Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Endings and Beginnings

So when you feel all the endings coming...begin looking for all the beginnings. –Ann Voskamp

Tomorrow I will go up to my cabin in the mountains to spend the last days of the year reflecting on the year that is ending and anticipating the year about to begin.

I look forward to my New Year's Eve ritual. I build a fire in the fireplace. In the last hours of the year, I write a letter to the old year. I reflect on the year, on what I learned and experienced, on the themes of the year, on what I think I will remember. I thank the year for all the blessings it has brought.

Then I write a letter to the new year. I welcome the new year and share my hopes and intentions. I invite the new year in like a new friend, curious, eager to get acquainted, excited about possibilities.

I hold both letters as I say a prayer, once more thanking the departing year and welcoming the new year. Then I burn both letters in the fireplace as an offering.

In the final minutes of New Year's Eve, I pick a word for the following year. It is always a verb. It is not a resolution. My word is a focus word, a gentle reminder, a guide. I write the word on little cards that I place where my gaze is sure to light – by my computer, the bathroom mirror, the car dash. Throughout the year, my word is there, wherever I look. As the months go by, it becomes a part of me.

How do I choose my word? Sometimes I am pretty sure I know before New Year's Eve, but more often I don't. As the year comes to a close, I open my mind and heart. The word comes to me, like a whisper in my soul.

My word for 2011 has been "Yield." In a year full of surprises and life changing events, it was a perfect word. It helped me accept with at least some serenity the things I could not control. It counseled me to pick my battles. It reminded me to open my heart and listen for my inner guidance. It shifted my attention from my ego to God. My word this year has been a teacher and a guide, and sometimes a lifesaver. I have come to cherish it, and I’m so grateful for the gift of its wisdom this year.

I’m eager to find out what my 2012 word will be. When I get back from the cabin on the 1st, I’ll write a post and let you know. If you pick a word for yourself, I hope you’ll share it, too.

As part of my thanks to the departing year, I would like to say thank you to you. I started this blog in February 2010, not at all sure what I was doing (still don’t know), and with no idea where it would lead (still don’t know that either). But I do know this. I have been so deeply touched and humbled by the support and encouragement I’ve gotten from so many people. Through you and your blogs, I have received so much wisdom, inspiration, challenge, information, and lots of great fun. And as we all know, fun is good. (As the Cat in the Hat said, “It is fun to have fun!”) I am so blessed to be part of this network of people. You are such a gift. Thank you.

Best wishes for a blessed end of 2011, and a new beginning with unlimited possibilities in 2012.

[One of my favorite things about the cabin is that I am away from phone, cable, and internet, so I will be “unplugged” from Wednesday till Sunday. I hope you know by now that your comments are valuable and valued, so please leave a comment, and I will publish it as soon as I get back.]

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas Spiders

[This is reposted from last year because it is my favorite Christmas memory. Merry Christmas to all!]

When James was three, he helped me decorate the Christmas tree one evening. The next day while he was at preschool, I realized that we had forgotten the tinsel that we draped over the branches to make it look like icicles. (This was back in the days before we knew that this was not an environmentally friendly decoration.) I quickly tossed a couple of packages of tinsel on the tree and called it good.

When James came home that afternoon, he went about his business, not really paying attention to the tree. But that evening when he walked into the dark room after I had turned on the blazing, multi-colored tree lights, he froze and stared in wide-eyed amazement at the long silvery streamers glittering in the soft air currents. “Shh. The Christmas spiders have been here,” he whispered.

That is a happy memory. This morning I was reminded of it when I encountered several spiders of the summer variety. They seem to be everywhere these days. When I woke up, there was one suspended from the ceiling in the middle of my room, floating like a levitating yogi in the air. I got a cup from downstairs and gently scooped it up and carried it outside to the garden.

When I opened the car door, there was a perfect web stretching from the steering wheel to the driver’s seat. The builder was sitting in the center, ever hopeful in the locked up car. I found a piece of paper and with some regret, destroyed the magnificent creation and carried the spider to the bushes where I thought it would have better luck.

I drove off and had only gone a few blocks when I noticed another web connecting the driver’s side rearview mirror with the car door. The web was already battered by the wind, and the poor little spider was holding on like a bull rider at the rodeo as the web remnants violently vibrated . I tried to ignore it, but after a few more blocks, I sighed and pulled over. I found another scrap of paper in the car, onto which the traumatized little cowboy gratefully clambered. I carried it to the curb and eased it onto a lovely rosebush.

I was briefly annoyed at all the interruptions in my morning, but then I remembered the Christmas spiders. Sometimes when I think back over James’s childhood, my heart sinks with memories of all the challenges his autism presented. I forget that there were also magic times of childhood wonder and delight.

Shh. The angel spiders have been here.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Winter Wonder

As you can see, I changed the background for the blog to a winter scene. Summer greenery just wasn’t working for me. I like this scene because it looks still and quiet, and that’s how I’m feeling these days. After the major changes and events of this year – retiring, watching grandbabies being born, leading a retreat, and getting my black belt – I’m ready for some down time.

The last of the big events of the year was my black belt test in early November. After months of intense training, during which these other events took place, it was over. I woke up the next morning and the world felt different to me. I didn’t have any more major happenings on the horizon (at least any that I knew about). It was a cold, crisp morning with winter in the air. As I walked to church, I looked around and realized that it seemed like the first day of my retirement, even though I had been officially retired since May.

I felt tired, tired in a good way. Tired like after a hard day’s work, running across the finish line, reaching the top of the mountain. Exhausted and exhilarated. Happy and content. Ready for a rest. The increasing darkness, the chill in the air, the new supply of firewood in the garage, all made me think of bears shuffling towards their dens for a long winter’s sleep. Yawn, sounded good.

Nature moves through seasons, and so do we. I’m entering a new season of my life – not working after a fulfilling decades-long career, welcoming a new generation in my family. It’s okay, I think, to pause and take stock. To listen to the stillness, to curl up in the long night blanketing the northern half of the earth.

“Winter is when the earth is pregnant,” a friend of mine once said. A fitting metaphor for my life right now, feeling the first stirrings of new life deep in the darkness, quietly and eagerly waiting to see what will emerge. (And a fitting metaphor for a year that began last winter with two announcements of pregnancies!)

So I’m waiting. And resting. And enjoying. Yes, and blogging, too, but at a more relaxed pace. It’s all good.

May the peace of winter fill your soul with promise.

[To my readers in the southern hemisphere, you can save this post for June!]

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

So Soon?

Where did this year go?! I’m starting to see end of the year reflections popping up on blogs. My first reaction was to think it was like seeing Christmas decorations in the mall right after Halloween. Really? And then it hit me. This is mid-December. Yikes! So I thought I would add my two cents to the pot. I have already reflected on the major points of this year in Reflection on the Journey, so I won’t revisit that. Instead, I will repost what I wrote at this time last year. It seems as relevant this year as last, and it is a reminder to myself to spend the rest of this year mindfully.

Finish Well

New Year’s Eve is two weeks away. Some of us are looking back at the year with some regret. There were so many things we meant to do, but didn’t. Resolutions that were abandoned before the new year champagne had gone flat. Hopes that didn’t manifest, dreams that died on the vine. Losses we didn’t see coming or weren’t prepared for.

Some of us have turned our attention away from this year, shrugging it off as a lost cause, too late to redeem (sort of like my football team). We are already looking ahead at the new year, excited about a fresh start, renewing the resolutions that we will surely keep this time, eager to do better, be better.

But go back to the first sentence. We have two weeks left in this year. In horse racing, it doesn’t matter if you are first out of the gate. It doesn’t matter if you trail behind or cruise along in the middle of the pack. What matters is how you finish. The finish line is everything.

I realized this morning that I was throwing away two precious weeks, a lifetime by some measures. I have two weeks to live well, do well, be well. I have two weeks to count all the blessings of this year, to be grateful for the abundance of grace that has poured over my life. I have two weeks to feel good about what I have accomplished instead of berating myself for what I didn’t. I have two weeks to be a good friend, to listen more, to help someone. I have two weeks to love my children, to appreciate my family and friends. I have two weeks of present moments, holy instants, to savor.

It doesn’t matter if you read this post today or Dec. 31. Whatever time is left in this year, two weeks or two minutes, is ours to do with as we choose. No matter what has happened this year, we can choose to finish well.

[I will be away from my computer Thursday and Friday, so if there is a delay in publishing your comment, please know that your thoughts are very important and will get published as soon as possible.]

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Good Old Days

Were they? Good, I mean. Our minister this morning spoke of nostalgia at holiday time. A longing for a simpler, happier time. But when were those days? Were they the Ozzie and Harriet days of the 40s and 50s? Well, not if you were African American in those days, especially in the segregated South. Not if you were a single mother whose career opportunities were pretty much limited to being a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary. Not if you lived in a part of the world still reeling from the devastation of war, the lingering effects of nuclear fallout, the hunger of famine, the terror of politically motivated genocide.

Right now, while some folks are yearning for a return to what they recall as a happier time, others are celebrating these days as the good days. Luck changes, tides ebb and flow, fortunes are made and lost. In my Shambhala meditation training, our current contemplation topic is “Everything is impermanent.” That is true of nothing more than it is of the past.

We think the past is set in stone, but how many times has history been rewritten? Not just world or national history, even our own history. I wrote before of spending the evening listening to my mother entertain my friends with tales of a childhood I couldn’t even begin to recognize as mine. And I myself have viewed my past differently with the passage of time.

A Course in Miracles teaches, “The only wholly true thought we can hold about the past is that it is not here.” And yet we spend so much time there, in the past – remembering, reliving, regretting, rewriting, reminiscing. Whether it is a pleasant place to visit or a place of sorrow, we still go there, living in a dream that is gone.

Meanwhile, we’re missing the only life we really have, this life, right now. We have all read about or known people who have had a brush with death, or who are nearing the end of their lives. What we hear from these people over and over is to treasure this moment, the gift of this breath, the miracle of this instant. And this one.

Does that mean we should never enjoy our memories? Of course not. The memory of a stunning sunset, the tender touch of a loved one no longer here, a child’s first steps – all these bring a smile to our face and warmth to our hearts. But when a stroll down memory lane becomes a permanent residence, we are no longer present for our lives and for those who love us and need us now.

So how do we break the grip the past has on us? Gently. By noticing when we are lost in the past, whether in pleasant reverie or painful remorse. By reminding ourselves that our past is a story we tell ourselves, a story we can change or simply drop. By bringing our attention back to the present. Again and again. By practicing until it becomes a habit. By practicing, as Pema Chodron says, “like our hair was on fire.”

Good old days or bad old days are not today days. So if you do visit your stories of the past, remember to come home soon.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Mushroom Experience

[Jesus said] For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. ... Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.
–Matthew 25:35-40

Do you know what the largest living thing on the planet is? It’s not a whale. It’s not a giant redwood tree. It’s a mushroom!

I know, I was surprised, too. No, more than surprised. Amazed! And I was even more than amazed to find out that this humongous mushroom grows in the United States, in Oregon, the state I call home.

When I heard this incredible information, I started scanning the horizon, wondering if I could see in the distance something like a nuclear mushroom cloud that was in fact a mushroom, the mushroom that ate Oregon. But no, you can’t see it. The mushroom fungus grows underground, spreading out along a network of filaments. What we enjoy in our omelets and spaghetti sauce, what we think of as a mushroom, is actually the fruit of the mushroom fungus.

This particular gargantuan fungus covers over 2,200 acres (about 9 square kilometers) in eastern Oregon. I could pick a tiny mushroom in the forest and someone could pick a tiny mushroom 3.5 miles away, and both could be part of the same organism.

The more I’ve learned about this mushroom fungus, the more I’ve thought about people. Perhaps we are like that fungus, appearing to be separate, but all connected below our visual or perceptual range. We talk about oneness at a deep spiritual level. Perhaps we are a single spiritual organism, nestled safely in the dark, fertile soil of the divine, popping up here and there as individual fruits.

Perhaps when Jesus said that our actions to the “least of these” were actions “to him,” he meant exactly what he said. He didn’t say it was “like” or “as if” we were doing things to him. He said that what we do to others we do to him. Perhaps what we do to another we do to all, including ourselves, because we are all one after all.

You might have heard the expression that we are spiritual beings having a human experience. Perhaps we are a fungus having a mushroom experience.

Related posts: That Man Might Be Jesus; It’s Oneness, Beloved

Sunday, December 4, 2011

From Victim to Victor

[This article appears in the December issue of The Life Skills Magazine.]

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
–A Course in Miracles

I once watched a nervous young lawyer make his case in an appellate courtroom before a panel of three judges. The lawyer clearly had the superior legal position and the judges kept interrupting him to assure him that they understood his argument. What they really meant was, “It’s almost lunchtime and we’re hungry. You’ve already won, so just stop.” But the lawyer was inexperienced and did not get the hints. So when he inadvertently made a misstep, the now grumpy judges pounced. They began to challenge him until he painted himself into a corner. Finally, one judge took pity and said, “Counselor, don’t snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”

Words. Our words are powerful and send out energy that calls back to us matching energy. Like an echo. A tragic example are the horrific deaths of Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, who were killed in Alaska while studying bears. An audio recorder that was left running revealed that one morning a bear attacked Timothy and killed him as Amie screamed and continued screaming even after the bear left. Soon after, the bear returned and killed her, too.

Experts speculated that Amie’s high pitched squeals were eerily like predator calls, devices used by hunters to lure predators out into the open. The predator calls mimic the sounds of an injured animal.

Of course, no one knows for sure whether she actually “called” the bear back to her, but we do know that our voice is an awesome gift, to be used for good or ill. We are all familiar with the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy. While we might not be calling man-eating predators out of the shadows, we sometimes use our words, intentionally or carelessly, to send out harmful energy, which will then be reflected back to us.

You might immediately think about manipulative lies or malicious gossip or angry attacks. But what about veiled criticism or insensitive remarks? We don’t always hear ourselves or realize how our words sound to others. Sometimes my daughter will just blurt out whatever pops into her head, including things that hurt. When I react, she defends herself with, “But that’s not what I meant,” or, “I wasn’t thinking.” Too late.

We are even less likely to recognize the harm in voicing negative thoughts about ourselves, especially if we see the comments as funny or self-deprecating. There was a thankfully short-lived teen response to making a mistake – “Oh, I’m stupid.” When any of my kids would flippantly say this, I would cringe.

We often think of words like that as harmless, or even desirable. At a women’s retreat I led in October, I was struck by how difficult it was for some women to use positive words to describe themselves. When asked to describe themselves the way they would be described by the person who loved them more than anything in the universe (this could be a parent, dearest friend, God, their dog, anyone), there was a palpable discomfort in the room. Describing themselves in glowing terms seemed not only unfamiliar, but even wrong, smacking of pride and arrogance. Much better, they thought, to minimize their gifts, to deny their talents, to put themselves down.

But false modesty is just that – false. Legendary martial artist Bruce Lee was once asked if he was really “that good.” He replied, “If I say yes, you will think I am arrogant. But if I say no, you will know I’m lying.”

The Bible says we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Far from feeling arrogant or prideful, I am brought to my knees in humility and gratitude when contemplating this precious gift of human life, a gift that is not mine alone, but is generously bestowed on each of us, binding us together in our shared magnificence. I want my thoughts and words to reflect that light of glory. The energy that we send out with shining words is indeed powerful beyond measure.

Okay, but what about the times when we really do feel stupid, incompetent, ineffective, unattractive, unsuccessful, unlovable, or unloving? We all have thoughts like that sometimes. But we don’t have to give those thoughts power by voicing them. On the contrary, we can voice the opposite. We can speak the thoughts that will express and therefore attract what we want for ourselves.

As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “Fake it till you make it.” When I suggested this in a workshop, someone objected to the concept, saying that it wasn’t authentic or honest. Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says that’s true only if we are deceiving ourselves. Rather, even “though we know exactly what we feel, we make the aspirations in order to move beyond what now seems possible.”

We can choose with our words to be a victim or a victor. We can speak our greatest destiny. We can shine like stars.

Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. ... And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
–Marianne Williamson