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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“Come out of your miseries!”

“Come out of your miseries!” This is the calling of the meditation retreat I attended.

Did it work? Did it help? Yes. I don’t know. Yes. I don’t know.

First, let me say that it was an amazing experience. To keep silence for nine days, and sit still for many hours of each day in a group effort was unique, of course. The things I thought I would struggle with were easy, and the things that I expected to be easy were surprisingly difficult.

The retreat was held in a rural camp in the Sierra Nevada foothills, a short distance from Yosemite Park. Imagine a kid’s summer camp, only one with no swimming, no arts and crafts, no team competitions. The men and women attending the event were housed separately, ate separately, and only saw each other at group sittings, three times a day, and during the evening program. The silence began on the first evening and lasted until mid-way through the ninth day. Then the silence was lifted so we could discuss joint clean up efforts and end-of-event logistics.

The silence was easy. The sitting was hard.

When I thought about group silence, I thought about it in the context of how it is to be silent in normal life. When you’re silent in a crowd, you either feel anti-social, or a sense of loneliness. But in this setting, because we had all agreed to be silent and to maintain that at all times…no chatting except to ask questions, very softly, of the staff…it didn’t feel awkward at all. In fact, on the ninth day when we could speak and the atmosphere was full of voices, I missed the quiet. It felt like something precious had been lost.

The schedule was rigorous, up at 4:00 am and meditating by 4:30. Breakfast break at 6:30, with the first group sitting from 8:00 to 9:00. There were additional meditation hours when you could choose to meditate in your room or in the hall, and a lunch break, then a rest time between noon and 1:00.

At 1:00 there was another period of private meditation, followed by another group sitting from 2:30 to 3:30. We had a simple tea at 5:00, just fruit and hot tea or beverage of choice (no carbonation though). The evening sitting began at 6:00, followed by an evening “discourse” on the techniques and the philosophy behind them. There was another short sitting after the discourse, and then lights out by 9:30.

I can’t do justice to the whole event in a blog post, so I’m not going to try. I’m going to write a book about it, sharing the details of the days and some of my personal struggles that prompted me to attend.

It was powerful. I can’t claim to have perfected the meditation technique, and I’ll also be honest to say that I think the silence and being disconnected from the electronic world (another thing I thought would be hard, but was surprisingly easy) were as important as the actual meditation for me.

The sitting was hard. We sat in rows, eight across and eight deep, everyone sitting on large foam cushions, piled with more cushions, bean bags, some using special little wooden stools, or even stadium chairs to give better back support. It was still hard. For the group sittings we were asked to maintain our positions without movement if at all possible: these were called “Sittings of Strong Determination.” The first few minutes of sitting still were not difficult, but it’s amazing how you begin to stiffen even in a short period of time, or how you begin to feel an itch or tickle or some other distraction of sensation.

The whole point was that we were learning to observe our respiration and physical sensations and to recognize: this too shall pass. The idea is that you retrain your mind to not react to the sensations you feel…you keep a calm and balanced mind as you sit and ignore the impulse to move or scratch a tickle. I sneezed twice and had to wipe my nose…couldn’t help those movements.

We used no mantras, no visualization…just silence and our bodies. As the hours of group sittings went by, you could hear soft creaking noises as people tried to shift ever so slightly to relieve their positions, without a real motion of movement. You would hear coughs or throat clearings, and occasionally someone would get up and leave…you could hear footsteps and then the door to the entry area open and close.

But for the most part we sat. We sat and sat and sat.

And between sittings, (sittings themselves were not supposed to be a time to think about your miseries, or your life issues, or the big questions, just focus on your breathing and sensations). Between sittings and the times of private meditation, I did think.

The process is supposed to help you master your mind and purify your mind. The whole program is based on a universal code of morality and goodwill and compassion toward everyone. If it sounds hokey, it wasn’t. If it sounds simple, it certainly wasn’t.

But neither was it difficult.

It was a rich experience of clarity and creativity, and I found that surprising, though I’m not sure why. I think it is that I had no idea silence and sitting could be so powerful.

Am I glad I participated? Yes! I don’t know if I would do that same event again, but it has made me curious about other events of this nature. I learned that there are many different styles of meditation, so I assume there are other resources for learning and experiencing.

One of the things I came away with was the realization that although I regularly read and have a quiet time of reflection, I have never had a set time or a disciplined approach to my quiet time. Meditation is not something you do between reading emails or getting a second cup of coffee. This made me want to be more intentional and deliberate about my quiet time, choosing a time of day to sit and focus, and creating a goal of being disciplined about keeping that routine.

I’ll have more to say I’m sure…after nine days of silence, I feel words pouring out of me! But for now, that’s the quick version. I need to have some time to sort out some of what I learned, some of what I thought, and some of what I hope to gain.

And hey…even though I didn’t work out once during that time, missing my cream in my daily coffee and eating only fruit at night was a pretty good diet! Though the scheduling was pure coincidence, I think I’m in pretty good shape to head into Thanksgiving. Well, that’s one immediate benefit, to say nothing of the ones to come as I make sense of the whole experience.

More to come!

~ Sheila

Hole in the soul

A few years ago I was struggling. I was going through a difficult time, feeling depressed, sad, empty, not myself at all. For a time I was miserable, but over a period of months I came to terms with some of the issues I’d been struggling with. And eventually life was better again; not perfect, but so much better.

Sometimes I remember those months, and what I learned from the experience.

Depression steals your energy. I remember feeling like I just wanted to sleep, to escape. Simple chores were overwhelming. The only thing that kept me somewhat normal was work. Work helped me put on the façade, gave me a reason to get up and get moving. Because I didn’t want to bring drama to my work place, I tried to minimize what I was going through, tried to hold myself together so I wouldn’t feel embarrassed with my co-workers.

Depression steals your appetite. At least that was what happened to me. I lost interest in cooking. I was alone a lot during those months, and it was easy to ignore meals when I wasn’t hungry, and too disinterested to cook. I lost 20 pounds in a few months. Best and worst diet experience I’ve ever had, the only “diet” that was effortless. In the past I’d put on pants or a favorite skirt and realized it was time to lose a few pounds. I’ve never before had to look through my closet for something to wear that wouldn’t fall off me.

Depression steals your interests. I would try to read to take my mind off the things that were bothering me. I couldn’t read. I would try to watch TV. I couldn’t stay engaged. I couldn’t settle myself long enough to accomplish much. I was restless and yet exhausted.

Depression steals your rest. I slept a lot when I wasn’t working. But often in the middle of the night I would wake up and my mind would race, going over and over the things that were troubling me. I was sleeping all the time, but not resting. My sleep cycle was broken by stress and worry, and somehow, the more I slept, the less I rested.

Once I was in the grocery store, walking around like a ghost, feeling the physical impact of depression. I felt like there was a hole in the middle of my body where my stomach should have been. In my mind’s eye, I saw myself with a gap between chest and hips…a hole that only allowed for the churning engine of stress that took the place of my belly…and even though I knew there was no hole, I remember thinking that the gaping emptiness seemed so real, I was surprised other shoppers weren’t staring at me, stopping to ask if I was alright. Because I had a hole in my middle. It was a surreal experience, and I wasn’t even on any medication. I was just feeling the drowning grip of sadness.

I walked around the store, filling my cart, looking normal on the outside, feeling lost and empty on the inside, and so aware of the gaping hole. As I walked around, I began to wonder who else was walking through the store with their own holes, invisible to me, but so real to them. Holes in souls.

That question took the focus off myself and allowed me to stand back and recognize that I probably pass people all the time who walk around with holes. I just don’t see what’s in front of my eyes. I try always to be kind, to be thoughtful. But even so, there are days that I’m wrapped up in my world. I pass people on automatic pilot: kind but remote, polite but disinterested, because I’m busy, and on the run, and don’t really look close enough to see the hole that’s devouring the person in front of me.

Living for a time with a hole in myself helped me realize, in a way I hadn’t before, that a lot of people walk around like that. Walking wounded. They put on the face, just like I did. They go through the motions of living, just like I did. Some get help, and some get relief from a change in the situation that’s causing the pain. That’s what happened to me. Circumstances changed, the skies cleared, my smile came back.

It wasn’t without some effort on my part. I did a lot of soul-searching, made some changes that were within my power to make.

It was a humbling experience. When you’ve always been hopeful, mostly happy, mostly sunny side up, it’s hard to recognize a self who’s drowning, who can’t snap out of it. You begin to look at people who struggle with depression and other forms of mental illness through a different lens. You find more compassion, more appreciation for the struggles that are invisible to the eye, but so real to the heart.

When I remember that time, now I can feel grateful. It taught me a lot about myself and helped me find strength I didn’t know I had. I learned the value of “wait and see.” I learned that the phrase “trust the process” isn’t just something you hear in corporate settings. I learned that life will often right itself, if you work with it.

I don’t want to tempt fate by thinking I’m invincible. I’m not, and the truth is, no one is. If there is a next time, I think I’ll manage my hole a little better. I think I’ll know to trust, I’ll find my smile a little faster, a little easier. The reward for weathering the hard times is being better prepared to face whatever comes, and knowing, knowing, that you’ll survive, and thrive, and grow above. Eventually, assuredly.

Once you’ve worked through a hole in your life, you’re never quite the same. You’re scarred, but you’re wiser.

I no longer have an engine of stress running in my stomach, or feel like there’s a hole in my body. But I can empathize with those who do. I don’t talk a lot about this experience…just doesn’t come up in normal conversation. But now and then I see an opportunity to speak up, to share, to encourage, to say, “I’ve been there.” It’s a powerful thing to look back at a challenge and know you’ve overcome. And it’s a powerful encouragement to someone else to hear a first-person story, to know someone else really gets it.

I don’t claim to have it all figured out now. I’m not even sure why I’m sharing this, except that I suddenly wanted to.

I’m not sharing to get sympathy. I’m sharing to give hope.

I started my blog during those months, started it to stake a claim to the positive person I knew was somewhere inside. I was determined to find my way to that self again. And I did. I had help from a few significant people who knew what was going on, and some of the conflict in my life subsided.

After the worst of it was behind me, I noticed I was singing again. I noticed I was interested in food again. I noticed I had a renewed sense of grace, of redemption, found a new sweetness to life that stays with me. I sometimes have small setbacks, and I sometimes feel discouraged. But I’ve never gone to the depths again. I’ve learned the signs to watch for, and the steps toward healing.

I think I’m a better person than I was, in part because of what I went through. It changed me, grew me. And though the details are not important now, I can share this much: to anyone reading this who is lost and despairing, don’t give up hope.

Do something to get yourself moving, literally. Get off the couch, do the smallest thing, and let that lead you to the next thing, and the next. Action inspires hope, and hope is the lifeline to healing. Reach out; there are probably more people than you could guess who understand at least some of what you’re experiencing. And give yourself time. Time can be your ally, and in time, you can look back and see that you’ve come a long way from your lowest point.

You’ll find your smile again. You’ll hear yourself singing again. You’ll sleep through the night again. And you’ll know you’re healed.

 

Wounds

 

Hide and Seek

I’m in gathering mode. I’m learning. What a challenge it is to reinvent yourself! I have a stack of books by my bed, I have more downloaded on my Kindle, and I’m finding new resources online through blogs and websites. Information overload! All this reading makes it hard to produce. One of the cardinal rules of writing is to write. Stay with it. Once again, I find that my blog has been on the back burner.

I like to think I’m a multi-tasker extraordinaire, but maybe I’m not…I tend to get a bit sidetracked by what I’m reading, get lost in the maze of discovery. I’m researching the process of writing a book here and here; reading about life mapping here and creating passion in life here; learning more about blogging and the digital world, here; and looking for mentors and events to broaden my horizon here. I’ve also picked up a couple of books that are (deceptively) simple “how tos” for increasing happiness here and getting along with others, here. More about these later.

I’m learning new programs, taking my conversion to Apple to the next level by working through the Pages and Numbers programs.

And I’m working relief for PeaceHealth clinics and taking on some project work on a contract basis for another organization. I feel a bit like I’m back in college, having a day job, and coming home to start a mental second shift. I’ve been ramping up to this for a while, but transitioning away from a full-time position in January has upped the stakes. I have a bit more freedom to concentrate on my own projects, but also more risk. I have to admit, I miss the regular check already, although I love not having to think about my leave balance when I make plans to travel.

All this makes me wonder…what’s really next? I committed to this path last summer…well, at least I committed to leaving full-time work at the new year. Hard to know where all of this will lead. I get conflicting messages. There’s the belief that if you don’t script out your life (life mapping) you’re in danger of wandering aimlessly without focus or clearly defined purpose. Some believe that your passion and your career work should be intertwined. Some believe that your passion does not necessarily reflect your skills…that your skills and your gift are not the same. I read something a few days ago that said that we don’t have to search for our passions, they find us. Just like we don’t have to work to know if we like a certain color or taste or music. We just know. That seems right, and yet, I don’t know. What I’ve learned is that the thing I’ve had the most passion for in my life, mothering, is now largely completed, at least in a day-to-day, hands on way. So while I’ll always be a mom, and I’ll continue to find joy and fulfillment in my evolving role as a mother, that is not going to be my life’s work at this stage.

Then the questions begin. I’ve always loved to bake. Maybe I have the seeds of a restaurateur in me. Or maybe I’m destined to help others find their own path, as soon as I’ve figured out the formula for myself. Or maybe I’ll find a way to become a writer and get paid for it. That’s the really sticky part. I’m looking for something I love, something I feel passion to do. And I need it to feed me…emotionally, professionally, economically. Sounds like a tall order. And yet, these stories are everywhere: people magically falling into something they love to do every day, and getting paid to do it.

Well, I’m sure this will continue to be a theme for a while. So far I have more questions than answers, and the gathering phase is only beginning. I think of all the clichés: if it’s worth having, it’s worth waiting for; it’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be worth it; never, never, never, never, never give up.

So off to work, then home to do some more work. Reading. Searching. Reinventing. Really, how can we expect kids just out of high school to know what they want to be? It’s a challenge at any age, unless you happen to be one of those blessed (or cursed, depending on your point of view) individuals who are so defined by their particular talent that they are compelled to be a painter, musician, author. I need a new category. Guess I’ll have to invent it myself, I’m not finding my particular passion in the standard line up.