Doubling Down on Love

Helping Hands

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

A jumble of thoughts awaken me each morning in the past few weeks as I seek to listen in silence for my response to the current migrant-refugee family crisis, not only in the United States but worldwide.  As I dipped in and out of the news recently (a steady dose feels too toxic), I found myself nauseated.  The aching in my heart has not left.  To see innocent, unknowing children being taken from their mothers and fathers, to hear the cries of babies and young children in shock wondering what happened to their families, to the familiar, shakes my soul.  I wondered what was the purpose of traumatizing children as adults fought over their family’s fate.  

In the next moment I think back to the fall semester of my junior year in college.  I’m sitting in a physics class and wondering why I enrolled in it.  I had long since disabused myself of any desires to attend medical school.  That fantasy flew from my sleepy first year head as I watched televised lectures of biology 101 in my friend, Linda’s dorm room.  My small group of friends and I gathered together each Monday, Wednesday and Fridays at 8:00 am knowing that one of us would be snoring in the first 10 minutes. I slept more than I absorbed the basic foundations of biology.  I reflected later that completing one semester each of biology and physics was one in a collection of symbols of my decade long struggle to prove myself.  Although I wasn’t nearly as excited about physics as psychology some information remained with me.  One piece was Newton’s third law of motion—for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  

I selected this law, modified it by being the opposing reaction.  Then I intentionally applied it to many things—exercise, health, psychological dueling with others, even writing.  It seems that every time I attempt to push through the endless obstacles toward a disciplined writing schedule, for example, the resistance slaps me back in the face.  I persist through the feelings of immobilization to counter this reaction.  

I also utilize this construct in a positive way in my spiritual life.  For every negative or unloving act I observe, I deliberately perform a loving or positive act.  I think of it as—fighting darkness with LIGHT. Each time I observe someone engage in an activity that lacks empathy and compassion, I hear a more powerful call to double down on love and mercy.  Yes, my new adage is “Double-down on love.”

I understand the feelings of helplessness that come from viewing these tragedies play out in the daily news and on social media.  Yet there are so many moments during the course of a day that provide opportunities to express sensitivity.  Maybe a person cuts me off on the highway, or the receptionist at the doctor’s office acts rude or indifferent.  Rather than respond to a driver with an ugly gesture or act rude in return, I smile, bless them with kindness and gentleness instead. 

I am so moved by the news of people countering unloving behavior with loving acts.  My favorite couple of the year, Charlotte and Dave Willner, feeling powerless about the fate of the separated children, raised over 20 millions dollars for RAICES, a legal fund for migrant families.  One of my retired colleagues chose to help two women in her retirement home who were without legal status.  From her walker, Barbara relentlessly called friends and lawyers until these two women received their green cards. There are many churches who for a number of years have offered sanctuary to immigrant and refugee families.  This reminds me of chain transplants also known as organ paired donations, a movement that has grown in popularity.  There are endless chances to pay it forward encouraging a contagion of love. 

Great good can emerge from cruelty and callousness.  I believe response to FEAR (and isn’t that at the core of the crisis) with LOVE.  It may sound counter-intuitive but I’ve always believed the Biblical passage, “Perfect love casts out fear,” (John 4:18 ).  You can extinguish darkness with light.  But the opposite is never true.  You cannot eradicate light with darkness.  Although dimmed temporarily, light triumphs over darkness every time.  However, when I walk into an unlit room, rather than fear the darkness, I must engage in the action of turning on the light.

What kind of loving acts can you counter fear with or pay forward?  In what ways will you bring light and love to those who feel as if they are stuck on the bottom of a barrel of darkness?   On your spiritual journey would doubling down on love help to uncover more of the peace and joy in your heart? 

No copyright infringement intended on the helping hands image.

Arriving at Some Moments of Self Surrender

Winter Stillness

Sometimes, winter, a season filled with mostly grey skies and bare trees evokes a sense of gloom.  This time of shadowy days matched my mood as the new year began.  I spent New Year’s Eve in a hospital room.  I felt deflated as I watched television—the ball drop, people kissing and champagne flowing from bottles.  Unfortunately, my formal wear for the evening was a hospital gown accessorized with an IV.  No matter where I looked, I couldn’t generate the exuberance that is often associated with New Year’s.

I complained bitterly about the uncomfortable bed and the constant interruptions often during the middle of the night—to take blood or check my vitals.  Frequently, like an apparition, a strange voice barked through the intercom awakening me during my futile attempts to sleep.  Apparently crossed up telemetry wires led the voice to inquire loudly,  “Is anyone there?” rather than directing a nurse or nursing assistant to check on me.   I wondered how I would ever recover from the awful cold virus that held my body hostage if I was getting only 2-3 hours of sleep each night.  As I continued to ruminate about my state of discontent and medically unnecessary hospital stay, my young African American evening nurse offered another perspective with her response, “But we would have never met and we wouldn’t have all the conversations that I needed so badly.”

Surprised and shocked, my mind quieted.  Deep below the chatter of my petulant complaints a small voice added, “Maybe this trip to the hospital isn’t just about you. It could be serving a larger purpose.”  I thought back to my older, Euro American daytime nurse and our discussions around her potential retirement.  When I mentioned that I had stopped working nearly five years ago, she brightened when I suggested the book, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50 by Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot.  “I am going online and download it tonight,” she noted.  “I am really struggling with this decision and I think reading that book will help me out.”  Here was another exchange that would not have occurred if I had not been admitted to the hospital.

My next opportunity to express my dissatisfaction came when wrapped in several sheets and a blanket I sat shivering in a wheel chair outside one of the echocardiogram rooms.  Inwardly I wailed about how my miserable cold landed me in the hospital for two and a half days for an echocardiogram!  My inner agitation added to the chill in the air.  I asked myself, as the standard issued hospital gown with hospital socks and the blanket began quickly losing their heat, “Why aren’t they taking me, what is the delay?”  Then it occurred to me that the staff might be working with a patient much sicker than me.  After all, I could walk around and although I suffered with a very bad cold, I wasn’t short of breath or retaining fluids.  Besides, I was going home in a few hours so what was the rush?  Once again, I remembered that the current situation wasn’t just about me.

As I moved back into my own bed at home with many more days to recover, in the silence that surrounded me I began to reflect on how often I, like many others, focus mostly on myself; on my schedule, my life, and my family.  I frequently observe drivers swerving in and out of lanes, causing others to brake suddenly so they can arrive at church “on time.”  I am guilty as well of rushing to arrive at a doctor’s appointment only to sit in a waiting room for 10-20 minutes.   Like my compatriots, I stand impatiently in the grocery store checkout line, or at the post office, thinking about the time I am wastingAnd to what purpose I ask inwardly would I devote this precious lost time if I could regain it?  Would it be used to sit with a sick friend or spend more time on Instagram or Facebook, to bake dinner for the widow next door or binge watch the latest popular television show?  Had I ever thought to surrender in any given moment my nicely covered egocentrism in favor of a plan that worked best for everyone, for people that I may not even know?

I pondered about how I arrived at this place on my journey where my desires reign supreme and occupy my mind throughout the day.  Reflecting on my past, I remember being more thoughtful as a child, helping mostly my Mom by starting or cooking dinner for my family, a unit that operated best when everyone worked together.  My family served as a microcosm for the many more communities I would belong to; my classroom where I helped other students with assignments, my school by selling candy to fund field trips, my neighborhood where we took care of each other through crises like job losses, divorces, and deaths, my country by voting and volunteering and my world by praying and lightening my carbon footprint with recycling and using less water.  Had I lost this caring spirit that encourages me to move beyond “me” to “we” or does it remain within patiently waiting for an opportunity to emerge?

When I pause and think about how I might move beyond my self-centered motives, or combine what I need with the needs of others, I feel more peace and joy.  I also feel a sense of wholeness.  Yet I know such thinking and actions require me to surrender my little self to a much larger one.

As the year continues, I hope to inspire others to reflect on the primacy of self sometimes to the detriment of the common good and how different it feels to live from a more expansive life view.  I know there is something special about living from an inner sanctuary that allows me to experience how interconnected we are and helps me to feel more Peace and Joy in my heart.  What about you, what might you need to surrender to feel more of the Peace and Joy that resides in your heart?

Photo courtesy of Columbus H. Brown, Candid Imagery Fine Arts

Looking Beyond to the Collateral Beauty

“Don’t cry because it is over.  Smile because it happened.”

Dr. Seuss

Although the Academy Awards have come and gone, conversations about the Oscars spur me to view as many of the nominated films as I can.  However, one of my favorite films last year, Collateral Beauty was not considered for any awards.  I didn’t understand the horrible reviews and small audiences for a film with such a profound and deep message.  I concluded after a year in which most media outlets devoted their time to trash, to the very base instincts of society, that people are addicted to fear, insults, fake news, and social media overload.  Thus, I suspected that Collateral Beauty, a movie that contains no sex or an overabundance of violence (i.e., no kill count), seemed boring to many.  Yet when I looked beyond the unrealistic storyline, I found some engaging dialogue and an overall message of love designed to speak to our souls and uplift our spirits.

What is collateral beauty you might ask?  I had no idea how the concept was being framed for the movie, in fact I hadn’t thought about what it might mean until the end.  I had heard of collateral damage, defined as the ”general term for deaths, injuries, or other damage inflicted on an unintended target.”  In military terminology, it is frequently used to account for “the incidental killing or wounding of non-combatants…The unintentional destruction of friendly targets is called friendly fire.”

I’ve always felt, though, that collateral damage is a euphemism designed to distant or distract people from digesting the real death toll and destruction wreaked on the lives of “unintended targets” who find themselves in unwanted wars and physical conflicts.  I wonder if people who engage in domestic violence in front of children, or gang members whose bullets miss the intended victim and instead kill or maim a child or elderly person, consider the long-term consequences of the damage they inflict. The deception of describing the loss of innocent life as incidental, just a person at the wrong place and at the wrong time, keeps us all from feeling the brunt of such news.

Given that definition, then, could collateral beauty denote?  It is that stubborn new growth that occurs after a fire has destroyed a forest or a community of homes.  Sometimes the new growth manifests as the loving actions of those who are moved by a tragedy to offer their help by making meals, bringing clothes, warm blankets, and water to fellow human beings who find themselves in a tragic situation.  I find collateral beauty everywhere.

When I think of examples of collateral beauty in my life, my transplants and recovery from various illnesses immediately come to mind.  My donor family lost a beloved daughter and sister and in the midst of their grief, they chose to donate a heart, liver, two kidneys, and some cornea that immediately brought new life to five people.  One family’s heartbreaking loss became a joy and relief for another.  And as I suffered through my recovery, friends, colleagues and new acquaintances emerged from their busy lives to offer prayer, food, company, and rides to and from the transplant clinic.  Incredibly, six women from my former support group in Detroit each chose to take vacation time and travel by plane, train and bus to spend a week caring for me after my mother exhausted her unpaid family leave.

Collateral beauty frequently appears during the terminal illness of a loved one.  Elizabeth Lesser writes about her experiences of donating bone marrow to her sister in the memoir, Marrow: A Love Story.  Lesser describes the poignant healing that came as a result of conversations with her sister which resulted in their reconciliation after a lifetime of conflict.  Sometimes collateral beauty appears in just those moments of presence, the baring of souls when people realize that their time together is limited and waning.  In essence, collateral beauty is the love that emerges in the midst of devastation, whether it is in the loss of a loved one, destroyed homes, or a tragedy that affects an entire community.

In addition to introducing moviegoers to the notion of collateral beauty, the movie also elicited questions about how do we spend time, what love looks like in our lives, and what does life mean when one realizes their death is inevitable and possibly imminent?  Recently I spent a week being present with my older brother who was visiting.  We are both older and less physically vibrant than we were a few years ago.  He suffers some effects of a stroke he experienced six years ago and I deal with chronic medical issues as a transplant recipient.  We shared stories.  I cooked for him and we reminisced about the events that bonded us for life.  I knew that clearing the calendar and sharing this precious time with him was what love looks like and the best use of our time in the midst of our mutual physical suffering.

It takes time to see collateral beauty and frequently I don’t possess the patience to pause long enough.  It requires looking beyond what I see with my eyes or hear with my ears.  It allows a glimpse into the often unseen love that permeates all.  Wherever there is seeming devastation, there is also collateral beauty—the healing, the joy of what has been, the celebration of a certain heavenliness on earth.  If I stop for a moment to savor all of the beauty and goodness of life rather than focusing on what is missing or how I might want it to be, I gain a certain sacred perspective.  It reminds me that beauty can be seen in anything as long as I allow my heart to see it, to feel the sadness and the joy, to perceive the whole rather than the fragments.

I believe Howard Thurman would characterize collateral beauty like this:

The seed of the jack pine will not be given up by the cone unless the cone itself is subjected to sustained and concentrated heat…It is not too far afield to suggest that there are things deep within the human spirit that are firmly embedded, dormant, latent, and inactive.  These things are always positive, even thought they may be destructive rather than creative.  But there they remain until our lives are swept by the forest fire: It may be some mindless tragedy, some violent disclosure of human depravity or some moment of agony in which the whole country or nation be involved.  The experience releases something that has been locked up within all through the years.  If it be something that calls to the deepest things in life, we, like the jack pine, grow tall and straight against the sky!

Meditations of the Heart, p. 82-83

Where are the moments of collateral beauty in your life?  Would pondering such times or being present to others bring you closer to the peace and joy in your heart?

Scan 3

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

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?

Autumn Leaves

“Even if something is left undone, everyone must take time to sit still and watch the leaves turn.”

~Elizabeth Lawrence

I feel fortunate to sit at a window seat in my work room which overlooks a near forest of tall oaks, hickory, sweet gum and pine trees.  Even on a cloudy November day, I perch and view the autumn leaves, a few still stuck on the branches as if someone hung them there with sticky tape.  I love the beauty of fall and could spend hours just watching nature in action.   Trees with multiple shades of green, yellow, burnt orange and red just make my heart sing.  Everywhere I look outside it is as if my eyes are strolling through a gallery of masterpiece paintings.  Ah but the autumn season signifies change, a period of transition that prepares me for the upcoming winter season of deep rooting, hunkering down and cuddling up.

Although autumn leaves is the name of a famous jazz standard, the falling leaves of autumn provide an apt metaphor for such a liminal time. Perhaps it signals for me my desire for change because I have similar feelings about spring.  I love trees with buds popping open like popcorn to an absolutely gorgeous new green.  Spring green energizes me, stimulates me to move beyond the slower pace of winter.  Budding growth spurs me to start new projects, plant seeds, flowers, cook less heavy stews and soups and prepare my palate for fresh veggies and salads.  Perhaps it is the dramatic shifts of winter to spring and summer to fall that capture my attention since summer feels like a warmer spring and winter feels like a colder fall.

According to the Chinese medicine calendar that a friend shared with me some years ago, the seasons represent very meaningful symbols for the cycles of life.  Fall is a time for letting go, winter a period for quiet germination and deep rooting, spring the season for new growth and summertime an opportunity to nurture that new growth signaled by warmer temperatures. The Chinese calendar also includes a late summer stage for harvesting (completing those projects initiated during spring).  I can actively attune my life to the seasons or realize that I am sitting in or even stuck in one of them.  Occasionally with my writing or sewing I notice a number of unfinished projects suggesting that I am unable to move from spring to late summer.  I also struggle with symbolic winters lacking the patience needed to let ideas or plans germinate.

I have fond memories of autumn.  I remember walking home from elementary school kicking the leaves scattered over the sidewalks.  I liked to hear the crunch when I stepped through them.  I also fondly recall the school assignment of selecting certain leaves and pressing them between wax paper so as to create a semi-permanent piece of art.  When was the last time I did that?  Unfortunately, most of the leaves in my yard right now are the soggy yellow and brown ones assaulted by numerous rain storms during the past few weeks.

I love to see the changing trees no matter where I live or visit.  Of course the entire experience of admiring fall colors was accentuated when I lived in New England where the trees yielded a tapestry of breathtaking colors.  I looked forward to the foliage reports urging me to contemplate leaves colored olive, gold, fire red, and brown especially light golden tans and deep oak which painted an amazing mural against the varying hues of blue skies. I suspect once trees feel the dramatic shifts in temperature and as the sun’s heat loses its intensity, they know it is time to shake off the leaves in preparation for winter.

In releasing their leaves, trees trust that new life will return in the spring.  Why don’t the leaves hold on in an attempt to keep their inevitable demise at bay?    Maybe they know that they will provide new energy as they are recycled as mulch for their tree’s own nourishment.  The falling leaves symbolize that change is cyclical, natural and letting go is liberating.  Like autumn and similar to what the Chinese medicine calendar suggests, I also have seasons of change, periods of transition in my life and when I trust that they will lead to new growth, I feel joy in letting go.

I also notice that leaves gently fall to the ground.  It is not like a machine comes along to tear them off and leaves don’t drop until they are ready.  Sometimes a windy, blustery day facilitates a cascade of falling leaves but those that are not ready stick to the trees through rain and wind.  I wonder what I am willing to let go of as lightly as most leaves drift from the trees or am I like the few remaining leaves that seem to hold on no matter what?

Drifting autumn leaves also remind me that it is time to give away clothes that no longer bring me delight, books that others could be reading, and to shred old papers that are cluttering my desks and file cabinets.  It’s also a time to re-assess new and old relationships.  Oh it can be so difficult to let some people go even though they never call and are often too “crazy busy” to get together.  What are the trees showing me about holding on, about life?

Falling leaves prompt me to examine other aspects of my self in flux; do I still need to feel special, unique or extraordinary, to become famous or rush to cross off everything on the “to do” list?  I am ready to release unnecessary stress and a lesson in A Course in Miracles focuses squarely on this subject.  “It is but myself that I crucify” with all of the crazy, anxious thoughts about completing my much too long daily “To Do” list.

“The autumn leaves drift outside my window, autumn leaves of red and gold…”

I love when autumn leaves fall…when autumn leaves must fall…. What signs let you know that it is a time for change, for letting go?  Are you like the remaining leaves waiting for a shocking frost, a crisis to let go, to change?   In autumn, the season of release, what inner and outer items can be cleared from your life so that an inevitable spring, the new growth can take root?  Like the falling leaves what else do I, do you need to let go of——that will allow us to experience more of the peace and joy that lies within our hearts?