Circle the Wagons.

Circle the wagons. ed5cfee01d5f386bb343d5fb66908373.510x510x1

It’s a North American phrase that means to “unite in defense of a common interest.”  My husband and I say this to each other often when solving problems around our house.

  • “I feel overwhelmed lately”…… circle the wagons.
  • “I feel like we haven’t seen each other in days”…… circle the wagons.
  • “______ had a problem at school today”….. circle the wagons.

You get the idea.

Our solution to most things is to hunker down and bring the four of us closer together.  We shut out distractions, we close off the outside world, and we rally inward towards strength and love.  In fact, that’s how we live our day-to-day lives.  We live (and love) a busy life, but we also live (and love) unstructured downtime.  The act of just being together.  Of just being.  We’ve carefully constructed our routines to minimize chaos and the frantic rush from place to place.  And in times when things become out of control, we circle the wagons.

Here’s The Disease of Being Busy, written by Omid Safi, and he describes my thoughts far better than I can:

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I saw a dear friend a few days ago. I stopped by to ask her how she was doing, how her family was. She looked up, voice lowered, and just whimpered: “I’m so busy… I am so busy… have so much going on.”

Almost immediately after, I ran into another friend and asked him how he was. Again, same tone, same response: “I’m just so busy… got so much to do.”

The tone was exacerbated, tired, even overwhelmed.

And it’s not just adults. When we moved to North Carolina about ten years ago, we were thrilled to be moving to a city with a great school system. We found a diverse neighborhood, filled with families. Everything felt good, felt right.

After we settled in, we went to one of the friendly neighbors, asking if their daughter and our daughter could get together and play. The mother, a really lovely person, reached for her phone and pulled out the calendar function. She scrolled… and scrolled… and scrolled. She finally said: “She has a 45-minute opening two and half weeks from now. The rest of the time it’s gymnastics, piano, and voice lessons. She’s just…. so busy.”

Horribly destructive habits start early, really early.

How did we end up living like this? Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we do this to our children? When did we forget that we are human beings, not human doings?

Whatever happened to a world in which kids get muddy, get dirty, get messy, and heavens, get bored? Do we have to love our children so much that we overschedule them, making them stressed and busy — just like us?

What happened to a world in which we can sit with the people we love so much and have slow conversations about the state of our heart and soul, conversations that slowly unfold, conversations with pregnant pauses and silences that we are in no rush to fill?

How did we create a world in which we have more and more and more to do with less time for leisure, less time for reflection, less time for community, less time to just… be?

Somewhere we read, “The unexamined life is not worth living… for a human.” How are we supposed to live, to examine, to be, to become, to be fully human when we are so busy?

This disease of being “busy” (and let’s call it what it is, the dis-ease of being busy, when we are never at ease) is spiritually destructive to our health and wellbeing. It saps our ability to be fully present with those we love the most in our families, and keeps us from forming the kind of community that we all so desperately crave.

Since the 1950s, we have had so many new technological innovations that we thought (or were promised) would make our lives easier, faster, simpler. Yet, we have no more “free” or leisurely time today than we did decades ago.

For some of us, the “privileged” ones, the lines between work and home have become blurred. We are on our devices. All. The. Freaking. Time.

Smart phones and laptops mean that there is no division between the office and home. When the kids are in bed, we are back online.

One of my own daily struggles is the avalanche of email. I often refer to it as my jihad against email. I am constantly buried under hundreds and hundreds of emails, and I have absolutely no idea how to make it stop. I’ve tried different techniques: only responding in the evenings, not responding over weekends, asking people to schedule more face-to-face time. They keep on coming, in volumes that are unfathomable: personal emails, business emails, hybrid emails. And people expect a response — right now. I, too, it turns out… am so busy.

The reality looks very different for others. For many, working two jobs in low-paying sectors is the only way to keep the family afloat. Twenty percent of our children are living in poverty, and too many of our parents are working minimum wage jobs just to put a roof over their head and something resembling food on the table. We are so busy.

The old models, including that of a nuclear family with one parent working outside the home (if it ever existed), have passed away for most of us. We now have a majority of families being single families, or where both parents are working outside the home. It is not working.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

In many Muslim cultures, when you want to ask them how they’re doing, you ask: in Arabic, Kayf haal-ik? or, in Persian, Haal-e shomaa chetoreh? How is your haal?

What is this haal that you inquire about? It is the transient state of one’s heart. In reality, we ask, “How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?” When I ask, “How are you?” that is really what I want to know.

I am not asking how many items are on your to-do list, nor asking how many items are in your inbox. I want to know how your heart is doing, at this very moment. Tell me. Tell me your heart is joyous, tell me your heart is aching, tell me your heart is sad, tell me your heart craves a human touch. Examine your own heart, explore your soul, and then tell me something about your heart and your soul.

Tell me you remember you are still a human being, not just a human doing. Tell me you’re more than just a machine, checking off items from your to-do list. Have that conversation, that glance, that touch. Be a healing conversation, one filled with grace and presence.

Put your hand on my arm, look me in the eye, and connect with me for one second. Tell me something about your heart, and awaken my heart. Help me remember that I too am a full and complete human being, a human being who also craves a human touch.

I teach at a university where many students pride themselves on the “study hard, party hard” lifestyle. This might be a reflection of many of our lifestyles and our busy-ness — that even our means of relaxation is itself a reflection of that same world of overstimulation. Our relaxation often takes the form of action-filled (yet mindless) films, or violent and face-paced sports.

I don’t have any magical solutions. All I know is that we are losing the ability to live a truly human life.

We need a different relationship to work, to technology. We know what we want: a meaningful life, a sense of community, a balanced existence. It’s not just about “leaning in” or faster iPhones. We want to be truly human.

W. B. Yeats once wrote:

“It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on a battlefield.”

How exactly are we supposed to examine the dark corners of our soul when we are so busy? How are we supposed to live the examined life?

I am always a prisoner of hope, but I wonder if we are willing to have the structural conversation necessary about how to do that, how to live like that. Somehow we need a different model of organizing our lives, our societies, our families, our communities.

I want my kids to be dirty, messy, even bored — learning to become human. I want us to have a kind of existence where we can pause, look each other in the eye, touch one another, and inquire together: Here is how my heart is doing? I am taking the time to reflect on my own existence; I am in touch enough with my own heart and soul to know how I fare, and I know how to express the state of my heart.

How is the state of your heart today?

Let us insist on a type of human-to-human connection where when one of us responds by saying, “I am just so busy,” we can follow up by saying, “I know, love. We all are. But I want to know how your heart is doing.”

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Are family.

It was Family Day in Ontario yesterday (and in Alberta, BC, and Saskatchewan).  This meant a long weekend and extra time with the most special people in my life.  Family Day is one of my favourite days of the year, and something that I was used to having, growing up in Alberta.  Moving to Ontario in 2002, I missed it for a few years, until this province first observed the mid-February Monday in 2008.

My long weekend started out bumpy.

I ran on Saturday morning, as I often do.  With one of my very best friends, as I often do.  But this time, instead of venturing out in the pre-dawn darkness, our schedules allowed us to leave slightly later, and we got to enjoy the sunrise along the shoreline of Lake Ontario.  Our plan was a 14km out-and-back along the rolling hills of North Shore Boulevard; our pace was quick and the conversation was easy.  Because that’s why I run now- I’ve tried to set aside race times and self-imposed pressures, and to focus on the changing role of running in my life.  Now it’s about fitness and health and mental clarity and friendships.  You see, I first met Michaela in 2002, when I began Chiropractic College and was training to qualify for the Boston Marathon.  Running has always been something I love deep-down-in-my-bones, it’s “in my blood” my husband says.  But until my move to Toronto fifteen years ago, I had never met someone with such raw talent for endurance running.  To say this girl is fast is a gross understatement, and she’s raced internationally with the maple leaf proudly on her back.  But she’s fast in an effortless sort of way, and has maintained that graceful stride and incredible talent through the last decade of motherhood and business-building.  And although competitive running has taken a backseat in her life too, her and I have recently rekindled our training partner days and managed to run together most weekends for the last several months.

Our friendship was initially built upon running, and we got to know each other on the sidewalks of Toronto and the trails of Sunnybrook Park.  As the years passed, our relationship grew and evolved, and we were bridesmaids in each other’s weddings, she’s the Godmother of my son, and we get our families together every couple of months.  A forty-five minute drive separates our front doors, but the fibers of running continue to weave themselves through our lives; pre-wedding 5k’s, post-baby Chilly half marathons, 20km long runs on deserted Milton side streets.  And all Winter long, she’s gotten in her car before the sun comes up to make the drive to me so we can run.  And talk.  And be together.  She doesn’t mind, she says, she listens to audiobooks, she says, she gets home in time to enjoy the day with her family, she says, this is a way to make it work, she says.  I say she’s amazing.  And this past Saturday morning, she reminded me why.

At the halfway point of our run, I began to hurt.  Not injury-hurt, more like the hurt that overexertion brings.  Usually I welcome fatigue on a run, but not until the end, and not until I feel like I’ve earned it.  This time it snuck up on me at the halfway point, 7km from home, with 7km of hills to go.  I had been sick for a few days earlier in the week, and the lingering effects of that illness were rearing their ugly head when I’d asked more of my body than it was willing to give.  I began to feel dizzy, my legs felt heavy, and I suffered quietly while she held up her end of the conversation.  A few kilometers from home, I asked her if we could walk.  “Of course,” she said, concerned for my well-being and not the training we were missing out on.  We walked a block, and I began to pick the pace back up.  As we neared the lake, I asked for another walk break.  “We can walk home if you need to,” she said, not aware of the guilt I felt for slowing her down and the failure I felt for stopping.  Us runners are strange breeds, and we always take a bad run as a personal affront that means we will spend eternity seeking a runner’s high and die slow and out-of-shape and alone (or perhaps that’s just me).

I rallied, we ran the 2km back to my place, and after some stretching and water, we went our separate ways.  I texted her that afternoon, thanking her for her patience, and this was her response:

“Running these days is not about how fast we go but just about being together and having my Ashley time.  I could have walked the whole way with you.  Love you!”

And there you have it.

To segue back to Family Day, she’s part of my family and I love her like the sister I never had.  Family is support and loyalty and appreciation, love and gratitude and friendship.  I’ve written about the importance of friendships before, and I’m lucky to have a handful of girlfriends that feel like family.  Are like family.  Are family.

So happy Family Day to them, and to you.  May we all feel at home with our family and with our friends.

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Cold Hands, Warm Heart.

I feel cold most of the time.  This has worsened as I get older, and now it seems that I get a chill in October and it does not lift until May.  The irony is not lost on me; I grew up in rural Alberta, where the average Winter temperature is more than 5C lower than where I currently live in Southern Ontario.  I am Canadian, I am outdoorsy, and yet I cannot shake the absorption of cold into my bones.

But I’ve learned to cope quite well: I sleep with a heater beside my bed and I wear merino wool socks at night.  My husband teases me because I leave my parka on to unpack the groceries and my mitts on in the car.  I drink tea by the gallon and fill my water bottles with warm water, and I’ve just discovered that running tights work perfectly as an extra layer beneath jeans.

Alongside my recent layered running tights discovery, the other factor that’s really changed my attitude towards the cold is ‘Project Winter‘ that my family embarked upon last year.  Project Winter was my undertaking to try to embrace rather than dread Canada’s longest season and so far it’s been a big success.  Last year, my husband and I invested in ski equipment for ourselves and rented equipment for the kids; we skied a handful of times as a family and loved it.  This year we’ve upped the ante, complete with weekly ski lessons at Glen Eden (thus making Tuesday night my favorite of the week), and I can honestly say that a snowy forecast now makes me happy.

As a born-and-raised Albertan, I was lucky enough to ski regularly in the Rocky Mountains but, truth be told, it was never my passion.  I enjoyed the mountains themselves and the fresh air and the exercise, but the actual skiing part was always secondary.  All that’s changed now that my kids are old enough to be involved.  I have loved seeing their evolution from nervous and off-balance to confident and capable; my four-year-old skied her first black diamond run last Friday.  My heart swells with pride and they’re sick of hearing me say “well, this has been the best day.”

Winter is still not my favorite, but I’m shifting my attitude.  I’m still cold, but I’ve changed my perception.  And if that isn’t a life lesson, then it’s not a blog day at www.drworobec.com.

So, to my first patient of the day, whom gets my ice-cold cold hands, I’m sorry.  Please know that I come by it honestly, and I’ve likely just spent ten minutes cuddling with the hydrocollator heat packs to no avail.

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