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  1. Compassion: Lighting up the Shadows

    April 7, 2019 by Diane

    Over the past couple of weeks, I finished a short story and entered it in a contest.

    The beginnings of this story came to me one morning as I warmed up on the keyboard. It was worth exploring, so I tucked it away in a file I call Write Aheads.

    When I read the announcement for the short story contest in a local paper, I scrolled through my Write Aheads, came across this beginning, and thought it had potential.

    Hmm. Wonder where this might lead.

    It was the kind of story that revealed itself word by word. As E. L. Doctorow said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

    It was pure blind trust on my part, following that feeble light.

    Enter Detective Bloch

    The protagonist, I discovered, was a detective with multiple personality disorder. In the third paragraph, he contaminated the evidence at a crime scene. He wasn’t likable. His energy was dark. In short, he was an anti-hero. He even told the reader straight up, “Don’t make me into a hero.”

    The fact that this character sprang forth from my subconscious gave me pause. Was I mentally unhinged? Steven King wrote dark characters. As did Michael Connelly. And Robert Crais. Were those writers unhinged?

    When this detective first appeared on the page, he caught my interest. The actions he took surprised me. Not to mix metaphors, but as I continued to write the story, the way he played cat and mouse—only showing his cards when he was good and ready—made me want to follow, and by the end of the first scene, the curve ball he threw rocked me back on my heels.

    I was all in. I had to know what happened next.

    Playing God

    As writers, we play God with our characters. We give them form, imbue them with habits and thoughts and emotions, bring them to life in the fictional world we’ve created. No matter how flawed they may be, how despicable, they’re our creations.

    This detective, this anti-hero, wasn’t the sort of character I’d want to know in real life. But in my fictional world, he interested me. I was curious to know more. And when he revealed why he did what he did, I felt compassion.

    Which brings me to…the assignment

    I’m sharing this, because the assignment for week 6 of the LIFE XT program was:

    Add Compassion. Use leaving the house as the cue to Notice-Shift-Rewire the habit of Compassion.

    As I left my house, I immediately forgot to notice, shift, or rewire. But by the end of the week, driving home from the grocery store, listening to politics on the radio, I had the opportunity to practice compassion. Nothing hardens my jaw as much as political news. It’s all fake. Except, of course, the news I tune into. And while I’m being honest, I may as well admit: the only side that’s right is mine.

    Did I remind myself, while grinding my teeth into a fine powder, that there are people on the opposite side of the aisle, listening to a different version of the news, who are having those very same thoughts about me? Did I use this moment to practice compassion?

    No.

    But I did practice Presence. I turned the radio off.

    My “ah-ha!” moment

    Circling back to Detective Bloch, I reflected upon how, in spite of his dark nature, I could feel compassion for the character.

    That must be what the Big Kahuna feels for the evil among us.

    Writers and the Creator of the universe are similar in that we form something from nothing, and sometimes that something goes rogue (Don’t eat the apple, Adam!). Yet in spite of how wrong, how vehemently opposed we might be to someone’s actions, we can still be curious about what brought them to that place, intrigued about where they’ll end up, and interested in learning their story.

    Being curious, intrigued, and interested are pathways to understanding.

    And understanding is the bridge to compassion.

    Well.

    I could always be curious about someone who angered me.

    Intrigued? Hell, ya!

    Interested? Why not?

    But could I remember to take that long view, that God-like perspective, when someone was in my face shouting their opinions?

    Maybe.

    At the very least, I could take a giant step back. Make room for something more divine to light up the shadows between us.


  2. Gratitude: The View Ain’t So Bad From Here

    March 31, 2019 by Diane

    Root canal.

    Just hearing those words makes me jumpy.

    Obama jokingly referred to the bank bailout as being as popular as a root canal, which pissed off those who do it, but illustrated perfectly how the rest of us feel about having it done.

    So when my dentist told me I’d need the dreaded procedure, and gave me a referral to an endodontist, my hand shook as I signed the form.

    Who to believe?

    My previous dentist, the hypochondriac, never mentioned root canals.

    No, it was my new dentist who opened the can of worms. I switched to him, because:

    • My previous dentist no longer accepted my cheap insurance.
    • I had a limited pool of dentists from which to choose.
    • The new guy, Dr. A, got rave reviews on Yelp. Well, two. But there were only two.
    • He seemed friendly when we met, although I could have done away with the handshake.
    • He was downright handsome.

    After his initial examination, Dr. A told me, “The good news: your oral hygiene is excellent. The bad news: your crowns need replacing.”

    My previous dentist never mentioned that scenario, either.

    “Good News, Bad News”

    I soon learned, this handsome fellow liked those phrases. He also relished the word “extreme.”

    In my next visit, while I waited for the Novocain to kick in, he scurried across the hall to examine another patient.

    “The good news: there’s no problem with your teeth. The bad news: your gums are receding. It’s extreme.”

    While I waited for the squishy stuff to harden into a mold of my teeth, he scurried next door to consult with a third patient.

    “The good news: your gums are in great shape. The bad news: you have extreme cavities and you’ll probably need to mortgage your home to pay for the dental work.” (I may have misheard that last part, but the subtext was loud and clear.)

    Off with the Crowns!

    Replacing my first crown went without a glitch, although I shivered in the chair, having a deep fear of dentists. Had my dentist also been a clown, I may have been scarred for life.

    After the procedure, Dr. A said, “You might elect to have a root canal,” then shoved his hand out to shake.

    Why would anyone elect to have a root canal?

    Replacing my second crown, Dr. A ran into a snag. During the procedure, the nerve was exposed. It was “extreme.” He didn’t offer good news, just the bad.

    “There’s a ninety-nine-percent chance you’ll need a root canal,” he said, and shoved out his hand.

    Oh, how I hated this man.

    I wondered if he was getting kickbacks from the endodontist.

    I refused to take the bait. Or his hand.

    A second opinion

    The pain began. Heat, cold, chewing…everything hurt. With dread, I visualized enduring a root canal, of something going horribly wrong, of ending up in the hospital.

    I googled “holistic dentists,” called one, and asked her opinion.

    “If the nerve was mechanically-exposed, ozone treatments MIGHT work,” she said, “but I can’t guarantee it. If it was cavity-exposed, you’ll need an extraction or a root canal.”

    What!? I thought those words didn’t exist in the vocabulary of holistic dentistry.

    The lesson begins

    I was in week five of the LIFE XT program, which I began blogging about here.

    The instructions for the week:

    Add Gratitude. Use sitting down to meals as the cue to Notice-Shift-Rewire the habit of Gratitude.

    Since eating involved heat, cold, and chewing, this proved to be a challenge. Still, I told myself I was grateful to have teeth, and to have a credit card to pay for the fixing of those teeth.

    On Sunday, in desperation, I called my dentist on his cell to find out how the nerve was exposed.

    His brother answered.

    His brother didn’t know.

    Dr. A, he told me, was “extremely” ill and in the hospital.

    “I’m so sorry!” I said, metaphorically backing out the door, grateful for my health.

    Root canal? Or no root canal?

    I didn’t need a neon sign to tell me I’d need to deal with the problem tooth. So I scheduled a visit with endo-guy. I convinced myself that after performing whatever tests endodontists perform, he’d straighten and announce, “You don’t need a root canal!”

    I was willing to take the gamble.

    The day came. I had a plan. If I needed the procedure, I’d visualize lying on the beach. I’d visualize Dave waiting for me in the waiting room. I’d remind myself it would be over in an hour. I’d remind myself of the line I’d recently heard on a tv show: no matter what happens, I’ll get through it. I’d count my breaths: two hundred and twelve of them, the length of time, I was told, a root canal would take. (I ‘d worked out the math in the shower when I should have been practicing Awareness.)

    The test

    I’d read the reviews about endo-guy on Yelp.

    • He had a lousy bedside manner.
    • He’d do the work without telling the patient what he was doing, then disappear.

    I considered those good reviews. I prefer not knowing what a dentist is doing. I don’t want to be that involved. My new dentist is far too chatty. He even offers a mirror so I can watch.

    Endo-guy ran through a list of questions, then performed the “ice” test, applying an ice-cold instrument to one of my regular teeth. As soon as I felt the pain, I raised my hand. He tested the crowned tooth. No pain, then, after several long seconds, I raised my hand. He tested a regular tooth. Up went the hand.

    “It took longer for the crowned tooth,” he said, “which could be a problem. Is the pain gone?”

    “Yes.”

    “If it goes away quickly, that’s good. Let’s try again.”

    He applied the ice to the back of the crown and my hand shot up, followed by the rest of me.

    “That’s a good sign,” he said, and straightened. “You don’t need a root canal.”

    Oh, the joy! The relief! I was ready to dance down the hallway.

    “Is the pain still there?” he said.

    “Well, yes,” I admitted.

    “That’s bad. You need a root canal.”

    The sun went behind the clouds. I stared at him.

    “You can think about it,” he said, “decide later.”

    I didn’t want to think about it. My anxiety would shoot through the roof. I’d lose twenty pounds. I’d end up in the hospital, like my dentist.

    “What do you advise?”

    “A root canal.”

    There it was. I could either go home and worry myself sick, or I could suck it up and get it over.

    I sucked it up.

    After all, I had a plan, right?

    The plan goes awry

    Endo-guy sprang into action. I didn’t have a chance to back out. He shoved a rubber dam in my mouth and went to work. Other than the shot he jammed through the roof of my mouth, nothing hurt. But the whole experience was so overwhelming, my ability to visualize anything vanished. I couldn’t remember my reminders. Counting breaths didn’t occur to me. All I could do was clench my toes so my focus would be on my feet instead of my mouth. He barked orders. “Open wider!” “Resist against me!” At one point I reached up to brush something from my cheek and he barked, “Don’t touch anything! There’s a lot of sharp instruments here!”

    It was all a blur. And then, it was over. Faster than I thought it would be.

    And endo-guy disappeared.

    The view ain’t so bad from here

    I was grateful it was behind me.

    I was grateful I’d had the nerve to get through it.

    If the alternative had been an infection that reached my bone, I could even say I was grateful to have the root canal.

    Gratitude shifted my outlook.

    I had a choice. I could be fearful of the bad or grateful for the good. Anxious of what scared me, or thankful for what gave me strength. Leery of the germs on my dentist’s hand, or comforted he was trying to put me at ease.

    By adopting an attitude of gratitude, I saw all that was right in my life.

    Above the dark clouds, the sun was always shining.


  3. Presence: Awareness Times Infinity

    March 17, 2019 by Diane

    Over one-third of the way through the LIFE XT program, I failed.

    I had started the program with high hopes after reviewing the book it’s based on, and agreeing to dive in and record my progress on the suggestion of one of the readers of this blog. I started with meditation in week one, added exercise in week two, questioned stressful thoughts in week three, and embarked on week four with these instructions:

    Add Presence: Use showering as the cue to Notice-Shift-Rewire to Presence.

    To build a new habit, the authors suggest anchoring it to a cue. In a perfect world, you Notice the cue, Shift your awareness to the new habit, and Rewire your brain by allowing the experience to sink in. Do this 21 times, or whatever magic number it takes, and you’ve developed a new habit.

    The only problem: I couldn’t remember the cue.

    Every night as I showered, I sang with gusto. Or worked through plot flaws. Or edited blog posts in my head. The only thing I noticed was that it was bloody cold with the overhead fan on, and the water was too hot.

    I was not present.

    I was failing week four.

    Friday rolled around, and I took my lunch outside to a picnic table on a rare sunny afternoon. My mind journeyed back to a time before funeral parlors, when the body of a loved-one was embalmed in the kitchen, which is why kitchens in the early 1900s had a big drain in the floor. Not an appetizing thought, but I was sitting across from the history house at the museum which triggered the image, and my thinking would have continued in that vein if I hadn’t dropped a chunk of barbecued tempeh on the table, right in the path of an ant.

    The tempeh, from an ant’s perspective, was the dimension of a two-story building. The ant seemed confused at first, then interested, then excited in the way ants get when they’ve found the Mother Lode of sustenance, and after navigating around the base of the object, the little guy climbed up and over and down and around and hurried off to summon the troops.

    I picked up the tempeh to toss in the garbage, thinking how disappointed the troops would be when they arrived to find nothing but the lingering scent of barbecue and fermented tofu. Would they send stressful ant-thoughts to the scout, labeling him stupid-stupid? No. Ants don’t have the capacity to judge. Their brains are ant-sized. They would inspect the area throughly and then march onward, looking for food elsewhere.

    Watching that ant brought me back to the present moment. It’s probably why children spend hours hunkered down over an anthill. You can’t get more present than watching ants. Or being a three-year-old. I finished the rest of my lunch, feeling the warmth of the sun, appreciating the birdsong, admiring the dusty blue cowboy sky. Time expanded. My body relaxed.

    This is what it meant to take my meditation off the mat.

    I wondered: if being present felt so expansive, why did I spend so much time opting out instead of in?

    Three reasons came to mind.

    One: I was preparing for the future with what-ifs. As long as I explored every possibility, like the ant examining the cube of tempeh, I’d survive whatever came next. It was a form of magical thinking, believing I could prevent bad things from happening just by dwelling on them. That was the kind of trouble my human-sized brain got me into.

    Two: I was attempting to reclaim my past self with coulda-beens. I visualized where I’d be now if I’d acted differently then, even though what I knew then was a fraction of what I know now so my choices, good or bad, were based on limited experience and could not have been otherwise.

    Three: I was avoiding whatever might be lacking in my own life by focusing on things outside myself. Like whether The Bachelor would lose his virginity. And did anybody really care? Wasn’t Bachelor Nation tuning in to see if he’d crash and burn, along with the snippy women who fawned over him, so our own lives would look pretty close to perfect?

    I pondered that possibility—and the awful realization that I had referred to myself and Bachelor Nation in the same sentence—while showering. And then I remembered: oh yeah, this is my cue to Notice, Shift and Rewire to Presence.

    Which I did.