Posted in Sermons

Manifestation and Letting Go

The following is a sermon I gave yesterday for Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cookeville‘s Burning Bowl ceremony. This is a ceremony in which each person writes on a piece of paper something that they would like to let go of, that is no longer serving them. Then we light a candle in a big ceramic bowl and ceremonially burn the papers. I really wanted to use flash paper this year, or flying wish paper, but I didn’t get the Amazon order in time. Maybe next year.

Burning Bowl Ceremony

The only constant is change, said Heraclitus of Ephesus.

Question: how do we bring more of what we want into our lives, and let go of the things we don’t want in our lives? In other words, how do we direct the change?

In Pagan and New Age and other spiritual circles, this concept is discussed using the term “manifesting.” This language entered the mainstream about 15years ago with the popularity of The Secret and Abraham-Hicks’ message about the Law of Attraction. The concept is this: If you ask for something, and you focus on it without fear about it not happening, without framing it in a negative — “I don’t want to get sick” — then it will happen. Because of your focus, you are attracting what you wish to you. By doing this you can heal your sickness, you can be rich, you can have whatever you want.

Needless to say, this concept is wildly popular. It got celebrity endorsement, and its proponents made millions explaining to people, sometimes claiming to channel otherworldly entities, how to ask for things so that you get them. The problem is that when the wishes fail to come true, people who prayed for God to make something happen or expected the Universe to provide wonder whether the fault might be in them. So, Is it true? Can we wish our futures into existence?

Like most things, it has a grain of truth in it. What you focus on, you will draw to you, but maybe it’s not because of some universal magic. Or, maybe it is. But most often, you don’t get what you want because you wished for it. That’s much more likely to work for someone who was rich, white and privileged in the first place. But when we give something our attention, it does make us more likely to look for connections, relationships, and opportunities that will draw those things to us. It makes us more likely to put our efforts into making it happen. And if there’s some universal law at work, so much the better, but the need for the work doesn’t go away. You still have to show up every day to make the thing happen.

But sometimes we get blocked. We get in our own way with negative self-talk, or fear of taking the next step or of failing, or lack of faith in ourselves, or lack of support from those close to us, or any other number of reasons. So the first question I want to ask you is this: what do you want to manifest? What do you want to be the focus of your year, what do you want to draw to you or accomplish in 2019? Put another way, I’m reading a book called First Things First and it asks the question: What is the one activity that you know if you did superbly well and consistently, would have significant positive results in your life? And the obvious follow up question is: why aren’t you doing it? Put more poetically, by Mary Oliver, what are you doing with your one wild and precious life?

So ask yourself, what is holding you back? What pain are you holding in your heart that it would better serve you to let go? As you ponder this, bear in mind that not all pain should be let go, just yet. Sometimes we need to hold it, and love it until it is ready to depart on its own.

The Buddha liked lists. One of the lists he gave us was Five Hindrances. He identified them as five mental states that hinder us in meditation and in our daily lives. For some of these things, we don’t have direct translations in English, so I thought I’d give each of them some attention.

The first hindrance is sometimes translated as greed, sometimes sensual desire. I like to think of it as Grasping or Clinging. We humans don’t like change, and yet all things change. Sometimes we cling to things out of habit or fear of sacrificing comfort, but those very things might be what is holding us back. They may even be relationships sometimes. Or they may be attachment to things. Maybe we can’t clear space in our mental lives because we have too much literal clutter in our houses, but we cling to those physical possessions for one reason or another.

The Second Hindrace is Aversion, and it is the flip side of the first. We cling to good experiences, pleasant sensations, and the other side of that coin is, we often push away what we have judged as bad or negative, or things that are unpleasant. In doing this we often lose a valuable lesson. One I like to share is, when I began meditating, every time I took a breath one of the vertebrae in my neck would click. Every inhale. Breathe in — click. Breathe out. Breathe in — click. Breathe out. It drove me insane. I could not focus on my breath or being present because of that damned click. So I went online, because I figured, I can’t be the first person to have dealt with this, how do I get rid of it? And somewhere in the middle of all of my online searching, I suddenly realized… sitting with this thing is no different than sitting with leg pain, or sitting with grief. You allow the experience, thank it for what it has to teach you, and let it be. The crazy thing was, it seems likely that I was causing the click because of some tension somewhere, because when I took this advice, it quite often stopped happening. And that’s true of aversion in a lot of cases… when we push something away, when we are saying to ourselves I HATE THIS, I CAN’T STAND IT, we are giving it attention and still holding it, just in a different way.

The third hindrance is Sloth and Torpor. These are translated pretty accurately, and I think you get the idea. Another Steven Covey phrase is “mind over mattress.” Often we have so much resistance to something, say for example, exercising, or getting started on a cleaning project. And then we get started and realize that getting started was 90% of the battle.

The fourth hindrance is Restlessness, Anxiety, and Worry. I don’t have to explain to you what these are, and if you’ve ever had an anxiety attack or worried about something you know what I mean when I call it a hindrance. For a Buddhist the answer to these things is the same as the answer to all of the others: sit with it. Let it be. In our modern day we often identify too much with things. We say I AM depressed, or I AM anxious. I want to ask you to watch your language and stop BEING things that are hindering you. Say instead, I am feeling anxious, and then, if you can make space for it, sit and ask why you might be depressed or anxious. This is not to say that you should not get help for these things if you need it. If this is a chronic problem for you, professional help might be needed.

The fifth hindrance is Doubt. Hindering doubt is not the same as questioning doubt. Questioning doubt leads us to greater understanding. Hindering doubt is occasionally failing to trust those who have our backs, but most often hindering doubt is self-doubt. Fear of failure, failing to trust ourselves, wondering if we’re strong enough to deal with something. So I want to tell you, not only are you strong enough, but you are Enough in every way.

Returning to our theme of how to manifest something that we want in our lives, and letting go of something else to make room for it, I want to read Thich Nhat Hanh’s words about Impermanence.

Impermanence Makes Everytghing Possible

We are often sad and suffer a lot when things change, but change and impermanence have a positive side. Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible. Life itself is possible. If a grain of corn is not impermanent, it can never be transformed into a stalk of corn. If the stalk were not impermanent, it could never provide us with the ear of corn we eat. If your daughter were not impermanent, she cannot grow up to become a woma. Then your grandchildren would never manifest. So instead of complaining about impermanence, we should say, “Warm welcome and long live impermanence.” We should be happy. When we can see the miracle of impermanence, our sadness and suffering will pass.

Impermanence should also be understood in the light of inter-being. Because all things inter-are, they are constantly influencing one another. It is said that a butterfly’s wings flapping on one side of the planet can affect the weather on the other side. Things cannot stay the same because they are influenced by everything else, everything that is not itself.

When we think about manifesting things in our lives, it’s important to spend some time thinking less about I want this NOT that, and more about How can this become that? Our lives are not a series of switches to be flipped, I no longer want this, I want more of that, but instead, we are all living on a continuum of inter-being and inter-becoming. Going back to Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching:

Conditions

Looking deeply into a box of matches, you can see the flame. The flame has not manifested, but as a meditator you can see the flame. All the conditions are sufficient for the flame to manifest. There is wood, sulfur, a rough surface and my hands. So when I strike the match ad the flame appears I would not call that the birth of a flame. I would call it manifestation of a flame.

The Buddha said that when conditions are sufficient you manifest yourself. When conditions are no longer sufficient, you stop manifesting in order to manifest in other forms, with other conditions.

— Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death No Fear

I encourage you to sit in silence and meditate on these things, especially the concept that what you want to manifest is not a thing that doesn’t yet exist, but something that the conditions have not until now been right for. What would it take to make the conditions right? Perhaps, light a candle to gaze at, as you think on these things for at least a few minutes, or however long it is comfortable for you to meditate.

Following the meditation, if you want to do the ritual portion of this exercise, take two pieces of paper, perhaps different colors . On one, write whatever you think you need to let go of, in order to make room for more of what you want in your life. On the other, write whatever you want to call to you. Light a candle and have nearby a large ceramic bowl or perhaps a large clay flower pot. I find this ceremony most powerful to do near dusk. You can fold the paper in some way that seems significant to you. Carefully light the paper with the candle, and drop the paper into the bowl. You might spend a moment watching the edges curl, blacken, and become something else: ash, embers, a chemical reaction, carbon dioxide, and then dissipate to become part of something else. After our congregation’s Burning Bowl ceremony, I took the ashes and put them in my compost pile, so that they literally could become part of something else, so if that feels right to you, you can do that too. Some people empty the ashes into a running stream of water to be carried away symbolically, again.

What you do with the other sheet of paper is up to you. You can put it somewhere you’ll see it in your house, or on your altar at home if you have one, or you can bury it in the earth or fold it into a paper boat (please use environmentally friendly, degradable paper) and release it into that stream of water with the ashes of the other paper. Or, do some other symbolic act of releasing your desire into the universe.

My friends, may your goodbyes be gentle.

Advertisements
Posted in Big Questions

Write Your Friends’ Eulogies While They Are Still Alive

A Single Rose

A few days ago I had lunch with a friend. Because we are both pretty deep thinkers (and maybe a little morbid), we started talking about death. We both knew, we said, what we didn’t want at our funeral, something we’d seen too many times at the funerals of friends and relatives: a minister of a religion the deceased belonged to only nominally, someone that didn’t know the person or only barely knew the person, giving a sermon that was more proselytizing than celebration of an individual’s life. We talked about friends doing readings, no sermon, just a swirl of memories capturing what we had been and what we meant to those dear to us.

You’ve thought about this, right? I’m not sure why our society thinks it’s strange and morbid to think about death, but I think planning for your death is as important as planning for your life. You’ll be dead a lot longer. You’ll leave an onerous financial burden on your family if you don’t think about it and plan for it. They’ll argue about what belongings you leave behind. Seriously, think about it. Think about end of life decisions too. If you need a guide in this process I highly recommend you check out Five Wishes and that you purchase their workbook for end-of-life-decisions. Don’t leave them guessing what you would have wanted at a time that is very stressful anyway.

The friend I was having lunch with said, “I’d like for you to say a few words at my funeral.” Obviously we can’t both speak at each other’s funeral, but that got me thinking about what I would say. There’s as lot to say: she’s as unselfish a person as I know, deeply involved with and caring about her family, and when you speak with her you know you have her full attention and she is interested in who you are and what you think, where you have been and what you know. She is easy to talk to and easy to be with, and I think it would be difficult for me (introvert me, even) to spend too much time in her company.

You hear, sometimes, “make sure people know you love them while they are still alive.” But really, it’s one thing to tell your friends they are loved and appreciated, and another to tell them all the things that you love and appreciate about them. And I thought, it might be awkward to hear that, and anyway, I could do a much better job of it in writing. I imagined myself at a funeral, saying “I wrote Heather’s eulogy in 2019, and handed it to her the following week.”

In a eulogy, you celebrate memories of a person, bits of ephemera like snapshots in a photo album gathered as commentary on the wonderfulness of the life they lived and the energy they brought to your life. “He was always doing things for others. There was the time my car broke down and…” It’s the essence of a person, or at least the essence of the ways their beingness intersected with yours, distilled into an essay.

Tell me, would you not want to hear your own eulogy? Wouldn’t you love to hear the way you’ve made the lives of your friends and families better? I’m suggesting you tell the people whose lives have impacted yours, before it’s too late for them to hear it. If it’ll embarrass them or you for you to say it out loud, write it. At the same time, let it be an exercise in mindfulness for you. When you’re with them, really listen to them,really hear them. Be hearing their dreams and motivations. Don’t just enjoy their company, really think about why their company is so enjoyable.

And then tell them.

Posted in mindfulness

Now Is a Gift; That’s Why It’s Called the Present

Different geese, prettier day.

My eyes snapped open at 6:18 this morning. I’d considered, last night, maybe I’ll get up early and try for some sunrise photography. Then I thought, nah, it’s after 11 and I probably won’t get up. But I got up. I glanced at the slate blue light coming in my predawn window, then checked my phone, when is sunrise? 6:52.

If I thought that was photographic destiny, I was wrong. Bandit and I packed up in the van and I headed up Spencer mountain, hoping for a vantage point to overlook the pretty farmland below, lit by a sky-blue-pink sunrise. Instead, it rained a little, and the sky was an undulating grey, and three minutes to sunrise there was no hint that I was even going to see the sun. My confused dog was looking at me with deep concern.

We ducked down a road or two marked “Dead End”, hoping for a view off the mountain anyway, for future reference and more attractive mornings, but mostly what we saw was a lot of trailers and some country that would’ve done Deliverance proud, and teaser glimpses of distant registers of mountains (there wasn’t even a decent mist this morning!) through trees silent, gray, and shorn of leaves. Bandit put his paw on my arm. “Fine,” I said, “we’ll go home. I want to look at one more thing.”

I’d seen a blip on my kayaking app that said you could put in at Spencer City Lake, a place I hadn’t known existed before that. I thought I’d check that out for more future reference and as a potential place to put the kayak in, before we headed home. The road was in fairly poor repair, ending in gravel-mud that looked like the denizens of Spencer had used it for mudding (driving a four-wheel-drive vehicle through wet mud). The put-in for the lake was gravel, not a bad spot to put a kayak in, but it didn’t look like there was much to see on a paddle. I may try it for a quiet drift some time anyway.

There was a gaggle of Canada geese not far from my van as I grabbed my camera and hopped out. Maybe, I thought, I can at least get a few wildlife shots. My wildlife lens, a 75-300 mm for you photography geeks, is okay but really woefully inadequate for wildlife photography. At least, it’s not the $9000 camera-dwarfing zoom that I’d really love to try out some day. I don’t expect to ever actually buy one unless I somehow strike it rich on a picture I take with this one. The geese were uncooperative, paddling to the other side of the lake with honky geese-chuckles. They’re awfully shy, I thought, remembering the noisy, gregarious flocks that shat all over my elementary school playground with little to no regard for the small, equally noisy humans who coinnhabited it twice a day, sliding on goose guano while trying to play hopscotch.

Bandit bee lined out of the van for a pile of leaves and promptly did his business. Ohhh, I thought. That explained his look of concern. Poor dude, I rushed him out of the house in the dark and into the van before he’d even had a chance to let his bowels wake up.

Once that was taken care of, since there was no one around, I unhooked his leash and let him explore. I must say, it is a glorious thing to have a dog who will come when he is called, that I can trust him to enjoy himself in the woods. He zigzagged from smell to smell, and I wondered if he was searching for other dogs or small, interesting, furry thing smells. There was a trail up the bank and around the lake, and I thought, what the heck, let’s stretch our legs. Maybe I’ll even get a critter to take a picture of.

Sometimes, when you are looking for The Photo (or, really, anything else), you forget to just be present. I found nothing photo-worthy at 6:53 a.m. today, but there will be snapshots in my mind. Bandit, still not really awake but joyfully exploring the smells in the woods. I heard a noise and stopped in my tracks, looking up. The tall cedars above me nodded their heads at one another, discussing the gray dawn, perhaps, making delightful creaking noises that called to mind other forests, other evergreens. I stood dwarfed by them, admiring them, for several minutes. No photo could hold them, or their voices. I walked on to a different edge of the lake and stood, listening to the lap of waves against a reed-forested shore. A kingfisher called in the distance, teasing: I’ve never been able to get a satisfactory shot of a kingfisher. I never saw him, but by now, I had come back to the present and it didn’t matter. Bandit gazed over the water with me, and eventually, we made our way back along the little trail to the canoe ramp. The geese called excitedly to one another and I knew they were going to take off, but my camera settings weren’t ready for flight speed and I missed that, too. I have’t looked at the pictures yet but I think the only photo I’ll probably bother with is an abstract one of the reed patterns in the water, distorted reflections dancing on the surface. I don’t mind. There are other mornings and this one reminded me how exquisite quiet mornings can be, in full living color or in grayscale.

Posted in Creatures

The Limits of Love

Rascal as I will always think of him, enjoying and glowing in the golden hour

Spoiler alert: there aren’t any. Love has no limits.

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved y our beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

— W.B. Yeats

Rascal is not my dog. When my son Brandon was four, he saved up his money and bought a puppy. “Get a shih tzu,” my mom said. “I love collies,” I said. We opened up the newspaper and found shih tzu/sheltie mix puppies for sale. That felt like destiny calling. We got the pup.

That was almost 19 years ago. He has always been Brandon’s dog, a dude’s dog. I’m the one who messes with him, trimming nails, brushing (he requires a lot of brushing, but I have let it go except for what is necessary for his health), cleaning up his messes. Brandon loved him, snuggled with him, trained him, adored him.

And then went to college. When he was six months old we bought another pup to ease his separation anxiety, his half brother, and it wouldn’t have been fair to Rascal to go with Brandon and spend a lot of time alone. So he stayed home with me, wriggling with joy when His Boy came to visit him, covering him with kisses. If I get a kiss I count it a rare treasure.

Still, he is an old soul, and he had a lot to teach me. I think he still does. That’s a story for a longer blog post probably, the one I will sob over when he leaves us. It’s not time for that now.

Right now it’s time to cherish every moment he is still in joy. He still loves that golden hour, lying in the yard. He wags for snow. He wags for His Boy. He wags for Christmas presents. He wags.

He has had degenerative hip disease since he was two years old, so I am astonished that he is still plugging along. His brother Dink left us late in 2017. We lost bladder control last year, and he can’t hear too well or read the newspaper anymore. I have to pick him up to take him outside, and snatch him up when he’s done peeing to make sure he doesn’t fall over in it while he’s trying to walk when he’s done. He needs diapers. He gets diaper rash. His appetite isn’t the best and most of the time I have to fight with him to get pills down him. But the vet is astonished that his bloodwork looks so good for a geezer his age, and, well, he still wags.

He was always a Rascal. If he wasn’t tied, he’d run away, daring someone to catch him. Unbelievably, he still tries to run away. If I put him outside and don’t put him on a leash — this crotchety old man who sleeps with his face practically in his water dish so that he doesn’t have to get up and walk to it if he gets thirsty in the middle of the night — he will “run” away, by which I mean he hobbles 2 feet, looks around to see if I am watching, and if he is lucky, he makes it to the edge of the neighbor’s yard, feeling supremely pleased with himself for outfoxing me. If I’m not careful he will make it to the garden and get stuck.

He loves Christmas. He finds his present (he always knows because it’s the soft one that’s not in a box), and he pokes it with his nose excitedly while Bran helps him open it. Bran sleeps over on Christmas Eve. We had to wake him up this year, but he was still excited about his present, which was a bed and not a dog toy for the first time ever. The last three Christmases I thought would be his last with us, and he keeps surprising me.

He’s a lot of work. Loving an old geezer is a lot of work. I fight with the pills, I change his diaper, I carry him outside, I have to watch because often the only indication that he needs to go is that he tries to get up and move. I try not to diaper him all the time because he gets rashes, so he has accidents in the house sometimes, not getting up too fast, and we head to the bathtub to clean him up, one hand under his belly because he has a hard time standing for very long. I have to hand feed him sometimes when he is being picky. One of the hardest things about this past very difficult year was when I had surgery and couldn’t take care of him the way he needed me to, couldn’t pick him up.

But as long as he is still wagging, I do not mind. I find so much joy in his enjoyment. He likes his new bed. He loves the big glass door, lying on his bed looking outside, hanging out with Russ, and especially when The Boy comes. He does not love nail trims or brushing or me fidgeting with him. I do not doubt that he will let me know when the joy is gone and it’s time to let him go, when he has one last lesson for me. But we are not there yet.

So I want to tell you this: when love is a lot of work, that’s when you should hold on to it most dearly and with the most joy, but with a gentle grip, because it is fragile, and because when it is time to let go, you should not hold any more. That is the paradox and challenge of love. Can you cherish without clutching, do the work without resentment, be present without demanding?

Lessons in love so often come with paws and fur.

Posted in Reviews

One Thousand Books ( And a Review)

Much earlier this year, I noticed on Goodreads that I was 60 books away from having read 1000 books over my lifetime. That’s something! I thought. So I made myself a Reading Challenge (something you can do on the Goodreads app) to read the 60 books. This morning, I finished my one thousandth book, Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D.

I’m pretty proud of this accomplishment. Other stuff I’ve read this year, a mix of fiction, nonfiction, textbooks, how-to books, memoir, audiobooks, poetry… pretty much the gamut:

American Dervish; Beautiful Jim Key; I Am Spock; Wherever You Go, There You Are; Fools and Mortals; Lock In; Rules of the Road; The Fortune Teller; Daughters of the Night Sky; Beyond Belief; Uncommon Type; Find More Time; NPCs; Split the Party; The Watchmaker of Filigree Street; A Wrinkle in Time; The Book of the Unnamed Midwife; The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck; Genghis: Birth of an Empire; Tell Me How It Ends; The Power; 365 Tao; Hysterectomy: Exploring Your Options; Sociology: A Brief Introduction; Genghis: Lords of the Bow; And Every Morning The Way Home Gets Longer and Longer; Children of Blood and Bone; Felicity; God is Dead; Turn Your Passion Into Profits; West Wind; Small Great Things; Circe; Head On; The Ocean at the End of the Lane; Hoard of the Dragon Queen; The Kite Runner; The Lioness of Morocco; Braving the Wilderness; Earth Poems; The Third Reconstruction; The Companions; The Graveyard Book; The Night Circus; Jumping at Shadows; Dragon Keeper; iPad for Artists; Dragon Haven; Coraline; Gardner’s Art Through the Ages; We are Legion — We are Bob; City of Dragons; Social Psychology and Human Nature; Turtles All the Way Down; Blood of Dragons; Nonviolent Communication.

Best Fiction I Read This Year: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Best Nonfiction I Read This Year: Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown

Worst Book I Read This Year: God is Dead by Ron Currie Jr.

I want to start reviewing books here, because reading is (obviously) so much a part of who I am. I thought it was appropriate that Nonviolent Communication be the final book in my first thousand, because it is so much a part of the person I want to be.

I started this book as part of a discussion group at church, called Compassionate Communication. The group is on its third tour of the book, and they have discovered that living it is harder than it seems.

Basically, there are four parts to Compassionate/Nonviolent Communication:

1. Make an observation that is not a judgment, something that has provoked your need to communicate in the first place. If, for example, you want to have an honest conversation about the dishes in the sink, you might say, “I noticed that there are a lot of dishes in the sink.” The key here is to avoid the judgment, something like “You always leave your dishes in the sink.” (The ‘always’ is probably not accurate, anyway).

2. Make a statement about how we feel in relation to what we have observed. “When I go to make dinner and there are dishes in the sink, I feel frustrated.” We often make “I feel” statements that are actually thoughts. “I feel like you’re neglecting me.” If your feel is followed by like, that’s a good clue that it’s not actually a feeling.

3. State the needs, values and desires that create our feelings. “…. I feel frustrated because I have a need for order so that I can get dinner made efficiently.” It can be challenging to be aware of our own feelings, much less the needs that are behind them. Our society trains us not to speak of our needs because it seems like we’re being selfish, but in reality if you make these things clear, and ask for clarification of the other person’s needs and feelings, quite often a solution becomes apparent without an argument.

4. Make a request for concrete actions that will enrich our lives. The important thing here is that it is a request, rather than a demand. The other person has the option to say no. Making demands is not conducive to good communication or good feelings on the part of both people.

There’s so much more to say about this book. As my friend Susan in my church group said, when she read it she thought, “This could change the world.” And so it could, if more people knew about it. So I highly recommend that you give it a read. You can also visit Dr. Rosenberg’s site, The Center for Nonviolent Communication.

If you want to keep up with what I’m reading, you can find me on Goodreads.

What’s on your To Read list for 2019?

Posted in A Day In The Life

O Christmas tree

It occurred to me this morning that I can have a different colored tree every day till Christmas.

I make no apologies for being THAT person… the one who’s excited about Christmas as soon as Thanksgiving is over. I missed roughly half of the Christmases in my life because I was a Jehovah’s Witness, so I am making up for lost time. I send Christmas cards, I love picking out presents and wrapping them. One of my favorites is Santa duty. Christmas morning comes, I get up early, and I set out the presents in sparkling packages, carefully arranged, and then lie on the couch to admire my handiwork and the way the tree’s lights twinkle on the packages. And I LOVE putting up the tree.

My son Brandon, who is 25 this year, loves it just as much, and is my Christmas cohort. Part of the reason I treasure this time of year so much is because I get to reminisce with Brandon. This is what past tree-putting-up-days looked like: he would help me go to the garage and get our two sets of ornaments, blue and silver or deep red and gold. We’d pick one. We’d parade in circles around the tree with lights and garland, then put up the nostalgic ornaments, the ones we made the first few Christmases after we started celebrating again, and talk about Christmases past while we listened to Nat King Cole and Dean Martin croon old carols. Then we’d turn off all the lights and admire our handiwork and yell at cats to stop bothering the tree, and enjoy the fact that Bran’s old dog, who is almost 19 this year, is still with us.

Not much has changed, really, with one exception: we no longer hang those old ornaments (I wish I had room for The Tree in the living room and a smaller nostalgic tree, but my house is small). Instead, a few weeks to a month ahead of time, we start texting each other and planning. I had the idea a couple of years ago to light the hell out of our white tree and put black ornaments on it so that they would be silhouetted against the supernova.

Last year’s tree. There are a thousand lights on this sucker.

My son is as creative as I am (he’s got a Fine Art degree) but his creativity is usually happiest married to some tinkering, technical aspect of a project. His original plan was to buy LED strip lights to go on the tree this year, and I had the idea to turn it into a giant candy cane, with the red lights as the stripes. We plotted together, went to Hobby Lobby to buy bright red and white ornaments, and he got the lights.

Only, it needed red garland, and I didn’t buy any. And the red on the strip lights was too orangey. Plan B! We sat on the couch and played with the lights’ remote control, looking at all the colors, and ultimately decided that we loved the bright white because it was so frosty-looking. Bran had the BRILLIANT idea to turn the LED strip lights inward, and with the white tree bouncing the light around it looked like the whole thing was lit from within. We covered the strip with white garland on the outside, so that you really can’t see the lights except where they are twinkling through the tree. We didn’t put any traditional lights on it at all.

We decided to deck the tree in only white and clear ornaments, and snowflake bead garland, and snow-white sparkly poinsettia flowers. We sat back down with the lights in the house off to play with the remote. It still needs a tree topper, and my plan is to buy a twinkly white snowflake for that. I loved the white lights the best still, but it’s also a lot of fun to play with the colors and the white ornaments look great in any color, or all of them.

And it was fun to sync with techno, too. Note beloved old Rascal basking in the neon lights.

Next year, red garland and all those ornaments I just bought. And maybe some high tech controls for Bran to play with. Or, you never know, we may go with another idea entirely, or a new tree, because that’s how we roll.

Posted in mindfulness

Rituals of Gratitude

Every night before I go to sleep
I say out loud
Three things that I’m grateful for,
All the significant, insignificant
Extraordinary, ordinary stuff of my life.
It’s a small practice and humble,
And yet, I find I sleep better
Holding what lightens and softens my life
Ever so briefly at the end of the day.
Sunlight, and blueberries,
Good dogs and wool socks,
A fine rain,
A good friend,
Fresh basil and wild phlox,
My father’s good health,
My daughter’s new job,
The song that always makes me cry,
Always at the same part,
No matter how many times I hear it.
Decent coffee at the airport,
And your quiet breathing,
The stories you told me,
The frost patterns on the windows,
English horns and banjos,
Wood Thrush and June bugs,
The smooth glassy calm of the morning pond,
An old coat,
A new poem,
My library card,
And that my car keeps running
Despite all the miles.
And after three things,
More often than not,
I get on a roll and I just keep on going,
I keep naming and listing,

Until I lie grinning,
Blankets pulled up to my chin,
Awash with wonder
At the sweetness of it all.

— Three Gratitudes, Carrie Newcomer

Happy Thanksgiving.

For most people, this holiday is about gathering, family, and way too much food, but my wish for you is that it is also about actual giving of thanks, whether you thank the people who loved you this year or give thanks to the divine. It doesn’t matter. Gratitude changes us in wonderful ways, and I firmly believe that it should be among our regular practices not just one day a year, but every day.

My mother recently told me that she and my father, who has a great deal of problem with anxiety, have begun a daily Gratitude Practice together, each sharing three things at the dinner table for which they are grateful. She said dad called her up one day to tell her he “had a thing!” to share with her that evening. For me, I keep a journal, and each day I write three things (at least) for which I am grateful.

When you make this a yearly practice, you hit the big ones: family, health, home, well-being, friends, community, employment, gathering. When you make it a daily practice, everything changes. You start looking for little things to be grateful for, that you can write or share at your daily ritual. You start to focus on what is right with your life when it is so very easy to focus on what is wrong. And I believe, when you focus on the positive, you invite more of it into your life. People are attracted to positive people. You start to like the grateful person you see in the mirror every morning. You gain confidence that good things WILL happen.

It truly is life-changing. I beg you to try it, for a month at least. Share it on Facebook or Twitter. Write it in a journal. Make it a ritual in your family.

I’m not sure what the magic of three is. You don’t have to do three. You can do one. But for some reason three makes me push past the one big thing in my day that makes me smile, and encourages me to find more. There is always more. There is poetry in it. Yes, the sun is shining today, and it’s nice to notice that, but I can be grateful for the cheering glow behind my eyelids while I’m basking in it. I can be grateful for the long golden shadows at the end of the day. I can be grateful for the relief I feel after many gray days when the sun greets me and makes me realize that I didn’t know how much I needed to see it. Push your gratitude farther this year, dig into details and your feelings, let it really make you present. Why is the sunshine good? Why is your marriage good? Why is your job good? What is good about gathering with family, today? Yes, there is stress about the gathering, but you keep doing it year after year. Surely it’s not solely out of a sense of obligation. You’re not obligated, not truly. Find the joy in every small thing, the reason you keep doing it, and if you can’t… why are you still doing it? There is truth in gratitude, as well. Honesty. Maybe a wake-up call.

I am thankful that you are here, reading my words. I have known since I was small that words were my blessing and my craft. I have written a lot of words in a lot of journals since then, but now I am honored to bring them to the Internet, and more honored that you took the time to stop and listen to my thoughts. May this holiday season bring you joy that you have been forgetting to look for. ❤

Posted in Uncategorized

Introvert Exhaustion

I’m tired. Are you?

I’m a social introvert. I love people, and overbook my social calendar all the time. And then, I hit a wall and I absolutely have to shut down. I call this Introvert Hibernation Time.

I love you. Go away.

If you’re a introvert I know you’ll relate. Introverts aren’t shy, necessarily; the difference between introverts and extroverts is that extroverts get energy on interaction with other people and introverts get energy by being alone, or with one (rarely more than one, but few at most) very special people.

I hit the wall this week. Stress from my husband’s illness, stress from college assignments, and I found myself with little or nothing to give and wanting to lock myself in a room and… what?

How do you fix this?

The answer, of course, is time, and being gentle with yourself, but I have a few other tips I’d like to share.

1. Know your limits and put them in writing. I can look at my jam-packed calendar and know I’m going to need to schedule IHT (Introvert Hibernation Time, remember?) afterwards, and I will literally put it in my planner that way, with SCHEDULE NOTHING at the top of the day(s). And hey, if you surprise yourself and feel great that day, then you can always dial up the social interaction to exactly where you want it. Coffee with your bestie? Snuggle time with your love? Go for it. Hopefully both of those people will understand if you don’t.

2. Know what drains you. I can do a whole lot of church stuff and it doesn’t drain me, but one craft show will usually knock me out for a few days. Phone calls drain me if they’re important, or full of conflict, or something I’m dreading. Settings where there’s a lot of noise and chaos drain me, even if I’m having a good time. If there are bodies in my personal space, especially in a crowd, my reserves are leaking like a sieve. Consider making a list in your journal, if you’re a journaler.

3. Know what re-energizes you. This is a much more fun list to make. Here are a few ideas: Spending time in nature. Doing something creative. One on one time with someone who is awesome. Spending time with animals — taking my dog for a forest hike is a double whammy for me, and if I add in a creative thing like taking wildflower photos to paint later. Ooh, that’s bliss. Finding QUIET. If you have to go somewhere away from home to get that quiet, find a corner of the library, or hit up that forest again. Music can fill some people’s wells. Indulging in a good novel (be careful here, sometimes lying around in your pajamas bingeing Netflix can be well-filling, and sometimes it can just make you feel like a bum and more depressed). Chances are, if you make a list of things you absolutely love, you can go back and highlight the things that are also well-filling, it’ll be most of those things. For me, a social introvert, they don’t match entirely, but it’s a good start. Definitely make this list too. In fact, consider making the list anew every time you’re feeling burned out.

4. Schedule a play date. Setting up a couple of hours of just-for-me-time/self care on a weekly or otherwise regular basis is good preventative medicine.

5. Know the signs of introvert exhaustion. Sometimes, we’re getting irritable, or depressed, we don’t realize it’s because we need a little alone space. We introverts can often get very deep into our own heads, with thoughts swirling endlessly, firing judgments at someone who is getting on our last nerve, without knowing that it’s really not them, it’s us. We lose touch with our actual feelings. It’s different for everyone, but here are a few that should make warning bells go off:

  • Noise drives you insane and you feel overstimulated just listening to someone talk.
  • You’re tired all the time even though you’re sleeping.
  • Or, insomnia.
  • You’re uncharacteristically irritable.
  • Emotional sensitivity.
  • Tough to get motivated.
  • Your eyes glaze over when you try to focus and you find yourself staring into the middle distance and shutting down emotionally.
  • Psychosomatic symptoms. You hurt somewhere even though you don’t remember hurting your back, your knees, your neck. Even of you understand that you have chronic pain in this place, did you ever injure it? If not, please do some research on Tension Myositis Syndrome and see if you fit this picture. Finding out about this changed my life.

6. Get mindful. This kind of links to the above, but if you’re zoning out and you’re not aware of your own feelings, you need to bring yourself back and be fully present. If you’re currently totally overwhelmed, retreat, and then get mindful. Sometimes we get so much in our head we can’t even feel our bodies. Meditation is the best training for this. If you have a hard time doing sitting meditation try walking meditation, or coloring, or Zentangle, or another meditative activity. Connect with your breath (hey, you’re alive, yay!) and sort your own feelings out.

7. Don’t make IHT a habit. I know this sounds contradictory to what I said above about scheduling IHT days. But what I’m telling you is, you need social interaction. If you find it incredibly difficult to socialize with any people at all, you might consider getting help for depression, because while introverts need their alone time, we need our social time too, even when it’s a struggle. Find a buddy, preferably another introvert, to help you with this. Get out sometimes and get social. Find a safe space/group or at least a safe person where you can be yourself. It doesn’t have to be in a crowd.

8. Love who you are. You’ll never change what gives you energy. What you can change is your level of confidence and the people you surround yourself with when you are ready to surround yourself with people. Choosing your companions is a form of self care. Find some who get it when you say you need a break, people you don’t have to lie to in order to get your alone time. Introverts are amazing people! We are the thinkers, the creators, the poets and songwriters, and often, we’re sensitive people who are so very good for others when we pop our heads out of our shells. We get people, we just don’t want to be in the middle of them all the time. It’s only a matter of finding a balance between social and alone, and you can use both of them to make the world a little better.

Posted in Uncategorized

Time Change Blues

Doggone it, what happened to the morning?

I woke up incredibly sluggish this morning because Daylight Savings Time makes me feel jet-lagged for up to 2 weeks afterward, every time.

Because of my sluggishness (which Otto feels too, as you can see), I don’t have a lot of time to write this morning, but in thinking about whether I should bother at all, I thought I’d share a tip.

If time changes bother you too, I found a way to make them much less awful a couple of years ago. A light therapy light, the kind used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder. I sit in front of it while I’m journaling for about 45 minutes a day, starting two weeks before we fall backward. Trust me, it cushions the blow. My jet-lagged days usually last less than a week now. You can get one of the lights on Amazon for less than $30. Make sure it’s 10,000 lux or more.

And, I keep using it all winter long, up through the spring time change. I used to have a lot of problems with post-Christmas winter blahs, but February doldrums are now less of a problem too. Light=happiness.

Hope the sun is shining where you are!

Posted in Art and Life, Uncategorized

Don’t Be Afraid

Someone asked me a while back, what’s the best advice you’ve ever been given? And I said, “Don’t be afraid.”

The advice was given years ago by this lovely lady, Karen Walton. She was my painting teacher. It wasn’t something she said once in the course of my instruction, she said it rather often. She had a sense for when that “oh no.. what do I do now?” feeling was coming up. If you’re an artist of any kind, you know what I’m talking about. It begins with the fear of the blank page, and comes up again when you’re not sure what’s wrong with the thing you’re working on but something’s wrong, or when you’re not sure what the characters are supposed to do in the next chapter or whether you’re finished with the drawing or not. Fear, it seems, is part of art. The more attached you are to the final outcome, the more the fear paralyzes you. This happens to me every time I accept a commission.

“To require perfection is to invite paralysis. The pattern is predictable: as you see error in what you have done, you steer your work toward what you imagine you can do perfectly. You cling ever more tightly to what you already know you can do — away from risk and exploration, and possibly further from the work of your heart. You find reasons to procrastinate, since to not work is to not make mistakes. Believing that the artwork should be perfect, you gradually become convinced that you cannot make such work. (You are correct). Sooner or later, since you cannot do what you are trying to do, you quit. And in one of those perverse little ironies of life, only the patterns itself achieves perfection — a perfect death spiral: you misdirect your work; you stall; you quit.”

— From Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Baylee’s and Ted Orland

Maybe fear is preventing you from making art at all. Maybe you wish you could make art, but ever since Mrs. Smith the art teacher in elementary school told you that your work was not good, you’ve told yourself you “can’t draw a straight line.” But you love to create, so you make regular trips to your local hobby store and do “crafts,” by which I mean follow someone else’s instructions for creativity. Don’t misunderstand me, I am a crafter and I am not downplaying crafting, which is a vehicle for the artistic spirit, but if you limit yourself to paint-by-number and adult coloring books and step-by-step Pinterest projects, you will never discover what you can do, and you will never learn to trust yourself.

So, back to my story about Karen. She would say this, “Don’t be afraid.” When I was working on my second painting, the portrait of a horse, I meticulously painted a highly detailed and perfect eye on it… and then realized it was in the wrong place. And then I froze. Karen came over with her paintbrush, dabbed it in my paint, and then painted out my carefully crafted, wrongly placed eye. That’s the glorious thing about oil paints: at any point you can paint over the thing and start over. I did. I was so proud of that painting.

I don’t know when I realized that this was a lesson for life, too. I journal every day (I will talk more about that later), and I thought about how fear paralyzes us in doing The Thing, whatever the thing is. We marry ourselves to the outcome in our minds, and it’s much nicer as a fantasy than it is as a dream that failed, so we take the safe route and don’t try The Thing. In our minds, we could have been amazing at it but life got in the way. It’s not life that gets in the way. It’s fear.

So I’m telling you this: Do The Thing. Don’t be afraid. And when your first efforts get painted out, treat it as a new blank canvas to start fresh, whether you had to paint over a tiny aspect of your project or the whole damn thing.

The world needs people who believe in themselves this much.