On Paying Attention to Intention

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In the last few months I’ve felt better overall than I have in a long time. My current combination of self-care practices seem to be working well for the most part, and it feels good when I’m able to maintain a feeling of balance for extended periods of time. My main struggle continues to be meeting the sense of losing balance with stress and frustration. After a wonderful Sunday of biking around the city, lounging in the rose garden in Golden Gate Park, and hanging out with friends, I woke up feeling anxious and stressed on Monday (primarily related to pending housing uncertainties). My inner dialogue starts up the anxious thoughts of, “Ugh, but I was doing so well yesterday!” and, “I must immediately figure out a plan! That’s the only way to get out of this stress!” When I allow myself to fuel these thoughts with similar ones like them, the fire spreads, and I have a much harder time remembering the tactics that help me maintain balance.

Part of the issue here is the false narrative that because I was “doing so well yesterday” (read: feeling happy) the reappearance of stress or anxiety signals that I’m no longer “doing well”. Feeling balanced, like anything in life, is not a linear trajectory, which is extremely hard to remember in moments that feel anything like a setback or a failure. I try to remind myself that the movement above and below the state of balance is a cycle. Unfortunately I still forget this, and worry when the lower feelings surface or catch me by surprise.

Fortunately, the more awareness I have (depending on the levels of self-care being maintained), the better able I am to disconnect with stress becoming all consuming and eventually somewhat apocalyptic. I strengthen my awareness through meditation, and setting intentions. The following four (and a half) intentions have become the base of my practice, and seem to work well at helping me achieve the balance I need to feel calm and collected throughout my days. I try to pick one to focus on each day, though ideally they’d all be in practice at once!

1. Focus on now, not yesterday, and not tomorrow. This intention is my foundation. As a planner, I tend to channel my anxiety into try to create stability by planning everything out. (Spoiler: it ends up making me more anxious). By reminding myself that I don’t need to worry about what is going to happen in the future, or even in more than a few hours from now, I take the weight of trying to predict the future off my shoulders. Not getting caught up in thinking about / worrying / analyzing past is equally as distracting and unhelpful. It’s over, there’s nothing else I can do about it, just let it go, (as much as this is easier said than done).

1.5 Do one thing at a time. This is closely linked to the foundation intention, but I figured it deserved its own half bullet. Like planning, multitasking is something I do when I’m stressed. The idea becomes something along the lines of, “If I can get everything done, then I can relax,” but ultimately gets more stressful as I’m not fully present with anything. When I am fully present with each task I have the headspace to say, “huh- I may not have time to complete my whole to-do list right now- that’s totally okay.” This is extremely freeing, and without being present intentionally it is so much harder to be aware of the world and people (and their thoughts and feelings) around me.

2. Remember self-love/care/support. There’s a part in my meditation packs that asks you to remind yourself why you’re doing the meditation and then think about the people it will benefit. I always start with, “because I love myself, and I’m here to support myself,” which always brings the biggest smile to my face. When I’m focusing on self-love I take time to do nice things for myself like getting a massage, buying myself a kombucha, noticing how happy I feel when I’m cozy on the couch with a book and my slippers on, calling my grandparents, watching the sunrise, etc. Exercise is an important daily self-care ritual for me, but I’ve learned that it must be kept in the context of, “I am doing this because it will make my body and mind feel good,” and if it starts to feel like something I must do instead of something I want to do, that’s a sign my body needs to rest.

3. Engage with the world. When I’m aware of my surroundings I’m able to disengage with my inner dialogue and interact with the outside world in a positive manner. Smiling at fellow humans when crossing paths, saying “bless you” to someone who sneezes on the bus, offering assistance to someone clearly confused or needing it, asking how the bus driver is doing- all of these kinds of interactions prove to increase my optimism in humanity, and as a bonus, make me feel better in turn. Remembering that everyone is fighting their own battle and dealing with their own plethora of thoughts and feelings is another way to lessen feelings of isolation. We really are all in this together.

4. Appreciate and give thanks. A few Thanksgivings ago my Mother hung a banner that said “give thanks” spelled out in a bunting style with metal letters over our table. She let me keep the banner and it now hangs in my room next to my bed, a reminder to give thanks every day. When I focus on being grateful I am often filled with amazement at the beauty of my life. I am surrounded and supported by so many wonderful friends, family members, and coworkers. I live in one of the most beautiful cities on the planet that gives me access to clean drinking water and clean air. The days I focus on gratitude I go to extra lengths to call, write, and connect with the people I love.

4.5 Nurture my family as people. I’m not sure why it took me so long to really connect with the idea that my family members are people too, but I’m glad it’s something I figured out sooner than later. I make a lot of effort to nurture my friendships, and know my friends very well, but this year I’ve been working on applying that to my family members as well. Getting to know my parents as people gives me a better understanding of them and myself. Finding out common interests I share with my grandparents has allowed my relationship with them, one I always took for granted, to become a source of deep enjoyment on both parts. Becoming fully aware that my extended family members are all individually complex, interesting people, who love me to boot, has been a wonderful realization (albeit a kind of, “well duh” one), and allowed me to focus time and effort on getting to know them in a way I wasn’t able to as a child and teenager. This is something I feel incredible gratitude for, and brings me joy in the moments when I feel the most alone. Through therapy I was about to let go of the ideas I held about what a “perfect” family was, and realize what incredible love and support my family gives me. I released the fantasy, let go over the disappointments, and discovered so much more. Leave the gun, take the cannoli. You won’t be disappointed. 

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Monday Morning Thoughts on (Urban) Planning & Meditation

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Here in San Francisco most of the houses are built so close together they are either touching or are only separated by a few inches. This makes sense given that there is such limited space (49 sq miles with height restrictions). You’d think if this was the case there would be some uniformity in the height of the houses on a single block, to give it some coherence. Occasionally this is the case, more often on blocks in the outer neighborhoods where a small handful of architects designed a good deal of the properties. You’ll still find sets of painted ladies (groups of three or more identical victorian style houses) where uniformity was clearly considered key, but you’ll also find blocks where a few of the painted ladies have been ripped down so these formerly neat rows are punctuated by boxy, modern-ish, rectangular houses. More often than not, most blocks are built with the heights and shapes of the houses jutting out at all kinds of angles and heights, like a miniature city skyline contained on a single block.

I was observing this phenomenon on my own block, while waiting for MUNI the other morning, and it reminded me of the way my mind works sometimes. As a natural born planner I’ve realized that one of my methods of attempting to feel secure and stable about the future is try to plan it all out- or at the very least, fantasize about what all the potential scenarios could look like in order to feel prepared. In this method, all of the houses on the block are built with intention, they all aligned evenly with thought out, corresponding color schemes and heights. A leads to B. Cause and effect relate with a clear sense of intentionality.

Ah, if only that was how life really worked.

But, of course, it doesn’t. We have no way to anticipate what the next phase of life, or even what the next day will bring. We can only be fairly confident, given all previous events, that it will all manage to fit on the same block- in spite of the unexpected shadows that will be cast. The most ironic part about trying to feel secure about the future by figuring out what it will look like is, of course, that it makes me really fucking anxious. So much for feeling secure and stable 😛

Luckily, through my meditation practice, I’m beginning to gain awareness in the moment that I’m trying to plan through fears or anxiety- whether it’s just forming to-do lists for the rest of the day, or those more long term projections that play out like telenovelas in my brain. Once I realize what my mind is doing, I can zoom out and ask myself what is triggering this defense mechanism. Because of the way my heart and brain work in tandem, it seems to often be a feeling that I need to really sit with and experience (while giving myself active self-love and self-support) before it will release me. The more regularly I’ve meditated, and then put into practice what I’ve learned through meditation throughout the day, the more of these types of windows I encounter, and the more opportunities I have to return to a balanced emotional equilibrium. As feelings of security and stability have begun to emerge from knowing I can support myself through what each day brings, the habit of descending into the frenzied feeling of, “if I can just get x, y, and z done, then I’ll feel okay” has slowly begun to subside.

I’ve been experiencing a new sensation lately. It’s one of being able to relax into my unstructured time with enjoyment- something that I didn’t even realize I’d lost until it started to return.

I’ll probably always be a planner, but as I’m learning to let go of the need for control, I’m beginning to learn the joy of spontaneity. Who ever would have thought that could happen?

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On Strength

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Back when I was young and naive, a phase that I’m hoping has passed but how can we ever really be sure, I thought that strength was about power. Having the power to lift, wield, dictate, reason,  choose, decide. To be in control.

The universe has a funny way of buffing out that naïveté, doesn’t it?

Today my understanding of strength is nearly the total opposite. I understand strength as having the will to overcome in the moments when you are at your lowest, the ability to accept fault, apologize, choose vulnerability over pride, and acknowledge the humanity of ourselves and others. Strength is not something you are born with, it is something you acquire slowly, with intention and support. It is the kind of thing you get more of by giving it away, and it is a thing to be worn, quietly but proudly, like a badge of life earned in battle.

Today what I associate most strongly with strength is the notion of resilience. I admire and work towards the ability to have awareness around the highs and lows, the ebbs and flows of life. My succulent tattoo has something to do with that. I got it partly as a reminder of my own resilience, having made great progress on moving from a harrowingly negative body image to a much more positive (though of course not perfect) one. I wanted to adorn my body with something I thought was beautiful, and in that way remind myself that my body is a beautiful thing meant to be loved. (For the record, tattoo needles hurt a lot more than acupuncture needles 😛 )

These sometimes symmetrical desert plants have found a home here in San Francisco. They somehow thrive in this ever changing micro climate environment. The ones I love the most appear in the sidewalk cracks beneath established desert flower beds, escape artists making a break for it and surviving on their own. My succulent tattoo, artistically recreated from a photo I took of just one such sidewalk escape artist, reminds me about the beauty of survival, and the art of carrying on.

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Shoutout to Morgan for her monthly poetry nights, and giving me topics to write on 🙂 

On Learning to Drive Stick in San Francisco

Learning to drive stick in San Francisco is like learning to swim at Ocean Beach. It’s theoretically possible, but the reality of it is somewhat dangerous, mentally intimidating, and more than a little bit stressful. Word to the wise: if you don’t know how to drive stick, and aren’t excited about the idea of the lives of your seven passengers riding (pun intended) on your ability to do a successful hill start, maybe don’t take a job that relies heavily on both of those requirements.

Let me back up to the beginning of this story.

In September of 2015 I was finally accepting that the day-to-day reality of my startup job was not doing it for me. I wanted to be doing something different, but had never encountered a job in San Francisco that combined not sitting in front of a computer all day with earning above minimum wage. As luck would have it, my roommate was in the early stages of planning an eight-month road trip with her boyfriend that involved quitting their day jobs and living in a van. Consequently, a solid amount of time was spent looking at beautiful vans and #vanlife accounts on Instagram. When I came across Vantigo’s account (and a post that they were hiring) I was intrigued. I corresponded with Erik, the owner, and within the week I’d been offered a job doing content, social media, community management, and most of all, learning to be a tour guide. This was regardless of the fact that I did not know how to drive a stick shift, which all three of the Vantigo vans required. Challenge accepted.

Fast-forward about two and a half months, one bicycle accident induced elbow fracture, and enough Vantigo employees being in the US at the same time for the tour schedule to be covered, and you will arrive at the time when my stick shift training began. I started at the Marina Green parking lot, moved on to the back roads of West Marin, and eventually began practicing the tour route around San Francisco over the course of three weeks.

Learning to drive stick proved to be one of those things you just had to learn by doing- and learn by screwing up on. Luckily for me, stalling while trying to do a hill start at a four-way stop seems to be much less irritating to other drivers when you are in acanary yellow VW van. Unfortunately for me, other drivers don’t seem to realize that when I’m stalling out trying to do a hill start at a four-way stop it might not be the best time to pull up next to me to chat about their VW nostalgia. I would have figured that the sweat pouring down my face combined with the stressed out facial expression would be a dead give away of, “this is maybe not the best time to chat with this person,” but VW vans just really bring out the dreamy, chatty side of people. C’est la vie.

My biggest lesson from learning to drive stick in a 1971 VW van was really one about science. In a van with four gears, gravity is gear number five. Gravity can be used to your benefit in many scenarios including but not limited to: backing out of a parking space, coasting down a large hill, and getting up to speeds not otherwise attainable by a VW van (slow is really all we know). Sir Isaac take the wheel. (Shout out to Erik, Eddie, and Justin for pulling the e-brake for me at exactly the right times).

The last three weeks have seen me driving tours to wine country, Highway 1, and all around San Francisco. I’ve been having recurring dreams where I’m driving stick, and I hope this counts as additional practice. I’ve also decided that our yellow van, Jerry, who followed the Grateful Dead for ten years during the 70s, is definitely my spirit van. There is really something to cruising around in these vans, whether you’re driving down Haight Street or coasting down Highway 1. It just feels so right. Well, so long as you don’t accidentally go from third gear to second when looking for fourth, or try to leave a stop sign in third when you think you’re in first, that is.

When in doubt, grind it till you find it.

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My Utterly San Francisco Bike Accident

I’ve been living and biking in San Francisco for long enough now that my chances of getting into minor “bicycle meets blank” altercations have increased, not in my favor. This is certainly not helped by the fact that my catlike fight or flight instincts lean heavily towards flight- (so much so that as I child I once jumped off a horse mid-horsebackriding lesson- I later claimed it threw me, but we all knew what had really happened).

Up until seven weeks ago my primary bike accidents had involved hitting the MUNI tracks at the wrong angle, and an attempted stealing of my bike seat which resulted in me tearing up my knee and chaco-clad foot. So it was to my great chagrin to experience my first bicycle snafu to involve a car at the end of October- though everyone who hears this story has agreed that it probably went as well as any bike-car accident could have gone.

After leaving a particularly emotional therapy session about the impending departure of my best friend and roommate of two years, I was headed across town to a yoga class. I was biking down Oak St towards Divisadero, with a green light and nothing in the bike lane ahead of me. I saw a car at the intersection with their right turn signal on, and the only thought that occurred to me was “they’re probably texting and don’t realize they have a green light.” In the next moment I reached the intersection, just as the car realized they could go and began to turn.

Inexperienced in both physics and what to do when you’re about to crash into a car (I suppose the latter is a good thing), I instinctually braked with both hands as hard as I could. My bike stopped. I, on the other hand, kept moving. I went right over my handlebars and landed chin first, followed by the heels of both hands. (Yes, I was of course wearing a helmet). As people from the sidewalk rushed to help me and my bike up, I slunk over to the sidewalk, half in shock and half in embarrassment.

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Looking mugged

This is where the story gets a little absurd. The woman who had been driving gets out of the car in a rush, saying, “Oh god! That was so scary! Are you okay? Tell me what happened?” After making sure I’m still in once piece she introduces herself as Sky, and proceeds to tell me that she is, in fact, a trauma counselor. “You’re clearly in shock, can we sit down and do some breathing exercises together?” She asks. I’m an emotional wreck at this point, trying to keep it together from therapy and now deal with the fact that I’ve just publicly wrecked my shit (and it was likely my fault for not paying attention) and the pain in my elbow means I’m probably not going to make it to yoga. “Sure,” I tell her, “Let’s do it.”

She talks me through some breathing exercises and then says, “Okay so I practice EFT, do you know what that is?” I shake my head and she continues. “It’s called Emotional Freedom Therapy– and it’s a psychological accupressure technique that helps you short circuit your emotions.” Uh huh… “Is it okay if I tap on you?” At this point I’m up for whatever, unconcerned with the genuinely confused and concerned people passing by on what is a street that gets a lot of foot traffic, especially on a Saturday.

Sky then proceeds to hold my hands in her palms, face up, and tap on my hands, cheekbone and arms, all while having me repeat positive affirmations. Things like, “I’ve just experienced a trauma, but I’m okay. I love myself and I will get through this experience.” Etc. The most bizarre thing happens- it totally works. I calm down completely. The adrenaline surging through my body magically dissipates and I’m steady enough to get back on my (thank god- unharmed) bike (that shit is expensive to fix) and bike the five blocks back to my apartment. This is only after Sky and I have hugged it out (obviously), because this is San Francisco after all.

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Just as a mini-epilogue for this, I ended up going in for x-rays the next day. I eventually found out that I had a impacted fracture in my right elbow, which healed on it’s own after about six weeks and a week of occupational therapy (also some magically stuff in its own right). This experience has taught me to be more cautious while biking, and given me a new appreciation for having use of both arms at once. To my parents amusement I also discovered what it really means to visit specialists when you know there isn’t anything they can do for you besides tell you your injuries won’t be getting any worse. “So I’m going to pay $50 to have someone tell me I’m fine and everything will heal on its own?” “Yes Eliza. Welcome to adulthood.” Shoutout to Marie A. for being a great friend and rushing home to sit on her apartment stoop with me while I cried over my bruised body and ego, and telling me about her bike accident that occurred while trying to text and bike simultaneously. (Really how on earth do some people manage that?)

My biggest lesson, of course, was that if you’re going to get into a bike accident it should definitely involve a trauma counselor.  *