The truth hurts; or…the truth will set you free

Last week was intense. I spent my days at a small retreat center in St. Helena, in Napa Valley, California. Does that sound stressful? No?

I took part in a residential program hosted by The Hoffman Institute.

Forty students and six teachers gathered to spend the week learning, sharing, exploring, and confronting.

Some were there to confront past relationships and family dysfunction. Others were there to discern direction for their lives. Still others were there to change self-image, or overcome fears.

All of us were there to confront ourselves, our patterns of behavior, and to grow in our capacity to love and be loved.

We followed a planned curriculum, working through concepts, tools, and experience.

It was a hard week, for some more than others.

The teachers were kind, the food was great, just as you’d expect from a retreat center in northern California.

No wine though, in case you think about going.

Our focus was on dealing with the past, in whatever form it held us back.

It turns out that a lot of my messages to myself aren’t really very helpful.

I know, it was hard for me to believe, too.

I’m such a positive person, so upbeat, really, so cheerful, so easy-going.

Well, I discovered some of that isn’t really true. I mean, I present it as true. I even live it that way. But it’s not how I really feel.

Example: I give myself, and others, a message that I’m a writer, but I follow that acknowledgement with some self-deprecating comment about “don’t look for me on the NY Times bestseller list any time soon!”

Why do I do that? I think it’s to put out there that I might not be successful…sort of like, if I acknowledge that possibility up front, then when I live up to that low expectation, no one is surprised, least of all me, and no one laughs at me for having grandiose dreams.

Whew! I saved myself from that one, didn’t I?!

Here’s another thing I do.

Sometimes I’m nervous about my relationship. When things feel tense or stressed, I sometimes say, “Are you ok?”

What I really mean is: “Am I ok? Am I safe? Are we ok?”

Funny how we use one set of words to mean something else entirely.

Of course, I don’t intentionally substitute words I say for words I mean. I like to think I’m honest and direct.

Sadly, I have to face the reality that sometimes I’m really not….not clear with myself, or clear with the people around me.

It’s a little disheartening to have your defenses dismantled and have to decide what to do with that information.

Another thing I do…I self-censor. I don’t confront, to the point of limiting potential for intimacy. For how can anyone really know me if I have such high walls that not much can get in, or out? Yes, I’m being polite and kind and easy to get along with. I’m also distant, though most people wouldn’t think that. I am kindness and helpfulness personified.

But steel plated none-the-less.

The teachers were very kind, encouraging, inspiring. They challenged us to live with integrity, to love and allow ourselves to be loved. They challenged us to be big.

Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.  ~ Richard Bach

So what do I do now?

I’m going to enlarge my dreams, quit worrying about what others think so much. No, I’m not going to go to the other extreme. But how did I come to think it’s smart or wise to argue for my limitations? Life will knock me down enough without me adding my own spirit to the process. I know that. And trying to protect myself with some advance notice that I’m not likely to be a best-selling author is not doing me or anyone else any good.

So now…I am a writer. I plan to be successful. I don’t need to project what that will look like. But I can at least forecast something positive and hopeful. Why wouldn’t I? The worst that will happen is that I’m not, in fact, successful, which won’t really matter to anyone else anyway.

And as for other ways I’ve been fearful….I don’t know what’s happened, but I’m not feeling that now. I’ve recognized that fear doesn’t help me avoid the hard things of life…it just prolongs them. It doesn’t save me anything. It makes difficulties harder.

Another side benefit of the week: there are almost 50 people who know a bit about my frailties, and I know something of theirs. That makes us a unique little community, able to support each other from time zones and continents across the world, thanks to email and phones. It’s a rare thing to make even a couple of new friends in a week’s time. But fifty?! That must be some kind of record. At least it is for me.

Well well…maybe it was easy an easy week after all.

My truth


Are you a truth-teller? A truth-seeker? I like to think I am. But while there are “real” truths…facts like 2 + 2 = 4, and forces like gravity, that will not be denied, at work in every moment…so much of what we believe to be true is shaded by perception, or intention, or seeing a chain of events unfold from beginning to end.

Is truth in the eye of the beholder? To a certain degree, yes. Though I don’t believe in a relative morality, things are not always what they seem at first glance. Context and understanding are critical factors in determining truth.

I’ve known some people who use truth as a weapon, a kind of battering ram to be fearlessly used and proudly claimed. Honesty and truth are closely interwoven. And sometimes truth hurts. But I’ll admit I’m always on guard when I sense this is happening. Someone who uses truth as a way to plow through life and over people needs to ask some questions about motive.

And that begs the question: who determines truth? All of us do, at least so far as we are able. Isn’t that what just happened this week in the election? Voters evaluated candidates, the economy, national security, healthcare, etc., etc., etc., and judged the truth of the candidates’ claims for themselves.

There’s another way we determine our truth, and that is by the words we feed ourselves.

Oh, I don’t mean that we change objective truths…telling myself I live in Florida when I live in Alaska is not going to take me very far. I’m not going to wake up in Disney World tomorrow.

But our version of truth in matters of the heart, in opinion, in assumptions about others, their motives, their intentions, their efforts…our version of the truth is dependent on our specific view of life, and how we interpret it.

This is the “glass half full” meme, or the optimist/pessimist struggle.

Only it’s bigger than that.

Words and thoughts are so powerful. They can literally change the world. They change the way people view themselves, each other, family…words are critical to truth.

I read words that build me up, inspire me, help me reach to become, and I do become. I become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It can work the other way too.

And if it works for me, or against me, when the words are my own, the impact is even stronger when it comes to the things I allow myself to believe about others.


Because I’m the only person in the world that I can get into. I know my motivations, my intentions. I know when I make a mistake that I tried my best. That allows me to see my truth…I did the best I could. My heart was in the right place.

It’s not always so easy to see that truth from the outside. I don’t want to feel suspicious, or doubtful, or assume the worst about someone just because I can’t know the whole truth about them. Because when I do that, I create my version of their truth. Whether it is really “true” or not.

So why do we do it? Why do we let our assumptions get the better of us? Why do we let them color our views?

Drama is more entertaining than unvarnished reality. Sometimes prettier too.

I’m trying to be an honest person, trying to pay attention to those moments when I rush the story, mistake perception for reality.

It’s not easy, because I get in my own way. It’s a conscious battle, every day, to let truth come out without my assistance. It’s really tough.

Truth is universal. But it’s also personal…at least the version we tell ourselves. Finding the real thing…now that’s priceless.

Think the best of each other, especially of those you say you love. Assume the good and doubt the bad. ~ Jeffrey R. Holland

What we see depends mainly on what we look for. ~ Anonymous



Paying forward

I paid a bill tonight. Oh, not online as I usually do. And it wasn’t a Visa bill or a car payment. It was a life bill. The kind that presents itself unexpectedly.

I’ve owed this payment for a while now.

A young friend, a woman I know from the small church fellowship I attend, had dinner with me this evening. Rob is out of town…I’m spending the week working and home alone. She and I had talked a few weeks ago, said we should get together sometime. When I got back to Ketchikan on Monday, I called and suggested dinner this week.

So tonight, she came over, and we sat and talked. We talked about life, and marriage, and choices, and inspiration. We share a love of quotes, and discussed writers who motivate, favorite books and websites.

She had a need, and maybe I did too. She had a need to hear what I could say, and I had a need to pay a bill. To pay forward the generosity and sharing of so many women in my life who have sat with me and listened and rained wisdom on my circumstances. These conversations helped shape my thoughts, gave me hope, held me up.

And I believe, in a small way, that I paid a little of that debt tonight.

My young friend is strong and big-hearted. She’s motivated. She knows what she wants. She just needs encouragement to do what she already knows to do. She needed to talk and be heard by someone who could listen; really listen.

I told her a bit of my story, some of the ups and downs of my life. I told her what had worked for me: strategies to get over the rough times, the times when you question and second guess and wonder if you’re doing the right thing or if you’re just too weak to do it differently. And I began and ended by saying clearly: I have not figured it all out. I don’t have all the answers.

But this I know: I am a better woman today for the struggles I’ve experienced. And now, memories of the hardest times are as sweet as memories of the best times. Because without the one, there could not be the other. The struggle created the better me, and the better me, the Sheila that so needs grace in life and drinks it in like water in the desert…that Sheila knows the value of the struggle in a way that the younger and untried version of myself could not have understood.

So, I paid forward. To those women out there reading this who have sat beside me and been a bridge to now…thank you, thank you, thank you. I don’t know where your legacy may end. But I believe we created another link in the chain. And one day, maybe years from now, my friend of tonight will be the one realizing that she is paying forward, sharing with a next generation the wisdom of women who came before.

It is a priceless heritage. I’m proud to be a part, and to have paid a small portion of the bill I owe.

Take back your life

A friend of mine is in trouble. Her marriage is in ruins, and she is in the midst of a dysfunctional divorce process. She’s uprooted, disheartened, lost. And I can only begin to imagine the effort it costs her to get out of bed each day and get her kids going.

I’m sad for her, and I’m at a loss. This has been going on for almost two years, and the path seems to be a downward spiral. She can’t seem to break free, to reset.

I know something about sadness, and life not working out the way I thought it would. I don’t have visible tragedy in my life;  I have the drip, drip, drip of missed opportunities, lost dreams, or no dream at all…just a kind of wandering in the wilderness, wondering, even as the externals of life look pretty and orderly: “is this all there is?”

My husband and I have had it all, and at times we’ve known that, and celebrated it. And we’ve had it all, and at times, thrown it away with both hands…couldn’t grasp the goodness that was in front of us for looking at what was wrong. That’s an easy trap to fall into, one that I think most people are guilty of sliding into on a regular basis. Isn’t that what movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” are all about? The reminder that with all the negatives, life is still pretty sweet…well, we know it. But how hard it is to live that reality day by day! No matter how often I re-learn that lesson, I find it waiting around the corner again. And each time, I have to internalize it like it’s new knowledge. Some things take an eternity, apparently, to really sink in.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. I think this is one of the most common failings of modern life, modern Americans. Maybe people in general… I don’t know…is this just a common human trait?

This morning I was thinking about my friend. She doesn’t have a job, because bringing in her own income impacts the settlement she is able to get from the divorce. She’s depressed, understandably so. She’s lost in regret for the past, and regret for the future. She’s mourning the loss of life as she knew it, and life as her kids knew it.

No one can change any of that, and what’s done is done. No going back. But I want to tell her there is still an option to go forward. I’m not sure she can hear this. But this is what I want to say to her:

Get up! I know you’ve been paralyzed by everything that’s happened. But you can’t live in that state. You have to begin. Begin today, this morning. Set the smallest of goals, and mark it off your list. Then set another. Keep setting them until you’re really moving. It doesn’t matter what the goal is. What matters is that you see what you do as accomplishment, movement, and an act of will…your will. Energy and accomplishment produce more energy and accomplishment.

Look for a job. I know that may be against the advice of attorneys, but having your own income is liberating, and will give you renewed self respect. What if you eventually don’t need alimony? What if you could stand on your own? How sweet that would be! Going back to the work force when you’ve been a stay-at-home-mom for many years is challenging and intimidating…and invigorating. It will bring new people, new experiences, new thoughts to your life. It will broaden your horizons. It will give you a goal, and foster ambition. And it will give you money in your account.

Start a gratitude journal. This may seem like salt in the wound, to even suggest this. But I believe so strongly in the power of attitude and the healing that a thankful heart can experience…I don’t think a wounded soul can move forward without this step. Yes, life is unfair. Yes, life is hard. But we don’t complain when we are “unfairly” gifted. We just accept it as a natural thing, that we should be healthy, have food, have a roof, have healthy kids. Open your eyes, open your heart!

Finally…and again, this may seem like salt in the wound…I would suggest connecting with a women’s shelter…volunteer for an hour or two, or more, each week. This is not about building one person up by looking down on the misfortune of others…this is about recognizing that we all have something to give, even when it seems we have very little. And giving is the best cure for our own heartaches. Yes, there is a need to receive, and to cocoon, and to lick our own wounds. But that works better when we’re also giving, reaching out, making ourselves go beyond the comfort zone.

My route to work in Ketchikan takes me past a women’s safe house. When I’m distressed, I often think about the women who seek haven there. My problems become much more manageable when I recognize: no one beat me up, or threatened my kids, or blew money for this month’s bills. Does that mean I don’t have legitimate issues? No. And certainly my friend has sorrows that are real, and wounds that will take years to heal. But I’m reminded that things could be worse. You have to begin somewhere. I choose to begin with acknowledging: even when I’m struggling, I have people in my life, things in my life, that bless me. I have a place to start. And so does she…she just can’t see it yet.

I want to infuse my friend with determination, and to say: don’t let this sorrow, the end of your marriage, and the way you’ve been treated, don’t let it rob you of what you can do for yourself, for your children. Starting over is hard, and I understand the paralysis that comes with depression. So get help for depression if you need that. But act! Move! Get up! Do it for your kids, if not for yourself. One of these days, you’ll realize you are doing it for yourself as well, and you’ll all benefit in the end.

Even as I write this, there’s a little voice inside my head that says it’s never as easy as it reads. No. But what’s the alternative? She’s already lost two years of her life, and her kids’ lives, to turmoil and anger and sadness. How much more will she give? Eventually, it is counterproductive to mourn. It becomes a way of life; but not a healthy way to live. I’ve learned this for myself, and I know how hard it is to make that shift in thinking. I’ve done it. My circumstances were different, but in their own way, no less debilitating. But I don’t know how to jump start someone else. Sending her a to-do list, or a book to read, or listening to her, or suggesting that she see a doctor and go on anti-depressants…are these just band aids? I can’t put my hands around what she most needs. I’m at a loss for her. I keep coming back to the same thing. She has to reach down inside herself and want to take her life back. She has to want control enough that she pushes through the barriers. She has to want it. Others around her have wanted it for her. We’ve been sad, and seen the legitimate distress of her life. But now it’s down to her. Really, rock bottom, down to her will, and her strength.

I  choose to live by choice, not by chance; to make changes, not excuses; to be motivated, not manipulated; to be useful, not used; to excel, not compete. I choose self-esteem, not self-pity.  I choose to listen to my inner voice, not the random opinion of others.



I have a friend named Michele. I met her when we moved to Ketchikan and I took a job with PeaceHealth, joining the medical group in a support role for the team. Michele was my immediate supervisor and manager, and has become a mentor.

New to a community, an organization, and my position, I had a lot to learn. Michele had moved to Ketchikan just the year before, and was also adjusting to rainy Southeast Alaska, and finding her way with the medical group too. As we worked together, we would sometimes compare notes about our past lives, how we perceived this corner of Alaska, and our likes and dislikes. We sometimes sat, after a work meeting at the end of the day, and just talked, becoming friends as well as co-workers.

Michele is the opposite of me in many ways. She is tall and elegant, a smart dresser, who often adds a bold splash of color to her look with a signature scarf. She is a woman of city life whose path has brought her to rural Alaska. She’s a regional vice-president in a health-care organization. She’s a hiker, a rock-climber, and a humanitarian. She loves jewelry, and wears it well. She’s generous with her time and money, supporting children in Africa; but even more generously, has made numerous trips to third world locations as part of a team to build homes, schools, and lives. Her office is tastefully decorated with framed photographs of children she’s met on her journeys, her own portraits of people she’s touched. They are reminders, in a way, anchors, contrasting the world she lives in, and the world she sometimes visits.

We are alike in some ways. We are both directionally challenged. If we drive to an unfamiliar location together, we’re likely to have a bit of an adventure finding our destination. We love to shop. We love to eat. We love sweets. We love pretty things, clear glass, kitchen gadgets. We wear high heels and a lot of black. We love Pandora charms, and sometimes make a detour, after treating ourselves to a rare lunch out of the office, to check the latest arrivals at the local jeweler’s.

We’ve attended some local productions and charity events together. A few times we’ve hauled spouse and significant other with us. But often these are too foo-foo for the men in our lives. We have a chance for the occasional girls’ night out that invariably gives us stories for the next day, and likely, the day after that. We’ve braved howling winds and downpours for evening corporate dinners, bought the wrong smoked salmon at an auction, giggled through a community production, two fifty-somethings slipping into schoolgirl mode for a few moments.

Michele is a story-teller. With gentle self-deprecation and an animated and lively way with words, she makes people and events come to life. She shares stories from her childhood, of her grandparents who largely raised her, her college days, her long-time girlfriends who have become family. She draws on her work life, past relationships, and most of all, her own sense of the ridiculous. She’s a serious business woman, but often lightens work meetings with humor. She loves a good laugh, a good punch line, and she never minds sharing, even if the joke is on her.

Michele is an advocate. She is a bridge between a corporate world that is coming of age, and a medical community that is feeling its age. She pleads each group’s case to the other. She stands in the gap. She is often appreciated, but sometimes not. Her job is not entirely thankless. But it is stressful, demanding, challenging. Health care in 2012 is not a profession for the faint of heart.

She can confront when she needs to, but she doesn’t seek confrontation. She asks rather than tells, in general. She is gracious, respectful of others. But she’s tough too. She’s taught me a bit about standing up, facing something difficult head on, with kindness, but with firmness. Hard for me, when my default setting is “yes.” Oh, I have integrity, but I also avoid conflict. She calls me on it, and has helped me recognize the position of strength I want to adopt. She stands firm, not in a belligerent manner, but with a steadiness of character that is grounding, reassuring.

Michele knows how to be a friend. There is a quality of sisterhood to our relationship. We share pieces of ourselves, insights about life, love, choices. She has seen me through some difficult moments, and has allowed me inside a few of hers. Often, we just talk. About finding our way, about recognizing the good, about perspective. About balance. About doing the right thing, and for the right reasons.

Twice she has helped me see clearly when I had lost my way. I’m not often at a loss. But on these occasions, when I needed clarity and perspective, I found the beginnings through her. It was Michele’s suggestion that I stay with PeaceHealth in a relief capacity, when I thought there was no other option but some level of employment.  And it was Michele’s sharing of her own past struggles that allowed me to see some of my personal issues through different eyes.

I like to think I repay, in my own way. I mother a bit. I bake. I’m about comfort, and caring. I listen. I encourage. But it is all a two way street, and maybe that’s the reason our friendship has flourished. We each have something to give, and we are each able to receive.

Michele’s presence in my life has been an unexpected gift. If I met her on the street, I wouldn’t guess we would find connection. She has a career, I’ve had jobs. She has had a life of adventure, I’ve had a life built more on marriage and motherhood than any other element. She is fearless, I am not. But I think what drew us together was a bit of a kindred spirit. We are of similar ages, and we share common values. Above all, besides a killer sense of humor, I’m drawn to Michele because she cares, and she cares passionately. She cares enough to risk. She approaches her job and her life with integrity. She inspires me, and she pushes me. She is my friend, and I am hers.

[I’m leaving the position that has allowed me to work closely again with Michele. My relief stint is coming to a close. I’ll be back in Ketchikan in the fall, after our summer ramble, and hope that there will be something for me to do with PeaceHealth…but that’s uncertain, and the risk I take for choosing to work in a relief capacity. Regardless of future opportunities, I’ve been fortunate to find friendship in my work environment. Thank you, Michele!]