‘A goose walked over my grave’ is an American version of the old folk legend stating a cold sensation over one’s body indicated someone walking over the place your grave would eventually be. Introducing a goose to the story is explained by the goosebumps associated with this sudden chill. Scientists today conclude the instantaneous shuddering and formation of bumps/pimples over the skin is a subconscious release of adrenaline. This stress hormone is generally connected to our fight or flight response. Yes, there is the cliché of the hair rising on the back of our neck and goosebumps shivering up our spine as we face something truly scary – a stalking coyote, a knife wielding man, a person who refuses to wear a mask getting too close, during the pandemic. This primitive warning system alerts us to danger. I recall the frightening sensation when I thought a burglar had broken into the house one night.
We also release adrenaline as a response to a poignant memory – the sudden flash of remembrance that breaks us out in goosebumps – and often causes a visible shiver as we say, “A goose walked over my grave.” Sometimes we call the brief flashback a déjà vu.
Most often goosebumps are the result of an emotional reaction. This type of response visits my flesh more than any other. The most recent goosey moment I recall happened when Lady Gaga sang the American national anthem at Biden’s inauguration. I get the same shivers when I stand in a group and sing O Canada.
Goosebumps are an omen of something rare I am experiencing, something so beautiful, pure, profound I carry the image through life. Goosebumps pebble my arms when I see a display of the highest excellence like our Snowbirds flying in formation or the RCMP on their magnificent black horses performing the musical ride.
I think music has given me the greatest amount of goosebumps over the years. Leonard Cohen’s Alleluia sends bumps up my arms, no matter who sings it. Listening to 10-year-old Amira Willighagen sing O Mio Babbino evokes not just goosebumps but tears. Recognizing a God given talent is a stunning, shivery moment.
Images, however, can have just as powerful an impact. I remember camping and looking toward the lake as the sun lowered in the west. Our kayaks lined up on the bank radiated a golden glow so beautiful my heart stuttered and gooseflesh covered my upper body. Towards sunset one summer I swam in the river with a friend. We floated on our backs watching as the bright light softened, then turned a mystic combination of pinks and mauves. Suddenly, a flock of birds wheeled above us. The sun turned their breast a brilliant white as they circled overhead like a message from the universe. Awe inspiring, you bet. Goosebumps riddled my skin, then they disappeared as suddenly as they’d come.
Anything patriotic produces the same result. I get bumps when our troops march in formation; when thousands of individuals place their poppy on the tomb of the unknown soldier in Ottawa, when our Canadian flag rises behind an Olympic gold medalist.
Right now, I think we need our goosebumps moments more than ever. I urge you to recall yours, spend a little time revisiting such special experiences. Even better open your conscious, so you can discover new moments. Awareness brings us reward, whether we are waiting, breathless, for the monster to pounce on the hero, or the sweet voice of our daughter crooning a lullaby to her doll. You are in the moment, fully participating in life. Goosebumps? You bet.
I walked home after attending a leisurewear house party, guts churning, angry at my friend for inviting me, the other party goers for existing, but mainly myself for going when I loathed such events. Compounding my snit, the bag weighing down my arm. Inside an expensive outfit in which I looked like an overripe eggplant. The short trip while my mind spewed out an armoury full of negativity became a turning point.
In my sunroom, calmed by a lime margarita — or was it a pitcher full? Memory fails — I assessed my situation. Fifty years old and still acting against my wishes, acceding to others instead of pleasing myself. This must change.
I looked back on the many examples of planning family events with excitement, full of ideas of how to make it special, until the inevitable happened, “but we’d rather have it on this day,” “why don’t we do barbeque instead of fine-dining” “let’s ask all the in-laws, too”. When I’d planned and issued the invitations, I had purposefully chosen the best time for me, the food I wished to prepare, and what people I wanted there. By the time I changed all the elements out of love for the person who requested them, or because I was outmaneuvered or manipulated, I ended up hosting an event I didn’t want to attend. Recalling how badly I felt at those times, and with tequila induced conviction, I pledged my better judgement would make my choices from now on. I would say NO if it wasn’t in my best interest.
Several months later the phone rang. “It’s a Tupperware party. I’m counting on you. Please come.” Finally, I did what a true friend would. I told her the truth. Told her crowds made me anxious – particularly a crowd of strangers. The pressure of purchasing something I didn’t want or need, made me uncomfortable. I’d rather use those precious hours for something I would enjoy. “No, I can’t come. I have a paddle planned for that time.” I spoke with the authority of finally taking command of my life. Wishing her a happy event and every success, I requested she strike me from her list. And guess what? The sky didn’t fall. She remained my friend. I had a stress-free time on the water, with no negative aftereffects.
So, no – used judiciously – became the newest device for fine-tuning my life. No to Tupperware, no to my brother-in-law’s annual Christmas party of 300 people. No to driving 800 kilometres to kayak a small mosquito invested lake in 32-degree heat. Saying no triggered the memory of other times when I had used the word effectively and found freedom in my choice. When I felt ill, I disappointed my sister with a NO, I can’t spend a week at the cabin with you. I said no to volunteering for the Heart & Stroke drive because wanted the time with my teenage children who would be leaving home soon.
One other lesson, I learned when saying no, is that I didn’t owe anyone an explanation, as long as my decision sat right in my gut. I was entitled to my choice. This concept was reinforced when I volunteered to get helpers for a charitable event at the kids’ school. So many no’s and with them a long list of excuses. Why the person couldn’t be there, or help was irrelevant. I just wanted off the phone so I could make the next call. Listening while they justified their choice to themselves, wasted my time. I thought of the occasions I’d rambled through a list of excuses, armpits soaking, while some other volunteer could care less. Another freeing insight.
I learned the lesson of saying no to me, when I found myself driving the hundred kilometres to visit my mom, yet again. Resentment accompanied me like a bitter passenger. I’d been running between my mother and stepfather, and mother-in-law fifty kilometres in the opposite direction, for several years, as they increasingly needed help. They never made demands on me, but love is a strong motivator. I felt burned out. One evening I arrived home having spent the day settling my mom after a health emergency. I flopped into bed at 9:00 pm, then jerked awake when the phone shrilled at midnight. My mother-in-law had been taken by ambulance to the hospital. After a long trip through the dark, I stayed with her in ER most of the next day. Basically, she’d had a panic attack. I took her home and settled her in. Exhausted, I felt like I ran through thigh high water the entire time. Pile on frustrated, angry, and the top-notch pity party I threw for myself and you find me in purgatory. I felt so dreadful I took a hard look at why? Then I said NO to me. You are not running between them feeling resentful or guilty. If you can’t visit or help them with love in your heart, you shouldn’t be there. The next time I prepared for a trip and registered my sighs of poor me, my dragging heels attitude, I put my things away and went for a walk, instead. I gave myself a three-week sabbatical (thank heavens no emergencies arose) and looked after my needs. My next visits were happy events. I could enjoy being with them again, having lost all the negativity.
Before I say no, I assess my resistance. I run my decision through a sieve of 3 questions? Will this cause harm? (Not hurt feelings, not inconvenience – actually, do harm) Will this make things better for me? (physically, mentally, spiritually) Will my choice cause negativity in the future (destroy a relationship, limit opportunities, cause emotional fallout). Straining out the false reasons we say yes against our wishes, distils the elements in the choice to their essence. I realize if I want people in my life, compromise is necessary, but balancing my needs against the other persons is a must.
Like me, you may have been taught that saying no is selfish. We are putting our needs ahead of the many. Christ says, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” But if we always put our neighbours needs first, we sacrifice our needs. In that case, we may not even know what loving ourselves feels like, so how can we gift the same love to a neighbour? One thing my long illness taught me is that if I don’t look after myself first, I can’t be there for my children, parents, or friends in crisis. Saying no is a form of self care.
NO is the superpower I now call up with confidence. This power was always present, but many times I didn’t use it and paid the price. Our learning, through our life, happens in an upward spiral form, spinning round and round in ever smaller circles, so a lesson spins past us many times. Then, in one moment we lock it in. My moment for learning the power of no happened walking home from that party. Emancipating myself took decades too long, but I forgive my slow progress. I don’t have time for regret because owning my freedom of choice brings me such joy.
Type A personality, the medical establishment determined forty years ago, contributes to invisible diseases like Crohns, colitis, multiple sclerosis etc. I certainly know believing I must excel at everything factored heavily into my struggle with Crohns for many years. The harm doesn’t come with the desire for perfection, but in judging I had fallen short of perfect. I spent as much time mentally impaling myself on pointed hooks and beating my spirit raw with acid tipped whips for not reaching the standard I expected, as I did in attempting a textbook result.
Like the carrot swaying in front of the donkey, perfection appears reachable, yet remains just short of our bite. We may visualize what a perfect result would be, but like an artist, fall short of the picture in our mind when we execute. We may have witnessed or experienced timing, ability, situation, and conditions all coming together in a perfect storm. The moment lives on in our memory as a consummate achievement. The ace fired across the net at Wimbledon that wins the game, an extreme kayaker maneuvering through a set of class five rapids, a baker creating an impeccable cake, each live a moment of near perfection. The emphasis is on near.
At age fifty – yes fifty! I am one slow learner – I sat on the edge of my bed crying about a goal I’d fallen short in reaching. “If I’d only done this or said that … it would have been perfect.” “Madelon, there is no such thing as perfection.” My mother’s no-nonsense voice coming through the phone stopped the tears. My head tilted sideways as I thought her words through. No perfect state meant I constantly reached for the impossible, then castigated myself for failing. This revelation turned my life in a new, far healthier direction.
Enacting a flawless moment, will always leave us coming up short. Yet, eschewing perfection doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying. Instead, we work toward our absolute best, and that is achievable. A violinist born with a special gift performs at a higher level than a hard-working amateur, but the amateur improves as he practices. A surgeon who puts in hundreds of ours of practice might perform a near flawless operation but still searches for better techniques. Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule asserts achieving true expertise in any skill is simply a matter of practicing, albeit in the correct way, for at least 10,000 hours. This thinking put in play raises a person through the ranks from beginner to adequate, good, better, best. I am certainly a better writer after thousands of hours of wordsmithing.
Accepting perfection as unreachable minimizes the mental lash of the whip. We’ve done well. We deserve the pat on the back for success, not the flagellation of failure. Perfection is an ideal hard-wired into our psyche. Bottom-line, its purpose is to motivate, challenge, inspire and keep humankind striving for better. We have a perception the world is getting worse, our choices poorer. Yet, Hans Rosling spent years showing the world, through data, that in fact we have made huge inroads in decreasing poverty, raising living conditions in third-world countries, furthering women’s rights, eliminating diseases and many other areas. His book Factfulness, coauthored by his children after his death is an international bestseller. I highly recommend this positive take on our progress.
Possibly, you’ve never strived for perfection (do you know how smart you are), or maybe, you don’t accept my belief that perfection is unattainable, and will continue chasing it while developing an ulcer. I know my experience of letting go of the ideal of perfection bettered my life. Knowing the carrot isn’t half as tasty as it looks, I find joy in the process, and the end result is what it is —usually pretty darn good.
Years ago, floating lazily with a friend on a tube at my childhood lake, I spouted off about something that hadn’t gone my way. (I majored in spouting.) My friend, probably in her early 30’s said, “Madelon, expectation is the road to disappointment.” Not the there, there … sentiments I wanted. Her words struck hard and burrowed into me so deeply they are part of me. I often counsel myself and others with the phrase.
I’m sure as your daily routines explode, or you quietly implode due to Covid – 19, many of you are walking that road. You expected your child would have a Grade 12 graduation ceremony. You expected a live-in university experience for your daughter, or your son would be travelling in Europe instead of gaming in your basement. You expected to go to your granddaughter’s wedding, still go into work, have a social life, visit relatives in the states. You expected your steady income, took for granted paying your rent and buying groceries. Disappointment? You bet!
Aside from our experience of life to date, history has demonstrated there are no guarantees. We didn’t expect our country would get drawn into war, or the ozone layer around our planet would become so thin it affects our weather. I’m sure when Leo Baekeland created Bakelite, the first real synthetic, mass-produced plastic, in 1907 he did not expect it would become one of the greatest problems of the 21st century.
So, if expectation is the road to disappointment, what road can we travel safely? Years ago, I started identifying a human characteristic I would develop further in the year ahead. Each January I named my focus for the year: patience, balance, humility, gratitude, and so on. I worked my way through a list, even repeating one because I just couldn’t get it. (A dog waiting for his food bowl has more patience than I.) Three years ago, and already three weeks into January with my word unchosen, I expressed my concern to a friend over the phone. “Maybe, you’re not supposed to have a word, but a phrase,” she suggested. Oh, the irony. Again, my expectation of one word had led straight to disappointment. Talk about tunnel-vision. “I’ll think about that,” I answered. I came up with a phrase that delighted me. A phrase that held possibility with no promise, commitment with no specific outcome – a phrase that soared and excited, while energizing. ANTICIPATE THE BEST. It allows for hope without the disappointment of expectation. It creates opportunity – inviting me to be part of the best. I can help make something the best, see the best in others, find the best in myself, and know through those actions the best is happening all around.
With elation, I told my friend how she had helped me. In return, I received an emailed drawing of a three-dimensional maze. A person on a ladder, peers over the top of the winding rows with binoculars. Whenever my mind wanders into the future, and my ego stages its amateur performance of anxiety, fear, anger – I say, “I anticipate the best.” A dentist appointment. A reading in front of a large audience. Waiting on lab results – you name it. I go into the situation floating my mantra, and the excitement of feeling all will be well. Without the leverage of expectation, I can’t heft disappointment. Instead, positivity elevates the best result. I colour in one piece of my maze and name the incident and date. By the end of December, my picture is a rainbow display of all the best moments in the year.
With thanks to Laurie Peck for her hard hitting, priceless advice. I did not have the coin to pay, but hope I bartered something.