Running Against the Wind

Highly scientific claim of the week: you can only feel the wind when you’re moving against it—hurricanes, tornadoes and the like exempted.

Evidence Exhibit 1: When I went running up the canyon near campus this week, it was hot on the way out but breezy on the way back. The breeze could have started right at the moment I turned around, but I suspect not. Still, the situation may warrant further investigation, so—

Evidence Exhibit 2: When I lived in Chicago, a friend and I rode our bikes next to the lake. I finally learned that when I thought I was super speedy biker person, in reality a significant tailwind was giving me a boost. But I never physically felt it against my skin until I turned around and rode into it.

Conclusion: I think much of life is like this. We tend to notice the things that aren’t going our way more readily than the things that are. Personally, I prefer for everything to line up exactly the way I want it to—or I think that’s my preference. It’s never happened, so who knows how I’d actually react.

There’s a Chinese story that might explain why it hasn’t. A farmer’s horse ran away. All his neighbors said, “Oh, what terrible luck!” He said, “Maybe good, maybe bad.”

Then the horse came back leading an entire herd of horses right into his corral. His neighbors all said, “Oh, what good luck!” He said, “Maybe good, maybe bad.”

One day, his son was trying to break one of the wild horses, and he fell off and broke his leg. His neighbors all said, “Oh, what bad luck!” He said, “Maybe good, maybe bad.”

Then a war came, and his son was unable to fight because of his broken leg. I think you know what everyone said.

I don’t know why the direction I want to go can’t be the “maybe good” direction all the time, but I do know the breeze felt good on a hot day.

Momma Told Me

I don’t know why we’re designed to go two steps forward and one step back, but I’m convinced we are. Last week: Zen master. This week: whiner.

I exaggerate last week’s accomplishments, but I did have this miraculous moment of getting over myself. One of the software systems at work appears to have been designed to decrease productivity, and I generally spend a lot of time and energy hating it while using it.

This time a moment of spiritual brilliance flashed upon me. If I changed the goal from finishing the task to being present and paying attention, I could stop fighting the inefficient system because its inefficiency would no longer matter. So I changed the goal. My mind cleared up. My patience increased. My work probably improved, though I have no way to measure that.

Fast forward to this week. While working on another not favorite task, I said to myself, you could use this time as practice; where is your attention? I replied, somewhat snappishly, I don’t want to practice, I want to be miserable and complain. I clearly saw myself making that choice, but changing my approach still didn’t interest me. One step back—at least.

I kept this up most of the day and wore myself down sufficiently that, by the time I was chopping kale for dinner, I could consider the option of simply relaxing and accepting my sour disposition. Then this line from William Stafford’s poem “A Message from the Wanderer” came floating in: “Tell everyone just to remember/their names, and remind others, later, when we/ find each other.” Some days that’s all we can do, remember who we are, and that’s OK because that day is not eternal. The next day we’ll be capable of making different choices.

I’ll end with the rest of Stafford’s stanza because he sums it up so beautifully:

“…Tell the little ones
to cry and then go to sleep, curled up
where they can. And if any of us get lost,
if any of us cannot come all the way—
remember: there will come a time when
all we have said and all we have hoped
will be all right.”

Going Down?

As with economies, so with emotions—what goes up is generally followed by something decidedly less enjoyable. So after a rather extended adrenaline rush finishing the infamous report, there followed a week of exhaustion and then … the crash.

Almost. You may know these moments, the times when the world, which had been sunny an hour or a day before, suddenly turns to complete crap. These moments are very convincing. I’m usually somewhere in the middle of one before realizing nothing has changed from the time when everything was not crap. By then it is often too late.

Contrary to my usual practice, I anticipated this downturn; I knew the end of an intense project would eventually lead to withdrawal. The early stages of the crash had clearly arrived when my mind started to play a “you really suck” advertisement: I would never catch up with the details of my life—financial, household, relational, you name it—never send another query letter to an agent, and certainly never get married. “Never” is a good clue that you’re losing altitude.

I watched myself totter on the edge, contemplating the descent. The poet David Whyte says sometimes he sees himself walk up to the edge of the pit of feeling deeply sorry for himself and jump in and on the way down he thinks, this is going to be a good one.

I couldn’t quite decide whether I needed to wallow in self-pity for a while or whether a more pleasant route might be available. Of course if you’re asking that question, you’re already climbing down the well. Despite having multiple tools at my disposal for turning around—gratitude, exercise, chocolate—I was apparently going to refuse to use any of them.

Then somewhere in the middle of making breakfast, the universe shifted. By the time my eggs were fried, the urge to indulge in “poor me” had passed, like those times on the highway when things are inches away from going bad and everyone sails on through as if there had been no danger. It wasn’t my doing. It was grace or good fortune, depending on your world view.

I’m grateful to have survived unscathed this time. I have no illusions that every encounter with the abyss will end so well, but I am cheered by the memory of thinking, “Feeling miserable is really not going to be much fun.” That’s the beginning of sanity.