Each year better than the last – I hope

Looking back… looking ahead

Now that Christmas and Hanukkah and Winter Solstice have all passed, it’s time to start looking ahead to the New Year. Kwanzaa is still underway till January 1, and the Seven Principles that mark this time give me good food for thought, even though I don’t actually celebrate it formally. Yuletide is also underway till January 1 (or the 13th, depending what part of the world you live in), allowing everything to just slow down for time to reflect and look ahead to the new year.

I’m celebrating the spirit of Yuletide more than any other holiday this season. It’s been a quiet time, without a lot of travel, and minimal racing around to take care of presents and what-not. If anything, I’ve been pretty neglectful of others, this holiday season. But you know what? They’ve been totally neglectful of me, too, so we’re even. If anything, the past years have been about me and my spouse doing a hell of a lot more for them than they did for us — doing more travel, making more of an effort, going out of our way to keep everyone aligned and on track with coordinating our holiday activities. This year, we haven’t done all that — and guess what… nobody picked up the slack. So there you go — they must not care that much, so… what-ever.

It’s time to us to take care of ourselves for once.

And we’ve done just that. I’ve been in a pretty low-key frame of mind since before Christmas — all the excitement of work notwithstanding — so, it’s been a very “Yule-like” time. Things have slowed down. I’ve allowed them to slow down. I’ve taken time OFF from all the sense of obligation and duty and required activities, to just rest and relax and not race around like a chicken with my head cut off, as I did in prior years. I’ve done energizing things that are good for me, and I’ve been eating lots of new foods that support me and my brain, as well. I’ve cooked up some pretty excellent dishes lately, if I say so myself, and my spouse says I’m becoming quite the chef :)

Looking back on the past year, it’s odd — I can remember bits and pieces of it, but I don’t get an overall sense of how the year was. I know it’s been challenging, and I’ve been actively looking for a new job for much of that time — especially in the past three months. At home, things have stabilized somewhat — with less undercurrents of stress and strain, but some extreme meltdowns that have taken a toll on my marriage. I’ve been through a lot of intense challenges with my spouse, including issues with money and infidelity and physically unhealthy choices. All in all, though, I think we’re on the up-swing, and taking time out from all the travel to see family, as well as me getting my own “house” in order, has benefited us a great deal.

I feel stronger and more stable than I have in a long time. Perhaps ever. And yet, there’s a constant sense of confusion and disorientation that is always in the background. I am more functional than I can remember being in a good long while, and the circumstances of my life are leveling out and becoming more “structurally sound”, but at the same time, I’m in a fair amount of general pain much of the time, I have tremors and shakes, and my brain is definitely not firing on all pistons. I feel like I’m maybe at 65% on a regular basis. 85% if I’m lucky.

And that makes me sad.

But I think perhaps I am acclimating to the instability. I’ve decided I’m going to just get on with my life, even though I can’t seem to get rid of the memory problems, the sleep difficulties, the constant sense of fatigue, confusion, distractability, getting things turned around, and getting lost and not knowing where I am for a few minutes at a time… and more.

My solution is to just keep going and not get sidetracked and depressed by what’s going on inside my head. If I can just keep going, keep working at things, and do my best to learn from my lessons and try again, this all doesn’t need to hold me back permanently. It might slow me down, but it’s not going to stop me.

I’m also coming to terms with the idea of not being Alpha in every situation at work — and beyond. At work, I have been long accustomed to being Alpha and being in a leadership position of some kind. But now that things are shifting and changing at work, I’m not sure if this is going to last. There are so many people at work who are a hell of a lot more possessed by the demons of blind ambition and greed, and I just can’t see competing with them around the clock. There’s all sorts of politicking — and if it takes politicking to get ahead, then I’m going to step back and not engage with that, and allow myself to simply be happy in the position where I am.

Now, I don’t for a minute expect that I’ll stay in that subordinate position for long, if I get the attention of the right people who recognize what I’ve got to offer. I do want to get ahead. I need a raise. I need a promotion. I need to really put what I know and have learned into action. But I need to be smart about it and not just charge forward into the gap, without understanding what’s ahead of me. If a promotion means I’m going to have to travel all over the world and not be home more than two weeks out of every month, then I’ll pass. There is that possibility. But who can say? Who can say…

Anyway, I can’t invest too much time and effort in thinking about what may be… inventing all sorts of dramatic stories about what that will mean for me. Who knows what will happen? I need to conserve my energy, because I continue to have some limiting difficulties — the headaches and the joint pain which suck a lot of energy from me… the confusion and disorientation that keep me guessing and demand even more energy from me to keep up and do my part… the vertigo and tinnitus that are just so damned distracting… and the attentional and distraction issues that interrupt what I’m doing with a regular dose of screw-ups.

I need to keep going, and in order to do that, I need to take good care of myself and also practice things that will keep me sharp and make me sharper, while not using up a lot of time.

  • Ride the exercise bike or move and stretch, first thing in the morning to get my blood pumping and clear out some of the sludge that’s built up. (10 minutes a day)
  • Practicing juggling one thing at a time, tossing it into the air, and then catching it.  I do this with my toothbrush each morning, to improve my eye-hand coordination and also my focus and attention. (1-2 minutes a day)
  • Working on my balance and leg mobility with exercises on a daily basis. (5 minutes a day)
  • Doing my measured breathing that regulates my heart rate and keeps me calm. (5-10 minutes a day)
  • Allowing myself to really, truly relax on a regular basis — just letting myself collapse into bed or on the couch, and letting the fatigue just wash over me. (The first few minutes when I go to bed)
  • Increase my dopamine levels by eating more foods with L-Tyrosine and also taking the supplement… and also taking Oil of Oregano, to keep my body from breaking down the dopamine and seratonin in my system. (In the regular course of my day.)
  • Drinking plenty of water to flush out the sludge.
  • Studying anatomy and physiology, to help me better understand the inner workings of my physical life — and how to improve my health.

All these things are really good for me — and I can work them into my daily routine. The biggest challenge is figuring out how to do them as a regular part of my life, without up-ending my routine. That is totally do-able, because I can find time when my breakfast is cooking, and I’d just be sitting around anyway.  I just need to do it. And I need to not just take things for granted, because I’ve been doing them a while and it feels like I don’t need to do them anymore.

That’s probably the biggest threat to my well-being in the new year — getting complacent and just assuming that “I’m good” and I don’t need to keep up my routines and activities. That state of “good” can rapidly decline, as I’ve learned time and time again.

So, as I look forward to the new year, I’m thinking about the basics. Focusing on that, and not making myself crazy with a whole lot of dramatic schemes and Big Plans, like I have in the past. I’m settling in, in a way, and it feels pretty good. I just can’t get complacent. Gotta keep working at it. Each day.

Well, speaking of working at things, I need to get a move on and get my ass in gear. I have some errands I need to run before everything closes for the day.

Onward.

Keeping sharp during the holiday seasons

So, I’ve had a few days to simmer down after the last weekend of blow-ups, and now I’ve got another weekend ahead of me to sort things through and do a better job.

That’s about the best that I can expect of myself, under the circumstances. What’s done, is done. And I have to just let go of it, even though it still bothers me and I get sick to my stomach, thinking back about how rough it was last weekend.

New weekend, new chance. New lessons learned.

The big lesson I learned — once again — is that “time off” isn’t always such a good thing for me to have. I can rest, certainly. And I can take some time off. But spending too much time resting and relaxing… that’s a recipe for disaster.

Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, as they say, and I have so much I need to do, anyway, that taking too much time away just stresses me out and makes me even more irritable and difficult to live and work with. I need discipline, and a planned approach, which will let me not only budget my time and get things done, but also allow me to rest. It’s all a balance. It’s when I have too much time on my hands and I’m not extending myself to do something meaningful, that I get into trouble.

The same thing goes for the week between Christmas and New Years. I have the full week off — 8 days total, plus Christmas Eve, when they close the office early. So, I have all that time, and I’m not traveling anywhere. I need to keep things pretty structured during that time, and I also need to give my spouse some space and room on their own, so I’m not underfoot and they’re not walking on eggshells around me.

My spouse is convinced that I am dangerous, and that I could go off at any time. They tiptoe around me and placate me and act like I am a monster, and that really drags me down. I still feel pretty crappy from the whole thing, and them dragging it on, just makes it worse. We both try to keep it light, but it just feels like they’re back to where they were for years, not giving me the benefit of the doubt, really trying to “handle” me and keep me in check, so I don’t go off.

It just sucks when the environment is like that. It gets old quick, and I don’t feel like being around it.

So, I need to clear out, at least a few of the days. Keep busy. Keep it light, for sure. Maybe not spend that much time around them, since they don’t really want to be around me. I dunno. I just wish it were easier. But then it wouldn’t be the holidays.

Anyway, I need to keep pretty sharp during the holidays — not get sucked into the whole junk food thing, keep getting my exercise, stretch regularly, not get bogged down in a lot of busy-ness, and keep my mind and spirit clear. I can’t stand feeling rotten all the time, and I hate how I tense up, whenever my spouse is talking to me. It’s stupid and painful for both of us, and I don’t know how to make it stop.

I guess these things work themselves out with time… We’ll find out.

In the meantime, I need to take care of myself and stay as clear and cool as I can.

What my spouse does, is up to them.

TBI Holiday Strategies – Rest

That -- pretty much

That — pretty much

Nothing says the holidays like the frenetic race to do-do-do, and go-go-go. For some reason, a whole lot of people think it’s important to DO MORE between Thanksgiving and Hanukkah and Christmas and New Years, than they’ve done in months — and will probably do in the months after. There’s the tree setup, the lights setup, the gift buying, the parties, and more.

This year is particularly tough for me, because I have very little money and I’m unable to travel to see anyone in my family — it’s a mixed blessing, actually, since family tends to make me crazy, and being up close and personal with their decisions and the things they’re choosing to do with their lives, is incredibly painful to watch.

But the fact of not getting to see them, is also an added stressor. Strange, how that works…

There’s not much I can do about the frantic pace the rest of the world is setting, aside from closing my eyes during those manic, brightly lit commercials with everyone dancing around and singing and rushing – and looking quite happy while they’re doing it. I can mute the t.v., and I can close my eyes. I can smile politely and nod as people are pouring out their hearts to me (for some reason they do), and tune them out until they’re done, so I can go back to handling problems in my life that haven’t been manufactured for the sake of drama. I can hunker down and make sure I eat well, don’t fill up on candy and pies and such, and drink enough water.

But there’s no escaping all the frantic activity for the next month or so.

The one recourse I do have is getting added rest. I lay down on the couch early last night — as in, before 11:00 p.m. — while my spouse was watching television, and I slept for a few hours. Then I woke up for about half an hour and watched the end of a show, before going to bed. Once in bed, my head was racing with all kinds of thoughts, so I “talked it through” — not exactly a prayer, more like a kind of conversation with God — and then I felt better and went to sleep.

And I slept till 8 a.m.. Which surprised me. I usually only sleep till 6:30 – if I’m lucky. So, between the 2-1/2 hours of sleep I got lying on the couch, and the 5 hours of sleep I got in bed, I got about 7-1/2 hours, which is a recent record for me. I’ve been operating on 5-1/2 – 6 hours per night, lately. Largely because I really don’t feel like going to bed at night. And I can’t seem to sleep past 5:30 or 6 in the morning. So, there we have it.

Anyway, I’m feeling a bit better than I did last night. I’ve been increasingly agitated over a lot of things — mostly having to do with having discussions with people in my life who are usually at a distance, but this year are closer by. The friends I had Thanksgiving dinner with… family members I usually don’t talk to… not to mention folks I’m connecting with through volunteer work. It’s like I can feel their pain, and it’s pretty tough — especially since I’ve got a bunch of pain, myself, both physically and emotionally. It’s just not easy, these days, and I feel like I’m getting a double-dose of it.

This even goes for my spouse and me. Thanks to the long weekend, we have been around each other more in the past week, than we have in months, and sparks have been flying. All spring and summer, my spouse was working regularly on the weekends, going on business trips, etc, so we didn’t see much of each other. And as it turns out, having the time apart actually helped our marriage. Being in close quarters now, tempers are flaring. We’re both very strong personalities, and we have our own ideas about how things should be, and when we don’t see eye to eye, things can get very … fiery. It’s a bit touch-and-go at times, but as long as we keep talking and we keep our sense of humor, that smooths things out.

I do need to set some new guidelines for the next year, however. Some things need to change, or we can’t continue the way we are. I’m not talking about divorce — I’m talking about a business venture that they’ve had going for many years, which they have never bothered to make really profitable. It’s been sucking $$$ out of our coffers for close to 20 years, and they keep promising to take steps to make it more profitable, but they never actually do anything they’re talking about. It’s time to put up or shut up. If things don’t turn around in the next year, we’re going to stop production on it, call it a day, and that’s that. I’m the one who’s been doing the bulk of the work, anyway, and I’m tired of it running my life. For nothing.

But enough about me. The way I get past my own issues and pain, is reaching out to others to help them. In some small way… who knows how much it helps, or if anyone really notices, but at least I try. And I can hope that it will help. I also spread the word and encourage others to do the same — like sending holiday cards to our troops this holiday season. (Please join me in this – we only have till December 6 to get the cards to the Red Cross.)

The other way I get past my own issues and pain, and also see things more clearly, is getting enough rest. When I am tired, my flashpoint gets pretty hot, and my temper becomes trigger-happy. It’s bad enough that my spouse has a whole lot of bad memories of parents freaking out during Christmas time. When I get tense and angry, it just brings all that up. And that sets me off, because I’ve been told so many times by so many people, that my temper makes me dangerous, and I should not be around other people when I get angry.

It’s like a perfect storm… and it can be pretty difficult to recover from the biochemical storms that tear through us both. For days, we’re both pretty on-edge around each other.

So, the thing to do is head it off at the pass, by getting enough rest and also being smart about how I spend my time. I took the last two days OFF (pretty much), only doing a few things that had to be done. I was pretty wiped out by the time Thanksgiving came around, and I sorely needed a break. So, I chilled, read, hung around the house, did some repairs on my car, and didn’t live by my to-do list.

Today, with the past several days of rest behind me, I’m feeling more able to do the things that need to be done, and I can see more clearly what needs to be fixed in my day to day.

Sleep being the first thing. Resting. Digesting. And exercising enough that I really need to rest, by the time the day is done. Keeping moving, but at a pace that lets me get things done in an orderly manner — without exhausting myself. Intervals. Short bursts of activity, followed by intentional rest.

Speaking of short bursts of activity, I have a bunch of things I need to sort through today. So, I’ve broken them down into manageable pieces, and I’ll handle them one at a time as I proceed. And rest in between. So that I can keep going. At a decent pace that actually gets things done. The main thing is to not overwork myself, so I don’t go off the deep end over things that pass anyway.

That’s no way to spend the holidays.

Today’s a new day. Begin again. And get plenty of rest.

Considering TBI : Staying safe during the holidays

This looks familiar – and not in a good way.

Well, I almost did it again. I almost fell down some stairs while rushing around during Thanksgiving activities. Nine years ago tomorrow, I fell down a flight of stairs while packing to home after Thanksgiving. I completely screwed myself up. Trashed my life. Almost lost everything. And I didn’t even realize what was happening, while it was happening.

That fall in 2004 happened because I was standing at the top of some stairs and I turned around to do something, then my feet went out from under me. The same thing happened yesterday, while I was getting ready to head out to Thanksgiving dinner. I was starting to go down the stairs, when I remembered something I needed to take with me, and I turned around, while my body momentum was moving forward. My feet slipped on the stairs, and I stumbled down a couple of steps, before I caught myself. Fortunately, this time I was wearing shoes. When I fell in 2004, I was wearing socks. And I managed to stop myself from going head-first down the stairs, when my feet went out from under me.

Hm. Wake-up call. Time to slow down. Pay attention. Take things one at a time, instead of doing a couple of things at one time — like going down and up stairs at the same time.

Slow down. Don’t do everything at once. Just chill.

I paused for a moment and caught my breath and realized what had almost just happened. Then I slowly turned around and went back upstairs — much, much more slowly than before.

And I got through the day without getting hurt.

Even better, I had an amazing day, and everything turned out well, for a variety of reasons — including not falling down stairs and hurting myself.

As the holiday season officially kicks off, I have to really pay attention to things in the coming six weeks, to get through to the other side in one piece. I know what sets me off, and I know what makes things more difficult for me than usual, and the holidays are just the time when all those things come together in a perfect storm that aggravates my TBI symptoms and also puts me at risk for another injury (like yesterday).

  1. I need to remember that I’m dealing with TBI issues, and I can’t just push myself blindly like I have no limitations. We all have limitations, and mine are especially pronounced during the holidays. I need to be uber-mindful of my issues — not in a way that holds me back, but in a realistic way that keeps me from doing serious damage to myself.
  2. Make sure I get plenty of rest. Nothing kills the joy faster than fatigue-induced irritability. And given my history of melting down and flipping out during many holiday seasons past, my spouse is particularly on-guard around me during this time. So things can escalate quickly. And that’s not good. Shouting matches and flip-outs just because I’m tired, are no way to spend the holidays. Fortunately, staying rested takes care of a lot of this. Naps help, too, so I’ll be doing a lot of that this holiday season. Whenever I can.
  3. Eat smart.  When I get tired, I tend to boost my energy with sugar-containing foods, and the holidays are chock-full of them. Pies, cookies, candy… it’s all around me, and since I need to push harder to do everything, I fall back on them. A lot. Which just makes things harder in the long run, because it throws off my sugar and it makes my joints ache, which then makes me more irritable. AND sugar feeds infections, so I have more trouble with colds and sinus infections. I have to have a lot of willpower to avoid that stuff – and it doesn’t always work. But if I can enjoy with moderation… it’s not so terrible.
  4. Give myself time. Don’t rush around with everyone else. Give myself more time to do things like go to the library or food shopping or running errands. Just take my time, so I don’t get trampled by everyone else who’s stampeding around. Do I need to go out to the store today? Not one bit. Black Friday will be fine without me.
  5. Take frequent breaks. I get very irritable for a bunch of reasons during the holidays, so it pays to just take a break regularly, let me catch up with myself, and simmer down if I’m getting revved. It really helps for me to cut myself a break and give myself some extra time off by myself when I need it. Planning my breaks helps, too, because then I can keep from getting stuck in a “loop” and pushing myself past where I should be backing off and taking a break.
  6. Get a lot of exercise. I start my days with movement and stretching, and I get out and walk whenever I can. I also try to do some heavy lifting, now and then, as well as working around the yard and house. Yesterday I got a workout with roasting that turkey — a lot of lifting and bending and reaching. I’m actually sore, which is a good sign for me. This helps my body process all the extra stuff I’m putting into it, and it also helps clear my head. Both of these are important for being happy during the holidays.

These are things I can do, in general, to make my life better during the holidays. Not doing these things can result in experiences like falling down stairs, having confrontations with police officers, and losing it at work — none of which will add to my holiday cheer quotient.

It’s all a big-ass learning process. Onward.

Helping our troops during the holidays

Our troops helped us, now let’s help them

The food has been eaten, everyone has returned home, and the weekend awaits. For those who thrive on social activity, being alone after being with so many loved ones can be difficult.

Looking for a way to get out of your post-Thanksgiving funk?

Send a card to a service member. The Red Cross is having a Holiday Mail for Heroes campaign – get details at http://www.redcross.org/support/get-involved/holiday-mail-for-heroes – for folks to write cards to service members to wish them all the best for the holidays.

Each year the American Red Cross provides assistance to more than 2 million service members and many of our nation’s 24 million veterans. We support military families, military and veterans hospitals and provide emergency communications across the globe. And once a year, we get the joy of delivering holiday greetings to veterans, military families and active-duty service members at hospitals and installations around the world.

The cards and personal messages, sent by tens of thousands of Americans, provide a welcome “touch of home” for our troops during the holiday season.

Send a Card

Each year we collect cards between October and early December and then distribute them at military installations, veterans hospitals, and in other locations.

There are several ways to be part of the Holiday Mail for Heroes program. In addition to sending cards on your own, you may want to start making plans to host card signing parties or card making parties. Here are a few guidelines to help you on your way:

Card Guidelines:

Every card received will be screened for hazardous materials and then reviewed by Red Cross volunteers working around the country.

Please observe the following guidelines to ensure a quick reviewing process:

  • Ensure that all cards are signed.
  • Use generic salutations such as “Dear Service Member.” Cards addressed to specific individuals can not be delivered through this program.
  • Only cards are being accepted. Do not send or include letters.
  • Do not include email or home addresses on the cards: the program is not meant to foster pen pal relationships.
  • Do not include inserts of any kind, including photos: these items will be removed during the reviewing process.
  • Please refrain from choosing cards with glitter or using loose glitter as it can aggravate health issues of ill and injured warriors.
  • If you are mailing a large quantity of cards, please bundle them and place them in large mailing envelopes or flat rate postal shipping boxes. Each card does not need its own envelope, as envelopes will be removed from all cards before distribution.

All holiday greetings should be addressed and sent to:

Holiday Mail for Heroes
P.O. Box 5456
Capitol Heights, MD 20791-5456

The deadline for having cards to the P.O. Box is December 6th.
Holiday cards received after this date cannot be guaranteed delivery.

I’ve dug up a big box of old Christmas cards that, for one reason or another, I could not use in the past. Some of the messages don’t work for my family and friends, and some of them are extras I couldn’t use. I’m going to start writing out cards this weekend, while I have some extra time. And then I’ll send them all out in a big batch next week.

It’s a start. I can also pick up those big batches of cards that are mixed collections, and send them along as well. I’ve got almost 80 cards I can use right now — I have to pace myself, because my hand cramps up, but I should be able to make good progress by December 6th.

This is a great way for me to get out of my head and think of others during what can be a very difficult time — especially if you’re laid up in the hospital and you’ve had your career cut short by a terrible event.

Being cut off from the ones you care about most — your family, your brothers/sisters in arms, your “tribe” of choice — can feel like the hardest thing in the world during the holidays.

So, reach out and send a card to someone who needs your help and encouragement. Heaven knows, there are many, many folks like that out there.

Okay, enough about me. It’s time to write some cards.

Eventually figuring it out…

This was the plan… more or less

Okay, so the last time I wrote, the turkey was in the oven, and I was on track to an amazing Christmas dinner.

Then life happened. I’m not sure whether it was the ever-present concussion / TBI / post-concussion / sensory overwhelm / attentional issues mix that always seems to lurk beneath the surface, or if it was dumb luck. The thing is, this kind of thing happens to me all the time, so either it’s just apart of my life, built in to be annoying, or it’s a sign that — even after all this time — I still need to make an extra effort to ensure things turn out well. And it’s another reminder that I can’t get cocky and just assume things.

Anyway, what happened was… I finished writing my Christmas Day post, checked Facebook a bit, then went downstairs to check the turkey. I felt the glass on the front of the oven, and it didn’t feel warm. “That’s weird…” Then I opened the oven door, expecting to be blasted by a shot of hot air.

No such thing. The oven was faintly warm, but around the bird were pools of melted ice and blood, and there was no roasting to be seen.

Well shit.

I must have accidentally turned off the oven when I was resetting the timer after I got the giblets and neck out of the bird. There are a number of lights on the front console that are the same color and size, so I must have mistaken the timer light for the oven light.

So, there I stood in the kitchen, my (sick) spouse upstairs expecting a delicious, hot (and completely roasted) turkey in just a few hours. And I had probably lost a couple of hours of roasting time, if I turned off the oven when I got the giblets and neck out. What to do? My spouse is a pretty anxious individual, to begin with, and when something this important gets screwed up, they can go off the deep end. I wasn’t really liking the chatter going on inside my head, either, about what an idiot loser I am, and how I never should have thought I could do this thing today, when I was so sick and feeling off and tired and out of it.

Think… think… First thing I did, was turn the oven back on. The thought occurred to me that there were major bacteria growing inside that bird, and to proceed would have meant certain death. Then again, I figured the bird was still so frozen when I put it in the oven, it had probably kept pretty well. And anyway, roasting it another 4-1/2 hours would likely kill anything that might be growing. I thought about what people have done for eons — eating food that wasn’t prepared exactly to Betty Crocker spec… and they’ve survived. The human race has been eating crap we should never eat, for generations up on generations, and we are still here.

So, eventually I managed to talk myself into proceeding with the turkey roasting… as though nothing had happened.

But how to explain it to my spouse? The last thing I wanted to do was spend Christmas Day being barked at and harangued over my lax cooking skills, ordering out, and then never living that down. I would probably hear about that till the end of time, if I let on about what had happened. I decided, eventually, to use the frozen bird as the excuse for the extra time — it needed more time to thaw and cook… that’s what my story was going to be. My spouse was incredibly leery of putting an un-thawed bird in the oven, anyway, so they had been pressing me to cook it longer… and longer would better. Right?

That was my hope (and prayer) anyway. I wasn’t exactly sure what precisely to think, in any case, because maybe the danger from a weirdly cooked turkey was Real And Present… maybe it wasn’t. I didn’t have the time — or presence of mind — to Google it. I just winged it. Took a best guess, weighed the pros and cons, and figured if the turkey was really bad, my spouse would be able to smell it, because their sense of smell is, well, existent — and very acute at that. Where mine is, well, a lot less than that.

Yeah, I left the turkey in the oven… kept the heat where it was supposed to be, and said a prayer.

Around the time that I got the turkey squared away (for the second time), it was the hour to rise and exchange presents. We don’t have any kids, so we tend to sleep in on Christmas Day and don’t worry about being the first downstairs to open presents. And we were both pretty under the weather, so a slow start got even slower. It was a really nice time, I have to say – we didn’t get a lot of presents for each other, but we got enough nice little things that we could honestly say the gift exchange was a success (unlike in past years, when I totally spaced on the present-buying until the last minute, then couldn’t find what I was looking for, and ended up screwing up pretty badly – arguing and accusations of “You don’t love me!” with tears included – not good).

Dodged that bullet this year, thank heavens.

So, after the presents were opened, I made us a little brunch, and I looked in on the turkey. It was getting there… but I still wasn’t sure. Another hour went by, and my spouse was remarking at how the smell of the cooking turkey wasn’t “filling the house like it usually does” which set off alarms and put them on alert. Another hour went by, and still the turkey didn’t have that pervasive, delicious aroma it “usually does”… so my spouse started to get really nervous about how “You never roast a frozen turkey,” according to their mother, and how this was dangerous and we might get sick…

I got busy making stuffing and popping veggies in the oven to roast. I figured, if worse came to worst, we could at least fill up on roasted yams, potatoes, and carrots, along with those fresh green beans. And of course there was always pie… Meanwhile, my spouse Googled “cook a frozen turkey” and got very quiet while they read all about it.

Nerves… frayed nerves. But I kept on with my work. I called my mother, too, to check on whether or not things were going to be okay. She reassured me that as long as I left it in longer, it would be okay. I took her word for it, and my spouse emerged from in front of the computer looking much more relaxed. They declared “Everything should be fine,” and we were back on again.

In the end, the turkey turned out amazing. I carved a side to check it, it looked a little pink, so I popped it back in the over at a higher temp for another 20 minutes, and by the time all the stuffing and roasted vegetables and green beans were ready, the turkey was ready too.

We ended up having Christmas supper, instead of mid-day dinner, but I have to say it was pretty phenomenal.

All was well, and the day ended well. Yeah, I felt like crap the whole day, I was out of it and foggy and anxious and frustrated and disappointed and nervous as hell, but that was just the backstory. The real story of the day was that it all came out extremely well – just at a different pace and with a different timing than originally planned. I think that was actually for the best, however. Who eats Christmas turkey as their very first meal of the day?

So, there it is… lesson learned — always check that all 3-4 lights are on the stove, when the oven is on: light for the timer, light for the oven, light for the “stove on”, and possibly the light for “preheat”. Especially when I have the timer going. Because when the timer is on, I can’t see the temperature. Bad design, if you ask me. But I’ll just have to remember to work around it.

Now, two days later, I still don’t feel that hot. I’ve been working a lot, these past few days — cleaning out my garage and working around the house. I’ve been using muscles I haven’t used in months, and I’m sore as hell… and feeling a bit off. I will make a point of taking care of myself today — get the extra sleep I’ve been meaning to get… empty the trash cans full of used tissues… do some laundry… and do a few minor projects I’ve been wanting to do. I have an idea for a snow-moving contraption that will save me a lot of work shoveling, if I can figure it out. That’s my big project for today – that, and rearranging my basement a bit, so I can get to all my tools. I have a ton of great tools in the basement, as well as a great workbench, but I have not made the most of it, especially since my accident in 2004, which really plunged me into concussion / TBI hell.

You know, it’s funny… being sick and not being able to travel this holiday season has been a real bonus in a bunch of different ways. I’m not constantly “on”. I’m not pushing to get stuff done. I’m not hustling and bustling and hauling ass, left and right. I’m taking my time doing things, and I’m figuring things out. And the crazy thing is, even though I tend to think that I function so much better when I’m “on”, I have felt better, these past several days, than I have in years. Even with the cold / sinus infection that’s got me feeling like crap, I’ve still had more energy and more will  to do the things I’ve been meaning to do for years, but could never get my act together to do.

Pretty amazing, really. I’ve been wanting to clean out my garage for years, but couldn’t manage it till this week. Okay, so I’m only half done, and there’s still a lot of work to do, but at least I made a really excellent start. I’ve been wanting to design and invent some things for quite some time, but could never get it together to do it, till this week. And that’s pretty awesome. It’s all good. It really is.

What matters most is that eventually, it is all coming together. It’s taken me years, and I don’t expect everything to be completely sorted anytime soon, but it’s a start. I have to remember how far I have come, and not get down on myself because I am not as far along as I want to be. I will screw up, now and then. I will overlook things. I will come up short of my own expectations. I will probably mis-judge many situations over and over. But I can’t let that stop me from moving forward.

I am moving forward. What’s more, I’m actually enjoying my life. And that’s what truly matters.

Onward….

A great Christmas morning

May you have peace… or whatever else you need today

… to you and yours. I’m off to a good start, all things considered. The turkey is in the oven baking, and I’m listening to my cassette tapes of Handel’s “Messiah”. I woke up feeling really sick and not feeling up to doing the turkey, but my spouse is sick and I’ve done this before, so I hauled the turkey out of the refrigerator, to find that it was not in fact thawed — probably due to my having bought it only yesterday and not having soaked it very long in that sink full of cold water as my mother used to do. The neck and the giblets were still firmly frozen inside the cavity, so I ran hot water through the works, trying to loosen it up.

No such luck. And me feeling not very well at all… Ah well, soldier on… I finally just put the bird in the oven and set the timer, resolving to check it in an hour when the whole business had time to warm up. I made myself some hot lemon-honey “tea”, had my coffee and cereal, and did the math in my head for when I should start doing other things like start prepping the stuffing and vegetables I was going to roast.

I also did some of my leg exercises, since my knees have been giving me trouble, lately. Even though I have been going for long walks and have been pretty active over the past few days, my knees have been hurting — which happens if I haven’t done my morning leg lifts, which I haven’t been doing regularly for some time. Amazingly, when I do my leg lifts — straight-out front and back and to each side, and then front kicks and back-lifts — my knees get what they need and they quit complaining.

So, I did that, and my knees immediately stopped hurting. Nice when that happens. And important to remember, so I don’t let myself just go to seed for no good reason.

By the time I was done with my morning prep, about 45 minutes had passed, so I hauled out the bird, worked at the neck and bag of organ meats, and eventually got it all out. Salted the inside of the cavity and flipped it over and put it back in the oven, breast-down, because I did that by accident a number of years ago, and the breast meat was by far the most moist and tasty that I’ve ever tasted. I’ve heard people recommending that, also, no matter what the wrapper on the turkey says. The meat felt a bit more thawed, having been in the heat for a while. I may have to roast it a bit longer to make up for that… we’ll see. Anyway, I’m hoping I didn’t screw everything up — at least I’m not deep-frying it. When you deep-fry a frozen turkey, it has a nasty habit of exploding and catching the roof of your garage on fire. I’ve talked to folks at work about deep-frying turkeys, and they’re practically rabid about it. But it seems to me they’re more excited about the gear and the inherent danger, than cooking technique. For me, I’m old-school. It’s less dramatic, sure, but I’m not going to have to call the fire department on Christmas Day, this way.

And the breast meat will be just as tasty as tasty can be.

So, once I got the bird squared away, I felt a lot better about things. I’m still feeling sick and “off”, and I’m not sure I 100% trust my judgement (which has been a bit off, with regard to time and things I need to do in a certain order), but I’m rolling with it, and I’m just going to enjoy myself this morning.

One of the things I had been meaning to do, but kept forgetting, is pull out my old cassette tapes of Handel’s Messiah that I got for Christmas while I was in college. My parents used to celebrate the Christmas season by playing their Mormon Tabernacle Choir “Messiah” record, and it was one of my favorite parts of the season. The “Little Drummer Boy” upset me intensely, for some reason, but Handel’s “Messiah” really put me in the Christmas spirit. Each and every time.

When I got the cassettes for Christmas, it was like — well, Christmas. I had my own copy that I could listen to! Amazing. Joy unbounded. It wasn’t a big thing, and thinking back now — when we are all swimming in so much plenty and bounty and easy access to each and every thing we could ever want or ask for — it seems so small-time, so modest. But it was seriously one of the best Christmas presents I’ve ever received. I used to listen to those cassettes repeatedly during Christmastime while I was in school. It drove the folks on my hall nuts; they would pretty much vacate and leave me to my music, then reappear when it was safe to just hang out and drink beer again. They didn’t get it, and I didn’t care. The voices of the choir were transcendent, and it reminded me of what was actually right about my childhood — those relatively brief periods of transcendent emotion and beauty… Yes, there was something right in my world, and with those cassettes I could relive that and remember, for as long as I played them.

Well, this morning I’m playing them, and it’s pretty clear to me why the world has moved on to MP3s and digital formats — the cassettes are easily over 30 years old — copyright 1979 — and the tape has stretched and warped with age. The voices are warbling and at times halting. It’s not the smooth and easily transcendent presentation it once was. And there’s the constant worry that the tape will get wrapped around the spools and end up getting “eaten” by the tape player, the way so many cassettes did when I was much younger — and the world still had cassettes… and cassette players in all the stereos and cars coming off the assembly line.

Yeah, I must be getting old, it occurs to me, as I resolve to just not care about the sound quality, and I can appreciate the experience for what it is, rather than how I think it should be. I know what to ask for, for Christmas next year — a CD of Handel’s “Messiah” that I can listen to without the warbling and hesitating and angst over the tape getting eaten.

At the same time, though, there’s something quite poignant about this experience. It has a kind of character to it that places me in time — the natural order of things is to change and alter and become something different. Sometimes the changes mean degradation, dissolution, disintegration. Sometimes they mean entropy. And sometimes it means improvement, growth, evolution. But even the degrading, dissolving, disintegration are all part of a larger cycle, a larger set of movements into the future… nothing stays the same forever, nor should it. It’s just a little creepy, when it does. At least, I think so.

Things change. Cassettes wear out. And each year when my spouse and I put up the Christmas tree and hang the ornaments, we have a little harder time remembering where each one came from. We’ve been together for over 20 years, and each of us brought to the marriage items from our separate pasts. Did that ornament come from Before Us? Or did we buy it together early on? And where the hell are all those lights and ornaments that we both know we had three years before, but haven’t been able to locate for the past couple of Christmases? We’ve started taking turns looking for items in the basement — I go down first and bring back everything I can find, then they go down and find everything I was blind to. Between the two of us, we’ve managed to piece things together — even if we got a late start this year and didn’t even put up and trim the tree till Christmas Eve.

At least we got it done. And lots of people do it that way, too. My relatives in Europe, for example. The don’t even start thinking about decorating till Christmas Eve. So, I comfort myself with that thought and decide not to get worked up over it. There are other battles to fight, other things to correct — timing of tree trimming isn’t one I want to worry about.

And Handel’s “Messiah” warbles on. I’m almost at the end of Side Two of Cassette One. I’m not sure if I’m going to finish the music before I wake up my spouse and we go downstairs to have our morning coffee and open presents. As long as I get in the Hallelujah Chorus (and stand up while it’s playing), I’m good. My spouse is not a big fan of “Messiah” — too maudlin, they say. Well, it’s not for everyone… especially those who don’t care about hearing how “by His stripes we are healed”, which is what they’re singing right now.

There is something to be said for focusing on life, rather than suffering and death, but it all seems to get mixed together on Christmas morning, which in some parts of the world is really just a prelude to the Passion and Easter and the reminders of suffering and death that precede resurrection.

Not to get off on a theological thread… even though I am listening to “Messiah”… anyway, I’ve been thinking about how we’ve pretty much trashed the whole Christmas experience, over the past 30 years of wild, abandoned consumption… and now that the unbridled buy-buy-buy has been so scaled back for so many of us (at least, it has for me), Christmas just isn’t the same as it used to be. When I was a kid, it was a strictly religious experience, and since my family really didn’t have much to begin with, and the focus was extremely Christian and tradition, the whole gift-giving thing was not that big of a deal. If anything, gift-giving was awkward and sometimes painful, because of all the conflicts between what we kids wanted and what our parents were willing (and able) to give us, and the “outside world” commercialism competing with the “reason for the season”… the whole deal.

It was never easy to begin with. But in the past few years, it’s gotten even more challenging, as money has been such a problem with so many of us in my family… and we’ve had a harder and harder time just getting together, period. Somehow, the season just doesn’t seem the same as it once did. Maybe it’s because of my job, which keeps me out of my present by forcing me to be constantly planning the future and thinking about everything I do in terms of how it affects things 6-12 months down the line… Maybe it’s my conscious choice to refuse to participate in the wild consumption of the season, that’s changed things.

Whatever the reason, Christmas seems totally trashed in mainstream society — I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said by many, many people over the course of many, many years. It’s gone from being a season of giving to being a cornerstone of the American economy, so it’s almost like we’re obligated to spend and spend and spend (I had a good laugh at Best Buy yesterday, as I looked at headphones — headphones!!! – that cost over $200 — oh.my.god — someone must surely be kidding…) And people who build their holiday season around buying and giving those kinds of gifts (many members of my family included), seem, well, kind of sad to me. Like there’s nothing more to it all for them.

But as long as they go to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, their holidays are complete.

Not so much for me. First, I don’t have the money to spend like some of my relatives. Second, going to church on Christmas Eve isn’t something I do anymore. I realized a few years back that it is in fact pretty hazardous, because so many people with colds and flu (and their kids) turn out and occupy the same space for a few hours — just long enough to share their infections with me, which has proven truly terrible in the past. My holidays are different. My Christmas is different. I don’t celebrate the way others do, but I do want to celebrate — I really do.

So, here’s what I did this year: I went about my everyday life with a real sense of gratitude and peace. Not sure where it all came from, but I decided I was going to do that, no matter what. I gave when and where I could — I did my best to be helpful to people around me without over-extending myself. I also bought extra groceries every time I went shopping, and I put them in the food pantry bin at the grocery store. It wasn’t a lot, but it was something. I also paid attention to what people were doing around me, and if someone needed help, I at least offered. They didn’t always take me up on my offer, but at least I offered. I also slowed down. I quit driving like an a**hole on my way to and from work. I took my time. I listened to music. I didn’t focus on the speedometer, and when someone ahead of me was going slower than they should have been, I either passed them when I had dotted lines, or I came up with some story about why they had good reason to go slow — and why it was good for me that they weren’t driving as fast as I wanted to.

I didn’t get into the regular Christmas spirit much at all, I have to admit. It was just pretty much lost on me — just a lot more commercials, a lot of lights, a lot of reasons to go out and spend more money, and events to interrupt the flow of my daily life. But in retrospect, I think the way I lived my life was more meaningful this year, than it has been in prior years, when I was “in the holiday spirit”.

Well, I’d better go check the turkey. And wake up my spouse, so we can open our presents. It’s Christmas morning, and it’s going to be a good one.

The best Christmas present ever…

… would be staying home. The drive through multiple states just seems more and more daunting. Both my spouse and I are sick and not getting better as quickly as we wanted, and we actually have a lot to do between now and when we are planning to leave – very little of which looks likely to get done.

I hate to say it, but not having to deal with family and pressure and all the activity would be pretty awesome. AND it would give me some quiet, uninterrupted time to focus on things I want to do — repairs around the house, studying my techie stuff, and catching up on my sleep.

At some point, I need to actually take time for myself, doing the things I want to do, at the pace I want to do them. All of my time “off” this year has involved doing things with a lot of other people and not having a whole lot of downtime. For me, that is a killer. My spouse loves to have lots of people around, most of the time, so we’d done what they wanted to do for the long vacation times. And the week I had away, traveling, was very busy with work.

This is the time of year when I like to step back, re-examine my life, and think about the direction I want to go — catch up on writing some things I’ve been meaning to talk about, and research some more things that piqued my interest along the way. It’s a time of slowing down, literally, as the days get shorter and shorter, then a little bit longer — and yet all around us, we’re being told/forced to SPEED UP!!!!

Madness.

Well, this year it’s probably going to stop. The relatives we haven’t seen in a year will be disappointed, I’m sure, but it makes more sense for us to travel to them in good weather, in any case.

Tired, tired, sick and tired. The best Christmas present of all would be to opt out of it all, just kick back, and be….

And so it shall (probably) be.

Of holidays, distraction, and career choices – a holiday saga

Very cute and cheery, but very distracting

One of the worst things about the holidays for me, is how distracting the whole experience can be. I don’t live close to my family — in more ways than one. I have a very technical career that is nothing like what the teachers and preachers and caregivers in my family pursue. I also live in an area that is more affluent than theirs, and I have very different values and priorities than when I was younger and living at home.

And in the course of my normal everyday life, that’s fine. I am aligned with my own values and I am on my own track and path. I have my plans and my desired direction, and I stick with it. I have my daily routine. I have my priorities clear. And I take definite steps in the direction of my choosing.

But during the holidays, all that changes. It begins with Halloween, when my regular schedule is up-ended by the sudden appearance of “seasonal” distractions — in grocery stores, things get moved around, candy starts to appear, all sorts of new items appear on the shelves, and I have to adjust my usual course through the store to find what I want — as well as block out the distractions of Halloween items which just take more time to think about and parse.

Thanksgiving isn’t much better. If anything, it’s worse, because there’s travel to families involved, and usually in the aftermath, I get sick. And I stay sick for the month of December, which frankly really sucks and makes it harder to just live my life. Also dealing with my family, even though I do love them and enjoy being around them, is a huge time and energy sink. Plus, when I am around my family, my focus gets diluted, I start to think about how things were with me when I was younger, and my values and priorities shift a little bit to be more like they used to be — as in, I start to think more about writing that novel, and less about honing my technical skills. I start to think in broader, more abstract ways, rather than in specific, concrete ways. My family is a very heady bunch of people, with very strong beliefs that I used to agree with and relate to. Being away from them and their way of life, it is relatively easy to focus on my own priorities and tend to the things that matter most to me. Being out of my element, in their midst, throws me off – as little else can.

Family is really important… at the same time, it can be a real hindrance. Especially when everyone in your family thinks of you in a certain way — and that way only. They don’t think about me as a person who has to get more sleep than most. They don’t think of me as a person who is easily fatigued and overwhelmed. They don’t think of me as someone who needs a little extra time to cover all my cognitive bases when I am making decisions or doing something new. And they don’t think of me as someone who needs to make adjustments in my work, because the way I think and feel and relate to the world requires that I make those adjustments to take care of myself.

My mother can’t wrap her head around me needing naps in the afternoon while I’m at work. My father doesn’t get why I work such long hours and stay so late, to avoid traffic. My siblings all seem to think that I live this charmed life of affluence and ease, because I have no kids. I haven’t told everyone about my TBIs — just my parents and one sibling. But the ones I’ve told still aren’t getting it. They’ve made it clear that they’re not going to even make the effort, and that’s that.

So, I do the best I can with what I have with these folks. I love my family and I love spending time with them. At the same time, though, their way of life and their philosophies and their orientation to, well, just about everything, is sharply different from my own — and many of the differences have to do with the accommodations I have to make for myself, and the lack of energy I have to go “bounding about” doing mental gymnastics about things that I don’t believe anyone truly understands, anyway. Maybe my life is simpler, because I’ve let go of a lot of devotion to holding specific opinions and wanting to figure everything out. Come to think of it, I’m sure it is.

It’s having to deal with my family’s devotion to being “Right” and figuring things out, that is so exhausting for me. ‘Cause then I have to re-orient myself to myself and my own beliefs and priorities, all over again after the holidays.

I realized, over this past weekend, how much Thanksgiving threw me off, when I went down to visit my family. It’s like getting pulled back in time… and then having to extract myself from the sticky goo of my past. In a way, it was good that I traveled, after I got back from Thanksgiving, because it gave me time to reset my mental compass. But now I’m sick, and I’m looking ahead to another trip down to my family, and it’s starting to get on my nerves.

Ah, well — so go the holidays. And at least I’m aware of how much my family re-calibrates my thinking when I am with them… so when I get back from the Christmas trip, I can dig in again and work on my job skills, rather than thinking about that novel I was going to write, that I was so sure would be a best-seller. Cripes, but there’s a lot swirling in my head that I need to manage.

And it’s pretty much stress-related. I find that when I am really stressed, I turn to writing fiction for relief. I start writing novels. Or short stories. It calms me. It gives me another place to “go”. But it also distracts me from doing what I need to do. The rush I get from starting something new is a powerful opiate for me. It dulls the pain and gets me thinking about all the new possibilities in life. But after the newness wears off, it’s just another thing I have to do — and it just drags me down.

So, enough of the novel-writing. At least for the next six months. If I’m ever in a position to just kick back and spend hours on end doing nothing, and my job situation is secure and stable, and I don’t have pressing financial needs, I’ll turn to writing fiction. But until that time, I need to keep steady in what I have been planning and working on for the past months — beefing up my technical skills, focusing on certain specific areas where I feel I can really contribute and make a positive difference, and worrying about a decent paycheck, not whether to write in first or second or third person.

One thing I know for sure, that is giving me a great deal of comfort — I would much rather be an individual contributor and work with numbers and code, than deal with people each and every day. I don’t want to be a manager. I want to make things, create things, invent things, render things. I want to interact with machines that will just tell me yes/no… instead of the endless dancing around all the issues and the nuances of human interaction. It’s just too stressful for me. It’s just no fun. It might look more impressive to the rest of the world, but it’s not what I want to do with myself.

I DO know what I want to do with myself. And that is a huge comfort. Especially on days like today, when everybody is clamoring for some sort of overdue thing, they’re getting snotty and irate because it’s closing down on year-end and they haven’t met all their goals, and I feel like I’m going to fall over and/or throw up.

I DO know that I’m outa there in the spring. I will have my skills in place adequately to do just that. I DO know where I’m going to focus my attention, and I DO know how important it is to not lose my train of thought again. I’m also aware — more than ever — of how distracting my family is for me, when it comes to living my life. I have to sorta kinda guard myself from their well-intentioned “guidance” and fend off their “caring” interference. They mean well. I know that. But they just don’t help, when it comes to making decisions about where I need to go next in my life.

Maybe it all boils down to possibility and opportunity. I know I live in a much wider world than they do, and I am much more hooked into what else is possible for me. I need to keep that in mind, as I move forward.

And so I shall. The last big trip of the holidays is coming up, and I’ll be seeing a lot of family — both sides, actually — on the road. My spouse’s family is much more supportive of my career than my birth family, so that will be a relief to be with them. I will need to create some sort of reminder for myself about what truly matters, over the coming months, and I will need to be careful to keep on track, so I don’t get pulled off the rails too much — or at the very least, I can get back on track after the trip is over. I’ll have to think about how to do that… it may be a real challenge. But then, real challenges are usually easier for me to handle than the “easy-peasy” ones. So, my task is clear.

Onward.

On-ward.

 

And so the search for meaning begins

For Sandy Hook – Newtown, CT

The holidays are always a bitter-sweet time for me. It is supposed to be a time of joy and happiness and celebration, but I have always dreaded it. There’s something about the crush, the rush, the pressure to perform, the urgency that everyone is feeling to “get it right”, and the lingering sense that — yet again — I have not accomplished all I set out to, 11-1/2 months ago.

This year was looking like it was going to be a little different. I haven’t got any extra money, so the whole Christmas shopping thing has been a non-event for me. And there hasn’t been much snow at all, with the weather warmer than expected, and the snow that did fall rapidly melting away. I haven’t been in any sort of Christmas spirit at all. Far from it. But I was fine with that, because I’ve felt a lot of peace and equanimity, which I haven’t often felt at Christmas time.

Then some batsh*t crazy f*cker walks into an elementary school and kills 20 kids and 6 adults. Little kids. Babies. Gone. The shooter’s gone, too – along with his mother, whom he killed first. And last I heard, they were questioning his brother.

Shit. All day yesterday, it has been on my mind so much that I missed two turns on my way home and I spent 30 extra minutes driving to pick up supper I’d ordered. By the time I got home, dinner was a little cool. I didn’t break down and weep like many folks I know, but I did call home to tell my spouse how much I loved them. No matter how dulled we may be to the cruelties and anguish of this world, awful tragedies like this do alter our world view at least a little and force us to look at the world with fresh eyes.

Senseless. Awful beyond description. Horrifying.

Preventable?

How? Why?

… Why?

At times like this, our national instincts seem to respond in two ways — one, with unimaginable grief and horror… two, with clinical, distant reasoning that reaches conclusions that seem “logical” enough to the thinkers. On the one hand, there are those who plunge into grief and compassion… and pray. And then there are those who raise the banners of their crusade and charge forth into battle — to either stem the tide of semi-automatic assault weapons that keep showing up on the news, or to call for an even more aggressively armed society where people will think twice before they do something like this… again.

Before the shouting begins (although it already has), I need to take a breath and remember that I too will feel the eager pull of diving into the debate about gun control and the rights to keep and bear arms. I need to remember that I am tired and frustrated and in pain for these families, and that inclines me to say and do things that I wouldn’t otherwise do. I need to remember that the things that I often think are really good ideas, often… aren’t. And the things I want to say and do under such circumstances may not match the things I’d say and do under more ideal conditions.

I need to hold back and not strike out at others whose politics and cultural habits seem to either feed this scourge of shootings that has become so terribly commonplace, perpetuate it with apathy and denial, or alienate and polarize members of “the other side” so that no constructive debate can actually happen. My feelings on the issue of gun control, medication, mental illness, and personal/public security are many and varied, and I don’t fall easily into any one camp. I can easily burn through the friendships I have with a wide variety of people, over this whole thing… and I can’t afford to just alienate everyone on a passing (and passionate) whim.

So, I need to stop — just stop — and check myself, before I start doing and saying things that I can’t take back.

Ultimately, times like this — as senseless and as horrifying as they are — serve most to remind me just how much suffering there is in the world. Without getting into the reasons “why” or pointing fingers or laying blame — as we all love to do — I need to just remember that this kind of thing happens terribly often, all over the world. And whether the parents are in Newtown, Connecticut or in Kandahar Province or in Marseilles or in Chenpeng or in Baghdad, there are an awful lot of them who are losing their kids and parents and teachers to violence they would do anything to avoid, but cannot.

Times like this, I also need to remember how quickly we all tend to “apportion” our compassion. Closer to home, it’s easier to feel the burn and recognize the true horror. When the kids and teachers look like OUR kids and teachers… when they speak the same language, when they eat the same foods, keep the same schedule, vote for the same politicians, and could easily be related to us, it hits us so much harder when something this awful happens.

When the others are… well, other… it becomes a different story. Especially when the others are on the other side politically or geographically, or we’ve been told there is a Very Good Reason why they are being forced to suffer — sometimes in our names, with our tax dollars buying the ammo. And then there are those who are so remote from us, politically and socially and culturally and racially, who are undergoing such horrifying violence and destruction, it is literally impossible for us to get our heads around it, and the best we can do is try to protect ourselves and our kids and our families from having that happen to them.

And that’s all the suffering that’s on the surface. Deep beneath the careful veneer of everyday functioning, there are countless individuals who struggle daily with pain and anguish they neither understand nor can seem to overcome. There are countless individuals whose pain and suffering is well concealed, which cannot be guessed at by anyone nearby. The concealment can be deliberate — they can’t afford to let anyone know — or by default — either because others cannot fathom what it’s like, or they choose not to see. It could very well be that others choose not to see because their own inner pain is so profound that, to open that up is not an option… they literally feel like that might kill them.

And so they don’t open up to it. They stay closed. They get on with things. And they expect others to do the same.

I wish I could do just that — shut down and suck it up… and get on with it. I wish it were that easy. I wish I could just pretend away the headaches, the memory lapses, the distractability, the inner storms that rage at times, the frustrations, the sleeplessness, the stress, the nagging uncertainty about, well, everything. I wish all those things, compared to what happened yesterday in Connecticut, paled and didn’t matter or affect me. I wish I could dismiss it all, since compared to some, I have it really great.

But it’s not that easy. It’s not that simple. And while focusing on the pain of others does put things in perspective and make me incredibly grateful for what I have, I still have to deal with my own issues as I get on with my day. I’m not feeling well this morning. I haven’t felt well for most of this week. I’m fighting off a cold, with my ears filling up with fluid and my balance going haywire. I’m distracted, too, by all this anguish. Which makes me particularly vulnerable to more injury, if I’m not careful. I have to get back to some semblance of normal after a grueling couple of weeks, which is a prelude to an even more challenging 8 days before I leave for my marathon Christmas/New Years tour through five states and several families.

I just don’t feel right. And a whole lot of other people don’t either. We keep checking the news to understand “why”. We keep checking Facebook to see how others are dealing with this. We loop through question after question after question in our shuddering minds, unable to get our heads around it, haunted by the images of the parents and the kids, unable to keep from imagining what it must be like… even if it does us and them no good to do so. At some point, we just have to stop. Just stop. Take a break. Go back to bed. Or go shop. Run some errands. Just do something — anything — to get our heads off it. And all the while, Why… why…? Along with the constant running commentary in my head that pretends to “know why” as a form of logic-driven self-defense in the face of such loss.

… Why?

This world is hardly a simple, cut-and-dried sort of place, and this holiday season may or may not be even worth celebrating. Suffering is rampant on any given day, and this time of year is no exception. In Connecticut this Christmas, there will be toys that cannot be opened, and there will be pain so great it is unspeakable. There are just no words…

And around the world, this holiday season, there are countless other families who have lost babies… mothers… fathers… loved ones.  To war or fire or famine or flood or drought or disease or any number of other reasons. They are brown or yellow or black or red or white. Some of them are even in our own country, living on the fringes of our Great American Experiment, watching their loved ones and all their own hope fade before their very eyes, as so many look away.

This is what I bring with me this holiday season – not just the urge to “be happy” in the face of it all (although that is certainly part of it), but to see and know and understand the other side of happy — the pain and the suffering that so many, myself included, endure at this time. This is not to say that I am succumbing to the dark pull of the nebula of suffering that lurks at the edges of our personal universes, but to say that I can see and feel clearly how much pain and suffering there really is in the world. There are so many who are so alone, whether or not they are the only one in the room. There are so many who struggle and suffer in silence without recognition or support from others. There are so many who carry immense pain and anguish with them over invisible difficulties that they just can’t shake. And seeing and feeling that seems only right, in this time when there is — at the same time — so much light.

Because there is. On the 21st of December, the Winter Solstice will mark the expansion of daylight in our northern hemisphere. The darkening days (literally) will give way to longer hours of light, and a shorter night. This will not eradicate the night — hardly — only give us more light to see our way, for more hours of each day. And when I think of that, when I think of how the world turns and changes, and how many myriad times we have all been through the darkest of dark times and the brightest of bright times, I know that other side of things — the peace and the joy and the hope. Peace that passeth understanding. Joy unbounded. And hope beyond hope.

This is the ultimate irony of this season — that it is such an extremely hard time for many, and yet it has so much hope and promise in it. That 20 little children and adults who were trying to care for and protect them were gunned down, less than two weeks before Christmas is something that will overshadow this season for many years to come. I can’t imagine that a single Christmas will ever pass again without this being remembered.

And in the midst of this remembering, I have to also keep in mind, how many others are suffering — hidden or forgotten or both… how many others are struggling, for other reasons… how many others have lost hope and have no idea what comes next. The politicking and social debates and cultural clashes are bound to flare up soon, which to me adds an even greater pall over these events, even as I know that some sort of change is necessary. It’s not the debate that gets me — it’s the tone of it, the tenor, the divisiveness and the aggression. From each side towards the other. What I need to keep in mind, as those battles rage, is that the source of the frustration and the aggression and the divisiveness is nothing less than human nature — fueled by passion over Things That Matter.

It’s not the greatest comfort, but it is something.

In the end, though, I can’t afford to be felled by this experience. I was not in Connecticut. I do not know those families or those children. My own involvement is as limited with them, as it is with families in Ramallah who lose their kids, too. The fact that they are from my country doesn’t mean they are any more or less valuable than anyone else. ALL are valuable, and ALL matter, and enough with the apportioning of compassion to decide who matters, and who doesn’t.  The fact of this horrible shock doesn’t make the sufferings of others any less — the homeless vets struggling with PTSD and TBI on the bitterly cold streets of Chicago or Philadelphia… the families in the Detroit area who are being evicted because they cannot pay their rent… the farmer in South Dakota who lost his barn to fire… the housewife in Boise whose doctor can’t explain that nagging pain in her abdomen… the injured, the broken, the burned, the terminally ill… whether ambulatory or bedridden… whether about to be discharged to go home and recover, or to be moved to hospice to pass on during the Christmas season…. whether cut down in the flower of life, or struggling with lingering dementia in their final days/weeks/months/years/who-can-tell-how-long? For all the light that comes in, this is NOT an easy time for many.

And so it becomes all the more important to find light… to find something else to dwell on… not to banish the pain, but to find the strength to face it. We must find sources of strength and light, so that we can keep ourselves going in this seemingly impossible stretch of “holiday cheer”. We cannot run our best on fumes, and we cannot keep our strength up by dwelling only on darkness. We must seek more, we must find better. For the sake of facing What Is… no matter what.

Ultimately, it really is our choice, what we choose to do with these situations. We can allow ourselves to be pulled down into nothingness and give up hope entirely. Or we can see with different eyes and choose something different for ourselves. We can starve ourselves in grief… or stuff ourselves with sweets in denial… or we can eat sensibly and exercise and get on with doing what needs to be done. What others do… we have no control. What comes of our actions and reactions… that we do have some say in. And what we choose matters a great deal. To everyone around us.

But I have gone on too long… looking for meaning in all of this. Hoping for hope. Digging for clues. The earth cries out with the loss of each child, the ground soaked with young blood the world over. How we choose to approach it, how we decide to use that knowledge… it is up to you. So choose wisely.

And let there be Life, as well.