My new Kindle book is done!

I posted about attending a Vipassana meditation retreat last November, and it was such an amazing experience I decided to write about it. Life has been full of ups and downs, starts and stops, and it took a while to get it done. But I finally posted it to Kindle today, and tomorrow and Monday it is free as an introductory promotion. If you’re interested in grabbing a copy, please do so, and it would be even better if you’re able to leave a review. It’s an overview of the experience, designed to share insight into what it was like to sit and meditate for 10 days, the things that were good, the things that were hard, and my personal point of view as a practicing Christian, attending a retreat inspired by Buddhist philosophy.

I also share some of my relationship struggles and the story that prompted me to attend.

My bottom line? It was very worthwhile, and a surprise that I didn’t expect…I had no plan to attend a meditation retreat at the beginning of last November, yet a few days into the month I was on my way. If you’ve ever wondered about taking a time out to do something like this, maybe this read would encourage you to put it on your bucket list.

I hope you’ll check it out!

Here’s the link: Vipassana Meditation and the Sound of Silence

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Sunday Inspiration

Found this beautiful song a few weeks ago…I love the words, and the ending is a reminder of a song I grew up with, “It Is Well With My Soul.” Brave encouragement!

Christmas Eve

Another Christmas! This one is unique, and will take its place in the hall of Christmas memories. All years have their special joys, and some bring special sorrows. And sometimes the combination of the two lends the greatest poignancy. On Christmas Eve, I slow myself to think, and to absorb.

I mark the mystery. I celebrate faith in an event that shaped the world. Expectation hangs over the season and the day, mirroring the waiting of birth and the joy of new life. Faith is personal, but faith is also shared, and joyously visible in words and symbols. Faith is on display, a reminder that I am not alone. I will never be alone.

I mark the magic. I drink in the sight of children who are just old enough to realize: something is happening, something is coming, something is in the air. The growing awareness, the wonder, the anticipation…does it ever get old? And does it ever lose the power to restore a grown-up’s heart to child-like innocence? Children remind us that there is always goodness in life, always hope, always a reason for gratitude.

I mark the memories. Scenes from the past flood my thoughts as special moments flood my heart. I remember giving, and receiving; gifts that were unexpected, and all the more precious for the surprise; the times when we could say, “this is the good stuff.” I look at the loved ones in my life who celebrate with me and know: I am so blessed. I think of the ones who are no longer here, no longer part of the family scene, and know: they are so missed. The blessing and the missing get tangled up in my heart, until I hardly know which is which. Blessing and missing are inseparable realities of the day, and how could it be any different?

I mark the miles. The days of being surrounded by family are long gone. It’s hard to get everyone together…just too many challenges of distance, schedules, ages, and needs. But I’ve learned to appreciate the people and the moments, and if some gifts are exchanged before, or after, Christmas Day, well…it isn’t the opening that counts, it’s who you’re opening with. And sometimes you have to adjust your schedule to open gifts with family who are far and wide in many time zones. The important thing is that distance doesn’t separate hearts, and time zones don’t prevent us from sharing.

Tonight I’ll make my traditional foods for tomorrow morning, homemade cinnamon rolls and hand-rolled sausage balls. I’ll make full batches, though we don’t have a big group this year. But we’ll share around, and spread the joy, and snap photos. And we’ll mark this year’s surprises. We’ll add to the collection of memories, sweet and funny, heartwarming, and yes, the bittersweet. And in the end, I know we’ll say, “this is the good stuff.”

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Lighting the way!

Hard days

It’s December 4th and I’ve not been able to raise any Christmas spirit to welcome the month. Too much disruption of life, too many unanswered questions fill my thoughts.

These are hard days.

I’ve had some of these in the past, but mostly I’ve lived a life of joy and simplicity, and I’ve been grateful for what I’ve had.

But I’m learning…still, or again, I’m never sure which it is…I’m learning that hard days have a way of making life worthwhile when you let them do their work.

The hard days make you stop, help you know what is important and what is irrelevant.

I just want to go shopping for presents under the tree, stop for a coffee and enjoy the Christmas lights, sing the old favorites, and snap photos of everyone. I want that, but that isn’t the rhythm for this year.

This is a year of digging deep. I ask myself every morning: what good thing will happen today? What’s already happened that I didn’t notice because I was too busy feeling anxious?

Wouldn’t it be nice if the anxieties of life took the month off, and just let us have the holidays in peace?

But there’s something important happening, even when it doesn’t feel fun, doesn’t feel right.

I am growing, and changing, not because I’m focused on myself, but because the time is right, the student is ready, and the teacher has appeared. The teacher is experience, and the knowledge that comes from hard days.

Something tells me I needed to get to this place…a place without the noise of decorating a house or getting caught up in the usual round of holiday traditions…I needed to stand without my props around me. I need to face my challenges, and without the distractions, it’s easier to do that.

Meditation teaches me to be still, to find balance, to accept. Experience teaches me that life will sort itself, right itself, and that there will be richness I can’t begin to imagine that will come from my uncertainty.

Uncertainty is where the answers of tomorrow are forged. When you’re in the in between, the options are all before you. You can’t see the way things will work out, but you know they will.

Like an adventurer, I try to tell myself…I’m like an adventurer, wondering what amazing thing is around the corner.

I’m learning that uncertainty can be a fuel to help me look for possibilities. If I knew the answers, I wouldn’t be searching. And if I didn’t search, I would accept life just as it’s been…no opportunity for the new, the exciting, the beautiful that will come out of the questions.

If this seems like a philosophy to comfort myself…it is that. But I’ve seen it work in the past, so I know that it will work in the future.

This is a time to trust: life will work itself out. I have a role to play in that, but for now, my role is to be open, to be a student of the process, to be expectant, and to keep faith.

Aahh, I feel better already. I feed myself the words of hope, the words of expectation, and those little seeds flower as soon as they touch.

Yes, it will be a quiet season this year…family and a few traditions. But this is not a year for all my usual festivities. It will be a season of quiet, and a season of gracious expectation. And that is a good place to find myself.

Spirit of gratitude

“Gratitude precedes the miracle.”

The first time I read that I thought the words implied some sort of magic formula: if you live a life of gratitude, more good things will come your way. And while I agree with that interpretation on one level…living with a spirit of gratitude does open my heart to more good things, to seeing more good in life…there’s another, deeper meaning.

Living with gratitude precedes the miracle that occurs within me. Maybe “miracle” is too strong a word, on some days. On others, it’s the perfect term to describe what happens to a spirit filled with thankfulness.

Did you know, I’ve learned when you’re filled with gratitude for whatever is happening in your life, you literally can’t feel anger?

There are things that deserve anger…injustices and wrongs that need to be addressed. And I’m not addressing those here.

I’m talking about life on a very personal level, and I’ll acknowledge that I haven’t experienced tragedy to the degree that some people live with. But gratitude doesn’t erase the negatives from my life. Instead it helps me see beyond those, to focus on what I want to emphasize.

No one is unscarred, unscathed by the hurts of living, growing, suffering, dying, and waking up each day to start all over again.

I’ve loved and lost. I find the best way to acknowledge those I’ve lost is to remember the best of them, all the good. I celebrate that.

I’ve been amazed and I’ve been disappointed. I’ve lost some battles and I’ve had success.

I’ve learned when I have setbacks, low points, it helps to reframe. And that brings me back to gratitude. What can I pull out of each situation that feeds a spirit of thankfulness?

Let me tell you, it’s not always easy. I’m the optimistic sort, and more likely to be up than down. But even so, some days are hard. Some days grace and gratitude are not my default settings. That just means I’m human, normal, susceptible to the blows of life. Who isn’t?

I’ll admit: I wonder if I could rise to this challenge if I faced the burdens some people face? I hope I could. And though the externals of my life look good, it is far from perfect, far from easy.

Sometimes I have to stomp around and talk out loud, pace and rant a bit before I can right myself. That’s healthy and even necessary. You have to acknowledge the hole you’re in before you can begin to climb out. When you’re wounded, you have to stop the bleeding before you can begin to heal.

But after…after…I can reflect, and look for the rays of light.

And when I can see, even on the most basic level, that I’m blessed, I’m fortunate, how can I be anything but thankful?

And thankfulness brings me to joy.

Did you know, I’ve learned when you’re filled with joy for the blessings in your life, you literally can’t feel fear?

Joy quiets the fear that comes from the question. “What if…?” It’s so easy to find the negatives, when I’m afraid of the outcome.

And joy leads me outside myself, inspires me to reach out, be generous, look for ways to share with others.

At the deepest level, a spirit of gratitude doesn’t lead me to compare myself with others and feel smug when my situation seems better. A spirit of gratitude leads me to help in a literal way, to have a gracious and humble attitude toward those who struggle with greater challenges than any I face.

It’s a full circle miracle. When life gets me down, I’m moody, easily hurt, feel sorry for myself.

But then, gratitude creeps in, soothes my heart, eases my hurt, shines a light on my complaints. It’s a life cycle that I see on a regular basis.

The spirit of gratitude…it really does precede the miracle. And that has made all the difference.

“If anyone would tell you the shortest, surest way to all happiness and all perfection,
he must tell you to
make a rule to yourself to thank and praise God for everything
that happens to you.

It is certain that whatever seeming calamity happens to you, if you thank and praise God for it,
you turn it into a blessing.

If you could work miracles,
therefore, you could not do more for yourself
than by this thankful spirit.

It heals and turns all that it touches into happiness.”

William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life

Monster in my head

I’m fighting a battle right now, and I don’t know how it will end. It isn’t a battle for health, but it is a battle that rages within me. It’s one of heart, one of spirit.

There are choices I face, struggles I face, that need answers. And I have to do the sort…what is my true nature, and my true desire?

Am I strong, or am I weak? Am I brave, or am I scared?

Yes, I’m scared to death…but can I overcome that?

When life is changing around you, it’s easy to get a little sea-sick with the waves of uncertainty and doubt that wash over every decision. Did I set a good price for the house? What will life look like if I move away? Will I know a good decision when I meet it? I’ve sometimes thought I was getting just what I wanted, only to realize later…uh… that was a mistake.

Though I’ve loved this house, now I think it was a mistake to buy here. And yet, when we bought it, I was so sure. Funny how time has a way of changing your view. And what you want so desperately, so badly, one year…why, a few years later, I would go back and change that if I could. I would actually give a lot to do that.

But mistakes can turn out to be blessings in disguise, if you learn the lessons they teach, and I’ve learned more about life from some of the choices that I deemed “mistakes” than other decisions that looked perfect and seemed to work out just as expected.

I have to admit though…when I hear people say “trust your gut”…well, I must not have a very smart gut. Mine has misguided me on more than a few occasions.

But each time I’ve come to feel that a particular decision was a mistake…you know, the sort of “what was I thinking??!!” variety…just when I’ve reached a point of despair, or disgust, or some feeling of helplessness, suddenly, an amazing thing happens.

The light breaks through, in a way I couldn’t have imagined. Couldn’t have dreamed, or hoped.

I’m not saying I’ve always gotten the answer I wanted. I’m saying I got what I needed.

Is this God working in my life? Is this life just working itself out? To be honest, I don’t know the answer to that question. I am a woman of faith. But I don’t see faith as a magic pass to give me all the things I ask for. Maybe it’s just more complicated than that…I tend to have a simplistic and linear view…”if this, then that.” But there’s always a longer trajectory of events at work in life, and certainly that’s the case with major decisions.

I know there’s no magic formula…and I can’t say that I trust it will always work this way. And there are sorrows in life that can’t be fixed, or reversed. But those are of a different nature anyway…my dad’s death from cancer, for instance. At some point, each of us face things that can’t be solved, or made right, ever again.

But the twists of life I’m talking about…those are not the life and death issues. Though it may feel like it at the moment, they are not of that nature. I’m talking about choices that are in our control. And in an odd way, the decisions that we control…well, don’t they haunt us more than the ones we see as fate? I can mourn the deaths of loved ones, but I couldn’t stop it, and I certainly don’t blame myself for their loss.

But when I choose a path that leads to unhappiness…how can I feel anything but responsible for my predicament?

And so I wonder, and I try to listen to my heart. I’ve given up listening to my gut, that doesn’t work for me.

But my heart….now that’s a different story.

My heart has sometimes led me to make choices that look foolish, seem unwise. But you know, when I’ve listened to my heart, I’m usually rewarded. I’ve learned that just because something seems smart, or obvious, or even right…it may be none of those things. Sometimes the road less taken really is the right one.

I’m mixing metaphors and breaking all sorts of rules of grammar…but you know what I mean. Don’t you?

So this is my monster. It looks like indecision, but that’s just the disguise. What’s underneath is the root of the thing. Fear and uncertainty, paralysis and anxiety…all facets of the monster, the thing that holds me hostage when I need to step up.

I have flashes of brilliance, confidence, even power. But why, oh why, can’t the certainty that I feel at 8:00 in the morning be with me at 3:00 in the morning when I can’t sleep and everything I was sure of a few hours earlier seems foolish, or risky, or just plain wrong?

This is another part of the cycle of life, another pattern that repeats. When you make a decision, whether you believe it is a good one, or you come to feel it was a mistake…give time a chance to work its miracle, let the story write itself. That flies in the face of my instincts. I want to take action if I’ve messed up…and shouldn’t I? Well, it depends on the situation. There are obvious mistakes that are simple, and easily fixed.

But I’m talking about the times when I’m in over my head….can’t rescue myself, can’t be my own knight in shining armor. For those, I’ve learned…sometimes it is best to stand still, and watch, and let events unfold.

If action took me to a bad place, maybe inaction will take me where I want to go. Seems so contradictory, and hard for my impatient spirit.

Await the unfolding of events, breathe. Control what you can manage, but recognize: there are always going to be forces at work in any situation other than ones immediately obvious to you. And often, you have no idea what is happening outside the realm of your own vision.

So the house? In the realtors’ hands, and beyond my control, for today. And the nexts of life? Location, and work, the big questions? Also beyond me for now. But today, I can meet my commitments, go out of my way to do the right thing, look stronger than I am. I can be patient and hold on. The monster hasn’t defeated me yet.

And it won’t. It won’t.

Happy Easter!

Tomorrow is Easter Sunday and I’m excited to spend the day with our little ones, Riley and Jack. Riley, turning four next week, and Jack, 16 months, are too young to grasp the real meaning of the day. They’re just old enough to hunt for a few eggs and enjoy some treats from their Easter baskets. And at their ages, that’s enough.

But for me, and anyone of Christian faith, the day is a reminder, among all the Sundays of the year, that grace is a tangible gift. Forgiveness and mercy are available to everyone, freely given, and found through the choice of belief and obedience.

My use of the word “grace” in the title of my blog has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with displaying an understanding and gracious attitude when we’re confronted with difficulties in life. I use the word to refer to many of the little joys, the things that make life a little better, a little happier…the grace notes.

But the grace that we celebrate on Easter, the gift of savior and healer and friend…that’s the real thing, the real joy. Happy Easter, and may you know the meaning of the grace of the day, and the giver of joy.

~ Sheila

 

I am learning

I am learning to accept the feeling of unease that frequently settles in the pit of my stomach. I am learning to live with uncertainty, with fears, with doubt. I am learning this because in the last few years I’ve experienced:

~ living far, far from family

~ my son’s deployment to Iraq

~ my daughter’s miscarriage of her first pregnancy

~ my father’s battle, and loss, to cancer

~ the death of my grandmother

~ family torn by divorce

~ stress, stress, more stress

~ distress in my marriage

~ uncertainty about work and income

~ a house for sell that didn’t sell

~ the struggles of my adult children with jobs and life decisions

and life continues. This is my list since 2006. I’ve counted other losses and difficulties before. These are the major markers since we moved to Alaska.

And what do I say? What do I do? What can I do? I pray. I feed myself the sustaining, nurturing words of wisdom that encourage me when I need the spark of hope. I believe in belief. I believe that above all, there is goodness in the world, there is joy in the morning, there is comfort for the downcast. I count the ways I’m fortunate, and the joys that fill my life even when I’m anxious.

I tell myself that life works out. It will be all right, whatever “it” may be. Have faith. But sometimes, I falter a bit. What if it doesn’t work out? I see others whose stories don’t end well, whose lives have not worked out according to plan. What if I, or those I love, have the same experience? What if?

I face the fear, feel the physical sensation in my stomach. We’re old friends now, this sensation and me. I recognize it for what it is. It feels good to be stronger than this feeling. This isn’t a sign of bravery. It is a victory of strength, strength I didn’t know I had, strength I am growing day by day. It comes from recognition. I can only do so much, I can only do what I can do. I, who avoid conflict, am learning to confront.

Back to first principles. Do your best. Do your part. Don’t give up. Appreciate what you have. Share when you can. Believe.

Last weekend I found a site that expresses this eloquently. If you are looking for encouragement and a call to be thankful, grateful, joyful, this may speak to you.

A Holy Experience

I am learning to rest, to have peace, to keep my joy…I didn’t have to acquire it, I came here with joy ingrained in my being. But I’ve struggled to hold it, through some of life’s question marks. And even as I write this, I know that I’ll have to do this again tomorrow, and the next day, and next.

Saturday night, hearing the tsunami warning sirens, racing to throw a few things in the car before evacuating, some of these thoughts were flashing through my mind. I thought of family, plans, dreams, impacted by unseen force of earthquake. How do you plan for earthquake? For tsunami? The answer is, you really don’t. You can do so little. But you do what you can. You evacuate when you’re told to. You follow instructions. You hope, you pray. You thank God for the people, the good things, filling your life. And when the rush of the moment is over and you realize there’s no life threatening emergency after all, you promise yourself you’ll remember that flash of insight. I have so much.

I am blessed. I am grateful. And I am learning.

 

Theola Jane Kite Burton, 1921 ~ 2011

My grandmother died tonight. She was my last remaining grandparent, and at 90, was still going strong until just a few days ago. She was a product of a time that lives in grainy black and white photos, history books, and memory. She was a child of the depression, married at 14, raised five children with few resources, loved my grandfather, Grady Clyde.

She was “Mama” to her grandchildren, and spent countless days of her life gardening for the family, or sewing, or cooking. She was a gardener of vegetables from necessity, for most of her life, making ends meet with lady peas, butter beans, tomatoes, and whatever else she decided to plant. Her thumb was green. She grew flowers out of love, and knew how to graft, root, transplant, and do amazing things with bulbs. She collected daylilies, and roses. She loved browsing the latest catalogs of flowers. A visit to her house was never complete in the growing season without a tour of her plants, mostly moved outdoors to grow in the hot Mississippi summer.

She was a woman of faith. She believed, and she believed strongly. She was a pretty good preacher too, when the occasion and the grandchild required. Mama was no story book grandmother. Although she loved us all, she could scold when she saw the need. She was always ready to make some point, and I remember that she encouraged us as children to memorize the fruits of the Spirit and the Beatitudes.

She was a seamstress and a quilter, and her winter project was often a new quilt or two for someone in the family. Now her quilts will have a special meaning, because there will be no more from her. But the ones she left behind will be treasured.

She was a cook of country foods, southern foods, traditional foods. She made biscuits and cornbread, perfect every time, knew how to cook anything in a pressure cooker, was legendary for her fried peach pies. She made a creamed chicken dish that was pure comfort food, and knew how to make lady peas that were perfectly seasoned, perfectly cooked, served up with steam rising from the bowl.

She laughed at herself or whatever was funny till she couldn’t talk, a trait that I think I’ve inherited. She loved a joke, although she couldn’t really tell one. She wasn’t a successful tv watcher, except for the news. She couldn’t stay awake through most programs. I think she was too accustomed to getting up early to watch tv in the evenings.

She lived in same small town for most of her life. She knew pretty much everyone, and could tell you the history of families, events, all sorts of things from past doings in Winona, Mississippi.

She was salt and light in my life: salt as a good seasoning, light as a lamppost to guide the way.

As an adult, I’ve recognized that many things that are part of my life she would have no understanding of. She didn’t work outside her home. She didn’t move about, although she did travel a bit visiting her children in different parts of the world. But in many ways, her world was centered in her community, her family, her faith. I like to think that although our lives are very different externally, there is some of her goodness in me; that her influence and her faith are in my heart.

She believed she was going to a better place at the end of her life. She believed she would see my grandfather again. She believed.

And so do I. Thank you, Mama, for sharing your life with me, and with so many. Thank you for the conversations through the years. Thank you for your love. Thank you.

Song for Sunday

This is one of my favorite hymns, perhaps of all time, and I’m in good company. This is a beautiful performance of “Amazing Grace” by Celtic Woman:

Enjoy!