his struggle with finding and using his voice quite simply because it was so visible. Most of us have the luxury of keeping our struggles reasonably hidden or of exposing them by choice and in our own timing. But the King did not have this choice, and his outer, involuntary manifestation of his inner vulnerability was at once heart breaking and inspiring.
And for this visible portrayal of vulnerability, I am grateful. To the real King George VI who lived this excruciating journey; to the movie producers who chose to show this vulnerability in its rawness; and to the power of the actors whose skill and talent inhabited and brought to life the characters.
I am grateful for how the movie highlighted with clearer outlines the courage it takes to step beyond the boundaries that have been knowingly and unknowingly set for us by ourselves and others, and how those outlines may give a boost to myself and others who are in our own midlife process of becoming more than we have been in the past.