Cultivating Patience II: The Gift of Waiting

As someone with a chronic illness
I needed to cultivate patience
From the beginning of the perpetual diagnosis
To the endless minutes, hours, days, months, and years of
Waiting

Patience is waiting…

Waiting to go on the UNOS list
Waiting for the beeper to alert me to
A future of waiting

Waiting in waiting areas and hallways
Waiting on exam tables
Waiting for teams of doctors, nurses, residents, social workers
Their voices hushed
“It is day 7 for patient, Coleman, Lerita”

Waiting in freezing cath labs
Waiting for warm blankets
Waiting to be called for the next peering into my body
Sounds waves of my heart, x-rays of my lungs
Enlarged heart masking the exhausted gasping into breathlessness

Anxious waiting by the phone only to hear
“You’re in rejection.  We will increase your medications
Please report to the clinic next Wednesday at 7:30 am to repeat your biopsy…”

Waiting to be home again, really home
With no threat of a return to
Beeping monitors, early morning blood draws
3 am awakenings to a cold x-ray plate poked behind my back
Relentless repeats of Law & Order playing on the TV perched in front of my hospital bed
Sweet young people shaking me from stolen rest to check my vitals

Waiting to sleep in my own bed
To sit across from my husband at my table, in my kitchen with colorful wall paper
To eat my own food on my pretty plates at any time I want
Not 8 am, 12 pm, and 5 pm with eggless eggs, cold toast, too much jello, turkey and gravy
A dose of evening meds with stale crackers doused down with ice chipped water

Yes patience, not seemingly a gift at first
But earned on the path to a recovered verve and a gradual spiritual awakening
Which comes only through waiting and waiting and waiting…

Where are you on the journey to patience, to learning the balance between taking charge at every step and surrendering, receiving the gifts that only waiting can provide?  Like a train stop on the road to a new inner destination, how is patience being nurtured in you?  How is patience working to unearth more of the Peace and Joy in your heart?

Cultivating Patience I

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I haven’t posted to my blog in a few months.  I miss writing about maintaining peace and joy.  I was forced to shift my attention elsewhere when I began a protocol to wean off of prednisone.

For organ transplant recipients, prednisone is a steroid used to suppress the immune system and prevent organ rejection.  When I first began taking prednisone some 21 years ago, I took a fairly high daily dose although for the last 10 years it has been reduced to 5 mg/day.

Over the years I’ve received the “prednisone blast” for various bouts of rejection.  In most transplant centers, a serious rejection episode elicits 1000 mg of prednisone I-V (known as solumedrol) for 3 days in a row.  Because my early rejection issues weren’t treated aggressively enough, in 2000 from January to June I received 13,000 mg of solumedrol.  My body, inundated with steroids felt like an overblown, bloated balloon.  Over a period of about four weeks, each day I could feel a tiny trickle of steroids slowly ebb from my head to my shoulders, passing through my back and abdomen, down my legs and finally seep out of my toes.  Unfortunately I’m allergic to contrast dye so each year for my annual heart catheterization, I receive a very high dose of prednisone as a way of quelling any reaction.  Such blasts led to debilitating fatigue because the adrenal glands are most susceptible to the prednisone beatdown.

I’d wanted to stop taking prednisone for a long time but was always fearful that discontinuing it would trigger another rejection episode and as a consequence I would have to take more.  Long term use of prednisone frequently causes weight gain, fluid retention, increased blood sugars raising the probability of developing diabetes, early cataracts and glaucoma, osteoporosis, mood changes and adrenal gland suppression.  I had experienced all of these and knew I did not want to become a diabetic, break any more bones, or undergo cataract surgery.  This year felt like the right time to intentionally change the course of my health by requesting that I eliminate prednisone from my medical regimen.

Since that time, my listless adrenal glands so used to the prednisone working for them, have failed to secrete ample cortisol.  They have been unable to resume their role as producers of the natural steroids that give me the zip I need to get through the day.  Feeling extremely exhausted I’ve lacked the energy to write, sew, cook or do much more than read or rest.  Fortunately I haven’t suffered much stress lately because my adrenal glands are in no shape to mount a response to any kind of trauma.

In continuing my life-long recovery, I’ve learned many lessons, and the biggest is about patience. I’ve been reminded during this now more than two month ordeal that patience is about timing but typically not my timing.  Patience is about waiting and I, firmly immersed in our fast paced world, find the practice of patience exceedingly challenging.  Earlier in my life, when I pushed through college and graduate school, and even attempts to obtain tenure, I felt I had mastered delayed gratification.  As I’ve gotten older I still find I must muster up patience with myself, with others and the slow process of healing.

I thought I would have cultivated the art of patience by now especially since I’ve been presented with so many opportunities.  I think of the time I’ve spent waiting; waiting in doctor offices, post-op recovery rooms, and pharmacies.  I am grateful, however for the progress I’ve made from my initial days as a transplant recipient.  I used to sit in clinic, watching the clock, often growing resentful about what I could be doing with all that time I felt I was wasting waiting.  Sitting on the burgundy and navy blue leather chairs and couches, with lamps and indirect sunlight I pretended to read, but what I really wanted was for someone to call my name so I could finish the x-ray or speed up the echocardiogram and get on with my day.  Now I realize that waiting is just as important to life as the things on my preferred “to do list.”  When I reflect on my state of impatience, I feel the poignancy of my self-absorption, emotionally and cognitively.   I was thinking primarily about me, my time and my life.

But what about all the others who shared this waiting space with me in clinic?  What about the newly transplanted, anxiously awaiting news about possible rejection or those in heart failure wishing and hoping to just qualify for the organ waiting list that they might have to occupy for years?   It occurred to me one day that perhaps I could use the waiting time to encourage and uplift recent transplant recipients with my stories of triumph, I could demonstrate to those waiting for heart transplants that there is the possibility of a good life once they receive a new heart.  Often I elicit surprise and shock by my healthy physical appearance, at the spark I radiate after being a heart transplant recipient for over 21 years and a kidney recipient for over 11 years.

Now I wait with much petitionary (“Please somebody give me some energy!”) and contemplative prayer (being still and listening for guidance), and I’ve started to receive answers.  First I learned that cardiologists are not endocrinologists and although my transplant team believed they were weaning me off prednisone at a reasonable schedule  (2 months), I learned from an endocrinologist that people who have taken steroids as long as I have cannot be weaned so abruptly.  It actually takes more like 4-6 months.  She assured me that my adrenal glands would wake up eventually but I need to give them more time, time for a gentle stirring, a gradual awakening.  Yes, more waiting, a seeming metaphor for my life and my spiritual journey.

I am struck by this notion of a gradual awakening of something that has been asleep for a long while.  I suppose just like my adrenal glands lulled to sleep by prednisone many years ago, I am also waking up to a new spirit or sense of who I am.  Of course I want the spiritual awakening to move much faster, perhaps in a flash or overnight.  My arrogant ego wants to orchestrate the awakening perhaps thereby blocking something more intelligent and grander which may be working simultaneously to diminish my suffering.

I am comforted by the notion that I am not the only one resisting the liminal space, the only person sitting in a perennial holding pattern, waiting to wake up in a new expanse of Peace and Joy.  Whether it be hospitals or monasteries, war zones or prayer circles, there are so many communities of people, waiting.

What is it that you are waiting for right now?  How is patience being cultivated in your life?  As you pay closer attention, what is life showing you through the waiting?  What are you being called to do or be in the waiting time?   Perhaps there is some way to inspire and encourage others who share your path of waiting.  There is a reason why patience is considered a virtue and often its cultivation may help to uncover more of the Peace and Joy in your heart.

Photo by Columbus H. Brown of Candid Imagery Fine Art.

Give Life

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April is Donor Awareness month and a time to promote the DONATE LIFE movement.  The term “Donor Awareness” serves to remind us of the thousands of people awaiting life-saving organ transplants.  I am eternally grateful to the Goetz family for donating the heart of their precious daughter and sister, Jody to me more than 21 years ago.  And I continue to thank my “kidney sister,” Jennifer Lund for rescuing me from renal failure in May, 2005, nearly 11 years ago.  I love the logo and label DONATE LIFE as a representation for the miracle that transplantation is.  During my transplant journey I learned a lot about the gift of life and how each of us can give life every day.

Although we frequently equate life with the body, the gift of life reflects something far beyond an organ donation.  With my transplants, I received more than new organs.  I gained a certain vitality, energy if you will from many sources.  After the heart transplant I noticed the over 250 cards and notes some sent from people I didn’t know or had never met.  My mother set them out anywhere she could find a spot; on bookshelves, window sills, on top of the television, nightstand, my desk, and on the kitchen counters.  Each one gave me a spark of energy, of life.  I felt loved knowing that people thought enough of me to take the time to purchase a card and write encouraging words.  Other folks brought food, visited and sat with me, arose before dawn to transport and accompany me on clinic visits.  In fact, each woman in a support group I belonged to many years ago in Detroit took a week of vacation time to care for me when my mother’s family leave ran out.  They traveled by bus, train, airplane, crossing over during  weekends like nurses changing shifts in the hospital.  They cooked meals, made beds, washed clothes, propped up pillows, entertained visitors, talked with nurses and handed me pills with water.  Each friend brought me the gift of life by sharing extraordinary love in their ordinary actions.

This scenario was repeated with slight variations after I spent a month in the hospital in 2003 in heart transplant rejection, after surgery for a kidney transplant in 2005, and heart valve replacement surgery in 2006.  People brought lunch and dinner for weeks.   I felt soothed by the nourishing, life-giving food that neither Warren nor I had to prepare.   Other friends and acquaintances offered respite time for Warren by taking him fishing or allowing him to go to the barbershop, run errands or tinker with his photography.  They sent books, quotes, emails, and pictures, while allowing me to rest when I needed to.   Again the loving energy conveyed in these acts of kindness enlivened me.

I realized that people do not have to be seriously ill for me to give life.  A certain zest is exchanged when I smile and acknowledge a stranger.  Or if I am intentionally kind to an anonymous, fatigued clerk in the store, I know I convey a vivacity that spreads like a virus spurring energy from person to person.  When I take a moment to listen deeply, to take a genuine interest in another person I know my action triggers a certain verve.  Now I enjoy accompanying family and friends to medical appointments and outpatient procedures.  Besides paying the kindness extended to me back, there’s a certain joyous contentment that pervades our time together.

Perhaps the larger theme embedded in the Donate Life campaign is that there we have so much life to give.  We come alive when we connect and share whatever we have with others whether it is an organ transplant, food, time or joy.  Warren, a site leader for a  community garden, likes to grow organic vegetables for our table and also for the local food pantry.  Each year the Stone Mountain Community garden donates about 1000 lbs. of fresh, organic vegetables for people with vouchers standing in line to feed their families.  I like to pray and send positive vibes to strangers.  I recently encountered Mary who like me was recovering in the heart catheterization lab during my annual heart transplant check-up.  Her husband told me she was going to need surgery for an aneurysm they had discovered in her heart.  I assured him I would pray for her.  Other times I create names like “Bob,” “Tim,” “Gloria,” or “Susan” for the homeless people with signs on the side of the road or pushing grocery carts with their belongings down the street and add them to my prayer list.  I believe when I pray I am sending each person some life energy.  Helping, giving time, love, and energy or praying for others promotes life.  On the contrary I notice that confrontations and conflicts that I might have in person or on the phone sap my energy.

Often as a culture, we tend to reserve the giving spirit for certain times of the year like Thanksgiving and Christmas.  But look at the countless ways we can “donate” or give life to others.  Possibly you’ve considered becoming an organ donor and have signed up on the Donate Life website.  Thank you.  Maybe you cannot donate or have not encountered a situation where an organ was needed.  Yet opportunities to give life abound and in giving life, you receive it back—you observe in yourself a certain vigor and vitality that may have been absent before.  It is in the giving spirit that you truly receive the gift of life.

C. S. Lewis said, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of your self less.”  I would add that instead of trying to get more out of life, when I give more life it returns to me more than ten fold.  And to give life in all the ways it has been given to me leads me to the peace and joy in my heart.

#DonateLife     #peaceforhearts

Engraving Integrity on Your Heart

Last week marked three years since I ceased working at Agnes Scott College (ASC) in Decatur, Georgia.  Spending my final years as a college professor/administrator at this fine small liberal arts college for women was truly a blessing.  After 32+ years of college life, I finally left campus.  One of the most memorable things I remember about helping to educate these sharp, curious, and creative young women was the notion of honor and how integrity was interwoven into the mission and life of the college.

I was fortunate in that I sat on the committee who languished many months over what is now the college’s one sentence mission statement;  “Agnes Scott College educates women to think deeply, live honorably and engage in the intellectual and social challenges of their times.”  To live honorably is a remarkable aspiration for women, for anyone.  Imagine a college that creates not only female global leaders, but honorable ones.

I remember moving to Atlanta in 1999.  I had just married Warren who held a government position here.  I took a leave from my job at CU Boulder hoping that I might locate something intriguing to do.  I was worn out from the large research-intensive institutions I had inhabited for the first 20 years of my career.  Agnes Scott College was an unknown to me before relocating to the southeastern US.  Astonishingly, a job for Associate Dean of the College appeared in the Chronicle for Higher Education four months after I arrived.  I decided to investigate the College as I prepared my application.  I mentioned to Warren as I perused the ASC website that it was a college with an honor code.  Shocked I asked, “Are there still schools that actually promote honor as a value?”  I knew from my graduate years at Harvard that if a student was caught cheating, he or she was automatically required to take a year long leave.  But I didn’t know of a college that espoused honor as part of daily living.

The College’s self scheduled exam system serves as a primary example.  Over a ten day period students can select whichever class they want to take an exam in.  Maybe a student decides to take her French exam first and perhaps save the biochemistry final for the last day.  Or she could take all of her exams over a two day period.  The system is based on a strict code of honor; as a student you cannot discuss the contents of an exam.  Other aspects of the system include an honor court, activities and talks about honor and even some incentive for students to confront each other if found cheating.  The system doesn’t operate perfectly but it seems to support a culture of honor among the entire community including faculty and staff.

I still recall my first interview with the search committee.  We sat around a meeting room eating amazingly delicious food, unusual for a college I thought.  I could taste the love by long standing members of the kitchen staff imbued in the green beans, the rice cooked just right and the freshness of the greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and carrots in the salad.  As the initial inquiry began, a student member of the committee posed a question for me.  “We have an honor code at ASC.  What do you think about honor codes?”  Without a thought, I replied, “I think if you do not have integrity engraved on your heart, life is going to be a long haul.”  And I meant it.

I learned many lessons about honor and integrity over the years.  I will never forget that I cheated perhaps more than once on my high school chemistry exams.  I terribly wanted to have excellent grades so I could attend an outstanding college.   As I completed that class, I felt awful, ashamed and ignorant about the material.  When I took basic college biology, I felt the sting.  I couldn’t remember much about the periodic table, positive and negative ions, or other elementary chemistry.  I later learned how related mastery of chemistry is to biology and physics.  I never cheated again.

Once I became a professor, I would share a few words about cheating before every first exam.  I told the students I knew some of them would be tempted to cheat, however I would report them if I discovered it.  I explained was that cheating breeds incompetence.  If you cheat, you haven’t learned the material and I don’t want an incompetent surgeon operating on me, or an inept lawyer arguing my case or an unqualified teacher teaching my children.

In my first 20 years of teaching, I reported 2 maybe 3 obvious cases of cheating; two guys with verbatim wrong answers and in a class of 250 students, a student printed out her roommate’s paper and changed the first page.  I often wondered why students thought professors and teaching assistants didn’t carefully read papers and exams.  Now of course there are computer programs that can find all kinds of plagiarism with just one click.

I witnessed the most tragic case of cheating when I served as the associate dean at ASC.  A senior I’ll called “Joan,” already admitted to law school and about to graduate with honors plagiarized one of her final papers.  She was academically dismissed, did not graduate nor could she ever apply to law school again.  Joan provided a dreadful example of how costly one devastating error in judgment, a serious lapse in integrity can be.

I will never forget the very bright, inquisitive, and hardworking students I encountered at Agnes Scott College.  I have particular fondest for the ones I taught in the Senior Seminar in Psychology.  They were courageously creative, unafraid and unapologetic.  Once a student remarked in class that she didn’t believe in organ transplants—that if people were going to die, we shouldn’t be trying to extend their lives by taking organs from other people who were dying.  “No disrespect, Dr. Brown,” she commented “but that’s just the way I feel.”   Horrified by the comment, I applauded her honesty and appreciated her keen intellect.  I later became her mentor and strongest advocate, writing letters of recommendation for her for graduate school.  We still keep in touch.

As I reflect on my time at ASC I will always be grateful for the wonderful student assistants who combed the library for books, tracked down articles, and coded and analyzed data for me.  We shared laughter, family stories and I knew that my mentoring would bear a great harvest.  Even students I would describe as, “plucking my last nerve” with excuses for late papers or no papers, who didn’t attend class but expected to pass anyway still elicit a smile when I learn on Facebook or Linkedin that someone has acquired a promotion, married or recently had a child.  What impressed me most about the women of Agnes Scott College, however, was that by the time most graduated, they had engraved honor and integrity on their hearts.  Honor and integrity—what peace and joy these attributes bring.  Can you think of a time when honor and integrity brought peace and joy to your heart?

Quiet Day, Anyone?

Recently I led a Quiet Day at a local retreat center on Howard Thurman who was mentor and spiritual adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  What is a Quiet Day you might ask?  I describe it as a weekend silent retreat packed into a single day.  It provides each person in attendance an opportunity to disconnect from the world for a few hours, power down the electronic devices and get off the grid.  A Quiet Day allows for calming the inner chatter and just basking in the stillness that lies below it in our minds.  Actually I’ve noticed that most environments especially natural settings possess quiet, stillness, and serenity until we introduce noise into them.  A certain joy always emanates from the peace nestling in such places.

In preparation for the Quiet Day, I learned some new things about Howard Thurman and what brought peace and joy to his heart.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Thurman was an extraordinary mystic, theologian and preacher and his life and writings offer a number of suggestions about how to live in a world of turmoil yet keep a certain awe, peace and hope in one’s heart. I want to share a few examples from his life here.

Howard Thurman found great peace outside in nature.  He grew up in Daytona Beach so as a young boy he often heard the rush of the ocean, the tides washing against the rocks as well as the sea gulls adding a song each morning. There was something calming in the sound of the sea and he felt a certain serenity as he gazed at and rowed across the Halifax River near his childhood home.

Thurman also spoke of a favorite oak tree.  He gained great wisdom from just observing the tree.  He noticed that when big wind and rain storms came off the ocean, the tree limbs and branches would swing and sway in the storm, but the tree never toppled over.  There was something about having a strong foundation and deep roots that kept it upright even though tossed and turned in a storm.  Thurman knew the tree represented something about his center, a sense he possessed that as external events might appear chaotic, he could remain rooted and not be subject to the whims of life.  Thurman also talked to the oak tree.  He felt like the tree somehow listened deeply and carried some of his burdens for him.  Sometimes he felt if he sat below the tree in quiet, he heard an answer to some burning question or issue he lay before it.

Thurman’s experiences remind me of my own many years ago when I lived in Santa Cruz, CA as a college student.  I moved into a duplex my senior year that was located not far from the ocean.  I too, could hear the ocean at night and there was a definite calmness that was brought on by listening to the ocean.  In addition, I found a special large rock that I sat on and gazed out into the sea.  I would go there and share my joys, sorrows and even ask some questions of the vast ocean.  It’s the one thing I missed most after I graduated and left California.

Thurman was a lover of silence and stillness.  He observed that we need to stop the traffic in our minds sometimes just so we can get a grip on what is going in our lives, to better understand the people that we are, and determine what we want.  He advocated silence for everyone but especially for those who were on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement.  He felt that each one of us needs a sanctuary, a place to go where we could garner peace as well as inner strength.  For Thurman taking some time for silence was the human equivalent of refueling ourselves.  Thurman and Gandhi both (they met in 1936) felt that the vitality needed to change one’s circumstances whether they be personal or on a larger social scale came from feeding one’s spirit just like we drink and eat to feed our bodies.  That nurturing of spirit comes through stopping and being quiet as often as we can.  Some people might label this kind of lifestyle “contemplative living,” or a life of living in the present (practicing mindfulness ) and in the Presence.

Is there some aspect of nature that calms you?  Perhaps it is the sound of running water or the birds singing or the tapping of a woodpecker.  Maybe the wind gushing through the singing pine trees, or watching snowflakes gently kiss the ground gives you a sense of inner peace.  How has nature befriended or nurtured you?  Do you have a special tree, rock, lake, stream, park, garden, or place you can go to take your cares to?  Could playing calm music while you complete daily chores like getting ready for school, cooking or cleaning or driving to work create a more serene atmosphere?

I am certain Howard Thurman would be delighted to know that a Quiet Day was held to listen to a few of his meditations, walk around in nature and have contact with the stillness in our minds.  In fact, I am certain if he were still alive, the mere idea of a Quiet Day would make his heart sing.  Perhaps in the midst of the political turmoil dancing all around or during the doldrums of February, the deep days of winter, you might create a “quiet day” in your own home, allowing the songs of the birds to be your music, a crackling fire to provide you with beauty and healthy snacks to nourish your body.  I suspect like Howard Thurman, a day of quiet will kindle some deep peace and joy in your heart.

HT-Meditations of the Heart

“…And a Happy New Year”

The “And a Happy New Year” tune reverberates in my mind almost like an ear worm.   “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”  Time passes quickly. During the month of January, it always seems like New Year’s Eve and Day were just yesterday when in fact they were a few weeks ago.  I remember sitting on the couch staring at the television bleary-eyed from watching nearly nine hours of college football.  Exuberant but clearly exhausted, I willed myself to stay awake until the perennial ball (or peach in Atlanta) drop.  I’m never certain why I engage in this ritual.  I’m either hypnotized or a victim of too many years of conditioning so I feel compelled to toast even with a non-alcoholic beverage and kiss someone at midnight.

Yet the ebullience of starting a new year, the excitement emerging from the awareness that I can erase the board and begin again slowly dissipates.  Typically, as I return to work or my daily routine, and later in January or as the February doldrums approach I notice that the thrill is gone.  I ask myself how I can make the merriment and excitement of my New Year’s celebration continue after the holidays; after recovering from staying up so late and eating too much artichoke dip, mini-quiches or from large holiday spreads filled with turkey, lobster mac and cheese, or lemon layered cake?  I want to keep the exhilaration of the new year yet I cannot make being happy a New Year’s resolution although I have tried to in the past.  Since I love making lists, I decided to create one to kickstart a year in which I maintain the peace and joy.  I want to share a few items that involve a little letting go and a little adding to.

1)  Letting go of my time urgency perfectionism would certainly alleviate nearly all of the anxiety that builds each time I run out of the house for an appointment or as a project deadline approaches.  Releasing the tendency to watch the clock would lessen my impatience with stop lights, slower drivers, and anyone who appears to obstruct my frantic path.  Likewise relinquishing my proclivity toward self-judgment might rid me of some of the shame I pile onto my heart anytime I make a mistake.  Mistakes are gifts serving as guideposts to where I want to be.  Now I understand that real perfection is more about wholeness–embracing shrubs with their dead leaves, cherishing well worn dishes, and ignoring a spot or two on the rugs.  The shift truly involves a change in my perceptions,  a re-focusing of my attention.

2)  The next thing to pop in my mind was the question, “What made me happy as a child?”  I loved to lay on the couch and read a good book with a green apple in hand.  In my childhood home the brown fabric couch in the living room sat between two mahogany brown end tables each with a standard gold lamp crowned with an off white lamp shade.  The couch with its worn out cushions wasn’t particularly comfortable but it sufficed.  Now I recline on a lovely forest green chaise lounge that sits next to a large cathedral window allowing the sun to shine on my face.  Great fiction and non-fiction allows me to escape into other worlds and munching on a green apple during pounding rain, singing winds or lightly falling snow affords me an opportunity to exhale and just be.

I also remember the adage, “An apple a day, keeps the doctor away.”  I don’t want to discount the health benefits of eating apples.  I am certain there are many.  However, I wonder if the sheer joy of doing something that made my heart sing kept the dis-ease at bay.  I suspect the obvious connections between joy and harmony, wholeness and health remain exiled to a back corner of my mind.  But a good book and a green apple are still my antidote to illness and I plan to make reading a welcomed habit throughout the year.

3)  I also love to sit outside in the wind no matter what season.  For me, nature is calming to my spirit; restorative, and offers a gentle serenity.  Warm summer breezes, or a crisp, frosty but not biting cold wind is what I yearn for.  Next time I notice the branches swaying, I’m grabbing a coat and heading out the door.

4)  Warren and I paused from the holiday rush and watched the PIXAR movie—Inside Out.  I was awed by the advancement of technology with the combination of animation and almost real life characters.  A fabulous movie in its storyline and presentation I felt a surge of energy afterwards.  Stopping to watch a movie is what Julia Cameron and Mark Bryan describe in The Artist Way as an artist’s date.  Watching this imaginative movie filled the well that had been depleted by Christmas shopping, meal preparation and far too much entertaining.  I think each of us needs to fill up more often—we wouldn’t think to drive a car without refilling the gas tank.  Even plants and trees pause their growth to re-energize during the winter.  I must make time to restore myself regularly instead of pushing, pushing, pushing.

5)  I plan to allow the creative spirit of mine to flow like a river–sewing new fashions, crochet-edge stitching fleece blankets for family and friends who are struggling or are ill.  I’ve even decided to hire a sewing consultant who can assist with those pesky sewing problems that permit unfinished sewing projects to clutter up my closet.  Clearly I need balance to what I perceive to be the drudgery of washing dirty dishes and clothes, picking of the house, and paying bills.

So what are you going to make your year a happy one that continues until next December?  Perhaps as you pause, listen deeply and more often to your heart, it will whisper to you what it desires and guide you to how you might maintain the peace and joy until 2017 and beyond.

Recovering the Joy of Christmas

How do you feel about the holidays?  When I was a little girl, I could hardly wait for Christmas.  The entire season seemed to be filled with anticipation and wonder.  Everywhere twinkling lights, sparkling Christmas trees, and joyful singing set the season apart. People felt different, nicer and Christmas marked the time when my immediate family gathered with extended kin.  Granny Coleman from Arkansas or Aunt Marye and her family might appear for a special visit.  On Christmas Eve, my brothers and me would jump in our beds early hoping that Santa Claus might know and bring our presents sooner.  I couldn’t fall asleep because I was so excited.  I tossed and turned still unsure if I would discover some gift I wanted under the Christmas tree.  Regardless, Christmas brought a very special day filled with Mass, a few presents, lots of food, and phone calls and visits with aunts, uncles, and cousins.

I’m not certain when I lost the wonder and joy of Christmas and the holiday season.  I suspect it began to dissipate with my discovery of the myth of Santa Claus and the realization of my role in producing the Christmas cheer.  As the oldest daughter, I was expected to help shop for and wrap presents, decorate the tree and assist in the preparation of Christmas breakfast and dinner.  I didn’t mind helping Mom but after about twenty or more years of the annual grind, I began to feel resentful.  My innocent little heart initially overflowing with genuine joy and silent serenity turned into a cranky, exhausted version of that child self wishing that Christmas came once every five years.

The holidays are difficult for many of us and for a variety of reasons.  The season often triggers sadness or resentment because of the unpleasant undertones of households we grew up in—maybe mom couldn’t cope or did so by taking more than a few sips from that bottle she hid under the sink.  Or perhaps an absent father suddenly appeared on Christmas Eve only to remind us of how much we missed him.  Maybe Christmas elicits unhappy feelings because Mom and Dad divorced, or one of them began ill, passed away or in some way was unavailable to share the fabricated happy family moments we see in the annual Christmas specials on television.

One woman described recently in a listening prayer group why she loves Christmas so much and how she decorates every available spot in her house.  “Christmas was the only time we could be happy in our home.  The remainder of the year was a holy hell characterized by abuse and dysfunction.  So at Christmas I could escape into a fog of temporary happiness if only for the few weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.”

I hear many stories about holiday experiences as I sit with individuals in spiritual direction.  In between sibling arguments or total breakdowns in communication among family members, we are barraged with relentless commercials urging us to buy presents when what most of us truly desire is love and connection. So how do we stay in tune with the peace and joy in our hearts at this time of the year?

I’ve struggled to abandon my bah humbug attitude in favor of some unbridled joy.  Even I am tired of being a scrooge so I decided to create a new script.  What I’ve been inspired to do this year is to make a list of things—activities or experiences that would ignite the inner joy that I know already exists within me.  Here is my of my short list of action items that I plan to execute for more holiday cheer:

  1. Drink some hot chocolate or tea in front of a fire.  Who cares if it is 00 or 850 or even if I have a fireplace (there is always one at some restaurant during winter or I can find a TV station with one).  There is something soothing and delightful about pausing to have a cup of tea or hot chocolate and look into a blazing fire.  Even the smoldering embers offer a gentle luminosity that warms me from the inside out.
  2. Holiday music, anyone?  Yes, I get sick of Christmas music.  Some radio stations blast more than I can take, and my honey, Warren loves to play it from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.  If I cannot escape hearing it, at least I can choose to listen to my favorite artists singing my favorite Christmas songs.  From Nat King Cole singing the classic, The Christmas Song to a more recent Christmas tunes by KEM or Susan Boyle, playing my Christmas favorites comfort me in my selected cooking tasks and gift wrapping.  My all time favorite is the Messiah—it sparks a serene, compassionate mood while also allowing me to feel like I am conducting a major orchestra.  I’ll also throw in some spontaneous dancing in the living room, kitchen, or in front of the bathroom mirror.  I love to dance to “The Mistletoe Jam” sung by Luther Van Dross which triggers fun, happy memories when I “danced with my hands in the air like I didn’t care.”  No, I don’t need extra egg nog to pull this off but if it helps and you don’t get too carried away, I say, “Go for it!”
  3. One of my greatest joys is to contact a friend, relative or even an old roommate just to check in.  I recently called Rose, who is now 95 year old.  We started a book group, The Boulder Briarpath Literary Society in Boulder, CO nearly 25 years ago and she still attends.  I could hear the smile in her voice, the genuine gratitude coming through a semi-chocked up, clearing of the throat sentiment because she was so touched that I took the time to call and chat for a few minutes. I plan to call her again.
  4. I also plan to bake some cookies or brownies to give away.  Surprising a neighbor or anyone with a batch of brownies, sharing a meal with a someone who lost a parent or family member recently—these things bring me joy.  Baking is my thing but when short on time I’ve picked up some baked goods at the local grocery store.  Sharing food or drink with others keeps me from having the holiday doldrums because it’s not about the food really, it’s the connection.
  5. Finally, I intend to take some leisurely walks.  These walks are not for exercise or to achieve any fitness goal.  It’s more like a meandering down the street so I can inhale some fresh air, capture the holiday decorations, and marvel at how branches of leafless, naked trees look as if they are inviting me for a hug.  I notice it every winter; trees with branches extended nonverbally saying,  “ Hey, I see you. Come here.  Let me give you a hug.”  And when I’ve hugged a tree, I feel an energy pulsating within— it’s almost electric.  I also wave at my neighbors that I rarely see in our “crazy busy” world.

I am determined to shake the bah humbug funk.  I will not get sucked into holiday stress.  I am pacing myself so I can en-joy the holiday baking. I want to feel the happiness that the season is meant to inspire.  This holiday season what I want to focus on is the connection—the bond that keeps Warren and I together for whatever time we have, and similarly the links that I desire to maintain with family and friends.  For me, Christmas is not about the gifts but the connection.

So what can you do this season to remember, to capture the excitement and wonder that you felt as a very young child?  What experiences will help you to uncover the peace and joy in your heart this holiday season?