Friday’s Focus—Setting the Timer

All good things in moderation. How about all things in moderation? Good is subjective. It’s good to have a job but if you’re working 10 to 12 hours a day, unless you’re throughly in love with what you’re doing, it’s not so good. If it’s not our jobs, many of us find ourselves giving to our spouses, our children, our families, our committees,  and our friends. Did I miss anyone? Oh, yeah. When do we give to ourselves?

Commitment is commendable but so often, and so quickly, we find ourselves chasing our own tail and living in fear of making sure we did what we were supposed to and make sure all angles are covered.

Each one of us has a personal motivation for doing what we do and for however long and hard we choose to do them. Typically, the urgency and frenetic energy of the “hamster on a wheel life” starts to feel like the norm and anything otherwise can tend to make us feel lost or like we’re missing or forgetting something.

I think we all know on a root level when we are doing too much and become out of balance. Once we see it, it becomes a matter of taking our attention deeper and consciously setting the timer to approach whatever we’re doing in a manner more aligned with balance of anything that’s been missing (or been pushed out).

It’s not just important but imperative to our mental health (which influences our physical health) to find that benchmark within us and understand the driving force behind what is creating the one-sidedness and drive.

The realization came for me as an almost physical click. Sitting quietly one day, my monkey mind was incessantly chattering away as it swung from thought to thought “And then this [inhale] but then what if [exhale] oh yeah and then that [inhale]…” when suddenly I felt a tug in my solar plexus and a loud “NO” reverberate through me.

I was done. Cooked. In all of its frenetic energy that monkey ripped away a veil that had been covering what I finally recognized as feelings of fear I was using as my drive: fear of missing something, and then the deeper dirt-honest fear of not being good enough and making mistakes.

So, now what? So now I set the timer. Some time for this. Some time for that. Like a New Year’s resolution, it’s so easy to set an intention, but it’s another to put it into action. Recognizing and understanding motivations is a great start. To make any sort of difference though, we need to go the next step and put the intentions into action.

No matter how good we are at our jobs, at our roles of parent or spouse, it’s impossible to cover all angles all of the time and make sure that something isn’t overlooked there, or a skinned knee is missed here. Sometimes we need to set a timer on our overload of one-sidedness. Making a mistake is not a taboo. Wearing a band-aid is not the end of the world. You’ll live. We don’t need a permission slip from anyone else but ourselves. And admittedly, sometimes that’s the hardest permission to get.

#takingitdeeper

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Friday’s Focus—Hyacinths in Bloom

The sounds of the neighborhood waking up with its barking dogs and chirping birds and the ticking of the living room clock keep me company on this rainy morning as I write this. I noticed yesterday that the Hyacinths are starting to come up. They always reminded me of Spring, Easter, and my mom. They were one of her favorite flowers and I always brought her some for Easter. Seeing them start to bloom is bittersweet. It reminds me that it’s been nearly 3 months since she passed away. I don’t know where the time has gone and though I’ve been making peace with her passing there are still some days that are harder than others and I’ve found that a stranger’s condolences and a momentary kindness can still bring me to tears.

The medical bills are arriving and with each one, I’ve needed to make a phone call to verify submission to insurance or to get some clarity on the services charged but not explained. Conversions begin business as usual: name, date of birth, account number, relationship to patient; rote questions coming over the phone from a faceless office worker probably counting the days to Friday like I do.

To help explain why I’m calling about a bill 2 months overdue and that it’s not a shirking of responsibility on our part, I explain that it’s just been forwarded to me from the facilities and that my mom had passed away in December. Suddenly, the numb drone becomes a human being and with a soft intake of breath comes, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Please accept my condolences.” It’s a kind sentiment that’s appreciated and something that still makes me twitch when I hear it, but it’s the personal stories that follow are what brings the feelings of loss fresh all over again.

I can’t begin to say how much it annoys me to have to make these calls to follow-up with doctor offices and agencies, but by the end of the calls, my attitude has completely changed. What starts as a business as usual call ends up with me tearing up listening to sage advice and deep personal experiences that the other person has gone through with the loss of their mother or other loved one.

One woman, now in her late fifties, lost her mother when she was 14. She told me about how she still misses her and the memories they never got a chance to make. She shared with me what she’s learned over time and ended the call with a blessing. I honestly felt that God takes moments and people like this to make direct connections to remind me, all of us, that we are not alone.  

None of us will ever know what can come out of our experiences and how it can help others. There are certain levelers in life that will happen regardless of age, sex, and status, and this is where the human heart comes in if we let it. Those people didn’t have to share their personal stories, but they did, and I was completely changed from each, small conversation. I cried because it was suddenly one grief acknowledging another but I also smiled at the sincerity of the connection. It’s so easy to feel alone because of a death or an illness in the family. 

It’s also easy to feel alone when sometimes the day or recent events have just been difficult, challenging, and going in directions you never imagined. Connecting with a stranger or a friend by one small conversation, one sliver of a share of memory, or genuine good wishes can make the world of difference. It won’t solve our problems or be a miracle cure but when you share your heart, that’s a healing in of itself and a moment you will never forget or regret.

I hope today’s Focus inspires you to keep your eyes open and your heart open wider. You never know what today’s conversations could bring. The birds are still chirping but the rain has stopped. I just looked out the back window and a ray of sun is shining directly on the Hyacinth buds. I think I’m going to go out back and spend some time with the flowers and remember how much she loved them.

#takingitdeeper

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Friday’s Focus—Morning Lotus

Throughout history, the question has dogged beggars and philosophers alike—why are we here? What are we here to learn? What is the greatest thing that we can learn while we are on this Earth? In this body?

The answers depend upon what corner of the church we face and what God we ask them of. I am no philosopher nor do I propose to know the answer to one of Life’s greatest questions, and I don’t propose to know more than I’ve learned. Even then, I really know nothing. Not truly.

But then there came this.

One morning, sitting in stillness, the questions, the thoughts, the “what if”’s fell away and for the first time were replaced by a knowing and a feeling of undeniable truth. Surreal and yet sacred in its delivery, the questions and answers came without hesitation. The moment had been waiting and I was ready to finally listen.

What is the most important thing we can learn in our lifetime?

Compassion.

Without compassion, the love we feel for another will still have attachments and conditions.

Without compassion, the forgiveness our lips speak does not match the anger, hurt, and resentment still in our heart.

Without compassion, the understanding we have for the other person will still depend on their skin color and faith.

Without compassion, the peace that we fight for is nothing but murder and an excuse.

So how do we find compassion? Through suffering. Without personal suffering, there is no compassion. Suffering is more than having “bad” things happen to you. Suffering is going through a situation that is negative or unpleasant but it’s also the opportunity to take the situation from cries of “Why me?” to something that will forever deepen our understanding of others and our own reactions.

No one can know how they’ll feel or react in a situation unless they’ve been in it. Anything outside of that is just an opinion. To have compassion for anyone else means walking through your own fires first.

The importance of compassion is one of the key teachings in Buddhism. It is also one of the key teachings in learning to be fully human. No one is above suffering but we don’t need to perpetuate the feelings of suffering from what we are suffering from.

#takingitdeeper

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Friday’s Focus—Anchors

I’ve found a trail, around a lake, that takes me deep into the woods, up some hills and around rock ledges and edges and dwellings of animals for sure. I’ve found a place where the wind drives through the groves of pines and one by one, each tree joins in the whoosh as they sway back and forth; once in a while, the limbs add their creaks and their groans.

The wind catches my hair across my face and I look up to see the slow and majestic movement of the branches swinging to and fro. And I hear

Nothing.
Not one bird.
Not one human.
Not one dog.
Not one car.
Not one chainsaw.
Not one plane.

Just for this moment.
Just for this breath of a second

There is just me.
And the woods
And the wind
And the water

and I find myself anchored. The air is cold and crisp and clean. I take a few slow deep breaths, luxuriating in the scent of the trees and the earth itself. I can actually smell the colors of green and  brown around me. With each inhale I take in from this place, there is an exhale where I let go of the noise, the commotion, the pollution that’s inside me.

I notice a shadow pass on the dirt path and when I look up into the sky, squinting at the sun, I see a huge blackbird fly by. So silent in its flight but its very existence, right at that moment, carried a message that couldn’t have been any louder.

I closed my eyes and knew.

This is where I can find rest.
This is where my soul can find peace.
This is where my body can relax.

This is where I knew my heart could let go.
This is where I knew my heart could fill again.
This is where I knew I could heal.

This place is my anchor.

It brings me home into my own skin and grounds me.

I believe we all need a place like this, that just allows us….
It doesn’t just have to be a place. It can be a person, a song, a book…

It’s that which holds us in place long enough to give our souls the chance to knit itself back again. To close the gaps and holes that tore it open. It’s like a salve on a wound, bathing it in medicine that is so pure it can only be from God, gifted to us humans through the Muses.

Sometimes we are lucky and find our anchors while consciously seeking that one thing, that one person, that one….but then there are those anchors that show up by chance, maybe led by a tickle of intuition to go there, zig instead of zag, listen to that, turn left instead of right,  and then there you are.

I am lucky to have a few such anchors in my life, each one different but no less powerful. Yet this place is special in its extraordinary culmination of senses. It takes my breath away. The air tastes sweet, the colors soothe my eyes, and my ears can rest from the cacophony of city sounds but best of all, I can find the peace and quiet again to be able to hear my soul sing once more.

Not just for today, this Friday focus, but for every day, I wish that each of you find your own anchor that is best for you. An anchor that is not a burden but rather one that gives you tranquility and peace.

#takingitdeeper

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Friday’s Focus—From Stuff to Simplicity

About a month ago we made the commitment to put our house up for sale and in preparation for the realtor’s picture day, we’ve been busy packing, boxing, disassembling, and either donating things or throwing them out. This has shown me two things: we have way too much stuff and the different ideas my husband and I have of ways to get rid of things.

I tend to just toss something either in a give-away pile to a local drop box of whatever charity I can find in the nearest parking lot, or throw it out in the garbage. Even larger things (thank you strong garbagemen). I want to add, as a caveat, lest my throwing things out is seen as being cavalier, it’s not. I would be more than happy to donate to any number of organizations but they have become extremely picky at what they take and won’t come to my zip code.

Trust me. I’ve tried….numerous times, from my father-in-law’s passing, to my mother’s passing, and now to us planning our move. I ended up having to hire a haul-away company for my mother’s things because no one would take the furniture. In speaking with the owner of the company, he agreed with how difficult it is to donate these days where we live but what I liked about them is that they bring the items they pick-up to other agencies first to try and donate them before just trashing it. Since I don’t have the capability to move larger items to the nearest facility (about 20 miles away) and take a chance they may not even accept the donation, this doesn’t leave many options open, so it’s garbage, parking lot donation box, or haul-away.

My husband holds onto things he’s more than ready to let go of but would rather give said object to someone he knows, which I think is actually very admirable, sweet, and thoughtful, but it also makes it harder and takes longer to get rid of things which end up in bags in his car until he sees the person! I’m a big believer that things find themselves to people who need them and so, I figure, let the Universe decide who gets what, but my husband goes for the the more personal touch.

In the last few years, we’ve found a middle ground focusing on a community center we know of that does great things for the neighborhood and is much needed by providing crisis intervention, information, prevention, and support services to individuals and families. This is something we both strongly believe in and we’ve come to make special piles dedicated to donating to this center. We strongly believe in this place and what it does and means for the community, and personally, I’m happy because I’m still getting rid of things and my husband’s happy because even though he may not know the person’s name that will receive that shirt or book or whatever, he knows the type of people who frequent there and is more than happy to help those individuals and families out.

Now that we need to start weeding through a lot more stuff for our eventual move we’ve both become a little more ruthless at what stays, what goes, and how it goes. What I’ve found so interesting is not just our divesting styles but the psychology at play when you go through a clean-up.

There’s our parents philosophy that creeps through with “We paid for it so we need to hold on to it, because throwing it away is like throwing away good money” and then there’s, “Well, maybe one day we’ll use it.” And of course, the favorite, “Oh I’ll fit into that again…..It will come back in style…I’m sure I can use it somehow…..Every time I’ve thrown something out before I’ve needed it a few days later….” Not anymore. Whatever it is if it hasn’t been used yet—off it goes to a token person or a token garbage bag.

There are some things that are harder to toss than others because of personal attachments but it’s also those same attachments to people or places that make it easier to let some things go if the memories aren’t so good. I’ve learned that the memories in our minds and experiences of events mean so much more (and take up less space) than any tchotchke or T-shirt that doesn’t fit anymore anyway.

Packing things for our move has been very cathartic and a step towards simplicity that we’ve been yearning for. I’ve been yearning for. Every spring of course, there’s the token spring clean-up but judging by the amount of things we still have, spring wasn’t enough of a motivator. Moving out of house is though!

I’m craving the need to shake out and crawl out from under anything excessive and using that space to stretch and breathe. It’s more than metaphor or an inspirational passage. As much as I’ve been working on myself on the inside to rid things that don’t serve me, so I’m moving on to the outside. It’s time to create that much needed space around me in addition to inside me and it feels good. Looking around at the boxes already packed and the piles of books still needing to be gone through, there’s so much to do, but it’s a start.

When will you have enough of your stuff and what will make you move from Stuff to Simplicity?

#takingitdeeper

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Friday’s Focus—Our Dash

Changes changes
The planets are aligning
Our stars are falling,
The winter full moon
shines a light for the storm coming home.

Passages and endings make way for new beginnings, yes, but couldn’t there yet, just be one more day? For some, a death is expected while for others, it’s not. Either way, it’s a part of the bigger cycle but who cares about the bigger cycle when all you want is that one more day?

It makes us stop and snaps us out of where we are. I’ve written before about how a death can make us take stock of where we are in our living, and where we think we’ve been, but I’ve found that with each passing, the snap is fresh and the restocking feels brand-new. When my mother passed away, my life shifted in ways I could never have foreseen except by first-hand experience. It’s still so new to me and I keep sifting through my mental attic and basement; shuffling, sorting, tagging, boxing, and working through old habits, memories, thoughts, and baggage that don’t serve me any more and so I don’t want them around. It’s a process, for sure, and one with a capital “P”.

Then came news of the deaths of several musicians and actors. All well-known, all larger than life, suddenly a headline with a new date added to the end of a dash. It was shock after shock for many people. The papers reported most of the causes were from long-term illnesses so it’s safe to say that their passing was more of a surprise for us than for them, but no less devastating. Grief doesn’t care how famous you are.

David Bowie and Glenn Frey’s deaths hit me the hardest. I felt sucker punched. They were the soundtrack to anyone growing up in the Seventies. Pick any song by either of them and guaranteed there is a memory curled and wrapped around it. It was the theme to boyfriends, first loves, summer nights, great friends and days filled with the innocence of blue jeans, long hair and the freedom of a full tank of gas in that first car you bought with your own money. It was about taking the world by the balls and we were innocent and hopeful enough to think we could. No matter what, it was all going to be alright. Their voices, their music was inspired and inspiring.

“People don’t run out of dreams, they just run out of time” sang Frey in “River of Dreams.” It really is all about that dash in the middle and what you do with it. The death of loved ones and creative giants like those we’ve recently lost grabs us and shakes us and challenges us to look at ourselves and our dashes. Their music and movies are a reminder of our younger selves and who we wanted to be, who we could be. Not like them necessarily, but the best of us.

“What will be left of all the fearing and wanting associated with your problematic life situation that every day takes up most of your attention? A dash, one or two inches long, between the date of birth and date of death on your gravestone.” ― Eckhart Tolle

Last night I stood outside under the light of the moon, and stared, in awe, at the alignment of the planets and I couldn’t help but feel the smallness of my humanity under God’s dome.  I will do this again tonight, and then, when the snowflakes begin to fall ushering in this Winter’s first fury, I will come inside, sit by the fire, hug my loved one, and pay attention to my dash.

Will you?

#takingitdeeper
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Friday’s Focus—Taking It Down a Notch

You can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please everyone all of the time. —John Lydgate

One day, when I was very young, I went over to a friend’s house after school. We were playing outside when two sisters from the apartment next door came over to play, too. They were more her friends then mine, but when I met them once or twice before, we all got along fine. On this particular day though, I still don’t know what exactly happened, but all of a sudden, there were whispers behind cupped hands, and the sisters were looking me up and down. Pretty soon, words were exchanged and adding to my confusion, the friend I was originally playing with, turned against me and joined them as they made fun of me and now mocked me outright. Confused, shocked, hurt, and in tears, I rode my bicycle home and in between sobs told my mother what happened. I can still remember what she told me: “Honey, it’s not nice, and it’s not fair, but there will always be someone who doesn’t like you.”

Unfortunately, such behavior is not regulated to the whims of children and playgrounds. Even as adults, I’ve seen how you don’t even have to do anything for someone to find a problem with you. It can be the color of your skin, the style of clothes that you wear, even the kind of dog you have. You could be breathing too hard, laughing too loud, scraping the fork too loudly against a plate (yes, I’ve actually heard these).

As a basic tenet of decent humanity, we are asked to hold our fellow beings in love and light. We can all do that on our best days, but can we also do that on our worst days? It’s easy to find the goodness in people and situations when life is going your way, but what happens on those days when things aren’t going so smoothly or there’s always something in the way of you doing what you need to? Suddenly that deep love toward your neighbor has turned into shallow, ego-driven, back-biting judgement:

The cashier yesterday who was so sweet to ask about your sister’s illness, today is a busy body who can’t mind her own business.

The bank teller who was so efficient and succinct is now cold and unfriendly.

The gas station attendant who was full of jokes last week and humorous observations, now just talks too much and doesn’t know when to shut up.

Why does she have to wear that?
Why does he have to walk like that?
Why are they in our neighborhood?
She shouldn’t; he should but no, not them; they shouldn’t be doing…

It’s amazing how we have become a society of tearing apart our own fabric of being by micro-moralizing and pitting our individual preferences and beliefs onto the person or group next to us. I’m afraid that this level of dislike and distrust has become so ingrained in our psyche that our judgements against friends and strangers, alike, is now rooted in our subconscious to the point that we don’t even realize we are doing it anymore.

We criticize and judge groups and organizations for finding fault with everyone that is not of part of them, but what we don’t see are how we are those groups when we judge those in our own circles. We’re becoming numb to the lack of respect in the differences that make up all that we are as individuals and societies. I personally know that there are pockets of people who hold spaces of unconditional love, peace, and grace and are working toward unification and healing rather than tearing apart and destroying each other, and in this, I take great hope and inspiration from them. But it’s not enough. We need more than just pockets.

I also believe that it’s the media’s perpetuation of granting attention to these squeaky wheels that has helped facilitate the hate, disdain, and repugnancy of differences into a level of micro-moralizing that has reached epic proportions. Taking it deeper and looking back through history, there have always been separatists whose actions were, and are, rooted in fear and ego. As long as humans have existed with each other there has always been fighting and warring, but there has also been peace and amiability and fairness. I think that at this time in our history, human beings have tipped the scales of acceptance versus dissension and not in a good way. Everyone is screaming for their right to individuality and there’s nothing wrong with that but I think it’s gone too far.

We need to find ways to bring out the best in each other not the worst. It’s not too late. Yet.

#takingitdeeper

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Fresh Pages

I don’t know about anyone else’s house, but in mine, there is one “master” calendar that hangs on the wall in the kitchen and is the repository for everything and anything that happens under this roof—planned and unplanned but noted once it happened.

At the end of each year, somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s, I take it down from it’s hallowed space on the cork board and with a brand-new calendar in tow, I make myself comfortable in a corner of the house and begin the obligatory transfer of family and friends’ birthdays, anniversaries, and any other milestone moments.

I typically start with a quick scan of the month copying events I already know by rote, but I check anyway to make sure I got the correct date. Then, I take a second, closer look at any days that had comments written inside. In any given month, I find my way around the maze of oil changes, dentist appointments, and miscellaneous call-backs that needed to be made. Sometimes there are stretches for months, where there is something written in each day with appointments and activities, that by the time I get to August, I need to sit back and take a few minutes’ break and stretch from the intense inch by inch scrutiny.

As I decipher my shorthand and scribbles, the memories of each event come rushing back: That emergency mechanic appointment I had to squeeze in before our vacation (“but it’s a new car, darnnit!”); the phone call we received when we found out our granddaughter was born; the reminder that we need to order wood again for the winter (and scratching our heads swearing we just did that); my 30 year high school reunion (!!); classes starting, classes ending; a retreat one weekend and a weekend in Upstate the next; and it goes on.

Transferring those dates on the calendar is like reading a diary of my family’s life from the year, which is what a calendar can be I suppose. It’s this recording of the daily and monthly minutiae of our life that is the fabric of memories, some good, some bad, and some bittersweet.

A few years ago, the big build-up was my husband’s health. Looking over that calendar year as I transferred dates, I relived the memory of his chemotherapy treatments whenever I came across his oncologist’s name every few weeks with the appointment time scrawled underneath. We then began to add the countdown to his last treatment, until finally, happily, added to the calendar in block letters: “Cancer Free”.

This year’s focus, as I looked back, was my mother and her health and I could see the intensity of the changes reflected about mid-year when the doctor appointments increased. I began to make notes on the calendar of her falls and hospital visits; then came the closing date of her apartment she lived in for the past 15 years followed by scrawled names of appointments with facilities, social workers, and nurses. And then, finally, the date she entered Hospice and a mere three days later, the day she passed.

Every year, every month, has its own story. Some have a theme that runs through the year and others are just pinpoints of hours or days of unrelated events. As the years have passed, I’ve become more selective over which milestones I carry over to the blank spaces of the new calendar. Of course not every event gets transferred but I think this year has been an especially bittersweet reflection as we added the joyful event of the birth of our first granddaughter, and then the sad, but inevitable date of the passing of my mother.

January is already beginning to fill up, and that’s okay. It’s even good. Because isn’t that what it’s about? It’s those moments in between that keeps us smiling, keeps us loving, and keeps us moving on…..to fresh pages.

#takingitdeeper

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Friday’s Focus—Not Just for Today

Last night, I sat in the dark with nothing but a candle lit and the Christmas tree lights on.

I squinted and the lights looked like colored stars that might otherwise have shined out into the night.

Each ornament a memory, a celebration of a time and a place. Christmas cards with holiday greetings and blessings of the new year hang nearby, a reminder of friends near and far.

The smell of the pine mixed with the scent of the candle filled my senses, and I could hear the carols from a radio in another room. I felt surrounded by the spirit of Christmas and the true celebration of its tidings of peace and joy.

This year, the greatest gift I could have gotten was seeing the generosity, compassion, love, and appreciation in people as my mother’s health declined and finally ended.

To witness genuine nurturing between two people whose only thing in common is that they are sharing the same space under one roof for a few hours, was a testament, to me, of how much you can love and take care of a stranger. Eye color, skin color, religion, and ethnicity gets stripped away until all that is left are the two hearts, which beat the same.

I think it was especially poignant this year because my mother’s passing was on the eve of Christmas eve, and my focus was simply on caring for her. No holiday department store sale could touch me.

My Christmas gift from God, if you will, was seeing and being reminded of our deep capacity to love and care for one another, with no attachments, no “What’s in it for me,” kind of thing.

I plan to take this gift and do my best to share it with friends and family and strangers alike, throughout the coming year, and not let it stop at Christmas or with my mother’s passing.

The ultimate pay it forward, if you will.

Won’t you share it with me?

#takingitdeeper

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