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Today Alex is 31. I talk to him, think about him. What do you say, when the years aren’t adding up on this planet any longer? Do you still say “happy birthday?”

I think about other birthday celebrations for those who are gone, the way we honor heroes who left a mark.

We hold parades, declare holidays, and remember their gifts. We look back with gratitude, and find inspiration in stories of lives well lived.

Alex left his mark too, on so many lives. He left stories of kindness, humor, a strong work ethic, his unique vision of life. He left grand memories.

There won’t be any parades today, and businesses will all be open as usual. Other than a few people who know this date as his, to the rest of the world, it’s just another Monday.

But for those who love him…it’s the first birthday without.

We had a running conversation about this time of year…me always trying to find a gift he would enjoy, and him standing firm, saying all he wanted for his birthday was a sandwich.

I don’t remember how that got started. When he was still a kid at home, the tradition was always that the person celebrating their birthday got their dinner of choice…favorite home cooked meal, or favorite restaurant. Somewhere along the way, Alex decided to keep it simple, and started requesting “just a sandwich.” In mom mode, I could never do that. A sandwich wasn’t festive enough. Sometime in the teen years, he began choosing pie as the birthday sweet, lemon icebox or key lime, to mark the day and round off the evening, candles burning and presents stacked, ready to be opened.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw the birthday reminder from Amazon, sent to alert me that June 18 was coming up. Then a reminder popped up on my calendar.

As if I needed that.

Though there’s no danger I’ll forget his birthday, and no need to remind me to buy a gift for him, I won’t take him off my birthday calendar, or Amazon reminder list. There are already so many ways he’s missing from life. His phone number is no longer his. He doesn’t have a mailing address any more. His bank account is closed.

I won’t erase him from my lists. It’s not that I need any reminders to think of him. But it’s important to me that his name is still there.

Like so many pieces of the tapestry of loss, there’s no logic to my thoughts. I couldn’t tell you why I can’t take him off my Amazon gift list, or delete his address from any of the other sites where it lives. I just can’t. Even though I know that deleting an address doesn’t mean anything…doesn’t change any facts, and doesn’t lessen his place in my heart…I won’t do it. Somehow it means something to me to see it.

In this new era of life, without Alex, everything counts, everything matters. It’s strange the way this works. When someone you love is living, of course they’re important to you, and you’re concerned with them, and for them, and things that impact them impact you. But when that person is gone, and what you have left are the memories, photos, physical reminders of their lives, and the digital footprints left behind….it’s all important, to a level you can’t begin to understand, until that’s all you have.

It all becomes sacred.

Where once I loved the boy / man, now I cherish the traces of him, wherever I find them. So nothing is meaningless, not even the email from Amazon to remind me of his birthday approaching.

And yet nothing fills the void.

I’ve been fearful of this day. Wondered how it would feel to wake up and know there’s no birthday call to make, no sandwich joke between us, no hearing if he liked his gifts. Nothing. Just nothing.

But today, as much as I miss Alex, I’m celebrating his life, all 31 years of it. Somewhere he’s 31, and he’s probably having a sandwich, hopefully with bacon.

There are 364 other days in the year to mourn him, to feel the sorrow of loss. Today, I’m just choosing to find the joy, and to be thankful for his life. He was amazing, and a gift.

Alex taught me many things, some of which have come in the past months. Even now, I’m learning through him, because of him. Today is another of those gifts, teaching me, reminding me, that lives intertwined don’t unravel because one has moved to another realm. They’re still connected, and always will be.

The people who touch our lives, and whose lives we touch…our stories are forever joined. Alex will be forever young, in photos and human years. But in my heart, and in another world, he’ll keep having birthdays.

“There are three things we cry for in life: things that are lost, things that are found, and things that are magnificent.”
Douglas Coupland

Alex has been each of these: found, magnificent, and lost. He is lost to us now, for a time. But not forever.

And that is something to celebrate.

Laura, Will, & Alex, June 18, 2017

Alex’s 30th birthday, with friends at the Colorado Renaissance Festival, June 18, 2017

“The beautiful thing you did, that no one knows about, or forgot, it’s there always; light, grainy light- even if cruelty gets its hands on it. It’s done. You were born. No taking that back.” 

~ Thank you, Laura, for the quote. It’s perfect. ~

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Best of Christmas

This is a most unusual Christmas season. But it’s already one of my best.

I don’t have a tree, or even a home for the tree I don’t have. I haven’t decorated anything, and don’t plan to. That just isn’t the focus this year.

But this is what I do have:

~ I’ve bought gifts and planned surprises, some on my own, some with the help of elves. From a kitchen faucet to movie passes to legos to all things Amazon…Brings a smile to my face to play Santa!

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~ I wrote cards to friends. For years I was a dedicated card-sender. And then a few years back, I just stopped. It was a difficult season for me, that year, and I didn’t do much of my usual holiday routine. Since then, I’ve mostly ignored that tradition. But this year, I wanted to do it again. It feels good to restore that custom.

~ I’ve listened to beautiful music…ah, the wonder of music! Thank you to Spotify and Pandora, companies that give me beautiful and beloved music to enjoy, courtesy of the wonder of internet radio.

~ I’ve read. Inspiring words of faith, insight, truth, mercy, sacrifice…how they move me to be a better person, a stronger person, a more generous and loving person! Thank you to the gifted writers and voices who remind me to cherish what is truly important in this life.

~ I’ve baked! Even the clinic housing apartments we stay in when we’re working have ovens (!), and I’ve baked gingerbread and treats that fill the air with Christmassy scents. It’s comforting to find myself in the kitchen, even if it’s not “my” kitchen. Food is one of the ways I connect with people, with memories, and with creativity. It soothes me and settles me, takes me to a feeling of home.

~ I look around and see joy. I sat in the Seattle airport Sunday afternoon, en route to work in Alaska for the ten days before Christmas, and I found magic, right there in the big center food court. A talented musician filled the air with holiday tunes, there was hustle and bustle all around, the light streamed in the huge window that looks out onto the runway, and I was grateful to be there, in the moment.

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~ I anticipate. I look forward to seeing and being seen. We’ll be with family for Christmas and New Years, and we’ll smile big, eat well, laugh, cry, be silly. We’ll look at one another and say, “this is the good stuff.”

Version 2

Life isn’t about perfection. It is about minding the minutes, seeing the good in the cheerfulness around, in the thoughtful words, the helpful acts of kindness. It is about love, and grace, forgiveness, and trying. Especially it is about the trying, for that’s really all we can do. We try, and sometimes we get it right.

I’ve never understood why some Christmas seasons are so beautiful, so perfect, even without perfection, while others can seem right, look right, but never really take root in my heart. Why is that? I don’t know, can’t put my finger on just what makes some years magical, and other years mechanical. I know it’s not for lack of heart, or desire. But there it is, just one of the realities of life.

Magic moments are mercurial, they don’t come with explanation or make sense; they’re shimmery things, like bubbles. You have to cherish them when you feel them.

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It’s a grace-filled time, this season, and I’m grateful. So grateful.

~ Sheila

View of the road

When I was a kid we did road trips. Lots and lots of road trips.

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I mostly had my nose in a book on those journeys. My dad always had music on, my mom always brought snacks, and the kids brought books.

My dad loved national parks, and if our travels took us anywhere near a park, we had to stop.

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Had to.

Driving anywhere can be an interesting experience if you’re paying attention.

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But in those days I rarely looked up. I sat in the back seat, or even in the “way back” of the family station wagon. The view was mostly a sibling’s profile, also buried in a book. I remember my dad getting irritated with us, that we were missing the scenery he was so enchanted to see. He was hauling us all over the country, and we might as well have been at home.

Sometimes there’d be a sight to bring us to the surface, out of our respective novels, and we’d stare out the window at a passing scene, or get out of the car and troop into a national park headquarters, dutifully learning about the history or geography, or whatever made this particular spot noteworthy.

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Now, a few decades later, I sit in the front. I never read. I mostly stare out at the landscape, passing by at 50, 60, or 70 miles an hour. Sometimes we pull over so I can snap a photo or two, or twenty. I’m always on the watch for a great diner, local color, a beautiful view, a charming town.

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I love road trips.

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Sometime between childhood and now I grew to appreciate the freedom and the variety of driving. I never get bored, and it almost doesn’t matter where we begin, or where we end. I just love the whole thing, from first to last.

I fly a lot these days, for work, and sometimes for pleasure. Sometimes the only way to get where I’m going is on a jet.

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But if I have a choice? I’ll pick the road, every time. There’s nothing like it, and never will be. The great American love story is with the road, and I’m happy to be out there, wondering what’s around the next bend, where we’ll stop to eat, what new thing we’ll see.

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It is an amazing country, and a gorgeous one.

Driving today, I thought about my dad. I wish I could tell him: I learned to look up. I learned to see what’s in front of me, to appreciate the beauty, the romance, the wonder of the road.

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I think he’d smile, and be proud I finally got it.

Cautionary Tale

Driving through the mountain west, sun shining on sparkling snow, white contrasting with the grays and reds of mountain rock, I’m captivated.

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I’m enchanted by beauty and nature, the privilege of seeing this land that’s so scarcely populated. The footprint of humanity is small here.

This is bliss, this cold December day a time of joy and sweetness.

A year ago I could not have imagined this day, full of light and companionship, easy silences punctuating quiet talk during the drive.

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I thought today: if I could have known, a year ago, this day was coming, would it have made a difference? It would have made it easier to work though a hard time of life.

But maybe working through the hard time, with no certainty of good to come, made today possible?

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I don’t know, can’t know, exactly what forces sculpted the days and weeks between last year and this. I know a little of the changes that occurred, that made a difference. But I don’t know all.

This is what I do know.

The hard times in life have purpose. Whatever the hardship is, working through it, surviving it, learning from it, gives rich color and depth to time that follows.

I haven’t experienced every sorrow life has to offer, thank God. But I’ve been through some of the fires. The fires taught me no life is immune or safe. Something touches each of us, either directly, or through someone we love.

The hard times taught me patience and perseverance. I learned to let time do some of the work for me.

I learned to face hard truths with honesty.

I learned to forgive myself and others for mistakes.

I learned to value the pain of others because of my pain. When you really understand the hurts and losses of life, your ability to empathize grows exponentially.

Last year was a year of loss, change, upheaval, conflict, depression, uncertainty.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve passed through such a season. Life has handed me other losses, taken my joy for a time.

And that is life. No one is immune.

I’m reminded, afresh, that we all weather seasons, and change.

Each time I’ve experienced a time of darkness, I’ve learned from it. It’s slow at first…whatever knocks you flat, takes you out, leaves you reeling…those forces don’t retreat easily.

Loss, death, illness, tragedy, conflict, displacement…there’s a continuum of pain, and ability to recover.

I couldn’t change the fact of my father’s death. I had to reach acceptance.

I was able to reclaim my marriage. I had to allow time for growth, and perspective, for healing.

This is my path, steps to return to joy.

  • Remember to breathe. It’s ok to grieve and to shut down for a time. But you must breathe, you must do a minimum to maintain your physical self, with rest, with food, with action.
  • As soon as you can, feed yourself hope. Since the beginning of people, hearts have broken, loss has devoured. You will likely recover, overcome whatever is hurting you. There are lives all around that testify to the power of the human spirit to survive, conquer, thrive. If others can do it, you can too. Tell yourself that. Say it even when you don’t believe it. Say it until you can believe it.
  • On days that you can’t do anything positive for yourself, at least do no harm. Don’t make big decisions, don’t rush into anything, don’t burn bridges today that you may need to cross next week.
  • Look for the unexpected. Each time I’ve experienced a trough of life, there’ve been good things come to me, unexpected lights to give me a path back to life. The unexpected may be a circumstance, an insight, a new friend…anything. But you have to be open enough to receive. Don’t block help or hope.
  • Forgive: yourself, others, mistakes, misunderstandings…get the negatives out. Holding it inside only hurts you. You don’t have to share with anyone else unless you choose. But even talking out loud, ranting in private, will give you release, and let you find the words you need to say. It gets easier with practice. If you can’t say the words, write them. Just get them out one way or another.
  • Be kind to yourself. Whatever you can do to soften and soothe and heal, do that. But, don’t take a positive and turn it to a negative…don’t comfort yourself with so much “comfort” food that you gain weight, or run up debt trying to buy your way to happiness. Keep your kindnesses positive.
  • Give yourself and the situation time. Lots of time, if you can. Time can’t heal everything. It can’t replace every loss, and it isn’t the cure for all illness. But it can do a lot, if you let it. Practice patience, with yourself, the circumstances, with others.
  • Make a promise to yourself. Promise you’ll learn from this, that you’ll be stronger and better for having this experience. Make sure you keep it.
  • Use your story. Your story will be a powerful way to connect with others going through a similar experience. And believe me, whatever you’re facing, someone else is facing too. You don’t have to share everything to share something. You’ll find solace and give it too, by opening up, when the time is right. Promise yourself that you’ll do what you can to add light, not dark, because you went through hardship.
  • Find something to be grateful for. Even the smallest thing you can name counts. Keep adding to your list. Find a beautiful image, a book, a song, a view, a friend, a pet, to focus on.
  • Don’t grow bitter. Bitterness poisons life, and nothing is worth that. If you’re mourning the loss of a loved one, honor them by returning to life. If you’re mourning something else in your life, honor yourself by refusing to give up. Know that one way or other, soon or later, you’ll sing again, be joyful again.
  • Seek professional help if you can’t find your way. It’s out there, and it will be worth it. Sometimes the best thing we do for ourselves is admit we can’t do it alone. That can be an act of bravery, and your first step away from the dark.

I had professional help this year, and it changed everything. You don’t have to commit to long term counseling or therapy to reap great reward. Sometimes you just need a jump start. Or if you need ongoing help, the sooner you begin, the better.

I’m thankful for the lessons learned and road traveled. And I look for ways to share, to give back. I’ve promised myself that good will come of my journey, and I mean to see that promise come true. It wasn’t my goal in life to be a cautionary tale, but it seems to be my fate.

Well, so be it. We give as we can, and from what we have. If I can help anyone by encouraging with my words, I’m content.

Some days

Back working in Alaska again for a stretch, and picking up the threads of all my projects. I seem to have a never-ending list! Not that I think I’m alone in that. Who doesn’t have a list?

Lately my list has been a little fuller. I’m brushing off some long-unused skills and trying to recall what I’ve ever known of design programs. Admittedly most of my knowledge was via on-the-job learning. Back in the day, when I was in college, Adobe products weren’t even a glint in a designer’s eye. Now I’m learning with books, and the ever-helpful tutorials that abound online. I’m doing this as part of a multi-prong approach to creating digital income, and it occurred to me that it would be helpful to have a few more skills in the digital world.

So there’s that, and my second Kindle book which has been languishing for the past several weeks, waiting for me to pull it out again. Then my blog is wondering if I moved away and forgot to pack it along.

And there’s work, as in, what I am actually paid real money to do.

I’m so grateful to live in a time when so much is at my fingertips. It’s a rich experience, learning and growing, all at the touch of a few buttons and some time and effort.

But, I remind myself, life exists off-line as well. It’s easy to get sucked in by the vast world that lives behind my screen.

And if I’m always looking that direction, I miss so much.

Like this:

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Riley and Pete the Cat, preschool mascot

Or this:

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The boy, blowing bubbles for Gram

I don’t get bubbles from my laptop. I don’t know…maybe I don’t visit the right sites?

Nothing replaces reality. I can do a lot from my sofa, and learn a lot without going into a classroom. But on days when I feel like I haven’t looked up, I stretch and yawn and remember:

What I’m really invested in is out there, the people in my life.

I’ve always been able to draw that line between my work and personal life. I find it a little more challenging when work can follow me home, follow me to the sofa, be in front of me as soon as I click on my screen.

It takes discipline to create income out of hobbies, out of interests that have potential. And I want to be one of the people that finds that key to unlock the door.

But I don’t want to get sucked dry by the process, consumed by the ease of access.

I realize, now while I still am in the formative stage of creating online work, I need to set boundaries and schedules. Yes, I want to be able to work from anywhere, and anytime I choose.

But I don’t want to find myself working everywhere, all the time.

That’s not the plan.

Is it?

Aaahhh…there’s a difference in convenience and flexibility, and being consumed by the tool I’m using.

I don’t want the dream of creating my work world to become the monster that devours me.

For now, that isn’t likely to happen. For one thing, I can’t generate income without a regular job, which keeps me grounded and tied to a somewhat regular schedule. These thoughts are really about the future.

But this is the time to plan. What do I want more of? Endless time online?

Or bubbles?

Which do you think I picked?

Happy Sunday!  ~ Sheila

What’s in a name?

So today I changed the name of my blog. It has been “Grace and Space” since I began it…see my “About” page for the story behind that name.

But today, in preparation to migrate the blog to the WordPress.org platform in a few months, I changed the name so it would align with my domain name. At the time I chose the domain name, graceandlife.com, graceandspace.com was already taken. So graceandlife was my substitute, and it has been fine. But it seemed right to have the blog name finally match the domain name. So a few quick clicks, and presto! All done!

I had a conference call with the company that’s going to do the custom design work for me, and it was fun to talk about what I want for the site, where it can go, and how I want to tie other digital efforts to it. initial consultation is free. Next I’ll receive an outline of the things we discussed, my wish list for the site, and line item pricing so I can decide what I include. We acknowledged there may be some elements that make sense down the road, but aren’t necessary in the near term.

I’m working on a couple of Etsy sites, working on finishing my meditation book, have another couple outlined, and hope to connect all the dots in the spring. Aaahhh…..well, there’s still a lot of work to do yet, but I think the blue print is in place.

And this week I worked out an arrangement to continue working in Alaska a couple of weeks each month to keep my “regular” income flowing. I’ll be transitioning to the Seattle area so it will be an easy bounce back and forth each month.

There’s a lot of big picture uncertainty yet. I wish I could say I see how all the pieces will work together. But some things take time to unfold, and to develop as they should.

I’ve learned to take my own advice, and as I’ve said here more than once, “let the story write itself.”

So that’s what I’m doing. I’m filling in the details as I can, but for the pieces that are still defining themselves…well, that will happen in time. And when it’s right, it will be right.

Finally, thanks to the magic of online shopping I’m done with gifting, and shipping.

Decembers are never predictable. I find that often they’re crazy, hectic, busy beyond belief. This year with so much in my life upside down, this one seems surreal. Not the most wonderful holiday season I’ve had, but some things are good. There is always, always something to be grateful for.

This year, I’m so grateful for family and friends that keep me rooted and sane.

I’m grateful to see some of the digital work I’ve babied along finally coming together. Maybe a few more months and I’ll have an amazing bundle of digital offerings to celebrate.

I’m grateful for all that I’ve learned this year, about myself and those near and dear to me. The past few months have been a journey, and a hard one. But any road worth traveling is going to have some unexpected twists and turns, and this one is no exception. I’m still waiting to see where it will eventually lead me, but I’m grateful for the good that has come of it.

I read a lot of posts about people trying to slow down, to cut back on the craziness, and to focus on what is important in this season. I’m trying to do that as well, and above all, to look around at all that has blessed my life this year. As you take stock of your life, I hope you will find yourself smiling, recognizing…there is good all around, even in the midst of the hard times. Celebrate the joys, and the hard times will take care of themselves. At least that’s what I like to think.

So…on to the next task, the next thing on my list. But first…a few Christmas carols, a fresh candle, some hot cider…aaaahhh…December peace, December quiet. Snow falling, looking forward to seeing family, looking forward to Christmas lights and magic. Life is not perfect. But life is good.

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.

Thanksgiving grace

Thanksgiving is here, the one holiday of the year that is, by name and spirit, inspired by the grace of gratitude.

We gather, we talk, we prepare, we eat. Oh yes, we eat. It’s the beginning of butter season, and all things good.

We list the things we’re grateful for. And for most, the list is some version of a litany of the important people in life…spouse, children, family, friends; important pillars of life…health, home, job; important attitudes of life…thankfulness, forgiveness, joy.

I feel all that, and more. I am so grateful. But today, “more” is my special focus.

This year, “more” is all the uncertainty and upheaval the past few months have brought to my life.

Uncertainty doesn’t sleep well, doesn’t feel comfortable. It has become the knot in my stomach, the question behind all my plans.

“What next?”

And yet, even as I sat and gathered myself this morning, sitting hard against the wall by my bed to focus my thoughts, start my day with calm and quiet, I knew: the coming joy is rooted in this time of in between, this period of lostness.

I’m walking in the valley of indecision so I can choose, and choose wisely.

These are the days of hard questions: what do I want? What is essential?

The voice in my mind answers: my partner is essential. Family is essential. Faith is essential. The rest…the where or how or the timing of the choices…window dressing that puts the pretty bow on the real gift. The real gift is the people, priorities in order, values in place.

Knowing who I am, whose I am, who I am with, and who I love are the bedrock essentials. Nothing else matters…not where I live, or how I earn income, how big my house is, how often I travel. Because I know the answers to the essentials, I can take a breath, step back, let the details sort themselves in good time.

It’s easy to get that confused…to take the people and relationships for granted and treat the externals like they’re most important. I can admit I’ve done that, acted like all the “big” decisions were the drivers of life. They’re not…they’re context, but they’re not the heart of the story.

This year I’m not hosting the holiday feast..the trappings of my physical life are in a Public Storage unit in Washington. I don’t have all the externals together…no decorating for Christmas this weekend, or gathering family for the perfect Christmas card pose.

Family is scattered, and I don’t have the pretty bow to wrap us all together.

But I know the answers to the questions of heart, the essential ones that frame the rest.

And I am so grateful. I have my Thanksgiving list. And when we go around the table to say what we’re thankful for, I can acknowledge: the uncertainty, the question of “what next?” points me to the deepest joys. The very not knowing becomes a gift to show me: security is in the intangibles of my life, in the people and the love that isn’t tied to an address, or a piece of furniture, or an orderly path.

So yes, today I’m celebrating that I have no permanent home at the moment, just a permanent mailbox address. And I have no vision for where I’ll be next year, just a vision of who I’ll be with. I have no forecast of my annual income for 2015, but I expect to cover all the usual needs of life.

I’m in between, and I’m grateful. I may look lost, but I’m not.

I’m full of expectation, full of anticipation. What turn will my story take now? And how will my choices and my life lessons be a light to shine for others?

Happy Thanksgiving! May you all know “who” is on your list when you go around your table, or you recite to yourself the joys of your life. When you know who is important to you, the rest is just glitter.

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Wisdom in Silence

I’m attending a meditation retreat for the next 10 days, beginning this afternoon, and it’s likely to stretch me in unknown ways.

Nine of the 10 days will be spent in silent meditation. As I understand it, there is some instruction on technique…focus on breathing and other aspects of the art of meditation to help participants fully engage. You can also ask questions of staff, but there’s no chit-chat, no between sessions getting to know the group, no morning coffee warm-up and sharing of life stories.

The daily routine begins with a 4:00 am wake up call, and the first session starts at 4:30. The day is divided into group and individual meetings, with lights out at 9:30.The 10th day there is a return to speaking to prepare participants to ease back into their normal lives.

The setting is a rural northern California community, and as best I can tell from the website information, I assume this is a type of camp environment, so I’m expecting very basic accommodations. You bring your own bedding, leave behind your cell phone and other technology, no books or journals, and come prepared to sit and think.

I’ve been doing some reading on the subject, but to be honest, I’m not sure I can articulate the differences between meditation, contemplation, and deep thought. Although I believe they are closely related, meditation also incorporates a focus on physical processes like breathing, over a prolonged period, to go to a deep internal state, shutting out the surroundings of place and other people.

I’m alternately curious and eager, nervous and intimidated. I’ll be honest to say that though I see myself more on the introvert side of the aisle, I enjoy talking one-on-one or in small groups. I’m not shy, particularly. I can be quiet and self-contained in a large group, but I don’t know how it will be to keep silent for nine days. I hope I can do it…I certainly plan to follow the guidelines that are laid out for the retreat, and that are clearly spelled out…no surprises, they do a very good job of listing expectations. The question is: will I be surprised at how easy it is, or how difficult?

Closely connected, giving up my phone and internet access is challenging as well. This one is less about an absolute need to be online, and more about feeling cut off from family. There is a phone number for emergency contact, and I’ve shared that. But still…

One small irony, the food is vegetarian and styled as “simple.” Not sure what that will mean, but the contrast between 10 days of eating in this style, back to back with the week of Thanksgiving and all the traditional festive dishes, will be interesting, I’m sure. I’m not much of a meat eater, so I don’t anticipate the food will be the hard part.

In spite of my nervousness about all this, after several months of topsy-turvy living, major upheaval, and to-do lists that seem never-ending, I’m looking forward to a time of stillness, quiet, and reflection.

And maybe as I experience the art of meditation in person, as opposed to reading about it, I’ll be able to answer the questions more clearly…what is the difference between this art and other types of deep thought?

I’ll share what I’ve learned when I’m back, if indeed I can find the words. Nine days of silence may be an experience that defies expression, at least in the usual ways. I hope to gain some wisdom, insight, and come out on the other side with clarity and balance.

Until then! ~ Sheila

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