Take a rest from stress in the holidays

Does it ever feel to you that someone is tightening the gears on life in order to speed up time, especially during the holidays?

Years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Boeing Commercial Aircraft factory in Everett, Washington where the new 777 jetliner was being assembled. The Boeing guide pointed out how the gears under the seats could be tightened to decrease the space between the rows, a potentially useful feature if you were selling the aircraft to a country of midgets.

I noticed, shortly afterward, that legroom did start disappearing on aircraft, an effort, I believe, to reverse engineer us into becoming midgets.

I don’t know who is responsible for tightening my experience of time during the holiday season, but every year, or at least with regards to Christmas, the number of days in the buying season appears to be expanding (will they put up decorations in September soon?), while our experience of time, or the lack of it, is increasingly compressed. Our collective buying hysteria is like a horse race, where we line up and wait for an announcer to cry, “And they’re off” as we rush our way out of the gate, not even quite sure how to get to the finish line.

No wonder we’re stressed.

If you celebrate another holiday like Hanukah, the winter solstice, Kwanzaa, or New Years, I hope you’re feeling saner. But I invite you to still take a few ideas off this page to apply to any big, stressful events in your life.

Make a list and check it twice.

Don’t worry about being naughty or nice. Just make a list of everything you want to do and realize that not even a superhuman filled with holiday spirit/s could accomplish it. Then take out a fat sharpie pen, maybe a red one, and, with gusto, put a line through at least a third of the items.

If this feels impossible (“You don’t understand, I have to buy a gift for my nephew…”), invite your BFF for a Toasted White Chocolate Mocha (real drink) and ask her or him to edit the list for you. Hopefully, they will question, You HAVE to put up a tree, attend two holiday concerts and go to the office party this weekend??? You HAVE to buy a gift for your thirty-five year old nephew who has never once said thank-you? You HAVE to decorate your bathroom?

The more you take away of obligations, the more you may have left for holiday experiences you care about

Drop Perfection. Pretty good is good enough.

Think of imperfections as the spice of life, like one of the secret ingredients in the Chestnut Praline Chai Tea Latte (real drink). You need them to prove that you’re human, and that applies to the people around you as well. Set your tolerance meter on peak strength as you laugh at the foibles and failings of you and others. Your teenage daughter is acting surly? She’s proving herself human; don’t let it spoil your day, Your husband forgets to buy the candles before the party? You aren’t able to send out cards?  And that prize batch of cookies burns on the bottom when the doctor’s office calls at the wrong moment? More proof.

Remember that in the original Christmas story, the inn blew the reservation, the motels were all full, and the couple ended up staying in a manger of all places. Your mishaps and those of your friends are nothing in comparison.

(Special gift bonus: My official permission for you to have an occasional meltdown if you need one.)

Accentuate the positive

With a tip of the hat to Johnny Mercer’s hit song from 1944, we need to give more attention to what we love so that the rest can roll off our backs. Confession: I do not like crowds, lines, Christmas carols played in elevators, holidays offers over Amazon, or malls. But I love putting up a Christmas tree, singing carols, decorating the house, quiet meditations and choosing a gift for someone I love (when I’m not stressed). And hot baths.

Focus on what you love and give yourself a lot of it. If you want to go to three Messiah concerts, keep White Christmas playing on the stereo, or drink a peppermint mocha (real drink) a day, do it. If you love winter snow, why not take a special drive up into the mountains and send a loving note to your in-laws telling them their gift will be coming soon.

If you choose to drink a cup of low-fat, high-sugar eggnog every day, savor it, while allowing visions of January exercise programs to dance in your head. (Remember this, husband.)

The holidays are meant to be a time of joy and celebration, so if you fill up on joy, you can throttle down on stress.

Take ten minutes (or less) to make a change

There will be a few things you might not prefer but can’t avoid, like the obligatory holiday office party that can be so deadly for us introverts.  That’s why I wrote my little e-book The Ten Minute Holiday Miracle:  It’s designed to let you use a micro-intention to change your experience of the moment or trick the stress out of you.

Rather than take space here to describe these little secrets, I’d rather give the book to you as a gift, which you can have by clicking here. (Don’t worry, you don’t have to sign up for anything, but if you’d like to give me–hint, hint, hint–a holiday gift, ask your friends to sign up for these weekly reflections and I’ll send them a copy of the e-book as well. Thank you in advance.)

During the December holidays, remember we’re in a season of light, and the light always brings out a few shadows.

Enjoy the ride, and, even when life feels like a roller coaster, send out some extra love.

It’s needed more now than ever.

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.
 
 

When Grief comes to call

Last week Grief took me down, yet left a gift.

If you’re dealing with personal pain or the low-grade, chronic grief a lot of us are feeling about the world, it may be time to learn to walk with him.

I can’t tell you how to “get over” grief, but I’m learning about how to deal with his dominating, demanding presence.

Grief is one tough master. (I’ve gendered him, but you can change that if a force that takes you to your knees and threatens to flatten you to the ground feels more female to you.) He’s unyielding, sometimes cruel, and yet not without occasional kindness.

Losing Riley

Grief took my husband and me for a wild ride last week after we decided that it was time to put down our little animal companion, Riley.

Riley was our foster-rescue dog, a sweet, gentle Springer Spaniel, who came into our lives for four months, until his dementia and neurological difficulties made life too painful for him.

Our passion for Riley defied logic. We were smitten the moment we saw him walking in circles at the park, on a leash with the woman who brought him to us from the Seattle Animal Shelter. No matter that Riley was deaf, near blind, had trouble lifting himself to walk, and at times couldn’t contain himself for more than three hours.

He became a vessel for the biggest love we could give.

When Riley looked at us with his clouded eyes, our hearts melted and all we could think of doing was showering him with the safety, care, and love that he had missed during his days of abuse, neglect, and abandonment.

Grief was watching our moves.

Grief took aim as we kept opening our hearts to our little fella. Grief knew how to pulverize us the moment that we decided that Riley’s pain and confusion had outstripped his joy in living and it was time to say goodbye.

NEVER say to anyone, “He was just a dog.” Grief doesn’t care. Grief shakes us with loss and strips from us whatever we hold precious, whether it’s a beetle or a treasured photo, lost, of a deceased grandmother.

In the soul, sorrows mingle. My mother’s long-awaited death evoked few tears (they may still come), but putting down Riley took me to a place where I couldn’t stop sobbing.

Last week I read the words of Elizabeth Gilbert, who experienced a tsunami of grief when her wife Rayna died. As she shared in a recent TED interview:

“Grief… happens upon you, it’s bigger than you. There is a humility that you have to step into, where you surrender to being moved through the landscape of grief by grief itself. And it has its own timeframe, it has its own itinerary with you, it has its own power over you, and it will come when it comes. And when it comes, it’s a bow-down. It’s a carve-out. And it comes when it wants to, and it carves you out — it comes in the middle of the night, comes in the middle of the day, comes in the middle of a meeting, comes in the middle of a meal. It arrives — it’s this tremendously forceful arrival and it cannot be resisted without you suffering more… The posture that you take is you hit your knees in absolute humility and you let it rock you until it is done with you. And it will be done with you, eventually. And when it is done, it will leave. But to stiffen, to resist, and to fight it is to hurt yourself.”

Quote cited in a post at Brainpickings

Gilbert’s words resonate as memories of Riley continue to haunt our house.

A piece of chicken fat turns into a memory of how Riley would have swallowed it whole and then licked my hand. The baby gate we put in place to keep Riley in his section of the house is down, yet I still try to step over it. After-images of Riley keep appearing: Riley stumbling to stand, Riley being carried down steps by my husband, Riley panting and turning in circles in the hall, confused by his growing dementia.

Part of me wants to numb this pain, but neither drinking nor drugs are appealing. Grief is adept at waiting out numbness. Reasoning feels equally useless. Who cares that Riley was only with us for four months or that we gave him the best life we could? That may matter, but not to Grief.

Grief comes with a gift

Bearing the pain, I walk through our vegetable garden. I notice that the colors of the leaves on the smoke bush have become more vivid. The beans I left dangling from their vines stand out like a piece of art. The rustle of the quaking aspens turns into a melody.

Words, inspired by Riley, start flooding into me and I create a small poem. Grief waits with me as I shape a blessing from Riley for my husband, another for a friend who loved our furry companion.

The power to shape and craft my words is the lifeline I need, a way to stand with my grief, neither running from it nor drowning in its waters. Creativity lifts me out of the darkness, with compassion. I do not have to produce something lasting or great, I just need to follow its suggestion and open my senses and imagination.

I follow the thread, creating other small poems, trusting that each step I take is leading me towards healing, knowing that light will follow the dark, sensing that the gashes in my heart are expanding my perspective, and giving Grief its due.

Whether you are happy with the elections or not, concerned about the Caravan of refugees coming towards the Mexican border, or not, or tracking on other sufferings, know that in today’s world, Grief is likely to be a frequent guest.

Give Grief his place at the table

It’s a small price to pay for the right to love and care deeply about the world.

Let Grief stand at your side as you dip into that place in your soul where joy and sorrow mingle and deep hope lives.

From there, you may find solace. From there, you can create.

From there may you find a place of wholeness, a rainbow within that can bear the storms.

A blessing from Riley

To the friends I met
and those I never did,
I send you blessings.

I will be watching over you.
So grateful to have received love
in your difficult world,
a chance to leave in peace
even though I couldn’t wag my tail
or say thank you.

I will be romping again
with those you have loved
in a place called Dogland.

If you listen quietly
you may hear us bark.

.

 

 

 

 

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Don’t Photoshop Your Life

Over the past weeks, we’ve been forced to listen to a public biography that was photoshopped and edited to a polished, plasticized, perfection.

Viewed through the lens of a storyteller, it was a lousy story.

The main arc of the story, as much as I could listen to it, went something like this: I came from a privileged family. I was sent to an elite prep school and then an elite college. I attended an elite Law school. I worked hard. I did well. I succeeded at everything. I’m a model citizen. Sure, I like my beers, but that just shows I’m human.

Human? Yeah right.

Real stories don’t sound like that.

Susan Shapiro, in her hot-off-the-press book for professional writers, The Byline Bible, invites her readers, if they want to be published, to share their vulnerabilities, idiosyncrasies, failings, and obsessions when they write. She tells them to be human and share with their readers what they’ve learned from life–while never portraying themselves as victims.

As someone who seeks out stories, I prefer ones that include some struggle, internal conflict, epiphanies, and quirkiness. I want to learn about people who have known difficulties, bruises, and, hopefully, redemption.

I like stories about those who have been a bit broken and picked themselves back up, taking away from their experiences great empathy and compassion for others.

I have little interest in the polished, public relations version of someone’s story–unless he or she has a tuned-in publicist who allows a little vulnerability to bleed through.

“I’m so good and I’ve always been good” stories make me want to retch.

Pride, combined with privilege that lacks insight, is a formula for hubris. It’s unsatisfying to read about, unless, of course, the hero falls.

The unspoken subtext of the story we’ve been hearing is: because I’ve succeeded with all the privileges I’ve had, I deserve more.

Going to Yale wasn’t the problem with the story, nor was coming from privilege. If you come from privilege, own up to it in your story, and don’t let it set you apart. Dig deeper into your life and find some compassion for others. Even the privileged can carry tough stories.

Whatever you do, don’t whitewash your story.

Your story is precious. It’s you. Guard its integrity and peculiarities with your life.

Don’t photoshop your life

When I was a teenager, I read Seventeen Magazine and believed that in order to be popular I needed to look like the models I saw displayed on its pages. The beautiful girls I saw had no zits, freckles, fuzzy eyebrows, or worn collars. No moths ate holes in their sweaters. Their hair was never messy, nor their fingernails grimy. They never buttoned up their cardigans wrong. These people, I decided, were perfect. I wasn’t.

Little did I know that every photo in the magazine had been airbrushed, cropped and burned (how we had to edit before digital photography) and none of it was real.

American advertising thrives on promoting the illusion of perfect appearance.

“Flawless,” though, makes for a crummy story.

wabi-sabi

The Art of Imperfection

In contrast, Andrew Wyeth, one of the preeminent U.S. painters of the mid-twentieth century, chose to paint the farmers, hunters, and housewives who were his neighbors, none of whom were  “classically beautiful.” He painted their beaked noses, chiseled faces, furrows, worn garments, and warts in great detail.

In capturing their “flaws” and peculiarities, he brought out their humanity. His subjects, realistically portrayed, were hauntingly beautiful.

The Japanese have a concept that is at the heart of their traditional aesthetic: wabi-sabi, which, loosely translated, means “flawed beauty.” Artists allow for some imperfection, quirk or anomaly in even the most beautiful house or piece of pottery.

Our flaws and imperfections, as we are able to own them and learn from them, make us who we are. They shape the background for a beautiful story.

Don’t photoshop them away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A wedding to remind us what matters

This weekend I went to a wedding that broke my heart apart and made it sing.

I don’t think I ever,

  • Laughed, cried and cheered so much at a wedding.
  • Been so engulfed in a supportive community.
  • Witnessed a pre-wedding, theatre-worthy performance with songs, story, and poetry celebrating two individual journeys and the magic of their meeting.
  • Felt a collective joy that risked blowing out the walls of the ceremony hall.
  • Cried that marriage could have ever been denied a couple who loved so deeply.

Ten years ago, this wedding wouldn’t have been possible. If anyone has any lingering doubts about the validity of gay marriage, I dare them to witness the story of these two men. Through their honesty, their commitment, and their bravery in not giving up on love in the face of society’s homophobia, they honored and sanctified the act of marriage.

Throughout their ceremony, I kept squeezing my husband’s hand. Their vows renewed mine.

How ironic, I thought, that we can learn the beauty of marriage from those who once would have been denied the right to it.

Yet that’s what the marginalized, the disenfranchised, and those who did not grow up entitled to what we take for granted, can do for us. They open our eyes to beauty and privilege we don’t see any more. Entitlement numbs us to life (I know; I grew up in a community where entitlement was assumed.)

With privilege, we despair of everything that doesn’t work and forget what does.

In witnessing:

  • Two wonderful men take their vows, I see the power of marriage.
  • An immigrant take an oath, I understand the power of citizenship.
  • A refugee join our community after risking life to escape a troubled land, I’m struck by the power of home.
  • An older African-American woman voting for the first time, I remember that voting matters.
  • A Down-syndrome man standing at the altar at church, I sense our equality as beings.
  • An unemployed twenty-four-year old land a first job, I get the power of work.
  • A woman step forward and say “Me too,” I’m moved by the power of voice.
  • A woman dying in a hospice bed, I feel the sacredness of life.

All of these people offer gifts that shake my world out of its complacency. I say “Black lives matter,” and become more present to why every life matters. I welcome immigrants, not just for their sake, but because they have much to teach us about what matters in this country today.

We need to listen to those at the margins. They can be our potent teachers.

Just as my two beloved friends can remind me of why, thirty years ago, I took vows of marriage to the man I love so much today.

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