When Paris Burns: Finding the seeds of resilience

Last Monday, as I stumbled past my husband on my way to bed, he looked up from reading on his Ipad and announced, “I have bad news.”

What now, I wondered. Isn’t constant bad news the new norm?

“Notre Dame is burning, and there’s been a lot of damage. The spire has fallen.”

I feel gut-punched. I love Paris, and Notre Dame for me has been at its center. My heart ricochets with the loss. I struggle for breath.

As the Washington Post would write the next day: “The fall of Notre Dame is a body blow to Paris and all it represents.” I feel the hit as well, joining others around the world.

Last summer, I stood on the plaza in front of Notre Dame, watching an interminably long line of tourists roast in the sun while snaking slowly towards the Cathedral. No sense standing in that line, I thought. Better to savor the memories of visits, years ago, when I could enter Notre Dame easily, without a crowd.

I’d sit by myself on dreary winter days when I wanted to feel uplifted by the soaring height of its arched ceilings, the light streaming through the stained glass, or the occasional music rising from the organ. I found myself drawn inward, into reverence, while I sat in the dark pews, obscured by the dim light, smelling the scent of prayer candles and incense. Notre Dame filled me with a sense of mystery and awe.

And now it’s been grievously wounded.

Gargoyles

There was always another side to Notre Dame, balancing its solemnity.

Perched high on its outside walls lived a strange set of characters: the gargoyles. Part monstrous, part whimsical, they delighted the tourists who climbed long flights of stairs to gain a closer view of their grotesque forms.

Early gargoyles guarded the temples in ancient Egypt, protecting them from the vengeful god Seth. Later gargoyles were incorporated into architecture as rainspouts, to keep water from running down an edifice. Gargoyle comes from the French word “gargouille” meaning “throat” or “gullet,” referring to the channel through which water could pour.

Over time, they began to be designed as ornaments and relieved of their water-carrying duties. Notre Dame has both water-carrying gargoyles and famous ones that are “off-duty,” and might be more properly called “chimera.”

The purpose of their grotesque faces isn’t entirely clear. Some say gargoyles were meant to warn the population about the presence of evil; others say that gargoyles were placed to protect a sacred space from evil.

I think they’re meant to show how the divine and the profane are entwined. Even on top of one of the world’s most beautiful religious structures, little monsters sit enjoying the view.

Which leads me back to the business of finding the resilience within devastating loss.

Losing all to the volcano

Last year, I watched in horror as a fissure on the island of Hawaii sent lava flows barreling towards the house of my friend, Jane Howard. I saw pictures online of her neighbor’s home in flames, as a relentless stream of lava crept closer to Jane’s. Her entire community, Leilani Estates, was destroyed, her house covered by 45 feet of lava.

She lost almost everything.

Jane is one of the most upbeat, creative people I know, and she survived, with support from friends around the world. I can only imagine the treasures that she must have lost. In interviewing her recently for my Vital Presence podcast, Jane spoke about how she considers it a blessing to have lightened her load of belongings. Memories of trauma still live within her; new earthquakes can set off memories of the quakes that opened up the earth last year. That taste of trauma has given Jane empathy for the aftershocks her students still carry within them–and the understanding to help others find their resilience.

When asked what advice she would give to those hit by major tragedies, she says, “Go easy on yourself.”

The resilience will be there; kindness will help you find it.

Losing the Possibility of Life

At the same time I heard about Paris,  I happened to be reading a book by a writer who received a diagnosis of ALS, the nasty and degenerative Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It comes with no cure. Philip Simmons lived nine years post-diagnosis, long enough to write Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life. In this gorgeous, very human, uplifting series of reflections on living in the face of loss, Simmons writes about family, the quirkiness of his community, and offers his thoughts on faith. Contemplating his impending death appears to have magnified his relationship to life. In his words:

“We deal most fruitfully with loss by accepting the fact that we will one day lose everything. When we learn to fall, we learn that only by letting go our grip on all that we ordinarily find most precious—our achievements, our plans, our loved ones, our very selves—can we find, ultimately, the most profound freedom. In the act of letting go of our lives, we return more fully to them.”

His openness to life increased, even as the number of days left to him decreased. The light within loss

I can’t pretend that loss is fun or make it cheery because of a so-called silver lining. Losing what you most love hurts. ALS sucks.

Darkness and light travel together, and loss can carry within it seeds for new life. Following a devastating forest fire in the summer, seeds will germinate, and by the next spring, plants will start to grow in the charred ground. Life continues.

  • The burning of Notre Dame caused irreparable loss–and will awaken many to see how much they care for this iconic structure.
  • Lava consumed a home–and a woman built her capacity to help others while her community banded together to help her.
  • A man received a death sentence from ALS and received the gift of presence in life.

Resilience does not make everything right again. Resilience shows us the life that lives within loss.

I hope that the gargoyles of Notre Dame survived. Let them remind us that loss and gifts, light and shadow, monsters and saints can live together.

Let them watch over the rebuilding so new beauty can arise from the rubble.

 

 

A midwinter’s night pause

 

My article for the winter issue of 3rd Act Magazine is out: “A New Leash on Life: Fostering senior dogs” – and it’s a topic that is VERY close to my heart. If you want an “all natural,” almost sure-fire way to beat depression, I highly recommend fostering or adopting an older dog. Sure, they won’t be around forever, but in the meantime, you’ll receive so much love.

We’ve started fostering-round-two after having to put down our first foster, Riley, in October. Our new foster dog, the irrepressible and still somewhat rotund, Jackson, knows that part of his job is to heal our broken hearts.

Sure adopting a dog (or ferret, cat, or puppy) may not change the world, but if it can put a smile on your face and love in your heart, it might change you.

What does it mean to take real accountability for your life, not just for you, but for your place in the world, and for how your family has impacted others? These days, when few political figures seem to want to take responsibility for the world’s woes, I found an amazing example of accountability in this TED talk with the mother of the infamous Columbine shooter. She inspired me by how she learned to stand tall after tragedy knocked her low.

 

For Valentine’s Day, I apologized to Marie Kondo for my skepticism around her principles of tidying. Choosing to keep what brings your joy may be a good mantra for life, and I find that the more I explore the idea, the more is revealed, Call it “Beyond clutter.”

 

 

In our new foray into dog training, I’m learning about the clicker training approach. It is so positive and specific I thought it might be used with humans. I didn’t find out there was a book on that subject until my friend, reader and horse trainer, Kyra Gautesen, lent me her book, I love learning from readers!

Create a daily oasis with ordinary rituals

“We humans remember trauma better than pleasure, it’s the way we’re built, so ritual helps to inject the significance of this moment into us. “   Lorene Cary

Every year as December fades into January, I celebrate. My rituals, whether a gathering on New Year’s Eve, a few hours of reflection on New Year’s Day or eating black-eyed peas for good luck, help assure me that 2018 is firmly gone and I can start fresh in 2019. Life is offering me a new canvas with colorful, fresh paint waiting for me to begin.

I’m grateful for the cycles of life that let us start again with new endings and beginnings.

Sitting on my couch last Monday morning, I watched the sun coming up (a rare treat) and reflected on how magnificent it is that sleep allows us to let go every night and wake up to a new day.

Yesterday’s anxiety doesn’t need to poison today.

Continuing to reflect, I noticed that all of life is full of endings and beginnings: winter melting into spring, weekends fading into weekdays, the end of adolescence opening into the beginning of adulthood.

No wonder that people throughout the ages have used rituals to mark the passage of time and highlight important transitions. Festivals mark the seasons, celebrations mark important events (like religious and civic holidays), and private gatherings mark transitions such as births, deaths, graduations, retirements, and marriages. In some cultures, one’s coming of age is marked by the launching of a heroic quest.

The need for ordinary rituals

Large or widely celebrated rituals help bind a culture together, but ordinary rituals offer us small oases of sanity throughout our days. Prayers at the dinner table, whether religious or not, give us a moment to pause and find gratitude. A glass of wine or a trip to the gym may be the ritual that marks the end of our workday. An evening ritual can help us wind down and set the stage for our dreams.

Small rituals can make our days more mindful by adding a pause, a moment of reflection, a touch of magic, and an opportunity to feel in touch with ourselves or a spirit that feels bigger than ourselves.

We can create a ritual by identifying a repeating pattern in our life, perhaps a daily activity that feels meaningful to us, and then claiming it as a ritual, giving it some extra attention and mindfulness. We add a little extra beauty to our lives.

In an era of constant change and turmoil, ritualizing these patterns can add a sense of stability and comfort to our lives. They can help us adjust our attitudes, reconnect to a sense of purpose, or reinforce our better selves.

Apoorva Bhide, a commentator on the Quora website, called rituals “rafts of meaning in a world that systematically… lacks it.” [expletive deleted.]

Setting up a morning ritual

Every morning we wake up, often around the same time, and undertake a series of activities. Morning routines are everyday rituals we create to wake us up, prepare the day, remind us of what is good about who we are, and set us on track to create.

Many writers use a morning ritual to prepare, mentally and physically, for the shock of facing a blank page when they sit down to write.

You can use a morning ritual to focus, tune up your attitude, or think about your day.

An example:

There’s nothing exotic about my morning routine. I:

  • wake up and stumble into the kitchen for a cup of tea.
  • sink into the couch and stare into the blackness of night or a dawning sun.
  • search for words of inspiration from Richard Rohr, Krista Tippett or Maria Popova in my email. (Always risky because I may also find to-dos.)
  • meditate sometimes–hopefully more in 2019.
  • write three pages. I use the website 750 words to inspire me to write at least 750 words. I write anything from shopping lists to reflections on life or ideas for my blog. This writing is key to my ritual.
  • get dressed.
  • feed the horses. Often, I’ll muck their paddock. Mucking, even in the cold rain, counts as another form of contemplation.
  • return to the house, eat breakfast and start my workday.

Sometimes I resist this routine on the days I don’t feel like going out in dark sleet to feed the horses. But this routine is what says “home” to me whenever when I’m away on vacation. Then, I even miss mucking.

Any set of regular activities that mean something to you can become a ritual, especially when you reinforce them with joy and attention.

Other people’s rituals

If you’re curious about the rituals and routines used by some great artists, scientists, writers, poets, and mathematicians, check out Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.

You can adapt any of these rituals that might work for you, although I suggest staying away from some of the more destructive ones: drinking, drugs or too many doughnuts.

Designing everyday rituals

Here are a few of my criteria. My rituals have to be:

  • Satisfying and. hopefully, yummy. I want to feel more creative, connected and alive as a result.
  • Easy to remember and easy to repeat. Do-able. If they’re too complicated, they won’t happen.
  • Meaningful and uplifting.

Your rituals don’t have to be:

  • Practiced or understood by others. Athletes and performers often have private rituals that can seem downright goofy or superstitious. But who cares as long as it works for them! Baseball pitcher Wendell Turk always chewed four pieces of licorice before he pitched. You figure.
  • Religious or serious. Your ritual can be small, quiet or boisterous. No temple bells or incense required. As I think about it, five minutes of laughter yoga (deep belly laughing) is a ritual that could add vitality to my day.

Rituals are about practicing patterns that increase our aliveness and attentiveness, not a way of forcing us into habits that can turn us into drones.

Crafting our rafts of meaning

Author Lorene Cary, addressing the graduates of Swarthmore College at their graduation ritual said:

“We humans remember trauma better than pleasure, it’s the way we’re built, so ritual helps to inject the significance of this moment into us. We rush, rush, rush, and then we slooooow down time. We make this boring. [referring to graduation] It’s not a mistake, it’s meant to be. We assemble. We say certain words.
…. Ritual rough ups the smooth surface of memory so that existence can snag.”

Let’s build rituals that help us remember what is good.

You could create rituals for the beginning of the end of your day or work week. Maybe you want a practice of creating special meals at special times. Maybe your ritual will be an oasis in the middle of the day (aka a nap) or a Sabbath each week.

If rituals are rafts of meaning in a sea of chaos, then let’s design ones that we can enjoy.

What would make your everyday life richer? I’d love to hear.

 

Welcome back the light

There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
Leonard Cohen, “Anthem.”

We’re almost at the Solstice and not a moment too soon in my book.

I’ve been so hungry for light that I pulled out my old lightbox from the attic to begin soaking up some rays. I think it’s helped my spirits.

In truth, there’s plenty of light if you know where to look for it. I decided to check out the news from 2018 to see if a few cracks of light got in. (I skipped the big headlines such as royal marriages and elections.)

I found a few interesting items to share with you:

1) Overlooked no more

The venerable NYT finally noticed that most of the obituaries it has featured since 1851 were of dead, white guys. Amazing insight for a news organization!!!  Even Charlotte Bronte, of Jane Eyre fame, didn’t make the cut when she died in 1855. (Her who-remembers-him-now husband rated an obit many years later.) Now the Times is playing catch-up with their coverage of underrepresented communities with a feature called “Overlooked.” Check it out on-line – I plan to learn a lot!

2) Whistle with the wind

I love the sound of wind, especially when I’m not walking near any swaying Doug Fir or Madrona trees. Now, thanks to NASA, for the first time ever, you can hear the sound of the wind on Mars. NASA’s InSight touched down on Mars and caught some of the wind on its recording. How miraculously cool is that?

3) Singing helps your health

Reuters reports that, according to a small study, singing in a community choir may provide psychological benefit to seniors. (If you could have heard our local Chorale with its glorious grey hair voices, this would have been obvious.) And it gets better. Research from Hungary suggests that singing in a choir helps lung patients breathe more easily. I want to see a study in 2019 on the health benefits of yodeling or singing, in my case, to two very patient horses.

4) A few landmarks:

  • A lot of women, or at least a lot more women, ran for office, and some of them even won. (“Just you wait, Henry Higgins, just you wait.”)
  • A city in Georgia became the first to have its criminal justice system led entirely by black women. Way to go.
  • India’s Supreme Court decriminalized consensual gay sex.  About time, India. Proud of ‘ya.

5) Leaders cross the partisan divide

In headline news, George W. Bush handed Michele Obama a cough drop at Senator John McCain’s memorial. They have also been seen to hug in public. A cough drop may sound small, but don’t be deceived. With the state of our political divides, it’s a small victory.

6) Michele Obama

I think Michele Obama doing anything in public is cause for celebration. She also published a book.

Now beyond the headlines.

These events made headlines.

As I searched for light, though, I realized that many significant, light-filled events are hidden in plain sight.

I’m looking for statistics on the number of people who:

Sang in the shower:________
Watched their child take a first step:___________
Helped a stranger cross the street:____________
Went dancing:____________
Laughed so hard they snorted:_______
Gave money to end homelessness, poverty, discrimination or hate:______________
Cried watching It’s a Beautiful Life:______________
Helped a neighbor:_____________
Fingerpainted:_______________
Fostered or adopted a dog:_____________
Learned to read for the first time:______________

Now it’s your turn: what noteworthy statistics remind you of the good stuff that keeps happening daily?

The truth is that the light is everywhere. With us. Always.

We just have to notice.

Thank you for reading. You bring light to my life.

Taking the small steps back to thriving

What do we do when we keep getting clobbered by bad news?

Find our way back to thriving.

This week, I’m continuing my survival guide to pulling a little hope from tough times. Hopefully, you don’t need it, unless, of course, you made the mistake of listening to the latest report on Global Warming or what’s happening at the border with Mexico.

Topping my list of things-I-didn’t-ask-for-and-didn’t-want this week was Monday’s emergency root canal and the death of a favorite cousin. Plus all the national and international news.

I’ve also been questioning my authority to write about thriving creatively in the second half of life, while my list of woes keeps accreting with medical and health issues, financial concerns, the loss of a beloved, and even letting go of plans to adopt a dog I had been counting on. 

Maybe this week’s episode of the Survival Guide should be called Thriving is Not What You Think.

Raw and a bit crumpled, I’m wondering how I can have any legitimacy to talk about thriving. But this has been the perfect time to explore how we keep going when we feel broken, so maybe I still have something to talk about. I figure there might be a few others out there whose lives are rich, complex, and full of stuff not chosen.

It’s one thing to thrive when everything is going great, or an affirmation or two can turn things around. But challenges will come with life after 50 (or living in general), and we know better than to think that we can varnish over them. 

Don’t believe the well-packaged books, posts, and articles being marketed with titles like Do This One Thing and Your Life Will Be Instantly Wonderful. Yes, they’re tempting. (Disclaimer: I occasionally read this stuff.) But, even as I unconsciously take the bait and click on the tempting tidbit flashing over the Internet with a sexy, pseudo-solution, I know it’s a sham. After the headline, “clickbait” is always boring.

Moreover, the one-stop solution feels disrespectful of those of us who know it ain’t that easy. 

Finding a way back to thriving.

I decided to notice, on root canal day, what kept me going.

When you’re feeling raw or broken, the good stuff stands out. Maybe the darkness makes the light brighter. (Forgive me if that sounds like a bumper sticker.) With my customary, entitled belief that things should go my way worn off, I started noticing lots of small things that were, in fact, working for me. I found hints of delight.

The day of my root canal was brilliantly sunny, and I enjoyed a spectacular view of Mt. Rainier on the way to the endodontist. The “C” bus that I needed to catch came promptly. A brisk walk to her office gave me some exercise, and the warm greeting from the receptionist felt genuine. Throughout the visit, I experienced respect and compassion. The endodontist, whom I fell in love with as much as you can love working with a dentist, soothed me as she gently touched my arm. Beautiful music distracted me from the procedure (thanks Pandora Radio)–the nitrous oxide helped me relax into a semi-comatose state where every song seemed spectacular. 

Returning home, I needed to run to catch a bus and discovered that my knees, ankles, and back could still pull as a team. Back on the island, my husband was waiting for me on the street with an open-hearted smile. A friend who was also in pain called to ask me a question. I was buoyed by an opportunity to help another.

Each small step was a grace.

I discovered that life is never all one way…all happy or all sad, all dark or all light. 

I can’t pretend that everything that happens to us is good. The fact that my cousin struggled with early onset dementia for twenty years, knowing that she would eventually die of the same condition that had killed her mother, was tragic. Yet in her life and death, there were many miracles: her resilience and hope, her peaceful death, the way cousins are reconnecting around her departure.

Within everything, we can find enough good to keep us going. 

I won’t call the pain, hassle, and expense of a root canal good. Yet my day contained so much good within it, that I discovered that I was, indeed, thriving.

True, it broke my heart to not be able to adopt the dog I had been counting on; yet along the way I experienced a new friendship and generous, caring support from the dog’s current foster Mom. The heartfelt, compassionate back-up from the animal-loving friends to whom I reached out for guidance, touched me deeply. 

Etty Hillesum, whose writings about life during the Holocaust have inspired me so much, wrote about the touches of beauty she discovered in her horrific surroundings, like how the sun bounced off the walls of the concentration camp or how a flower could grow in the broken concrete.

All is not good. But we can always discover the good that is waiting to be noticed.

My list of saving graces is full of items that are small and, seemingly, insignificant, like being able to run a few blocks. On my “Life-is-working-aren’t-I-great-days” I can forget to appreciate these small things. On my bad days, they are the gifts that bring me back to life.

The days when life drops us to our knees are the days when we may look down to find the flower in the concrete.

People come together in remarkable ways after the worst tragedies, like the recent fires in Paradise, California. Small acts don’t bring a burned home back; they bring back hope.

When we get raw, we get real; we drop some of the masks we carry that separate us from life. 

My book is taking a new direction. I don’t need to be a cheerleader for “Isn’t it great to thrive after 50?”  Rather, I can say, “Stuff is going to happen, but we can still find our way to thriving.” A bit of depression, a period of brokenness, or a calamity or two don’t banish us from experiencing the small wonders of life. At times, they may even be enhanced.

That’s how we will continue to thrive. We don’t have to force fit life into an ideal reality.

We follow its flow and discover what is ideal within the reality we have.

 

Expanding our thanks

Thanksgiving, that holiday of family, friends, food, and thankfulness in the US, is almost here. T-day is my favorite holiday, even if I need to monitor my consumption and cool it on the mashed potatoes and gravy.

What could be better than a day dedicated to giving thanks?

Hopefully, on T-day, we’ll fill our spirits as well as our plates. Our expression of thankfulness, expanded, becomes gratitude. Gratitude, in turn, becomes a way of being in the world. We give thanks for specifics, for family, community and what we’ve been given. With gratitude, we expand our perspective beyond what is personal to us and feel our common connection.

Gratitude invites me to share blessings with others. 

Gratitude is like a healing superpower, which brings me light when the fires rage in California, the Northwest rains begin, I lose a dog, or life doesn’t go the way I’d prefer. Gratitude invites me to remember my deepest values, even as the cultural cacophony about holiday sales and shopping days till Christmas, begins to crescendo.

Gratitude reminds me of what is important and what is good. I notice the small blessings that I almost take for granted, such as the right to a good meal, and the big ones I should never forget, such as the right to freedom. 

Because life is not a “grab-bag candy game.”

Sorry, Gordon Gekko (of the movie WallStreet), but greed is not good. Toni Morrison put it bluntly when she spoke to a group of students. Don’t treat life, she told them, like a “grab-bag candy game.”

In that game, the powerful get to be first in line, putting their mitts into the candy bag and pulling out all that they can. Winners take all. The losers, whether they be refugees in a Caravan from Central America or the marginalized in our own communities, well, too bad. They should have been first in line. 

The grab-bag candy game dehumanizes us. I remember the words of the Dean of the Management School at Yale, a fiscally conservative guy, who nonetheless said, 

“The problem isn’t in making a lot of money. The problem is thinking that you have to keep it.”

Hoarding isolates us. Sharing connects us.

My sister-in-law, a very talented independent videographer, shot several episodes of a reality show about hoarders. As she entered their overstuffed homes, she found them crammed with misery. (Believe me, she doesn’t keep anything surplus!)

Now back to freedom…

The freedom to share freedom

Our freedom thrives in our desire for others to be free.

Morrison also told her students:

Remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”

Right on.

Freedom, like love, gets bigger when it’s shared.

 
President Obama, a friend of Morrison’s, said: 
“Justice grows out of our recognition of ourselves in each other, That my liberty depends on you being free, too,”
Nelson Mandela said:
For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
and even Abraham Lincoln had a few things to say:
“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and, under a just God, cannot long retain it.”-
Please mention this to the powers that be.
 
On Thanksgiving Day, as we bless the food we receive, or as you, in your way,  eat and celebrate what’s good in your life, let’s send blessings to those who will never take freedom for granted.
Here’s my tiny prayer:
 
Because I have food, I want you to be able to eat.
Because I have known love, I want your life to be full of love.
Because I have known freedom, I want you to be free.
 
Peace and blessings to you and my great thanks to you for being who you are.
 
 

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