From Life Notes

Observations, ideas, experiences, adventures

©Cristina Acosta

Midlife Exercise Builds Both Physical and Emotional Muscle

When I turned forty, my friend Suzanne Schlosberg gave me a copy of her book, “Weight Lifting for Dummies,” and told me that from then on, exercise was like flossing my teeth. The most effective midlife exercise requires weight bearing exercise. I had to do it, she insisted, the margin of laziness that youth offers was over and I had to do weight-bearing exercise forever more. Suzanne rarely gives a strong life-altering opinion without a little help to go along with it, I love that about her.

And it’s true. Living a healthy life into and beyond midlife requires exercise to maintain lean body mass and bone strength. And exercise can be in some aspects like flossing your teeth. But unlike flossing, exercise can be part of a sport or a practice like yoga, activities that offer much more than the opportunity of physical health.  Practice anything athletic for a long time and you begin to realize over the years that your sport or practice offers many life lessons that build emotional and spiritual muscle as well as physical strength.

This morning, as I was literally falling in and out of a yoga balance pose in class, I was thinking about the lessons the pain of pushing oneself can offer. In any athletic practice, learning when to push through pain and when to heed pain as a warning to stop is a continual process.

Sometimes being easy on myself is a form of avoidance. Sometimes it’s vitally important to nurture myself with ease. And knowing when to push and when to stop takes continual practice. Practice that never leads to “perfect”. Everyday and every situation bring a different self to the practice. It’s a challenge that I find intriguing, especially as I age.

Exercise in midlife brings with it old injuries and new weaknesses. Consistent practice enables me to navigate the new body I’m given everyday. A body built by yesterday that I live in today.

It’s been over ten years since Suzanne offered me her advice. Over the years I’ve weight trained and also done other types of weight bearing exercise. I think about her advice when I’m too busy to exercise and it often helps me get some perspective and get back to my practice. Sometimes I’ll just take out my jump rope and get in ten minutes. And the days I do that, I think about Suzanne and agree. Yes, exercise is just like flossing my teeth.

 

My watercolors by ©Cristina Acosta

Creativity at Any Age

Creativity is part of our DNA. Put rocks, sticks and a big bucket of water in front of most any child, wait five minutes and you’ll see creativity in action. And then we grow up, learn to be neat, fit in and contain our urges to fling mud. And that’s not such a bad thing. Mud on the living room walls won’t work for most of us.

But it’s not best to stay in a highly controlled left-brain mindset if you want to increase your creativity. Passion, creation, enthusiasm, exhilaration and connection are crucial to a creative life. To increase our creativity it’s necessary to create an environment for ourselves where we can return to our basic creative selves. Whether we need to fling mud to do it, or not. And because we’re all grown-ups we are responsible for our own clean-up, so have at it.

As a career artist, I’ve dealt with the ebbs and flows of creativity most of my life, and continue to learn about myself and creativity through the process of practicing creativity.

So, how do you start being more creative? Here are a few of my ideas to increase creativity:

  • Creativity is a practice. The more you practice, the more your practice deepens and broadens. I focus on traditional forms of creative practice – for example, painting, writing or drawing as a focal point for my creativity. Concurrently, I ask myself during the day how I can enlarge and embellish the creativity involved in a non-art activity, then I try one or more of the ideas that pop into my head.
  • Embrace trying. You can also call this step, embracing failure. Failing is absolutely necessary to any creativity. If failure-equals-shame is part of your thought process, it’s time to set that concept aside.
  • Welcome “not-knowing” if it’s good, if it’s bad, where it’s going, what you’re meaning, what you’re doing. Creativity is about making and/or thinking something new. Because whatever you create is new to the world it is unknowable until you create it.
  • To enter the unknowable you have to relinquish your judgements, preconceptions and habits. When (not if) you find yourself thinking any thought that starts with a version of “I”, “you”, “we”:  should…shouldn’t, never, won’t, can’t, etc., put the thought aside. Don’t get rid of it altogether because at some point in the creative process, judgement is crucial. Just not at the beginning of the process.
  • Start! Seriously, you have to start somewhere. Here and now are all you have.

California State Bear Flag paintings by Cristina Acosta

See the Mexican: The Moment I Knew the Mexican American was Me.

There was a time when California’s population was mostly Mexicans and Indians (before the mid-1800s). And then a time when amped up by gold discoveries, and manifest destiny, Anglos became the dominant population in California. That time is when I grew up.

I was born in Los Angeles. During the 1960’s, when I was five years old my parents moved to Palos Verdes, a Southern California suburb. Unlike the beach community of Playa del Rey where I’d lived my entire life until then, Palos Verdes was an exotic place where most everyone was white. We settled in quickly, my Anglo mother raising her growing group of children and having coffee klatches with the neighbor ladies, and my Mexican American father teaching Spanish at Rolling Hills High School.

Neighborhood kids freely played in the streets and along the sidewalks after school and the milkman and bread-man still made home deliveries. It was a beautiful place filled with beautiful people who made beauty a priority. Cultivating their tans, something the neighbor ladies called, “laying-out”, was part of most every woman’s weekly summer schedule.

Mrs. Nordquist two doors up would put solid plastic eye shields over her lids before she settled into her half hour sunbath. Mrs. Rick shared her “secret” recipe of iodine and baby oil with a few drops of olive oil (“like they use on the French Riviera,” she’d say) to those who gushed admiringly over her tanned limbs.

Even Mrs. Wright, an over-worked mother of five managed to get in a few afternoons each week napping on her day lounge by the patio, slathered in Bain de Soleil (for the exotic “European” San Tropez tan). Dedicated, disciplined laying-out could successfully result in a tan between your fingers.

Though I had never thought about the color of my skin before, I quickly realized that I had something the neighbor ladies all wanted, a natural California tan. Comparing myself to them, I observed that my skin was a lovely golden tan color despite my lack of tanning effort. All of the neighbor ladies spent hours of time each week trying to get the same brown color to their skin that I naturally had. The evidence was irrefutable, I was lucky.

I did wonder about my good fortune. My mother’s skin was the color of the neighbor ladies’ skin, though she never seemed interested in tanning. My father had rich dark, brown colored skin that needed little attention. I don’t think I ever saw him do much more than splash on aftershave.

My mother would slather herself in white lotion to ward off the dryness her skin was predisposed towards. In the kids bathroom she put a bottle of the same brand of lotion with a difference. To keep us kids from using her lotion, she bought us “almond” lotion, infused with the scent of almonds and slightly colored to match the golden tan plastic dispenser. With a child’s logic I concluded that my skin must be darker than my mother’s and lighter than my father’s because of the color of the lotion I used.

My parents weren’t trying to keep any secrets about skin color. I watched I Love Lucy re-runs on television and knew that it was entirely normal for a man who spoke Spanish and English to marry a woman who only spoke English. Though Ricky Ricardo wasn’t very tan (at least not that I could tell on our black and white TV), he was a dark contrast to Lucy’s pale coloring. My father spoke Spanish, but like Ricky Ricardo, he didn’t speak much at home.

Despite  the various shades of brown skin among family members, I never felt like our family was markedly different from our neighbors. We did eat some things the neighbors didn’t regularly eat, like enchiladas and salsa (it was the 1960’s and Mexican food wasn’t yet mainstream) but that didn’t seem like a big deal. The Nordquist’s ate pickled herring and the Goldberg’s ate matzo crackers. Like the rest of our neighbors, my mother made Jello pudding and joined the ladies in heated discussions comparing the merits of Cool Whip versus Reddi-Whip aerosol whip cream. I thought we were all pretty much the same. Until the day I looked for the Mexican.

It happened when I was eleven years old. Ridgecrest Intermediate School in Palos Verdes, California, had a split level campus. Walking up the double flight of stairs from the lower field to the main buildings I saw a boy at the top of the stairs yelling. I wasn’t into boys when I was eleven, so I didn’t pay much attention to him. I kept walking up the stairs, and he kept yelling, “Hey Mexican, Hey Mexican”.

By the time I was halfway up the stairs I wondered who it he was yelling at. I turned around, fully expecting to see some version of the Cisco kid (one of the TV shows I watched on Saturday mornings) in a serape walking across the lower grass field.

The field was empty green without any other color to be seen. There was nobody there.

At that moment, all of the little things I’d felt and heard over the years fell into place: The confused expressions that I’d see when I responded to questions about my skin color with a recommendation for almond lotion (I was raised to be helpful).

The frustration my father would express at the dinner table when talking about not being allowed to join a Los Angeles businessman’s club. My embarrassment over watching my father being patted down by the police while standing on the sidewalk on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, in full view of the restaurant we were headed towards, dressed in our Sunday church clothes.

At that moment I realized that I was “the Mexican.”

Until that moment, the things I knew were simple. I knew what type of dress was perfect for a piano recital. I knew that a man had to know how to tie a Windsor knot, because only little boys like my brothers wore clip-on ties. I knew about charity balls. I knew that a sandwich on white Wonder Bread was worth two Ding Dong cupcakes on the school lunch trade table. And I knew that the color of my skin was perfect because I had a tan, even in the winter.

What I didn’t know was that the perfect color of my skin, my long wavy dark hair and the melodious sound of my Spanish name would influence how some people treated me. Awakening to this realization began the day I turned to see the Mexican.

©Cristina Acosta

The Mysterious Practice of Happiness

Random, serendipitous happiness is a blessing. Learning how to be happy consciously is a practice. Like the potter sitting with a pile of mud, it takes courage, clarity, imagination, stamina, attention and more than a few attempts to turn that muddy clay into a beautiful thing.

Most of us don’t notice very gradual changes, good or bad. That’s how those “last” five pounds return so easily. Unhappiness, like those pounds, can be such a gradual change that it can sneak up on a person. You’re doing whatever it is you usually do, nothing seems to have drastically changed, then it hits you, you’re not happy. (Or, your pants are too tight.)

Sit around and wait to be happy again, tell yourself you’re happy, create affirmations of happiness, insist to others that you are happy, act happy when you’re miserable, those actions will cloud your clarity and create denial. And you’ll still be unhappy. I’ve been there, done that and got the t-shirt. More than a few times.

What I’ve learned  is that happiness is a daily practice. Life can be hard, painful and exhausting. It takes conscious effort, courage and clarity to transform the muddy muck of living into the shapes of a happy life. And it’s a mysterious, creative practice, filled with moments of frustration, joy, difficulty, cluelessness, purpose, tedium, effortless flow or dissonance.

Like playing an instrument, painting, dancing, writing, working out, training for a sport, meditation, prayer, singing, any consistent practice takes conscious effort. Some days are good, some days are not. And the practice of happiness is the same. It’s not filled with only happy moments. But when you stand back after practice and look at what you’ve done you will often feel happy. Not all of the time, but I bet you will more of the time.

Because by practicing happiness you will create open places in your heart and in your life for more happiness. And you also increase the likelihood that random happiness will enter your life.

Determining how to practice happiness is up to each of us. And the same action won’t always have the same reaction. In other words, what made me happy yesterday isn’t necessarily what I look for today to make me happy.

Here are some of the things I do to practice happiness: I choose gratitude. I  practice compassion towards myself and others. I pay attention to what brings me joy (at no one else’s expense) and then I do more of that. I practice mindfullness. I practice listening to myself. I examine my values and pay attention to when those values support happiness and when they don’t. I keep trying.

The practice of happiness is a mysterious and powerful practice. May you be blessed.

 

Comparisons Can Steal Happiness

“Comparisons are odious”, is an old English proverb. Though that’s not always true, comparisons are often inescapable. Ask if one person, place or thing is better or worse than another and a comparison is underway.

Comparisons can focus on the strength of differences, or they can slide down the slippery slope into value judgements. And value judgements always reveal more about the values of the person making the judgement than they do about the reality of what is being judged.

Whatever may be said about comparisons, the comparisons that can be especially undermining and harsh are those that happen between our  own ears. And as I realized recently, the comparisons that I make between my current self and my past self that stem from my negative value judgements, can make me unhappy.

Mid life naturally invites comparisons. Half of life is behind us and we were younger then, so some things were undeniably better “back in the day.” My knees included.

This past few years I’ve been dealing with many life changes that included deaths of friends and family, the ending of my twenty-plus year marriage, an empty nest, moving and a few other things. I’ve experienced quite a bit of loss, a situation which invites comparisons.

As I was doing my morning yoga practice, I was thinking about how much I loved my old house and how much I miss it and how much better my old house was than…..Whoa there!! I stopped in the middle of those thoughts and realized that I was covered in sweat, in the middle of a crowded yoga class and heading down a slippery slope.

I was standing on one leg, stretched out, reaching, twisting, turning  and shaking from my effort. That yoga pose seemed metaphorically representative of my life this past year. In that moment I had an epiphany. It became glaringly obvious to me that the comparisons I was making between my past situation and my current situation were stealing the happiness from my present life.

Despite the personal effort of that moment, and the past year,  I was ok.  Yes, I didn’t have the comforts of my past, but basically, I am fine. And despite the fact that many things in my life still aren’t settled or secure, I’m getting happier and more at peace every week.

Until that is, I start comparing my present to my past through the lens of my own negative value judgements. There I was; safe, healthy, strong and feeling cute in my new yoga pants. Then my mind began scouring my internal landscape, looking for those familiar limp latex balloons of lack and loss. And when it found them, it blew them up. Big time.

Blowing new breath into the limp old balloons of lack and loss wasn’t bringing happiness into my life. I was unintentionally and unconsciously filling the sky of my internal landscape with dark balloons that were blocking the sun.

Comparing my present moment to my past in that way, wasn’t helping me, it was re-injuring me.

But here’s the good news. I stopped. I was in the middle of those thoughts and in that moment of epiphany, I just stopped. I re-focused on the difficulty and discomfort of the yoga pose that I was actually in during that moment. I realized that my past and my losses were discomforts and difficulties that were over. They are past, and I am now somewhere else, in a new world.

To stop my thoughts, I consciously took a breath, concentrating on the sensations of that breath alongside the other sensations brought on by the yoga pose. That’s it. With my attention refocused, the dark balloons in my inner landscape lost their shapes and flattened onto the ground. With nothing in the way, the light in the sky was shinning brightly. The dark was replaced with light. That’s a comparison I love.

Transformation is Radical Change

Most any magazine cover offers transformation:  Lose up to ten pounds in 10 days; look years younger in one week; five fast money secrets to easy street – transformation is presented to us as an often quick and easy change.

But here’s the truth, radical change hurts. And transformation is radical change. Implementing radical change requires clarity, consistent effort and conscious faith. It gets boring. And, conversely, it gets scary. The excitement of the decision to change quickly gives way to the often tedious, hard work that the change requires. And then when your hard work reaps benefits and the changes you’ve envisioned happen, a whole new set of fears can come up.

Lose weight and suddenly the new attention you’re getting threatens your sense of security. Become suddenly wealthier and you might be negotiating some difficult social ramifications of your new financial status. Look radically younger and you find yourself dealing with your own and others changed perceptions.

Clarity wrenches us from denial and wishful thinking. Consistent effort takes time away from other activities. Conscious faith requires mindfulness. It ain’t easy.

You can lose your friends, your job, your marriage, your home, and more. But you can gain deeper friendships, more fulfilling work, and a richer, more magical, happier life.

I know this, because it’s all happened to me. What I’ve learned is that change is inevitable, but conscious transformation is optional. I take the possibility for magic most every time.

How to be More Creative? Decisions, Decisions, Decisions.

How can you be more creative? Many women in midlife find that they finally have some time for themselves and want to bring some artistic creativity into their lives. Maybe it’s time to take an art class, or sit down and write that novel you’ve been thinking about for years.

So, how do you move from wanting to be more creative, to actually being more creative? The quickest way to creativity is to set up a repetitive routine for your creative work. Repetitive? Routine? Aren’t those words the slippery slope to boredom and confinement, the antithesis of creativity? You might think so, but actually, most artists and creative types have some sort of routine or ritual to mark the beginning of a creative work session.

Here’s one reason that routine is so helpful to creativity. It cuts down on decision-making. Creative work is all about making decisions and the unknown. Creating something new in any field requires the mind to make leaps to the unknown. Which is why too many unnecessary decisions are distractions from creativity.

If you want to be creative, it’s important to save your decision making for your creative work. To do that, you need a routine. A routine is all about sameness. The minor decisions: what to eat, drink, wear or do are all decided. No thinking is necessary to get you to your workspace. Here’s an example. For about five days per week, I do the same thing every morning. I get up, go to the bathroom, return and put on my yoga clothing that I’ve put on the chair the night before. Step into my shoes and drive to yoga class. By 7:00 a.m., I’m done with my hour class and ready to go home, drink my protein shake, shower, dress, and get to work.

The days I do this, I know that I will get at least some creative work done, despite what may happen in my day that is out of my control.

So, how do you keep that creative space open when you can’t have a routine? Some days are not your own: You or somebody you care about gets sick; an opportunity arises; you are traveling. When your life and time are not completely your own (a common circumstance for women in mid-life), shorten your routine to a ritual.

Rituals can be actions that others wouldn’t notice or they can be obvious. A favorite coffee mug, a path to your workspace, a special necklace you wear on work days, pair of lucky socks, a scented candle, all are examples of touchstones that give us enough of the familiar to ground us as we leap into the unknown outcomes of our creative work session.

Creativity requires decisions. Remember, minimize the small stuff and the big stuff in life has room to grow. Happy creating.

 

How Sports Changed My Life After Forty

A little over a decade ago I took up Nordic cross country ski racing. I was about 40 and had never done competitive sports before then.

My then eight-year-old daughter was an athlete and intent on competing. I found myself sitting on the sidelines of her Taekwondo belt testings, swim meets and Nordic ski races. When she was finished I’d praise her with the usual Mom comments like, “Good job!” And, “You did your best,” etc. One of those times I was encouraging her with some sort of advice and she just looked at me and said, “You really don’t know what it’s like, Mama.”

She was right, I didn’t have a clue. I had participated in sports my entire life, taught sports and enjoyed watching sports. I exercised and played at sports, but I had never dedicated myself to competition.  I really didn’t know what she was truly going through.

So I signed up for Taekwondo and took ski racing clinics as those two things worked with her training schedule and I was “there” anyway. The coaches suggested VO2 Max testing, blood work, a training plan, etc., so that I would have a baseline to start from and get the most from my limited workout time (I was also working full-time).

That was the beginning of several years of training and racing. My first Nordic race result put me about  177 out of about 180 people. I had nowhere to go but up.

Over the next few years I worked my way up from the bottom to about the upper middle tier for my age group. And if the really good competitors were out of town or at other races, I even came in at the top a few times.  Bend, Oregon is the land of former World Cup and Olympic athletes, so I was proud of my results.

I even added in a few other sports. I ran a half marathon and did some SUP paddleboard racing for a few years. Competing in sports taught me a lot about my strength of mind and body. I learned when to override pain and resistance and when to recognize pain and resistance as messages to stop. (That’s a tricky balance at times.)

And it taught me about what my daughter was going through as an athlete. Though I often took up the back end of races, she was at the front, going on to the Junior Olympics in Nordic ski racing and then becoming a World Cup Epee fencer as an older teenager. Competing in my own small way gave me much more empathy and understanding of her process and the strengths she was developing. I became a better mother.

Competitive sports taught me that in the midst of struggle and challenge it helps to have a mantra. Paddling through intimidating waves and wind, or slogging up the next to the last hill of  a 40k race I used short sentences to keep me going.

In the midst of boring, difficult endurance races my mantras were simple technique reminders like “pole, glide, pole” or “pelvis, knees, head”. Sometimes conditions changed and big winds, waves or blinding snow became part of the race and I became fearful. Then, I’d say something that applied to my situation, like, “In this moment I am: safe, fine, ok, making it, still here. . . etc.” Sport became moving meditation.

Sports changed my life. Through sport I developed better balance. Not just on my board or my skis, but in life. Though I’m no longer racing, the techniques I learned through competitive sport have been invaluable for life off or on the course. I  learned when to either overcome or accept pain. I learned to acknowledge fear and continue anyway. I learned that coming in last can be as much of an accomplishment as coming in first.  I learned that I liked winning, but I would race even when I knew I would lose. I learned gratitude for the people that volunteered to put on the races, coached and cheered.

And I learned to continue with my mantras as I move through life, whatever the climate and conditions may be. In this moment, I am happy.

 

Recovery from an Accident Can Ignite a Spiritual Journey

I am a person with a lot of energy. When I point my energy into something I’m passionate about, I make it happen. Or, practically die trying.

Actually, that is the person I was. Accidents changed that. It’s inevitable that with age something will slow us down. Though, I secretly thought that I wasn’t going to be that “slow” person. I liked the feeling of focusing energy on an idea and making it happen out of nothing. Making paintings, writing and growing a business can be consuming times. I was busy.

And I had a fire under me. I grew up the oldest of seven children. My parent’s divorce when I was a teenager sent me to work at age 13. I cleaned houses, tutored and babysit every spare hour til I was 16 and got my first “real”  jobs at the resort near our home in the Southern California mountains. Life-guarding at the pool, busing tables at the restaurant, teaching young children to ski in the winter, I worked most of the time when not attending high school classes and gave most of my money to my mother to help support the family.

I was also struggling against the racism of the 1970’s. A young Latina in Southern California, I found myself hemmed in by society’s low expectations and my family’s financial desperation. My high school guidance counselor told me to plan for a job as a hairdresser as this was the best I could expect as a Mexican. She didn’t support my college plans in the least. My parent’s divorce caused our family to plummet from the upper middle class lifestyle of Palos Verdes, California, to the isolation of a small mountain town with limited financial and educational opportunities. For the first year there we were on food stamps.

The fire under me was the drive to succeed and create any way I could, despite whatever came my way or got in my way. And I did. I went on to put myself through college, graduating from the University of Oregon with a BFA in Painting. I started a few businesses, wrote and painted my way to a national presence, and had my own family.

My experience was that sometimes in life, there is no room for balance. I worked through tiredness into exhaustion, whatever it took to meet my goals and support my family and myself. And I didn’t think I could rest. There didn’t seem to be the time, not if I wanted to succeed. Consequently, I spent most of my life working very hard, a habit I developed as a young teenager and firmed up into adulthood.

Though I’d had a scary ski accident when I was eighteen, it mostly propelled me to get strong as soon as possible so that I could work again.  The accidents I then had in my thirties and forties (skiing, doing dishes, martial arts, etc.) had a different result. I was older. I didn’t recover as quickly.

I was forced to rest.

And those periods of rest while on the road to recovery from an accident became periods  of reflection and growth. I learned to trust that when I stopped, by world wouldn’t crash to a halt. It slowed down, but the work I had done prior to that time wasn’t completely lost.  Sometimes I did lose opportunities and  customers due to being unable to do the work. But time showed me that new opportunities would come. All wasn’t lost if I needed to rest.

The fears I had of slipping into poverty (or not being able to crawl out of it) were mostly put to rest as well. (Though there is still some of that left.) The forced rest became the platform for the spiritual growth that would eventually free me from the need to constantly and vigilantly work. The inactivity forced upon me by recovery from an accident ignited a spiritual journey.

On that journey, I learned to create times in my day that I do nothing, a habit I continue into my present life. Sometimes it’s focused meditation or just staring off into space; a childhood habit I resurrected when I realized that mediation felt a lot like that sensation.

Or, I look for spaces of “rest” while in the midst of extreme effort. Yoga has been teaching me how to focus on the resting breathes between exertion. Rest and recovery are now part of my everyday life. That is the gift that recovery from an accident has given me, learning the value of stopping and resting. And learning to trust that I can.

 

The Courage to Change Begins with the Courage to Start

Life is change. That’s a given. When we’re young, everything is new and different and change seems to naturally flow. But with maturity comes stability (of one sort or another if all goes well), and that brings a different challenge.

Stability offers the comfort of the known. Change can get rough. Life is harsh. By middle age, most of us have weathered more than a few storms and some of those storms left scars. When I’m in the midst of one of life’s storms and a little stability comes my way like a lifeboat, I grasp it and heave myself into it.

The trick is to remember that a lifeboat is not a houseboat.

Stepping out of that lifeboat and to a new life on a distant shore takes courage. And middle age brings new shorelines and new lands, some I expected and some I never dreamed of.

The courage to change begins with the courage to start. Starting, continuing, stopping, each action demands renewed courage. The courage to change is the courage to continually accept that I must meet life head-on, with love and clarity and do the work. Continually. That’s the operative word. Change is not a been-there-done-that action, its continual.

Though what I’m describing is the human condition at most any age, middle age and later require a more focused energy. The puppy energy of youth and young adulthood is past. There isn’t the same time or energy to run in loop-d-loops while still going down the trail.

For me, the courage to start guides my changes. When the unexpected happens, I know that if I make myself start again and I keep moving, I will be fine. At least I will have introduced the possibility for change, and that brings with it the possibility for success as I define it.