Look at the ceiling, not the bar.

This morning I engaged in Day Two of Weightlifting.  It was big day for me, because:

I made it past Day One.  

I’ve read all kinds of exciting things about how building muscle will strengthen my bones, straighten my spine and burn my fat.  We’ll see.  

Right now it feels like I’m ten years old again, using my noodly arms to shove my brother off when he’d sit on my chest and hock a loogy in my face. (He thought this was funny.  It would have been, had it not been so abusive.)

Lying on the bench, pushing the weight of the bar (yes, just the bar) away from me, I took care to follow the manual’s strict instructions to focus my gaze on the ceiling:

 the trainer said, look at the ceiling and just see the bar.  The bar moves and the ceiling does not, and the ceiling is therefore your position reference for the bar.  

In other words, I was allowed a glimpse of the bar out of the corner of my eye, but I wasn’t allowed to focus on it.  This was tricky; how was I supposed to move the bar without even looking at it?  

If I could stare that bar down—eye of the tiger and all that—surely I could beat it.  Wasn’t that why people stared themselves down in the mirrors at the gym—to size up the challenge?  Locking your gaze on the target feels good. But then the trainer went on to say this, and I’m not even making the all-caps part up:

DO NOT look at the bar as it moves; DO NOT follow the bar with your eyes, but just stare at the ceiling.  You are going to make the bar go to that place every rep. 

Man this trainer was bossy.  But since he’s ripped and I’m me, I decided to give him his say.  I looked at the ceiling, not the bar, and pushed. And then I pushed again, and again—all while keeping my gaze fixed on the ceiling.  And guess what? My noodly arms were able to get that bar to the exact same place every single time.  

I’d thought the bar was the thing, but it wasn’t.  The ceiling was the thing.  

And later (while mopping my floor, natch) it dawned on me:  I am the bar. I am the bar.  Not as long and slender, perhaps, but the bar nonetheless.


So if I am the bar, what is the ceiling?  Well, that’s a loaded question. (Forgive the pun; we “load” weights on barbells.  Okay, we don’t, but other people do.  I load nothing because I can barely lift the bar.)  But in short: if I am the bar, then the ceiling is whatever I’m aiming for.  

It’s simple.  Except it’s not.

Because if I am the bar—not the ceiling—it means I have to look past myself to get to where I need to be.  Which is hard, because I’d really rather focus on myself, and only myself, all the time. (Have you noticed? I haven’t noticed if you’ve noticed; I’ve been too busy focusing on myself.)

Here’s a few examples:

Health.  The ceiling is my goal of health and strength, and my body is the bar—or tool—that allows me to obtain it.  So if I take my eye off the goal (health and strength) and cast it only to the tool (my body) my gaze lowers, my focus shifts, and I can’t get the bar—my body—anywhere.

This is why people who starve themselves to “get skinny” rarely stay that way; they focus on the tool instead of the goal; on their body instead of their health.  (It’s also why staring at your muscles in the gym mirror doesn’t do a whole lot to build them.)  

Learning.  When we learn for the sake of learning—not just for “self-improvement”—we look beyond ourselves and, almost accidentally, improve ourselves.  I’ve always thought that reading self-help books won’t improve us as much as reading good books will. If our aim is to really learn—not to pad ourselves with learning— then self-improvement will follow.  Because bar follows the ceiling.

Relationships.  This one’s tricky because it involves other, presumably flawed people  But when we choose to care more about the ceiling of our relationship than the bar of our own feelings (pride, victimhood, resentment), we set our sights higher and our feelings fall into their proper place.  

This doesn’t mean swallowing feelings to keep the peace; it means minimizing Self and maximizing Other.  (Other doesn’t necessarily mean others.  It means a goal other than Self.)  It means we turn away from the mirror and toward the relationship.  This takes discipline and humility and grit; it takes the best of our maturity.  But it’s the only way we can get out of the way, so the bar can follow the ceiling—so we can adjust our self to the relationship instead of adjusting the relationship to our self.  (Which never works anyway.)

 Me. (And maybe you.)  So this week, as I huff and grunt that big heavy bar toward the ceiling, I’m going to think about grunting my big heavy self—leaden with ego and indignation and self-pity—toward the ceiling too.  I’m going to stop staring at the Bar Of Me. Because there are better things to glorify.  

Sure, I’ll always be able to see the bar out of the corner of my eye, but that’s exactly how much emphasis it deserves in this upward push of life.  I am relevant to the push, I’d even say I’m crucial. But I am not the destination of the push. I am not the ceiling.

And thank goodness for that.

Re-post: A Case for Loneliness (and snozzberries.)

Originally posted 8/9/2015


Do you remember the scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when Mr. Wonka is showing the children his “lickable wallpaper?”   He points out each row of colorful fruit, excitedly explaining that oranges taste like oranges, strawberries taste like strawberries, and “snozzberries taste like snozzberries!”  His voice is giddy with the revelation.

Veruca Salt then replies, snotty as ever, “Snozzberries?  Who ever heard of a snozzberry?”

At this, Mr. Wonka cups her cheeks and then quietly delivers my favorite line of the movie—of any movie, really.  “We are the music makers,” he tells her, “and we are the dreamers of dreams.”

We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

Come on.  Does it get any better than that?  I don’t think Mr. Wonka was necessarily talking about music here.  But I do think he was talking about dreams.

The line is actually the first of a poem, “Ode” by English poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy:

We are the music makers,

And we are the dreamers of dreams,

Wandering by lone sea-breakers,

And sitting by desolate streams;—

World-losers and world-forsakers,

On whom the pale moon gleams:

Yet we are the movers and shakers

Of the world for ever, it seems.

This poem, like all good poems, makes me a little sad.  Maybe it’s because along with music and dreams come words like lone and desolate; alongside maker and dreamer, we have loser and forsaker.  Maybe it’s because the movers and shakers soak up the pale moon, not the warm sun.  Or maybe it’s that despite all that loneliness—because of all that loneliness—they are the ones who, in the end, change the world.

Loneliness seems a terrible reward for changing the world.  But it has always been required for that particular feat, hasn’t it?  Maybe that’s the saddest truth of all.

Loneliness is only ever romantic in hindsight, when it’s endured long ago by someone else.  For the lonely here and now, it is empty and silent and shameful.  And unlike other human woes, loneliness gains no sympathy from its onlookers.  How could it?  The dreaded mark of loneliness is that it’s suffered alone.


But sometimes, I think, loneliness is on to something.  When we feel disconnected from the crowd and withdraw into ourselves—even (hopefully) for a short time—our mind may just be doing some different, deeper work that can only be done during the long days of Lonely.

When do you do your best thinking?  Your best dreaming?  Your best music-making, problem-solving, relationship-repairing work?  When you’re lonely.  Not just alone, but lonely.  Those ideas start percolating long before they’re put to paper and pen, days and weeks and months before that problem finds its solution.  Those ideas start to swell, bubble by tiny bubble, when we surrender to the sentence of loneliness.

Creativity, in its myriad forms, requires more than physical solitude every now and then because creativity can’t be called forth like a dog in the occasionally idle hour.  Creativity requires the ability—the learned skill—of detaching our minds from the peripheral buzz to explore the silent and sumptuous life of the imagination.  Unearthing it takes time and patience and yes, loneliness.  Because when we are lonely we are sadder but softer, quiet but curious, mournful but malleable.  When we are lonely, we listen.

Maybe to make the music, we must sit by the desolate stream.  Maybe to move the world, we must forsake what we once thought it was.  Questions that wilt under a bright sun can blossom under a pale moon.  Loneliness takes us there to answer them.

So if you are lonely, if you feel different, if you sense a gut-twisting gulf between yourself and Everybody Else, take heart, my world-forsaking friend.  You are simply wandering for a bit—as we all must wander for a bit—along that lone sea breaker, while your might and mind conspire to change the current of the world and the canvas of your world.  And change it you will, because you are the music maker.  And you, the dreamer of dreams.



Help me, Cosmo

Last week, I went to a BYU football game with my husband.  It had been awhile, and walking into the stadium was like walking back into Youth:  the music, the crowds, the chipper announcements crackling over the chatter of fans, the sweet, heavy smell of ketchuped hot dogs and sugary churros and fake-butter popcorn.  Weaving our way through the maze of people as we climbed the stairs to our seats, I was almost in my happy place. Almost.  Because though I always love the buzz of a Big Game, a Big Problem loomed over this otherwise magical night, and will likely loom for the duration of my time here on earth.  It’s private and it’s shameful and I don’t like to talk it about it, but here it is:  

I don’t understand football.  At all.  

Now let’s be clear:  I’m not saying I don’t like football–lots of people don’t like football.  I’m saying I don’t understand it.   

I think that’s an important distinction because I see many women roll their eyes and tell me they don’t like watching football with their husbands, but I’m always left with a vague suspicion that they at least understand the game.  I nod and agree and we laugh at the silly world of men who care about such things, but inside I’m wondering: are you one of those women who understands the rules, who knows when to cheer, who doesn’t have to ask your husband (again) what just happened?  I want to ask these women how/what/who/why–how they came to understand football, what the H is happening, who the H is winning, and why anybody on God’s green earth cares. But I’m too scared to ask because there’s a high probability that I might look kinda, well, dumb.

I think it all goes back to my fear of math.  Shocking as this may sound, I am slightly (enormously) right-brained.  Math confused me almost as much as football does, and both seem to be the brainchild of logic—which is something I do my best to avoid.  So when I look at that green field with those white-chalked stripes the post-traumatic stress of my harrowing high school math career comes spiraling at me with the speed and venom of a Tom Brady pass.  (I know who Tom Brady is—he’s mass hot and I’m obsessed with his wife.)  I’m looking at a football field but what I’m really seeing is a homework assignment: I see a grid (graph paper), numbers counted by tens (binary system), and a scoreboard displaying a perplexing array of letters and digits that mean nothing to me (x+y = whoknowswhat.)  Actually, I do understand two things: HOME and GUEST.  I’ve got those two down—but I still don’t understand the meaning of DOWN.  (“Down” to what?  Plus it’s weird to use a verb as a noun.) 

Listen, I’ve tried.  I’ve watched, I’ve listened, I’ve squinted to see who has the ball and which way they’re running down (up?) the field.  I’ve asked my husband—over and over and over—what is happening. (This is great for our relationship. He loves it when, two minutes into the game, I start turning to him every time the crowd roars and yell loudly and directly in his ear, “WHAT JUST HAPPENED?”  After having explained it to me, in patient and explicit detail, for the past twenty-four years, he’s only too happy to explain it again.)  

I’ve even googled “Rules of Football” before going to a game in hopes of saving my marriage.  But to no avail. Because though it makes perfect sense on google, the game makes no sense once I’m seated in the stands.  From there, I can only hear a whistle blow and see a bunch of guys pile on top of each other before they’ve even moved an inch down (up?) the field.  How am I supposed to know what’s happened when they keep stopping before it’s even happened? How am I supposed to know who’s doing what when everyone down there looks exactly the same–the same uniforms, the same helmets, the same pads, the same beefy calves?  And even if I could figure out what happened, how am I supposed to know if it’s good or bad when I can’t see the expressions on the player’s faces? How can I tell what they’re thinking and feeling—what I should be thinking and feeling?  Where is the connection, the empathy, the pathos for crying out loud?  I have to wonder:  who made this game up and what language did they speak?  Certainly not the language of the heart.  I mean come on. 

You may wonder why, after years silence, I’m offering this confessional now.  Well let me tell you, it isn’t really about football.  It’s because lately I’m realizing that my confusion over football might be indicative of a general confusion about the world in which I live.  I often notice that the people around me are exulting or despairing over things I don’t understand and just can’t quite seem to care about:  hot yoga, the China trade war, CBD oil. (Is it pot or not? Help me people.)  And yes, football.  

Look, I get it:  I don’t understand this stuff because I don’t care about it, and I don’t care this stuff because I don’t understand it, and I could bring this whole circular dilemma to a halt by spending just a few minutes studying and solving said mysteries. We generally enjoy things we feel competent in. So a first step to enjoying football might be trying harder to understand it.  (This probably holds true for enjoying yoga and CBD oil. The China Trade War? Well.)  

The problem is, I just can’t care enough about football to care that I don’t understand enough to care.  And so I remain stuck in my Circle of Confusion. But really, it’s not such a bad place to be.  It holds such pleasures as smelling the popcorn, hearing the band, and watching Cosmo slide on a long blue tarp between downs.  (See what I did there?)  There’s a lot of fun in ignorance.  Plus, if I stay confused I can stay apathetic, which rids me of unnecessary angst over who’s winning and losing.  My life is wrought with enough drama; why add to it the despair over a lost football game?  Shoot, I can barely handle the China Trade War.  (Or is it a tariff war? Help me people.)