Today I’m grateful

I’m up early, rolling little balls of sticky sausage and cheese for breakfast. Not the most pleasant kitchen task, but the little bites of savory are perfect with coffee on a cold November morning. More than that, these little bites are a traditional beginning to our winter holiday feasts. So I roll, getting the tray of uniform balls ready to bake, ready to serve when the group stirs.

As I roll I think, my mind free to wander as my hands are occupied with the sticky dough. And this day in November, my heart is full of thanks.

I’m thinking of all those people throughout the country who are working quietly, keeping things running, humming, even on a week day when most of us are off and home with family. The healthcare staff, the police, the crews working at airports, the military who’re on duty today, the folks keeping gas stations and convenience stores going for the benefit of travelers; I think of the lights that come on when I flip the switch, the oven that heats, the warm kitchen…I’m sure there are crews monitoring the utilities of our lives, making sure the turkey can roast and the cranberry salad stays chilled. And tomorrow, and on Saturday, crews will be out, making the rounds in trash and recycling trucks, taking away the remnants of the feasting, and the shopping, and the gathering.

I am a worker. But I don’t keep life stitched together. I’m essential only to a few souls on earth, and even that necessity is limited to a supporting role. And I recognize that. In one sense, none of us is essential. No one is irreplaceable. Life teaches us that, sooner or later.

But some people have chosen to take on life tasks that make them, for a time, essential. The odd thing is that many of those tasks also are invisible to the average person. Who sees, or knows, the names and faces of service workers? Other service workers, and their family members.

People contribute in many ways. We have a lot of teachers in my family. We have ministers, mothers and fathers, doctors, nurses, a truck driver, an undertaker, IRS agents, a cartographer, business owners and executives, writers, publishers, engineers, security guards, counselors, IT professionals, farmers…who have I left out? What a splendid array of professions, now that I see the list on my screen!

But just today, I’m thinking of the ones who cover call, whose jobs don’t take a break because the calendar says to…the folks who know that their turn will come, if not this holiday, then the next…it will be their turn to work when everyone else is off, and keep essential services up and running. To those people, I’m especially grateful. My lights came on, and I know if I have an emergency, someone will answer the call for help.

Thank you for being there, even when I’m too busy, in my holiday rush of list completion, to notice. And just now, with my hands covered in dough, my mind is still, calm for a moment, and I picture you, going about your routine, keeping us safe, keeping things humming, invisible but so necessary. Thank you for choosing hard jobs, and long hours, and for doing the (often) thankless and unglamorous tasks. Thank you for giving up your family time, and for making mine possible.

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Heart home

We’re traveling again, on the road for the Thanksgiving holiday. This year we’ll be with family, seeing different ones over the course of the week. Some years we’ve been with friends, and had to add the family touch via phone. We do the best we can, but making the family connection in person is not always possible. When that happens, friends round out the circle, fill in the space at the table, make the holiday bright.

Here’s what I’ve learned about celebrating and connecting in spirit, since we moved far from family, 27 years ago:

  • When you connect on a regular basis, holidays are icing on the cake. Holidays don’t have to function as points of glue. The day-to-day relationship is the glue.
  • Connecting can be as simple as a phone call or Skyping or a card or an email. Or in today’s world, a Facebook post.
  • Distance can work for you. It can smooth the rough spots and make you appreciate the good stuff.
  • You’ll only maintain the relationships you nurture. That’s especially true when you have to relate across the miles.
  • A carefully planned “surprise” visit, or some gesture that shows you’re thinking outside the box…becomes a highlight. There’s nothing more fun than orchestrating a trip like this. And the faces when you pull it off…priceless!
  • Spending holidays with friends has enlarged our circle and our traditions. Some of my favorite memories are of Thanksgivings with friends. We’ve learned new foods, new games, and built relationships that have lasted over the years, solidified by adopting others as “family.”
  • Find the right balance between pulling out all the stops for a special gathering, and keeping it real and sane. I’ve learned to pick and choose…we don’t try to do everything, we just try to do a few things well.
  • Mark the moment. I’ve learned to stop in the middle of the hustle-bustle and just look around and absorb.
  • Limit the drama. Family gatherings should not be a time of crisis or scenes. Create memories that are good so you’ll want to get together again.
  • Bring something new to the party…a new food, a new game, something different.
  • Decide what traditions are keepers. What are you always going to do, no matter who sits at the table?

Holidays don’t wait for life to be perfect. I’ve never quite achieved the Martha Stewart magazine spread for my living room or my dining room, although I’ve tried. Who doesn’t have the ideal scene in their head, just waiting to be unveiled in real life and captured in family photos as proof that it can be done?

But I’ve had better than a magazine spread. I’ve had the real thing, in all its chaos and glory, deliciousness and kitchen failures, to tell me, and those gathered with me: this is the good stuff.

 “The sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal.”   ~ C.S. Lewis

Sunday morning praise

Raining today…again…always this time of year it seems.

Rain drops keep falling

Rain drops keep falling

But instead of looking out the window at the raindrops and feeling the gloom seep in, here’s a better way to begin my day:

I hope the sun is shining wherever you are. But if not, maybe this song will inspire you to feel around in the nooks and crannies of your spirit and remember, or discover, what is well with your soul.

I have to do that…consciously, deliberately….think about, write out, contemplate the good in my life. It’s easier to acknowledge the bad, the disappointments, the frustrations. Because those things bubble up without effort, needing my attention, demanding time. Or at the very least, demanding worry and angst.

I write a list of my life’s good things, and I don’t have much to catalog that’s perfect. That list will be for another life, another life time. But I record the small victories, the abiding sweetness, and that’s what I celebrate today. I offset sadness with joy, fear with hope, and the paralysis of uncertainty with movement of action. Any positive action is better than sitting still, wondering what to do next.

  • A dear loved one is struggling with illness, likely to be in the grip of final struggles. I am grateful for the time we have to be family to each other.
  • My search for direction continues. I am grateful that each opportunity comes when I least expect it. I’m learning new skills and find new inspiration every day.
  • I wonder…are we fiddling while Rome burns? The government theater on stage is disheartening, discouraging, demeaning. How has it come to this? I remember that there are good people everywhere. You just have to open your eyes to see. Hope here! Integrity and gratitude grow out of character.
  • Just when I’m feeling discouraged about life in general…Stephanie calls to tell me that baby Jack has his sixth tooth! Children are renewal of life, and I have two precious little ones to celebrate every day. 

    The little guy

    The little guy

  • Relationships can be thorny and challenging. I’ve had my time in that hole. I find support every day from my husband and partner in life. We don’t always agree, but we’ve learned to hold fast to the good.

Holding fast requires daily investment. What am I feeding myself today? What words do I practice?

I write about this often because I need constant reminders. I’m a positive person, but I struggle against the battering ram of daily life. And isn’t that the common plight? We are all hope-seekers, longing for reassurance, for comfort, for the peace of knowing: it will be alright. Sooner or later, all will be well.

Holding fast is hard. But doable, one challenge at a time. And the key is having a grateful heart every day.

Gratitude turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity…it makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”     ~ Melody Beattie

No defenses

I’m learning to live without defenses. I’ll probably still be learning this when I’m 80, or 100, or 53…doesn’t matter the age I ultimately achieve, the lesson will be ongoing, I’m sure of that. I’ve touched on this before, one of my recurring themes. It is recurring because the lessons are never-ending, and just when I think I’ve rounded a corner, there’s another opportunity to learn all over again.

And what does it mean, to live without defenses? It does NOT mean to live weak. It does NOT mean to be a door-mat, or a “yes” person, or to avoid all conflict. It DOES mean that I choose to offer grace and understanding when someone differs with me. I choose to give the benefit of doubt to intention, even to action. I choose to live strong, and to live with expectation.

Expectation is tricky. Sometimes my expectations have created disappointment: in myself, in others, in circumstances. But when the expectation is adjusted…now lowered, but adjusted…to seeing the potential that is unleashed by my actions…the real joy begins. What circumstances can I change, or impact, or better, or encourage, or simply comfort, if I act out of strength rather than defensiveness?

It’s a life-posture that’s deliberate choice, throughout my day, weaving through my interactions and thoughts.

It helps me to consider: what am I feeding myself? what am I showing those around me? how do I handle hurt, disappointment, sadness?

The only way I can make sense of life is to believe that we each have purpose, and we find the purpose and our gifts by sharing and giving with abandon. It is growth of faith. For me, the faith is in God, in the perfect grace I can only imperfectly copy, and the spark of miracle in everyday life.

The goal, the aspiration, doesn’t make me saintly, or superior…it keeps me grounded in gratitude, and challenges me to adopt an attitude of graciousness.

“Hurt people hurt people. That’s how pain patterns get passed on, generation after generation after generation. Break the chain today. Meet anger with sympathy, contempt with compassion, cruelty with kindness. Greet grimaces with smiles. Forgive and forget about finding fault. Love is the weapon of the future.” Yehuda Berg

I’ve been fortunate, and have experienced a lot more love in my life than hurt. But the lesson still applies. I can’t pretend to know how people who have suffered great injury and loss at the hands of others can adopt this stance. But I know that this is one of the secrets of the universe, and healing, paying forward, and joy, stem from this choice.

Another rabbi once said:

If you forgive other people…your Father will also forgive you  ~ The Great Physician

Forgiving, living without defenses, showing grace and patience…these words come across as passive. The behavior is anything but. I find I need much more strength to bite my tongue, to show kindness when I’m struggling, to assume the best when I suspect the worst. Am I living authentically? Absolutely not! The authentic me is not the nicest person I know. The authentic me is often grouchy, rude, intolerant, impatient, selfish…pretty, huh?

Am I living intentionally? Yes. What I choose to show the world is the person I want to be, and am trying to become. Always, always, the first thing to recognize is that this is not about perfection…I’ll never be that. I have to forgive myself as often as I forgive those around me. I don’t have life all sorted out and neatly packaged. This is about the trying, the choosing, and the goal. And that’s all it can be about. Because this is no magic formula to get what I want out of people or my circumstances. Simply put, living without defenses is the formula for changing myself.

Easter Grace

Grace fills life in unexpected ways and places. The how and the why are often mysteries I can’t unravel. But I know the source. God‘s amazing grace is new every morning.

This is a variation on a favorite theme, “Amazing Grace.” In this updated version of the classic hymn, inspired by the movie of the same title a few years back, Chris Tomlin adds a chorus that celebrates freedom. The movie tells the story of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain. Though this type of slavery has ended, we all have chains that bind in one way or another. Thank God we can be free through his gift.

Today is a day for joy and remembering, and for thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving always precedes the miracle.

Ann Voskamp

The miracle of grace can be overlooked or go unrecognized. Grace is a gift embraced by a thankful spirit. If I have learned one life lesson, it is this: grace is there, but you can only receive it with eyes open and a softened heart. Once you begin to look, really look, it’s everywhere.

I wish you grace, peace, and hope, with eyes open, spirit filled.

Healing on a beach

We came down to Mexico last week…an escape from late winter in SE Alaska, and a chance to see the sun and feel the warmth of a breeze instead of the buffeting of the wind. We had no plans, as usual. Most of our vacation escapes are low key…reading, resting, just being. We don’t need a lot of entertainment. We need time with no structure. IMG_0005

We vary our days between sitting by the pool, walking the beach, sleeping in and reading or catching up with on-line chores. Rob is studying for his upcoming boards test. I work on projects…designing a business card, writing a proposal. Nothing earth-shaking.

Somewhere in the resting, the recovery, we share. We talk a bit about what we’re reading, how we’re growing. We do this in our “normal” life too…of course we do. We connect on quiet Saturdays, or Sunday afternoons. But there’s something about the slow pace of a vacation week. Or maybe it’s the rhythmic presence of the ocean. Things begin to come out. We soften, open up. We become vulnerable.

We have been healing for a while now. I know the date we broke apart. It was September 12, 2010. That was the day we separated, in heart, although not quite at that moment in body. That came a little later that fall, at the end of October. What a time of awakening that was! It was a time like no other in my life, an experience that became precious to me: for the insight, for the honesty, for the truth that came out of it. IMG_0007

The funny thing is, I couldn’t tell you the exact date we came back together. It was in May of 2011. But the date isn’t branded on my heart. We just returned…to each other, to the relationship, to trying. We’re still trying.

The whys and hows aren’t important now, and anyway, wouldn’t be important to anyone but we two…I don’t need to share every detail. But I will share this: it was worth it. Every moment, every hurt, every loss. Because out of it, I grew, and he grew. We became better and stronger. As people and as a couple. It was a hard-fought battle, and to tell the truth, there are times we’re still fighting it. Maybe we always will be.

But this is my pearl of great price: I have wisdom now that came from that time of suffering. It isn’t wisdom of pride, it is wisdom of humility. I don’t have it all sorted out, neatly packaged, nicely arranged. I do my best, I make mistakes, and I forgive. And that’s all. That has been enormously freeing….just that, to know that I’m doing the best I can, and to let go of everything else. I’ve taken down my defenses. I’m standing with my hands open, my heart bare. It feels good to give, and to be open, regardless of what comes. To just do the right thing.

Just when I think I’ve come to the end of the reconciling experience…that we’re neatly put back together, that I’ve gotten my growth out of this…something else appears. It isn’t necessarily about the relationship itself, but it is as if, once I faced myself and those issues honestly, whole new worlds began to open up. Sometimes I’m inspired, and sometimes I’m so humbled.

I began this blog in the midst of heartache, at a time when I needed to stake a claim to the good of life, and to the positive. I needed to say “I will not be poisoned by bitterness.” The joy of reaching out, finding others, discovering – it has been a significant part of the healing process for me. As is my style, the next post may be some light-hearted thing…a funny cartoon, or a recipe. I’m not someone given to the depths. But now and then, just now and then, I have to acknowledge: I’ve been down, and I’ve been out. And I’m so grateful to have come through, to have found grace and peace and joy. And even now, I know, there are no guarantees. But there is hope. If there is one message I have to share, it is this: don’t give up on anyone or anything. Don’t write the end of the story before it writes itself. It may surprise you. I would never have believed, on September 12, 2010, that I would write these words today. Life is good, not perfect. Love is wonderful, not perfect. Nothing is perfect. But it’s all good.

“Yes, I decided, a man can truly change. The events of the past year have taught me much about myself, and a few universal truths. I learned, for instance, that while wounds can be inflicted easily upon those we love, it’s often much more difficult to heal them. Yet the process of healing those wounds provided the richest experience of my life, leading me to believe that while I’ve often overestimated what I could accomplish in a day, I had underestimated what I could do in a year. But most of all, I learned that it’s possible for two people to fall in love all over again, even when there’s been a lifetime of disappointment between them.” Nicholas Sparks, The Wedding

“I am not what I ought to be. I am not what I want to be. I am not what I hope to be. But still, I am not what I used to be. And by the grace of God, I am what I am.” John Newton

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.

 

Life Rules

We’re in that season…the season of graduation, beginnings, endings, ceremony, commencement speeches. This week we’re going to California to attend a niece’s high school graduation. I was not asked to give the speech. But this is what I would say, if I was standing before those kids. I can’t take personal credit for any of this…this is the wisdom of others I’ve distilled into my own words. And most of this is not particularly profound…just the things I’ve learned work for me.

  • First, be brave little Simba! I say this to my kids, to myself, to friends. We all need encouragement to be brave, to push, to try. We never stop needing to hear the words: you can do it!
  • Keep faith. Keep faith in God; keep faith in people. There are sorrows and disappointments throughout life. But miracles are everywhere. Albert Einstein famously said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” I choose to live with hope, and it is astonishing to me how often hope is rewarded. Not always as I expected; but rewarded none the less. Life will surprise you, if you’ll let it.
  • Be honest, first with yourself, then with those around you. But be kind with your honesty. Don’t use it as a tool to harm. Use it as sunlight to illuminate.
  • Be energetic! Get up early! Morning is my energetic time of day, and when I realized this, my whole world changed. Find your time of energy, and don’t sleep through it!
  • Don’t be seduced by busyness! Activity does not equal productivity, and it certainly does not feed creativity! Be thoughtful about how you spend your time. Learn to say no.
  • Present well. You are more attractive when you are pulled together, pressed, and feel confident in what you wear.
  • Maintain order. Order inspires calm and serenity. Excitement is for other areas of life, not for your physical space. Your physical space should be a place of refuge in sound, scent, lighting, texture, ambience.
  • Be organized. Organization is key to accomplishment. Write lists for everything. Have redundancy…spare keys, back ups for power cords, etc. Redundancy can save the day.
  • Go for the best, whatever that is, in your opinion. You really do get what you pay for.
  • Be kind, look for ways to be generous. Stretch yourself!
  • Be humble. Pass credit on to others, look for ways to share the wealth.
  • Step up! Unless the task is surgery or flying a space ship, I always say I’ll give it a try. Commit first, then find a way to accomplish the task. If you can’t do it, you can admit that you tried and failed, but you will have first tried.
  • Stay in touch. People won’t know you are thinking of them if you don’t share with them. No one reads minds.
  • Read! Expose your mind to new things to stay current and find inspiration. Challenge yourself to try new things, or try things you’ve always wanted to do but have put off.
  • Have a plan for your life, but don’t be afraid to wander off the track. I’m often impressed by the stories of people who have had amazing lives, and how frequently the amazing part came to them unexpectedly. Allow for the magic of serendipity.
  • Center, focus, gather, balance. Center yourself, focus yourself, gather yourself, balance yourself. Remember you are a human being, not a human doing. Every day should have time for reflection and meditation.
  • Live out of abundance: abundance of joy, energy, peace and acceptance. You can’t give what you don’t have, and you actually have to choose to have these qualities in your life. You must make conscious choices; being deliberate and intentional allows you to say no to things that steal these qualities away from you.
  • Practice forgiving. You will need to forgive yourself, and others, and you will need to receive that gift as well. Forgiving is a powerful act, whether you experience it by giving, or receiving.
  • Celebrate whatever comes. Be gracious to life, and it will be gracious to you. But this is tricky! Like most acts of reciprocity, you have to act for the right reasons. You don’t give, hoping to get. You just give. But you will also get. I don’t understand how, I just know it works.

Wisdom often comes just through the process of living, and while I learn, daily, that I’m not as wise as I’d like to be, I know I’ve advanced a bit since I was 18. I recognize now that a lot of what I’ve “learned” in my life was actually all around me, being lived out day by day. But I had to experience enough of life that I could begin to see and incorporate, in my own way, the wisdom of others. Will the high school and college graduates who sit through the ceremonies get it? Probably not. They’ll have to learn it on the job. They’ll have their own moments of “a-ha!” and their own insights when they’re sitting in the dark of the night, wondering, struggling, questioning. That’s the beauty, isn’t it? Everyone gets to work it out for themselves…to create their very own life rules, gleaned from faith, humanity, experience, and all those speeches along the way.

Congratulations to all the new contestants, now playing the game of life! May you be winners, all, and may you enjoy the game as much as the victories!

Hope

From my collection of quotes, declarations of hope:

I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death.        Robert Fulghum

The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope.   Samuel Johnson

Expect to have hope rekindled. Expect your prayers to be answered in wondrous ways. The dry seasons in life do not last. The spring rains will come again.  Sarah Ban Breathnach

All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope.  Winston Churchill

I cannot believe that the inscrutable universe turns on an axis of suffering; surely the strange beauty of the world must somewhere rest on pure joy!           Louise Bogan

Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.    Lin Yutang

If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.                  Antoine de Saint-Exupery

The Grand essentials of happiness are: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.         Allan K. Chalmers

You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.        Mohandas K. Gandhi

Some people believe that  having an attitude of hope is a way to practice self-deception, to hide from reality. But I disagree. I think hope is what fuels inspiration, strengthens resolve, helps us to hold on when we doubt. Hope is not a mind-numbing drug. It is an affirmation that though our wishes don’t always come true, they often do. Sometimes our own faith in the outcome is what makes the difference. We all have the ability to be self-fulfilling prophecies. I choose to live on the hopeful side of life.

Spring is sometimes called the season of hope. But hope isn’t limited to a time of year, or a time in life. It can flourish at any time.

What are you hoping for?