The Pause Between

“When God closes one door, He opens another.”

It’s 5 a.m. I’m wide awake, though I don’t need to be. For the first time in almost 30 years, I don’t have a job. 

Last month, my employer announced it would be making reductions in the workforce, and I knew, in the mental intersection of intuition and logic, that this time my job would be one of the many eliminated. They notified me last Tuesday. After 22 years with this organization, it’s over. Unlike colleagues whose exit from the company included a festive retirement party, I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to anyone. 

It’s kind of surreal. I had a month to prepare myself for this outcome, so when I was asked to report to the HR director, I wasn’t surprised. I actually think that was my first comment. The rest of the conversation is a blur. But now, sitting on my sofa in the dark with my sleepy dog Lacy beside me, instead of grief, fear or bitterness I feel a strange sense of disconnection. I’m not sure how to do this. 

Thankfully, this time is very different from other times I’ve found myself between jobs. At almost 58, I’m eligible to start my pension. I know how fortunate I am to have this safety net, although it’s nowhere near enough to live on. Still, I’m grateful for this measure of security while I figure out what comes next.

Press pause

“Mom, know what you need to do?” asked Jared, my youngest son. “Take two weeks off to do nothing. Just be aimless. You’ve never been able to take it easy, ever. You deserve it!”

Two weeks to be aimless? Practical, productive planner that I am, two hours doing nothing sometimes feel frivolous. But my husband Ret strongly encouraged me to take that two-week break. It turned out to be excellent advice.

The first week was fun. Who knew how pleasant the supermarket could be on a Wednesday morning? Scheduling a visit with my doctor, it occurred to me I didn’t have to request the last appointment of the day. I could go any time I wanted and avoid rush-hour traffic. The realization almost made me giddy. All at once I felt a heavy, ill-fitting coat slip off my shoulders and disappear. 

That’s when I made the radical decision to stop wearing a watch for the rest of the two weeks. What a luxury to actually have time and space, to stop cramming every waking moment with a thousand tasks just to keep my little world humming along on its orbit! 

The new reality

So that was Week 1. Week 2 has been a little more challenging. After navigating big, irrevocable decisions about my pension, it’s been a struggle to make less consequential ones, like what to fix for dinner. I don’t miss rushing out the door every morning for work, but I really miss my friends there, dear people who have been a part of my daily life for over 20 years. And when FedEx delivered the legal documents officially severing me from my company, the magnitude of the loss came crashing down.

I guess I really did need this pause, just to catch my breath. 

Third act dreams

What do I do now? My ever-active mind is bursting with ideas, most of them involving yoga. I’ve taught after-work yoga classes and stress management workshops at my company for years and years, and I’m feeling absolutely bereft without them now. Always a labor of love and a joyful hobby, my dream has been that when I retired from my corporate job, I would find a way to teach yoga full-time.

But where? Teaching in a yoga studio doesn’t feel like a good fit for me. My favorite students tend to be the ones who probably wouldn’t set foot in a studio because they believe they’re not flexible/strong/young/fit/healthy enough to do yoga. Guiding them in a slower-paced practice that fits their unique body has always been a kind of calling, especially now that I’m at an age where that’s what I need, too.

Could this be the right time for my dream?

Meditating in a tizzy

Sitting on my meditation bench has been a real challenge lately. I have lots of time to practice, but my monkey mind is in high gear, planning, thinking, worrying:

  • OMG, that was the last paycheck I’ll ever get! How will I pay my bills?
  • I am never going to work in a cubicle again! Time to get rid of that office wardrobe!
  • How do I find a place to teach yoga? Should I teach online? Look for private clients? Forget the whole thing and bag groceries instead?
  • Let’s do something fun today! What about the beach? Or the bookstore? Or a nap?
  • The windows need washing, and look at those giant dust bunnies! No excuses anymore – time to get up and clean this house!

When I find myself in this kind of tizzy, just about the only meditating I can manage is to sit relatively still and watch my breath flow in and out. It’s the first meditation technique I teach my students. When the mind wants to get stuck in the past or the future, you need something to anchor you in the here and now. The breath is an instant connection to the present moment – you can’t breathe next Tuesday’s breath today. There’s only this breath. Then the next one. And the next. One at a time.

Just breathe

Witnessing the breath, I’m focusing less on the inhalation and exhalation, and more on the little pause in between. It’s barely noticeable, just an instant, but it pulses with meaning. Inhale, and there’s a subtle pause at the top when the lungs are full and the body knows it’s time to let go. Exhale, and the pause at the bottom acknowledges the release of what the body no longer needs, ready for the promise of the next breath. It’s almost like the sweetness of dawn and dusk. What came before is past, what’s next has yet to arrive, and the peaceful energy suspended in those brief moments of transition is palpable. 

The next breath is coming. And so is another day. 

A new door opens

A couple days ago, I dropped off Lacy at the doggie salon and spent some time chatting with the owner and her sister. Naturally they wondered what I was doing there at 10:30 in the morning since I usually rush Lacy over for her bath during my lunch hour, hair on fire and no time for small talk.

I told them about my jobless state and my yoga idea. Twenty minutes later, I had a private client lined up! They asked me to bring them some business cards so they can tell other dog-loving clients about me. It’s a beginning.

All my life I’ve been told that when God closes one door, He opens another. And so far, it’s been true for me. Maybe it’s time to have faith and step through the next open door.

Notes to My Younger Self

“If I’d known then what I know now…” Almost everyone

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The month of January was named for the ancient Roman god, Janus. Depicted with two faces – one looking forward and one looking behind – Janus is the god of beginnings and transitions. Perfect choice.

During this month, we all become a little like Janus as we review the year that’s passed and plan the one ahead of us. Maybe because my birthday is in January, it’s a double reminder of how quickly life moves.

Depending on my mood, looking at the past can be sweetly nostalgic or remorseful, filled with the what ifs that hindsight brings. Looking to the future, I foresee either exciting opportunities or dreaded obstacles. Perspective is everything, isn’t it?

Having another birthday (my 56th, in case you’re curious) is a blessing. I wouldn’t trade the wisdom I’ve gained for the young body I‘ve lost for anything, even with the annoyance of hot flashes and the occasional arthritis pain that have become a part of my life. It’s probably a fair exchange. I don’t think we’re allowed to have both at the same time, anyway. Growing older has its well-deserved rewards.

If I could do it all over again, knowing what I know now, would I change anything? In spite of the heartbreak of a failed marriage, I’d never alter the course that gave me my sons. And though I regret living so far away from my parents, and will probably miss my beloved New Orleans for the rest of my days, I wouldn’t have met my husband Ret or have the good life I’ve made in Georgia if I hadn’t moved away. Maybe that’s why we don’t get a crystal ball. We wouldn’t always choose what’s best for us. 

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With Ret, 2017

But if I could go back and counsel my younger self, these are some of the things I’d say to me:

Those mean girls in school are going to vanish from your life forever.

Don’t listen to hateful people who make fun of you. Chin up! (And don’t slouch.) Stick with the friends who are kind to you and forget about everyone else. People who bully or ridicule others do so to inflate their own meager sense of self-worth. It sucks to be them! Graduation day will come, and you’ll never have to see these people again. They’re irrelevant.

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Gawky sophomore

Ditch the pointy-toed stilettos. They are going to destroy your feet.

Believe me, one day you’re going to wish you’d spent the 80s in more comfortable shoes. You might cringe over that big hair in old photos, too, but at least it won’t inflict permanent damage.

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Big 80s hair

Be nicer to your mother.

She’s not going to be with you for long, and you are going to miss her for the rest of your life. Hold on to the memory of the sound of her voice, and the tender way she kissed your eyelids. Remember her playful silliness, and how she loved Coke floats with chocolate ice cream, and that she couldn’t ride a bicycle, and how she snorted when she laughed. And learn to let go of the sad memories. Mama loved you, and she would have wanted you to be happy.

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Mama and me

Your dad’s new wife is going to become your best friend.

Sometimes life is tragic. Even now, it doesn’t make much sense to me. But God knew that you would still need a mother, so He made a way for that. And this new mom really loves you. In fact, she’s going to become the person you call first when you need advice, or have good news, or just want to talk. So be nice to her, too.

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With Mom at my wedding, 2011

When the baby sleeps, you sleep.

This piece of advice will come from Ricia, and she was right. Steal a nap whenever you can while Kevin and Jared are infants. No one is going to judge a new mother by her unfolded laundry. (And shame on them if they do!) This time with your newborns is precious and fleeting. Take good care of yourself, and snuggle up on your babies every possible minute. The postpartum hormones, sore breasts and sleepless nights only seem like forever while you’re in the foggy midst of them. It’s over in a blink. One minute you’re pacing the floor at 2 a.m. with a colicky baby and spit-up caked in your hair, and then a few weeks later, that baby has a fuzzy little mustache and wants to borrow your car. Cherish this sweetness while it lasts.

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This is sleep deprivation, and big, big love

Stop straightening your hair!

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Women pay obscene amounts of money to have curls like the ones you inherited for free from your Sicilian grandmother. Save the 5,382 hours you will spend over the next 20 years trying to make yourself something you’re not, and embrace who you are – in every way. (It’s futile anyway; you live in the humidity capital of the US.)

Lee 5.13

And another thing: in your 40th summer, you’re going to be tempted to highlight your hair. Resist! Otherwise, what will start out as a summer fling is going to turn into an annoying, expensive, long-term commitment, complete with more bad hair drama than any one person needs in her life. Be a happy brunette. Trust me on this.

Use that 5,382 hours you’ve saved and write that book.

Enjoy your artsy side. Write. Draw. Play your guitar, for heaven’s sake, instead of letting it gather dust in the corner, vowing you’ll get to it one day when you have time. Yes, you have a duty to take care of your family and earn a living, but don’t let months or years go by without indulging your creative soul. It’s what makes you, you.

Oh, and don’t listen to anyone who says you aren’t talented enough, especially yourself. That’s not the point. It’s the process that matters, not the end result.

Find out about this weird thing called yoga.

Namaste

No, not yogurt! Yoga is going to change your life, giving you grace and strength you can’t imagine. If only we’d discovered it back in the 70s, when regular folks thought it was bohemian and outlandish, it might have dramatically altered the way we navigated our teenaged years, pregnancy and new motherhood. Maybe we could have even avoided some of these nagging health issues I’m dealing with now. And we would have learned to relax a long time ago.

Save, save, save money!

Seriously. Having to work for 40-plus years is just as excruciating as it sounds. And credit cards are evil. They suck you in with false promises of the good life until you wind up in bondage. Don’t fall for it.

And finally, this too shall pass.

Whatever you’re struggling with now, I promise it will come to an end. You will survive high school chemistry, fickle friends, getting fired and immense, consuming grief. You’re going to earn a bachelor’s degree at age 40 while working full-time and wonder how on earth you did it. Facing the shattering end of a long marriage will temporarily tear your heart to bits – but it will also forge your unbreakable spirit. Your cranky, never-let-you-sleep babies will become adorable little boys. Then those adorable little boys will transform into exasperating, petulant teenagers whose behavior keeps you up at night all over again. And then one day, they’ll hug you, say, “Thanks for everything, Mom,” and move away to build their own lives.

Nothing lasts forever.

So, the best you can do is take it one day at a time. The only thing you can control is yourself; give the rest to God and let Him be responsible for running the universe. Trust that whatever unfolds in life will ultimately be for good, and your responsibility is to do your part, the best way you know how. Have faith. Love people. Give yourself a break.

You’re going to be okay. Really.

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What Color Are Your Glasses?

Once upon a time, there was a girl who prided herself on being prepared for every possible lousy outcome. She anticipated every pitfall, mentally conjuring every worst-case scenario. Having a vivid imagination and a pessimistic outlook, she positively excelled in the negative.

This girl thought optimists were suckers because they’re so often disappointed. Since she believed nothing in her experience ever worked out according to plan, she thought it was emotionally safer to just expect the worst. After all, if on the rare occasion something did go well, she could be pleasantly surprised.

There’s a big problem with this kind of thinking: dwelling on the negative ushers in more negative. We tend to find just what we’re looking for. We attract it.

I know a lot about this. Because I was once that girl.

I don’t think I was born with a dark cloud over my head. Always full of ideas, my natural inclination leans toward hopefulness and possibility. Somewhere along the line, though, fear and disappointment got the better of me; I donned my cynical armor and tried not to expect too much. I guess I thought it was easier that way.

But it isn’t easier. The burdens of anxiety, anger and regret are just too heavy for my shoulders. Maybe it’s naïve to view the world through rose-colored glasses, but I think I’d rather be innocent than bitter.

A yogic attitude adjustment

Which brings me to one of my favorite yogic attitude adjustments: pratipaksha bhavana. It means taking a negative thought and replacing it with its opposite, positive thought. It’s a basic tenet of joyful living. It sounds simple, and it is. I’m learning that sometimes it’s not easy. But it’s necessary.

On any given day in my ordinary life, 15 things might go well and just one thing will get bungled up. Guess which one I’m thinking about – dwelling on – all day long? Right: the bungled one. It’s almost as if negativity is a magnet, pulling me away from the good stuff. It’s such a waste, really. If I allow my mind to focus on the rude driver, the bad weather, etc., it doesn’t just make me grumpy. I also miss the moments that make life sweet, like the exuberant greeting from my dog or the gentle tone of my husband Ret’s voice when he says my name.

I’d like to blame the media for turning us all into grisly rubber-neckers, stopping the traffic of life to gawk at its horrors when we could turn the other way to watch a spectacular sunset instead. But the truth is, no one can choose my thoughts but me.

When I was much younger, I had a job I really disliked. Okay, I hated it. Each day I showed up for work with my heart on my sleeve, and probably a crabby expression my face, too. One of my coworkers took note and would say to me, “Lee, every day that you wake up is a good day!”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know,” was my standard, somewhat biting reply.

Decades later, I feel like I owe this woman an apology. She was right, of course. Every day that I wake up is a good day, because the alternative is a day when I don’t wake up… So every day, I need to seek out the positive. Where I focus my attention, energy follows. Do I really want to spend my energy on the things that sap my spirit?

An attitude of gratitude

About a dozen years ago, at the urging of a friend, I started keeping a gratitude journal. I didn’t want to do it. It was a time of great distress in my life and I wanted to point out all the rotten things I saw in the world. But she insisted. She instructed me to write down five things for which I was thankful every day. I could write anything, but it had to be sincere and I had to do it every single day.

At first I was resistant. My entries looked like this:

  1. The sun came up today.
  2. I don’t live in a third world country.
  3. My dog is cute.
  4. I have a job.
  5. I’m not in the hospital.

Then came the nights when, just as I was getting into bed, I realized I hadn’t written in my journal. I’d have to really think back over the day to remember what happened and find something good to report. Surely there was something? My entries started looking like this:

  1. I had lunch with a friend. It was nice.
  2. My boss liked my presentation.
  3. It rained today. We really needed the rain.
  4. The boys got good report cards!
  5. Talked with Dad today. Love my dad!

Over time, the assignment became almost a game as I tried to find gratitude in everything. Instead of lamenting over how much new tires cost, I was happy to have a car. When my then-teenaged sons whined about some terrible injustice at school, I was glad they were talking to me about it. That summer, I decided to stop complaining about the Georgia heat because then I wouldn’t have the right to grumble about winter. I didn’t want to be one of those people who gripes about the weather all the time.

Little by little, I found myself looking at the bright side. And I started seeing God’s hand everywhere, guiding me, showing me the way. I only had to open my eyes.

Practice, practice, practice

All these years later, my journal has  morphed a little but my practice of pratipaksha bhavana continues. Believe me, it’s a practice – I have to work at this to stay focused or my old tendencies will rise back up to the surface and wreak havoc. Besides keeping the journal, a couple of things have really helped me:

The first thing is surrounding myself with people who point me to the light when I can’t find it myself. Sometimes we don’t see ourselves clearly because we’re looking in a fun house mirror. I need people like Ret and my mom as much as I need oxygen.

And the second thing is giving it away. All this experience looking for the silver lining in my own life has made me a much better encourager to other people. The bonus is that serving other people, especially sharing hope and happiness with them, always makes me feel better too.

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Gratitude journal entry, Sept. 17, 2016:

  1. My boys are really terrific men. I’m so proud of them.
  2. Fall is on the way, with its cool air and pumpkin spice lattes.
  3. Ret is writing music – I love seeing him so happy.
  4. It’s so nice to share the sofa with my sweet dog, Lacy.
  5. There is peace in my home and in my heart tonight.