Sweet Honey in the Rock

Sweet Honey in the Rock

Have you ever had the splendid surprise of a long-held prayer being abruptly and abundantly answered?

This prayer was on my lips in the daytime, the nighttime, quietly and loudly, indoors and outdoors, humbly and willfully, in whispers and bellows, in faithful expectancy and dull habit. But I have kept on praying – with a stubborn willingness to speak in God’s ear like a relentless dripping faucet.

Viola! God has answered my tired plea with not merely a “yes” but with a “YES, absolutely, no problem, of course, you got it and more” kind of abundance. I am bursting with gratitude.

I reflected on this blessing as Pastor Chineta gave an amazing sermon at New Hope Presbyterian Church in Orange, California. She spoke on Mathew 5, in which Jesus affirms and warns his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? Furthermore, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.”

Pastor Chineta shared tales from her story-infused childhood, when her elders continually guided her with a dual-sided message of affirmation and warning.  Her deep loving voice and authentic smile resonated through the sanctuary. We sat motionless – riveted by her passion, as she urged us to apply these words of Christ to our lives.

She brought it home as she lifted into song the well loved lyrics of the civil rights movement, anointed with the conviction of one who has lived it …

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around,

turn me around,

turn me around.

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around

I’m gonna keep on walking,

keep on talking,

 marching to freedom land.”

 (Click below to hear the song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round” performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock”)

We congregants were inspired by her powerful message of hope, reconciliation, and “affirming warnings” as she put it. Pouring out of the satin-robed, gospel music infused, ‘preach on sister’ call-and-response banter and community hug-fest that was this service, my husband Steve and I felt challenged and bolstered by this largely African-American community of faith.

We milled about in the narthex, discussing our reaction with friend and church member Antoinette. She has a Ph.D. in Sociology and a demanding career providing services to reach under-privileged, 0 – 5 age children in LA County. What she said struck me as prophetic.

She described how every December, she takes stock of what the last year has meant in her life, and prays for God’s blessing on the year to come. She explained, “For several years now, it seems God gives me a vision of what the coming year will be. And I have been amazed to witness, that it comes about in exactly that way. It becomes the year’s theme for not only my life, but for so many of my loved ones and people I come into contact with. This year, God’s message was, ‘This is the year of the Lord’s favor.’ I just can’t deny that it is coming to pass.”

Antoinette has recently gotten a promotion and is positioned to make a much bigger impact in the work that she loves, to benefit impoverished little people she has never met. I was touched by her humble sincerity, and wondered, “Does this woman have a gift of prophesy? We joked and rubbed against her, hoping her blessing would be contagious. But I knew in my heart, God’s favor had already come.

I claim the divine promise voiced by Antoinette. I thought about my answered prayer, and thanked God for hearing me, and confirming his intention through Antoinette. To many, this may sound superstitious.

Does God do this? Does he give a faithful servant a message, and then deliver on it to those who have ears to hear? Could 2014 be a year of God’s favor? I choose to believe.

You may be wondering about the answered prayer. You see, my husband has been an ordained Lutheran pastor for 25 years. We came to Southern California in 2001 for him to serve a church that after nine years, had to be buried. Even though it became financially unsustainable, he continued to shepherd his flock for a year without pay. This is just before our children were headed off to college. I was scared and frankly, a bit indignant with God. What a disaster! It broke my husband’s heart and shook his confidence.

But I knew, that as sure as God had seen me through the darkest times in healing me from depression, he would sustain and deliver Steve and our family from this hardship. I clung to the promise “weeping lasts for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”

Steve subsequently went through a total career and identity change to become a leadership consultant, starting a business called TurningWest. He has showed incredible resiliency, determination, creativity, and courage to forge through this transition. The first three years have been lean and a bit scary for a security-minded person like myself. However, Steve has remained fastidious and hopeful, despite the odds in this post-recession economy. And God has slowly and steadily blessed his efforts.

But suddenly, during the last couple of weeks, the contracts have been rolling in at an astounding rate. His home office is lit afire with phone calls and emails from the many people he has reached out to in boldness. Now, and for the foreseeable future, he not only has enough work for himself, but for several other colleagues partnering with him – all with families, losses, needs, and dreams like ours.

This work is a win-win proposition.  Each job is producing phenomenal results for the clients – all who have largely humanitarian, justice-oriented missions. Steve will make the world a better place through the work of Turning West. I am so proud of my husband. And I am indescribably thankful to God, who has heard and answered my prayers.

I believe that for me, 2014 is “the year of the Lord’s favor.” May it also be so for you.

For these promises are ancient, and prophesied in the sacred book of Isaiah:

Isaiah 61:1-3

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
 to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, 
to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
 the oil of joy instead of mourning,
 and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
 They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.

 

 

 

Now that I have been blogging for nearly a year, I guess I can be honest with you about one more thing: I have serious food issues. This will be no surprise to my colleagues who witness me foraging through their desktop candy dishes for late afternoon chocolate fixes. It’s probably obvious to anyone who knows me: food and body image have been core struggles of mine since puberty. My deepest fear is not flying, earthquakes, abandonment, disfigurement, death, or even damnation. My biggest fear is getting fat.

A rational person could point out, that since I am so obsessed and hyper-vigilant about my food intake and exercise output, serious weight gain seems highly unlikely. But in this one area, I admit, I am not rational.

The strange part is, I have always been pretty close to what the medical charts say is my “ideal weight.” But, paradoxically, I have usually lived far outside of my “ideal body image.” My concept of my body size is a pretty good barometer for my mood. If I feel crummy, it typically means “I feel fat.” If I feel great, you guessed it, “I feel thin.” But I am actually usually at the same weight, despite these divergent feelings and discordant self-concepts. I know it sounds completely crazy … can anyone identify with this?

I can’t stop evaluating my size, weight, and fat content. I am on a constant and vigilant search to determine whether I have gotten fatter or thinner since yesterday. And trying to account for salt intake? That takes it to an impossible level of analysis. Each angle, article of clothing, or change of lighting brings the prospect of revealing whether indeed I am fatter or thinner. This is a never-ending source of self-satisfaction or misery.

I find myself assessing the quality of any day by the number of calories I consumed (e.g. less calories = better day). And, believe me, it is usually too many. Thank goodness I am so diligent with exercise or I would be as big as a house. It is absurd, I know. It’s self-defeating, irrational, unhealthy, perhaps misogynistic, and certainly vain. But I can’t seem to stop!

My desperate goal is always this: to lose 10 pounds. That’s it. That is the source of my unhappiness. Ten fricking pounds! Why can’t I let this go?

I am hesitant to continue on this subject. It’s grueling to write about something that I don’t feel any mastery over. I find myself in a daily battle with my weight and body image – seriously, right now I can quote to you the caloric content of every morsel I have eaten today.

The topic of women and weight is so emotionally charged, so politicized, so fraught with potential for misunderstanding. Will overweight women hate me for being so self-obsessed and neurotic when I am actually NOT FAT? Will goal-oriented fitness buffs discount me as a low-self-esteem wreck? Will Birkenstock-clad make-up free therapists shake their heads in dismay? At age 48 and out of the dating pool for almost three decades, shouldn’t I be, well, over this? Perhaps the malevolent face of Madison Avenue notions of feminine beauty smiles at my distress.

I learned years ago to adopt a mindset of “What other people think of me is none of my business.” But this weight issue is more about what I think of myself, and that’s where I get stuck. It seems to me there are two choices: accept how I am, embrace it, and be happy. Or, decide to make a change, apply my best effort, and achieve it, like I would any other life goal. Why is this so hard?

The weight fixation actually gets more intense and obsessive when my stress level is up. But that is precisely when my desire to eat everything in sight ratchets up as well. It creates a ridiculous kind of push-me-pull-you sort of double-bind; my competing drives declare war on each other. Sure, it’s obviously a control issue. I’ve taken enough psychology classes to get that much. One could argue that, because so much of life seems arbitrary and uncontrollable, I zero in on some matter like weight, body size, and calorie consumption to offer an alternative method of feeling in charge of my life. Sounds like a recipe for an eating disorder. That’s not what I want for myself. There must be a better way.

I just finished reading Women, Food, and God and am attempting to apply some of the principles that author Geneen Roth suggests. She talks about how we use food to numb ourselves and to avoid experiencing our feelings.  She tells attendees at her seminars, “Compulsive eating is a way we leave ourselves when life gets hard. When we don’t want to notice what is going on. Compulsive eating is a way we distance ourselves from the way things are when they are not how we want them to be. Ending the obsession with food is all about the capacity to stay in the present moment.” She suggests that “Staying where you are with what you are feeling or seeing or sensing is the first step in ending the obsession with food.”

This is the question I keep trying to answer: Do I need to try harder, or stop trying so hard? Perhaps I just need to approach it differently. What may be most needed is an attitude of acceptance and surrender. Acceptance of who I am, what I am feeling, and how things are, NOW. Surrendering to what life has brought today. And acknowledging the choices I bring along the way. Accept what is, and embrace my capacity to make choices. Be aware of, and willing to change poor habits. Don’t numb out, don’t turn on “automatic pilot”. Really feel. Really choose. Fully experience the feelings and fully experience the food. The weight will take care of itself.

Being more gentle and flexible with myself helps with the control issues. I like the 80/20 rule. If I eat well 80% of the time, the other 20% of “not so great” eating will be okay. Disaster will not ensue. This helps rid me of an “all or nothing” mindset – which is a set up for disordered thinking and disordered eating. I also am working on living by Ms. Roth’s Eating Guidelines:

1. Eat when you are hungry.

2. Eat sitting down in a calm environment. (This does not include the car).

3. Eat without distractions. Distractions include radio, television, newspapers, books, intense or anxiety-producing  conversations or music.

4. Eat what your body wants

5. Eat until you are satisfied.

6. Eat (with the intention of being) in full view of others.

7. Eat with enjoyment, gusto and pleasure.

 

A few books on the subject of diet, health, and exercise that have provided some wisdom and guidance to me are:

Fat is a Feminist Issue (by Susie Orbach)

-Feed Your Body, Feed Your Brain (by Daniel Aman)

-Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy (by Walter Willett)

-Secrets of Skinny Chicks (by Karen Bridson)

-Eating Mindfully (by Susan Albers)

-Women, Food, and God (by Geneen Roth)

 

 

“Sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness.”

-poet Galway Kinnell

 

 

 

 

My Life as a Dog

As I was walking Winston today, happily wandering the rugged trails of Chino Hills, a vexing question came to mind. Is it possible that I am unconsciously projecting my own worries, fears, and anxieties on my Dog?

I hold the general belief that I am well-adjusted, healthy, hopeful, and even filled with a cheerful holiday spirit.  And I can find reliable evidence to back up these assertions.

But for some reason, I seem to be worrying a lot about my dog. It happens in many ways: in my private thoughts, in my one-on-one “conversations” with Winston, and even as I discuss him with others.

I have been alone with him for the last week. I find myself  thinking …  poor Winston, he’s so lonely. He misses his Daddy (Steve). He misses Johnny and Grace – they need to hurry home for Christmas, because he gets so sad without them. He doesn’t like the house so quiet. I turn on some Christmas carols to soothe him.

I cuddle and caress his coarse curly back. “Poor Winston. Don’t worry, we-re gonna have a great Christmas. You wait and see.” I brush him head to toe – his favorite form of massage. “Don’t you worry at all poor baby, cuz it will be special – we’ll watch It’s a Wonderful Life” I stroke his golden velvet ears. “Good doggie. Such a good doggie. Your mommy loves you … you’re the best doggie in the whole world.”

When people inquire about me, I assure them, “Oh, I don’t mind Steve traveling. I love time to myself. And as far as the ‘empty nest’? Now it’s actually clean, and I have so much time to do what I want. I read more, I write more, I see friends and have fun! This may be one of the best times of life.”

But poor, poor Winston. That doggie; he just gets so sad. He nuzzles up to me, and nearly breaks my heart with his old soul brown eyes.

Here’s where I need to rely on my psychologist friends. Tell me truly, is this some form of neurosis? Denial? Repression? Is it serious, or even pathological? What is your professional opinion?

I admit – there’s more. You see … I also worry about Winston’s health. I want him to have a long life, free of knee problems or heart disease. That’s why I worry about how much he weighs.  But me? No, I am strong and fit. My diet and weight? Now that’s nothing to be concerned about. (Except for the sad fact that avoiding weight gain is my second religion, sometimes my first).

Yet, Winnie, now he is entirely too focused on food – its his obsession! He’s looking rather thick around the middle lately. He can’t seem to curtail his ferocious appetite, and love for all types of food that cross his path. It’s not his fault though. He runs and walks everyday. Getting fat is in his genes. I explain this to people, wanting to be sure they understand. “Labs have a genetic risk of obesity. They are quite naturally, a stout breed. And their instinct to continually eat dates back to the old days, when they lived in cold climates, and worked all day. They just can’t help it.”

So, Labs tend to get a little on the chubby side. As a responsible owner, I must be vigilant so he doesn’t become overweight. Poor, Poor Doggie!

Winston’s so hungry all the time. So I put him on the “weight control” food. We have to be disciplined about this – no cheating! He gets a full bowl every morning and night, but I guess because its lower fat, he is never satiated. He always wants more! It’s so hard when you’re always wanting more. Poor doggie.

And then, I admit, I have some concerns about his overall lifestyle. Does he have enough time for play? Maybe he has too much time alone at home. Could he even be getting too sedentary, or even, God forbid, lazy? Lately he would rather scarf down a treat, than chase rabbits through the field– that’s a bad sign.  Poor Doggie!

What about his social life? Is he too isolated? Maybe he is spending excessive time sitting around the house, when he should be out romping with the other dogs and making new friends! What about play dates and the doggie park? He would probably be happier if he got off the porch, and ran with the big dogs. But here he sits. Poor, tired doggie.

As his owner, I’m simply concerned for his well-being. A dog is a big responsibility. MY responsibility! He is one of God’s precious creatures. He deserves a good life. He deserves to be happy, healthy, and loved. His life could pass him by, and what would he have to show for it?  Was each day lived to its fullest? Did he give and receive every possible ounce of joy? You never know how many dog years you will have – and then suddenly, bam, its all over.

That’s it.  For New Years, I will have to make some resolutions for Winston. Poor doggie!
Winston

Winston

 

Keeping Your Balance with a Wellness Wheel

 I love the word balance. It conjures up images of living well – with strength and resilience, enjoying the best times and transcending the tough times. For most of us, balance isn’t spontaneously achieved. It takes awareness, sustained effort, and continual adjustment over time. One tool I have used and taught to others in my work is the use of the “Wellness Wheel.”

Wellness Wheel

The Wellness Wheel incorporates a holistic notion of health, recognizing that people are multi-dimensional, with a variety of needs. It suggests that being healthy involves an integrated combination of different domains. Individuals may have varying words to label these, but they typically include: social, physical, emotional, intellectual, environmental, and spiritual. It is important to work within each domain to optimize overall health. Impairment in any area has the potential to impact all the other areas. When that happens, a person may eventually feel like they are falling apart.

Think of a time in your life when one of these areas was even temporarily compromised. Then try to identify how this impacted the other areas.  Neglecting even one dimension will often contribute to problems in the others. It is important to intervene in this process of deterioration before our problems become so big and pervasive that they feel insurmountable.

For example, I have a friend I’ll call “Jennifer” who is smart, hard working, and quite capable. However, she is struggling to perform well in her work and feels unhappy in her personal life. It seems to me that the source may be her tendency to neglect the intellectual dimension of the wellness wheel. Jennifer doesn’t readily seek growth – rarely reading or taking on new ventures, risks, trainings, or challenges.  Watching TV is her only hobby. Maintaining her routine is paramount to her. Due to her tendency to resist new ideas and change, she doesn’t explore new relationships (social realm), challenge herself to a higher fitness level (physical), or seek more stimulating surroundings (environmental). She also acts overly sensitive to criticism (emotional). It is sad to observe that Jennifer’s life is not what it could be. She trudges through each day feeling dissatisfied with every area of her life.

What if Jennifer sought out some intellectual challenges? It could start with simply taking a class or reading a new book. Any positive results would likely spill over into the other life areas, and start producing changes in those as well.  With a few small steps, there is potential for her to be much happier and more fulfilled.

When I experienced depression 10 years ago I went through an even more extreme version of this phenomena. For me, one of the earliest signs of trouble was in the physical realm: I developed severe insomnia. This was combined with another physical ingredient: my genetic vulnerability toward mental illness. Another factor was the emotional/psychological realm; I wasn’t effectively managing stress. This played out in the context of a cascade of life changes that left me bewildered – without any stability. By the time the depression was full blown, every area of my life was profoundly and horribly impacted.

Getting educated about wellness and being proactive and self-aware can help you avoid the trouble I had. You may want to start with assessing your life by examining each area of the wellness wheel.

To start with, identify what you currently do to support wellness in each domain.  You may even want to rate your level of satisfaction on a 1 – 10 scale. Then identify the things that undermine your wellness pertaining to that area. Finally, brainstorm the things you can begin doing (or stop doing) that will contribute to a greater fullness and improved functioning in that area.

If looking at all dimensions is overwhelming, just start with one. As I described above, making a change in one can start a domino effect and lead to enhancements in other dimensions. This can be the beginning of a powerful process of change for you.

In addition to working holistically within each life domain, two additional variables are critical to wellness: stability and change. They sound like opposites but they are actually dialectical. By that I mean, that for one to be fully expressed, the other is equally essential. Neither can be optimized without the other.

Stability provides a strong foundation to grow from – a base of continuity. It enhances a sense of the core self. Change enables growth and development – the part of you that is evolving and becoming. Consider my friend Jennifer, clinging too tightly to stability, and not open enough to change. How stifling! On the other hand, consider me at the onset of my depression, facing so much change I lost my footing. Both Jennifer and I need balance. When you can strike a nice balance between stability and change, you will likely enjoy a quality of life that has a necessary level of safety but is also vibrant and rich with vitality.

I chose the seashore image at the top of this blog because it represents this crucial dynamic. The rocks signify stability and the waves signify change. The interaction of the two forces creates something beautiful – simultaneously calming and energizing. It suggests the value of embracing what is ancient and eternal as well as what is new and emerging. An exciting synergy of the two is how I want to live my life. Working holistically on wellness and striving for both stability and change are powerful ways that you and I can be well and stay well.

 

Writing is one of my most beloved methods for being well and staying well. In recent years, I have been surprised by its many benefits, increasingly relying on it as a way of bringing greater clarity and joy to my life. Writing makes me happy.

The specific form is secondary – what matters most is putting my thoughts, feelings, and ideas on paper. It may be a flood of unedited emotion in a journal, a sentimental poem scribbled on the back of a shopping list, or a carefully crafted essay … maybe even a three hundred page memoir. In the end it all nourishes me. Perhaps this may be true for you too.

My time invested in writing has provided continual enrichment. It has given me a sense of catharsis, clarified my viewpoint, and communicated my feelings to others. Through writing I become more balanced and self-assured and less burdened and confused. It helps me navigate my struggles – arriving at the other side with my feet firmly planted. What remains are personal artifacts to look back on, and occasionally, even enjoy for their beauty.

Writing can serve so many purposes: self-care, self-expression, creative endeavor, a compelling method of telling your story, or an avenue for connecting with others. Powerful feelings can provide the spark for an evocative poem. Have you made a curious observation? Write about it. Do you have an idea for a little story? Write it! Have you had a transformative life experience? Consider writing a memoir.

When you attempt to say what must be said to someone special, sometimes the words come out all wrong. At a pivotal time, you may be better able to express yourself through writing a letter than approaching your dear one face-to-face.  Although you may be tongue-tied, you are not hog-tied; pick up a pen! It slows the communication, calms the nerves, and allows more time for reflection before the message is delivered. This thoughtful clarity can strengthen honesty and intimacy. Through writing, you can speak your mind.

In getting started, you may experience an unfortunate cultural barrier: writers have long been shrouded in smoky mystery as The Artists. They are often viewed as brilliant, mercurial, tortured and lonely. Perhaps you’re picturing Hemingway: pen-in-hand, scowl on face, scribbling tales of foreign adventure, a near-empty bottle his only companion. Indeed, some writers are shining artists, celebrated icons … fulfilling our romantic ideal of the writer.

But you too have a human capacity to write, even if it will never earn you a dime or an ounce of acclaim. Writing has value for its own sake. Sadly, we have been taught that writing is for the rare “creative types” who are different than everyone else. This is a myth. We can all be writers. There is no pre-requisite to write, other than being literate in the most basic sense. One doesn’t have to be published, intellectually gifted, embarking on the next great work of fiction, or even have an innate talent. And despite the memorialized words of Virginia Woolf, one does not even need a room of one’s own. Anyone can write, anywhere, any time. And everyone can benefit from writing.

Silence your internal critic that tells you your writing must be worthy by some external standard. It can simply be by you and for you. What is within you is unique and has intrinsic value. Writing is simply allowing that uniqueness and value to emerge in a tangible way … on the page. It will serve a purpose, whether it is for you, a friend, or the public. You get to decide.

Many people associate writing with wretched memories from high school English class: composition due … staring forlornly at the blank page, blocked by frustration and fear of failure, awaiting harsh red markings from an uptight school marm. This is not a recipe for creative expression!

Re-define your writer self. Don’t be a casualty of the rigid, repressed, and faulty notions about your capacity with the written word. Rid yourself of these unnecessary burdens – and be free. Just write. No demands. No rules. No red pen. Let yourself play with words, ideas, images. You are only a few strokes away from expressing yourself.

Writing coach and prolific author in varied genres, Julia Cameron, wrote a wonderful book on this subject entitled The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life.* Her philosophy is that writing can become a natural, intensely personal part of life. She provides both inspiration and practical tools for making writing a daily practice that is playful, practical and profound. She emphasizes permission rather than discipline.  Cameron explains, “Writing is therapeutic. Writing connects the self to the Self … I have seen writing work less like a tool than a medicine. It is a medicine all of us can make and administer to ourselves.” After reading a few pages, I am twitching with the desire to write. It is good medicine.

I have never considered myself a poet. But in a number of instances in my life, when no other method of release seemed available, I found myself compelled to write a poem.  This is one I wrote when I saw my oldest child, then fifteen, holding hands with his first girlfriend. I was overwhelmed with a mix of bittersweet emotion. I had to describe it. Immediately. But no one was near. I had only the back side of a shopping list and a pen. This is what I wrote:

 

A Mother’s Glimpse

 

I stole a glimpse of them,

on the path near the waterfall.

Walking hand in hand,

awkward, hesitant affection.

 

My boy and “his girl,”

exploring new feelings.

surely welcomed and thrilling,

blindly tumbling into that

foreign land adulthood.

 

And me,

awash in old feelings.

A mother hanging on,

reaching for this man-child.

 

Was it yesterday,

he marched off to kindergarten?

“I can walk alone,” he said.

Assured little man.

 

The tears dampen my face.

Bittersweet liminality,

boyhood and manhood;

so impossibly simultaneous.

 

And me having joined

that army of mothers,

silently waving the unseen banner.

 

Considering, “Did I

give him enough?”

Pleading, “I need more

time. What about …

 

But manhood approaching

makes no allowances

for such uncertainties.

 

He is. He will be

just more of who

he always was.

 

Created, yes molded

(happily by me).

Now emerging his own.

 

A few days later, I even decided to show it to my son. For this fifteen-year-old boy of Scandinavian descent, his response was the height of receptivity and encouragement.

“That’s really good, Mom,” he said.

Not only did I find blessed release in writing it, I had the pleasure of a fleeting moment of connection with my boy. And seven years later, this admittedly syrupy poem is a treasure that brings a reminiscent tear to my eye.

Exercise your right to write … today and tomorrow. Gladness will follow.

 

*Cameron, Julia, The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life. Penguin Putman Inc., 1998.

 

 

 

 

At forty-eight years old, I have forged through a number of life stages – at times willingly and at times fitfully. There are basically two responses to dealing with the inevitable onslaught of the next stage of life: accepting it gracefully, or raging against it. Having done both, I can say that the former opens one to the grand possibilities of life and the latter leads to stultifying frustration. What choice do we have anyway? You cannot stand still, and you certainly cannot go back. Perennial protesting is pointless.

My advice? Let yourself grieve what is lost. Acknowledge your fear, your reticence, your dismay. And then march into the future boldly: feel it, own it, embrace it.

Irish poet and priest, John O’Donahue, said it best, “I want to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.” Precisely! This is the definition of grace amid change.

Every lifetime is a lesson in adjustment. Once I was a carefree preschooler; my greatest challenges were deciding what color of finger paint to use and having to take an afternoon nap. But kindergarten beckoned – the big yellow bus, tying my shoes, and learning the alphabet. From there, I became an elementary student – reading, writing, and arithmetic. I slowly learned to accept the fact that I would never be a member of The Brady Bunch.

Eventually, I was confronted with puberty and Junior High: pimples, body fat, boys, and mean girls.  Suddenly and awkwardly a high school student, exploring who I was and what I believed. Then I had to move into the role of paid laborer, voting citizen, and college student. Career choices weighed on me. What would I be? What was I good at and how could I best contribute? Soon I was a married woman, professional worker, and then a mother.

None of these new roles and stages – career, marriage, motherhood – quite matched my naively inflated expectations. What? This isn’t how it was supposed to be! But honestly accepting the disappointment of the unrealized ideal actually helped invite an attitude of joy and gratitude. Pleasure emerged.

This was especially true in raising my two children. Childrearing has presented an array of stages, from diapers to dormitories. Every age they enter has had its bane and its blessing. Age four was the toughest for them both. (For a time my former cherubs became Surly Boy and Snotty Girl). But kindergarten came along and voilá; along with it, a new equilibrium.

Just when I thought I could no longer take the madness of a particular developmental childhood trait, before I knew it, we were on to the next thing … and then the next … and the next. It was never ending and never permanent. The surprising bends, unexpected turns, and frolicking rapids were exhilarating and jolting interspersed with the occasionally serene and calm.

What helped me avoid feeling trapped in any one state of being was to recognize that it was all temporary. Nothing was fixed. My little ones were always emerging, growing, and becoming. Indeed, I was as well! In the mix, there were some topsy turvy times. My husband and I have had the blessed gift of navigating that whitewater river with them, knowing we are in God’s care, even though the ride is rough at times. Our faith in God is our sacred life vest.

And these curious creatures I birthed continue to morph into new and more complex versions of themselves. The future fills me with anticipation, and at times, concern. I could worry. But I have learned: this too shall pass. They are clay and God is the potter … spinning and shaping them. The cruel world, not knowing their baptismal destiny, threatens to thwart God’s design for them. But I claim the promise, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

I am now an empty nester – proud, eager, and yes, a little nervous about my children’s fate. This is a stage that can throw the most balanced of mothers into a tailspin. Relax in … relax out.

The questions abound: What will become of my children when they are not under our roof? Will they make it? Did we teach them enough? Are they equipped for the real world? And what about me? Who am I, if not providing for their daily care? What will my future bring?

I must grapple with all of these questions and their associated feelings. A book I read in college called Passages, by Gail Sheehy*, was a bestseller, and groundbreaking in mapping out predictable life stages and ways people thrive in each. She emphasized a productive and deep “second adulthood” in middle life characterized by continual growth.

“Stop and recalculate,” Sheehy writes. “Imagine the day you turn forty-five as the infancy of another life … Instead of declining, men and women who embrace a Second Adulthood are progressing through entirely new passages into lives of deeper meaning, renewed playfulness, and creativity.”

With that mindset, it is exciting to approach my new stage of life. I am determined to stay balanced through such liminal times. I use a multitude of coping skills. This is essential.

I was glad to see our daughter Grace has learned this as well. After being home for a month she was faced with intense, sad feelings about returning to school, missing her friends and family, and facing the pressure of her challenging courses. At first there was a bit of raging at how hard it all is. However, after some tears, laments, and hugs, she decided to make a list of all the things she is looking forward to when she returns to Seattle. Smart girl! She moved through her struggle, and found her strength to courageously do the next thing.

As for me – when Grace left for college last year – I found that one way to manage my feelings was through writing. Sitting with my husband at a pub, The Back Abbey, contemplating my new stage of life, I took out my journal. I asked myself, “What am I feeling right now?” Then I wrote a little haiku:

 

Empty Nest at the Abbey 

We lounge – long at ease

Northwest winds call

Last tall bird flies free

Old lovers we smile

 

Grieve your losses, but don’t get stuck in protest. Enjoy the surprise of your own unfolding. Be well and stay well my friend.

 Crystal Cove

 

*Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life by Gail Sheehey, Bantam Books, 1976.  Also, an updated version is New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time, Ballantine Books, 1996.

Breakfast in Bed, by Mary CassattI have not been in the mood lately.  First a little down, then a bit flat, then vaguely emotional. Certainly not flowing with creativity. Nothing serious. Just a stale discontent which gets in the way of doing what I want to do. So, I have missed several weeks of posting on my blog. This has disappointed me.

I have also found myself surprised by tears this week. A Taylor Swift song actually made me cry the other day. Could that be a clinical condition? “Why You Gotta Be So Mean” brought up images of the woman I had just had a counseling session with, who struggled with her children to survive years of domestic violence. Then I cried at the Huntington Library upon viewing the Mary Cassatt painting “Breakfast in Bed.” In the mother’s gaze, Cassatt precisely conveys the anticipated loss as the child looks out to the world. I am that mother years later – children off to college, concurrently relieved and sad.

It seems fitting that the post I have been unable to get going on for the last couple weeks is entitled “Not in the Mood.” How can I write about the state of being unable to write, when the condition itself logically prevents it? Virginia Woolf said, “Nothing is experienced until it is described.” So, Maybe I am only now experiencing it … because I am finally describing it. Such an unnerving enigma.

What stands in my way?

Is it distraction? There are so many other things to do. Things that are important that I don’t enjoy doing. Keeping up my house and running hills. Things that I do enjoy doing but that are not important.  Following Facebook and watching Colbert Report. Yet my soul knows it is essential to keep writing.  It is a thing that is important and a thing that I do enjoy doing. It helps me know myself and share myself with others. It allows me to metabolize my experience. But, I need to show up to the page.

Is it fear? The questions pass through me like they do anyone who struggles to create. In writing I am making myself vulnerable. Do I have anything to say? Will it be any good? Will people read it? What if people read it and it is no good? What if people don’t read it and it is good? Damn double binds! Risk looms on both sides.

Is it stress? So much is changing in my work. My job is being re-fashioned as the agency converts to electronic health records. Computer proficiency is not at the top of my resume! And now a position that I have felt confident and energized in for eight years feels simultaneously difficult and mundane. I am not shining these days; rather I feel like the special ed. kid in the back row struggling to keep up. I am tired, frustrated, and self-doubting.

Is it loss? My children have both been away at college for a year now, and I think I have handled it well. Yet, there is a quiet grieving taking place. It seeps out at unsuspecting moments. This grief has a capricious quality: rather puzzling because the empty nest has brought considerable gains – for me, for my marriage, and my ability to pursue other interests. But there is a subtle vacancy that comes and goes. It invades my dreams – lately dreams of babies born, babies lost, babies found, babies growing up only to regress again … bizarre but enticing. Dreams of becoming some mythic marsupial mother – my young stepping out of my pouch and having their walkabout, then tucking safely back in. Amid the soothing rhythm of my heartbeat, their appetites become wet again for foreign lands beyond my reach. They happily trot off, not looking back. I wait. I wonder. I worry. I turn to God, a shameless beggar …

Having now written about these moods preventing me from writing, I discover, that like many things in life, one does not have to be in the mood to write. And I received a delightful surprise: now that I have done it, I am in the mood. Writing about one mood was a stepping-stone to a better mood.

And not just to write. I am approaching something. I am not sure yet what it is. But, yes, I feel a stirring. On a gut level I know it. It is earthy and rich and good and will lift me up and stretch me. As I move through these many colored moods I discover a new and pleasant place. I sense opportunity. I am open.

 

Anyway

Mother Theresa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

People are often unreasonable, illogical,

And self-centered

Forgive them anyway

If you are kind people may accuse you of

Selfish, ulterior motives

Be kind anyway

If you are successful, you will win some false

friends and some true enemies

Succeed anyway

If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you

Be honest and frank anyway

What you spend years building, someone

could destroy overnight

Build anyway

If you find serenity and happiness, they may

be jealous

Be happy anyway

The good you do today, people will often

forget tomorrow

Do good anyway

Give the world the best you have, it may

Never be enough

Give the world the best you’ve got anyway

You see, in the final analysis, it is between

you and God

It was never between you and them anyway

-Frank M. Keith

 

This song had a profound impact on me as I re-invested in life and re-created myself following my year of depression. After a year lost in despair, I discovered a new sense of vitality. In the dawn of my recovery, I had the unbridled enthusiasm of the delivered – determined to live my life with spirit and passion. Having come out of a pit of darkness and into the light, I felt an urgency to live life to its fullest, invest thoroughly in my relationships, and to apply myself wholeheartedly to my work.

I was thrilled to be back in my professional field as a social worker. But it seemed my vibrancy was an affront to a couple burned-out and disillusioned people in my new workplace. It somehow made them want to become my detractors. They distrusted my positive spirit and questioned my intentions. They even did things that directly undermined my work. This is when the song Anyway took on a very personal meaning. It spoke a healing truth to me – helping me stay on track – despite the forces working against me.

I imagine many of you have been in situations in which, despite your best efforts, you were not embraced or accepted. Occasionally, life is like this. During these times we need to discover our strongest selves, and not just resort to what comes most easily – shrinking back.

Anyway is performed as a song by Suzzy and Maggie Roche on their CD Zero Church. There is a fascinating story behind it. Anyway was found posted on the wall next to Mother Teresa’s bed at her Missionaries of Charity orphanage in Calcutta after her death.

Mother Teresa was a humble nun whose vision was to extend dignity to the poorest of the poor in India. As her missions became successful and world famous, she faced many critics who questioned her goals and her motives.

I imagine the Anyway poem resonated with her, given what she faced and what she accomplished. Anyway has not only been an important credo for me since I came upon it years ago, I have played the song many times for others who were similarly touched. I have listened to it when I felt mistreated, misunderstood, or blocked in carrying out what I knew were good purposes. The message of the poem always renews a right spirit within me. At times, we all need regeneration. Even Mother Teresa needed that.

The song speaks about the power of forgiveness, kindness, and pursuing one’s purpose, despite the barriers the world throws in one’s way. It is easier and more natural to get even – to stick it to a person who has hurt you, when you have the chance to do so.

But there is a spiritual depth in rising above it, and not returning evil for evil. “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals his head.” (Rom 12:20). I believe Forgiveness is the highest expression of a spiritual life. This song is about forgiveness. It also is clear about whom we answer to: God, not man.

Mother Teresa is known worldwide as an icon of compassion and tireless advocate for the poor, yet she secretly battled for years through a terrible dark night of the soul. She deeply questioned her faith, her value, and her purpose. Her letters to her superiors, which she never wanted published, reveal her interior life and painful spiritual journey, and the torment and disillusionment she endured. It was decided that her writings were too important to go unpublished, due to their capacity to reach people who struggle; and to provide them consolation and encouragement by revealing her internal struggles, even amidst a great and noble mission. They did that for me.

The book Mother Teresa; Come Be My Light, The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta was published on the tenth anniversary of her death. I read it and was deeply moved.

Consider this passage in which she asks of God, “What are you doing, my God, to one so small?” In a letter to her superior, Father Picachy she writes, “Thank God all went well yesterday, Sisters, children, the lepers and sick and our poor families have all been so happy and contented this year. A real Christmas.  Yet within me – nothing but darkness, conflict, loneliness so terrible …”

In another letter she writes to Father, “It has been so very hard. That terrible longing keeps growing – and I feel as if something will break in me one day – and then that darkness, that loneliness, that feeling of terrible aloneness. Heaven from every side is closed … gone is the love for anything and anybody. – and yet – I long for God.”

Another passage reads, “… Aloneness is so great – from within and from without I find no one to turn to. He has taken not only spiritual – but even the human help. I can speak to no one and even if I do – nothing enters my soul.– If there is hell – this must be one. How terrible it is to be without God – no prayer – no faith – no love.  The only thing that still remains – is the conviction that the work is His – that the Sisters and the Brothers are His. And I cling to this as the person having nothing clings to the straw – before drowning …”

Much of what she described in her letters sounds like a form of depression, but rather than impacting her like major depression, it was expressed in the spiritual realm.

I respect Mother Teresa’s humanitarianism even more, knowing the extent to which she suffered for years from utter desolation and self-doubt. She quietly carried a cross of interior darkness, yet never stopped doing her good work. Her goal was to bring light to those living in darkness, but when all seemed to be in place, she was faced with an internal darkness that became the greatest trial of her life. That trial ultimately fueled a fundamental aspect of her mission.

In the end, she understands that without her interior darkness, without knowing such a longing for love and the pain of being unloved, and without this radical identification with the poor, she would not have won over their trust and their hearts to the extent that she did.

Her darkness became her greatest blessing; her “deepest secret” was indeed her greatest gift. The depth and meaning of her mystical experience is portrayed in this book, and I recommend it.

I hope that, like Mother Teresa, despite how you feel at any given time, and despite what surrounds you …  you find the ability to forgive, be kind, succeed, be honest, build, be happy, do good, and give your best. Anyway.

 

Going Wild Again

I just returned home from my 30-year high school reunion in Minnesota. One of the highlights was reminiscing with my old girlfriends about our good times and outrageous antics as adolescents in the wild – hiking, camping, canoeing, running, tennis, snowshoeing, and skiing. What fun we had!

As we talked for hours and reconnected, our stories built on one another. Each of us remembered different portions, providing our own unique embellishments and observations. Pieced together, our combined memories created a patchwork collage of humor, personal development, and exploration … experiences that helped shape us into who we are today.

I had scarcely spoken with some of these friends for years. But, almost magically, as we delved into our recollections of our shared teen outdoor adventures … it was as if we had never parted. This was amazing considering the decades we spent apart, during which time we had all gotten married, had careers, and raised children.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the many psychological benefits of time spent in nature, and ways to avoid “nature deficit disorder.” My reunion trip helped me recapture some wonderful wilderness memories shared with old friends (five in particular) and what they have meant to each of us over the years. We 48-year old girlfriends have each faced various challenges in the years since. However, the time we spent together in nature strengthened our sense of selves and our friendship bonds, helping prepare us for life’s unexpected curve balls. Somehow, we have all survived and thrived. And I believe our friendship bonds and shared wilderness experiences provided a firm foundation to face up to and conquer life’s travails.

Our memories included a ski club trip to Thunder Bay Canada. We got our ski passes suspended for staying up too late – talking to the bell-bottom wearing Canadian boys who sprinkled vinegar on their French fries! We re-told brave tales of our canoe trips, late-night bonfires, camp outs in the Northern woods, and the boyfriends that seemed to generously pass between us through those times. As girlfriends, we grew up together and grew strong together. Now as an adult, it feels wonderful to have friends that go back so many years. The sense of connection is hard to define, but is truly one to be cherished.

My 19 year-old daughter, Grace, also has a profound love for her friends, and she treasures the escapades they share together. She was eager to see every picture from my reunion, hear about my old friends, and all the “classic 80’s experiences” we had.

“That’s how I want it to be when I’m your age, Mom. My best friends will still be my best friends; don’t you think?” Although it may not play out as she envisions, her commitment to staying connected with the friends she loves will likely make it a reality. And I don’t expect her bold spirit of adventure to ever be fully tamed. This is something I admire about her.

During this reunion trip I happened to be reading a memoir by Cheryl Strayed called Wild: From Lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail.  It is the story of a Minnesota woman whose life unravels in her early 20’s after her mother’s death from cancer, the resulting diaspora of her family, and the eventual demise of her marriage amidst infidelity and drug abuse. She seeks a re-awakening by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. She forges ahead more through blind will than skillful preparedness, and writes about it with an earthy spirit and a poetic gift of description. I thoroughly enjoyed her story, and found it to be a wonderful testimony to the transformative power of a wilderness trek. Despite the fact that she suffered terribly on the trail, and at a few points, was lucky to have survived, the beauty and self-transformation made it worth the pain and sacrifice. It made me want to get out on that trail myself.

She writes of the Pacific Crest Trail’s history and its profound meaning to the hikers courageous enough to endure it:

“What mattered was utterly timeless. It was the thing that had compelled them to fight for the trail against all the odds, and it was the thing that drove me and every other long-distance hiker onward on the most miserable days. It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even with getting from point A to point B.  It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadow, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.”

The Pacific Crest Trail will be there if I ever choose to take it on. But even the smaller scale adventures that are available any weekend would be worth my while to make happen.

After the reunion, my old girlfriends and I agreed that we need more time with friends and more adventures. We promised each other we would plan one. They agreed to come and stay with me for a “SoCal Ladies Adventure.” Brainstorming the itinerary was exciting in itself. Just considering the possibilities made me feel young and alive – almost like I was 16 again! That’s what “going wild” can do.

Many of you have stayed in contact with old friends; those with whom you have shared “going wild” experiences of old. If you have lost touch, what is keeping you from making that small effort to reach out to someone who was important to you years ago?

Maybe now is the time to make that phone call, search on Facebook, or write that letter. You may find some real joy in re-connecting with an old friend. Perhaps remembering those times together will help you seek out some opportunities to explore like you did when you were young. It may seem a little unlike the current you, but it’s not against the rules!  You can go wild again.

 

 

 

A Great Ending

Have you ever been to a really good funeral? This may sound like a strange, even inappropriate question. However, a few days ago I went to the funeral of Dave, a wonderful 75 year-old man who was dearly loved by his family, friends, fellow church members, colleagues … and me.

It was one of the most powerful and spiritually enriching services I have ever experienced. There was a palpable sadness amongst the hundreds in attendance. But the diverse voices coming together to share his life narrative provided an astonishing testimonial to a life well lived. We all went away more in touch with what is most important. Few things deliver a message so piercingly clarifying as the funeral of a man of character.

Dave was a pilot, a surveyor, a father of two and was married to Linda for over 50 years. Although his life was marked by several tragedies, he remained steadfast in his faith in God, his relentless commitment to his loved ones, and his determination to achieve his goals. He said “yes” to God and to life, throughout his journey, regardless of the obstacles in his path. His life story was an illustration of the prophetic truth in John’s gospel, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart. I have overcome the world.” *

Pastor Paul officiated. He invited us to freely express what was in our hearts. “It is okay to cry today. It is okay to laugh today. We will lament; we will rejoice.  We will shake our fist at God and ask “why”; we will praise him for the life he gave his faithful servant.”

A rich tapestry was woven, reflecting the many colors of Dave’s life: sorrow, humor, tears, laughter, prayer, and a wealth of gorgeous music. And holding it all together was an intricate pattern of faith. This was the inspiration that I endeavored to take with me. Any complacent people amongst us were probably effectively agitated. For Dave’s was a life of purpose.

I went away pondering an important question: at my funeral, what do I want to be said of my life? Would I be remembered for my values? My actions? My relationships? My accomplishments? My failings? My work? My faith? What parts of my life have eternal significance, and for which of these things will I be remembered?

Dave’s purposeful life and incredible funeral reminded me of a central principle from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: begin with the end in mind. Covey teaches the power of creating a clear, compelling vision of what one’s life is all about, going so far as to define the destination. Having the destination clearly in mind affects every decision along the way.

Beginning with the end in mind is based on the principle of vision. It is vision that gives one the power and purpose to rise above the baggage and act based on what matters most. He suggests the value of creating a personal mission statement or credo. “It’s drafting the blueprint before constructing the building, writing the script before performing the play, creating the flight plan before taking off in the airplane.”**

As a pilot, Dave understood the value of a flight plan – in aviation and in life.

Creating your personal mission statement can help you be well and stay well. It supports a big picture perspective, preventing you from getting consumed with the small stuff – bogged down in the daily drudgery of life. Short-term setbacks are more easily tolerated and transcended when higher principles and long term goals are embraced.

Influenced by Covey and other management writers, I decided several years ago to write my vocational mission statement. I call it a “credo” which means a formula of belief. It helps me stay on the right track, like a compass pointing me in the right direction. It guides and corrects me in my daily life and work. As I recite, pray, and meditate on it, I am reconnected with the principles and goals that I stand for. My best days are the ones in which I remember it.

When I fall short, as I often do, I know that I am in need of some redirection, perhaps some self-care and renewal. Maybe I just need to play or rest, or take a day off. There are so many distractions and so much noise that can detract from what is most important. Petty conflicts, confining policies, excessive regulations, and obstructive bureaucracy can pose barriers to achieving my vision. The important thing is to not lose sight of it; to hold fast to what is good. I believe deeply in the verse, “without vision, the people perish.”

My credo reads:

Founded in purpose

Serving in joy

Mastery in performance

Here is what this means to me:

Founded in purpose:  There is an inspired purpose to the work I have chosen, and life is a continual process of uncovering and maintaining fidelity to it. It is to offer hope and healing, health and wellness, and improved quality of life to those who have suffered hurts and losses. It is about binding the wounds of the brokenhearted, offering a cup of cold water to the thirsty. Any pain I have overcome can fuel the passion I bring to help others overcome pain. It is focused on supporting the right of all people to have dignity, equal rights, and a chance for happiness. It is about striving to be Christ-like in my conduct.

Serving in joy: This means approaching this work with joy, making it fun and having a sense of humor. Remaining aware and engaged in each day is required. It involves an irreverence: not taking myself or the task at hand so seriously so as to miss out on the chance to laugh, and appreciate the absurdities and ironies that arise. It is keeping my sense of fun and valuing the pleasure that is possible if I pay attention with a playful spirit. There is a positive community spirit that arises when I value joy. When I make it fun, great things happen. Humans, both children and adults, need to play. It helps us enjoy each other and the task at hand. My middle name is literally “Joy”, and I strive to live up to my mother’s aspiration in giving me that name.

Mastery in performance:  This is about excellence. I value total quality improvement – knowing that more progress is always possible. It requires a commitment to lifelong learning, and not being afraid to make mistakes and learn from them. It involves being curious and bold, and willing to work hard at what matters most. As one of my favorite novelists George Eliot said, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

********

So, how will you plan for a great ending? What ways can you begin with the end in mind? With a bit of forethought and personal inquiry, you can steer yourself in the direction that you define as important. Consider writing your own credo. It may help you construct your life with greater quality. Someday, your story will be told. It is up to you to make it a marvelous story, one with a great ending.

 

*The Bible, New International Version, John 17:33

**Covey, Stephen, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Golden Books, 1997.